Post by Michael Robinson, General Manager, Caravelle Saigon
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” wrote Henry James in his 1881 novel, ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. As long as I’ve been general manager at the Caravelle Hotel, I can’t remember a time when we didn’t offer afternoon tea in the Lobby Lounge.
If you’ve never been to the Lobby Lounge, it’s an airy space on the hotel’s ground level, flooded with natural light from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The tables and armchairs look out over the nexus of Old Saigon, where a continuous stream of traffic flows around the majestic Opera House just outside, and under the bougainvillea-laden balconies of the Continental Hotel across Lam Son Square.
In this setting, from noon to 5pm each day, the Lobby Lounge offers afternoon tea to hotel guests and outsiders. However you take it, afternoon tea at the Caravelle is a standing invitation to slow down, socialise and savour life’s simple pleasures.
Tea on its own is said to have the power to cheer or calm, warm or cool the drinker; but when it comes to afternoon tea, many other elements also make an appearance. Ladies especially appreciate the little luxurious details of tiered trays, tiny milk pitchers, sugar tongs and cubes and delicate tea sets.
Yet according to history, there was no pomp or presentation of this kind in 1840, when the 7th Duchess of Bedford began ordering a pot of tea and snacks served in the mid-afternoon in her boudoir. As tea was then a newly fashionable drink, the Duchess soon invited other ladies to these mini-meals, designed to stave off hunger and afternoon doldrums. Afternoon tea took off in the Victorian Era, when 200-person tea receptions were held, and it became popular to enjoy an afternoon tea at 4pm followed by a stroll along the promenade of Hyde Park.
It’s not hard to see why a walk could be needed after one of these scrumptious but decadent indulgences, which at the Lobby Lounge, feature no less than ten sweet and savoury nibbles.
Just this month, we’ve revamped all our tea menus, writing an all-new menu for vegetarians, adding updates where needed and putting a little twist on tired classics. For example, our Traditional English Tea features Belgium chocolate scones instead of regular scones, and our smoked salmon sandwiches have chili-spiced cream cheese.
If you’re up for something more exotic, our Vietnamese Specialty Tea is a great way to tick a bunch of local delicacies off your list in one go. Shrimp mousse on lemongrass skewers, banana blossom salad, coconut macaroons and steamed pandan rice cakes with ginger syrup are a few of the temptations in our Vietnamese selection.
I can’t forget to mention that the Lobby Lounge offers a choice of premium loose leaf Ronnefeldt teas together with the goodies above. Enjoy a pot of fragrant, freshly brewed tea all to yourself or with whomever you choose to share your teatime.
As Henry James keenly noted, however busy our days are, there’s always a good reason to stop and smell the Earl Grey.
Like many good things in life, getting to know Saigon takes time. Obscure alleyways, hidden cafes, out-of-sight bars—are all part of what makes Saigon such a fascinating--and sometimes perplexing—destination. Most of the Caravelle's guests don't have the time to explore Saigon the way they'd like, which is why, with the help of our concierge, we've put together a list of where to go for best experiences in this city. Feel free to use the recommendations below as your insider guide to a great Saigon adventure.
Saigon holds a wealth of treasures for culture-seekers, foodies, history-lovers and shopaholics. Art lovers should join Sophie’s Art Tour or Catherine Karnow’s exhibition at Caravelle Saigon, visit the Fine Arts Museum or catch the AO Show at the Saigon Opera House. History buffs can sign up for Tim Doling’s excellent walking tour, with loads of fascinating insight into old Saigon. Budding cooks can ride with Vietnam Vespa Adventures to sample Saigon’s street food scene, or join a cooking class that includes a visit to a local wet market. Visit the emotionally-charged War Remnants Museum or the Cu Chi Tunnels outside the city to get a glimpse of this period of Vietnam’s history. Shop the boutiques, galleries, tailors and malls on Dong Khoi, or dust off your bargaining skills at Saigon Square on Pasteur.
Best place to observe the locals
Saigon’s parks are communal gardens, sport and dance clubs shared by the city’s old and young. It’s easy to strike up a conversation, join in a match, buy snacks from roving vendors, or just people watch from a park bench. A few lively parks to check out are 23-9 Park along Pham Ngu Lao, Tao Dan Park near the Reunification Palace, and 30-4 Park near the Notre Dame Cathedral. If parks aren’t your thing, pull up a stool at one of the city’s many sidewalk cafes and watch life go by over a mug of ca phe sua da.
