After finishing work in Changsha, I took the opportunity to take a short holiday in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) for a few days. After all the travelling I’d done for work in China I was feeling pretty lazy and didn’t feel the desire to visit any of the local tourist attractions. Given more time I would have liked to have gone to the Mekong Delta but it’s always good to save something for the next time. The only other interesting things might have been the War Remnants Museum (sad and depressing) or the underground passages (claustrophobia inducing) so I preferred to just stuff my face and walk around a lot instead.
The reviews below are the fruits of my labours from my brief stay. FYI, ‘Quan’ means ‘district’ and different guides could use either word in the addresses. Quan 1 is the town centre where most of the action is for visitors. Here’s my Google map of these and many more places I didn’t get time to go to.
Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (Elementary A++), 26 Le Thi Rieng Street, Quan 1 (on the right as you come off the roundabout if I remember correctly)
The best Vietnamese baguette you will ever taste (A++). It was recommended both by local food blog www.eatingsaigon.com and was also a stop on the food tour I did (see next post).
I was told it contains nine kinds of pork (liver pate and cold cuts) as well as pickles and chillies (god I’m salivating writing this). It’s pricey in comparison to other vendors (28,000 VND or $1.33) but who cares when it’s the best. There was always a short queue on each of the three times I went but you don’t have to wait long thank goodness.
Pho Hoa (Elementary A), 260C Pasteur Street, Quan 1
The most famous and I think oldest place in town for the famous Pho soup (pronounced ‘fur’). I wasn’t expecting much after having read a few criticisms on the web, but I really enjoyed it. The broth was tasty and sweet and everything was as it should be (A). On every table plates piled high with herbs, lime chunks, chillies and Gio Chao Quay, a kind of fried bread originally from China. The interior is quite quirky and atmospheric with walls bearing pictures of pastoral scenes, Buddhist paraphernalia, water bison heads and flintlock rifles. Definitely worth a visit.
Pho Quynh (Elementary B+), on the corner of Rham Ngu Lao and Do Quang Dau, Quan 1 (in the back packers district)
This place and the food I had were suggested by one of the Back of the Bike guides (see next post). I had the Pho Bo Kho, or as I call it, Irish Stew Pho with chunks of beef and carrots (!). It was ok (B) and an interesting fusion concept, but I think I’d just go for the normal Pho next time.
Pho Ha (Elementary C), 31 Hai Trieu Street, Quan 1
This place was recommended by www.eatingsaigon.com (usually dependable) but the Xoi Ga (chicken breast) with sticky rice and fried onion (B), was disappointing. Perhaps it’s better when it’s warm, or perhaps they just didn’t like me. The place didn’t feel particularly welcoming.
Grillbar (Intermediate B+), 122 Le Thanh Ton, Ben Thanh, Quan 1
I got this place off the web somewhere. They serve street food in a modern, sanitised environment but the staff are friendly and the food was good. In fact the Banh Mi baguette with pork meatballs was delicious (A) and they also sold Sapporo Black Label which is my favourite Japanese beer. For dessert I had yogurt with local honey which was very nice (A) so I bought two jars of it to take home.
The Sushi Bar (Intermediate B+), 2 Le Thanh Ton, Quan 1, sushibar-vn.com
Le Thanh Ton street is known as Little Tokyo and is lined with Japanese restaurants. This place is the last one on the street on the left as you’re walking from the centre. I came here seeking a change from all the Chinese and Vietnamese and was pretty satisfied with what I got.
The Edamame (fresh steamed soya beans in their pods) were spot on (A). The Abogado (avocado) and Sake Maki (salmon rolls) likewise (A) and the Aburi Yari Ika (rare grilled squid) was good (B) while the Hiyayakko (cold tofu) was ok (B-).
I scored the Nigiris as follows for flavour: squid (A), salmon (B+), prawn (B) but they were tiny and a bit flimsy as they were made with local rice rather than the real Japanese sticky rice. Also there was no maguro (tuna) which is my favourite. I think I just arrived a bit too late in the evening.
