Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City (Part 1)

Day 1

Cyclo drivers along the Saigon River. The People's Committee Building (the former Hotel de Ville)
can be seen at the end of Nguyen Hue Street.

It's always great to visit Vietnam. The first few weeks are mostly blissful for me, as I soak in the vibrant atmosphere and find myself relaxing in what should be a stressful environment. The loud, congested traffic? I love crossing it. It's like snorkeling in an ocean and getting caught in a school of fish. Only they're constantly beeping their horns and spewing exhaust in my face. The relentless heat and humidity? It's not that much worse than my life in Hawaii, and at least here I'm sleeping in hotel rooms with air-conditioning. The grime? I love grime. Any place without crime is too sterile for me and I feel uncomfortable there. Vietnam suits me in many ways.

Another pleasant aspect about being back here is that I'm surrounded by my favorite cuisine and can eat it whenever I'd like. And cafes here are more numerous than probably anywhere else in the world, especially if you count all the sidewalk coffee stops, of which there are literally thousands. I love spending time in cafes, and Vietnamese coffee is, in my opinion, the world's best. Hawaii has a pitiful cafe scene, and I find Kona overrated and absurdly expensive.

Of course, there are a lot of things about Vietnam that drive me up the wall, but I've gotten good at ignoring them. My first hotel gave away the room I thought I'd reserved for three days? Annoying, yes, but nothing to bite someone's head off for! I'm served the wrong breakfast after having my order repeated to me four times by a waitress simultaneously watching TVand checking her cell phone? It's still food and it tasted good! What do I care? If I were living here, these things would get under my skin. But I'm only visiting, and I'm not going to let anything silly get in the way of my having a good time.

I started off staying in District 1, on Le Thanh Ton Street, not far from where I lived for almost two years. In the 22 months I've been away, a good half of the restaurants and cafes I used to frequent are gone, filled with other restaurants, cafes, or shops, or are now just huge lots of rubble that will be high-rises and shopping centers soon. It's crazy what happens here in such a short period of time.

Immediately after checking into my hotel, I decided to wander my old stomping grounds looking for local eats. I found nothing. Or I thought nothing. Eventually I spied a bun cha and nem cua bien shop that I used to love.

I didn't expect this place to still be standing. The building behind it was built shortly before I left HCMC in 2007, and there's construction going on everywhere around the restaurant.

The waitresses there led me to a table and I ordered their speciality: bun chaand a half order of nem cua bien. The iced jasmine tea I had was complementary, just as in so many Vietnamese restaurants and cafes (to cleanse your palate after the bitter coffee). It was the height of the lunch hour, but that didn't stop them from serving me within just a couple minutes.

You've got your grilled meat in a broth, vermicelli noodles, and an assortment of herbs with lettuce

My half order of nem cua bien, or fried spring roll with crab and vegetables

This unassuming place offers one of the best lunches in Saigon, and all for under $2.

Post-lunch coffee on Thi Sach Street. They overcharged me, but even for 60 cents it was a pretty good deal.

A pretty typical sidewalk cafe in HCMC. Notice the bags of food hanging from the tree, and also the shelves the vendors have made from the wall of the building where they've set up.

That evening I decided to walk around the city, starting from my hotel on Le Thanh Ton Street and heading toward Ben Thanh Market. It was a great walk, if a little crowded and noisy, which is expected. The whole downtown was pretty well lit up for Christmas, and as usual whole families were out on their motorbikes, cruising the streets as a form of entertainment.

Le Loi Street in District One

About 15 minutes after I'd set out, I came upon Ben Thanh Market, one of Saigon's more interesting landmarks.

Eating outdoors beside Benh Thanh Market

Just beyond this was a restaurant called Pho 2000, which is famous in Vietnam because Bill Clinton once ate here during his presidential visit. They have photos of him on the wall inside, and since I've been away they added "PHO FOR THE PRESIDENT" on their signboard. How can you not like that?

It was a madhouse outside, which only proves that some things here never change

The pho here is pretty average now, though a few years ago it was a decent place for noodle soup. They specialize in pho, but they also serve all kinds of dishes, from rice plates to hearty beef stews, vermicelli noodles, and an assortment of desserts.

Although the pho here was a little disappointing, it's still better than most pho in the U.S.

