HCMC/Saigon – what to do

On first glance Ho Chi Minh is a gleaming, busy, not-so-Vietnamese looking city. But the commercial capital is worth having a nose around… great street food, eclectic temples, local local markets and more than a few bars to saddle up to.

Ben Thanh Market- Alright, it’s touristy and it’s full of annoying vendors. BUT the food and flower market out the back is fabulous especially early in the morning. Check it out but by no means linger around too long- the crazy vendors will drive you nuts.

City Tour…the usual sites to see- Dabble in a bit of history in HCMC and you won’t be disappointed. Spend a half day visiting the following to get a glimpse into Vietnam’s past.

  • The War Remnants Museum (28 To Van Tan) is a fabulous, if sobering, overview of the 1970s conflict. The museum used be titled the ‘The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism’ so it should come as no surprise that it’s a bit biased however there are loads of good displays and photos. Just take it with a grain of salt. 
  • Reunification Palace – Retro and a bit garish, this huge building was once the residence of the governor of French Indochina but is most famous as the site of the end of the Vietnam War on 30 April 1975. (urban legend has it that those photos of the tanks storming the gates were staged. The event had actually already occurred but no journalists were there to capture it, so they did it again!) Worth a look from the outside but the inside for history-buffs only.
  • Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office– a church and a post office…what could be interesting about that? Well the architecture is cool and the story is fascinating. Everything (everything) used to build the church was imported from France. And the Post Office? Well it was designed by Gustav Eiffel (a la, the Eiffel Tower)
  • Antiques StreetLe Cong Kieu Street– Even if you don’t like antiques, it is a fun adventure to stroll down this small street and pop into the stores. You’ll find everything from Buddhist statues to trinkets from the French colonial period to remnants from the American war.  It’s just near the Fine Arts Museum which is not bad for a nose around- but again more interesting from the outside for most folks.

Motorbike Tour- The city is great but even better when you’re zipping through on the back of a xe om (literally ‘hug motorbike’… a motorbike taxi). Mr Sau is a favorite driver of many expats. His English isn’t stellar but he is a great guy and does a fabulous tour of the city- taking you well off the tourist trail to a range of temples (Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist!) and local markets not usual seen by foreigners. Cost is around 50,000 VND per hour and he’ll tailor it to your needs- or ask him if you want to try some local soup/coffee/etc.

Mr Sau: 091 838 7448

Go Bowling- Ok, so its not the ‘normal’ thing to do in HCMC but if it’s extremely hot or chucking down with rain, bowling is a fabulous option. It’s cheap, they serve beer and you get to wear those cool shoes. Check out the top floor of Diamond Plaza (just behind the church).

Water Park- Hoa Binh, District 11- You will not regret spending a 40 degree day at the water park. It is superb even by western standards… catch a taxi out there, pay a couple dollars and you’ll love it.  (the name is : Dam Sen- your hotel should know it)

Hanoi Drinking

Ok, Hanoi isn’t one of those cities with bright lights, super clubs and streets full of glitzy people, drinking fancy cocktails. If you want that, then best to go to Bangkok or even Saigon. The bar scene in Hanoi is getting better, 5 years ago when I first moved here we had a couple of bars, and now we have a few more than a couple. We still however, seem to end up at the same bar at some point in the weekend. There are lots of small bars selling relatively cheap drinks, with 90’s music which cater for expat and intrepid tourists. There are bars with thumping music (actually, make that deafening music), over priced drinks and very uberly cool looking rich Vietnamese, which I generally avoid, mainly due to prices and the fact that I value my ear drums. There are also a few cocktail like bars frequented by expats and Viet Kieu’s (those who were educated outside of Vietnam but of Vietnam nationality). Ok maybe best to start with what to drink, then I will list my favourite drinking holes.

Beers

Hanoi has many beers, domestic and international. Here is a list with my comments.

