Ho Chi Minh City. The name has a pulse and brings to mind the an urban landscape with its own unique rhythm. The last time I was here in 2013, I didn’t know what to think, was fairly overwhelmed, and though not disappointed, I did find myself wanting more. Now I have returned, the first major international city to reunite with, and I am alone.
I spent the day doing things (and purposely not doing other things) to give me a taste of Saigon I had not encountered before. For one, I followed Jason Conger’s traveling lead by pacing myself. I have provide my trip with significant space to chill out, rest, relax, and not spend the time seeking out activities. So far, so good. I have managed to cover a lot of ground without being stressed about “seeing everything.” Again, it helps that I have been here once before.
My day trip had one destination: be at the British consulate by noon to meet Dede for lunch. Dede is my good friend from the old days in Cambodia. We met randomly nearly three times before we realized we worked near each other. Then we started hanging out. She’s from Ho Chi Minh City but has extensive travel experience. She’s also the only person in HCMC that I have stayed in touch with, and I had to catch up over some food.
I started the day walking away from my tiny guest house in the backpacker area (Bui Vien) and grabbed a coffee and a mini banh mi from Highlands Coffee. With the help of my GPS on my phone (even without a data plan, GPS works well here), I was able to find my way walking north/northeast. I cut through Công viên 23 tháng 9 and got up to the park located near the Reunification Palace, Tao Dan Park. It was still early enough to witness some great martial arts and aerobic exercise activity going on. I didn’t linger, but walked around at a steady pace, admiring people milling about in the relatively cool morning, and the magnificent power of nature Vietnam’s managed to sustain in such a bustling metro:
From the main park, I walked around the Palace (I didn’t really feel like going in, so I skipped it–another reason to come back, I suppose!) and kept going toward Công viên 30-4. It was around here I was approached by a shoe shining guy, a young man who spoke pretty good English. He really wanted to clean my shoes for a dollar, and I remember the desperation of some people in tourist areas throughout the region. I really did not want my shoes cleaned–mostly because they aren’t shoes, but Chaco sandals that can’t be shined. So I kept saying no, as you do, and went on my way.
Cutting up Phạm Ngọc Thạch, I encountered a lovely pool. It was a big pool. A strangely designed pool. An empty pool. There were school children walking around everywhere. A lot of recent graduates in their robes. People were getting photos taken. I took photos and walked on, smiling at random people, not really talking much. I looked up how to say “hello” in Vietnamese. I looked up “thank you” as well. I practiced even if silently mouthing was the most I could get out of me. The tonal qualities make it a bit awkward to get the subtleties down right without outright shouting the words, which is obviously awkward for me.
Trekking on, I continued and reached Công viên Lê Văn Tám, or Van Tam Park, which Dede would later tell me had nothing in it. I found some things: a beautiful white sculpture. A family playing badminton. Respite within the shade. These things were good to know, good to see. I’m glad I had had a chance to check it out, as most tourists probably won’t ever find it.
I was ultimately heading toward what is known as the Jade Pagoda. I kept focused on thinking about how I could take pictures and look at the “world of Vietnam” through a lens that was different than the first. I suppose the awe and crazed differences that are so distracting when you first encounter Asia die down a little bit with subsequent returns. They don’t disappear entirely, but they do dim a little. I used the opportunity to take risks in taking photos of more people up close, slow down and take videos of the traffic and the landscape, and analyze architecture, advertising, and daily life. Vietnam really is a fascinating place. It doesn’t have the elegance of scale that Bangkok has (the tall buildings are few and far between, as opposed to the prominent NYC-esque skyline of the latter), but it is sprawling, and ripe with life.
The Jade Pagoda was slightly disappointing. I had heard it was amazing from various TA reviews, and I put a lot of faith into that. Perhaps with a guide I would have found the experience more enjoyable, but alas, I did not have a guide, and I found the temple small and lacking in mind-boggling uniqueness. Well, almost lacking. The temple has what appears to be a gazillion turtles in one of its pools:
The smell of incense left behind, and my feet significantly blistered at this point, I realized that roughly an hour of walking had led to my need to rehydrate. They say, the anonymous they, that one traveling in a very hot and humid environment should avoid heatstroke by not over-consuming liquids. I think most balance that out by drinking lots of beer, which hydrates and dehydrates at the same time. Choosing not to drink in Vietnam, I instead chose to actually drink water but only once in a while. While my body wasn’t (and isn’t, as of this writing) ready to embrace Southeast Asia’s climate just yet, it has been logical in its intake of water.
