Secrets of Siagon

Alleyways

This isn’t just Saigon’s secret, all over Vietnam narrow alleyways are often home to the best finds. Be confident enough to venture out of the backpacker’s district and poke your heads into sketchy looking lanes as they often house cool, boutique, Asia chic stores and cafes. We found some of the raddest restaurants and coffee shops sprinkled up stairways and down side streets.

Biking

When you jump on a bike in Saigon you realise how well traffic operates in this seemingly chaotic city. It’s a huge adrenaline rush to be on the streets with the 14million locals. Everyone is courteous and aware making you feel as safe as cycling in any other city. We recommend ‘Ride, Bite and See Saigon’ on Airbnb experiences with Linh.

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Crossing the road

Flying straight into the hectic city of Saigon was a little daunting at first. Once settling in to our accommodation, we wanted to head out for a bite but found ourselves stuck on our block. With no traffic crossing in site and a herd of motorbikes constantly zooming past us, we wondered if we would ever be able to eat. That’s when a lovely old local lady grabbed us buy the arms and trudged us straight out on the road. We parted the traffic just like Moses parted the red sea, with bikes swerving around us and trucks coming to halt to let us go by. So this secret…?  Walk out slowly, at a constant pace and with confidence – any hesitation and you’ll be stuck just like we were.

Cafes

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Cafes in Vietnam come in all shapes, sizes, specialties and themes. While in Saigon do your very best to never visit the same café twice. The culture around cafes/ tea shops is incredible. If you go out at 11:00pm, curb sides will be adorned with child sized stools and chock a block full of locals meeting in the street for an iced tea or coffee blend. The way Vietnam extracts their coffee is super long resulting in an extra strong buzz.

Some of our favourites:

Era Coffee - 58C TRAN QUOC THAO STREET, DISTRICT 3

L’USINE - 70B LE LOI, DISTRICT 1

UP CAFÉ - 269 NGUYỄN TRỌNG TUYỂN

Markets

Saigon has so many markets. All have different specialities and are great for different bits and bobs.

Ben than – Want the latest yeezys or designer scarfs and bags? Ben Than is the spot. This chaotic market in the centre of Saigon has all the rip offs you could dream of – however the rip offs here aren’t the greatest and while you can find all the Calvin Klein underwear your heart desires – there’s a better spot for more “high quality” rip offs. Also, quick tip: take 70% off the price the stall holder starts with then work your way down from there.

Saigon Square – This is the one if you’re happy to spend a bit more for higher quality rip offs that are more original. I had a look at some of the Chloe bags and Celine sunglasses and they fooled me.

Cholon (Bin Tay) – this market has a heavy Chinese influence and features many textiles, handicrafts, fresh produce as well as sooo many food choices you’ll definitely leave with a food baby.

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Bars

Sax-n-Art – Saigon’s jazzy jazz bar. 

Vietnams king of jazz Tran Manh Tuan started this bar to bring soul to the music scene in Ho Chi Minh. The cover charge is built into the price of the first drink and there’s probably an equal number of tourists to locals present, but the main thing is the music is incredible. Only the best musicians make up the house band and their crazy talent would bring me back every night of the week.

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Saigon Outcasts – Bar featuring good foods, better beers, a half pipe and above all a rock climbing wall. From what I gather it’s a real expat haven in the city and a fun place for adults to play.

Pasteur street brewing co – The on trend tap rooms combine American craft brewing techniques with the flavours of Vietnam. The combination of western culture with local Vietnam can also be seen in the hip crowd that gathers – millennials of all cultures gathering to enjoy the sweet nectar, brewed to be enjoyed by everyone.

Pagoda- Jade Emperor

If you’re looking for the gram – this is your spot. The dusky pink hues of the walls with the jade/turquois roofing is the perfect spot for a photo. BUT, beyond that its also so incredibly interesting watching the community use this as a place of worship. The way they light the incense and say prayers to specific deities allows you to get a glimpse at local life in Vietnam.

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Vietnam - The Food

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Bahn Xeo -  Translation "sizzling cake"

This is a fun one to have with a group of friends! Named for the sizzling sound the batter makes when it hits the hot plate, Bun Xeo is a huuuuge pancake/savoury crepe situation filled with your choice of vegetables, meat etc. and comes with a stacked plate of greenery like lettuce Vietnamese mint, basil and a delicious swamp plant called claw. To eat, everyone grabs a green leaf and uses it to tear off a piece of pancake then roll it up like a rice roll and dip it in fish sauce. For vegetarians out their many places have a vege friendly ‘fish sauce’ option too!

Banh Mi

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You can’t go to Vietnam and not have a Banh Mi. Since the French colonized Vietnam, they created an awesome fusion of flavours using the prefect crispy French baguette and filling it with Asian flavours. Banh Mi is hard to miss with a street vendor every 100 meters your guaranteed to never go hungry. Street price 15,000 VND / Less than $1 NZD

Crispy Rice Noodles

These are god’s gift to Vietnam/ the whole of South East Asia. Take a large portion of vermicelli rice noodles and stick em in a deep fryer. It makes the lightest and tastiest crunchy yum noodles in the world, have these topped with some veges and some secret Vietnamese sauce recipe and you’re good to go.

