Insider’s View. Episode 3 – Germ Doornbos
The third Insider’s View interview comes from a well known local identity, best known for his significant contribution to the hospitality industry in Vietnam. Germ Doornbos has been in Vietnam for over a decade and has no plans to leave anytime soon. He has some fabulous suggestions for dining and entertainment experiences. Coming from someone with his expertise, you know they’ll be good.
Who are you and where are you from?
My name is Germ Doornbos and I am from The Netherlands.
How long have you been living in Ho Chi Minh City?
I have been in Vietnam close to 11 years of which seven years in HCMC. Before this I was for four years in Hanoi.
What do you do?
My partner and I started our restaurant Noir: Dining in the Dark in October 2014
Noir. Dining in the Dark provides our guests with the opportunity of dining in complete darkness, and is a culinary journey through taste, smell, touch and sound. This is not simply dining, but rather a uniquely mind-altering experience where smell, taste, touch and hearing unite to bring you a completely new journey of the senses. Senses are heightened as you are deprived of the dominating sense of sight. Textures and flavours will come to the forefront as you dine your way through unique dishes that have not been described beforehand. You will discover the stunning truth that people tend to experience food with their eyes, rather than with their palate.
Noir. is opening the door to another career for 10 blind and visually impaired. The unemployment rate for blind and visually impaired in Vietnam is at a staggering rate of about 94% and the awareness into blind community is low. It is not that the blind cannot do any jobs; it is that the society does not provide them with the job opportunities. Through our innovative training techniques, we improve these talented individuals’ self confidence and career trajectory.
(Editors note: You can read all about my experience at Noir HERE)
Why did you choose Ho Chi Minh City to live and start your business?
I love the excitement, curiosity, diversity of HCMC and its citizens. HCMC has a great vibe and there are plenty of restaurants, hence a unique new dining in the dark restaurant really fits in there. Guests will have a great time experiencing a dinner in complete darkness.
And this type of restaurant is very nice to combine with social responsibility and employs blind and visually impaired people, who otherwise have a hard time finding proper employment and integrating within society.
What do you love about Ho Chi Minh City?
So many things:
- The diversity of culture
- People are friendly, straight forward and open minded
- Food and drinks, Saigon has a so much to offer for food and drinks.
- Sitting on the little plastic chairs and have a cà phê sữa đá and seeing the life of Saigon pass by.
- Having a midnight meal and a beer with friends and colleagues late at night, again, the best place is at the famous little plastic chairs.
- Also nice the contrast between old and new. Saigon is continuously inventing itself. Pity though that many old building are being sacrificed.
- The streets with big trees.
Are there any negatives and how can visitors avoid them?
Traffic is getting worse and worse. The rush hours are extending and there is so much more traffic on the road than a few years back. Great for newcomers to take pictures of thousands of motorbikes, horrid to be in the midst of it trying to get from A-to-B.
Everybody who is new to HCMC, likes to visit the Chợ Bến Thành Market. Sure enough it is a fantastic concoction of flavours, smell, colours, things to see and buy, however since it is very much visited by the tourist crowds, it is also a place where you are easily overpriced and harassed by the sales people. Be prepared: it is busy and you must haggle over the price. You will be pulled (quite literally) to see the wares available in people’s stalls.
My suggestion instead is Chợ Bình Tây Market in Chinatown or Chợ Lớn – 57 Tháp Mười, District 6. Is less busy, and sales people do not bother you as much as in Chợ Bến Thành so it’s easier to walk around and take pictures. It is also a beautiful building in the French-colonial Indochine style architecture.
What are your favourite foods/restaurants and why?
Some of my favourites:
L’Usine – passage 151 Đồng Khởi, District 1 – great for cup of tea and a cupcake. It features a nice shop too.
Ciao Bella – 11 Đông Du Street, District 1- is my favourite Italian restaurant. Great pastas and save some space for dessert; pope pillow is my favourite.
Japanese pizzas at Pizza 4P’s – 8/15 Lê Thánh Tôn Street, District 1– fantastic pizza with Japanese twists, reservations highly recommended, otherwise there is just simply no space, always full.
…Hum – 32 Võ Văn Tần Street, District 3 – fantastic vegetarian food,
Cục Gạch Quán – at 10 Đặng Tất Street, District 1–It used to be a hidden gem, now widely discovered by the mass, tourists and locals, has become a it commercial, however still recommended. Very nice place to have a meal, the cuisine is home-cooked style Vietnamese food. Owners are architects and that is why the place feels very artistic. Reservations are highly recommended. Our favourite table is on the ground floor, with the sofas, next to the window overlooking the atrium pond with fish.
SH Garden – 98 Nguyễn Huệ Street, District 1, nice restaurant on the top floor of an old building, you can go upstairs by old colonial elevator with modern Japanese mechanics. Feels a bit 1950 in terms of architecture and nice views over Nguyễn Huệ Street and Rex Hotel.
Quán Ngự Bình – at 82 CX Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, District Quận Phú Nhuận. Fantastic place with dishes from Huế. Open from 15h00 to 20h00.
Said all that our most favourite food in HCMC is definitely street food; we have our favourite spots:
Phở Hà Hàm Nghi on the pavement of 70 Hàm Nghi Street, close the to corner with Hồ Tùng Mậu Street, District 1, serves only at night. Good for Phở Gà = noodle soup with chicken and cháo gà = rice porridge with chicken and xôi chiên = fried sticky rice. This restaurant is only open at night.
