Our original plan was to spend a week in Singapore right before Christmas for our friends’ wedding. But since Vietnam was so close, William thought it’d be fun to go there on the way. William is brilliant at finding amazing airline deals and decided to try a new method this time. Going halfway around the world isn’t cheap, especially during the holidays, and on top of that we were hoping to fly in business class. The goal this time was to get last-minute award tickets. The idea here is that some airlines release seats for award tickets at the last minute if they don’t believe they’ll sell those seats. William was patient, I was stressed. It’s hard to plan for a trip when you don’t even know when or if you’ll be leaving. The tickets we wanted finally showed up three days before we were hoping to leave, so off we went.
We’d never been to Vietnam and didn’t have much planned since it was a last minute trip. We left Saturday night, landed Monday morning and were planning to leave again for Singapore on Wednesday morning. Even though it was a short trip, it was fantastic and I’d love to go back again. I was most excited for the food. I love Vietnamese food, but I’d never had true, authentic Vietnamese before.
It didn’t disappoint. It was so, so good.
On the way from the airport, we stopped for lunch at a place called Bá Bá. William had printed out a gluten-free travel card in Vietnamese and the ladies at the restaurant were super friendly and helped make sure our food was safe. When our waiter brought us the food, she quickly showed us how to eat it. Thank goodness for that – her way was definitely better than what I would have done. We had a bowl of broth, a pile of herbs and rice noodles, and a couple of pork skewers and meatballs. She put a little bit of everything in the broth and then motioned us to eat that and then repeat.
So simple. So Delicious.
After lunch, as we were walking to our Airbnb, we discovered Marou’s cafe and chocolate factory. We’ve gotten their chocolate a few times in SF, but had no idea they were in Ho Chi Minh City! They didn’t quite know what to do with our request for a dairy-free hot chocolate. We finally got something made with water. Their chocolate bars are fantastic though, and they had so many different ones that aren’t available in the states. We may have bought a lot of them…
I’m not sure how we do it, but we always seem to travel to places that are HOT and HUMID. Not a fan.
We spent most of the afternoon relaxing inside our Airbnb where it was cooler to get some work done, since we were both working remotely. The Airbnb had amazing views! We were so lucky to find such a great place at the last minute.
We booked an Airbnb experience for that evening – a food tour on scooters. It was incredible! The food was amazing, but getting to ride around on scooters was definitely half the fun. Imagine thousands of scooters, practically no street lights, and definitely no rules. It’s like water flowing through the streets. It’s mind-blowing to experience and even better being in the middle of it rather than just watching from the street.
Our guides, Qui and Nguyen, were college students. I love how the Airbnb experience is set up. College students get to practice their English while getting paid and getting a free meal, and we get locals who can take us to all the best places and help us navigate the menus and tell us lots of fun facts. When we started off, Qui told us that we’d go to three places… seven places later we were exhausted and full of good food.
They took us all over the city. I’m not even sure where we went really. Our first stop was to get a coconut drink with fresh young coconut in it. After that they took us to get noodles. As soon as we sat down, the owner handed us all drinks. Qui said it was our beer. We looked at each other super confused since we can’t drink beer, but finally realized he was joking and it was just chilled jasmine green tea. I love that they serve tea with the meals. The noodle dish was a broth with thick rice noodles, beef strips, a crab cake and sausage. There was also chili sauce and peppers on the table. Qui told us the chili sauce wasn’t that spicy, but that while the peppers added awesome flavor to the soup, if you accidentally ate one, it would take you to another place. I don’t doubt that for a moment because I put a spoonful of the chili sauce in my bowl, and my mouth was on fire with just that!
After the noodles they took us to a street corner. There was a woman sitting next to a grill behind a pile of boxes. She was grilling sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves that was then covered in coconut cream. It was super rich, but very delicious.
We were then taken to the flower market where we stopped to get a sugar cane drink. I didn’t think I would like it since I’m not usually a fan of super sweet things, but it was one of the most amazing drinks I’ve ever had. They pressed a piece of sugar cane with a single kumquat. It was sweet, yet still tart and citrusy. Qui and Nguyen explained to me that the Vietnamese like to have balance in their food – everything that is sweet should be balanced with something sour or salty. No wonder I like their food so much. We parked the scooters there and walked around the market while enjoying our drinks and wandering towards the next place.
Up next was another tiny tucked away stand. I’m not exactly sure what we were eating. There were beans, and lotus, and ube, and pumpkin and other things I’m not sure about. That was all layered with more coconut cream and ice poured on top. It was kind of sweet and kind of savory at the same time. They told us that this was a usual snack for the locals and not a dessert.
