Posted by: JLG | 5 August 2017

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City

The last stop of our trip, both in Vietnam and in general, was Saigon, these days aka Ho Chi Minh City. Many people had told us that Saigon was not their favourite part of Vietnam, and that we should not devote too much time to it during our visit, so we limited ourselves to just two nights here. As we arrived in town from Hoi An in the early evening, we could quickly see what some of the issues around the city are. It’s very crowded, with something like 7 million people living here, and the ensuing noise and bustle can be off-putting, especially to people unfamiliar with Asian cities. Also, the people seem to have a bit of a me-first attitude that was not in evidence as much in the other cities we visited here. As an example of this, while we waited at the curb at the airport for our driver to pick us up, we saw loads of people just leave their cars double- and triple-parked making it very difficult for people to get into their cars and for other cars to pass by.

We got to our hotel after crawling at a snail’s pace through the evening rush hour traffic, and immediately went out in search of dinner. As luck would have it, our hotel was situated just two blocks from the largest market in Saigon, the Ben Thanh market, and while it was closed already, there is a large night market just outside that had several appetising-looking places for us to choose from, one of which offered up a nice meal of bún noodles with barbecued pork, bánh xèo pancake, stir-fried morning glory and grilled squid, which we followed up with a Saigon-style dessert of sweetened varieties of glutinous rice with peanuts, coconut and other treats.

The next day we ventured out for a bowl of pho on the street near the hotel before embarking on a bit of a tour of some of the sights of town, starting with the 1960s architectural monument of the Independence Palace. Built to be the Presidential Palace for President Diem after the French-built Governor’s Palace was damaged by an assassination attempt on the president, it is truly a 1960s tour-de-force, much more to my taste than J2’s. One of the interesting exhibits here is the tank that broke through the gates on 30 April 1975 when the communist forces finally took Saigon and reunified the country.

Nearby is a bit more sombre monument, especially for an American visitor. This is the War Remnants Museum (previously known as the American War Crimes Museum), which is as depressing a museum as anyone could ever want to visit. Between the photos of the victims of Agent Orange (who are still being born, since the toxins are transmitted several generations on) and the images of the atrocities committed during the war, it’s the kind of museum that you really need to see in the right frame of mind, and afterwards we needed to see something a bit less emotionally wrenching, so we made our way to a pagoda and temple about a mile or so away.

The day had become quite hot by the time we were done with the pagoda so we hopped in a cab for the ride back toward our hotel where we bought some bánh mì to take up to the room for lunch. Incredibly, these sandwiches were so bad that we both came to the conclusion that it would be a waste of both calories and opportunity to finish them, so instead I ventured out (in a sudden rainstorm) in search of something more promising. At the market I found a stall that did a much better rendition and that also had interesting fruit juices on offer, so I quaffed a soursop juice with my lunch. I bought another sandwich from a different vendor to bring back to J2, along with a cup of his beloved chè syrupy dessert, both of which passed muster.

By 5:30 the rain had subsided, just in time for an outing we had booked well in advance with Saigon Street Eats, which was recommended to me by a cookbook-writing friend who has written a book about Vietnamese and Southeast Asian cuisine. The twist with this tour is that it involved toodling around Saigon on the back of motorscooters, something that I withheld from J2 until just before we went down to meet our guides. All together there were eight participants in the tour, and we went to five places to sample about 12 or so dishes, all typical of Saigon, including beef in betel leaves, grilled seafood, broken rice with pork, and chicken pho. The other six travellers were four young Norwegians and two older Aussies; the Aussie woman was a bit of a street-food neophyte, nervous about eating anything and everything, but she gradually got over it (to a degree) and tried several things that were not in her comfort zone. I found all of it to be pretty good, though having now been exposed to Vietnamese cuisine in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, I can confidently aver that HCMC cuisine is the least exciting of these by far.

The morning of our last day in town we spent wandering around some of the architectural monuments of Saigon, all bestowed on the city by the French, and including the Opera House, City Hall, Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and Majestic Hotel. As we made our way among these, though, it began to rain, and the rain only got heavier and heavier so we decided it was time to move indoors for a bit. Fortuitously we were not far from the Pasteur Street Brewing Company, Saigon’s oldest and possibly best craft beer brewery. The other six people on last night’s food tour had somehow all requested that their tour be accompanied by a sampling of this brewery’s offerings, which sounded interesting so we figured it was a good idea to give it a try ourselves now. (We had no idea that the craft beer was an option, so we resorted to drinking regular local beers with our food samples.) As it happens, I’d have to say that while these craft beers were interesting (some were made with Vietnamese spices, fruits, and other exotic additions) I actually preferred the regular beers.

One of our guides at the food tour also gave us the names of two of his favourite places for chè, the Vietnamese dessert that we have come to enjoy so much, so we walked through the rain to one of them for a bit of a mid-day snack in lieu of lunch, and then retired to the hotel for a break before heading out to the market for an early dinner

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Spring rolls

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Cook at the market

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Bún noodles with prawns, pork and spring rolls

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BBQ pork skewers

before heading to the airport for our flight home.

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Bún noodles with roast pork

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Stir-fried morning glory

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Bánh xèo pancake

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Sweet rice vendor

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Independence Palace

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Saigon Traffic

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Beef in Betel Leaves being Grilled

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Things to eat with broken rice

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Seafood offerings

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Grilled conch

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Grilled scallops

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Grilled octopus

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Clams

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Grilled prawns

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Chicken pho

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Salad to go in the chicken pho

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Chè with, among other things, durian

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Me in my motorscooter helmet with the driver

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City hall

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Notre Dame Cathedral

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Responses

  1. So, have you found your inspiration for this year’s GBH?

    • Yes we have.


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