I arrived at Saigon, the ancient capital city of Southern Vietnam, welcomed by an afternoon downpour. Looking out the windows of the Merc that has been sent to pick me up from the airport, I saw motorcyclists clad in rain ponchos zipping by in this monsoon season. My ride from the airport took approximately twenty minutes, about the same time it took to receive my visa on arrival and clear immigration earlier, before I reached InterContinental Asiana Saigon Residences where I would be spending the next three nights. This was my first time visiting Ho Chi Minh City and despite the rain, I was giddy with excitement about sampling as many local fare as my stomach could fit – especially after the weather cleared up during the next two days.
For two decades I had been eating pho regularly, at least once a week, back when I lived in Elmhurst, New York. Naturally, my first quest upon arrival was a steaming bowl of Vietnamese beef noodle soup – perfect for the grey and wet afternoon. After checking into our gorgeous 2 bedroom apartment on the 19th floor with a sprawling view of HCMC city view, the concierge pointed my parents and I to a nearby pho joint that’s a short 2 block walk from the hotel. The rain had let up by this time so we strolled to Pho 24 where I discovered a long leafy herb with serrated edges accompanying our bowls of pho – it tasted like cilantro but crisper in texture. It would be one of the many interesting herbs discovered during this trip.
Food geek mode on and I investigated this herb: it’s called ngò gai or Sawtooth Herb, and it’s always used with pho. Yumminess!
After my dad finished every drop of broth in his bowl, we walked around and took photos of the nearby Notre Dame, then taking in the grand interior of the Old Saigon Post Office situated right opposite.
To be perfectly frank, I was very nervous about this trip because I’ve heard the first-hand account of a snatch theft incident that befell my unfortunate friend when he visited HCMC, right outside his hotel too! And a few days prior to my trip, another friend who’s living there encountered an attempted highway robbery and got injured quite badly. As you can imagine, these sort of stories didn’t bode well and I was a ball of nerves, unable to sleep the night before my flight going there. After this mini sightseeing session, we strolled back to the InterCon and promptly banked in some zzz’s since we all had gotten up early to catch the morning flight to HCMC.
SO. I’m no stranger to Vietnamese food, or rather, the overseas rendition of it. Eating it there, in Vietnam itself, turned out to be a most enjoyable experience with new discoveries. Namely the generous use of herbs and aromatics, which is a significant virtue of the cuisine since many of these herbs are grown and can be found in Vietnam only. Collectively known as rau thom, literally translated as fragrant leaves, there are so many varieties that I’d never seen before and they tasted so damn good even when eaten raw. Vietnamese dishes heavily depend on the use of fresh herbs. Unlike other cuisines where herbs and leaves are used in small amounts as garnish or to kick up flavors; Vietnamese people consume their herbs in high amounts as if they are veggies. With most Vietnamese dishes, there is sure to be an abundance of fresh mixed herbs on table to compliment the meal, and there are certain herbs that only go with certain dishes. I can now say that a Vietnamese meal isn’t truly authentic or complete without the inclusion of rau thom. I gotta get an herb garden going again at home and attempt to grow these Vietnamese herbs!
I’ll elaborate on the different restaurants that I ate at in individual posts. Meanwhile, during my trip I was baffled by two things:
1. WHY IS THE RICE PAPER SERVED DRY?!
I really don’t know what’s going on with this. Normally banh trang, Vietnamese rice paper wrappers, are sold dry but eaten after it’s rehydrated. Oddly enough, at restaurants they served it dry without anything to soften it. O_o!? I asked my overseas-Vietnamese pal Liz, now living in HCMC, and she told me it’s been served dry like that in Vietnam for the last ten years. She said (and I quote), “These dry rice paper wrappers served in restaurants are the bane of my existence!”. And then we both did an eye-roll together. Dry, the banh trang tasted like plastic sheets and completely inedible! Why couldn’t they at least have it rehydrated and softened first before serving???
2. VIETNAMESE PEOPLE DON’T GET THE CONCEPT OF SEATING.
I noticed this the first time when at one of the restaurants, they seated the three of us at a table made of two square tables placed together to form a rectangle, with six chairs. Never mind the tables for now, let’s look at the chair arrangements. The logical way is to place the six chairs around a four-sided table this way. Right?
But NOOOOOOOOO….. three chairs had to be placed side by side, and another three chairs also side by side on the opposite. How on earth do they expect people to sit with this placement?!? Whoever is sitting in the middle chair on either side, where the legs from the two joined tables are situated, will be so uncomfortable because there’s zero legroom!
So I thought this was an oversight at the first restaurant until I noticed this happened at every restaurant we went to! I don’t even know why they’d seat 3 of us in a 6-seater table in the first place. And how did this simple basic logic of chair arrangement escape them!? And then back at the InterCon Residences, where our dining area has a beautiful wooden table with again six chairs – three on each side. This time though, the table is an actual rectangular one instead of two squares pushed together. BUT whoever designed this dining set or did the carpentry clearly wasn’t thinking of how six people are actually going to sit in those chairs when the total length of the three chairs are basically the same length as the table. As in, uh… no clearance space in between chairs. Don’t even go as far as having multiple people sit around this table since just one person alone (me) had to climb into the seat proceeded by my knees knocking against the legs of the immediate chair next to mine that’s tucked under the table.
This chair thing in Vietnam is just… weird.
Anyhoo, as an insomniac bat I had no trouble sleeping at all when I was in Saigon because the bed and pillows at InterCon were too comfortable – and I don’t usually say this about hotels. Even with afternoon naps, I had no difficulty falling asleep before midnight and before I could finish plotting out more “eat-ineraries”. The best part is waking up feeling supremely well-rested at 6am the next morning, with an empty stomach all ready for breakfast at Market 39 (hotel lobby level) where I don’t normally drink coffee but made an exception and had two ice cold Vietnamese drip coffees. :9
Good stuff. Two glasses of ice coffee for three days and I still managed to sleep like a baby every night, heh.
Like my videos? Thanks, filmed them using the Casio Exilim EX-100 digital compact camera which I will be reviewing soon. Left my DSLR at home for reasons already explained above. :X