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TIME TO FIRE UP THE BARBEQUE
The seasons are turning in Saigon, and it’s that time of year when you can actually stand outdoors without getting heatstroke or rained on. And that means it is once again time to fire up the barbeque.
Things sometimes work a little differently here in Saigon. Ok, so that is something of an understatement. But as we move into the (slightly) cooler months at the turn of the year, the humidity drops and the regular rain storms give way to clear, if somewhat hazy, skies.
Which, unlike in most parts of the world, makes ‘winter’ the perfect time to drag out the barbeque, scrape down the grill and clear it of the remnants of the last time it was used months before. With the help of a coupe of suppliers of the key ingredients required for a successful grill session, you will be cooking in no time. So call your mates, ask someone to make a salad (because you sure as hell won’t do it) and get cracking.
Getting some quality protein at a reasonable price can sometimes be a challenge in Vietnam, which is why the barbeque staple of the humble, and sometimes not so humble, sausage comes into its own.
Meatworks in District 2 opened its doors a couple of months ago, and their range of snags are made on site from local and imported ingredients. Proprietor Thanh Charles tells me he goes for an 80/20 ratio of meat to fat rather than the usual 70/30 in order to keep the sausages a little leaner.
You a can pick up a selection of chicken, pork, beef and lamb snags ranging in price from VND 260,000 to VND 420,000 per kilogram, so you can fill the grill and it won’t break the bank.
The classic beef barbeque sausage is always a go to, but if you want to signal your outdoor cooking sophistication you could opt for the beef and merlot snag. The chicken and sage is great for a white meat option, but my personal favourite has to be the lamb, honey and rosemary. The first time I tasted it, it was a fork drop moment.
The quality of the skin of the sausage is important, if it is of inferior quality the snags will easily rupture. Meatworks use all-natural imported pork and goat skins. Cooking technique is also crucial.
“The trick is to cook using low heat,” Charles says, “that way they cook evenly and the skins won’t burst.” (BTW, this guy’s so Australian he must know what he is talking about. Hailing from Melbourne, he worked for Fosters for a decade before moving into the meat business. If you are going to choose a couple of industries to spend your career in, those aren’t a bad choice.)
Right, got meat, now need something to burn it with. Many of us have the standard local barbeque that consists of an aluminium box with a thin wire grill on top. You can pick these up in various sizes all over town from what I call the ‘everything aluminium’ shops. Just look for the sun glinting off everything ranging from tables to clothes racks.
For the uninitiated, getting the charcoal going can be a challenge. My tip is to use plenty of kindling and have an electric fan on hand to pump plenty of oxygen into the coals. It can be a time-consuming process but the smoky flavour rewards persistence.
If, like me, you really can’t be arsed going to those lengths and you want your outdoor experience to be a little less work intensive then go for the gas option. Fortunately, there are a host of great units available from the good folk at Saigon BBQS.
Options start with the two-burner Gecko model for VND 9 million, and range up to the every-man’s-dream five-burner deluxe T-Rex. It even has a rotisserie. I want.
Made here in Vietnam from quality stainless steel, one of these babies will keep you happily grilling for many seasons to come.
Finally, when you have assumed the traditional barbeque positions – guys standing around the grill, girls in the kitchen – you don’t want to be traipsing inside for a fresh beer or arguing about whose turn it is to go to the fridge. Do that and you might end up being asked to do something, like help make the salad.
The ubiquitous yellow Styrofoam coolers actually do a very good job keeping your beverages on ice and are cheap as chips. You can pick up a roughly 20 litre size for less than VND 100,000. There is a shop down the end of Yersin Street in District 1 that has them in every size imaginable.
So there you have it, everything you need to get the barbeque season off to a winning start. Just try to remember, as you survey the wreckage of your kitchen and outdoor area the next morning, how much fun it was.
#Top5 CHICKEN WINGS IN SAIGON
1. Game On
Probably the most famous of wings hail from Buffalo. These deep fried goodies are as ubiquitous to sports bars as pitchers of cheap beer. There are a bunch of places that do buffalo wings in Ho Chi Minh City. We’ve pretty much had them all and found the wings at Game On the best in town. Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, the thermonuclear red vinegary Franks Red Hot Sauce clings onto the wings perfectly. Licking your fingers isn’t just optional, it’s a must with these wings. Accompanying the wings is the obligatory celery/carrot/blue cheese garnish. Orders are done via six, 12, or 18 wings.
#Address: 115 Ho Tung Mau, District 1.
