Sunday, October 31, 2010

{Saigon Snacks & Sights} Black Cat and Saigon's fine arts

After this morning's swimming lesson we headed into District 1 for lunch and a look at some of Saigon's popular (expensive!) art galleries. My plan, although somewhat ambitious with the toddler terrors in tow, was to aimlessly wander the galleries in search of souvenir artworks.

{Saigon Snacks} Black Cat

Our lunch destination was the popular Black Cat at 13 Phan Van Dat in District 1. This is the place to go when you're over Vietnamese food and have a craving for a western-style burger, sandwich or salad.

They have extensive brunch and lunch/dinner menus with salads, sandwiches/wraps, burgers and Mexican fare (including heart stopping deep fried burritos!), delicious juices and dairy-free smoothies.

This charming two-level burger joint, with walls covered in photos of Hanoi and Saigon tourist sights,  was famously put on the map in 2006 when voted it one of the "Top 10 Places in the World You Must Eat".

Undoubtedly the menu item deserving of this prestigious accolade is Black Cat's 1.5 kilogram cheeseburger - an almost dinner plate-sized bun containing a 500 gram beef pattie , 6 slices of bacon, 4 slices of cheese and more. Photos of patrons attempting to finish the burger adorn the walls, but reportedly only a few have made it to the end.

Watch this space when Rob challenges my brother-in-law Justin to a burger eating contest when he visits us in December!

Black Cat - Mackenzie attempted to eat the kid-sized cheeseburger (she didn't make it to the end!)

Georgia at Black Cat
Rob had a Black Cat sub

{Saigon Sights} Saigon's Art Galleries

Saigon has a thriving art scene with many popular Vietnamese artists showing original pieces in the exclusive galleries on Mac Thi Buoi and Dong Khoi, and numerous galleries throughout the city with in-store painters happy to rip off famous artists (alive and dead).

I must admit, I haven't done a lot of research on where to buy art in Saigon. I had previously passed a lot of galleries on Dong Khoi so the plan was to start there and see if we could find a large piece to take home as a souvenir of our time in Vietnam (as well as a few smaller pieces to fill the space on our walls).

Did I mention that these galleries are EXPENSIVE??!

In summary, the many galleries in this exclusive pocket are well worth a look if only so you can salivate over what you can't afford!

Some of the priciest pieces were in the Apricot Gallery at 50-52 Mac Thi Buoi, which has a sister gallery in Hanoi. Georgia and I spotted a pair of funky, abstract streetscapes which I thought would look great hanging side by side in our dining room. That dream was quashed when I was informed they were US$1800 per paitning. And they were certainly two of the cheaper pieces in the gallery!

If, like me, you wouldn't know the difference between a real or fake Monet, let alone an original by an apparently famous Vietnamese artist, it will all come down to what you like the look of and how much cash you're willing to part with.

Dong Khoi Street
Some Dong Khoi galleries, a little cheaper than Apricot but still with many gorgeous pieces:
  • Quoc Dung Gallery at 36 Dong Khoi - boasting all original artworks, prices here are a little more affordable at US1,000 and under!
  • 83 Dong Khoi - houses two galleries in one space, as well as the Gallery Deli upstairs (a restaurant with an artwork display). Both the galleries downstairs have a range of small, ready framed canvases starting from US$30 as well as larger range of more expensive, original pieces. The gallery at the back specialises in modern art.
  • Thanh Mai Gallery at 52 Dong Khoi - a huge multi-level space with many original, large pieces (oil and lacquer). It's owned by Apricot Gallery. Definitely not cheap, but worth a look.
 For tourists who want to spend as little cash as possible, there are numerous pockets of galleries outside of the Dong Khoi strip offering up cheap copies and some funky originals.

I promise to devote another post to the location of Saigon's budget art gallery gems (once I locate more of them!) but my best find this afternoon was a gallery called Kim Do at 32 Le Loi Street in District 1 (across from the Saigon Centre).

I purchased a small, abstract painting of a traditional stilt house for US$35. The painting had just been finished so I left it at the gallery to dry. I'll post a photo later this week.

