Goodnight Saigon…

December 30, 2009 · Posted in Travel · Comments Off on Goodnight Saigon… 

I figured I’d leave Vietnam with a few last notes about what we did since the escape from the Khmers.  Even though I am in Hong Kong by now, this will still count as a Vietnam post for those of you keeping score.

To bring you back up to speed, Alex and Brandy were the only ones actually trapped in Cambodia.  My entrapment was more of the hunger strike variety – solidarity, strength in numbers, self imposed.  That kind of noble B.S.  But, deciding that I’d had enough of that, I left them to fend for themselves and went back to Vietnam.  I had a day to myself, so I went to see Reunification Palace and walk around HCMC by myself for once.

This is Christmas Eve so after Alex and Brandy returned, we went out for a nice dinner and then to the Sheraton for drinks – they have a nice bar that overlooks the city.  Or tried to go anyway – the city had lost its collective mind.  Apparently Christmas Eve is a huge party in Vietnam.  But not like a party in the US, where some city council or something has to organize it and there better be at least 15 beer tents or everyone is going home.  No, there was nothing official set up.  The city was decked out in lights, sure, but other than that no official “event” so to speak.  AND no booze!  And yet, there half of Ho Chi Minh City was (that’s 3.5 million people, crowded into three square blocks) just hanging out on Christmas Eve.  Spraying everyone within a mile radius with fake snow.  I got hit twice.  By high schoolers.  Everyone’s just sort of hanging out, walking around, driving around on their scooters, just enjoying being outside.

The next day we left of Long Hai – a beach resort about two hours away from Saigon.  We stayed at this resort here: Anoasis Beach Resort

That’s actually a complete lie.  I just made that up.  What we actually did was snuck into that resort.  It’s amazing what people will let you get away with if you just walk in.  Our “hotel” was a place that used to be an old military barracks and is still run by the Navy.  (Vietnamese, not US, in case there’s any confusion.)  The beach there wasn’t so nice, so we walked over to Anoasis.  We asked to use their chairs and bungalow on the beach and just like that, we were in.  The lifeguard then brought us over towels from the resort, and any of you Douglas Adams fans should know where this is going.  Smart travelers always carry a towel.  Once we had the towel, moving from the beach to the bar and pool was a smooth transition.  We had towels.  We were legit.  Rock on, Arthur Dent.

The only restaurants were these things called Can Tin 1, 2, 3, and 4.  Yup.  So we did what any self-respecting traveler to a fishing town does.  We ordered enough crab to feed a small village.

Christmas Dinner!

We had regular crab, deep fried crab, and then crab tamarind which was by far the crowd favorite.

Another lazy day at the beach/pool, and then back for a mad dash through Saigon in seven meals.  We weren’t counting days nor hours.  Only the amount of food we could reasonably fit in before I left for Hong Kong.  You’ve already seen some of the pictures if you’ve been reading…

Here’s a quick picture synopsis of the last few days:

Cho Lon market – kind of like a giant CostCo for all the smaller markets in Saigon.

This guy was too cool NOT to photograph…

I am NOT supposed to be driving here.  Pretty convinced I was going to die…

Crispy pho @ Pho Ta – my absolute favorite dish in Vietnam.

Our last night was very chill as I got up at 3:30 this morning to get to Hong Kong.

A thousand thanks to Alex and Brandy for an incredibly memorable, fun-filled, amazing trip!  The return trip cannot come soon enough.

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Banh Mi & Le Camargue

December 28, 2009 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

This will probably be my last post before I leave Vietnam and since the sandwich deserves more space than what I’ve actually done in the past few weeks, I will hopefully update from Milan.

Travel & Leisure recently published a list of 30 foods worth traveling for, and the food from HCMC is a Banh Mi sandwich.  Located at 37 Nguyen Trai street, it is a small street cart selling one of the most amazing sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.  It’s only open from 4:00 p.m. until about 9:00 – but get there early because the lines start almost immediately.  Heaping mounds of ground pork are grilled over a small wood burning stove, and seasoned with some sort of magic Vietnamese spice.  The sandwich is fairly simple from there – silver dollar size pieces of pork, about 6 to 8, cucumbers, carrots, cilantro, and a slightly spicy chili sauce.

The completed sandwich

Grilling the pork.

The best part – these sandwiches cost 10,000 VND apiece – right about $0.50.  Alex and I ate two.

