Tuesday, April 24, 2007

HCM City restaurants review

Quan An Ngon

Last year I didn't make it to Quan An Ngon restaurant (138 D Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1, Tel: 829 9449), this time I was prepared to give it a try despite the fact that I was intimidated by the beautiful ornament and the crowd waiting in line trying to get in. Althrough english menus are provided, it's still difficult to image what's in a Vietnamese pancake without a photo. You can have your waiter give you a tour around the outside corridor where individual food stalls make their specialities whereas bars serving all kinds of beverages are set in the center of this 2 level restaurant.

I was lucky that it didn't take long to get a table, the restaurant was packed before 18:00. After a tour of each station I ordered a grill squid, grill chicken, green papaya salad, dry pho with deep fried spring rolls, beer, and the highly recommend Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake stuffed with prawns, pork and been sprouts) , Che Suong Sa Hot Luu (jelly, water chestnut, tapioca pears and coconut milk) for only 173,000 Vietnamese Dong. The food was delicious except that the dry pho didn't have too much taste, I guess the dry pho I found in Tainan is modified to fit local taste.

Pho 2000

Pho 2000 stands out from the glowering Pho 24, a franchise that is growing rampantly worldwide, because of a visit by the former United States president Bill Clinton in the year 2000. Despite food stalls on the Ben Thanh Market street and a pho 24 only 15 meters away, pho 2000 still manages to attract customers (both foreigners and locals) for a bowl of rice noodles. Pho Bo (beef noodle soup, 23,000 Dong) is always my first choice. Like everywhere else, a raw beef noodle soup is made of medium-well pho topped with onions, cilantro, green onions and slices of raw beef. Boiled flavorful broth is then poured into the bowl turning all ingredients well-done on the way from the kitchen to your table. Pho is served with a side dish of bean sprouts, limes, spikes of basil, and sliced chili. Do not underestimate the power of the side dish, without squeezing lime juice in to pH balance the soup nor slices of chili to intensify the flavor, the noodle soup would never taste as good. Despite the name Pho 2000, there are other dishes such as spring roll, spaghetti and rice etc. on the menu. Photos of each dish are hanging on walls, a nice way to whet your appetite.

Food stalls around the Ben Thanh Market

18:00, the bustling Ben Thanh Market is closing for business but it doesn't stop people from coming to the night market on the street around the Ben Thanh Market that is suiting up for business. Unlike many street food stalls in the other areas, clean tables, lovely fragrances and spectacular live cooking shows in this night market will blow off your concern of hygiene and crack down your last fence for diet project. Some of the stalls even have uniforms and table cloths. English menus are provided in every stall despite the fact that some of them can't make the order in english for you.

Presentation is my way to choose a restaurant. Prawns in a coconut which is placed in a bowl filled with sterno at the bottom. The dish is served with fire which serves not only as fancy presentation but also as catalyst that blends the unique fragrance of coconut into prawns and brings the sweetness of the prawns to a higher level.

Xoi Phong (Swelled sticky rice, 28,000 Dong) is an interesting dish that is made by a bowl of sweet sticky rice. It's amazing to see how a bowl of cooked sticky rice can swell up and become a hollow rice ball after a few minutes' turning and pressing in hot oil. The ball is served to your table first just to open your eyes and the waiter will take it away and cut it into pieces for you. It didn't taste as crunchy as I expected but is worth ordering just to see how it's made. I filmed it for you, click on the youtube link below.

Grill 69

I went by Grill 69 (275H Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, Tel: 8367936) one day and was attracted by the bright neon light banner: Grill 69--The Essence of Meat and the clean looking interior. Those BBQ photos on the wall of the entrance provoked my craving for a nice BBQ meal. The restaurant displays raw meats in a transparent freezer at the entrance so that you can see the quality of those meats. Like many houses in Vietnam the tunnel house (so called because of the narrow frontage and long rooms) makes the restaurant look even smaller and crowded. My waiter took me to the roof top where tables were set under the stary sky. Without walls and obstacles frequent breeze eased the heat of day and created a nice ambiance. So how was the food? Well, simply put, the Grill 69 does basic barbecue meat dishes well at very reasonable prices but it could be better.

Lion Brewery & Restaurant

Right next to the 5 stars hotel Caravelle, Lion Brewery & Restaurant (11C Lam Son Square, District 1, Tel: 823-8514 or 82-5944, opening hours: 10:00-23:00 ) provides a cozy and spacious dinning environment with their various collections of 5 stars beer and dishes.

Two giant brass vats behind the bar grab your attention as soon as you enter and a big flatscreen TV dangles from a side wall. Experienced German experts brew three varieties of Pilsener draught beer using natural spices, rice germ and herbs imported from the famous Bamberg region in Germany. Variety of German theme dishes such as german sausage (40,000 Dong) and Grilled salted German pork knuckle (99,000 Dong) etc. are available to go with authentic German beer.

