Day 1: Less than 5 minutes after clearing customs at the airport, it's lunch at Bun Cha Van Anh on the corner of Truong Son Street - that's the main street to the airport - and Song Day Street. tel 8486308. No air con, no menu, no English, no toilet, no walls - just bun cha Hanoi (grilled porky bits with cool rice noodles, soupy stuff and fresh herby veggie stuff that you mix together with condiments to form whatever you like) and bun nem cua (same, with deep fried spring rolls instead of porky bits). Had both. Both very good. Hard to spend more than a couple US$ here.
Dinner at K Cafe, which, [sarcasm] as you can obviously tell from the name [/sarcasm], is Japanese, and is not a cafe. 74/A4 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, tel 824 5355. Very confusing to find, as the whole block - across the street from the Hyatt - appears to be variations of #74, and there are a few other Japanese restaurants in there. Don't be fooled. #74/A4 is further up the block, and is clearly marked K Cafe. Run by a Vietnamese woman who (I'm told) is fanatic about freshness, and her Japanese husband, who (I observed) is drunk as a skunk and very fresh with the young waitresses when his wife isn't around. Anyway, the food is great. If you want the same boring Japanese stuff you get everywhere on Earth, don't bother. They have it, but come here to try whatever's on the chalkboard. Don't miss the soft-shell crab rolls. Expensive by Saigon standards (most dishes $3 - $8, dinner for 2 with a decent sake was around $50) but cheap by Japanese food in any other city in Asia standards. Best in HCMC, totally worth it.
Day 2: Breakfast at Pho 24. My hotel is equidistant from about 3 or 4 of their outlets, so that's an easy choice. Less than $3 for a big bowl of some of the better pho in town plus an iced coffee, and it's even air con. Ok, so it lacks the authenticity of street pho, and costs - gasp - 3 times as much. But it's good, so who cares? Plus you can't beat their catchy advertising slogan: "Delicious, clean and air conditioning". It's not actually much cleaner than any street stall - I've seen staff here brushing chopped onions retrieved from a table back into the mise bins and then putting the bowl in the 'clean' pile, while the 'chef' puffs away on a cigarette while stirring the stock - but it is indisputably air conditioned. I still give Pho Hoa Pasteur (260C Pasteur, Dist 3) the edge as the best pho in Saigon, but they're not that close to the hotel.
Lunch with ecr and Mr. ecr at 2 of their local faves, both no air con, no English. I respect people that don't restrict themselves to one restaurant per meal. First Bun Bo Than Noi Hue, 47 Tran Cao Van, Dist. 3, tel 829 9473. This one is fairly easy to find. Second was Hong Hanh, 17A Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Dist 1, tel 827 4245. This one is up the steep, tiny stainless steel staircase on the right as you stare at the empty-looking storefront. Both are closed in mid-afternoon.
Now, in the interests of science, I am going to attempt to describe some of what we had, even though I didn't take good notes, and this will no doubt draw out some of the more pedantic f*ckheads to correct my spelling and descriptions and the like. If you don't speak Vietnamese (I don't) and don't have friends that do (I usually don't, but this time did), order by pointing at stuff that looks good on other tables. But since you asked: I think at the first place we had bun cua - crab patty soup, bun cha cua - crab spring roll, banh cahn - a thickened noodle soup with lots of stuff, and at least one other thing that I forgot. At the second, we had bun thit nuong - noodles with grilled pork that reminded me of char siu, banh cuon - rice noodle rolls which are apparently the house specialty, another banh cahn just for comparison purposes which was indeed better than the previous place, and at least 2 other things that I forgot. Plus we spotted something on another table which we had to order and turned out to be tiny clams with basil, chilli and possibly fresh turmeric which we scooped up with big hunks of rice cracker. And next time we definitely have to try their 'roll your own' rice paper salad rolls.
