Let’s step back in time to a few years ago and a completely imaginary pub quiz. Let’s suppose I am poised on the brink of winning the meat tray. Believe it or not, a meat tray is a valid prize in Australian pubs. I won one once. It was awesome.
it was a whole tray of steaks and chops and sausages and, if I recall correctly, some very nice bacon. You may scoff, but it’s actually a pretty good prize. As long as you’re not a vegetarian.
And here comes the question.
And for the tray of meat “What is a Cha Ca La Vong?”
“Oh……:A Latin American Dance?”
“No, wait a moment…isn’t it the name of the slutty girl from Grease? The one stole the dance competition from Sandy?”
No, Cha Ca La Vong is not the name of the best dancer from St Bernadette’s (with the worst reputation) or the type of dancing she may engage in.
It is a super delicious Vietnamese dish of fried fish with turmeric, dill and tomatoes.
I first came across this dish last year when I did the awesome Hanoi Street Food Tour with Mark Lowerson from Stickyrice. You can read about that here.
When I had Cha Ca with Mark it was a soupy style. And it was super, very fragrant and possibly my favourite dish (apart from the a-may-zing coffee with yogurt) of the whole tour.
This year however, I discovered a new way to have Cha Ca. We read about a restaurant called The Gourmet Corner. And being cautious, we dropped in one afternoon for a cocktail. I like to call it scoping out a restaurant before commiting myself. You can call it afternoon boozing if you wish.
Well, one meal later this became our favourite place to eat in Hanoi. I think we pretty much ate there every night after that. Fabulous food, great cocktails, and 360 degree views of the city. And all as cheap as chips!!!!
Their Cha Ca? O. M. G. One of the best things I have ever eaten. In. My Life.
First up, the combination of fish and dill and onion took me right back to my first ever time in Hanoi, my first ever full day in Hanoi and the tour with Mark. Kind of like Proust’s madeleines. But fishy. And second -So, so tasty. Perfectly cooked fish, perfectly spiced, the most amazing flavour of the dill and the tomato and the turmeric….I ate this EVERY night for pretty much a week. And I had such a craving for it the other night, I decided to make my own!
Two disclaimers. One. My version, whilst being pretty damn good, is not a patch on either version I had in Hanoi. There really is something about eating in situ that can make any meal super special. But, that being said…it doesn’t totally suck either. It’s actually pretty tasty. And so fun to eat! Particularly if you have a group of people. Set it all out and people can wrap and roll what they want. It would be best served outside on a tiny chair and table as at a Bia Hoi Bar and washed down with some icy cold beer but failing that, your own home or garden would also be fine. But do have that ice cold beer!
Which leads me to my second disclaimer. It’s an absolute bastard to cook. Not difficult but there are a lot of moving parts. Don’t even try to do what I did and make it all in the same day. Do the pickles at least one day ahead. I would also try to do the tomato and dill mixture the day before too and just heat it up when you need it.
I couldn’t find the right sort of rice paper rolls and the ones I had turned into a hot mess so I I wrapped my Cha Ca in lettuce leaves. They added a nice crunch. You could also use tortillas to make it into a kind of Vietnamese Fish Taco.
Alternatively, ditch these all together and make a noodle bowl – I had one of these with the leftovers the following day and it was super.
I’ve added a few photo’s from Hanoi. I’m really starting to love that city! And I think even possibly more that Saigon is a great food city. Food is everywhere and in such fresh abundance. I hope you get a feel of the city from these…looking at them and eating the Cha Ca really took me back to our holiday. And got me thinking about the next….
To make your week fabulous why not cook something from a place you love? And don’t forget to tell me all about it!
1/2 cup vinegar - rice vinegar would be traditional, I used white wine vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
For the Dill Mixture
1 bunch of dill, roughly chopped
8 Spring onions, finely sliced
18 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 chopped red chilli
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp olive oil for sauteing
Iceberg Lettuce Leaves / Tortillas / Rice Paper (optional)
Accompaniments - All Optional
Pickled Vegetables (as per above)
Chopped roasted peanuts
Crispy Fried Shallots
Herbs - I used coriander, mint and vietnamese mint, roughly chopped
For the fish
Cut the fish into 2 cm chunks. Sprinkle the pieces with salt and let them sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Mix together the fish sauce, ginger, garlic sugar and pepper in a small bowl.
