Vietnam to HK: The Reckoning

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Vietnam to HK: The Reckoning

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the tenth part of the story.

There wasn’t really a last day in Vietnam since we had to wake up quite early for a flight to HK. Moreover, unlike the Pink Tulip, our new hotel didn’t have breakfast included so there wasn’t a chance for some easy early morning eats. I will say, however, that the cab ride to the airport was great. It wasn’t via highway or freeway like you’d expect, but instead zipped through seemingly every side street in HCMC, giving us a great final experience watching the city wake up.

After a decent meal on the plane – Vietnam Airways treated us well throughout the journey – we arrived in HK and plotted our next moves. I had class from 6:30 to 9:30 (PM) and Mikey wanted to eke the most out of the remainder of his journey. We decided to check into our hotel (Mingle with the Star, a weird place, where you feel like you are in a little spaceship), FINALLY grab some BBQ at Joy Hing, and then check out my school.

joy hing roast goose

Joy Hing had been on our radar since Mikey arrived, but we hadn’t made it work up until that point. Tony Bordain recommended it in one of his HK episodes, and a friend from school swore by it. It turned out to be as good as we expected – truly a rare occurrence in most areas of life. We got roasted pork, pig and goose. The goose, as Bordain noted, was the standout. Dripping with goose-grease (a term I’ve been drying to use) it was subtly seasoned such that the flavor from the meat and skin shone through. The only complaint is that in the cold restaurant, it was really only warm for the first couple of minutes.

Goodnight vietnam 125

Afterwards I went to class while Mikey messed around the campus, doing some live blogging from the computer lab. We ended our trip at a nondescript cha chaan teng where we had a perfectly competent chicken congee and beef chow fun.

Time seemed to fly from there as we crashed early and Mikey took off early the next morning.

Post mortem to come.

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Last Day in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Last Day in Ho Chi Minh City (Day Eight in Vietnam): Thanksgiving Edition

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the ninth part of the story.

By this day in HCMC, the heat, humidity and general slog of living out of a suitcase had begun to wear on us. Still, it was Thanksgiving (ver. U.S.) and we didn’t want to waste our last (full) day in Vietnam. Unfortunately we had to check out of our comfortable abode at the Pink Tulip (we were paying day-to-day and they had sold our room). It wasn’t very difficult, however, to find a decent replacement just down the street.

After sorting that out, we took the number one bus down to HCMC’s Chinatown, home not surprisingly to the city’s sizable ethnic Chinese minority. Our focus was the area’s famous market – The Bình Tây Market and in particular, a chance to get some souvenir and gift shopping done, something we had been woefully negligent about.

Goodnight vietnam 113

The main worry was that we didn’t know when to get off the bus, and outside of the primary tourist area we were staying in, English was not especially forthcoming in HCMC. Fortunately, the decision was made for us as the bus route ended at a station quite close to Bình Tây. We walked around the area, Mikey picked up some spices for his chef boss (Cake Boss?), and we had an interesting Chinese lunch in the market.

A post-prandial walk around Chinatown involved a few temples, and a lot of soul-crushing heat and humidity. We eventually caught a bus back to the hotel to rest for a bit and soak up some air conditioning prior to our Thanksgiving dinner.

Before heading out for dinner, we repeated our pattern of doing some live blogging at Trung Nguyen Coffee. Dinner itself was at Quan An Ngon, a widely-recommended restaurant known for assembling several street-food legends under one roof. It’s more touristy and pricey than most places we had gone to, but we thought it would make for a nice Thanksgiving meal. Although we got there at a reasonable hour – 9PM – things seemed to be shutting down and about 80% of the menu was unavailable. The best chefs must go home early.

Still, we cobbled together a pretty good meal. The highlight was some grilled steak served with toast and a spicy salt. Less good was a (grey, lifeless) pork salad. Mikey and I enjoyed our final night in Vietnam, but it would have probably been better to get to the restaurant earlier.

