Vietnam Part IV (Ho Chi Minh City)

DSCN1277 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. IMG_3164_resultLooking 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.

dense-traffic-at-the-hang-xanh-crossroads-in-ho-chi-minh-city-doctors-warn-that-the-citys-excessive-lvel-of-noise-pollution-is-a-threat-to-the-hearing-of- 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.

IMG_3159_result 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. IMG_3162_result 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.

IMG_3183_result 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 IMG_3212_result 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.

IMG_3315_result 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 IMG_3175_result 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

IMG_3170_result Located across the IMG_3177_result 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.

IMG_3216_result 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. IMG_3220_result 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.

IMG_3231_result 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 IMG_3259_result 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 IMG_3261_result 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 IMG_3259_result 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 IMG_3264_result 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 IMG_3267_result 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 IMG_3280_result 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
IMG_3308_result 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 IMG_3309_result 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.

DSCN1283 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!

Vietnam Part III – Phu My (Ba Ria)

We were scheduled to visit IMG_3158_result Chan May (Hue/Danang) the following day, but due to bad weather the port was closed and we were rerouted directly to our next stop, the port of Phu My to dock for an additional day. With plans to travel two hours inland for an overnight to Ho Chi Minh City the following day and no idea how to navigate the immediate vicinity we opted to book a day trip to nearby Ba Ria for a tour of the rice patties and rural life in Vietnam.
“Isolated shipping port” was certainly an accurate description of Phu My as there is absolutely nothing here but a commercial building and a bunch of shipping containers. Going inland is a must if you want to do anything other than hang out on a cruise ship or learn to operate a fork lift.

This was our first excursion DSCN1419
with Celebrity and it was surprisingly organized however somewhat reminiscent of a grade school field trip. After being herded in to the auditorium we were DSCN1420 sent down to the stage, asked our name and marked with a number sticker. Next we were lead down to the gangway and told to look for the man holding a paddle that matched our sticker. For those who had difficulty following instructions additional staff was on hand to match people to their busses.

IMG_3120_result We made a total of six stops on our tour, 3 temples, a market, a distillery and a rice paper factory. First stop, Duong Vao Than Tha, a Cao Dai temple located about 20 minutes from the port. Cao Dai is a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism with nods to each represented by the yellow, red and blue colors throughout. IMG_3115_result This was the first of many temples which required us to remove our shoes before entering and I hesitantly followed suit trying not to think about how many feet had walked this path and making a mental note to bring and extra pair of socks from now on. IMG_3112_result
We were surprised to see elements of other religions represented in the design of the Cao Dai Temple including pillars denoting the Catholic Church and long sides with peaked doorways symbolic of a Mosque. Above the altar were carved figures of many of the world’s most prominent religious leaders.

IMG_3125_result Dinh Than Phuoc Le Pagoda was was built to honor the heroes of the Vietnamese people, most notably an ancestral leader who three times drove out the Mongolians. The Pagoda feels a bit like being at a carnival with lots of blinking lights and fortune telling items scattered about. Situated at the front of the Pagoda are two large cranes standing on turtles representing Yin and Yang.

Trang Nghiem Tinhd Do is a Buddhists temple which was built in the early 1990s and tended by the monks who reside here. In fact all three temples we visited were fairly new. During our visit we learned that old temples are not very common in these parts as most were damage or destroyed during the Vietnam War. At this last temple one of the monks was kind enough to pose for a quick picture with Paul.

Back on the bus IMG_3126_result and through the rice fields we went to a traditional Vietnamese home for a view of a family owned rice wine distillery. The process is somewhat primitive but it does seem to be an efficient use of resources. Rice is distilled into alcohol in large pots which are IMG_3129_result positioned on top of fires fed with wood and rice hulls. When the wine is finished, the pulp becomes food for the livestock and the ashes from the fire are used to fertilize the fields. I did have a little taste and got a fun video of Paul taking a bigger taste. The term rice wine is a bit of a misnomer; it is IMG_3132_result actually about 40% alcohol. About 15 feet from the distillery was the family livestock which consisted of about 20 chickens and several pigs of various sizes. I developed a soft spot for one pig in particular who raised his snout and looked at me forlornly.

IMG_3140_result Visiting the local market that afternoon certainly didn’t help to clear my conscious. Holding my breath gripping Paul’s arm I shuffled down the narrow aisle lined with de-feathered chickens plied high in baskets and stacks of pig carnage sorted by body part. In the center of each table sat a small Vietnamese woman, full lotus, knees bent, feet pressed firmly together, yielding a cleaver just inches from her toes. With each hack of the enormous knife came sounds of bones cracking and bloody tissue sloshing about. Thus begins the vegetarian portion of my trip.

Needless to say I was glad IMG_3136_resultto leave the market and continue to the animal free rice paper “factory” a few miles away. This was also a family run business out of the home. Rice paper, made the traditional way, takes a fair amount of effort. The raw rice is ground into flour, mixed with water and pushed through a metal sieve. The resulting batter is spread into large thin circles on a pot covered with fabric. IMG_3133_result It is then steamed for a short time, carefully removed and placed onto bamboo screens to dry. After several days in the sun they are peeled off and placed into stacks of 100. Not surprisingly you can buy a stack of homemade rice paper for exactly one US dollar.

Vietnam Part II – Ha Long Bay Continued

IMG_3029_result After a fantastic tour of Ha Long Bay we headed ashore to explore the city.

