Playing some serious catch-up, blogging on the long slog plane trip home and trying to remember what we did in Vietnam two days ago before it all becomes a dream. We took two buses (which was an adventure – cost about 80 cents each) to Cholon, which is what’s left of Saigon’s Chinatown in District 5. First stop was the market, of course, which was overwhelming — so much commerce. People were refreshingly uninterested in selling to us, a nice change from the big tourist mark Ben Thánh, which we quickly dipped in and out of on our first day.
We wandered around the crowded streets and stumbled into another great meal, this one Chinese food ( we think, sliced char sui pork, bumbling tofu with sautéed ground pork that arrived in a very hot clay bowl, fresh off the fire at the entrance to the restaurant ) at jam-packed Com Ga Dong Nguyen, which according to the waiters clothing and the menu has been around since 1943.
Next stop two of several pagodas in the area (Phuoc An Hoi Quan; Thien Hau) and then the hunt for a functioning ATM. Vietnam is a cash society (unlike Scandinavia where we were last year), especially for purchases on the street. Upscale restaurants aren’t an issue. But we had trouble using Dirck’s ATM card in particular, which has a chip. That may be the issue. But sometimes the machine wasn’t in the right network or was out of cash.
I returned to my neighborhood spa for a facial and foot massage, technically, although I three women worked on my legs and arms and shoulders, as well, in a small dark room. Again, cheap…cost $14…and the women were so sweet. They insisted on taking photos with me including one where I had shocking red lips — thanks to an app called snow, I believe.
We made one final trip to District 1 and finally found another Hanoi Mark recommendation, The Secret Cottage, which we reached by walking through a long narrow basket/scarf shop and up two flights of scuffed up concrete steps. Suddenly we were in chic land, in a dining room with old plaster walls, cool wood furniture and contemporary art. The food was cool too – sort of groovy updates of traditional food like Bánh mi and Bun Thit. We finally got caught in a downpour but had our coats (which we’ve toted everywhere and rarely used. We got to talking with a guy from Utah as we waited out the rain under a shop awning. He is a supply chain developer who has been traveling more often to Vietnam rather than China, given the trade tariffs, working to switch manufacturing to VN.
We learned our lesson yesterday and today took taxis frequently, given the heat and distances and price ($4-8 a ride). On a Sunday morning, we wandered around two more local markets where we seemed to be the only westerners, which is the way we like it. (The morning market at 287 Nguyen Dinh Chieu; Cho Tan Dinh market, 1 Nguyen Huu Cau St.)
It is astonishing to see how much commerce and activity there is here. On a Sunday, no less. Never seems to stop, except for a few holidays. Leo, our Vespa guide in Hoi An, works 28 days a month. With a few holidays. And despite taxes, people don’t get much help paying for kids education or health care, apparently.
I asked our taxi driver where everyone is going on their motorbikes, on a Sunday, no less, and he said with a laugh “I don’t know!” (Once we let him know that we were not Trump fans, he shared our disdain. He talked about how Trump went to Hanoi, in and out. Obama came to Saigon and explored, eating at various restaurants.)
After the markets, we went to an outdoor Vietnamese pancake restaurant (46 Dinh Cong Trang) down a little street near the famous Barbie-pink Catholic Church that our hotel owner Mr. Ha suggested. The Vietnamese pancakes look like a huge, lighter, crispier omelet, folded over and packed inside with sprouts and shrimp, served hot off the charcoal fire, with lettuce for wrapping and dipping sauce. We also had fantastic hot off the griddle fried soft shell crab. With a beer and water, it cost $14.
We wandered through a nearby park and sat on a park bench watching two groups of teenagers, boys and girls, practicing dance routines. They were pretty good. Not sure if this was exercise or practice for a performance. this music was sort of Vietnamese hip hop but at our hotel in Siem Reap, the playlist included our favorites like Regina Spector and an Afro pop song I have on my playlist.
Back to L’Usine for a refreshing coffee slush and then to a few shops nearby on Dong Khoi Street, where we bought more gifts – embroidered purses, t-shirts, a $5 silk tie for Dirck (how is that even possible?) and bracelets made from water buffalo horns. Things are crazy cheap. I’ve bought enough gifts for several holidays and birthdays.
Back at Ma Maison, our host arranged for me to have what turned out to be the best massage I’ve ever had. I had two women working on me for an hour, pretty much covered all the body parts except the private ones. Even were massaging my ears. Cost $12. I gave a tip although I gather it’s not expected. They seemed surprised.
Dinner was at Cuc Gach Quan, one of Saigon’s finest (Mr. Ha was impressed that I’d reserved a table there), in a relatively quiet and high-rent bit of District 3. It’s in a beautiful old home that the architect owner has transformed into a culinary oasis. You walk through an opening in a wall into a lush courtyard garden and into a country rustic building with contemporary art, old wood, an interior atrium with a tiled pond with a few koi swimming around. There are little dining areas on various levels and you have to bend your head to walk through the opening into some of them (one poor waiter forget to do this.) The food is based on the country fare of the architect owner’s grandmother. Standouts were homemade tofu sauteed in a chili and lemongrass sauce served with shreds of something (onion?) on top and fish stewed in a heavy clay pot. It was so moist and flavorful, a rare treat with fish. We tried the traditional sour soup but it was a bit too strange. Sorry to report that we have not eaten Pho during our trip, despite ample opportunity (our hotels serve it for breakfast). We just find it too hot and humid to have soup. (Vietnamese disagree.)
One thing that has struck me is that we’ve seen a lot of Asian 20- and 30-somethings at the more expensive, more cutting edge cuisine restaurants…lots of young foodies. Last night, I watched two 20-something Asian guys eat at Cuc Gach Quan and spend much of the meal looking at their respective cell phones. Cell phone use is ubiquitous — we’ve seen monks on their cell phones, motorbike riders, a rural villager with water buffalo and cell phone, an elderly woman on the bus. They also start their conversation with “hello.”
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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