Best street food stop
Nha Hang Ngon at 160 Pasteur St. offers safe, scrumptious street food from every corner of Vietnam in a beautiful setting, at affordable prices. Or try a bowl of Saigon’s most talked-about noodles from the Lunch Lady, made famous by Anthony Bourdain of TLC fame. Her stall is located in a quiet alley off Hoang Sa in District 1 (you can find the exact spot pinpointed on Google Maps.)
Best Vietnamese restaurant
Two establishments lead the way in terms of authentic Vietnamese home cooking served in atmospheric villas-turned-restaurants. These are Cuc Gach Quan at 10 Dang Tat, and May at 3 / 5 Hoang Sa. Be sure to call ahead to book a table.
Saigon’s enormous landmark market, Ben Thanh, boasts the lowest prices in town for produce, souvenirs, clothes, cosmetics and more. If you fancy some really fresh Vietnamese fare, Ben Thanh is also a great place for lunch or dinner enjoyed in the market’s lively atmosphere.
Best venues for nightlife
Upscale watering holes Xu and Blanchy’s Tash feature DJ performances and are favorites of the Vietnamese and expat crowd. High above the busy streets, Alto and Chill are known for dazzling panoramic views of Saigon’s District 1 and beyond. For something in the middle, check out La Fenetre Soleil for French bohemian charm, La Habana for live acoustic performances, and Pacharan for Latin music and wine. One of Saigon’s largest nightlife venues, Cargo Bar in District 4, features visiting bands and DJ performances on most weekends. If you want a night on the town with the locals, head to Acoustic Bar in District 3 for some of the best live music in the city.
Best spot for sundowners
Saigon Saigon Bar is a rare combination of Vietnamese heritage, prime location and top-notch service. Not much has changed from the days when this handsome watering hole was the gathering point for war correspondents. The bar’s 10th-floor views of the city centre are especially enjoyable at sunset, when a light breeze sweeps over the city, and the drinks are on happy hour prices. Recently, it has become one of the best rooftop bar in Asia.
Best table in town
If you’d like to splurge on a three-course dinner or perhaps set up a romantic date, book a table at Reflections Fine Dining on the third floor of the Caravelle Saigon. Reflections’ one-of-a-kind views overlook the historic Saigon Opera House and bustling Lam Son Square. Around the corner at Ciao Bella on Dong Du St., you’d find a great little bistro with genuine Italian food at reasonable prices.
Best advice for first-timers
For peace of mind about your fare, stick with Vinasun, Mai Linh and SaigonTourist taxis. Stay alert on the sidewalks and don’t forget to look both ways before launching into any street or alley.
Don't leave HCMC and Hanoi without doing this…
Hit up the spa. From riverside wellness and fitness clubs, to Indochine-inspired day spas, to downtown spa-salons, Saigon is brimming with wellness options at every price point. Soothing head and shoulder massages, foot massages and herbal compress massages are favourites among tired travelers. Kara Spa at the Caravelle Saigon offers spa-goers prime views of leafy Lam Son Square and the use of a private free-form swimming pool.
Five years on in Saigon, I’ve explored this city’s alleys, its boulevards, its riverfront, its museums, pagodas, temples, churches and palaces. I’ve pieced together a pretty solid picture of Vietnamese history. I know what events followed each other, as well as the crucial names, dates and figures along the way, and even some of the lesser-known details peppering the country’s past.
But what I didn’t know much of were the personal stories of people who lived in those times. I had the frame and the outline, but there were spaces missing from the whole picture.
In March 2012, 30-year-old UK native Sophie Hughes opened HCMC’s first tour covering art history from the arrival of the French missionaries to the exhibits taking place this week.
Since so many of the Caravelle’s guests arrive seeking a strong injection of art and culture, I decided to get a preview of Sophie’s tour on my own.
The tour began in a Vietnamese café on Le Quy Don, crossed the street to a beautiful villa, pulled up in an air-conditioned van to a collector’s home in District 1, and turned a few corners to find the propaganda art shop on Dong Khoi, before heading to the jewel-box that is the Museum of Fine Arts and finishing in the minimalist white spaces of a contemporary art gallery.
