Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City (Part 6)

Day 11

I dreamed about fruit last night. I don't remember the dreams, only that fruit featured in them. Tropical fruit, mostly, such as what you come across in any of Saigon's many sidewalk stands. I'm not making this up, but I also remember monkeys. They were hanging from telephone wires above the street and, I think, trying to find employment at the fruit stands. Some of them were smoking cigarettes, which later became miniature bananas, which then became cookies. It was all very strange, and now it's just a bunch of fuzzy, unconnected images in my mind.

Anyway, when I woke up I was hungry for fruit, so I headed down the street to Sozo Cafe and ordered a fruit plate. It cost about $1.50 and was delicious. So much fruit -- a great way to start a morning.

Breakfast at Sozo Cafe

But I didn't get my daily coffee at Sozo. Instead, I headed across town to Binh An Cafe, which is on an island in the Saigon River called Thanh Da. It's an interesting part of the city, but a pain to reach. The only reason I went all that way is because Binh An is one of my favorite cafes in all of Vietnam.

Jazz performance area at Binh An Cafe

It's not your normal cafe, not by any stretch. It's better described, I think, as a large estate full of gorgeous antiques and tropical landscaping, owned and managed by two older Vietnamese-Chinese women who obviously have a lot of money -- and a wonderful vision of what a riverside cafe can be like. (They also own Binh An Resort in Vung Tau, which is unbelievably gorgeous, too.)

Except on the weekends, Binh An is generally a quiet, serene getaway from the city, where all you can hear is a chorus of frogs, crickets, and birds. White cranes are frequent visitors to the cafe's ponds, and they can often be seen flying between both banks of the river. And the river really makes this cafe special. I can sit here for hours with a book, or my computer -- and a cup of Binh An's excellent coffee (too bad it's $4.50 for an iced black coffee) -- and just let the day melt away.

View from my table at Binh An. That long, red and blue object to the left of the thatched hut is a fishing boat that's been placed there for ambience.

Binh An is expensive. Their food is decent but not great, and overpriced (just like at Binh An Resort). I'd recommend eating elsewhere before coming here, to be honest, and then giving yourself a lot of time to sit back with a nice cold drink and just enjoy the scenery and peacefulness.

Binh An is located at 1163 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street, Binh Thanh District. Their phone number is (08) 898-7770.

I got back from Binh An in time to grab a quick lunch at an old "bun thit nuong" favorite -- Nam An Restaurant in Phu My Hung (District 7). This trip started and ended with disappointment.

In front of Nam An Restaurant

First of all, my favorite dish, rice vermicelli noodles with grilled pork skewers, veggies, peanuts, and fish sauce, wasn't available. However, they still had grilled pork chops (suon), and they cut these up into strips and scattered them nicely over the same dish I'd come all that way to have. It was all very good -- their grilled pork is as good as I've ever found in Vietnam -- except for the noodles, which were all clumped together.

The second problem is a problem common to all of Vietnam: the people at the table beside mine stared at me the whole time that I was eating and commented to each other about my taking two photos of the meal. The comment about my photographing the food is fine; I don't care. But who likes to be stared at while they're eating? Am I a zoo animal? The thing is, Phu My Hung is home to a great many foreigners, so it's nothing new for a white guy to eat in the same place that they're eating. If I were to stare at them while they ate, they'd get angry. I'm sure of it, because I used to do this in the past and that was always what happened. Oh well. Like I said, at least the food was good.

They were out of my favorite "thit nuong" skewers, but this nearly made up for it

Nam An is located at S6-1, Hung Vuong 2, Phu My Hung, District 7. Their phone number is (08) 5410-0286.

I needed more coffee after lunch, so I headed down Tran Hung Dao Street, toward Chinatown, to my favorite Trung Nguyen Cafe. It wasn't all that busy, but I headed to the third floor with my computer to make use of the free wifi. I found the place pleasantly empty, and the waitresses there wasted no time in giving me their coffee menu. I went there for one thing and one thing only, and I found it on page two of the menu: ca phe chon.

