Life In Uncle Ho's Vietnam

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November 14th 2011
Published: November 15th 2011
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Good Morning, Vietnam!Good Morning, Vietnam!Good Morning, Vietnam!

Cliche that it is, one can't help shouting out this line at least once while on holiday here. This trip/blog is really more about friendship, relaxation and food. Be warned!
Once in a while, one should travel not for the sites but for the company. Not that Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) has none to offer by way of attractions and things to do. But the prospect of traveling with 4 ex-colleagues from the bank where I used to work is simply hard to resist. That career spanning all of my first 17 years since graduation from college marked a period teeming with many fond memories and friendships.

I have earlier visited Ho Chi Minh ( Cruising Around SE Asia With Rahnee 2008) with my niece some 3 years ago. What was most significant about that earlier trip was the bucket of sweat oozing out of our pores while traversing the Cu Chi Tunnel in the heat of summer. Oh, how our sweat-drenched shirts nearly dripped! We are not doing that again. No duck walk this time. Coming in second was the chaos and stress of having to cross a street where bikes rule. Now, this we can't avoid. It's part of the character of Saigon. That, along with the Pho, the coffee and the mint-enriched dishes we've come to savor.

This time around, I have all of 5 whole days to spend with 4
Nha Hang NgonNha Hang NgonNha Hang Ngon

Just a couple of blocks from here is the Reunification Palace. An easy stroll, after a big lunch.
girlfriends. While I do not share the same passion with these 4 in the shopping department, we certainly share the same "obsession" when it comes to gastronomic pleasures. It helped a lot that we stayed in one of my friend's daughter's pad in The Manor and was thus "guided" by this young professional and her Filipino ex-pat friends. 

We didn't really plan this trip. Hey, it all started out like a joke when my friend decided to visit her ex-pat daughter in the Binh Than district. The cheap airfares (US$150-200) made it a no-brainer to simply up and go and have a good time. Visiting the "must-sees" came secondary to our desire to just get together, but we managed a few as well.

Day 1: Shopping So Soon? (Saigon Square)

One of my lady friends lost her hand carry baggage. No kidding! And she lost it as soon as we landed, waiting for our checked-in bags by the carousel area. I chose to mention this misfortune to caution other visitors to mind their bags while pulling in their bigger bags from the carousel. So there. Make sure you don't leave your bags out of sight
Lunch at Nha Hang NgonLunch at Nha Hang NgonLunch at Nha Hang Ngon

Ngon means delicious. And so it was. Our first lunch in HCM. Cost us a million and a half. Oh yeah, in dong of course. But we love saying we blew a million and a half for lunch, so indulge us!
even for a few seconds. 

Thus, the first day in Nam was spent shopping for clothes and medications for my friend. And more. Having found custard apples in the market, we never missed a meal without this fruit for the next 5 days. One thing needs to be said:  Food here is so damn cheap. We shopped for our dinner of fish,veggies and fruits to eat back in the condo. All for under US$20 for a group of 7 pax and much left-overs!

Day 2: Serious Dining and the Reunification Palace

A leisurely morning, a lengthy breakfast spiced up with endless chatter. Sun's out but the streets are flooded! It must have rained all night. By the time we were ready to leave, it was dry in this part of the city. 

Lunch was at this fabulous place called Nha  Hang Ngon just a couple of blocks from the Reunification Palace. The place has a very local flavor where one passes lines of food stalls to choose what to feast on. From soups to appetizers to rolls to barbecued meats to noodles and desserts,  it was enough to get your brains
Flooded Nguyen Huu CanhFlooded Nguyen Huu CanhFlooded Nguyen Huu Canh

We stayed at The Manor in Binh Thanh District and could see the flood from the windows. Once we had to walk on this flooded street after getting off a cab to cross to The Manor .
all addled by the sight and aroma of Viet cuisine.

