On our first full day in HCMC, we headed straight to what is always the cultural epicenter on any large city: the zoo. After all, what better way to immerse yourself in the mysteries of SE Asia than by staring at a motionless python trying to beat the sauna-like temperatures in its cage by submerging itself in three inches of stagnant water?
We lasted about 45 minutes at the zoo before Rae, who while still at the air conditioned hotel had previously expressed her absolute love for the HCMC weather, folded like wet dish rag under the brutal heat and demanded that we go some place for a cool drink.
Again, we jumped feet first into the Vietnamese culture and grabbed a refreshing beverage at nearest Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. A little taste of Saigon, via Brentwood.
After grabbing lunch at a sushi joint located right next to the Saigon Hard Rock Cafe (such a unique culture!), we walked down to Dong Khoi Street. There are plenty of touristy things to do there, and that seemed to be the theme of the day anyway. Rae and Pam went shopping for clothes. I stood around outside asking every man who walked by if he was Psy. When they pretended to not know what I was saying, I began doing the “Gangnam” dance all over the sidewalk to help translate.
Rae finished the day with some brash sandals and a beautiful blue dress that Pam was able to get for 50% off with zero no bartering at all. Talk about your ridiculous mark-ups. Pam didn’t even really want to buy the dress. When the saleswoman asked Pam how much she’d pay, Pam told her “half” thinking she would just leave us alone.
Later that night, we couldn’t find a Burger King so we ate at a place called Cuc Gach Quan. It’s quickly rising up the ranks of HCMC’s best restaurants, and for good reason. The interior is an interesting combination of rustic Vietnamese hipster. The dishes are chipped and beat up. There’s an old reel-to-reel machine playing Vietnamese folk music in one room. But a lot of the art work is more modern and non-traditional.
But like the old saying goes, “you can’t eat reel-to-reel machines.” Lucky for us, the food matched the hype. We ordered fairly simple dishes, but the quality of the ingredients was outstanding and the individual flavors of each dish leapt out. The pumpkin flower salad was a highlight, as was the chicken with lemongrass and chili. Again, they weren’t complicated dishes. They were just exceptionally well done.
The next day, we went out with this cool guide that Pam found online. I have to admit the guide service she found is a pretty good idea. This organization will send you out with a university student who wants to practice his or her English. The guide shows you around Saigon, you show the guide how to correctly say “I’d like a #3 with extra bacon and a Dr Pepper.” It’s a win-win.
Our guide was a young man named “Duc.” In what may be the best example of how difficult the Vietnamese language is, I don’t think we ever once pronounced Duc’s name correctly. It’s only three letters. Just one syllable. And judging from the exasperated look on Duc’s face, we never even came close.
He said his name for us five or six times, and I couldn’t even tell what letter it began with. It could’ve been “D,” “L,” or “N” for all I could tell. It wasn’t until he started flapping his arms like a duck that I at least got a sense of where we were heading.
Duc was a very good kid. He took us to see the Notre Dame cathedral, a pagoda where people pray to Buddha for winning lottery numbers, and the Reunification Palace.
The tour of the Reunification Palace was interesting. It was basically the White House for southern Vietnam until 1975.
I won’t bore (or upset) you with all the details, but let me just say you get a different perspective of the Vietnam War when you come here. (For starters, the locals really prefer the term “American War.”)
The following day, we packed up and flew to Hue. We’re here for two more nights. More on that later.
In the mean time, here’s a fun game to play, especially if you’re a juvenile idiot like me.
Vietnamese currency is called “dong.” The game just consists of making double-dong-entendre jokes. It’s a good way to pass the time when you’re traveling around the country.
Here are some examples.
“A local beggar tried to grab my dong in broad daylight, but before he could get both hands around it, it fell into the street and got run over by a cab.”
“My dong goes a lot farther now that I’ve stopped giving it to everyone on the street.”
“You should really wash your hands after handling dong, because often times it’s covered in bacteria.”