Over the last two months I’ve been incredibly lucky to travel around several parts of SE Asia to absorb the different sights and cultures this part of the world offers. Originally thinking that I only had about three months in Kuala Lumpur, I attempted to make the very best of the affordability and ease of access to nearby countries. In my initial planning, this was to be my last destination before I headed off to India and I did that for a reason, which I’ll come back to. Since then, I’ve found out that my time has been extended in Kuala Lumpur until at least July, so it appears I’ll have some additional time to take advantage of my location but will do so nowhere near the breakneck speed with which I have been traveling thus far. So after this trip to Vietnam, I have one more trip planned within SE Asia and I will then take some time to explore the country I have been calling home for the last couple months. I say all that to preface that after my next destination, my postings may slow down but also to frame the initial context of this trip.
My father fought in the Vietnam War, or as I soon came to find out the American War as called in Vietnam. I’m extremely proud of his service and know that it has made him the man he is today. That is fully taking into account the extreme heartbreak, sorrow, and devastation he both witnessed and participated in. He has always been somewhat reticent in sharing his harrowing encounters with my family, but as I’ve gotten older has been more willing to discuss his experiences in a war that was so largely unheralded by our own country. Framed by my father’s involvement in the war, I have been keen to further understand our reasoning for being there along with the climate of such a turbulent chapter in both our country and the world. My thoughts on the matter are far too complex and confused to attempt to share on these pages but I want to at least set the background for my trip to Vietnam. My father last stepped from the soil of this country at a very different time in history some 43 years ago and all of this played a very real part in my experience of Vietnam.
I arrived to Ho Chi Minh City on a Friday afternoon and the SE Asian heat was in full effect. Prior to arrival in Vietnam I had done the requisite research on Visas and found out that it was possible to get a Visa-On-Arrival like Indonesia. However, unlike Indonesia, you needed to find a firm that would in essence get prior approval for your landing and then endorse you for your stay. But lo and behold, capitalism has found a way to ease the process and so through a seemingly reputable website I was able to procure a referral for a 30 day visa for around 35 USD. In addition to the letter, I needed two 4 mm x 6 mm headshots on white background, 45 USD, and an arrival sheet that I could fill our prior to my arrival to help expedite the process. Through my research, it had noted that the wait time after submitting your documents could range from a few minutes to several hours. I was desperately hoping I would be on the front end of the bell curve instead of the back. Fortunately, as I quickly strode to the Visa counter there were few other flights landing at the same time so after submitting my documents I received my Visa in about 5 minutes. After that I passed through immigration with relative ease, a quick stop by the ATM to get a lot of Dong (approximately 21,400 Vietnamese Dong = 1 USD so again I was a millionaire), and I was then standing outside the terminal.
On the Wikitravel page for Ho Chi Minh City it offers advice on taxi transport (as it does for most places) as well as some words of wisdom to avoid getting ripped off (as it does for most places). I had read through the info over the past week, but was a bit hazy on the finer points. In essence it noted (as it does for all places) one should insist on having the meter turned on, and be wary of drivers attempting to add another zero onto your final taxi bill. Upon leaving the airport we went through a toll booth at which point my driver, which certainly did not speak English, grabbed the taxi ticket I had been given and handed it over to the tool booth collector along with some Dong. As we continued driving, the taxi driver then handed me a 100,000 dong bill. I’ll admit, I was confused. Was he paying me? Did the taxi voucher I had paid nothing for have some value to it? The answer was no. I soon realized he was attempting to show me how much the “fare” was at the toll we just passed through. I reluctantly handed him 100,000 dong note (upon later research of the wikitravel page this is one of the scams they talk about in which the driver will pay the equivalent of 10,000 dong, and then ask for 100,000 with the passenger being none the wiser). At this point my radar was up, but in passing through the streets of this foreign land my eyes and thoughts turned outside.
