Staring out the window from a dark wood bar onto a flurry of early morning scooter traffic, we’re on the third floor of what could be called a Vietnamese hipster coffee shop in Saigon’s District 3. Sipping dark, roasty, iced Vietnamese coffee, the city’s spirit seems to completely reveal itself.
Intimidating to even the most wannabe badass travelers, Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) is Vietnam’s most bustling metropolis. To describe the pace as fast seems too slow. An endless stream of motor bikes speed by, back and forth across traffic and often on sidewalks. The city is full of honking horns, the chatter of street vendors, smells of unrecognizable street food, lush parks full of shaped bushes, and tiny alleyways less than five feet wide, along which locals rest inside their homes.
It takes a good hour to adapt to the heat and humidity. We’ve learned to that if you let yourself build up a good initial sweat to cool your body down, you’ll be set for the rest of day. Look on any corner for a strong cup of Vietnamese coffee followed by a bowl of pho for breakfast (yes, soup for breakfast) to fuel your urban exploration.
For a quick snack, two banh mi (sans meat) in District 1 are only 20,000 VND (dong). Ours included fried egg, pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno, daikon and mayo, all toasted in a delicious French baguette. Hard to believe we just ate lunch for a dollar.
Back in District 3, Xua Coffee offers Vietnamese coffee, fresh juices, and smoothies, all on tiny wooden stools with some very friendly (and patient) owners. Order it black and the 18,000 dong (about $.75) coffee comes out thick and strong. Have it with milk, of the sweetened and condensed variety, and you’ve got yourself a coffee milkshake. The smoothies, at 25,000 dong ($1.20), are made from scratch. In our case that meant a 17-year old Vietnamese girl chopping the coconut in half and scooping the pulp out before blending it with milk. Seriously amazing.
Tam Chay Quan is a vegetarian restaurant only two blocks away from our homestay (also learned: ‘chay’ translates to vegetarian in Vietnamese). Located in an alleyway just off the main street, Tam’s has been our introduction to Vietnamese food. With checkered walls and small wooden tables, Tam’s serves a variety of vegetarian Vietnamese dishes ranging in price from 15,000 to 25,000 dong (about $.70 to $1.20). Make sure to add pepper flakes to the Mi Quang (Hue yellow noodle soup) and fresh squeezed lime juice and garlic to the Hu Tiu Mi Kho (noodles with crispy fried shallots). For breakfast, pho with a salad of dumplings, greens, herbs, and bean sprouts. Or just have Tam decide what she feels like cooking, like we have done twice.
Hum Vegetarian is an elegant restaurant near the War Remnants Museum. We sat in the tranquil courtyard of this beautifully designed space, separated from the hustle and bustle of Saigon’s busy streets by a simple stone wall. From the extensive menu, we chose the Mushroom Fried Rice (80,000 dong/$3.75) and Braised Tofu in Fermented Bean Sauce (80,000 dong/$3.75). The food was great and it was a welcome respite from the pace of the past few days, but street food is the way to go in this city.
Our third floor coffee shop view is from Mono Cafe, less than a block from our homestay. A skinny, three story building tucked beside a tight alleyway with a small open air coffee bar on the ground floor, this place could easily have been transported from San Francisco’s Mission District with it’s laid back vibe and modern design. The vantage point from the top floor, a perfect spot to take everything in.
The kickass food is one small aspect of Saigon’s sensory overload. Just a few days in and we’ve graduated from high fiving every time we weave through the flurry of motor bikes to successfully cross the street. Our next adventure will bring us to Dalat, a mountain town in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.