Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wandering in Vietnam - Part 3 - The South

Ho Chi Minh's Statue in front of the Old City Hall, Saigon. 

Leaving the delightful 'Imperial' gastronomic delights of Hue behind, it is time to make our way Southwards towards Ho Chi Minh City, the erstwhile Saigon, Vietnam's largest city by far, a bustling Metropolis of 9 million residents, which is also the commercial and financial hub of the country.

Gia Long Palace Museum
Botanical Gardens
The city has much to offer the tourist and visitor. Those of you who like museums, would be happy with the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and the Museum of Vietnamese History, the former being located in the old French colonial building called Gia Long Palace, it was the last residence of President of the Republic of Vietnam Ngô Đình Diệm, before Saigon fell during the Vietnam war. The author found the Museum of Vietnamese history more interesting, as it has a fine collection of Vietnamese and Cambodian antiquities, some of them of exquisite quality.
Notre Dame Cathedral

The Botanical Gardens, just outside, are very nice and a good place to get away from the crowds. The Notre Dame Cathedral, dating back to the French colonial times, is also worth a visit. There are many
 Pagodas in the city, most of them fairly modern but worth a short tour. 

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels, a little away from the city, are a grim reminder of the Vietnam War. These tunnels were used by freedom fighters during conflicts with the French and the Americans. Exploring a part of the 600 kilometers of tunnel system where people lived for years is interesting. Claustrophobia sufferers beware; these are not for the faint of heart. 
Cao Dai Temple
A little farther down, is the town of Tay Ninh, site of the Cao Dai Temple, the Holy See of the 'Cao Dai' religion, an interesting combination of Eastern and Western religions with unique and colorful ceremonies. Both these attractions need a day's excursion from Saigon.
Those that are not culturally inclined or not subscribing to the 'site seeing culture' can easily spend time walking around the river side promenade and boulevards absorbing the atmosphere and people watching.

River Promenade and waterfront 

Cai Rang Floating Market
An overnight excursion to Can Tho City, about 3-4 hours away from Saigon, will allow you to visit the Cai Rang Floating Market, the largest one on the Mekong River. The Market is best visited by boat between 5 and 9 AM. a visit is strongly recommended. 

Stately Old Rex Hotel

The Opera House
A vibrant, colourful, dynamic and crowded city, Saigon, as it is still commonly called, defines Vietnam. 
Wide boulevards, stately French colonial buildings, traditional houses and new concrete and glass structures abound.
The life of the city, however, are its citizens, specially its youth, which comprise a large proportion of its population and are instrumental in creating its culture of cafes , bars, beer halls and restaurants which can be found in all parts of the city.

Modern Towers
A delightful fringe benefit of this young revolution is that as most young people have lower disposable incomes, most food and beverage venues are reasonably priced.
Young people, cheap beer and food
High rollers need not despair; however, there are enough up-market bars and restaurants which cater to the elite, with prices to match. 
Saigon Motorbikes

The traffic in Ho Chi Minh City has to be seen to believed and is especially bad at office times. It is always better to keep time in hand if proceeding for any appointment. A majority of the traffic seems to be mopeds and light motorbikes.
Beer Hoi
While walking around, too, exercise caution, light fingered pick pockets can relive you of your purse or valuables without you being any wiser, as the wife discovered to her cost, losing her mobile phone. While crossing roads, trust in the divine, think of any Gods you might believe in and wade out like Moses parting the seas. Normally the ocean of traffic will part to let you through without injury to life and limb.


Ben Thanh Market
Inveterate shoppers would find plenty of opportunities to occupy themselves gainfully. Saigon offers something for everyone. Mekong Creations is a good place to go for traditional Vietnamese handicrafts. The Ben Thanh Market stocks almost anything and many an hour can be spent browsing merchandise of various types and qualities. Nearby, just to the south is the 'Antique Street', a little bit of hyperbole as most of the 'Antiques' are modern, but interesting none the less.
An Dong Plaza-Shopping Galore

The An Dong Multi-storey Market offers an interesting selection of merchandise and knock offs of famous brands of clothing and hand bags.
Binn Tai Market
The Binn Tai Flea and Street Market also makes for an interesting visit, with prices on the lower side as the locals shop there. 

