Sunday, September 20, 2015

[Travel/ Food Guide] Itinerary to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam (胡志明市,越南).

Ho Chi Minh City, a metropolitan and the capital of the emerging Republic of Vietnam; is one of the most-visited countries by Malaysians and Singaporeans in recent years. Previously colonized by France, Ho Chi Minh City is indeed a melting pot for cultures filled with myriad of delicacies and all walks of life. We were there for 5 Days 4 Nights but apart from food, there were not much to do so we'd recommend 4 Days 3 Nights, which should be more than sufficient (if you are planning to visit Ho Chi Minh City ONLY). Here is a list of what we have eaten and attempted during our trip:

Mon Hue Restaurant
Address: 134, Le Thanh Ton, Ben Thanh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 
Business Hours: 6:30 am to 11 pm. Opens Daily. 
Contact Number: +84 (08) 7106 6607
Prices are subject to 10% VAT.

Bun Bo Hue/ Vietnamese Beef Vermicelli Noodle (60,000 VND)

Bun Nem Nuong/ Vietnamese Grilled Pork Meat Balls (46,000 VND)

Banh Uot Tom Chay/ Steamed Rice Cake with Dried Shrimps (44,000 VND)

Che Hat Sen/ Lotus Seeds Sweet Soup (24,000 VND) 

Right behind the iconic Ben Thanh Market, Mon Hue Restaurant is one of the many Noodle specialists at Ho Chi Minh City. Slightly different than its competitors, they offer Bon Bo Hue, a type of Pho-alike Beef Noodles but using Vermicelli Noodles. The broth was more intense in flavor as compared to a traditional bowl of Pho. Diners may opt to add in a combination of different cuts of meat (Beef) but we had the simple ones. It was great and absolutely comforting especially during a chilly rainy night. We washed it down with a glass of Che Hat Sen. 

MOF Japanese Desserts
Address: 30, Le Loi, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 9 am to 11 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 3827 7898
Prices subject to 10% VAT

Iced Matcha Float (69,000 VND)

Matcha Warabi Mochi (72,000 VND)

Panna Cotta with Matcha Sauce (55,000 VND)

The Vietnamese are fans of Japanese Green Tea and that explains the popularity of Japanese Green Tea desserts in town. A local Vietnamese establishment- MOF Japanese Dessert is known to the locals for serving a wide variety of Japanese Green Tea desserts. True enough, their Iced Matcha Float was toothsome; the Green Tea flavor was bold and the sweetness of the Soft Serve balanced the tartness of the Green Tea. The other two desserts we had were mediocre- Matcha Warabi Mochi has a funky, slick texture while the bland and bitter Matcha Sauce, which we did not think it manage to enhance the overall flavor as both Panna Cotta and Green Tea sauce were too strong that the duo were vying for attention. Probably we picked the wrong order, we were not quite impressed by this place. 

Fanny's Ice Cream
Address: 29-31, Ton That Thiep, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 9 am to 11 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 3821 1633

Malicoco/ Coconut Ice Cream and Orange Sorbet with Malibu, White Chocolate and Chocolate Sauce (99,000 VND)

Happy Cubics/ Strawberry, Mixed Berries & Mango Sorbets, Strawberry Yogurt, Green Tea, Pistachio, Cookies & Stracciatella Ice Cream, White Chocolate, Almonds, Caramel Sauce and Whipped Cream (89,000 VND)

A premium French-inspired Ice Cream brand at Ho Chi Minh, said to be owned by a French, has been receiving positive comments over the world of internet. The Ice Cream Parlour was long established at Vietnam, Fanny's Ice Cream offers 100% natural Ice Cream in various fanciful Asian and Western flavors. In the fear of over-indulgence, we did not want something substantial so we tested the depth of the water by ordering some to sample. Their Ice Cream was good- sweetness was well-balanced and the creaminess was well-thought out. However, we did not think they were that good that one should go all way out for them. Also, we thought they were rather overpriced for the portion.

Pho Bo Vien Thap Cam
Address: Nguyen Thai Binh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 11 am to 6 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: N/A

Pho Bo/ Beef Pho (40,000 VND)

Close proximity to our hotel (Ruby River Hotel if you must know) is a famous Pho specialist known to the locals. The place is often thronged with regular patrons; we were there rather late (afternoon) and they were almost sold out! Unlike most Pho we had, theirs comes with a comforting clear broth which has soft characteristics rather than bold flavors. The Noodles were smooth either, well complemented by the fresh Herbs added. Beef Fillet may seem rough but it was easy to the bite, little effort was necessary to chew them off. The downside of this place: limited seats available and it was not entirely cheap at 40,000 VND per bowl (around Rm 8). 

