Sunday, 17 May 2009

Asian Adventure 3 :: 15-17 May '09 :: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

After a faultless one-and-a-half hour hop on Jetstar to Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport, we secured the (seemingly) set price of US$10 for a trip into District 1 (Sài Gòn), and enjoyed our first experience of rush hour traffic, which has to be seen to be believed.

Never seen a motorcycle lane so full

Our taxi driver was a lady with painted eyebrows who sported a jacket, floppy sunhat and leather gloves. It was sunny and 28 degrees Celsius. This was true heliophobia (fear of the sun) - a trait common in Asia where pale skin is favoured as a way of distancing oneself from those who work as labourers (i.e. outside). Rather different from the West where people are keen to tan themselves as brown as the muck they are as common as, in Eastern eyes.

To get a feel for the area (Pham Ngu Lao) around our hotel before meeting our guide at 1pm, we wandered to grab lunch at the excellent Wrap and Roll and then walked to Thu Thiem Ferry Terminal on the Saigon River, taking in the Ben Thanh Market and the Opera House along the way.

Next up, we were met by the wonderful Van Dang from Connections Vietnam. For the ensuing four hours, Van took us on a whistle stop tour of some of the hidden districts of the City and gave us some excellent lessons in crossing the road. [Just walk very slowly out into the oncoming traffic and they will go around you]. We first journeyed around the famous market and Chinese temples of Cholon and then took a boat into District 2, once again being astounded by the sheer number of motorbikes (even on the boat itself) and the number of people allowed on a motorbike (by law, four at the last count)

Motorcyle Madness

One man, three children? No problem. Let's go!

District 2 has been ear-marked for proposed developments that look like very similar to the Singapore of now. Apparently, though, it's not unusual for such proposals to remain the daydreams of urban planners.

On return to District 1, we checked out the Notre-Dame Basilica (every stone of which was imported from France in the late 1800's) and enjoyed a street-side iced coffee before winding up at the last of the French colonial outposts, the Saigon Central Post Office.

Good to see Uncle Ho lives on inside the Post Office

As the sun began to fall, we embarked on a gastronomic adventure of Vietnamese wonderment. With the guidance of Van, we tried special dishes such as Xoi Man (sticky rice with chicken, shrimps, shallots and spring onions served with pickled mooli, cucumber and carrot) at Che Xoi (111 Bui Thi Xuan Street), Bun Rieu (noodles with tomato and crab) and Nem (flat spring rolls from North Vietnam) at a restaurant specialising in food from Hoi An and Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake filled with pork and beansprouts) at Long Huy (129 Cach Mang Thang Tam).

Seriously, everything we tried was lip-smackingly good. It was reassuring to note that Song Que, Viet Hoa and Huong Viet restaurants in Shoreditch and De Beauvoir, London, do a good rendition of Vietnamese dishes. However, the London scene can't quite beat sitting in a bustling restaurant, slurping whilst getting a bead on (a.k.a sweating) and listening to the sing-song chatter of the local Vietnamese. We ended the night by crossing one of the City's largest roundabouts by walking almost straight across the middle of it. Yes, we were only lit by the headlights of oncoming cars and motorbikes, but we were with our trusted Van, and that made anything achievable.

The next morning, we were up early after a breakfast at our hotel of last night's leftover dinners (for real, tasty fried rice, noodles, beef stew etc. alongside toast, cereal and fruit). This time, we were picked up by Giang Minh Nguyen to embark on a journey to the outskirts of the City where we went shopping with Mrs. Nghia at the local market (note: even in the tiny market lanes, motorcyclists do not dismount) for raw ingredients to make delicious goi cuon and beef pho (it's not 'fo', it's 'fur').

Goi Cuon Medley

Can't get enought goi cuon in my daily Singapore life

Beef pho made with real love

Over lunch, we learned how to say 'delicious' (ngon) and 'full' (ngot) but didn't attempt to say 'deliciously full' given that Vietnamese happens to be a very difficult language comprised of sounds that (to the untrained ear) are very similar.

In the afternoon, we headed over to see the two French protagonists of Wonderful District. It was most superb to meet Bertrand Peret and Sandrine Llouquet who gave us a keen insight into life as artists in the burgeoning creative scene in Vietnam. Both are wonderfully talented, forward-thinking, innovative and incredibly welcoming. They are working on a bi-lingual magazine on contemporary art in Asia and events under the Jet Lag brand, including an awesome end of year festival at Mui Ne, about five hours from Saigon.

After our enormous lunch, we decided that we had not had quite enough delectable cuisine so we headed to An Vien (178A Hai Ba Trung St, District 1), in the luxurious settings of an old French villa, where the highlight was a delicious king prawn soup that was garnished with edible flowers.

On our final day, we took in the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace before heading to have our last Vietnamese coffee at the wonderfully secluded Serenata (6E Ngo Thoi Nhiem, District 3), an open-air cafe-bar with live piano music tinkering around the walls of an old villa. I could have sat there all day, had it not been for the necessary journey back to Sin City.

All in all, we had a magical time in Ho Chi Minh City. What made it really special was the chance to meet locals and experience a little bit of their daily lives. It is, after all, the people that make a place.

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