So here we are in Saigon, almost two decades after the previous visit and the start of a two-week holiday in this vibrant country. Nowhere near enough time to cover all corners of Vietnam, I know, but two weeks is better than no weeks. Our hotel, The Continental, has a centrally convenient possie just by the Opera House in District 1. From the outside it’s a lovingly restored grand old lady, but step inside and she’s feeling and looking a little tired.
Gradually the rooms are getting a much-needed nip & tuck but our rate didn’t cover one of the gorgeous renovated outer rooms with private balconies. Instead it got us a dated one overlooking the wedding reception-prone central courtyard, shaded by big old frangipani trees.
What is it about Vietnam that makes almost anything a photographic subject? I guess that rule applies to just about anywhere but in Vietnam it’s as if objects and people are placed in colourful surroundings just to be snapped by a camera. Maybe it’s me but almost everywhere I looked I was automatically composing an image. Oh look a lady gutting a fish. Snap. Or just over there, check that woman delivering plates of food to the flower vendors. Snap.
Aside from brekkie downstairs in the hotel, the first thing we did was take a wander down to Ben Thành Market just several blocks away in downtown Saigon. In retrospect I’m a little surprised we even did the breakfast at The Continental. Swarms of waitstaff hovering around, ordinary breakfast spread. How could we when there’s so much food out on the streets? Perhaps free food had something to do with it.
The main entrance of the market is through an archway beneath the clock tower, leading into a tightly packed and chaotically organised grid of commodities covering the likes of kitchenware, hardware, souvenirs, household items and anything else between. Throw a few pickpockets into the mix and you have yourself a fully functioning city market.
Food, of course, is what always gets my attention and tucked away down the back is a bunch of bustling vendors with their own specialties of drinks and fresh-to-order local food. People sat up at counters slurping on pho, piles of chao tom (grilled minced prawn on sugarcane) ready for the buying and a lady stirring up a pot of prawn heads for stock.
Seeing we already had breakfast sitting in our stomachs we took a seat at Chè (stand 1046) for our first cà phê sua dá (15K), one of many on the trip ahead. A glass of ice, condensed milk in the bottom and hot black coffee poured over. A bit of a stir and you’re off your tits on caffeine and sugar in no time. Great stuff. No wonder the Vietnamese drink so much of it. The high-octane sugar keeps them addicted!
The wet and meat market can be found on the peripheries and the beauty of this is that the vendors don’t harass you like many of them do inside. Beautifully fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, seafood and meat sit bundled or slumped in plastic containers or on chipped tile surfaces; no real sanitation but that’s how things roll in places like this. As the market winds down in the afternoon many outdoor stalls set up to cook up a storm of local edibles at impossibly low prices, so if you’re into street food this is the place to come.
I really wanted to check out a couple of the temples whilst in town and as we trundled up Dinh Tiên Hoàng to the Jade Emperor Pagoda I almost struggled with the photo opportunities surrounding us. I must have looked like a madman whipping around from left to right, snapping the street life as it presented itself. People selling colourful and textured fruit from the back of bikes or pavement … a dude getting a haircut beneath a tree … chicken being grilled by a dilapidated shed … a guy struggling to keep bags of produce strapped to his bike. It was endless.
One of us spots a sign for coffee and despite the taste of the previous one still lingering in my mouth, it was time for another. In all honesty the humidity was getting a little much for these two old anglo’s so a temporary respite in air-conditioned bliss was in order. Press Corner Coffee is tucked away amongst lush greenery on a busy street corner and is popular with well-dressed girls and cigarette-puffing boys.
The “fancy” surroundings mean the pricing for coffee is significantly more than what we had at the market, but hey, when 43 000 dong equals $2 it’s still very cheap, especially when there’s free cigarette smoke hanging in the cool air. Cough, cough. Let’s get outa here.
Several blocks away is the Jade Emperor Pagoda, an oasis of calm and serenity from the traffic-choked streets on the other side of the gates. It was built in the early 20th century and while it may be showing its age externally, the inside bustles with worshippers and tourists milling about the dim rooms thick with plumes of incense smoke.
If you can’t afford to buy incense just light up a cigarette instead, as the locals do. The gods love it. It may not be the most impressive pagoda in town but it’s definitely worth snooping around to check out the intricate statues and carvings. If you’re not one for incense-filled-lungs, just lounge about the front on the shaded benches by the turtle pond and enjoy the tranquility.
The lunch destination was already planned so it was a quick cab ride, a little language confusion and an arrival at Nhà Hàng Ngon. Translation … “restaurant delicious”. The two-storey labyrinthine structure is packed with residents and tourists hoeing into local specialties, including street-style food at higher-than-street prices. Not that the inflated prices hurt a great deal. It’s still really cheap. It was the Lonely Planet that drew us here so it was Saigon beers all ’round and a good look through the extensive menu.
On the perimeters are side-by-side stands making food as it’s ordered. It’s great to stand back and watch the busy cooks assemble and dish up the delicious foods before being delivered to the tables. Our lunch spread starts with the banh hoi thit heo quay cuon (120K) – basically a thick-ish strip of roast pork, served at room temperature with rice vermicelli and mixed herbs and lettuce.
