Affordable luxury served al fresco
|Colour burst:Goi hanh huong (spring onion salad), served southern style, has an interesting presentation.
The redesigned Vertical Garden Restaurant at the famed Rex Hotel in downtown HCM City has become a popular power breakfast spot for businesspeople. Xuan Hiep falls for the green surroundings as well as the food.
As the city lights up to prepare for Tet (Lunar New Year), crowds are converging downtown to welcome the festive season. But, instead of getting stuck in the holiday hustle and bustle, I decided to retreat to the peaceful Vertical Garden restaurant in the five-star Rex Hotel.
Though its menu exceeded my expectations, the garden area surrounding the restaurant is what impressed me most.
Lam Thi Anh Nguyen, the hotel's marketing manager, told me that the official record books have included the area as "Viet Nam's first and largest vertical garden in a hotel".
All of the plants have been carefully chosen, both for their ability to grow vertically and their easy maintenance.
Built over a three-month period last summer, the garden area uses an automatic watering system and its walls are covered with 600 square metres of 30 different plant species, including ornamental trees, such as the South American pineapple.
"This new restaurant reflects the trend of bringing nature closer to people," Nguyen said.
While I was there, Vu Ngoc Quynh Nhu, 32, a manager at Binh Minh Export-Import Joint-Stock Company, was having breakfast.
She and her colleagues often visited the restaurant before going to work.
"The price is a bit high, but it's excellent for what you get, from the fresh green atmosphere to the warm service," she said. "Dining in such an eco-friendly place helps me reduce stress."
|Shades of Hue:Bun bo Hue (Hue-style noodle soup) represents the cuisine of Viet Nam's central region.
The restaurant is especially popular in the morning, attracting business colleagues or friends.
"Just having a hot cup of coffee here, I can enjoy the cool air of the early morning," one diner, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me.
With everyone so besotted by the garden, you would think the food might take a back seat to the atmosphere.
Add: Rex Hotel (141 Nguyen Hue Blvd, District 1, HCM City)
Tel: 08 38292185
Price range: VND110,000-300,000 (US$5-$15)
Comment: High-end, authentic local cuisine, professional staff
But that's not the case. The menu, in both English and Vietnamese, offers local dishes from every region of the country.
The country's national dish, pho (noodle soup) is cooked southern style. For VND110,000 (US$5), it is served with either beef or chicken, and a larger portion sells for VND150,000 ($7).
Diners can try other soup specialities, including mien ga (glass vermicelli soup with chicken), mien luon (glass vermicelli with crispy eel) and bun moc (fresh rice noodles with pork chop and pork balls).
Two popular dishes, bun bo Hue (noodle soup Hue-style with pork, beef or pork pie) and bun thit nuong (fresh rice noodles with grilled pork) are also on offer, as well as banh cuon nhan thit hoac tom (steamed and rolled rice crepe with minced pork or shrimp) and com tam suon My (broken rice with BBQ American pork ribs).
Prices range from VND110,000 to VND150,000 ($5-7) per dish.
As a lover of northern cuisine, I chose a large bowl of mien ga cooked northern style for my breakfast.
The Ha Noi-style mien, which does not have any of the sweetness of HCM City noodle soups, contains fewer aromatic herbs as well. Likewise, the Ha Noi-style chilli sauce for mien and other noodle soups like pho is spicier and less sweet than its southern counterparts.
For those who prefer western food, a continental breakfast of white toast or rolls with butter, jam and honey is available for VND250,000 ($12). And the hearty American breakfast includes two fried eggs, bacon, ham, pate and sausages for VND300,000 ($14).
Both continental and American-style breakfasts include fresh fruit as well as coffee or tea.
In addition to the Vietnamese dishes, both vegetarian and Western dishes (VND110,000) are on offer.
|National sampler:The Vertical Garden restaurant at the Rex Hotel offers local dishes from every region of the country. — VNS Photos Xuan Hiep
Even during breakfast, the staff was attentive. The servers, all of whom can speak English, really do adhere to the hotel's slogan of "making you feel at home".
The hotel has four other dining venues, including the famous Rooftop Garden Bar, Hoa Mai Restaurant, Cung Dinh Restaurant and Paradise Coffee Lounge.
Sitting at my table in the historic hotel, built 90 years ago, I suddenly recalled the press conference that I had attended last month, in which former US Senator John Kerry, and now US Secretary of State, spoke about his visit to the rooftop bar in 1969.
"I can't tell you how totally bizarre it was to be sitting on top of a hotel having a beer, while all around you, you could see and hear the sounds of war," he told the press.
As for me, I feel lucky that I was born after the war and can see the positive and rapid changes of my native HCM City, where I have lived all my life. — VNS