29 July 2015

Food Glorious Food in Ho Chi Minh City

Having written about all the marvellous food we ate whilst in Hanoi here's another post from my husband about the food we ate in Ho Chi Minh City on our whistle stop visit. You can follow him on Twitter at @asksirstamford

After our very late arrival on Friday night (much later than planned) and a morning of exploring, for Saturday lunch we visited Nha Hang Ngon. This is another branch of the chain we visited on our first night in Hanoi. It was again a series of hawker type stalls serving a variety of local dishes, different from Hanoi though 1000 miles to the north, with the dishes typically being spicier than their northern cousins. We chose fresh spring rolls (called salad rolls here in the south), differing from the northern version in that the peanut sauce had chili in it. We also had a dried beef and green papaya salad which was fresh and a little spiced. The owner of this blog chose chicken skewers, whilst I ordered the chili squid, served with a little tomato salad. The restaurant is in District One, near the Reunification Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the War Museum (I'm afraid I'm not in the slightest bit interested in the war so visited none of that). We had made our way to lunch after visiting the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel, with its kitsch dancing elephants. This was the site of the Americans Five O’clock Follies, where war time propaganda was disseminated in the 1960s and 1970s and from where the last defeated American helicopter left from. Before that we'd been to the observation Saigon skydeck of the Bitexco Financial Tower that gave us a bird’s eye view of the city from on high.

Fresh salad rolls

Dried beef and green papaya salad

Chicken skewers

Chili squid

For dinner we decided to try a restaurant that was recommended / mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide and also had reasonable Trip Advisor reviews, although the one saying it was full of ‘merchant bankers’ also did put us off slightly. The place was called the Temple Club (so named as it was opposite a Hindu temple), down a side road in District One and was again located in a former colonial villa. The upstairs dining room was exquisitely decorated with spiritual artefact's, such as fresco's, wooden plaques and statues of the Buddha etc., which complimented the extensive menu, all menus in Vietnam seemed to be enormous with far too much choice. We order a tasting platter to start and a couple of main dishes and a bottle of Chilean wine. The Temple Platter contained four key elements, including fresh and fried spring rolls (again), rolled beef and a salad roll. The highlight of the meal was the caramel pork hotpot, which was pork covered in sickly sweet sauce which was accompanied with special fried rice (with small prawns) and a chili chicken dish. All the food was great and the atmosphere lovely. The night was rounded off with a Saigon Beer in our hotel bar.

Interior of the Temple Club

Spring rolls

Special fried rice complete with fried egg

Chili chicken

Caramel pork hotpot

The next day, after a rather warm morning wander around the Botanical and Zoological Gardens (it was hot and the animals were caged in appalling conditions) we decided over coffee to take up another recommendation (from our friend who writes the great blog, A British Girl Abroad) and go to Cuc Gach Quan restaurant. This is also allegedly in District One by taxi but it was in the back of beyond and would never be found without local help. The restaurant is down a backstreet, again in what was termed as a French villa and again had an overly extensive menu (described as what a local family would typically eat). With help from the excellent waiter we chose a number of dishes and had to assure him that I was very very hungry as we ordered many dishes (he probably thought that I was a big fat pig). 

As usual we had fresh and fried spring rolls, and again these were very good. I love the contrast one gets from the fresh ones against the crunch of the fried example. Alongside this we had a bacon and lemongrass small dish, which was deep fried lardons of pork in a spicy chili and lemongrass dressing, a chicken, chili salt dish with boiled chicken bones with associated flesh to be dipped in a salt, chili and lime mixture with a portion of fried rice and Vietnamese sauteed vegetables. Being a greedy glutton I also ordered a fish hotpot, which was deliciously spicy but a little fiddly with the bones, it did however compliment the rice perfectly. The restaurant was excellent and up there with the best we went to all week, I’d certainly recommend it and may return next time I travel to Saigon for work.

Interior of Cuc Gach Quan restaurant

Just a soft drink but check out the straw, completely natural!