Bia Hoi – local beer, normally 3,000 dong for a glass. Yes, that wasn’t a typo. It is 3,000 VND for a glass. First glass goes down slowly, then your taste buds adapt and before you know it, its 3 hours later, but don’t fret because the bill isn’t going to damage your wallet too much. I actually either buy a 7 UP or ask for a slice of lime, to smoothen the taste a bit. My favourite place to drink Bia Hoi is…………Bia Hoi Corner, of course! Its at the junction of Loung Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien on the Old Quarter. Its also fun too just to stumble across a bia hoi place and just order one and watch the world go by (they are everywhere, recognisable by Vietnamese men, sitting on small plastic chairs, drinking from cups, who promptly leave at 8pm because they are too drunk to stand up).

Halida – my personal favourite, good value. It’s my King of Beers

Beer Ha Noi – a no from me, unless I am in the countryside where there is no option but plenty of ice available I am not going to buy this stuff. Sorry.

La Rue – this is ok, but mind the hangovers, for some reason this is the killer in the morning.

The rest of them are Hieneken (say Ken if you want to sound local), Tiger etc etc. These are imported so come at a price.

Expect to drink beer with ice, many places don’t have fridges or just don’t get that westerners don’t like ice  with their beers. Get used to it and get over it. Life ain’t that bad, the beers are cheap!

Rice Wine – when in Vietnam you have to try rice wine. Best places to try are in the countryside (normally you’ll have no choice as a local family befriend you), Highway 4 (they make their own which is delicious) or Chim Sao (see Hanoi Restarants)

PLACES TO DRINK

Ok, here goes, this is by no means comprehensive and things change a lot, especially even during the week. Hanoi is unpredictable.

Maos Red Lounge. This has been my favourite bar since I got to Hanoi 4 years ago. Its small, smokey, cramped, has a play list that is on repeat, the drinks are rediculously cheap and the owner and staff are awesome. What more could you want from a bar?

Funky Buddha – also on Ta Hien. This has good music, is actually quite funky, has lots of bright lights and mirrors but isn’t bad if you want to spend a little more on drinks, get table service and hang out with the cool crowd.

Q Bar – ok while we’re in this area, you can pop into Q Bar. Its at the end of Luong Ngoc Quyen (west end at the bend where it goes around to the right). It has good music, a pool table, prices are quite expensive but its worth it if you fancy a boogie.

Le Pub  – there are 2 of these but I like the one on Hang Be. It has great value drinks (wednesdays are one dollar for a g and t all day) and the food is ok. Its very touristy but thats not a bad thing. Great place to sit and watch the world go by. Also the beers are always cold (a rare treat in Hanoi).

The Factory – a new bar in Hanoi/art gallery. I like this place, they have live music often, its got an outside terrace and the drinks are good. It’s on Bao Khanh (the tiny street off Bao Khanh, just west of Hoan Kiem Lake).

Black Pearl – another new addition to the Hanoi music scene with live music, pirate look. Its open late until the early hours and the vibe is pretty cool.  Kicks off at weekends. It’s on Yen Phu which is a taxi drive north of the Old Quarter just past Sofitel Plaza hotel. Not sure which number but if you drive north its on the right and has an anchor painted outside.

Fusion Bar – a new favourite of mine. This bar is on Truc Bac lake so has glorious views and is super chilled. Great cocktails, great shisha and a cool vibe. I have never seen it heaving so its more a place to chill out, but they do salsa once a week (will find out when). Its also a great place to have pre/post drinks after eating a hot pot or Pho Cuon on Truc Bach Lake. Actually, thinking about it, if you want a nice evening away from the Old Quarter which is relatively cheap. Head to Truc Bach lake, eat some Pho Cuon and then go to Fusion Bar fro some cocktails. Sorted. Address is 25 Truc Bach

Hanoi Rock City – another new addition to Hanoi (I told you the city is rocking) and it truly is. Live music here we come. This place attracts local and international rock bands and is uuber cool with inside and outside venue, and a lovely bridge in between. Certaintly gets a good crowd of locals and expats at weekends and is kinda the place to be seen amongt the cool kids. Its on To Ngoc Van which is just off Xuan Dieu up in Tay Ho/West Lake. Rock on!!!

