Saturday, July 31, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} The Snap Cafe

We've been living in Saigon for 5 weeks!

Being back in the workforce, my social life has certainly had an upswing and I've gone to more bars, restaurants and networking functions (many I haven't had time to write posts about!) in the last 5 weeks than I did in the 16 months in Hanoi.

Today I had a quiet one. Suffering from the excess of a Friday night out (my boss had a party on his rooftop terrace - far too much alcohol was consumed by all!), I spent the morning begging Georgia and Mackenzie to lower the verbal volume while Rob was out on his first road bike ride in 18 months.

At 11am when he finally staggered through the door complaining of hangover/heat stroke/unfitness (is that a word?) the girls and I were dressed and ready to party...well, they were at least!

Before we moved to Saigon we discovered Snap Cafe - a fabulous sanctury in District 2 that has a huge playgym and sandpit for the kids and a thatched roof outdoor cafe with funky, low lounge chairs for the parents to eat and drink the hours away. Perfect hair of the dog venue!

All morning I had promised them that if they let me nurse my sore head in peace and quiet they'd be rewarded with a trip to Snap. Thankfully it worked so we spent a relaxing 2.5 hours eating lunch, sipping hair of the dog wine and watching the girls have a blast with the other kids in the play area.

The cafe, owned by an English expat, has a great western/Asian menu with cheap food and drinks to suit all tastes.

Snap Cafe - 32 Tran Ngoc Dien Street, Thao Dien Ward, District 2

I was too hungover and crabby today to remember my camera, so here's a pic of Mackenzie eating lunch there late last year. Not the best pic of Kenny, but you can see a small section of the cool play area in the background!

Mackenzie - The Snap Cafe, December 2009

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Bun Cha!

Last night I gave my housekeeper a copy of KOTO, a culinary journey through Vietnam - a cookbook written by Hanoi-based Australian chef Tracey Lister and her husband Andreas Pohl that introduces Vietnamese specialty dishes region by region.

All proceeds from this fabulous book go to KOTO, an Australian charity working to help Vietnamese street kids learn skills and find employment in hospitality.

I'm fast learning that there are many differences between the way the northerners and southerners prepare what I had thought were standard Vietnamese dishes and that some recipes, such as Bun Cha, my favourite street food in Hanoi, are ubiquitous in the north and rare in the south.

With that in mind I sat down with Thuy (my housekeeper) and showed her the KOTO cookbook pages with our favourite dishes from Hanoi. Bun Cha, Bo La Lot and Cha Ca were the three recipes I pointed out as our firm favourites from the north. Hint, hint - please cook these for my family!

Tonight when I walked in the door from work, I was greeted by the glorious smell of chargrilled pork. Bun Cha! Not as sweet, mind you, as smelling Bun Cha as it wafts around the streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, but it came close.

Homemade Bun Cha!

Bun Cha is pork grilled on a small charcoal burner served with bun (noodles) dipped in a salty and spicy broth-like sauce served with a range of vegetables such as coriander, shallots and bean sprouts. The pork is done in two ways - one a soft pork pattie, the other a slightly chewy pork belly piece. Absolutely delicious!

Apparently there are a small handul of eateries in Saigon that serve Bun Cha Hanoi style. I am yet to try them, but for the moment I am just happy that Thuy was good enough to reproduce the northern version at home!

PS - the roasted peanuts you may have spotted in the photo are not typically standard Bun Cha fare, not in Hanoi at least, but they were pretty damn good!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Mekong Merchant

Mekong Merchant - Georgia, Rob and Mackenzie

In District 2 we're lucky to have many restaurants offering a wide range of cuisines (Vietnamese, Italian, Thai, Spanish, standard western fare and loads of the trendy western Asian fusion options) that cater to the predominantly expat population living in the area.

Since we moved to our new house a few weeks ago, Sunday has become our day to try out the local businesses, many of which are happy to deliver. 

With today's drizzly rain that went on for hours we didn't have enthuisiasm to travel far, so we went local for lunch again.

In District 2, there is a street called Thao Dien (also the name of the suburb) which is lined with shops, services, restaurants and bars.

Today we had lunch at Mekong Merchant on Thao Dien - a casual brasserie with a friendly family vibe that serves a mix of Italian (gourmet pizzas and pastas) and western fare (salads, sandwiches).

Conincidentally this restaurant is owned by the same partners that are behind The Deck which we ate at last Sunday.

Mekong Merchant is defintely a more casual option far better suited to families, as evidenced by the many expats with kids who were dining today despite the weather.

Mekong Merchant, or MM as it affectionately known by the regulars, has a spacious outdoor courtyard in between two buildings that house indoor dining areas.