2. Banh Xeo 46A
Oddly enough, we find the best Canh Ga Nuoc Mam in town at a place that is known in the Lonely Planet for a completely different dish. Yes, we know, Banh Xeo 46A is a bit of a tourist trap but do yourself a favour and order these wings the next time you are entertaining out of town friends. The smell of potent fish sauce based glaze can be offputting but take a bite and you will be converted. The perfect amount of sweet and savoury with little flecks of finely chopped garlic in the mix makes for a heady combination. The portion is quite large, even with the inclusion of the most useless of the useless, the wing tip.
#Address: 46 Dinh Cong Trang, District 1.
One doesn’t usually put tom yum and chicken wings in the same breath. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad combination as B.O.C. has shown us. The Thai-inspired dish is a deal at VND 55,000 for a portion of six wings with a refreshing side salad. The skin of the wings were the crunchiest we had in the bunch with B.O.C.’s special flour mixture. Thankfully, the meat managed to stay moist and tender. The punchy tom yum sauce wasn’t too spicy as one might expect with hints of ginger and lemongrass with each bite.
#Address: 43 Nguyen Van Giai, District 1.
4. Quan Ga Nuong Anh Tuyet
It might seem wrong that we’ve mentioned this hole in the wall in a previous issue but if wrong tastes this good, I don’t want to be right. Walking up to the joint, one can see that grilling is king here. And the wings reflect that. The crisp, slightly charred skin belies the tender juicy meat on the inside. The chicken is marinated in a fish sauce/ sugar concoction that most Vietnamese restaurants use. And it’s used to good effect as the flavour punches through the smoky skin to complement the wings.
#Address: 71 Ngo Tat To, District 1.
For those that live in the far¬-flung outpost that is Phu My Hung in District 7, there is still salvation for wing lovers. At this venerable watering hole they serve up deep¬fried buffalo¬style wings but with a selection of six different sauces. You can go hot or mild, zingy Asian, spicy garlic, spicy BBQ (a personal favourite), Caribbean jerk, or just plain old plain. Orders come in half¬-dozen, 12 or 24, while a platter of crudites with ranch dressing is an optional extra.
#Address: R224 Bui Bang Doan, District 7.
#TOP5 RUNNING ROUTES IN HO CHI MINH CITY
Treadmills are boring. Try as they might, the people at the V music channel simply can’t pump out enough dizzying K-Pop energy to counter the lure of the stop button and an early shower. Unfortunately, for many, the idea of running outside is a non-starter. Saigon’s streets are often no place for pedestrians, let alone runners. But the sun is out, the sky is blue and some excellent ‘real-world’ running routes are out there if you know where to look.
The School Run – 5k loop
District 2, Thao Dien, Nguyen Van Huong, Xuan Thuy
With wide roads, cool riverside breezes and plenty of distractions to keep your mind busy, the Thao Dien loop beats a treadmill any day. Aside from the bustling business hubs at either end of Xuan Thuy, the entire route can be relatively calm and quiet if you hit it at the right time of day – just avoid the school-run rush hours. If you’re still building up to a 5k, use the buildings, trees and shops as waypoints and aim to get a little further each time you’re out. It’s enough to get used to being on your feet even if you’re not running the whole way.
The Saigon Riviera – 5k loop
District 7, Crescent Mall, Ton Dat Tien
The pavements can be a little hit and miss, but the wide, deserted avenues and ample street lighting make for an extremely safe run at any time of day. This 5k loop takes in the best the area has to offer, from the ultra-modern, traffic-free waterside frontage of Ton Dat Tien, to the lush greenery of Riverside Park. This corner of Saigon is just a few luxury yachts away from the South of France. Look out for the drink sellers opposite the Crescent Mall parking garage – you’ll need them!
Up The Creek – 4.8k loop
Districts 1, 3, Binh Thanh, Phu Nhuan and Tan Binh. Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghi Canal
The USD $200m redevelopment of the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghi Canal has turned what was once a sewerage-clogged waterway into an eight kilometre strip of urban tranquility, meandering all the way from Saigon Zoo to the airport (almost). Lined with well-kept gardens, shady trees and long stretches of smooth, uninterrupted pathways, it’s a runner’s paradise that almost never was – there was talk of filling it in and running a road over the top. With minimal road-crossings required it’s also extremely safe. This loop runs between the Hai Ba Trung and Bui Huu Nghia bridges, but there’s really nothing stopping you from hotfooting it all the way to Tan Son Nhat.
Round and Round The Garden – 870m loop
District 1, Tao Dan Park, Nguyen Du, Cach Mang Thang Tam and NTMK
Sitting in the extended back yard of the Reunification Palace, Tao Dan is the quintessential Saigon park. Arrive before 8am and you’ll be treated to such a carnival of sights and sounds you may well forget you’re actually running. Tai chi classes twirling fans in the early morning mist, squads of fitness fanatics comparing muscles, and picture-perfect gardens filled with song from the nearby bird cafe. While certain areas can become a little crowded, there’s plenty of room here for everybody. This short loop is great for those looking to build up their distances one lap at a time. Hop over Truong Dinh for a cool-down walk and a spot of culture in the east section of the park.
