Sunday, April 17, 2011

Saigon, Vietnam (2008)

On our last day in Siem Reap, we spent a leisurely morning at the hotel before heading to the airport ($5 by hotel car) for our flight to Saigon. The airport was super crowded but we got on our flight without incident. We arrived around 2:30pm and then took another prearranged car ($15 this time) through 30 minutes of crazy traffic to our hotel.

After checking in and dropping off our bags at the An An Hotel, and verifying the next day's tour, we finally had time to eat "lunch". We wandered around for a few minutes before stumbling across a super casual pho place where we happily slurped down large bowls of beef pho. It seemed like the broth was clearer and less salty than in the US. Also, it only cost about $1.50 per bowl.

Since we were leaving the next day for the Mekong Delta, we thought we'd take advantage of the few hours before dinner to look around a bit. First we visited the Hindu temple, where I got really annoyed at a guy who was insistent about trying to sell us incense. Next was Ben Thanh market, which was huge, but hot and crowded, so we didn't stay there long either.

We walked up Le Loi to the Opera House and the post office, stopped by Notre Dame, and then went to Quan An Ngon for dinner.

The restaurant served lots of traditional Vietnamese street foods, but in a sit-down setting (and for a slightly higher but still very reasonable price). We ordered vermicelli with pork, pork chop with rice, Vietnamese pancake (delicious!), some spring rolls, and dessert-like drinks of coconut milk with mung bean, tapioca, peanuts, and some kind of jelly. Overall, we were very happy with our first Vietnamese dining experience.

We spent the next two days in the Mekong Delta area, before returning to Saigon for one more full day. On that day, we started with yet another fresh banh mi from a street stand. We tried the "pork sausage" this time, which turned out to be quite similar to Chinese sausage. I liked it better than the more generic meat combo that we'd had before. Next on the agenda was "bun moc" (pork and mushroom noodle soup) at another local stand. When we arrived, the stand was completely full, with tiny chairs and low tables all over the sidewalk, and there was apparently no real line. We must have looked pretty confused, because a nice local eventually waved at us and helped us find a seat. We soon figured out that he spoke Chinese! He said he was originally from Guangzhou. He also helped us order a large bowl ($3) and some kind of mung bean drink (50 cents, and very good).

After breakfast, we went to see the "Reunification Palace", formerly known as the Independence Palace, which was historically interesting but not very pretty.

Nearby was the War Remnants Museum, which we enjoyed much more than we'd expected. It sounded like a grim topic for a museum, but the displays were actually kind of uplifting; they often showed people making the best of things. The exhibit that made the biggest impression on me was a black-and-white photograph of a woman rowing down a river in a boat made out of an old hollowed-out missile. Practical, indeed.

From there it was a long-ish walk to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, which sounded cool but turned out not to be that impressive.

For lunch we "splurged" and spent almost $40 at a gourmet Vietnamese place called "Lemongrass". We started with really yummy lemon soda, Vietnamese coffee, and free shrimp chips. Then we ordered shrimp on sugar cane (served with fish sauce and veggies), bun bo xao (sauteed beef with rice noodles, my favorite), and chicken and egg noodle soup for D (light and refreshing but rich in flavor).

We enjoyed that lunch very much, especially because the restaurant was air-conditioned.

Since we were full and happy, we decided to brave the Ben Thanh market area again, and this time we actually picked up some souvenirs; chopsticks, purses, embroidered pictures, and greeting cards. We also munched on some waffle-like snacks that we bought from a street vendor.

For dinner we decided to hit the famous Temple Club. It was really nicely decorated, and they made great cocktails. For dinner we had beef salad with lotus root in a vinegar-y sauce (excellent), steamed clams, and tamarind fish. Afterwards we went downstairs to Fanny's for some "kem" (aka Vietnamese ice cream). We tried three flavors: "young rice", green tea, and peanut, of which the peanut was by far the best; not too sweet and very peanut-y.

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