Saturday, 6 August 2011

A big Night out in District 1Ho Chi Minh City

Last Tuesday night , Kim's mother Christiane invited me to join in a special vegetarian buffet dinner at Van Canh Banquet Hall organised for all of us by Mr Kiet, Kim's father. Kim works at Maison Chance Vietnam. His parents came to visit him from Geneva.
Van Canh Restaurant has been in existence a long time before the 1975 Liberation. I remembered my parents were often invited to weddings at this restaurant.  After the Liberation it was taken over by the government enterprises Saigon Tourist.
The multi storey building is in the corner of Rue Calmette, opposite the Ben Thanh Market Roundabout , it is now a three stars hotel with a large banquet hall, and it is part of the Que Huong Hotel chain.
The reception lounge is on the ground floor, despise the impressive corner entrance, it looks tired and it could do with a little tender care.  The red carpeted stairs led up to the banquet hall  must have seen so many different style of shoes since the 1940s and it shows.

The hall is very large in three section screened from the walkway of loose tiles by a row of artificial bamboo 

By the time we arrived, there was not many tables available. Mr Kiet had already purchased the vouchers for all of us, he had to run down to return the extra vouchers which Christiane  had bought for us as we came a bit later. Besides his family members Mr Kiet invited 3 of his friends from the music industry.
We squeezed ourselves into two large round tables, one for us, Vietnamese women and the other for  the men and Christiane and Anna. My conversation with the ladies was limited to basic greetings; I find the lack of social introduction in Vietnam a bit uncomfortable. 
I launched into “studying” the food and took photos of almost all the dishes. In the advertisement it says all the ingredients are organic and the dishes would provide enough nutrients required.

The banquet hall is very large with tables and chairs all dressed in white.

Vietnamese vegetarian dishes often have the same name as the non- vegetarian dishes, so we have vegetarian chicken, prawns, beef , offal, pickled fishes, roast pork dishes. the reason for this bizarre practice is to help vegetarian diners to feel that they do not miss out the common food enjoyed by the majority of the population. May be this emphasises the philosophical concept that life is after all an illusion.
These look alike animal flesh are made with gluten paste, the protein extracted from wheat flour with particular flavours added. The manufacture of these products have become a big export business in Taiwan and Malaysia.

These were the prawn and chicken curries and beef and chicken ragouts, which I selected.
Both curry dishes had the same sauce and the ragouts tasted similar. The chicken, the beef and the prawn are made with gluten paste with appropriate food colourings and flavourings.

Traditionally most Vietnamese become vegetarian on the first day and the fifteen day of every lunar calendar month to show respect for Buddha’s teaching of “NO KILLING”, some Buddhist sect would not even eat any root vegetables fearing that pulling out the root vegetables from the ground would kill some small creature living in the soil. Nowadays, in Vietnam the new trend is to have vegetarian food for the whole month of July of Lunar Calendar, it is the month when we offer prayers and food for the lost souls, “Le Vu Lan”, and since the new millennium Van Canh Hotel has set the trend of July Vegetarian Buffet where all the Saigon’s Vegetarian dishes are offered. It is very popular among the young foreigners as well as the Vietnamese students; in general, vegetarian food is much cheaper than non- vegetarian food. Now among the new educated generation, vegetarianism is also being promoted as part of the environmental protection awareness.

The tea station offered iced tea, hot tea and ginger tea,

The food stations arranged in various groups:

The rice station offered a varieties of rice dishes including, steamed plain sticky rice, fried rice, pastas.

The steamed vegetables are presented in attractive bamboo baskets with various dipping sauces in ceramic bowls.

Steamed and pickled vegetables including "Cai xanh" (green leaf cabbage), "Muop dang" (bitter melon), "Rau muong"(Vietnamese spinach), "Dua chua" (pickled mustard green or ham choy) served with "tuong Tau" (soy sauce), "tuong ta" (yellow bean sauce) 
mayonaise based sauce etc.

The next section  offers sushi and various dishes made with rice flour including banh duc , banh uot, banh hoi, banh u tran, banh beo, bi cuon,  and banh tam bi.

"Banh Beo": steamed rice flour cake with mashed steamed mung bean.

"Banh u tran": glutinous rice flour ball with filling; This version is called “ naked u cake” for the reason that it is not wrapped in banana leaves or bamboo leaves as normally seen at markets.

Sushi Vietnamese style: Ho Chi Minh City has numerous international restaurants offering a wide ranges of  other Asian and European cuisine to cater for the ex -pats and tourists. There is a 10% increase in numbers of visitors to VN last year.

"Bi cuon": Fresh rice paper rolls with vegetarian pork skin filling


                                             " Banh Tam bi": Plain thick rice noodle

"Banh hoi": very fine rice vermicelli in a mesh with fried golden shallot

              "Banh duc": Plain Glutinous rice flour & lime stone water

"Bun Thit Nuong": Grilled pork with rice vermicelli: a very popular market food dish, available in the “food court at every market. This dish varies according to different regions and cities in Vietnam, the Hanoi version is known as "bun cha", the Central version is "nem nuong" and the Southern style is "bun thit nuong".

My selection of various noodle dishes with condiments and sauce.

Traditional "Coi xay" (stone grinder) for making rice flour batter using in different cakes and noodles

Traditional sauce jar in earthenware and commercial produced sauce bowls.

