Vietnamese eating tour – Ho Chi Minh (part 1)

by Forager on June 21, 2009

I’ve finally gotten around to doing this post on Vietnam. Over Easter earlier this year the co-pilot and I went to Southern Vietnam for 10 days. It was my first visit to Vietnam and it was 10 days of solid eating and detailed planning to fit in more than the customary 3 standard meals each day. We spent 4 fantastic days in Ho Chi Minh before moving on but we packed in so much that I can’t fit it all in one post – so I’ve split it into two parts. These posts will be more pictorial style posts otherwise I could go on forever and there would be just too much detail.

The first night in Ho Chi Minh was pretty unremarkable after being up for a full 24 hours of travelling, flying and stopovers. We dropped off our bags at our hotel and hit the bars for an icy cold beer to stave off the humid night air whilst watching the incessant stream of seemingly chaotic traffic whizz by with ubiquitous beeping of their horns.



Despite not being hungry, we were determined not to lose any opportunity to eat so we dragged our heavy feet to Barbeque Garden, an open air restaurant specialising in BBQ grilled meals as each individual table has their own BBQ grill set into the table. The restaurant was slightly touristy, but the upside of that was it was “safe” for tourists – meaning the hygiene was more to Western standards and the ice served in drinks were made from filtered water and not local water. Our meal of grilled beef and spicy calamari with large helpings of proper ice tea was tasty but I was more impressed by the generous swathes of mesmerising fairy lights hanging overhead. It made for a very lovely night in Vietnam. A befitting first night activity too as it was taking all my concentration and every last vestige of energy to not give in to the pull of sleep and flop face first into the blistering grill.

After a restorative night’s sleep, we headed out in search of some good beef pho – the breakfast of champions. We’d heard much about Pho24 and despite the possibility that it could be an expensive tourist trap that the locals avoid like the plague, we decided we had to check it out for ourselves. Unlike many of the haphazardly set up pho stalls on street corners that the locals frequent, Pho24 is a proper restaurant, it’s empty on the morning we head in, it’s air conditioned and there is elevator music playing in the background – all sure signs that it’s going to be expensive.

The co-pilot orders the standard beef pho and I order the special beef pho which comes with an extra helping of offal, but it is the most carefully presented delicate pieces of offal I have ever seen. The pieces of tripe so petite it might have come from a calf instead. The all important soup is tasty – I would actually describe the flavour as “pure” as it has a sweetness and clarity to it that you don’t often get with pho. The accompanying herbs, lemon and bean sprouts come in neat and artfully arranged piles. It’s tasty, pretty and thoroughly enjoyable but I am used to the robust flavours and slap-dash style of the pho I get in Sydney. And the prices are certainly geared towards tourists and the more affluent as two fairly small bowls of pho set us back about $10 AUD.


A walk around the famous Cho Ben Thanh markets was in order to walk off breakfast. It’s kitsch, it’s touristy, it’s expensive compare to smaller local markets – but there is plenty to see and amuse the wide-eyed tourists and enough practical produce to keep the locals coming back too.
Locals gather here, pull up a simple plastic stool and tuck into steaming hot bowls of soups, tasty stir fries and other treats.

We come across a coffee stall with a myriad of coffees to suit every taste. We spot the one for us – weasel coffee! This is the equivalent to Indonesian civet cat coffee and is produced by digestion in the gut of a weasel. The aroma is rich, strong and heady. We buy a few packs of the stuff to try and as souvenirs for brave friends and family. (A dedicated post on this coffee is in the pipeline).


There was of course plenty of fresh fruit and produce for sale. The humid tropical weather makes everything grow ballistically, taste amazingly good and unbelievably sweet too.


And you can get a variety of things catered for weirder Asian tastes – like silk worms for example. Apparently very good when fried and simply seasoned. I’d try one, but there weren’t any fried ones for sale. And I wasn’t game to cook my own silkworms.


We also came across the meat section where lots of un-refrigerated meat sat about in humid conditions. Hope the turnover is good!


And you might be treated to other weird sights. Like this man patiently and lovingly shaving a pig’s trotter. Well, I guess someone’s gotta do it. The co-pilot vehemently disagrees and stares in shock and mild disgust.


And then I chanced upon this crab lover’s heaven. Crab in all shapes, sizes and forms. Mounds of enormous juicy succulent crab steaks conveniently prepared so the lovely pink flesh normally protected by solid shell is exposed to my greedy eyes. If only I had more time here and a kitchen at my disposal. But I didn’t. So whilst other tourists took photos posing next to monuments and landmarks. I took my fair share posing next to mounds of crab meat.


