Having arrived in Saigon via Shanghai, both former colonial cities now under quasi communist control, I’m struck by the startling differences between the two. Saigon has an almost South American feel with crumbly pastel-colored buildings along tree lined avenues. Locals pass the day on sidewalks selling their wares or socializing at makeshift kitchens, sitting on tiny red stools sipping iced drinks. More motorbikes than cars fill the streets. Saigon is not eager to leap into the modern age with snazzy modern skyscrapers, Western-style department stores and a Starbuck’s on every corner. Although there is a definite Western presence, it’s of the backpacker and expat variety rather than locals adopting Western establishments as their own. Small restaurants serving good cheap eats or quaint French cafés rather than Pizza Huts with a line of Chinese queuing at the door.
The breakfast buffet at the Majestic Hotel is served on the rooftop terrace with views of the Saigon River and offers a grand selection of Western and Eastern choices. Soup noodles and omelets made to order, selections of fruit, cold cuts and cheeses, breads, cereals, dim sum as well as an Asian rice porridge bar with garnishes of fermented eggs and dried fish. In the past I’ve dismissed congee as tasteless, but the Vietnamese fish or pork flavored porridge is quite good. Over all an excellent start to the morning.
First on our agenda after breakfast is the Ben Thanh Market, a covered city-block sized structure packed with stalls selling clothing, household items, DVDs, etc. But of course we are interested in the food and head straight to the back, barely glancing at the myriad T-shirts and table cloths. We know we are getting close when we smell the unmistakable odor of durian, an exotic fruit with a distinct carrion fragrance. While the food section is not huge, the stalls of fresh meat, fish, fruits and vegetables have a broad range of high-quality offerings: pigs ears, brains, eel gutted to order, squirming shrimp and hairy crab to name a few. The freshness of the ingredients makes the prospect of dining in this city all that more appealing.
Our next stop was an errand. An event that was such a non-event that it seems worthy to comment on. The train ticket office was easily found, there was no queue and within minutes we had tickets for two soft seats from Da Nang to Hue for 100,000 dong or about $5US.
The trek to the Jade Emperor Pagoda was longer and hotter than anticipated, with the temple not as easily found as the train ticket office and the incessant vroom of motor bikes grating on my nerves. Once there, however, fatigue was replaced with delight as we stumbled on Tet festivities complete with dancing dragons, locals burning incense and making offerings of money, fruit and what looked like a yellowish soda pop. A total assault of the senses – drums beating, brightly dressed dancers, people packed together, and eye-stinging smoke. But unlike the sun and the motorbikes this was a good intensity, experiencing up close local tradition, witnessing the joy in faces of the young and old as they watch the dragons leap in courtyard and their devotion as they pray in the temple.
Time for some refreshment. On the way back to the hotel we stop at a pho shop for what else, pho and a beer. Our first pho, or noodle soup, was not so different from the pho from one of the immigrant-run shops in the DC suburbs. Rice noodles and beef parts in a rich broth laced with Asian spices and garnished with bean sprouts, Thai basil and lime. When you are tired and hungry, nothing re-energizes like a nourishing bowl of pho.
With our bellies full we sleep for a couple of hours, making up for the hours we didn’t sleep the night before. Jet lag is a bitch. Here I am again, typing at 2:00 AM. No, this is not the best way to adjust to the time difference, but then I really haven’t found the “best” way. I just force through it and sleep when I am able.
Before dinner we go up to the rooftop bar of the Majestic to have drink and watch the neon lit dinner cruises fill up with tourists. Just over an hour later, as we are returning from dinner, they will be emptying again, the passengers filing into the waiting line of tour buses. It’s a soft warm night with a light breeze. Really doesn’t get more perfect.
Dinner was at the Vietnam House just down the street from our hotel. Old World ambience in a French colonial-style building with a high-ceilinged dining room overlooking the street below. The wait-staff is dressed in traditional costume and there is live “traditional” music, that is, elevator-style arrangements of old favorites, Bésame Mucho and Que Sera Sera played on Vietnamese instruments. Thankfully they are on the other side of the large dining room. The diners are an international mix of tourists. I doubt that an expat would eat here more than once, but the people watching is entertaining and the food generally good.
The Japanese couple at the next table ordered a whole deep fried fish that was presented to the table mounted upright on a display stand. It was served with a plate of rice paper and greens. They were of course delighted with the bold presentation of the fish but equally confused about what to do with the rice paper. He picks up a single layer with his chopsticks and gives it a sideways Detective Goren inquisitive look. Finally he asks the waiter to demonstrate this strange eating technique.
We ordered a few classic dishes we have been wanting to try – beef wrapped in betel leaf, stir-fried water spinach, glass noodles with crab, and foil grilled mackerel. The beef with traditional Vietnamese seasoning looked like a Vietnamese version of dolmas, with betel leaf instead of grape leaves.
Ever since the morning I spent in San Francisco’s Chinatown searching for water spinach, a cousin of our morning glory, I’ve wanted to try this green. Stemmy and mild flavored it makes a good alternative to spinach.
The glass ( or cellophane) noodles with crab, thin ribbons of wood ear mushrooms and enough black pepper to give it a good kick, tasted very much like the dish we made at home with Dungeness crab.
On a good day mackerel is an acquired taste. This was not a good day. This fish that is so oily it’s almost impossible to dry out was bone dry, which just intensified the fishiness. Don was in fishiness heaven, although he would have preferred his fish not so overcooked. Our fish was also served with a plate of rice papers and greens. We had practiced using the rice paper at home to make the meatball rolls but didn’t know you could use rice paper dry. It is just pliable enough when dry to make a descent roll and thin enough that in melts in the mount upon contact. Interesting, but further experiences will tell if this is a traditional technique or quirk of this restaurant.
A fun touristy experience, but not a restaurant I would recommend for someone looking for authentic Vietnamese dining.