Ho Chi Minh City, the historical city of Vietnam.
In the midst of chaos, there are refinements, they say. It’s a literal translation from Chinese. Please do not ask me to quote. I am as banana as it gets when it comes to writing and reading. I can only speak, which serves pretty well when it comes to ordering food and buying things. Other than that, do not hand me a menu and ask me to read what it says because if you want Hokkien Mee, I will order Wat Tan Hor for you and watch you cry.
Ramblings aside, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly and locally known as Saigon) is exactly that. The city is chaotic on its surface but in between all the chaos there lies a beautiful refinement that could only be appreciated if you observe. The soul of the city is lively, the streets busy. It has roadside vendors to local coffee shops to high end coffee franchises all on one street. The beauty of the city can only be appreciated when you explore it on foot.
Which is what we did. We stayed in Pullman, Ho Chi Minh. Located at the heart of the city, it is close enough to where the attractions are, yet there is distance to all the noise and traffic. A landmark on its own, it stands at a 30-storey height, towering over shoplots around it. It isn’t cheap for a night here, but it is worth it if you are an Accor Club member.
Took an early flight and landed in Ho Chi Minh City at 11am local time. We booked a local tour to bring us around for 2 days. They have vans that could seat up to 12 passengers, so worry not if you are travelling with a large group and opt for a local tour instead of tours from travel agencies. This allows for more flexibility in your destinations and time.
So first off, food!
Vietnam is famous for their spring rolls and Pho. Naturally the first item checked off the list was Pho. I regret to inform that there are no pictures because honestly I was way too hungry to remember taking a picture before walloping it down like a vulture. I also truly think that was definitely a wrong expression.
Vietnam serves their dishes with plenty of vegetables. They come raw, so you have a choice of either eating them in their finest naked form or dip them into your soups, if you order dishes with soup. It is definitely not possible to dip them into spring rolls. I didn’t try.
The Pho was really good. Rice noodles in a clear soup base, which looks as innocently clear as a 4-year-old but shocks you into remission like a 4-year-old doing karate on your shins with nunchucks. The rice noodles were springy and firm, giving a very satisfying bite that is unlike our version of Char Kuey Teow. The soup makes the dish. Simple and wholesomely delightful to the tastebuds, it is a must have in Vietnam.
The one that takes the cake though is the dessert.
I do not know the name. I wish I was more in my blogger mindset when all these amazing food were in front of me. Let’s call it the Vietnam version of cendol. It has cendol, cincau, tapioca jelly the likes we put into bubur chachas, water chestnut coated with sweet tapioca jelly, and the yellow stuff tastes like green bean paste we use in ang ku kuehs. When served, they top it off with santan.
It was delicious. It wasn’t too sweet and very fragrant with different textures playing in your mouth. I highly recommend trying it especially if you are the kind that likes agar-agar and tapioca jelly.
If you book a local tour they will bring you here first. Prices are tourist, if you know what that means. If you don’t, it means it’s not cheap but it is affordable. Spring rolls, desserts and Pho are good. You can try the others but I wouldn’t recommend it because some things are just not worth it.
We then headed out to the Independence Palace Saigon only to find they were closed till 2pm. So we headed to the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica and the Saigon Central Post Office. Why post office?
Opposite the post office is the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, the city’s cathedral. It wasn’t open to public so we didn’t get a chance to see the interior.
We checked into the hotel after that to rest and shower. Pullman has amazing interior decors. Unfortunately I do not have pictures that can justify. Also if you are on a family trip and plan to stay in Pullman and you share a room with your siblings of different genders, be ready to scream when you are using the bathroom because there are literally no walls that separates the bedroom and the bathrooms.
Not to worry though, there are blinds that roll down with a click of the button that separates the bathroom and the bedroom so you don’t have to be kicked out everytime someone takes a shower. I didn’t get a chance to use that luxurious tub because I shared a room with my brother. Pullman clearly has no family friendly concept in mind when they designed their rooms but I would honestly trade that for that bed anytime. Options are either king sized beds or twin super singles so obviously we took the twin to ourselves and the bed is to die for. Everything about the bed and duvet is to die for. Try it out in Pullman Bangsar and you will see why.
Since we weren’t tied to a tour group we went for some street food hunting at night. Bui Vien, a backpacker street, is a mere 15 minutes walk away from Pullman. Bui Vien is as lively and as loud as it gets. It is happening. That would be the best word to describe it. Pubs, restaurants, roadside vendors are all integrated into this street. The father read about this restaurant from Tripadvisor called Bun Cha 145.
