Sunday, October 30, 2016

Ho Chi Minh City: City Tour, Park Hyatt, and Saigon Street Eats Seafood Tour

The new year smelled like fish sauce.

We awoke in our beds on the River Orchid on January 1, 2016 docked about 90 minutes outside of Ho Chi Minh City by bus. The dock is not the most scenic place in Vietnam; I'm fairly certain we were moored right next to a fish sauce factory. While not overly unpleasant, it certainly was a distinctive smell.

Ho Chi Minh City Tour by Bus

We had an early breakfast after putting our luggage outside our cabin door at 7:00 a.m., and then boarded the buses at 8:00 a.m. By 9:30 we were pulling up to the first stop on our whirlwind bus tour of Ho Chi Minh City that would occupy our morning: the Reunification Palace. This was where the South Vietnamese government was housed, and on April 30, 1975 Communist tanks crashed through the gates and a soldier flew the Viet Cong flag over the complex as a symbol of victory. It was an important sight to see, but I didn't find it overly interesting. If you're not a big military history buff, you'd be fine to just take a look from outside the gate to get an idea of what happened here.

Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

Tank Outside Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
"the tank" - but I'm pretty sure it's a replica

Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
The room where the South officially surrendered to the North

We were then off to a brief peak into the Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral. The images that stuck with me were the large portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the post office, and the bricks in the cathedral that commemorated donors.

portrait of Ho Chi Minh


Street Map Saigon
Aaron thought it odd that the Hard Rock Cafe was displayed more prominently than anything else. Sponsor?

Our last stop on the tour was a visit to a local lacquer workshop. This is one of those tourist stops that ends with a walk through a store, but we didn't buy anything.
Lacquer Workshop Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

Lacquer Workshop Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

Lacquer Workshop Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

After our tour, we stopped by our hotel to find out our room wasn't yet ready, so we hit the streets to find some lunch. The location recommended by Lonely Planet that we had our eye on no longer seemed to exist, so we ended up at a restaurant just a few steps from the hotel, Hoa Tuc. In addition to their regular menu, they serve a set lunch with an appetizer, entree, and beverage for 195,000 Dong (about $9). I had a shrimp salad and some roll-your-own spring rolls, featuring grilled duck in betel leaves.

Shrimp Salad appetizer at Hoa Tuc, Saigon

Roll Your Own Spring rolls at Hoa Tuc, Saigon

Arrival at Park Hyatt Saigon

After lunch, we walked back to our hotel for the next two nights: The Park Hyatt Saigon. This was an absolutely amazing hotel—perhaps the nicest one we've ever stayed in. The staff were helpful and attentive, and the facilities were absolutely amazing—they exuded classic French style.

Room entrance

Bathroom entrance

bed

Window with a view

TV

closet

Shower and soaking bath tub

vanity

Shower/tub closeup

toilet in a separate room

coffee and tea station

desk with provided tablet

toiletries

Bose bluetooth speaker
We were tired, and I was still not feeling particularly well ... this was the day we realized that my ailment was exactly what we were carrying medication for ... so I started taking my medicine this afternoon. We spent the afternoon lounging in the room in air-conditioned comfort. I took a lovely bubble bath, explored the pool area, and stopped at the cafe for an iced coffee. It was good for us to rest up, because we had a big night planned.

Liz enjoying an iced coffee at the hotel cafe

Saigon Street Eats Seafood Tour

Two months earlier, I'd booked a tour with Saigon Street Eats of "The Seafood Trail" (this is completely separate from the Uniworld offerings for this trip). It took a lot of convincing for Aaron to agree on a four-hour seafood tour, since he's always telling me that he doesn't like seafood. But since it's such a staple of the Vietnamese diet, I thought it was basically a requirement. We were met in the lobby of the hotel by a young man with a helmet—we were taking this tour by motorbike! He had a colleague waiting outside with a bike and helmet for me. I was a little bit terrified to jump on the motorbike, but when in Vietnam.... 

