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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Bite-Size Reviews: Where to Eat in Ho Chi Minh City

Contrary to popular opinion shared by friends and family members, I did not eat pho every day for every meal during the long weekend I was in Ho Chi Minh city.  Not that I didn't want to but there was just staggeringly excellent food to be found in many parts of the capital to limit myself to just that one aspect of Vietnamese cuisine.
Ben Thanh Market

I had already written about the warm welcome I'd received at a local Vietnamese home (courtesy of Eating Saigon) and that was a really special experience I'd recommend anyone.  But aside from that detour, I pretty much stuck to local favourites in and around the city.  These ranged from hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurants where you slurp your soupy rice vermicelli whilst literally squatting on eight-inch stools, to coffee cafes with a chilled nostalgic vibe, to culinary school kitchens, to a rural eating post just off the Mekong river.

Here are some of the highlights:

Bún Mắm Dặc Sản

If I live in Ho Chi Minh city, I'd probably make it a point to eat here at least once every week.  Yeah, it's that good.  Its specialty is bún mắm (which roughly translates to fermented fish noodles), and foodies who are familiar with assam laksa will know what I mean when it eats more like a stew than a straightforward noodles-in-soup creation.
The broth is rich and on the sour, sweet, salty, tangy side; aside from the rice noodles (the round type, not the flat one,) it's filled with roast pork, fresh shrimp, squid, catfish, eggplant and chives.  As an added bonus, there are the ubiquitous condiments, namely beansprouts, cilantro, basil, mint, jalapenos, as well as lime slices and fresh ground chili paste to create this symphonic explosion of taste with each bite.
Essentially a more potent version of pho, this soupy creation works more like a stew with fermented fish paste to give it that extra kick.
Those who are freaked out by all that umami-ness of the bún mắm may opt for the clear soup version with chicken slices, lots of spring onions, coriander and fried shallots for taste.  Comes with the same batch of raw condiments on the side.
The restaurant is essentially bare bones with diners seated on little red stools that are so close to the ground they're pretty much squatting as they slurp their noodles.  Due to the limited menu (these restaurants are the best as they basically specialize in doing one dish super well,) it doesn't matter if you can't speak Vietnamese as you can just point to the cauldrons of steaming hot broth (it's an open kitchen concept) and indicate with your fingers how many bowls you want.

Note: Those who are squeamish about eating in such an environment - no air-conditioning to speak of, pails of dirty dishes and leftovers stacked a few feet away, the open prep and cooking areas, communal sharing of tables, and yes, assuming the semi-awkward squatting/eating position - may not be comfortable here.  I loved it for all those reasons above.  And my god, those noodles!  Amazing.

The restaurant is not hard to find as it's located just across the street from the famous Ben Thanh market at one section of the giant roundabout.
id Cafe@District 1

So THIS was where everyone was - duh.
As this was our first day in Ho Chi Minh city, that exceedingly strong drip-coffee with a touch of condensed milk was one of the must-have highlights.
Amongst other curiosities, id Cafe is known for ice cream flavours that combine ingredients that you never thought were possible together (avocado and pepper? Strawberry and balsamic? Coffee and cinnamon???) and so in the spirit of derring-do, I ordered the Chilipassi - passion fruit and chili - which turned out to be more tart than spicy.  Kinda like a creamy sherbet.  And most yums.
That was quickly followed with a baked raspberry cheesecake.

Quán Nem Vuông
15E Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Open daily 10am to 9pm

This family-run restaurant has an unassuming facade and is flanked by clothing boutiques, bicycle repair shops and nail salons.  So it might be easy to walk by and not know that they are famous for serving up only two items on their menu.  Which is, judging from the packed interior and the line of people waiting for a table, apparently all they need to be successful.
The first item is the seasoned, grilled pork patties which you eat, enchilada-style with lettuce leaves and vermicelli for that right neutralizing blend of firmness, tastiness, saltiness and cool crunchiness. 

The second menu items is definitely the star of the two: I'm talking about deep-fried crab spring roll - so thick and dense that the server has to walk around with a pair of scissors to cut them into more manageable portions.  It's served with a light tamarind fish sauce to offset the slightly sweet texture of the crab.  The skin of the spring roll positively crackles and crumbles which is a good sign that it's not been sitting in its own grease.  Not at all ideal for your arteries, but oh so, so good for the soul.