Into the Woods – 900m loop
District 10, Le Thi Rieng Park, Cach Mang Thang Tam (opposite number 600)
Rustling woodlands, wind swept boating lakes and picturesque wooden bridges are among the rewards for a two-wheeled excursion to District 10. Boasting wide, smooth paths with plenty of shade, Le Thi Rieng is an understandably popular spot for the local community. There’s also a sizeable funfair along the east boundary. But hit it just right, however, and you may have the place all to yourself. Kitsch statues pop out from the shrubbery, dusty petanque courts sit beneath towering poplar trees and winding pathways tempt visitors into a seemingly untamed wilderness.
#Top5 Places to find that PERFECT GIFT
Dan Sinh Market
104 Yersin, District 1
Unless you’re looking for components for a time machine, you’ll probably want to look beyond the sprawl of hardware stalls here. It’s the scattering of vendors hidden among them that have earned Dan Sinh its nickname: ‘the army surplus market’. US Air Force bomber jackets, faded NLF flags, military-grade watches and even a Russian space helmet, it’s all in here. Looking for something less ‘army’ more ‘charm-y’? Delve deeper to reveal a band of friendly antique vendors with stalls overflowing with treasures you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. Sixty-year-old Larue beer bottles anyone? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure so barter hard.
43 Ton That Thiep, District 1
Set apart from the rest of the tourist shops in D1, both in its location and its merchandise, Saigon Kitsch is the cool kid of the souvenir scene. Offering hundreds of unique, high-quality products created by local designers, there’s something here for everybody. Notebooks, folders, mugs, beer can koozies, drinks coasters, cushion covers, phone cases, tea-towels – the list goes on – all printed up with retro propaganda designs, colonial-era artwork or contemporary illustrations. Their range of shopping bags, pouches and laptop cases made from recycled rice and animal feed sacks are light and easy to transport, while the Vietnamese teas and tropical fruit-shaped soaps are ideal for that auntie you last saw a decade ago.
Thanh Huyen Souvenir Shop
215 De Tham, District 1
If the previous entry uses the term ‘kitsch’ in an ironic way, Thanh Huyen Souvenir Shop offers the literal version. Fortunately, it’s the kind of stuff grandparents will go wild for. Gaudy fridge magnets, dusty masks, carved statues, replica antique smoking pipes and stacks of super-affordable conical hats; it’s a one-stop shop for those cheesy touristy bits and bobs you’re bound to need at some point. It’s a condensed version of Ben Thanh, without all the hassle of Ben Thanh. Prices are fixed and clearly displayed and low enough for you to win the ‘most generous grandchild’ award on Christmas day.
Saigon Ve Chai Antiques Fair
Cao Minh Cafe, 255/47 No Trang Long, Binh Thanh District
Set in the grounds of Cao Minh Cafe, around ornate ponds and miniature bridges, this bustling antiques market pops up every Sunday morning from 9am to the tinkle of glasses of ca phe sua da and the strumming of a classical guitar. Ever sat in ID Cafe and wondered, where does all this cool old stuff come from? Here’s your answer. 1950s French-made alarm clocks, check. Antique pottery, china and ceramics, check. Piles of 1960s sepia photographs (and probably the camera they were taken with), check. Even the vintage sunglasses on the head of the hipster at the table opposite are here. Traders are friendly, welcoming and happy to haggle. Entrance costs VND 30,000 and includes a free drink.
3A Ton Duc Thang, District 1
As the hub of Saigon’s alternative art scene, this compact yet dynamic complex of refurbished warehouses has become one of the coolest retail spots in the city. Home to independent fashion designers, artists and craftsmen, you’re guaranteed to find something totally unique, and totally Vietnamese. Offering funky ceramics and retro-styled home wares, many designed and made in the Mekong Delta, Sadec District always draws a crowd. For a take-away taste of the street art lining 3a’s walls, visit Giant Step – their framed prints start at as little as US$30. Kayal is a haven of quirky handmade gifts and curios from phone cases to antique records. You may well come away with more gifts for yourself than your family, but we won’t tell anyone.
Saigon’s immensely stylish HOTEL DES ARTS
#Address: 76-78 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.
Opened in October 2015, the fifth and latest addition to Vietnam’s offerings from the prestigious MGallery collection of unique, inspiring and first-class international hotels, Hotel des Arts, represents the first five-star boutique hotel in Saigon. And it’s not just a name; this unmistakable building on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, close to the junction with Hai Ba Trung, is as much a temple of art, architecture and interior design as it is a destination for world-class hospitality.
