Thursday, December 21, 2017

SECOND TIME'S THE CHARM IN SAIGON (Part 6): The Cafe Apartment at 42 Nguyen Hue

After a long chat over ice cream, Dao and i resumed our tour. We walked over  to the Nguyen Hue walking street (parallel to Dong Khoi), and she gestured us to enter this particular building. 

The Cafe Apartment at 42 Nguyen Hue St. is an extremely old (dating back to the 50s) and rather dilapidated 9-storey building, which was originally meant to be used as residential units. In recent years, most of the units have been taken over by a smorgasbord of independent cafes, fashion boutiques and other cutesy shops. 

There are signages at its street-level entrance (below). Funny thing is,  you wouldn't really notice this building at all. The average tourist would just pass it by, with nary a second glace.

There is an elevator, with a fee of VND3,000 (roughly USD0.13), which will likely be refunded by the establishment you patronize. I was actually a bit taken aback by the elevator fee - first time to encounter such.

Dao and i went to the top floor. It was cool and breezy at the 9th storey; and looking out, i was struck by the tall, narrow buildings (usually hotels) i've been seeing in the tourist area of District 1 - like this one in the pic:

 Dao and i decided to go down via the stone staircase and take a sneak peek at the shops at each storey.  As i mentioned earlier, there are still some remaining residential units in this building, so i wondered what the occupants thought of these commercial establishments in their midst. 

Some of the interesting shops we saw: 

Cat cafe, perhaps?


 Ah, Mr. Bean coffee bean coffee shop!

Here's how the building looks from the side:


 At each storey (this is Lau 6, or 6th floor), the elevator landing is full of posters and advertorials of the shops therein:


Ah! This one below requires no explanation :D  Come in for a fitting!

Another cafe.


 Sushi place at the end of the corridor.

 Look at this mural we saw on one of the walls.

 Orient Tea.

One of the most well-known establishments, The Maker. 

The trick really is to be on the other side of Nguyen Hue St., so one can see this building's facade (admittedly shabby and not awe-inspiring by any stretch of the imagination).  Here's a photo of it, from the blog CAPREOLI ROUND THE WORLD: 

Overall, i think exploring the various shops and eating in one (or more) cafes / restos would be an interesting way to spend an idyllic afternoon. Charming idea to have so many cafes under one building. 

For an in-depth article on this old apartment building, check this link to Vietnam Coracle.  When in Saigon, do check this building out! It may not be around for long, due to the incessant push for modernity. Also, the government authorities are apparently cracking down, since households are not officially allowed to conduct business on apartment units (according to the Saigoneer). 

[This is the last post for my Saigon series. Hope you enjoyed reading as much as i enjoyed visiting Saigon!]

Monday, December 18, 2017

SECOND TIME'S THE CHARM IN SAIGON (Part 5): Hanging on for dear life on the bike

I was looking for some local food tours to join for this trip, and saw some websites for motorcycle tours. There are two companies that appear to stand out, Vespa Adventures (yep, all their bikes are of this iconic Italian brand, so if you are too poor to own one, sign up now! :D) and XO Tours (whose unique selling point was that they were the first, all-female motorbike tour company). My interest was piqued with XO. Imagine, a female driver wearing the traditional ao dai at the wheel, vroom vrooming around town.

So, it came to pass that on a Friday late afternoon, my driver Yen, wearing a blue-and-white ao dai and a white XO tour helmet, picked me up at my hotel.

Oh, i must mention that at this point, i have never ever ridden on a motorbike in my entire life. So i was filled with apprehension ("is it safe?" / "what if we collide with another bike or a car?" / "does my travel insurance cover this?" / "what if i fall off the bike and get squashed by a bus?" / "i don't want to be a headline on Saigon Daily - 'Fat tourist run over by car'") and worry (and trepidation and get the drift).

So i climbed into the back seat and Yen helped me strap on the white helmet and pointed to the handles where i can hold on to. She did say there was no need to hold on, just maintain balance and relax. 

Fortunately, our meeting point (and first food stop) was just nearby - a few minutes away. There we met up with the other tourists taking the foodie tour, and our tour manager Tai, who proved to be a congenial, articulate person and soon put everyone at ease.  

At this noodle place in District 1, we tried this dish below. Nope, it is not pho (surprise, surprise). Instead, it is called Bun Bo Hue (rice vermicelli with beef stock). If you look closely, you will see that the noodles are thicker, so they don't absorb water and you can eat them at your leisure. 

Pretty tasty and warms the stomach. I just had to remind myself not to finish the entire bowl, lest i become too full quickly. 

