Tintin, bagels, coffee and the Star of Sai Gon.

5th May 2021

Coffee shops, as I drill into my students, are ubiquitous in Sai Gon, so cafes need something special to make them stand out, to encourage people to go there by choice, not merely out of convenience. One such cafe is:

Cà Phê Cô Ba

4-6 Đồng Khởi, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000

The cafe exudes an old-world charm, a romanticised exotic and mysterious Sai Gon. Dark-wood furniture, a twirling staircase, the aroma of fresh coffee; it requires but little imagination to picture the spirits of beautiful Vietnamese ladies in áo dài, amidst the heady scent of perfume and opium.

Enhancing the ambience, the main room has antique sewing machines along one wall, while the wooden shutters display the boy reporter Tintin on his (unofficial) visit to Viet Nam.

Furthermore, there is a back story. The cafe is named after Trần Ngọc Trà, born around 1906, and named ‘The First Beauty of Sai Gon.’

I’ve had to rely on some online translations, but it appears Ms Ba Trà was a great beauty who intoxicated powerful and wealthy men with her charm. Unfortunately, as her looks faded, she became addicted to gambling and ended her days in poverty.

You can read more (in English) here: https://vtc.vn/nguoi-dep-sai-gon-dung-bua-ngai-lam-tieu-doi-10-ty-phu-ar140046.html

The coffee is pretty average but the price is reasonable considering the central location. Incongruously, the cafe is situated inside a modern office block and is reached by lift. The sounds of modern Ho Chi Minh City, of people shouting into mobile phones, and advertising covering every space bring one back to the modern world.

Review on Tripadvisor: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293925-d14159617-Reviews-Ca_Phe_Co_Ba_Dong_Khoi-Ho_Chi_Minh_City.html:

Serendipity – I had to go into my bank, which had moved to a new location, and afterwards, driving around a famous ex-pat area of District 2, I discovered this:

I haven’t had a bagel since my last visit to London, way back in 2020, and that was factory produced, purchased from a supermarket, in a pack of six. There was nothing for it – I simply had to go in, get my coffee ‘n’ bagel fix.

I opted for the classic smoked salmon & cream cheese, along with ice coffee.

Motorbikes, coffee and bagels … a sign of changing Sai Gon.

Bagel with ‘everything’ (poppy seed, sesame, cheese). My bagel cost about £3, the BLT £2, coffee just over £1.

The verdict ? Well, delicious, of course, nostalgic, you betcha, but a bagel … ? No, not what we have back in east London (where there are still two all-night bagel bakeries). It was more like crusty bread, bagel-shaped, as opposed to the chewy, doughy texture I am used to (goes without saying that bacon and ham are not on the menu in Kosher delis).

However, I was delighted to find this store and though it’s a little far away, I’ll be happy to return.

Meanwhile, I noticed a New York Bagel store in District 1 … I shall try that in due course.

Vietnamese food: lunch in the hood

11th February 2021

Quán Lúa: Address: 537/3 Đường Nguyễn Duy Trinh, Phường Bình Trưng Tây, Quận 2, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh

I visited this restaurant back in December just before Christmas and, along with my trusty sidekick, sampled some of the fish dishes:

Prawns with onions and peanuts; the best dish.

Canh Chua Cá (Sour Fish Soup). I’m not such a fan of this Viet dish. It was average, nothing special.

Baked fish with sticky rice.

Gettin’ ready to tuck in …

The service was very friendly and, as you see, they didn’t object to my sidekick in the outside area. Cost was reasonable while I would rank the food thus: the prawns were delicious, the baked fish satisfactory and the rice well-flavoured. The soup looks colourful, it’s just not my cup of tea. To be fair, as I went early some of my first choices were not available. I really went as a break from home-cooking, and to support a local restaurant. I’ll leave the last word to my trusty sidekick:

Sai Gon General Notes: Street Food Summer 2020

22nd September 2020

A mouth-watering selection of local delicacies from street food to bakeries, small restaurants to city centre lunch bars … and a small trip to the beach for good measure.

I’m focusing mainly on food in my local area, Nguyen Duy Trinh Street in Quan (District 2):

Ho Chi Minh City Districts Overview | i Tour Vietnam Blogs

Map of Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City). As you can see, District 2 is south-east. It is separated from the central District 1 by the Sai Gon river. The area is undergoing a lot of construction, with many new apartment blocks springing up, new restaurants and bars, as well as keeping the traditional shophouses and street food stalls. For a closer view of my area, here is a zoom – in of Nguyen Duy Trinh, the axis of our food tour.