On full stomachs, we marched towards the Reunification Palace.We checked out the many halls of the Palace, snapping photos here and there. Not much to see, really, but we were trapped inside as rain poured like crazy. The video room at the basement was heaven-sent for these over-the-hill ladies as the air-conditioning and raindrops lulled us to take an afternoon nap. The rain slowed to a drizzle, long enough to allow us to cross from the Palace to the nearby hut within the same complex. Then the downpour 😊

Day 3: More Serious Dining @The Refinery Plus Some Touristy Sites

Notre Dame Cathedral. Post Office. War Remnants Museum. Pho 2000 for lunch. Shopping at Saigon Tax Center.  Hua Toc in The Refinery. The Opera House. 

It wasn't as humid as expected, so it was a bright sunny day for this walking tour. We found at least 2 couples in wedding attire and on pictorial mode. The visit to the War Remnants Museum can be quite depressing : stories of torture, death, the atrocities of an unnecessary war. Photographs from photo-journalists lost during
Birthday Dinner @The RefineryBirthday Dinner @The RefineryBirthday Dinner @The Refinery

It's the site of a former opium refinery, which now houses a French bistro and a cooking school. We tried the fusion dishes at Hoa Tuc and the birthday treat hosted by my friend's daughter is truly one memorable feast!
that war, with their last roll of film, the last frame evoking a sadness and grief as we viewed the photos of their final journey.

The Pho 2000 lunch and shopping trip proved to be a "good break", if one can use that as an excuse. President Clinton's photos hang on the walls of this chain noodle house at the corner of Ben Tanh Market. Surely, no brand endorsement can match that presidential visit for this food outlet. Nothing fancy , really, but we enjoyed the seafood pho and the chicken curry with baguette.

Thanks to my friend's daughter, our best dinner was to be had in this former site of an opium factory called The Refinery. Inside is Hoa Tuc serving fusion Vietnamese cuisine  which is also the site of the Saigon Cooking School. Beside it is Vasco's with a good expat crowd enjoying their wine and pica-picas. Let the photos on this spread tell you of our gastronomic delights on this evening capped with a stroll around the nearby Opera House before heading home. Though my birthday was a week earlier, I had the chance to blow my own birthday candle, along with 2
Cinnamon SlippersCinnamon SlippersCinnamon Slippers

I went ga-ga over this. In Ben Tahn Market, I gave in and bought 9 pairs. The day before, it was Viet coffee. Today, slippers. Hmmm, some pattern is taking shape.
more of my friends cum birthday celebrants. Soon after, we did away with the candles and got serious on the decadent chocolate cake!

Day 4: Back To Benh Than Market and Pho 2000, Some Art Galleries and An Hour At The Spa

We started early, left without our bags, cash tucked inside our pockets and scoured Ben Tanh Market. For what? To get so many pairs of cinnamon slippers, more coffee beans (Weasel? Squirrel beans?) and more. By this time, my bag is smelling of good Viet coffee interspersed with the scent of cinnamon.  We would have wanted to buy an Ao Dai (pronounced Ao yai?) but at the rate we're eating, it would be short of a miracle to fit into one!

Before dinner, we found time to visit The Spa at The Manor. Soon after entering this oasis, I knew I would devote the next hour to pure relaxation. My 4 friends went for a foot massage while I had a full body massage. Heavenly! The scent of ginger and the soft melodious voice of the therapist and carefully regulated temperature inside the cubicles combined to relax me to a blissful state.
Lucky ShotLucky ShotLucky Shot

See that big bird flying into those Romanesque spires of Notre Dame Cathedral? Didn't even see it when I took this shot.

Day 5: To The Market We Go (Again). Then To The Airport.

We have a midnight flight, thus leaving a full day for us to waste. How best to spend our last day? More shopping. Saigon Pearl is a good choice and we all ended up towing an extra backpack to take care of our earlier purchases.