Hoppy Juice Bars
Address: 52, Ngo Duc Ke, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 11 am to 10 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 6670 8686

 Melon Bingsu (95,000 VND)

Hoppy Juice Bars was a discovery by chance, we did not expect to find authentic Korean Bingsu here (though at a whopping 95,000 VND or Rm 20). The shaved milk-flavored Ice was smooth and light; so light that it slides down the throat easily. They extracted the Ice from a machine that we could not name of but the waiting time was rather long. The plus: they were generous with the fresh cuts of fruits- Honeydew and Watermelon; the downside: slightly grueling to the wallet. It was a refreshing treat best shared by a few. 

Ben Thanh Market
Address: Phan Boi Chan, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 6 am to 6 pm. Opens Daily.

Goi Cuon/ Vietnamese Spring Rolls (50,000 VND)

Pho Bo/ Beef Pho (50,000 VND)

Bo Banh Mi/ Vietnamese Beef Baguette Sandwich (35,000 VND)

Vietnamese Iced Black Coffee (15,000 VND)

Che My/ Vietnamese Sweet Dessert (30,000 VND)

Banh Xeo/ Vietnamese Omelette (50,000 VND)

One of the must visit places at Ho Chi Minh City, Ben Thanh Market tops travellers' must-visit lists.  Not only food but crafts, souvenirs, apparels, fresh fruits etc can be found there as well. However, please beware that the place is extremely touristy; that having said, the prices are 30-40% higher than market rate. One should beware of their counterfeits either, the products are so similar to the authentic ones, even the aficionados would find it hard to tell. If you need to shop for goods (Coffee, Nuts, Dried Seafood, Souvenirs etc) to be brought back to your home country, do consider Binh Tay Market at District 6, Chinatown. You would probably need to take a cab there but if you are buying in bulk (or visiting in a group), it is still worth it to cover the taxi fare. More information about Binh Tay Market can be found at the bottom of this post.

Speaking of food, there are a few types of must-try foods at Ben Thanh (though they are more expensive than average stalls outside). The food-section is convenient to browse but the vendors were a nuisance. They will hard sell their food to you or maybe attempt to pull you aside. Nevertheless, we still gave it a shot.

While we did not find the food there outstanding, there was one particular drink that one should not miss- Che My. It was uncommon to us (maybe we did not take a long stroll along those narrow streets). Che My comes with many types of chewy-resilient elements and to serve with Coconut Milk, typically served cold. Bits of Durian were added to ours, together with Jackfruit, Jelly, Lotus Seeds, Sago, Nata De Coco, Sea Coconut and some ingredients that my untrained taste buds could not discern. The concoction was refreshing and gently sweetened. One of the perfect solutions to beat the sultry tropical heat.

Crossing and manoeuvring the swimming river of Motorbikes were not easy for us at Ho Chi Minh City, it took us some time to get used to it. Crossing the street right in front of Ben Thanh City was particularly dangerous and frightful for us. The Motorcyclists would not stop for you to cross the street, despite the fact that you obey the rules well by crossing the pedestrian-crossing. Many of them would not stop when the traffic light turns red as well, so keep your eyes open wide when you are crossing the streets at Ho Chi Minh City. Do not take a step back but just to cross the street with extra care and you should be fine.  

L' usine Cafe
Address: 70B, Le Loi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (opposite to Saigon Opera House)
Business Hours: 9 am to 9 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: + 84 (08) 6674 3565

Matcha Latte (85,000 VND) and Vietnamese Milk Coffee (55,000 VND)

Apple Crumble with Berry Sauce (105,000 VND)

Egg Florentine (130,000 VND)

Yet another local French-influenced establishment well-known to both locals and foreigners; not only a cafe but it is a boutique that carries various imported brands as well (the apparels and accessories are not cheap, one Polo-T was selling at 1,400,000 VND/ Rm 280). The place is tucked in an old heritage building along the bustling Dong Khoi Street. It took us some time to find the place. Traipse up the stairs hidden in the building and you will find a few interesting eateries there. On L'usine's offering, it does have a lot to offer but we did not have much tummy space left so we sampled one main and one dessert. The Egg Florentine was decent- eggy, cheesy and surprisingly buttery, generously filled with Spinach but the side, Ratatouille was the center spotlight of the dish. We love the in-depth sweet, refreshing yet acidic flavors, beautifully complementing the creamy main. Dessert was alright but we were amazed by the Berry sauce, which carried a well-balanced sourness. The Cinnamon-flavor of the Apple Crumble was carefully seasoned as well, everything was precisely measured. The only drawback could be the price. 

