65. Christmas in Thao Dien

Even for an expatriate who has strained to distance himself from Western culture: Sometimes, you’ve just got to have a hamburger.

Apartment blocks and businesses in the Thao Dien ward of Saigon’s District 2 flag a neighborhood filled with foreigners. (JGA photo)

What’s the point of travel, if you choose to live in a community parallel to the one you left back home? Every major international city has at least one quarter that ís dominated by its expatriate residents. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is no different. Here, there are two: The Phú Mỹ Hưng ward of Dístrict 7 has a large population of overseas Koreans and Chinese (mainly from Taiwan). And the Thảo Điền neighborhood of Dístrict 2 is the community of choice for an outsized number of English-speaking Europeans, North Americans, Australians and more.

When I came to Vietnam 26 months ago, I made a conscious decision to reside away from Western culture. It has long been my mantra to live outside of my comfort zone. I immersed myself in an unfamiliar language and culture, far from Caucasian enclaves, surrounded by open-air eateries serving phở tài nam and bún bò Hué with Tiger lagers. I took that a step further early this year, when I moved from metropolitan Saigon to Đắk Lắk province and the big country town (for that’s what it is) of Buôn Ma Thuột. You don’t go there looking to speak English and eat hamburgers.

At Marcel’s Gourmet Burger, you can get a juicy combo plate with housemade sauces. (JGA photo)

You are what you eat

Vietnamese cuisine is delicious, don’t get me wrong. But do you know what? After 9½ months in a place with all the dining sophistication of Burns, Oregon (and I apologize to any readers whom that may offend) — made doubly difficult by zealous Covid restrictions — I found myself ready to reenter Western culture. I’m not a backpacker watching every penny, as I was in my twenties. Indeed, when I left the States I was a James Beard Foundation-accredited restaurant critic.

I’m a gourmet. And a gourmand. (If you don’t know the difference, look it up.) And you can only keep an omnivore down for so long. I craved a good Wagyu steak, magret de canard, tagliatelle carbonara, fresh oysters on the half shell.  I yearned for unagi sushi from Japan, tandoori chicken from India, larb gai from Thailand.

So when the time came for a Christmas holiday escape from the Central Highlands, I headed back to the big smoke, where the air is typically as polluted as that statement implies. I found a lovely small hotel in Thảo Điền, among all those Westerners whom I had previously chosen to avoid. (I highly recommend the Mecozy Apartel, where I’m paying less than US$20/night for a studio suite with kitchen facilities.) And — no surprise! — I’m been eating like a king, and enjoying all those wonderful wines I’ve been missing.

Artist Rick Reid unveils his painting “The Friday Lunch” to friends who might recognize themselves. (JGA photo)

The Friday Lunch

During my previous time in Saigon, I became friends with a pride of expatriate residents, lion-hearted men (and a few women) with mostly (but not solely) Australian passports, who have gathered for no-host lunches at different restaurants every Friday for nearly 10 years. The membership has ebbed and flowed, and gatherings have become less regular (again, Covid) over the past two years, but I was delighted to be able to break bread with the boys on Christmas Eve.

Nine of us met at the bar of La Plancha, a French institution in Thảo Điền. The beers flowed. The wines flowed. (There was no ebb to either.) We finally got around to ordering food sometime after 2 p.m. I was rewarded with a roast duck breast that I had been dreaming about for months.

Rick Reid, a tall young (well, younger than me by a few months) Aussie artist and musician, used the opportunity to unveil a painting he’s had in the works for several months. “The Friday Lunch,” it’s called, and it features caricatures of the regular and occasional members of the group. I was honored to make a cameo appearance on the canvas, to be remembered despite my disappearance last winter into Vietnam’s hinterlands.

Nutcrackers, candy candes, wreaths and other holiday images adorn a store window on Thao Dien Streeet. (JGA photo)

Where English is king

Surrounded on three sides by a large loop in the Saigon River, on the fourth by a multi-lane highway, Thảo Điền is probably the most thoroughly bilingual community in Vietnam. In this enclave, signs written in the local language are not as evident as those in English. Especially in this holiday season, window dísplays in shops and businesses often speak to those longing for colder winter climes, with Santas, nussknacker (nutcrackers), Christmas trees and reindeer in the snow. There’s “All Day Dining” at An Saigon Kitchen & Grill. Uncle Bill’s is “Surprisingly Useful.” Le Flâneur promises to be “Really Warm Inside.” And you can “Consider IT Solved” when you visit New.It. No details. Nothing written in Vietnamese.

The urban infrastructure does not carry the Western tradition, however. As elsewhere in Ho Chi Minh City, sidewalks (a term to be used loosely) are often crumbling concrete, better used as places to park motorbikes beneath bundles of exposed overhead electrical wires than to actually stroll. Crossing streets remains an adventure, even on the narrower lanes of Thảo Điền; crosswalks are a joke, as no individual pedestrian is ever conceded right of way by motorized vehicles.

But that just adds to the adventure of life in a foreign culture, even if it seems thoroughly Westernized on its manufactured surface. At least there are places like the MAD Wine Bar, where I can enjoy a crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc or a fruity Italian sangiovese on almost any day of the year. Or the German Beer Hall, offering European lagers just one step from Deutschland itself. Or Twist, a self-proclaimed “refill station” that serves coffee and cigarettes by day, stiff drinks after dark.

European residents relax at a table outside the Twist Refill Station. (JGA photo)

Too much food

My short-term residence in Thảo Điền, I fear, has been notable primarily for my gluttonous eating habits. I could say I’m sorry … but I’m not!

On Christmas Day, my Aussie mate Adam grabbed a motorbike taxi from his dwelling in the Tan Binh district and joined me at Jaspa’s for a proper holiday dinner — roast turkey with a chopped salad, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes and all the trimmings.

The following morning, Boxing Day, you would have found me at Eddie’s Diner, a classic ’50s soda fountain with a jukebox and mounds of food, like my cast-iron skillet meal, “The Barnyard,” with two eggs atop fried chicken cutlets and hash browns, covered in mushroom gravy.

My only foray beyond District 2 was that night, when I introduced a small group of friends to my favorite Saigon restaurant, Quince in District 1. The holiday menu included oysters with a basil and kiwi salsa, scallop tartare with black truffle, barbecued pigeon with figs, and a champagne-poached pear. Wow!

December 26 dinner at Quince with Vera, Kalfie, David, myself and Nhi. (Kim Nguyen photo)

But then it was back to Thảo Điền. The Gate opened only in November, but the concept is a winner: smoked meats, including pork knuckle, goat, lamb, salmon, duck and chicken, in an indoor-outdoor garden setting. Mekong Merchant is a local institution that serves three meals daily with international flair capturing the long-gone era of the East India Company; I’m all over their shakshouka, Moroccan baked eggs, in the morning. Pendolasco is a go-to for modestly priced Italian pastas and Tuscan delicacies.

El Gaucho has, quite simply, the best steaks in the city; they are not inexpensive, but then the best beef here must be imported from Australia and the United States. There’s surprisingly authentic Mexican food (and margaritas!) at District Federal. And the gourmet burgers at Café Marcel almost make me forget I am in Vietnam.

Eddie’s Diner recreates a ’50s soda fountain with shakes, malts and all-day breakfasts. (JGA photo)
“The Friday Lunch,” 2021, by Rick Reid, holding guitar. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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