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There are so many variations to the Pho noodle soup in Vietnam, and yet, one of the best one I've ate was in Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Grab a plastic chair, chopsticks and don't forget the lime. It's a great combination.
Whole animal butchery and cooking is one of the trends du jour in high-end Western restaurants that have the space and a sensitivity to sustainability. But it's old hat in rural America and throughout the world, even in the largest of cities. The Ben Thanh Market in high on the list of must-see destinations for visitors to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, Vietnam, and this stall's offal display sees a lot of camera action, if not a lot of purchases by tourists used to eating a little higher on the hog.
Ben Thanh Market in the city center of Ho Chi Minh, is one stop shopping for pretty much everything under the Vietnamese sun. It's arranged in sections according to categories, from textiles and souvenirs, to fresh produce. Be sure to consult the maps at the entrances to scout out your route and arrange a meeting place for when you inevitably get lost. Also bring your game face and be prepared to haggle a bit- the prices are marked up considerably- feel free to cut their initial offer in half and they'll work with you. When you need a break, there are quite a few little food stands run by business savvy Vietnamese women who will gladly grab you if you get close enough, and press you down into one of their seats for some amazing Bahn Mi and iced coffee.
In Vietnam’s bustling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, glittering high-rises and global brands are on the rise—but at L’Usine, a café-boutique hidden along shopping strip Dong Khoi, it’s the old, the handmade, and the local that are revered. Housed in a 1890s building that was once the glamorous Hotel du Saigon, the enormous space was recently renovated to its original splendor, with 20-foot ceilings, oversized arched windows and ornate iron columns. Weaving looms and sewing machine bases from the city’s junkyards have been reborn as fixtures for L’Usine’s treasure trove of locally designed clothing, accessories, and housewares. Look for buttoned-pocket men’s cotton tees from Tinwell & Bismarck and ruffled, deconstructed linen dresses and patterned silk scarves from Trois Filles. And if Wetter Indochine’s darling cupcake-shaped lacquerware tempts your sweet tooth, a homemade red velvet cupcake is just steps away in L’Usine’s café. 151 Đồng Khởi, 1st Floor, District 1, 84/(86) 674 3565, lusinespace.com
We spent our last day in Ho Chi Minh City with Geoffrey Deetz, a restaurateur and foodie from Oakland, California, who has lived in Vietnam for the past decade and operates the wonderful Black Cat Cafe. He and his Vietnamese girlfriend took us on a street food tour that included stops in District 4 (down a boggling maze of alleys); at a stall behind the giant Ben Thanh Market; at a bustling corner in District 1; and to a remote outpost in District 5. The food tally, in order of consumption: bun khot, dollar-size spongy rice-flour pancakes topped with shrimp and minced pork; luscious fresh corn milk; bun thit nuong, noodles with imperial rolls, BBQ pork, herbs, greens, and a good drenching of fish sauce; xoi ga, sticky rice topped with shredded chicken, chicken livers, gizzards, and crisp fried shallots; and finally, in a crowning explosion of flavor, tamarind crab, stir-fried in a giant wok with pork belly, garlic, tamarind, sugar, and salt, and served with crunchy-soft banh (Vietnamese baguette rolls) and cold beer.
You want to find the best banh mi in Saigon - then go where the lines is. There was a huge line at Huynh Hoa on Le Thi Rieng street. It was a little hole in the wall shop, but the stand was packed with locals pulling up on their bike and getting them to go. A man sweat over a little oven warming up the perfect bread while a few women grabbed meat and veggies with chopsticks, placing it between the warm bread. After saucing it up they’d wrap it in paper and snap a rubber band around it and off you went. They had two stands in a little store space and only sold take away. Clearly a great local find!
Interesting and scary visit to a recent historic site, where the Vietcong and local people lived, trained, and fought the U.S. Forces from deep tunnels. We learned how they lived, eat, and survived even with extensive bombing by US B-52 bombers
Imagine you have read so many time about Vietnamese girls being beautiful, but when you are really there you will be surprised that they are more than beautiful. The girls found sitting outside Notre Dame Cathedral can prove it!
I first discovered Vietnamese food as a kid in Montreal, but I always thought it was just about the pho. Of course, like many countries in the region, the food differs depending on the province and one of the many dishes I learned to love were banh cuon, a steamed rice crepe rolled with pork and white pepper and topped with steamed pork sausage and curled fried garlic. With fresh rice paper rolls and a pork chop with a fried egg and rice, it's the perfect sharing meal to share with friends. You'll leave satisfied and smiling. Approx $1.50 per dish.
