Thursday, 23 November 2017

Vietnam, day 3: She Drinks the Iced Tea Drink, She Drinks the Smoothie Drink...

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
16 May 2017
On our third day in the capital, we decided to soak up even more French culture with breakfast at Une Journee A Paris. 
A cute little cafe, it serves both locals and foreigners. I had lotus tea in an adorable goldfish tea set while Yannick had hot chocolate (he described it as "fruity and dark like good Lindt") and viennoiseries. 
While there, and old man who was probably French shuffled off with a bag of croissants.

Our first touristing of the day was at the Hindu temple of Mariamman. Built in the late 1800's, its central altar is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman and serves the small population of Hindus in the city.

In need of more fresh air, we took a stroll through Tao Dan Park with all its lush vegetation and statues. The cactus garden was my favourite part, though the lotus pond was what caught many an eye, including a swarm of avid amateur photographers. Apparently this park is popular in the early morning, when hordes flock here to exercise. We were too late in the day to experience that, but we did see one lady learning to dance.

Just a few blocks from the Reunification Palace, we visited the Venerable Thich Quang Duc Memorial. On 10 June 1963, the Buddhist monk self immolated to protest religious inequality. The South Vietnamese president was Catholic, and issued policies discriminating against Buddhists even though the vast majority of Vietnamese people were Buddhist. As his body was burning, he remained silent and stoic while those around him wailed and prostrated themselves before him. It was a demonstration that shook the world, and even US president J F Kennedy commented on how much of an impact the photo of the burning monk had.

He had self immolated on the site of a busy intersection, and it remains so over fifty years later.

The Xa Loi Pagoda is where the body of Thich Quang Duc was carried once the flames had subsided. Apparently even after his body was cremated, his heart stayed intact, and is on display in the pagoda (though as we didn't know this at the time, we didn't find it). There was a separate staircase leading up to the pagoda for men and women, and at the top there were several people on their knees praying. We didn't want to disturb them, so just had a quick peek and then left, though on the way down Yannick could see a secret garden from his staircase. It was beautiful, with hanging vines, lotus pads and pineapple bushes.

We didn't spend long in the War Remnants Museum, as I became overwhelmed with horror and despair. Before my eyes became completely dysfunctional with tears, I took a photo of this scene showing a demonstration (against the American War) in Aleppo, Syria in 1967. The first floor displayed dozens of photos showing war protests around the world (including New Zealand), but as Aleppo had been recaptured by Syrian government forces during the civil war only five months before our visit to the museum, I found it of particular interest in terms of current affairs.

With my appetite completely destroyed, we decided to go on a café crawl instead of getting lunch. We had seen many quirky looking cafés online and used this opportunity to try out several. Our first stop was La Fenetre Soleil, a hip café bar set in an old colonial era apartment. 

The airy windows lit up the eclectic decor, which had a mixture of cosy worn sofas and Japanese chairs amidst exposed brick. We were the only patrons apart from a couple who were having a nap in the corner. I ordered rose bud iced tea, which had actual little rose buds in it, and we were given a free dish of candied lotus seeds. I'd never tried them before, but wow yum! I'm glad we visited at a quiet time, as apparently smoking is allowed freely. However, it would be fun to return at night when the dim bar would be bustling and the music area (including white grand piano and drum set) would be jamming. We left when some irritating people sat near us and watched a reality show singing contest, the already less than stellar vocals blaring through shitty phone speakers.

Next was Loft Cafe, which had a huge clockface window. 

So unique! So stylish!

Yannick, figuring he had better not have too many coffees in one day, had a smoothie and lime white chocolate mousse while I sipped at lavender tea. After leaving the cafe, we followed the spiral staircase up to the top of the building, where we saw an antique wrought iron lift with a heavy-looking counterweight suspended from the ceiling. 

Someone called the elevator from a lower floor and we watched as the weights went up and down on their cables.