Rooftop Bar – ok I have to admit I have never been here but my fancy friends rave about it. Its on the rooftop of Pacific Place on Ly Thong Kiet and apparently has good cocktails (am sure at a price) and awesome views. Must try it out soon, maybe wait until I am paid..

Don’s – great happy hour, buy one get one free on all drinks between 5 – 7 every day. It’s got an awesome rooftop overlooking west lake, with oyster bar and a great resturant below if you get too drunk and can’t be bothered to move. They also, apparently, do a great saturday morning mexican eat and drink as much as you can thing between 11am – 3pm. Its on Ngo 27, Xuan Dieu in west lake area. Oh, and out of happy hour, bring your credit card…

Deluva – another establishment that requires a credit card but has good happy hour too also between 5 – 7pm. Has a local feel and very good food. I love the shared platter and also the Baos Chicken. And don’t forget to try their speciality: Crouching Tiger Drink – tiger beer, passion fruit, honey, lime and chili. 90,000 VND for one but in Happy Hour you get 2 for that…. bargain!

Puku: Its 2am, the bars have closed, but don’t fret, you don’t have to go home…yet. Puku serves alcohol and western food 24/7. Yup, just what Hanoi needed. They also have live music venues and yoga in the mornings. Nice venue, friendly crowd (mixed western and VN) good value food, cocktails are a little pricey but you can’t really complain. Its on 24 hour food street off Hang Bong. See Hanoi Restuarants for exact address.

Phuc Tan – ok I can’t really believe I am recommending this place, but its a kind of Hanoi establishment and as far as I can work out, never closes. Its on the river, has shocking music, a nice outside terracy area, average priced drinks. But yeah, has a dance floor and garenteed everyone else there is as drunk as you, so no worries there. Just be really careful when leaving, don’t take any of the taxis, best to call one Hanoi Taxis 0438535353. I had a bad experience a few years back.

Solace – this has slightly been taken over by the teenager gay community of Hanoi but is still worth a shot if negotiating a gang plank onto a boat that definitely wouldn’t pass any European Elf n safety laws is your idea of fun. Be aware of thieves, don’t leave anything behind the bar, they will loose it. But its fun for a while and if you’re drunk enough. Normally closes at 2am. Don’t ask me where it is, I have been there far too many times but really have no idea. Its somewhere on the river.

Ok, so am sure there are more places but that’s all the ones I can think of. I used to like Dragon Fly on Hang Buom but its been taken over by UNIS (international school kids) at weekends and the decor really has gone down hill. The bar staff, are however the best and friendly bar staff in town so its a real shame.

Jeez, I nearly forgot Tet Bar, another establishment that never closes, this is tiny (its on Ta Hien) and serves cheap drinks and ham and cheese toasties (a savour at 4am). Expect very drunk expats, clinging onto their chairs. I prefer Puku for 4am drinks and food but if you’re in the Old Quarter this may be a more convenient option.

Written by Abs Lakin (expat in Hanoi)

Hoi An Shopping

It can be overwhelming. Tailor shops on every corner, echoes of ‘you buy shoes here’, cheeky sales girls pulling you into their auntie’s store. Eeegh. Here are a few of the more tried and true options.  The key things to remember are: best to go with something they have done before, bring a picture or bring an item to copy. You ARE paying for tailor made clothes so be fussy! If you ask for a certain cuff, they should do it! It may take 3 or 4 fittings but make sure they get it right and don’t give up.

Personally I avoid the market- it is too busy and there is too much confusion with the tailors (ie- all the clothes are sent out to be sewn in workshops around town and often at the market I hear stories of them going missing or swapping fabric)

Mr Xe- A bit of a legend in Hoi An, Mr Xe has been around for a long time and gained a solid reputation for offering well-priced, high quality wears. His girls can be a bit grumpy at times, but he is always smiling and will ensure your items fit the way you want them to…he personally takes them to his tailors to tell them how to fix/adjust the items so there is no middle man. What he excels in: business shirts and button-up short sleeve shirts, casual shorts and skirts, and winter coats. I’ve seen some nice men’s suits come out of there but his fabric selection for suits is not as extensive as other places in town.

