Ma Maison, L’usine, the (not so) Secret Garden, War Remnants Museum, Quan Loan — Saturday in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Our walk thru District 3 on a Saturday morning

Dirck reports that we walked 20,000 steps today. Add to that 90 degree heat/humidity that the weather report accurately described as “feels like 100.” We attempted to walk from our sweet little French hotel Ma Maison (in somewhat out of the way District 3 but a real neighborhood!) to the tourist hub of District 1 and managed to get lost and over-walked. We ended up in a cab and my T-shirt dress was so drenched with sweat that I bought an $8 saffron-colored gauzy top (that I later realized made me look like an overfed female monk) at the famous but chaotic Ben Thánh market. soon that was drenched too. (Dirck does not perspire.)

Walk up these steps

We saw bits of chic Saigon, tourist Saigon and real life Saigon today, a great mix. As promised there are an astonishing number of motorbikes in the streets, some with up to four people, sometimes mom, dad and little kids, sometimes grandma, mom and kids. There aren’t many stoplights in our neighborhood (and no one seems to honor the crosswalks) so you just have to walk in front of two way moving traffic slowly but confidently with your arm somewhat extended.

And up more

For food well worth the walk

Fortunately we got some practice in Hanoi, which seems tame compared to here. Here we also often have to walk on the side of the street because the sidewalk is filled with people eating, drinking or displaying wares, plus parked motorbikes. In District 1, navigating the traffic is a little easier — there are stoplights and wider sidewalks.


Our Hanoi street food guide Mark came thru again with fantastic dining recommendations, just in time. We were sitting in a very cool cafe called L’Usine, when his email arrived with suggestions including L’Usine (which I got from a NYT 36 hours story.)

We’ve learned that some of the coolest places tend to be hidden. You have to walk through a worn alley and up several flights of worn steps, sometimes past what appears to be someone’s home and suddenly you enter chic land and the restaurant, cafe, brewpub or boutique is packed, mostly with well-heeled Asians (hard for me to tell where from) but also some western tourists. That was the case with The Secret Garden, on an open air fourth floor terrace festively decorated, with views of nearby skyscrapers. We heard a rooster crow and realized there was a caged rooster among the many wood tables. The food was amazing. We shared stir fried beef salad on shredded morning glory (a type of green) and little discs of deep fried sticky rice topped with bits of shrimp and pork and crunchy bits of fried battered (I think).

Tonight we went to a completely different place, Quan Loan, a tiny street food outfit with a guy cooking pork and beef skewers on a little grill and groups of men dining at low tables in plastic chairs, drinking a lot of beer. The chunks of grilled pork served with a salty sauce were to die for. We also had some clams in lemongrass broth, served with a chili sweetish dipping sauce and lots of fresh herbs, was refreshingly light and delicate. Oh and we went to groovy Pasteur Street Brewery and had ice cold craft beer, sitting with lots of younger folks.

When we weren’t eating, we did do some sight seeing. The most dramatic was the War Remnants Museum, which recounts what we call “the Vietnam War” from the Vietnamese perspective. needless to say, the U.S. does not come off well and that was an interesting experience in of itself to see our country painted as the bad guy, sadly with good reason (although none of the brutality of the VC was mentioned.) For the first time, I felt like today’s Germans must feel, regarding their past.

On the first floor we had a choice of an exhibit on war atrocities or on agent orange. We went to it all. There was also a moving exhibit about the many war photographers killed on assignment, with examples of their work, and an interesting temporary exhibit on the anti-war efforts of U.S. Soldiers, which I had forgotten about. The portrayal of the soldiers was a mixed bag – there are scenes from My Lai and another atrocity that later Senator/presidential candidate John Kerry was involved with (that I don’t remember hearing about) but also some poignant shots of young soldiers in awful circumstances, many drafted to fight and some who later resisted. I still find it amazing that the Vietnamese are so welcoming to American tourists although I get the economic reasons for this.

Our hotel, Ma Maison, has only a few rooms and is in an elegant old French colonial building completely hidden from the main street and surrounded by much more ordinary buildings. The cab dropped us off in front of a little alley (off of a larger alley or “hem” that looks like a street) lined with the occasional humble house or bodega that  opened into a small courtyard, bordered by a motorcycle shop, a modern tower block and a few single story houses. As is often the case with the places we stay here, you step in off the teaming streets and you are in a world apart, a rarefied world, in this case with a Provencal armoire, plush mattress, a wrought iron balcony, heavy curtains, water bottles hidden in shiny gold cloth sacks and even the toothpaste in a little cloth sack. The young boys who work here are dressed in old-fashioned bellhop shirts, with braided epaulets (they like a Broadway costume) and the manager is an older man who takes his job very seriously and sat us down with several maps to explain the lay of the land and doted over us at breakfast in the sweet little courtyard where we ate under pink bougainvillea.

Tonight, after a taxi back to our neighborhood, I got a smoothie (made with some unfamiliar white fruit that looked a bit like a lychee) from the busy shop on our  Hem (alley) corner and we sat with locals, enjoying the night and watching the motorbikes buzz by. Almost felt like a night at Snookies, our neighborhood ice cream shop in DSM. But very different too.

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