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SAIGON: Food, drink and fun

Food and drink are integral parts of travel, not only for their own sake, but for the sense of a city places serving them offer. In Saigon, they also reflect the changes occuring in the city, not least its increasingly cosmopolitan nature.


Saigon is an unusually young city, and it would seem easy to meet the fun, happening young Saigonese. But when I visited places on-line guides had flagged as for the "jet set", "fashion victims", etc., more often than not I found they had limited hours (5-10 pm, typically) and/or almost no customers. Also, some of the nicer places - like AQ Cafe and Nirvana - are also relatively quiet, better for a quiet chat or solitary work than feeling the pulse of this rapidly changing city.

The one place I found PACKED, and very lovely as a cadre, was the Windows' Garden cafe (423 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Dist 1). This has enough indoor space, but the real scene is on the very large terrace, hung with orange Chinese lanterns and soothed by a quietly gurgling rectangular fountain. Plus, for sports fans, some discretely placed TV screens hung here and there, so you can mellow out and still not miss the game. I had a peach margarita:

Note the fountain in the background,
and the (always free) ice tea at left

- very nice -, meant to go back for dinner. Vietnamese don't necessarily start chatting with strangers in the easy way of, say, Americans, and I can't guarantee you could strike up a conversation here. But you can certainly drink in the energy.

The Q bar, right across from the Caravelle Hotel (and right along the left side of the Opera), was dead the first night (a Sunday) I checked it, but hopping the next day. Even as an anti-smoker, I was tempted to buy one of their very nifty Q-shaped ashtrays.

If you walk towards the river from the City Hall, you'll soon see lots of people sitting at tables around the base of the Sunwah tower. This is the Central Cafe, one of the most popular in town. I never got to try it, but it was always full.

Otherwise, aside from the cyclos, the hookers, the shoeshine boys, etc., I did find that a number of educated young Vietnamese, working in restaurants, for instance, were delighted to talk to an American, if only to practice their English, but also to get insight into the international business which is more and more a daily part of the new Saigon.


A good case could be made for visiting Saigon just to eat at a different kind of restaurant every night. I live in Southern California, so I couldn't get excited about standard Vietnamese food (which is beautifully represented around Los Angeles.) And I could only chuckle when a man from a Thai restaurant asked conspiratorially, "Have you ever tasted THAI food?" (his face fell when I casually mentioned pad thai.) But not only are there some up-scale elegant Vietnamese restaurants, like Nam Kha (46-48-50 Dong Khoi, Dist 1) (where I had the deep-fried lobster with mixed fruits, an elegant looking dish):

but there are also several restaurants that do fusion.

The one I tried was Xu (71-75 Hai Ba Trung, Dist 1 -, where the items on the menu seamlessly joined Vietnamese and European ingredients in dishes that, unlike some such experiments, at once made sense. Xu is hard to find - not least because its name {pronounced 'Sue') is so short, and not lit up out front - but apparently very trendy. Certainly, from a visual angle alone, it is a lovely place. And the variety of dishes I tried - a tuna spring roll, a tasting platter and sea bass - were excellent (though the beautifully cooked sea bass was served in a broth, something done in many cuisines, as for instance with bouillabaisse and sukiyaki, but not to my own taste.) Do be aware though that Xu very much has the vibe of a hip NY downtown restaurant. When I first came in, and the place, on a Monday night, was almost empty, the host was very attentive - until a group of four very handsome Asian couples came in, all beautifully dressed. Suddenly he only had eyes for this (admittedly attractive) group, and I had to linger longer than I wanted just to get my bill. No biggie if you're used to the attitude in the American versions of such places. But you might not want to take your more down-home tourist friends.

But Vietnamese food, fusion or straight, is far from your only choice. It is probably easier to list the cuisines that are not represented in Saigon than those that are. I felt no need, for instance, to go to an Italian or Danish restaurant, or a tapas joint (all of which exist). But I did go to Au Lac Do Brazil (238 Pasteur Street, Dist 3), one of two Brazilian churrascarias in the city. If you like relentless quantities of slow-grilled meats - beef, chicken, pork, lamb, etc. - this is the place to go. The two members of the staff I dealt with - both young guys - were also very intelligent and interesting to chat with in themselves. And the decor is really lovely.

