Wait a Ho Chi Minh-ute

8 01 2009

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I thought Cambodia was going to kill us. The scamming, the food poisoning, the beggars, the moto mafias, the dengue fever, all started to overwhelm the good aspects of the country. So boarding the bus for Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, became one of the few times Gage and I were excited to take a long haul bus ride. Traveling from Phnom Penh to Saigon is an easy and popular journey, but it also served as another one of those examples of how weird and confusing it can be to travel in a country that doesn’t speak your language. For instance, Gage and I were a bit confused when our bus pulled up to the edge of the Mekong River. Confusion turned to panic as our bus rolled down the ramp and onto a ferry boat in order to cross the river. A little later the bus ticket boy made it clear to us that part of the border procedure involved him holding onto our passports. Not something any traveler wants to hear. Thirty minutes later we pulled up to a checkpoint and everyone was told to exit the bus…in the middle of the road. A Vietnamese soldier held our passports and read off names, which was our cue to get back on the bus. Of course, no one tells us what is happening, we just have to follow the pack. When we actually got to the passport processing center we had to stand with all of our bags in a large crowd of people, while straining our ears to hear a Vietnamese kid attempt to shout out English names. Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable than standing at the border between an overtly corrupt country and a strict socialist country and wondering who the heck has your passport. Not all travelers are religious, but we all have to have faith.

Crossing the Mekong by Bus

Crossing the Mekong by Bus

After a month in a struggling country like Cambodia, rolling into Ho Chi Minh City was like a barbarian strolling into NYC. Ahh, civilization. Or at least civilization with a healthy dose of overpopulation and mass chaos. Ho Chi Minh looked so different from Cambodia; the funky mix of modern Asian architecture with classical French, the grassy parks lined by busy streets, women in conical hats shouldering baskets of goodies, literally millions of motos flooding the streets, and a thick blanket of smog 30 stories above our heads. It may not be better, but it was wonderfully different and exciting.

Of course a new country means all new gastronomic adventures. Vietnamese food is a crazy mix of many different influences and a lot of creativity. The people of this country seem to favor strong flavors such as thick, bitter coffee, pungent, salty fish sauce, and strong, vaporous alcohols. We quickly dove into our first Vietnamese coffee at Java Cafe, only spilling a few tablespoons of liquid in an attempt to figure out how to work the contraption. Thankfully we also ordered a mini carafe of sweet condensed milk, the entire contents of which were emptied into our coffee after the first plain sip. By the first half cup I could have run a marathon. By the second half I could have run a marathon carrying Gage.

Vietnamese Coffee at Java Cafe

Vietnamese Coffee at Java Cafe

Southeast Asia is home to all sorts of crazy fruits that we have never seen at home. From sugar packed golfball sized longans, to the world’s largest fruit knows as jackfruit which can easily grow bigger than your head. They also have a crazy fruit known as durian, which tastes like candy and smells like sewer. The best description I’ve heard is that it’s like eating your favorite ice cream while on the toilet. We found out about a restaurant called Bach Dang which makes Vietnamese ice cream with these crazy fruit flavors. For a little under three dollars we sampled longan, durian, taro, and strawberry ice creams. While it was no chocolate chip cookie dough, all of the flavors were refreshing and delicious in the muggy Saigon air. Yes, even the durian.

Vietnamese Ice Cream at Bach Dang

Vietnamese Ice Cream at Bach Dang

Our favorite restaurant experience had to be at Quon An Ngon, a popular place among both locals and foreigners. Instead of a central kitchen, the tables are in the center, while food stalls, each with their own specialty, line the perimeter. The not only allows patrons to choose from a huge menu, but also makes the place smell wonderful. We dug into Vietnamese ‘sausage’ (looked like ground meat to me), grilled pork, and shrimp sweet potato pancakes. The shocking dish came at the end of the meal in the form of drunken rice balls. Our waiter brought us a mini bowl of little brain-like glutinous rice balls, swimming in a clear liquid. Though they looked innocent, one of these little balls packed a punch like a shot of sake. Five balls no bigger than my fingertip had me feeling dizzy and tired. Considering their cocktails cost around $4, I think the $1 drunken rice balls were a steal.

