Make yourself a banh mi

When you return from a trip to another country, do you also crave for the familiar flavors of food from back home? I do. Without fail. No matter how glorious the food is, after several days I start to miss eating a plate of tapsilog, a bowl of adobo that’s been simmered deliciously in vinegar and soy sauce, or even just tortang talong. Nothing like travel to make you appreciate and long for what you have back home. But it can also expand your tapa-adobo-tortang talong lineup in the kitchen.

From our trip to Saigon, I knew one of the  dishes I wanted to recreate from the Vietnamese city was banh mi. The popular Vietnamese sandwich is found in many street corners of Vietnam. The ones I got to try in Saigon didn’t really have the best ingredients and they were exposed to the elements all day (it is after all a street food), but the baguette made the sandwich–it always had this crispy thin crust and a soft and airy dough that managed to make this street corner staple memorable. It was cheap, filling, and packing a lot of flavor in a sublime piece of bread.

Online search on how to make banh mi led me to this recipe, which I made with a few alterations on the serving size and the meat I decided to use (one thing about the banh mi–unless you want to make a strictly Vietnamese version, you can substitute the cold cuts and pork belly slices with other kinds of meat). I was quite pleased with how the pickled veggies turned out. The baguette I got to use though was more dense than airy, but the familiar flavors easily reminded me of Saigon street corners.

Halfway through my banh mi (I’m not very conscientious about taking photos)

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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.

slouching somewhere

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.

slouching somewhere

Pho at Pho Quynh

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From Saigon to Siem Reap (and back)

Finally home. It was a fantastic and exhausting trip. We haven’t even unpacked all our bags yet. I can’t wait to post the photos and write about the things we saw (yes, the temples, and oddly enough, a LOT of weddings while on the road), tasted, and got to do, but first, here’s a post about traveling between the two cities.

When I was making arrangements for the Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Siem Reap trips, finding reliable overland transport choices available between the two cities was one of the things I spent a great deal of time on researching online.

The Sinh Tourist bus from Saigon at the Vietnam-Cambodia border

A friend who backpacked through Asia many years ago recommended Sihn Cafe (now known as Sinh Tourist). I also looked at the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree travel forum to find out what other travelers were recommending. In the end I decided to book tickets with the Sinh Tourist online, to go from Saigon to Siem Reap; and to book Mekong Expess (highly recommended by people in forums) when we got to Siem Reap for our trip back to Saigon. I hope this post can help folks planning to travel to these cities and trying to figure out how to go from Saigon to Siem Reap. Continue reading