Chung cư cao ốc Thịnh Vượng Quận 2 giá dưới 2 tỷ | MuaBanNhaDat

Let’s kick off with a Mi Quang restaurant at 300 Nguyen Duy Trinh. The signature dish is a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, from central Vietnam. The small amount of soup differentiates it from the ubiquitous pho. Mi Quang comes with shrimp or meat, quail eggs and the usual side dishes of herbs, chilis and lime. Prices range from 35 000 to 45 000 VND (1.18UKP to 1.50 UKP / $1.51 to $1.94.

A review can be found here:https://www.foody.vn/ho-chi-minh/mi-quang-3-anh-em-nguyen-duy-trinh/album-anh

With or without meat. Accompanied by fresh vegetables and herbs, and crispy sesame rice crackers. Notice how thick the noodles are, while the broth is far less than one gets with pho.

And the obligatory condiments blend of fish sauce, dried chilis and chili sauce:

Now for a new bubble tea shop: Royal Tea at 242 Nguyen Duy Trinh. I loved this shop; I went after work, after teaching a great but energy-consuming young learners’ class. It was a typical, humid tropical day, but inside, quiet and peaceful. Soft background music, gentle and friendly staff. Drinks around 50 000 VND ( 1.68 UKP /$2.15). Again, Foody.VN have a review (you may need to hit the ‘translate’ button):

Review:https://www.foody.vn/ho-chi-minh/royaltea-nguyen-duy-trinh

How about this for interior decor ?

This will certainly be one of my haunts (a place I like to hang out). Now, If you’ve followed my blogs, you know I am a fan of the US TV series ‘Twin Peaks’. The police officers really appreciate damn fine coffee and doughnuts (UK) donuts (USA). So, next stop, moving east on Nguyen Duy Trinh, we come to a new bakery. Great for my donuts fix, terrible for my calorie intake … but just look:

And only 18 000 VND each (60p or 77c). They sell ready-made cakes and individual slices, but the doughnuts were excellent … and dangerous ! Here’s the store front:

Don’t worry – I have a gym and swimming pool in my apartment, so I can burn off the calories and balance will be restored. Directly opposite is a street food stall, run by a Korean gentleman and his Vietnamese wife. They offer quite an eclectic mix of food:

I was able to use my extensive knowledge of Hangul (Korean) to say ‘Hello,’ and ‘Thank you.’

A little side note; you see how pavements in Sai Gon are really not designed for pedestrians. It can make walking quite arduous, not to say dangerous, certainly not a pleasure.

For sure, it’s heavy on the fast food, deep fried menu, but healthy options are available. I’ll go back for some Korean non-meat items and report later.

Recently, I had to go into District 1 on business so, as it was lunchtime, I thought I’d hang out with the office workers and go to a ‘point-and-eat’ joint: a ‘point-joint,’ (to coin a new phrase) Here, the food is displayed at the front, so for non-Vietnamese speakers you just, yeah, you guessed it, point … and eat. Service is very quick, though food does tend to be on the cold side. This was one of many in the Ton Duc Thang area of District 1. The centre of the road has been completely torn up, as they plan to construct a new bridge. The restaurant was in a side street:

See, just point and eat.

Various meat, fish and tofu dishes.

I had fried fish (a lot of de-boning required) and tofu in tomato sauce, served with rice, pickled vegetables and vegetable soup. Word of warning, the soup is often meat broth or contains small pieces of meat, so vegetarians be careful.

Fish soup, probably a mackerel or similar oily fish.

Finally, after lockdown restriction were lifted, Vietnamese were allowed to travel outside of their hometown. I was invited to a 5-star hotel in Vung Tau, less than two hours drive from Sai Gon.

Opposite the hotel was a Russian restaurant, mainly sea food, naturally, as this is a beach resort, but I was able to forego the rice or noodles, and have some western black bread … and it was delicious.

Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read my blog. I hope you found it vaguely interesting. If you have any questions about life in Viet Nam, I’d be happy to (try to) answer them, as best I can.

Furthermore, should you have any questions about English, feel free to ask.

Street Food Culture & Food Districts in Saigon
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