Vietnam Part 3 – Ho Chi Minh – January 2011

Here we are, almost landing in Ho Chi Minh City (still widely called Saigon by most of the population). We have to go through a thick cloud of pollution to start seeing the city from above, it’s quite impressive!

We get a taxi to our hotel, the An An I Hotel, ideally located at the heart of the backpacking district on Bui Vien, and which was perfectly pleasant, with a huge air-conditioned room and an unbeatable view on the all the action down below. The staff were also very friendly and helpful.

We took a first walk in the crazy traffic to get ourselves a nice Banh Mi, a great sandwich roll made using a pretty soft and airy, but still a bit crunchy baguette, pork sausage, pork liver pâté, or cheese (the “Laughing Cow” type), lots of fresh herbs like coriander, and julienned cucumber, carrots… it really hit the spot!

Banh Mi vendor

Another one of our great pleasures was to drink Vietnamese iced coffee whenever we could, it was so refreshing, strong and sweet, yum! I loved the ritual of having to wait for the thick coffee liquid to slowly go through the filter placed on top of a cup. Once that was done, we poured the coffee into a glass filled with ice cubes and condensed milk, stirred it and enjoyed. We bought two of these coffee filtering devices to make our own at home, but alas, didn’t taste anything like the real thing!

Vietnamese coffee ritual

I also was on my great Pho mission, and one morning I thought I had found it in an dark and run down alley near our hotel, where a lonely stall was minded by a gruff man. I couldn’t see any tourists… nor could I see many locals for that matter, which should have given me a hint. But noooo! Despite his misgivings, I dragged the boyfriend in the alley for him to sit and wait while I was finally having my real Pho experience.

It didn’t look bad, but now I understand why the man added so much pepper on the soup. The broth was really tasteless, and the beef strips were not too inspiring either. It actually put me off and I couldn’t eat half of it! Maybe I wasn’t quite ready for some Pho first thing in the morning either…

That meant the quest for Pho was still on!

We continued our walk on Pham Ngu Lao towards the Thai Binh markets, a labyrinth of stalls packed together with all kinds of fruits, vegetables, animals dead or alive… it was pretty hectic!

Frogs available…

… in all kinds of state

Huge slabs of tofu

After all that market fun, we decided to have a more relaxing activity and made our way to the Vietnamese Institute for Traditional Massage, run by HCMC Blind Association. I’ve often heard of how blind people give better massages as they are more attuned to their sense of touch and could find more easily the sore spots of the patient.

Once our very cheap tickets were paid at the school reception, the boyfriend got invited by a man to follow him into a room, while I was led to another room by a young woman, who instructed me to lie on the massage table. She then proceeded to pummel me with a rhythmic precision! To this day I still have the “massage” pattern in my head: seven pummels, three times in a row, punctuated by three harder hits “Bam Bam Bam!”. It went on like this for the whole hour, with a particular insistence on my cranium (that girl clearly didn’t like me!), all the while she was talking and laughing with her friend on the other side of the partition. It hurt… not relaxing at all! M. was luckier and was pretty happy with his masseur.

Ho Chi Minh Blind Association
185 Cong Quynh St. D. 1

We then walked around in the Cathedral area and had lunch at a quite well-known place, the Ngon Restaurant, which was recreating a street food vending market, with lots of stalls selling different kinds of dishes inside the restaurant.

Bánh Xèo

M. chose a yummy vegetarian Banh Xeo, the renowned savoury crêpe filled with fresh herbs, tofu, carrots, bean sprouts (and usually pork and prawns).

Sugar cane prawns sticks to roll 

I chose the Sugarcane prawns sticks, which you then roll in wetted rice paper with herbs and rice noodles. They were pretty nice, but I was deceived as I thought I ordered whole prawns! I make the same mistake all the time! I always forget that sugarcane prawns are a kind of prawn paste, tss tss…

Ngon Restaurant
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street
District 1

We spent the rest of the day walking around the Cathedral, the Post Office and drinking more iced-coffee…

The Post Office

The following day we found it!!! That’s right, we found the Perfect Pho!
We were walking around Pasteur Street and decided to try a Pho shop recommended by our guide book: Pho Hoa Pasteur.