The piping hot crab spring rolls two seconds before I devoured them.
The perennially packed Quán Nem Vuông restaurant with servers flying in and out of the kitchen.  It has two floors and blessed air-conditioning.

Bloom Saigon Restaurant
3/5 Hoang Sa, Ward Dakao, District 1, Đa Kao, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
+84 8 3910 1277
Open daily 10.30am to 11.30pm

For something a little bit different, we heard about this non-profit culinary school / restaurant that serves up authentic Vietnamese dishes with a side of refinement.  So we set out to this little alley just off the river, right at the edge of District 1.  Tucked in one of the lanes that are filled with mom-and-pop provision shops, local coffee shops and fruit sellers is a slightly dilapidated French Colonial building that houses Bloom Saigon Restaurant.
The main street with the river on the left of the photo.  Bloom Saigon is in a small lane on the right.
Finding the restaurant in this quiet dim alley was a bit of a challenge.

Fresh prawns wrapped in rice vermicelli rolls.

Heart of palm salad with prawns and pork belly.

The restaurant proclaims that they don't use any additives, i.e. MSG in their dishes. As if that isn't a good enough reason to visit, just know that Bloom (which awesomely stands for "Because Love Overcomes One's Misfortune) Saigon is run as a non-profit, with proceeds from the diners going to ACWP's causes.  The young chefs prepare the flavourful Vietnamese comfort food favourites under the guidance of Asian Fusion Executive Chef Jacqueline Kieu and French Executive Chef Hung Tu. Reservations are highly recommended.

Dông Phố Quán Huế
Ward 6, 57 Hồ Xuân Hương, phường 6, 
Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Telephone  +84 8 3930 7665

I met up with old friends who recommended we dine at this lovely restaurant featuring Hue-influenced cuisine and which also doubles as a patisserie that sells beautiful macarons and assorted French pastries.  Just slightly off the main CBD of HCM city, Dông Phố is set on a relatively bustling (but not crazy frantic) street flanked by street vendors, embassies, schools and banks.
Sunglasses vendors lining the street.
Starting things off right with an appetizer platter of local favourites.

The bright airy interior of the restaurant which used to be a colonial residence.
My soupy noodles lunch order of Bún suông: rice vermicelli with sliced pork and shrimp.
Bún bò Huế - a hearty bowl of rice vermicelli in a Huế-style, lemongrass flavored beef broth, served with thin slices of beef and pork knuckles.

Chè thập cẩm - my dessert of cold coconut cream with red beans, agar agar, red rubies and boiled yam.

Gem Cafe at Gem Convention Centre

Gem Centre is actually a private convention space - smallish as event spaces go, but massive in the context of its location.  I only ventured inside as it was close to my hotel and I was curious to know what lay within.  There's a restaurant called The Log in the upper floors but I liked much better the decor and elegantly retro feel of the Cafe on the ground floor.
On the ground floor is a beautifully laid-out cafe that serves light meals (think afternoon tea, cafe bites) with a bar serving happy hour type beverages throughout the day and evening.  It's a great space for hanging out, chilling in the air conditioned splendour, and perusing their coffee menu, before venturing back out into the manic city streets (see below photo) of Ho Chi Minh city.
The intersection of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and Nguen Binh Khiem in Ho Chi Minh City.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Travel Itinerary: Lijiang Old Town - a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In July 2016, two sites in China (Hubei Shennongjia, the largest primary forest containing rare species like the elusive Asian Black Bear; and Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape - 38 rock paintings that depict the life of the bygone Luoyue people) were named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.  With this attribution, China is now ranked third in the world with 50 World Heritage Sites, ranging in diversity from the Great Wall and the Summer Palace in Beijing, to the Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing, to the Wolong Panda Reserve in Sichuan.

Although attaining this World Heritage status at the UNESCO level may mean clamping down on the wholesale destruction of natural and cultural areas in the place of, say, concrete mega malls, multi-lane freeways, expanded subway lines, office towers and high-rise condos, it doesn't automatically mean these areas are not exploited either.  In principle, these sites are to preserve and showcase the nation's historic and natural heritage; in practice, it's a free-for-all gold rush carnival largely spurred on by tour operators, vendors peddling kitsch, karaoke bars, fast food franchisees, and of course the tourists that lap up this whole kit and caboodle.

