Saigon: Vietnam's food capital, with its teeming traffic, French colonial architecture. Gateway to the Mekong River Delta
17.12.2009 - 21.12.2009 31 °C
Scrolling through a travel forum researching Ho Chi Minh City on the internet I came across one writer's question:-
"I have four days in Saigon, any suggestions on what I should do while I'm there?"
and, in among the replies, the response from one experienced traveller was two words "Dine out"! We ourselves spent four full days in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it's more commonly called by locals (and train timetables!) and I just didn't get enough of the food.
We were lucky enough to be recommended to what, in my limited experience, was the best Vietnamese restaurant in Vietnam, Quan An Ngon.
Set in a large restored colonial building with innumerable verandahs and levels, simply but prettily decorated, the outer verandah is lined with the different dishes available from barbecued meats and fish to fresh green vegetables and herbs and includes stations where the chefs prepare the unusual Vietnamese sweets: che which are dessert soups often coconut-milk based and with tapioca pearls, coloured glutinous jellies and other unusual ingredients; and sticky sweet rice-flour cakes of various colours.
Other examples of these unusual sweets with such strange evocative tastes were Che Dau Xanh Nuoc Dua or mung beans in coconut milk; and Banh La Nua Nuoc Dua or sweet cake with pineapple flavour and coconut milk.
Although we set ourselves the task of trying something different every day, we did have our favourites, which were the Bo Nuong Muoi Ot or grilled beef with chilli salt served with seasoned toast, and their own take on my personal favourite meal of all my travels in Vietnam, Bun Cha Ha Noi! You're given a plate divided up into sections of fresh cold vermicelli noodles; grilled marinated pork; and an array of green herbs, most of which you'll probably never have seen or tasted before. With your chopsticks, you then help yourself to a small portion of each of these ingredients, placing them in a smaller bowl which is always provided for you, and finish it off with a spoon or two of the mouthwatering Vietnamese fish sauce, which you then mix all together and devour heartily. As one blogger's byline goes: "Oh Bun Cha, how I yearn for you so", I echo that thoroughly!
I think you could visit Quan An Ngon every day of the year and always try a new dish, their menu is so varied, their ingredients so tantalising.
When not dining out on delicious Vietnamese food, we only had to turn the corner near our hotel to arrive at the equally excellent Tandoor restaurant which is, I believe, in some way affiliated with the restaurant of the same name in Hanoi. Slightly more expensive than the Hanoi establishment, they nevertheless served deliciously cold and refreshing sweet lassi and one of the best Tandoori Chickens I have ever had, so worth a visit if you feel like a change from Vietnamese.
Luckily we stayed near to these great restaurants at the Spring Hotel in the upmarket Dong Khoi area near the famous Caravelle Hotel. Originally we were concerned that we had picked an out of the way location too far from the popular Pham Ngu Lao area where most backpackers stay, but we took a walk there and although there's a definite buzz, nevertheless we were pleased with our nice hotel and pretty streets, close to the old Hotel de Ville, the museums of Saigon, as well as the Dong Khoi street with its fine silk shops.
Moving around Saigon is always a talking point among travellers as the traffic is even busier than Hanoi's and although there is the odd traffic light to allow the pedestrian some respite from the relentless unceasing flow of traffic, these are few and far between and many of the scooters pay no attention to them anyway, which makes crossing the street hazardous at the best of times. Don't be surprised to find scooters speeding past you on the pavement, to the left, and the right, just missing you, swerving around - before rejoining the traffic further down the road.
A common sight in Vietnam is the scooter with more than two people on it, some have even five or six: babies and young children are wedged between adults or often slung on their mother's hip. I was initially alarmed at this casual attitude to child safety but I have only ever witnessed one accident in my month sojourn in Vietnam, they obviously have mastered the art of living dangerously.
The scooter is one of the most common forms of transport in Vietnam and it is amazing how versatile they prove to be: arriving at any bus or train station, among the taxis and touts calling out to passengers are always moto drivers offering to take one's luggage (we have a large backpack, a suitcase and numerous smaller bags!) and also, in our case, the two of us on the back of a moto to our hotel. This never ceases to surprise me and I've not quite got up the courage to test this method of travel! Mind you, we have frequently been passed by motos laden down with cages or baskets filled with a clamour of at least 20 or 30 ducks quacking and protesting; or a couple of squealing pigs being taken to whatever fate awaits them.
