HO CHI MINH - When I visited Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam about five years ago, I left unimpressed. Except for half-day tours to the Chu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta, I did not find much to do.
There wasn't any shopping to keep me occupied as I wasn't interested in the tourist souvenirs and knock-offs at the popular Ben Tanh Market.
So I ended up venturing out of the hotel mainly for meals at popular pho shops such as Pho 2000 and a backlane seafood barbecue that I enjoyed, but wouldn't recommend to hygiene-conscious Singaporeans.
My best meal was at Quan Thuy 94 Cu (94 Dinh Tien Hoang Street, District 1), a hole-in-the-wall crab eatery that served an amazing deep-fried soft-shell crab and crabmeat fried rice. Prices were high for Vietnam - especially for such a no-frills eatery - with many dishes priced at more than $10, but the food was good enough to justify going back.
Other than that, nothing was very memorable.
But when I returned to the Vietnamese city recently, I found it transformed. I was there for only about 48 hours over a weekend, but my days and nights were packed with activity.
It had mostly to do with the fact that I was with a friend who knew the city well, but it was also that the city had boomed since my last visit.
Skyscrapers had sprouted throughout the city centre, better known as District 1. Luxury hotels such as Park Hyatt, Le Meridien and Lotte Legend had opened. There was now a Takashimaya shopping mall.
And within the district, there were hip cafes and elegant restaurants buzzing with tourists and local residents.
It reminded me of Bangkok in the 1990s when international chain hotels and big brand names first opened there, but less crowded, less polluted and much cheaper. With the motorcycle population greatly reduced since my last visit, traffic was also less chaotic.
The trendiest place for tourists in Ho Chi Minh right now is probably the Cafe Apartment (42 Nguyen Hue), an old eight-storey residential apartment that is now occupied by cafes, restaurants and shops run mainly by young Vietnamese. Nguyen Hue is a main thoroughfare in front of the City Hall building and the streets in the area are lined with cafes and shops.
Eateries inside the Cafe Apartment include those serving Japanese, Chinese, Western or Vietnamese food, each decorated with beautiful wall murals to match what they are selling.
Young tourists huddle outside taking photographs. The eateries also welcome people to walk in and look at the interiors before deciding if they want to stay, which is what my friend and I did.
The layout of the old apartments had not been changed, except that for many of the eateries, the living room is now the main dining area, the bedroom is turned into a private dining area, while the kitchen and toilet retain their original function. Most of the apartments also have a balcony that overlooks the main street.
We decided to rest our feet at a Vietnamese restaurant. The menu looked good, with a familiar selection of Vietnamese noodles and dishes, but we had just eaten lunch and I ordered an iced milk coffee instead. It was excellent - sweet and strong the way it should be.
I also bought a shirt in one of the shops there, which cost me all of 350,000 dong (S$21). It came with a fortune cookie in Vietnamese that I couldn't read. But it could very well say "You will be spending your money very wisely today" because when I wore the shirt to work later on, a colleague mistook it for a designer item.
The Cafe Apartment has a lift, but to use it you have to pay 3,000 dong (18 Singapore cents) to a man on the ground floor. So get your small notes ready, take the lift to the top floor and walk your way down. Otherwise take the stairs, which is not that tough as the flights are short and you can get catch your breath wandering around the two or three shops on each floor.
Elegant restaurants now abound in Ho Chi Minh City and for lunch, we went to Quan An (71/5-71/6 Mac Thi Buoi, District 1, tel: +84-28-3825-8275), which is located in a charming old little house in a narrow alley. At the entrance is a small bar and farther in a small dining room decorated with old-fashioned rush-woven fans. It looked perfect as the setting for one of Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's movies.
The food is unfussy classic Vietnamese fare and we had a delicious appetiser platter (220,000 dong) that comprised deep-fried spring rolls, grilled chicken and what looked like the Vietnamese take on chwee kueh, steamed glutinous rice cakes topped with crispy bits.
We also had grilled eggplant, tang o and pork soup, assorted vegetables with dips as well as two fish dishes - a stewed catfish and a deep-fried river fish topped with shredded green papaya. The bill for the five of us came up to 1,253,175 dong. That's $73, or $14.60 a person, including drinks.
The next day, we decided on dim sum at a Chinese restaurant called San Fu Lou (AB Tower, 76A Le Lai Street, District1, tel: +84-28- 3823-9513).
It's on the building's ground floor, accessible via a short flight of stairs from the street, so you can't miss it. The contemporary interiors are tastefully furnished with wooden furniture and the high ceiling makes it feel bigger than it is.
The dim sum was surprisingly good for a city without a sizeable Cantonese population. The siew mai (60,000 dong) and shrimp cheong fun (80,000 dong) were as good as what I've eaten in Singapore. The only disappointment was the roast duck (185,000 dong), which appeared to be reheated, resulting in the meat getting too soft and juices being lost in the process.
I had flown in late on a Friday and decided to skip dinner, having eaten during the flight. I went for drinks at Chill Skybar (26th floor of AB Tower, 76A Le Lai Street) instead. It was on the rooftop of the same building as San Fu Lou and had a great view of the city lit up beautifully at night. The place was packed with beautiful people, with the same throbbing vibe I've experienced in rooftop bars in Singapore.
For dinner the next evening, we picked a local Vietnamese restaurant called Hoa Tuc (74 Hai Ba Trung, District 1), opposite from the Park Hyatt hotel.
It runs cooking classes on its premises, an old two-storey bungalow that, according to the restaurant's website, was once an opium refinery. Tables were set up indoors as well as outdoors under a porch.
Sitting outdoors was pleasant because nights in Ho Chi Minh City are cool, unlike the searing heat during the day when one would be wise to slab on strong sunblock.
Hoa Tuc, which means Poppy, offers a very extensive menu of Vietnamese dishes presented in original ways. For example, a dish called tender beef dipped in hot pot (215,000 dong) came with a claypot of piquant stock over a roaring charcoal fire. The thin slices of beef were cooked lightly in the broth, then wrapped with rice noodles and fresh vegetables in rice paper.
The menu lists a number of grilled dishes and the chicken with ginger and lime leaf (195,000 dong) was delicious. The chicken was well-marinated and the herbs gave it an appetising aroma.
Cheap and good food seemed to be found everywhere in the city. Deciding to skip the hotel breakfast the next morning, I wandered out to a wonton noodle stall just around the corner, manned by a hawker who spoke good English.
The noodle soup was delicious, with egg noodles submerged in a clear broth and topped with slices of tender char siew, two boiled wonton and one fried wonton, minced pork and liberal sprinklings of spring onion and Chinese chives.
The price? Only 40,000 dong (S$2.35).
How to get there
Singapore Airlines and Vietnam Airlines, as well as low-budget airlines such as Scoot and AirAsia, operate multiple direct flights between Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City daily. Prices start at about $200 return. Flight time is about two hours.
1) Walking around District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City is easy as many hotels and restaurants are within walking distance of one another and the pavements are well laid-out. But make sure you apply sunblock.
2) Crossing the road can be challenging because there are few pedestrian crossings and the motorcyclists do not always observe the traffic lights. The trick is to wait for a slight gap in the traffic and walk in a calm manner. Oncoming traffic will slow down for you. Do not run or turn back. If possible, follow a local person who is crossing the road and match his or her pace.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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