Our time in Vietnam ended as it began: dashing around a mad, chaotic city filled with history, traffic and tempting food, wishing we had more time.
With less than 48 hours until our flight home after six long months away, we tried to strike the balance between seeing as much as possible in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon and HCMC) and simply enjoying our last days travelling.
While it was tempting to indulge in nothing but eating and drinking, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to go to the War Remnants museum. The images and stories of the Vietnam War, its victims and continuing impact were humbling. I was moved before we even entered at the sight of the vast helicopters, tanks and other killing machines parked outside. Each room of the museum increased the weeping. The photo below is just one of hundreds of harrowing images (mostly taken by Western photojournalists) in the museum. Note the baby in the centre of the image.
Elsewhere we were able to see evidence of modern Vietnam; an optimistic, dynamic city moving forwards.
Luxury brands are everywhere; Vietnam is very much an emerging market.
I love this picture of a typical super chilled xe om moto taxi driver passing the time between jobs while the city whizzes past.
This kid is practising to be just like that when he grows up.
Of course we left plenty of time for our favourite pastime: harebrained forays into the depths of a city to find obscure eateries. On a scuba dive in Nha Trang we met a lovely chick who was a HCMC native and fellow food lover who was happy to share her insider knowledge.
I’m convinced our new friend Phuong was our foodie fairy godmother; every place she sent us was exactly what we were after – breathtakingly good food, unpretentious settings and honest prices.
In southern Vietnam and HCMC, pho is served with far more herbs and accompaniments than its northern counterpart. The noodle soup is still the star of the show but in HCMC the supporting cast is just as important.
Sure enough at Pho Hoa on Pasteur St the tables were laden with abundant thickets of greenery, plus all sorts of other goodies to supplement your meal.
The cubic banana leaf packages are called “wedding cakes”. The long doughy sticks are Chinese bread, great for dunking in your soup. Home made condiments like pickled garlic and chilli sauce let you personalise your bowl as you eat.
In the middle of one of these life changing meals, I was reminded of a friendly Geordie we met in our Sydney hostel. When he learnt we were heading to Vietnam next, he wrinkled his nose and said that out of everywhere he had been in Asia, Vietnam was his least favourite. Apparently he wasn’t a fan of the cuisine which he described it as “weird meatballs in water”. This comment caused a loud CHANGE THE SUBJECT QUICK klaxon to go off in my head.
The world is a wonderfully diverse place with all kinds of people and points of view, but there is no way I can talk about food with someone who can’t appreciate a heady, fragrant broth of meaty bones, vegetables and spices simmered for hours (and perfected over generations) until the flavours became harmoniously balanced. I stuck to general weather chitchat from then on.
Phuong actually got a little giddy when she told us about Banh mi Huynh Hoa, 26 Le Thi Rieng street.
Fresh, crunchy, featherlight rice flour baguettes are crammed with pâté, ham, pork floss and innumerable other slices of meat (I was reminded of New York style deep filled deli sandwiches), and finished with a couple of devilishly hot slices of chilli and some token cooling cucumber.
We had such a good time on the cooking course in Hoi An, we decided to sign up for another recommended lesson in HCMC.
Cyclo Resto was much smaller and more personalised than Morning Glory, so we were able to request specific recipes and learn how to make new dishes.
The “cyclo” part of the name refers to their preferred mode of transport between the market and the school…
We had a go at winter melon and prawn soup…
snake head fish cooked in a clay pot with laksa leaves…
green papaya salad with dried spicy beef…
There was a ridiculous amount of food between four of us!
Part of the lesson was fancy garnishes. I doubt I will ever feel the urge to make a kitsch swan out of a tomato but it’s impossible not to admire the chef’s knife skills.
I may attempt the tomato rosebud however…
Although seeing my efforts next to a professional’s, I’ll stick to the simple and cheesy cucumber heart.
Thanks Vu for helping us create a wonderful last supper to toast our travels!