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By the time Mr Lemur and I hit Saigon on our tour of Southern Vietnam, you might think we’d have been all marketed out, but Ben Thanh market revitalised us. At first it felt a bit unwieldy with lots of stalls selling cheap clothes, fake plastic fruit and assorted tschotschkes, not to mention the Viet ladies who have no problem whatsoever grabbing you and pushing you aside if you are in their way. (Seriously, they make little old Italian ladies seem reticent.) But we soon warmed to the cheery rudeness of the atmosphere and enjoyed a pretty good pork chop bun for breakfast. Since we were nearing the end of our time in Asia, I felt justified in attempting a bit of food shopping. While it was sadly not feasible to carry home any of the pickled fish I enjoyed in Chau Doc, it did seem reasonable to pick up some dried shrimp and spices. Ben Thanh had some lovely looking shrimp stalls where I’m fairly certain I was ripped off, and pushy coffee vendors who clearly dealt with tourists a lot. But the spice stall was not set up for tourism and, as you can see above, its proprietor was just a little daunting. Read the rest of this entry »

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In among all the street food, I wanted to go to one fancy-ish restaurant while in Saigon and a couple of people had recommended Ngon. To get us in the mood, we went for a pre-dinner cocktail at the 23rd floor bar in the (very upscale) Sheraton Hotel, which has a fine view over the city and rather nice 2-for-1 cocktails during happy hour. Unfortunately, we remembered once we got there that we hadn’t written down the address of Ngon, so we asked the hotel concierge. He showed us on a map but we also got a taste of high-end hotel living, because he was really concerned to put us in a taxi. You mustn’t walk, he insisted, it’s not safe. He almost had us believing we were going to some sketchy part of town, but of course, looking at the map it was clear the restaurant was right in the centre, more or less where we’d been wandering all week. If the Sheraton advises against walking to Ngon, its guests must see almost nothing of Saigon except out the windows of a taxi. When we got there (unmolested), I almost didn’t want to go in because it looked too fancy. Ngon is in an old colonial building, beautifully restored, and the garden section is full of fairy lights hung from the many trees that fill the space. It’s really quite magical. I was afraid the food would be Anglicised and overpriced, but we’d shlepped all the way there so we went in. I’m so glad we did…it was one of the best meals we ate in Vietnam and cost less than our Christmas barbeque. Read the rest of this entry »

Every single thing I’ve eaten in Saigon has been delicious. Seriously, there have been no average meals, not even any quite nice meals. They’ve all been transporting and wonderful and I want to blog all of them. I’ve a pile-up of notes and photos that I can’t possibly post quickly enough. So I am going to skip to the end, to our last meal in Vietnam, which was a fitting end to a truly wonderful trip. And never fear, at home I’m going to catch up on all those other memorable meals, and gradually post about the restaurants, the markets and the mysterious purchases…but for now, I can’t wait any longer to tell you about the unexpected pleasures of Vietnamese snail soup!

I had had Bún Ôc Thanh Hai on my “Things To Do: Urgent” list for Saigon, but for some strange reason, I could never persuade Mr Lemur that now was the moment for snails. I kept telling him that several trustworthy sources had written great things about it, but weirdly he was unpersuaded. We postponed it day after day until we only had our final day in town left. And then something wonderful happened: I saw on Facebook that a good friend from Iowa was at the airport in Cedar Rapids, leaving for Ho Chi Minh City. ZOMG! I replied quickly, letting her know that we were in Saigon, but worried that she wouldn’t get the message if she had no internet when she arrived. Several hours of modern communication hilarity ensued, with email, Facebook, this blog, cell phones and Skype all being called into use to establish contact. Finally we got in touch and arranged to have lunch on her first day, our last one. But…I still really wanted to go to the snail restaurant. Could Awesome Photographer M be persuaded to leap into Vietnamese food hardcore on her first day? Mr Lemur sagely recommended that I not lead with the snails. It’s a highly recommended local cafe, I said. They’re known for this one dish but it’s a full-service restaurant, I’m sure you can have something else if you don’t fancy it. Happily, she was in. Read the rest of this entry »

Before I flew to Vietnam, I did some research on places I didn’t want to miss and top of my list of sources was of course Anthony Bourdain. I’m a big fan of his – some of my foodie friends find him sexist but I have actually found him to be pretty aware of the gender politics of growing, cooking and selling food – and his love for Vietnam is well known. So, I watched his Vietnam episodes of No Reservationsagain and made some notes in the bible of my travels, a little black moleskine notebook. I marked out several places that Tony recommended in Saigon for my attention, a couple of which also came up on food blogs. Great, all very organised. When we arrived in Saigon, I noted that I had starred Côm Niêu as especially interesting. The trouble was, I didn’t at all remember why! Thus began one of our more perplexing evenings…

Saigon can be a confusing place. There’s the whole Communism thing, for a start. Everywhere you look are reminders of the country’s revolutionary politics, from old-style posters of Uncle Ho to the ubiquitous red star flags that decorate the streets. And yet, in conversation with a Vietnamese guide, we learned that neither education nor healthcare are free here, which doesn’t seem terribly leftist. Then there’s the enthusiastic embrace of consumer capitalism, which suffuses the wealthier parts of the city. There’s so much building work going on, it’s going to be a totally different place in a few years. I suppose it’s something close to the Chinese model which can be perplexing from a Western political perspective. That said, I find Saigon completely charming: it has a combination of laid back urbanism and youthful energy that makes it an exhilarating place to just walk around.

Vietnam is obviously not a country with many Christians, although we did pass through some Catholic villages in the Mekong that were prettily decked out with bunting and sparkly stars. But these few religious observances aside, Christmas is a huge sparkly secular party here. And in Saigon the party is epic – everything is decorated, and absolutely everyone is on the streets. It’s like New Year’s Eve in Times Square or Hogmanay on Princes Street – multiplied by massive motorcycle madness!

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