“Every MGallery hotel has a different story, and so do we,” says Luu Truong Hoai Nghiem, the hotel’s marketing executive. “When you enter the hotel, we would like to take you on a journey, back to 1930s Indochina.” It’s this merging of the old and the new that makes the Hotel des Arts far more than just another brown and beige link in a corporate chain of bedrooms. Visit the 23rd floor bar and restaurant, the Social Club, for one of the finest examples of interior design the building has to offer. Created by famous Japanese design-house, Super Potato Co, and backed by panoramic views of the shimmering skyline, the rich wood-clad space takes inspiration from some of the finest European saloons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Like a fine artist, MGallery do not simply throw money at their hotels and expect a hit. With internationally acclaimed designers and architects contributing to their ever expanding portfolio, each MGallery property is a modern or historic example of exquisite design and first-class craftsmanship. It’s an approach that slowly reveals itself throughout one’s stay as the intricacies, the minute details and the interwoven, quirky yet understated design features gradually become apparent. It’s the subtle non-uniformity of the chairs in the restaurant; it’s the panelled ceiling details that change throughout the hotel’s various rooms, corridors, restaurants and bars, yet somehow retain a consistency; it’s the MGallery logo carved into the marble floor of the shower-room and accurately positioned directly below the monsoon shower-head.
It’s not just an ethos embedded in the decor, but in the hotel’s staff too, their eyes clearly attuned to the same standards as the designers. Not a leaf is left out of place. The rogue drips of condensation from an icy jug of water, for example, are swiftly yet discreetly dealt with, ensuring the elegant lines and gleaming surfaces are not disturbed in any way. Like the architects before them, it’s a subtle approach that still leaves guests able to relax without feeling overly coddled.
A recent addition to the hotel’s offerings is the 22nd floor Sky Lounge, an exclusive area reserved for Le Club AccorHotels Platinum members and all guests staying on their Executive Sky floors (from floors 18 to 22), or in any of the executive studio suites. With a private check-in desk, complimentary tea, coffee, soft drinks and newspapers all day, plus breakfast, afternoon tea and complimentary evening drinks and canapés, all, of course, of the finest quality, it’s an upgrade that’s certainly worth taking.
For our 24-hour ‘staycation’ of luxury, my partner and I are shown to a breathtaking corner studio on the 15th floor. The views are the first thing you’ll notice, here seen through the hotel’s futuristic curved windows. With such a unique frame, it’s as if we’re somehow seeing the sprawl of the city through a fresh set of eyes. It’s only a small detail, but it all adds add up. Classical elements are added through the rich oak parquet flooring, the decorative white wood-panelled walls and the clawfoot tub sat decadently in the near floor to ceiling bathroom window. Even the enormous plasma television is set inside an opulent gilt picture frame, allowing it to blend in with the rest of the decor rather than hanging like the incongruous slab of black plastic it really is. A two-hour YouTube slideshow of fine art is quickly found and the remote tossed aside.
After a superb buffet lunch of Asian, Japanese and Western cuisine in the hotel’s second-floor restaurant, Saigon Kitchen, complimentary afternoon high-tea can be taken in the calm surroundings of the Sky Lounge from 3pm onwards. Small bites, cakes, cookies and an array of fruits, nuts and snacks are at your disposal, and while the teas and soft drinks are offered for you to help yourself, the friendly staff are more than happy to fetch everything while you browse the newspapers or flick through the coffee-table photo-books.
Before the complimentary wines, cocktails, beers, spirits and canapés are wheeled out at 5.30pm, a dip in the rooftop infinity pool (with poolside bar) is a must. Offering 270 degree views of Districts 1 and 3 and beyond, way up where the sound of scooters is but a distant melody, it’s as far from the city as you can get without actually leaving it. Come nightfall, Saigon Kitchen offers another splendid buffet while the Social Club opens its doors to anyone looking for a taste of the finest food and cocktails in town. For those with a head for heights, head over the glass rooftop skybridge for direct access to the hotel’s neighbour, the renowned Shri Restaurant and Lounge.
The next morning, as we watch the sunrise ignite the Saigon skyline through each of the three enormous windows visible from the equally enormous bed, we realise the one major downside of hotels as luxurious and as relaxing as this one: at some point you have to leave them. While late checkout is offered to all executive guests (until 4pm subject to availability), it’s difficult not to count down the hours to departure as we enjoy a private breakfast buffet in the Sky Lounge. A nearby TV is showing the latest news headlines; Zika, North Korea, Trump; it’s all still out there, but for now we’re in here. The world can wait.
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