Having timed it just right with the odd opening hours, we finally managed to go inside the cathedral. However, it wasn't particularly interesting so we left quickly.

Crossing the street, we passed by the Post Office, where a woman in a green army uniform was directing traffic and a banana vendor hawked her wares.

Then we found L'Usine (meaning "the factory" in French). The bottom level was a clothing store, but up the stairs was a spacious café where Yannick drank red wine and I had a smoothie. We tried to work out why it was named L'Usine - could it be that the building used to be an old factory, or is it to do with the clothing store?

Last on our café crawl was The Old Compass Cafe, which was kind of hidden down a narrow alleyway and up some stairs in a 1960's apartment block. We didn't stay long as Yannick was full of drinks and didn't want any more, so I ordered a green tea. The server asked Yannick to order something as well, but he declined and the mood was rather awkward so I enjoyed my tea, took some photos and we left.

We rested back at our hotel for a spell, and then headed out again in the evening for dinner. Along the way, we saw a cute chubby kid in a black martial arts outfit. 
At Hum Vegetarian, we had an array of dishes including spring rolls with an amazing dipping sauce, fried tofu in spicy sauce, red curry with tofu and rice noodles, and carrot fried rice which was delicious. We had opted to sit outside as the heat wasn't so unbearable after the sun set. Yannick was bitten by a mozzie that caused him to itch throughout our dinner, and our ears were occasionally beset upon by the barking of a dog in a nearby alley and loud singing from a neighbouring karaoke joint. Even with those negatives, the food was excellent and more than made up for it. Our waiters were so nice, and the cherry on top of the evening was dessert: sticky mango rice. 

So sticky! So mango! Yannick, who usually isn't a fan of mango, surprisingly loved it.
On our walk home, we were called out to with a bold "Hello hello!" and looking around we found that it came from a child who was slouching between her two parents on the back of a motorbike, glaring at us in anticipation of a response. I don't know if I'll ever grow tired of that celebrity feeling when I'm greeted by strangers just for being a foreigner. 

Monday, 20 November 2017

Vietnam, day 2: A Palace, a Post Office and a Downpour of Tea

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
15 May 2017
The kettle that was provided for our hotel room cast an electric blue glow when plugged in. That eerie nightlight coupled with the lack of windows meant that we had absolutely no clue what time we woke up. It could have been only a couple of hours since we fell asleep, or it could have been midday. There really was no telling without temporal markers and when jet lag was a possibility (a slim possibility as Singapore is only one hour difference from Vietnam, but still a possibility). Luckily we had woken at a reasonable time: 8am. We took advantage of the free hotel breakfast and ate fruit and coco pops. 
Refreshed from our deep sleep, we entered the grounds of the Reunification Palace ready for the day. The palace was where the President of South Vietnam lived and worked during the American War. 

On 30 April 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank busted through the fence and a soldier ran inside to fly the Viet Cong flag. It would mark the end of the war. 

With iconic 60's architecture and furnishings, the palace was much more charming than I thought it would be. Indeed, as a fan of 60's culture this is no doubt one of my favourite palaces I've seen. Along the walls hung old photographs, including one of US President Nixon visiting the palace.

Some of the smaller offices felt a bit like spy headquarters. 

As well as meeting rooms and offices, there were lots of other interesting areas like a grand dual staircase connecting the first two floors, a cinema decked out in red velvet, a card playing room, and an industrial scale kitchen with a giant egg beater that looked like it ran with the help of a lawnmower motor. 

There was a helicopter on the roof! 

The basement levels were some of the most interesting, with room after room holding bleak desks with telephones or other communication machinery, and the occasional filing cabinet. 

Next on the agenda was Saigon Central Post Office, which was opened in 1891 and designed by French architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux (though many tour guides falsely credit Gustave Eiffel due to a poorly informed Wikipedia article which has now been corrected). Though it's one of the top tourist attractions in HCMC, it still functions as a post office, with stamps on display and rows of cashiers on either side of the grand portrait of Ho Chi Minh. 