One of my alltime favourites is cha gio (54K), fried ricepaper rolls loaded with rich pork meat and spices. Incredible. The com nam muoi vung (38K) was a little unexciting and bland but when we dipped the rice cakes in nuoc cham it was an improvement. I really loved the salt and sesame on the side.
Another Vietnamese favourite is banh hoi chao tom cuon (135K) – pounded shrimp on sugarcane served with rice vermicelli, rice paper and pickled veg. You see these delicious morsels just about everywhere. To round up lunch with a little sugar I ordered a che suong sa hot luu (26K) – jelly, water chestnut, tapioca pearls and coconut milk. Both of us swooned over the banh duc mat nuoc dua (20K), a pandan rice flan with honey and coconut milk. This was fantastic, especially with the toasted sesame.
I think one thing that many visitors to Saigon include on their agenda is a leisurely drink (or few) at the iconic rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel. It’s been almost twenty years since our last visit and apart from a bit of fresh paint and absent fairy-lit topiary trees, not a lot has changed. Those hideous plaster elephants are still there and the view includes some much taller buildings.
Saigon, you’ve grown up a bit! Somehow I ended up with a Long Island iced tea, yup I’m classy like that, and a more civilised G&T for the other half. This is a joint you can get very comfortable in, humidity and all, and get sloshed on a mere few-thousand dong. My advice, take a sneak up the spiral stairs and dip your feet in the hotel pool. Nobody will notice. Unless of course you fall in fully-dressed clutching a cheap cocktail.
I’d read about a nice-sounding restaurant and lounge prior to arrival in Vietnam so I thought we’d give it a try for a drink, at least. Xu is a two-level establishment with a very modern Asian vibe about it. Lounge bar downstairs and a more formal restaurant upstairs that’s open for lunch and dinner. Aside from a smattering of expats it was just us sloshing away at the bar, chilled drinks in hand.
The food at the restaurant falls into the designed-for-sharing category. It’s modern, it’s Vietnamese and it’s a little bit posh. While I’m all for chowing on street food and sitting on a thimble-sized plastic stool that vanishes up your crack, but this night was more about comfort and trying a chefs tasting menu with unlimited alcoholic beverages.
It ended up being just me having the tasting menu, worth 850K ($39) and for an extra 750K ($34) I had free-flowing wine, cocktails, beer and spirits. You can use the photo’s as a guide – the priced items came from the a la carte menu and the unpriced ones were part of my tasting menu. Cha chua is the first dish that lands infront of me. It’s a sweet and sour seafood soup, all brightly-spiced and herby like a mild version of tom yum goong. The bo la lot – minced beef wrapped in la lot leaf and salad – comes served in individual cups.
Next we have a juicy piece of tamarind beef on a bed of dressed lettuce and out of the picture (and one I forgot to take) were some pork spring rolls. Crispy pork wontons arrive for the other half, loaded with lemongrass and nuoc mam for dunking and an incredible lemongrass skewered seabass for me. The piece of fish was perfection, served atop sweet onions braised with wood ear mushrooms and kaffir lime-scented coconut milk. I only had a little taste, but the coconut-braised pork belly (a fatty extravaganza) was a tasty arrangement of pickled red cabbage and caramelised daikon.
Onto the home stretch, I receive a final platter of juicy bo luc lac – stir-fried cubed beef fillet – and two chilli prawns on a gorgeous pomelo and mango salad. Both were great but out of all the dishes the seabass and the prawns won hands down. The dessert tasting plate came with my spread, featuring four bite-sized morsels lined up in spoons. White chocolate custard, chocolate kumquat truffle, Vietnamese banana cake and a chocolate brownie. None of them really screamed Vietnamese sweets but as modern and progressive as the menu was, they were a decent end to my tasting menu. The final spoon of pandan panna cotta is as big as the desserts get at Xu (the idea is to try many) but for the piddly price of 20K (92¢) it’s a steal. This was my favourite dessert as well; intense pandan flavour and brunoise of fresh mango and dragonfruit.
In retrospect I’m glad we gave Xu a go, despite knowing we could have eaten a weeks-worth of street or local restaurant food for the same collective price.
From memory, it was this particular morning that I was feeling a little weary. Not only did The Continental hotel fully embrace Earth Hour by creating rowdy spectacles outside the foyer but a mammoth local wedding reception was in full swing in the central courtyard, just metres below our room window and balcony. So much for peace and quiet and an early night for this pair.
I loathe karaoke at the best of times but when we had to endure Vietnamese ballads shrieked by wedding-goers that sounded like a car alarm crossed with a tortured alley cat, it was a long night that confirmed to me that people that can’t hit the notes probably shouldn’t try. It may be fun for them but it aint fun for the people with bleeding ears.