71 Nguyen Thai Hoc

Yaly- The biggest, baddest tailor shop in town…and I mean that in a good way. What makes Yaly unique is that their tailors are on site AND its air conditioned. This means that when you are trying on your items, the person who sewed it is there with you seeing the adjustments that need to be made and you will be nice and cool while doing so. What this also means is, you will pay more- less than at home but certainly more than other Hoi An shops. I would particularly recommend Yaly for business suites purely because their fabrics are better as well as those of a slightly older generation who want a more comfortable shopping experience (the sales girls are not pushy). Also very ‘special’ item should be done at Yaly- I know several folks have wedding dresses/suits made there.

Several outlets in town but the largest is the original shop at 47 Nguyen Thai Hoc.

Hieu Da Leather- The quality of leather in Vietnam is not great but these guys tend to have the best and are excellent sewers (I had an English seamstress recently tell me how good their work is). Go here for leather jackets…certainly the best in town.

85 Tran Phu Street

The First- A long-running, quality shoe shop. A bit out of the town center but worth the walk. The gals speak excellent English and have a good eye for funky new designs. They are very good with boots as well, ensuring the fit is to your specifications. The selection of leather is not great but remember you get what you pay for.

275 Nguyen Duy Hieu

Ixora- For off the rack clothes, Ixora is a great option. Very airy, light designs with a bohemian feel to the range. The owner is from Hanoi but has lived in France which is evident from the designs and shop layout. (she’s also one of the partners of Puku Café in Hanoi) There is also a selection of jewelry for sale from her sister’s shop Memory.

Nguyen Thai Hoc Street

Avana- Also offering off the rack clothes, Avana is the brain child of two Belgian designers. Prices are a bit high but the designs are superb- very different from the standard Hoi An offerings.

15 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street (Across the Japanese Bridge)

 

Randy’s Book XChange- Hoi An (and possibly Vietnam’s) best used book store is run by the knowledgeable Randy, an American expat. He has an extensive collection of real books (ie- not photocopies) tucked away in his shop on Can Nam Island.

Cross the bridge to Can Nam, take your second right and follow the signs.

Written by Anne Courtney Cruickshanks (living and working in Hoi An)

Hoi An Restaurants

VIETNAMESE RESTAURANTS

Morning Glory- The best Vietnamese food in a nice setting is to be had at Morning Glory. The concept is to bring traditional street/village food into a real restaurant setting and the result is some of the freshest Vietnamese food in town at a reasonable price.

Ngueyn Thai Hoc

Hong Phuc- The guide books all suggest café 98 for fish in banana leaf, but I reckon Hong Phuc’s is way better. Cheap and cheerful is the name of the game here. Décor is lacking but the atmosphere is relaxed and the river views are fabulous. Order the fish in banana leaf, scallops and whatever else the lovely Ms Ly and her team recommend.

86 Bach Dang Street (riverfront)

 

Lighthouse- A bit more romantic, this cozy house is located on Can Nam Island (you can walk or take the free shuttle boat that leaves from Bach Dang Street) The Dutch/Vietnamese couple are extremely hospitable and the food can be cooked to your liking.

To 5, Thon Xuyen Trung Cam Nam Island

 

INTERNATIONAL

51 Phan Boi Chau

Mango Mango

The second restaurant of local legend chef Duc, this riverside spot is chilled out and offers fabulous fusion cuisine. Combining Pacific Rim flavors with Mexican spices at time, Duc’s concoctions are layered with flavor yet never overpowering. The food is well presented, staff are charming and cocktails are yummy. A bit pricey but nothing compared to back home.

45 Nguyen Phuc Chu

Cargo Club

Yes, its mentioned in every guidebook. The food is good and thus the good reviews but it tends to be packed with tour groups. However there is one reason to go- the chocolate mousse cake is to die for.

Nguyen Thai Hoc

Written by Anne Courtney Cruickshanks

Hoi An Street Food

Unlike Hanoi and HCMC, Hoi An’s street dining is um, not fabulous- but there are a few noteworthy places. Thankfully there are dozens of good restaurants to make up for it!