And live soft shell crabs! I’ve never seen live ones – only the frozen variety. I poked and prodded until the co-pilot chastised me.


Suitably hungry after our stroll through the markets we made a hasty beeline to Quan An Ngon, a restaurant featured in most popular guide books. This restaurant has a peculiar feature – the restaurant patrons sit in the middle of a large courtyard and pavillion and the perimeter is studded with stalls offering every type of Vietnamese dish imaginable. Customers can sit back, peruse the menu and watch the busy hive of activity around them or peruse the food fair style stalls individually before you make your meal choice. What a brilliant idea! The lively market style atmosphere but restaurant service gives you the best of both worlds. I wish something like this existed in Sydney!


A stall for snacks fried on site to a delicious golden brown.


Bubbling pots of soup stock for bun rieu and pho soup tempted and beckoned to us.


An active grill with skewers of marinated meat spitting away and emitting delicious aromas was driving us crazy with hunger!


So what did we order here? First up, the sugar cane shrimp paste with rice vermicelli and rice paper rolls (Banh Hoi Chau Tom Cuon Banh Trang). The shrimp paste on the sugar cane was light, fluffy and deliciously aromatic with prawn flavours. Th is was balanced by the sweetness of the sugar cane and where the exterior was slightly charred it produced more caramelised roasted flavours. They were quite possibly the best sugar cane shrimp we’ve ever tasted.


The beef salad with vegetables in spicy sauce (Goi Bo Bop Thau) was another winner from Quan An Ngon. It was delicious – the beef was meltingly tender, partnered with sliced carambola (star fruit), pineapple core chunks for extra crunch, plenty of fresh herbs – all dressed with a spicy and tangy dressing.


The last thing to arrive was a fresh water crab soup with water spinach (banh da cua). My lust for all things crabby strikes again – but this time, it didn’t deliver a great result even for a forgiving crab lover like me. The soup is thin and fishy, the crab is a minced crab paste and not the crab flesh I’d seen at the markets and hoped I’d be sinking my teeth into. It’s not particularly pleasant after the previous two dishes and we soon leave this one and return our attention to the previous two. Overall – a thumbs up from us! We’ll definitely be returning to Quan An Ngon the next time we’re in Ho Chi Minh as there were countless dishes on the menu that had tempted us.


For a tasty snack between meals we stumbled upon Phuoc Thanh – a fantastic bakery found on one of our wanders around the city. It is no surprise that the Vietnamese are wonderful bakers, one upside of French colonialism I guess.

And we discovered the secret to the best banh mi or Vietnamese pork roll ever – super fresh and fantastic bread. This bread tasted more like a pastry than bread – wonderfully fresh, crusty and sweet scented. The resulting banh mi was so much better than any of the ones sold on street corners as the dense omnipresent humidity in Vietnam soon turns the freshest bread soggy. I declare it the best banh mi I’ve ever had and I’ve had my fair share in Cabramatta.


No trip to Asia is complete without noting the bizarre Engrish that pops up everywhere. Like the popular but unfortunately named Fanny – the menu outside advertised snacks and ice cream. Fanny snacks. The jokes were endless for our simple minds.


And the peculiar sights keep coming. On a stroll near the water one early evening we come across this monstrosity. Whether it’s meant to be auspicious or a homage to the Giant Mekong catfish it’s a bizarre sight and I can’t help but stare slack jawed at the lucid fluorescent lights. It wouldn’t be out of place in a scene from my favourite anime, Spirited Away.


But scenes like this sum it up for me about what is fantastic about Vietnam – it’s a crazy out of place juxtaposition against the serene and calm water. It’s weird, wonderful, alive, hectic and bizarre all at once and it gets you craning your neck to see what’s coming next.

The post on Ho Chi Minh part 2 to come soon!

Addresses:

Barbeque Garden
135 A Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1 HCMC Vietnam Open everyday 7am – 11pm Tel: (84-8) 3823 33 40 http://www.barbecuegarden.com

Pho24
271 Pham Ngu Lao St., Dist.1, HCMC
Tel : (84-8) 9206901
There are countless stores across Vietnam and other international locations including one in Sydney. Check out their website for locations.
http://www.pho24.com.vn

Ben Thanh markets
Intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao Avenues and Le Lai Street
Ho Chi Minh City,
Vietnam

Quan An Ngon
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Tel: (84-8) 8257179

Phuoc Thanh Bakery
183 An Duong Vuong, P.8, Q.5, TP.
HCM Dien Thoai
Tel (84-8) 38577868

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Arwen from Hoglet K June 21, 2009 at 6:39 pm

That fish boat really does look like something out of Spirited Away! You've got some great action photos here, and it sounds like you had lots of great food to choose from.

