While there is clearly some great day time sightseeing in and around Ho Chi Minh City, the night offers some great tourist attractions as well. This city is growing and advancing quickly, and the neon-tinged evening skyline looks a lot different than it did just a few years ago.
One of the things that made my list early was to take a dinner cruise along the Saigon River. After doing a bit of on line research, we picked the Bonsai Boat cruise. It was reported to have great food, good entertainment, and the wooden boat has a dragon head!! Cheesy fun. We called, booked tickets, and I was excited!
When we arrived, the first thing that caught my attention was, of course, the dragon head prow. Yay!
As we milled around the plank to board the boat, the entertainers for the cruise were set up outside for photos ops. Doug humored me by posing for this!
The Bonsai boat is smaller than some of the other dinner cruises, and you get a more intimate experience. We were on the second level, with only six or seven other tables…all tourists from Europe and other parts of Asia. We cruised up and down the Saigon River for a little over two hours. The view back to the city was so peaceful as compared to the blaring horn chaos of the streets.
We would occasionally pass by another cruise boat and exchange waves. We could tell we had made the right choice, we were having more fun!
The food was great, with an enormous buffet spread of soups, salads, sushi rolls, spring rolls, noodles of various flavors, curried vegetables, seafood, grilled meats, interesting potato dishes, and chocolate, pudding, crepes, and fresh tropical fruit for dessert. So tasty.
The entertainment was great as well. Throughout the dinner we had a duo of keyboardist and singer serenade us with American music from Motown up through Shakira. At first I was disappointed the music was not more authentic. But then Doug brought up that this was, in fact, authentic. Vietnamese pop culture is Western-centric, and this was essentially the quintessential Asian experience… karaoke! In fact, after dinner, it did not take long for some of the Asian guests to take a turn at the mic, laughing their way through American classics.
Throughout the night, we were also treated to a team of five dancers. They performed some very traditional Vietnamese dances, like this fan dance,
as well as some interesting non-Vietnamese styles, like belly dancing. They were very entertaining and performed all styles with grace and precision. All in all, it was a great night!
Another fantastic night out was at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater. I have to admit, at first, I was skeptical. Puppets? In the water? And all in Vietnamese? But I kept reading that this was a great thing to do in the city and that the puppetry was clear enough that the language barrier was not a problem. Tickets were only $10 each, so we decided to try it out.
The 45 minute show sells out all three performances almost every night, so we booked out tickets in advance and arrived at the theater as the sun was setting for the early show. The theater itself is quite impressive, and the giant puppet statues outside set the stage for what will follow.
We really didn’t know what to expect, but with seats in just the third row, we knew we’d have a good view! Within minutes of the show starting, I knew I was going to love it! The water puppets were worked by eight guys from inside the pagoda. The stories, from what we can tell, were a mix of simple depictions of rural life as well as lore of gods and royalty. What amazed us the most was how the show never got stale. Each scene incorporated a new element, keeping it fresh and interesting.
There were six musicians, three on each side of the stage, that played a wide variety of instruments, sang, and voiced the dialog of the puppet characters. I tried to capture a few sections on video, but as usual, my comfort behind the lens vanishes in the transition to motion pictures. Regardless, I put what I captured up on Youtube and you can watch the video here. I seemed to catch a lot of the singing, but there was a good deal of instruments-only as well as dialog throughout the show. It was completely in Vietnamese, but I’ll agree with the reviews, the puppets were clear enough that you can get the main theme, even though I’m sure we missed some jokes. In the end, we had a great time and really appreciated this ancient art form, practiced in Vietnam for hundreds of years.
After the puppet show, we walked across District 1 to find the recommended Temple Bar - a nice restaurant built in an old converted Chinese temple. The entrance to the restaurant is hidden down a long hall and up a flight of stairs, all still decorated as it was in its temple days.
The fresh fish was fantastic, the service prompt and attentive, and the prices, as always, so reasonable. But the ambiance made the night, with intricate wooden carvings, hanging lanterns, and a peaceful feel throughout the restaurant. I mean, have you ever seen bathroom doors like this in a restaurant?!
Both in daylight and by the nighttime glow of neon, Saigon has so much to offer, and we’re enjoying every minute of it!
Vietnam surprised me. I had heard that Vietnamese food was good, and the Phở we’ve tried in the States was good, but I was not prepared. During our month in Vietnam, the food was amazing, and the cheapest we’ve had anywhere on our trip. If you’re OK eating street food, and we were, you can easily feed two people for $5-6 USD, even less if you’re willing to try mystery meat. And a really good dinner in a restaurant will run you less than $20. We caved more often than not.
