BackEat & Drink » Saigon Hẻm Gems » Hẻm Gems: In a D3 Hẻm, 40 Years of Bún Ốc and Other Northern Treats

Hẻm Gems: In a D3 Hẻm, 40 Years of Bún Ốc and Other Northern Treats

As a resident of Saigon, I’m well-acquainted with the city's vibrant food scene, which features cuisines from various regions of Vietnam, and how these dishes blend local recipes with flavors that resonate with Saigon locals. But Bún Ốc Thanh Hải is quite the opposite. Its dishes, snacks, drinks, and even atmosphere carry a distinct northern identity, so much so that upon visiting the place, I felt as if I was on a culinary adventure within my own city.

The eatery is located inside the alleys off the Nhiêu Lộc Canal in District 3. It’s quite easy to find; just wander through the narrow lanes between Trường Sa, Trần Quốc Thảo, and Kỳ Đồng streets, and the small roads will lead you into a spacious oasis, where Bún Ốc Thanh Hải awaits.

Thanh Hải moved from the Kỳ Đồng pavements into an alley years ago due to tightening rules.

I arrived at Thanh Hải during lunchtime. The scene was lively with sounds of customers chatting while enjoying their noodles, and the clinking of utensils coming from the kitchen. A waitress guided me to my seat and promptly took my order. Surprisingly, only a minute later, a hot bowl of bún ốc riêu cua was already placed on my table.

Seafood essence in a bowl.

“You should try putting some mắm tôm into it,” she told me right after serving my meal. While I rarely add shrimp paste into my food, afraid that my breath will inherit its pungent aroma, the lady adds that “a little bit of the paste won’t hurt anyone.” Intrigued by her enthusiasm, I decided to give it a try. In turn, I got to have a quick chat with her to learn more about this place.

The interior of Thanh Hải is very typical of a storied street restaurant in Saigon.

Bún Ốc Thanh Hải is ran by a family from Thái Bình. They moved to Saigon and introduced their hometown dishes to the city locals in the 1980s. Back then, they operated a small food cart on Kỳ Đồng Street. However, as sidewalk regulations became stricter, they relocated further into the narrow alleys of Kỳ Đồng and eventually set up their establishment.

For more than 40 years, Thanh Hải is mostly known for their signature northern-style bún ốc in which the toppings consist of snails, crab paste, some slices of tomatoes and green onions. And of course, the addition of shrimp paste into the mix is also a part of this traditional style. “That’s how we do it in our hometown,” the waitress said to me.

Chewy chunks of snail and soft crab paste are the star toppings of bún riêu here.

After stirring up the broth to let the shrimp paste dissolve into it, I had my first taste of the broth and the noodle. At first, I don’t notice any clear difference. But much later on, when I was casually going through the dish, the broth started having a tangy flavor that was stronger than the regular bún ốc that I’ve tried in the past.

The main highlights of the bún ốc were its seafood toppings. The snails are sliced into small pieces, spotting a crunchy texture when chewed on. My portion had chunks of melt-in-your-mouth crab paste, and its sweet flavors really came out when combined with the broth.

A portion of bún riêu cua (left) and bún ốc riêu cua đặc biệt (right).

Aside from the signature dish,the menu features a variety of options ranging from main courses to side dishes. If you’re not in the mood for another bún riêu variant, there is northern-style bún ốc chuối đậu. Various snail-based side dishes like ốc bươu nhồi thịt, ốc xào chuối xanh are available for your chewing pleasure. The tangy taste of bún ốc broth mixed with shrimp paste might leave you feeling thirsty, and the place offers multiple types of refreshing drinks like apricot juice.

Bún ốc chuối đậu is among a handful of northern dishes on offer here too.

The spaciousness of the establishment gave me a chance to walk around and explore the place. Right at the entrance of the shop, a counter hosted an array of northern delicacies and snacks such as Thái Nguyên tea leaves, peanut brittle candy, and bánh cáy — it felt like a mini market filled with northern goodies. 

Eating here, patrons can also brush up on their ethics lessons.

The distinctively northern setting and heaps of regional snacks at Bún Ốc Thanh Hải made me feel like a tourist, as it reminded me of the rest stops where my family and I would hang out during trips; the only difference is that the Thanh Hải “pit stop” is conveniently a three-minute drive away from my workplace.

A northern specialty corner in the middle of District 3.

Overall, my experience with Bún Ốc Thanh Hải was a delight. As I savored the flavors of their signature northern-style bún ốc riêu cua and couldn’t help but enjoy the lively and inviting atmosphere. I appreciate how the Thái Bình family gives me a taste of their hometown. Throughout my stay, the eatery welcomed throngs of patrons: some lingered at the local specialties counter, and some brought their whole families, casually chatting with the waitress like they’d known one another for a long time. It was as if Bún Ốc Thanh Hải could provide northern-born residents of Saigon a taste of their roots.

Bún Ốc Thanh Hải is open from 7am to 8:30pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 4/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 5/5

Bún Ốc Thanh Hải

14/12 Kỳ Đồng, Ward 9, D3, HCMC

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