Goodnight vietnam 119

Exhausted from a long day, we crashed early despite our hotel being placed directly above one of HCMC’s top nightspots.

Pho Hung (Ho Chi Minh City)

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day Two in HCMC (Day Seven in Vietnam, Plus a Phodown on Pho Hung)
Address: 10 Nguyễn Thị Nghĩa, Bến Thành, HCMC Vietnam
Date & time of visit: November 27th 2013 + 9:00pm
Price (only one size): ~55,000 dong (~$2.75 CAD) (menu)

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 8.5 | Beef: 8.5 | Noodle: 7 | Condiment: 9 | Service/atmosphere: 8 | Overall: 8.2

Mikey

Broth: 6.5 | Beef: 7.5 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 8 | Service/atmosphere: 7 | Overall: 7.4

Overall Rating: 7.8
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 2.84

Pho Hung Ext

Write-up from Jason:

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the eighth part of the story. It’s also a goddamned phodown.

This day in HCMC largely centered around a class at the redoubtable Vietnam Cookery Center. Mikey and I woke up quite early and hoofed it down to the Ben Thanh Market where we were met by our enthusiastic tour guide, Su, as well as two other students (Eli and Elia, a couple from Israel). Su gave us a thorough tour of the market, which although purveying traditional Vietnamese ingredients, is largely geared towards tourists. Fortunately, Su gets a locals-only deal there. We tried a variety of herbs and candies that boggled the mind and senses.

Ben Thanh Market in HCMC

From there we made our way over to the Cookery Center itself. It was only a few blocks but Su insisted on getting us a cab, which was easier said than done – most drivers didn’t want to take us so short a distance! But we got there safe and sound.

Morning Glory Salad @ the Vietnamese Cookery Centre

It turns out Eli and Elia had shelled out for the professional package so we split off into two groups with me and Mikey preparing a morning glory salad, a clay-pot chili chicken and pho bo. Eli made pretty much every dish under the damned sun. Fortunately, he is both a skilled home chef and a generous fellow, and happily shared the fruits of his efforts.

Pho @ the Vietnamese Cookery Centre

Learning new knife techniques, working with some new flavors, and generally horsing around, Mikey and I had a fantastic time at the cookery center. The highlight was assembling our own bowls of pho at the end of the session. I say assembling because most of the work was done by the staff – we only observed as they boiled the bones, added the spices and really did all the grunt work. Still, it was cool to assemble our own bowls. It’s tough to judge my own pho, but if I had to phodown it I’d say:

Broth: 7
Beef: 7
Noodle: 7.5
Condiment: 6 (we didn’t get a whole lot)
Service & Atmosphere: 9

Not bad for my first try.

The only negative of the day (for me) was when Su and our chef instructor told us over beers that Mikey was a better chef.   I’m sure Mikey would see it differently.

After the lesson, Mikey and I relaxed at the hotel room for a bit and then set up shop over at Trung Nguyen Coffee, enjoying their fast wifi and excellent iced coffee. Like Ca Phe Pho Co, it was an excellent spot for some serious live blogging. And how did we follow that up? You guessed it: a phodown!

Our destination this day was a local pho chain called Pho Hung (actually, it has branches in the states as well). Our hotel had recommended it after we asked for a locals pho, which we took as a good sign.

Pho Hung Pho

Pho Hung ended up being my least favorite pho of the trip (not counting my own) but is as good as anything I’ve had in North America. The broth was of the same style as Le but just didn’t have the depth and umami. Condiments, again, were just awesome. This is where Vietnam just sets the standard – big bunches of herbs, excellent sauces, and even fried doughnuts (for purchase and dunking). Noodles were the weak point. I’ve come to expect overcooked noodles in Vietnam and here it was the worst – well beyond al dente. Service was good, though, especially when I spied a staffer chase down a customer who left his cell phone behind.

Condiments at Pho Hung

We wound up our second to last day in Vietnam with a pair of banh mys and some Bia Saigon in our hotel.

