Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City (Part 2)

Day 3

This morning I got up with the sole purpose of eating an old favorite in my old neighborhood of Phu My Hung. Phu My Hung is off most people's radar, and sometimes people avoid it on principal because it's a planned community in the style of, say, Singapore or Seoul. A lot of people say it has no soul. But I lived there for over a year in the nicest, most wonderfully private Vietnamese house I've ever lived in, and I learned that there's a lot more to Phu My Hung than just a bunch of new, ugly high-rises, more Koreans than you can shake bulgogi at, and streets laid out in a grid. It also has a lot of great cafes and restaurants (plus it's close to other districts, such as Nha Be, that are really interesting to explore).

Anyway, enough about Phu My Hung. The point of my trip was to get com tam ga (I usually just bark out com ga, however).

Com tam ga. This was my favorite breakfast when living in Saigon.

There were quite a few differences to note since I moved back to the U.S. 22 months earlier. The most important difference was that they got rid of their yellow broken rice and replaced it with white broken rice. When I asked why, the owner, noticing my despair, gently touched my shoulder and explained that many people requested that they use white rice instead. No surprise, really. In Vietnam, rice is always supposed to be white. It was still good, but I longed for the yellow rice, if only for the color.

Com tam ga, thick nuoc cham sauce, chicken broth, and complementary jasmine tea. They do it right at Nam Khanh.

The woman asked me if I thought their com ga tasted better before, and without thinking I said yes. I'm not really sure that it did, though. I don't think she believed me anyway. Who would have after hearing me grunt and moan in gustatory rapture as I shoveled my breakfast into my mouth? The nuoc cham sauce is what really makes this dish special (not to mention the fact that it only costs $1.25 for all of this). It's thick, sweet, salty with a fish sauce flavor, and has a slight kick from chopped red chilies. Without the sauce, the dish really wouldn't be coming all the way to District 7 for.

The com ga pros, hard at work

Nam Khanh was always a peaceful place to start the day. Follow up the com ga with a little Vietnamese coffee and no day will be all bad.

The people working here initially didn't recognize me, which was a little weird since I never saw another white dude eating breakfast there, and because I used to chat with them now and then, but after I'd complained about the change of broken rice one woman pointed at me and giggled, saying, "I remember him! He hasn't come here in a long time!" Maybe she was just being polite. If she was, I certainly appreciated it. I mean, come on, who hates to be forgotten?

The new face of Nam Khang. I liked the old face better. Once they got rid of the yellow rice, it was all over.

The second big change was that they changed the front of their restaurant. I really wish they hadn't. Two years ago it was a quiet, unobtrusive spot on the wide sidewalk, with several nice, dark wooden tables under sun umbrellas. Now it looks like a bus stop. It also resembles every other renovated store or restaurant around town, which is too bad, because the style grates on the eyes.

Nam Khanh can be found at S8-1 Huong Vuong 2 Street, Phu My Hung, District 7. Their menu, which also includes excellent lunches and dinners, is in English, Vietnamese, and Korean (the area is known by many as "Little Korea"), and delivery in the neighborhood is free. Their number is (84-4) 410-0345.

When I came back from District 7 it wasn't yet 8 a.m., and since I didn't get coffee at Nam Khanh I decided to wander around my hotel on Bui Vien Street to see what new cafes had sprung up since 2007. The place that I found was a real gem, partly because it's attractive and serves excellent coffee, but also because it supports young, hearing-impaired people who might otherwise have difficulty finding work in HCMC.

I was initially attracted to the sign out front that advertised free wi-fi. HCMC, despite its generally poor infrastructure, is far more wired than any city in the U.S. that doesn't have a wi-fi cloud hovering over it. And the sheer number of cafes in HCMC surely rivals the number of cafes in all of the U.S. west coast combined.
The attractive, comfy interior of Sozo's 2nd floor

Sozo is located at 176 Bui Vien Street. A delicious glass of iced black coffee only costs 20,000 dong ($1.14), and the first floor, where customers enter, has a display case filled with what are said to be excellent pastries and cookies. I'm trying to cut down on the sweets myself, so I can't say firsthand that they're worth coming here for. But the coffee is awesome, and the staff here is great.

I was also excited for lunch, as I had plans to hit a place called "Tiem Com So Mot," which I came across many years ago when scouring the area for cheap electronics. This place consistently has an amazing selection of fresh-made dishes. And the wait staff, who tend to stare at foreigners (it's a like a disease in the country), are very nice and efficient. Watching them bustle around each other on the greasy, always crowded floor is like watching people skate around a tiny ice rink, not gracefully but somehow skillfully enough never to fall or to slip and dump a plate of hot soup on their customers.

One of the best com binh dan selections in HCMC

I never lived all that close to this place, but it was worth going out of my way to get here, even in the hottest months, during the heaviest rains, and in the most lung-clogging traffic. I've also noticed that the more dead you look when you arrive, the better the service. And if the traffic's exhaust has pretty much asphyxiated you when you get there, one of the blue shirts will lead you to a table beneath a high powered fan and give you a free iced tea.