There's more than one French restaurant in this former French enclave, but the one I couldn't miss trying was the Camargue (16 Cao Ba Quat, Dist 1), which serves excellent, generally classic French food outside on terraces where crystalware twinkles by the light of candles and strings of tiny electric bulbs. I'm sure some foodies and/or Francophiles would be perfectly happy to spend every night there.

None of the above places is truly cheap, especially by local standards. But at present (2006), they are enormous bargains compared to what they would cost in America or Europe.

On a simpler scale, I went one night to the roof top Quan Nuong (29-31 Ton Thai Thiep), which specializes in Vietnamese barbecue, done at your table. I had wild boar and goat, but you can always get beef, chicken, etc. Not fancy, but not expensive and very satisfying to those who like spicey meat, freshly grilled. The owner, a worldy, quietly smart woman, insisted on my trying some Vietnamese wine, even as she was a bit apologetic about it. In fact, though it lacks body, it is perfectly pleasant, which cannot be said of every wine made in places not known for it.

Conveniently, Quan Nuong is right above Fanny's Ice Cream. When I read that there was an American ice cream place in Saigon, I had no interest whatsover in seeking it out. But I happened to walk by it the first day I was there and was immediately charmed by how pretty and quiet it is. Plus, the ice cream menu includes not only familiar American and French concoctions (like a cafe liegiois), but refreshing cocktails, such as orange ice cream with orange alcohol. Being a terrace just above street level, the main section tends to get a bit assaulted by shoeshine boys. But overall it's a very relaxing and comfortable place, something you'll quickly appreciate in hot, hectic Saigon. Oh, and the cool water they serve you is safe to drink. No small thing in Saigon.

I never got to try Nhai Tim (3118 Nguyen Trai Street, Dist 1 -, which is tucked away off Tran Hung Dao, a few blocks away from the Metropole Hotel and the backpacker's area, but it looked pretty and worth a try.


Surprisingly, the major American chains haven't moved into Saigon yet - except for KFC, which has several locations in the city. But even in France, before they had Macdonald's, they had their own local clones. Saigon has a Phillipine fast food chain (Jollibee) and another that appears to be Korean (they serve a bulgoki burger), but neither has many burger options. If there's a Vietnamese version, I never found it. This in a country which loves beef...

One coffee bar chain, Highlands Coffee, is so ubiquitous and stylish, I assumed they would be a Starbucks clone. But no frappucino (or equivalent) was to be seen, and not much American-style drip coffee. This is very much a homegrown Vietnamese operation, to the point that they could probably do well as an alternate choice in the States.


These are sometimes indistinguishable.

Coffee shops are ubiquitous in Saigon, but many are no more than a few low chairs set outside a business (that may do something completely different) around a low table. A next step up are the coffee shops that consist of deck chairs set in rows facing the street, each with a small table in front of them. None of these are places most Westerners would go, but it's good to be aware of them.

Aside from those mentioned under "Crowds", I only tried a few others. The Mojo (88 Dong Khoi Street, Dist 1) is actually part of the Sheraton, though it very much has its own, distinctly trendy, "vibe". I resisted the impulse to make off with one of their menus, which have a slightly slanting orange cover, curved on one edge. The general presentation is heavy on orange, very modernistic. Prices in dollars.

The I-Box (135 Hai Ba Trung) has a cosier, homier feel than its slightly hi-tech name suggests. Lots of cushioned nooks and crannies, filled with couples who seemed perfectly happy to sit quietly side by side in the dim light. I had thought of trying their New Zealand beef, but it felt more like a place to have a drink than dinner. Still, you might want to do the latter as well.

The Press Club (14 Alexandre de Rhodes, Dist. 1) is very much a daytime place:

and supposedly caters to journalists, though if so they must all be Vietnamese. It was a simple, relaxing enough place when I stopped there, and everybody seemed happy with their lunch (I only had a drink). More a place to stop by if you're near Notre Dame (it's a bit behind it) than to seek out for its own sake.

I was warned several times not to go down by the riverfront (which is currently separated from the river by highway construction), but it wasn't too sinister in daylight. Just as some of New York's more fun places have often been found in less than shiny neighborhoods, here I came upon Hello Coffee (51 Ben Chong Duong), a beautifully designed, modern place which again seemed to be serving good food (I'd just stopped for a beer). At least one of the young guys working there spoke excellent English. It's actually not too far from the start of the Dong Khoi district and some government buildings, which may help.