Saigon R to U

 

A number of restaurants in Saigon bring back the retro charm of the Indochine

Saigon is a city of contrasts, of old meets new, of rich versus poor, of west up against the east. So, here is a mini guide to what makes this city unique. Meet the R to U of Saigon.

Retro Active

So much of this city is getting churned up by the developers that little is left of the glamour and art deco-like architecture of the past. A few clever souls, though, have decided to do something about this. And then, of course, are those institutions that are so ingrained into the make-up of the city, that little will ever change.

For real retro, at least building-wise, the best place to head is the Fine Arts Museum (97A, Pho Duc Chinh, Q1). The unrestored, crumbling building was built by a then famous Chinese businessman at the turn of the century and still boasts the first elevator to ever be operational in the city. These days this wooden former showpiece seems stuck on the ground floor, but between the art and the design of the building itself, this is very much a place stuck in the past. Another place for true retro, mixed of course with touches of bling and kitsch, is Binh Tay Market (Thap Muoi, Q6). The market of all markets, here is a place that except for the wares, has the same look and feel as it would have 50 years ago.

For the real, imperial-mixed-with-Indochine version of the past, the places to go are the upscale Vietnamese restaurants such as Hoi An (11 Le Thanh Ton, Q1), Mandarin (11A Ngo Van Nam, Q1) and An Vien (178A Hai Ba Trung, Q1). The cuisine is pricey, but then in these places you’re paying not just for quality ingredients but for service and, of course, the décor.

Fancy some soup, sir?

Soup Up

Vietnamese cuisine boasts a variety of noodle soups, each with distinct influences, origins and flavours. Aside from the famous pho there are many other tasty soups that can be found all over the city. One such local favourite is banh canh bo vien. Drive up Hai Ba Trung away from the centre until you see Nguyen Van Nguyen on your right, and then follow this street down to the end. This tasty broth includes beef meatballs and spring onions as well as large chewy glutinous noodles made from tapioca powder. Chilli paste and fish sauce are commonly added to give it that extra kick. At VND15,000 a bowl it’s a bargain.

Another popular favourite is bun bo Hue, a spicy beef noodle soup originating from a certain royal city in central Vietnam. It boasts a unique flavour due to the combo of beef, shrimp paste, lemongrass and dried chillies. A good spot for a VND35,000 bowl is at Bun Bo Chu Ha at 300 Vo Van Tan, Q3.

Bun Mam Mai Tranh on Mai Thi Luu street will rustle you up a serving of bun mam for VND25,000. The dish originates from Soc Trang Province in the Mekong Delta. Once the shrimp, roasted pork, aubergine and garlic chives are added to the soup, diners are in for a treat. Fish and squid are often added to complete the earthy stock.

Elsewhere at 3 Hoang Dieu in District 4 you can get mi vit tiem for VND60,000. Mi are the thin yellow noodles that in this soup are accompanied by a succulent duck’s leg, spinach and morning glory. Papaya pickles are added to the typical array of accompaniments to make up a dish full of flavour.

Hu tieu is another well-liked noodle soup worth seeking out in Saigon. Brought to Vietnam by way of Chinese immigrants from Cambodia, this soup comes in many varied styles, one such medley can be found in Nhan Quan at 68 Nguyen Trai, Q1. Dishing up hu tieu nam vang for VND38,000 this eatery enjoys a steady throng of customers looking to fill their bellies. The Cambodian-Chinese concoction has been adapted by the Vietnamese with a deep broth housing pork, liver, shrimp, quails eggs and carmalised shallots. This has to be a contender for the city’s king of soups.

Take a Vespa tour around Saigon – a great way to see the city

Tours of Duty

For expats, the prospect of a city tour can seem redundant. Such an activity is reserved for tourists and friends and family that you’re not quite sure what to do with, right? On the contrary, even the longest serving overseas Saigon residents can still stand to learn a thing or two about their adopted home. Vietnam Vespa Adventure(www.vietnamvespaadventure.com) offers several half-day tours that, while taking in obvious landmarks such as the city hall, the Reunification Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral, also reveal a more covert history.

Discoveries include the surprising location of the former CIA building that acted as the departure point for the last helicopter out of Saigon at the tail end of the American War, the site of the 1952 car bombing made famous in The Quiet American, and the exact spot where Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself. Other excursions involve visiting places where foreigners aren’t usually found, such as the alleys and backstreets of District 4 for a night of local cuisine that goes beyond the usual District 1 bowls of pho bo and com ga.

Freestyle football … The present world champion is Vietnamese

Underground Culture

The problem with underground movements is that unless you’re part of one you’re unlikely to know they’re happening. Still, every now and then, glimpses of these seemingly impenetrable countercultural pastimes present themselves to the wider world. Take the skateboarding scene. Initially, there doesn’t appear to be one but closer examination reveals that groups of sidewalk surfers meet up regularly at places such as Sep. 23 Park and in various locations around Saigon South.

Hip-hop has also infiltrated Saigon’s social subconscious recently with b-boys, rappers and beat boxers setting up shows at coffee shops and community centres and retreating to the virtual world of online forums such as www.viethiphop.com to exchange beats and to generally have a home where their urban passions can be recognised and appreciated by other likeminded individuals.

Websites like www.fatcap.com act as a window into one of Saigon’s more contentious pastimes — graffiti. Not exactly welcomed by all, graffiti artists here are as low key and unknown as the UK’s Banksy. Still, this hasn’t stopped them from producing some of the most eye-popping and original works seen in the city, from spraying bar roll-doors to tagging buildings and creating complex wall-sized murals out in Phu Nhuan.

One of the newest underground trends occurs on Ben Chuong Duong and the surrounding bridges towards Phu My Hung in the twilight hours of Friday and Saturday night when packs of street racers rev it up, imitating scenes from The Fast & The Furious with their motorbikes.