However, at the risk of sounding overly harsh (#NoJudgement,) these World Heritage Sites do provide visitors - local and from further afar - the opportunity to view and immerse themselves in these cultural and natural legacies.  Recently, whilst on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri-la, we stopped by a couple of days at the Old Town of Lijiang (which also includes Dayan Old Town and two neighbouring ancient villages: Baisha 白沙 and Shuhe 束河.) 
Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office
As we were there during the shoulder season in July, the number of visitors were not as high and the crowds less fearsome than we'd anticipated.  There were sporadic rain showers which made the 1000-year old cobblestones a bit slick to walk on, but they were also a nice respite from the humid summer heat.

Lijiang's culture combines traditional Naxi culture and incongruous elements learned from Ming dynasty Han Chinese traders who settled in the region centuries ago. Nakhi people have kept alive a timber and mud brick housing style which they learned from Nanjing traders. Local carpenters still build elaborately constructed timber house frames from memory without blueprints or other diagrams. These houses are often enhanced by detailed flower and bird carvings on the windows. The carvings are now made by ethnic Bai artisans, but attention is given to depicting the flora and fauna of the four seasons in the traditional Han Chinese manner.

Stores renting traditional bridal costumes make a roaring trade in the Old Town.

This is Sinabro Inn where we stayed; it had very pleasant and relatively quiet rooms, not surprising as it's a couple of streets away from the main tourist thoroughfare.  An open air courtyard was framed by the inn, which featured comfortable seating areas for both guests and resident pets.

Lobby of Sinabro Inn

Reading area of Sinabro Inn

This is the second of the two floors of Sinabro Inn.  Many of the independent hotels in Lijiang look like this, at various levels of refurbishment of course.  Basically, these double-storeyed, tile-roofed, timber-framed houses combining elements of Han and Zang architecture and decoration in the arched gateways, screen walls, courtyards and carved roof beams are representative of the Naxi culture and are disposed in rows following the contours of the mountainside. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements - pottery, musical instruments, flowers and birds.

We ventured down Wuyi Street (Wensheng Alley) in search for dinner.  With no fixed plan in mind, we stopped by the first restaurant that had a bit of a line at the front (heh) and got a table after a five-minute wait.  In that time, we looked on at the chefs preparing bowls of jidou liangfen (a jelly-like noodle made from chick pea) which we were informed was a favourite of locals, so of course, that's what we ordered, along with (mildly) spicy stew of pork innards and vegetables.

The open air courtyard of Maxi Snacks Restaurant.
Food courts in Lijiang Old Town
Pulling ginger candy the traditional way.

Back at Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office at twilight.

On our second day, we decided to head to Shuhe Ancient City, 4 kilometers away the main tourist hub of Lijiang Old Town.  It's about a 10-minute taxi ride but we decided to take a local bus which cost next to nothing and let us see the more "real" aspect of Lijiang away from oversaturated colours and kitsch of its Old Town.  The only downside is that the bus stops about a kilometer away from the main entrance, but hey, it's not like we had theatre tickets or anything.

Shuhe is the much calmer, relaxed cousin to Lijiang.  UNESCO cites it as an important component of Lijiang as it is a well-preserved example of a town along the ancient tea route and one of the earliest settlements of the ancestors of Naxi people.  The locals call Shuhe "Longquan" (which literally means dragon spring due to the waterways threading through the town.)

Renowned as the "Village of Leather" (among its many monikers,) the Old Town of Shuhe has a prosperous market in the central square covering an area of 250 square meters which used to be the fur and leather trading center in Lijiang.  Ancient shops still line the square with dark red painted wood doors opened to show the old town's residents sitting, chatting and basically exemplifying the leisurely characteristic of Shuhe.  Don't get me wrong: there are still plenty of touristy knick-knacks to be found at every cobblestoned street but the commercial vibe is a smidge less frantic than at Lijiang.

Adding to the relatively peaceful vibe of Shuhe is the Long (Dragon) Pool which winds through the village and partially canopied by verdant willows.

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