The cool interior of Lion City is a welcome respite from the searing tropical sun. It’s slightly late for lunch and the tightly packed tables are filled with contented looking diners slurping the last succulent morsels from their Singapore chilli or black pepper crabs. The air is filled with the tantalising fragrance of spice and I have the glorious feeling that I am in for a good meal.
Is there a better way to while away a Sunday than delving into some dim sum? At one extreme it can almost be a contact sport: a blizzard of bamboo baskets deposited on your table by hurried waiters, battalions of children running riot, scalding tea cascading across the table — a drop or two even landing in the cup occasionally, and joyfully cacophonic conversations taking place at volume eleven. At the other end of the scale lies Shang Palace; a gentler, more restrained affair.
All red and black and natural stone, Chiisana Hashi is a lovely space. One of the latest additions to the Khai Silk Corporation, the industrial-chic décor creates a feel that is sleek and contemporary but still entirely welcoming. Inspired use of texture and surprising materials (love the screens created from slices of steel pipes) imbue the room with a sense of character not often found in newer restaurants. Large red paper lanterns bob merrily on the evening breeze, enticing passers-by inside.
Marina Ngoc Suong is a great sprawling ocean liner of a restaurant on Nguyen Dinh Chieu. Swathes of space are carved into cosy corners with décor that is tasteful with a subtle nautical theme — think teak decking bars rather than fishnets on the wall. Even on a mid-week night, the place is full of families, friends and corporate groups all there to graze on the fruits of the sea and, no doubt to see and be seen.
Wedged into the heart of backpacker land, the pink booths and crystal wall hangings give Stella a sweetly casual vibe, despite the faded tinsel of Christmas past still adorning the windows. A few street-side tables allow those brave enough to live without air-con a prime position for watching the fascinating stream of humanity that flows along Bui Vien.
Surely I cannot be the only person in Saigon that was unaware until now that Long Phi is more than just a purveyor of late night libations. My nocturnal outings rarely take me in the direction of Pham Ngu Lao so my lunchtime visit is my first time to the establishment in question. It turns out to be a very pleasant surprise.
Tucked into a tangle of streets near the Binh Thanh canal (into which, it appears, neither I nor any of the city’s fine cartographers have previously ventured) you will find what must surely be one of Saigon’s most unsung gems. Papaya is a diminutive restaurant serving some of the most delicious and beautifully prepared Vietnamese food I have eaten in a long time. I spend a good half hour flailing around the ngos and hems before I find the place (the result of being both spatially challenged and armed with a map that bears no correlation to the actual roads) before some kind soul takes pity on me and shows me the way. And I am glad I persevered.