Com Ga Hoi An- Yes, its chicken rice. It can’t be that exciting, right? Well its not but Hoi An is known for it and there is one place that does it justice…a little street stall on a busy intersection.

Corner of Nguyen Truong To and Ly Thuong Kiet

Mi Quang and Cao Lao- These are also two traditional Hoi An dishes that every restaurant serves but serves in an average way. There is one hole in the wall local shop (called Hai) that does a great job and has cold beers too. It’s tucked in a small alley between Phan Boi Chau and Nguyen Dieu Hieu. It’s 15,000 VND per bowl but you’re likely to get charged 30,000… try to pay 20,000 as a happy compromise!

Banh Mi- One thing the Hoi An folks have nailed down are their banh mi (baguettes). Unlike the airy, sugary versions in Hanoi and HCMC, these ones have loads of flavor and texture. The best lady sets up on the outside of the local market on Hong Dieu street from around 7 AM until 4PM. Ask for it ‘thap cam’ and she’ll throw in all the goodies or simply point to what you want (note: the green chilis are HOT)

Bale Well- Between a street restaurant and a ‘real’ restaurant, this is a fabulous spot for a meal with friends. You’ll feel like you are at a local bia hoi but with a bit more comfortable seating. It’s all open-cooking of things like grilled pork skewers, spring rolls and banh xeo. Go for the set menu. Excellent value.
45/51 Tran Hung Dao Street

Written by Anne Courtney  Cruickshanks

Hoi An – what to do

Hoi An is a great place to do nothing except shop, eat and relax. And trust me, there is nothing wrong with this (especially if you’ve been traveling for a while!). But should you feel like getting active there are some great options in the area.

Hoi An Photo Tours- Run by locally-based French man (and all-around nice guy) Etienne, these tours are a fab way to get to see a different side of Hoi An. He has a great reputation with the local villagers and fishermen which means you get that ‘insider access’ to the best photos. Even if you are not a serious photographer, Etienne’s tours are a great day out, especially the sunrise fisherman’s tour. Visit www.hoianphototour.com or call + 84 (0)9 05 671 898

Hoi An Motorbike Adventures- Rev up your motorbike and set off for the countryside. Tours range from half day excursions to 3-day drives along country roads. The guides are fun and informative, stopping often for photos or random cups of tea (or rice wine!) with the locals. Russian Minsk are the bikes of choice, but other options are available as well as pillion tours for non-drivers. As Mark likes to say ‘Walking is overrated’! Read more here: http://www.motorbiketours-hoian.com/ , call +84 (0) 918 230 653 (Mark) or pop into their office at 54A Phan Chau Trinh Street.

Thuan Tinh Island Cooking Tour- This is not your spit and polished fine-culinary experience but rather a very local, unique cooking class that is guaranteed fun. Start with a visit to Hoi An’s Market, then take a boat trip to Thuan Tinh Island to visit the local organic vegetable village. You switch to a small row boat to reach Ms Hoa’s house where its time to cook traditional Vietnamese dishes. Cook, eat, enjoy the tranquility and then transfer back to Hoi An. Call +84 (0) 906 477 770 to book.

Hire a local Moto Driver- Of course you can hire your own motorbike, but spending a morning on the back of Mr Binh’s motorbike you’ll see the best local spots around. And it also allows you to stop and drink a few beers without worrying about driving after! His English isn’t perfect but he is a real sweet guy and will be drive you wherever you wish to go in and around Hoi An (and call mates if there is more than 1 of you). 0905 565 155

Travel Advice/Tour Arrangement- If you want to go out to My Son, need plane/train/bus tickets or need a transfer arranged at a fair price, I recommend going to Seventeen’s Travel. The owner, Ms Phuong, and her family (Nam and Ha) are lovely and will work around your budget and schedule.

