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By Matthew Cowan
The Bureau Asia
First published 3 July 2020
While staycations hint at opulence and random splurges on mani-pedis, spas and high-teas, this one offers something similar, but with the added twist that it might just reconnect you with our great city after such a cloistered first half to the year.
So if you’re into street food, casual fine dining, history and culture, booze and coma-inducing king-sized beds, read on.
The neighbourhood I’m referring to is Nguyen Thai Binh Ward in District 1, a compact and gritty inner city wedge of Saigon bordered by Ham Nghi Street running towards the Saigon River, Vo Van Kiet Street along the turbid waters of the Ben Nghe canal, and Yersin Street which forms its western boundary and takes in the prospector's playground of Dan Sinh Market.
The area is small enough to cover on-foot in 24 hours, but you could spend much longer here to experience it all, which shouldn’t be a problem if you live in Saigon.
Take the history, for example.
Antiques Street (Le Cong Kieu St.) is regarded as one of the oldest streets in Saigon and for a long time has been the go-to place for people hoping to stumble across valuable antiquities or unearth pieces of “treasure”.
Mostly what you will find, however, is bric-a-brac.
Still, it’s worth the short 200m walk if only it’s to capture a sense of what Saigon was like in the middle of last century, but get in quick before development in the area swallows it up some time soon.
At its western end across Pho Duc Chinh Street is the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts (97A Pho Duc Chinh). A highlight of a visit here is that it's set across three captivating colonial-era mansions that were built in the late 1920s and early 1930s by one of the city’s wealthiest families.
Those who delight in the supernatural might also get a kick out of the urban legend that the building is haunted.
As for legends of a different kind, true crime lovers will froth over the story that 1960s underworld kingpin Dai Cathay spent his formative years at the intersection of Nguyen Cong Tru and Nam Khi Khoi Nghia Streets shining shoes and selling newspapers.
By the time he was 20, Cathay had risen the ranks to top dog status of the Four Great Kings “club” of Saigon’s criminal underworld and had the city eating out of his hands, controlling every racket imaginable from gambling to prostitution to drugs.
And then he disappeared, believed to have been hunted down and killed after escaping from a Phu Quoc prison in 1967 at just 27 years old.
I spent some valuable staycation time trying to pinpoint the exact location where the theatre, after which Cathay was eponymously nicknamed, once stood.After a languid-looking xe om driver sent me on a wild goose chase, I thought better of it and went looking for a coffee instead.
And I’m glad I did.
Down a small residential alleyway at 68/3 Nguyen Thai Binh Street, I happened across Anhouse Cafe which serves up ca phe trung, otherwise known as egg coffee.
Egg coffee is said to have originated in Hanoi and has its roots at the famous Giang Cafe, but it isn’t as widely consumed in Saigon. I’ve heard of just a handful of cafes in Saigon that brew it up, including another nearby called Little Hanoi Egg Coffee at 119/5 Yersin Street.
It’s typically made with egg yolks, sugar and coffee, while at Anhouse Cafe, they add a small dollop of local honey from Dong Nai Province to replace the sugar.
This surprisingly delicious drink is brewed in a glass coffee siphon then gently drizzled over the fluffy whipped egg and honey. Finally, it’s topped off with a dusting of cinnamon.
It’s not a coffee to grab and go, however.
The process of watching it brew has staycation written all over it, especially given the story behind its creation which came about when a young bartender (the eventual founder of Giang Cafe) at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi in the 1940s innovated on their regular coffee by trying egg yolks as a replacement for milk when it became scarce.
You can also learn about the inspiration behind this delightful cafe which showcases fabrics and knick-knacks woven by H’mong artisans from the northern region of Vietnam near Sapa.
By the time I had revelled in my discovery and Instagrammed and Facebook "Lived" the living hell out of it AND actually drank the egg coffee, the sun reflecting off the walls of the small but lively alleyway outside told me it was time for my midday check-in at The Odys Boutique Hotel at 67-60 Nguyen Thai Binh Street, but my belly was telling me otherwise.
Mon Ngon Xin Ga Po (Tasty Singapore 170 Nguyen Thai Binh) had been on my hit list for a while after I’d noticed it on some of my recent forays into the area.
