Archive for the Saigon Category

Saigon – on the back of a bike

Posted in Saigon, Viet Nam on November 2, 2014 by gannet39

There are apparently seven million motorbikes and scooters in Saigon, a city with a population of ten million. There’s something quite socialistic about everyone driving scooters instead of cars (though I’m sure if they could afford it more people would) and the traffic would be much worse if people had bigger vehicles.

Visitors go on about how crazy the traffic is in the cities here but I think it’s a lot more organised than somewhere say like India where it’s everyone for themselves, which results in complete chaos more often than not. Instead Vietnamese drivers practice the philosophy of ‘yield and forgive’;  giving way to each other and pedestrians, as you can see from this video where everyone is just getting on with it in an organic unified flow. In India this intersection would be a logjam. Unlike Delhi (where I lived for six months), I didn’t see a single instance of road rage for the whole time I was there. Sure you can hear horns beeping all the time but they’re just saying ‘I’m here, be aware’, as opposed to ‘Get out of my way mofo!’. Every one tootles along at a sedate pace so there’s no need to feel nervous when on a bike or crossing the road.

20130906_213344By far my best experiences in Saigon were the guided food tours I had with Back Of The Bike Tours, a local company owned by Chad and Thuy, an American and Vietnamese couple. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it was one of the best foodie experiences I’ve ever had.

There was no way I could have found or travelled between all the restaurants in different districts that they took me to (fifteen in all) or even know what to ask for when I got there without their help. The only downside was that I was there at the end of the monsoon in early September so during the first tour we all got soaked pretty badly in heavy squalls of rain. It was all part of the experience though and didn’t dampen my spirits one bit. Just make sure you pack a mac for when you go.

As you can see from their website, they have a few choices as to what kind of tour to do. For the first one I opted for the Saigon Street Food Tour. Fredrick (an ex-chef from the US) and Duy (a local student working part time) picked me up from the hotel, put me on Duy’s pillion, and whisked me off to five different restaurants where we tried several different dishes. Of course it wasn’t physically possible to eat everything so we’d just sample the house specialty and then move on to the next place.

Remember you can click on these photos if you want to enlarge them.

20130904_140300The first stop wasn’t scheduled so I don’t know the Vietnamese names for what we ate but it was described to me as fried cubes of rice dough.

20130904_141711I had this with a glass of Pennywort juice, an interesting drink and no doubt very healthy but not something I would seek out.

At the second place some more unknown dishes…

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…and  a Bun noodle soup with Pork Sausage. Fred told me he hardly ever eats Pho any more as there are so many more interesting soups to go for. 20130904_142931


Goi Du Du Bo
(Julienned Green Papaya Salad topped with Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts and Prawn Crackers, Sauced with Chilli Sauce and Light Fish Sauce.


Banh Canh Ghe
(Ocean Crab Soup with Tapioca Noodles, Pork Rinds, Fried Fishcake and Green Chilli Sauce)

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Banh Xeo (Crispy Rice Flour ‘Crepe’ stuffed with Shrimp, Pork and Bean Sprouts. Served with Fresh Lettuce and Light Fish Sauce.

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I also had a Sugarcane Root drink which was really refreshing.

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Finally a couple of desserts (sorry but I don’t know the names for these either as again they weren’t on the itinerary). I do know one was a combination of ripe and raw Green Banana with Banana Cake, and and another was with some kind of Noodles and Coconut Milk. Really delicious.

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I enjoyed the tour so much that I decided to do the Saigon Chef Tour as well. This time we went to ten restaurants (!) and had more risqué dishes that included offal and more challenging ingredients like snails (though not snake or beetles thank goodness).

