Final day: RV Mekong Pandaw – and a day in Ho Chi Minh City

My final morning on the RV Mekong Pandaw and last day in Vietnam. This carefree cruise existence was beginning to fade away. Unwanted thoughts of work and the daily routine I’d so easily temporarily left behind were quickly creeping back into my head. I was determined to enjoy what was left of this trip down to the very last second.

This trip was hosted (what does this mean?) – I travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam and experienced the RV Mekong Pandaw cruise as a guest of Vietnam Airlines.

Today, in addition to the usual bacon, sausages, tomatoes and egg station, we had golden-brown fried sliced potatoes. I couldn’t resist a housemade croissant, soft buttery and simply wonderful to pull apart with my fingers. I also took advantage of my last chance to enjoy bananas and papaya at breakfast. How I miss those stubby plump sweet bananas.

Fried potatoes

Fried potatoes

Croissants

Croissants

Ham

Ham

Bananas

Bananas

Watermelon, dragon fruit and papaya

Watermelon, dragon fruit and papaya – I probably ate more than my fair share of the papaya.

Peaches

Peaches in syrup

Last breakfast – with a touch of chopped fresh red chilli in my omelette.

After breakfast, there was a little time for last-minute packing before we said goodbye to the crew and left the RV Mekong Pandaw for the last time. We boarded an air-conditioned bus that would take us to Ho Chi Minh City. In Ho Chi Minh City, our group of six were met by a guide who would take us on a day tour of the city. The other ship passengers took off in different directions – some heading home to Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane… others staying on in Ho Chi Minh City to continue their travels in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?
The capital city of Vietnam, Saigon was renamed in 1976 to honour late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Although Ho Chi Minh City is now its official name and used in official contexts, many Vietnamese refer to the city in everyday conversation as Saigon. For some, the refusal to refer to Ho Chi Minh City is political; for others, it’s convenience – Saigon is also much shorter and easier to say than Ho Chi Minh City, which is sometimes abbreviated to “HCMC”. Many businesses, including hotels and restaurants still use “Saigon” in their name.

Ben Thanh Market

The main entrance to Ho Chi Minh City’s most famous market is through an archway underneath a clock tower. Inside is a colourful, sweaty Aladdin’s cave stuffed full with food stalls, kitchenware, electrical appliances, clothes, jewellery and souvenirs. Bargaining is standard practice here but there is a “fixed price” section as well. We were warned about pickpockets, but fortunately, I emerged gripping my camera tightly with money and possessions intact.

Ben Thanh Market

Burt and I walked around the market together. He’d been to Ben Thanh Market before and suggested I’d enjoy checking out the food section, and I didn’t need convincing. We were going to a restaurant for lunch, so there was no opportunity (or tummy space) to squeeze in a market meal – I’m a big eater but know my limits! There was an amazing array of food available, including rice paper steamed, filled and rolled to order, and fresh seafood and vegetables flung into fiery hot woks or dunked into steaming pots of aromatic broth. If I ever return to Ben Thanh Market, I will come hungry and ready to eat.

On display at this stall, enormous beady-eyed prawns.

A local’s knowledge would be especially useful at the drinks stalls, where there are many unfamiliar and interesting ingredients in addition to whole coconuts, cans and bottled soft drinks. The prices are displayed in Vietnamese dong.

Choose the shellfish – scallops, clams, cockles – that you want to eat.

Noodle dishes are briskly prepared to order while you watch.

As the signs suggest, many stalls sell “bun” – rice vermicelli.

It looks precariously cluttered and utterly chaotic, but every action has its purpose. Just don’t get in the way while you’re busy being a tourist.

There are lots of fruit stalls and many feature my favourite, durian.

Tea and coffee, including “coffee weasel” coffee, also known as kopi luwak or civet coffee, the world’s most expensive coffee. It’s called “weasel coffee” because the coffee berries are eaten by the civet cats and harvested from their droppings. “Weasel coffee” is the loose English translation from Vietnamese.

Not everyone will find the aroma of dried shrimps enticing (I do!). Lamps shining over the shrimps make them glow even brighter.

All kinds of dried items, from coconut to cuttlefish.

Near the back row behind the more exotic ingredients, boxes of chocolate-covered almonds and tins of Danish butter cookies.

Despite the fans installed at just about every stall, it was unbearably hot and sticky as we wandered through the aisles.

Whether electrical appliances, dried foods or coffee beans, I wondered what happens when a customer inevitably chooses an item right at the top (or maybe worse, bottom) of those spectacular stacks. What did I say in my previous post about World Series Jenga?!

A few familiar labels among the bottles – there’s Baileys and Smirnoff vodka among the snake and scorpion wine.

