With the Cambodian holiday Pchum Ben here, we decided to optimize this week long national holiday into as much time and as many places in Vietnam as possible in ten days. Our trip consisted of busing over to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon until seized by the North in 1975), flying up to Hanoi, being shuttled over to Halong Bay, boating around the 2000 islands, busing back to Hanoi, flying to Da Nang, driving from Da Nang to Hoi An, flying back to HCMC from Da Nang and ending with a 7.5 hour bus ride back to PP on Sunday. Now that I am writing it all down – it is sinking even more just how much we crammed in. BUT on the flip side, we both feel so content with really feeling like we “know” Vietnam now (as much as a traveller versus expat can know).
For those of you have not traveled to Vietnam or havent been studying Asian maps during your downtime, HCMC is at the southern end of Vietnam. Hanoi is in the Northern part of the country and Hoi An is pretty much right in the middle, along the coast.
Stop #1 – Ho Chi Minh City: The short version is as follows – puppies, war museums, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and Green Tea Rice…… The long version is that it started off after a 7 hour bus ride which we thought was going to be 5. We were definitely a bit over it by the end but I have to say it was not as bad as it could have been. Giant Ibis hooked it up with the perfect amount of potty breaks, wifi (on and off) and air conditioning. Light years away from our Sorya experience from Kep. And a huge added bonus, in my mind, was that the land border crossing was super smooth, mainly due to the Ibis employee getting our visas cleared for us during our lunch. This was an entirely different experience than the one I had when going from Thailand to Malaysia a few years back. Anyhoo, let’s get to the good stuff. Once we got there we were pleasantly surprised by slightly cooler climates in which we could actually wear a SWEATER. In PP, the latter would be a torture device. We stayed at the charming Alcove Library Hotel (***/5), showered off all of our bus cooties and grabbed a taxi to get some dinner.
We went for My Banh Mi for dinner which was written up as one of the top 3 places for a Banh Mi sandwich and had been Anthony Bourdain approved. We got our taste of our first Vietnamese food, from New Zealand expat turned famous chef Bobby Chinn, and Saigon beer. For those who have not heard of it before, a Banh Mi (which actually means bread in Vietnamese but has been westernized to represent the Vietnamese sandwich itself) is a fusion of Vietnamese and French food and is typically made with a number of different meats, from luncheon meats to grilled pork patties, to pâté, and often complemented with Vietnamese pickles, cucumbers, cilantro, and finally a bit of chili sauce and spicy peppers to top it off. This particular restaurant served a variety of different choices with 6 different signature sauces.
In our minds it was not bad but in comparison to other Asian street food it did not knock us off our chans (feet in Vietnamese). I think we would give it about a 3/5 – the baguette bread was really good but for the size it was just eh. We then strolled around aimlessly (my fav thing to do) and stumbled upon the famous Saigon post office and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. For those of you not from Cali, this is a non-coffee lactose free drinkers heaven…They HAD soy milk (which I have not been able to find at the one in PP) and they make the best tea lattes. Chai, matcha, english breakfast are my favs.
The next day, we headed out to see the museums to learn all the things we didn’t listen to in our history classes back in high school. The Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum were suggested by friends so they were the top of our list. Both were super interesting and definitely made me quite embarrassed at how little I really know and fully understand of US history and our good and bad influences in this part of the world. (Perhaps we are the only ones, but Adam and I are thinking there needs to be an mandatory adult history class once you hit your 30’s and start caring enough to really understand?!?!)
The most profound lesson for me, while looking at the Photography exhibit, was that Agent Orange was an incredibly horrible idea that led to so much unnecessary damage to both our own men and the people of Vietnam and did little to advance us within the war. It hit me close to the heart strings thinking of my uncle whom had been so severely affected by this and whom past away due to eventual health complications a few years back. On a related tangent, I am not one to distrust but I do think there is something valid to understanding and thinking through societal and governmental decisions when it comes to food with this in mind as well. Made me want to get back into reading Michael Pollan’s books. The second most interesting highlight to me was the bunkers down in the Reunification Palace. I was so surprised to find so many American supplied radios and secret rooms that replicated scenes from Cold-war era movie. Thinking of the “US backed” leader Ngo Dinh Diem (up until the coax and assassination in 63) talking on an old school rotary phone about their secret missions to overthrow the North was pretty trippy to say the least. It completely reinvigorated my need to know more about the past and geek out a bit with some good documentaries or books. Any suggestions anyone?!
For lunch we had been told by PP expats that the Vietnamese “Lunch Lady” would top any cafeteria experience we had before. We gave this a try and along the way back we ran into a couple selling puppies. It was VERY hard to not buy one of these cuties which they were selling for only 60 bucks. There is a real chance that if we had not been flying to Hanoi the next day, we would be dog owners. Other food highlights were the restaurant Hum which was a family-run vegetarian spot (and probably our favorite food-wise in the South), Propaganda, a super hip Asian fusion spot, where all the “cool kids” hang out and L’uisine which was in the heart of District 1 and had a phenomenal brunch. The banana bread with marscapone was divine!
All in all, Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, was a modern city compared to Phnom Penh with lots of history, updated conveniences and clean sidewalks. MAN did I miss sidewalks!
Lesson #10 – We have a lot to learn when it comes to history and “history” can be written about from different perspectives. It is your job to sift through both sides and draw your own conclusions.
“If we don’t know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and the journalists who supply the carving knives.” – Howard Zinn