Bun Cha is yet another dish local to Vietnam, but more famously known in Hanoi. Bun Cha in Bui Vien street offers the best of this dish in Ho Chi Minh City and well, reviews were not wrong.
The only way I could put Bun Cha’s taste into perspective is it is a familiar taste but yet very unfamiliar at the same time. It is Asian, of course, but there is a difference with the kind of soup we are used to in Malaysia. It is sweet, it is savoury. Yet there are pickled papaya pieces in it. It is an odd combination that just turns out to be the best damn thing in the world. It is familiar yet unfamiliar. It is not something we have tried yet it feels like home. Bun Cha is pretty amazing. You’ve got to at least try it once in your life.
You can order their side dishes to go with your Bun Cha and as natural as Vietnam comes, we ordered spring rolls. Fried spring rolls in Vietnam are generally delicious, so it is no surprise that spring rolls in this place is pretty damn good as well. They say to “emerge spring rolls when eating together” but I’m guessing to immerse the spring rolls into your soup is probably the closest that I could decipher. Or maybe spring rolls just fly out of nowhere when you are eating in a group.
Oh, on a sidenote, their chili is hot. Really spicy. So if you can’t take spice, go easy on the chili. Like their Pho, it looks innocent but you tend to get kicked in the guts if you judge it by its looks.
Bui Vien offers some other awesome street food as well, which we tried on the third day.
This Tau Fu Fah puts our Malaysian Tau Fu Fah to shame. It is probably the smoothest tau fu fah I have ever had in my life. It is topped with ginger sugar syrup, some flour/sago balls that we often get in our leng chee kangs and santan. Santan is key to making it taste so good. It was the best food that reached my mouth during the whole trip.
Look out for the aunty selling it on Bui Vien. Do keep an eye out for a bunch of people sitting in front of a dark, dingy shoplot because yet again I do not know the number of the shop. If you think two helpings is still not enough but you want to try something else, she offers takeaways.
While having bun cha in Bun Cha, we noticed the stall opposite to Bun Cha across the road had amassed a number of people by night. Naturally we had to follow the herd and find out what it was. It was a stall serving barbeque. Meats and seafood. Having had pleasant experiences with street food, one must not stop at only one, or two but go all the way. So we sat ourselves down and ordered.
Oh boy was it good. We ordered 6 pieces of chicken thighs and wings, 3 of each, but literally got two platefuls of chicken. The wings came with the drummets and the thighs came with the drumsticks. For the 5 of us, that was a lot. I guess when we ordered we didn’t think they would include the drummets because one, chicken is Malaysian is stingyly small, two, we were so not used to the generosity of getting both parts. The octopus was juicy and springy, not too hard to bite into but leaves a pleasant barbequed aftertaste in your mouth. Eat it on its own without dipping into the condiments for the best taste. I urge you to order the octopus out of the list of things barbequeable, trust me, it is unforgettable.
Still staying on the topic of food, Vietnam will not be legit without photos of Pho. I know I said I don’t, but that was the other restaurant.
So, here is one.
Out of the three times we had Pho, this was the best Pho we ever had at the most unconvincing location. About 100m from the hotel, we spotted two shops selling Pho, but they only serve beef soup. Most of us can’t take beef so we walked further down to spot this stall in an alley selling Pho. There were more locals there than the ones in the shops so if locals go there, it must be good. Damn right it was. The soup was wow. For soup that looks like plain water it definitely knows how to trick your senses. It was hot, savoury, a little herby and sweet all in one bowl with noodles that are springy and firm. They weren’t stingy on the meat as well. Perfect. Definitely good enough to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner or whenever you want it.
Ho Chi Minh City has a lot of street vendors selling different things but in terms of meals, most of them are soups. We had the Banh Mi, which are baguettes filled with veges and a choice of meat or eggs, but they were just okay. Couldn’t find the one Anthony Bourdain went to that he raved about. We settled to try some tomato soup with pork fillet at a small narrow shoplot near the Ben Thanh Market.
I have no idea what it’s called. I know its tomato soup because the whole pot was brimming with tomatoes floating around and it tasted like one, albeit a watered down version from what we used to think tomato soups are. It was okay. Wasn’t great, but the soup gets better with every mouthful. The ground pork fillet was tender and nice, had a good aroma and a pleasant compliment to the dish. They serve it with pig’s blood as well. I gave that to my brother. I give everything that irks me to my brother.
The highlight was however a different thing.
At every table in this place there are several of these kueh looking things placed on plates for you to have with your dish. It looks so much like lepat pisang to a point we had to argue with my dad for 10 minutes that it wasn’t lepat pisang, who claimed that he knows what a lepat pisang is and he has eaten one since he was young to know for certain it was lepat pisang. It was not. It was fishcake. Tasty, tasty fishcake that is what fishcakes are supposed to be like. Pungent, chewy and springy enough. You can eat it on its own or throw it into your bowl of soup.