Outside the market, there are sellers on every street and corner.

Crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City
Crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City is an experience you won’t forget. The seasoned travellers in our group had the following advice: don’t worry about the motorcycles – just keep walking, and they will just go around you. Don’t try to make eye contact with the motorcycle riders or attempt to get acknowledgement of your intention to cross – it will only confuse them, interrupt the flow and place you at greater risk of being run over. Don’t step out in front of buses or cars – they can’t go around you like the motorcycles and you’ll probably get squished. Exhilaration and relief takes over as you realise you’ve made it safely to the other side of that moving wall of traffic.

To get a sense of what we were up against as pedestrians, watch this amazing video on traffic in Ho Chi Minh City by Rob Whitworth:


Traffic in Frenetic HCMC, Vietnam (YouTube video)

Lunch at Indochine

Our tour included lunch at Indochine, a restaurant featured on the itinerary of many tour groups. The restaurant grounds were a beautiful oasis, with well-maintained, lush gardens, water fountains and a clear blue pond. It seemed a shame to be seated inside, but the lunch-time sun was a scorcher and we were glad to escape it temporarily, the boys happy to sit down with ice cold beers.

Indochine Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh City

Indochine dining room.

The boys were amused by my choice of mocktail, named Pussy Food (US$5), made with orange, pineapple, Grenadine and milk. It tasted like a cross between vitamin pills and Yakult.

Pussy Food - mocktail with orange, pineapple, Grenadine and milk (US$5)

Pussy Food – mocktail with orange, pineapple, Grenadine and milk (US$5)

Out set menu lunch started with bamboo shoot and gingko soup, closely followed by banana flower salad with chicken.

Bamboo shoot and gingko soup, banana flower salad with chicken.

Next, grilled pork spare ribs with BBQ sauce – not very saucy, a little chewy but flavoursome, with very sharp bones inside (be careful!) and battered boneless pieces of fish in a sweet and sour sauce with cubes of carrot and pineapple.

Grilled pork spare ribs with BBQ sauce, battered fish in pineapple sauce

The stir-fried Chinese cabbage with mushrooms was like any good stir-fry you can get a decent Chinese restaurant, with crispy greens, carrot and a mixture of chunky Chinese black mushrooms, straw mushrooms and champignons. I was worried that the fried rice with salty egg would have that stinky, sulphurous preserved egg odour, but the salty smell and flavour was very mild and surprisingly delicious – I found myself going back for seconds.

Stir fried Chinese cabbage and mushrooms, fried rice with salty egg

Dessert was vanilla ice cream served with a dollop of fresh cream and dribbles of chocolate sauce on a triangular wafer. It was a pleasant though not exceptional meal.

Vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce

Vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce

Indochine
26 Truong Dinh Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Telephone: (84-8) 9308421
There is also an Indochine restaurant in Hanoi.

We weren’t in the mood for slow tours of buildings and museums, so our guide took us on a whirlwind tour of some of Ho Chi Minh City’s landmarks.

First, the Reunification Palace, formerly called the Independence Palace, where the President of South Vietnam resided during the Vietnam War. On 30 April 1975, a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through the palace gates, bringing the end of the Vietnam War. You’ll find a replica of that tank parked in the palace grounds.

Reunification Palace

The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica is the largest cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, constructed between 1863 and 1880, with the twin bell towers added in 1895. The original building was made with materials imported from France, including red bricks from Marseilles. It is still a place of worship as well one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most photographed buildings.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica (official name – Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception)

Saigon Central Post Office is located near the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Designed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, as in “Eiffel Tower”) and built in 1886, it is a working post office as well as popular tourist attraction.

Saigon Central Post Office

Inside the Post Office

Next, we visited the Rex Hotel, built in 1927 and made famous during the Vietnam War as the venue for the American Military Command’s daily conference. The hotel’s rooftop bar was a favourite haunt of war correspondents, journalists and military officials.

Rex Hotel Saigon

Rex Hotel Saigon

Rooftop bar at Rex Hotel Saigon

Rooftop bar at Rex Hotel Saigon

We decided to skip the rooftop bar in favour of the bar on the ground floor, where a pianist was playing, the air-conditioning was cool and we could use the free wifi.

Wifi and icy cold drinks at the Rex Hotel Saigon

Dinner at Lemongrass

Our last meal in Ho Chi Minh City was at Lemongrass, frequently mentioned in numerous guide books on Vietnam – the result: a mostly tourist clientele.

Lemongrass Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh City

Lemongrass Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh City

Upstairs dining room, Lemongrass Restaurant

We sat upstairs. Our set menu dinner began with fried spring rolls with minced shrimps and pork. We wrapped the popping-hot spring rolls in the cool lettuce and mint leaves, which made them easy to pick up with fingers (still hazardous to to bite!).