This time Chad, the owner of the company,  came with us, as well as Fred and a couple of the guides. Chad was using the tours with me as training exercises for Fred and the newer guides as he and Thuy were going back to the States for a while. There were four staff members and me, so I got great service. Here’s what we had:

Goi Du Du Bo (Julienned Green Papaya Salad topped with Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts and Prawn Crackers. Sauced with Chili Sauce and Light Fish Sauce)

20130906_163454Bo Bia (Fresh Rice Paper Rolls Stuffed with Cooked Jicama, Sliced Chinese Sausage, Dried Shrimp and Fresh Lettuce. Served with Hoison Sauce)

20130906_16503520130906_164901Oc Buoi Nhoi Thit (Snails stuffed with Pork, Ear Mushroom, and Lemongrass. Served with Shiso and Ginger Fish Sauce). Shiso (the Japanese name) is amusingly called the ‘smells like fish herb’ here.

20130906_17045920130906_170550Banh Canh Cua (Thick Mud Crab Soup With, Tapioca Noodles, Prawns, Pork Crackling, and Blood Cake)

20130906_182104Chao Long (Pork Offal Porridge, with Blood Sausage, Mungbeans, Bean Sprouts, and Black Pepper)

Banh Beo (Tender Rice Dumplings Topped with Dried Shrimp, and Crispy Pork Skin)

20130906_184301Banh Bot Loc (Hue Style Tapioca Dumpling, Stuffed with Dried Shrimp and Topped with Green Onion and Sweet Fish Sauce)

20130906_184246Banh Nam (Tender Rice dumplings, Topped with Minced Pork, Dried Shrimp and Steamed in a Banana Leaf)

Banh Tom (Crispy Sweet Potato and Prawn Fritters. Served with Bibb Lettuce, Mixed Herbs, Rice noodles and a Light Fish Sauce)

20130906_184447Banh It Ram (Steamed Sticky Rice Flour Dumpling with Crispy Sticky Rice Served with Dried Shrimp and Spring Onion)

20130906_192215Banh Mi Thit (Crispy Bread, Sliced Pork Sausages, Shredded Pork Floss, Fresh Pate, Pickled Carrot and Cucumber)

20130906_19502220130906_194803Bun Mam (Sweet Seafood Soup from the Mekong, with Braised Eggplant and Bitter Vegetables. Served with Fresh Seafood and Roasted Pork)

20130906_203803Ca Ri De (Spicy Goat Curry served with Toasted Bread)

20130906_211338Rau Cau Dua (Young Coconut Jelly)

20130906_211515Dau Hu Ca Cao (Soft Tofu with Coco Powder Syrup, Crushed Ice, and Jellies)

20130906_211156Bi Sua Hot Ga (Vietnamese Pumpkin with Sweetened Condensed Milk Custard)

20130906_211806Sau Rieng Sua (Durian with Milk) and Sinh To Mang Cau (Sour Sop Smoothies)

Chad was a mine of interesting information. In his opinion the Thais do the best desserts and I think a couple of the last sweets were Thai in origin.

You might have noticed also that several of the dishes use the name Banh even when they are quite different e.g. noodles, dumplings, crepes, fritters and baguettes. Chad thought that what unites them is they all employ a flour of some kind.

He also told me that Vietnamese fish sauce is lighter than the Thai version and a bit sweeter. The best stuff comes from Phu Quoc, an island off the south-west coast which is also famous for its powerful black peppercorns. I made sure I stocked up at the market before going home.

So I learned a lot in a very short time, and had some great food as well. I’d like to thank Chad, Fred and all the guides profusely for such a great time. I definitely recommend you hop on the back of one of their bikes if you are in town.

Saigon – Quan 1

Posted in Quan 1, Saigon, Viet Nam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2014 by gannet39

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)

20130906_191925The 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).

20130906_192215I 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.

20130906_123427Kita Coffee, 39 Nguyen Hue, Quan 1

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+).

20130906_143533Ca Phe Nguyen Chat, 93 Nguyen Thong P9, Quan 3, www.caphenguyenchathb.com

20130906_143125I heard about this place from a blog about cafes. It’s probably not worth the taxi journey I made but it’s ok if you’re in the area.

20130906_141826They have several rows of display jars with various local coffees, including Chon, akathe infamous weasel coffee.

20130906_142045I 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!

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