What to do in Saigon (besides eat)

Sampling Vietnamese food was a big part of our Saigon itinerary, but we also had to burn all those pho and banh mi sandwiches. So we walked. A lot.

Staying in District 1 is a good place to start. Ben Thanh Market, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office, and Reunification Palace are all within 10- to 15-minute walk from each other in that order. We started at Ben Thanh because it’s the closest to Pham Ngu Lao area. We had no intention of doing any shopping yet but we wanted to see what was being sold (years of sourcing while working for a magazine are not so easy to shake off). There are a lot of clothes, fabrics, scarves, watches, bags, coffee and humble eateries of Vietnamese food.

What caught my eyes were the parcels of fresh spring rolls stacked behind a counter; I asked the lady behind the glass counter if I could have one. Then to my horror, she started screaming and shooing me away. My husband put away his camera thinking it would calm her down, but she was still screaming and motioning us to leave. I asked for one spring roll again and finally another woman got a menu and pointed that you order three per serving. I stubbornly sat and ordered three. Those spring rolls were probably good, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Fresh spring roll lady glaring at me didn’t help.

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Ben Thanh Market

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From finding pho to the Lunch Lady

When I planned the trip to Cambodia last year, it was a choice between flying in to either Bangkok, Thailand or Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam. (There were no direct flights from Manila to Cambodia back then;but now Philippine budget carrier Cebu Pacific flies to Siem Reap, yay!) Picked Saigon because according to other travelers the border situation between Vietnam and Cambodia was more organized, plus I’ve never been to Vietnam, and I seriously wanted to spend an entire day eating pho, banh mi, the Lunch Lady’s special and other Vietnamese foods. So when P and I woke up on our first morning in the Vietnamese city after flying in at 1 am and getting to our hotel at almost 2:30 a.m. (after immigration and the long line at the lone money changer opened in the airport), our first goal was to find a bowl of good pho.

Pho for breakfast (or lunch or dinner). We were based in District 1, near the Pham Ngu Lao street, an area considered as the backpacker’s district. Pho Quynh, one of the many restaurants in Saigon known for good pho, is along this street. Most diners are Vietnamese, but since the resto has been included in the guidebooks, a good number are tourists as well. Pho is a soup typically made with rice noodles, meat (usually beef or chicken), leaves of mint and Asian basil, bean sprouts, and a side of lime and some chilies. I had Pho Bo Chin (beef noodle soup with well-done beef). The broth was fantastic (light with very subtle flavors of the herbs) and the beef just right to the bite. We would have other bowls of pho, by the sidewalk, the hotel, and more sidewalks. Nothing though compared to our first bowl.

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Pho at Pho Quynh

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