Thursday, July 12, 2007

Vietnam Top 10 - Ho Chi Minh City

1) Pho- It really is better here. Quite a while back, I blogged about my (failed) attempts to make good pho at home. Since then, I’ve eagerly anticipated finding an authentic version of this comforting noodle soup made with long-simmered beef or chicken and served with a gorgeous pile of herbs. On our first day in HCMC, we decided to try Pho Hoa, the shop mentioned in Patricia Shultz’s recent book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. I’m sure Pho Hoa does not have a monopoly on great pho in HCMC, but we could not resist checking it out. We unwittingly ended up walking at least 2 or 3 miles in the midday heat to get there. You see, addresses on a lot of streets in HCMC don’t just proceed with sequential numbers. Instead of 1, 2, 3, 4, you’ve got, 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d,1e; 2a, 2b, 2c… and on and on for about 2 more miles than you thought it would be.

We didn’t think it could possibly be worth it, but it was. There’s no discernible secret to this pho. It’s simply imbued with the flavor that must come from patience and years of practice. Eat it for lunch, eat it for breakfast, eat it in the middle of the night—good pho is one of the ultimate meals in any cuisine.

2) Sanho Bar- On a tip from our Lonely Planet guide, we sought out this bar, located near the big, central hotels, because the description caught our eye: a watering hole where the actual bar is an aquarium. Intriguing, but probably a gimmick that sounds cooler in theory than practice, right? Totally wrong. This place is so cool. As you can see in the photo, I got to enjoy a lovely salty dog right on top of an ornery little crocodile who watched my every move…sorta unsettling. In the tanks adjacent to the croc were some very spry turtles. It was dinnertime for one turtle, and it was surprising how quick he was when chasing down his favorite goldfish treat. Sanho has normal-sized tanks too with big sea turtles and some creepy eels. I don’t know if PETA would like this place, but they get huge points for originality.

Sanho, 102 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, 827-5593

3) Wine- I guess I have the French colonialists to thank for this one. Unlike in Thailand (read my rant in this post), wine is not a mysterious substance to Vietnamese restauranteurs. Thanks to the heat, reds may be slightly above their ideal serving temperature, but you can get good, reasonably priced French wine just about everywhere. There is even Vietnamese wine to be had, but we didn’t get around to trying it…after the wine drought in Thailand, I couldn’t stop chugging the Cotes du Rhone.

4) Ben Thanh Market- Located midway between Minihotel Alley (where all the very cheap, very decent backpacker accommodations are found) and central HCMC, the market is a perfect place to start your day with a noodle breakfast. If dodgy sanitary conditions creep you out, then just go for the shopping. We had an amazing bowl of yellow noodles and tasty fish paste patties at the stall in the picture, but if you’re worried about tummy trouble, stick to restaurants. We didn’t drink the water, but we did eat street vendor and market food and we both got a bit ill. I still give market food the benefit of the doubt because you never really know what made you sick.

Warnings aside, this is a very cool market where you can buy everything from fresh meat and fish (look for live eels flopping around), to Vietnamese coffee, to clothes and jewelery, to snake wine (yes, there’s a real snake inside—just try to get that past homeland security). The vendors are pretty aggressive and you might have a hard time convincing them that you really have no need of a knock-off Ralph Lauren polo shirt, but I love markets and this one is colorful, to say the least.

The exterior of Ben Thanh Market in HCMC

5) Lemongrass Restaurant- All the food in Vietnam was wonderful. We spent our days there wandering blissfully from one meal to the next. You can dine in a nice restaurant every night because the prices are so low. We ate dinner twice at Lemongrass, and they were two of our favorite meals of the whole trip. One of their signature items was beef, ground and seasoned to aromatic perfection, molded around stalks of lemongrass and grilled. The waiter cut it away from the lemongrass at our table and showed us how to wrap it in lettuce with rice vermicelli and peanuts and dip it into a sweet, clear sauce. We also tried a version with ground shrimp grilled on fat pieces of sugarcane that were impossibly moist and nearly as good as the beef version. Their soups (stuffed cucumber, and fish stew) and their clay pot dishes (Vietnamese catfish in a soy-based broth and pork versions) were so intensely flavorful and led us to adopt the motto, “eat anything in a clay pot.”

