Rooftop Bar at the Rex Hotel
One of the stops on our cruise this summer was Phu My, Vietnam, the gateway to Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known as Saigon until 1975, this largest city in Vietnam was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina, and later the capital of the republic of South Vietnam. After 1975, the name of the city was changed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, though most locals still refer to it as Saigon. During our wonderful one-day stay in Ho Chi Minh, my husband and I joined with 11 other people (including families from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Toronto) for a private tour with a wonderful tour guide for a whirlwind tour of this great city. Our tour guide, who used to be an English teacher, and was the tour guide for Chelsea Clinton in 2000 when then-President Bill Clinton made a historic trip to Ho Chi Minh City, showed off all the great and majestic aspects of this large and remarkable city for our enjoyment including historical sights and local favorites.
Our morning started out really early at 7:00 am when our ship docked at the container port of Phu My and we met up with our tour guide. We were whisked away in a small mini-bus and headed on the 70 km journey from Phu My into the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Due to the sometimes-poor conditions of the road, and the vehicle traffic, especially the thousands of motorbikes, a 70 km journey that would take most people less than an hour to complete, actually takes a mini-bus or a motorcoach in Vietnam a solid 2 hours to complete. But we got see a lot of local life along the way, or at least those of us who didn’t fall asleep did! Upon approach to the city, we were told that our first stop of the day would be at the famous Rex Hotel for a sample of Vietnamese coffee in the rooftop bar.
The Rex Hotel, located in Downtown Ho Chi Minh City, and right across the courtyard from City Hall, was the headquarters for the US military during the time of the Vietnam War. The hotel is famous for its cynically termed “Five O’clock Follies” broadcast so named because US military brass would give a daily briefly at 5:00 pm updating journalists on the progress of the war. Most journalists believed that what the US military brass was spewing was optimistic and not in touch with reality, and therefore decided to give these daily briefings a satirical name. To this day, the hotel remains in high standing in Ho Chi Minh and is owned an operated by the state-owned Saigon Tourist.
To enjoy Vietnamese coffee in Vietnam was quite the treat, and in the end, actually was the highlight of our day in Ho Chi Minh City. When we arrived at the hotel, we were immediately whisked through the gorgeous lobby, up the elevators to the roof deck and straight to the Rooftop Bar. Spacious, peaceful and relaxing amidst the hustle and bustle of the city below, this was the perfect setting to enjoy one of Vietnam’s greatest culinary exports.
Prior to arriving at the Rex Hotel, our guide explained to us how important Vietnamese coffee has been in the Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese gained their love of this ultra strong brew of coffee during their time of French colonization. Apparently, there’s a great art and technique to brewing a good cup of Vietnamese coffee. It’s just ground coffee run through a coffee machine or a French press, that’s way too simple to describe the process of brewing Vietnamese coffee. Our guide explained that good Vietnamese coffee has to start with Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee beans that are ground until they are very, very fine. The coffee grounds are then added to a coffee press and a few teaspoons of hot water are added to grounds and mixed together. This is not to dissolve the coffee grounds and make coffee, but rather to combine with the coffee grounds to form a thick paste or sludge. It is with this sludge that a cup full of hot water is poured over, and allowed to drip into a cup that is filled 1/4 to 1/2 with sweet, rich condensed milk. It’s this hot water that drips down into the sludge of coffee grounds, and drips out one drop at a time, into the cup below and combines with the thick, rich condense milk that creates the classic Vietnamese coffee. When done correct, our guide explained that one cup of Vietnamese coffee could take 7-10 minutes to drip completely through the coffee sludge. Any cup of coffee that could be produced quickly, say in 2 minutes time isn’t true Vietnamese coffee made the old-fashioned way. Once all of the hot water has dripped its way through the sludge, the coffee and condensed milk are combined together with a spoon. The condensed milk lightens the color of the coffee from black coffee to a warm brown color, the mixture is then poured over ice cubes and creates class Vietnamese iced coffee.
When we arrived at the rooftop bar, we were shown to a long table wooden table with low seats that were reserved just for our use. By the time we arrived, our drinks were already waiting for us. Again, since it takes a long time to make Vietnamese coffee the correct way, to save time, our guide took our order for either hot Vietnamese coffee with milk or Vietnamese iced coffee and called it in to the bar. The bar made the drinks and had them waiting for us upon our arrival.
This beautiful, delicious cup of Vietnamese iced coffee might have been the most refreshing drinks I’ve ever had. It hit the spot perfectly. It was strong, but not overpowering. Sweet, but not over the top. On this warm and muggy August morning in Ho Chi Minh City, this iced coffee quenched my thirst and left me wanting for more Vietnamese iced coffee. It was so creamy and silky and just slid down my throat. I was sorry when I reached the bottom of the glass as I had wanted it to be a bottomless glass of some of the most fantastic iced coffee I’d ever had.
We were given about 20 minutes to relax at the Rooftop Bar, enjoy our drinks, gaze out at this amazing city below us, and contemplate being in Vietnam, a place so foreign to all of us. This experience, on that day, was the highlight of my trip to Ho Chi Minh City, in fact, the highlight of my trip to Vietnam period.