Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hello, continent number four and Ho Chi Minh City!

Our flight left Madrid on a Tuesday at 11am, stopped over in Moscow for an hour or so...

"we can see Russia!"
(been waiting two months to post this photo)

... and arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Wednesday around 10am. We barely slept on the second leg of our flight and between no rest and hot, humid weather in HCMC we were glad to have pre-arranged (somewhat pricey but much appreciated) airport pickup to our guest house.

The taxi ride was the perfect intro to the city. Car horns blaring, motorbikes galore, pedestrians weaving through traffic - at first I thought it was jetlag that made traffic seem to function so smoothly, but the "organized chaos" persisted as we later became the pedestrians weaving through traffic. Crossing the street was never really stressful. It just required attention and patience.

motor(bike) city

Once we got out and started to explore, we noticed a weird familiarity. Maybe because the narrow streets reminded us of the Moroccan medinas where we'd recently spent so much time? Maybe because we spent so much time in Asian neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland, maybe because we already loved Vietnamese food, maybe because everyone was so friendly and nice? Whatever the reason, we really enjoyed our time in HCMC.

Day One was acclimation. We mostly stayed in District One (Pham Ngu Lao), the tourist neighborhood conveniently located near everything you could possibly want or need.

food stands at the market
where absolutely everything else
is for sale too

first authentic Vietnamese lunch

group aerobics in the park
(they really get into this, it was fun to watch)

Day Two was tourist day. Our most important missions were coffee and pho.

success #1

(This coffee was enjoyed at Soza Cafe in the tourist area, "established for the purpose of helping disadvantaged Vietnamese break the cycle of debt, find employment and start a new life... all profits are used for training, education and facilitation of more jobs for willing workers." There are lots of these places in tourist towns; our guest house also donated unwanted clothing to families in the Mekong Delta. Unfortunately they probably wouldn't have wanted our legwarmers and long sleeved fleece/work t-shirts which we were dying to shed!)

success #2

We visited the War Rembrance Museum to see the other side's take on the "American" war, as they call it here. Outside there were several US army planes and helicopters (strange photo ops if you ask us) and a few exhibits on the tiger cages and prisoner holding cells. Inside featured lots of information about the war and memorabilia from countries protesting America's involvement in the war, as well as displays of acclaimed war photographers and the impacts of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. It was definitely interesting to see the other side's view, but mostly it raised a lot of questions that reinforced how little we actually know about the Vietnam war. We absorbed as much as we could in the two short hours we had, made a mental note to find an unbiased book or five on the subject, and moved on.

Skipping the water puppet show and the Presidential Palace, we walked by the Cathedral and famous Post Office on our way to the Saigon river.

that's when we found these
(Bánh Tráng Nướng -
a local saw us eyeing them, smiled,
and said "you should try them"

being a tourist is hard work

The riverbank is actually quite pretty, at least it was in the early evening. We walked the long path down to the pedestrian bridge, admired the view, found some dinner, and called it a day.

tree reflection aht

pretty decent dinner at 404 Truong Son BBQ
(yes, it's a motorbike parking garage too -
EVERYTHING doubles as motorbike parking in HCMC)

Day Three we ventured to Cholon, a short local bus ride from the tourist area, to see Ho Chi Minh's Chinatown.

¿dónde estamos?

We sat in a park for a while to get our bearings and started to wander but it was so, so hot, and so overwhelmingly big and we had no map, so we found the main market, awkwardly ordered lunch from a non-English-speaking family (which turned out to be wonderful)...

behold the magic of
pointing, nodding, and smiling

... and headed back to rest. Or so we thought. On the way to our guest house we ran into a group of Vietnamese university students looking to practice their English. We ended up chatting with them for almost an hour about all kinds of things - the legal driving age in the US, how conical hats are made, growing hops, the meaning of Jen's ankle tattoo, travel tips and street food in Saigon, even brief discussions on Martin Luther King, Jr and the benefits of democracy vs communism. Super-nice kids who were surprisingly fluent in English considering they'd only been studying a few years.

they were pretty funny too

Food notes:
  • pho! breakfast, lunch, dinner - it was all delicious
  • and when we didn't eat pho we ate noodle or rice dishes
just $1.50 each at the cafe across from our guest house
  • or Bánh Tráng Nướng (a.k.a. rice tacos, pictured above)
  • and lots of coffee, coffee, coffee
  • oh, and ABC Bakery & Cafe
we would return there a few times

Lodging notes: Ngoc Thao Guest House was terrific. Really nice and helpful staff, conveniently located, our own private room for pretty cheap, free instant coffee that was worlds better than Nescafe.

if this is a 1-star hotel,
we're sold

We skipped the nearby Cu Chi tunnels after reading that the tunnels had been widened "to accommodate western tourists". Sad. But Days Four and Five we visited the Mekong Delta, which is a story for another post.

Suffice to say we were pleasantly surprised with the ease of Ho Chi Minh City, and we are really looking forward to seeing what else this beautiful country has to offer!


  1. now if they would just widen the gap between the tables and the permenantly affixed seats at McDonald's / =