I ended up stopping by this very small shop that advertised fresh honey juice (whatever that means) with pictures of what appeared to be oranges on large signs. I went inside and asked for orange juice and the reply was, as expected, in the negative. They didn’t understand my language. I didn’t know their language. I pointed at a random item on the menu, which looked like a green tea latte, and awaited my beverage. What was returned was a sickly sweet and medicine-like chalky iced drink that tastes like a combination of generic chemicals and something very vegetable, backed by lots and lots of sugar. At first I choked it down, but then, as it got diluted by the ice, it became very tolerable.
I would later ask Dede what it was I consumed, but she had no clue. Apparently there are just as many types of drinks in Vietnam as one thinks there are. Maybe you, dear reader, has an idea?
It was around this time I had to make a decision: walk around aimlessly through endless waves of traffic for another hour before getting lunch with Dede, or visit the zoo and botanical gardens. I stopped in a temple/museum adjacent to the zoo and looked at the zoo’s price: 50,000 dong, or $2.5. I wasn’t going to be losing much if I went in. I went in. The first thing I noticed was a panda. I took a selfie and sent that off to Natasha later on in the day.
Then I visited the bonsai garden, which was absolutely fantastic, but unfortunately lacking in its signage. If only they had put proper signs up to describe what are now the best bonsai trees I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few, actually). I would have loved to know the specific names of these bonsais, as well as the names of their growers. Is that the word for a caretaker of a bonsai?
Other highlights of the children-packed zoo and gardens? Elephants, a white tiger, orangutan (these scared me as much as I though they would, having read the horror stories about people getting mauled by them in the jungle; the ones in this cage looked like they could absolutely obliterate a human being at any point in time), scarlet ibises, and lemurs. The zoo had a significant lack of barriers which surprised me. Obviously it made sense to keep the exhibits open-air, since most of the species were most likely more accustomed to the humid air anyway, but knowing that Asiatic black bear, or that giraffe, was on the other side of a 1-meter-wide moat-like gap kept me a little startled. So different from USA.
Stumbling around had built my appetite. I walked to the destination of Dede’s work place and after a joyful reuniting, we both walked on to Pho 24, a chain that I remember enjoying multiple times in Cambodia. There’s a subtlety about pho that I haven’t quite been able to decipher yet. Dede swore that the pho at Pho 24 in Vietnam is better than Cambodia, but I honestly couldn’t tell he difference. It all tasted heavenly to me. After an hour of talking and catching up, I walked Dede back to her work and then ventured forward. I walked down the fancy Dong Khoi Street, “famous” for its shopping (at least on TA). I took a dip into the Vincom shopping center and, as I suspected, there wasn’t anything there for me. It appears that even the idea of the “shopping mall” in Asia has lost its exotic appeal. I wonder what else on this trip will be uninteresting.
Dong Khoi ends at the river front, and there is a park there, but you have to play Frogger and nearly be destroyed just to see it. Unfortunately there’s nothing much to see. The charm of the Mekong from Phnom Penh is not recaptured here. Tankers float by, and the water is flowing nicely, but everything about the Saigon River lacks charm. I could foresee a Saigon in the future that has created an amazing waterfront, but who knows if that will ever happen. Dodging sketchy offers for boat rides, I got myself over to the walking street (Nguyễn Huệ) and that’s when the dark storm came. Rainy season, finally!
Jumping from awning to awning, I slowly made my way back toward the guest house. I stopped in a couple of book stores (including one that I had been in with Jason two years ago). Everything about the experience was wonderful, though hot and wet, of course. I managed to take this selfie while waiting for the rain to stop:
It was pretty easy to take compelling videos of traffic in the rain, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to post some of that footage in a later post. For now, just imagine a lot of poncho-laden individuals and resulting puddles.
After all was said and done, I stopped and bought a strawberry cream crepe and a Vietnamese coffee at a Tous Les Jours, and went back to the hotel. I spent time emailing and passed out for about an hour before Dede arrived to pick me up. We ended up going to this fantastic place called The Secret Garden, where we enjoyed a lot of authentic Vietnamese food. We were joined by Dede’s boyfriend, Patrick (Padraig–he’s Swedish), and we talked about all manner of things movies, works, and even priviledge and the death of black people in America. All in all, it was a great time hanging out.
After dinner, Dede took me for a little night cruise around town and helped me get my ticket to Dalat. It was very soon after my return to my room that I passed out. Today I woke up early. I am going to stop and get some noodles for breakfast, and coffee, before it’s time to catch that bus.