Thursday, December 16, 2010

Saigon and Dalat in 5 days

Thursday, December 16, 2010
Street Photos of Saigon

I really don't know how to begin to describe Vietnam. But if I had to put it in just one sentence, it was everything I had imagined and more. There were more motorbikes than I had imagined, more conical hats, more French influence, more alleys, more history, more surprises, more tourists (especially French), and more food. I had no idea how rich the food culture actually was, and I found myself overwhelmed by new knowledge everyday. Before the trip, nothing really made sense to me except Banh Mi, Rice Paper Rolls, Vietnamese Fried Spring Rolls, and Pho. But Vietnam has so much more to offer than just that! This is part of the reason why I'm taking so long to share, because I'm mostly still making sense of everything, and partly because I really want to share everything I've learnt about this unbelievable city that has so much more to offer than meets the eye. I'll leave you with the itinerary for now but more posts are coming up!

Ca Phe Sua Da, Cha Gio and Beef Balls Soup from Pho 24, Rice Paper Rolls with Prawns from Thanh Binh (Top to Bottom)

Day 1 Ho Chi Minh City
Our first day was spent familiarizing ourselves with Saigon and tasting some of the Vietnamese dishes I've always wanted to try (Vietnam is a first for me but not for M). We touched down at 8:40 am, and took bus 152 from the airport to Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker zone). After checking into Vy Khan Hostel, we had two really great bowls of rice noodles by the streets for lunch. Ca Phe Sua Da (fantastic Vietnamese Iced Coffee) was the perfect after-lunch beverage to mitigate the sweltering heat! After strolling the streets, we checked out Pho 24 for decent Cha Gio (Fried Vietnamese Spring Rolls) and shared a bowl of Beef Balls in Soup. For dinner, we took a cab down to Com Nieu (purportedly Anthony Bourdain's favourite Restaurant in Saigon) and tried Ca Kho To (Caramelized Catfish in Claypot) and Thit Kho (Braised Pork Belly and Egg in Coconut Juice) among other dishes. We even had a supper of rice paper rolls at Thanh Binh, which was just okay cause the rolls were pre-made and had been left there for some time. Business was brisk there so perhaps they have better dishes to offer. Our night ended with a quick stroll at the night market beside Ben Thanh Market, and a relaxing foot massage at Saigon Spa along the Pham Ngu Lao stretch. (note that massage prices on the leaflets do not include tips!)

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Day 2 Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat
Day 2 started early with a 5am Phuong Trang Bus to Dalat, the local alternative to Sinh Cafe buses. Phuong Trang offers more comfortable seats but be prepared for streaming of Vietnamese videos that will completely not make sense to you. We arrived at the chilly Central Highlands at about 12:30pm. After finding our way to Dreamz Hotel (a definite recommendation!), we had lunch at Trong Dong, where we tried Bo La Lot (Grilled Beef rolled in La Lot leaf) and got to roll our own Rice Rolls with Grilled Shrimp Paste on Sugar Cane. The afternoon was spent strolling the Da Lat Market and trying street food like Ban Canh and Sup Cua. We also grabbed a really tasty Banh Mi Thit Nuong (Baguette with Grilled Pork) on our way to the market. On our walk home, we passed by stalls set up along the streets, and tried their Soya Bean Milk and a dressed down version of Banh Xeo (Crispy Rice Flour Pancake typically with Shrimp and Pork). Dinner was Vietnamese Wanton Noodles at Tau Cao, which M absolutely loved.