If you cannot make it to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City is also a great place to shop for Vietnamese art and lacquer work.
Cho Binh Tay Market
 Vietnamese hand embroidery is a 700-year-old tradition. Tiny silk threads are used to create brightly coloured pictures on cloth. The best examples of this craft have been raised to an art form. Popular themes, in various sizes, depict Vietnamese history, landscapes, animals, flowers, and religious scenes.
Embroidery in Progress
High quality embroidery art is expensive, so beware if offered any at bargain prices, these are low quality, machine made knock offs. There are many up-market galleries and shops which cater to the high end of the the art and craft market.
Vietnamese Art

Artists at work 
Vietnam has an old tradition of  pottery, there are a variety of artifacts and items of daily use available, these can vary in price and quality and the best ones make nice collector items.
Lacquer work Artist
Lacquer work finishing
The Vietnamese artisans have made lacquer paintings and lacquer work into an art form. A variety of decorative and useful items in lacquer work is available. While prices are more reasonable in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, too, has excellent quality available. The shopper is quite likely to be bowled over. A word of caution, please pack your  lacquer purchases very carefully in lots of padding as these can be fragile.

High End Pottery
As is the rule over most of South East Asia, bargain hard, as it is expected and acceptable. A word to the wise, however, beware of 'tourist traps' which have mark ups many times the items worth.

Reasonable Curios 
Here a perceived bargain would still not be so. It is always better to window shop a little and get a feel of the prices before plunging into the purchase of a desired artifact.
That being said, there are many bargains and good value items to be found, be it paintings, lacquer work or pottery. Moreover, when shopping for knickknacks, remember they are so reasonable that it is not worth knocking a few dongs of as the money is important to the hawker and is at most times worth only a few cents.


Meat Market Ho Chi Minh City

The cuisine of Southern Vietnam differs from that of the North and Central Vietnam in so far that more fresh ingredients and herbs are used and the tastes tend to be a combination between sweet and sour. Nuoc mam the ubiquitous fish sauce and shrimp paste are the staple condiments in Vietnamese cuisine and are used extensively. In the South, sugar, vinegar or lemon juices are added to weaken the sauce’s smell.
Variety of South Vietnam Food 
South Vietnamese cuisine is among the healthiest in the world as very little oil is used in cooking and freshness abounds.

Some signature dishes very popular in South Vietnam are 
My Tho Noodle Soup

Hu Tieu (My Tho Noodle Soup)

My Tho seafood noodle soup is different from Pho, and other Vietnamese soups, as, it contains soy beans, lemon, chili, and soy sauce instead of herbs and lettuce. Meat, dried squid, and special condiments are added for aroma and flavour. 

Cha Gio (fried spring roll)

These are called Nem Ran by northerners and Cha Gio by southerners. Cha Gio has long been a preferred food on special occasions such as Tet.
Cha Gio
Fillers for Nem Ran comprise of lean minced pork, sea crabs or unshelled shrimps, two kinds of edible mushroom (Nam Huong and Moc Nhi), dried onion, duck eggs, pepper, salt and different  seasonings. These are rolled into transparent rice paper and fried in very hot oil. Delicious!.

Faifo Dainty

Faifo Dainty 

Faifo Dainty is a fairly uncommon Vietnamese dish. Dainty fiber is made by boiling rice in water containing ashes from Cu Lao Cham wood. The rice is ground and quickly boiled to make a dark-yellow fibrous mixture. The filling for dainty consists of lean pork and other stir fried condiments. The Dainty is cut into finger-long pieces that are dried and grilled. Chicken meat combined with small shrimps can also be added.  Some restaurants in HCMC serve Dainty. 

