Tuesday, March 14, 2006


“Where are you going this holiday period?” my colleagues asked.
“Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.”

The responses to my reply were varied yet unified on one point: who in their right minds would want to go to there, they seemed to imply.

“Wah, so brave…” – er, these people do know the Vietnam War is over right?

“You’re not scared of bird flu ah?” – er, no ler, these days the choice is between catching bird flu and being bombed, and given the options, I’ll take the avian threat any day. At least you can tell a chicken when you see one. How do you know who’s a suicide bomber?

“What’s there to do?” – now that’s a good question. I didn’t know either. I’m usually the sort of anal traveller who does a whole lot of reading and research before venturing to a new holiday destination but this had been a relatively last minute spur-of-the-moment kind of decision. I had just enough time to get us on a flight and book us the perfect hotel room (more on this later) but not enough time to figure out an itinerary.

So why were we headed to HCM? Let’s just say there weren’t that many options. Time was running out. According to the SQ online booking facility, tickets to Sydney (our first choice destination) were sold out. Tickets for the Southeast Asian region though were relatively cheap. Bangkok, Bali – been there, done that. HM said, “Let’s try Vietnam”. This coming from someone averse to heat, noise and pollution, I was about to say “You must be joking”. Then again, why look a gift horse in the mouth? I kept quiet. The airfare to Hanoi was twice that of Singapore-Ho Chi Minh City, so Ho Chi Minh City it was.

Footnote: Vietnam veteran Aunt Iris had lots to say about our choice of destination. “You’ll love HCM – lots to eat and lots to buy. Must eat at Pho 24 ah...”

Monday, March 13, 2006

Saturday, 3 Dec 05: Hello Ho Chi Minh

As always, we fortified ourselves for the flight with a meal at the airport. We went to Brek Ristorante in T2. Billing itself as an Italian restaurant specialising in regional specialities, the spread of baked goods and salads on display looked appetising enough.

a rather dry if adequately leafy pasta salad

rolle with prosciutto and cheese

the piece de resistance - thin crust pizza with prosciutto and funghi

Topped off with a suitably powerful latte, it was a suitably yummy meal and we made a mental note to eat here again. The bill came up to SGD $28.32.

Then came the meal on the flight.

lychee pork with steamed rice

chicken cacciatore (I think) with fettucine

There were these pastries for dessert that I can only describe as strange, except that there is no pressing need to bring them up here so let's not go there.

HM spotted an SQ special in the in-flight catalogue (proving yet again that one can shop absolutely anywhere) - a L’Occitane handcream lotion travel set, comprising six 30 ml tubes of lavender, verbena and shea butter, for only SGD $80. That sounded like a good deal even to ignorant me. Unfortunately there was no stock available, dang.

Then it was off the plane and into the notorious traffic of HCM. Our first taste of it left us all in a blur. There seemed to be a million motorcycles all whizzing past and around our taxi, with seemingly no regard at all for traffic rules. We would find out later that indeed this was so - the written rules were of no use; it was the unwritten rules that mattered.

As with any maiden venture into new territory, we were a little apprehensive. Where is this taxi driver taking us to? Is he trustworthy, we wondered. We had already paid for the ride at the airport's taxi desk but would he try to charge us extra for some un-named surcharge? As it turned out, we were simply and uneventfully dumped at our hotel, the Grand Hotel on Dong Khoi Street, District 1.

Fortunately, it was all we had expected it to be. Situated on the quieter end of Dong Khoi (HCM's Orchard Road), near the river, it was quiet.

facade of the Grand Hotel

the reception area

the Old Wing

parquet flooring, NOT carpet, dingy or otherwise

note the chandelier and the french windows opening out to our balcony

we paid for all this, including the wall-mounted hair dryer

granite finish and a proper bathtub

a vital ingredient for a successful holiday

We had a third floor room which was wonderfully quiet, considering we were situated only three floors above street level. Perhaps it was because our room fronted the side street instead of Dong Khoi itself. No matter - we hoped it would stay that way. Just as importantly, the room was spacious and pleasant, an important factor if this was to serve as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life.