Bánh xèo = Southern Vietnamese pancake of rice flour and turmeric powder with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. Literally means “sizzling cake”, (Quán Bánh Xèo 46A at 46 Đinh Công Tráng Street, District 1. Side Street of Hai Bà Trưng Street). Nice for lunch and also for dinner.
Phở Gà = noodle soup with chicken (Miến Phở Gà 43 Mạc Đĩnh Chi, on corner of Trần Cao Vân and Phùng Khắc Khoan Streets, District 1. Good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any time in between. Most of phở gà restaurants also serve miến gà = rice vermicelli and bún = thin rice noodles.
Phở Bo = noodle soup with chicken ( Phở Bo Phú Gia at 146E Lý Chính Thắng Street, District 3). Good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any time in between.
Bún thịt nướng = rice noodles with bbq pork northern style (on the pavement on the corner of Nguyễn Trung Trực and Lê Lợi Streets, District 1). Good for lunch.
Bún chả = rice noodles with bbq pork northern style (Quán Bún Chả Hà Nội at 26/1A Lê Thánh Tôn). Good for lunch. Also ask for nước mơ, apricot juice Hanoi style.
Cơm tấm (Cơm Tấm Trần Quí Cáp at 260 Võ Văn Tần Street, District 3). Good for lunch and dinner.
Bò Bít Tết or simply bò né (after the action of sliding sideways on your chair to avoid being stained by the oil since the beef is sizzling in oil) Beef steak with fried egg, pate, and bread for dipping in the greasy oil; hmmmm. (Bò Bít Tết Nam Sơn at 200 Bis Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Street, District 1). Great for dinner.
Sinh tố = fruit smoothies(Five Boys Number 1 at lane 84B Bùi Viện, District 1). Best for afternoon or desserts.
Chè = sweet soup with palm syrup and coconut and mostly sticky rice and savoury items as lotus seeds, sesame seeds, beans and potato types like cassava, sweet potato and taro. Some chè consists of jellies too. (Southern Vietnamese style chè at Quán Chè Nóng at 50 Lý Chính Thắng, District 3, or Chinese style chè at Chè Tường Phong – 83 An Điềm Street, District 5,). Best for desserts after dinner.
Best way to experience all of this might be one of the motorbike food tours.
What are your favourite nightspots?
Start off with a glass of wine at The Refinery – 74 Hai Bà Trưng Street, District 1 – , go before 20h30 or after 21:30, since the neighbours at Beirut restaurant have belly dancing and the music is way too loud to fully enjoy the quiet terrace of The Refinery)
Skybars are the new places to go. My favourite is Glow – 93 Nguyễn Du, District 1 – rooftop of President Place offers wide views and is a nice place to hangout with friends over a bottle or cocktails.
What are your favourite things to do in your spare time that visitors would love too?
Taking a drive through District 5 and looking at old Chinese and French architecture. District 3 is good for the colonial architecture too.
Browsing around art galleries is a nice way to come to the conclusion I really need to win the lottery.
Apricot gallery: 50 – 52 Mạc Thị Bưởi Street, District 1
Gallery Quynh: 65 Đề Thám Street, District 1
Nguyen Gallery and Ben Thanh Art and Frame, same company: Nguyen Gallery at 139 Đồng Khởi Street and around the corner in the little street on the right is Ben Thanh Art and Frame at 7 Nguyễn Thiếp Street, District 1
Visit the Fine Art Museum – 97 Phó Đức Chính Street, District 1, located in a beautiful colonial building, used to be the residence of a rich Chinese/Vietnamese merchant family. Art on display is interesting, although not as interesting as the Fine Art Museum in Hanoi, however still worth paying a visit. (Editor’s note: For a real exploration of this wonderful museum, take Sophie’s Art Tour.)
Shopping at Saigon Kitsch – 43 Tôn Thất Thiệp Street, District 1– nice communist propaganda art printed at coffee mugs, mouse mats, coasters, … Great souvenirs and nice gifts for back home.
More shopping at Villa Royale – 8 Đặng Hữu Phổ, District 2 – an antique shop and tearoom, nice place to find some nice gifts and things to add to your own collection at home. Serves nice teas and cakes too, great combination with antique shopping.
For Vietnamese and Asian antiques go to Lê Công Kiều Street in District 1, very close by the Fine Arts Museum, especially the shop Hiền Minh Art Gallery at 38 Lê Công Kiều Street.
What are the top 5 things you feel every visitor should do when they come to Ho Chi Minh City?
- Visit the Reunification Palace
- Visit to Chợ Lớn, its markets and its pagodas (for instance Thiên Hậu pagoda – 710 Nguyễn Trãi Street, District 5)
- Street food!!
- Sunset river cruise on Saigon River
- Visit Fine Art Museum and Lê Công Kiều Street, and
- as number six; visit Noir. Dining in the Dark
Do you have any insider tips or warnings?
If using taxis, it is always recommended to ask someone to write the address in Vietnamese down, as many taxi drivers do not know first of all English and secondly the streets. Also ask to have the address with the street name and the district. Since there are streets with same names in different districts. (Editors note: See my safety tips for avoiding taxi scams HERE)
Easier, download the Uber app and use them instead of taxis.
What has been, or is, your NUMBER 1 Ho Chi MIinh City Highlight?
Difficult to say really. There are so many.
Is there anything else you think is important for visitors to know?
Learn a few words Vietnamese, always a great way to break the ice.
Editors Note: Well I hope you all enjoyed Germ’s “Insiders View”. I know I now have a dozen new places to visit around town.
If you’d like to contribute to this regular series then drop me a line through the contact form or email me at Sharyn@hochiminhcityhighlights.com.
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