Thursday, October 30, 2008

Food Trip in Phnom Penh, Saigon and Manila

Here are a few more gastronomic encounters. Just ordinary choices and servings that I was able to document along the way – from Phnom Penh, to Saigon, and finally back to Manila.

For Manila tourists who would love to try Chinese cuisine other than “Pinoy” food, the “North Park” group of restaurants (which includes Tiananmen, NP Kopitiam and Next Door) are great places for dining and cozy conversations. My favorite branches are the ones in Greenhills (easy parking away from the madding crowd) and Next Door at Greenhills Shopping Depot near Valle Verde.

Toast, 2 eggs and orange juice - $2.50 (10,330 riel) at DV8 Guesthouse, Phnom Penh

Barbecue style pork meal with rice - $0.49 or 2,000 riel at a roadside carinderia. My hired motorbike had a flat tire so my driver and I stopped at the nearest vulca shop. This was lunch in the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Beef Loklak - a Khmer specialty found in most fast food stalls in Sorya Mall.

Pork and chicken rice meal in Sorya Mall's Food Court - $2 or 8,000 riel

Forgot the name. This was breakfast at Khmer Saravan which is famous among backpackers. there were chicken bits too. $3.50 or 14,500 riel

Fried rice with chicken - $2.40 or 40,000 dong - at a restaurant by the lake in Dam Sen Park, Saigon.

A noodle entree with mixed vegetables and assorted meat - truly delicious! - at $4.80 or 80,000 dong at a restaurant in Ben Thanh Market, Saigon

North Park Greenhills, San Juan, Metro Manila - great atmosphere, great food...

Yang Chow Fried Rice - no viand necessary... Saigon has their own Yang Chow spelled differently.

Lechon Macau - am not sure why it's called as such. The origin of the dish perhaps. All I know is that at Chinese Restaurants, they call it "lechon macau" while the very same dish is called "lechon kawali" in Filipino restaurants. PhP165 ($3.40)

Lapu lapu (grouper) fillet with soft tofu, PhP246 ($5)

Sweet and sour, deboned tender pork spare ribs...

Salted garlic squid

Almond jelly with lychee, PhP80 ($1.60)

A flower grows out of the crevice of a temple structure in Luang Prabang, Laos - goat's meal! hehe

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ho Chi Minh City's Dam Sen Park Part 2

This is the second part of our post on Saigon’s amazing Dam Sen Cultural Park, located in Hoa Binh’s District 11, which is 30-45 minutes southwest from Pham Ngu Lao, HCMC’s backpacker haven. I have to admit that I’ve only touched the surface of this tantalizing park. I didn’t have any idea what to expect from it. Not a lot of foreigners visit here. One of the reasons for that is its distance from central Saigon’s district 1. Which is a pity considering that there is just a surplus of attractions in Damsen. Heck, it even has a Dinosaur Park, a European Park, a Nordic Castle, and at night, they have a spectacular lanterns and lights show that was assembled by 60 Chinese and 60 Vietnamese experts.

Please refer to the 1st part for a more complete feature on this park including rates, directions and a historical backgrounder.

These are some of the biggest carps swimming in that pool; must have been 6-7 feet long carps.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ho Chi Minh City's Dam Sen Park - Quirky Saigon - Part 1


I always make it a habit to have an
off the beaten track experience when I visit a place. For this long haul trip, these are as enumerated:

Hanoi – Thong Nhat Park of South Hanoi
Luang Prabang – Pak Ou Caves
none in Vang Vieng (this was in fact a side trip, not part of the original itinerary)
Vientiane – Buddha
Savannakhet - That Ing Luang
Bangkok – Siam Ocean World (well, I haven’t been there yet! So this might as well be my special trip)
Phnom Penh – peninsular island of Chroum Changwar
Saigon – Damsen Cultural Park, Cu Chi Tunnels and the Caodai Temple in Tay Ninh province.

Tay Ninh visit will cap this Indochina trip, including documentation of this particular travel in this blogsite! You can only imagine the big sigh of relief as I write 30 a few days from this post! Nabuo ko rin (I’ve completed it)! Yeay!


