The Best City I’ve Ever Visited…

Editor’s Note (Such that there is one): If you subscribe and receive this in your “inbox” I recommend you open up a separate browser to read it. Sometimes the format and or photos are a bit messed up reading it as part of an email.

Our last three days in Vietnam were spent in Ho Chi Minh City, hereafter, Saigon. I would have thought that since that was the name from the “bad old days” when it was a French and American military outpost of western debauchery and decadence, the name would be on modern-day Vietnam’s “ash heap of history.” As it turns out, all over the city, you see the name, often in lights. The only thing I can think of is that “Ho Chi Minh city”is a mouthful. It’s simply easier to say “Saigon.” Either way, in three days it became my most favorite city I’ve visited in all my years. OK, that does mean as long as I don’t count Florence. That’s because, well, um, in a word: Florence! Sure, Paris is far more beautiful and NYC is the “crossroads of the world.” Venice felt more exotic. But there was an energy, a vibe, an excitement that is completely absent from any other city I’ve been to. I can’t adequately explain it. But, I join the late, great Anthony Bourdain when he spoke about Vietnam in general: “… It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”

I very much enjoyed Hanoi but Saigon is something else entirely. Hanoi, by comparison, is muted, with people going about their business, with quiet dignity. The people and vibe in Saigon openly shout exuberance with a public display of joie de vivre. People there seem to be in a hurry. The energy wherever I went, was on a completely different level than the other places I visited in Vietnam (China is like the New York Public Library, by comparison). Certainly, in the tourist industry, this is a city that “knows how.” There appears to be a genuine liking of tourists here. The people in hotels, restaurants, bars and even taxis all go out of their way to help visitors. If they’re angling for a tip, they aren’t showing it. It’s as if they really want to make sure you’re happy. I find it quite striking in comparison to other tourist destinations.

I also didn’t see any dodgy areas or feel uneasy walking anywhere. If anyone had us “targeted” when we took out our wallets or held out cell phones to take pictures, I had no sense of it. And I’m the type of tourist that maintains “situational awareness” at all times when traveling somewhere unfamiliar, knowing that we may be targeted for some type of rip-off.

Anyone reading this, contemplating a trip to Asia but unsure of where to go, go to Vietnam. There’s a very good reason that tourism is up 22% over last year. None of us had a bad meal whether it was the proverbial “hole in the wall” or a top-rated restaurant. Taxi rides here are even cheaper than China and that makes it not even worth calculating as a factor in going somewhere. It seems everyone speaks English. Sophie laughed about going into Zara (“better overseas clothing choices than in America.”) and slowly asking for something and the clerk answered in perfect English. Anywhere in China, you would never, ever assume someone in any clothing store could speak or understand English on any level. And- always a “crowd pleaser”- obtaining weed is as easy as the blogs I read, claimed it was. And then there’s the fact that the government doesn’t block any websites. No need for a VPN like in China but even with one in China, there’s always connection problems because the government, 24/7, attacks the VPN’s. Whenever I travel somewhere with unfettered access to the internet I feel completely liberated from the hamstringing here. A somewhat odd but true feeling I get is that I feel as if I’m “out on parole” and can do anything I want in terms of internet access. I download apps because it’s even difficult downloading in China, never mind the fact that the online app stores are edited to remove apps that offend the government. So, this heavy-handed approach is why I feel liberated when out of the country. In fact, I began writing this on New Year’s Day and it took me an hour of nonstop “clicking” to connect with either of my VPN’s ( you need at least two here in the hope that if one of the VPN’s is under attack, the other might not be.)

If I don’t get my work visa renewed to continue teaching in China I have found the next place I want to teach: Saigon. If I have to leave China, I think I would be happy living in Vietnam and although I would probably be comfortable anywhere there, Saigon is where I’d rather stay. Now, all I would then have to do is convince a school to hire a 61-year-old. On the plus side, apparently, Vietnam doesn’t have an official age limitation on foreign workers.

So, enjoy the last Vietnam entry of this blog: our three days in Saigon. I will review the many, many photos the three of us took and perhaps if I find more worth posting, I will write a post-script entry.

In the meantime, let me tip my hat to my travelling companions. In eleven days of travel, we got along, nothing disastrous or even negative happened. We all left with a very positive attitude about Vietnam.

 

On our first night in Saigon we met up with our friends from Phu Quoc who were on their way back to the States. Zac had pho at this restaurant previously and proclaimed it the best pho, So, why not? Was it the best? I couldn’t really say. I will say I didn’t have a bowl of pho in Vietnam I didn’t like.

