Tuesday, September 13th, 2011
When I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, I was nervous about calling it Saigon; I was afraid that name, though shorter and simpler, carried negative colonial connotations. It turns out, however, that many Vietnamese still refer to the former capital of South Vietnam by that name; it technically describes to the inner urban districts of the larger HCMH, but is used in a manner similar to that in which “New York” can be used on place of Manhattan. Anyway, we started our visit to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon at Ben Thanh Market, which was only 2 blocks from our hotel.
We approached it crawl-style, grazing first on bun…
…and then on Vietnamese pancakes called banh xeo.
I had to ask the waitress how to eat these; turns out you take the mung beans and lettuce they serve you, wrap it in the fried pancake, and dip the whole thing in sauce.
After, we wandered over to Reunification Palace – the former capitol of South Vietnam, renamed along with the city when the North took over. We stopped outside for technicolor ice cream.
The palace was built in the 1960s, and was filled with cool Asian modernist architectural details. The thing that really caught my eye, however, was all the way down in the basement. Behold, industrial stand mixer!
After, we stopped for tropical fruit smoothies – highly refreshing.
We’d picked some pastries up that morning at Ben Thanh, and decided to break ’em out. I’m pretty sure my mooncake-style dessert was green tea-flavored.
For dinner we went to a small fast casual spot near the hotel, specializing in rice dishes. We started out with banh bao – Vietnamese take on steamed buns. These custard ones seem to be a particularly southeast Asian thing…
…but I already knew and loved the pork ones from dim sum binges of yore.
Shanti went pig-tastic and got pork cutlet and fried pig skin cracklings. I think I was more into the cracklings – I totally finished the ones she left.
I got a little pasty of pork and fermented fish. It was pungent, and awesome. I was also dumb enough to eat one of those mild-looking chilis displayed on the rice, and spent about 10 minutes frantically gulping down beer.
On Day 2, we decided to address the whole “American Vietnam War Guilt” thing by going to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside town – am immense network of interconnected tunnels used by local guerilla resistance fighters during the war. The guilt started when we stopped for a break in the 2-hour bus ride there at a lacquer workshop staffed by Agent Orange victims. It started to get really weird when the first item on the agenda at the tunnel site was watching a 1960s North Vietnam propaganda film citing wartime honors the villagers of Cu Chi accrued – lots of “American Killer Hero” medals were distributed. The site was really incredible, though; we crawled through a 400 m section of tunnel, which was incredibly claustrophobic even though it had been widened to accommodate Western tourists.
The Cu Chi site, had been made weirdly amusement park-like; there was a swimming pool shown on the map, and we viewed animatronic displays of resistance efforts. We also tasted boiled tapioca root – the main subsistence food of the guerillas.
Last, but not least, there was a shooting range where you could shoot [safely mounted] weapons from the war. A lot of the guys in our group went for the AK-47s and Rambo fantasies; Shanti and I popped off 5 rounds each on a ladylike carbine rifle. It was my first time shooting a gun. My first impression: very loud. And, I kind of want to do it again.
For lunch: pho. At local Vietnam chain Pho 24 – a good travel standby.
We wandered down to Saigon’s Chinatown (Cholon district) after lunch and proceeded to get extremely lost. I tried to buy things in a massive, massive market and was shooed away – turned out the sellers were wholesale only. We decided to get cultural and find a temple mentioned in our guidebook – it turned into quite quest, with lots of gesturing and pointing and asking local little old ladies. Eventually a group of Spanish tourists with a map got us there.
We saw a lot of temples and a lot of offerings this trip, but this one is undoubtedly my fave. I’d want pork belly in my mouth too if I were a tiger god. Heck, I want pork belly in my mouth half the time anyway.
For Day 3, we took another day trip – to the Mekong Delta.
Our guide took us up the river; we stopped in the afternoon to see coconut candy in production. And to buy and eat some. I got durian flavor, because I have become obsessed with this stinkiest of fruits.
There was honey tea.
And tropical fruit. I’m seriously going to miss dragonfruit (the white one with the pink skin and black seeds) and rambutan (the hairy one in the back).
On that last night, we had a delicious dinner at the Temple Club, which was beautifully decorated and thus, of course, too dimly lit for pictures. After, we went downstairs to Fanny’s ice cream – a Vietnamese chain which features local flavors; I got green tea, young rice, and, of course, durian.
The next day, we boarded an all-day bus through Cambodia…