Paris of the East: Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

Lots of massive official posters around the city...

Lots of massive official posters around the city…

Once called the Paris of the East, Saigon has gone through a lot in the past forty years. I’ll admit that in spite of trying to not bring preconceptions with me, I definitely had certain expectations for Ho Chi Minh City. Arriving on the bus from Phnom Penh, the first of those subconscious ideas disappeared as we passed a huge Starbucks not too far from where I got off the bus. Now to be fair, I believe that Starbucks has only broken into the market quite recently, but I saw it as emblematic of the Ho Chi Minh City I got to see, which was much less closed to the West than I had realized. Apparently the past few years has seen a rise in the spending power of the middle class, while the trendy children of Party members don’t lack for Western luxury stores like Chanel or Louis Vuitton.
Starbucks

Starbucks

I stayed in District 1, and, apart from the Hunger Games-like nomenclature, it’s a great area for tourists to stay. The tourist sites are here, along with the previously mentioned luxury good stores. Architecture is a mix of very new skyscrapers, well-preserved French-style city and government buildings, some modern Vietnamese buildings, and not so well-maintained colonial buildings. Traffic, however, is like the rest of SE Asia – terrible and frightening for Westerners not used to different rules of the road. (OK, to me they seem like no rules of the road!)

I visited the city so that I could see an old friend of mine from university, and we had a great time! Sadly, two months wasn’t really enough time to visit Vietnam on top of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, so the rest of the country will have to wait for another visit.

My friend Va and I spent my first evening in town eating and walking around. My kind of vacation!

District One at night

District One at night

The HCMC People's Committee Building (former Hotel de Ville de Saigon)

The HCMC People’s Committee Building (former Hotel de Ville de Saigon)

In fact, that was a theme for much of the trip, along with sitting in coffee shops and writing. (Yes, I am still about two weeks behind in my blog.) I really liked the architecture of the city. The Basilica de Notre Dame seems rather incongruous in SE Asia – almost as if it had been transplanted whole from France. The central post office (apparently open every day of the week) was designed by Gustave Eiffel. Newer buildings are, not surprisingly, designed by Vietnamese.

One morning, I took a Vietnamese cooking class. I really like Vietnamese food and was super excited that I would be learning how to cook caramel pork in clay pot, since caramel fish in clay pot is one of my favorite dishes. Sadly, my course was the worst that I have take on this trip, leaving me feeling like I was helping in someone else’s kitchen rather than being able to cook things myself. For example, for the caramel pork, they had already made the caramel sauce. How disappointing! At least I learned how to make a decent sweet and sour soup.

Luckily the day was redeemed by a combination of great street food (green papaya salad) and my friend’s persuading me to join her at her ballet class. I haven’t taken ballet in about, oh, eighteen years, so it wasn’t pretty. But it felt good! We celebrated after with some crepes, undoing all our good exercise but rewarding our tastebuds.

My friend Va and the fabulous papaya salad

My friend Va and the fabulous papaya salad

Fun at La Creperie!

Fun at La Creperie!

I did spend part of a day in the former Presidential Palace. It was sobering to visit the basement, which was essentially a bunker/command center. It didn’t take much imagination to put you back to the final days before the fall of Saigon. Walking through, there isn’t much sign posting, which I was fine with since I could figure out most things from the map. There is one room full of pictures detailing the history of the palace and the “glorious reunification” which was full of the expected Communist propaganda, so I was glad to have opted to bypass the official tour.

Va and I also ventured to Cholon, Chinatown. We tried to find some food, but to no avail, so visited one of the pagodas and hastened home to avoid the afternoon rain.

I was sorry to leave, even after having extended my trip by a couple of days.

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