Like a creepy child in a horror movie…I’m baaaack!!!
Rested, refreshed, relaxed and rearing to get back into this! Slight problem, I lost my camera whilst in Vietnam and have not replaced it yet, so I thought whilst that was happening, I would fill in the next few weeks with tales from my trip. Note, due to losing the camera, some of the photos here are from the internet and some are from last year’s trip and there are a few from my phone….so apologies in advance for varying size, quality etc,.
I don’t claim to be an expert in Vietnamese food but I did eat (a lot) over there and will try to describe some of it here. If, by the way, you are looking for an expert in Vietnamese food, head over to this awesome blog by Mark Lowerson:
or if you’re heading to Hanoi, make Mark’s street food tour a must-do. But more about that later…
Let’s start with the big question. Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? The locals call it Saigon so, we’ll go with that (less keystrokes). I love Saigon – there is a vibrant buzz about the city which may or may not have anything to do with the strength of their coffee. On our second day there, I began to get heart palpitations. An odd form of jet lag? A tropical lurgy so soon? No, just two cups of Saigon coffee that morning! I dropped back to one after that and all was well.
If the coffee isn’t enough to give you the shakes or you really want to take your life into your own hands, try crossing a road. Vietnamese traffic is INSANE. Lanes upon lanes of traffic and little regard for lane markings, crossings, red lights or other traffic regulations. The first time we were there, we spent quite a bit of time lurking on street corners waiting for locals to cross so that we could follow them. Sometimes, people would offer to help us across – laughing all the way. They thought it was hilarious! We were too glad to be alive to feel embarrassed!
There is however a method to the madness and if you take a deep breath and wait for…not so much a break in the traffic as a lull (which means maybe just 7 lanes of scooters instead of 7 lanes of scooters and cars and buses), then just launch yourself into the road, they will go around you. Honestly, they will. Just walk at a steady pace and don’t stop until you get to where you want to go. The scooterists are trying to gauge where you won’t be. An even pace allows them to do that more easily. And seeing as they’re trying really hard not to kill you, don’t make it more difficult for them than it needs to be.
(Note: Retro Food For Modern Times will not be held liable for injuries sustained by any readers trying to cross a road in Vietnam…if in doubt, lurk and follow a local.)
For my mind, the hub of Saigon is the Ben Thanh Market, it is a wet market as well as a place to buy souvenirs, clothing etc. There are some eating places inside the market which are pretty good and dirt cheap to boot. Here is Rick Stein sampling some of the wares on offer:
In the evening, the streets surrounding the Ben Thanh close down for the night market where you can get awesome freshly cooked seafood. Make your selection from the tanks located along the back, choose the way you want your food cooked, sit down and wait. This is not fine dining, this is plastic tables, chairs and plates. It’s busy and vibrant and noisy and delicious! Also, as with most things, feel free to haggle a bit over the quoted prices for the seafood. We were initially quoted VND 500,000 for a kilo of shrimp the size of a small child. We eventually settled on VND 300,000 (just over $14 USD / $15AUD).
In my mind the Ben Thanh neatly divides the city. Looking out from the main entrance as shown below the high-end area of the city is to your left, the backpacker district to your right. Both offer a myriad of delights for foodies, eaters and shoppers!
If shopping at the market, be prepared to haggle hard. Also, be careful with your belongings. We didn’t notice it this time, but the first time we went; Mark looked down to find a girl with her hand in his pocket!
One of my favourite foodie magazines has a section called “24 hours in…” where they describe what you can do in a city in 24 hours. So,
stealing shamelessly borrowing heavily from them here is my perfect Saigon 24 hours…
I would start with Pho for breakfast, of course!!! Next door to the Ben Thanh is Pho 2000. Pho, for those of you who do not know it is a staple of Vietnamese cooking, a beef (usually) noodle soup. It is eaten for breakfast or any other time of day! In the south it comes with herbs, beans sprouts, lime and chilli; the Northern version is more austere. Pho 2000 has the distinction of being the shop visited by Bill Clinton on his 2000 trip.
I would then head into any of the nearby parks to watch people do their morning tai chi or dancing. Maybe even join in. That has to be a great way to start the day. I’m sure I’d be a lot better tempered if I started every morning by dancing!
Next, I would stroll up Le Loi for some heavy-duty shopping. Bunga is an amazing clothing shop and also has a branch on Pasteur – both of these are a must. A few doors down from Bunga , L’Usine has great art & design and sells the fabulous Marou chocolate. Sandwich a square or two of this in one of the lovely croissants you can buy a the bakeries on Le Loi and munch while you shop! The gorgeous wrapping makes this a fabulous gift too!
For a light lunch , try some Bahn Xeo – delicious Pancakes flavoured with turmeric and crammed with bean shoots and prawns and pork and loaded with herbs on the side! Lots of places also serve it with a rice paper coating which adds a great chewy element.
For those of you who want to try this at home, Yotam Ottolenghi, has a vegetarian version which you can find here:
Spend the afternoon soaking up a little culture – visit the very pretty Notre Dame Cathedral and the awesome colonial post office building. Then head over to the Reunification Palace and the War Museum for some history. The War museum has, amongst other things, a great collection of posters from all over the world of countries protesting against what we call the Vietnam War but locals call the American War.
By now, you’re probably exhausted and thirsty and the sun is probably long over any yardarm you care to mention, so head over to the Hotel Continental (another gorgeous colonial building) for a cocktail or two in memory of Graham Greene who stayed there whilst writing “The Quiet American”.
Whilst sipping, decide where to dine…low end down at the backpacker end of town you can have a decent meal and drinks for a few dollars. Try the cafes around D Pham Ngu Lao for cheap, cheerful and tasty meals.
Alternatively, you can go high-end. Hoa Tuc is one of my favourites, a renovated opium den serving amazing food. The sugarcane shrimp is to die for! Xu also serves amazing modern Vietnamese food upstairs and later you can dance in the bar downstairs until the early hours! Be warned though, as my friend Monica found out, the durian tiramisu is not to everyone’s taste!
Ok, so that’s my perfect Saigon day….Next time, we’ll head to the centre to Hue and Hoi An. Have a great week whereever you are!