Add the fish to the bowl and ensure that all the pieces are coated. Place them on a plate, cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
Heat your oven to low.
If using the chilli powder add this and half the turmeric and half the rice flour to a small bowl and the remaining turmeric and rice flour into another bowl. If not using the chilli powder, add all of the turmeric and rice flour into one bowl.
Coat each piece of fish in the flavoured flour.
Heat the peanut oil in a frying pan or wok until very hot. Add the fish in batches, and using tongs turn and move the fish until it is evenly cooked and golden brown. (The chilli fish will be a darker colour than the turmeric coated one).
Once cooked through (approximately 4-6 minutes) use the tongs to transfer the fish to an oven safe wire rack lined with paper towels and place in the heated oven to keep warm.
For the Pickled Vegetables
Mix together the vinegar, sugar and salt in small pan. Heat until the sugar dissolves.
Pour this mixture over the carrot, daikon, onion, ginger and chilli.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes before serving.
For the Dill Mixture
Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onions and allow to soften. Add the garlic and chilli and cook until they have also softened. Add the dill and the cherry tomatoes. Saute until the dill wilts and the tomatoes have softened slightly. Squeeze some lime over the top.
For the Vermicelli
Boil a kettle of water.
Place the vermicelli in a heat proof bowl.
Pour the just boiled water over the top and let sit as per the directions on the packet.
If using tortillas or rice paper prepare them accordingly to the packet directions.
If using lettuce leaves, pull them off the head of lettuce and stack them on the platter.
Add your fish, vermicelli, dill mixture and the pickled vegtables, arranging them around your platter so they look pretty. Add the mixed herbs, peanuts and fried shallots. Depending on the size of your platter you may have use separate bowls for some ingredients. Ensure that you have serving implements for each part of the meal.
Using the lettuce leaf / tortilla / rice paper as a plate, guests can add the fish, vermicelli, dill mixture and any of the accompaniments they desire, then roll up their meal.
Alternatively, the vermicelli, fish and dill mixture can be placed in a bowl and guests can serve their own accompaniments.
Most of the Vietnamese people I know come from the South and their reaction when I mentioned I was going to Hanoi fell into two categories.
Actually, cancel that.
There was one main response which was a pause, followed by a frown, very shortly followed by a comment along the lines of “WTF do you want to do that for?”
There were however two distinct subcategories behind this response. The first was “Oh my God, you’ll be robbed / stabbed / murdered in your bed. The people are rude, the traffic is awful, and the food is terrible.”
The other reason was “There’s FA to do there…”
Before leaving I mostly put this down to a little bit of North / South rivalry. However, this malaise seems to have also infected the people of Hanoi. The first sentiment was echoed by the girl who checked us in to the hotel who whispered to us “You’ll find the people here are not very polite.”
“But you’re lovely” I said.
She shook her head. “Other people” she said.
The first question most people ask you in Hanoi is “When you do leave for Halong Bay / Sapa?” Thereby reinforcing the second response. It’s like no one can believe you actually want to be there.
Well guess what? Wrong and wrong peeps, wrong and wrong!
We had a wonderful time in Hanoi – we lived to tell the tale, found the locals friendly and, even though we were there longer than expected we found plenty of things to do. Just walking around and admiring the fabulous colonial architecture can take a few hours.
And the Hoa Lo Prison is also definitely worth a visit. This is where ex American Presidential candidate John McCain was held prisoner for many years.
My photo and the name Maison Central give this place a rather welcoming look, a bit like a swanky hotel. This may have helped to give the Hoa Lo the nickname of the Hanoi Hilton.
Believe me, after spending a few hours inside and learning about the history and some of the awful things that happened within these walls, this is one hotel where you really do not want to be a guest!
