A tour of Ho Chi Minh with chef Bobby Chinn was on the second day of our schedule.
Chinn, who just opened his second restaurant in the city, the first being in Hanoi, wanted to show a bit of his adopted country, some must-see places for tourists but, more important, his own favorite haunts.
The weird thing was that the tour would be on scooters, a Vespa for each, the iconic motorcycle from Italy.
Anyone who has ever been to Vietnam knows the motorcycle experience. Those two-wheel vehicles whiz by you in droves, a crazy mix of delivery boys, mothers ferrying children to and from school, office workers going to an appointment, the ordinary Vietnamese commuting, and, yes, a convenient getaway ride for bag snatchers.
We were to have our own drivers, thank goodness, though Chinn started out driving himself, first on a brand new Vespa while we rode the vintage models that our guide said sells pretty well in the Philippines. At his signal we became part of that motorcycle tsunami.
We snaked through other motorcycles, pedestrians, cars, trucks. Sometimes we met all those head-on before making a turn.
First stop was Notre Dame church, a beautiful brick structure, then the Reunification Palace formerly the Presidential palace and now a museum. Pose here, then off to the Flower Market.
Stalls not only had flowers for sale but sweepstakes and food as well, one with seafood, noodles or plain tea.
Chinn showed off his bargaining technique and though we didn’t know what buyer and seller were saying, it was a show of giggles, mock anger and the giving up.
In the end, Chinn had an armful of roses. Those would hang on threads upside down from the ceiling in strategic spots in his restaurant.
Next stop was the Ben Thanh market, the all-purpose selling place for fresh food and dry goods. Chinn made his way to the cooked-food stalls.
First stop, the banh cuon. That’s composed of a sticky wrapper made of rice flour enfolding mushrooms and chickens within and flavored with fish sauce, nuoc cham (dipping sauce), crisp fried shallots and powdered dried shrimp.
Chinn sat down to make a wrapper explaining how difficult it is to make the perfect piece. The woman who does it showed him again, her effortless motion producing a more transparent rounded piece with no holes. We ate both perfect and imperfect banh cuon rolls.
A few meters away, Chinn held out a bowl to let us taste the Vietnamese version of guinataan halo-halo, coconut milk with taro and other rootcrops. It was like being home again on Sunday for family merienda.
The vendor kept offering us other coconut milk concoctions, then small glasses of tea to wash those down.
A short walk to the seafood section showed us the soft-shell crabs that Vietnamese love. The Filipinos told Chinn about “gay crabs” and he looked at us incredulously. We ought to teach them a thing or two about crabs.
The Vespa tour ended there and we got into our conventional van bound for a Vietnamese restaurant that was Chinn’s choice.
Hoang Yen is a more upscale place. Chinn did the ordering. The menu had a special section—“flowers.” And two of those came, chive or kutsay flowers and squash flowers, both cooked the typical Vietnamese way—not overcooked but adding flavors from their good fish sauce, garlic and shallots.
One fish was cooked in a hotpot and the other as soup, much like our sinigang but a bit sweet. Chinn said the fish was placed in the shallow soup bowl that had fish sauce and sliced red chili.
Two more vegetables completed the meal—roasted eggplant and bittermelon (ampalaya), the latter cooked with egg exactly the way we do it.
While eating the food you tell yourself that this is the secret of the typically slim Vietnamese—light food with lots of vegetables.
For us, however, eating light at lunch only meant that there should be enough space for dinner in Bobby Chinn’s restaurant where we indulged ourselves on several dishes, from appetizer to dessert—aromatic porcini pizza to spine-tingling bone marrow served with toast, a Moroccan beet salad with goat cheese, hefty beef shank and duck confit. So much for the calories lost during that hair-raising Vespa drive through town.
We had a perfect way to de-stress—a relaxing spa massage in our temporary home, the excellent InterContinental Asiana Saigon. Chinn’s restaurant is just next door.
“Restaurant Bobby Chinn,” a six-part series, premiered on TLC, 10 p.m., on Aug. 13.
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