Thursday, December 14, 2017

SECOND TIME'S THE CHARM IN SAIGON: (Part 4) CONG Caphe



During the Saigon Street Art and Graffiti tour with my charming guide Dao, we stopped over to a coffee shop (Saigon is chock full of them) named Cong Caphe. It was located at the 3rd floor of a rather derelict-looking building with shabby stairs, which had been repurposed to host cafes, boutiques and other assorted shops. 

Right off, i noticed this establishment was some sort of a 'theme' cafe, the motif being a Communist military aesthetic. The giveaway was the uniform worn by the staff; and somehow the word 'Cong' brings to mind 'Vietcong' (i.e. guerilla fighters during the war).


The interiors of the cafe seemed deliberately shabby chic. Well, after all, i suppose the Vietcong didn't live in luxurious surroundings [did they hide in the Cu Chi tunnels? Sorry, my history is not only spotty, it's actually non-existent] The flowery design of the seat cushions and tablecloth seemed to be a recurring sight.


 
 

Check out the plastic covers of the light bulbs. Aren't those originally meant to cover food items and shield them from mosquitoes? :D That's charming Dao in the photo, in case you ask. 
 


 

 But in fairness, Cong Caphe has a serious array of coffee and non-caffeinated beverages on its menu (which naturally had a vintage look as well).


 
 

 On the second floor, there's a cozy area where one can actually spend long hours studying or simply reading. And look at all those books! All in Vietnamese though. 

 

 Check out this cute number they gave us for our order. Very...ummm, Communistic, eh? 


Ah, here comes Comrade Nguyen to serve the drinks! :D


Dao ordered one of their specialites - Cot Cua Com Xanh (Coconut milk with green rice smoothie) at VND65,000, while i got the classic Ca Phe Sua Dac Saigon (Iced coffee with condensed milk) at VND35,000.



 It was a hot, humid day, and we already had walked for more than an hour. So this pit stop was quite conducive for a long chat and simply watching the world go by. 

Until it was time to do some more walking! I felt quite charmed with Cong Caphe - the theme is obviously unique, if not a bit absurd; but it wasn't by any means tacky. And hey, it works! The place was nearly full during our time there. 



 

 [Epilogue: The GUS has had one or two nightmares about the flowery tablecloth since his return from Saigon]

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

SECOND TIME'S THE CHARM IN SAIGON: (Part 3) Old Compass Cafe



Included in the 'Tales of the City' walking tour with Old Compass Travel was lunch, so my guide Duong and i trooped to their own cafe Old Compass Cafe. This also serves as the home of their company with her business partner Mark Bowyer, an Aussie who had started a travel blog called  Rusty Compass. 

It has since evolved into a fully independent and comprehensive travel guide for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, yet it remains a very personal endeavor - no paid listings and no commercial spin.
 
 

Opening the door and stepping inside Old Compass Cafe can very well be like going into a different world altogether. I can best describe the place as 'retro', almost as if it was an old cafe left untouched and preserved. 

One almost forgets one is located right along a main road, with multitudes of motorbikes rumbling by. It just radiates a quiet kind of charm.

 

They usually offer two sets for lunch and dinner - Main and Vegetarian. Obviously, I chose the main set. :D


Here's how the food looked like: simple, home-cooked cuisine. Everything was excellent, in particular the mushroom soup with shredded chicken. Priced at VND150,000.00 (roughly USD7.00), it was fantastic value for money. 
 

Their coffee (made from Arabica beans from Dalat) was pretty good, too. They also serve craft beer on tap from Pasteur Street Brewing Co., one of Saigon's pioneering craft brewers. 



Duong below, with one of her annoying customers :D 

 

 In fact, I loved the food and company so much that i came back the next night for dinner. Wasn't able to take photos of the main set (priced at VND180,000.00), but i remember the food was as good as my first visit. 

And I got to meet Mark, the person behind the Rusty Compass site! 

Old Compass Cafe also hosts a varied array of live music performances, and talks on architecture, travel, science, etc. Here are some event posters on their bathroom wall.