Happy hunting!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

{Vietnam holidays} Peak season travels in Vietnam

After a frustrating 5 days emailing numerous Vietnam resorts and travel agencies to finalise a holiday itinerary for my family visiting in December, I finally managed to secure a booking!

With only 11 days to spend with us in south Vietnam over Christmas and new year, my sister and I agreed that a few days seeing the sights of Saigon, an overnight tour to the Mekong Delta and a 3 night stay at a beach further north for new years eve was a good  holiday plan.

A tip for anyone planning to visit southern Vietnam's hot spots over Christmas and new year - book at least 4 or 5 months ahead!

The Mekong tour was easy enough to organise as I'd thankfully done my research well in advance. I'd read a lot of positive reviews about an expat-owned agency called Come & Go Vietnam that organises tours (among others) into the Delta.

Having already been to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, where we stayed at the fanciest hotel and did sedate (and expensive!) hotel tours along the river that were all a bit "same same", I wanted to give my sister and her family an experience that was a little less touristy.

We've opted for Come & Go's Mekong Short Break which they have kindly customised (slightly) for our 3-year-olds! I'm excited that we'll be staying overnight with a local family who'll teach us how to cook Vietnamese food (something I'm yet to master despite almost 2 years living in Vietnam!).

Now to the beach break...the original plan had been to head north to Nha Trang on the south central coast of Vietnam. In December, despite still technically being the wet season (depending on which website you look at!), Nha Trang was reportedly a safe option in terms of swimming weather.

My first stop was the Vietnam Airlines webiste to make sure flights to Nha Trang were still available. For approximately US$355 for a family of four we could get flights for the dates we wanted. 

Next was a blanket email to all of the highly regarded resorts and hotels in Nha Trang. With every reservation email politely telling me I'd been placed on a waiting list, or from hotels wanting to charge me over $400 per night to get rooms large enough to fit a family of four, I became just a little bit despondent!

There was no way I was going to pay US$2,000 for flights and a hotel just for 3 I moved to Plan B.

A little way north of Saigon are the beach areas of Phan Thiet and Mui Ne - favourite expat haunts which we haven't bothered with to date due to the fact that you can't get there by plane. The option of up to 4 hours trapped in a car on reportedly one of the worst roads in Vietnam with 3-year-old twins had never really appealed, but it was time to take this option a bit more seriously!

After a bit of Internet research I discovered a "5-star" tourist train to Phan Thiet. The train takes 5 hours, but I figured the option of letting the 4 kids run loose while the parents enjoy the passing countryside, and a few relaxing beverages, was a great idea! Of course I haven't been able to find anyone who can confirm the "exact" price of this train - I've been told prices ranging from US$5 to $25 one way.

My next stumbling block was finding an available hotel. After more blanket emails to about 30 resorts in Mui Ne and Phan Thiet I was emailed a very financially appealing quote from the Novotel.

After a two days of emails back and forth, with me trying to argue the necessity of a compulsory new years eve dinner with a ridiculous price tag for adults and kids, I finally conceded that we had no other option. I sent the reservations department an email confirming the booking only to be told it was no longer available and we were back on a waiting list! Ugggh!

I hit the jackpot this evening when the Accor website (owner of the Novotel) had a similar deal to that I'd been quoted directly by the hotel. Not sure how it works, or why the hotel couldn't book it themselves, but fingers crossed the booking will stick (we've paid for it upfront after all!).

Despite my niggles with the reservations department, the Novotel Phan Thiet Ocean Dunes and Golf Resort gets mostly rave reviews on Trip Advisor and from my colleagues who have stayed there in recent times. Despite not being in the heart of Mui Ne, which is where all the restaurants and bars are located, the resort is more of a family friendly option that's away from the noise.

Now I just have to book train tickets, otherwise the local taxi service will be getting a very lucrative booking from Team Somerville and co. in December!

Photo flashback:

Here's some snaps of Team Somerville enjoying a holiday in Nha Trang in March 2009. We had heaps of fun, hence our desire to return with the family (not to be this time!). We stayed at Vinpearl Land - a resort located on its own island just off the mainland. You can reach it by cable car or speedboat and it has its own amusement park! So not a cultural experience, but very cool all the same!