First stop lunch, at least for Paul; I’m pretty sure this restaurant wouldn’t have passed a US health inspection. He had been eagerly anticipating a bowl of hot steaming “Pho” since breakfast and was now on a mission to find us the perfect spot to try this local dish. About ten minutes into our walk back to port we stumbled across a restaurant with a small friendly lady out front. Moments later we were escorted to two blue plastic chairs in the middle of a three-sided cinderblock building (in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint) and seated at a rectangular table dressed with a well worn plastic PepsiCo cover. DSCN1143 The table was sticky and the large plastic box containing the makings of lunch had no refrigeration. As I sat at the table questioning Paul’s decision to dine here I couldn’t help but wonder if the chopsticks and large silver spoons shoved haphazardly, handle side down, presented more of a health risk in their current state (as various hands had surely bushed against them at previous meals) or if correctly placing them handle side up would have increased the likelihood of ingesting a far more sinister pathogen growing down in the bottom of the basket.
Prior to departing for Asia we had heeded the CDC’s advice and both headed down to the Health Department for a round of Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations (quite possibly because someone from the agency had visited this very establishment) however at this point in the trip I was neither hungry enough nor curious enough to give it a try. Paul on the other hand sat right down, cracked open the menu and went to work selecting his Pho. A few minutes later, the lady returned with a large piping bowl of rice noodles in some sort of chicken broth with several thinly sliced pieces of beef and green onions floating on top. DSCN1144 Two additional dishes accompanied the soup. The first was an equally large plate of fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil and wedges of lime. The second was a small a bowl containing two Vietnamese hot sauces, one brown and one red (both with a consistency similar to ketchup) and several slices of what appeared to be some sort of fresh chili pepper, seeds intact. Paul then proceeded to instruct me on how to assemble and eat the Pho. He added a bit of each ingredient as the lady and I looked on in anticipation of his first bite. With the final squeeze of lime complete, he picked up the chopsticks, leaned over the bowl, tweezed a grouping of noodles, and slurped them down. This was followed by a smile and a few gracious words to the chef who returned his smile and nodded before heading back to the kitchen. Alternating heaps of noodles with the chopsticks and sips of broth with a metal spoon Paul finished the rest of his lunch. It was certainly an interesting way to eat soup, but appears to be the standard practice. As I looked around I saw several of the locals applying the same method. I do have to admit the soup smelled wonderful, but I still wasn’t feeling brave enough to give it a try. DSCN1149

As I write this blog we are in transit to Bangkok and Paul is still talking about this meal. He will eat it two more times before we leave Vietnam but still steadfastly believes that this was by far the best.
After lunch we continued our walk back to port, stopping from time to time to peruse the shops. Didn’t find anything I had to have, but certainly enjoyed looking.

Vietnam Part I – Ha Long Bay

Vietnam is an interesting place with lots of rules. No overnight trips allowed without a Visa and no currency exchange outside the country however you can purchase anything from a diet coke to a ride down to the marina for exactly one US dollar. IMG_3106_result

Our first view of Ha Long Bay came at sunrise as the ship sailed into the bay. The water was extremely calm but it was particularly cloudy so we were eager to get off the ship and take a closer look. After a quick tender to shore we made our way up the pier and were greeted by about 50 mope head drivers eager to take us for a ride. Paul was more than willing to hop on but I was less than enthusiastic. The lack of helmets and erratic flow of bikes was not something I was ready to tackle, IMG_3096_result besides after 24 hours at sea floating around in the pool and enjoying more than our fair share of cruise food we certainly needed the exercise.

IMG_3012_resultVietnamese people are soft spoken and very polite but also extremely persistent. Even though Paul respectfully declined their repeated offers to take us to the marina, two motor bikes continued to pursue us for at least a half a mile. It was cute but a bit irritating.

Ultimately Paul won out and we arrived at the marina about 30 minutes later on foot as planned. After negotiating a $25 dollar per person rate (opposed to a $75 rate on the ship) we boarded a boat with about 20 other people and set sail.

IMG_3025_resultHa long Bay is made up of large limestone formations or Karst resulting from glacier changes over millions of years. Melting glaciers caused the water to raise allowing coral to grow while freezing glaciers cause the water to recede and coral to calcify. The Karsts were further shaped by pockets of water and a rolling tide creating caves. During the Vietnam War, several of the larger caves were actually used as hospitals. By following a series of winding paths we were able to climb to the top for a breathtaking view of the bay.

After exiting the cave we rejoined our boat for a short ride to the floating village (my favorite part of the trip). IMG_3057_result Far from shore and hidden among the karst was a floating dock which was set atop large blue barrels and Styrofoam blocks wrapped in tarps which kept the structure afloat. After obtaining bright orange lifejackets from the guides we stepped into a small wooden boat for a closer look at the karst and a tour of the floating city. IMG_3040_result It was simply amazing! The entire town built atop floating barrels and Styrofoam linked together with wooden planks and a series of ropes. It was fascinating to watch the people going about their daily lives napping in hammocks, washing laundry, pealing fruit, even cooking with fire on the back porch as curious tourist rowed by with cameras in hand. The floating village even had a floating school. IMG_3080_result
Our tour continued with a row under a low lying section of limestone though a small opening and into the center of one of the large hollowed out karst which made us feel like we were sailing around the bottom of a volcano.