Vietnam has rapidly overtaken Bangkok as a choice getaway for Singaporeans and Hong Kongers only because of the quality of the shopping (especially where homeware is concerned) and the wonderful food.
A 3 day 2 night getaway with girlfriends saw us heading to Ho Chi Minh for a gratifying 3 day catch up – the kind where girlfriends can talk about everything and anything on earth in every circumstance and location – over drinks, over pho, over massages .. you get the general idea.
Our itinerary was plain and simple – Eat (everything Vietnamese and French as Vietnam was once colonised by the French), Shop (mainly for homeware and favourite food) and Spa (wherever and whenever our tired legs said we needed a break). The plan was to check into a hotel that was fairly central. We ended up at the Millennium, a boutique hotel that was a little bit off the beaten track but met our budget and requirements to stay in District 1 where all the general action is. The Hotel turned out no frills but with a good breakfast buffet included in the room rate and the beds were comfortable.
Bến Thành Market
Checked in our hotel by 10.30am. The flight from Singapore is an hour and the half but Singapore and Ho Chi Minh have an hour difference (in our favour) so think of it as one extra hour of shopping time.
Left the bags at Concierge and wandered out to explore the vicinity around the Hotel. Made our way to Bến Thành Market where we had a late breakfast of Banh Beo Hue. The market is otherwise filled with vendors selling clothes from t-shirts to caps, bags and sunglasses to some selling a large variety of coffee powder and drip coffee utensils, indigenous goods, crockery and cutlery.
Judging from the number of helpers around the store packing takeaways and the number of locals and tourists seated all around on makeshift stools, it would have been a correct assumption to say that this was the market’s most popular food store.
This light and appetising dish tasted to me like the Viet version of Singaporean Bee Tie Mak (a steam rice cake) swimming in a lovely sweet and sour fish sauce garnished with coriander and shallots and bits of dried shrimp
Ice Coffee Stop
We wandered off outside the market to look for Saigon Square which was supposed to have fake t-shirts and branded bags and clothes in general – sort of like a mini Shenzhen. Found it and was duly unimpressed. Definitely if you are inclined to buy fake goods – get the A grades in Shenzhen (particularly Luo Wu) and give this a big skip!
The heat was unbearable outside Saigon Square and we would have melted on the pavement if not for the fact that we stumbled upon Cafe Vy as it is commonly known as with a sign that says Kinh Chao Quy Khach – a wonderful local coffee place set up like a little French style side-walk cafe serving Vietnamese coffee – no food, just coffee which was oddly ok.
Suitably imbibed with caffeine, we headed to a local Arts area called 3A Station not far from the Hotel. This 2000 square metre art area was formerly the site of 3 abandoned warehouses built in the 19th century when the French colonized Vietnam.
Now fully refurbished, the space has been converted into a creative space in which you can find clothing stores, home ware boutiques, art galleries, some offices and coffee shops. We stopped for a light lunch of crab meat spring rolls with cold beer at one of the restaurants there.
A FULL BODY MASSAGE
Nearby our hotel, we found a small and cosy spa called the Temple Tree Spa which turned out fairly well-rated on Trip Advisor. So we headed there for a 60 minute long full body massage which came up to only SGD$32 (VND520,000).
Walking around the city at twilight was a treat as the temperature was far more bearable and the buildings were lit up beautifully.
VIETNAMESE PIZZA BREAK
On the way to dinner, we found a lovely version of Vietnamese pizza or Bánh Tráng Nướng which we bought to try! Verdict – Delish – it was basically made from the skin used to wrap Vietnamese spring rolls but barbecued with shrimp, pork, eggs, cheese and a type of non-spicy chilli paste (at least that was what I thought it tasted like)!
DINNER AT CHI HOA
Dinner that evening was at Chi Hoa, a Vietnamese restaurant that brings the variety of street food favourites and home cooking together under one roof.
BINH TAY WHOLESALE MARKET
After a hearty breakfast in the hotel, we headed out to an adventure to Binh Tay Market, a wholesale market sometimes known as Cho Lon Market in District 6.
Expect it to look just like this when you arrive – messy, crowded, dirty and chaotic and everyone pushing through the tiny avenues where goods are unloaded, vehicles parked and people are moving from one part of the market to another.
Inside the market, we stopped by the nut wholesaler where we picked up cashews and lotus nuts and a variety of other unusual snacks and chips.
Another wholesaler who sold Bird’s Nest and a variety of scallops
Along the market fringe, a lovely basket shop where my girlfriends went crazy and bought every conceivable basket and bag – in every possible shape and size
PHO FOR LUNCH
No visit to Vietnam is complete without a big bowl of Vietnam’s most famous dish – Pho! A lovely local recommended us to Phở Lệ – Nguyễn Trãi at 413-414 Nguyen Trai Street P.7,Q5. There is no website for this very simple eatery but rest assured the pho was nothing short of awesome with a free flow of veggie refills and sauces to go with any of the two or three types of meat that you choose. All doused in the most delicious bowl of steaming hot beef broth!
Obviously, our shopping quota had not been fulfilled so this was a trip to explore the street stores in District 1 where we found a few gems selling lacquer ware, clothing and quirky gifts.
Another local friend recommended the Paloma Spa in District 1 which turned out to be a very reasonable but classy Spa located in a Vietnamese villa. Well known for their facials using Sothy’s products and their body and slimming massages, this was probably one of the most exclusive spa locations that I enjoyed exploring in Vietnam.
DRINKS AT THE DECK
We headed to pre-dinner drinks at The Deck another gorgeous restaurant and bar in the District 2 area by the river that had us watching the sunset and sipping cocktails.
DINNER AT LA VILLA
Just around the corner from The Deck was another restaurant set in an old restored Villa, aptly called La Villa, a French michelin starred fine dining restaurant. Besides the amazing set menu (for just under S$100) that allowed you to choose a combination of appetisers alongside a main course and dessert, we were wowed by the cheese selection that ran from blocks of truffled brie to camembert alongside a generous cheese trolley selection of French favourites.
ANNAM GOURMET MARKET
A trip that starts with food must end with it and our last shopping stop before the airport was to the Annam Gourmet Market. The store carries a large display of gourmet groceries, cheese, organic products, gluten-free products, fruit and vegetables, gourmet deli items like foie gras and pates, wine, coffee and other beverages.
ONE LAST MEAL
And finally before checking out, a final stop for our last taste of Ho Chi Minh.