Nha Trang Beach
Cable car to Vinpearl Land
Mackenzie and Rob in the Vinpearl Land cable car
Georgia and Rob - Vinpearl Land beach (South China Sea)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Bong Milk!

Snapped at An Phu Supermarket in Thao Dien:

Vietnamese Bong Milk...should this product come with a health warning? Just add your own hose and enjoy!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Saturday in Saigon

An early lunch at our local favourite...Mekong Merchant in Thao Dien.

Georgia tried to phone in her order!

Rob and Mackenzie...Mekong Merchant
 An after lunch stroll through Van Thanh Park...

Van Thanh Park

Mackenzie (l) and Georgia...Van Thanh Park
A late afternoon swim at home...

Sunset on the Saigon River

Friday, October 22, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Hoa Tuc on Hai Ba Trung

Rob at Hoa Tuc
Hoa Tuc restaurant  in District 1 is my preferred caterer for the regular events I organise for my day job in Saigon.

Tonight, I finally managed to dine at Hoa Tuc's restaurant and I was pleased to see a few of the friendly young waiters who regularly work at our functions.

Hoa Tuc is located on the grounds of Saigon's former opium refinery on Hai Ba Trung Street (hence the restaurant's name which means opium flower).

Enter through the archway at 74 Hai Ba Trung Street and you'll find a number of top quality restaurants catering to tourists and expats including The Refinery, Vinos, Vasco's and Hoa Tuc.

Hoa Tuc has an extensive contemporary Vietnamese menu with nothing over US$10 (unless you want to order the soft shell crab!).

You can dine in the dimly lit front courtyard or inside which is a popular option for large tour groups.

Our recommendation: try the seafood spring rolls and beef in betel leaf for starters. Also the banana flower salad and for mains the sea bass with mango salsa.

Hoa Tuc: 74/7 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Travel-weary Team Somerville back home in Vietnam!

Ok, so it has been 2 weeks since my last post. My excuse? Too much travel, too little time!

Cambodia, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore...yep, we're just a wee bit exhausted and over travelling (for another fortnight at least!)

As previously posted Rob and I had booked a weekend in Siem Reap, Cambodia for my birthday (sans kids) before our trip back to Australia. In summary...fantastic!

Siem Reap is a funky, vibrant town that, despite being packed with loads of hotels and bars catering to the tourist trade, has surprisingly managed to retain its charm and cultural heritage. 

As expected, our stay at The One Hotel in Siem Reap was indeed a unique experience. The staff were lovely and we were treated like royalty!

Of course the highlight was exploring the vast Angkor temple ruins. We started at sunrise on the Saturday and still only managed to cover Angkor Wat, the Bayon temple ruins at the centre of the Angkor Thom complex and the temple ruins of Ta Prohm (now more commonly known as "The Tomb Raider Temple" thanks to Angelina Jolie!). 

I'll post more about our adventures in Cambodia in the coming days, but in the meantime below are a few snapshots of our day at the ruins.

From Cambodia it was back to Vietnam to pick up the girls (who had a fun weekend without their parents!) and then back to the airport a few hours later through the heavily flooded streets of Saigon for our flight to Australia.

We spent eight days in Brisbane with a packed itinerary catching up with family and friends. Not exactly a relaxing holiday but lots of fun all the same.

After a stopover in Singapore for the night we arrived back in Vietnam yesterday ready for the return to work and school today. 

But - as you'll have come to expect from me by now - even before the plane had landed in Saigon I was busy scribbling ideas in my notebook for our next holiday in December (more Vietnam travel with visiting relatives and a trip to Hong Kong!).