We were comforted to see many locals eating there and the house was full! We were led to a room at the back and the efficient waiter handed us a menu with all the Pho combinations. M. was prepared for the possibility that once again he would have to wait and watch me eat, but they did have a vegetarian soup, which was a relief for both of us!

I ordered a simple Pho Tai (same as Pho Bo?), with raw beef slices (no tendons or tripes for me… I’m not that adventurous), and soon after, the soups arrived with a basket of Chinese fried bread sticks (“Youtiao”), which, after watching how the other customers used it, we broke into pieces in the soup.

Youtiao – Chinese fried bread sticks

It was simply the best Pho I’ve had in my short Pho experience. The broth was delicious, flavoursome and light, the beef strips tender, the rice noodles not too cooked, the herbs garnish fresh, and that bread! Looooooved the fried bread!!

M. loved his soup too, so much so that he managed to squeeze another one just before his flight… without me!!! Very jealous….

We were in a state of Pho bliss after that, and so full… we just dragged ourselves to walk a bit more in the area, managed to fit in another iced-coffee and made it back to the hotel to have a bit of a rest before dinner.

Pho Hoa Pasteur
260C Pasteur Street
Ho Chi Minh City

In hindsight, we should have just gone back there for our last dinner. But instead, still basking in the memory of my superb dinner at Hanoi’s Green Tangerine, I decided to try a French bistro located in the Institute for French Cultural Studies, “Le Jardin”, hidden in the side of the building, not visible from the street and not easy to find.

We had Goats cheese salad, Pasta with a creamy cheesy sauce, Veal schnitzel with mushrooms and potatoes, and of course for dessert, Chocolate Profiterolles! It wasn’t the final cherry on my holiday cake I was hoping for: the food was alright, but nothing to write home about… We left not that impressed and took a taxi back to our hotel… or so we thought!

Our taxi driver had decided to take us for a ride, figuratively, choosing on purpose longer routes and making big loops… we aren’t the confronting type, so we didn’t say anything until the driver clearly turned right instead of left to our hotel, and then we protested! The driver, caught in act, stopped the car and just giggled at us. We didn’t give him any tip… so there!

This average evening didn’t end there for me: I woke up in the middle of the night completely sick from both ends, and it didn’t seem to want to stop! I had to go to the airport a couple of hours after and I’m still not sure how I made it, maybe the sheer willpower not to inflict anything bad on this poor taxi driver, who hadn’t done anything to me, him!

And on this charming note my Vietnam holiday came to an end… I certainly do want to go back there and visit all the beautiful areas I missed out on: more of Hanoi and HCM, the old royal citadel in Hue, the eery and beautiful Halong Bay, visit the Mekong Delta… So this is only an “Au revoir Vietnam!”

6 responses to “Vietnam Part 3 – Ho Chi Minh – January 2011

  1. Your frog pics are awesome 🙂 I too had a meal in Vietnam that was overly Western, and disappointing, so sticking with the local food is definitely the best plan.

  2. I hate being ripped-off by a taxi driver. And getting sick overseas. Well, at least you did experience a lot of interesting feeds.

  3. Ahhhh so many memories! I want to go back so badly!

    A tip with the coffee filter (just because I had the same problem when I first used it when I got back home from Oz, it tasted watered down) is to tightly pack about 1 tbsp of ground coffee into the filter cup; the tighter the more intense the coffee flavour, use the plunger-like thing to pack it down. Hope that helps!

    I had pho at Pho Hoa Pasteur as well, it hit the spot for me since I found some so-so ones.

  4. Thank you guys for your comments, thank you Phuoc for the coffee tip, shall try it out! 🙂

  5. Nice blog. I noticed on my last trip that the names Yersin and Pasteur remain on many streets, and across from the Cho Ben Thanh (market) in Saigon is a Calmette street. All medical pioneers, and two of whom were doctors in the French Colonial service. Also, in 1995 the name “Grall” was returned to the hospital of that name in Saigon, adding three French medical pioneers who are enshrined Vietnam’s memory.

    How about rating the French baguettes on your next trip. I always maintained that the ones in Nha Trang and Dalat were superior, but Madame (je l’appele Madame la Contesse de Can Tho) insists that Saigon and Hanoi still makes the best baguettes.

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