Sipping a chilled 333 in the window of a buzzy bar on Saigon’s renowned Dong Khoi Street I was taken by the faith and trust complete strangers place in others. The spark of this reverie was the nonchalant way many visitors stepped off the footpath into the path of a tsunami of motorbikes and purposefully strode across the road as the sea of Suzukis washed around them.
Three days earlier we were terror stricken at the prospect of crossing the road to Saigon’s Ben Thanh market. The roads surrounding the market were an eternal stream of motorbikes, forming a wall of wheels the width of the road, carrying a bemusing array of cargo – from family groups to deep-fried dogs to refrigerators. Each tentative step onto Le Loi Street was met with a hasty withdrawal as self-preservation instincts supplanted any desire to experience the culinary and haggling delights of the market just metres away.
We’d have been stranded there for hours if it wasn’t for Dûng Nguyen. The son of a soldier during the American War, Dûng was personal guide, mentor and Saigon life-coach for the duration of our stay in Ho Chi Minh City, the lively metropolis with the name that locals preferred not to speak. His soothing instructions were “just step off, look up at them; raise a hand to waist-level if you like, and walk in a straight line directly across the road – they will ride around you”. I was entirely unconvinced until he launched into the maelstrom and strode unassailed through the wall of bikes to the front entry of Ben Thanh market and vigorously gestured at me to follow his example. No man has ever made such a leap of faith as mine that day.
Our reward for bravery was a bánh mì xìu mai – delicious baguettes stuffed with fresh herbs and steamed pork balls skilfully assembled by a woman with decades of expression on her smiling, toothless face. I’d often enjoyed these delicious snacks at Vietnamese markets at home, but at Ben Thanh I was carried to new heights.
In the three days since our first foray into Saigon’s streets we became expert navigators and learned much of Vietnam’s post-colonial history. Dûng guided us through Notre Dame Cathedral, explaining that it was built during the latter years of the 19th Century entirely of stone shipped from France. This building and the nearby Old Post Office are elegant examples of French colonial architecture, enduring reminders of France’s role in the development of this vibrant nation and fine examples of the design giving rise to Saigon‘s appellation “Paris of the East”.
We drove to the Reunification Palace and were guided past lines of tourists queuing for admission. Once the residence of the President of the Republic of Vietnam, the Reunification Palace is where, in 1975, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the front gates, signalling the end of the “American War” and the formation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Judging by the queues of visitors marshalled by uniformed guards and the seventies time-warp of the building’s furnishings, the Reunification Palace is a significant and revered site in Vietnam’s recent history. A visit to the War Relics Museum followed the Palace and we joined the throng of visitors inspecting the detritus of a jungle war two generations ago.
Next day, on the long drive to Cû Chi, near the Cambodia border, Dûng’s mood became subdued as he related stories of his father’s exploits hunting the Viet Cong through the enormous network of tunnels undermining the area. Fighting the VC on the side of the Americans, his father suffered greatly from malnutrition and the incessant attacks of fire ants and giant centipedes that infested the 250km long network of tunnels and underground chambers. “The VC had it much worse though” he wryly conceded, “They had to live down there for weeks at a time”.
The tunnel maze of Cû Chi is now a national war memorial and a very popular destination for day-trippers from Saigon. Our car passed a steady stream of buses on the drive to Ben Duoc and I was grateful for the personalised service that enabled us a relatively tourist-free authentic ‘Nam experience – a scramble along a steamy, claustrophic pitch-black 300 metre section of half-metre wide tunnel, bent double and gasping for breath in the stifling darkness.
Some minutes later, lungs replenished and sipping a souvenir shot of cobra wine I discovered that tunnel section had been widened to accommodate bulkier western tourists and politely demurred the opportunity to venture into an unaltered tunnel system.
The Rượu rắn (cobra wine) was a gut-ripping rice wine concoction in a flared flask steeping a large venomous cobra and assorted green herbs. Dûng spoke enthusiastically of its powers to restore virility and potency as he slammed down three more on my tab before ushering us off to inspect assorted booby traps and storm the firing range to fire off a war-period automatic weapon. At $1US a shot I gathered the park managers were making a fortune from the hordes of bus-borne tourists lining up for their slice of war-time derring-do.
We returned to our hotel in the early afternoon and Dûng took his leave reminding us to be prepared for tomorrow’s day trip to the Mekong River. We had already asked his suggestion for an authentic southern Vietnamese lunch experience and he wrote down instructions to Thanh Binh which turned out to be a fabulous local with heavy Chinese influences at cheap-as-chips prices. Off the beaten track, and a popular haunt for locals this nondescript little diner was a revelation, even though the cuisine wasn’t as uniquely Vietnamese as we hoped. We strolled back to our hotel accompanied by swarms of ao dai clad schoolgirls cycling home after school, snacking on chao tom (barbequed sugar cane prawns) and perfecting our street-crossing skills as we went.
Our room at the Riverside hotel overlooked a ferry terminal on the Saigon River and we spent an enjoyable cocktail hour watching the crowds of bike-riding locals coming and going from the district. We consulted Trip Advisor for a suitable dinner venue, asking the concierge to make reservations for a table at Trois Gourmands, a highly-rated French restaurant in district 2 and a government-certified cyclo to ferry us to and fro. Although slightly kitsch, the cyclo ride is the perfect way to enjoy the sights and smells of Saigon after dark.
Unlike its namesake in Roissy, a crêperie near Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, the Saigon version of Trois Gourmands is a small chef/owner-run restaurant featuring a carte of classic French dishes and a cellar boasting a huge range of French wines at very comfortable price points. Opting for the prix fixe menu with matching wine flights chosen by the multitasking chef/sommelier we relished a dining experience of exceptional finesse. Although at prices considered high by Vietnamese standards, l’addition came in at $70US each – a tiny price for such a memorable dinner.
