Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sniffing the HCMC (Saigon) food trail

Well, what does one do first thing in the morning in Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon aka Sai Gon? Wake up, feel the sunshine, take in a deep breath, and head for the local market. 

While the doctor has certainly ordered fruits and vegetables, it may be a good idea to take a look at the fish from the Mekong Delta system, as well. Small, medium and large. 

Having bought the required raw materials, it's now time to wander to the next stop. So, what's that going to be? 

The friendly, neighbourhood soup station, of course. The menu is simple, clearly indicated on the wall. 

The pretty ladies help in fine tuning the ingredients  that are to get into  the soup. A little of that. Some more of that. A dash of this. How about a bit of this? 

So, after a few minutes of deciding ingredients, and adding the fresh veggies and fish just bought from the market, it's time for the piping hot, fresh soup to be concocted. 

Finally, here we go. Fresh, hot, tasty soup just as you want it made. No time to waste. Time to dig in. Don't miss the additional red chilies and lime pieces on the side, for the added twang and spice. 

It's now time to head back home, find my way back through the same local market, having to effectively negotiate pedestrians, hawkers and scooter riders. The variety of clothing is impressive, and rather inexpensive. However, being on a space crunched motor bike trip, there's no way that I can afford the luxury of shopping, however inexpensive the clothes seem to be.

I was staying in a quiet area just off the main street leading from the airport. The old French mansion is located on the banks of a little river, renovated to suit modern requirements of providing rooms for travelers. 

I had bought a little, used Nokia mobile phone earlier in the day, for VND 200k (about USD 10), including a bit of talk time remaining in the SIM card. The phone is a dual SIM model, too! 

Lunch was at a simple, crowded street food restaurant, with a large variety of food on display. 

Hmmm, what do I order? Fruit juice? Rice? What sort of veggies and meat? 

Amazingly simple and inexpensive lunch consisting of rice, caramelized pork, veggies, soup and banana. All the the equivalent of about USD 1.5 per person. 

We passed several sights along the way, including the Reunification Palace, the Notre Damn Cathedral and the grand old Post Office. 

The traffic in HCMC is worth a mention. About 4.5 Million two wheelers are reportedly registered in the city. The traffic density is enormous, consisting of primarily two wheelers. However, the remarkable aspect is that every rider seems to be constantly adjusting, watching out for other riders, giving way a bit, and in turn other riders giving way. The lack of road rage is absolutely amazing, traffic just flows on. Should you wish to cross the street, chances are significant that you will survive, for motorists will find their way around you. I often saw pedestrians crossing the street, hand held high, as if to say "Watch out, I'm crossing the street."  

Street food custard at an unmarked location is part of the day's agenda. Crushed ice and Coffee are optional toppings. 

I learnt that locals come from far and near to sample the custard. This is not a tourist attraction, goes without saying. 

Several railway crossings are found in HCMC. Interestingly, the gates are manually operated. Guards open and close the red-and-white painted gates that slide on wheels across the street. 

It was interesting to learn about Vietnam's coffee shop culture, While I would come across hundreds during my motorbike trip over the next week, several sit down places dot the streets around HCMC. 

A glass of fresh, cold juice... or a cup of freshly brewed coffee... are adequate to relax in the shade, watch the world go by and perhaps take take shelter from the short shower that may occasionally decide to intervene and cool down the afternoon. 

In the midst of following the food trails along the back alleys of HCMC, we also made it to a wonderful foot massage service in Chinatown (Cholon) in D5, completely away from the tourist circuit. Like the food trail that we followed, there was not a tourist in sight. The value provided was amazing, the style in this parlour is the Chinese style, with the elbows and knees being used to apply pressure, rather than the Vietnamese slapping style. Having just come off a couple of all night flights, the massage in Cholon in D5 was just what the doctor ordered.  I am told I fell asleep for a long time, which is probably an indication of the quality of massage, particularly on the pressure points around the forehead.

Thanks to DirtyPierre (DP) of Saigon, here are a couple of pictures of Hang Long Massage shop. Do you think you can locate it by yourself? 

Ok, so here's a view from across the street, if you think that would offer you a clue, in the middle of Chinatown.

No visit to HCMC would be complete without a visit to the unnamed, hole-in-the wall Beer shop found along little lanes, where local folks gather to drink a "Bia" or two, and smoke an accompanying peace pipe or two. The Red and Green variants of Saigon Bia are most popular. 

How about specially cooked soup for dinner? At an unknown, unmarked little street restaurant. 

The soup is slowly cooked over a low flame for about six hours. 

The slow cooked Noodle soup is accompanied by flavourful greens and chilly sauces.

The family that specializes in this special type of slow cooked soup do the cooking at home and bring the food over to this simple street side restaurant every evening. It's an extremely modest family venture. 

A lovely Church suddenly appears out of the darkness along one of the busy streets. 

Meanwhile, traffic whizzes by, the streets are a maze of colour painted by street lights, store lights and headlights and taillights of vehicles whizzing along the streets. 

Exquisitely carved buildings show up now and then, like this one that houses Government offices. 

If you look around, you may locate a very narrow, vertical home near District 1. Homes like these seem to be typical in Vietnam. 

Time for a Strawberry Smoothie in District 1 made at yet another simple, street side cart with a few tables and chairs places alongside. 

Young boys employed by a popular nightclub, Crazy Buffalo, try to tempt us to head out there that evening. The building is reputed to be haunted, in case you were not aware. 

Night markets are busy as ever, as colourful and attractive as Asian Night Markets can be. 

Now, where is the Tapioca Lady? There used to be a lady who used to put together a mean Tapioca drink. 

Ah, there we are, a wide variety of Tapioca drinks.

The Tapioca Lady, proud of her colourful concoctions. 

The little restaurant that we sit in for our Tapioca drink in fact houses a little shrine. Quite a common sight. Many homes that double up as restaurants often have a small shrine in the main room of the home. 

As if all this has not been enough, it's time to sample some hand made ice cream. The motion of the hand forms a blur that the camera finds it hard to freeze. 

Ah, the most delicious of hand made ice creams ever tasted. 

A close up  of the tasty and colourful work of art, yet another unmarked, unheralded spot along the HCMC food trail. 

Meanwhile, the HCMC night scene consists of kilometres of cafes. The range is broad, from humble cafes with plastic benches and metal tables to mid-range cafes to high end cafes playing techno music dressed up in neon lights in a background of black. 

Finally, it was time to settle for a last cup of coffee in the little restaurant adjoining the old mansion that I was staying in. 

Tomorrow would be an exciting day.  

I would be setting off on my one-week motorbike trip around the Mekong Delta, from HCMC ending at Chau Doc, from where I would be hopping on to the speed boat service between Vietnam and Cambodia. 

I had made all the arrangements from back home.  Nam would be my rider-guide, from the Vietnamrider company. 

Nam: +84 979 636 879

Nam was already in HCMC, he seemed to be as excited as I was. Tomorrow would be a busy day, the beginning of a week on a bike around the back roads of the Mekong Delta, one day at a time. The unpredictable rains would surely make life even more exciting!

Click here for a glimpse of a few Railway crossings in HCMC

Click here for the beginning of my motorbike trip across the Mekong Delta: The Buddha Smiles Over My Tho

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  1. You forgot to mention the great foot massage we had in Cholon D5.
    Dirty Pierre

  2. Thank you. I've added them in!

  3. Incredible travelog. Thanks for sharing. Any hope for non-meat eaters to survive?

  4. Yes Prakash, there is a whole heap of Vegetarian places to eat in Saigon.

  5. It is great you have an experienced person like DP to show you around HCM City.
    Hope your feet is better DP.



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