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Rice Pancakes

These tiny bites are steamed perfection. Rice flour and water mixed up into a batter and spread into a teeny tiny flat pancake steamed on a cloth over boiling water. We had these with a good friend which we topped with vegetarian ‘fish’ sauce, crushed cashew nuts and a touch of HOT chilli.

Cao Lau Noodles of Hoi An

It’s a regional Vietnamese dish found only in the town of Hội An in central Vietnam. Its super special and is only made by two families! The buzzy taste and texture is from using water from an undisclosed ancient Cham well, just outside the town. To make Cao lầu noodles, the rice has to be stone ground and mixed with ash and water. The ash is made with firewood from the Cham Islands, around 19 km from Hội An. The super smokey flavour gets the taste buds zinging so make sure you give it a go while in Hoi An.

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Phó

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Pronounced “fa”, Vietnamese eat phó for breakfast lunch and dinner. Like Banh mi it can be found everywhere from the side of the road to fancy restaurants and even on river boats floating up the Mekong. Super cheap and no two alike, if you’re doing Vietnam on a budget phó will be your best friend. 

Dried pomelo skin and anything else dried…

Dried fruits are the Vietnamese version of lollies/sweets/candy. At any local market you’re bound to come across all colours of the rainbow in dried fruit. Our favourite was dried pomelo skin. We first tried this sweet treat while enjoying a tea ceremony with a local girl and became addicted to the sweet yet bitter flavour. From then on it was a staple in our back packs and the perfect snack for sightseeing.

Dried banana pancake

Cycling is a great way to see Vietnam - need potassium – dried banana pancakes from the street are great. Buy from the local ladies who squat over a sidewalk fires. To make them they slice thin pieces of banana and lie them flat over wire mesh then dry them over the charcoal embers. While drying they constantly fan away the smoke so your treat comes out tasting fresh, chewy and super yum.

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Ca phe sua da - Vietnamese iced coffee

Ca phe sua da is so rad. It’s a specialty of Vietnam and is made by reaaally slowly extracting rich coffee and pouring it over ice with a spoonful of condensed milk (fresh milk is often unavailable and very expensive). You can feel the sugar soaking into your teeth but it’s totally worth it.

Jackfruit

If your stomach is feeling a bit upset or you are worried about how last night’s chicken is sitting try switching to a vegetarian’s version of meat - jackfruit. The majority of restaurants throughout Vietnams utilises this diverse fruit for anything from deserts to main courses - we recommend TIB in HCMC - its a vegetarians food haven! 

Pop corn

Not in the traditional sense. This is sweet corn off the cob that comes in a smoothie container served with fresh onion, herbs and salt and pepper perfect to fill you up on a hot afternoon.

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Saigon

Anyone who has been to Vietnam could warn you of their customs system, you hand your passport and documents over to an officer and then a few HOURs later it may be returned with a visa, all the while your bags are just going round and round on the baggage carousel on the outside. So after finally breaking free from the woes of the airport we made it to Vietnam. We met these awesome kiwis in the airport who had the great idea of getting an Uber to avoid any taxi scams, so we copied them and made our way in the hectic traffic to our Airbnb on the outskirts of District 1. 

The area we are staying in is a little removed from the traditional backpackers street and fancy hotels. To get to our apartment we creep down this alley way with cool little modern shops selling retro inspired clothes, bags, jewellery and arrive in this hip happening beer garden. In the corner of the area there is a small set of spiral stairs that leads us up to our dreamy Saigon studio. 

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One of the coolest things about this spot is that our balcony looks out over the Jade Pagoda. It was built in 1909 in honour of the supreme Taoist god (the Jade Emperor - Ngoc Hoang), and is one of the most incredibly atmospheric temples in Ho Chi Minh City, filled to the brim with  statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes. The air is filled with pungent smoke of incense (huong), hazing over the exquisite woodcarvings. It's stunning. 

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After having a quick shower, we were both parched and hungry so grabbed some vietnamese dong and headed out to grab a bite. Sean only had one thing on his mind - Banh Mi. We found this cool little shop and ordered two tofu and a salad. HOLY MOLY - I don't know whether it was because we were super hungry or whether it genuinely was one of the best things I have ever eaten. Once we had rapidly devoured our meal and considered getting another one, we made our way out to the streets and spent the rest of our first day people watching and trying to scout out a spot for some Vietnamese coffee for the morning. 

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So that's Day 1 gone and dusted. We are so excited to be here and can't wait to se what Day 2 has in store for us. 

Sean and Katie
xxx

 

Syme Hut | Egmont National Park

City life was getting to us, making us scratch at the walls of our apartment and we were getting fed up at little things, itching for something to do... so we decided to listen to the tingle in our toes and started hunting for a pre-winter hike. Sean's dad had got him this great book for christmas - Shelter from the Storm; The Story of New Zealand's Backcountry Huts - which basically just inspired us to google NZ's best hut. The search came back with Syme Hut, Mt Taranaki. One of the sweetest features of the New Zealand outdoors is these insaaane backcountry huts. We have this remarkably diverse network of little cabins, literally unlike anywhere else in the world, and for those who venture into our most wild places there is often a humble structure to cover your head for about five bucks a night.