The courtyard has huge wooden tables that would be perfect for a family lunch on a sunny day, but with today's bad weather we had to dine inside.

Pizza and garlic bread for the girls, a steak panini for me and chicken wrap for Rob, fresh juices, coffee, ice creams - and of course wine - a total of US$37.

Surprisingly, unlike many of the restaurants we have eaten at since we arrived in Saigon a month ago, this place does not include the 15% tax and service charge which makes me more inclined to leave a tip.

The MM staff were friendly and took the time to ask if we enjoyed our meal - not a common question in Vietnam!

Thumbs up for this place. Can't wait to return on a sunnier Sunday.

Mekong Merchant - 23 Thao Dien, District 2.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

{Saigon Style} My new spectacles

This weekend I bought my very first pair of spectacles. It's official. I'm on the slippery, downhill slope to old age!

I guess for an almost 36-year-old I've done well to make it this far, but I can't help feeling a little out of sorts about it.

Thankfully it's not too dramatic as, at this stage, I only need glasses for computer work.  

Given my first optic adventure happened while living away from Australia, I thought I'd share some tips for choosing an optician when travelling.

Go with a recommendation

While cheap is not always necessarily better, if you visit Vietnam armed with recommendations from local expats or other travellers who've gone through the process of buying frames and using a local optician, you'll be surprised at how little you'll spend in comparison to home.

My colleague, who has lived in Saigon for the past 18 months, has test tried a number of opticians around town. She recommended a shop in District 3 for its range of frames, quality lenses and mostly English speaking staff.

When Rob and I visited the store last night I was initially overwhelmed by the choice.

The staff were honest enough to tell me that the cheap copies were in the front of the store, while the brand names were under lock and key in the back. I immediately headed out the back to check out the cost for quality frames.

I was pleasantly surprised. They had a range of brands to choose from, some I knew, many I didn't, but the average price of the ones I looked at was 1.6 million VND (around US$85).

Don't be concerned that it's "too" cheap

Could I be sure that these weren't copies? Why were they so cheap?

Basically you need to use common sense. You can tell just from handling the frame whether it's quality or not. But, if they feel and look good, and are cheaper than what you pay at home, who cares if it's a copy!

Like many products sold in Vietnam, the quality versions are manufactured here and exported overseas so locals and foreigners who live or visit here get many goods at cost price.

Add to that the cheap cost of labour, even for a qualified optician,  and you'll have picked up new spectacles for a fraction of the price you'd pay in your own country.

Take your script when you travel

Regardless of whether you intend shopping for frames while you're on
holidays, always carry your script with you (and be sure to leave a copy with someone back home). You just never know when you might lose your glasses or contact lenses when travelling.

If you want to get a bargain when you're overseas, search the travel blogs and expat sites for the country you're going to visit to get some recommendations.

Clearly, when shopping for glasses, the quality of lenses is paramount, and this is why recommended shops are your best option.

The other obvious criteria is to find an optician who can read a script in English!

I admit I was a little concerned, after I'd chosen my frames and headed out the back to have the glasses adjusted, when the "optician" asked Rob to clarify what was on the script!

Thankfully the guy who runs the store speaks perfect English and knew how to read the script when I showed it to him. Hopefully he monitors the guys working out the back!

My bargain buy

For me, my red (Reebok brand) specs set me back 2 million VND (around US$106!) including lenses and UV.

This evening when we picked up my new specs from the store, Georgia told me I looked "funky"! Thumbs up from a 3-year-old...can't get a better recommendation than that!

My new spectacles!

My recommendation

Visit Pham Ngoc Thach Street in District 3. The street has a number of opticians in a cluster over two blocks. If you're not in the market for spectacles, many of the stores also have a huge range of sunglasses.

I shopped at Mat Kinh at 50 Pham Ngoc Thach, District 3.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Return of the pineapple

Tonight, as I do at the end of each working day, I hailed a taxi to take me home to An Phu. As I opened the taxi door I was greeted by a sweet, yet pungent, aroma. Ah....the return of the humble pineapple!

One of the first things I noticed when we moved to Hanoi was that many of the taxi drivers seemed to have a lone pineapple rolling around the rear shelf of the car.

Were all taxi drivers addicted to this sweet, delicious fruit? Was that part of the job selection criteria?

No, apparently many Vietnamese believe the smell of the pineapple reduces the effects of motion sickness.

Used to riding motorbikes, many locals feel sick when travelling by any other mode of transport (a tip for tourists...avoid the local overnight trains and buses at all costs!).

For us foreigners used to travelling in cars, the smell of the pineapple in such a confined space actually makes us feel ill - but if it reduces the amount of locals vommiting in the taxi before me then I'll cope!

It's good to see there are some consistent behaviours between north and south Vietnam.