Then we were off again via our motorbikes. The ride going to the next stop proved to be a long one. We passed through the backpacker district, Chinatown at District 5 where the streets were filled with vendors laying their goods on the ground, and went on major highways where motorbikes crowded together with cars. As you can imagine, i was scared shitless and had a death grip on the handles of our bike. 

"Yikes! Watch out!" i shrieked as we nearly got hit by another bike.  
"Relax! You have to trust me" Yen gently remonstrated.

But it just seemed that other bikes were always too close or coming out of nowhere; or cars were just inches away and about to hit us. One particular manoeuvre of Yen, which involved overtaking on the right without signalling, then sharply veering to the left and cutting off  a car and some bikes, took my breath away. 

"How long have you been driving for the tours?" i inquired
"Oh its my first day today!" Yen chirpily replied
"Holy f**k!!" i muttered [underneath my breath]

The next food stop was at a massive BBQ hall in District 8. We were seated at a long table, and our female drivers took charge in cooking the meats.


Watch the ladies in action. Totally brisk and no-nonsense :D

Tai mentioned the goat meat was a particular specialty of this place (it's the one on the bottom part of the photo below). True enough, it was indeed very tasty.

Of course, when in Saigon, one has to drink Saigon Beer! :D

Yen took the opportunity to mention that she had actually been on this job for 7 months already. She had been putting gullible me on! Tsk.

By this time, the atmosphere was convivial as everyone was eating to their hearts' content. To ratchet up the experience further, "happy tea" was brought out. 

Everyone was obligated to drink it. But before drinking, one had to say "YO",  the Vietnamese word for 'cheers', as long as one could. So all of us cheered "YYYOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" :D 

Then bottoms up! (of course, one party-pooping slacker did not bottoms up, and just took a slip. Uggh, vile liquid)

Yen whispered to me that the "happy tea" was, in fact, banana rice wine.

Can you take a guess what this is? Sirit na? Frog meat. Tender and juicy and tastes like chicken :D

Here's a look at Mr. Froggy in complete form:

                                     Photo credit: Tai Dang
Then we were off to our next stop. We passed by the "new" part of Saigon, District 7, where most of the expats lived (known as 'Koreatown'). It looked quite modern and had a lot of American restaurant chains.

                                     Photo credit: Tai Dang

At this point, I had gotten used to riding on the bike and was much more relaxed. Still hanging on the handles for not-so-dear life, though. Yen and i chatted quite a bit, which greatly helped in making me feel at ease. She had heard of Boracay Island, and was keen to go there. I mentioned the usual touristic blurb that it was always voted one of the best islands in the world by travel magazines; that the white sand was so fine, one could walk barefoot without getting burnt, yada yada. I didn't have the heart to tell her the island was over crowded and haphazardly developed, and was one giant shit hole and will probably sink under the weight of all that concrete in a few years. Hehehe!!! :D 

Last food stop for the night was in District 4, one of the poorest parts of HCMC.  Tai mentioned it had the best seafood as well. 

We duly disembarked at a street full of roadside eateries. The scene was vibrant and full of energy.

First up was some crab, with pepper and coriander. It proved to be quite spicy, but very fresh. Very good indeed!

For me, the star of the night was this dish below. Scallops with peanuts and green onions and sweet sauce. Simply fabulous! I ate probably around 10 pieces, and stopped only lest the tourmates think i'm an absolute glutton. Hehe :D

As Tai had forewarned, balut (duck embyro)  that had been steamed, and then stir fried, was served as well. Of course, the Westerners were egged on to try this exotic delicacy (some of them had seen it in shows like Fear Factor). 

This lady looked a bit discombobulated at the sight of the embryo! Hahahaha!

But her friend ate it with gusto. Mucho delicioso!!!

Some rice cakes in different colors for dessert.

Then, the coconut jelly, which was very light and refreshing; and was the perfect way to end this meal.

     Photo credit: Tai Dang

Here it is up close. Yen commented it was actually quite easy to make at home.

It was time to call it a night. District 4 turned out to be rather near (15 minutes away) my hotel in District 1. I'm proud to say that i finally relaxed and let go of the handles during the final trip back to my hotel (okay okay, i confess, during the last 20 meters to the hotel. Hahahaha!!! *facepalm*)

I heartily recommend this tour - great way to see places in Saigon outside the tourist bubble of District 1, and try out really good food with good company. Experience Vietnam on two wheels indeed!

Thursday, December 14, 2017


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


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

Instagram: oldcompasscafesaigon