Open since the end of last year, Tasty Singapore serves up all the Singaporean dishes that we non-Singaporeans know and love.
For VND138,000, the mi xao gion (crispy noodles) is a nice change-up from my habitual order of Vietnamese-style “wet” noodles like pho and hu tieu, but it’s their hoanh thanh chien (fried wontons) – golden, crunchy bite-sized crinkly wrappers encasing a tender and fragrant pork mince served up with a tangy and spicy sauce at just VND68,000 – that will have me going back.
Two other memorable dishes here were the delicate mi hoanh thanh nuoc (wonton noodle soup) for VND98,000 and the sweat-inducing forearm-sapping cua rang me (tamarind crab) for VND468,000.
With lunch done and the sagging monsoonal clouds overhead bulging as prominently as my belly, it was high time to check into my digs for the evening at The Odys Boutique Hotel (67-69 Nguyen Thai Binh).The building (previously the Signature Hotel) in which The Odys (from the word odyssey) is now housed, recently underwent a life changing journey of its own as late as October last year when it was fully refurbished and emerged as a 71-room boutique hotel with one-night stays including breakfast ranging in price from approximately VND2.4 million up to VND3.8 million.
Don’t get me wrong, the neighbourhood is a treat to walk around for “Vina-philes” like me, but one can only take so much toe-stubbing on higgledy-piggledy terrain before it’s time to put the feet up, or better still, have them pampered at the hotel’s partly-subterranean and cozy Nu Spa.
Back above ground, the hotel’s interior throughout is Vietnamese-inspired with the national flower (lotus) ever-prominent with plenty of features hinting that the interior designer tastefully took into account the undeniable impact French colonisation has had on Vietnamese design over the past hundred years or so.
After a brief lie down in my king-sized bed, I freshened up and donned my regulation after-five staycation clobber of jeans, t-shirt and flip-flops and popped into Hong Kong-inspired cocktail bar Qilin at 214A Nguyen Cong Tru Street for a happy hour tipple.
A qilin (or ky lan in Vietnamese) is a mysterious and mythical chimerical creature that appears in many “Eastern” cultures, sometimes in the form of a giraffe-like being and other times as single-horned beasts made up of parts of multiple animals.
Either way, it’s closely related to spirits and it’s here at Quilin on the second floor of an “atmospheric” French colonial-era building that I downed a spirit of the alcoholic kind – a gin and tonic with a wedge of lime.
An added bonus was that when I checked-in on Facebook and hashtagged away, I received 20% off my bill.
Any misgivings I had about the way I was dressed for dinner at Quince Eatery (37bis Ky Con) a couple of blocks away quickly dissolved as the hefty shot of Bombay Sapphire began to shake loose my inhibitions.
Since opening almost three years ago, Quince has been positively reviewed ad nauseam by local rags and the best of Saigon’s foodie scribes.
And it’s easy to see why.
But perhaps more importantly, it’s been given the nod by the most critical of gastronomes out there – chefs themselves – who tell me it’s up there as one of the best restaurants in the city.
And, they are right.
The experience at Quince is something that’s unrivalled at most other restaurants in the city.
Sure, the food is unquestionably creative and what the locals would exclaim as ngon qua! I’m speaking of the slow-cooked dry-aged ox tongue, for example, barbecued with apple butter and Japanese radish then cooked in a smoked beef fat emulsion.
And the beautifully delicate foie gras served up with a trio of thick and succulent bluefin tuna slices, crimson red on the inside and lightly seared on the outside as if the flames from the torch were allowed only enough time to lick the edges of each piece before being plated with the deft of hand usually attributed to a sushi chef.
But for me it’s the service and the ambiance that elevate Quince into the upper echelons of best places to dine in Saigon because throughout the evening they remained 'conspicuously inconspicuous'.
What I mean by that, is that the service staff were on-hand precisely when I needed them, but when I didn’t, they dissolved into the background and materialised only when it was obvious I needed something.
As we know, French colonial-era buildings have the potential to dish up amazing ambiance in spades, but only when elements like acoustics are sorted.
Clearly, Quince has it sorted.
I had to work mightily hard in order to eavesdrop on the couple's conversation behind me and still left wondering whether it was a hook-up or that they were just old friends catching up.
