We’ve been bound to Hong Kong for the last few months nurturing the development and training of our sweet adopted puppy, George Fang but when birthdays come around it is time to fly off to distant lands and find new adventures. Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, was our destination in Vietnam for my husband Eric’s birthday celebrations. I found babysitters for the fur children and finally the day came for us to ship out to ‘nam. After a two and a half hour flight southwest we arrive in balmy Vietnam. Upon exiting the airport, we bypass the gypsy cab drivers hovering over the main arrival gate prying on naive tourists and find our way to the line for metered taxi.
Once we get out of the airport area and surrounding highways to the local city roads I get my first sight of the Saigon scooter traffic I was told about by fellow expats who have been there. My goodness, I’ve not been this amazed by traffic since my first few moments of awe and amazement in Delhi. At the stop lights of large intersections cabs and cars file in where they can fit, between them scooters weave through the traffic as far forward as they can, and lastly a few bicycles squeeze a little further through. Everyone on the road drives with caution and I witnessed no hint of road rage in the entire duration of our stay. At roundabouts there seems to be scooters moving in every direction. It’s a wonder they don’t crash. Watching from our cab window I am amazed by the chaos which seems to have it’s own natural and respectful order. It’s Thursday night and the streets are alive. We notice a wide array of coffee shops, restaurants, and other gathering spots with small friendly crowds spread amongst them.
Our taxi delivers us to the Hotel Majestic Saigon illuminated against the backdrop of Ho Chi Minh City by night. Constructed in 1925, this historic hotel was built in the French Colonial style and overlooks the Saigon River. We walk into the expansive lobby and check in. We meet Fluer, an older Vietnamese woman -dressed in the traditional long breezy tunic over flowing silk pants- who speaks flawless French and is one of the hotel concierges. She points out the hotel amenities, restaurants, and bars as she brings us to our room on the third floor overlooking the river. Eric takes the chance to ask for her recommendations of good French restaurants in the city and takes note. It’s already late so we decide to have dinner at the hotel where they offer a nightly buffet of fresh seafood cooked on the barbecue. After dinner we head up to the rooftop bar and lounge where a local band presents their renditions of American pop classics. We sleep a deep sleep on the fluffy white bed.
For our first full day in Saigon we had arranged with the hotel for the “Full Day Củ Chi Tunnels and City Tour”. We wake early, grab some quick sustenance at the hotel breakfast buffet, and meet our guide Lee in the lobby at 8am. We drive one and a half hours- passing Rice Paddies and Rubber Tree plantations- to Củ Chi Tunnels, an intricate system of underground passageways used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War or “American Resistant” as they happen to call it in Vietnam. These tunnels mainly served as hiding areas during attacks and battle but were also used as a means of communication and supply routes. Created in densely packed jungle mud these underground tunnels are unyieldingly strong, brilliantly constructed, and held a large advantage over US Military. Entrances are surrounded by a variety of guerrilla booby traps which incapacitated unwanted visitors and defended the Viet Cong stronghold. A short stretch of the tunnels at Củ Chi has been made both wider and taller for visitors to get a feel for what it was like to move through this dark underground labyrinth. Featured at Củ Chi Tunnels near the gift shop is a shooting range where visitors have the opportunity to fire some serious guns. Eric jumps at the chance and shoots off 2 rounds on an AK47. I pass, preferring a bow and arrow to be my most dangerous shooting skill.
We are brought back to the hotel for lunch before heading out for a tour of the city. Our first stop is the Reunification Palace, as in the Reunification of North and South Vietnam. This was the site of the end of the war during the Fall of Saigon on the 30th of April 1975 when two North Vietnam tanks bulldozed through the main gate. This was the point in which Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City- though currently the names seem to be used interchangeably. These two tanks are proudly displayed, shaded by a cluster of trees not far from their original entry point. Next we visit a few of the city’s older buildings; the Notre Dame Cathedral, established by French colonists in the late 1800’s and then across the street to the Saigon Central Post Office constructed in the early 20th century.