We rode maybe 10 minutes, then turned into a dark, creepy alley ... and we were at our first restaurant. Here we met our guide, Barbara, who had ridden in the "scaredy cat taxi" with two other members of our tour — Fillipo and his grandmother, who I suppose can be forgiven for not taking the motorbike option. Barbara led us to the back corner of a restaurant (a legitimate, off-street restaurant with a dining room) and started ordering drinks and food, explaining everything as she went. At this stop, we had a beer and four dishes.
dipping sauces
These are the dipping sauces we would use with our various dishes. The one on the left is fish sauce, peanuts, chili, and chives, and the one on the right is salt, pepper, chili, and lime.
sea snail in butter sauce
Sea snail cooked in a butter sauce. It came with baguettes you tore apart and dipped into the delicious sauce.
morning glory, water spinach, snail
Morning glory, water spinach (all the stuff we saw floating in the Mekong) and a snail that looks and tastes like mushroom.
scallops, quail egg
Scallops and quail egg, which then get dipped in chili sauce and soy. Yum.
grilled prawn
Grilled prawn, to be dipped in yet another delicious sauce.
empty table
This is what remained of our eating escapades at the first stop.
Snail street selfie
Cooking in an alley...
snail street kitchen

grilling snails

Time to get back on the bikes! We zipped over to the next eatery, and en route I saw a motor bike literally run into a police officer who was trying to direct traffic. I mentioned this later and a local told me "the police probably deserved it." Ha! Our next stop was a street food restaurant that literally served you in the street. We took up every inch of available sidewalk space and potentially encroached on the road as well.

street view
Looking down the street from the food stall.
street food restaurant
Literal street food.
ingredients
So many choices!
beer
First course: beer. Saigon Special.
beer selfie
I had forgotten how hot, steamy, and sweaty it was that night until I looked at this picture. Look at me—I'm about to melt! Looking back at the weather report, the high that day was 93 and the low was 71.

steamed clams
Big pot of clams, which get dipped in yet another amazing sauce.
snails with safety pins
More snails. Really, really tiny snails. The safety pins on the right are the utensils for this dish. You use them to crack open the snail shell and dig out the little tiny snail on the inside. We were informed that this is "women's food" because women have more patience to eat it.
crab
Crab. Another challenge to eat, but also delicious.
oysters
Oysters, with a bunch of toppings, many of which I forget (obviously, it included peanuts). Top with fish sauce to increase your eating enjoyment. This was Aaron's favorite dish at this spot.

Once we downed our beer, it was off to the last place. We actually walked through the back streets (which I suspect some tourists never see) to get to the last restaurant. We passed rows of traditional Vietnamese homes, with open front rooms and 2-4 floors to hold an extended family. It was super quiet back here, except for the occasional motor bike. We rounded a few corners and found ourself at the next restaurant, which apparently has hosted Anthony Bourdain while he was filming No Reservations. The staff said he ordered "all the wrong things." We would order the right things!
ingredients
The many bits of seafood on offer.
dehydrated beef lung
In a special case, you'll find dehydrated beef lung. We did not order this.
frogs
We did, however, order one of these guys...
razor clams
Close-up of razor clams, which apparently the locals refer to as penis clams.
scallops and garlic
Scallops with lots and lots of Vietnamese garlic (which has a pretty mild flavor). You load this up on top of a rice cracker. Also pictures: LaRue beer, which we drank them out of and had to switch to something else later in the meal. When drinking in a Vietnamese establishment like this, they never clear your table. If you're drinking a fair amount, that can get cluttered, so you're expected to throw your beer bottles under the table. When you're all finished eating, the staff counts your plates and bottles (and looks under the table) to tell you what you owe.
grilled frog
This was our frog, grilled and tasty. Depending on what part of the little guy you ate, it was more or less enjoyable. I liked the legs. Kinda like chicken.
grilled tilapia
Grilled red tilapia, whole. Very good. And yes, you just dig in.
razor clams
Razor clams, as with everything else we had this evening, they were delicious.
preparing wasabi oysters
This is Aaron's motorbike driver preparing our fresh wasabi oysters. Basically, an oyster marinated in fresh wasabi. Guests have the option to eat this. Of course, we took that option. And recorded the evidence on video.

First, one of our hosts showed us how it's done. He didn't really make us feel very confident.


Then, it was my turn.

Aaron had a chance to watch everyone, so he should be a pro, right?


Unfortunately, it was time for our tour to end. Four beers and fourteen dishes later, Aaron had changed his tune about seafood ... at least fresh seafood, in Vietnam. Our drivers got us back to the hotel safely, and we took a photo to celebrate.
motorbike driver selfie
If you find yourself in Saigon, I highly recommend Saigon Street Eats. This isn't the only tour they offer - they also do Street Food 101 and a morning Pho tour, and private tours if you're looking for something else. Tell Barbara I sent you!

Aaron and I were in such a good mood, that we stopped off in the classy lounge of the Park Hyatt for a cocktail (me) and a whiskey (him).
Cocktail Lounge Selfie
Day 1 in Saigon ... success.