From deserted beaches and restaurants only selling seafood to a huge city with anything and everything you could want, we were so happy to have arrived in Ho Chi Minh city and it was clear that we saved the best city in Vietnam for last without even knowing!
We stayed at the Norfolk Hotel in District 1, the downtown of HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City). The hotel had a huge soft bed, was super quiet and was exactly what we needed. It was the absolute perfect location where we were within minutes walk to all the top spots with hundreds of restaurants to choose from.
We checked out the Grand Palace, Opera House, Notre Dame, Central Post Office and War Remnants Museum. Luckily they were all in the same general vicinity so it was easy to check them all out in one shot, especially because it was, yet again, scorchingly hot. The classic old style French architecture brought us both back to France and was one of our favorite parts about the city. The romanesque style of Notre Dame evoked the spirit of the its namesake building in the heart of Paris, but made with red block. The stunning old post office was built in the gothic style and reminds us of the many classically European buildings that are scattered throughout the old colonial world. The post office had murals of both old Saigon and Indochine, which became Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as we know them today. We were quickly transported into the history of Vietnam just by stepping foot into these places.
According to Dean, one of the best 75 cents he ever spent was for admission to the War Remnants Museum in HCMC. Housed in the former United States Information office in District 1, it is a stark reminder of just how horrific war and it’s aftermath are. The museum has a courtyard filled with old, perfectly preserved US military equipment like tanks, airplanes, helicopters and artillery that was left behind or captured. The first floor was filled with articles and propaganda from around the world supporting Vietnam and its struggle for independence and reunification. Mainly from other socialist and communist countries, but also with press from the US, Canada and Australia about the unneeded war and the people that supported the Vietnamese. The second and third floors had a multitude of different rooms sectioned off(and air conditioned for comfort). One room was photographs from the embedded wartime photographers and some of their final photos before being killed while reporting. It’s was amazing to see the photos and read the stories behind some of the most iconic photos of our time. There was also a very moving room dedicated to the victims of the massive amounts of agent orange that was sprayed all over Vietnam during the war, the phosphorus bombs and carpet bombing widely used. It brought a human face to all of the people killed, maimed, or disfigured and the horrific means that the United States used to try and stop the countries reunification. There of course was also a room with the weapons used, US Soldier uniforms and pieces of B-52’s that were shot down. There was so much more there to see and tell you about, but unless you’re a history buff like Dean, we won’t bore you with more details.
Vietnam is clearly still a developing country, but HCMC was surprisingly modern and even upscale in a lot of places. There were several times during our stay there where we realized we could literally be in any city, anywhere. There were tons of malls to go to when escaping the heat and they had any and every store you’d see in other cities even high end names like; Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel etc.
Bread Talk: Since we didn’t choose the “breakfast included” option at our hotel this time around, we found this great little bakery at the Saigon Center mall located right around the corner from our hotel and decided to make our own little oasis in our room for our first breakfast. Pastries, coffee and fresh fruit…sometimes the simplest meals make for some of the most delicious! All the pastries were freshly baked and still warm, plus, who doesn’t like dragonfruit with their breakfast?
Royal Saigon Restaurant: Another TripAdvisor success! Clearly they are doing well for themselves here because they were very busy! Luckily we didn’t have to wait more than 5 minutes for a table and were attended to almost immediately. We started with their “Welcome to Vietnam” platter which consisted of a few different appetizers. They were so accommodating and allowed us to substitute anything with shrimp for additional of the other items. The platter had vegetarian and pork spring rolls, fresh vegetable spring rolls, crispy fried wontons with pork, grilled minced pork skewers and fried quail eggs coated in rice, it sure was a lot of food but of course we managed to get it all down. As to not waste any, of course! Yum! We could and should have stopped here but of course we didn’t! For mains, I ordered their Cau Rau Cu Dau Hu, Vegetable and Tofu Curry and Dean got the Thit Kho Tieu, Braised Pork in Caramelized Pepper Sauce. Needless to say we were completely stuffed afterwards but we could see why this was rated so highly! All the food was authentic and the prices were just right for the food and the beer.
Banh Mi Hoa Ma: Dean’s friend told us to make sure we checked this place out for breakfast. The definition of a hidden gem. Only open from 5am-10am and tucked into the corner of a building with only 2 or 3 tiny tables, motorbikes whizzing by and construction on every direction, it’s clear this is where the locals eat. People would pull up on their motorbikes, scream their order, wait about a minute and exchange their money for a to go bag with their breakfast of choice. The menu had two choices, a Banh Mi (that delicious crispy baguette sandwhich) served with meat, or a build your own in which they bring you a platter of fried eggs and a myriad of meats and the bread on the side. So, let’s review… meat or… meat. Great for Dean! He knew right away he’d get the plater. But for this picky girl? Thank goodness for google translate. It worked just enough for me to let them know I don’t eat meat and they instead brought me just the fried eggs, perfect! We cut open our crispy baguettes to expose the pillowy inside and start building our breakfast sandwiches. In addition to our platters, they brought pickled veggies, pate topped with mayonnaise and chili sauce to add to our creations. It was fun to be in this setting and it reminded us of what we love so much about going to new places and traveling to new countries. We were able to completely immerse ourselves into the culture and have a true Vietnamese experience.