By the time we had freshened up, the sun had set which meant it was time for walkies and dinner. We did a little tour of the Dong Khoi area, passing by all the other hotels I had checked out but not booked - the Duxton, Rex, Majestic, Sheraton, Caravelle. It had been touch and go with the Duxton which came recommended for its spa. It was however a little pricier than the Grand Hotel which meant that the room would be smaller. Anyway, having checked out the "competition", we were still pleased with what we had booked.

Now what would we be having for dinner? Out came the Lonely Planet guide. HM had to remind me to calm down as I dragged her excitedly around the small lanes in the area. We were looking for Lemongrass, the authentic Vietnamese restaurant, along Nguyen Thiep Street, when lo and behold, we discovered a Pho 24 outlet directly opposite it. Vietnam = pho, pho = Vietnam. Lemongrass could wait.

Pho 24 on Nguyen Thiep

our fellow diners, all slurping their noodles

the standard bowl of pho bo (rice noodles with beef), with condiments galore

the special, with sliced beef, brisket, tendon and stomach

What better way to start our Vietnamese dining adventure than with bowlfuls of pho? For what was essentially a fast food version (and it was fast!) of street food, the soup stock was excellent - clear and tasty, although somewhat salty to our tastebuds. To round off the meal, we had lime juice with soda and ca phe da (iced Vietnamese coffee). That really hit the spot, the coffee. At 91000 dong (just under SGD $10), we had a hunch the meal was expensive by local standards but it was undeniably cheap and very very good by Singapore standards.

Before retiring to bed, we detoured to the hotel's Bellevue Restaurant for some dessert. Situated on the 12th floor, the topmost floor, it gave us a bird's eye view of the Dong Khoi area. It reminded me of Bangkok, neon lights mixed in with tv antennas galore, part glitzy downtown, part slummy third world housing.

There, we had our first taste of Vietnamese dessert - two scoops of local ice cream, coconut flavour and passionfruit flavour. At 22000 dong (SGD $2.35) for ice cream in a hotel, it was a steal. Clearly, we were going to like eating our way round HCM.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Aside #1: That Perfect Hotel Room

We have been asked time and time again how we end up at such "interesting" hotels. The word "interesting" takes on different connotations, depending on who is doing the asking. Some take a genuine interest, that is to say, they like our choices even if they would not choose likewise. Others imply that we must be out of our minds - why wouldn't we want to stay at the five-star chains, like everyone else? At other times, there are those who wonder why we would spend more than we need to, in XXYY City, when accommodation is so cheap there. Well, it all comes down to the several criteria we consider important and the interplay between them.

So what do we look for in a hotel? The first criterion is location, location, location. Firstly, not being able to drive, we need easy access to the places we are interested in, be they museums, boutiques, parks or zoos, or at least easy access to public transport. Secondly, we like having a choice of good eats, from street food to fine dining; we don't like having to eat in all the time. And if all these food choices are within walking distance, all the better.

The second criterion is what I would call the livability factor. A hotel room acts as a home away from home. When we travel, we like having the option of staying in when we want to, to rest between days of activity. Hence, although the room need not be plush, it should have comfortable furniture and not smell like an ashtray. Plenty of light is ideal but also good blackout curtains to turn the room into a "sleep studio". The TV we can do without but the bathroom should come with all mod cons. And of course, the bigger the room the better, so that we have some space to spread out and not get into each other's face all the time, which is why we often end up in a bigger room at a small hotel rather than a similarly priced smaller room in a big hotel. Why would we need a business centre, tennis courts and four restaurants anyway? As long as there is a pool, an indoor airconditioned gym being a plus point, the hotel is big enough for us.

The third criterion is harder to explain, except that it has to do with providing a unique experience of some sort. This could have something to do with the architecture, the interior design, the setting, or even the history of the hotel. That's why we have stayed at a hotel that used to be a favourite location for filming in the 1950s, a hotel set in the middle of padi fields, and many a beach-front hotel where the ocean was literally at our doorstep, all of which had no more than 3-stars I might add.