The week was rounded off with a pint or two in a branch of Brotzeit, above the Hard Rock Cafe, and next to the Intercontinental Hotel, this is a great hotel to stay at having stayed there previously for work. As is the one we selected for our brief stay, the Sofitel Saigon Plaza.

Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offered a huge variety of different and delicious dishes. We did not have anything disappointing, but then I never really expected us to either. I can't wait to return!

26 July 2015

Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon

The final stop on our whirlwind tour of Vietnam was in Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, formerly know as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam and is just crazily busy! When known as Saigon it was firstly the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina and later of the independent republic of Vietnam. On the 2 July 1976 the city was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City but Saigon is still widely used unofficially.

After taking a delayed flight from Hanoi we finally arrived there in the early hours of the morning, checked into our hotel and collapsed straight into bed. Next morning, and despite the late night, we were up early, had breakfast and were ready to explore the city. First place, the incredibly grand looking Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office. As you may guess from my photo below the building was built when Vietnam was part of French Indochina and is heavily influenced by Gothic, Renaissance and French as a result. It was built between 1886 and 1891 and can count Gustave Eiffel (yes him of Eiffel Tower fame) as one of its architects. The inside of the Post Office is ornately decorated with a high arched ceiling, old maps of the area painted on the walls, wood paneling and clocks showing the times of various cities around the world.

Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office

From the Post Office we moved on to the nearby Notre Dame cathedral otherwise known as the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. It too was established whilst Vietnam was a French colony and was constructed between 1863 and 1880. All the original building materials were imported from France. It's a quite stunning building and, just like the cathedral in Hanoi, is not surprisingly very reminiscent of European church architecture. Despite the crowds outside inside was calm and peaceful and quite lovely to wander around.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
Interior of the cathedral
Stained Glass Windows

We only had one full day in Ho Chi Minh but certainly packed a lot in! Next stop was the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower to get an aerial view over the city. Whilst perhaps not an iconic view or skyline it was nonetheless great to get an idea of the scale of the city stretching out before us. The viewing level is on the 49th floor and offers completely panoramic views, letting you see the busy streets and junctions below and right along the busy river too. Inside the skydeck there is also a restaurant and cafe which we popped into for a drink, although the service was slow the views were again good.

View from the Saigon Skydeck

After lunch (more on that soon) and a bit of a rest back in our hotel we headed out in the evening for a few drinks with a sunset view. For our view we headed to a bar called Saigon Saigon in the Caravelle hotel. My husband had actually been here on previous work visits to Ho Chi Minh and suggested this would be a good spot to hopefully see a good sunset on our final night in Vietnam. According to the hotel's website the bar has been open since 1959 and was a popular spot for journalists in the 1960s when it was the highest spot in the city. We got there early and managed to grab ourselves a good place outside. Unfortunately the sunset was not as impressive as some my husband has seen previously but the cloudy sky still looked beautiful as the sun went down. As the city lights came on the city took on a different vibe with the streets thronging below us as we sipped on our drinks and looked back over our holiday.

The sun going down over Ho Chi Minh City on our final night in Vietnam
Lights coming on as the sun goes down

On our way back to the hotel the last sight of the night was the fabulous looking Ho Chi Minh city hall lit up. The building was built between 1902 and 1908 in the French colonial style. It really did look wonderful and is certainly one of the night time spots to photograph from the number of people milling around doing exactly the same as us.

Ho Chi Minh city hall

The next morning, our final in Vietnam, we had some time to fill and decided to visit Ho Chi Minh's botanic gardens. These gardens are clearly a very popular weekend spot for locals as the place was heaving even though we were there pretty early! Like Hanoi's botanic gardens you have to pay to get in but what we hadn't fully realised was that there was also a zoo of sorts there, I was actually surprised by how many animals there were there. Our travel guide suggested it was being closed and the animals relocated but this didn't look to be the case from our visit. Having dug around a bit more there seems to be a clear divide between those who think it's a great zoo and those who feel the animals need new homes. Personally I didn't rate it and felt the animals generally looked pretty sorry for themselves and looked to be living in less than ideal conditions. When the crocodiles are swimming in water that has rubbish floating in it that people have clearly thrown in rather than find a rubbish bin and it hasn't been removed I think you can get the general idea.

