It was the rhythmic sizzle and pop of the woks that convinced us to stay. After four grimy flights of stairs, we were starting to question our Vietnamese friend’s recommendation. There were so many great places to eat in Saigon. We were starving, but we considered turning back. Then we heard the music of the kitchen. Instantly we imagined piles of meat and veggies swooshing around the woks. A few more steps up and we inhaled more tempting aromas than we could name. Now we were hooked. We hurried up the last few steps, excited to try out Saigon’s Secret Garden Restaurant.

We loved the Secret Garden Restaurant. It’s now one of our top recommendations in Saigon’s District 1 for 5 reasons:

  1. The Secret Garden Serves up Vietnamese Home Cooking (or as close as it gets in a restaurant).
  2. The Secret Garden has a Rooftop Garden Terrace.
  3. The Secret Garden is Authentic and “Foreigner-Friendly.”
  4. The Secret Garden has a Central Location.
  5. The Secret Garden has great prices.

THE SECRET GARDEN SERVES UP “HOME COOKED” VIETNAMESE FOOD

OK, it’s not exactly “home cooking,” but the Secret Garden offers traditional “home-style” Vietnamese food and is highly recommended by locals. It’s the kind of traditional Vietnamese food passed down by Vietnamese grandmothers. Our friend said it was a great place for all the poor travellers who don’t have a Vietnamese granny to cook for them.

Just like in grandma’s kitchen, don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the dishes. There’s no “gastronomy” at the Secret Garden, but the food pops with flavor and freshness. It’s not fancy food, but it’s delicious.

GOI DU DU TOM THIT

“Goi” means salad and “du du” means papaya. (Yes we still giggle every time we order “du du.”) Goi Du Du is a classic and one of our favorite Vietnamese salads. Young, un-ripened papaya is julienned it into so many shreds of freshness and mixed with different toppings like chicken or beef. At Secret Garden, they sprinkle their Goi Du Du with dried shrimp (Tom) and dried pork (Thit). The dressing ties the salty shrimp, savory pork, and fresh, tart papaya together into a mouthwatering delight.

If you want authentic Vietnamese food AND love a good stir-fry, we have great news. Dishes like this beef and green pepper stir-fry have been an important part of Vietnamese food for centuries! Bo Xao Ot Xanh reflects the Chinese influence on Vietnam, which dates back to 110 B.C. After all that time, it’s fair to consider these dishes authentically Vietnamese.

The most amazing thing about the dish was just how familiar it smelled and tasted. Much of the food and culture of Vietnam is so exotic and unexpected. This dish surprised us when it wasn’t. Ironically, this Chinese inspired food reminded us of home in the USA. It was a “small world” moment to find such a delicious point of commonality.

The biggest testament to the quality and authenticity of the food is the strong presence of Vietnamese customers. The Secret Garden is growing in popularity with foreigners, but the majority of guests are still locals.

THE SECRET GARDEN HAS A ROOFTOP GARDEN TERRACE

The terrace was a wonderful setting for our meal. We love the hustle and bustle of Saigon’s hot, busy streets, but the cool, breezy garden was a welcome break. The traditional “homey” character of the food extended to the informal rooftop garden. It wasn’t fancy, and that’s the point. The garden terrace was a cozy place for friends and family. The atmosphere was mellow and peaceful but also cheerful and fun. It was very pretty but also had some quirky imperfections that gave it personality.

The view from the rooftop wasn’t spectacular, but it was an interesting glimpse at Saigon’s diversity. From our table, we could see the Bitexco Tower, the Vincom Center, and the lush Caravelle Hotel. These iconic symbols of the prosperous new Saigon formed a dramatic backdrop for the humble apartments next door.

THE SECRET GARDEN IS AUTHENTIC AND “FOREIGNER-FRIENDLY”

The Secret Garden welcomes foreigners, but the food and atmosphere remains authentically Vietnamese. They have just the right mix. The Secret Garden is very “foreigner-friendly” and ordering is easy. Much of the staff speaks English, and picture menus with English descriptions are available. But don’t expect to see only foreigners; most of the guests are Vietnamese locals who come for the delicious authenticity of the food.

THE SECRET GARDEN HAS A CENTRAL LOCATION IN DISTRICT 1

The restaurant is an easy walk from many of Saigon’s major hotels and attractions. For example, you can walk from Ben Thanh Market, the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, the Opera House, the Notre Dame Cathedral, or the Post Office in about 10 minutes or less.

THE SECRET GARDEN HAS GREAT PRICES

We know. Almost every restaurant in Saigon has great prices, but there are some that try to gouge tourists. The prices at the Secret Garden are more than fair for such a great garden setting. Beverages are $1-$2 USD. Appetizers and salads are $3-$4 USD. Entrees are $4-$7 USD.

HOW TO FIND THE SECRET GARDEN RESTAURANT ON FOOT

Address: 158 Pasteur Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, HCMC

The Secret Garden Restaurant can be tricky to find. It’s located on the top floor of an old apartment building. This apartment building is tucked away in a little alley off the main road. We had to walk around the block twice before we found the right alley. But these walking directions will get you there with no problem.

First, find the intersection of Pasteur and Ly Tu Trong streets. Face away from Ly Tu Trong and stand on the right side of Pasteur Street. Walk about 150 feet and look on your right. You will see this sign.

Enter the alley, walk about 30 feet, and look left. You will see this sign.

Enter the building, disregard the grime and stink, and take the stairs all the way up to the Secret Garden Restaurant.

BONUS TIPS

This massive Banyan tree is right around the corner from the Secret Garden restaurant. It’s almost 200 years old and is too cool to skip. At the intersection of Pasteur and Ly Tu Trong, turn right on Ly Tu Trong and walk about 150 feet. This gigantic old tree is in a little park on the right.

Across the street from the Banyan tree is the historic Gia Long Palace, current home of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. The palace is a beautiful example of 19th-century French architecture, and the museum houses exhibits dating back to the earliest history of Vietnam.