And, critically, keep in mind that the kitchen is open to the main dining area allowing diners unfettered access to the machinations of the cooking process.
After one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in years, I weighed up my options, which included on one hand continuing on into the night at Saigon standouts like Biker Shield (158/10 Nguyen Cong Tru) for beers, bands and bikes; The Iron Bank (47 Ton That Dam), Snuffbox (14 Ton That Dam) and Drinking & Healing (25 Ho Tung Mau) for some of the best cocktails in town; Bam Bam (41-43 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia) to rub shoulders with one of Saigon’s hottest crowds, including upstairs at Commas where I could put a full-stop on the evening after more drinks and DJs; and Envy (74-76 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia) for the full Vietnamese club experience.
While on the other hand, I had a massive bed in my room at The Odys promising me the best sleep of my life.
It was an easy decision, this time round the nightlife could wait.
The next morning after a light breakfast at the hotel, I hit the streets again in search of more great food.
The neighbourhood has a long history of Chinese influence which is reflected in the architecture, people and food, so there’s no shortage of streetside vendors serving up the likes of piping hot bowls of mi hoanh thanh and plump dim sum favourites like sui cao and xiu mai.
There’s a popular string of goat hotpot joints, too.
But today I was hungry for banh mi and my search turned up Banh Mi Ngan Sai Gon (107 Nguyen Thai Binh) that’s been serving up this Vietnamese staple since 1991.
Here, the banh mi is simple, but made with fresh ingredients, crusty bread and chilis that added a kick to my Sunday morning that had until then been doughy thanks to that bed at the hotel.
Banh Mi Sai Gon also sells an array of other tasty items like banh bao, that ubiquitous white fluffy palm-sized bun of goodness filled with a tasty stuffing of minced pork, egg and other additives according to the season.
Directly across the street Anh Phan at 60 Nguyen Thai Binh Street comes highly-recommended for its healthy juices and smoothies, but I decided the health kick had to wait because I made a bee-line for Pho Phu Vuong at 120 Nguyen Thai Binh Street.
This is a run-of-the-mill pho joint that I perhaps wouldn’t usually feature, but it’s in a handy location, easily accessible and if you’ve never tried pho (highly unlikely), it’s a good place to start your beefy brothy journey.Just a couple of blocks along the street and around the corner on Yersin Street is Dan Sinh Market, one of the most unusual markets in the city centre and which during the American War was an area known for its gambling dens.
There are three entrances and inside you’ll find the pokey walkways overflowing with the latest construction tools and industrial equipment, but the real eye-opener is the section housing (mostly fake) American War memorabilia stacked high and wide.
If you’re into this sort of thing and looking for a quirky souvenir or gift like dog tags, Zippo lighters, top-to-toe camouflage (who knows why) and oddball Russian “antiquities”, then you could spend hours poking around in here, all the while getting the hard-sell by dogged vendors wanting you to snap up a Viet Cong flag or military cloth patches.Just around the corner on Nguyen Cong Tru Street, I left the rag-and-bone vibes behind and stepped into the beautiful Phung Son Tu Pagoda at 338 Nguyen Cong Tru Street.
This Buddhist pagoda was built after WW2 and holds similar architectural characteristics as the more famous Tien Hau Pagoda in District 5, but it's significantly smaller.
In this case, size doesn’t matter because it’s a beautiful example of the kind of pagodas in Saigon you can find dotted about the districts and after the “close-in” environs of Dan Sinh Market, it’s a relaxing place to catch your breath, albeit with large gulps of smoke from the burning incense.As my 24-hours in this intriguing slice of Saigon had just about ticked over, I finished it off, firstly, with a refreshing drink at Paradise Saigon (289e Nguyen Cong Tru), the grungy home of an artistic collective and skating community helping to further the ideas of Vietnamese youth culture through artistic expression and skateboarding, followed by a hearty lunch at the recently opened Bep Me In Farm at 165/50 Nguyen Thai Binh Street.
Bep Me In Farm cleverly brings the flavours of the Vietnamese countryside to the big smoke not just in a faux, tourist-driven and staid way, but rather authentically and complete with traditional rice wine pairings that are guaranteed to blow your flip flops off.
Now what better way to finish off a Saigon staycation?