Early the next morning we headed back to the auditorium for more stickers before being shuffled down to busses for our overnight trip to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). During the head count our guide noticed one person was missing. A lady a few rows up raised her hand and announced her husband had gone back to the boat to get something. A few moments later she was escorted from her seat down to the side of the bus. Looking surprised and a bit irritated she pointed at the undercarriage and nodded as the guide rummage through the bags to retrieve her suit case. Our load lightened by two, the engine started and we headed for the City. Lesson learned; if you are not on time, you will be left.
It was a solid two and half hours to our destination including a ten minute rest stop, not because Ho Chi Minh is extremely far or the road to get there particularly congested but because our driver never broke 30mph. However, the long ride provided ample opportunity to work on our blog.
Ho Chi Minh City is like an angry ant hill in the moments after it has been prodded with a stick. Thousands of motorbikes dart up and down the streets coming within inches of busy pedestrians funneling in and out of the road at will. It is the most unnatural and unnerving thing to step into traffic in front of a moving vehicle and continue walking at a leisurely pace as cars and motorbikes swerve by, narrowly avoiding impact time and time again. However, in this country it’s the norm and somehow nobody gets hit. The key is to trust the system, no sudden movements, keep walking, the traffic will adjust. Yes, there are a few stop lights and crosswalks but they have no bearing on the traffic flow. Heeding our guide’s advice, Paul found a local and we huddled close to our “new friend” as we took our first steps into oncoming traffic.
Our hotel was located just blocks from the drop off point and within walking distance of all the sites we planned to visit. After a brief elevator ride to the 27th floor we were escorted into a massive two room suite equipped with a full kitchen and formal seating for eight. Welcome to the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon indeed! The accommodations are certainly overkill for a one night stay, but priced just right for us at a mere 25,000 IHG points. After tinkering with the many buttons and gadgets located throughout the suite we started a load of laundry and headed down to explore the city. The trek to our first sight included several more exhilarating encounters with traffic, Paul and I wedged tightly against the locals. This was followed by a few solo trips lead by Paul, me clinging to his backpack with my eyes fixated on the ground.
First stop the Reunification Palace. Formally the Independence Palace, it was constructed in 1962 as the residence and working place of the President of South Vietnam. Its invasion on April 30, 1975 also marked the end of the Vietnam War. And in the words of the communist: Victory had come; the liberation of the south had been achieved. Aside from being a tourist attraction is also a venue for government meetings and special events. The décor is right out of the late 1960’s and includes many interesting gifts from dignitaries around the world. The two Soviet tanks which invaded the palace are proudly displayed out front. Our self guided tour was cut a bit short due to the daily closing of this museum from 12:00pm to 1:30pm. As customary in Vietnam, most public sites and businesses close for lunch during this time. So we left the museum and headed to a nearby restaurant were Paul enjoyed another bowl of Pho. Concluding the health standards here were slightly above the Ha Long Bay establishment I opted for a diet coke in a can.
We bought our first souvenirs of the trip, some cards from a local vendor, and headed to our next site, the Saigon Central Post office. It is the largest post office in Vietnam and one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. Designed by the French as a piece of classic colonial architecture and built in 1891 the Post Office is a fun place to visit
Located across the road is the Notre Dame Cathedral. Also designed by a French architect it was built in 1877. The Cathedral holds daily prayer services in two languages and is “the place” for wedding photos. In our 26 hour visit to Ho Chi Minh we saw four brides posing for pictures out front.
Having conquered the roads of Ho Chi Minh on foot it was time to tackle the traffic via motorbike. Fortunately for me visitors are not allowed to drive in this city and for good reason. Nevertheless my ever resourceful husband was able to line up a motorbike tour so we could get the “full road experience.” Four hours on the back of a motorbike to eat Vietnamese street food; can’t think of anything I would rather do. However, recognizing this was something Paul really wanted to do, I decided to have a second drink (maybe a third…) and just go with the flow. At 6:00pm sharp we were met in the hotel lobby by our guides Ti and Tam. After a short introduction we bent down to be fitted with our helmets, swung one leg over the back of the bike and were instructed to hold on. With the safety portion
of the evening complete, the engines started and we rolled into the controlled chaos. A few blocks later we stopped at a street corner and joined eight other tourists with their guides. Seated on small squares of linoleum we made small talk with our dinner companions and anxiously awaited our first course.
