It was beginning to look a lot like…
December 16 – 20
…every other SE Asian city we’ve seen before.
You thought I was going to say Christmas, didn’t you?
Alas, no. And that, my friends, was a major lament of this time of our travels. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. There were gaudy Santa Clauses outside of major shopping streets (strangely, many wielding saxophones), shiny ribbon-wrapped buildings and snowmen smiling from the windows of restaurants. But our hearts just weren’t in the holiday spirit. Without the constant television ads reminding you of the approaching buying season, the Pandora Christmas radio station, the Home Alone reruns on ABC family or even snow, it was hard to feel like Christmas was just around the corner.
So perhaps it was this ache for home that put a blight on our time in Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam and formerly officially (and currently unofficially) called Saigon. Not without merits (more delicious street food, lots of old trees and spacious parks and the same friendly smiles we’ve seen throughout the country), this city just failed to engage us the way Hanoi did. This city seemed to lack some of the authenticity of the former, with its large boulevards and modern buildings.
There is still the remaining evidence of the ancient history of the place, but with the constant juxtaposition against impressive high-rises or upscale boutiques, it’s easy to overlook.
However, not to be outdone in the motorbike category, Ho Chi Minh boasted an entire microcosm of a world on 2 wheels. Used as living rooms, bedrooms, social meeting places and fashion platforms, motorbikes are used to move full families, animals and goods from place to place. It was amazing.
Something also much more prevalent in this metropolitan city was the phenomena of the female pajama. Women wear these colorful matching sets all day long. In my constricting waistbands, I was constantly jealous – methinks I’ll start a new American trend come May. Watch out Michael Kors. I’m taking black yoga plants to a whole new level.
As I mentioned, while we missed Hanoi’s Old Quarter ease of street food every few steps, we were not hard pressed to find tasty pho, fresh spring rolls or banh mis as we walked the Saigon streets (and oh, we walked. And walked.).
We started each morning at our second favorite pho establishment of the trip (we haven’t forgotten you Pho Gia Truyen). Cozying up at tiny tables, we discovered the brilliance of adding an egg to our noodle soups, and upped the ante with peppers and chili sauce until our noses were running and our lips burning.
And of course, we made the imperative pilgrimage to the famous Lunch Lady. Known for her dedication to creating mouthwatering broths and serving a different soup every day, we made not one, but two trips across town (like really, really far) to try what turned out to be a succulent seafood soup (with a bit too fishy broth) on Thursday and the even more alluring pho bo on Friday. While I wouldn’t say either quite lived up to the hype, it was still tasty, and the crowd was mainly local, so we enjoyed the experience. We followed one more of good old Tony Bourdain’s recommendations and hiked out to Banh Xeo 46 for a late lunch of their oversized namesakes.
We ate well, readers.
We regularly found ourselves complimenting our food stops with liquid goodness. From tasty, dense Vietnamese coffee and refreshing fruit sihn tos (shakes) to sweet sugar cane juice, we could be found sitting on small plastic chairs all over the city, smacking our still-cooling-from-breakfast-pho lips.
And can we talk one minute about the absolute BRILLIANCE of the “take away” beverage method of this country? Cradled in a plastic sack, you can walk without getting your hand wet from condensation. Additional materials contributed toward littering (an expected method of trash disposal here) and earth’s environmental deterioration (since recycling has yet to become an encouraged practice in Vietnam)? Perhaps. But comfy for your hand? Absolutely.
Oh, and of course, our old friend – local beer. Here, it often comes in the frothy forms of Saigon (green, red or special) or Biere Larue – and commonly on ice.
Traversing by foot the city is relatively easy, but tiresome, as the temps were regularly 80+ during the day (EDITOR’S NOTE: Insert “Dave sweats a lot” joke here.). But we did our duty and hit up several of the beautiful (and not so much so) buildings for which Ho Chi Minh is flocked to.
Alas, after a few days in this overwhelmingly bland, hot and Christmas-spirit-lacking city, and with only a few days left on our visa, we made the incredibly brilliant audible to forgo the rest of our time in the capital and head out to Vietnam’s largest island – Phu Quoc (GIVE ME LINCOLN PARK ZOO LIGHTS OR GIVE ME DEATH! Or beach. Let’s go with beach.).
But before we fled, we had an unexpected run-in with our friends Sandy, Emily and Jacob who we’d met in Hanoi. Spotting Dave dashing through the streets in the rain to retrieve our laundry (I mean, it didn’t make sense for BOTH of us to go), we were reunited for some drinks and the best bahn mi we’d had yet. Excellent send-off. Now let’s get beachy.