After we did some other stuff for the rest of the day, we enjoyed a French dinner at Le Camargue.  Due to the whole “occupation” thing, the French food in HCMC is excellent.  Let’s do pictures first this time, then descriptions.

Top to bottom it is:

– Shallot chips

– Microgreens

– Foie Gras – about a 5 oz piece

– 8 oz Filet Mignon cooked perfectly medium rare

– Truffle salted potato pancake

The skewer on the side is preventing the roasted garlic and cherry tomatoes from escaping.  While perfectly cooking a steak, especially one as thick as this filet, is extremely difficult, the most impressive piece of this dish from a culinary perspective was the potato, in my opinion.  Most of the time one aspect of the potato pancake is off – either it’s not crispy enough, not flavorful enough, or the inside it either too soggy or too dry.  This one, however, was perfectly browned on the outside while the interior had the consistency of a perfect gratin.  And who can forget the truffle salt…

The construction of the dish was also interesting – if you took a full bite you encountered the sweet silkiness of the foie gras, the meatiness of the filet, and the delicate crunch of the potato pancake in perfect progression.

And, because everything here is so cheap, I saved the receipt so I could recreate the entire meal for you.

1 Mouton Rothschild

1 Artichoke “Cappuccino” soup

1 Sea scallops over mango chutney

2 Filet Mignon & Foie gras

1 Filet of Duck

1 Tube chocolat’ – three chocolate cookies in the shape of large straws, stuffed with marscapone

1 Turkish coffe, 1 cappuccino, 1 latte

$159.40

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Su Su Chicken

December 27, 2009 · Posted in Travel · 2 Comments 

In an attempt to be somewhat food-focused on this blog, here’s my first post dedicated solely to a restaurant.  Well, stall, actually, I suppose, when you get right down to it.  There aren’t so much tables, or bathrooms, or even permanent light fixtures.  It really is essentially a glorified street stall with about 10% more space.  The tables and chairs are all low, way too small for a person of my height to be sitting in, and I have to believe they’re actually kiddie chairs.  The restaurant spills out into the street where you can see the wonderful creations being basted as you walk by.  The establishment’s lights are strung up on the chain-link fence lining the sidewalk where most of the people eat their meal.  The beer is served warm, and you get a mug with ice if you’d like it cold.  (It is probably the most offensive beer I’ve ever had.  Yes, offensive.)  Homeless people will accost you.  The neon lights from the church across the street will flash at you consistently.

And yet, you will come.  You will hop a cab to District 3, and you will come.  More than once, most likely.  Because of the skin.  The skin is so perfectly crispy, so expertly cooked, that you can’t help but come and eat.  The meat so moist and tender you wonder if some sort of magician isn’t working behind the curtain, and the kitchen is just a facade.  And then, as your fingers are dripping with glorious grease, you take a bite of the accompanying tomato rice and fully submit to the fact that this can in no way be good for you.

It is of course, Vietnamese fried chicken.  But not fried chicken like you’re used to.  Legend has it that the owner created his own personal contraption that does not deep-fry the bird but instead constantly bastes it with boiling oil.  In fact the translation on the napkins reads “Chicken boiling fat”.  Fine words indeed my friend, fine words indeed.  The contraption looks like this:

The skin and meat are considerably less greasy than normal deep-fried chicken.  My educated guess is that because the chicken doesn’t sit in the oil, and is constantly draining, it retains the crispiness without getting soggy at all.

The finished version looks like the picture below.  As any good street stall or dive does, they serve one thing and one thing only.  Your dish consists of:

1 piece chicken.

Rice (optional)

A few tomatoes and cucumbers

Some sauce that’s totally superflous and also mildly offensive.  Not as bad as the beer but it’s close.

Admittedly the pictures did not turn out as I’d hoped, but I was slightly overwhelmed by the fried skin.

Our total dinner amounted to 7 of these plates and 3 beers.  The bill was 240,000 VND.  The current exchange rate is 18,475 VND per USD.  That means that our total bill was $12.99 or $4.33 per person.

I love this country.

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Ca Phe Sua Da

December 18, 2009 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

Sorry this first update took me a few days to get out – I’ve been out in Saigon, too scared to cross the street to get back to Alex & Brandy’s apartment.

