If you're in Saigon for a short amount of time and want to do a self-guided tour of some of the best local food, then follow this guide to the highlights of Ho Chi Minh City:
Bún Thịt Nướng @ Hoàng Văn, Vị Sài Gòn or Kiều Bảo 3
My favourite Vietnamese dish which I've been on a mission to find the best versions of. These three places all make a fantastic bún thịt nướng but the venues are very different, so choose wisely.
Visiting Hoàng Văn is an experience on its own; a long way from District 1 in a lively area, this restaurant gets packed out at peak times but I've never once seen another foreigner there in my countless visits. It's very basic and it's almost like you're at a simple, dirty road-side shack in a small town - and I mean that in the nicest possible way. It's a wonderful place but if you're pushed for time, it might be a bit too far, especially if traffic is bad.
Vị Sài Gòn is almost the polar opposite. It's a modern, clean, somewhat westernised restaurant with nicest arranged food in a quiet, relaxing setting. It's still a taxi ride from the main tourist area but it's not too far.
Kiều Bảo 3 is in a very handy location just a few minutes' walk from Bui Vien in District 1. It looks like most local restaurants in Vietnam and in that respect you could say it's the most real experience eating bún thịt nướng how most Vietnamese people would have it.
These two bánh mì bakeries are very close to each other and both delicious but different enough that I recommend trying one sandwich from each place. If you're with a friend then get one of each and ask them to cut them in half - then you can do a taste test! Hồng Hoa is a great example of a class banh mi using bread they've baked themselves and Huỳnh Hoa is packed with meat and customers.
Bò Né & Chén Bò @ Bò Né 3 Ngon
Bò né is a wonderful Vietnamese dish which is criminally overlooked by foreigners. It's always served on the same cow-shaped metal plate and arrives still sizzling. This bustling road-side restaurant (for want of a better word) serves a pretty good version but their Chén Bò is the real reason to go here. Order both and be in beef heaven.
Bánh mì ốp la @ Hoà Mã
Bánh mì ốp la is one of the only things to tempt me out of bed early in the morning! A perfect breakfast. Make sure you order the extra paté.
Phở @ Phở Hùng or Phở Bò - Gà 30000
The fact that phở is Vietnam's most famous dish is the main reason I've put it on this list. I do love it but you've no doubt had it plenty of times before and even if you haven't, you can find a good version easily and I think that most of them are hard to choose between, so it's difficult to recommend any particular places. That said, Phở Hùng is a good quality chain with lots of locations around Saigon and the menu is huge. Phở Bò - Gà 30000 is definitely a more local experience and there are only two choices but it's less than half the price.
Possibly my favourite coffee in the world. Pretty much every street has multiple places to get delicious coffee. Try to get one with the traditional metal drip filter for the complete Vietnamese experience. I personally always go for black and no sugar to really get the full strong/bitter coffee taste but it's popular to have condensed (sweetened) milk which turns it in to an undeniably-delicious dessert drink. Phúc Long is a popular (but relatively expensive) local chain if you want something a bit more like a Vietnamese Starbucks, but it's probably more rewarding to just find a tiny local café.
Bia Saigon is the cheap local beer (lager) is 8,000d if you know where to look and 10,000 - 20,000d in most places. Obviously if you drink at your hotel or on a fancy rooftop bar then you'll pay more. Bui Vien street is the heart of Saigon's tourism and a lively place to drink beer.
There's now a thriving craft beer scene in Saigon. Head to Pasteur Street Brewing Company, Biacraft and Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery for their great tasting planks or to Winking Seal Beer Co. for their happy hour (5pm-7pm & 10pm-11pm).
And if you have time...
Bánh Cuốn @ Quán Bánh Cuốn Hải Nam
If you can fit this in, it makes a great afternoon snack.
"Waterfall" fried chicken @ Quán Cơm Gà Xối Mỡ Su Su
Wonderful fried chicken, addictive sauce and ingenius cooking method, all rolled in to one experience!
Tau Hu Da @ a little stall near Ben Thanh market
In the evenings this little place serves a great little dessert of sweetened tofu with coconut milk, cubes of gelatinous rice and ice. I bet you're thinking it sounds disgusting but I think you'll love it! I've only ever seen Vietnamese people there and mostly a younger crowd. It's very close to Ben Thanh market and it's very cheap so give it a go.