Along the way, Sophie draws on facts from her research to recreate the mental framework of each period, and what it was like to carve out a living as a Vietnamese artist at any point over the past century.
The stories she relates are at times amusing, at times distressing, but always passionately told. Over the three-and-a-half-hour tour the journey of the local art scene gradually becomes clearer to me.
I learn about the group of students who opened an art school in a forested rebel camp, the art patron who commissioned dozens of portraits of his family to help his struggling friends, and the combat artist who survived two wars and two treacherous journeys on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to retire as a colonel.
Sophie’s dialogue not only points out the crossroads where one decision changed the fate of the country and gives simple explanations of muddy political situations, but also brings an aspect of human emotion, life and colour to a history that still has many visitors and ex-pats mystified.
The effect of all those stories, paintings, drawings, photographs and modern art pieces, is that I leave with a deeper sense of understanding of Vietnam than I had three hours ago.
Not a bad way to spend a morning.
Later on I was able to sit down with Sophie and talk about herself, her tour and art in general:
You were born in London and raised in Newcastle. How did you happen to end up in Vietnam?
I’ve always been interested in developing arts and sociology. I studied new religious movements and art in college, and I was working in the arts scene in London when I noticed some interesting things were happening in Vietnam.
So I came out in 2004 and initially I worked at Galerie Quynh, and then I was director for Future Shorts film festivals in SE Asia for two years, before I started the tour.
When was the seed planted in your mind to open an art tour in HCMC?
When I first arrived in HCMC and would go to the Fine Arts Museum, I saw a lot of people sort of wandering about lost and looking very hot and bothered. I knew I had to do something about it.
Last year I set myself a 30-day challenge to learn everything I could about Vietnamese art and history. What I discovered just blew my mind away, and I thought, “I could make something of this.”
You include all kinds of materials in your presentation. What sort of research went into making the tour?
I spent about six months on research, including photocopying, looking in libraries and other dusty places, and interviewing collectors, curators and artists themselves. I was very lucky to have the legendary Boi Tran Huynh-Beattie agree to be my mentor.
Do you have to be an art lover to enjoy this tour?
I don’t want the tour to exclude anybody. It’s more like a chronological history tour with art threaded through it. So art brings the colour into the history -- not that the history isn’t colourful, but art adds a new dimension.
People say, “I don’t like art” or, “I don’t understand art.” But if I told you the story behind the art, what the artist did, when he lived, you would love it. That’s when art becomes interesting.
I’ve had a lot of people join with no art experience at all, who’ve really enjoyed it.
Why should a visitor to Vietnam make art a part of their itinerary?
There are a lot of misconceptions and preconceptions about Vietnam. Art comes from human experience, not from historical fact. You can look at photos and read personal accounts, but a picture drawn by someone who was there and who engaged in the event gives a completely different perspective.
What makes Vietnamese art unique?
Over the last century Vietnamese art has been swayed and manipulated from outside and inside, but its artists have retained their sense of identity. In the tour we talk about the artists who were pioneers of their time. In the face of conflict and poverty, they remained true to themselves.
How has Vietnam’s art industry fared in recent years?
The art scene here still faces a lot of issues, but there’s been amazing growth and there are hardworking people working to create much-needed opportunities for young Vietnamese artists. There is a ‘watch this space’ sense within the international art market, where eyes are set on Vietnam to see what it’s young people will come up with.
I think that in changing times it’s important for young artists to be encouraged. It’s important for a society to keep its memory of the experience of the time, apart from the figures.
What would you like your tour members to take away from the experience?
I’d like people to come away with a greater understanding of Vietnam, to have an opportunity to rethink what they know and to see more layers, not just what’s in front of them in the crowded, frenetic streets.
Do you have any plans for the future of Sophie’s Art Tour?
It’s always going to change – change the pieces of art and change the stories told – but always keeping it interesting. If it becomes really popular, I hope to train Vietnamese to take it over. I’d like to hand it back.
Whatever the country was famous for in the past, these days the word ‘Vietnamese’ brings up images of steaming beef pho, fresh spring rolls, crispy banh xeo, caramelized claypot fish and grilled pork belly. Vietnamese are passionate about their food and make time for it at all hours of the day, on every corner of the street. In an environment where good food is given such status, cooking competitions like Iron Chef Vietnam take on a whole new dimension.