Two Museums, Two Art Galleries, Two Churches, Two Bistros, Twice in the same Food Chain + A Food Court in some mall, Two Trips to Ben Tanh Market, Two Trips to Saigon Pearl, plus many more shopping expeditions. All that , plus endless chatter among good old friends.

For your eating guide, do check out this link

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


The Post Office Across the BasilicaThe Post Office Across the Basilica
The Post Office Across the Basilica

Built when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in early 20th century, it was designed by Gustave Eiffel. To this day, it is a functioning Post Office.
Inside the Saigon Post OfficeInside the Saigon Post Office
Inside the Saigon Post Office

This 20th century building is still a functioning Post Office. Located just right across the Notre Dame Basilica, it even houses a small souvenir shop along its corridors.
Inside the Post OfficeInside the Post Office
Inside the Post Office

I should have gotten a Post Card and mailed it here.
War Remnants MuseumWar Remnants Museum
War Remnants Museum

It is only here that you get the Vietnamese side of the story as most versions and movie flicks represent Westernized views. Quite depressing, so make sure you have a "nice break" after the museum tour.
Reunification PalaceReunification Palace
Reunification Palace

When we visited, we were trapped in as there was a heavy downpour which flooded the streets. A short break allowed us to cross from the Museum to a nearby hut within the complex, then it rained anew. Time for a beer!
Bitexco is Tallest Building in Ho Chi Minh Bitexco is Tallest Building in Ho Chi Minh
Bitexco is Tallest Building in Ho Chi Minh

Posing by the stairs of The Opera, we had a photo taken here with the tallest building in Saigon in the background.
Nha Hang NgonNha Hang Ngon
Nha Hang Ngon

Check out the addresses here. The one we tried is 2 blocks away from Reunification Palace, though I'm told there is one just across the Palace.
Food, Gloriously CheapFood, Gloriously Cheap
Food, Gloriously Cheap

When we went to the market, we found food to be gloriously cheaper than back home. We also tried the supermarkets and loved what we found. The bistros may not be a backpacker's dream but we thought they are good value for money.
Spices and SaucesSpices and Sauces
Spices and Sauces

My only beef with Vietnam is their spices and sauces. Not that I don't want them. It's just too hard to choose from so many!

Don't ask me what they are but we pointed them out as we passed lines of food stalls, ready to be served. Nha Hang Ngon truly lives up to its name.
The RefineryThe Refinery
The Refinery

Love this establishment. You'd never know they have this set up in a place that used to be an opium refinery. Vasco's Bar seems very interesting , with its frenchy red motif and lovely cafe tables and chairs.
Hoa TucHoa Tuc
Hoa Tuc

The Saigon Cooking School. Hoa Tuc is a frenchy vietnamese bistro serving fusion dishes. Frankly, I couldn't tell if they're traditional Viet or fusion cuisine. What I know is that we all dig their food. Y.U.M.M.Y.
Beer Time!Beer Time!
Beer Time!

The choices are clear. Go for more coffee? Or have a beer? I chose a beer this time.

16th November 2011

love the shopping! i should have done more of that while i was there... u went inside the cu chi tunnel? i had a hard time doing a duck walk in there :(
16th November 2011

cu chi tunnel, not this time
Not this time. I've been there back in 2008. One duck walk through the tunnel is enough for me. ;-)
16th November 2011

Life in Uncle Ho's Vietnam
Beautiful sceneries. As if we travelled with you too. Someday we will visit the place with God's grace. Plenty of sumptous food hmmm sarap ! ...... I like vege dishes because I am a vegetarian for 7 years now. I often watch their way of cooking dishes in the TV. so simple.
16th November 2011

Love your blog!
Ah, we are still in Asia! I love the Refinery...each and single visit to Saigon I stop there for lunch. I should have introduced you to a wine bar or two...with seriously decent prices too! See you in a few days in Bangkok!
17th November 2011

In a few days
We will be enjoying all this food and sights :) I think Polona might want a new pair of slippers - AGAIN!!! :)

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