The rest of the gardens were pleasant enough but not spectacular though everywhere was crazy busy in them. There were a few greenhouse type buildings but all seemed to be padlocked, my photo below being just one of those we could look through the gates into. It seemed a bit of a shame that you couldn't go in them to view the plants growing inside.

After leaving the gardens we headed for a very good lunch and then it was time to head to the airport and return to Singapore. We had a great week in Vietnam packing a crazy amount of things in. I think personally I preferred Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh but maybe that was because we spent longer there and I had more chance to see the city. Halong Bay was altogether different and just simply beautiful. Overall definitely a country to return to some day if I can.

If you want to read about what we did in Hanoi and Halong Bay check out mine (and my husband's) posts here,

14 July 2015

Tourists in Kampong Glam

If you are a regular reader of my blog you'll know that we got the opportunity to take up a staycation at the Hotel Clover 33 Jalan Sultan not so long ago, by the way check out the link to the post for an offer on your own stay there exclusive to my blog readers. As it was an unexpected treat I took the opportunity to take a Saturday off work to maximise our stay. After our check in and a tour of the hotel we were free to enjoy ourselves and we saw this as the perfect chance to be tourists for the day in the Kampong Glam area.

We were actually a little early for our check in initially so decided to find a cafe or coffee shop close by to kill some time. Literally just around the corner from the hotel we stumbled upon the Dong Po Colonial Cafe. I realised afterwards that I'd actually seen this place on a TV show and what a great little find it was. It was packed full of memorabilia from Singapore's yesteryear. All the tables were like ours in my photo below, glass topped and stuffed full of little mementos and, of course, there was kopi, kaya toast and a whole load of other yummy things on the menu.

kopi time

Once we had checked in we dumped our overnight bags in our room and ventured out once more. We wandered around the streets of Kampong Glam, of course, this included the famous ones like Haji Lane but because we came from the Jalan Sultan direction lots of others that I've probably barely walked down before. Asides from the shops, restaurants and weekend hustle and bustle I took the time to look for other things of interest. I'm always interested by ghost signage or hints of what a building may have originally been used for, who it was owned by or when it was built and I spotted this on one of the street corners above the modern shop frontage. Always pays to look up, you never know what you'll see or find.

After all our walking we needed lunch and decided to try out somewhere else that we'd heard lots about from friends but never got to, Pizza Fabbrica on Bussorah Street. All the hype about the place was definitely worth it and I can only agree with all those already singing its praises. The food was delicious with amazing pizzas and the service was great too. Good service is certainly something I find myself appreciating a lot more these days. 

Our starter and my pizza choice

Of course after a huge lunch like that we needed to do some more walking around the area to burn a few of those calories off. This gave us a chance to see some more of the back and side streets of the Kampong Glam area and catch different views of some of its famous landmarks. After plenty of walking we retired to a bar and enjoyed a couple of late afternoon drinks before heading back to the hotel, freshening up and heading out for something to eat. Having had such a large and fairly late lunch we weren't especially hungry but the beauty of this area is it is packed full of Middle Eastern food which means plenty of delicious snacks and mezze style dishes to choose from. Perfect for when you just want something light and also great for sharing. 

Masjid Sultan mosque from a backstreet

We didn't try this place out but the tag line amused me - one for another time perhaps.

Dinner - dining on Middle Eastern food

It was great to take some time out to explore this part of Singapore again, somewhere we probably don't spend nearly enough time in. I especially enjoyed it given that my Saturdays usually consist of a day at work so my extra free time and exploring was all the more special. Being a tourist in your hometown (or adopted hometown) is certainly something I'd recommend you try.

Don't forget to check out my blog post of my stay at the Hotel Clover 33 Jalan Sultan if you'd like to take the time to explore this area a little more yourself and also get a great deal on your hotel stay in the process! 

