The second part of the Ho Chi Minh eating tour sees us setting off for the Binh Tay markets in Chinatown. We decide to set off early and walk there leisurely before the humidity melts us and before we become sticky and irritated.
The walk has us navigating the gauntlet of speeding, weaving, beeping motorbikes. By this stage, we’d spent about 2 days in Ho Chi Minh and I was just getting the hang of crossing the roads. There are no “gaps” in the traffic where you can safely cross. You simply make sure there isn’t a bike set on a collision course with your name on it, take a deep breath and walk out onto the road, slowly and surely with no sudden movements. Following this basic rule will ensure the motorcyclists understand your intentions and navigate around you appropriately. Stepping into busy chaotic traffic goes against every basic instinct you have, but as we discovered if you don’t take the literal plunge headlong into a throng of bikes, you don’t make much progress in Ho Chi Minh.
Our wander takes us past a little banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake) restaurant called Ngoc Son. A banh xeo cooking station was set up at the entrance of the restaurant and a cook was casually managing 5 woks at once – ladling the rice flour mixture into some, tossing fresh prawns and bean sprouts into another. The resulting banh xeo being churned out by this one woman work station looked and smelt so appetising that we decide to pull up a chair and taste her handiwork. They were a tactile pleasure with the crunchy rice flour crepe becoming soft and chewy where it wrapped the wet filling within. Inside was a tasty mixture of egg, prawns, sliced fatty pork and lots of fresh bean sprouts.
We also spot some delicious, crispy golden brown prawn puffs and order some. The same banh xeo cook tosses them in a wok full of bubbling oil and deep fries them momentarily before we eat them. These are very doughy and have some semi-crushed mung beans inside. Despite the obvious prawn sticking out of each puff, they don’t have much prawn flavour (or any flavour for that matter) and we leave them after a few bites to save our stomachs for the next meal.
Onwards we forge to to the Binh Tay markets in Cholon or Chinatown (sometimes locals refer to these markets as simply Cholon). These markets look and feel smaller, grittier, less brand spanking new and glamorous, and ultimately more “real” than the Ben Thanh markets. Whilst there are still tourist groups congregating here, one gets a sense that this is a working market that the locals use.
The smell increased in intensity as we passed from the dried squid section into a section of stalls with large uncovered buckets and pans of pungent fermented brown-grey shrimp paste. I love the flavour of shrimp paste in certain dishes – namely the way my mother makes stir fried water spinach or taro leaves, but I keep the container of shrimp paste tightly sealed and secured with cling wrap. Having large open-air vats assaulting my nostrils and having the smell intermixing with the oppressive humidity became almost nauseating. It was time to leave for fresh air and find some lunch.
Not surprisingly for me, I was in the mood for crab. One of the restaurants on my to-eat-at list was Quan 94 – reportedly the soft shell crab expert in Ho Chi Minh. Such a statement is bold, controversial and inflammatory. But with a reputation like that, it is my duty as a crab lover to assess their claim.
As we walk in I spot a tray of neatly stacked live soft shell crab on display, jammed in tight and indecently close like commuters on the Japanese metro. I feel just a little sorry for them, blinking away helplessly. But the empathy is fleeting and with the co-pilot looking on I resist the urge to poke the crabs instead opting to sit down and promptly ordering some deep fried soft shell crab. Sometimes one must do away with emotions like guilt in the pursuit of good food that is close to one’s heart (even if that mound of food next to the heart happens to be quite large).
The soft shell crab is coated in a thick goopy batter then deep fried. The batter consistency is a let down as the thickness makes the crab taste too doughy. I believe the correct term to describe the batter is “BOG” – a batter of glue. A light tempura batter would have been ideal. And the crab itself? It is just spectacular. The flesh is succulent and sweet and only after having fresh, live soft shell crab can you appreciate the immediate improvement upon the frozen soft shell crab we get in Sydney. Chalk and cheese my friend.