When I arrived in Saigon from Phnom Penh, I have been setting my sights on what
Lonely Planet describes as “Quirky Saigon”. The place is called Dam Sen Park, located at the Hoa Binh District of Saigon. My guesthouse reminded me that the park is particularly far from the tourist belt (District 1). It will be an expensive taxi ride, but she nevertheless strongly recommended the taxi. Nah! I’ll wing it. I asked how much a xe om (motorbike taxi) would ask for a one-way ride going to Damsen. It should be around 25,000 dong ($1.50 or PhP72) among locals – but foreigners would find it hard to bargain below 40,000 dong. As fate would have it, I was able to approach someone from a corner in Bui Vien where I didn’t have to haggle much. Am not good at it. He asked for 35,000 dong and I said 25,000 dong – and we easily shook hands on it. Of course, I was nervous with the easy negotiations. After all, some things that are too good to be true may be too good to be true.

Dragon made of porcelain plates at the Au Lac Square of Dam Sem


We cruised several districts of Saigon as my
xe om took me sightseeing through places not listed in my guide book. This ride went on… and on… and on…. and on. Good thing I was forewarned. In 45 minutes, we pulled over in front of a huge welcome sign that said Dam Sen and its Vietnamese translation. That was a relief. I was pleased that I ended giving 40,000 dong ($2.40 or PhP117) to my driver. I was just grateful to get there without cutthroat negotiation.

History of Damsen Park
In the mid-70’s, the land where the park currently stands was an uncultivated marsh. The government thought of cultivating these marshlands by mobilizing people to clear the area. Soon, the cleared
30 hectares of water surface and greenery were further expanded by the 11th district of Saigon. By the late 80’s designs were gradually put up for a recreational park that was to cater to the local population.

Fast forward to the present. We have a vast recreational park that administers a dose of bizarre fun. Giant animals made of coconut shells compete against those sculpted out of
used cd’s. Near the entrance, a huge dragon made of porcelain plates stands beside other intricately designed “animals”. There are landscaped gardens embellished with lakes, pagodas, falls, bridges, etc. In another section, there stands imposing structures resembling the Stonehenge. There is a roller coaster ride, a ferris wheel, an elevated “train”, some buggy rides, and restaurants. There is a Nordic Castle much like the Walt Disney Castle; a Statue Garden, a European Garden, and a Cactus Garden.
More attractions include: a dinosaur park, an ice lantern area, a fishing area, a crocodile park, a mini-zoo, a laser show with a musical fountain stage, and a spinning coaster. All these - for only 25,000 dong entrance for adults and 15,000 dong for children. During holidays, these rates are hiked by 10,000 dong.

I didn’t know where to start, or which way to go! I could get lost in this park and enjoy the different attractions all day. This was a place that not a lot of the backpacking horde visits. I spent my whole afternoon just trying not to get lost.

One of the best things that I experienced about visiting the park was
taking my very first commuter bus back to the Pham Ngu Lao area along with other Vietnamese. I just hailed an oncoming bus traveling the opposite direction; shouted “Ben Thanh?”, and when I got several nods, I hopped in and settled into the soft foamed seat beside an open window. We have better non-aircon buses in Manila, but I love Vietnam for inexplicable reasons. I take offense when people compare it to Quiapo.


Riding that non-aircon commuter bus was a thrill.
It was like losing myself in a foreign land. and finding contentment in the anonymity of people, the unfamiliarity of mores, and strangeness of my surroundings. It’s hard to explain, but moments like this make it all worth while. These moments define some of my rawest moments of sheer happiness – away from the luxury, stability and comfort of my otherwise great Philippine life.

Vietnam map a la Dam Sen

At the Statue Garden

Intricate rock formations

The Nine Section Bridge

Roving rail ride

Direction to Dam Sen Cultural Park (follow the red line) from Ben thanh Market's District 1 to Hoa Binh's District 11 - IT IS FAR!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Up Next: More photos from Dam Sen Park (Part 2)