Flavours of Saigon – Day 1 (Ben Thanh Market, Hoa Su Restaurant, Water Puppet Show & Nam Son Beefsteak)August 26, 2012 | 6,247 views
A close resemblance to our “Chicken Fish” (read my Teo Chiew Restaurant post for another shot and more information on this peculiar fish with an identity crisis!); this grilled fish dish at Hoa Su Restaurant was simply brilliant.
And finally we come to Day One of the Ho Chi Minh trip (let’s call this Saigon for short). After a good two weeks of delay, I figure that let’s get this over and done with, before my memory cells dissipate into oblivion and I cannot tell apart the street food from one another!
Have your toilet break. Or light up and go fog some mosquitoes out from the bushes. This can get a bit …. elaborate. Ready? Let’s jump into the thick of action then.
Hoa Su Restaurant @ Cong Quynh Street, District 1, Saigon. Dining al fresco style with mostly locals, this restaurant has barely a paragraph worth of information available on the net.
Claypot Caramelized Fish in a Thick Sauce and the Salad of Lotus Rootstock, Shrimps & Pork Tripe.
We stayed at Saigon Mini Hotel 6 on Bui Vien Street, District 1 throughout our stay in Ho Chi Minh City. The rate we managed to get was USD32 per night for the Deluxe Room for two. Now, before you rush into conclusion, bear in mind that Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao are but two of the busiest streets in the backpackers’ paradise in District 1 of Saigon. Hence, you can almost imagine Bangkok’s Khao San Road yet in a less seedy or rambunctious manner.
No doubt budget hotels are a dime a dozen along the stretch; a magnet for the Westerners whereby you will see pubs and drinking holes sailing through the night packed with foreigners having a jolly good time sipping on dare-I-say-it … dirt-cheap local beers.
The environment can be slightly unnerving for first-timers, as depending on how close your hotel is to the heart of the action; you probably will not be able to fall into deep slumber with thumping music and endless laughters; peppered with shouts of Cheers or “Yooooo!” (cheers in Vietnamese).
Cho Thai Binh (Thai Binh Market in District 1) – Cho refers to Market in Vietnamese.
Nevertheless, the hotel was satisfactory with pleasant service, ample amenities and most importantly, clean and well-kept. Wifi is provided for free and you can access from every corner of the hotel (sharing the same password), and breakfast is included as well. More on the hotel in the second post; if this aging mind remembers.
Let me rewind slightly back to the airport. Upon descending at Saigon’s airport (Tan Son Nhat International Airport), we were surprised that it is no longer necessary to fill in the disembarkation form. Great, save time. Then we proceeded to exchange our USD into Vietnamese Dong (VND) at one of the bank counters within the compound before you exit the Arrival parlour.
The best rate was USD1 = VND20,850. Roughly, about RM1 = VND6,500.
Sights and sounds from the Streets of Saigon. The local folks do have a tendency to chill during the busiest hours.
For the cabs, do take note that we took only VINASUN and MAI LINH throughout the trip. Taxi fare from the airport to our hotel in District 1 was only 60,000 VND (RM9/USD3).
The traffic in Saigon needs to be seen to believe. If you are itching for a ride on the cyclo (or bikes), then by all means … have fun. But traffic flow is reversed compared to our country; whereby the driver’s seat is on the left. And you really really have to possess courage of steel to maneuver around town. Vehicles in all shapes and sizes will zoom past you from ALL directions, coupled with incessant honking (part of the culture …. I suppose?!). Wanna cross the roads with ease? Read THIS.
We settled for a late lunch at Hoa Su Restaurant on Cong Quynh Street, a short distance away from our hotel. Since we met up with a few of our Vietnamese friends, we let them do the ordering instead. The laminated menu did come with English descriptions; but with easily more than a hundred dishes, I’m not putting my eyes to the test by deciphering the menu in its entirety.
We ended up with FOUR dishes; the best being the Grilled Fish crusted with a layer of caramelized marinade; being crispy on the outside and extremely tender and sweet within. The ‘chicken fish’ was a very meaty catch; yet I found no qualms in finishing half the fish on my own. The condiment served alongside this was a very interesting mix of rock salt, dried shrimps and a squeeze of lime juice. The Claypot caramelized fish fillet (Ca Kho To) in a slightly sweet and thick sauce (a faint similarity to our “Kung Pao” style of cooking) was a delightful accompaniment to the rice as well; while the started of Shrimp, Lotusroot and Pork Tripe Salad served on prawn crackers deserve a mention too.
After lunch, we went on a walkabout around District 1; breathing in the erm, not-so-fresh air of the city yet revelling in the postprandial soaking in of the local atmosphere. One word of caution though, you sure as hell do NOT want to jaywalk here in Saigon; or stroll in your casual/reckless manner like how you have been doing in your ‘kampung’ all this while.
That being said, comparing Saigon to Old Quarters of Hanoi head-to-head, my vote goes to Old Quarters for the pleasure of being slightly more pedestrian-friendly. The streets of Saigon are generally wider and busier compared to Hanoi’s, hence crossing over to stalls scattered all over the nooks and corners might take some effort.
Cho Ben Thanh (Ben Thanh Market) – One of the icons of Saigon; and a definite must in every tourist’s itinerary.
Regardless of how you plan your itinerary, you cannot miss a sojourn to Ben Thanh Market nestled in the centre of District 1. If you are planning to take up on the “Daily City Tour” (which we did not) then there is a possibility that Ben Thanh or its sister counterpart Cho Binh Tay (Binh Tay Market) in Cholon, District 6 will be enlisted into the plan.