One of the best things I did in Hanoi was the Street Food Tour hosted by Mark Lowerson. A long time resident of Hanoi, Mark knows all the places to get great tasting authentic food, which would be unlikely to be on most tourists’ agendas. On top of this, Mark is a charming and knowledgeable host and despite the weather being against us (it was bucketing down the whole time) this tour was one of the highlights of Hanoi for me and something I will definitely do again.
Just one tip, if you are planning on doing this tour (and you absolutely should) – skip breakfast. No, skip dinner the night before and skip breakfast!!!
I did the tour in July and on occasion, still find myself debating over which dish I liked the best. The Bun Ca which was fish with dill and tomatoes made with tea flavoured noodles? The crispy prawn fritters? The freshly made yoghurt with local coffee? Of the many dishes we tasted, they were definitely my top three although it was all delicious!
For some culture, we went to Ho Chi Mihn’s Mausoleum. Don’t let the long lines here put you off, they move pretty quickly. And who doesn’t want to see a perfectly preserved cadaver? You can also visit his house and see the rooms from where he conducted the war. You need to be on your best behavior though – no smirking or pointing or behaving in any manner that is not utterly respectful whilst viewing Ho.
Whilst we’re on the topic of showing some respect…how about, we try to adopt that as a general rule of travel? This is particularly directed at the young gentleman (and I use the term in its loosest form) who burst into the office of the travel agent I was in the middle of having a discussion with, blind drunk at midday, shirtless and trying to haggle over a coolie hat.
One, dude, I was already there…wait your damn turn.
Two, no one needs to see your disgusting sweaty beer belly. Put on a shirt. And some shoes.
Three, I don’t know how you managed to get that drunk that early…but don’t do it again. It didn’t make you look cool. It made you look like an idiot. And if the people of Hanoi were as bad as everyone said they were – that kind of obnoxious behavior would have got you stabbed. And you would have deserved it. It’s almost a shame they weren’t!
Ok, rant over. One of my favorite shops in Hanoi was the Sun Tailor. They make all sorts of gorgeous clothing, purses, jewellery, hair accessories, etc with a cute retro sort of feel to them.. Great for gifts…or for yourself and it’s all as cheap as chips!
The button necklaces and bracelets are just adorable and the headband with pictures of Italian cities like Rome…
And….oh…erm…places that sound like they may be Italian..are just gorgeous….
Another cool thing about Hanoi are the street bars. By day, these are normal shops. By night, the grills go down, plastic tables and chairs make an appearance, someone rolls out a cooler full of beer and some snacks and voila, the street corner becomes a bar! We visited the same corner bar in the old quarter several times and by the end of our stay, far from being hostile, the owners were greeting us like old friends!
For a day trip, we went to the Perfume Pagoda, which was for me, one of the highlights of the trip. It gets a bad write up in a few of the guides mainly for the over zealous nature of the women hawking cold drinks, beer, food etc both along the river and at the base of the mountain. Ok, this is kind of annoying…but try not to let this jade your perspective. The Pagoda itself is worth this.
And you gotta hand it to the women who row the tourist boats. They are tiny and each boat fits six tourists for an hour long ride to the pagoda and another hour long ride back. It was scorching the day we went and believe me…that woman rowing us deserved every cent of the hefty tip we gave. Although, if I had been her, I would have been a little snippy with her country women who were rowing alongside trying to sell us food and drink. In fact, whilst I don’t speak a word of Vietnamese, I swear our rower said something to them along the lines of “For the love of God, can you just sod off? It’s stinking hot and these bastards are fat enough without you getting them to cram beer and Mars Bars down their gobs.” It must have been her tone…
The only way to get to the Pagoda is by boat, then, after you land and fight your way through the ladies hawking their wares.including some quite scary looking rats in cages…you can either get a cable car up the mountain or walk. Some of our group chose to walk up the mountain to the pagoda, I went by cable car. Firstly because it was a cable car….I have no idea why I love them so much, I just do! And you know…walking up a mountain in blazing heat could give you some sort of ecstatic religious moment…or heatstroke. You choose!
The actual Pagoda is magnificent and really has that atmosphere of being a sacred space. Instead of being a Pagoda as I know it – a structure like the one we visited in Hue, the Perfume Pagoda is a series of rock formations set in a cave at the top of a mountain. The air is dark and cool which is a lovely respite from the blazing sun and just adds to that “otherworldly” atmosphere.