Next morning, promptly at eight, Dûng, smiling and corporate attired, collected us for the drive south to My Tho, the bustling port city capital of the Mekong Delta Region for our planned visit to islands of the Mekong River. Curious to learn the provenance of Dûng’s slightly Americanised accent, he explained he lived with relatives in Vancouver in his teens and twenties where he studied and qualified as an electrical engineer. He married his wife, an ex-pat from near Dalat in Vietnam’s highlands, and started their family of three. Five years ago, he surrendered his comfortable middleclass Canadian lifestyle and returned to HCMC to tend to his ailing father and, unable to find suitable work in his chosen profession, took on the role of guide to English-speaking visitors. His father’s health stabilised and Dûng now is a sought-after guide contracted to several reputable Indochina tour agencies, and head of his nuclear family unit.
My Tho is a relatively scruffy city. Its proximity to Saigon makes it the most popular destination of day-trippers to the delta and its most obvious asset is the fleet of blue boats lining the banks of the river ready to ferry the busloads of package tourists to themed destinations on nearby islands in the Mekong delta. We climbed aboard a twenty-seater and launched out onto the river just as the first of the tourist coaches disgorged its cargo into similar craft.
The Mekong at this section of the delta is a broad sweep of water made choppy by the number and speed of craft shipping the delta’s produce of fruits and rice. Islands close to My Tho have sprouted demonstration farms featuring seasonal fruits, coconut groves, apiaries and fish farms and are accessed through the labyrinth of canals our sampan cruised. We visited two tourist-centric facilities, sampling fruits and candy before arriving at a restaurant for a taste of the Mekong.
Cá Tai Tượng or Deep fried Elephant Fish is a Mekong Delta specialty and was on my list of must-dos ever since Luke Nguyen prepared it on his SBS tv show. The locally-farmed elephant fish is deep fried with its scales on for good fortune, and is presented vertically, supported by crossed chopsticks and garnished with herbs and flowers sculpted from fruits and vegetables. The tricky part of eating this specialty is removing the milk-white flesh from the bones and scales with chopsticks and wrapping it in rice pancakes; the same technique as Peking duck pancakes. The fish at that restaurant tasted a little “muddy” but if you look out for Luke Nguyen’s recipe you’ll find it works superbly with snapper. Not much further eventuated on the Mekong and we returned to our sampan for the return trip to My Tho and the drive back to Saigon.
This was our last day in Southern Vietnam before flying to Nha Trang, so I asked Dûng to recommend a uniquely Saigon restaurant for dinner. Without hesitation he replied “Maxim’s Nam An, there’s nothing else like it, and it’s our favourite”. I asked if he and his wife would join us, but he politely declined citing some innocuous ‘family’ excuse. Instead, he pulled out his mobile, hit the speed dial and had an animated conversation in Vietnamese. “You’re booked in at eight” he said “and you’ll be well looked after by Long, he’s the maître D’ and he always takes care of us”.
We arrived at Maxim’s, promptly at eight, after a ten minute stroll from our hotel along Dong Khoi Street. Looking somewhat like a French colonial theatre restaurant, my first thoughts were of tourist kitsch and I was a little wary. We announced ourselves at the maître D station and were enthusiastically greeted by Long. He guided us to a comfortably clubby booth facing a dance floor and scampered off, returning with two glasses of very welcome sparkling wine. Looking around that repurposed art deco environment I was immediately reminded of a familiar ambience; the Xian Qiang Fang in Shanghai is similarly expansive, opulent and elegant with a very comfortable feel.
The menus arrived but we asked Long to recommend three courses each of their specialties that we would share. From the wine list I selected a Schloss Gobelsburg Steinsetz Grüner Veltliner a refreshingly mineral white from Austria’s Kamptal region – a perfect foil for the oscillating spiciness of Southeast Asian dishes.
Over the next two hours we waded through six unique dishes of quality ranging from fair to outstanding to a background of jazz classics performed by an ensemble trio. First to arrive was Miên cua bê; mud crab soup with vermicelli, a delicately flavoured crystal-clear crab soup over glass noodles and traditional Vietnamese herbs. Delicious! The next dish to arrive was Tàu hû sôt cà chua – silken tofu in tomato and pepper sauce. This was a little too rich for our tastes and might have been elevated by a crisper skin and more heat in the pepper.
Bún bì bò – beef and jicama with noodles – was the next delicious dish made interesting by the crunchy earthiness of jicama and was soon followed with Heo quay; roast pork belly with crackling on steamed rice. We eased down the gastronomic volume with a second bottle of the Gru V just as Gði tôm xoài – prawn, mango snow pea salad – arrived at the table and we rounded off the feast with a shared Bành kem brulee, which was exactly what it sounds like – a tasty Vietnamese brulee flavoured with lemongrass and lime. All dishes showed hints of French influence and collectively amounted to a satisfying and memorable meal. Again, the pricing was above par for Saigon, but very reasonable given the quality, variety, attentive service and ambience.
Next morning we were surprised that our transfer connection wasn’t accompanied by our devoted guide Dûng; we wanted to express our gratitude for his service and fellowship. We had time before our flight so the driver took us via the local offices of Travel Indochina, who made all the arrangements on our behalf, so we could express our thanks to the management and leave a tip for Dûng.
The brief stay in Saigon raised the bar of expectation for the remainder of our stay in Vietnam. The smoothness of service; the ability to circumvent queues, the air-conditioned cars and the insider knowledge and flexibility to alter itineraries to reflect personal interests and tastes were hallmarks of the nature of the small group journeys we booked. Small group indeed! On every day of that Vietnam trip our small group comprised of two.