From here we go deeper into the Vietnamese perspective of the war at the War Remnants Museum with innumerable images of war, empty bomb shells, an assortment of guns placed behind glass, and a large cross-section of US Military vehicles; boats, planes, and tanks left behind in haste as troops quickly left Vietnam after the fall. Most striking to me was an entire exhibition on the effects of Agent Orange. I’ve since learned that the US had defended it as simply an herbicide and defoliant used to remove coverage of the enemy in rural areas but when you see this museum’s photographs of the effects of this chemical compound on the people it’s hard to not consider it a chemical weapon of war; 500,000 children born with birth defects such as extra toes and undeveloped limbs, 400,000 maimed or killed from direct contact, high rates of miscarriage and delivery of still borns, not to mention the effects on the environment and animals. I’ve never had much of an opinion on the Vietnam War – truth be told I’ve always sorta glassed over at the talk of war in general – but it’s absolutely striking to see the devastation caused on both sides in supposed defense of Democracy. This juxtaposed next to modern Vietnam which seems to be doing relatively well compared to other Southeast Asian countries under the socialist government we were defending it from. Towards the end of our time at the War Remnants Museum we were strolling through the gift shop casually looking upon replicas of canteens, hats, pins, badges and rustic-looking zippo lighters. I jokingly said to Eric that he should get a pin so that he can say, “I got this badge when I was in ‘nam”. An older American tourist commented back to us saying that it looks just like the one he got 50 years ago. He explained that this was his first time back since the war and seemed in light spirits over his experience thus far but said that he was expecting it to become more intense when he travelled North where more bloodshed occurred. He expressed in a joyful tone that he was grateful to be welcomed into Vietnam as a US Veteran so warmly. The museum announced its closing for the evening so we found our guide and driver waiting for us in the parking lot for a 5 minute ride back to the hotel. We go for a swim in the pool to wring out the tunnels and poor museum posture from our bones before showering and heading out for dinner.
Did you know that my husband is a Restaurant Shaman? It’s true! He has a 6th sense about where to eat, what to order, and what wine would go best with it all. We will be walking along a city street and like a wild animal sensing it’s prey is near he will like the look of a place. It’s not necessarily a place with pristine white table clothes or alternatively a shabby local joint- this skill goes beyond initial appearances and taps into instinct and intuition. When traveling he cross checks his special skills with TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet to lead us to the best restaurants around the world. I support this skill with a good memory and decent head for on-foot urban geography -particularly in cities like New York and Hong Kong where I spend my days going between Yoga lessons in various neighborhoods. This continued to prove true in Saigon. Friday night we walked about 10 minutes from the hotel to Temple Club Restaurant. With Vietnamese food as their base this restaurant owned by a French expat serves up a sumptuous array of fusions between Eastern and Western tastes. It leaves Eric with the happy glow of finding “a good one” as he says he wouldn’t mind coming back here the next day. After dinner we walk over to the Hotel Continental Saigon where Graham Greene wrote his now iconic novel The Quiet American. Eric -three quarters through the book and feeling a kindred connection to the author- sees it as a pilgrimage to honor him and his prophetic work of literature. We have a drink in their sleepy bar after Eric sneaks up to the second floor to take a picture of the door marker to his former room.
The following day (Saturday) with a decent sense of our bearings we venture out to explore on our own; tucking into shops, and wandering down streets that pique our interest. We have lunch at an lively Pho place with a diverse crowd of locals and tourists, wander through a Hindu temple, get some deliciously strong Vietnamese iced coffee, and bought a few special things to remember the trip by. We then hail a cab to take us to Chợ Lớn, the Chinatown of Ho Chi Minh City. We are dropped off in front of Bình Tây, literally meaning “Big” “Market” and the central hub of it all.
This is the place where every roadside merchant purchases their products wholesale. I’ve never seen so many hats in one place. So many bottles of nail polish in one place. So many hair clips in one place. So many of every item you could think of piled on top of one another, in large bins, on crowded shelves, or pinned to the wall or ceiling. It is sold in the Chinese style; a whole row of vendors selling essentially the same thing. There is a wet market section, with live fish and crustaceans squirming in bubbling styrofoam tanks and an entire section of packaged food and prepared food. It’s crowded and hot. Lots of employees napping on boxes like sleeping bodega cats in between receiving customers. In the center of the market is a garden and a statue of Thông Hiệp, a Chinese man who collecting bottles and other reusable items to earn a meager living during his impoverished early life. He eventually became a wealthy business owner and founder of the Bình Tây Market. We sit here on a bench away from the crowd but in the strong sun to examine our guidebook as to how to get to the nearby Taoist temples. We sort out a plan and make our way out and onto the street. Eric goes to take a picture of something and realizes he has misplaced his camera. We rapidly retrace our steps, through the market, and there on the bench rests the camera as if it was waiting for us to return. I’m reminded of the monk in Thailand who blessed us with a “Good Luck. Good Luck. Good Luck.”
