Before we start, we are calling it Saigon. Everyone there calls it, why should we any different.
You hear about the amount of motorbikes in Ho Chi… Sorry Saigon and, yep it’s true. They rule the roads. But what is really confusing is there seems to be quadruple of the amount of bikes parked on the side of the road – where are all the people? This question bugged us the whole time in the city. There physically should have been four times more people in the shops and on the sidewalks. Actually, that is a lie, you soon learn that trying to walk on a sidewalk in Vietnam is impossible.You would first have to skip over parked mopeds, hop over bicycles filled with flowers, trip over teeny tiny plastic tables and chairs while trying your hardest not to end up with your left foot in a pot of boiling Pho. Which, truth be told is both frustrating and fun.
We booked into a beautiful hostel by the name of Lily’s House – accommodation in Vietnam is almost second to none – and wandered out in search of lunch. A couple of blogs pointed us in the direction of Saigon greatest Banh Mi and after a 15 minute walk, involving crossing muti-lane highways and negotiating a seven lane roundabout, we were in front of the – so called – best Banh Mi in the city. This place was more of a factory. Four people chopped, two people cut the baguettes, one person rotated the bread on the BBQ while two more stuffed the bread with delicious looking roasted pork…then they ruined it by shoving piles of processed meat products in it. A shame as all the elements, especially the chilli, was incredible. The processed lard just seemed excessive (we pretend we are Banh Mi connoisseurs, so please bear with us when we deconstruct a sandwich). We headed back to Lily’s to investigate the area. The only downside of the location of Lily’s, is its in Tourist Alley. Everyone there are fellow tourists, which can be fun, but the bars and restaurants that cater to us, tend to dull their food down too much and if you want to meet a local, it’s likely they are a working girl or their pimp.
We took the advice of the hotel and wandered a few minutes outside of the main strip to their favourite restaurant. It is based around traditional dishes, but they have decked out the restaurant way to expensively meaning they now charge almost $15 for a few pieces of pork crackling. We also learnt two more rules for Vietnam:
- The sachets of wet wipes they graciously give you will be charged if you use it. (Refer to Rule #1)
- If your face is covered in pork and chilli goodness from a Banh Mi and you require said sachet you must not open it quietly. In your left hand squeeze it until the air pushes to the top. Using your free hand, slam it on the air to achieve the loudest pop possible. A traditional restaurant in Vietnam should consist of constant popping.
The following morning was dedicated to a cooking lesson at Ho Chi Minh Cooking Class (we found one person who called it HCMC!). The school is situated on a small organic farm outside of the city, so we were greeted by a young student who escorted us onto the bus all the way to the turn off on the main highway. We were joined by Chef Tan, where we jumped on the back of their mopeds into the farmland. It is a beautiful setting and the whole concept of the school is great, but we left unsure if we liked it. The whole thing was a roller coaster of emotions we tell you. We loved walking through the farm seeing their produce, but if we didn’t know what something was, we got in trouble. We hate getting in trouble! The food was good, but we would be sidetracked from cooking to hear stories about how much money the chef makes in Melbourne and how successful he is. There also seemed to be no time to recap or catch up. We had to do everything alongside him but it seemed more of a show of his knife skills.. That said, we still learnt a lot about Vietnamese food, including the Vietnamese Baguette. His different take on the Banh Mi was also very very delicious. As was his Pho. He also suggested a traditional dessert, which we honestly would not have picked, but was very nice, especially cold. Would we do the lesson again, yes, but some tweaks would make it great.
One of the real highlights of the day though, was when over lunch he asked if we were going to the Chu Chi Tunnels. We said we had organised it for the following day. He said cancel it, they are practically next door, the guys will take you on their bikes. The student who chaperoned us took Sarah, while I jumped on the back of the apprentice chef’s bike. The tunnels were about twenty minutes away, but that meant more time on bikes, zigging and zagging through traffic. It was great fun. We stopped of in a rubber plantation where we learnt about the process, before getting to the tunnels. Nowadays the tunnels are really set up for tourists, but with our trusty guides, we had fun and learnt a few things.
For one, the Vietnamese are a pretty strong and intelligent nation. If the USA actually read about the countries history, they would have read that they have defended their nation for thousands of years without defeat. Sure, Google was not about then, but there were libraries! The Chu Chi tunnels were proof of their ingenuity. They built a network of tunnels almost 121 kilometres long, where they lived, slept, ate cooked and defended their territory. Here they developed all kinds of defence mechanisms. Deadly traps in the grounds, hidden holes where they would pop up, shoot and disappear again. They used the attacks against them to their benefits. We kept being asked “Where did they put all the soil from the tunnels?” We just couldn’t think. Fake ant hills was one idea but there wasn’t enough to warrant it. Then we saw the bomb crater. As soon as the crater was created, they were filled in. Kitchens were only used in dawn or dusk and they smoke was diverted through numerous holes that resembled early morning mist. But the greatest trick, we think was their shoes. Their shoes were made from the tyres of destroyed military equipment. We were asked which way they would go on their feet. I looked at a guy making them and made the correct response, but cheated, we still didn’t know why they made the tread backwards. It was so that when they ran away, their footprints would be heading in the wrong direction. That to us, is genius.
