Exploring Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on foot and motorbike

We woke up bright and early, and were able to catch the free breakfast at the hotel. For me, it included pho, one of my favorite foods, which was rich with star anise and cinnamon. Then, we decided to wander the city by foot throughout the morning to see some of the sights which are quite near to our hotel. We started with the opera house, which is understated but nice looking.


Then, we walked past the nice statue of Ho Chi Minh on the pedestrian (and motorbike) promenade.



We wanted to try the famous Vietnamese coffee, so we headed to one of the coolest places in town, Saigon Coffee Roasters. We got lost along the way, but ended up seeing some cool side streets. It turns out that almost everyone here has a motorbike – to the tune of probably thousands of them that we have seen so far. Everywhere you look, including straight ahead of you on the sidewalk, there is a motorbike. Eventually, after walking through a motorbike parking garage, we found the coffee roaster and enjoyed a traditional coffee sua da (coffee with evaporated milk and sugar) and a coconut coffee.


Next, it was time to try to find some of the museums, although they are all closed at roughly the same time of the day. We got slightly lost but found the super touristy market, which was a lot more of the same souvenirs and cheap goods we’ve seen throughout Southeast Asia (except here, people are much more aggressive with you).


Then, we wandered towards one of the premier banh mi stands, which we found after crossing several “lanes” of traffic.


It turns out that we ordered the wrong kind of banh mi, because Perry reported it was pretty chewy and fatty, and our guide later this evening told us that this specific type of banh mi is targeted for Chinese tourists. Who knew? We continued on, and made it to the Independence Palace, which is where the President and Vice President of Vietnam held office before the liberation of South Vietnam in 1975.


The architecture was interesting, but was fairly sparse and pretty much resembled any 1960’s building, just decorated with Asian colors (it really reminded me of Langley, if anyone has visited the old CIA building before). Then, it was on to the War Remnants Museum, or the formerly “American War Crimes Museum”. There is a clear rhetoric at both of these sites, and none of it is in any way positive towards the USA. As we wandered the War Remnants Museum, it became incredibly clear why that was the case.

You enter on the ground floor, you are greeted with photos of people from across the world (everywhere from Sweden to Malaysia, to Syria and India, to Albania and Australia, including the US) protesting the Vietnam War. Then, you walk upstairs and are confronted with several exhibitions, none of which is pleasant to behold. They all include graphic photographs of Vietnamese being tortured, killed, dismembered, and otherwise degraded by soldiers, both French and American. Those exhibitions, while difficult to stomach, paint a harsh reality of wartime that most could probably stomach (no excuses for the behavior, but all of this is documented well from the United States side as well).

What I haven’t learned in any American foreign policy class is what happened after we left, after napalm and Agent Orange were used on the population. What got to me, and I’ll admit, it did get to me, were the several photo exhibitions of the aftermath of Agent Orange. The first exhibit is black and white, photos of people who were impacted during the war days. The second series, in full color and many in recent high resolution, show the second and third generations who have been born with horrific birth defects, including double knees and elbows, height defects, brain and tissue tumors, and all manner of other horrific maladies ranging from stunted limb development to paralysis. The photos that most touched me are the photos of those with these defects, smiling and laughing as they survive. There were only two that stuck out to me as “happy” photos, but both of them brought tears to my eyes. Outside the exhibit, there is a series of photos by a Japanese artist, all of which are in happy neutrals and present hope for peace.


After the sobering experience at the War Remnants Museum, we headed for a couple more sights, including the famous Catholic Church, where the statue is said to have shed tears in a miracle several years back, and the Post Office, which is just a beautiful old building. Then, we headed to the 52 floor of one of the new high rises to see a view of the whole city.


Then, this evening, we had a totally different experience, going on a guided food tour of Ho Chi Minh City by motorbike. The first thing we learned was how to avoid getting a “Saigon tattoo” or the burn that comes from accidentally hitting the exhaust pipe on the bike. Then, we were whisked off into the busy streets of HCMC to our first destination, where we tried a local pork sausage, and then a noodle soup called Bunn Bo, which includes beef and the same pork sausage, and has a totally different broth than pho (probably my favorite dish of the night). We also tried verimicelli noodles with two other types of toppings, including a pressed pork roll and a rice paper dumpling. Both were delicious.


Of course, its monsoon season, so about halfway through that taste, the rain started. When it rains here, it pours. Forrest Gump was right when he said in Vietnam, it starts raining, and there are all types of rain: hard rain, soft rain, sideways rain, etc. We experienced about five of them as we suited up in our ponchos and headed off to the next couple spots on our tour, which included a Chinese restaurant where we got delicious wontons, and then a barbecue restaurant where we tried a couple local specialities that are cooked at the table. The first is steamed goat with lemongrass and local herbs, which was delicious and earthy, and the other was goat breast cooked over an open charcoal fire right there at the table. We also learned how to say cheers and bonded with our drivers and guide as we waited for the food to cook through for us.


What’s neat is that because goat is a relatively special food for Vietnamese, they display the goat so you can see how fresh it is.


Oh, and they really do offer you every part of the goat, if you want it (take a good look below, you’ll see what I mean).


Then, it was back into the crowd of bikes, and off to our final destination: our guides’ favorite restaurant in HCMC. The tour itself was a ton of fun in that each of these restaurants was about a 15-20 minute ride away from each other, in totally different parts of the city. We got to see a ton of different areas, including Chinatown, several areas near the river, and some of the beautiful bridges within the city.


At the final restaurant, we tried frogs legs and escargot the Vietnamese way, which included snails in a delicious tamarind sauce, and conch snails which have been rolled in chilis and salt and then deep fried (a favorite bite of mine). We also tried fried chicken cartilege, which was surprisingly chewy and delicious, and coated in a nice chili sauce. When I asked if the Vietnamese incorporated a lot of French flavors into their food, our guide posed an interesting question I would be curious to study more: didn’t the French get jungle and wetland foods like snails and frogs from Vietnamese food when they colonized it? It isn’t an official determination of who started eating snails first, but it actually makes a fair amount of sense to me.


As we ended our time with our drivers and guide, they mentioned something else to us. They still call the city Saigon (as do almost all Vietnamese of the older generation) and feel HCMC is a tourist thing that has only recently become a norm for people to acknowledge in the last seven or so years. Saigon is tied to the wonderful history of the place, while Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t quite have the same happy vibe to it. So, when something great happens, they say “Ah, Saigon” and when something bad happens, they say, “Eh, it’s Ho Chi Minh City.” Today, we definitely saw some of the horrific past of Ho Chi Minh City, but also enjoyed some of the wonderful flavors and people that make Saigon an incredible place to be.

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