Growing up in New Zealand with families that love camping and the outdoors, we already had all the gizmos and gadgets we needed - sweet sub-zero sleeping bags, a gas cooker and all the lightweight plates, cups and utensils we'd ever need - buuuut... we didnt have it with us in Auckland. Not letting this dwindle our spirits we packed up our school bags (hiking-packs tucked away in our childhood wardrobes) with basically the opposite of appropriate mountain-climbing gear.

Gear List:

  • Pot from our kitchen - one of those trendy ones made of stone
  • Duvet - we figured we'd just hop inside the cover and be right as mustard
  • Apples - for super lightweight snacking
  • Two hot water-bottles - pre filled of course
  • Six litres of water
  • A portable coal BBQ - wtf??
  • And a collection of more appropriate bits and bobs...

We had spoken to the DOC ranger on the phone and she had warned us that Syme Hut's nickname was The Fridge. Situated at around 2000m above sea level this basic hut has no form of heating and the likelihood of water was pretty low as the watertank was notorious for freezing over. Luckily we had all of our ski-gear with us so bags filled up with thermals and ski jackets tied around our waist we took our can do attitude five hours south to the base of Mt Taranaki.

On the Department of Conservation website the track to Syme Hut was rated as Advanced/ Expert and although having done a very very limited amount of hiking we RATED ourselves... this was a novice mistake. The start of the track is at the Dawson Falls visitor centre on the Eastern side of Egmont National Park. The sweet DOC ranger in the visitor centre sold us our Hut tickets and a map of the Volcano then sent us on our merry way. 

The track starts by winding up through old growth forest, where the trees are bearded in dark green moss that makes the branches seem like the arms of reaching monsters. You pass over a couple of streams with hundreds of birds singing over-head until you start to hit the alpine line. The trees become suddenly dwarfed - its almost as if you are the one thats gotten bigger. Feeling like giants, we trudge on up the hill leaving the midget forest and entering the golden tussocks. At various points along the way there are signs so in terms of knowing where to go it's pretty easy - Syme's Hut is plopped on Phantom Peak a little below the summit. Breaking out of the bush we got our first glimpse of the top and at this stage out heart rates were up but nothing too overwhelming... then came the stairs. We decided to have a wee break with some water and nut bars - at this stage we had only been walking for about 40 minutes. We thought we were KILLING IT. The sweet DOC Ranger had said that this would take us about three hours but we were already more than half way along the track according to the map.

Refreshed and rehydrated we continued on our merry way spirits flying high as we climbed on up. It was probably on the second case of stairs that the burn started to kick in, you know the one you get when your on your third set of squats at the gym, that deep inner burn. The pace slowed but that was ok as we started taking in the ridiculous views. You can make out the perfect circular line of where the forest turns to pasture at the edge on Egmont National Park (pull it up on google maps its super cool from a birds eye view). We could see the top of the stairs and were excited as we thought the most difficult part was almost over... OH HOW WE WERE WRONG

When the stairs end, the hard part starts. The remainder of the hike is on scoria - which is just a fancy word for volcanic shingle/ gravel / loose rock. This means that every step you take your more likely to go down then up. There's no set track just a bunch of sticks in the ground about five meters apart to point the way to go. This is when we reeeeallly start to regret that stone pot and coal BBQ stashed on our backs. It's gruesome, grueling and every other synonym for fudging hard. We've always made fun of those people with hiking poles - you know the ones that seem to have an excessive amount of gortex and carbon fibre - but now we got it. We craaaved that swish gear as we scrambled up the side of this mountain.

Fast-foward about two hours of intense breathing, multiple swear words and so many trips we could've gone to every country in the world and we still aren't at the top. The last part of the climb is kind of a relief as the ground is solid but also kind of daunting as there is a bit of low level rock climbing involved. We hauled our exhausted bodies over the boulders laughing at our extremely amateur attempt at hiking. Then it was over, we'd made it. Phantom peak. Amazeballs. We'd timed it perfectly the sun was just about to set casting a firery glow to the western side of the Volcano. It was blooming freezing so we ditched our bags in the hut and rugged up in all the clothes we had bought then set out to admire the sunset. 

We stayed over night, enjoying the company of a couple gortex clad hikers who made fun of our pot and duvet. No wifi, no cell signal, no electricity just great company and a deck of cards. It dropped to about -10°C overnight inside the hut, definitely earning it's nickname 'The Fridge' and although we cursed them on the way up the hot water-bottles were a lifesaver. 

It's a pretty cool feeling climbing a volcano, gives you a bit of time to ponder and puts insignificant problems into perspective, like we have the ability to literally conquer MOUNTAINS. It's a challenge but all of the coolest things are and it has to be one of the best views of the milkyway in the world after all for five dollars a night you get bizillion star accomodation. 

Peace and smiles, 

Sean & Katie

If you want to know anymore about the hike or can recommend other great spots feel free to email us at info@seanandkatie.com