Once described by Lonely Planet as the closest Vietnam has to a national dish, these days cha gio, or spring rolls, have taken a back seat. They’re still just as tasty, though.

 

Some call them egg rolls, while others prefer them to be called spring rolls — cha gio is a traditional Vietnamese dish made in many different ways. It can be considered as a light meal if eaten on its own and can make you feel full if served with rice or noodles. Some are even added to other local dishes like bun thit nuong for added texture and flavour.

 

In the north, deep fried spring rolls are known as nem ran. This quick bite can be consumed any time of the day and is often present during Tet and special celebrations. Cha gio commonly contains seasoned ground pork, cellophane noodles, mushrooms, and diced vegetables. The filling is then wrapped in a sheet of rice paper before being deep fried. Nowadays, the ingredients vary from pork to chicken, vegetables, tofu, and seafood. The main ingredient may change, but one common theme is the dipping sauce, nuoc cham — a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, chilli peppers, garlic, and sugar — which is a constant.

 

Cha gio can be ordered from most Vietnamese restaurants, but if you’re into a more local experience, there are two hidden gems worth visiting in Districts 1 and 3.

 

Cha Gio Ca Minh Chau

48 Nguyen Son Ha, Q3

Relatively new, this streetside restaurant has already attracted a number of patrons as it is situated in an alley filled with businesses. The place is compact with only four collapsible stainless steel tables and some prominent red plastic chairs, making it quite an experience if you choose to dine in. You will literally enjoy your meal on the street with a view of motorcycles passing by.

 

The restaurant offers a different take on cha gio. You can choose between ca (fish) or bap (corn) filled spring rolls. Their servings are quite big and can be shared by two or three people. You get 12 pieces per order, and they are plated on a banana leaf on a woven winnowing tray/basket for a more traditional feel. An order of their cha gio ca is priced at VND60,000, while their cha gio bap is at VND45,000. Each serving also comes with a dish of fresh, crispy vegetables, rice noodles, and their one-of-a-kind dipping sauce which has a hint of pineapple, providing a mix of sweet and spicy taste.

 

When asked why they chose to serve fried fish and corn spring rolls, owner Minh Chau answers: “I like fish, and it doesn’t make you fat.” Not many foreigners visit the place, but it is worth a look. It’s also hassle-free to eat here as the restaurant has a menu with the prices and photos for an easier transaction.

 

It is open every day from 8am until 8pm. The busiest time is from 11am until a little after noon, so avoid these times as you certainly won’t get a chance to enjoy your food while seated.

 

Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio Ba Them

Hem 88 Nguyen Hue, Q1

For a more standard cha gio, head to Hem 88 along Nguyen Hue. This gem of a place is quite a struggle to find as it is situated at the far back of an alley which meanders under the buildings between Dong Khoi and Nguyen Hue. The entrance is between a travel agency and a milk tea place; up front you will see an art gallery, but head on to the far end and you’ll reach your destination. It’s in the same block as L’Usine, if that helps.

 

The place is quite dark, but don’t be afraid to enter, as a handful of women are ready to serve you. It sells the usual crab and pork-filled cha gio served on top of bun thit nuong. It is priced at VND40,000; an order of just the spring rolls costs VND15,000. The cha gio is filled to the brim, and it is served with plain nuoc mam. You’re free to tweak it according to your taste as there are condiments on every table.

 

The business has been running for about 60 years — a refreshing sign in an area so full of new businesses — and the recipe has been passed down from generation to generation. It is popular among locals and is sometimes discovered by travellers and tourists.

 

It’s busy from opening until closing time, 9am to 4pm. Make sure to visit on weekdays as they don’t open on Sundays.


 

PHOTOS BY BAO ZOAN

 

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