Cuc Gach Quan or depending on who you ask, "Brick" is an old converted French villa designed by Vietnamese architect Tran Binh. It's not easy exploring the local grub in a country like Vietnam. Sometimes it takes a place like Brick to highlight what the Vietnamese cuisine is all about- flavor in unusual places. With a menu the size of a hotel bible it is impossible not to find something that you would enjoy. Brick has all ways been an excellent first dinner in Saigon for friends and family. From cactus grilled with garlic to soft shell crab with lemon grass to manila clams in a fennel broth to caramelized pork in clay pot, there isn't a time that I haven't left with a smile and a full happy belly. Cuc Gach Quan 10 Dang Tat, Q1 0838480144
Whether I’m at the beach or in the city, sunset is by far one of my favorite times of day. There are few better things in life than taking the time to enjoy a cool cocktail while watching the sun set over a sultry city skyline or glimmering ocean. A city that’s slowly evolving, Saigon is still a quaint mix of old-school establishments like Rooftop Garden at Rex Hotel which came to prominence as a watering hole for journos and US Military officers during the Vietnam war, mixed with sexy new places like the uber-cool ‘dress to impress’ bars like ‘Chill’. As someone who lived and worked in Vietnam for 13 years, I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve tried a fair few of the drinking establishments in Saigon. So, if you’re headed to Vietnam and would like the views of an ‘insider’, you can check out my latest blog to see the best of the well-know rooftop bars (as well as some of the lesser-known ones) and my tips for where to go for that heavenly sunset drink in HCMC.
The term Banh Mi actually refers only to the bread, a light airy white baguette brought to Vietnam by French colonists. But colloquially, a banh mi is a sandwich with any number of fillings. This lady stuffed her banh mi with grilled pork patties, fresh crispy cucumber and cilantro and pickled carrots. After she squirted siracha sauce on top she charged 18,000 dong, which sounds like a mind-blowing amount until you do some tricky conversion math and realize it's about 86 cents. Bon Appetit!
The greatest seafood experience in Vietnam may just be found on the outskirts of the city. Often when guests are visiting or just because we haven't been there in a while, a trip to Tamarind Crabs is in order. Exactly who discovered this gem and spread the word throughout the expat community will forever remain a mystery. Usually the story is the stuff of urban legends, something to the effect of “A friend of a friend of a friend brought me here but don’t worry, you’ll love it.” The lights of the city’s high rises fade away as you approach the more chaotic streets of Saigon past. Highways become single lane streets and then alleyways. At last you arrive and while you pay the cab driver less than you would to go to the airport it feels like you’re in a different city. The ordering process is simple. How many people? How hungry are you? Two crabs per person but in the end we always order too much. The maestro of the wok mixes the bubbling cauldron with garlic, garlic, more garlic, sugar, sugar and more sugar. Then comes a healthy serving of tamarind reduction and 10-12 unlucky crabs. The end result is a perfect sauce. It’s a pure sugar rush complimented by the tangy tamarind, a garlicky kick and a consistency of warm maple syrup. The crab and sides of fresh French bread are the delivery method for the sauce. The hardest part is holding back when the steaming platters of finished crab are set on the table. Pick up one too early and you risk third-degree burns!
There’s a reason there are no McDonalds in Saigon- they can’t compete with this lady. Her product is simple; fried and scrambled eggs, jerky, cilantro, cucumber and Chin Su chili sauce in a hot French baguette that was made just hours prior. Douse the whole thing in of soy sauce and you have a breakfast ready to feed the passing masses on motorbike. The price is a knockout at a mere 60-cents. Even in a country that has a no tipping culture, it's impossible not to give a little something more for grandma's cooking. Experiencing a simple yet complex breakfast and her smile is a great way to start your day.
Emperor Jade Pagoda is a fascinating temple full of haunting carvings, figures and altars. The peeling courtyard walls evoke a sense of time and history.
After a hard days work, play or sight seeing, a trip to The Deck will always cap the day off right and serve as the start to a fantastic night on the town. Located outside of District 1, The Deck is my favorite place to unwind and enjoy a few cocktails or partake in some of Saigon's famous seafood dishes during a five-star dinning experience. No matter where I am in the world, being next to a body of water relaxes me and helps me forget about the issues of the day. The Deck is set right on the Saigon River and offers this to me in addition to purple and cobalt hued sunsets. The Deck 38 Nguyen U Di | Thao Dien, Ho Chi Minh City District 2, Vietnam 84 8 3744 6632
Nestled about the chaos of the city is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s great escapes, Shri. The city has a dozen or so rooftop restaurants but what sets this one apart from the rest is the location just outside District1 in neighboring D3. It’s outside the center of the city just enough to get a good look at how everything is laid out. Quiet, off-the-beaten-path treasures have always been a joy and a quest of mine. This small rooftop secret has it in spades. Shri 72-74 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai | 23rd Floor, Centec Tower, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Nothing better than the Night Food Market in Ho Chi MinH City, Vietnam. A blast of colors and flavors. People are pulling plastic chairs to the streets, grab a bowl and eat great local food. Not to Miss
Bến Thành market has been around Saigon in one form or another for over 300 years. At some points it neighbored bodies of water including a small lake. It is a monster, overwhelming at first. If you come to Saigon and you love to shop, this is the one-stop shop you are looking for. Personally nothing is more thrilling at Bến Thành than the art of "The Barter.” It’s a strategic game of wits of where you pit product desire against pocketbook ability and the house always wins. It's not always easy, in fact it’s never easy. Hot, stagnant air ripe with the smell of fish and squid always seems to hang in the air right over that gift you can't live without. You’re constantly walking that fine line between feeling like you got ripped off or feeling you’re further oppressing the local population. Bến Thành is the stadium packed with hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing, jewelry, and art- and they’re all yours to play for.