Street Photos of Dalat (including view from Lang Biang Mountain)

Day 3 Dalat
Dreamz Hotel offers complimentary breakfast every morning with a really generous spread! After breakfast, we rented a scooter/motorbike and zipped to Lang Biang Mountain. You could either spend 3-4 hours hiking up, or hire a vehicle to drive you up, which was what we did. The views at 1950m above sea level was great and there was even a stall selling barbequed meat in case you got hungry. There were also many opportunities to spot grazing horses, and even a zebra at times (we spotted it at the base of Lang Biang). Our next stop was Datanla Waterfalls, which offers a pipeline coaster that takes you directly (with a surprising dose of thrill) to the falls. I loved the ride. The falls were a pretty great sight as well. Next, we headed to the Prenn Falls. The highlight was walking behind the falls (even though you get a little wet and the falls looked pretty muddy actually). Our last stop was the Dalat Cathedral, which looked like something straight out of a fairytale. When dusk fell, M took me to Le Rabelais, a fantastic French Restaurant set in the absolutely gorgeous Dalat Palace Hotel, one of the few remaining historical hotels in South East Asia.

Day 4 Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City
We took the bus back to Ho Chi Minh City after a hearty breakfast at Dreamz Hotel, and reached at around 3:30pm. This time, we stayed at My My Arthouse, which was a lot less clean compared to Vy Khan but had a greater backpacking atmosphere - backpackers (mostly Westerners) were always hanging out on the ground floor. We grabbed a Banh Mi, and headed to Ben Thanh Market, where we tried chè, a kind of sweet dessert soup, and Banh Beo (Mini Rice Flour Cakes). After that, we went to have a look at the French colonial style Ho Chi Minh City Hall (not opened to the public) and the Ho Chi Minh statue in front of it. Next, we headed to the Notre Dame Cathedral and caught a glimpse of the mass. Other architectural sights we caught include the gothic-style Central Post Office and the Opera House. For dinner, we headed to Quan An Ngon, a restaurant that features a collection of the best street food in Saigon. The prices here are definitely higher than those on the streets, but the food was actually pretty good. Dessert was ice-cream at Fanny, a chic cafe set in a French Villa that offered many interesting and delicious ice-cream creations.

Mekong Delta

Day 5 Ho Chi Minh City + Mekong Delta
We decided on a day tour to Mekong Delta (Sinh Cafe's My Tho - Ben Tre 1 day tour) because we simply didn't have time to venture by ourselves. For breakfast, we had Bun Bo Hue (Beef and Pork Hue Style Rice Vermicelli) on the streets before the tour, which was delicious. Surprisingly, the tour turned out pretty decent, and in addition to motor boat tours of the river, you even get a row boat tour at one point in time. The tour also included compulsory (and expected) visits to the Rice Paper, Honey and Coconut Candy factories, which was no doubt aimed at tourists, but wasn't that bad. We returned to Ho Chi Minh City at about 5pm, and ensued on a last minute eating spree. First, we grabbed a Banh Mi from a new stall that turned out to be the best we've had so far. Next, we headed to Pho Hoa, a pho eatery extremely popular with locals that served an amazing pho that completely wow-ed us. Our third stop was Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant that served only one dish: Cha Ca, snakehead fish pan fried with herbs (fresh dill and ground turmeric), and served with bun noodles, peanuts, and fermented shrimp sauce. This dish was first created by the orginal Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi, and apparently you can get similar renditions in other Hanoi eateries for a lot less. Expect to be a little disappointed with the 6-7 pieces of fish for the price you pay (which is only unreasonable by Vietnamese standards), but if you're not too upset about that, the meal itself is pretty tasty and interesting. We ended our night with one last stroll along the streets near our hostel, and bidded a reluctant farewell to the vibrant city next morning.

More Vietnam posts coming up!

Street Food in Saigon, Vietnam
Pho Hoa, Saigon, Vietnam
Fanny, Saigon, Vietnam
Quan An Ngon, Saigon, Vietnam
Com Nieu, Saigon, Vietnam
Cha Ca La Vong, Saigon, Vietnam
Dalat Street Food - As Fresh As It Gets, Vietnam
Trong Dong, Dalat, Vietnam
Tau Cao Wanton Noodles, Dalat, Vietnam
Le Rabelais, Dalat Palace Hotel, Vietnam

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