Yep...I'm an addict! Here's to many more travel adventures in the coming months!
Angkor Wat at sunrise
Angkor Wat sunrise

Angkor Thom's south gate
Angkor Thom's south gate
Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom
Inside the Bayon Temple complex
Bayon Temple...our tour guide (Mr Em Somuch) knew all the cool spots for fun photos!
On the other side of Bayon Temple 

Ta Prohm - aka Tomb Raider Temple

Rob the Tomb Raider!
Our recommendation: if you're looking for a knowledgable, English-speaking guide to take you on a full-day tour of the Angkor ruins contact Mr. Em Somuch on email: or telephone (855) 12 853 271 or (855) 99 459 972. A full day tour from US$25 (contact him directly because if you book through a hotel it will cost you more!).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More Hanoi memories and the weekend ahead...

Only a few days to go before Hanoi's 1,000 year birthday bash.

Continuing with my theme of "Hanoi Memories", in December last year we hired the very talented Hanoi-based photojournalist Julian Wainwright to take some souvenir shots of the girls at our favourite places.

Here's a few of my favourite pictures from the shoot:

On the Sunbeam Bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

Jade Mountain Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature
Dong Xuan Market
Our local flower market
Now to the weekend...

Before we head back to Australia on Sunday night Rob and I will spend the weekend in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Not only will we celebrate both my and Hanoi's birthday on Sunday (my downhill slide to 40!) this weekend will be our first holiday without our children.

The reason behind our sans-kids weekend is a chance for me to tick another item off my growing "travel bucket list" (i.e. my top places to visit before I die!) with a weekend stopover in Siem Reap to visit the ruins of Angkor Wat.

Just as exciting is the fact that we have booked two nights at The One Hotel Angkor - a boutique hotel in Siem Reap where, as the name suggests, we will be the one and only guests!

I saw a feature on The One on the Discovery travel channel earlier this year and have been planning a trip there ever since!

Think royalty, think exclusivety, think feeling like the only people on earth as you are handed a mobile phone so The One's staff can cater to your every whim...welcome to the hottest boutique hotel in Cambodia! (PS - no kids allowed!)

To say that I am excited to be seeing the ruins on my 36th birthday is a slight understatement, but the fact that my birthday will also be celebrated with a stay at one of the most talked about hotels in the Mastercard would say...priceless!

I have promised Rob that I will shut down the laptop until we are back in Ho Chi Minh, so I will try to post some photos of our weekend on Sunday night on route to Brisbane.

A fabulous birthday weekend ahead! And to my (very) slightly older twin sister Belinda - happy birthday for Sunday! May your next 12 months be all that you could wish for and your wrinkles not as pronounced as mine! xx

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

{Hanoi Memories} Fanny's Ice-cream Hoan Kiem Lake

In Sunday's post I wrote about our visit to Fanny's ice-cream in Thao Dien.

Fanny's ice-cream is a Vietnamese institution - french style ice-cream and sorbet that has been a huge hit with tourists since the mid-90's.

One of my favourite outings in Hanoi was to take the girls to the Fanny's parlour on Le Thai To across the road from the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake.

Huge glass windows provide a perfect view of the lake making this one of the most popular ice-cream parlours for tourists visiting Vietnam.

Add to that the Fanny's all-you-can-eat ice-cream buffets on the first Friday of every month and it's not hard to see why this is the best spot in the country to over-indulge!

Here's some snaps of our last visit to the Fanny's parlour in Hanoi before we moved south: 

Hoan Kiem Lake

Monday, October 4, 2010

{Expat life} Homeward bound!

Team Somerville
This time next week Team Somerville will be on a plane to Brisbane, Australia. An 8-day visit to catch up with family and friends.

It's been 12 months since we were home and I'm often asked what I miss most about Australia (aside from family and friends of course!).

For me it's the little things, like being able to walk into a shop and communicate in English knowing I'll have paid for exactly what I wanted.

Or walking into a clothing store and choosing from neatly organised racks with clearly marked Australian standard sizes (and for anyone over 6 foot with an above size 30 waistline that's extremely important!).

