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Xin Chào Vietnam!

No matter where you go, there is always a smile with sparkling pearly-white teeth beaming at you, follows by a friendly greeting of “Xin Chao!” in shy manners – small little gesture like this reminds me of the reasons why I fell in love with this country the first place when I visited back in 2009. Vietnam, a country slowly advances to the modern world but with many of its natural beauty are still encapsulated in the old world – and I sense it is not going to fade away quite so soon.

Vietnam is definitely one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Southeast Asia. As many are here for the war stories, but for me – it is always about the food.

I’ve been very lucky to be chosen by Vietnam Airlines as the only food blogger, in fact the only blogger to join the other renowned journalists, writers and photographer on a media trip to Vietnam, to discover cities that are less frequented by tourists. So thank you, Vietnam Airlines. Arriving at airport with an upgradeable air ticket is almost like putting a big whack of chips on a roulette table in casino, hoping it will hit the jackpot. The business class on Vietnam Airlines is actually quite affordable ($2500 + tax from Australia to SE Asia) so those seats can be filled quite easily on each flight. Luckily they still managed to squeeze us in for the last few vacant seats in business class, it is a little extra indulgence that makes the trip goes a lot smoother.

I can talk about all the benefits of Vietnam Airlines until the cow comes home, but one thing I must mention is if you are an avid shopaholic, then the generous luggage allowance of 30kgs for economy class and up to a whopping 40kgs for business will have you shop til you drop in Vietnam.

Ok now I am hungry, feed me.

The food on flight is not the most appetising I must admit and let’s be honest, how many airlines’ food do even with celebrity chefs’ name attached to it? But Vietnam Airlines definitely try their best and make an effort to make sure the food is up to par with other airlines. The lunch/dinner menu usually consists of amuse bouche, entree, main with a great selection of items to choose from. If that’s not enough, the flight attendant will wheel out a trolley cart filled with cakes, chocolates and fruit to send you into a food coma, unlimited wines, Bailey’s and Dambuie knock me out almost immediately and before I know it, we are already touched down in Saigon.

Indochine Restaurant – Saigon

“I prefer to call this city Saigon,” explains Ms Lin, our temporary tour guide in this city. Our group makes no plan to stay long in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh city) and it will be only an overnight stay, hence a dinner at Indochine Restaurant is all we can fit in.

Indochine restaurant is considered an upmarket Vietnamese restaurant, I get the feeling this place is specially catered for tour groups. The air-conditioned indoor seating seems to be more popular with locals, whereas long tables are already decked out in the courtyard for tour groups. Despite the unbearable tropical heat, the outdoor seating does have a better ambiance of fairy lights hanging on a jackfruit tree, whilst the diners are being serenaded to a trio of musicians on stage, playing a rather eclectic mix of song choices of Russian, Italian and French tunes that are possibly once popular back in the 70s.

Even though the food menu that is shaped of the traditional Vietnamese conical straw hat being handed out at the table, we are actually on a set menu which has already been organised by the tour guide and the restaurant. The beer choices in Vietnam is a fun activity for me, while many go for the more common yet pleasantly drinkable “Ba Ba Ba” (Vietnamese for 333, the brand of the beer), I decide to try the beer that is brewed from the city that we are in and go for the Bia Saigon Special – it is drinkable but nothing more.

Indochine offers Vietnamese cuisines which the influence of French, and some dishes I would even consider them as Chinese. We start the meal with a refreshing young bamboo shoot and gingko soup, the added ginger slices in the soup instantly warms the body from inside out and opens up our appetite. Banana flower salad with chicken mince is possibly my favourite dish of the evening, served with prawn crackers as saucers so you can top with as much or as little of the salad as you like. Battered fried fish in pineapple sauce is a hit at the table, whilst the barbecued pork spareribs are a little tough to chew. Stir fried bok choy with shiitake and button mushrooms is more familiar to my Chinese palates, but I actually find the fried rice with salted duck egg is invitingly good. Dessert is a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream served with chocolate sauce and a dollop of whipped cream, not so French.

The food at Indochine is nothing to rave about, but the meal did keep us well fed and recharged after the long flight.

As we are leaving the restaurant, a waitstaff pulls up a table and starts to flambe the caramelised banana in a fry pan in front of the guests, a truly classic French culinary trick that always have the guests in awe, even I have to take a few photos of the performance.

The Rex Hotel

The night is still young, while the others prefer to go shopping or hit the sack, some of us push on and decide to go for a drink at rooftop garden at The Rex Hotel. This hotel is an institution in Saigon made famous by the American troops during the Vietnam War, the rooftop bar was once a well known hangout waterhole for the military officials, war correspondents and journalists.

These days, the rooftop bar is crowded with locals and tourists, sipping cocktails and crunching on peanuts, but for some of us, the performance on center stage is the highlight – it is like a jukebox filled with kitsch 70s & 80s songs that you are almost too embarrass to acknowledge that you actually know the lyrics to sing along.

The ‘alternative’ bars in Saigon

Like any other Southeast Asia countries (except Thailand), bars are never being promoted as gay-only venues and obviously illegal. A few of these bars in Saigon are gay-friendly at best but if there is good music, the bars will attract a healthy balance of heterosexuals and gays.

We first head to GQ lounge bar which is disappointingly dead on a Wednesday night. The bar is relatively new, neat and clean, the interior is swanky whilst the DJ is pumping basses into thin air, but the whole dance floor is literally empty. We walk out immediately without even consider ordering drinks. The security guard suggests a better option for us and calls a cab. ‘Apoh’, says the security guard to the taxi driver and soon enough we find ourselves outside one of the oldest bar (close to 16 years) in Saigon, the Apocalypse Now.

If security guards in full military uniforms make you uneasy, then this is not the place for you. The number of security guards at this bar can almost form a small troop – they stand in corners, staring at you the whole time, watching your every single move, from buying a drink to making a dance move, it is that daunting.

I won’t consider Apocalypse Now as a gay bar, those who visit this place are mostly expats, tourists, hookers or just young rich Vietnamese who know how to party. Having said that, among the sea of people, there are a few gays lurking in corners, watching your every single move, from buying a drink to making a dance move.

That’s right, it is apocalype now, or never.

[…to be continued]

(Note: Okay, we were that drunk and blindly got into a taxi and got conned to pay a hefty taxi fee of 300,000 Vietnamese dong = AUD$14.50! for a mere short distance back to our hotel from the bar. So take extra caution and walk out to the main street and get a Vinnasun taxi.)

Places I visited in Saigon, Vietnam

Indochine Restaurant
26 Truong Dinh Street
Disrict 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The Rex Hotel
141 Nguyen Hue Blvd.,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
 GQ Club Lounge Bar
101 Suong Nguyet Anh St, District 1
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Apocalypse Now
2C Thi Sach Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

A Table For Two visited Vietnam on a media trip courtesy of Vietnam Airlines