For a very long time living in Canada we admired friends in Europe who can easily jet or drive off to another country for a weekend break.  You get to live another culture, enjoy different food and drink, soak up history and experience something wonderful in just a weekend.  Yes, we could always drive to Buffalo but...

South East Asia, we have discovered over time, offers the same benefits with many countries just a short flight away: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia are all at our doorstep.

At home in Penang before Christmas we were fortunate to be invited to a charity concert at the stunning Blue Mansion. This gorgeous old pile was built in the late 19th century by industrialist Cheong Fatt Tze as a private residence and his personal office.  With 38 rooms and 5 courtyards, it is a model of Asian styles but was actually built using tiles and ironwork custom made in England. The gorgeous blue colour comes form mixing indigo imported from India and lime wash on the walls. This mixture absorbs moisture and keeps the building walls from deteriorating.

Our friends had invited a mate from their previous residence in Monaco, a concert violinist Zhang Zhang.  China born, this talented woman has lived and performed all over the world.  She is currently on leave from the Monaco Philharmonic and sponsored by Monaco’s Prince Albert to do charity concerts for good causes all around the world for two years.  She has done 50!  When we heard that our friend Shyevin, a Penangite with an art business in Vietnam, had arranged another concert in Ho Chi Minh City, we jumped at the chance to attend.  Jumped too soon I think as Ellen neglected to tell me it was a black tie affair.

Over the years Saigon, as the locals still call it, has changed in many ways and in others not at all.  There are swish new hotels like the Park Hyatt, The Intercontinental and new boutique hotels opening everywhere.  But, there are still the grand old Rex and the Caravelle still keeping the flavour alive of the old downtown.  We chose The Intercontinental as it is just a 5 minute walk from the Hyatt where the concert was being held and a good deal less expensive.  Their Club Rooms provide access to the Club Lounge with a nice breakfast, drinks and snacks included all day.  It also avoids the bus tour people lining up for the buffet downstairs.  You just have to tear yourself away from the great food offerings off site to make the investment worth while.

This is an art town, a hotbed of emerging youth culture, a historic remnant of the Vietnam War and, above all else, a foodies paradise. Vietnamese food has always been a favourite of ours for it’s mix of sweet and spicy and the incredible freshness of all the ingredients.  It doesn’t matter if it is a street stall or a white tablecloth restaurant, it is all so good.  This visit we were lucky to have local residents join us at some of their favourite places and we discovered some on our own. 

And the concert?  The Park Hyatt Ballroom was dressed to the nines with 200 guests and silent and live auctions of fine wine and Vietnamese art.  The excellent food was prepared by celebrity chef Heath Gordon and the dinner wine was the wonderful Chateau Le Puy.  I cobbled together a semblance of black tie with black Nikes, black Adidas golf pants, an unconstructed black jacket and a bow tie bought at H&M worn with a white linen button down shirt.  I passed.

Here are a few of our favourite places:

Cuc Gach Quan - one of the best in Saigon for a traditional Vietnamese meal.

The Deck - situated on the banks of the Saigon River in district 2 serves Pan Asian cuisine.

Hoa Tuc - modern Vietnamese food in the next to Saigon’s old opium refinery. 

Sorae Sushi - Japanese on the 24/25th floor of AB tower gives you nice view of the bustling city below.  Chill roof top bar, San Flu Lou Dim Sum on ground floor are also in the same building.

Vietnam House - Vietnamese cuisine with a modern twist by Luke Nguyen on Dong Koi Street  Gorgeous restored art deco venue .

Metiseko - lovely fashion from made in Vietnam natural silk. 

Maison Marou - exquisite artisanal chocolate, made from local cocoa.