2 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella June 21, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Great photos and commentary! Hubby and I are eager to go to Vietnam sometime and this will serve as a great addition to the guidebook. As for shaving the pig's trotter I never thought but much about it but I guess it has to be done hehe! 😛

3 Stephcookie June 21, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Oh god that banh me looks to DIE for. Great post, it makes me want to go there on holiday right now. I haven't seen live soft shell crabs either, I would been poking them too :)

4 FFichiban June 23, 2009 at 3:24 am

Ooh at silkworms :S and hee hee at prodding the soft shell crabs 😛

I didn't try any banh mi when I went :( but I really want to find the one Howard posted about!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUSWsR9h4qY&feature=PlayList&p=TaL61zeLaJ8

5 Forager June 23, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Hey Arwen – No faults with the food at all. Our only complaint is that we had so many things on our to eat at list and so little time to sample it all. I could eat for 2 weeks solidly in Ho Chi Minh alone and ensure each meal is not only different, but also unique and on someone's recommendation

Hey Lorraine – Oh definitely go to Vietnam! We loved it! It definitely (can be) a food lovers holiday. And the market sights like the pig's trotters – even I haven't seen someone shaving a trotter. So so bizarre.

Hey Steph – Yes that Banh Mi was awesome! So good in fact we tried to go back for seconds another day but it was closed :( (featured in my next post too)

Hey FFichiban – Yeah, I love Bourdain and have seen that episode. It looks very tasty indeed. But, as you'll see in one of my later Bourdain posts – blindly following Bourdain's lead doesn't always result in good experiences (not bad per se, just a little er.. unhygienic… I'll keep you in suspense) 😉

6 Zina @ tastedbytwo June 23, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Great post! I absolutely loved Ho Chi Minh City when I visited back in 07. A city with so much culture, history, food and friendly people. I really enjoyed the street pho stalls, such a treat watching pho prepared right in front of my eyes.

7 Betty June 23, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Your post makes me want to go back and eat! I love how the all the food vendors are along the perimeter – they should totally do that in Sydney. Lol @ posing with crustaceans! I would've done that too :) Looking forward to Part II!

8 Howard June 25, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Vietnam is one of my fav eating destinations. I had some pretty amazing food inside the che ban thanh markets. I think it was bum bo hue and bun riu, it was worth it while sweating my ass off in there!

9 Forager June 25, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Hey Zina – Thanks! I really loved it too. Ate so so much and the flavours are so fresh, herby and fantastic! Watch out for the rest of my vietnam posts :)

Hey Betty – I know. Looking at the photos and writing the posts makes me so hungry! Lol – I took so many cheesy photos with the crabs – mostly with me grinning from ear to ear and pointing, poking the crab meat.

Hey Howard – Ah, we didn't stop to eat in the markets. Didn't have enough time and I already had every meal planned out. Market fail!

10 Christie @ Fig & Cherry June 25, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Jealous! Love the look of the sugar cane on those silky white rice noodles. Plus the boat is hilarious! :)

11 Leona June 25, 2009 at 10:50 pm

I soo wanna go to vietnam.. But the boy who is viet himself refuses to go.. hes worried about his shocking viet *rolls eyes*.

If its one thing viets are the masters of… its BREAD! Im eyeing those bread rollz!

Did u get any food poisoning while u were there? Would love to hear about ur trip at the next catchup ^_^

12 Forager June 26, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Hey Christie – Certainly was tasty and I could definitely do with some delicious Vietnamese from Quan An Ngon right now. Maybe I should start seeding the idea that someone whould open such a place on Twitter.

Hey Leona – He has nothing to worry about! I can't speak Vietnamese, tried to be respectful and speak Vietnamese to the locals only to realise their English is 10bn times better than the mangled words I was trying to get out. In the end I reverted to English and the 10 days was A-OK. No food poisoning luckily. Though we expected it. We stayed away from the "bad crushed ice" made from local water, avoided street side drinks and ice blocks and seemed to be ok. Though we did drink from the Mekong. That was a bit stupid. :(

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