Not just roast duck

Vietnam Heritage, May 2011, Advertorial

As you lie dying you might arrange one for of the luscious ao-dai-clad reception hostesses to spoon you down a last dollop of the Rex’s orange ice-cream in coconut milk

If you are in Ho Chi Minh City and looking for somewhere to dine that oozes recent history in soothing surroundings, then there is a place for you. If you reside there or have come on business and things are getting on top of you, then there is a place above it all to which you may retreat and recharge.
The Rex Hotel, a classic Saigon hostelry, really needs little introduction. It is famous for its association with the American War. The high reputation of the restaurant I am about to review ranges far and wide. The annals of history recount that this is the location of the ‘five o’clock follies’ – briefings to journalists at a favourite haunt of US officers. Fewer will know that the Rex edifice started life humbly as a garage, transforming itself into a trade centre and finally metamorphosing into a high class hotel only after 1975.
Prior to dining there I visited the rooftop garden during daylight hours. It is indeed a well conceived and reposeful place in the heart of such a hectic city. Metre-and-a-half-high bonsai firs line its perimeter. There is a rockery with exotic fish in its pool. A replica of Hanoi’s One Pillar Pagoda serves as a shrine. Statues of prancing elephants add further adornment, and above the lampshades are decorated as birdcages. Tropical flowers such as bougainvillea (the Vietnamese call this ‘paper flower’) abound. If you were not dining here it would be a great place for a sundowners and there is an extensive list of cocktails. The waiter informed me that the most popular here is the ‘mojito’. This, though Cuban in origin, is composed of locally available ingredients: sugar cane, lime juices, white rum, sparkling water and mint.

This garden is listed in a book called One Thousand Places to Visit Before You Die. Indeed, it might not be a bad place in which to die. As you lie dying you might arrange one for of the luscious ao-dai-clad reception hostesses to spoon you down a last dollop of the Rex’s orange ice-cream in coconut milk. After you spout out your final gasps she could even try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. You could make it your personal Garden of Gethsemane and arrange to be entombed here. Who knows, the clamour of the motorbikes from below might one day crescendo enough to resurrect you from the dead. Whilst irritating, if you are walking around the leafery alone during the day, come dinner time this brouhaha actually reduces to nothing but a background hum.
And so to dinner, as Dr Johnson might have put it. Arriving after a particularly hard day’s toil, I was led to my reserved, prime-positioned rail-side table and made to feel comfortable. What nocturnal vistas of this famous city it afforded! Other notable hotel buildings, the French colonial city hall, the construction site of the new Eden Centre, the traffic circle below with its colourfully illuminated fountain and the sparklingly lit new Bitexco tower, currently Vietnam’s tallest building, all served as backdrop to my night out.
The easy-to-follow menu arrived in English. I do not know if they have it Vietnamese but anyway the dishes are all Western. The Hotel has plenty of Vietnamese dishes to savour at its other outlets. It is simply divided into sections such as Poultry, Seafood and New Zealand lamb and steak dishes. Returning war veterans might be tempted by the Rex Burger but the cuisine is predominantly French-inspired. I settled for the honey roast breast of duck in rosemary and coriander sauce with fresh green pepper. As accompaniment I had a Saigon red beer in a tall glass. Hats off to the Rex, the glass came chilled. It is rare to find a place that has done its marketing well enough to understand that this is the way Westerners expect their beer to be served and that they are wary on health grounds of chunks of ice popped in their cold beverages. Also the waiter did not bat an eyelid at my eccentric English demand for lime juice to be squeezed into the drink.
The duck arrived without undue delay and as tender as the night and as mellifluous as the music that wafted through the night air. A generous number of tasty slices were in the serving. There were plenty of accompanying vegetables lightly done according to the ‘nouvelle cuisine’ method. I suppose if you want your veggies truly cooked the way Mum used to do them you have to phone in advance these days. However, you get plenty of them here for they do not come in starvation rations to serve as mere decorations as in many places.
This ample piéce de résistance left me quite replete and, luckily for the wasteline, with no room for dessert. I would inform you, though, that there is a tantalising list of sweet treats on the menu. You might select the ice-cream already made mention of, which does of course come in more flavours than orange. There are various cheesecakes and crepe suzette. For the health-minded, fresh tropical fruit is also available.
My fellow diners in the main fitted my own profile. They were mostly middle- to retiree-aged Westerners, although there was one mixed group of locals and non-Vietnamese. At the age of 56 I actually felt quite young amid such company. This further added to my sense of having ‘escaped’ as down on the street in this youthful land I have dinosaur status. Cleverly marketed, the evening’s entertainment is focussed on the tastes of this sector of folk.

Upon entering the terrace the first thing I had noticed was the face a neighbour. He is the kind of person you nod to nearly every day but never enter into conversation with. I realised somehow that he was Italian and occasionally greeted him with a ‘buon giorno’. Now I was to discover that the street I inhabit has got talent. Here he played the role of head crooner and a very ‘bel cantore’ he is indeed. He sang internationally recognised songs in English, French and Italian, the native tongues of many of the diners. He gave a great, deep-voiced imitation of Louis Armstrong and, while in his introduction he spoke English with a clear American accent, he sang That’s Amore with the same twangs as Dino Martin. Whilst not looking like Elvis, he certainly sang Can't Help Falling in Love with You like him. Many of his songs were (very aptly for the scene) straight out of the American War era. However, he played safe. None of the protest or hippie inspired songs such as formed the sound track of the film Forrest Gump were sung. His aim was to take his audience down memory lane and that was exactly what he did, at least in my case.
The other act of the soiree was a very cheerful Vietnamese guitar ensemble which played zippy Latin instrumentals. They were joined at one point by a female vocalist who spiritedly sang Carly Simon’s 1973 song You are So Vain. No, I did not take offence. I did not think that song was about me. I should add that, while I consider myself lucky to have attended this programme, there is also Spanish flamenco dancing on other evenings, or perhaps I came in late and missed that.
The price of this extravaganza should do little to raise the eyebrows of your Chief Financial Manager. The total bill came to VND456,000 inclusive of the dreaded pluses. The duck was priced at around VND230,000 with the garlic bread at just under VND50,000.The two beers I consumed were VND85,000 a piece. My bill shows this converted at a fair exchange rate of VND20,860 as $21.87. I might have had a sweet course, which would have been VND70,000 to VND100,000. I could have had a Tiger draught instead of the local beer, which would have run to a dollar or two more. Had I chosen imported steak or lamb, these dishes would have cost from VND250,000  to VND420,000. Had I thus gone for a bit of a splurge I calculate I would have still got change from $50. Factoring in the entertainment, it would be difficult to contest that this represents exceptional value for money in the heart of Vietnam’s most expensive square mile.
To sum up, if what you seek is a classic night on the town with classic Western dining accompanied by classic musical entertainment, it is hard to beat the canopy of that classy old Saigon dame that goes by the name of The Rex.n
 NOTE: Latest prices, as on 9 May, include imported steak or lamb from VND300,000 ($15) to VND500,000 ($25), honey roast breast of duck in rosemary and coriander sauce with fresh green pepper VND240,000 ($12), garlic bread VND50,000 ($2.50),  Saigon red beer VND90,000 ($4.50) and sweets VND80,000 ($4) to VND180,000 ($9).

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