We walked a little farther and came to another hole in the wall. They gave us ground beef wrapped around a stalk of lemongrass that was grilled like a skewer. It was so flavorful! Our last stop in the flower market was a what our guide called a Vietnamese pizza. It was a grilled rice sheet topped with what I think was an egg mixture with green onions and meat. It was crispy on the bottom and soft on top with a few different sauces drizzles over it. Qui said it was like crack for the locals. I thought it was good, but the sauces were too sweet for my liking.
Our final stop of the evening was at a tofu place for dessert. I’ll be honest. I hate tofu. I wasn’t excited about this at all, but our guides were super excited about us trying it so we did. It was tofu with more coconut cream and tapioca pearls. Holy cow, it was delicious! I had to double check that we were actually eating tofu and not flan. It was light and smooth and creamy and didn’t taste anything like the tofu that I’m used to. I’d definitely go back for more next time.
Tuesday was our only full day to explore. We started off the day at The Vintage Emporium. Having modern restaurants that look like they belong back home next to tiny street food stands is confusing to see. This restaurant was adorable, bright and airy, and felt like it had a British influence in both style and food.
We spent the rest of the morning walking around the city after breakfast. It was so much fun to see all the life there. It’s a completely different way of living. Everything is more cramped, more run down, less intentionally designed, dirtier – everything that I usually try to avoid, yet it has so much life and character and I loved it. There’s so much authenticity there. Everyone seemed more friendly and respectful with each other than I’m used to seeing in a big city.
We had read an article about street food in the city and one place really stood out, so we slowly made our way over there for lunch as we wandered around. There are so many food vendors all over the street. It was an adventure just finding the place. So worth it though! We sat down and were handed a menu (thankfully it had pictures since it was all in Vietnamese!) – we did some confusing pointing and signing with the waiter to try to figure out what we could eat with our allergies. I ended up resorting to a thumbs-up and thumbs-down approach but I’m not really sure that worked, and in the end we didn’t really know what we ended up ordering. He brought us rice noodles with pork skewers on top of a pile of herbs with a little bowl of fish sauce. We weren’t sure if the sauce was to dip in or pour it into the main bowl. We glanced around to see what the locals were doing – seemed like pouring the little bowl into the big bowl was the way to go, so we did that. Oh, my, gawd… so delicious. It was perfect. We then tried asking for water, that didn’t work very well. William tried signing something to drink, which resulted in us being quickly handed big mugs of iced jasmine tea. Score!
After lunch we went back to our Airbnb to do some more work. It worked out perfectly being able to work during the middle of the day when the heat was at its peak and then being able to explore in the morning and the evening when it was more comfortable outside. Although comfortable is very relative when you feel like you’re going to melt even in the lower temperatures.
William found an interesting sake bar with rave reviews that we decided to try before dinner. I’ve always wanted to like sake, but I’ve always disliked it every time I tried. Recently I tried it again and seemed to dislike it less, so we decided to give it another go at Sake Central. This bar was beautiful. It was so sleek and thoughtfully designed. The sake menu seemed very impressive, but we knew nothing about sake. The waiter was super friendly and told us all about the sake and his favorite ones. We ended up getting a sake flight to try a variety, since we were still learning what we liked and honestly if we even liked sake. It’s growing on me, I actually enjoyed it very much. We tried six different types ranging from crisp and dry to cheesy and sweet. They also had a happy hour menu going, so we couldn’t say no to oysters. That’s something I know I love. When they came out, we just stared at them. They were huge! Biggest oysters we’ve ever seen. We were debating if we could even eat them in one go. They came with a delicious kumquat sauce and limes. They were smooth and creamy but had a stronger fishy aftertaste than we’re usually used to, so William wasn’t a huge fan. They were still fun to try though.
We finished the day with dinner at Den Long, since it had great reviews. It was a more “normal” restaurant compared to what we had been eating on the street, and it definitely didn’t compare to the incredible street food that we’d been having. We tried their Pomelo salad with shrimp and pork (our favorite dish), Shaking Beef, Panfried Tonkin flower, and Sweet and sour river catfish soup. It wasn’t a bad meal, just not as flavorful as everything else. Nothing compares with the amazing $2 street food.
I’m very curious to see what Ho Chi Minh City will be like in 20 years, even 10 years. It seems like a lot of the younger people are starting to get better educations that will allow them to get better paying jobs which should bring more money into the city. There’s so much room for it to grow and develop, but I hope it doesn’t loose it’s charm and authenticity. I’m definitely looking forward to going back again.
Stay tuned for the second part of the trip in Singapore!