We made a total of six stops throughout the city, dining at places we could never have gone on our own. From roof top dining to crepe cooking over open flames (complete with tourist participation) we certainly got the full Saigon dining experience.
Paul’s favorite part was the ocean crab soup which included a fully intact crab floating in a creamy broth of crab stock, milk and spices. My favorite part was watching him eat Balut with the guides. Balut is a partially formed duck embryo cooked in its own broth and eaten directly from the shell.
With camera in one hand and video recorder in the other I moved to get a better view. Ti demonstrated with Paul and one other tourist bravely following. After gently cracking the shell and removing the top the guys picked up their eggs and sipped the juice. So far so good, according to Paul it tasted like chicken broth and smelled of sulfur. Next step, using a small spoon he removed the partially formed duckling and displayed for the camera. Then dipped it in chili sauce and got ready to chew. Somewhere between dipping and chewing our fellow tourist lost his nerve and Paul imbibed the small duckling solo. I don’t think Paul anticipated the number of chews it would require to swallow the duck nor was he completely comfortable with the consistency. Always the good sport he finished the mouthful smiled at the guide and informed the rest of us that it was actually pretty good. This was followed by a shot of rice wine and several long gulps of beer. He would later describe the texture as chunks of un-ripened melon suspended in Jell-O which tasted similar to a deviled egg.
After learning that not finishing the Balut is considered bad luck Paul picked up the spoon to scrape the remaining contents from the bottom of the shell. With the final bite complete he joined the guide, dropped his egg to the ground and smashed it with his foot.
Back of the Bike Tours is a company owned by a CIA Culinary Grad from the US and came highly recommended on Trip Advisor. It was a really fun experience due in large part to our wonderful guides Ti and Tam.
Below is the complete menu:
1. Goi Du Du Bo – Julienned green papaya salad topped with Thai basil, dried beef liver, toasted peanuts and prawn crackers with chili sauce and light fish sauce
2. Heo Nuong – Grilled pork skewers with roasted chili sauce
3. Ho Lo Nuong – Grilled pork sausage with roasted chili sauce
4. Banh Xeo – Crispy rice flower crepe stuffed with shrimp pork and bean sprouts served with fresh lettuce and sweet fish sauce
5. Banh Canh Ghe –Ocean crab soup with tapioca noodles, pork rinds, dried fish cake and green chili sauce
6. An assortment of desserts including ice cream with sticky rice and mango, frozen yogurt with black rice, frozen banana with coconut and frozen yogurt with fruit jellies
The next morning we made our way to the War Remnants Museum. During the planning of this trip this site made the short list of places we definitely wanted to see. We fully expected that the communist government would present a slightly different take on the war but were truly shocked by what we read and saw. Yes we took lots of pictures of propaganda depicted as “War Truths” by the communist regime, but after much thought we decided to omit them from the blog. The War Remnants Museum was poignant yet important part of this experience and I’m glad we got to see it. According to the literature provided, the museum hosts more than 500,000 visitors a year. On the day of our visit the museum was full of tourist of every age and origin. We saw lots of Australians and Asians, a few Americans and at least two Vietnam Veterans. It was particularly troubling watch the faces of the two US Vets as they walk though the exhibits scanning the walls and shaking their heads. However, what saddened us most were the scores of Vietnamese children who appeared to be about 10 years of age in their neatly pressed school uniforms being led through some of the most graphic rooms in the museum.
Before leaving Vietnam we made one last stop at a slightly more upscale restaurant so that Paul could have his final bowl of Pho. It had been 21 hours since we left the cruise ship and I had eaten nothing but a can of Pringles. Overcome by starvation and happy not to see unrefrigerated meat in the window, I finally ask for a bite of Paul’s Pho. Very tasty!