But before we get into meals, let’s just start with the fruit and veggies. Vietnamese cuisine is, above all, fresh. Ingredients are picked up almost every day from the open air markets - grocery stores are rare and expensive by local standards. The colorful tropical fruits are fantastic - mango, pineapple, watermelon, and the most visually stunning, dragonfruit.
Fruit is ubiquitously sold on the street, and present at most breakfast and dessert offerings. Yummy!
But serving fruit requires no skill. That is displayed in the meals. While in Saigon, we had a kitchen and ate in more than out. But when we went out, it was often for Phở, Vietnamese noodle soup (pronounced ‘fah’). Soups are big in Vietnam, which is odd for a country that is so hot all the time, but somehow it works. Phở usually comes out with noodles, chicken or beef, and onions in a piping hot broth, with a plate of basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, and chili peppers to add to your liking. Let it stew for a little while, and mmm mmm mmm, delicious!
The best soup we had in Saigon was courtesy of The Lunch Lady. Nguyen Thi Thanh was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show, No Reservations, and she’s a bit of a celebrity now.
One thing that makes the Lunch Lady special, is that unlike other street vendors who usually specialize in one thing, she serves a different soup every day of the week. We went out in search of her on a Saturday, and were met with banh canh.
This crab based stock had been simmering all morning with various spices, and is served absolutely packed with tasty goodness. There are thick noodles, crab, shrimp, pork, some sort of sausage, something I think was a fish cake (?), a quail egg, mushrooms (that I ate, a big step for me!) onions - both fresh and fried, chilis, bean sprouts, herbs, and something that I think was dried squid that actually tasted like bacon (surprise!) As with most food in Vietnam, if you try to dissect everything that’s in it, you’re going to be disappointed, and it may prevent yourself from trying something you’ll love. Just dig in and go for it - this soup was out of this world! Total cost, including two sodas = ~$4.50.
Once we arrived in Hoi An, we were without a kitchen, and had to eat out every day - gee darn! In keeping with Hoi An culture, chefs approach cooking as a craft, and both taste and presentation are amazing. Service was top notch as well, with most servers speaking very good English. Our favorite restaurant in town was the White Sail at 134 Tran Cao Van St. - recommended to us by fellow travelers on our tour to the Mekong Delta.
We chatted for a while with our friendly waitress, and even encouraged a few passers-by to come in and eat - it was that good. We ate their twice, and tried many of the local specialties. For ~$7, Doug got a mixed plate of local favorites, including spring rolls, sauteed pork, fried wontons (what we started to call Vietnamese nachos), white rose (shrimp dumplings), and Hoi An pancakes - made with pork, shrimp, and veggies, then you roll them in rice paper with fresh herbs. Oh, and it came with desert too!
I never used to be a big fan of shrimp. Vietnam has changed my mind. The super fresh, small shrimp served everywhere, and for cheap, were sweet and tender. I had them in salads, like this one made with morning glory greens, at the Morning Glory restaurant.
They’re served in soups, cooked in clay pots (another Hoi An specialty), in noodle dishes and stir fried with a side of rice.
Or again, as dumplings called white rose (here from the White Sail).
There were actually four in this order, but I gobbled up two before remembering to take a picture!
Another Hoi An specialty is call Cau Lau (both words rhyme with ‘how’). Rumor has it that water from a special well just outside of town gives this dish it’s unique, indescribable flavor. Whether or not that is true, the dish is ONLY served in Hoi An, nowhere else. We tried this all over town, but our two favorites were actually at our hotel restaurant (Southern Hotel and Villas),
and at a no-name, sit-on-a-stool, side-of-the-road stand by the river, about $1/bowl, best served by lantern light after dark.
Recipes vary around the city, but the cau lau noodles are key. Throw in some pork slices, fresh green with lots of fragrant herbs, crispy wonton-like crouton-things, some fresh chilis or chili paste, a little lime on the side, and just enough broth to cover the bottom of the bowl. An exclusive local dish to be proud of.
And any description of food in Hoi An would be lacking without bringing up the desserts at the Cargo Lounge. A bit pricey by local standards, dinner here is great. We saw a curry dish at the table next to us served inside a coconut that was subsequently lit on fire. Classy stuff. But the desserts are what take it to another level. The dessert menu is longer than the dinner menu. We went once for dinner and dessert and once just for drinks and dessert. Decadent. Round 1 = Doug’s trio of chocolate delicacies and my chocolate truffle cake. So rich, so sweet, and for those of you who know I’m not supposed to eat chocolate, yes, the caffeine was terrible for me. We both felt pretty crappy afterwards, but it was worth it!
For round 2 we showed a little restraint and shared a passionfruit cheesecake with a couple glasses of wine. Pure heaven.
OK, I think I’ve tortured you enough. Seriously, I’m probably going to miss this food the rest of the trip…