As many choices as Saigon already offers for dining out, last weekend I added one more to my long tally when I moved from having dinner on land to dining on the water, the Saigon River in this case.
My night on La Perle De L'Orient was an amazing experience, one of the best in months.
There was nothing spontaneous about the decision; I'd been impatient for my night on that "pearl" for a very long time.
Back in our college days, my friends and I would often hang out of an evening at Bach Dang Pier on Ton Duc Thang Street in District 1.
It was pleasant down there by the river, what with the cool evening breeze blowing off the water and freshening the air, just right for sitting around and chatting, perhaps eating and drinking too.
From time to time my eyes would stray from the convivial company to the boats moored along the quay, not plain freighters or fishing vessels but gaily lit cruise boats for dining and sightseeing.
There were, and still are, seven or so cruise boats docking at the pier from around 6 p.m. to start picking up passengers.
The one that caught my fancy, a triple decker made of wood and sporting strings of yellow lights that formed the shapes of two sails, was La Perle De L'Orient of the Indochina Junk Ltd, Co.
Last weekend, when I finally boarded La Perle for the first time, I showed up at Bach Dang's Vuon Kieng Wharf at six-thirty, a bit early as my dining venue wouldn't be ready for 45 minutes.
La Perle De L'Orient
Vuon Kieng Wharf, Bach Dang Pier, 10B Ton Duc Thang Street, District 1, HCMC
I found it to be much more interesting being onboard rather than gawking at La Perle from a distance.
Spending a fruitful hour examining the boat and questioning the crew, I learnt that La Perle had been in use since its construction five years before, that it measured 35 meters from bow to stern and eight meters at the beam, and that it could seat 200 passengers at the one time.
I also noticed that there were buoyancy vests along both sides, life-jackets under each table, and lifeboats should they be needed, making me felt safe and secure.
The staff invited my dinner companion and me to sit on the top deck, where we assumed all the early birds would get seated.
Food could be ordered anytime; there was no need to wait until the boat left the wharf. La Perle served a set menu, not a la carte, of Vietnamese food costing from VND320,000 to VND735,000.
Our meal started with crab and shrimp spring rolls, lotus salad with shrimp and pork, and prawn crackers, the crackers being made of tapioca starch with some salt thrown in.
Thumbs up for the first two dishes! They looked attractive and tempting, and tasted delicious.
The wrapping of the spring rolls was rice paper in true Vietnamese fashion rather than flour, with Indian taro inside. The rolls were not too fatty and were hot enough to still be crunchy on the outside.
They came with a fish sauce made in the southern Vietnamese style, a bit sweet but a perfect match with the spring rolls.
The salad arrived at the table thoroughly tossed and well doused in fish sauce, sugar and lemon, and the shrimp were fresh. My only complaint was the chunky pork pieces. The meat should have been sliced thinly and finely before the salad was tossed.
As always in Vietnam, the salad was served with prawn crackers.
Next up we had grilled pork and bánh hỏi, a traditional dish of rice vermicelli woven into intricate bundles and often topped with deep-fried scallions all chopped up. Again, it was most attractive and tempting.
The pork was tender and juicy, as it should be, and full of extra flavor thanks to the spices added before grilling. The only disappointment with this course was the measly amount of bánh hỏi that we got, not nearly enough for the generous serving of grilled pork.
The third course was fried fish fillet in orange sauce. It was good, but the batter was quite fatty and oily, which marred the taste of the excellent fish.
Our final dish was pork ribs, mushrooms and carrots and was accompanied by bread, fragrant sticky rice and fried vegetables. The pork ribs were almost overdone and the soft meat separated easily from the bone. Highly recommended.
As we were feasting, La Perle pulled away from the quay and headed out into the Saigon River. On the open water it was smooth sailing and a welcome change from the prior rocking of the boat from the wake of every passing vessel. The waves sloshing against the quay had made me a mite uncomfortable.
Our journey took us under Thu Thiem Bridge and close by Nha Rong Wharf and Saigon Port. We could move freely about the boat whenever we wanted to change our vantage point.
It was so relaxing that night as I sat the deck with my stomach full from a great meal, looking at the night sky and the lights of moving ships, and generally enjoying myself.
Around eight thirty we were pleasantly surprised by a live band striking up some traditional music.
A woman played the The T'rung, a bamboo xylophone used by ethnic minorities in Vietnam's Central Highlands, while two men and two young women played smaller instruments. They even invited two guests to come on stage and try playing some of the instruments with them, making the atmosphere more intimate and fun.
They performed three songs in a row and followed with a traditional dance involving fans in the hands of the two young women. Besides enjoying the music, I appreciated the fact that such a theatrical show on land would cost a considerable sum to watch.
I should mention that it's not compulsory to have dinner aboard La Perle. Tickets can be bought just for the sightseeing journey, and there are plenty of seats and vantage points outside the dining area.
Like the other cruise boats that moor at Bach Dang, La Perle De L'Orient operates nightly from quarter to seven. Don't worry about being early as you'll still be welcomed on board.
Returning to the pier at nine thirty, I felt no regret at having had to wait so long since my days as a penurious college student to be on one of those beautiful boats.
What a lovely night it was!
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