Snack

Pho Le

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day One in HCMC (Day Six in Vietnam, Plus a Phodown on
Pho Le)
Address: 303 – 305 Võ Văn Tần, Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Date & time of visit: November 26th 2013 + 1:00pm
Price (only one size): 55,000 dong (~$2.75 CAD)

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 9.5 | Beef: 9.5 | Noodle: 9 | Condiment: 10 | Service/atmosphere: 8.5 | Overall: 9.3

Mikey

Broth: 7.5 | Beef: 8.5 | Noodle: 8.5 | Condiment: 10 | Service/atmosphere: 9 | Overall: 8.7

Overall Rating: 9.3
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 3.38

Pho Le Ext

Write-up from Jason:

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the seventh part of the story. It’s also a goddamned phodown.

So when we last left our intrepid travelers, they had pushed through a long day in Hoi An and De Nang, and were waiting patiently for a red-eye to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Well fortunately, I was one of those intrepid travelers (surprise!), and so I can fill the rest from there.

After about an hour delay, our plane finally departed and we arrived in HCMC in the early morning. Still worried about cab scams, I had done a great deal of research on how to get a legit cab from the domestic terminal. Turns out it wasn’t a big deal as none of the cabs seemed eager to pick us up, let alone scam us. So we just queued up and were charged a reasonable rate (according to the Lonely Planet) to our modest hotel, the Pink Tulip, in the main backpacker area of HCMC. The only real complication was that the gate was down, leading us to think there must be another entrance (because how could a hotel go in lockdown mode when guests need to come in and out?). Instead, we banged on it and a young man who was inside watching TV opened the gate and checked us in.

The Pink Tulip is rather bare bones, but it was dead cheap (about $30 CAD a night) and included breakfast. The next morning we learned that the breakfast was far from a throw-in. It’s made fresh to order and that morning I had a terrific melange of fresh fruits (banana, dragon fruit, papaya and others), yogurt, granola and fresh squeezed watermelon juice. I think Mikey got something similar.

Watermelon Juice Pink Tulip

Service was also excellent. The morning-shift worker provided a useful (and eventually, well-worn) map of the area highlighting the various sights of interest (e.g., The War Remnant Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral). I also got some restaurant recommendations that turned out to be touristy restaurants. This was something we faced the entire trip – helpful people who assumed we wouldn’t like destinations providing a more authentic experiences. In fact, we were interested in pho, and in particular, pho like the locals have.

Fortunately, I was able to find an English language website that detailed HCMC’s pho scene that pointed us squarely to Pho Le. And guess what? It was only about half a mile away!

Pho Le was a revelation. Gia Truyen is still clearly the best northern style pho I’ve had, but if we’re just talking pho in general, it’s a tough call. And Le is the best southern style pho I’ve had, and that comparison not at all close.

In terms of atmosphere, it’s not like Gia Truyen‘s holed-out mission style, and more resembles a pho restaurant you’d find in any North American city. That said, it was cleaner than a lot of Vietnamese eateries, which in the midst of  a long trip is appreciated

But down to business, this broth was pretty much everything I look for in a southern style pho. The spicing was strong and in perfect balance. Just being in the vicinity of the soup you got a real cinnamon and clove kick. A lot of time such aggressive spicing is used to mask a weak broth but that was not the case here. It didn’t approach the sheer concentration of Gia Truyen, but the umami was strong with this one. It had a meaty – almost gaminess –  that is nearly impossible to find outside of Vietnam.

Pho Le Ho Chi Minh City Pho

The condiments were similarly excellent, a perfect ten in both my and Mikey’s book. In terms of the fresh ingredients, the basil, sawtooth and… You know what, just have a look for yourself:

Pho Le Condiments

That, dear readers, is what we in the food journalism industry call ridinky donk.

The sauces were similarly good, featuring a house-made chili oil. Simply put, Pho Le’s condiment game is beyond reproach.