Pho 24
Address: 14, Phan Boi Chau, Ben Thanh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 10 am to 10 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 3827 4155

Pho Bo/ Beef Pho with complimentary drink and dessert (74,000 VND)

Caramel Flan (comes with the Set)

There are countless of Pho 24 branches all over Ho Chi Minh City; it is also one of the most famous international brands for serving Pho. It has branches at countries like Korea, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Philippines. We had their signature Beef Pho but it was somewhat standard-average. Our impression towards this bowl of Pho was somewhat weak, it did not manage to leave us with a very strong impression. The Flan that comes together with the Set Order, was equally disappointing either. We were expecting a strong Caramel flavor followed with a milky-eggy taste but they were too soft to be discerned. Not the perfect bowl of Pho that we had at Ho chi Minh City. 

Com Nha Home-Cooked Meals
AddressL 151/6, 2nd Floor, Dong Khoi, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 7:30 am to 10:30 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 0909 26 9090
Price: 59,000 VND per person

Stir Fried Shrimps

Vietnamese Braised Pork Innards

Stir Fried Greens

Housed in the same building as L'usine, Com Nha is one of the best places for you to have a taste of traditional Vietnamese home-cooked dishes. The restaurant has a fixed menu everyday- 2 meat dishes and 1 vege dish with big portion of White Rice. On our visit, we get to taste some of their traditional dishes- the Braised Pork Innards chased us away with a peculiar smell that we were quite fond of; the Shrimps, on the other hand, were alright. The dish possessed an odd flavor either but it was veering towards the sweeter side. Thus, we were able to accept it with our untrained taste buds. A place where one can find unusual Vietnamese eats other than the ubiquitous street foods like Pho and Spring Rolls.

Afternoon Tea at Caravelle Hotel
Address: 19-23, Cong Truong Lam Son, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Available Time: 12 pm to 5 pm. Available Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 3823 4999
Price: 280,000 VND per person
5% Service Charge and 10% VAT

Iced Vietnamese Coffee

Lavazza Coffee

Ronnefeldt Jasmine and Mint Tea

Vietnamese Afternoon Tea Set:

1. Banh Mi with Fish Cakes and Pickled Vegetables
2. Java Plum Salad with Dried Shrimps and Torch Ginger Flower
3. Grilled Minced Pork-Spring Roll
4. Fried Minced Pork-Stuffed Lotus Root served with Plum Sauce
5. Deep Fried Squid Mousse in Black Sesame Seed Cracker with Chili Sauce
6. Rice Flour Crepe with Palm Sugar and Coconut Flakes
7. Vietnamese Sweet Young Rice Cream 'Che Com'
8. Vanilla flavored Baked Yellow Mung Bean Cake
9. Coconut Pandan Caramel Custard
10. Peanut Candy

Traditional English Afternoon Tea:

1. Hot Smoked Salmon, Cucumber and Creme Fraiche on Rye Bread
2. Honey Roasted Ham with Marinated Tomato on Oatmeal Bread
3. US Roasted Beef, Red Onion Marmalade on Brown Bread
4. Goat Cheese and Rocket on Fennel Seed Bread
5. Lemon Thyme Scone with Vanilla Whipped Cream and Cherry Jam
6. Warm Beef Steak Pie
7. Home-made Waffle Cone with Chocolate Mousse and Pistachio
8. White Chocolate Caramel Shortcake
9. Warm Vanilla Cream Filo Pastry
10. French Fancy Lemon Cake

Treat yourself a sophisticated and sumptuous Afternoon Tea at the grande dame of Ho Chi Minh City, a 5-star hotel situated right in front of the iconic building- Saigon Opera House of Ho Chi Minh City. We took a window seat, overlooking the bustling Dong Khoi Street and Opera House.

