Burning Soles in Saigon

Arrival

We arrive into Ho Chi Minh City just after 8pm. Although my super organised counterpart has brought all the necessary visa forms (complete with separate allocations of the required $45 in US currency attached by paperclip), we still join the massive throng of people standing wearily at a small window. Minimal communication, the paperclipped money is thrown back at us and our passports taken, we stand and wait for our names to be called. There is no point complaining; this is Asia. Chaos, a backwards system and eventually we find our bags waiting on the floor of the airport between two belts. It is past 9pm when we finally get to the night market around the corner form our hotel, but we sit facing towards the flow of people as we order some seafood noodles and soup. The delicious food comes quickly but as we start to eat, a loud crash and the scream from a flamboyant transvestite alert us to a crash only metres away. People look, a small crowd gathers, but after minutes the scene dissipates and the flow of the night market continues. We go for a slightly precarious walk to the roundabout (a moat of screeching motorcycles, rickshaws and taxis protects the island) and get a few night photos of the equestrian mounted Tran Nguyen Han, but sleep is tugging at our sleeves so we head back to the hotel. It is already early morning back in Sydney anyway.

A day in Ho Chi Minh

Waking up at 7am, we venture to the rooftop pool and gym before breakfast. The gym is small at the Grand Silverland; only a treadmill and a weights setup and if you don’t turn on the air conditioning on, stiflingly hot. The pool looks out over the city and is beautifully cool without too much chlorine. We head out after breakfast on a walking tour that we are follwing from the Lonely Planet Vietnam guide. It takes us on a loop around past some museums and statues and down near the river. We stop at a gorgeous little cafe on a corner called Kita where I find the best iced coffee I have ever had (Sydney continues to disappoint and yet Asia gets it perfect every time!) before we continue towards the Saigon river where a man stands sketching a boat with focused dedication. Our cameras require a bit of respite as we pass a small Pho cafe off the beaten track. Mostly locals are eating there, but we find a seat next to an English girl who explains that Pho comes in only chicken or beef, but is probably all made with the same meat broth. I guess we could call me a flexible pescatarian when travelling so I order the chicken and try my best to eat around it. When a few pieces find their way into my mouth I am reminded of why I don’t eat it (so chewy!) The herbaceous noodle soup is full of flavour (is that the taste of meat broth?), but I add lime, basil, mint and chilli and even reach across to finish off some of Matt’s. It tastes so good I’m sad it’s over but I am looking forward to eating again! Matt has rubbed his eyes with his fingers after touching the chillis and is quietly suffering as we continue our walk.

We add an extra kilometre on the walk to see the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Out the front you can buy small fish, turtles, flowers or incense to offer up for prayers inside the temple. Just to the right of the main temple an enormous turtle is kept in a caged pool where tourists hand feed it bits of bread. A larger pool is home to the overflowing mass of baby turtles. Smoking incense curls up in billowing waves from sandpots all over the courtyard which is shaded by cascading willow trees. Tourists march through unceremoniously, taking photos and listening intently as a guide explains the history in their native language. An Indian couple try to offer a drink to the many armed deity inside (could be Durga), but their guide roughly takes the bottle from them and insists that he must do it on their behalf. The dark inner temple is overcrowded with candles, wooden carvings that loom out overhead and more incense. The large Jade Emperor statue at the back is surrounded by Mandalas and smaller statues of Buddha. I stop to say a small prayer, however I am jossled back out of the way by another tourist taking a photo so I take a photo too. Some locals sit quietly in the courtyard; it is still a sanctuary despite the tourism. Sometimes nothing can take away from the inherent peace that surrounds a temple. Like the burning incense; the fire of faith lingers past the flash of photography.

On the walk back we head past the Notre Dame Cathedral, taking pictures of the Communist political posters around the city. We stop at the War Remnants museum and take some pictures of the tanks and planes outside. Inside is a guillotine, a barbed wire cage in which prisoners were kept and many gruesome pictures and stories from that shocking time. I like the pictures in the museum from all around the world, showing various cities protesting the US involvement in the Vietnam war. We are about to go upstairs to see the Agent Orange room when a thundering boom of voices starts to rise. The room full of people turns to see where the sound is coming from and with a burst of colour and sound, a door opens and a mass of school children all in lime green pour out of a small room and spread across the floor, crowding the stairs all the way up. We instead venture back outside to look at the enormous bombs. It is a sobering thought that they can kill whole villages and towns of people without discrimination. Our feet are tired so we head back to the hotel for a swim and a change before dinner.