We also order the crab vermicelli salad – a very generous mound of meaty crab flesh, golden orange globes of crab roe mixed with bean vermicelli and a side of fresh Vietnamese mint, basil, coriander, perilla (shiso), shaved lotus root and a nước chấm (fish sauce) dressing. The contrast of fresh and crunchy herby flavours, slippery noodles and delicious peppery crab flavoured with the sweet and briny dressing was fantastic. Oh, to have a plate of that now…
We also order the fried crab claws with salt and pepper. Each claw came topped with a small heap of fragrant fried garlic and caramelised onions. The flavour packs a savoury kinghit and was incredibly moreish. The co-pilot was positively moaning with delight as he devoured these crab steaks. All up the meal cost us 321,000 VND or about $25AUD. Expensive by Ho Chi Minh standards, but a dirt cheap bargain by Sydney standards for the amount of crab consumed.
Incidentally, only upon our return did we realise there actually two Quan94 stalls – but they’re not related! This is the Quan94 conundrum. The original Quan94 crab restaurant was located at no. 94 Dien Tien Hong Street, and eventually moved down the street to no. 84, retaining the Quan94 name. The new owner at no. 94 also decided to open a crab restaurant and in good entrereneurial Asian spirit they also decided to name it Quan94 too. This is obviously confusing for poor tourists and only upon scrutiny of the restaurant’s exterior and the phone number printed outside can I safely say we went to the original Quan94 and ate at the soft shell crab expert store.
Satisfied with a belly full of crab, we head back to the city center and pamper ourselves with a long massage and exfoliation at L’Apothiquaire, a luxurious French style day spa. This combination is mandatory for all our trips in Asia – to eat well and get great massages daily. Bliss! Feeling incredibly relaxed with drowsy, dreamy smiles permanently plastered on our faces we headed over to Level 23 at the Sheraton to watch the sun set over a drowsy Ho Chi Minh and see the fluorescent night dwelling sister come alive to take her place. We’re quite pleased to discover the Sheraton has happy hour from 4 – 6:30pm every night and order ourselves a mojito and, with me being a bloody mary fiend, I of course get the bloody mary. Annoyingly, they insist that each patron orders a drink, gets served 2 of the same and pays for one. So we ended up with 2 mojitos and 2 bloody marys.
Luckily the drinks are fairly weak and we feel brave enough to order a second round. This time I get a delicious concoction called Love Potion No. 9 that tastes like melting strawberry ice cream and the co-pilot gets a margarita. With happy hour prices, these cocktails become affordable at about $9AUD for 2 cocktails.
Our splurge experience in Ho Chi Minh was at the iconic Temple Club, one of the best fine dining restaurants in the city. The restaurant is set in an old refurbished Chinese temple – hence the restaurant’s name, and most of the original wood and masonry have been retained. We’re seated, order cocktails to start and take in the interior and atmosphere. Expats and affluent locals sit relaxed, drinking and dining amongst plush and intricately carved polished dark wood interiors, remnants from the original temple. There is muted chatter, dim lighting and soft music in the background. It couldn’t be more of a contrast to the hectic world beyond the restaurant doors. It has a colonial old world feel to it and one can imagine that the character Thomas Fowler, from Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American would not have been out of place, sipping a vermouth cassis at one of the balcony tables overlooking the road, leisurely watching life go by.
Our cocktails arrive and my Temple Club cocktail is a curious concoction made with Vietnamese vodka. It tasted inexplicably like coconut and roasted rice. The co-pilot orders another margarita, but like the Sheraton drinks, they’re quite weak and leave him wanting.
We order a few dishes to share. The first is the Hue-style fresh bamboo salad, a salad from the central Vietnam region of Hue. Thin slivers of blanched bamboo are tossed with diced pork and fresh herbs with a savoury sauce style dressing. The dish has subtle and delicate flavours and is a dish more about different textures – from the succulent pork to the crunch of the bamboo – than the taste.
Next we have the charcoal grilled beef with lot leaves (“lot leaves” are another name for betel leaves). Though small, these tasty parcels of grilled beef packed in a lot of flavour and were particularly enjoyable eaten with the accompanying almost impossibily soften silken noodles.
The grilled fish La Vong style contains monk fish flavoured with galangal, ginger and garlic. The fish is perfectly cooked and extremely fresh, flaky and very tender, like biting into delicate cubes of silken tofu. It’s a delicious dish and the fresh flavours of the herbs really complement the fish.
For dessert we can’t resist ordering the banana coconut cream pudding. It’s sweet, gooey and gelatinous, with a tangy acidic aftertaste. It’s a small and simple delight that provided just the right amount of sweetness we were looking for. From memory, the meal including drinks cost us about $40AUD.