If you are up for something special, go for their Traditional Vietnamese Afternoon Tea set. There were some familiar delicacies like Spring Rolls and Banh Mi but the sweet treats were unique. Deep Fried Squid Mousse with Sesame Cracker was toothsome, it possessed the resilient texture akin to Fish Paste and worked perfectly well with the crispy Cracker and the sweet-spicy Chili sauce. A set easily accepted by all.

The Traditional English Afternoon Set, on the other hand, was nothing out of the ordinary. It was more substantial than the Vietnamese Set, probably more filling elements like Bread Rolls but not all were fresh; some were stale and dry but some were alright. The quality was rather inconsistent. We would prefer the Vietnamese Set if you must know. 

Pho 2000
Address: 26, Le Thanh Ton, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 6 am to 11 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 3829 2612

Bhun Thit Bo Xiao/ Sauteed beef with Vermicelli Noodles (67,000 VD)

Pho Bo/ Beef Pho (67,000 VND)

Yet another famous Pho specialists at Ho Chi Minh City, Pho 2000 was made famous by president Bill Clinton's visit in the year 2000. President Bill thought it was delicious and had another order. We could not resist but to order their signature Beef Pho; the flavor was rather strong and the broth was boldly-seasoned. We were not quite impressed with the indelible salinity. The Sauteed Beef with Vermicelli Noodles, on the other hand, was delectable. The Beef slices were tender and expertly cooked, beautifully paired with their sweet, sour and hot Chili Sauce. If I may, there is a Pho 2000 branch right next to Ben Thanh Market. 

Unclosed Coffee
Address: 85, Ho Tung Mau, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 6680 8427

PeppoCado (Avocado + Pepper), BalsaBerry (Balsamic Vinegar + Strawberry), LemoCoco (Coconut Lemon + Yogurt), DuriCino (Durian + Cappuccino); 35,000 VND per scoop OR 65,000 VND for 2 scoops

We were wandering the city on our last day, we did not have something specific in mind but we were exhausted from the sweltering heat. We decided to beat the heat with a few scoops of Unclosed Coffee's home-made Ice Cream. The Cafe has an array of Ice Cream with funky and playful flavors. PeppoCado stood out amongst the 4 flavors we tried. It was sweet and creamy with a sleek of Avocado flavor; the Peppery taste was present but it was not strong enough to vie for attention. The whole combination was great but some of us thought it was a little too "safe". Other flavors available include Chilli Passi (Passion Fruit + Chili) and Choco Mando (Chocolate + Mandarin Orange). Unclosed Coffee can be found directly opposite to Bitexco Financial Tower. 

La Rotonde
Address: 77B, Ham Nghi Street, 1st Floor, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 8 am to 11:30 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 8388 9935
Price: 65,000 VND per person for their Weekday Semi-Buffet Lunch

Pan Fried Pork Chop

Stir Fried Beef with Bitter Gourd

Mushroom Omelette 

Unlimited Refills of Stir Fried Greens

A place especially designed for the office workers nearby, La Rotonde is an old French house turned cafe. It serves traditional Vietnamese dishes. We were there on a weekday and they were serving Semi-Buffet Lunch (available on every Monday to Friday). One main dish for a diner with unlimited refills of White Rice and Stir Fried Vegetable dishes. We like the ambiance of the place but we were not quite satisfied with the quality. We thought the dishes were heavily seasoned and they were a tad greasy to our liking. However, it provides great value as one gets unlimited refills of greens and rice. Not the best place to go if you have limited tummy space. To find the place, cross the main street from Bitexco Financial Tower, you should be able to find this place shortly. 

Mekong Delta Floating Market Day Tour
Price: 1,150,000 VND per person
Traveling Hours: 8 am to 6 pm. Subject to availability.
Booking Method: Purchase the ticket directly from your hotel's concierge. 

Mekong Rest Stop

Jetty to Mekong River

The making of Rice Crisp and Rice Paper

Snake Wines

During our trip, we registered for a Mekong Delta guided day tour. The coach arrived our hotel at 8 am sharp in the morning and the journey to Mekong was approximately 3 hours. We made a short stop at Mekong Rest Stop- a picturesque place with Vietnamese traditional houses in natural landscape. There are various facilities there- restaurant, bakery, mini-mart and handicraft shop.

We were then chauffeured to the jetty and transferred to a boat. We moved around the floating market but there was nothing much to see except a few boats. Next was Coconut Candy/ Rice Crisp making factory, followed by a Bee Farm. In case you are wondering, I had a sip on the Snake Wine, there was a nary of smell; the alcohol content was high though.