 

So, the question now is: How to find this lovely place? It can indeed be rather difficult, you can very easily be walking and completely pass it by. The most visible landmark is the Liberty Central Saigon Citypoint Hotel, a massive modern 4-star hotel right beside the building. 

At the alley right next to it, watch out for this sign below: 

 

Then walk up the concrete stairs (do not mind the rather dingy surroundings, hehe :D), and upon reaching the 3rd floor, you will see this door:

 

 Do drop by when you're in Saigon!


The Old Compass Cafe
3rd Floor, 63/11 Pasteur Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1
Mobile: +84 903 900 841

Facebook: facebook.com/oldcompasscafe
Instagram: oldcompasscafesaigon


Saturday, December 09, 2017

SECOND TIME'S THE CHARM IN SAIGON: (Part 2) Essential Info

Okay, so before heading off to explore Saigon, i've compiled a by-no-means comprehensive guide on essential info that might be useful for you, the tourist. In no particular order: 

1. How to get to the city from the airport? 

By NO means should you flag down any random taxi passing by, or talk to touts loitering around outside the arrival hall offering cheap rides. To be safe, avail of a taxi service at one of the airport counters. I paid total of VND180,000 (USD8.00) for my ride from airport to my hotel in District 1. 

2. Exchanging money 

It's alright to exchange your US Dollars to Vietnamese Dong (VND) at the airport. The rate is generally the same, although some money exchange counters offer 'No commission'. Presently, the exchange rate is something like VND22,600/USD1.00. 

 

Yes, when in Vietnam, you become an instant millionaire! (USD100.00 = VND,2,260,000). But as my finance wiz friend Mon T. says, "it's not how much money you have, but what you can buy with it that matters." It does take getting used to hearing prices being quoted, and mentally calculating how much one is actually spending. 

Some prices i've encountered: 

Taxi ride (one-way from District 1 to District 7): VND130,000.00
Lunch at cafe: VND180,000.00
Desserts at L'Usine (one of Saigon's swankiest cafes): VND150,000.00
Juice at typical cafe: VND50,000.00
Flat white at typical cafe: VND65,000.00

More important, do take note of the VND bills, as they all have the same look, but with different colors and sizes depending on denomination. Some unscrupulous shopkeepers have been known to give an incorrect bunch of bills as change, in the hope that the tourist does not count their change on the spot. 

3. Where to stay? 

For tourists on a short holiday, best to stick to the District 1 area, as this is where most of the sights are. 

If you want to be at the heart of Saigon's commercial area, and like colonial architecture, best to stay at the expensive, historic hotels along Dong Khoi St., such as The Continental, The Grand, The Majestic (overlooks Saigon River), The Rex and The Caravelle. 
 




For a more down-to-earth and cheaper and convenient experience, i'd recommend staying at the area surrounding Ben Thanh market (generally referred to as "Ben Nghe"). Lots of good eats and shops around; and walking distance to the main sights, too. I stayed at the Silverland Yen Hotel for this trip, which i heartily recommend. The room was nice (way nicer than i expected), the staff very friendly, and the rates reasonable. Dig their facade below :D


 

Check their website at www.silverlandhotels.com for the full list of hotels under their group. 
 
4. Getting around 

Grab and Uber are active in Saigon, especially their motorbike service. After all, there are lots more motorbikes in this city (one estimate placed it at 4 million) than cars (1 million). 
 

  
 As for taxis, the  recommended companies are Mai Linh (all green in color) and Vinasun (white color with red and green horizontal stripes, plus their logo). The drivers of both companies typically wear a uniform with a tie,  and should have an ID card on the dashboard.  Apparently, there are fake taxis roaming the streets, with similar-sounding names such as Vinasum.

 

 

 5. Crossing the street

Obviously a full battalion of motorbikes heading in one's direction is not a very reassuring sight. But the key thing to do is to walk slowly, resolutely in small steps FORWARD. DO NOT DO THE CHA CHA (i.e. 2 steps forward, then 1 step backwards, etc.)

Believe me, as long as you do what i said above, these motorbikes will go around you and you won't get hit. 