We never got to Halong Bay as the bad weather prevented it. However, the upside of that is that it gives us a great reason to travel back to Hanoi!
I’m going to spending my week looking at flights to Hanoi, have a fab one whatever you get up to!
I’ve struggled to write about Hoi An and I only just realised why – I like it just a little bit too much for my normal snarky tone to be used. There’s nothing funny about Hoi An. It’s lovely to look at, a great place to spend time…in fact the only downside is that because everyone else loves it too, it’s in danger of becoming overpublicised and losing everything that made it charming in the first place…Huh…it’s kind of like the Ryan Gosling of Vietnam. (Shut up, I haven’t mentioned him for MONTHS…)
One awesome thing about Hoi An, is that the old town is car free. You still need to beware of crazy bike riders but the old town really is a haven after the hustle and bustle of a city like Saigon. The other lovely thing about Hoi An is that it’s small enough to walk around and see everything on foot. Alternatively most hotels have bikes either, push bikes or motor bikes, either included in the room rate or that you can hire to explore the local countryside (which I recommend – rice paddies, great beaches, it’s really pretty and flat so easy to ride even if, like me you’re not an avid bike rider).
We stayed at the Vinh Hung resort, marked by the number 1 in the above map. This was a great resort and has a boat that takes you into town. Who needs a bike?
If you ask nicely they even let you drive…
The town itself is famed for its silk, and gorgeous coloured lanterns are a popular souvenir.
And if you think this looks pretty during the day, look at it at night!
By day the mustardy coloured buildings and the purple flowers are a striking combination…
Hoi An is a great town for tailors. They are everywhere although there is a mass of them along Hoang Dieu, across the road from the cloth market. Also on Hoang Dieu are shoe makers who will hand make shoes for you for fraction of what you would pay for something mass-produced. And you wonder why I love this place!
My favourite tailor and shoe maker below:
Hoi An is also a great place for food and a great way to learn more about Vietnamese food is to do a cooking course. I’ve done two, one at the Park Hyatt in Saigon and also one at the Morning Glory Restaurant in Hoi An. Both were excellent. The format for both was similar, a trip to the market to familiarise yourself with the raw ingredients….
Then on to the school for some learning and, better yet, some eating. At the Morning Glory class we made a number of standards of Vietnamese food including:
Rice Paper Rolls:
My favourite – Green Mango Salad
Turmeric Chicken Skewers
And yes, all of this tasted as good as it looks. Maybe even better.
You can find the Yotam Ottolenghi version of Bahn Xeo here.
And Luke Nguyen’s Green Mango Salad with Tiger Prawns here
For the Turmeric Chicken, which was awesome, you’ll need to go to Hoi An.
After some hefty shopping and your cooking class, or just because it’s hot, hot hot, you might be in need of an afternoon libation. And you can do a lot worse than the Q Bar for this..
One of the specialties of the Q bar is a Tamarind and Ginger Martini which is awesome!!!
Here is my version:
I based my recipe on the Tamarind Ginger Fizz recipe from Food 52 which you can find here.
Spicy Tamarind Ginger Martini (makes 2)
Spicy Ginger Sugar Syrup
1 knob of ginger about as big as your thumb, sliced
2 small birdseye chillies
1 length of lemongrass about 10cm long, chopped
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
Combine in a saucepan. Boil until the sugar has dissolved then take off heat and allow to steep. Transfer to a container and refrigerate. Can be kept in the fridge for 3 weeks.
Orange Chilli Salt
Zest of 1 orange
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp salt
1 tbsp dried chilli, ground to same size as the salt (I kept mine a bit chunky)
Mix ingredients together and place on a plate.
Tamarind Ginger Martini
1/4 cup Tamarind pulp
1/4 cup Vodka
1/4 cup lime juice
6 springs of mint, preferably Vietnamese mint, plus more for garnish
Soda / Seltzer water to top up
Strain ginger syrup and reserve the chillies.
Combine tamarind pulp, ginger syrup, vodka, lime mint and vodka in a shaker with some ice.