The third floor of Trung Nguyen Cafe

Ca phe chon is purported to be made from Arabica coffee beans eaten by civets and either shat or puked out. That's right: civet coffee! Or, as I've heard it more poetically called, civet-puke or civet-shit coffee. It's relatively expensive, as most foods are that are: 1) disgusting in concept, 2) labor intensive to produce, and 3) deliciously successful.

The civet coffee is bitterer than other coffees, and people often drink it with sweetened condensed milk, as pictured below. Mine was fantastic. I could have drunk about five of them, but had I done so I would have exploded from all the caffeine and sugar. My ca phe (chon) sua da cost 34,000 dong, or just under US$2. I also got complementary iced jasmine tea (to cleanse the palate -- brilliant) and free refills.

Nothing like a fresh brewed cup of civet java

This Trung Nguyen Cafe is located on the corner of Tran Hung Dao and Nguyen Van Cu in District 1. Their coffee is awesome. Starbucks can't hold a candle to these guys.

Dinnertime rolled around, and after walking around for about an hour looking for something interesting, I settled, inexplicably, on a small food cart parked inside a local-looking eatery in the backpacker district. I think it was the "pho bo" sign that appealed to me. Even more inexplicably, however, I ordered "bo kho," a kind of hearty beef stew that's usually eaten with a baguette. It cost 25,000 dong ($1.43) and as I sat down I began to get excited about my first bo kho in perhaps three years.

Dinner cart on Bui Vien Street

To my surprise, the bo kho came with noodles rather than bread, and the meat was not meat at all, but rather beef fat and what appeared to be boiled skin (of the cow, I'm guessing). The stew was also quite greasy, and all I could really deal with were the noodles. So I ate them and ordered a Chinese steamed bun (banh bao) from a hot display case in front of the food cart.

Bo kho...or is it?

The banh bao was huge and quite good, and only cost 10,000 dong (57 cents). It was filled with two different types of pork, a ball of egg yolk, and something crunchy that I think was a bit of onion.

Steamed Chinese bun

I'm not sure what the exact address of this place is. It's probably around 120 Bui Vien Street, but I have a hard time recommending it.

Day 12

Although I didn't dream about fruit-smoking monkeys last night, I was again awakened much earlier than I would have liked by at least one rooster. I tried to stuff pillows over my head to block the sound out, but the crowing penetrated them and I found myself rolling out of bed to get a start on the day...which of course means breakfast.

I headed back to Lam's Cafe for a banana pancake with chocolate syrup and a tall glass of iced black coffee. Since today is my last full day in Saigon, and because I was planning to move to a hotel in a different part of the city, I said goodbye to Lam, or the young man I always assumed was Lam, and his family. I'm going to miss their breakfasts...

At noon I moved to a hotel on Dong Du Street, closer to the river. After getting settled in, I went looking for my favorite rice porridge (chao) restaurant, but it was packed and the people at the door were annoyingly persistent in trying to seat me at the end of a table that actually had a party going on there already. ("Here, just join them!")

After wandering around the area I noticed an old Saigon standby, Bo Gia ("Godfather") Cafe, in a different location than where it had been two years ago. I used to think this place was impervious to the changes happening all around it, but it eventually succumbed to the pressure to fancy itself up, and when I left Saigon in 2007 I was sorry I'd been around to see it change. But now it's changed again, and it's even moved to a different street. (It also now has four Bo Gia's scattered around Saigon.)

Entrance to Bo Gia Cafe

They didn't use to sell food, other than ice cream, but as I passed by I noticed several people eating lunch at their tables. Since I was having a hell of a time finding a place that passed for "local grub," I stopped to look at their menu. I was happy to find "bo luc lac," a peppery, wok-seared beef dish (it literally means "shaking beef," a name that evokes the way the beef gets slung around in the wok) that I hadn't tried yet during my trip, so I went inside, grabbed a table, and ordered the dish along with an iced tea.

Bo luc lac and french fries

My bo luc lac was good -- well cooked cubes of salty, peppery beef -- but the portion was small (that "salad" in the photo above takes up a lot of room on the plate), and I knew I'd be hungry again soon.