The thing to watch out for are motorbikes who (illegally) run on the sidewalks, like below: 


6. Cheap eats

Walking distance from my hotel was the Ben Thanh Street Food Market, which provides a wide array of fairly cheap food in a covered food court style setting. On certain nights, a live band plays covers of popular hit songs. 

 

This mural is the bomb!!!! :D :D 


When people talk of Vietnamese food, the first dish that comes to mind is pho, essentially noodle soup typically made from beef stock and spices, with thinly sliced beef or chicken added.

A word or two about this. As the guide Dao told me, the correct way to pronounce is not "phooow", but more like "faaaahh [soft h]". Also, do yourself a favor and avoid eating at big chains such as Pho 24, Pho 2000 and Pho Hung. Instead, patronize the local places for a more tasty, authentic experience. 

7. Safety 

The main tourist areas in District 1 (Dong Khoi St., Ben Thanh, Nguyen Hue St., Le Loi St., etc.) are generally safe. But of course, keep your wits about you and leave the fine jewelry at home. 

And as much as possible, do not walk around holding your mobile phone in your hand. Especially the area around Ben Thanh market, as the bedlamity is strong in this one.

Lastly, do not entertain touts who offer 'cheap' motorcycle rides to wherever is your destination. These may end in tears.


Friday, December 08, 2017

SECOND TIME'S THE CHARM IN SAIGON: (Part 1) What To Do

Just got back last week from Ho Chi Minh city (more charmingly known by its old name Saigon). Had a blast! Lovely city, with a great variety of food options.

 First-time visitors usually stay for a few days and do the rounds of the usual tourist spots such as Ben Thanh market (say: 'rip-off'), War Remnants Museum (too macabre), Post Office, Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral (definitely not copied from the one in Paris :D), Cu Chi tunnels, Water Puppet show (haven't tried it though - did hear it's nothing special),  etc.

So, for second-timers like me, what exactly is there to do? Well, aside from hanging around cafes and eating street food all day long, here's some suggestions:

1. Join a local walking tour 

If you're the type who likes walking around and having an in-depth knowledge of the city, this is the perfect thing to do. 

 
      Lovely post office building

I tried the Tales of the City tour by Old Compass Travel, and highly recommend it.  The guide, Ms. Duong, proved to be interesting and passionate with sharing history, but without making one's head spin with too much info. She specialized in showing photos on her tablet of how buildings looked in the past, and what they were used for, compared to present day. 

This walk does NOT enter any museums (perfect for those allergic to museums, hehe! :D). 

I also tried the Graffiti and Street Art walking tour of Detoured Asia. It turned out to be less about graffiti and street art (i think we only had 2 stops of it), but more of checking out interesting spots such as the Cafe Apartment at Saigon's walking street Nguyen Hue [more on this on a separate post later on], a local market (yes, Ben Thanh is for tourists who want to get ripped off :D), etc. 

 
    Street art off Le Than Thonh St. 

And the guide Dao was such nice, charming company. She studies Tourism in university, and does tours on the side. I was actually sad our tour had to end. 

Another option for art lovers is the acclaimed Sophie's Art Tour,  which melds art and history.
 


2. Join a motorcycle tour 

I'm sure friends of mine are laughing, since they know i don't know how to ride any type of bike; and that i have never ever ridden a motorcycle. 

Well, when in Saigon, do as the Saigonese do, diba? :D Despite my fears of falling off the bike (or getting hit by a car or another motorbike), i sucked it up and join the Foodie Tour of XO Tours. Why them? Well, the foodie tour takes you to different districts of Saigon you would not normally go to (most tourist sights / malls / restaurants / hotels are in District 1). 

 



      Random customer hanging on for dear life 

The unique selling point of XO is that all their drivers are female (hold those jokes, okay?!), wearing the traditional elegant ao dai. I'll write about the experience in a separate post, so stay tuned. 

Another reputable motorbike tour operator is Vespa Adventures, for those folks who want to experience scooting around on a, yes, Vespa. 

3. Go to L'Apothiquaire Spa

Lots of spas (some legit, some dubious-looking) in District 1 area, near the hotels. But for the full spa experience, nothing beats the main branch of L'Apothiquaire at District 3. 