While driving I began to notice the large red banners hanging aside each street. The banners either carried the Star symbol from the Vietnamese flag or the sickle and hammer, the communist symbol. This was my first trip to a communist country and seeing the symbol portrayed in an non-ironic fashion was quite interesting. After about a 30 minute trip through some extremely busy traffic (more on that later) we arrived aside the Continental Hotel. My cab driver had proceeded to park on the other side of the street from my hotel, which was the second red flag (no pun intended) of our journey. As he turned and attempted to communicate the fare for my journey he made it clear he was expecting an additional 500,000 dong, because the meter was showing 50. This was the other scam I had read about on Wiki and it stuck with me. I had been watching the meter and as it passed 100, it reset to 01, so in essence at our final stop the meter was reading 150. Due to the inordinate number of zeroes on their currency, the digit on the meter is intended to be multiplied by 1,000 so that I owed the driver 150,000 dong. Let me also state that I am only certain of all this in hindsight, after I’ve had a chance to further understand the process. Anyways, I knew I was being overcharged and finally settled on 300,000 dong, which means I ended up overpaying a fair amount. I share all of this not because I’m bitter or take this out on the country but rather as just a note on one of the things you must be wary of when traveling to foreign lands where the language barrier very much exists. I later found out Vietnam is attempting to fight these kind of overcharges very seriously and if I had reported the man he could have faced up to two years in prison.
Despite this initial experience I was eager to check out my accommodations at The Hotel Continental Saigon.
The hotel was finished in 1880 in a French Colonial theme and was intended to provide a taste of home for the wearied French travelers as they arrived at one of their far-flung French colonies. The details and visceral feeling of a time long past are so very real at this place. The hotel was home to the novelist Graham Greene who set his book The Quiet American here. Additionally, many journalists during the War both stayed here and set up their magazine and newspaper headquarters in this hotel. Many of the last updates appear to have happened in the 1970’s further adding to the time capsule sensation that, for me, was utterly transporting. It’s worth noting that even with the place evoking strong memories of the 70’s it was in excellent condition, facilities were well appointed, and the service was top notch. After being initially assigned a room on the interior part of the hotel, I asked if a room with a balcony was available. Luckily enough I was able to get a corner room on the top floor overlooking the historic Opera House and one of the oldest streets in Saigon, Dong Khoi. I thoroughly enjoyed staying at the Continental and would strongly recommend it to anyone who gets to spend any time in Ho Chi Minh City.
After checking in and dropping off my stuff, I had worked up an appetite and I was keen to get my hands on a Banh Mi. The two countries I had been most looking forward to for culinary exploration were Thailand and Vietnam so I was eager to begin. Prior to landing I had read a place called Nhu Lan was known for their Bahn Mi’s and after having that reaffirmed by one of the local bellhops I headed over. The Continental was located in District 1 (every time I read or heard this I couldn’t help but think of the Hunger Games) and soon found out many of the places worth checking out were located within the same district and were a short walk away. After a ten minute walk I arrived at Nhu Lan and grabbed a spot at an open table. It was around 2 pm at that time so it was easy to grab a spot. A young man soon took my order and after realizing that he didn’t speak much, if any, English I began the game of pointing at items on the menu while attempting to speak the local pronunciation of that item, often times butchering it. However, I have come to thoroughly enjoy attempting to learn bits and pieces of a new language and most of the people I have met along the way have been eager to help me learn it. I put in an order for a Banh Mi, a fresh lime juice, and a spring roll. Around me, I could see the Bahn Mi’s being assembled on the fresh baguettes and not long after I ordered, one was delivered to my table.
The Bahn Mi I had here was different than other versions I had stateside as their was less of an emphasis on the veggies, and more on the bread and the meat. But overall it was quite delicious and the bread certainly lived up to the expectations that come with its French roots. The Spring Roll came with a succulent Peanut/Hoisin sauce that was all together gone too quickly.
After eating a relatively light lunch I decided to walk around and explore the area while I gradually made my way over to the Reunification Palace.
