Hai Ba Trung Street, Ho Chi Minh City
Written by Nick Walton Illustration by Marion Vitus
Amateur chef Sandy Fletcher regularly leaves her high-profile finance job in Hong Kong for Vietnam, where she can shop in the markets and boutiques for the freshest ingredients and culinary inspiration.
Ho Chi Minh City (also known locally – and formerly – as Saigon) remains one of Asia’s most colourful, bustling, and vibrant cities. It’s a melting pot of Western and Eastern cultures, and a hub for Vietnam’s sumptuous culinary traditions. Just the place for an amateur chef seeking to escape the rat race and connect with her cultural roots. “My favourite street in the city has to be Hai Bà Trung,” says Sandy Fletcher. “It’s one of the longest in the city and runs all the way from District 1 into District 3. Hai Bà Trung (HBT) is home to some of my favourite restaurants and shops and is a must-see every time I visit Saigon.”
One of the things that appeals most to Sandy is the street’s diversity, from the modern to the ancient. “In District 1, many hotels are located on the intersection of HBT, including the new InterContinental Saigon, and the classical lines of Park Hyatt. In contrast, there is the Ky Dong Roman Catholic church in District 3, which is bright pink. I think the designer must be a fan of Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink.” Sandy, and many visitors to downtown Saigon, explore Hai Bà Trung with their taste buds leading the way. There is a host of restaurants scattered down the boulevard’s length, including some of the city’s best Vietnamese eateries. “Thanh Nien Restaurant, located at number 35 in District 1 is a personal favourite,” says Sandy. “It’s a quiet place with a lush garden and covered courtyard as well as some great casual Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a favourite amongst locals, especially the city’s new-rich, but remains little-known to tourists. Be sure to take advantage of the al fresco seating, and do try the grilled beef rice vermicelli salad (bun thit bo nuong). These are rice noodles with loads of pickled and fresh veggies, crushed peanuts, and topped with grilled beef. The beef is grilled over hot coals so you might have to wait a little, but it’s well worth it. Also be sure to watch out for the blob of fiery ground chilli paste served on the inside of the bowl; mix that in at your own risk.” Fresh bread remains an important component of Vietnamese cuisine, a legacy of the French colonial period. Sandy’s favourite bread shop, Pat’ A Chou, located at 74B Hai Bà Trung in District 1, serves up a host of fresh loaves daily. “At Pat' A Chou I can eat a whole baguette, straight from the oven. They also sell mini Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches (salad sandwiches). Delicious!
I also like stopping in at Annam Gourmet which has a great selection of French gourmet foods and a Fauchon chocolate counter whose truffles are to die for.”
Markets are also a massive drawcard in Saigon, and the Tan Dinh markets on Hai Bà Trung offer a more authentic experience than some of those more popular with backpackers. “These markets in District 3 are a fabric heaven if you are looking to tailor your own clothes. It’s cheaper than the Ben Thanh Market, but negotiation is required so brush up on your bartering skills.”
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Sandy Fletcher balances her passion for cooking with a jet-set career as the CFO for a sustainable forestry company based in Hong Kong (www.susfor.com).
Sandy’s father was born in Saigon’s Cholon district, the city’s Chinatown, and at the beginning of the 1970s moved with his wife, a native Hong Konger, to Hong Kong, where Sandy was born. Now Sandy spends time between her corporate career in Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City, where she manages the family investments.
Her passion for cooking is one that has been passed down through the generations, and when she’s not hosting dinner parties in Hong Kong or testing out new dishes on friends, she’s brushing up on her Vietnamese at the markets and restaurants on Hai Bà Trung.