Enter the tree-lined path and you'll reach a colonial mansion set on sprawling grounds. A oval-shaped pool is available for those wanting a dip. Inside, as one walks to the treatment rooms, one can't help notice the graceful stairs and elegant floor tiles. 

 

Address: 64A Truong Dinh, District 3. 
Tel: +848 3932 5181

4. Go further afield 

Vietnam is obviously much more than Saigon. So time (and finances) permitting, exploring other parts of the country such as Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Phu Quoc, etc. are great options. Check out the comprehensive site Rusty Compass for independent reviews and recommendations -- for Cambodia and Laos as well. 

In our next post of this series (yikes, i just realized i'm committing to write a number of posts hehe :D), we'll talk about some essential info, such as where to stay, how to get around, etc.



Saturday, January 28, 2017

Bandar Seri Begawan (Part 3): Good Eats

I forgot to mention that the main reason we were in Brunei was to compete in a sports event. Basically, my teammates took care of the winning (gold and silver in their respective events), whilst i focused on the eating (arrangements, that is) :D  

I'm actually pleased as punch that we got to have some good eats, considering we were just in BSB for 4D3N!

Here's some of the memorable meals we had: 

1. Alter Ego Fusion Cafe
 

We literally stumbled upon this new (just 2 months old), gorgeous-looking cafe, having gotten lost looking for another restaurant (more on this later) and were super famished.


The interiors were pretty interesting. Eclectic. Here below is their piece de resistance. I don't know about you, but in an instant, i felt like i was transported to a cafe in Amsterdam. I love this love this love this.


 Their food was pretty good, too! We ordered some rice bowls, which proved to be quite filling; as well as the Chicken Wings appetizer, full of flavour and nicely presented.

 
 

 2. Sate House

Now, this was the resto we were looking for! Our taxi driver couldn't find it (despite calling the resto 3X), hence we ended up at Alter Ego.


Undaunted, we tried again the next night. And this time, our taxi driver "Uncle" [check his calling card in my previous post] easily found it. 

We ordered the ff: Ayam Bakar (Grilled chicken marinated in homemade sauce), which looked good and was finger-licking good!

  
The Sate Kambing (Lamb Satay) was delicious, too.
 

 But the best dish, IMHO, was the beef ribs (sorry, forgot the local name). Falling off the bone tender!


 3. Kaizen Sushi

Before the trip, i checked out reviews of local restos and Kaizen Sushi tended to be described as the most posh Japanese resto in BSB. Which meant we had to visit it :D 


Location was along along the waterfront of the Brunei River (not that there's a lot to see on the river), and it looked every inch a classy joint. Spiral staircase led to the main dining areas; and upon our request, the staff graciously allowed us to seat at a tatami table. 

We ordered a lot of food (the hungry athletes that we were *cough*).   Salmon sashimi always hits the spot. 


Spider rolls proved to be crunchy. 


Beef with pepper sauce.


Classic Ebi tempura.

 

Beef rolls with vegetables. Extremely good. 


Kamameshi rice. It takes around 20 minutes to cook at the table. 
 

Oh, here's all of us looking famished despite eating all that food. ;-D



Despite its high-end reputation, i felt the prices at Kaizen Sushi can be considered reasonable.

4. Piccolo Cafe

We took a leisurely post-prandial walk along the waterfront, and came upon this cafe. This was amongst the cafes recommended to me by local food/coffee blogger Coffee Girl BN.



Their mascot is so cute, no?  Piccolo is known for its specialty, the Lavender Latte (below). Basically regular cafe latte with some bits of lavender on the top.


The lavender taste is subtle (no, you won't feel as though you were drinking lavender lotion), and it wasn't too sweet. 

Their waffle and New York style cheesecake are good options to go with your coffee as well. 



Sate House Brunei 
IG: satehouse.bn

Kaizen Sushi
FB: Kaizen-Sushi-Japanese-Restaurant-Waterfront-BSB

Piccolo Cafe
IG: piccolocafebn

Alter Ego Fusion 
FB: alteregofoods

Coffee Girl BN 
IG: coffeegirlbn