Restaurants on Google Map

Quan An Ngon, Pho 2000, Pho 24, Food stalls around the Ben Thanh Market, Grill 69, Lion Brewery & Restaurant

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Alternative activities in HCM City

When you stay long enough in HCMC and you have done all the shopping, visited all the sights listed in your guidebook and you start feeling sick of vendors trying to foist something that you had already bought and regretted about it so you wonder what else I can do instead of staying in the hotel room watching a repeated TV program? Well, HCMC does provide other activities for someone just like you.

Located on the top floor of the Parkson plaza, 35-45 Le Thanh Ton Street, powerbowl 388 (Tel: 8295388) is just one of entertainments you can find in this department store. The price for one game starts from 20,000 to 40,000 Vietnam Dong (10:00-14:00, 20,000/game; 14:00-18:00, 30,000/game; 18:00-close, 40,000/game; Sunday and Public holidays: 40,000/game), shoes and socks are also rentable at price 5,000 and 8,000 respectively. Toppers bar (open daily from 21:00; Tel: 8277632 or 8277634) has a big silver screen that broadcasts soccer games which provides another kind of excitement after a few rounds of bowling and video games.

Diamond Superbowl (Diamond Plaza, 34 DL Le Duan; Tel: 8257778; opening hours: 10:00-1:00) is very popular with locals and is notable for having fluorescent bowling balls and computerised scoring. Attached is a large amusement center with billiards, a video game arcade and shops

Rex Hotel provides not only accommodation but also a recreation center where you might win a jackpot. The Bingo Club is reserved for foreign patrons only, to get in you will have to show the security your passport. In the casino you can play various games such as the Pacific game, Universal card game, Alfastreet Roulette, Elaut Victory Dice and Williams Games. Or you can play touch screen video games, darts and billiards in the club.

The Victoria VIP club in Duxton Hotel is another casino in HCM City and is for foreign passport holders and Viet Kieu only. Games such as aristocrat cash express, weike caishen mystery, konami-sport of kings, aruze-bonus spin, wms-jackpot party, roulette, metg (baccarat), sic-bo dice and black jack are played here.

If you are lucky you might be able to get into the Opera for a performance during your stay. Performances usually start at 20:00 and finish at 22:00, 100,000 Dong/person, depends on the show. A variety of shows from concerts, orchestra to traditional music and dancing and as you would expect opera are staged here. The schedule of performances can be acquired at a tourist information center (open from 08:00 to 20:00 daily; 4G-4H Le Loi Street; Tel: (84.8)8226033; 8228949).

April 12, I went by the opera house trying to find out what the performance was for the day. I checked the poster (in Vietnamese), asked the ticket man (couldn't speak english) and even asked a scalper who was trying to sell me a ticket that I strongly suspected wouldn't be recognized by the opera but still I couldn't figure out what the show was about. So I went down Le Loi street and asked for help from the tourist information center. The staff not only provided the schedule of performances that will be held in April in the opera but also led me to the ticket window and confirmed the information for me. It was tranditional Vietnamese singing and dancing. Baignoire, loge and the closed curtain stage make the opera look much smaller yet more elegant from inside. Just when I was falling asleep the show started 25 min late behind schedule with passionate singing complimented with lively and rhythmic dancing. The show finished at 22:25, even though the show was in Vietnamese I enjoyed it very much.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hotels in HCM City 2

Unlike those luxurious hotels around the D Dong Khoi area, hotels around D Pham Ngu Lao area are made for backpackers, except for the New World Hotel. The density of hotels in this region makes it difficult to label individual hotels precisely on the map and this hotel review only lists a few of them located on Pham Ngu Lao road. You don’t really have to worry about amenities in hotels in this area-- fitness center, massage, restaurants, bars, wireless internet access, budget tour agencies and of course souvenir shops etc. you can find them all somewhere in this area.

Hotels around D Pham Ngu Lao area on Google Maps

New World Hotel, Duna Hotel, Giant Dragon Hotel, Hotel Que Huong (Liberty 3 hotel), Tan Thanh Hotel, Hotel 211 Hotel, Spring House Hotel, Elios Hotel, Hanh Hoa Hotel, Libery 4 Hotel, Vien Dong Hotel, Canadian 281 Hotel

Hotel websites for detail information
New World Hotel, Liberty 3 and 4 Hotel, Elios Hotel

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Hotels in HCM City

I tried to book a hotel via a travel agency in Taiwan but the agent told me that the hotels they are affiliated with were all fully booked. I didn’t believe what the agent had told me because most of the time that was a polite way to say that the commission wasn’t high enough to do the booking service for you. So I looked it up online and tried to find a hotel that has internet access in the rooms and free access to gym and swimming pool. Hotels around the Dong Khoi Area were my first choices and of course price was a key for decision making. I was scheduled to stay in HCMC for 2 weeks and all hotels were not available for one or two days during my stay, then I wrote an email to the Kim Do Royal Hotel to request a single room and here I am in this 4 stars hotel about 150 meters down from the Hotel de Ville (People committee Building).

I was trying to book a hotel via an online booking agency 'Hotels in Vietnam dotcom' which provides detailed information on hotels in Vietnam and a better rate than booking directly through hotel websites. However, the agency didn’t process the booking within 24-48 hours as they had declared in their confirmation letter. Even 2 emails and one international phone call after 48 hours of my first request; I still didn’t get a response before my check in date, pity.