Cau Mong Beef 

Cau Mong Beef
Cau Mong beef is a specialty of Cau Mong, located 15 km from Danang, in the South. Cau Mong beef has been served for a long time and is found in many places outside Danang, such as Hoi An, Tam Ky, Vinh Dien, and Ho Chi Minh City. The meat along with its skin is cut in thin slices, half cooked, and eaten with nem, a dip which contains fish sauce mixed with soy sauce, sugar, chili, garlic, lemon, star fruit, vervain, and green banana. 
Sour Fish Soup

Canh Chua (Fish Sour Soup)

Canh chua is from the Mekong Region. Canh chua is a fish sour soup made with fish from the Mekong River and So dua flower. This dish is mostly served when the So dua flower first blossoms at the end of the rainy season. The fish sour soup must be eaten very hot. 
Banh Cuon varieties in an Upmarket Restaurant

Bang Cuon Trang  (Rice Cakes) 

These cakes are made from local rice. Trang Bang near HCMC is the best place for these. These cakes can be filled with shrimp, meat, salad, and coriander. During the Tet festival, the cakes are served with roasted meat, eggs, and sour mustard. 

Cua Rang 

Cua Rang - Soft Shelled Crabs
Soft or hard shelled crabs are stir fried with a tongue tickling tamarind and chilli sauce. In South Vietnam, depending on the area, these may be either deep fried with rice flour or shallow fried with vegetables. Either way, they are delicious. 

Vietnamese Fish with Lemongrass and Chilli 

Vietnamese style Fried Fish with Lemongrass
A delicious low calorie dish where red snapper or snake fish are scored, marinated with chilli, garlic, vinegar, peppers and shallots and then grilled with lots of lemongrass and very little oil. Served with a dipping sauce and rice, it's a meal fit for a king.

Cari Do Bien  Seafood Curry

Cari Do Bien

This rustic fisherman’s curry's stew, influenced by Thai and Indian cuisines, has a depth of complex flavors. Any combination of fish and shellfish can be used. Vietnamese cooks also make a great vegetarian curry by substituting the fish with fresh seasonal vegetables of your choice.
Whole Grilled Fish

Muc Xao Sa Te (Fried Squid)
With many rivers, ponds and the sea nearby, South Vietnamese cuisine specialises in Sea-Food items. Fresh fish, crabs, shrimps, squid and other varieties of seafood offer a never ending feast for the Traveller and Locals. These are invariably good, whether you eat them in an Up-Market Restaurant or in inexpensive street food stalls. Items like a whole grilled fish, stir fried squid, chilli crabs etc. offer a visual and gastronomic feast. 

Stir Fried Vegetables
Vegetarians need not despair. Vietnam has innumerable varieties of fresh herbs and vegetables as well as bean curd. Mock meat made out of gluten is a specialty.
Bean Curd and Noodles
Vietnamese cooks are very good about catering to vegetarians on request. Most non-vegetarians dishes and soups can be modified by leaving out the meat or fish. Hard core vegetarians are advised to request that the cooks do not use even 'Nam Pla' the fish sauce that goes into almost everything in Vietnam.

Street Food

Street food in Ho Chi Minh city
Fried Chicken Rice 
The street food scene in HCMC is absolutely fabulous, many food writers rate it among one of World's  top ten cities  for excellent street food. The food is fresh, tasty and cheap. The author, for one, would have been very happy to eat street food all the time were it not for the more sophisticated requirements of the wife.
Saigon Street-side Seafood Stall

South Vietnam's Street Food
Simple dishes like chicken fried rice, fresh sea food, pho, rice cakes, bean curd with vegetables and sticky rice are available everywhere and are finger licking delicious. The non-adventurous, who only eat in their hotels, will have reason to regret not trying out this cornucopia of great food and dishes.


Vietnamese  Sauces
Dipping Sauces
One doesn't know any other cuisine where dipping sauces feature as prominently as in Vietnam's. In fact, a meal here in some instances has so many bowls and ramekins on the table that one needs one's focus in order to dip into the right sauce, much like playing an awkward game of cards with too many rules. At Hanoi's bia hơi establishments, for every four or five dishes ordered there will be a corresponding number of sauces coming to table, too. In South Vietnam the flavours are less concentrated and will be toned down with lime juice. There are more of sweet, sour and chilli flavours.
Food and various sauces
Nuoc Mam and Tuong based dipping sauces
Nước mắm (fish sauce) forms the basis of many, but not all, dipping sauces. It most commonly gets combined with water, vinegar and/or lime juice and sugar to form nước mắm pha, many ingredients get added to fish sauce to make dipping sauces and this depends on region, dish and personal taste. Garlic, ginger, lemongrass, chilli, carrot, young papaya, even dill, are among the aromatics clipped, crushed, cut or shredded into fish sauce. 