Pho Le Menu

And now on to the nitpicking. The beef here is excellent and comes in every combination under the sun, but was not quite as fresh as I had at Gia Truyen. Noodles, and I think this is just a matter of preference because it was true of nearly every pho in Vietnam, were well beyond al dente. So I docked Le in both of those respects. Let me reiterate: nitpicking.

The rest of the day in HCMC was exciting. We saw Notre Dame and the War Remnants Museum. The latter was a sobering but enriching experience. We also prepaid for a cooking class the next day.

Chicken Rice Ext

Dinner was at Com Ga Gau Nam, a Vietnamese-Chinese joint known for its chicken rice. We went here because we thought soup for every meal couldn’t be good for us. The chicken rice was indeed some of the freshest I’ve had, and an eggplant dish was fortifying. But on a day when I had the best pho of my life, it’s hard to not see everything else as an afterthought.

Hainanese chicken rice

The Hoi An Excursion (Day Five in Vietnam)

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
The Hoi An Excursion (Day Five in Vietnam): Great Expectations, Dashed

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the sixth part of the story.

After a spectacular first day in De Nang, anything else was bound to be a letdown.  And to an extent, it was.  The plan was to check out of the Brilliant, put our bags in storage, spend the day in Hoi An, and then return to catch a night plane to Ho Chi Minh City (“HCMC”; Saigon).  Those things all got done, but it just wasn’t as fun expected.

We caught a bus to Hoi An, which was remarkably easy, requiring we just stand by the street behind our hotel and wait for a city bus bearing the sign “Hoi An” to pass by.  It didn’t take long, and the bus driver was nice enough to set us up with perches just behind the driver.  Much to my amusement, he even whispered in Mikey’s ear “they love you,” when some schoolgirls got on.

In writing about this day, I think I will try a different tact, focusing on one peak experience, rather than trying to give a fulsome description of the whole day.  And that peak experience is with a motorcycle driver we called “Old Boy.”  You see, when we got to Hoi An, we were a bit out of sorts.  It turns out the bus station is quite a ways away from the main drag.  We had met a chill Korean dude named Kurt on the bus, but he decided to just hire a motorcycle at the bus stop without even really thinking about it.  We had been loath to do so partly because it seemed physically dangerous (e.g., weaving through traffic without helmets) and partly because we were concerned about getting ripped off (being taken for a ride, as it were).

We did a 180 on that.  One driver latched on to us, following us around and telling us it was too far to walk to town.  Finally, we gave in and agreed to pay him some terribly small amount of money to drive us into town.  Indeed, it was quite a way, and indeed, it was a good deal.  He tried to explain to us that he could pick us up at the place he dropped us off, but we didn’t really know enough about our plans to agree to that.  He also tried to explain that the last bus left at five, but that didn’t seem right.  Finally, he just gave us his phone number.  We started calling him Old Boy between us.

Rando Dragon in Hoi An

I had heard great things about Hoi An, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  Don’t get me wrong, there were some cool old temples to see, and everything was very orderly and nice.  It just felt so touristy.  And, Mikey is scared of dogs.

rando Dog

For instance, most of the shops on the main drag sell the same collection of items aimed at tourists.  And the restaurants were equally westernized and really not very exciting.  It kind of reminded me of Yangshuo in China, a town catering largely to backpacking travelers.  The highly recommended lunch at the Mermaid Restaurant is a case-in-point.  I got a banana flower salad and Mikey got Chinese chicken fried rice.  It was all very good and well-executed, but it’s hard to imagine it’s something locals ever imbibe in.

salad in Hoi An's Mermaid Restaurant

A confluence of events got us concerned about getting back.  First, the above kind of lameness of Hoi An.  Second, we learned that Old Boy was shooting straight, the buses stopped running around midday.  And third, there was not a lot of transportation options to get back to the bus station.  So we ended up looking into ways of contacting Old Boy, but without a local cell phone it was difficult.  We tried to get people to call Old Boy for us, but let’s face it, that’s a sketchy proposition any day of the week.

