Pho, pronounced as ‘fuh’ or ‘fur’ is a popular Vietnamese noodle soup bowl, consisting of broth, meat, rice noodles and herbs, usually basil, fresh cut chilli and lime. We’ve had the most delectable pho in Singapore and were salvating at the thought of finding the best bowl over our weekend trip to Saigon 2 weeks ago.
We landed in Ho Chi Minh City to the notably squeaky clean airport, the visa on arrival formalities took about half an hour and we were good to go. We bought a local SIM card each at the airport just before exiting; for US$5 we got unlimited incoming calls, a certain number of local outgoing calls and up to 50 GB of data usage per day.
We were staying at the Rex Hotel in district 1 for 3 nights, in close prolixity to the municipal buildings, the Opera House and the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.
We decided to go to the night market held outside the Ben Thanh Market (starting after 1800 hours once Ben Thanh closes) the first evening there with the hope of some street credit worthy pho and cheap shopping. At 7 pm the market was just about setting up, with grouchy shopkeepers shooing us away demanding we come back later. We found Pho 2000 right behind the market above a The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafe. It resembled a Singaporean eating house, was packed with locals and smelled divine. We later discovered, Pho 2000’s claim to fame was serving beef noodle soup to Bill Clinton in November of 2000. We ordered 2 bowls of chicken pho, served with heaps of fresh aromatic Thai basil that needs to be broken off roughly and thrown in; cut chillies and lots of lime. I think we expected a lot out of our first meal in Vietnam, the pho, although suitably delicious, wasn’t spectacular (either our expectations were too high, or Singapore has spoilt us for choice and quality). Additionally, we sensed the broth was thick with monosodium glutamate (MSG) because a sudden sense of drowsiness over took us.
Over the next 2 days we explored district 1 and a little bit of district 3. The hotel was very well located; other than our failed shopping expedition to district 3 for which we took a taxi, we walked everywhere.
What we saw:
The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, established by the French colonists, constructed between 1863 and 1880. It is a spitting image of the Notre-Dame de Paris from the outside and very similar from the inside however not a patch on the latter grandeur wise. I have been to the Notre-Dame de Paris 3 times in the last 5 years and have always spent over an hour inside, but the Saigon version paled in comparison and we were out in 10 minutes.
The Reunification Palace, also known as the Independence Palace conveniently located a block away from the Saigon Notre-Dame.
Saigon Square I and II for cheap knock-offs, where we bargained till we went hoarse – Old Navy t-shirts for S$4 anyone?
War Remnants Museum, grotesque, real and gruesome exhibition of the 10 year-long Vietnam War and aftermath including the effects of the use of chemical weapons, primarily Agent Orange.
The Saigon Opera House, also known as the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, is a marvellous example of French architecture. Built in 1897 by French architect Eugène Ferret as the Opėra de Saigon, the 800 seat building was used as the home of the Lower House assembly of South Vietnam after 1956. It was not until 1975 that it was again used as a theatre, and restored in 1995.
What we ate?
On the second night in, we discovered an enclave of restaurants in Ba Trung, (the courtyard of restaurants includes Vasco’s Bar, Beirut Garden, Hoa Tuc, The Refinery, Vino) popular with locals, tourists and expats, 5 minutes from the Saigon Opera House, behind the Park Hyatt. There, we ate at The Refinery that had sublime French food, their beet and fresh goat’s cheese risotto was particularly good and we polished it off in 2 minutes flat! Next door, Beirut Garden looked equally busy with loud Arabic music trying to keep pace with the belly dancers.
Another decent afternoon cafe find was L’Usine, close to the hotel right next to the Christian Louboutin store (of course we went in!). An edgy, multicuisine cafe and concept store with interesting knickknacks although steeply priced for Vietnam standards with a slight pretentious air.
After sampling pho on the streets of Saigon, at the famous Pho 2000 and the highly recommended Nha Hang Ngon, we decided to chuck the guide out and take matters into our own hands! Deep in a residential pocket of district 1, we found a chic art-deco looking pho bar and restaurant that served up a bowl of pho worth writing about.
The Rex Rooftop bar became our after dinner destination, cool and breezy it was, surprisingly, one of the most liveliest places in Ho Chi Minh City. We had tried a few bars listed on the Luxe guide and always came home to the Rex rooftop, its live band and infectious happy vibe.
Would go back to:
∗ The Refinery (http://www.therefinerysaigon.com)
∗ The Rex Hotel Rooftop Bar (http://www.rexhotelvietnam.com/en/Dining-rooftop-garden-5.html)
∗ Highlands Coffee (http://highlandscoffee.com.vn/vn/index.html)
∗ ru. Pho Bar (http://ruphobar.com)
∗ Khoi Thom, eye popping villa and decor with great Mexican food (http://www.khoithom.com)
What we missed:
∗ La Fenetre Soleil, sunny cafe that transforms into an alternative music dive bar in the evenings
∗ 2 Lam Son Bar, at the Park Hyatt Saigon
∗ Yoko Bar, named after Yoko Ono, is a live music venue located in district 3
∗ The Deck, situated on the banks of the Saigon River (http://thedecksaigon.com)
∗ L’Usine (http://lusinespace.com)
∗ Nha Hang Ngon (http://www.quananngon.com), highly recommended again, however we found the food very average especially the pho and claypot fish.
∗ Pacharan Restaurant (http://www.pacharan.com.vn)
∗ Vesper Gourmet Lounge
∗ Chill Sky Bar (www.chillsaigon.com) ∗ Gaya Designer Showroom (http://www.gayavietnam.com/)
We were advised to use just 2 taxi companies and nothing else – Mai Lin and Vinasun
For entry to Vietnam you can arrange to get a visa on arrival by submitting the visa form and visa fee online and getting a pre-approval letter before departure. The pre-approval letter will help speed things up at the airport’s visa counter on landing. Use Visatovietnam.com to apply for the pre-approval letter and pay the necessary fee (approximately US$35). You will also need to pay an additional US$45 in cash at the visa counter at the airport. [http://visatovietnam.com (+84) 982226669 / (+844) 39993938 – Ho Chi Minh office at (+84) 906122199 / (+844) 39944804 or email us at email@example.com]
Vietnamese coffee is coarsely ground Vietnamese-grown dark roast individually brewed with a small metal French drip filter (ca phe phin) into a cup usually containing sweet condensed milk (a lot like kopi), with the following variations:
Ca phe nong – hot coffee, straight up
Ca phe sua nong – hot coffee with condensed milk
Ca phe da – ice coffee, straight up (the decoction of coffee is poured into a glass of ice)
Ca phe sua da – ice coffee with condensed milk