Day 2

I was glad I woke up early again today. I made a point to wander around my old neighborhood, watching the streets, alleys, and sidewalks come to life. At 6:00 a.m., I was up well earlier than any of the breakfast vendors I remembered seeing all the time, but an hour later, after the sun had risen, the sounds and smells of breakfast were rapidly appearing all around me. Below are just a few of the street-food images I came across over a short stretch of Le Thanh Ton Street.

Small alley off of Le Thanh Ton Street. The woman on the left has a sandwich cart, while the cart on the right sells coffee and other drinks.

Soup vendor on the sidewalk

Getting morning coffee on the sidewalk. I used to get fresh warm soy milk and xoi with coconut shavings here for breakfast.

Notice the girl in the mini-skirt striking a pose for the camera. Another reason to like Vietnam.

What I was really waiting for was the sight of my favorite sandwich maker to roll her sandwich cart onto the sidewalk, but she was worryingly late this morning. Luckily, one of my favorite sidewalk coffee stands was open, and in a good position from which I could watch for the sandwich maker to arrive. I grabbed a seat and spend the next half hour catching up with the coffee guy, who I hadn't seen in a long time.

Mr. Chi, my favorite sidewalk coffee seller. He's being forced to move because of a big corporate office building coming in, but he says he'll continue to sell his coffee here. He'll just load all his coffee and coffee-making equipment onto his motorbike and set up shop on the same patch of sidewalk.

Eventually the sandwich cart appeared down an alley. As it was pushed toward the street and parked on the sidewalk, I paid for my coffee and wandered over to get breakfast. I was hardly the only one waiting.

Across the street from my favorite coffee seller is my favorite sandwich maker

If you snooze you lose in the game of sandwich-cart-ordering. At least two people pushed in front of me for sandwiches, which gave me the opportunity to step back and take photos of the backs of their heads. Ha! Exposed!

This woman does great business here. But when the police come in their trucks, she has to close shop in seconds and push her cart off the sidewalk and down the alley. Otherwise they'll confiscate her things, and she'll have to pay an exorbitant fine to get it back.

It was finally my turn -- or rather, I finally forced myself to the front of the line -- and ordered the beautiful, torpedo-shaped sandwich in the photo below. It's simple, and it's cheap, but it's the kind of thing that has spurred my longing for ages now. You just can't get the same sandwiches outside of Vietnam. And certainly not for the same price: 10,000 dong (57 cents)

Two fried eggs, pork pate, pickled veggies, cilantro, black pepper, chili sauce, and cucumbers...all for 57 cents

I took mine back to my hotel and devoured it.

The sandwich vendor can be found at the entrance to the alleyway at 15B Le Thanh Ton Street. She's there from morning until night.

Later that morning I headed to Centro Cafe to meet an old buddy. Centro replaced Illy Cafe, which I used to despise both for its lazy, obnoxious waitresses and for its poor, overpriced food and coffee. I remember once at Illy, a piece of five-dollar cake I'd ordered had a small bug in it, but they wouldn't replace it or give me my money back. So when I found that they'd left this prime spot, I was overjoyed.

Interior of Centro Cafe

Centro, as you can see in the photo above, is a shiny, sparkly place, with lots of beautiful people everywhere, to have coffee or food. They also have free wifi, which makes this place even more appealing. I felt a little guilty coming here, as I really wanted to eat and drink nothing but what the locals eat and drink for as long as I could last, but I caved in because my buddy invited me here.

We stayed long enough that lunchtime soon rolled around, and since he wasn't ready to leave -- he was planning to be there all day working -- I went ahead and ordered off the mostly Western menu.

Chicken sandwich and fries

The chicken sandwich and fries that I got weren't bad, but they weren't all that special. It looks nice in the above photo, I'll admit, but it was probably the most difficult sandwich I've ever eaten. I wrestled with that bread until I broke out in a sweat. I eventually attacked it with a knife, but even that gave me little advantage. I conquered it, but not without intense effort.

A heaping bowl of tuna salad

My buddy, Aryeh, went with the tuna salad. As you can see, they do a good job with it. I probably should have gone with something similar. The grunts and soft moans he made as he ate told me that it was a good choice.

Coffee at Centro

Caffe Centro is located at 11-13 Cong Trung Lam Son in District One. It's tucked away beside the Caravelle Hotel. Their telephone number is (08) 3827-5946.