09 July 2015

Pedestrian Night on Orchard Road

Everyone loves going on a shopping spree now and again, don't they? Well last Saturday evening saw us head down to Orchard Road for something just a little bit different, the start of their latest series of pedestrian nights. The perfect opportunity to shop until you drop and enjoy an array of entertainment on a section of Orchard Road especially closed off for the evening to traffic.

Pedestrian nights on Orchard Road will be taking place monthly until the end of the year on the first Saturday of every month with a different theme each time. The section of road between Scotts Road and Bideford Road will be closed between 6pm and 11pm for you to maximise your shopping fun, enjoy all the entertainment and, of course, by being closed to traffic making it all just that little bit easier to get to all the malls and do all the shopping!

Last Saturday's theme was all about the 'Flash Sales' with a whole host of amazing, one night only deals from various shops and malls to be had. Several malls also extended their opening hours for the evening. Along the closed section of Orchard Road shoppers were able to enjoy live music, buskers and a whole load of other entertainment as well. Future pedestrian nights will doubtless also offer up just as many amazing shopping deals, competitions and some great entertainment too.

The next pedestrian night takes place on the 1 August 2015 and will be an SG50 themed 'Red and White' party. Orchard Road will be getting into the party spirit by celebrating Singapore's pioneers, stories and national milestones from 1965 up to the current day through the Pioneer Portraits initiative. This will be launched at August's Pedestrian Night and will feature various pieces of bespoke art by local talents from a range of creative disciplines and backgrounds. 

Taking the chance to walk on Orchard Road

The September event on the 5 September 2015 will celebrate everything fast and furious with a 'Rev-up on Orchard', there will be a 'Family Fiesta' with a range of activities for the whole family on the 3 October 2015, 'Fashion with Friends and Family' on the 7 November 2015 and they'll be wrapping up the year with 'Christmas on A Great Street' on the 5 December 2015.

By the way, if you were there last Saturday, did you know there is an Instagram contest you can take part in with the possibility of winning an Instax SHARE printer bundle worth $250? Just simply upload your photo with the theme, 'You and Your Best Buy @ Pedestrian Night', hashtag, #PedestrianNight to be in with a chance.   

For the latest information about the next and future Pedestrian Nights check out the Orchard Road website, their Facebook page or Instagram at @orchardroad.sg 

07 July 2015

Halong Bay

So after a fabulous few days in Hanoi we left bright and early on an approximately three hour minibus ride for our next stop, Halong Bay. The beauty of this journey being that we got to see a little of the Vietnamese countryside and some small towns on our way. I was told beforehand that Vietnam has the most amazing different shades of green throughout its countryside and I wasn't disappointed. The colours were stunning, so vivid and yes so many different shades, just beautiful.

As we left Hanoi behind us our journey took us past paddy field after paddy field many being lovingly tended by workers and all of them a beautiful, lush green. It was interesting to observe that many of them had a corner with graves in complete with, in some cases, simply huge grave stones. It is a tradition in the north of Vietnam for people to be buried in the piece of land where they lived so therefore not uncommon to see the graves in the paddy fields. I had already noticed in Hanoi too and, this continued on our journey to Halong Bay, that most of the buildings we passed were built in a tall, narrow way, often with large balconies at the front and on many occasion looked just a little precarious. This style also seemed quite common when we got to Ho Chi Minh as well, quite different from what I'm used to seeing. If you want to see what I mean check out this link for a photo of a very typical tall, narrow Vietnamese building.

On the way to Halong Bay

As we got closer to our destination the weather gradually began to change and whilst it wasn't cold the air became damper and on a few occasions just a little drizzly. The weather stayed like this for much of our two day stay and whilst it would have been fantastic to get a spectacular sunrise or sunset it was nice to get this cooler, fresher weather just for a while to give us a small break from Singapore's pretty consistent hot and humid weather. The journey there took us through several different provinces and past the Pha Lai power station, the largest coal fired power plant in Vietnam. Finally, though we arrived at Halong city and it was time to board our boat at the pier and begin our mini cruise.