Yes, this was a ton of food, but cost very little. These places don't get tourists, and when you stay off the air con/English menu circuit, Saigon is a bargain. Now, just so you know what kind of rock star ecr is, after this 2 restaurant, at least 8 course marathon lunch, she wanted to go to get some banana dessert thing nearby. But sadly they were out, which is good, because I couldn't eat any more.
Dinner... well, I didn't need much dinner. But my friend B. was coming in from Shanghai, and I hadn't seen him in a while, so we ended up at my usual spot, Underground, 69 Dong Khoi, Dist. 1. This is an expat bar that has much better Western food than you might expect. Chef Thierry and his crew make a huge selection of great bar food, and the occasional classic French dish on the specials list. I had a confit duck leg on lentils with a shot of balsamic here last year that I'm still thinking about.
Tonight it's just a burger, and a damn fine one at that. Much Tiger beer was consumed. Plus I picked up the tab for B.'s soup and ribs. Total $23. Given the amount of beer, this seemed like a good deal to me.
Day 3: Woke up late, no time for breakfast, headed for work.... so it was an early lunch in the factory manager's canteen, and in a Korean owned factory, anywhere on Earth, that means Korean food. Soup, seven kinds of kimchee (all made in house by the Vietnamese factory cooks, and they do a great job), rice and a couple of spicy mystery meat dishes. Yummy.
Back at Underground for dinner, and cous cous is on the special list. Tonight's version has a slab of lamb, a grilled chicken breast, a couple of merguez sausages and a bunch of stewed veggies. Chef Thierry comes over and asks me if I want more soup with it because he thinks it's a little dry, which it is, but like most food at the Underground it's better than I expect and I leave happy.
Day 4: Banh mi for breakfast, from my favourite banh mi cart, across the street from HSBC, near the cathedral. Banh mi are baguettes, stuffed with pate, Laughing Cow cheese, roast pork, other mystery meat or fried egg, or a combination of the above. The only common factor is that you get some mayonnaise-like fluid, herbs and chillies, and everything must, by law, be unrefrigerated for as long as possible, and ideally exposed to direct vehicle exhaust and flies. I had two banh mi, one mystery meat combo and one egg. They're about 30 cents each. I love the name if the egg version: banh mi opla. For some reason, 'opla' makes me think of lederhosen.
Lunch at the factory again... Korean food ditto ditto ditto, except today it was a couple of fish dishes instead of meat. One was an unnamed white fish, salted and fried in chunks, and the other was tiny dried salted anchovies with garlic and green onions. I like salt. And I'm really enjoying their sesame-leaf kimchee.
Dinner at Underground again (do you detect a pattern?) this time for their pizza, which is the best in Saigon and far better than anything in Hong Kong, and costs about 1/3 as much. Three sizes, thin or thick crust, imaginative toppings... just tell them to leave off their 'caramelized' onions, which aren't. I went for the goat cheese and bacon, small size, and promptly kicked myself for not ordering a medium. No problem. After a few more Tigers, just to make it respectable, I ordered another identical pizza. It was just as good as the first.
Day 5: Pho 24 for an early breakfast, and yes, it was still "Delicious, clean and air conditioning", especially after I turned off their scratchy radio blaring hits from about 1968. The staff all looked quite relieved when I did this. Then it was off to brunch with ecr at the world famous (well, famous in Saigon, anyway) Chao Vit Thanh Da, 20/1 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh, Thanh Da Dist. Or else the competing Chao Vit Quan Thanh Da at 118 Binh Quoi, also in Thanh Da Dist, which is where we actually ended up. We're blaming pilot error, because it would be embarrassing to admit we didn't realize we were at another restaurant until after we had finished eating and I began wondering why my ride was taking so long to arrive (my driver had been sent to the other address...). The chao vit is basically the same at both. They are a 15 min drive from Dist. 1 but worth it.
