I don't know if i ever got around to posting this back in the spring, but I've been talking with a few people who are going to Vietnam for Xmas, so this is for them.
Written in March '07
In a fit of premature homesickness for my adopted city (which I am now sadly leaving), I decided to make a list of my top favorite things to do in HCMC. These are things I think that everyone passing through the area should do/see/eat at least once.
Best Ice Cream: Fanny Ice Cream
Their flavors are consistently amazing—as in, you’ll be amazed at how authentic the flavors taste and how real the ingredients are. My favorites are, in order: green tea ice cream; ginger ice cream; and the “I can’t believe it’s just chocolate and not crack” chocolate ice cream. Worth the price of a plane ticket at least. And if you’re lucky enough to be in town on the first Friday of the month, the Ice Cream Buffet is every thing it sounds like and more, and is simply the best bargain an ice cream lover could ever hope to find. And if that’s not good enough, they deliver—all at prices cheaper than New Zealand ice cream (the popular grocery store brand that you can buy at Citimart).
Best Vietnamese Resteraunt: Quan An Ngon
Rumour has it that some savvy Viet Kieu spent a year traveling all over Vietnam sampling street stall fare and invited the best to come join his (or her?) restaurant, cooking exactly what they were best at, but in a much more sanitary and stable environ. The food is affordable and delicious, plus you can see it being made along the outer corridor of the bottom floor. But eat upstairs- the lighting is yellowy and soft, the fans have misters attached, and you can look over the balcony and see all the waiters rushing around. To try: the green papaya salad with shrimps and pork, any of the noodle soups, and definitely the sweet black bean desert (che) and the floating cakes found almost at the end of the menu. The salad rolls rock.
Best Overpriced Drink: The Saigon Snowball at Vasco’s
If you don’t mind spending $3 or $4 on a cocktail, and have a penchant for 90’s cover bands, then Vasco’s really is a fun place to hang out. I inadvertently met some of my favorite people there (we were all looking a little sheepish at being at such an obvious expat-only venue) and it’s got a good outdoor seating area. The Snowball is an alcohol spiked desert in a chilly glass, made mostly of crème de menthe and ice cream. What’s not to like? And now for something not edible:
Best Real Massage: The Shiatsu Place on Nguyen Binh Khiem, across from the Somerset Hotel
This place has trained masseurs who wear immaculate white uniforms and from the moment you walk in, everyone is polite, professional, and best of all mostly quiet. If you’ve been getting backpacker massages and you’re sick of paying little but getting little, this place is a relief in lots of ways. It almost feels like a doctor’s office sometimes, albeit a nice smelling, prettily lit one. There’s no sketchy undertones, no gabbing while giving a rubdown (which is a pet peeve of mine—who needs to hear giggling whispers while their upper thigs are being squeezed?), and probably the best thing about it is before (or after) your massage, you are welcome to liberally use the showers, steam bath, and sauna. The latter two rooms are deliciously scented with fresh ginger, cinamon and menthol. You are sometimes given iced Vietnamese tea to drink, and sometimes not (can’t really figure out how to consistently make that happen yet). A sixty minute body massage is 90,000 dong. Some of the masseurs are gently, some do deep tissue work, and some just make lots of clapping sounds against your skin. If you like it therapeutically rough, ask for massage therapist number nine and you’ll be walked on, cracked and popped, and practically beaten up in the best way possible. Tip well and be happy.
Best neighborhood to walk around in: Nguyen Thi Minh Khai at the Cho Thi Nghe Market (which is at the border of District 1 and Binh Thanh District)
Maybe it’s because it was the first market I experienced when I moved to Saigon, but this one really has it all in my opinion: there’s never any other travellers or expats, which means you actually feel like you’re in a Vietnamese market, and the prices are so, so much lower than at Ben Thanh. I really enjoy eating a meal there, buying veggies and shrimp, checking out the flower stalls, and buying sweet treats. Everyone is really friendly and seem genuinely pleased when you come out with even the most rudimentary Vietnamese. The streets around the market, including the clogged and smelly Thi Minh Khai (which changes its name somewhere around the market to Xo Viet Nghe Tinh) have seemed to me to be the most authentic downtown neighborhood- it’s full of city people doing city things, and life in multiple generations just teems over the sidewalks and in and out of the streetfront stores. You can find anything in this neighborhood—including the best and cheapest kem tuoi (soft serve ice cream) in popular Vietnamese flavors. To find the kem tuoi shop from the market, cross the street (be careful) and start walking away from the bridge until you get to the big Nokia shop on the corner of Nguyen Cuu Van. Turn left there, and walk down a block or so. Ice cream is on the left. I recommend the taro flavor (it’s purple).
Most Useful Hand Gesture: The Jazz Handed “No Thanks”
You can say khong to your heart’s content, and even throw in a few omphful nos, but when it comes to stopping those (flower girls/xe om drivers/ persistent coconut sellers) in their tracks before they can begin their litanies, nothing has been better to me than the “no thanks” hand gesture. It doubles, as you will find, as the “we don’t sell that,” “we’ve run out” and “I don’t understand you” hand gestures. To make, hold up a hand about shoulder level, palm flat and fingers spread, and rotate the wrist back and forth just a wee bit in each direction but at a high speed (Fosse hands, if you will). It’s a little like the American “kinda sorta” gesture, but higher up on the body. Think of it as a groovy hang ten, but with all the fingers involved. Couple this with a wrinkled up nose and no eye contact with those whose services you wish to decline, and they will drop away and look for the next potential customer. Works like Magic (To Do). Heh.
(there was going to be more, but I got busy... now I miss everything, so it'd be hard to try to discriminate enough to get a top anything).