Halong Bay which literally means 'where the dragon descends into the sea' is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of over 3000 islands in various sizes and shapes. Legend says that the islands of Halong Bay were created by a dragon that lived in the mountains. As the dragon ran towards the coast his tail gouged out valleys and crevasses and as he plunged into the sea the areas dug up by his tail became filled with water leaving just the very highest land visible.

Upon setting sail we were able to enjoy a delicious lunch of various local dishes whilst enjoying the views as we sailed further out into Halong Bay. There were about twenty of us on the boat so, whilst we could chat to our fellow passengers if we wanted we also had plenty of opportunity to enjoy our own space as well. In fact on many occasions we were practically the only ones up on board the outside deck. Though this may have been partly due to the drizzly weather which, as I said before, we thoroughly enjoyed!

Views sailing out into Halong Bay

After lunch first on our itinerary was a visit to the Cua Van floating fishing village. Cua Van is the largest of a number of floating villages in the area with about 130 floating houses and a population of around 600. Leaving our boat we got taken in a small bamboo boat by one of the village residents around the village for a closer view of their homes and way of life. The village is located beneath a number of tall mountainous islands which gives them some protection during typhoon season. This village is quite unique as it is the only one with a primary school and a clinic which are also floating in case you were wondering.

It was a quite fascinating place to visit and to see all the normality of life with washing hanging out to dry etc. but all done on the water rather than on dry land. It was incredibly peaceful too. At the end of our visit we got taken to the place where all their fishing catches come which also includes a small visitor centre telling you a little more about these unique communities and the work being done to ensure the environment is protected and the villagers can remain living here as they wish to.

From the village we returned to our boat to spend the evening on board, enjoying more food, some drinks (including two happy hours) and just simply enjoying a peaceful evening away from the connected world. Our boat did offer wifi but, as you'd expect, it was a bit sketchy so it really was all about just enjoying the moment. We also got to try our hand at some late night squid fishing off the side of our boat. Which included a beginners luck moment for me as I actually managed to catch one! After posing for photos the squid was promptly returned to the sea and proceeded to show his disgust by squirting ink out in the water.

As I mentioned we unfortunately didn't get any spectacular sunsets, but watching darkness fall over us and the other boats moored nearby in amongst the beautiful rocks of Halong Bay was simply stunning.

Evening arrives in Halong Bay

The next morning and after a very good night's sleep we were up bright and early, I'm talking well before 7am for coffee and delicious pastries. We then had the opportunity to take part in a Tai Chi class up on the outside deck. Of course we joined in, it was fun and kept nice and simple as I suspect none of us joining in were hugely proficient. The morning began as the day before with mists covering the tops of the rocks and just a light drizzle. It really was a spectacular backdrop to our class.

After that we were off on another visit to the nearby Titop island. Titop island was named after Gherman Titov, a Russian cosmonaut. If you look at my photo of the island below you can see a structure right at the very top. The main thing to do here is climb the many steps to the top and this viewing platform. Something we did and despite the relatively cool weather we still managed to get incredibly warm! The views from the top are quite beautiful, even with the misty conditions that day. It is well worth doing the climb and is relatively easy, thanks to the steps going all the way to the top. 

After coming back down again there was a chance to go swimming, we opted just to go paddling as the water was very cold. Though we did see a few brave or crazy (you decide) people going out into the water. After dipping our toes into the water we just enjoyed sitting on the beach despite it raining just a little more heavily by that point.

Approaching Titop island

View from the top of Titop Island

Heading back to our boat once more we enjoyed a delicious breakfast, something I think we were all ready for after our early morning of Tai Chi and climbing rocks. Then it was time to head back to Halong city and back to dry land once more.

Halong Bay truly was beautiful and definitely up there as one of the best places I've had the opportunity to visit since living in Singapore. We visited in February and whilst the weather may not have been amazing for us it was a delightful change. It also wasn't cold at all, in my opinion. It was fairly busy but I think visiting then it was quieter then it would be at peak season so for us it was definitely the best time to go. Certainly somewhere to return to one day if I have the chance.
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