I had read about this in advance of my trip, but despite that was still not ready for the overwhelming flow of motorbikes and scooters that flowed throughout the streets, and most surprisingly sidewalks. All streets were teeming with fast moving motorbikes going every which way. As I would stand on the side of the street, mesmerized by the pulsating streets, another motorbike would zoom past me on the sidewalk. I soon learned to keep my head on a swivel, yet the task of crossing certain streets would prove to be much more daunting as I’ll discuss later. I’ve included a short youtube video below which captures the controlled chaos that exists at certain intersections that don’t have stoplights OR stop signs. I honestly don’t know how many people can make their way through an intersection at such a rapid rate with no injuries but somehow they make do.
I’ve included a few more shots of the street that I hope can slightly convey the scenes of the street.
I was soon able to make my way over to the Reunification Palace or Independence Palace, which was the workplace and residence of the former President of South Vietnam. My trip turned out to closely coincide with a large celebration the Vietnamese government was prepping for, that had close ties to the Reunification Palace. Forty years ago on April 30th, 1975 a North Vietnamese tank squadron busted through the gates of the Presidential Palace, precipitating the fall of the regime and the reunification of the country. In light of this, massive preparations were underway to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the event. With the preparation of a major event that set the country’s collective focus some forty years ago, it seemed only fitting to be occurring during my first foray into Vietnam.
The palace has been kept as a time capsule from that day in April 1975 when one regime was to fall and make way for a new one. The phones and furnishings have all been kept intact exactly as they were on that fateful day in 1975. I would like to note that during my stay in Vietnam, the overall impression I gathered from the people is their desire to look forward rather than behind and create a modern and prosperous Vietnam. They largely seemed to have forgiven the transgressions of their many attempted rulers and want to genuinely build a vibrant and robust country. But their are large parts of Ho Chi Minh that still reveal the scars are fresh and it created this very emotional dichotomy within me as I attempted to understand and come to grips with the old, while envisioning and embracing the new.
After making my way through the palace I stopped at a nearby cafe to grab a drink and reflect on everything I had absorbed. It was not lost on me that should the South Vietnamese have retained their independence, I would have never gotten a glimpse into this palace as it likely would have still been the current President’s home and workplace. I spent a great deal of time thinking about not only the Vietnam (or American) War, but also of my country’s recent forays into battle. The initial thought behind the Vietnam War had been to prevent the spread of communism and liberate an ostensibly democratic people. However the South Vietnamese had committed some staggering atrocities to their own people (under the guise of rooting out communism with the U.S.’s backing) and even when the communists ultimately won, their has not proven to be a domino effect of communism within adjacent countries. The country was able to reunite as one, and this fact seemed to be a key one. I quickly came to realize that Vietnam’s desire for independence and their own sovereignty is of the utmost importance to a country that has found itself far too often under foreign rule. The country appears to be making great strides towards becoming a more financially stable economy, but that’s not to say all things are for the better. When at my hotel, I picked up a book called Perfect Spy which is the story of Pham Xuan An, a Times columnist and double agent for the North Vietnamese. The more I have attempted to unravel the Vietnam War story the more complicated and nuanced it becomes. This is probably true for many of the wars we have fought in (with notable exceptions World War I and II). In the non-fiction biography it talks about a Vietnames man who both loved America, having spent his undergraduate years in California, but loving the independence and sovereignty of his own country more so. He fought as a spy for the North Vietnamese not because he hated America, but because he loved his country. Part of what the book discusses is after the war, An’s disillusionment with the direction of the government he had fought for so many years to defend. He had visions of a Vietnam that was free and open like America, but soon found that the ruling party had other plans. The Vietnam I visited today seemed to be a far cry from the fresh victors, but the history of the whole experience permeated in some small way through my entire experience.
After visiting the palace I went back to the hotel to shower up (I have found that in SE Asia, multiple showers in a day are a requisite) before grabbing dinner. I had read about a place called Hoa Tuc that had universally great reviews and I soon found out was just a few short blocks away from my hotel. The restaurant was located in an interior courtyard and did not disappoint. I ordered a marinated beef salad, with a main course of Chili BBQ squid with Passion Fruit Sauce. This was hands down the best squid I’ve ever had.