On the topic of's a snapshot from our time in Hanoi. Being a lazy foreigner, I would buy my pineapples from a street vendor in nearby Tay Ho who would have the pineapples peeled, bagged and ready to go. Delicious!

The humble pineapple

Weather watch: on the day of posting we had a maximum temperature of 33 degrees and an average humidity of 84%. We had two major storms today. Unusual to get two in one day, but they were both absolute crackers. The first storm hit as I walked out of the office for my lunch break. Sods law! A tip for new players...carrying an umbrella will not protect you, your heels or your suit from the effects of the immediate overflow from the road gutters! Heavy rain for over an hour. Tonight the storm hit at 9pm. Huge cracks of thunder, which surprisingly did not wake the girls, and a blackout in my neighbourhood. Hmmmm, so much for the back up generator in my ridiculously expensive compound!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Sunday brunch on the deck

The Deck in An Phu
Being a Queenslander I loved nothing more than spending a lazy Sunday on my back verandah, reading the travel pages of The Sunday Mail and dreaming of visits to faraway places.

A world away from Clayfield in Ho Chi Minh City, today we spent a couple of hours relaxing on a verandah overlooking the Saigon River.

Aptly named, The Deck, this restaurant is in our neighbourhood in An Phu. It's one of those places you'd head to when you have a hankering for decent western food, great cocktails and a desire to be away from the city buzz.

On Sunday's The Deck has a brunch menu from 11am. It's not extensive, just a few items in each category, but the prices are reasonable for a venue of this calibre.

The first thing that caught my attention were the three non-alcoholic mocktails on the menu. A weird mix of ingredients that actually works. I had apple, pineapple, cilantro (that's coriander to us Aussies) and soda. Delicious!

Delicious mocktails!
The Sunday brunch menu is western Asian fusion with choice from a range of breakfast dishes, salads and main meals.

Rob chose stuffed chicken breast and declared it the best chicken he'd had in Vietnam. I ordered only one dish off the children's menu (fish and chips) for the girls to share, and lucky I did as the serving was huge.

I chose the eggs benedict - a stupid decision in hindsight because I am the world's fussiest benedict eater and I've yet to find a decent one in Vietnam.

Don't ge me wrong, the eggs, bacon, spinach and hollandaise sauce were fine, sadly it was let down by the thick, barely toasted sourdough bread which was more like cake. For me a good benedict needs to be served on a crunchy, toasted English muffin or at least well toasted (not too thick) sourdough.

Georgia at The Deck
Mackenzie - ice-cream at The Deck

Regardless, my issues with the benedict certainly won't stop me from returning to The Deck. Under $50 for the four of us to have juices, food, ice-cream, coffee (and my habitual Sunday lunchtime glass of wine!).

Best of all, even though this is one of those funky places where the cool kids hang out (which makes you feel kinda guilty for taking your kids along and interrupting their child-free reverie) the sound of the occasional rice barge farting its way along the river drowned out most of the noise from Georgia and Mackenzie!

No doubt we'll be back for another visit. May'be next time without the girls so we can enjoy a relaxing sunset over the Saigon River, lounging on the comfy chairs with a cocktail or three!

The Deck - 38 Nguyen U Di, An Phu, District 2

Friday, July 16, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} French cuisine and Geisha girls!

Friday date night!

When I aksed my colleagues to recommend the best French cuisine in Saigon, La Cuisine at 28B Ngo Van Nam in Disrict 1 was at the top of their list.

But the recommendation came with a out for the Geisha girls!

I had driven down Ngo Van Nam during business hours and not batted an eyelid, but at 7pm this evening when the taxi turned off Le Thanh Ton Street I immediately understood the Geisha reference.

Lined with bright neon signs announcing the names of various restaurants and "spas" along the street I instantly had flashbacks to Amsterdam. The sight of 10 or more beautiful girls dressed in transparent traditional Vietnamese ao dai trailing a western gentlemen certainly raised my suspicions!

According to local media the services on this street are legit. The road is lined with Japanese, Korean and Chinese restaurants and the groups of beautiful young women who welcome VIP guests into the various venues are apparently there for "chit chat" only.

Geisha venues aside, this street is gaining a reputation for fine cusine. La Cuisine - a boutique French restaurant with an open kitchen and a resident chef who pays close attention to his diners - has gained quite a following since its soft opening in November 2009.

A brightly lit restaurant with no more than 10 tables in the place, this is the venue for you if you want Michelin star standard cuisine served in a relaxed environment. Wooden tables with low slung, pristine white camp chairs give the restaurant more of a casual deli feel.

For a boutique restaurant it has quite an extensive wine list, but being an ignorant Australian with no understanding or appreciation of the French wine regions, I bypassed the large French list for the somewhat cheaper cabernet sauvignon from South Australia. 

