Photos and words by Laura Pounds
Same same but different ways to stay nourished in Ho Chi Minh City
As cities go, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is much more cosmopolitan than I had expected. Besides being the land of coffee and motorbikes, Vietnam also boasts amazing cuisine as well as offering many culturally unique things to see and do despite doses of Westernization. It was not difficult to stay nourished here with good food (yay, spring rolls!) and quality Vietnamese coffee.
Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world and with a population of over 8 million people, there are thousands of unique and charming cafes to explore and keep you caffeinated. Even if you lead a caffeine free life-style, it’s easy to spend hours in these cafes. Each one is uniquely designed and offers the perfect ambience for working, reading, or socializing.
Coffee preparation is unique in that the grounded beans are put in a container/french drip filter that rests on top of a mug. A thin lid sits on top of the beans and then a small amount of water is added, allowing the coffee to drip into the mug below. This results in a strong coffee and is most commonly mixed with condensed milk, making it particularly rich and sweet. It’s like a dessert in a cup and meant to be slipped slowly, which I struggled with.
One unique aspect about coffee shops and restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City is that most are not at eye level. The majority of great finds are deep within hidden alleyways and several staircases high. I have a lot of favorite cafes in Ho Chi Minh City, but my favorites are always the ones that serve food, because who can park it at a cafe for 5 hours without eating? L'usine was a great go-to with good wifi, a charming environment, and solid food and coffee choices. It was on the busy side, so if you prefer a hidden oasis sans food, I highly recommend the Morning Cafe. You feel like you are in your own private and homey airbnb property. This coffee house is not easy to find but worth it. I have listed several other favorites at the end of this entry, thanks to a friend who made cafe exploration a daily adventure.
FRESH SPRING ROLLS PLEASE
Vietnamese cuisine encompasses a variety of flavors and textures, uses limited to no dairy and a reliance on fresh herbs and vegetables. The more common Vietnamese spring rolls are a traditional dish often with prawns, pork and vegetables wrapped in rice paper. Peanut sauce is often served on the side for dipping. Not only are fresh spring rolls a great healthy option but I have discovered no two spring rolls are alike. I enjoyed these nourishing snacks on a daily basis and it's common to have a slight variation in meats, vegetables and rice versus rice noodles.
One of my favorite finds for fresh spring rolls and just about everything else Vietnamese is at Pi Vegetarian Bistro and Quan Bui Garden. Quan Bui offers a more formal and beautiful setting with traditional and contemporary Vietnamese cuisine while Pi Bistro offers a more laid back atmosphere with vegetarian and vegan options. I ate at and worked from Pi Bistro six days in a row and this could very well be one of my favorite restaurants in SE Asia offering fresh ingredients and nourishing food and drink options.
WHAT THE PHO?
Pho (pronounced "Fuh") is a very common traditional Vietnamese soup dish consisting of an herbal broth, rice noodles, and a meat (of your choice, typically). The soup is often topped with fresh herbs, vegetables, and hot sauces like sriracha for more flavor. pho is a big deal to a lot of people I know in LA and a bigger deal to many of the digital remote workers I know abroad. I officially tried pho for the first time here in Vietnam...and I don't get it. It's good, it's alright. It tastes like a standard salty broth-based soup that would probably be more enjoyable on a cold winter day than in 90 degree temps. I like it enough and had it several times, but I don't fully understand the cult following, and I think people just like saying the word "pho."
In pho's defense, it contains fresh herbs and spices and is a traditional dish served at any time of the day. I think if I lived in Alaska, this soup would definitely grow on me.
SIDE OF ADULT BEVERAGE IN HCMC
There is no shortage of rooftop bars with epic sunset views. Most have great happy hour specials with buy-one get-one free cocktails. I was a fan of Glow Skybar for sunset views. It was quiet with speedy service, but I imagine it gets a lot crazier later in the evenings. For well-made cocktails, you will have to stay on ground-level. Some of my favorites were Layla's Eatery and Bar; their Earl Grey martini is one of the best cocktails I have enjoyed in Vietnam. Other noteworthy options for adult beverages are Shrine and Qui Dining Lounge. Qui's dim lighting and back-room library make for a great ambience. Drink presentation was lovely, but drinks were weak and expensive. Opt for wine or Japanese whiskey instead.
STAYING ACTIVE IN HO CHI MINH CITY
It has been said that air pollution in Ho Chi Minh City is getting to dangerous levels. Approximately 750 new bikes are registered every day, and it is the most populated city in Vietnam. With this said, I did run here, and my run was not impacted by the pollution as much as in other areas of SE Asia. If you do not have any health issues with your lungs and are not harboring a cold, a run on occasion here is enjoyable in my book. Though littered with motorbikes, the city does have wide sidewalks. My favorite one-mile loop was around the Independence Palace, as there were no stoplights and few motorbikes on this route.
If running in a possibly toxic air environment is not your thing, the city offers one of the best gyms I have joined in all of my travels. California fitness & Yoga center offered a quality gym during my stay for one month, including a variety of fitness and yoga classes. It is a high-end gym with crystal chandeliers in the locker rooms, but I was lucky enough to pay only $17 a month (dropped from the standard $100/month) thanks to a Facebook discount. That is one epic discount, and I'm not certain how long that will last, but it's worth inquiring about! It seemed to me there could be room for negotiation on the monthly prices.
And lastly, if you want to spend a day being active with outdoor rock climbing while enjoying lunch and local beers, then head to Saigon Outcast. This is a unique alternative events venue that encourages creative expression. The outdoor venue offers rock climbing, skateboarding, and local goods for purchase including fresh vegetables, pastries and coconut oil. This is a perfect way to enjoy a Sunday afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City and is both family-oriented and a great place for social gatherings with friends.
Favorite finds in Ho Chi Minh City
Morning Cafe - Small, quiet and quaint. Good to work from
L'usine - Good to work from and eat
She Cafe - Quiet, good to work from but very dimly lit
My Life Coffee - Chain around the city but with cute design details and good wifi
Yoko cafe and bar - live music at night
Mocking Bird Cafe - Good wifi, 6th floor and nice views
Pi Vegetarian Bistro - My favorite healthy food option to eat and work from
Propaganda - Contemporary vietnamese food. Gets busy
Quan Bui Garden. - traditional Vietnamese food with higher end but come ambience. Amazing spring rolls.
Hum Vegetarian Cafe - Great for lunch or dinner, come atmosphere and good service
Secret Garden - Lovely decorated rooftop restaurant with traditional Vietnamese cuisine.
Pizza for P's - Not your standard pizza joint. Good to have reservations.
*** Vietnammm.com - I developed a huge love of this reliable delivery service. It provides delivery from some amazing local restaurants offering a variety of cuisine styles including Vietnamese, pizza, sushi and vegetarian options.
Glow Sky bar - Rooftop bar with 50% happy hour. Great place to watch sunset.
Qui Dining lounge - Beautiful cocktail presentation but drinks are on the weaker side
Layla's eatery & bar - Earl Grey martini is on point
Thanks to Laura for her contribution on our blog! Maybe you'll catch her gallivanting around the world somewhere. For more tips on how to travel healthy while still indulging in adult beverages, visit her laurapounds.com.