Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, explores new flavours in Ho Chi Minh city.
Sometimes you just get hints that you’ll like a country. For example, I knew that I’d like Vietnam when I learnt that the lunch break in that country lasts for two hours and that includes nap time. I should add that I also learned the hardest way that saying the word "yummm” apparently means that "I like sex”. You can imagine how many times I said this and was given quizzical looks by locals before I was told what I was saying!
We arrive after an eight and a half hour flight and it must be said that we were feeling very civilised indeed. Of course flying business class has ensured that we don’t look like we’ve come out the other end of a rinse, spin and dry cycle. We make our way to our hotel for the next few nights, the Hotel Majestic in Ho Chi Minh City. It is one of the city’s five-star historic properties and has boutiques in the ground floor lobby and has a bit of glitz to the decor. The hotel has been open since 1925.
I am offered a room on the fifth floor in the new wing but then there is another whispered offering of the President’s Suite, if fellow travel writer Jenna and I want to stay together. We ascertain that there are two bedrooms and two bathrooms and really, who ever gave up an offer for the President’s Suite? It’s room 331 and there are two rooms and the living area is a lovely decorated room with old world charm including the very cute working telephone below!
The next morning I rise and skip breakfast because I always do (I find that my stomach can only really take a cup of tea or in this case coffee) until a few hours later. We are picked up by our guide and he takes us to the Reunification Palace which has a very interesting history as it was where the President of South Vietnam lived and worked and today stands preserved in the same fashion.
Nowadays cabinet still meets here every Wednesday. The outside of the building, rebuilt in 1966 after a bombing partially destroyed one side of it, has beams representing bamboo on the outside.
Inside there are colour schemes of yellow (the colour of the king) and red and there are portraits of Ho Chi Minh or 'Uncle Ho' as he is known, a well-loved figure. The palace stands as a symbol of the reunification of north and south Vietnam and was formerly known as the Independence Palace. Downstairs there is the war and map room and it’s an extensive palace with four floors to see as well as the basement levels.
After walking round the palace for a few hours we are all in need of a break so we just stop at Highlands Coffee for an ice cream. I try a young rice ice cream only because, well you don’t tend to get this flavour in Australia. It’s a very mild flavoured ice cream, like rice pudding flavoured without the nutmeg so essentially it tastes a bit like grainy milk.
I take the chance to check out the convenience store to see what snack foods they have and the first thing that catches my eye are the wafer Tim Tams – and you can bet I bought a packet to take home with me!
Our next stop is the Notre Dame cathedral in the city centre. Alongside this is the Post Office, which is an example of the blend of Western and Asian styles. It was built in 1891 and features European scientists and the face of Louis the XVIth on the front but there is also the lotus, the symbol for Vietnam. It’s a working post office and also a place where you can pick up some cute books for around $25.
Ahhh lunch time! And I’m starving, did I mention that? Although it is winter here the weather is hot and humid and whilst I love heat, it can be sapping of energy. So we enter Hoi An, considered to be one of the best restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City serving classic Vietnamese cuisine on the pricier end of the scale (although even this is very reasonable for Western standards). Inside the setting is very elegant and distinctly Vietnamese.
We start with the spring rolls "Sai Gon” style, which are a real surprise. They are filled not with vegetables but a creamy fish and seafood filling – the outside is deliciously crunchy but the inside is flavoursome and creamy with soft, tender white fish and prawns. Each plate comes with these fantastic vegetable carvings – we were all very fascinated by the fisherman and fish made out of carrot!
The lotus with shrimp and pork salad came with prawn crackers which you pile the filling on. The filling was made up of halved shrimp, pork pieces, lotus root and vegetables and was crunchy and satisfying.
The chicken came out aflame in a little clay pot although a modest serving, it was absolutely divine, the pieces tender and the flavour redolent in lemongrass but balanced enough with other flavours. There were still slender rods of lemongrass at the bottom and the sauce had the perfect foil in a little cup of steamed coconut rice.
… Of course you can’t go to Vietnam without trying street food and it is on the whole safe (or at least our guide Tiger tells us it is!) as long as you don’t have anything with ice. Matt, Mark and I go looking for street food. The first thing that we see is a sugar cane juice stand which we try without ice. We watch as they feed through the white sugarcane through the masher creating a khaki green foamy juice. The sugar cane juice has an almost pineapple flavour to it and is sweet but refreshing and not syrupy.
We spy a street food stall that also has a large sit down area. All of the patrons are Vietnamese and it is furiously busy so we figure that this is as good a place as any to try some street food. We stand there watching them pile plate after plate of colourful goodies, fresh rice rolls, steaming soup with eggs and we take a seat a couple of doors down. The boss speaks a little English and is friendly and hands us a menu (without prices but even if we do pay a different price from locals, it won’t be high).
We take the owner’s recommendations and for good measure, order some fresh spring rolls both with prawn and then with Chinese Lup Cheong sausage. The rolls themselves are a bit hard on the outside but the sauce that they’re served with is delicious and really makes the rolls so tasty. I’m not sure what was in it and wasn’t able to ask but it was thick and packed full of flavour with crushed nuts in it. I will find out though!
Our next dish is the chicken rice, which is quite unlike Hainanese chicken rice. Here it is quite oily with shredded chicken and deep fried shallots on top and the rice slightly sticky too. And it is so utterly moreish and Matt and I find ourselves unable to stop eating it.
Our last dish is a chicken soup served with a tangle of banana flower, mint, eryngo, lettuce and bean sprouts. The soup itself is a bowl with a rich, full of flavour broth with a generous serve of chicken, noodles, onion slices and fried shallots and herbs on top. We watch a little girl pick up chopsticks and bring the noodles from her own tiny bowl, blow on them and then eat them. We ask for the bill and for the three dishes above and a '333' beer (known colloquially as "bababa”) the bill comes to 120,000VND or under $A6!
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