Saigon, Vietnam

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Wandering Marathoner / Asia, Food / Saigon, Vietnam


Filed Under: Asia, Food by Tyler June 9, 2011, 4:59 pm

Our journey from Bali continued with a brief layover in Singapore, and a flight onward to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I have to admit, I felt a little anxious about visiting Vietnam, given America’s history with the country. Would we feel welcomed, or scorned by the local people? Would we always have to be on the defensive after answering the inevitable question, “Where are you from?”

The anxiety was, in retrospect, completely unnecessary. Upon saying we were from San Francisco, a local restaurant host might reply something like, “Oh! My brother lives in San Jose!”

For all of its troubled past, Vietnam is moving on. Nearly everywhere we went, we were warmly greeted and almost always felt at ease. Even the War Remnants Museum, formerly called “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government”, was renamed as part of the efforts of normalizing relations with the United States.

I’m sure we’ve said this about previous countries we’ve visited, but after a day in Saigon, it became clear that Vietnam was a new favorite. For one thing, getting cheap excellent food was super easy. Just a step outside our Green Suites Hotel was an alleyway filled with local restaurants, serving their patrons on low plastic chairs and tables. In another alleyway outside the War Remnants Museum, I had one of the tastiest barbecued pork chops ever. On the touristy Bui Vien Street, we found an amazing seafood place… no English spoken here, but it didn’t matter when we pointed to the scallops, mussels and clams – prepared just the way the owner liked (and us too!). Over the course of several days, we had many of the staples… phở bò (beef noodle soup), bún bò huế (Hue-style beef soup), and bánh xèo (savory stuffed rice flour crepe). We even had great beer: walking down Pasteur Street one day, I turned to Jennie and said, “I smell someone brewing beer”. Sure enough, I sniffed out one of the only microbreweries in Vietnam, Gammer’s.

We toured the former presidential palace, now called the “Reunification Palace,” preserved as it was in the 1970s with its cold minimalist architecture and funky mod furniture. A North Vietnamese tank is parked in the front yard as a reminder of the day that it crashed through the front gates, and ended the South Vietnamese government rule in 1975.

We took a painful day-long tour to the Mekong Delta. Suffering through a non-AC boat cruise down the Saigon River to My Tho, every subsequent stop was an opportunity to sell us something, such as local honey and coconut candy. The highlight (or perhaps lowlight) was partaking in some snake-infused rice wine. It really didn’t taste bad… just like cheap rice wine. We were only mildly grossed out — until the tour guide opened the jar and pulled out a marinated bird carcass – beak, feathers, and all.

After several days, we realized that we wouldn’t have enough time to visit the north and Hanoi, but we probably had too much time to spend in just Saigon. So we did some research and took a one-hour turbo-prop flight to Phú Quốc Island, just off the coast of Cambodia. When we would return to Saigon, we would spend our final night in Vietnam in a more fashionable area of town, and splurge at the Rex Hotel. The rooftop bar was a famous hangout for the press and military brass during the Vietnam War, and according to Jennie makes great passion fruit cosmo’s and ginger mojitos.

Just outside the front door were Cartier and Louis Vuitton stores… isn’t this supposed to be a communist country? And so our re-education of the world continued.

Click here to see our photo album.