Dinner was something entirely different. One of the foods I most wanted to try again in Saigon was goat. Yes, I'm a big goat meat fan. Not the biggest, but when I have the chance to grill some up I don't hesitate to say yes.

Right off the main road, where people like to eat within view of passersby. Not wanting to be viewed by passersby, or anyone else for that matter, we ate on the second floor.

One of my fondest food memories from Bien Hoa, where I lived from July 1994 to July 1995, was a goat meat restaurant that my colleagues took me to on a road set slightly back from Highway One (before it became such a godawful blight on the landscape). I don't think it's there anymore, which is a shame. Anyway, any visitor to or resident of Saigon has plenty of goat meat choices. My friend, Aryeh, suggested that he and a lawyer buddy take me to Quan An Tu Hung in Binh Thanh district.

The restaurant kitchen, where miracles are performed

Although Tu Hung specializes in goat hot-pot, their menu spans the gamut of typical Vietnamese grill-restaurant foods: clams, snails, cockles, fish, chicken, beef, pork, tofu, noodles, etc. Luckily, the three of us were in agreement on what to order, including cold Tiger beer to wash it all down.

Goat meat marinated in garlic sauce

We ordered goat udders, which were sliced into strips and marinated in a garlic sauce, as well as what I think was goat flank, prepared the same way. Both were brought out at the same time, along with a plate full of green add-ons: starfruit, cucumber, lettuce, banana flower, and various herbs. Once we added those to the table grill, we had a pretty healthy meal cooking up, especially since goat is reputed to be very low in fat and cholesterol.

The add-ons: star fruit, cucumber, lettuce, okra, rau ma (pennywort), and banana flower

Without the dipping sauce of fermented goat's milk, minced garlic, and red chilies, the goat rice wraps me made would have been tasty but dry. The dipping sauce was quite creamy, even somewhat buttery, and gave the rice paper wraps something truly to be proud of (you know, in case they were feeling insecure). The word "fermented" is kind of scary, I know -- my wife eats fermented soy beans for breakfast every day, and I give her at least twenty feet of space on all sides until she's finished -- but you wouldn't guess that the goat's milk was fermented. Maybe if you took a huge whiff of it, okay, but not in tasting it, and certainly not by using it as a dipping sauce. Just dipping the grilled goat into the goat's milk and eating it like that is excellent, too.

Slightly fermented goat's milk with chilies and garlic, used as a dipping sauce. This is amazingly good stuff.

The only problem we had was when Jessie, who asked me to make sure to refer to him here as a prominent New York lawyer, put a little weight on an area of the table that wanted no part of it, and the table grill fell over, exposing the flame and spilling grease everywhere. But then our waiter, or rather our superwaiter, rushed over and, with rags covering his hands, picked up the burning hot grill and set it securely back atop the flame. Then he used the rags on his hands to wipe up our mess. He even left smiling and half-bowing at us, which earned him a nice little tip at the end of our meal.

Goat udders cooking atop a table grill with some of the add-ons shown above

Right before rolling the rice paper and dipping it in fermented goat's milk

Goat and accompaniments wrapped in rice paper

The total damage, including four beers, was 250,000 dong (about $14). For three people, that's an insanely good deal.

Tu Hung is at 153 Dien Bien Phu Street, P.15, Binh Thanh district. Their phone number is 898-0637.

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  1. Hi, I saw your blog through Tan's at Thaikitchen. Your name catches my eye, b/c isn't Sapuche the name of a tropical fruit, avail in Hawaii, and also in Vietnam. I am Vietnamese, btw, living in California now. Your series of Vietnamese foods post make me miss the foods there...inexpensive and yummy finds, aren't they?

  2. MCK: Ah, yes, I visit Tan's site occasionally to salivate over her recipes and photos! And you're right about my moniker. Sapuche (or saboche, or sapudilla) is what we in the U.S. call Vietnamese "hồng xiêm." It was one of my favorite fruits in Vietnam when I first went there, and the name stuck with me. Vietnamese food is definitely some of the best in the world, and I'm thankful it's so inexpensive! It's easy to miss authentic Vietnamese food, because what one finds in the U.S. just isn't the same. Thanks for your comment and chúc em ăn ngon!