Postcard from Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City (part 1)

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I find it difficult to write about my holiday. Looking at all the holiday photos and trying to recall every single details through the journey again just makes me miss travelling even more. After writing the post about finding the best bowl of Pho Bo in Vietnam, I thought perhaps it is the right way to document my trip by just blogging about the particular dishes and restaurants rather than trying to record it chronologically. How wrong I am… Now everything is messy and tedious, especially when there are over 2000 photos to sort out is not something I would call fun. Hence, after wasting more time playing with the layouts and trying to organise the photos, it is back to square one like I just hit the rewind button on the TV remote control and now I am back to day one in Vietnam.

(harp strumming sound effect optional…)

I’ve planned to be in Vietnam for 8 days, mainly focus on Ho Chi Minh City and center Vietnam – Hue and Hoi An. With very little knowledge about the country and the food, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation TV series is the only guidebook I have. I’d like to keep an open mind and I am ready to experience a new adventure by embracing anything and everything comes my way.

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Day 1

I was supposed to travel alone, but my brother-in-law decided to tag along for six days after an impromptu decision. I do not mind to have a travel companion but this so-called companionship only lasted two days before he started getting on my nerves and ruining my gluttony plan! Learned my lesson and from now on, always say “No” to brother-in-law for food trip! Or whoever is going to get in the way between me and the food!

We took the earliest AirAsia flight out from Kuala Lumpur and arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at around 10am in the morning. Whilst it is way too early to check in, we just dropped off our bags at the hotel and wandered off to get some breakfast. Our first meal in Vietnam of course has to be a bowl of hearty Pho Bo Dac Biet at Pho Quynh in Pham Ngu Lao, the backpackers district. I love my Pho Bo, but I find it challenging slurping up a bowl of hot beef noodle soup while the humid monsoon weather outside already reaching 32ºC in the morning. That’s why a glass of Vietnamese Ice Coffee (Ca Phe Sua Da) is almost compulsory for any consumption of hot meals in Vietnam. This is my first taste of Vietnamese coffee and I am instantly hooked. The coffee is exceptionally strong with a robust vanilla-ish flavour, it is also very thick and sweet from the condensed milk. I reckon they could have used less ice and more coffee as I always found the glass is still full of ice blocks when finished.

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For the first day, we decided to take it easy and just wander around the city for more food. The touristy Ben Thanh Market is only a short 10 mins walk from Pham Ngu Lao. Ben Thanh Market is located right next to the biggest roundabout in the heart of Saigon. The market is almost like the Paddy’s Market in Sydney, except it is a lot bigger, hotter, and pokier inside. Different exotic smell lingers in different section of the maze. It also has a mini food court at the back of the market where the diners are mainly locals. The vendors are typically pushy, shoving the menu in your face, dragging your arm to their stalls to make you sit down. Just be firm, say ‘No, thank you’ and walk away. Rubbing your stomach to indicate you are already eaten or full is always a good optional escaping plan.

I then come across this food vendor at the far end corner of the food court which seems to be very popular among the locals. Rows upon rows of customers on plastic stools are over spilled on the walking path and waiting patiently, mesmerised by the lady boss busy preparing plates upon plates of Banh Beo Hue behind the counter. A Chinese-speaking local saw us sticky-beaking and invited us to pull up a stool to join them for a plate of Hue specialty. The mini steamed rice flour cake is sticky and chewy, it reminds me of the translucent prawn dumpling skin at yum cha. The rice cakes are naturally tasteless, so it is usually served with dried shrimps, cilantro and a good dash of fish sauce. Our friendly lady must have ordered the ‘special’ Banh Beo Hue for us which also comes with fish balls, a thin slice of Cha (the white one), which is steamed sausage, and Nem (the pink one), a cured meat made from pork rind which has a sour acquired taste.

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By the time we finished our Banh Beo Hue, there is already a group of locals waiting to take over our seats. We soon found ourselves joining our friendly lady again and another big group huddling over a drink stand a few stalls down that only serves Che, a sweet sticky local dessert drink.

The tri-colour Che Thap Cam is an eclectic of mix of different ingredients including tapioca, green cendol, sweet corn, coconut milk, roasted coconuts and some other unidentified chewy goodness before sealed with an inch thick of crushed ice on top. Spoon dug in, we excavate and testing all different textures in one glass, a nice fun drink for a hot afternoon.