We exit the market once again and this time Eric is approached by a fairly uniformed looking taxi driver who asks where we are going and if we would like to get there by scooter taxi. I can tell the idea excites Eric but the price the guy suggests seems quite high. I play the part of the practical and thrifty “let’s just walk it” woman and get the driver to chop his price significantly. We’re good to go! Eric on the back of one scooter and me on another. Now, if watching traffic here is a bit nerve wracking being in it is a whole other thing. Those roundabouts where it looked as if scooters are going every which way now seem to be coming directly toward me! I hold tight to the thin waist of my tandem driver, grip the seat with my thighs, grit my teeth, and then remind myself to breath. We move onto quieter streets and I loosen my grip a bit and let my spine move more freely with the weaving motorbike. I snap a few pictures of fabric sellers for my mom along the way. We reach our destination. It’s not too far from where we were but I am glad that we didn’t walk it in the midday sun and heat. The driver who originally approached Eric also said at the time that he would have change for us once we set the price. Now all of a sudden he does not. He wants to take us to other temples after this and show us around Chinatown as a “solution”. Having no problem being the
sassy bitchy one I snatch our large bill and go off to make change and dismiss him. I buy myself, Eric, and the two drivers cold bottles of water and give the guy the agreed upon amount. The temple is not all together much different then the Taoist shrines and temples of Hong Kong. Incense smoke, dragons, fierce warrior-looking Gods, joss paper offerings to ancestors, and a whole lot of red and gold. At this temple there were two dogs. A friendly one who as soon as you showed interest would come over and beg for belly rubs and one tough one who barked meanly if you got too close. I am sure there is a deeper symbolism here but I’ll allow for you to interpret the significance of this at this part of the story. For dinner Eric booked a table a Trois Gourmands. Seated in the garden of a French colonial mansion converted into a restaurant we enjoyed a decadent and slow-paced seven course meal of French food and wine that left us throughly impressed. Eric officially proclaims Saigon to be the Paris of Asia.
Sunday morning we meet our guide Lee and our driver once again. This time to make our way out of HCMC to the Mei Kong River Delta. After a 90 minute drive we arrive at the small town of Mỹ Tho where we stop at a Cao Đài Temple on the way to the river. Cao Đài -a religion homegrown in Vietnam- strives for peace and understanding by blending together the faiths of Chinese Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Catholicism. This vibrantly colored temple holds four services a day: six am, noon, six pm, and midnight. The altar has images of Jesus, Shakyamuni Buddha and Confucius and they revere Sun Yat-Sen, Thomas Jefferson, Victor Hugo and Joan of Arc as Saints. The faith encompass the concept of reincarnation from Buddhism and Hinduism, follows ethics set forth in Confucianism, embraces the energetics of yin-yang from Taoism, and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Caodaists honor and make ritual offerings to their ancestors, practice vegetarianism and nonviolence, and strive to understand oneness through this universal inclusion. This oneness is represented by the image of an eye which is infused in the architecture and religious imagery of this and other Cao Đài Temples.
From here we drive just a little further to the Mekong River. We take a boat to the middle of the wide river -brown in color from silt- wherein lies a cluster of islands named after the four holy beasts of Vietnam: the dragon, the phoenix, the turtle, and the unicorn. Here, assisted by the local bee keepers we each dip a finger into a buzzing honey comb for a taste of fresh honey. Moments later we are invited to sit down and have some jasmine tea sweetened with royal jelly, bee pollen, and lime juice from the farm along with some crunchy snacks. We are then presented packaged up versions of the things we just ate- available for our purchase. Our guide Lee asks if either one of us is afraid of snakes. He says that the café has a pet python and we could hold it if we wanted. They take out the “baby” two-year-old snake and place it around Eric’s neck. Having done this before (before meeting me) he holds up it’s head gently and smiles confidently. They then put the snake around my neck and I -on the other hand- have never been so close to such a large snake. I hold up the head and point the flickering tongue away from me. It clings to the curves of my human form and steers its head toward my face. I coil back unsure of this new creature experience. I then relax a bit as I feel the end of the snake slithering around my torso in a warm embrace. In an instant the sensation goes from dreadfully uncertain to tenderly strong and almost comforting. Just as I am starting feeling a camaraderie with the snake the shop keepers take his off me and we make our way to the next “attraction”.