Soy beans are fermented to make a brown sauce called tương, it's most famous pairing being South Vietnam's delectable hand-rolled gỏi cuốn or fresh spring roll. This sauce is sometimes scattered with crushed peanuts, is also frequently mistaken for peanut sauce.
Commercial Vietnamese Sauces
Tương is a word, too, for sauces made of chilli or tomato. Soy sauce, so synonymous with Chinese cuisines, is also seen on tables here, be it with fresh chilli, garlic or lately, a slug of wasabi. Vietnam is truly a wonderful world of sauces. 


Vietnamese Coffee

The French occupation left Saigon with a great culture of Cafes. There are many nice cafes which serve excellent Vietnamese coffee and delectable cakes and pastries. It is nice to while away sometime, in a side walk cafe, leisurely sipping coffee and watching the world go by.
Zen Bar and Cafe
These cafes often offer excellent croissant and rolls at breakfast and Baguette Sandwiches during the day for a lighter snack.

Bars and Nightlife 

Rex Hotel Rooftop Bar
All those who were beginning to fear that this was all about food and no 'entertainment', need not worry. Ho Chi Minh City is one of the great cities in the world for bars and a vibrant nightlife. Choices range from inexpensive 'bia hois', neighborhood beer bars where the locals congregate, to high end night clubs, bars, strip joints and low dives. Depending upon your inclination, you pay your money and take your choice.
Caravelle - Saigon Saigon Bar

Crazy Buffalo Bar 
Famous places like 'Saigon Saigon', on the roof top of the old Caravelle Hotel, 'Apocalypse Now', 'Carmen Bar', 'Crazy Buffalo' and many others, too numerous to name are dotted all over the city.
Some of these establishments offer drinks and food in a sophisticated ambiance, while others offer live music, floor shows and more in crowded, smoke filled surroundings.

Carmen Bar
Apocalypse Now Bar

Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City has a well founded reputation for more esoteric forms of night entertainment.
Ladies of the Night in HCMC
However, beware that having a few drinks and more with 'ladies or gentlemen of the night' can often result in a hefty hit on the wallet at the very least, and far worse consequences, at worst. Authorities, too, are cracking down and playing spoilsport.
Singles are advised caution and the use of common sense, be safe.

River Transport

Accommodation and Transport

As befits a modern city, Saigon offers the traveler a wide range of accommodation to suit all pockets, budgets and requirements.
Old Caravelle Hotel
Majestic Hotel

There are high end five star hotels, mid range properties and budget accommodation aplenty, making the city a good value for money proposition. Those that prefer a little more space or have larger families can stay in some of the cities excellent service apartments.

Ho Chi Minh City is the main gateway to Vietnam and is served well by international Airlines. Local Airlines, too, offer flights to various points in Vietnam at reasonable prices.

Budget Cruise Boat
Boat Traffic Mekong
Rail and coach lines and services exist but are generally not the most reliable for getting up country and so may not be of interest to normal international travelers. In order to move around the city and its environs, the traveler is well advised to hire a cab and driver for the day for the duration of his stay as this is most convenient and quite reasonable.

Mekong Cruise Boat HCMC to Siem Reap
Tourists may like to take the 7 night slow boat down the Mekong River to Siem Reap in Cambodia, the gateway to the Angkor Wat Temples. Many luxurious boats ply this very scenic route. Adventurous travelers would find a variety of river traffic catering to their needs to suit every requirement and budget.

It is time now for this intrepid traveler to leave this fascinating country and journey to other lands afar......... The Philippines beckons. That, however, is another story............ Keep reading and have fun.
The Slow Boat Down The Mekong form Ho Chi Minh City