At the Caravelle Hotel, we followed the first season of Iron Chef Vietnam with interest, as one of our own sous chefs from Reflections was first a contestant, then a semi-finalist, then a finalist. You can imagine the elation from our entire staff when Le Xuan Tam was announced the champion of the competition. Since his return to Reflections, we’ve managed to sit down with our winning chef to gather his thoughts about the show and his cooking career in the interview below. Enjoy!
Chef, can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up?
I was born to quite a poor family in Quang Binh Province. My mother passed away when I just a boy so my father raised me on his own.
How did you first become interested in food and cooking?
After I graduated from Gia Hoi high school in Hue in 1992, I moved to Phan Thiet where I spent a few years working as a fisherman. The fishing life wasn’t really for me, so in 1995 I moved to Ho Chi Minh City and took a job in a Russian restaurant. One of my relatives was a chef there and he was the first person who encouraged and supported my culinary talent. The kitchen of that restaurant on Nguyen Dinh Chieu is where I first became interested in cooking.
Who do you think had the biggest impact in your culinary education?
I was extremely lucky to work with Chef Lê Ngọc Lân (former executive chef at the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi and former executive sous chef at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza, where Chef Xuan Tam worked in 1998.) He is an amazingly talented chef, clever manager and great teacher. His instruction helped me a great deal.
What were some of the turning points in your career as a chef?
My time at L’Oliver Restaurant at the Sofitel Plaza Saigon was crucial to my career, as was the two years I spent working in Singapore at Le Tonkin Restaurant, and the day I joined the Caravelle I remember clearly.
How would you describe your cooking in three words?
Creative, whole-hearted, passionate
What do you enjoy most about being the sous chef of Reflections Restaurant?
The best part of course is that I love what I do: creating and cooking new dishes. I also appreciate the chance to work in an international environment, which not many Vietnamese chefs have the opportunity to do.
What are some of the ingredients you enjoy cooking with the most, and why those?
I find it hard to choose favorite dishes and favorite ingredients. I like all ingredients.
You recently won Iron Chef Vietnam 2012. Going in, did you think you had a good chance of taking home the title?
Actually, when I entered the competition my goal was not to win the trophy but mainly to learn from other chefs and to discover things about myself. I wanted to find out how much pressure I could take and what new challenges I could meet.
What were your first thoughts after they announced that you were the winner?
My mind went to all the teachers and coworkers and friends who have encouraged and taught me, and how much I appreciated them. That includes the team at the hotel who supported my decision to take part in the competition.
Which of the judges were you the most keen to impress, and why?
I most wanted to impress David Thái, who is a great chef and was with the competitors throughout all the challenges. Also, I talked to David a few times and always learned so much from him, so I really respected his opinion about my food.
Of all the challenges in the show, what was the hardest part of the competition for you?
The hardest challenge, but also the challenge I enjoyed the most, was the “Memory” challenge, where competitors had to cook something related to memory. The main ingredient was pork. At first I had no idea what dish to cook that would reflect memory and at the same time impress the judges. All of the dishes in my memory are simple dishes from the fishing village in Central Vietnam where I grew up.
After lots of thought, I chose ‘canh khe thit heo’ (sour star fruit and pork soup). This dish was connected to a dear memory of my father from when I was a little boy. It was the cold season when my father could not go fishing and we had nothing left to eat. For two days I went to school with an empty stomach. While I was at school on the third day, my father helped a neighbor slaughter a pig and as thanks the neighbor gave him some of the pork. My father used the pork to make canh khe thit heo. When the soup was ready, he came all the way to my school to call me home to eat together.
What do you think were your advantages over the other competitors?
Everyone had their own advantages; the older ones were more experienced while the younger ones were dynamic and creative. I would have to say my only advantage was my confidence, stemming from years of working with top chefs.
What is it like coming back to the Caravelle after the Iron Chef experience?
It felt good, happy, exciting to be back. More people know who I am now, but at the end of the day, I count Iron Chef as one more positive, memorable experience. Life is back to its normal routine, but I have gained valuable skills and experience.
In terms of gastronomy, do you have any plans or goals from here?
My goal is to keep learning as much as I can to improve my cooking. I would also like to master my English speaking skills to be able to communicate well with the people I cook for and with chefs from all over the world.