After dinner we decide to check out the trendy local bars. I wouldn’t normally even consider mentioning non-food related bars in a post but the experience had a lasting impression on us. Q Bar in District 1 has a nice alfresco area for people watching as it’s located right amongst all the high-end fashion stores and expensive hotels. Whilst there, the bar manager recommends we also check out Shadow Bar and Velvet Bar.
Shadow Bar is more a nightclub style bar and online forums describe it as a relaxed place where you don’t have to shout to be heard. So when the co-pilot and I stepped through sound-proofed doors of Shadow Bar we didn’t expect to be immediately assaulted by the impossibly loud, ear shearing volume. We froze mid-step in the empty club, expressions on horror fixed on our faces as about 6 staff descended upon us like hungry wolves, ushering us to a table and opening expensive cocktail menus in front of us. We blinked at each other, pained expressions of horror still fixed on our faces, anxiety levels dangerously high and promptly walked stiffly out of the club without a word. I’ve heard that the US Navy has developed the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) to repel pirate attacks by blasting them with an excrutiating and debilitating acoustic assault. I am absolutely positive that on the night we were there Shadow Bar was conducting LRAD civilian testing. We then ventured to Velvet Bar, which was half full and still played loud house music but at a much more sanity-friendly loud level.
The next morning we rouse ourselves from our LRAD-induced coma and hunt down the pho restaurant favoured by the locals. Our hotel staff provide us some vague directions, which lead us to Pho Quynh.
Pho Quynh’s pho bo tai (pho noodle soup with sliced beef) has a tasty and flavourful broth. Peppery, meaty and generous, the cut of beef used is not as tender as we’re used to in Sydney but still tasty. At about $2AUD, a full $3 cheaper per bowl than Pho24’s offerings it ticks all the right boxes. But the co-pilot notes that he’d happily pay the extra $3 just to sit in air-conditioned comfort and not humid, stick-to-your-chair heat whilst he slurped down his piping hot, sweat-inducing pho, his brows furrowed in heat distress.
Our time at Ho Chi Minh had come to an end and it was time to catch our bus to Can Tho for the next section of our trip – down the Mekong Delta. But before we left there was time to fit in one last quick snack. We were immediately in agreement that we had to go back to Phuoc Thanh bakery for another 2 of their fantastic banh mi. That’s 2 for me, and 2 for the co-pilot. So greedy were we to selfishly consume as much banh mi as possible that one banh mi each was simply out of the question. We managed to get our van to detour to the bakery and the co-pilot happily bounded out to get our banh mi whilst the other curious passengers stared on.
But alas, he came back empty handed. Apparently the bakery closes for a hour at about midday and that was of course the time we were there. Disappointed and now hungry, primed and salivating for banh mi, we headed off on the 3 hour long road trip to Can Tho, our stomachs empty and roaring indignantly at our abuse.
Next post in the Vietnam series – the mighty Mekong Delta and how blindly following in Anthony Bourdain’s culinary footsteps may not always be a sensible idea…
103 Ngo Quynh Street, Ward 11, district 5, Ho Chi Minh
Tel: (08) 8-537486
Binh Tay markets
Intersection of Thap Muoi Street, Confucious Street and Hau Giang Street; District 6; Ho Chi Minh
84 Dinh Tien Hoang street, Ho Chi Minh
Tel: (84) 8-910-1062
L’Apothiquaire Artisan Beauté
61-63 Le Thanh Ton street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh
Tel. : (84) 8-3822-1218 / 3827-9824
Level 23, Sheraton Hotel
Rooftop bar open 4pm – midnight
88 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (84) 838272828
Sheraton Ho Chi Minh website
29 Ton That Thiep St, District 1, Ho Chi Minh
Tel: (84) 8-8299244
Open daily from 11:30am-midnight
QBar Opera House
7 Lam Son Square, District 1, Ho Chi Minh
Tel: (84) 8-823 3480, open midday – 3am daily
6 Ho Huan Nghiep Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh
Tel: (84) 8-3822 2262; open 8:30 pm – 12 am
41 Dong Du Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: 84 8-822 7375, open 8:00am – 12:00am daily
323 Pham Ngu Lao Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh
Tel: (84) 8-836 8515
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