HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas in the City

This is an image-heavy post.

Christmas has come and gone, and I have to say that my first Christmas in Saigon really could not have been any better, considering the distance from my family and the warm weather. I was in Kuala Lumpur on the 25th last year and didn't experience much of any 'Christmas spirit', so it was nice to be here with most of my Saigon family and tons decorations. 

That being said, Christmas in Saigon does definitely feel a bit superficial. While there is a significant population of Catholics here, most residents don't seem to have a clue what the holiday is really about. (In fact, some people don't even know the name. I had several people ask me what I was doing for 'merry Christmas', forcing me to explain that that is just a greeting, not an actual day.) People seem to be more interested in the pageantry of decorations and Santa outfits, and the chance to advertise the latest electronic gizmos, than what we associate with Christmas in the West. (Though to be honest I'm not exactly sure what I mean by that, because I don't celebrate the religious aspect of the day at all.) Then there is the fact that it's still in 80's every day...

Anyway, here is what my Christmas Eve and Day looked like.
home decorations for sale
My school gave balloons to all of the younger students on Saturday. The room they stored the balloons was epic.
Once the sun set on Christmas Eve, I met up with a few friends downtown. Central District 1 was an absolute zoo, with thousands of people out on the streets looking at the decorations on various buildings. The entire area was just one vast parking lot - I couldn't figure out why anyone would have driven down there that night.

Can you find Waldo?

A full-blown band was playing carols outside of the Rex Hotel
We made our way through the masses of children in Santa costumes, teenagers spraying each other with some sort of silly-string rip-off, and honking taxis to Sheridan's Irish Pub. We spent the next few hours here, and this was far and away the most Christmas-y I felt all weekend. The restaurant was decked out in tasteful decorations, seasonal songs were coming from the speakers, and the dark wood and good beer made it seem like it was cold outside. I had Christmas Eve dinner here, and it was called (seriously) Faggots & Peas, which consisted of two amazing pork liver meatballs slathered in gravy and served with peas and mashed potatoes. Conversation at the table became more and more obscene as the beer glasses piled up, and we eventually stumbled out into the blustery cold...I mean the humid warmth...and went home.

good times
Christmas itself began with a sprint downstairs to see the presents, only to realize we didn't have a tree in the house. Then, I grabbed a taxi (which was driven by a guy who was either drunk or narcoleptic) and headed to KOTO for a Christmas brunch. KOTO stands for Know One Teach One, and it is a non-profit restaurant which started in Hanoi that offers vocational training to disadvantaged street children. KOTO's Saigon outlet opened recently, so I hadn't been there yet, and it is a gorgeous restaurant. The layout was rather unique for the city, and the staff was exceptionally friendly.
Of course, as nice as the venue was, the main reason we had come was the food, and it didn't disappoint. A set lunch that included starters, sides, mains, and dessert; along with free flow wine, beer, or champagne, was offered for 750,000 dong ($36); great value when you consider how much alcohol we consumed as a table.

To quote the menu, the meal consisted of: House cured salmon, horseradish cream, and black sesame toast; Prawns with salsa frescha; Scallops, cauliflower puree, and lemon and herb crumbs; Roast turkey breast, roast beef, and roast pork; Roasted pumpkin and potatoes with garlic and rosemary; steamed vegetables; stuffing; green salad with mustard vinaigrette; Gravy, apple sauce, and cranberry jam; and Christmas pudding, Brandy custard, Cherry and gingerbread semi-freddo, and Berry compote. Everything was delicious.

During the meal, the youths who are being trained through the restaurant gathered to sing three Christmas carols for the diners. This was a really nice moment - they all looked extremely happy to be there, and it was pretty cool to listen to us singing the carols in English and them singing the songs in Vietnamese.

After the long lunch we relaxed on KOTO's second-floor patio for a while, and then I parted ways from the rest of the group with two of my friends. We wandered around for a bit, stopping at the Turtle Lake roundabout, and eventually made our way to my house, where we simply relaxed for the rest of the day. It was a great holiday.
I'm going to post more pictures of decorations at some point, since several of the streets downtown are lined with lights that were only turned on last night. I hope you and your family had a "Merry Chirstmast!", to quote the sign I saw on a bar here.

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