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I’ve been warned about the heavy traffic in Saigon, especially the heavy fleet of motorbikes zooming past us. It didn’t take me long to get used to the constant honking and beeping for no particular reason. According to statistic, there are average 4 people die in car accidents per day in Saigon, especially hit by the motorbikes. Which also makes one think twice before take a plunge and cross the busy streets, but unfortunately that’s also the only way you will make progress in Saigon. I can’t help but feel vulnerable like being inside the Frogger arcade video game. Eventually I got the hang of the rhythm, follow the instinct and walk out the streets slowly without any sudden movements will ensure motorists understand your directions and veer around you appropriately.

We decided to follow the route which allows us to check out a few of the tourist attractions, but disappointingly most of the museums are shut during lunch hour. We got approached by rickshaw drivers who will let you know that the museum you are going to check out is closed and recommend another place that is still open and will take you there in their rickshaws of course. If that’s not convincing enough, they will soon pull out an autograph book that is filled with testimonials written by tourists from all over the world that have used their services. Once I’ve mentioned I am from Australia, he will instantly flipped to a page written by another tourist from the same country. As professional as it may sound, I am afraid I have to decline and prefer to walk.

We only managed to check out the War Remnant Museum after a short wait outside the gate. A good excuse for us to pull up another stool under the tree, sipping an icy cold Vietnamese Ice coffee to beat the muggy air. The museum itself is small but very informative with lots of artifacts and photographs from the Vietnam War. The museum does get very hot inside with no air conditioning except a few big fans which simply circulating the hot air around. It is well worth it to check out the museum, but I can assure you that pork chop and offals are the least thing you want on the dinner menu after seeing all the gruesome photographs with gory details.

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Eventually we got beaten down by the heat and insane humidity, decided to call it a day and start walking back to our hotel. On the way back, I’ve noticed the food scene in Saigon is also slowly changing according to the time of the day. The shops are closing, whilst the street is slowly filled with ladies pushing trolley carts selling all kinds of street food. The moment that I’ve been waiting is finally over. We stop at the first trolley cart as soon as we spotted it on the street and immediately ordered ourselves two Banh Mi. You simply can’t go to Vietnam without stuffing yourself silly with at least one Bahn Mi or two (or many more in my case). The usual ingredients they put inside Banh Mi are roast pork slices, Vietnamese ham, pate, pork floss, cucumber, cilantro and green chili for those who like it hot. But the secret of a good Banh Mi is definitely the Vietnamese baguette they used. The fluffy soft bread is sealed with the most amazing crust on the outside. Each bite is a sensory experience.

It was a lot of walk in one day so the evening is resolved to a nearby bar in the area. A quick research on internet and landed us at Eden Bar, a popular backpackers’ haunt in Pham Ngu Lao. The fairy lights and red lanterns hung over the kitsch oriental bamboo counter bar sets the mood while a house DJ is playing some ambient music in the background. Upstairs is a restaurant that offers local and western food for those who are looking for a bite. Sometimes when you visit a new restaurant or bar, you can usually sense whether you are going to like it or not. And on this occasion I know instantly that I am going to fit in perfectly. In fact, the vibe of this place has captured my soul and I found myself spending every single night here ever since my first day in Saigon.

The food at Eden Bar is nothing special to rave about, we had a simple meal of fried rice and burger then slowly winding down at the bar area over a few beers. I’ve tried a few local beer, the Saigon Lager is quite drinkable with a fresh crisp taste while the 333 beer is absolutely nasty with an awful grandma’s old knickers after taste. But the best beer I’ve tasted is surprisingly from Hue, which I will blog about it in my next post. As the night wears on, the music is getting louder, a free round of watermelon cocktails are offered to all the patrons in the bar. By now, I would have learned all the friendly staff names by heart (or phonetically at least). We decided to call it a night before 12am as we still need to be up bright and early for our day tour the next morning.

I am already loving my first day in Vietnam.

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Day 2

When we woke up, we decided to skip the breakfast provided by the hotel and venture outside to look for another bowl of Pho Bo. And this time, we found our favorite Noodle Granny as mentioned in my previous post. I am so glad that we had a big bowl of noodle soup before we jumped on the bus for the Cu Chi tunnel day tour, as we don’t get to feed until around 1.30pm after seeing the Cao Dai temple. But the highlight of the tour is definitely the Cu Chi tunnel which every fat food lovers will hate to see himself get stuck inside. The only piece of advice from our tour guide is, “Do not stop.” Okay, thanks… I guess.

