Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City

This is Post #2 in the Vietnam & Cambodia section.

The Reunification Palace
For our first day in Saigon, we began the tour by visiting the Reunification Palace.  This palace celebrates the reunification of North Vietnam and South Vietnam, which were divided at the 17th parallel.  The palace is quite different from any other that I have seen because it isn't decked out in gold.  Instead, beautiful fabrics and texts are arranged around chairs and meeting tables.  In the basement, there's a display of Jeeps and industrial-looking kitchen ware.
The Reunification Palace
Thien Hau Temple
From there, we continued on to see the Thien Hau temple in Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown.  It seems that every city has a Chinatown.  Here, we learned about the burning of incense and its place in Buddhist rituals.  They had incense burning even from the ceiling.  After leaving Chinatown, we went to the Ben Thanh market and searched for souvenirs.
Ben Thanh Market - Dried Fruit, Spices, etc.
Dragon Fruit for Sale at the Ben Thanh Market
Hard Rock Cafe Saigon/HCMC
During our free time that afternoon, I went to the Hard Rock Cafe to buy a sweatshirt.  I've been thinking for some time now about getting one of their logo sweatshirts with the name of the city on it.  My only dilemma was that I didn't know where I should buy it.  I've seen Hard Rock Cafes in Boston, Chicago, Lisbon, Madrid, Oslo, Prague, Krakow, Ho Chi Minh/Saigon, and probably a bunch of other places.  I've only eaten at the Boston and Oslo locations, and I wanted the sweatshirt to be from the most random place possible.  Saigon seems good for that.

Vietnamese Rice Farming Hat
Later in the day, I asked our guide, Tony, why people say both "Ho Chi Minh City" and "Saigon", and which I should say.  He explained that Saigon is the old name of the city and that Ho Chi Minh is the newer name, but that people still use both interchangeably in conversation.  He said that most people say "Saigon" when speaking because it's shorter, but that for official documents, people write "Ho Chi Minh".  My sweatshirt says Saigon.

In the evening, we toured a lacquer factory where we watched workers create complex and beautiful designs on plates and vases by placing tiny pieces of egg shells in different patterns.  Sometimes, they added other colors too. Then, they covered the entire piece in black lacquer and scraped the lacquer away from the patterns once it had dried.  I bought an egg shell-lacquer bowl.
For Sale at the Lacquer Factory
Our last stop before dinner was to the French Quarter of Saigon where we saw the post office and a cathedral.  The architecture of this area is noticeably different from the architecture in other parts of Saigon because it looks French.  In the train station, there's a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging on the back wall.
Post Office in the French Quarter of Saigon
For dinner, our tour took us to a super-gourmet restaurant to try the most aesthetically pleasing Vietnamese food you can imagine.  We were served seven courses.  It was raining when we arrived, and the hotel staff was kind enough to walk us one-by-one under umbrellas from the bus to the restaurant's door.  They even pulled out and pushed in our chairs and put napkins on our laps for us.  I can't say I liked all the food I ate at that dinner, but I did try almost everything.  For the first time ever, I took a few bites of duck.
Zaidy, Me, and Grandma Jean at Dinner
It didn't look like a duck, so it wasn't so bad.  (Cochinillo is probably not something I'll ever be able to eat.)  We had Oxtail Soup, tuna nicoise, duck, rice, and several other dishes.  One fun part about this trip is chatting with the other travelers.  Obviously since they came all the way to Vietnam and Cambodia, they love to travel.  It's fun to hear about where else they've been and where they recommend going.  That night at dinner, we met a couple who had been on 72 cruises.  They counted.  Most of the people on the trip were retired, so they have lots of time to travel.  It's a good thing I spent the last year of my life traveling so I could fit into the conversations by saying crazy things like, "Yeah, last week when I flew from Madrid to Zurich to Chicago to Seoul and Saigon....etc."  (And yes, I'm fully aware of how lucky I've been to have done a lifetime of traveling in this past year.)

Woman with her Mobile Coconut Restaurant + Traffic
My big memory from Saigon will be learning to cross the street.  In Saigon, motorbikes are everywhere, and they come from all directions.  Our tour guide told us that lanes, other street markings, and red lights are (as Captain Barbosa also says of the Pirate Code) "more like guidelines."  To cross the street in Saigon, you begin walking slowly and cautiously.  Look straight ahead - never at the bikers racing toward you, and whatever you do, do not stop walking.  The motorbikes will go around you.  Getting used to this is a little nerve wracking.  You just have to wish yourself good luck and keep walking.
Rush Hour x 100 + Chaos = Nervous Tourist

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