To drink I had two atsukan ( hot Ozeki Sake) which was good (B) and a beer, all for the equivalent of about £22. It made a nice change.
So not the greatest of restaurant selections, except for the first two which are great, but generally ok. The real food experience comes in the next post.
As for drinks it seems that Bia Hois (pubs that brew their own beer) are more of a Northern thing and so are quite rare in Saigon.
The Rex Hotel has a rooftop bar which is one of Bourdain’s favourite places for ‘novelty cocktails’ as he puts it. There’s a good view and they have live music. An experience but nothing out of this world. The Chill Skybar in the super modern AB Tower, Le Loi, Ben Thanh, has spectacular views but the music and people were pretty horrible. I’ve since heard that The Observatory is a good place to go for more underground music.
Coffee is another French legacy and there seems to be a café on every corner here.
This is a nice little spot where you can sit on a balcony and watch the world pass on the street below. I had an iced coffee with condensed milk that was very short and unfiltered (B). Also an orange and passion fruit juice drink with ginger and sugar syrup which was very refreshing (B+).
Ca Phe Nguyen Chat, 93 Nguyen Thong P9, Quan 3, www.caphenguyenchathb.com
They have several rows of display jars with various local coffees, including Chon, akathe infamous weasel coffee.
I bought some to take home but I had to draw a picture of a weasel having a poo in order to explain what I wanted! Although there’s no guarantee that the coffee wasn’t fake, the cafe wasn’t in a tourist area so I don’t think they stung me.
After some enjoyable experiences learning to make Vietnamese food in Hanoi and Hoi An (see separate posts) I thought I’d try one here to:
Mai Home Cooking Class, Saigon Culinary Art Centre, 269B Nguyen Trai, www.vietnamsaigoncookingclass.com
One of many cooking classes that I found on the net. In this case the guide/chef came and picked me up from the hotel lobby and drove me to the venues. First stop was the Cho Ben Thanh Market (on Le Loi, Ben Thanh) which was an interesting experience. I bought some peppercorns and fish sauce from Phu Quoc island which has a great rep for both.
After this we went to the cooking school/restaurant which was nearby. We were first given a brief talk where we were introduced to the Tsao, or the three cooking gods, who it is believed are present in every kitchen. www.vietspring.org/custom/taoquan.html
Then I was taken upstairs where all the ingredients and utensils were already laid out on a large table. I was shown how to make stock for Pho, spring rolls, a chicken dish and a fried rice. To be honest this was all a bit too simple for me and I wish I had taken the advanced class instead of the beginners one. It tasted delicious though if I say so myself.
I stayed at the Hotel Continental, 132 Dong Khoi St, Quan 1, www.continentalsaigon.com
This hotel is the oldest in town (since 1880), and was where the novelist Graeme Greene and more recently Anthony Bourdain have stayed. You can book the Graeme Greene room for an extra price though I don’t know if it’s any different from the others. As it was off season I got a room on promotion for $80. The room was plain but spacious and the outdoor breakfast under an awning in the courtyard was nice. However the ‘gym’ (a tiny antiquated treadmill and an ageing weights station) and the overpriced Restaurant Bourgeois (French cuisine) left me cold.
Artbook, 158ED Dong Khoi, Quan 1
Dong Khoi is the main shopping street. There was nothing I wanted to buy on it but I liked the small bookshop at the river end of the street, where I picked up a couple of books on Vietnamese cooking.
A word on visas; you can arrive without one (I had to as I didn’t have time to send it to the embassy before going to China), but it will cost you in terms of money, time and hassle. I had to fork out $160, about £100, for a ‘landing visa’, which hadn’t been the case on my previous visit to Hanoi the year before, but heigh ho.
The money can be a bit confusing for people not used to having so many zeros on their bank notes. It’s worth having a little look up table with you so that you don’t get ripped off, as one of my buddies did. When I was here in 2013 the approximate note values were: 100,000 = £3, 50,000 = £1.50, 20,000 = 60p, 10,000 = 30p.
I will be adding more images to this post at a later date. Make sure you check out my next post for the food pics!