Virtuoso Life November 2019 A Tasting Tour of Saigon, Vietnam

A Tasting Tour of Saigon, Vietnam

Fresh rolls, steamed rice cakes, and steamed rolls with pork sausage.
Fresh rolls, steamed rice cakes, and steamed rolls with pork sausage.
Sunup to sundown (and then some), it’s always mealtime in Vietnam’s most delicious city.
"Sometimes I get a little sad," our tour guide, Vu — "as in déjà vu" — says as we exit our hotel into the frantic, sweaty, delicious streets of Saigon. "There’s too much to eat in this city and not enough time in the day." 

My wife and I feel his pain right away. Steps from the cream-colored front columns of the Park Hyatt, where we’re staying, I spot crowds of happy noodle slurpers, shrimp peelers, and skewer nibblers on squat plastic stools at a row of sidewalk restaurants. Farther along at Tan Dinh Market, with its colorful, family-run food stalls dating back to the 1920s, it’s hard to know what to try first – sizzling banh xeo pancakes or cauldrons of lava-red crab soup, or maybe the heat-beating sweet-corn dish known as che bap. You have to stay alert, though. The only thing more daunting than a team of grandmas outmaneuvering you for banh mi sandwiches is the motorcyclists whizzing through the narrow market aisles to pick up steamed dumplings or fried tofu.
Guide Ton That Hoan Vu on the city’s preferred conveyance.
Guide Ton That Hoan Vu on the city’s preferred conveyance.
“Please excuse our Vietnamese drive-through,” Vu says, gently plucking me from the path of an oncoming scooter. And to think, it’s not even 9 AM.

Around the clock in Vietnam’s largest city, street food drives the rhythms of the day. A city of 8.6 million, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, officially) is divided into 19 urban districts, each with a distinctive character and culinary scene. From a one-woman bicycle cart selling bubble waffles for breakfast in District 1 to offal congee for lunch in up-and-coming District 3 or snails and more snails at a late dinner on hardworking District 4’s Vinh Khanh Street, open-air woks and propane stoves spoil travelers here the way giraffes and wildebeests do in the Serengeti.

With a long homegrown culinary history and influences from China, the French colonial period, and the American occupation, “Vietnam has around 3,000 national dishes – and Saigon serves them all,” says John Tue Nguyen, founder and CEO of Trails of Indochina, Virtuoso’s on-site connection that works with travel advisors on custom itineraries such as ours. “It’s why we eat from dawn until dark.”
Hoang Tam’s banh xeo pancake.
Hoang Tam’s banh xeo pancake.
One memorable, gluttonous day (and night), we graze our way around Saigon, doing our best on the final 24 hours of a ten-day Vietnam visit to quell the tyranny of choice by consuming as many dumplings, rolls, rice dishes, broths, and unnameable sea creatures as our appetites will allow. Audacious, I know. “In Vietnam,” Vu informed me earlier over a market display of pig parts, “we eat anything that has legs, except tables and chairs.”

The marathon, on foot and with a driver at our beck and call, begins at a reasonable pace. Vu knows exactly which places are “reliable” and which might have us racing woozily back to the hotel before noon. At Bui Saigon, a clean, fluorescent-lit spot near the site of the former U.S. Embassy, we sit down to plates of thin grilled pork chops with com tam, literally “broken rice.” These fractured grains were once the staple of farmers and the poor of the Mekong Delta, but are now a Saigon signature, and for good reason. The rice is unusually soft and absorbs its accompanying sauce and fried-egg yolk for a richer taste. “Comfort food to get you through the day – or at least until your 11 AM snack,” Vu says.
Vietnamese doughnuts.
Vietnamese doughnuts.
We actually can’t wait that long. Coffee is serious business in Vietnam, and “retro cafés,” such as District 1’s Café 81, with its vintage furniture and faux-distressed walls, resemble Vietnamese snack bars from the 1980s, though they’re younger even than the millennials sipping espressos on the sidewalk. Tradition permeates everything here, and the go-to order is caphe phin, drip coffee brewed in a classic cup-top tin filter that drizzles into a shot glass and is heaped with sugar (Saigon is a city known for its sweet tooth). The midmorning caffeine accompaniment is the doughy fried sesame puff known as banh tieu, aka a Vietnamese doughnut.