Slide an orange or lime wedge around the rim of the glass and dip in the chilli salt.
Pour the vodka mix into the glasses about 3 /4 of the way, topping with the soda water.
Orange & Lime Wedges
Chilli from Syrup mix
Piece of Crystallised Ginger
Garnish the drink with the orange and wine wedges, the chillies, the sprigs of mint and a piece of crystallised ginger.
There’s so much more to say about Hoi An…but you know what? I’m not going to…just go there, you won’t be disappointed.
Actually, I’ve changed my mind, whatever you do, don’t go there. It’s awful. And while you’re at it, leave Gosling alone too. There are some things in this world that should be just for me!
I’ll be spending my week absolutely, definitely, 100% not booking my next trip to Hoi An…have a fab one whatever you get up to.
Next stop on our trip was the old Imperial capital of Hue (pronounced Hway). There is an airport at Hüê but it was closed so we caught a bus from Da Nang airport, a journey of around three hours. The bus ride was an event. Vietnamese roads aren’t great and, as mentioned, the driving is terrible. It’s sometimes best not to look – seeing a fully laden tourist coach or truck heading straight towards you on the wrong side of the road is both scarily common and just plain scary!
The bus driver had no teeth. Which I’m sure is an occupational hazard of driving up and down those potholey roads all your life. After a while, I guess your teeth just jolt out. I’m surprised he had bones! The only solace from the bumping and the impending doom was that I had a Buddhist monk sitting next to me. Surely nothing bad would happen to us with a man of God on board. After one particularly scary near miss he took out an Ipad and began typing away. I took a peek over his shoulder to see if he was maybe sending a terse email to the guy upstairs but he was just on Facebook.
Hue is a great place to soak up some of the culture and history of Vietnam and the ideal way to do this is via a Monuments Tour. First stop was the tomb of the Emporer Minh Mang. This was pretty sensational, consisting of three main areas – the main gate, the temple and the tomb. The Minh Mang tomb was very elegantly laid out, very orderly and symmetrical. When we were there, these ponds were filled with lotus flowers which was gorgeous.
Minh Mang was quite the lad; fathering a total of 151 children from his 40 wives. Not so Khai Dihn, whose tomb we visited next. On his death, one of his concubines said that Khai was “not interested in sex” and “physically weak”. This, along with his love of fashion design has lead to speculation that he may well have been the gay prince of Vietnam.
If the Minh Mang tomb is a model of restraint and orderly design, then the interior designer of the Khai Dinh tomb, was to steal a phrase from the Luxe Guide’s description of the Cao Dai Temple “clearly Liberace or on drugs or possibly both”. It’s awesome!!!!! An absolute riot of gold and the most lovely intricate mosaics!
There was also a third tomb but you know, after you’ve seen the Khai Dinh, there’s only one way to go…and it’s not up. Also, the open air café next to where the bus stopped was selling freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and who doesn’t want a bit of that?
Me actually, it wasn’t great. Freshly squeezed sugar cane juice tastes, quelle surprise, like sugary water. Still, the prevalence of the fresh stuff could explain why the mojito’s in Hüê were the best I had.
In the afternoon we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was beautiful – we reached this via a boat ride. The Pagoda is situated on the banks of the river in some very pretty gardens. The complex does have a dark heart though. In one of the outbuildings is a car from the 1960’s one of those ones with the fins you always see in the movies. “Cool” you think. “Even the monks in the ‘60’s had wicked style.”
Then you read the plaque on the side and find out that this was the exact car that a monk, Thich Quang, drove to Saigon in 1963. When he got there, he stopped the car, sat down in the middle of an intersection, poured petrol over himself and set himself alight in a protest against religious persecution. Those monks from the ‘60’s were hardcore. No arseing about on Facebook for them.
The actual act is on You Tube for anyone who wants to see it – I haven’t watched it (and won’t be watching it) because it’s a person burning themselves to death and hence the type of thing that is likely to give me the screaming heebie-jeebies for months. But the link is here.
If you’re so inclined, knock yourself out. For those of a not so psychopathic more sensitive disposition, you can learn more about Thich Quang and this fascinating piece of history via a BBC podcast here.