Rush hour in Saigon

After sleeping most of the first day, it was time to get out of bed and actually, you know, do something.  Breakfast was at Pho 24 after which my first stop was the tailor, to get two custom suits fitted.  I have my priorities.  Next up was the Ben Thanh Market – a permanent bazaar of every type of good, foodstuff, and knickknack imaginable.  Picked up a few presents for the siblings then moved on…

Quan An Ngnon, which basically means “stall restaurant” is a collection of street food vendors all under one roof.  We snacked before heading onto our next tourist attraction, the War Remnants Museum.  I chose a sticky rice and shredded pork dish, topped with deep fried shallots, called Xoi Man.  A&B tell me the ingredient under the green onion is another type of pork, but I’m not convinced.  Either way it  was delicious, and the dish itself provided a nice combination of textures and different flavors.  A perfect mid-day snack.

Sticky rice and shredded pork

No one was prepared for the War Remnants Museum.  As you enter you see the old planes, tanks, and guns and begin to think it’s going to be like any war museum you might see in the US.  Mostly heroic and not designed to shock you at all.  About halfway through the exhibit on Tiger Cages all three of us had to sit down and collect ourselves.  It was an extremely graphic depiction of actions taken by the South Vietnamese and United States soldiers during the war.  Granted this was a museum built by the North Vietnamese government so it had its intended purpose.  But while propaganda can and does lie, pictures don’t.

At night, in full “starving student/tourist” mode, we snuck into the opening of the new Hard Rock Cafe and proceeded to drink and eat for free for about an hour and a half.  I am not usually a dessert person, but they were handing out these little chocolate coconut cakes that were the closest thing to heaven in a paper cup I’ve ever seen.  I must have eaten about 15 of those before we left for our actual dinner.  We did, of course, make sure to stop by the new Paris Hilton boutique on our way out…

According to Facebook, today was supposed to be the day we left for Cambodia.  However, the travel agent who was supposed to renew A&B’s visas decided to leave this particular job until the last possible minute, and then inform Alex he cannot process the request.  So we’re leaving tomorrow (Saturday) instead, and they have to actually get their visas in Cambodia.  So we may or may not actually make it back…

Breakfast today was at a place called Pho Ta, where Brandy and I both ordered a dish called Crispy Pho.  Crispy Pho is essentially pho noodles deep fried (noticing a trend, anyone?) topped with all the ingredients of regular pho.  It is, quite simply, a dish that if done right, is worthy of a marriage proposal right then and there.

Since yesterday was such a long, exhausting day, we decided to get foot massages to heal our feet.  Before you get any crazy ideas, we ONLY got foot massages.  They sit us down all in the same room on these lay-z-boy-esque chairs and in walks a girl who can’t be more than 80 pounds.  No way is she going be able to apply the kind of pressure my feet need.  Well…either the laws of physics don’t apply here, or the engineers at Ford and GM ought to be embarrassed by the measly power to weight ratios they generate on their trucks.  This little Vietnamese lady had such a death grip on the tendons in my heel, I wasn’t sure I was going to walk again.  Thankfully I am fine – but I’m still in shock how much fight that 80 pounder had in her.

Continuing with the foodie part of this trip, we stopped at Thai Bin market.  Thai Bin makes Ben Thanh look like a US shopping mall.  The stalls were closer together, the fish were all still flopping around, the excess water from the stalls was running through the street, and the unmistakable stench of life in the city wafted from every square inch of the place.  Sides of pork, sitting out in the 90 degree heat.  Whole octopus.  15 different sizes of shrimp and prawn.  Clams.  Mussels.  Fish still swimming around in makeshift ponds.  Vegetables so freshly picked, the vendors are cleaning them off as we walk by, making sure to splash you with at least some of the muddy water.  BBQ pork, whole chickens, spring and summer rolls, Bahn Mi, fresh flan, Chinese sausages, and some pickled things in jars that honestly belonged in my sister’s anatomy lab.  Now this was a real market.  Green City, I love you and all, but only when you disregard any and all thought of hygiene will you compare with the Thai Bin market in Saigon.

Fish @ the Thai Bin Market

We leave for Cambodia at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow and I probably won’t write until we return on the 23rd.

I have been in Vietnam for a few days now and it’s interesting to be in a place where I have absolutely no clue what the language means.  I do, however, know how to say one thing very well.

Ca Phe Sua Da.

Iced coffee with milk…

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