People prefer to eat outdoors in Saigon. Apartments tend to be sweltering and crowded, and there’s simply too much spectacle to miss out on. Just seeing how many huge crates of lightbulbs, water jugs, or durian a delivery person can strap to a motorbike is worth a table with a street view. It helps to know some dining etiquette: The moist towelette in plastic at your place setting is the napkin you’ll use throughout the meal. Slurping soup – we’re talking pho, the symbol of Vietnamese gastronomy – is not offensive, and a bit of shoveling is OK when you’re dealing with those slippery noodles. Fresh spring rolls are finger food, but fried ones require chopsticks (flip those chopsticks around if you’re sharing something from your plate). Pass bowls with both hands, sprinkle chili salt on everything, and don’t be afraid to gnaw at a chicken foot or crab claw. “If you ask for a knife,” Vu says, “people will look at you like you’re from Area 51.”

Also, keep moving. With so many hawkers selling so many dishes, it’s best to munch and go. Our lunch is shrimp rolls in rice paper at one place, steamed pork dumplings at another, fried pancakes at another, and unquestionably the best banh mi I’ve ever encountered, at legendary Huynh Hoa Bakery. The sandwich there is the Platonic ideal of the form: a crackly baguette that’s piled with cold cuts, pâté, cucumbers, butter, and Vietnamese pickles. The woman ahead of us in line – there’s always a line – asks for 40 to go. Her order is assembled and wrapped within five minutes.
Vinh Khanh Street at night.
Vinh Khanh Street at night.
Speaking of speed, everything accelerates at night. For the evening part of the tour, we join up with a vintage Vespa club to consume more, only faster. With deep breaths and prayers to the travel gods, my wife and I cling to our drivers as they rev into the Spirograph-like pandemonium that is Saigon traffic (I’m relieved to hear that Francis Ford Coppola and his granddaughter Gia survived on this very tour only a few weeks earlier). With 45 million registered motorbikes in a country of 95 million, everything happens on two wheels: deliveries, business meetings, date nights, family time (more than one bike we pass has two kids and two parents), and, naturally, restaurant-hopping. Our zigzaggery takes us to a stylish teahouse, a fried-banana cart, a pho spot, a chicken-jerky place, and a famous rooftop gastropod restaurant called Oc Chi Em, which has 600 possible combinations of snail dishes.

The odyssey wraps with a late, late nightcap amid the gorgeous crowd at The Iron Bank. Up concrete stairs and behind bankvault doors, young bartenders in denim aprons swizzle smoky drinks in glassware shaped like skulls; it’s as trendy as any place we’d find back home in Los Angeles. Our guides surprise us with a beautiful mini photo album they somehow whipped up between Vespa stops. We toast to Saigon’s endless appetite and stunning flavors, and, for a moment, quiet the sadness that our return flight awaits with so much still left undevoured.
Mia Classic and Barrel Boulevardier cocktails at The Iron Bank.
Mia Classic and Barrel Boulevardier cocktails at The Iron Bank.

Go

Virtuoso advisors can work with Trails of Indochina on custom itineraries throughout the region, such as a gourmet tour of Saigon that includes a guide, car and driver, and night on the town by vintage Vespa. After a morning market visit, the focus shifts to Vietnam’s four iconic specialties: pho, rolls, noodles, and banh mi. Thrills escalate at night as travelers zip through busy city streets, stopping to pop off helmets for quick tastes of seafood, dumplings, and sweet snacks. Departures: Any day through 2020.

Stay

With recent renovations and the best location in District 1, the Park Hyatt Saigon offers an elegant respite from the city’s bustle and heat. The hotel’s 245 guest rooms and suites are designed with white shutters and other vintage colonial touches, while the oversize outdoor pool and pool house with its own barbecue area provide cool hangouts on even the most humid of days. Some claim the hotel’s Square One restaurant serves the finest pho in town. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 hotel credit.

Starting on the 27th floor, The Reverie Saigon offers panoramic views over the city’s central business district from its 286 opulent rooms laden with Italian marble and handstitched tapestries. Wok-fried lobster with black peppercorns and king crab bisque with egg-white custard and apple are two of Café Cardinal’s house specialties. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit.

A glimpse of Oc Chi Em’s shell game.
A glimpse of Oc Chi Em’s shell game.

Eat

Retro coffee bar Café 81 serves great espresso and Vietnamese coffee with Instagram-ready backdrops. 

For banh mi heaven at dirt-cheap prices, head to popular Huynh Hoa Bakery. 

The Iron Bank – Cocktail Vault churns out craft cocktails for Saigon’s cool set inside a pretend bank vault. 

Plan on Ben Thanh Street Food Market for an array of the city’s top street vendors. 

Pho Phuong is the quintessential soup joint in central Saigon. 

Oc Chi Em serves snails at hummingbird speed on an atmospheric rooftop. 

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