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.


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