Our very, very helpful Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guide led us to this restaurant. Lemongrass, 4 Duong Nguyen Thiep, 822-0496

6) Huong Lai Restaurant- Yet another great find thanks to Lonely Planet. This airy, serene restaurant on the second floor of a narrow building in central HCMC was one of the bargains of the trip. The staff is made up of previously disadvantaged young people whose excellent on-the-job training is visible in every delicious bite and considerate gesture. The restaurant offers a few set menus for lunch and dinner. For about ten dollars a person we had a lovely five course lunch that included a luscious roasted eggplant appetizer and a stir fry of beef and seasonal fresh chives, fatter and more "chive-y" than any I've ever had. This meal is a perfect example of the pristine, fresh, healthy style of Vietnamese cooking we loved so much.

Huong Lai 38 Ly Tu Trong, 822-6814 (more info and a photo here)

7) Crossing the road- Various travel guides offer similar advice on this subject, and it’s true! Just pick the most opportune moment and proceed with a slow, deliberate, confident stride. Do not hesitate, do not run in fits and starts with arms flailing wildly. The motor bike drivers know what to do, and they will dodge you. Buses and cars are a different story, so don’t attempt to cross in front of anything larger than a motor bike. You will be terrified the first time, but your initial success will give you such an adrenaline rush, you’ll soon anticipate the biggest intersections with excitement.

If you’re truly paralyzed with fear, wait for a friendly local to cross with you. Occasionally, a nice person would grab my arm and shepherd me along, totally unbidden. I honestly think the government ran some kind of campaign to educate citizens on how to help tourists avoid getting flattened in the middle of their city.

There's more (this is a Top 10 list, right?)...but it's coming in the next post. We took a break from darting through traffic in HCMC to spend three days in the beach town of Nha Trang, and I'll tell you all about it.

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Anonymous said...

Is it the same snake wine as the one I got there ?

Pelicano said...

Hey Julie-
I followed your link from the tea party.

It looks like you really enjoyed yourself in Vietnam- definitely on my list of countries to visit.

Pho is very popular in my city which has many immigrants from vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. There are two ingredients often left out of the stock recipes in the American books, but which are fairly easy to locate nonetheless: sliced betel-nut (betel nuts are an ingredient in Indian paan as well as similar after-dinner tidbits in SE Asia, and black/brown/large will be labeled one of these ways, or its name in Hindi is kala(black) elaichi or badi(brown) elaichi. Hope this info helps you achieve that elusive flavour. ;-) I love pho...especially dipping the basil leaves in the broth.

Julie said...

Pelicano: Thanks so much for your comment! I have never heard of using these ingredients in certainly explains why my homemade attempts didn't work. I actually have some black cardamom that I bought mistakenly for a curry. I've heard of betel nut, but never gone looking for it. I am guessing you strain these ingredients out of the finished soup at the end...

Pelicano said...

Yep...they are simmered along with the cinnamon, star anise, fact, there are whole-spice mixes for pho that contain all of these.

I've also heard of some people browning/carmelizing onions- that would add a great depth of flavour (not dis-similar to French onion soup), but I tend to prefer a long, slow simmer of rib, neck, tail bones- 3-5 hours- for mammal :-) stocks (which I rarely make BTW, as I'm mainly a vegetarian).

Try those black cardamom in the traditional Punju dish , if you haven't already. Their mysterious, smoky (the Indian kind are traditionally smoke-cured) flavour will endear to you...

Pelicano said...

"chole" ought to be in there... :-D

Chua Moh Chuang said...

Anyone try the clam noodle house at 52A Nguyen Binh Khiem, district 1. Heard it was owned by a Singaporean dishing out fusion Vietnamese Pho Noodle and was quite popular among local vietnamese.

Chua Moh Chuang said...

Anyone try the clam noodle house at 52A Nguyen Binh Khiem, district 1. Heard it was owned by a Singaporean dishing out fusion Vietnamese Pho Noodle and was quite popular among local vietnamese.

Cheap Flights to Ho Chi Minh City said...

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