Fried spring rolls with minced shrimps and pork

Fried spring rolls with minced shrimps and pork

Next, a fresh and juicy green mango salad with grilled marinated strips of lean beef and the crunch of roasted peanuts.

Mango salad with grilled beef

Mango salad with grilled beef

My favourite dish of the meal was the claypot of bubbling seafood soup that fogged my glasses and camera lens when I eagerly leaned too close. It was a fragrant, tangy, chunky soup loaded with fresh herbs, tomato wedges, prawns, squid, fish and straw mushrooms.

Seafood soup with lemongrass

Seafood soup with lemongrass

We ate the seafood soup with fresh thin rice noodles in our own smaller bowls.

Seafood soup with lemongrass

Seafood soup with lemongrass

The Chinese spinach was sauteed with onion and topped with lots of fried garlic which I couldn’t stop eating.

Sauteed Chinese spinach with garlic

Sauteed Chinese spinach with garlic

The last of the savoury dishes to arrive was sauteed beef and slippery glass noodles in a rich but mild curry sauce, sprinkled with roughly chopped fresh herbs and a smattering of roasted peanuts.

Sauteed glass noodle with beef in curry sauce

Sauteed glass noodle with beef in curry sauce

We were pretty full by now, and picked at the fruit rather than devoured it.

Mixed fruits

Mixed fruits

Downstairs dining room, Lemongrass

Lemongrass
4 Nguyen Thiep, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Telephone: (08) 822 0496

Although I was looking forward to being home again, I couldn’t help feeling sad the trip had reached its end.

On a street in Ho Chi Minh City

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City

We flew business class with Vietnam Airlines from Ho Chi Minh City to Sydney (home for the boys; I had a second flight to get home to Perth). We were treated to the same level of pampering as before, with hot face towels and champagne or fruit juice as soon as we were seated, and hot bread rolls delivered with our meals via silver service.

There were two supper menus to choose between: Asian or Western – I chose the Asian-style menu. My starter was a green mango salad with prawn cake and marinated scallops. I chose hot garlic bread to go with it.

Scallops and salmon cake, garlic bread

Scallops and salmon cake, garlic bread

For my main course I chose the beef pho, which was served with chopped fresh herbs, lemon wedge and chopped chilli. Even after a squeeze of the lemon and stirring through the accompaniments, the broth was quite bland. Dessert was “Vietnamese sweet style paste”, made with beans and sweet corn.

Beef pho and Vietnamese sweet style paste

After a sleep, we were served breakfast, and once again I chose the Asian option. On my tray were fresh fruit (watermelon, rockmelon and pineapple), yoghurt with pandan sauce, chicken congee (rice porridge) and butter and jam to go with whichever bread I chose. Like the pho, the congee lacked oomph (no soy sauce – I added salt and pepper). The yoghurt was lovely, with pretty streaks of green pandan sauce. I definitely found the food on the flight to Vietnam more enjoyable than on this return journey; but I know I was also ready to be home, craving a burger and fries, or a chicken kebab. Flying is a necessary part of travel, but no matter how attentive the service and how good the food, there’s no denying I prefer “not being on a plane” to “being on a plane” – any time.

Chicken congee

Chicken congee, yoghurt with pandan sauce, fruit

This post marks the end of my series on the RV Mekong Pandaw cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam. Thank you to Vietnam Airlines for inviting me to be part of this memorable journey.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts. Did you have a favourite post, story or image?

The itinerary of the river cruise was set by Pandaw Cruises. The cruise was a marvellous experience with exceptional customer service and great food – but I’d have been just as happy to do my own research and plan my activities to include opportunities to eat more local food, especially market and street food. Although I enjoyed our meals at Indochine and Lemongrass, they clearly catered to tourists rather than locals and I couldn’t help thinking about pulling up a stool and sitting at a sticky counter somewhere deep in the bowels of Ben Thanh Market, steaming up my glasses as I slurped on noodles and attacked a serving of monster prawns. Our time in Vietnam was a mere teaser – I hope to return someday and spend longer. Hanoi and Halong Bay are high on my To Visit list. And yes – I do want to go back to Cambodia and see Angkor Wat at sunrise.

The next series to be featured on my blog will be on my trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. And of course, there are more posts on eating in Perth coming up too.

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  • Great post and beautiful photos Cynthia! Haven’t been to Vietnam in over 10 years and this post makes me want to go back to Ho Chi Minh City. I’m drooling over that food. Yummy!

    • Thanks, Jenny. I’m keen to go back to both Vietnam and Cambodia. Not sure when, but hopefully within the next year or two.