Linked to this is the people factor - who will we get to meet? Staying where other Singaporeans congregate defeats the purpose of going away at all. In any case, the crass behaviour of holidaying Singaporeans makes us shudder, so no way do we stay at hotels on the typical Singapore travel agency's list. For that matter, we avoid the standard tour package hotel, so that we can steer clear of the herds, whatever the nationality. This means we mostly end up at small hotels with other independent travellers. This suits us fine because we like service with a personal touch anyway.

All this would not be a problem, of course, if money was not an issue. Luxury boutique hotels generally fit the bill, but the reality is, the less we spend on accommodation per night, the longer we can stay. In fact, we have come to think of the money factor as an added challenge. Can we find our choice hotel room for US$50 (SGD $85) or less? We work our way up to about US$75 (SGD $127.5) if need be, and then no more than US$90 (SGD $153). It takes a fair bit of legwork online but then like everything else in life, all the more satisfying when you unearth a rare gem of a hotel that is reasonably priced.

So that's how we ended up booking ourselves into the Grand Hotel. There are by far cheaper options in other parts of HCM City but we wanted to be in the Dong Khoi area for easy access to the shopping, the sights and the restaurants. Then we wanted a pool - that put us into the US$60 and above range straightaway. Then it came down to the aesthetics - why stay in the standard cookie cutter mould hotel when you can stay in a French colonial style building? Anyway, for the same price, the Grand Hotel's rooms looked bigger and less, uh, shall we say tacky, than other comparable hotels. All in all, we were pleased.

P.S. The star system for rating hotels is not always reliable. Although it is supposed to reflect the quality of accommodation, five stars being for luxury, it is not uncommon to find hotels who have since slipped in standards still clinging on to the five star label. Moreover, the standards from country to country can vary quite widely. In addition, the provision of facilities counts for a lot in the star system. Yet, in today's boutique hotel age, there is many a well-run small hotel that provides quality accommodation without the bells and whistles. As they say, caveat emptor.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Sunday, 4 Dec 05: Day 1

Ah, nothing like a buffet breakfast to start the day off. Served at the hotel's cafe, Chez-nous, the spread included:

  • Rice porridge with assorted Vietnamese-style condiments (fish floss, deep fried ikan bilis etc)
  • Assorted cold cuts
  • Cheese platter
  • Bread
  • Corn flakes and muesli
  • Stir fried noodles
  • Grilled tuna
  • Beef stew
  • Pork in mustard sauce
  • Stir fried vegetables
  • Assorted fruit including longan
and powerful coffee to boot, none of that dishwater American-style rubbish. Then off we went to HCM's famous central market and tourist attraction, Ben Thanh Market, for a look around.

Housed in a French-colonial style building, Ben Thanh Market, while not quite as eclectic or as extensive as Bangkok's Chatuchak, had a similar charm. You could jostle with the crowd and haggle as much as you liked over the smallest knick knack or the largest durian.

We also saw many of the same products that were available down on Dong Khoi, but cheaper, possibly poorer quality versions. However, not having shopped around sufficiently, we decided to hold off doing any major shopping and contented ourselves with taking in the sights, especially of the fresh produce section. We didn't escape totally though, leaving eventually with two custard apples and a giant chiku, fruit that normally cost a bomb back home in Singapore but only cost 30000 dong (SGD $3.20) here.

seafood galore

all lined up and ready to go

luscious veggies

picking the best

if it's possible to get hungry looking at raw produce, this was it

preparing and packing fruit for curious tourists

everything seemed fresher somehow

mmm mmm, cawfeeeeee.....

ah ha, the famous weasel coffee. did we dare...?

We wandered along the side streets outside the market, where there was an abundance of food on sale as well, and more to see.

pre-packed nangka for sale

there was lots to eat...

... although we weren't all that brave.