Then we attempted to enter the cathedral, but it was closed at that time (and after Googling it, it turns out that it has extremely limited opening hours). Though unable to see the inside, we noticed a large amount of graffiti along the outside bricks which looked like it had been done in white correctional fluid. Next we revisited the Opera House, but were told to return at 16:30. We really weren't having luck (we did return later, but as we didn't have tickets for a show, still weren't allowed in). 

To cool ourselves in some much needed aircon, we found an upstairs table at a central branch of Cong Caphe, a chain of which we had fond memories from our 2015 Hanoi trip. I was brought a mystery juice, and I still don’t know what sort of fruit it was made from. Seemingly the server delivered a different order to me, and looked very conflicted on what to do as I had already sipped from it, so I just told her that all was well and I’d drink it instead of my order.

For lunch we visited My Banh Mi, which is a restaurant specialising in upmarket versions of the popular Vietnamese street food banh mi. Set up by two internationally renowned chefs and offering a dozen different sandwich fillings, it’s definitely not your average street food stall. I opted for the tofu banh mi with basil sauce, which was so good! Yannick chose the black pepper steak sandwich.

Though it was rather rainy, we wanted to visit the Botanic Gardens but honestly they looked a bit shit from the outside and were asking a steep entrance fee. (It was kind of funny to see groups of schoolchildren preparing themselves for character-building activities. I’m so glad I no longer have to participate in that sort of thing.)

Instead, we checked out the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a 1909 temple dedicated to the top Taoist god.

A plethora of statues and paintings representing deities, heroes, and demons loomed from pedestals and the walls. The air was thick with incense and candlelight. There was a bizarre clash between rustic style wooden decorations lit by neon tubing. We explored every available inch of the pagoda, and found that there were rooms that held shrines but also stacks of cardboard boxes and utilitarian shelving. I hadn’t experienced that in other temples, but frankly I think it was a practical use of space. As we left we spotted a very fluffy and sleepy temple-dwelling doggie who couldn’t be photographed due to the dim lighting.

Not long after we left, a legit storm sprung up and threatened to drown our umbrella so we popped into the closest cafe to wait it out. How much tea can one person drink? I was experimenting with that question within our first two days in Vietnam. Yannick was posing a similar experiment with ca phe sua da (Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk). Though enjoying the abundance of tea, I didn’t like how often it would come sweetened without forewarning. Don’t get me wrong - I like sweet tea (especially peach), but I’d like a little heads up.

On the way back to our hotel, we walked through Le Van Tam Park, which was terribly atmospheric after the rainfall. We also stopped by Turtle Lake, but it was super shit. I much preferred the park. 

When dinner time rolled around, we headed for a local spot called Bep Me In. Funnily enough, as we turned down an alleyway that we thought the restaurant was located on (thanks and no thanks to Google Maps), we ran into an Australian couple who were in search of the same place. After a few metres, however, our advancement was stifled by incoming traffic in the form of many rickety market stalls on wheels being pushed, pulled and trundled by vendors on foot and motorbike. The alley was barely wide enough for them, so we squeezed into tiny crevices to let them past and avoid our toes being run over. Eventually we made it to the end of the alleyway, but there was a distinct lack of restaurants and only ramshackle housing. As we turned back, an English-speaking girl pointed us in the right direction. It was apparent that this sort of thing happened a lot. I shake my fist at you, Google Maps. Get your shit together.
Having been sent down the correct path by the kind stranger, we found a different alleyway in which several eateries were present (including the ever-searched-for Bep Me In). It was a bustling spot with long wooden banquet tables and backless chairs. No matter how many times I reread the menu, there was no tea, which ruined my experiment. I ordered carrot juice instead and was determined to begin my tea-filled quest anew the following day. Being tapas, mezze and all forms of “small dish” lovers, we sampled a few plates. One was a sautéed vegetable dish of what looked like green beans that had mutated slightly into a more draconian bean. They were fairly good tasting, like a mild and slightly crunchy green bean. We also ordered rice cooked inside some kind of leaf, and a green pepper and chilli pork dish. Yannick’s wine, though served too cold, was a nice change after not feeling able to afford much alcohol in Singapore for nearly four months.