What made the tunnels just a little bit authentic, was the gun range in the distance with consistent live fire from 9mm to er… bigger ones. Guns ain’t our thang so we did not participate, but did wee our pants a tiny bit the closer we got. At one point there is the opportunity to go into the tunnels yourself and follow a local. There was a choice of 20, 40 or 60 metres. We both said 60 but our lovely guides said it’s very hot, very small and very scary you only do 40. If you like it, I allow you 60. Yes Miss!
Our guide was definitely smaller in height, but how do we say, more portly in width. We still have no idea how he fit, but left us for dead in the tunnels. Probably as we did not have the technique, unless that technique was kneeing yourself in the chin? We surfaced and the guides asked if we wanted to go again.. Ah… Yeah! This time when we reached the 40 metre mark, he turned and said keep going? We said yes and off he zoomed. At 60m he said, keep going? Yes! We did another 100 metres and surfaced drenched in sweat in a small exhibit of a doctor performing surgery, much to the amusement of the German tourist group.
We cooled off in the shade of a thatched roof with some green tea and Tapioca Chips dipped in chilli. Another bit of info, when they bombed the land in hope of desolating their food supply, the US must not have been familiar with a spindly plant called Tapioca. Blowing them up, spreads its seed that gave the Vietnamese, basically, a never ending Tapioca supply. We finished the tour, jumped on the bikes and headed to the highway. They put us on the bus and we parted ways. The rain poured and the sun set, as we fell asleep listening to a little kid sing Jingle Bells. It was still November.
We wandered around aimlessly looking for a Banh Mi in the tourist zone. They seemed not to exist, so when we passed by a restaurant simply called The Hungry Pig – we had to stop. We had a quick beer on the streets before heading to bed.
We slept in a little late the following morning and wearily strolled towards the War Remnants Museum. It was our second last day, so when we arrived at 11:20am and the told us they shut at 12:00 for lunch, we had to go for it. We rushed through just fast enough to realise we should have spent more time there. There was a photography exhibit showing the children affected by agent orange, which was heart-warming yet disconcerting. Clearly the use of such a horrible product was merely a science project that has yet to be admitted to. One floor showed photos of the horrors of the war from the Vietnamese side. The images were not overly clear but more horrific then the photos on the above floor from the US photographer Larry Burrows. His images were incredible and his words pretty apt to what he faced to get the photos.
From there we headed towards the Reunification Palace, where there was another exhibition on but was also closed for lunch. It was the scene where tanks stormed the gates in ’75 when the South held their hands up to the communist North. We wandered through the beautiful green parks lined with propaganda posters and mingling students. We saw Notre Dame Cathedral and wandered next door to one of the “must see’s” of Saigon – the Post Office. To give it credit, it was a beautiful building and the bonus – they sold stamps! Woohooo!
We strolled the streets back towards our hostel, past the Opera House, through The Rex Hotel – known as the hotel that was first occupied by the US and of course hit musical comedy – The Sapphires (we just watched it). We walked back through the Ben Than Market that we had visited earlier (which we forgot to mention) and on towards the hostel.
In preparation of an imminent storm based on the previous day’s experience we had packed our water proofs. Almost two blocks from home, it arrived. Exactly at that point was a bar that served cold bear, so decided to wiat it out. As the rain pelted down, the roads flooded, creeping inch by inch towards the bar floor. It was great way to while away the hours until we saw the bill – they were the most expensive beers to date – SEVEN GREAT BRITISH POUNDS A POP! After walking ankle deep in South East Asian flood waters, We shared a cheap meal that evening.
We had one more day in this bustling city and opted to give public transport a go out towards District 5. We heard of a great food market and a massive undercover market plus good food. We ended up at the bus stop and wandered out into the streets of food and poultry. The market was great, slightly different to what we had seen. They ladies were all very friendly and the produce looked good. The market was definitely big, but the food had packed up so there was no chance of lunch. We wandered the back alleys for a while, extremely tempted into buying everyone knee high skin-coloured toe socks as a Christmas present, but restrained. We jumped back on the bus to get lunch elsewhere. Unfortunately for us, we had used a shop that sold mopeds as our landmark as to jump off the bus. They tend to fill every third shop so we constantly got up to realise it wasn’t the right bike shop.
We wondered how many more people actually needed to buy a bike, but then it clicked, they must have forgotten where they parked it so need a new one, that’s why there are so many on the side of the road.
We relaxed the rest of the afternoon in a restaurant overlooking the main strip, interacting with the cigarette sellers, the book sellers and obligatory pirate DVD sellers. One last tasty dish of meat barbecued on a lemon grass skewer, washed down by a cold Saigon and we were on a sleeper bus to the North.