The market reminded me of Cho Dong Xuan; the largest indoor market in Old Quarters of Hanoi. Ben Thanh could be slightly smaller; only one-storey yet easier to navigate with relatively lower traffic and wider alleys. Stalls selling everything from dried food products, souvenirs, clothings, accessories, and even hawker stalls are grouped into sections for ease of navigation.
Some of the highlights include fresh fruits; from durians to cherries, pomeloes to mangoes as well as strawberries. Possibly from the highlands of Dalat (which I will gladly sing praises for in the very next post). Coffee beans are aplenty, since Vietnamese coffee is simply amazing; packed with a robust flavour and aroma that lingers in your taste bud after a few sips. The dried food products stalls drew the largest crowd naturally, since these can be eaten as snacks while you’re roaming around town or brought home as souvenirs. Beats that boring key chain or fridge magnet, no doubt.
The dried jackfruit, cashew nuts and fried lotus seeds are some of the better bets, but do remember to haggle like there is no tomorrow before purchasing. The traders in Ben Thanh Market are by no means amateurs, and some of them are able to converse in a myriad of languages (including Malay and Chinese!) to entice you into a sense of warmth and comfort …. thus easier to part with your moolah … 😉
If you’re not branded as a shopaholic, or simply not interested in buying the umpteenth piece of souvenirs for your loved ones, don’t fret. Skip all the manic haggling business and park yourself down on a stool at any of the food stalls in the market. You do get a pretty impressive selection of local street food; with no frills attached since this is a place where the locals have their meals.
Ironically, just as we were about to leave the premise and come back shopping on another day (this was only the first day, and we had no intentions of carting away bullock carts-worth of goods back to the hotel for another week!), a heavy downpour stopped us dead in our tracks. Yes, we were trapped.
Hence, the next best solution was to enjoy a refreshing serving of Vietnamese iced coffee with milk; Ca Phe Sua Da at one of the stalls. One thing to note though, the price of food and beverages in and around the market can be slightly pricier compared to further corners of the streets. But still …. nothing beats the de-stressing whiff of caffeine laden with condensed milk and an overdose of ice cubes. The others tried Che My (I hope I am right); combinations of various condiments, fruit bits and coconut milk with ice desserts.
And what to do after all the walking? Siesta time, baby!
We rested for an hour or so at our hotel; before proceeding to commit the very sin that every visitor to Vietnam will somehow go through. We watched a SHOW.
No silly, not some shady Tiger (hehe ..) Show, but this was the culturally-rich, laden with humour and sadly; presented only in Vietnamese; Water Puppet Show.
Now, if you somehow possess a memory bank equivalent to the size of a football field, then you must be scratching your head in bewilderment. Didn’t Motormouth watch something similar back in Hanoi?
Yes, and this was the EXACT same show at Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre in Saigon this time; with the same lineup of cast (as in the puppets) and storyline. VND150,000 per pax (about RM23/USD7). The others in the group have not, hence this was a nice introductory/customary session for the first-timers, I guess. Oh well.
Dinner at Nam Son Beefsteak; within walking distance from the Water Puppet Theatre
The show lasted for about 45 minutes; and there are quite a few shows daily. So no worries about not able to grab a ticket. You can ask your hotel to reserve some tickets for you, OR you can purchase from some hotels even. Not sure if they charge an additional fee though.
About 5 minutes walk away from the theatre, Nam Son Beefsteak (www) is a local haunt hidden away from the main roads; but the neon signboard by the road caught my attention while passing by en route to the Water Puppet Show.
The name might be misleading, as we were prepared for a Western style of restaurant; or possibly a French-inspired fine diner since some of Vietnamese dishes have subtle influences from the French.
But surprise, surprise. The moment we sauntered into the back alley leading to Nam Son, we knew that this was definitely a place where the locals, students and middle-class families dine. Cafeteria-style of long tables and benches, ventilated by ceiling and wall fans, as well as metal plates of sizzling slabs of meats were in view; coupled with fresh baguettes that can be replenished endlessly.
If you are not sure of what to order (everything’s priced VERY cheap, starting from VND50,000 (USD2.40/RM7.50) for a piece of Vietnamese beefsteak, to VND80,000 (USD3.80/RM12) for a piece of American beefsteak. What the majority of the group ordered (there are a few locals in the group, btw) was the Vietnamese beefsteak with meatball, sunny side up egg and a piece of pate for VND60,000 (USD2.80/RM9). Portions might appear to be slightly small but for the price that you’re paying … don’t lament! Oh, and the Ostrich Steak was a mighty fine piece of meat too, grilled to almost tender perfection. For only VND70,000 (USD3.40/RM10.50).
And we capped off the first day with a night cruise along Saigon river. There are various cruise ships along the bay; with different price range of course. Although you are not required to order a full feast on board (you can order drinks and light snacks), bear in mind that since there are ‘performances’ on board (cheesy sing & dance repertoire, coupled with a funny fire-eating stint that I shall avoid going into), the service charges CAN be a bit daunting if you’re unprepared.
And there you have it folks, Day One of our Saigon Trip. Barely a summary though, I really need to reduce the ramblings in future posts. Any questions? Drop me a mail HERE or follow me on Twitter if you want random words of wisdom throughout the day. Don’t puke.
Saigon Mini Hotel 6 (www)
198, Bui Vien Street,
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Hoa Su Restaurant
250, Cong Quynh Street,
District 1, HCMC, Vietnam
Ben Thanh Market
Phan Boi Chau,
District 1, HCMC, Vietnam
Water Puppet Show @ Golden Dragon Theatre (www)
Nam Son Beefsteak (www)
Address 1: 200 Bis Nguy?n Th? Minh Khai, F.6, Q.3, Tp.HCM
Address 2: 157 Nam K? Kh?i Ngh?a, F.6, Q.3, Tp.HCM