falling for vietnam
returning to saigon after being away initially felt good as this is the closest thing to home for me during these travels. this good feeling subsided quickly when my mother informed me of her upcoming and sudden departure. i was hoping she would stay through january and well into tet/lunar new year. however, boredom, missing home and i suspect sadness from grandma’s passing were all factors contributing to her desire to return home to the states. i am lucky she was with me again. at least for part of the journey but had a fleeting moment of helplessness in her decision, until i was quickly reminded of the capabilities of a fairly independent 33-year-old. also i knew she would be happier and that was… and always be the most important thing. keep mom happy. so mom left and berrin arrived.
i greeted berrin at the airport with a running banner in my ipad at arrivals. she showed up wearing my favorite rogan wrap and we fought the crowd for a vinasun, saigon tourist or mai lin taxi to avoid getting ripped off by false-metered cabs. we head to my saigon home, ava hotel at 51 thu khoa huan in district one by the ben thanh market. jean just finished her project and moved into ava that day from the very far, district 9. here we were, three girlfriends starting on a most memorable journey that would impact us forever. berrin had just been in hong kong with anton and lindsay so her jet lag wasn’t an issue so we immediately set out! a good transitory first stop for any visitor before diving into street food eats is quan an ngon. there are two locations with the original one located across from the reunification palace. i have never actually been to that one but already know i prefer the second one on 160 pasteur because of its design and location. jean and i introduced berrin to the favorite nuoc ep buoi (pomelo juice) best ordered with less ice and no sugar. they love their sugar in southeast asia! it wouldn’t surprise me if they added spoonfuls of sugar to a glass of coca-cola when ordered.
another place to frequent in saigon is l’usine (http://lusinespace.com/), not only to support homies but a pleasant way to spend a few hours shopping and enjoying the cafe. this concept store was birthed from the minds of a diverse and talented set of friends. they’ve just had a successful first year and wishing them loads of fortune and success for many more! i returned back to saigon just in time for the anniversary party and thai asked me to play some tunes and though i was very nervous, it ended up being a super fun night!
my first introduction to a l’usine party however was the very highly anticipated 40th birthday of everyone’s favorite new yorker viet, thai! tib, thai’s wife, of course did an amazing job of producing a most fabulous gathering for his friends and family with a dinner prepared by darren having just returned from sydney that day. following dinner, was an initial dance party in the space with musical stylings from this lindsay character from hong kong who i had heard so much about and finally had the privilege of meeting. now i can’t even imagine a life pre-lindsay or as i like to call him, mr. boy. he is a man indeed but his child-like charm is undeniable. the l’usine dance party took on a life of its own and led to a full night of activities and fun to be remembered. after this indulgence, the girls and i needed to wind down so we headed to phu quoc island, paradise… only an hour flight away!
we checked-in to the charm resort (http://www.phuquoccharm.com/) which is more like a hotel than a full-on resort but a great deal and in a great location! the rooms are clean and simple. wifi is only available in the main dining/lounge bungalow but it was better that way with these internet addicted ladies. i am somewhat guilty too but not nearly as bad unless needing to upload photos, update status, tweet, tumblr or… yeah i guess i’m bad but i think whatsapp had the girls on lock down! either that or the workings of the lindsay fan club were in full effect! the charm was located in this village of lodging with a path directly to the beach. upon arrival, we headed to long beach, the stretch of beach on the southwestern part of the island and immediately fall in love! the west side of the island houses the most calm and beautiful beach… almost like a bay with no waves- perfect for swimming, yellow sand and palm trees. ladies approach you with fresh fruit, others are ready to massage at a whim and there are areas and moments when it feels you are alone on this beach. though there are resorts, hotels and restaurants, it isn’t overwhelming, actually very subtle and in some ways, the island feels a bit unexplored. after a few hours of sun, we sat for a pleasant dinner during sunset along the beach enjoying fresh coconut cocktails and a fresh fish dinner.