They do a brisk business here...and have at least 30 employees

They've got everything you could ever want to eat, just as long as what you want to eat is Vietnamese

I've probably had about three quarters of the selection, which generally doesn't change much, in the photo above. I've never had a bad meal, though that one quarter I've yet to try still seems a little intimidating to me. I don't think I'd ever knowingly order those big brown eggs on the right or the chunks of fatty pork behind them.

All this, plus tea, cost a mere $2

On this day my lunch consisted of white rice and boiled veggies, a grilled pork and onion skewer, shrimp and fatty pork in a sweet garlicky fish sauce, more veggies, and a dark leafy soup with mud-crab. It was worth getting lost on foot, nearly getting run over by motorbikes on the sidewalk, and a hot sun beating down on me, to find.

Bananas are a free dessert after one's meal

Tiem Com So Mot is at 74 Suong Nguyet Anh Street in District One. Their phone numbers, for free delivery within the area, are 833-4628 and 832-4376.

Dinner was a casual Western affair with an old writer friend at Skewers Restaurant, on Thai Van Lung Street. My friend, Martin, eats here regularly, and seems to know everyone that walks through the door. (Which is good for me, as I get to meet new people through him.)

The cozy interior at Skewers

This meal marked my first Western food since leaving Hawaii on December 28th. I must admit that it felt nice entering such a classy place and not worry about being stared at or otherwise imposed on. One can easily fall in love with the atmosphere at Skewers.

The cooking station on the first floor of Skewers

In addition to their extensive Mediterranean-inspired menu, they also have a good wine list, and the long wooden bar that greets you at the entrance is more than just a little inviting. I decided to order the grilled salmon on a bed of niçoise salad. It wasn't a huge portion by any stretch, but the salmon was cooked and peppered nicely, the vegetables were crisp and fresh, and the mustard-infused dressing was subtle but flavorful. I was more than happy with my choice.

My grilled salmon on top of a small niçoise salad

Martin ordered the rack of veal in the photo below. It looked scrumptious to me, and the colors of his dish only heightened my estimation of it. But I didn't eat it; he did. His verdict, succinct as always: "Well, I got it all down." You have to understand that Martin can be a little picky about his food, and he's been known to say what he feels about things. I'm not a fan of veal anyway, but those veggies sure looked good.

Breadcrumb and walnut crusted veal rack with spinach and tomatoes in a white butter sauce

Even if this dish wasn't the best, I've eaten at Skewers enough to know that they generally succeed pretty well with their menu. And Martin's regular patronage of the restaurant attests to this, too. The owner, a Vietnamese-American who was raised in San Mateo, California, is one of the better success stories in Saigon's food and beverage industry. He's a super nice guy, too. Prices are reasonable, with entrees ranging from 65,000 to 240,000 dong (~$3.70 to ~$13.75).

Skewers is located at 9A Thai Van Lung Street, District 1, HCMC. Their telephone number is (84-8) 822-4798. For more info, check out their website at

Day 4

This morning I woke up early, though I'm not sure why. I was probably just hungry. My stomach's eating clock is all screwed up from a combination of jet-lag and my desire to eat more than usual for the sake of documenting it during my limited time here. In any case, I was glad to get up early. Staying in the backpacker area of the city, which is like a horror house of scary foreigners that unfortunately became reality, the only time one can find peace on the street is at dawn.

Lam Cafe. I'm not sure what the "far far away" slogan on the signboard means, but it was just down the street from where I was staying

That's approximately when these photos were taken. Lam Cafe had its doors open, so I went inside. True, there was a young man sleeping in a chair in the middle of the entrance, but that didn't stop me from shaking him vigorously and thrusting my giant foreigner's face into his sleepy Vietnamese one. Not bothering with a menu, I asked for eggs and bread (banh mi op la), some fresh veggies, and a black coffee. When he stumbled into a back room, I was half sure he'd fall asleep back there.

Dawn on Bui Vien Street is about the only time you can find it this empty

Luckily, he only took a few minutes to return. By then, already, I was noticing more motorbikes on the street, and other food stands had started to set up. Early morning is a good time to watch local people start their day, which usually consists of exercising on the sidewalk or street, taking their kids out to pee in the gutters, and hacking up phlegm and depositing it where people are most likely to walk. It's not great if you're sitting on the sidewalk eating breakfast, but after a while you learn to block it out.

A simple breakfast of fried eggs, French bread, a few fresh veggies, and black coffee (all for $1.25)

My breakfast was as simple as it looked. I loaded my eggs down with pepper and then ate around the yolks. The bread was warm, as if it had been held over a flame rather than toasted, and although I asked for fresh veggies I only really trusted the tomatoes. Okay, I trusted everything but the sickly green lettuce, and I passed on the onions because having onion breath is a hell of a way to start the day.

I finished it up with something healthy, which seems to be rare for me these days

I love the fruit salads you can get in Vietnam, though it's often best to ask what selection they have on hand before ordering. Otherwise you're liable to get a dish stacked with nothing but sliced watermelon, which is fine for some, but I personally like having more variety. For only about 75 cents I got a huge dish of sliced pineapple, banana, and mango.

Once I finished breakfast, I headed into the city to see my friend and former landlord, then came back and started preparing for my 1:30 flight to Hue.

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