During dinner, I struck up a conversation with my waitress and among the many things I learned from her, I found out that Hoa Tuc offered a cooking class. After she did some checking, she told me that they had an opening in the mid-day class on Sunday, so after paying my bill I signed up for a spot.
A friend/colleague of mine in KL had a former colleague from Manila that was now working in Ho Chi Minh. Prior to leaving he helped establish a connection, and Dean from Ho Chi Minh was good enough to take me out for a drink or two (it turned out to be more than that) at some of the local nightlife. I’m not going to go into the details of the whole night out but it was a good time. The bar culture in Vietnam is entirely different to what I’m used to and left me with a bit of a headache in the morning.
Licking my wounds I roused to grab breakfast in the courtyard at the Continental. The setup was very quiet and picturesque. The hotel offered a wide assortment of breakfast offerings including an omelet bar and some outstanding coffee. Vietnam is one of the top two coffee producers in the world and the quality of their coffee did not disappoint.
After a very good breakfast and a somewhat rejuvenating shower I set out on a mission that had been in the making long before my arrival in Vietnam. A few years back, my father had shared with me a few pictures of his younger self while in Vietnam. One of the pictures included him out on the balcony of a hotel. It’s a great picture that absolutely captured the essence of a young Lieutenant soaking in a brief reprieve from an otherwise chaotic world. Once I knew that I would be close to Vietnam I would make it my goal to get as close to recreating the picture as possible. He later told me that the picture had been taken while he was on a short stay at the Rex Hotel in Saigon. The Rex Hotel was a quick walk away from the Continental so I made my way there on Saturday morning.
Arriving at the Rex, I made my way to the lobby. There were two Vietnamese receptionists behind the counter, one male and one female with a guest each. While waiting to the side I noticed the male receptionist was next to be available and for whatever reason I decided that this query would be best received by a female receptionist so I made myself busy by studying the fish tank. Once I noticed the female receptionist was available, I made my way over. Citing that this might be an odd request I presented a photo of my father in the very same hotel some 43+ years ago and expressed my desire to recreate it. Without blinking an eye she began to think through which room that might have been in and soon began elaborating on updates and changes to many of the rooms. She began to tell me that likely the exact room was no longer available for balcony access but we could get something fairly close but not exact. Delighted I asked her to lead the way. She grabbed a key and off we went to the fourth floor of the Rex. She opened up the room and headed straight for the balcony, looking at me for approval. After looking around I knew that this would be a fitting tribute. She was kind enough to take my critiques and direction (“can you take the picture horizontally, just capturing below the kneecap”) with much grace and an ever present smile. While not exact, I’m glad I could get close enough to pay tribute to my father.
Let me briefly fast forward to a later point in my trip when I was out on the town and was sharing the photos with a young Vietnamese woman who seemed quite smitten with me. At first she was quite taken aback by the similarities between father and son but I soon found that she was spending most of the time looking at my father. She then kept saying “so handsome” and I noticed she was saying that while looking at my father’s picture. I informed her that unfortunately my father was taken and that she would have to settle with my company for the time being. That seemed to work, but I think she was still secretly hoping my Dad would walk in at any moment.
After going to the Rex Hotel I made my way over to grab lunch with Dean and another one of his colleagues at a local spot. Getting to talk to a few local expats who had lived in Vietnam for 11 and 10 years respectively gave me some insight into life within Vietnam and it was overall glowing reviews. After lunch I made my way over to the War Remnants Museum to continue my exploration of the place I had only read and heard so much about.
I took very few pictures of my trip to the War Remnants Museum as it is a very intense experience. The whole intent of the museum is to focus on the real and unnerving sides of war for the soldiers, journalists, and Vietnamese that lived and died during it. I have often heard from former soldiers that war is so very unlike the video games and movies I had been exposed to in the States and this museum only reiterated that point. The wide sweeping effects of war had never been so visceral to me as they were in those exhibits and I do not have much to say except war is a truly ugly and brutal part of humanity.