HCM City's only Hindu temple, a rare sight in predominantly Buddhist/Cao Dai Vietnam

Our first Vietnamese cat... and a Hindu one at that!

a close-up look inside

how familiar - this could be Singapore!

We had started off early enough in the morning, so the walk up Dong Khoi Street and then left along Le Loi had been pleasant enough. By this time, it was almost noon, not the best time to out on the streets. It was hot, dusty and the incessant honking from a million motorbikes was driving us crazy.

We walked hastily back to the Dong Khoi area and hid out at Cafe Brodard, at the corner of Nguyen Thiep (soon to be our favourite street) and Dong Khoi.

a delicious Provencale sandwich - tuna, anchovies, capers, olives

our first goi cuon (vietnamese rice paper roll) - unfortunately a little dry

inside Cafe Brodard

The bill came up to 143220 dong (SGD $15.30) which felt a little expensive, even with a chai latte thrown in. Incidentally, the chai latte was quite yucky to say the least. We stuck to the coffee after this.

To get the taste of the chai latte out of our mouths, we toddled up the street to get a snack from the Brodard bakery, not that we needed an excuse to stuff our faces really. We had an excellent almond croissant and what I think was a mince puff. The pastry for the latter was a little too thick, being akin to a giant curry puff, but the mince was lovely. At 22000 dong (SGD $2.35) for two pastries, it was not expensive. Clearly, the average Vietnamese patisser was quite skillful indeed.

After that, it was back to the hotel, to get out of the mid-day sun. A snooze (me) and a swim (HM) was in order, after which we partook of our recently purchased custard apples and chiku.

spoils from Ben Thanh Market

When the sun finally set, we went to check out the shops in the area. There were a number of large department stores and shopping centres which were nothing different from those in Singapore and Malaysia, where one could find Roxy and Victoria's Secrets. In fact one of the newest was a Parkson, complete with blasting r&b music.

We much preferred the smaller shops, especially the stand-alone boutiques that seemed to cater predominantly to a Japanese clientele. Not only were we greeted with "konichiwa", the customers all seemed to be fond of chanting "kawa-eeeee!!!!". The boutiques were all prettily decorated and carried a good range of fashion, hats, handbags and shawls, more often than not hand-stitched and embroidered.

one of the many boutiques

while HM shopped, I entertained myself

a high end Vietnamese designer

entrepreneurship spilled onto the street

HM ended up with the following:

samfoo top from Shoko (US $25/SGD $42.50)

dress with embroidery from Anna Bui Silk (US $59/SGD $100.30)

It was finally dinner time, and time to head to Lemongrass.

the facades were all a little twee...

scrumptious charbroiled beef with lemongrass

sauteed prawns with caramel sauce

The food was tasty, yet light, and surprisingly not oily. We had:

  • Charbroiled beef with lemongrass (59000 dong)
  • Soup of cabbage stuffed with minced meat (45000 dong)
  • Sauteed morning glory with roasted garlic (33000 dong)
  • Sauteed prawns with caramel sauce (79000 dong)
  • Steamed rice (5000 dong)
  • Jasmine tea, for two

The total, after taxes, was 255255 dong (SGD $27.30). Eating well was quite quite affordable for us.

After dinner, the night still felt young. We had had an early dinner, because the sun sets earlier in HCM than in Singapore. It seemed too early to turn in. Moreover, HCM City seemed like a nicer place without the glare. Traffic too seemed to have eased off, so we took another turn around Dong Khoi, this time taking in the tourist attractions.

the monumental Municipal Theatre

Vietnamese Catholicism at its devotional best

the Post Office, believe it or not

finally, the man himself - Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately known there

All of a sudden, at around 9 p.m., traffic became heavy again. Why on earth were the million bikes back on the streets? We beat a hasty retreat to the nearest cafe, Givraly's, which turned out to be a prime spot for watching the "show".

where was everyone going to?

inside Givraly's

nothing like a good cuppa to end the day

and that's where we ended the night.