Chao vit is rice porridge - aka congee, aka juk - with a side of roast (actually more like poached) chopped duck, and the usual suspects: a dipping sauce and a some raw herbs and chopped veg. The rice is stewed with the duck stock and a faint soupcon of MSG, and is staggeringly delicious. ecr recommended we order some banh tran - toasted rice crackers - which provided a perfect texture contrast. Culinary highlight of the trip. Period. No air con, no menu, no English, but since basically all they serve is chao vit it's kind of hard to screw up when ordering. Cheap, like under $1 a person.
I skipped lunch at the factory. Dinner was once again at the Underground, this time for a blue cheese and merguez pizza. Yummy. Why can't anyone in Hong Kong make a pizza this good? The soup of the day sucked, however: a delicious sounding asparagus and crab soup turned out to be canned white asparagus stems and not very well picked through crab bits in cornstarch thickened bland stock. First total miss at the Underground, and this is a place that still makes tomato soup from scratch...
Day 6: Another breakfast of champions at Pho24. Another Korean lunch at the factory. And for dinner: Ngu Vien, 40 Ky Dong, Dist 3, tel 843 7670. Ngu Vien specializes in Hue cuisine, and although nobody there speaks English, they do have a photo book of most of their popular dishes and an English menu. Plus they have a couple of aircon rooms. Dinner for 4 with a few beer was $30, and that was for more food than we could eat.
For some reason, people persist in going to the awful, overpriced 'fancy' Vietnamese restaurants around Dong Khoi St. Instead come to a place like Ngu Vien, where they have tablecloths if that sort of thing turns your crank, the food is vastly better, and it's 1/3 the price. Plus you can try dishes that maybe you wouldn't find back home. I mean, you didn't come to Saigon just to see if the salad rolls taste the same as they do in Peoria or Stuttgart, did you? Everything I've ever had at Ngu Vien has been good, but I especially like the rice vermicelli salad with crab, the Hue style spring rolls, the stewed catfish... there's no point in my going into detail, because it's been done better: if you Google 'ngu vien' you'll find several links to Ngu Vien reports on noodlepie's blog, complete with photos of many of their dishes. And head to his home page at www.noodlepie.com for more info on Saigon restaurants than you possibly have time to read.
Day 7: Breakfast at Caravelle Hotel, the most expensive meal of the trip. Five star hotels in Asia love to rip you off on breakfast and Saigon is no exception. But a business meeting beckoned, so there I was. The Caravelle does have an excellent breakfast buffet, and for $20, they damn well better. The tables are so close together than you can't help but try on your neighbour's underwear while you eat ("Oh, excuse me, I didn't realize those were your panties"). My neighbours turned out to be a bunch of culinary students from Orange County, whose chef/instructors were telling them incorrect things about the food (no, you idiot, that fish isn't mackerel, and no, the cheese on the buffet isn't all unpasturized...). But I was a culinary student not so long ago, so I kept my mouth shut. The only thing a culinary student needs to say is 'Yes Chef'.
Lunch. Korean at the factory again... the protein variable of the day was thickly breaded shrimp, and the kimchee and rice was same as always.
Last supper at the Underground. One of the regulars at the bar there tells me the duck liver special is damn good, so I ask if there's any left, but I'm out of luck. But would I be interested in some (off the menu) duck confit instead? Damn right I would. Chef doesn't have any lentils today, so it's served on sauté spud slices and grilled tomato with a green peppercorn sauce. Yum. That dish was about $8. You don't find stuff like that in bars back home.
Day 8: Overpriced breakfast at Sheraton (surprisingly, slightly cheaper than Caravelle) and then to the airport. Quick stop at the supermarket to pick up some of the world's best fish sauce (Nuoc mam ca com from Phu Quoc, 40 degrees or higher), some Vietnamese peppercorns, some rice paper and crackers. Time to go back to HK. I'll be back in a couple of months.
Big thanks to ecr and pieman for recommendations.
Edited by HKDave, 05 July 2005 - 11:13 PM.