After making my way through the museum over a tough few hours I headed back to the hotel. My path took me back by the Reunification Palace and the main boulevard in front of it, which apparently served as the main focal points for the upcoming celebrations. I snapped some pictures of the preparation work and the large presence of military personnel as they began their practice for the large celebration. Soon after these pictures were taken several military personnel quickly flagged me down to stop taking pictures. I was glad to walk away with my camera and memory card intact.
Below are a few more pictures of my walk back to the hotel.
After getting back to the Continental I took a shower and then headed out to grab a drink at the Caravelle hotel which was a famed hangout during the War, where correspondents would gather to talk through major new stories. The view was also quite terrific, specifically the positioning of the Bitexco Financial Tower which is the first Vietnamese project my company worked on. Seeing this large, modern building standing up from a Vietnamese skyline that my father had seen so long ago was a significant point of pride, as my company has helped to rebuild this country that was long ago embroiled in a bloody war.
After grabbing a drink at the Caravelle, I made my way over to Le Bouchon de Saigon, a local French restaurant. Knowing the longstanding history of the French here, tasting French cuisine was a high priority for me during my visit.
The small restaurant was staffed by local Vietnamese and owned by a French couple. Both the exterior and interior provided a great French bistro atmosphere and the food was quite excellent. I chose the French Onion Soup and le Boeuf Bourguignon. After a filling meal and an emotionally exhausting day I made my way back to the hotel to capture a few minutes of Rocky 2 on the TV (odd, I know) before passing out.
The next day, I again made my way down to the courtyard to grab breakfast then afterwards had an early morning call with my sister and her fiance, then my Dad. Afterwards I made my way back over to Hoa Tuc for my Vietnamese cooking class, ready to fully absorb the knowledge my Vietnamese chef was going to impart.
When I arrived, I was the last one to do so. At the table were four couples and the chef. For historical data purposes I’ll note it was two straight couples and two gay couples, so I appeared to be the odd one out. Alas I had grown used to travelling solo so I was not to be dissuaded by prior cliques and was well prepared to make friends with everyone that day!
Our first dish was fresh spring rolls with prawns, pork and rice noodles and a homemade peanut dipping sauce. This is not the Food Network so I will not go into every step, except I will include a number of photos and some insights along the way.
A few things that I took away from both the preparation and enjoyment of Vietnamese food: they use a large amount of fresh, not-fried ingredients, and herbs which make for bright flavors and a feeling of eating generally healthy. Also, getting to learn how to appropriately handle and roll rice paper was pretty great.
The next dish was glass noodle salad with grilled squids which included cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, bean sprouts, carrots, and capsicums (still not quite sure what those are). All topped off with a tamarind/fish sauce/lime juice/garlic dressing that was outstanding. This salad was 100% delicious.
The final dish was chicken stew in a clay pot with ginger, basil and coconut juice. In general this dish had very few ingredients but it was really nice. The chicken was marinated in ginger, chili, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and annatto seeds oil (which give the red color, duh). Even as we were warming up the clay pots the room began to smell amazing and the chef noted that part of the flavor from the dish was based on the previous versions made in those pots. Who would have thought dirty dishes would make such delicious food!
After finishing off this last dish we were treated to a Passion Fruit creme that was outstanding. They did not show us how to make this, which makes me think it was a well placed hook to get us back, but wow was it good. The good news is I have all the recipes so once I have a kitchen larger than two hot plates I look forward trying out these new recipes/skillz on any visiting family/friends.
After the cooking class I headed out for the Saigon Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral. An odd match, yes, but when the former was designed by Gustave Eiffel, yes the same Eiffel of tower fame in Paris, I knew I had to see it. It was a short walk over to both the Post Office and the cathedral (they sit across from one another) but both offered significant architectural statements to the city.
After spending some time walking around the post office and cathedrals I found the day quickly expiring so I headed back to the hotel to shower and get ready for the evening.
I had read and heard about an area of town called Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao which were two streets close to one another and were supposed to afford a fun evening of street activities. I took a cab over to Pham Ngu Lao and soon found myself spectating on a hybrid badminton-soccer game, I had never seen before. I was enthralled, and despite my initial refusal, ended up buying from a persistent street vendor what she referred to as a shuttlecock but is anything but.