I had trouble checking in at the Kim DO Royal Hotel because whoever is responsible for online email requests didn’t print out my confirmation letter and I couldn’t login to my NHRI web-mail server to prove that I had the reservation. It took 20 minutes for the reception to contact the staff for email booking then checked me into a room. The air conditioned room looks great, a giant bed, bath-tub, refrigerator, TV with international programs including the Star World Channel, a safe box, ADSL internet access, free local city phone calls, complimentary English newspaper, 2 bottles of water daily and buffet breakfast-- no complaints here.

I checked the gym and the swimming pool enthusiastically and soon the excitement was dampened by the reality. There is one cycler, one treadmill, one rolling machine and a set of weight training set in a 4 meter squares gym room. The staff told me that only the treadmill didn't work, but the reality was that the rollers of the rolling machine were crooked not to mention the paddles of the cycler were both facing down! The width of the pool is a standard racing trial size and the length is about 10 meters. There is only a changing room with a shower built in located in the center of the entrance. I have been staying here for one week and I haven’t seen anyone in the gym or the baby swimming pool. The idea of changing hotels soon was expelled from my mind after checking out the gym at the Oscar Hotel (3 stars) and the facilities of Rex Hotel (4 stars). I guess facilities like gyms and swimming pools are not a factor for tourists in choosing a hotel in HCMC or am I spoiled by the amenities of star hotels in Taiwan?

Hotels around D Dong Khoi area on Google Maps

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bonne nuit Vietnam

Despite the chaotic traffic conditions in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), it’s surprisingly easier to take a walking tour in HCMC than in Bangkok or even in Taipei. Of course, it depends on which district you are in and you would have to set aside all the rules you have learned in your country. For example: traffic lights here are just references; it transforms to a standard of when to stop/go only when there are police present. So how do you cross a street? The trick is occupation, without a 3 dimensional road system, all you have to do is to step forward inch by inch; once you occupied the area the others will give way. The key to success in doing this is determination; you have to show your determination on your direction otherwise you would be stuck in the middle of the traffic or even worse be hit by a car/bike. Of course shit happens, my advice is to open your eyes and ears then move agilely and bravely.

Stereotype has it that westerners are relatively open-minded when it comes to romantic relationships. However, chances to spot Vietnamese couples hugging, touching or even kissing in public in HCMC are much higher than in westerner countries. The same phenomenon can also be found in Hanoi and China. Parks, sidewalks even on the side of boulevards, massive numbers of young Vietnamese couples sit together on the ground regardless of everything else; something that can only been seen here. I believe that westernization plays an important role in such phenomenon but what converts Asians into romance practitioners in such massive scale still puzzles me…maybe a leftover from the French Colonial Period?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I heard about the notorious traffic conditions in Phuket but I was still shocked by a one hour ride from the pier to Patong Beach (purchased the ticket at 100Baht/person on the boat to Phuket since the price from agencies in Ko Phi Phi is double). I couldn’t help wondering where the beach was when the car dropped us off in front of the Deevana hotel which is located in a back street away from the bustling Rat Uthit road. The hotel provides a free shuttle bus daily departing at 10:00 from the hotel to the beach (about 15min walking distance) and at 16:00 the other way around.

Restaurants, souvenir shops, hotels, nightclubs, and of course the famous transvestites are all concentrated in this area. Thai boxing stadiums launch their best propaganda by sending out boxers to warm up on top of mini trucks cruising down the streets. Transvestites dress extravagantly solicit in the street of the Simon Cabaret. Water activities are thriving on Patong beach. The queue for banana boats, water jets and para-sailing along with parasols make the beach over crowded 3 dimensionally. Unless you are staying in a five stars hotel such as trisara which owns a private beach otherwise Phuket (Patong Beach) is a center for actions but not for relaxation.

Being a tourist attraction, it’s surprising that there is no public transportation in Phuket. Options for moving around are cabs, tuk-tuks, mini buses run by travel agencies or renting a car/bike which is not recommended for a long distance travel. The last mini bus departing from Patong to the airport leaves at 18:00, you can buy the ticket from any travel agency and the bus will pick you up at your hotel.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Ko Phi Phi--Thailand

I can't think of a word to describe the beauty of Phi Phi Island. Despite the fact that signatures of the devastating tsunami can still be seen on the island, it was the most enjoyable journey of my trip. I took off my shirt and lay on a beach without thinking too much about the marks on my body from chiken pox that made me look like a mosquito buffet. The bright sunshine may intimidate some tourists from getting closer to the overheated white sandy beach and yet the blue tone with different levels of greenish hues from the water allure topless girls and handsome men to show their bodies blatantly. It's never too much to spend your time on such visual feasts.

Around 15:00 when most boats that commute between Krabi and Phuket have sailed, the peaceful water on Ao Lo Dalam and Ao Ton Sai make kayaking a great alternative to spending your time on the island. I rented a kayak and paddled out on the bay to catch the moment of sunset. The gold colored water was calm and the only disturbance was the shimmering silver of groups of flying fish jumping out to the surface before flying away.