17 Tran Hung Dao Street

 

Written by Anne Courtney  Cruickshanks (lives and works in Hoi An)

Hanoi Restaurants

Hanoi, in the past few years, has got many international restaurants catering to the higher end. 5 years ago the choice was very limited, now its almost limitless. Here is a selection of my favourite restuarants (in no particular order)

Vietnamese

I love Highway 4, its been my favourite since I arrived 4 years ago and I cannot get enough of it. They now have a few ones all over town and I hear their one on Bac Su is the best for service, although I always go to the one on Hang Tre, just because. The food you must try there are cat fish spring rolls, banana flower salad, pork thailand style. They have some crazy food like crocodile, horse, buffalo (this is the place where I famously ate buffalo penis for the travel channel). Also a must is to buy a bottle (or 2) of their homemade rice wine. It comes in mulberry, apple, passionfruit and peach flavour. My favourite is apple. Ask to put the bottle in a box of ice then have shots. Their website has more information www.highway4.com

Another goodie, although very touristy is Little Hanoi, on Ta Hien (in the old quarter), the food is very good, excellent value with huge portions but the place does attract tour groups which can be a bit off putting.

If you want to try lots of street food from all over Vietnam head to Quan An Ngon which is about a 10 min drive in a taxi away from Old Quarter. It has a lovely outdoor setting where you can watch people cook a variety of dishes at the side of a courtyard. You actually order from a menu but its a great way to try new things, see people preparing and cooking the food. This place gets packed, you may have to wait 10 mins for a table, ask for a table outside. Arrive between 7 – 8pm, by 8.30 most of the dishes have run out. This place is cheap for a restaurant. Address is Pham Boi Chau (near Movenpick Hotel). I’m sure its in the lonely planet.

Another goodie, hidden on a side street in the French Quarter is Chim Sau. they serve countryside vietnamese food here, very good value and very local. Very few tourists come here but attracts a sprinkling of expats. Most of the seating is crossed legged on mats with tables that are barely off the ground. Not much english is spoken but their menu is in english. They also have rice wine (local style) which is worth trying but can’t say delicious. There is normally no need to book unless you are going on a friday or saturday night. It is off Ngo Hue which is off Pho Hue (a large road running north up towards Hoan Kiem Lake). If you want to make a reservation, their number is 0439760633 but bear in mind they cannot speak english!

I am useless at recommending smart places as I usually just eat local style or up near my house. By I do like the following restaurants

French/Vietnamese = La Verticale on 19 Ngo Van So St (expensive)

Fusion – Green Mango 18 Hang Quat (in Old Quarter), run by a good friend of mine, funky cocktails, good food, service can be a bit hit or miss

Indian – Foodshop 45 has a lovely setting on Truc Bach lake and the indian is seriously good value. Mains are about 40,000 dong. It has a nice chilled atmosphere. Address is 45 Truc Bach.

If you just want to wander and look at menus, then head to St Joseph’s Cathedral (just west of Hoan Kiem Lake) and opposite that in Nha To and on the right in Ly Quoc Su there are loads of nice restaurants, including La and Tapas.

If you want to hang out in West Lake with the expats then jump in a cab to Xuan Dieu but take your credit card with you…..  Starting at the bottom of Xuan Die and heading north

Vine (italian with amazing wine selection)

House of Son Tinh (has the same rice wine as highway 4 but a tapas menu) mid – high range

Bobby Chins – this is an establishment in Hanoi. The food is good, has a nice atmosphere and you can smoke shisha.Its not cheap but if you have some cash to splash its not a bad place to do it.

Don’s (on Nga 27 off Xuan Dieu) is very cool (well for hanoi standards) right on the lake with an awesome roof top with great happy hours. On that road as well is Le Petit Brasserie (belgium). expensive

You can also head up to To Ngoc Van Street where you will find Deluva Bar (another slightly older expat haunt) but they have happy hour between 5 – 7pm and good food. Their crouching tiger cocktail is to die for (beer, lemongrass, honey, chilli and lemon). And if you feel like eating Ukranian food and drinking horseradish vodka, on a side street next to Deluva you’ll find Bud Mo.

If you still need inspiration then browse the New Hanoian which is a community expat website with most restaurants (including street food) in Hanoi listed. http://newhanoian.xemzi.com/venue/category/11/Restaurants#1/11

Written by Abs Lakin (lives, works and studies in Hanoi)