we got word of a beautiful beach of blue water and white sands on the east coast, bai sao . we rented motorbikes for an adventure that ended up being quite more of one than we had anticipated. i drove jean and me and berrin got her own for the first time! we headed off to man-made diy bridges, red clay and rock ridden roads without clear street signs meanwhile dodging giant trucks and not completely sure of how to get to our destination. after a few detours, moments of fear of sliding out, navigating through potholes and giant rocks, we arrived and indeed this beach is what it claimed to be! after initial amazement, i realized i needed a snack and ordered fried rice from the beachfront restaurant. i never order fried rice but this one was some of the best i had ever had. the rice was prepared with fresh squid and prawns and accompanied by some of the best nuoc mam (fish sauce) i had tasted! after a great afternoon on the east side, we returned our motorbikes positive we wouldn’t be renting them again for the sake of our general safety and livelihood basically.
our daily walks to the beach included trespassing through the la veranda resort (http://www.mgallery.com/hotel-cms/gb/hotel/index_page_hotel_6479.shtml). it is a beauty with a very nice restaurant. should budget permit i would recommend this resort. we also checked out the mango bay (http://www.mangobayphuquoc.com/home.html) but only got to it for dinner at the grill close to the sea but didn’t get to see much of it otherwise. however, friends have stayed there and loved it. it seems more resorty in the sense that there doesn’t seem to be much going on in the nearby surroundings except for the resort itself.
after our love affair with phu quoc, we came back to saigon for a few days before determining our next destination. back in the city, we had a holiday/birthday party for minh at linh’s, followed by a fun karaoke sesh followed by some dance sessions. we also explored a little of phu nhuan district and spent a lovely afternoon at a sweet outdoor coffee shop, dumien, close to minh’s house at 8/9a ho bieu chanh st. it is secretly tucked away down an alley and opens up into a large oasis of open air seating with waterfall and pretty green landscape. the coffee is good as well as the food- the pork ribs with rice and catfish banh mi are delicious.
the last part of our journey was a most homantic christmas celebration in hoi an. this ancient picturesque village is made up of only about three main streets and encompasses no more than a few blocks but houses beautiful shops, historical buildings, restaurants and lined with a river and a gorgeous beach nearby. with it being a holiday and a special trip for us overall, we lived this part of the trip up and broke out of our budget just a little to stay at the boutique hotel resort (http://www.boutiquehoianresort.com/). only four months new, the website photos don’t do it any justice! this place was heavenly with its simple white colonial mansions, central infinity pool and bungalow tops on the beach! though it probably isn’t comparable to nam hai (http://www.thenamhai.com/), it is a pretty solid four star spot. the food was also delicious and included buffet breakfast never hurts! we didn’t get a chance to explore the spa but the open layout was enticing.
the small ancient town only needs a few days. we started and sometimes ended our trips to the old part with gina pham’s recommended must-have banh mi from banh mi phuong and can be found here: http://www.priceoftravel.com/201/the-best-vietnamese-banh-mi-sandwich-in-the-world/. definitely get the deluxe with op la (fried egg) without question. ingredients vary daily and it is immediately clear why anthony bourdain and gina love on this happy belly gem!
banh xeo (pancake) is served with banh trang (rice paper) here so you wrap the yellow pancake with rice paper and not lettuce alone. banh bao (white rose bun) is also a specialty here and our favorite cart to get this is from this one dude who blasts music from a boom box on his cart and walks around real chill like no big deal… there’ just journey playing real loud, want a banh bao? we also had the cau lao noodle dish for the first time. the noodle is similar to soba and is served generally dry with a little bit of broth just to soften the noodles topped with pork, herbs and pork rind sprinkles. bun bo hue is suppose to be amazing here but i didn’t have much luck finding that magic bowl. it wasn’t a problem really as dong ba at 110a nguyen du right next door to my hotel in saigon and i get my fill of it there!
after our hoi an christmas, we returned back to saigon and i returned to some normalcy in routine including yoga at yoga living (www.yogaliving.com.vn/web/). so lucky that linh recommended this quaint studio vs. yoga through mass-member gyms. dat, the owner, always dons a smile and shanti, my favorite teacher, makes for better days!
i’m starting to fall in love with this place and always look forward to returning to it after little adventures. this prompts the consideration… could i live here? i’m not sure. maybe not right now? perhaps another winter and we’ll see?