We then changed to a smaller wooden shaky boat, to further explore a canal that leads to an island. On that island, we had our lunch and were given a time of 2 hours for bicycle ride. The decision to partake in the bicycle ride was a mistake. Some of our team members got lost and the entire area was wet and muddy. It was impossible for us to ride, we ended up pushing the bicycles instead. No directions were given on where should we go so our suggestion is: do not attempt the bicycle ride unless you are physically and mentally prepared for an arduous journey ahead.

Chicken and Vegetable Soup

Deep Fried Fish Spring Rolls and Banh Xeo/ Vietnamese Omelette

Lunch was simple (included as part of the day tour), we had Rice with a few simple Vietnamese dishes but they were not outstanding but a quick meal to recharge our energy. We concluded the day tour with a leisure walk around a local wet market before catching the coach back to our hotel at Saigon. We bought ourselves some fresh local produce at relatively cheaper price (as compared to Ben Thanh Market).

Binh Tay Market
Address: 57, Thap Muoi 2, District 6, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 6 am to 7 pm. Opens Daily.

Located in the heartland of Chinatown, Binh Tay Market is something like Ben Thanh Market but the former one is less-touristy and goods here are typically sold at 30-40% cheaper than Ben Thanh. We bought quite a lot of stuff here; we were quoted 60,000 VND for a box of G7 Vietnamese Coffee at Ben Thanh but we got ours here at 42,000 VND only. Dried goods like Dried Shrimps, Dried Lotus Seeds, Dried Clams, Dried Squid etc are available, as well as the must-buy Nuts like Cashew Nuts, Almonds and Pistachios. We even bought our share of Lotus Flower Tea here too. The place is a little far from District 1 so the best way to get there is to take a cab, which costs around 120,000 VND.

Saigon Square
Address: 89 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 9 am to 10 pm. Opens Daily.

Close proximity to Ben Thanh Market is Saigon Square, a fully air-conditioned space that allows shopaholics to hunt for delicious bargains. However, please beware that the place has myriad of counterfeit products. As far as quality is concerned, it should be alright but if you have deep pockets and have the passion to go after authentic luxury brands, you might want to skip this place.

Bitexco Financial Tower
Address: 2, Hai Trien Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Business Hours: 9:30 am to 9:30 pm. Opens Daily.

Further away from Saigon Square is one of the tallest buildings at Ho Chi Minh City, the skyscraper has a mix of office space and retail outlets. There are also a few restaurant/ skybar/ cafe at the upper deck of the building (visitors can also opt to enter Sky Deck at the cost of 200,000 VND). If you are visiting the place solely for your shopping leisure, you might as well cross this place out of your list. There are only a few international brands there such as Top Shop, Adidas, Coffee Bean etc.

Other historical buildings that you may want to pay a visit are:

Saigon Central Post Office
Address: 2, Cong Xa Paris, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Opening Hours: 8 am to 5 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 3822 1677
Entrance Fee: Free of Charge

Saigon's Central Post Office is undeniably one of the oldest historical buildings at Ho Chi Minh City; the interior decoration and most equipment (such as phone booths, hand painted world map) are still in good shape despite of the many years passed. Interested parties can look for some post cards and have them mailed out there as well. Also, the souvenirs and crafts here are typically cheaper than Ben Thanh Market.  

Notre Dame Cathedral
Address: Paris Square, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
Openings Hours: 5:30 am to 5 pm. Opens Daily.
Contact Number: +84 (08) 3822 0477
Entrance Fee: Free of Charge

Across the street is Notre Dame Cathedral, an ancient Cathedral built in the 19 century. The location of Notre Dame Cathedral is an indication of the city center of Ho Chi Minty City. A historic building that retains the traces of French civilization and colonization.

Do Not Trust Other Taxi Other Than Vinasun Taxi!

Taxi scams are everywhere at Ho Chi Minh City, we fell into one right after we collected our baggage and wanted to get out from Tan Son Nhat International Airport. The "agent" approached us and claimed that he was representing Vinasun. He then asked for the hotel's address. We showed him and immediately, he snatched away the book. We did not get to bargain with him and were forced to pay a whopping 400,000 VND to get to the hotel (he insisted not to return the book to us, we did not want to cause any trouble). The return trip from our hotel to the airport costs 155,000 VND only. 

Have Fun Exploring Ho Chi Minh City!