A Ride Through Ho Chi Minh City

My article and photos of our recent Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam trip was published in Metro Home & Entertaining Magazine. So happy to see some of my travel photos in the magazine and get to write about it too.

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A Ride Through Ho Chi Minh City

Text and Photography: Jar Concengco

I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before. And if you told me that my first time would be straddled behind a college student named Jenny at night in the streets of HCMC’s Chợ Lớn district, I wouldn’t believe it. The streets of HCMC flow with over 4 million motorbikes. It’s a baffling sight to behold, and exhilarating to be right in the middle of it with only a helmet as your armor.

Jenny (who’s an economics major) takes us to a hole in the wall somewhere in District 3 and we eat rice paper rolls. We assemble the rolls ourselves with some freshly grilled beef or pork, rice noodles, basil, and pickled vegetables. We then dip the roll in fish sauce with brown sugar, chili and crushed pineapple tidbits. It’s salty, sweet, spicy and flavorful.

We then talk about how everyone in Vietnam needs to learn how to ride a motorbike, “I learned how to ride at 17. I needed to learn so that I can drive myself to school since my parents were too busy to take me.” The motorbike is the most popular mode of transportation in Vietnam and it’s really an authentic experience to see the city on one.

Jenny then asks me what I’d like to drink before we get on the road again: soda, water or Bia (beer). After seeing a mother on a motorbike securing her sleeping daughter behind her by tying a jacket around them, I’m guessing one can of Bia wouldn’t hurt.

 

Hotels and Pho

 

We stayed at a boutique hotel called The Alcove Library Hotel, which was about 10 minutes northwest of the city square. It had charming French architecture and a white and black palette. The lobby greeted us with a wall of books hence the name of the hotel. The receptionist, wearing a black traditional ao dai dress, invites us to their roof deck restaurant for complimentary drinks.

After settling in, we head to the roof deck and find an industrial looking restaurant called The Bookmark. We can choose from their Vietnamese coffee or a lime drink (which was like a lemonade with lime zest). For breakfast you can choose from their Vietnamese menu or get the Western breakfast such as pancakes and bacon. The Vietnamese menu includes fried rice, congee, wonton noodles, or beef or chicken pho (which is a traditional breakfast item for many locals),

And if you’re on a hunt for great pho, my local friend and guide Doan Thi Y My from a group called Saigon Lovers Tours told me that they’re best found on the streets. In her words, the less fancy the establishment, the better. And if you’re looking for a pho place that has great pho with a great history angle, check out Pho Binh, which has been serving pho for more than 50 years. The owner, Ngo Toai, used his restaurant to hold secret meetings during the Vietnam War and eventually became an important part in ending the war. He has since passed on, and now his son serves us our bowls of pho.

 

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Crossing the Saigon River

“I brought bananas for the good monkeys, and a slingshot for the bad ones.” Says our guide who speaks pretty good English (almost with a Southern accent like a cowboy) before we enter the Can Gio Biosphere reserve. He warns us that the monkeys are naughty and that we should hold tightly onto our cellphones and our kids. We ride the golf cart as a tribe of about two dozen monkeys starts to chase after us.

These monkeys are only part of the species that make the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve an important wetland. It’s 40 km southeast of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and it houses mangrove forests, migratory birds, fruit bats, and a protected area for saltwater crocodiles. It’s only accessible by the Saigon River and a great way to immerse yourself in the ecosystem that exists in this part of the world.

Our guide didn’t sugarcoat his warnings. “You’ll need 8 shots if you are bitten by a monkey.”

“How many shots would you need if you’re bitten by a crocodile?” one of the guests asked.

“You’ll need a coffin.” And nervous laughter ensued. We then got to feed crocodiles with pieces of fresh eel hanging from a bamboo rod. We got on customized rafts with a wire fence to protect you from the crocodiles (our guide tells us firmly not to rock the raft too much or we may just tip over). As you fished for crocodile, their powerful jaws would create a petrifying, loud snap.

This is in sharp contrast to the luxury speedboat ride that brought us to the Can Gio. Idyllic, quiet landscapes passed by during the couple of hours you’re on the boat. They served as many refreshments as you wanted on board including freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee. As you enjoy the wind blowing through your hair on the way to Can Gio you begin to realize that your visit would be an adrenaline rush face-to-face with nature.

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Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine

In 2010, celebrity couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie ate at an unassuming restaurant in District 1. Its homey and rustic and served food that reminded locals of their grandmother’s cooking. Since then, Cục Gạch Quán has been on almost all lists of restaurants to go to when in HCMC.

The interiors are decorated with fresh flowers and fruits and some relics of the Vietnam War. It feels like you’ve entered someone’s home. In the back there’s a small pond with koi and the busy kitchen where you can see the cooks removing leaves from stems or chopping vegetables.

The menu is about 3 centimeters thick and a bit overwhelming to go through. Some of the dishes recommended to us were the pan-fried pork with eggplant and chilies with shrimp paste and the grilled shrimp with green onions and garlic. The unexpected winning dish, which we had to get two more orders of, was the garlic-fried rice. It had a light purplish color to it maybe from shrimp paste and it was so flavorful.

We finish our meal with a hot cup of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. On the wall of the restaurant is a patriotic poem entitled “I Am Vietnamese” by Hoai Son that had a stanza:

“I live on the land my ancestors have lived,

I breathe the air my ancestors have breathed;

the traces of their spirits hover over

mountains and hills, rivers and creeks, plants

And blooms around us.”

What’s notable is that in Ho Chi Minh City, you can actually feel the tug of war of keeping tradition and culture versus advancing into a modern world. People still wear the non la (conical hat made of palm leaf) on the streets, the cityscape still lacks the height of skyscrapers (except for the Bitexco tower that some think looks like a banana), and there are a good number of locals that reject the taste of Starbucks and prefer their own coffee. Cục Gạch Quán’s food felt the same way. It seemed untouched by Western influences and you were one with the land and its fruits.

 

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Directory:

The Alcove Library Hotel: http://alcovehotel.com.vn/

The Can Gio Tour, Les Rives Saigon: http://lesrivesexperience.com/

Tiger Tour Motorbike Tours: http://www.mytigertour.com/

Cuc Gach Quán: http://www.cucgachquan.com.vn/en

Saigon Lovers Tour: http://www.facebook.com/saigonlovers

 

 

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