One after another, I follow the rest and crawl into this dark, hot and stuffy narrow tunnel and soon realised it is a bad decision a second too late. Excitement turns into fear, the tunnel goes three levels deep, with split ends at certain sections so you really have to keep up with the group or else you will get lost inside. And if you think you are good at lunges, try this this tunnel and feel the muscles burning! It is the longest 10 mins in hell and crawled myself out from there. Never again. Not to mention I can barely walk down the staircase for the next 5 days.

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At the Cu Chi tunnel park, there is also a shooting range for those who feels like turning into Rambo or Lara Croft for a mere 5 minutes of adrenalin rush. I do find guns fascinating and intimidating. I don’t against it, but definitely won’t keep a gun in the house that’s for sure. 240,000VND ($15.00AUD) will buy you 10 bullets on a M16 which is my weapon of choice. The shooting range is badly positioned right next to the souvenir shop, scares the daylight out of the poor tourists by the unexpected loud bangs. The earmuffs that provided are absolutely useless as I could barely hear a thing afterwards. It feels very awkward to fire a machine gun that survived from the war and definitely would not like to imagine how many people had die under this gun I am using. Our tour guide, Minh, is quite a Mr Wise Guy himself and gives us his best advise to conclude our tour,

“No one likes war, no one likes tiger traps. But we all love one kind of tiger, and that’s Tiger Beer.”

Corny but it works for me.

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We arrived back in Saigon after dark, and I am absolutely famished and knackered. When I am hungry, I am angry. I just want to sit down somewhere and have something in my tummy fast. But my brother-in-law decided that he wants another bowl of Pho from the same Noodle Granny. That’s when I get irritated because as a foodblogger, you never try the same dish twice, let alone on the same day! Besides, I well knew the noodle shop will be shut at night as the usual business trade are only for breakfast and lunch.

I let him wandered off to look for his Pho, while I determined to stay and try the little food stand opposite Pho Quynh that serves Chao Trang which I discovered later is actually Chinese congee. And of course it doesn’t take long for my brother-in-law crawling back like a defeated dog with its tail tucked between his legs and joining me for the meal after all.

Chao Trang is more like the congee mum will cook at home, just simple bland white porridge as the basic of the meal where there are lots of small dishes that you can order to enhance the flavour and texture. I ordered some side dishes that I am familiar with like salted duck egg, pickled vegetable, cured roast pork but I am extremely curious about the hairy looking dish in the glass display. From what I saw, it seems like a group of tarantulas doing Stacks On with all their legs tangled up in an insolvable mess. I will definitely jump in and order one if it is deep fried, but this pile of squishy crawleys dressed in mystery sauce does make me backen a bit and is probably not wise to fall sick on the second day of my trip when I still have a long food journey ahead of me. The meal comes to 100,000VND which is probably more than what the meal should have cost us.

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We must be still hungry after the meal as we soon find ourselves holding a giant log of Banh Mi with both hands munching away as we walking back to our hotel. Well fed, showered and a micro rest, it is time for us to hit the Eden Bar for a quick drink as we have an early flight to catch the next morning for our next destination. The promises of an early night are soon forgotten and found ourselves wasted, stumbling back to our hotel way past midnight.

To be continued…

Addresses of restaurants/places I've visited:

Pho Quynh
323 Pham Ngu Lao, District 1
Saigon, Vietnam.
T: (08) 836 8515
Directions: Right at the corner of Pham Ngu Lao & Cong Quynh,
in a big bright yellow building

Noodle Granny (No shop name)
Cong Quynh, District 1
Saigon, Vietnam.
Directions: Between Pham Ngu Lao & Bui Vien, opposite of Volcano Bar

Chao Trang street food
Cong Quynh, District 1
Saigon, Vietnam.
Directions: Right opposite Pho Quynh in Pham Ngu Lao

Eden Bar
236 De Tham, Pham Ngu Lao, District 1,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
P: (84-8) 836 8154

Ben Thanh market
Directions: On the north west side of the roundabout;
intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao Avenues and
Le Lai Street, look for a big blue clock tower.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Related Posts:
In search of the best Pho Bo in Vietnam
Part 2 – Postcard from Vietnam – Hue

Part 3 – Postcard from Vietnam – Hoi An