On our last day in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, we hooked up with Geoffrey Deetz, an expat from Oakland, CA, who runs the Black Cat Cafe and has lived in Vietnam for 12 years. He led us through an ever-narrowing maze of streets and alleys in the city's District 4 to this f00d stall. We balanced ourselves on kindergarten-size plastic stools and feasted on bun khot--spongy dollar-size rice-flour pancakes topped with shrimp and minced pork (in the turquoise laundry basket on the left). On our way out of the maze, we picked up some ultra sweet and creamy, freshly squeezed corn milk.
While traveling in Vietnam in 2010, I had heard mentions of a legendary "lunch lady" who served the most delicious soups out of a small cart in Ho Chi Minh City's city center. Each weekday she features a different soup, each hand made with fresh ingredients sourced at the morning market. Absolutely delicious!
Quan An Ngon: It's an open air restaurant surrounded by food stalls and served by waiters. The various stalls represent different regional fare from around the country. Sitting at communal tables surrounded by the stalls you really feel part of the action as a variety of customers stream in and out: locals, lovers, expats but not too many tourists. Some Chinese next to me were filling up on chicken heads. Mmmmm. And Heineken. Plus Quan An Ngon is close to the Hanoi Hilton where John McCain "stayed" as a POW, so if you're visiting that sight, Quan An Ngon is a 'must' lunch or dinner stop. 18 Phan Boi Chau Str., | OR 1st floor, 25T2 Hoang Dao Thuy Str.,, Hanoi, Vietnam See more here: www.DontForgetThePepto.com
It’s been said that when the Buddha was on his deathbed, his followers stood by ready to turn his remains into relics to spread throughout the world. The Xa Loi Pagoda houses one such artifact. Visit on Sundays from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. to join a prayer session. 89 Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, District 3. Photo by Odrick De Ocampo Jr. This appeared in the January/ February 2011 issue.
My taxi driver and I circled the block twice before locating this cleverly hidden gem. The Temple Club is, like all good spots, a challenge at first to find. The street entrance features an unobtrusive red sign, and the entrance is lit with candles and lined with elephant sculptures. After climbing upstairs and wandering past the kitchen you will be seated either in the main dining room or on one of the balcony tables overlooking the street (obviously preferred and a reservation is suggested!). I dined on pumpkin ginger soup, fresh fish with a spicy sauce, and green tea creme brûlée. Plus a glass of wine and pot of tea, my meal totaled $20. The service wasn't overly engaging, but the ambience was perfect and the details (silverware pictured above!) were unique. Go!
While visiting Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, I decided to swing by the Reunification Palace. I figured that if the city planners did such a great job with the layout, and the parks were impeccably designed, that a building with such a name would be awe-inspiring. What I discovered was a rather nondescript office building, set on nicely manicured lawns, with a huge fountain in front, and a few deactivated tanks. I was not expecting this, but I kept exploring the grounds. I did find this magical-looking tree residing on a side lawn to be a perfect representation of what I had in mind regarding the historical significance of where I was standing: the place where the Vietnam War ended on April 30th, 1975. This tree looked as if it was unifying the earth and the sky. It looked like it had been there forever, and it had seen more history and had more tales to tell than anyone I had ever known. With roots firmly entrenched it the earth, and branches thrust towards the sky, I thought this tree captured the spirit of the city I was visiting: Firmly rooted in its cultural past, yet constantly moving forward to an ever bright future.
In January 2010, I traveled to Saigon with Vietnamese-born New York chef, Michael "Bao" Huynh. He took me to some of his favorite restaurants, including Minh Duc, an eatery that has a very unique feature: the kitchen is across a busy street from the dining room, forcing waiters to play Frogger with the bustling Saigon traffic. In the above photo, my lunch managed to get to me without being run over by a car or a motorbike. Phew.
To know Saigon is to know the traffic and the madness that it is as compared to the rest of the civilized world. Every aspect of moving around the city by foot, motorbike, or taxi is made more complex by the whistling wheels of the common Honda 125. At first crossing the street can be a time-consuming fright mare, as death seems eminent. After some time and experiments crossing the street seems like broken English spoken from a Russian. "You don't cross street, street cross you!" Nothing could be closer to the truth. Just like in Indian Jones and the Last Crusade, you have to take the first step of faith onto that invisible plank. After that, maneuvering the city is a matter of confidence that the traffic will still avoid you and there wasn't as secret memo to the Vietnamese commuter to hit the foreigners. The worst traffic I have ever seen was the night of TET as depicted above. Traffic stretched for miles as the locals battled to see the lights set up especially for the holiday or to go home. There wasn’t’ an inch to spare and the three-lane one-way street quickly became a parking illuminated by pink and purple flower lights. The only sign of movement was along the sidewalk as on-lookers dodged off-road motorbikes.
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