I thought a dose of pagoda relaxation may ease us into the second morning. From where we were staying there was no choice but to cab it to District 5, all the way out to Quan Am Pagoda down the road from the city’s largest market, Cho Bình Tây. Pity the market was closed that day. The Cho lon area, effectively Chinatown, is insanely busy with buses and motorbikes, thousands of people and streets much more unkempt than those in District 1.
This is more like the real Saigon. Quan Am Pagoda is a Chinese style Buddhist pagoda set back from the street behind a red gate and open courtyard. Worshippers light incense sticks and burn offerings and annoying tourists photograph them. Who? Me? Oh look, a lady praying. Snap. The vibrant colours of the rooms make for great photographs as does the massive cluster of spiral incense overhead. The ones that ash in your eye when you look up. It really is a gorgeous pagoda and definitely worth a trip to.
It was mid-morning coffee time so off we schlepped to Trung Nguyen’s for a dose of cà phê sua dá (80K) and a macchiato (40K). Trung Nguyen Coffee, dare I say it, has a slight Starbucks look and feel about it and it’s coffee can be seen in many places.
Let’s just say the macchiato was a Vietnamese version of the real thing, topped with a cloudy layer of milk foam. Not worth breaking from the iced coffees, but at least I got my shot of espresso. This outlet is just near Ben Thành Market.
Located in a colonial-era shophouse is Huong Lài, a philanthropic restaurant that employs former street kids, orphans and disadvantaged youth. With a proper roof over their heads, these kids are set on an educational path in hospitality, many of which end up in high-end hotels and restaurants. Now that’s a restaurant worth supporting.
The traditional Vietnamese fare is quite delicious and you can sample it via a set lunch menu or straight off the regular menu. The Huong Lài plate (169K) starts us off nibbling on soft-yet-crisp spring rolls, some fresh ricepaper rolls and a lotus stem salad with shavings of cooked pork. As the timid waitress demonstrated, the prawn crackers are topped with the salad ingredients, dressed in nuoc cham and devoured. Too easy.
The standout dish for me was this. Dau hu don thit (84K) – basically tofu stuffed with minced pork in a light tomato broth. Overall the flavours are subtle; a bit of garlic, lemongrass, pork, tomato. Beautiful. The tom lan bot chien (112K) as equally delicate flavours, but mainly of the cooked prawn and sautéed chive flowers. The one with the most punch is thit kho tiêu (79K), braised pork in black pepper. The meat was a little dry but the flavours and juices were spot on.
The lunch rounded-up with the flan (34K), or crème caramel, that was just as you’d expect. Washed down with a cà phê sua dá (32K), this was a lunch spot I’d definitely recommend to anyone hitting Saigon.
The other half was keen to try this place for dinner so when we were traipsing around the neighbourhood during the day we dropped by and made a booking. Housed in the former La Manufacture d’Opium, a refinery for then-legal narcotics, Hoa Túc is another fancy restaurant with a progressive Vietnamese menu. The inside feels a little like a Parisien bistro and the outside is leafy and takes on the look of those deco Paris Metro awnings and entrances.
We order several dishes to share, starting with one of the house signatures – cuon diep Hoa Túc (160K) – mustard leaf rolls with prawns and vegetables. The predominant flavour is Vietnamese mint, with everything else being more textural that anything else. Another house specialty is the bánh khot (80K), a street food snack of mini rice and coconut milk pancakes with shrimps and spring onion. The texture is fritter-like, a bit pasty and doughy and rather bland. It relies heavily on being dunked into the mix of salt, pepper and lime that sit on the side.
The next dish ends up being the best of the evening. Goi buoi hai san (155K). A salad of pink pomelo, squid and crab with Vietnamese herbs and a citrusy fish sauce dressing. It’s fresh, light and a real flavour explosion.
The mains were a bit of a let-down, unfortunately. Gà uop gung, hành lá và lá (125K), or barbecue chicken in ginger, green onion and lime leaf marinade. The chicken has a spiciness to it and is well-cooked, but there’s nothing to love about it. Average, at best. The cá chem nuong (210K), or barbecue sea bass with avocado & mango salsa, steamed sweet potato and cassava was quite bland overall and the fish was overcooked. Here’s hoping the sweets make up for it.
Kem sua truing voi tra (45K) is an intensely-flavoured Earl Grey tea custard, not bad, and chè chuoi nuoc (45K), banana and sago in coconut cream. The favourite? Definitely the one with sago. Simple yet satisfying. Overall my Hoa Túc experience was average.
The following morning was a very early start. A dawn check-out from the hotel and cab to Saigon Train Station. There was no time, nor inclination to do breakfast at the hotel so we pulled up a hobbit-sized plastic chair at the unnamed restaurant-cum-convenience store next to the station entrance.
All that was going was pho. Beef or chicken. One of each would do, preceded by two iced coffees. On this particular visit the restaurant was a bit of a smoking boys club, jostling with bus and taxi drivers about to start their shift. As for the pho, it was pretty damn special. Insanely delicious broth.
I grabbed a few supplies for our 7-hour train trip ahead; some biscuits, water and a packet of white & black sesame toffee crisps. Nha Trang, here we come.