We walk along a path and Lee points out the wide variety of tropical fruit trees surrounding us; green mango, pomelo, jack fruit, pineapple, as well as water and land coconuts. He breaks off a mountain water apple from the tree and tosses it to us to try. Before moving to Hong Kong I had never even seen this fruit before and here I was eating right off the tree as if it was apple picking season in upstate New York. Pretty neat. From here the entire tour became a bit of a tourist trap or perhaps it already was. Everywhere along the path is another stall selling the same coconut shell jewelry, indigenous looking handbags, and other Vietnam-inspired souvenirs. Despite my diminishing cool factor I’m still convinced that the trip down the tributary with fulfill my imagination as to what a holiday in Vietnam looks like. One-by-one we carefully step into a canoe-like wooden boat. The owner of the boat stands on a platform at the back and moves it along the current with a long oar and the momentum of his swaying body. Along either side grows a mangrove of dense thicket bringing to mind the river they traverse in Apocalypse Now. We pass fishing nets used by the people who live on these islands and a few rickety looking docks. I scoop up a bit of Mekong River water into an empty bottle to add to my collection of worldly holy waters at home and I am totally satisfied by the experience despite earlier disappointments. I wish I could brought my new best friend the python along with me.
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City we stop at Vĩnh Tràng Temple, a large Buddhist temple which features not one “Big Buddha”, not two, but three large Buddha statues; Standing Buddha (Buddha of the future), a Reclining Buddha (representing the past), and a fat Happy Buddha representing good luck and prosperity. Lee leads us around telling us a little more about the smaller statues inside the temple, what each room is used for, and history of the temple and Buddhism in Vietnam. The tour is done and once again we are tired from the strong Vietnamese sun. We journey back to the hotel to refresh ourselves before heading out for our last night in Saigon.
We eat dinner at Cục Gạch Quán, a multi-level quirky restaurant with about five intimate eating areas serving a wide range of healthy and vegetarian friendly Vietnamese food. To get to our table we literally had to walk up a ladder-like staircase over a shallow indoor pond filled with goldfish, which brought us to a sort of roof-terrace of the building we walked into. From there we scoop under the roof of the building next door and take a giant step up into what seemed like an attic, hang a left -watch your head as you tuck into the next room!- and there was our table. Toward the end of dinner we had a lovely conversation about food and travel with two men sitting next to us from Australia. After dinner we hail a cab to Sax n’ Jazz – a jazz club. As we arrive a woman from New York is singing soulful arrangements of Motown classics that make me long for late nights of music with friends in the Village. She introduces the owner of the club Tran Manh Tuan to the stage. Trained at Berkley College of Music he one Vietnam’s most prominent jazz saxophonists. He was absolutely phenomenal and I am blown away by the artistic culture available in Vietnam which is completely lacking in Hong Kong. After his set Eric introduces himself and buys a few of his CD’s which Tran signs for us. The club closes and we slowly wander back to the hotel sighing over how lovely the time has been. The next day we pack our bags and leave in the late morning.
It’s now two weeks later I am here in our apartment on Lantau Island contemplating the trip at large. The strength and determination of the people of Vietnam stays with me. The country is an enchanting combination of Vietnamese self-reliance, infused with French culture, amidst a part of the world becoming more and more influenced by Chinese expansion. Each new country we visit reveals a new facet of Asian culture which until now has seemed mysterious and my understanding of it vague. Life in Hong Kong has grown quite normal since arriving in September so I am grateful for these opportunities to travel and let my perspectives get refreshed again and again. Stay tuned for the next adventure… Ankor Wat, Cambodia in late April.