Besides sightseeing, with it being the festive season (alas now more than 2 months hence!) we had a little look at the shops in Saigon. In one department store, we wandered past a huge Christmas display of tinsel, lights and 'snow-covered' Christmas trees (the temperature outside being 30 degrees plus!!) and, set in the middle of all this, there was a booth where two fairies dressed in white welcomed an eager wide-eyed queue of little children lining up to sit with the 'fairies' and to make their Christmas wish; pop versions of Christmas songs played from speakers nearby, I left Saigon with Jingle Bell Rock ringing in my ears! The streets of Saigon were also decorated with some of the most professional Christmas lights I've seen, they would have easily beaten last year's Oxford Street display with its minimalist look. Based around the red pointsettias that are used as a natural Christmas decoration here, they made even the Vietnamese driving by on their scooters stop to take a photo.
This isn't a rarity in Vietnam: Christmas decorations, whole shops dedicated to santa outfits and Christmas trinkets, as well as carols blasting from any speaker around were everywhere, even at Quan An Ngon where the songs ranged from jingle bells to Christian songs unrelated to the holiday. A little surprised by the Christmas spirit in a mainly non-Christian country, we asked our hotel receptionist whether the Vietnamese exchange gifts on Christmas Day and she said they didn't. The festivities were obviously just too contagious!
Saigon is not a city full of sights, but it is home to the place where the war was ended by the northern Vietnamese army when they crashed their tanks through the gates of the now-Reunification Palace, which was then the Presidential Palace, to declare VC rule throughout Vietnam. Many of the palace rooms remain as they were in those days and as such they are a remarkable collection of 60s and 70s interior design, which obviously quite a bit of money went into furnishing. This was the main point of interest for us in visiting the Reunification Palace: lavish reception areas, colourful gambling rooms, an old cinema, the former helipad.
Then in the basement, one can walk through a series of underground tunnels or corridors which include a war room, communications rooms and a bedroom for the head of state in emergency situations. I'm not sure I would recommend the Reunification Palace as a must-see if you only had a day in Saigon, but it is cheap to visit (15,000 dong) so if you fancy a wander through these historical buildings, stuck in an age, and re-living this time, then perhaps spend some time here.
Much more moving for us was the nearby War Remnants Museum, set in the former US Information Service building, with old US weaponry and aircraft in the gardens outside. Inside, photos of Vietnamese villagers in terror as they are about to be shot by American soldiers stand alongside pictures of victims and their devastated villages, children begging for their parents' lives and the ugly effects of the use of chemical warfare (Agent Orange etc), which are still being felt today.
Upstairs, a large section dedicated to photographers fallen in the war along with their work, movingly documenting moments in that terrible struggle, are testament to the futility of war. Outside, an exhibition of methods of torture and the "tiger cages" in which POWs were kept a visible demonstration of the suffering undergone. All of this was brought much more to life for me after I began reading Neil Sheehan's 'A Bright Shining Lie' all about one very patriotic American man's steady disillusionment with the war in Vietnam. The book also shows how much of a mistake the war was and the total waste of lives as they failed to account for the tenacity of the Vietnamese people and the difficulties of guerilla warfare.
One of the more interesting areas of Saigon to visit is Cholon, the city's Chinatown, and we took a pricey taxi ride there from the centre of town, although I believe the bus system is pretty good in Saigon. Cholon is a real mixture of Chinese symbols and buildings, pagodas abound with their pretty carvings, gilded wood and large incense cones with smoke curling off them, lit by worshippers, an offering to the gods. A large dragon fountain with smaller dragon heads poking up around it dominates one of the parks in this area's bustling streets.
At the end of a long road of pagodas is the Cholon Mosque with its less ornate design dominating the skyline. We stopped in at a halaal restaurant run by Malaysians adjacent to the mosque for a little lunch before carrying on with our sightseeing.
On another day we passed by the 19th Century Notre Dame Cathedral with its missing stained glass windows, a result of bombing in World War II, and the French colonial Central Post Office.
A wonderful feature of Saigon is the many colonial buildings dotted around the city, including the impressive grey building which houses the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. All of these aspects give Saigon its unique character.