Saigon is a wonderful walking town, a collection of neighborhoods filled with shops, food carts, endless rows of parked scooters and people milling about, doing their thing at what seems to be a calm pace. And it’s hot, like 35C all day long, not a lot of breeze or cloud cover, the sort of heat that must be punishing for so many of the jobs where you work outside, man oh man. In our usual manner, we walk endlessly, looking for those cool spots, that great place to get a coffee, or the market that has the perfect produce lined up like it’s waiting for a picture to be taken. Yes, we stand out because we are a minority and me, especially as I am a giant here, yet I’ve found that if I smile at someone and continue to do so, they eventually smile back, I get no trouble.
Little alleys yield tiny shops with small run ladies’ designer clothes, handcrafts, the most beautiful things for the kitchen and dining table, small cafes with the super local coffee laced with condensed milk and snappy little bars with iced Bia Ha Noi. The city has a surprising number of trees and potted plants so you are never far away from green stuff.
Lunch today is a return to a place we enjoyed last night, a diversion from our usual approach of not repeating restaurants while in town for a short stint. But the food was simply so delicious that we can’t help ourselves. Quan Bui is a short walk from our hotel, closer than you trust had it not be recommended by three different people, it seemed too easy. This is the one that sets the new standard, a type of cuisine that redefines what we know, a series of tastes and textures that make eyes widen, that sort of are-you-kidding-me food. We met Thibault, a guy from Savoie, France who came here three years ago for a new start. “Things were not good back home, no jobs, and there was not a positive feeling socially” – he came and started a small business, part dinner theatre, part cultural centre to reflect his admiration for Vietnamese arts. He has settled in working with this restaurant, very comfortable and at ease with guests, guiding them through the menu offerings. He sells us on a dish of Chicken with Honey, a sauté of Jasmine Flowers with Garlic, Beef and White Eggplant Salad with Sweet Potato Leaves, Tofu with Passion Fruit and more. Each dish is so good that we spend as much time exclaiming to each other of the flavor as we do chewing! The food truly has expanded our understanding of the Vietnamese kitchen. This is as good a set of flavours as we have tried anywhere in the world in the last several years.
While the many offers of a back massage are tempting, we spend the rest of the afternoon walking through back streets enjoying temples, shops and sights, getting better at each crosswalk at negotiating scooter traffic with more and more confidence. The trick is to watch out but at the same time walk steadily at a constant pace and let them move around you – if you flinch, you are in trouble. The surprise is the ability of people to a) pile an incredible amount of stuff or bodies to carry on a scooter and b) the uncanny skill of being able to nap on top of a parked bike, anywhere, anytime.
The kids are just awesome, mind you, kids are great everywhere, they just want to play and do so in the funniest place, this guy was imitating construction workers across a busy street, his hangout, a bus shelter.
One of the highlights of the day was finding the Pasteur Street Brewing Company, a tiny tap room serving craft beers brewed an hour outside of town by a collection of mostly American expats devoted to making quality brews enhanced with local ingredients. We tried three amazing brewskies; a Passion Fruit Wheat, a Saison with Lemongrass and Black Pepper, and a killer Jasmine IPA. Really great stuff.
More to come over the next couple of days, here is a look at what we saw.