My top to do/buy list in Australia is as follows:
  • Drive a car! It's not just about the freedom of driving a car, but also the fact that I can drive on the right side of the road (the left side, that is!).
  • Give in to the ridiculous food cravings that have popped into my head over the last 12 months (simply because I can't get them here!): Arnotts savoury shapes (for Rob it will be barbecue shapes!), Iced Vo Vo biscuits, salt and vinegar crinkle cut chips, Cadbury dairy milk buttons (they taste better than the squares!), non-UHT milk, freshly baked bread (without sugar!) and twisties.
  • A visit to Zone Fresh in Windsor - my favourite deli/fruit-vege shop. I just know that I'll be gobsmacked by the ridiculous prices but just walking by the glass case with chicken kievs and crumbed lamb cutlets is sure to send me into a frenzy!
  • Walk into a bbq chicken shop (eg Chicken Magic or Red Rooster in Clayfield) and buy a takeaway chicken minus the head/beak! Can't bring myself to buy one in Vietnam because the chicken heads freak me out!
  • Buy all of the new release books I can fit into our suitcase (despite improving in the 18 months we've lived here, finding latest release novels in Vietnam is a rare event).
  • Underwear shopping - can't beat Bonds underwear and my supply is looking a wee bit sad. Yeah sorry, too much information! I need to approach Mr Bonds about a trade agreement with Vietnam!
What I know I am going to miss about Vietnam:
  • The noise - crazy as it sounds I just know I'm going to find Brisbane a little too quiet and sterile. I've grown used to the noise and chaos.
  • The cheap cost of daily essentials - I love the fact that I can go to the market and buy fresh fruit and vegetables for so little. I'll have to resist telling the girls to stop eating because it's too expensive!
  • My housekeeper - a no brainer! Crap...I'm not sure I know how to turn on the washing machine! Must ask the manager at our serviced apartment to have a folder of takeaway menus on hand!
See you soon Brisbane xxx

PS -are you an overseas expat? Write and let us know what's the first thing you'll do/buy when you arrive in your homeland.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Baba Ganoush and Ice-cream in Thao Dien

While an Arabic restaurant and an ice-cream parlour may seem like a weird culinary pairing, the combination of Warda and Fanny's ice-cream on the same lot in Thao Dien is a welcome one for parents.

Fanny's and Warda in Thao Dien
Inside the gates at 63 Xuan Thuy Street in Thao Dien you'll find parents of busy young children enjoying the chance to dine out on exotic middle eastern food while the kids play in the (sparsely!) grassed courtyard between the two restaurants.

The courtyard has a few pieces of play equipment, as well as a foozball table and a toy area in Fanny's, to keep the kids entertained.

Dining in the outdoor bedouin tent with its cushioned lounge seating, and the promise of Fanny's ice-cream for dessert, is enough to get most kids through the mezze platters, kebabs and tajines. But if their young tastebuds aren't that exotic, Warda also offers a kid friendly, albeit, middle eastern-styled menu.

Rob and Georgia in Warda's bedouin tent
Me at Warda - where's the wine??

This is Warda's second restaurant in Saigon (the original Warda opened in 2006 in District 1), but you'll find the same menu and prices in a very different, contemporary-styled setting.

With its modern, minimalist styling inside the restaurant, Warda number 2 would be a gorgeous spot for a kid-free date night, but during the day be prepared to have your eardrums assaulted by Saigon's expat kiddie population!

Georgia at Fanny's
Warda and Fanny's - 63 Xuan Thuy Street, Thao Dien, District 2

Friday, October 1, 2010

{Saigon school moments} Georgia and Mackenzie's first school award!

A proud Mummy moment for me at school this morning. Not only did the girls impress me with their class dance performances at the junior school assembly, they both received a Merit Certificate from the deputy Head of Primary.

At AIS all of the junior students have goals set by their teachers. A certain number of stickers means an in-class award for achieving their goal. Once they have three in-class certificates they are presented with a Merit Certificate at the school assembly.

The girls have received awards for being happy when Mummy and Daddy drop them off every morning (a no brainer for them, they literally push us out of the room!) and for being tidy and helping around the class.

Must be honest, I didn't realise how big a deal it was until I found out that only three students from the junior school had achieved the Merit Certificate criteria in time for this morning's assembly (and two of those were from Team Somerville!).

You can bet they were showered with heaps of praise and cuddles from their very proud parents!

For the grandparents - here are the girls receiving their awards. Watch just how impressed they are with themselves!