Pho 24: We were craving some Pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle dish,before we left Vietnam and it was too late. Pho 24 was right around the corner from our hotel and hit the spot perfectly. The thought of having a huge bowl of hot broth in the 95 degree heat (with a “feels like” of 107) doesn’t sound like the best idea at first, but luckily his place had air conditioning and after a few minutes out of the heat of the day, we were ready to indulge in our meal. Pho Bo, Beef, for Dean and Pho Ga, Chicken, for me. The kitchen was open so we could see the massive pot of broth slowly bubbling away. We could even see the raw beef tenderloin instantly getting cooked as the hot broth was poured overtop. We both ordered the smaller of the two sizes and the bowls were still as big as our heads! Swimming around in the flavorful broth were rice noodles, spring onion and your meat of choice and then you have the option to add lime, basil leaves, etc to make your own creation. The two of us slurped and slurped until all was gone and only the bowls remained. We would have eaten those too if we could….
L’Usine Le Loi: It doesn’t happen often, but we were craving a little taste of home and therefor having a Sunday brunch was in order. Located upstairs from a total hipster shop filled with wooden cheese boards, mason jar water bottles with straws and marble everywhere was this hotspot with delicious looking brunch. Score! Vietnamese Milk Coffee was a must and was served “pour over” style. What to order wasn’t such a simple choice. All of the classic western style breakfasts such as omelets, croissants, eggs prepared to your liking and even American bacon!!! How do you choose?!Dean saw one of his favorites, Quiche Lorraine, being delivered to the table next door and his decision was made. It arrived on a huge (real, something we’d gotten used to not seeing) plate with a classic side of salad and an eggplant compote. Creamy egg custard with lardons of bacon in a flaky crust…What more could someone ask for after living on soups, buns and sandwiches for a few weeks. I chose Florentine Eggs Benedict, perfectly poached eggs nestled on a bed of spinach on warm roasted English muffins topped with a silky hollandaise. The potato and pumpkin hash sounded too good to pass up and hash browns aren’t something we have seen a lot of in the past few weeks, so I ordered a side of that too and it was everything I hoped it would be. The potatoes were crispy as was the pumpkin which added a slight sweetness, as did the caramelized onions that they threw in too, how could that be bad? While it was on the pricer side for SE Asia, costing us $20 for the whole meal, it was totally worth treating ourselves to. No way we could get this much food at a place like this if it were pretty much anywhere else in the world and considering we’ve been averaging about $20 for a whole day worth of food, we were two very happy people.
BenThanh Street Food Market: For our last night in HCMC we decided to check out this market so we could indulge in some delicious Vietnamese food for the last time before leaving Vietnam. An old warehouse was transformed into an indoor market housing all different food stalls with different things to choose from. From Philly Cheesesteaks (yes, I had to test him on his knowledge, he had a bag of Cheese Whiz, so he passed the test!) to tacos with fresh made tortillas and guacamole, Bahn mi’s, a variety of noodles topped with everything from duck to chicken, pork or beef, Pho and so much more. We started by sharing traditional Vietnamese Spring Rolls and Ban Xeo, a pancake made from egg and rice flour, filled with bean sprouts and chicken served with lettuce to wrap it all up in and sweet chili sauce for dunking. Then it was time for noodles! Char Sui for Dean and Roasted Chicken for me, mine was tossed in a light brown oyster sauce with large chunks of chicken (finally, pieces of chicken, not weird strips or minced) and sautéed veggies. Dean’s was a bed of noodles topped with that ever so popular roasted pink with the bright red exterior, with a heaping portions of vegetables and a slightly spicy garlic chili sauce topping it all off. It was fun to go here and have all the options to choose from, and it was even nicer that it was just down the street from our hotel, but we wish the feel of it was a little more authentic. It was definitely there for the tourists as everything was in English and barely any Vietnamese in sight. It reminded us of the night market in Chiang Mai… delicious food but we definitely paid more than we would have at a stall on the street and the food probably wasn’t as good either. We suggest if you want a quick primer of the local cuisine or you want to try some different Vietnamese foods in a short amount of time, it might be good, otherwise, stick to the local spots.
Vietnam was an amazing country. The cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh surprised us in their modern feel and ease to meld into the culture. Da Nang provided us with the beachy scenery we can never get enough of, and the people all throughout we’re so friendly and fun. We are definitely glad we made the stop and we will add this to the list of countries that we need to come back to and explore more in depth.
Next stop, Hong Kong… here we come!