The Bar Hop

At night, the city takes on a new vibrancy and energy uplifted by the rainbow of neon lights. We pass through the Ben Thanh night market where we are the night before. It is past 7pm but they are only just setting up for the evening. Fake designer handbags appear out of boxes and bottles of mysterious alcohol with Scorpions and snakes eerily preserved within. Surely such liquids must possess the power to cure anything from freckles to colourblindness.

At the roundabout we continue down the road noting a Jazz Club on our left. For dinner, we follow the advice of the good book (Lonely Planet) and go to the Temple Club. Just upstairs is a chaotic, loud Vietnamese BBQ clouded by the smoke of sizzling meat and seafood. Luckily we are offered a high table at the Temple Club even though we have no reservation and start with a beer and a caipirinha. We look around at the 1930’s decor, remembering our first date at Uncle Ming’s bar in Sydney which had much the same feel. The menu is long and we are spoilt for choice, jumping back and forth through the pages until we finally decide on deep fried squid and prawn vermicelli rolls wrapped in mustard leaves (usually include pork but the waitress can accommodate). I try to play ninja chopsticks as we wait but my battle buddy is secretly afraid so he doesn’t take up the challenge… The squid arrives first and is very crunchy, accompanied by a thick aeoli sauce but the mustard leaf rolls are beyond divine. Matt is experiencing festivities in his mouth while I try to pick up as much spicy saté sauce as I can with the little green spring roll.

For mains Matt has ordered a plate of pork which he devours in seconds and I attempt to eat the sweet beans atop my Vietnamese steamed fish. Beans and chopsticks- at last the ninja is defeated. Despite the lightness of the food we are full and decide to venture back into the night for further libations. The highly rated Qing wine bar is mysteriously closed. Whether it is for renovations, the holidays or forever we can’t tell so we head down to the rooftop garden bar above the Rex only to be greatly disappointed by the overpriced drinks and corny music. The place is full of dining families and lacks atmosphere. Paying for a view is overrated and our next attempt to find the elusive Cue bar fails so we head down to a place we found online called Voodoo… Matt doesn’t even slow down as the sign outside saying “crazy girls” clearly means working girls. We find the Kita cafe again and I order a Margarita while Matt is befriended by a tiny Vietnamese boy on a yellow tricycle who poses for a photo, chats endlessly in Vietnamese and is fascinated by Matt’s phone. Regardless of the language barrier, this child grows quickly attached, happy to continue his monologue as he pats Matt’s knee. When we stand to leave he takes the bill straight to the counter for us and the whole family waves goodbye. Around the corner, the historic Majestic hotel bar is already closed so we go straight to the nightclub Apocalypse Now. Intense dance music and flashing lights makes me wonder for a moment if I have epilepsy. I’m sure I don’t but we aren’t really feeling this crowd. Perhaps it is the manic dancing from elderly tourists or the scantily clad girls scanning the crowd but we get bored and continue on. By now my soles are burning (should have worn my runners today and not thongs). We head back to the Jazz club as I prophesy the irony of ending up at the very first bar we spotted after all that walking. The atmosphere is just what we have been after at the Jazz club and I am more impressed by the drinks than the music- they are skilled an enthusiastic but Matt says the drummer is missing “feel”. I do have faith in the bartender but the bar closes far too soon as the waitress tries to sell the sax player’s cd. We walk back with aching blackened feet and lay down with relief feeling we did our best to cover as much of Ho Chi Minh as we could.

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Jade Emperor Pagoda

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Ben Thanh Night Market

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War Remnants Museum

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Walking Tour, Ho Chih Minh Market

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One of those mysterious laws of the universe where my camera and I struggle with aperture, ISO, shutter speeds etc… and then the iPhone takes a perfect shot

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Jade Emperor Pagoda

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Waving from the rooftop pool of the Grand Silverland to some Vietnamese school girls on a balcony across the road

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our first Photo Date

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