I finished my meal and ordered what I'd always associated with Bo Gia -- coffee! I generally don't like coffee after a meal in which meat predominates, but I couldn't pass this up, especially since I was leaving Vietnam the next day and probably wouldn't have a chance to come back here before then. The coffee was excellent, though it must be said that the more modern version of their cafe lacks the character of the original, and to me that affected my enjoyment of Bo Gia. ("This is the original Bo Gia Cafe," I was told, "only the location is different, we've modernized, and we now serve food.") If you don't have that point of comparison, however, you may like Bo Gia just fine. To me, it's just another in the long line of places that have been relegated to an older, more interesting Saigon. But I guess it's inevitable.

Bo Gia can be found at 29 Ngo Duc Ke Street, District One. Their telephone number is (08) 3913-0848.

As predicted, I got hungry again in the midafternoon. Without wanting to order a big meal, I decided to hit Pat A Chou, a bakery around the corner from my hotel. It's a small place, but it's been here for years, and I knew it would satisfy my craving for something bready. I had a long look at the pastry rack, switched over to their sandwich display, and placed my order -- more food than I needed, but oh well.

Pastries rack at Pat A Chou

I ordered a sandwich made from grilled pork patties mixed with herbs (banh mi nem nuong) and, against my better judgment, a pear danish.

Nem nuong sandwich

The sandwich was decent, but nothing I'd rush back to have. The nem nuong had a nice garlic kick to it, and the bread tasted freshly baked, but what it really needed was a bit of fresh vegetables. For just over a dollar, however, it IS worth going back for. Just not right away.

Pear danish

The danish was pretty rich, but somehow without the sweetness I was expecting. Eating it, I knew it would show up as love handles the next morning, but once I started it I couldn't stop myself from finishing it.

Just a little tip from me to you: Vietnamese pastries may often LOOK like western pastries, but they tend to be rather flavorless (or else they manage to sneak some kind of meat inside, horror of horrors). Pat A Chou has a decent selection of pastries that more or less meet expectations. Anyway, for just under a dollar this danish is worth including here.

Pat A Chou is on 65 Hai Ba Trung Street, in District One. Their telephone number is (08) 824-5873. They have four other locations around Saigon, too.

Dinner meant taking a taxi through the insane -- the completely and totally stupid-insane -- Tet holiday traffic into District Seven again. Tonight I was meeting two old friends, a Korean and Japanese couple who'd just had a son, at an Australian restaurant called Al Fresco's. It's always interesting to go back to my old neighborhood, as I always notice changes I'd somehow overlooked during previous visits. Al Fresco's is new. So are about 50% of the other area businesses. And the roads are filled with more traffic than ever, too, which means it's much louder and the air quality is surely worse. I guess it's good I'm no longer living here...

Al Fresco's in Phu My Hung

My friends and I soon got to gabbing, but we paused just long enough to order a large salad and a jumbo platter of various kinds of meat selections: pork sausages, skewered chicken, beef, and shrimp and vegetables, barbecued ribs, french fries, a cooked tomato, and coleslaw that nobody touched. And of course Tiger draft beer.

Mixed green salad. Nothing special, but it was necessary with all that meat we ordered.

The food was fine -- the barbecued ribs were excellent, and only a shaky sense of manners prevented me from licking the plate clean of that delicious barbecue sauce -- but the price was a little steep for Vietnam: 465,000 dong ($26.60), including two beers and an orange juice. But it was nothing compared to being able to see my friends and their first kid. It was a good night in Phu My Hung. Noisy and mosquito-filled, but good.

Jumbo combo platter. Admittedly, that's not the best angle for the platter. It looks downright bloody in front, whereas in fact those were some damn good, finger-licking ribs.

There are a number of Al Fresco's in Hanoi and Saigon, but this one, perhaps the newest at the moment, is located at D1-23 My Toan 3, Phu My Hung, District 7. Their telephone number is (08) 3410-1093.

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