We visited the War Remnants Museum, which, of course, is dedicated to the
“American War.”

“Let me show you around.”

The shirt seemed like the perfect one to wear to THIS museum. Not sure about wearing it most places in America, though. “Ceiling Cat, do I look old and fat in this photo or what?”

Next to the main museum is this exhibit about how prisoners of the South Vietnamese and Americans were housed and treated. There were parts of this that were just too graphic (for me) to view.

I distinctly recall reading about the tiger cages of South Vietnam when I was around ten years old.

Somehow I missed the fact that there was a prison on the island of Phu Quoc where we were, just prior to Saigon.

Inside the museum are three floors documenting the American involvement in Vietnam’s civil war. I found some of the photographs simply too horrifying to look at. I did get a grim “satisfaction” that Sophie was absorbing all of this. American high school students get about one day in history class devoted to the subject. It’s vitally important to see that on many levels, Americans are no different than anyone else in the world when it comes to cruelty. With our ongoing wars (the Afghanistan war is in it’s 17th year! In 2010 that war surpassed the one in Vietnam in longevity of US involvement) it’s important to learn from history. Something that Americans seem to be particularly poor at.

Getting on a high-speed boat in the early morning for a 45 minute trip on the Saigon River to the Cu Chi Tunnels which were used during the Vietnam war by the Vietcong to thwart the Americans.

Bitexco Financial Tower from the river. It’s the tallest building in Saigon.

Arriving at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

 

 

 

Trying some of the food that the people who lived here ate.

-“Tanks”
-“You’re welcome!”

These were re-creations of how traps were used. They’re ghastly creations. When a soldier falls into one of them they land on either steel or bamboo pikes and are impaled repeatedly. Nasty way to die.

 

 

You can live fire various weapons. This is NOT cheap. Ten shots were about $25. Sophie chose the iconic U.S. army M-16 and I fired its infamous counterpart, the AK-47 which, for the record, I own one. Mine is in far better condition than the one I shot here.

Sophie didn’t fire this gun, an M-60 but I like the photo the best.

 

Some of the choices of weapons to shoot.

Going into one of the many tunnels. If you’ve crawled through one, you’ve crawled through them all.

At the end of the visit, we were ushered into a small outdoor pavilion to watch a heavy-handed movie about the “American war.” Let’s just say that it was decidedly one-sided.

There was a small shrine for “Uncle Ho” which is what the Vietnamese call him these days.

On a recommendation, we ate at Propaganda Bistro. It was a fantastic eatery with a great vibe.

Prix fixe menu. 550,000 vnd is just under $24. Not inexpensive but it’s a lot of food and it’s a great setting. This would be double (at least) in an equally trendy SF restaurant.

 

 

 

Bui Vien Street, sometimes called “walking street” or “backpackers street” for obvious reasons. It’s hopping most nights, all night. This really is an “anything goes” street with bars, nightclubs, “massage” parlors (“wink, wink, nudge, nudge…”) and drug sellers, in abundance, all.

 

 

When walking down Bui Vien Street, you’ll see people at outdoor bar patios inhaling laughing gas out of white balloons. Not cheap, about $6 but you can get a good laugh out of it. This was Sophie’s first time with N20, outside of a dentist’s office. Happy to introduce my daughter to a new old drug.

 

“Wheeee!!…”

 

Bitexco Financial Tower: The tallest building in Saigon

Some night shots of District one, where we were staying.

We signed up for a night motorcycle food tasting tour. We joined with two others on a rainy night, which, as you can see, didn’t stop us.

It took a while for me to get brave enough to take a selfie on the motorcycle. Driving to the first few stops felt so perilous due to the crazy traffic, I basically just closed my eyes because I did not want to see or know when the end was coming. After a while, I calmed down and concluded that despite what looked like traffic mayhem, apparently, collisions are not that common.

Another food stop

Halfway through the tour it began to rain so we donned a full-body rain poncho.

A stop for pho

We each took turns making a rice-noodle pancake

The finished product- more or less

One of our stops included the flower district. Countless kiosks of flower sellers with many shops in the also selling flowers.

 

Saigon Center is in the neighborhood of our hotel (District 1). It sure looks very upscale.

 

I was not expecting to see Baskin-robbins ice cream here.

A visit to a gourmet market in Saigon Center. It was stocked with far more imported food items than anyplace in Xi’an. Bought Tootsie Rolls here. N/A in China.

Compared to what’s available in Xi’an, this is a staggering cornucopia of cheese varieties.

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