Drunken Rice Brains, I mean balls

Drunken Rice Brains, I mean balls

Though tired of the tourist game, we did decide to break down and pay a visit to the Vietnam History Museum. Not that we care deeply for the history, it’s just that the museum has a water puppet show which I read was really spectacular. When we walked up to the theatre entrance the lady at the door stopped me and said, “Need five people for show.” We had just walked an hour through Saigon traffic to see this dang water puppet show. If I had to clone myself in order to fill the five person minimum, I was going to do it. Gage and I started wandering around the theatre entrance and trying to persuade people to pay the extra $2 to see the show. After about 10 minutes of trying to sell people on something that we knew nothing about and had never seen, we had 6 people and the lady opened the doors. As we sat and waited for the show to start, Gage and I prayed that it would be as awesome as we thought and that we wouldn’t have four angry foreigners on our hands. Soon the music started and two dragon puppets swam out from under the water, splashing around, spitting water at us, and dancing to the music. We all started acting like children, giggling at the flirtations of the swan puppets and laughing allowed as the cat puppet chased after the duck puppets. Afterwards one of the recruits told me he was so impressed he was coming back for another show tomorrow.

Next door to the History Museum was the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. I’m not much of a zoo goer, but I love botanical gardens and the tickets were only 50 cents, so we decided to give it a shot. I would highly encourage any other traveler to avoid this mistake. First of all, there are no real gardens, just the occasional green plot of land with some cool shrubs and one small Japanese garden. As we wandered the zoo looking for the actual gardens we were unfortunate enough to witness the various animals ‘living’ in their tiny concrete cells, usually without grass or shelter, but often with a play toy such as a tire or large plastic jug. The lionness cage had some interesting toys…bunnies. We were un/fortunate enough to witness a bunny running for it’s life as it barely escaped the jaws of a lion. The cage was already strewn with several rabbit carcasses, all of which had their heads torn off. Fun place to bring the kids.

Bunnies & Lions dont mix

Bunnies & Lions don't mix

On a lighter note, the complete lack of regulation or supervision allowed us to buy some carrots off of a woman which we then fed to a group of four elephants, much to the amusement of the local crowd.

Gage feeds an elephant

Gage feeds an elephant

Realizing that our assumptions about the botanical gardens were false, we made a quick exit and soothed our nerves over bowls of pho bo, beef noodle soup, at Pho 2000 whose clame to fame was that it had hosted Bill and Chelsea Clinton in November 2000. Pho 2000 is a dive, but as with all of Clinton’s favorite dives, it served up some tasty grub that provided a nice end to our Saigon stay.

For more pictures of Saigon, click here.

Suggestions:
– The cheap places to stay can be found around Pham Ngu Lao Street, but the restaurants in the area are notoriously bad. One bright star in the bunch is a little place called Zen on Mini Hotel Alley which serves up yummy vegetarian fare.
– If your a light sleeper, try to reserve a place on Mini Hotel Alley, otherwise you may be unfortunate enough to enjoy the screams from the impromptu drag races that take place at 3am.
– Ethical eats can be found at the Sozo Bakery on Ban Thiet which is owned and operated by the disabled. Do not miss the awesome peanut butter and oatmeal raisin cookies.
– All ATMs fine you at least 20,000 dong, no matter how much you take out. So to save money, find an ANZ cash machine, which will allow you to take out 4 million dong ($250) at once.
– Ban Thien Market used to be for locals but is now a tourist haven. If you shop there, bargain hard (with a smile) and always be willing to walk away.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
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2 responses

10 01 2009
Kathy

OMG! And I have momentary anxiety before I get on a Ferris wheel! Loved reading the experience and, as always, thoroughly enjoyed the pictures and video!

Love, K

16 01 2009
Rondad

It seemed from a comment from Jen’s dad that he might have been in Viet Nam (c-rations). These pictures remind me that I had orders to go there when I was in the Army which were withdrawn before I actual went. Seeing it all vicariously now through your eyes is moving.

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