There was a detour on the way to the pagoda. We were ushered off the boat into a garden and I guess, like me, a few of the others assumed we were at our destination. We were greeted in the garden by an old lady who told us to follow her. Which we did because she was going to lead us to the pagoda right? Not so much. We start walking through the garden. Then she pauses and points at a tree. “Mango” she says, pointing at it. “Nice” we say, nodding.
We walk on. She points out other trees. “Apricot…lychee…banana” and we continue to nod. “Yes…I see…interesting”. We keep walking. She keeps pointing out trees. We keep nodding and agreeing. This went on for a while – possibly too long – there was a moment towards the end where I think both sides were just phoning it in. She gave us a bit of “Mango….mango….mango,” and we gave back some “Yeah…right…whatever.” It might been more interesting if there had been fruit on any of those trees. As it was, she could have told us pretty much anything and we would have nodded and agreed like a bunch of dummies.
Anyway, shortly after the mango, mango, mango episode, we ended up at the front gate (exactly where we started) and she asked us all for money for touring her garden. Huh? Where’s the pagoda? There were rumblings….the Germans and the Dutch were not happy about this development but she was not letting anyone go without them paying up. One of the Dutch tried to sneak past her – I’ve never seen someone so old move so fast. She was spry!!! Must be all the fruit. No one ever explained why we went there. I suspect she was the tour guide’s grandma.
Given that the actual tropical garden was kind of underwhelming, it was ironic that our favourite restaurant in Hue was a place called the Tropical Garden. This was really cute with tables set in the garden with little thatched rooves over the top. Very Gilligan’s Island! I so wish I’d worn my gold lame dress just like Ginger’s. Until I remembered I only own one in my dreams…
Huh… I just realised my whole sense of fashion, hair and makeup is pretty much derived from Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart….who says tv doesn’t influence young minds?
The food at The Tropical Garden was super tasty but the best thing about it is the absolutely terrible band. I guess Vietnamese folk music is an acquired taste because, our first time there, Mark had his back to them and shortly after they began to play frowned and asked. “What’s that noise? Is that cats? Or the band?” Mind you, they also set the local dogs to howling so I guess that, much like us canines can also not appreciate the nuances of the Vietnamese folk scene.
By no means should you let this put you off though, in fact I”m only telling you this to encourage you to go and hear it for yourself….we went three nights in a row….
Our other favourite place was a restaurant / art gallery called Confetti. This had great food at great prices and nice art. But you know what? After the quirkiness of The Tropical Garden, it all seemed a little normal….
So, I have a new camera and have been cooking up some Hüê inspired delights. Aubergine was a popular vegetable there so first up I have a very simple grilled aubergine / eggplant based on the recipe in Simple Good Food by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman called Grilled Aubergine with Nam Pla and Basil.
My version is called “Hey, Hüê, It’s Vietnamese Inspired Aubergine”
1 Eggplant / Aubergine, sliced into rounds about 1/2 centimetre thick
1 tsp tumeric
1 -2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp lemon or lime juice
1 tbsp Nam Pla (Fish Sauce)
1 tsp sugar
1 birdseye chilli, finely chopped
Chives, finely chopped
Basil leaves, finely chopped
Mix the tumeric and the olive oil and dip your eggplant slices into the mixture then place them under a hot grill. Turn them once they start to brown – you may also have to redip them if they get too dry.
Whilst your eggplant is cooking, mix up your lemon juice and fish sauce. Add the chopped chilli and chives. Once the eggplant is cooked, place on a plate and dress with the fish sauce mixture. Scatter the basil leaves over the top.
This is a great side dish or, I quite like it just on crackers. You can also mess with the mix as much as you like. Add some ginger or garlic or your choice of flavourings!
And here is my “Minh Mang-o” Daiquiri.
Minh Mango Daiquiri
I large mango, chopped
1/2 cup white rum
1/4 cup lemongrass, ginger and chilli simple syrup (I used the recipe here)
Juice of 1 large lemon
2 dashes Agnostura Bitters
8 Ice cubes
Place all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.
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!