From what I can gather, people kick the shuttlecock around, scoring points as if in a volley/badminton type of scenario. I’m eager to learn the game and spread it around and even found myself playing (poorly I might add) in a game around 1:30 am on Monday with a few locals.
After checking out Pham Ngu Lao street and all of the activity abound on it, I made my way over to Bui Vien which was slightly off the beaten path.
The street was less of a local hangout and more of a backpacker’s spot. I soon found a place that was offering cheap, cold Saigon beer and grabbed a small plastic chair to sit in. It’s worth pointing out that small plastic chairs seem to be a widely embraced method of bun supporters. Do they feel like they were made for age 9 and below kids when you sit in them? Yes. Were they probably made for age 9 and below kids? Yes. Does it matter? No. Just don’t lean back to far, because you will probably take a tumble. I mean the backs of those chairs aren’t designed to hold your weight you know?!
I ended up starting a conversation with a few travelers sitting next to me that hailed from England (Liverpool to be exact) and Sweden as they were making their way through Vietnam and then Cambodia. It’s always good to get travel tips and share experience with other wayward souls. After the sun set, we parted ways and I headed towards the Bitexco tower to experience firsthand one project my company had helped build and see Saigon from the 52nd floor.
The drinks were expensive enough, but the views were nice to get a better feel for the layout of the city. I could see my hotel and much of the city center from that vantage point. I’m glad I did it, but probably wouldn’t add it to my list of things to do again in Ho Chi Minh.
After taking in the view I was ready to grab dinner and head over to Ben Tanh market to experience the street culture that Saigon had to offer. The walk over was fairly straightforward except as I drew closer I noticed the market was at the edge of a huge roundabout which was separated from many lanes of traffic.
One of the many things I had begun to learn from Saigon is that the flow of traffic is not controlled like your typical large cities and crossing a busy street was an entirely unique experience. You could either wait for an opportunity of no traffic (which may or may not come in the next 30 minutes) or do as the locals do and gradually make your way across. Realizing I had reached one of these intersections and observing locals cross from the other side, I realized I needed to do as the locals do and just wade into the rushing river of motorbikes. As I slowly and methodically made my way forward I soon found myself engulfed in a rapid whizz of speeding scooters. Crossing those streets is an absolute adrenaline rush.
Once getting to the other side I began walking around the market and found a busy streetside “restaurant” that looked like a great place to have dinner. They soon placed me in a plastic chair amongst a communal table with a menu thrust into my hands.
I ordered four scallops grilled in “fatandonions” that were fantastic. They were served with a slice of lime and only reiterated how great SE Asian street food can be. I then finished it off with an order of what was essentially pork belly lettuce wraps that were also quite good.
While devouring my dinner I observed two German men talking quite vibrantly next to me. After I had finished off the last of my pork belly I asked the gentlemen if they spoke English, and of course they did. We ended up having a great conversation as they were from Germany on a public-private partnership to help Vietnam improve it’s wastewater from certain tannery’s located near Ho Chi Minh. Our conversation glided between sustainability and the pro’s/con’s of globalization. After we shared a few beers together I paid my bill and bid my new German acquaintances Auf Wiedersehen as I head off to meet Dean for a final night out on the town.
Like before, Dean showed me a fun night on the streets of Ho Chi Minh and after a long night I made my way back to the Continental. Along the way I saw this group of men gathered around playing a game that appeared to be a hybrid between checkers and chess. Noticing my interest, the older gentleman in the group pushed out a chair for me to sit and observe. While none of them spoke English, they were very kind and willing to let a foreigner sit down, observe, and even photograph them passing away the late night hours with a game. It was the fitting end to my stay in Vietnam. The war and sordid history of America with Vietnam certainly provided a tint of my experience there, but it was never so dark of a tint to cover up the brightness of the people that inhabited it. I look forward to exploring what else this beautiful country has to offer along it’s lengthy coastline the next time I find myself back here.