You know a Malaysian when food is priority LOL. I think that was all there is to introduce to eat. Food to buy home?
Ben Thanh Market is the answer to your question. Ben Thanh Market is a 30 minutes walk away from the hotel so we took a leisurely walk while stopping for snacks and coffee along the way. By the way, there is coffee everywhere in Vietnam. Drop by any stalls or cafes and you will find good coffee without a doubt. My favourite was Highlands Coffee, a franchise much like San Francisco Coffee in Malaysia, but like ten times better. Order the iced version as it is less sweet than the warm counterpart. Plus when the temperature hits a 32 degrees (celsius) outside, your throat will thank you.
Ben Thanh Market is, well, a market. It sells everything from food to clothes to souvenirs. This place is HOT! Malaysians are very much used to the heat because we have summer all year round but really, I have never been in a place so hot and stuffy. I think I have, I just can’t remember. I’m trying to make a point here. The stall vendors installed fans on top of their stalls but it doesn’t serve a purpose. You will sweat like you ran a full marathon whilst going up a slope. You can buy paper fans if you are ever stuck in Ben Thanh. It makes things much more bearable.
As normal Malaysians, our souvenirs must be food. Ben Thanh is where you find the cheapest local products. Want some of that Vietnam coffee? Ben Thanh has them in a variety. You have the famous weasel coffee all the way to elephant beans. No, elephant beans are not taken like the weasel’s from their poop, worry not. They are just larger beans in size compared to the normal coffee beans. The prices for products are the cheapest you can find in this place so far, so if you fancy something, be sure to get it before you regret it. Sound advice because I did not and then I had to spend extra at the airport.
If you are a fan of ciku like I am, you will be delighted to find cikus going for cheap in this market. Cikus are one of my favourite fruits and I am so glad I found them here because it’s pretty difficult to find them in Malaysia and they are puny compared to the ones here. I wish I have taken a picture of them to show you. The cikus are very sweet and less sandy in texture than the ones in Malaysia so that is good news to people who likes ciku but don’t fancy the texture. I personally find the texture appealing and I love it when my brother doesn’t. MORE FOR ME!!
There is also a food court in Ben Thanh where you can try their local dishes. Prices are EXPENSIVE. We were surprised at how much it cost in a place like that. If need be, order only the desserts. Desserts are good and will not cost a bomb for mediocrity.
If you walk around Ho Chi Minh you will find almost every shop owner you come across wear Under Armour t-shirts. Those are ciplak versions you can find in the night market near the Ben Thanh Market. We chanced upon it when we were out and about on a Thursday night, so the night market might be coincidentally open on that night or every night. The whole street is filled with fake goods. Hermes Birkins? Checked. Under Armour activewears? Checked. Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet? Check, check, checked. Those are the things they sell in the night markets so if you want to get good bargains and aren’t irked with buying fakes, you are in the right place. Shop owner himself said, “there is nothing real here”. Honest man, that one. Bargaining is also a must or else you’ll end up paying the price of a real for a fake.
There aren’t many historical places to visit in Vietnam. We only decided to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, which for the record is the one place you have to visit in Vietnam to qualify the entire trip. It was also the only touristy place to visit.
Cu Chi Tunnels were tunnels made by the guerillas as shelter and operation base during the wars in Vietnam. These tunnels span a length of 250km in total and were dug by hand by the guerillas using only shovels for 20 long years. It protected the guerillas from air attacks, bombs and Agent Orange. I wasn’t comfortable taking pictures of this place so I only took a few.
Cu Chi Tunnel is one to experience on your own. I will spare you the details, but if you are interested you can check out the images in Google. There are English-speaking guides to bring you around the area. I would say that if you do not have health issues or severe claustrophobia that could lead to death, try the tunnels out. It is an experience unlike any other. You get a feel of what it was like for the guerillas back then. Also follow the guides’ instructions closely or else if you are lost nobody is going to save you. Who ask you to geh kiang. In these tunnels, kia si is win.
Several things that tickled our fancy:-
Vietnam (and its food) has been good to us the entire trip. We really enjoyed ourselves there. History aficionados will love the war museum, which regrettably I have forgotten to mention and photograph, as usual. Food lovers will love Vietnam. Even people who are mostly mildly interested in everything will fall in love with the nightlife in Bui Vien. I’d probably want to make a trip here again someday, preferably with friends, and be free to party like crazy.
Thanks for reading!