Finally, we found a woman who agreed to call for a small fee.  You wouldn’t believe our delight when Old Boy walked around the corner to take us to the bus station.

rando bun in De Nang

The rest of the trip back to De Nang was inconsequential.  It rained quite a bit that night so we couldn’t make it back to the little girl’s ram, instead having a rather mediocre bowl of soup.  We made it to the airport only to find that our flight to HCMC was well-delayed.  The hours ticked away; midnight passed; and so did our final day in De Nang.

Day One in De Nang (Day Four in Vietnam)

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day One in De Nang (Day Four in Vietnam): The H is O

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the fifth part of the story. My apologies for the excessive delay – the updates flowed the road, but since returning to Hong Kong the real world has intervened.

While Mikey is on the record contending that his indelible memory from the trip is 25 cent bia hoi from any random streetside bar in Hanoi, day one in De Nang contains my moment.

After disembarking from our night train, Mikey and I started a long walk to the Brilliant Hotel by the riverside. We had googled it and memorized the directions, but had failed to account for it being about ten degrees hotter in De Nang. Navigating the train station’s exit wasn’t as bad as we thought with only a few hassles from cab drivers and other transportation services. We were worried about getting ripped off, but after many pleasant experiences with cabs in Vietnam, it probably would have been okay and only a few dollars.

Goodnight vietnam 007

Still, despite a bit of sweat, it wasn’t a terrible walk and in about half an hour we were in the friendly confines of the Brilliant Hotel. This was by far the nicest hotel we stayed it – big, clean and comfortable. We both enjoyed a hot shower and then hit the town.  Our pre-prandial destination was a cool market where pretty much item could be found, and indeed Mikey picked up some swimming trunks.

Our dinner destination – a hole in the wall bun nam shop Mikey had found on the internet – was quite a hike, but it gave us the chance to explore the city a bit. De Nang is a tough place to categorize. There are tourists, but it is hardly a tourist destination yet. Much of the time we were the only foreigners around. It’s a very easy city to get around, mostly grid-patterned. It’s big city of nearly one million, but not at all corporate with a somewhat sleepy vibe.

bun nam de nang

The bun nam we had for supper was an incredible experience. Located at the end of an alley, patrons regularly drove their motor scooters into the restaurant, alighted, barked out an order, and not long after an affable lady behind a counter dropped off a masterful bowl of bun.

There was definitely a language barrier here, but the chef-owner seemed to understand we were here for her specialty (I’d wager the English language article Mikey found brings in a steady stream of foreigners). We both got the bun nam – noodles, herbs, sauce and juicy roast pork, and crispy crackling. These two bowls and two Pepsis cames to less than five dollars. It was remarkable. The only downside was we never figured out which of the sauces to use (we tried one and were chided) and never figured out what the banana leaf wrapped goodies on the tables were for.

On the way back, we were still a bit peckish and so we stopped at a streetside operation serving “ram,” which it turns out is freshly fried spring rolls that can be wrapped in rice paper with herbs, garlic and chili. There were loads of these that night but this one was an appealing family business with a girl who couldn’t be more than ten busking for customers, taking orders and serving the food. We asked if she had beer and her mom sent her over to a corner store to buy it and then serve it to us. The implications of children buying alcohol aside, this was just an incredible experience and really made our night.

Ram de nang

The ram was also well executed – freshly fried, highlighted by exotic herbs and doused in a spicy sauce – and conceived. I started putting whole raw chilies and garlic in mine, garnering a rare mumble of approval from Mikey.

Sitting there drinking beers, eating incredible food, and watching life in De Nang I had one of those all-too-rare moments where I realized that there was no where I’d rather be. Once again, this meal with beers was less than five dollars, plus a generous tip to our young server.

Bellies finally full, Mikey and I headed back to the Brilliant’s well-stocked gym to get some exercise in. Mikey got a full on lesson from the staff there and had a swim. I finished my workout and then had a nice banh mi. We hit the hay early to gather our strength, for our next day would include a day trip to Hoi An and a midnight flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).