 I skipped the curry section to visit the “a la carte ” section where chefs cooked dishes on orders, these are mainly special noodle soups, such as "Bun mam" (pickled fish noodle soup), a specialty from the Western Mekong Delta,"Bun rieu" ( crab noodle soup) or "Banh xeo" (singing pancake).


                                                                  A chef serving up his special dish

At the Banh Xeo Station, the chef constantly produced fresh crispy pancake with filling.

My freshly made banh xeo with young mustard green leaves, herbs, sauce and pickles. The pancake is smaller, very crispy but very oily the filling was mainly bean sprouts.

There were two stations for salads, Vietnamese salads and Western salads .
Goi is the general term for Vietnamese style salad which could be made with any young fruits, green shoots and the condiments for goi are crushed peanuts, roasted sesame seeds, crispy fried golden shallots and a salad dressing made with vinegar, sugar, fish sauce, soya sauce or yellow bean sauce, for the vegetarian version, fried tofu is to replace, meat or seafood.
They are refreshing as an entrĂ©e or a mouth refresher course. 

The Vietnamese “goi”  (salads) consist of  “ goi rau muong” (Vietnamese water spinach), “goi mit non” (young jack fruit salad), “goi don chuoi” (banana sucker salad), “goi co hu dua” (young coconut shoot), “goi ngo sen” (water lily shoots salad), “goi du du thit bo kho” (green papaya with jerky beef salad).

This is a piece of young coconut shoot “Co hu dua”, it has similar texture to bamboo shoot but has a sweeter taste.

There was another “goi” which was new to me, it is called “Goi keo neo”.  (Importune plant Salad). Keo neo is a wild plant growing at the edge of waterways in the Mekong Delta. It has a soft but crunchy texture similar to that of the taro stem. It can also be boiled and dipped in different sauce as a vegetable to be eaten with rice.

The Western salad selection looked a bit ordinary so I just had a quick look

In the middle of the hall there were two rows of bamboo basket lidded woks on
 ceramic food warmers, which added a cultural touch to the presentation of the common Chinese woks.

These contains some Chinese style dishes including the popular corn- starch thicken soups, which have very similar taste even they have different names.
My selection of 3 gluey soups:
clockwise: "Sup toc tien" (black angel hair soup), "Sup nam Linh Chi" (Ling chi Mushroom soup) and "Chao thap cam" (combination rice soup).

Other dishes in this group included Chinese style braised intestine, gluten paste with lemon grass and chilli and fragrant fried rice.

A sample of stir fry and braised dishes: “Muop huong xao” (scented marrow stir fry), “Hai sam nau nam dong co” (Sea cucumber stir fry with shiitake mushroom),  “Mit kho tieu” (Young jackfruit braised with pepper), “Oc nau chuoi”  (Braised green banana with river snail).
And “kiem” a vegetarian soup made with pumpkin and mung bean, this soup reminded me of the Indian dhal but a bit more liquid. I preferred this than the  gluey soups above.

Seeing that I was engrossed in dissecting my food selection, the ladies reminded me not to miss out the sweets, they said they were the best.
And they were right, by the time I got to the sweets, only a few left:

I had “banh Chuoi” (banana cake), “banh dau xanh” (mung bean cake), “Banh dom” (sticky rice ball), “soi vi” : (two flavours sticky rice with steam mung bean filling) Vietnamese cherry and boiled sweet potato.

My favorite “che dau den” (black bean sweet soup)

And the most popular among the diners “chuoi chien” (banana fritter).

The moon soon rain had been pouring down over the city the whole evening giving the dusty buildings a fresher look and relieving people from the oppressing heat.

Ben Thanh roundabout in the rain, viewed from the banquet hall blurry window

At 9 pm, the waiting staff in brown uniforms started clearing and resetting tables, From one of them, I learned that Saigon Tourist runs a number of chain hotel groups, The Que Huong and the Liberty Hotels. Everyhotel has a banquet hall. The corporate body employs many staff and puts them through a special training program on hospitality and tourism. When graduated they work 8 hours a day and 6 days a week and they earn reasonably good money. They seem to know their job and work very efficiently.

Mr Kiet’s brothers and sisters left earlier, so there were seven of us left. We all piled in a taxi to go for food massage near Mr Kiet’s hotel.
We managed to get 1 big room for ourselves; this provided an hour work for at least 10 young girls.
and even though it says food massage but we got a bit extra neck and hand massage as well.
There was a bit of a confusion due to the double tips which some of the girls received from Christiane. the tip is included in the price so it took a while to retrieve the extra tips.

After that, another little debate over our next destination and we decided to visit the Jazz Club in the City main drag. We got there at 11pm and were lucky to catch the last gig of the night since the club closes at midnight, It has a great ambience with mood lighting, most of the audience were foreigners, the Club owner was the saxophonist, Mr Tuan, whom I saw in April at Bob Dylan Concert in Ho Chi Minh City. He introduced the first French guest player in perfect English, they played well together, later Mr Tuan, t played a traditional Vietnamese folk song “Qua Cau Gio Bay”(While crossing the bridge, the wind blew away...) first on a bamboo flute then with the three saxophones together, it was very interesting to hear traditional Vietnamese music play in jazz style.  The other guest players of the night were a South Korean saxophonist and a British guitarist.
I said hello to Mr Tuan and he said if he knew I like Trinh Cong Son Music he would have played some for me. Such a sweet man.

                                                Mr Tuan and the guest player

We got home after midnight however the gate- keeper was still watching TV so we did not get into any trouble. I am so glad to be invited to such a rare night out in the city Centre of Ho Chi Minh City.

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