For the two of us, cocktail starters (delicious mojitos!), entrees, main courses, desserts and a bottle of wine, came to a total of US$120. An absolute steal for food of this standard.

As a tourist, if you're visiting Asia the thought of tasting French cuisine may seem a tad moronic, but if you have a hankering for something other than Asian fare while you're in Vietnam, and don't have a strict street food budget in mind, this restaurant should be on your list.

La Cuisine - 28B Ngo Van Nam District 1, HCMC

Thursday, July 15, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Reason # 1001 not to ride a motorbike in Saigon

This afternoon's heavy downpour in Ho Chi Minh City caused deep flooding on the roads heading out of District 1 towards An Phu. Lets hope the guy carrying all that beer made it to his destination!

Weather watch: on the day of posting Saigon had a minimum temperature of 24 degrees and a maximum temperature of 33 degrees. The average humidity was 90%, with an afternoon thunderstorm and heavy rain for 1.5 hours.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} A sea of motorbikes

The daily commute...morning peak hour traffic driving from An Phu Ward into the city (District 1).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I do, I do! Destination weddings in Vietnam

Vietnam is fast gaining a reputation as a "destination wedding" hotspot - overtaking Thailand as the place to elope to with family and friends for a cost effective ceremony and honeymoon.

As a recently engaged couple, we've been looking into options for an initimate, "non-wedding" commitment ceremony in Vietnam to mark our 10-year anniversary in 2011.

My article in the July edition of East & West magazine gives an inside view on the hottest locations for a destination wedding in Vietnam.

Friday, July 9, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Date night and Moroccan delights

One of the best things about moving cities is exploring new places to eat and drink - something we didn't do a lot in Hanoi because we didn't have a reliable babysitter. 

Thankfully, our new housekeeper in Saigon is working out well and keen to work overtime (hurray!) so Friday is now "date night" - a chance to dine without the toddlers!

Keen to unwind after my first week of full-time work in 18 months (hence my lack of posts this week) we headed to Shri a funky bar at the top of Centec Tower in District 1 with possibly the best views in Ho Chi Minh City.

The view from Shri - at the top of Centec Tower 


Shri's outdoor terrace

A couple of drinks later it was time for dinner. Being new to Saigon we decided to indulge in the many international cuisines either unavailable, or unpalatable, in Hanoi.

Tonight we went Moroccan! I love middle eastern food and Warda in District 1 came with very high recommendations from a number of people in my office. Rob had previously gone there with clients and was keen to return.

Happy to say I wasn't disappointed! I literally ate until I thought I'd burst (and then continued to stuff in more!).

For the budget conscious tourist this may not be the place for you, but if you compare the cost for a meal at Warda to the same type of food in your own country, you'll walk away happy (starters to main meals range from US$3 - US$13).

Food aside, this place is just a treat in terms of the journey to get there. Turn off Mac Thi Buoi Street into a roughly paved alleyway between the Goldfish restaurant and a tailor shop, and you'll have literally walked into foodie heaven.

By day the front half of this alley is crammed full of Vietnamese office workers sitting on low stools enjoying the street food served up by the kitchen halfway down, but at night this is place to go for a number of quality restaurants dotted along the way (Vietnamese, Thai and Moroccan).

Head to the alley's end and you'll find Warda. To the left of the entrance is Warda's bedouin tent where you can sit and enjoy your meal, smoking a shisha pipe while watching old black and white movies projected onto the tent walls.

The restaurant itself is a dimly lit, two-storey narrow (tube) house. We headed up to the second floor which was fitted out in true middle eastern style with comfy chairs and benches with many pillows to lounge on.

We started off with a Warda speciality - mint lemonade. Delicious! Of course we also ordered a wine chaser!

For starters we ordered a mezze platter with Persian baba ghanouj, marinated olives and fetta served with pitas and fried bread. Could have probably stopped here as the serving (even shared) was huge!

For mains we ordered the Kofta Kebab from the barbecue menu and the chicken and olive tajine. The tajine came with a side of fluffy couscous.

By this stage I was ready to burst and could not even contemplate ordering from the dessert menu - will have to leave that for another date night.

We tried:
  • Shri - restaurant & lounge - 23rd floor, Centec Tower, 72-74 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1.
  • Warda - 71/7 Mac Thi Buoi Street, District 1

Friday, July 2, 2010

Our new home...a villa on the river

It's moving day! We're moving to a compound in District 2, only a 15 minute taxi ride to the city, right on the river.

The compound is only a few years old, with 3 and 4 storey townhomes, of a modern design that you'd expect to find in Australia rather than Vietnam.

Feels like we're in a resort. Can't wait to finish the unpacking so I can go sit by the pool!