Wandering back home, we dodged puddles and sudden splashes from motorbikes’ wheels. Yannick amazingly remained relatively mud-free, though I was severely dirtied. I probably washed my feet in Vietnam just as often as drinking tea.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Vietnam, day 1: Chaos Theory - Relearning the Road Code

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
14 May 2017
After packing up our apartment in Wilby Central, where we had lived for the last three and a half months, we paid our teary farewells to Singapore and took a turbulent but otherwise uneventful flight to Vietnam's capital city.
The visa upon arrival process was quick and easy, and before we knew it we had officially arrived. We bought a SIM Card each, with unlimited data for the month for about USD25. They were very simple to set up and we were able to catch an Uber ride to our hotel for only USD4! Having a data plan really makes a difference when travelling, and I think we'll try our hardest to have data wherever we go in the future.
It was fun to be back in the crazy Vietnamese traffic, with motorbikes whizzing past on all sides carrying strange and oversized cargo. Most people were either texting or talking on the phone while zipping through the lanes, and one guy had even sellotaped his phone to his helmet as a makeshift handsfree setup. As we gathered our backpacks from the boot of the Uber, a downpour began and we quickly tried to find our hotel. However, Google Maps sent us too far down the road and we had to backtrack a couple of times before we found the right place. Once checked in, we took off our backpacks and immediately washed our feet of the grime. Yannick had already spilled chocolate onto his shorts from a slice of cake he procured at the Singapore airport, and he didn't want to stain the fabric more with the dark street mud. 
Though our room had no windows, we already knew that we had to be prepared for any type of weather in Vietnam, as like Singapore it was very changeable. Armed with umbrellas and jandals, we went out in search of a spot for lunch. Down a dubious looking alleyway, we found the entrance to an apartment. Winding our way up the spiral staircase decorated with Chinese lanterns, I wasn't at all sure we were in the correct place, but then it opened up into a charming restaurant themed a bit like a mud hut: Mountain Retreat. If the heavens hadn't just opened and left the balcony sitting in a puddle, it would have been wonderful to sit out there and watch the street below.

With an enormous menu, Mountain Retreat could make a dawdler out of any decisive person, though I eventually settled on the braised tofu and mushrooms with a side of carrot juice. Yannick ordered a lime leaf chicken dish and was excited to have access to Vietnamese coffee again.

Feeling like stretching our legs some more, we walked to the Ben Thanh market - a covered market with vendors selling souvenirs and hand crafted items. Nearby were several streets lined with produce markets.

Then to 23 September Park, where we saw a dog run past in a t-shirt, and Yannick batted a balloon back to a playful child. There was a considerable amount of construction going on nearby, which didn't help our attempts to remaster the art of crossing the road, but we got back in the swing of things fairly swiftly regardless.

The entrance fee for the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum was 10,000 dong (USD0.44) so we decided we may as well have a look.

Honestly, I would have paid more than that just to see the building itself, which was a huge and beautifully designed 1929 French villa, with airy shuttered windows, tiles, and balconies.

There was an interior courtyard with lush foliage, and while there you felt like you had been transported into a previous era (if the illusion wasn't hampered by the skyscrapers poking out above the rooftops).

Now that I've raved enough about the building itself, let me rave about the art. There were powerful sculptures, lacquer engravings, sketches of soldiers and more.

Some of the art had a Mayan-esque quality to it, as though the Mayans and Vietnamese shared some connected historical art style. It was very interesting, and something that we would see more of in Vietnamese art.

Continuing to explore, we found streets rife with antique shops and narrow apartments, thick clumps of cabling branching off like a diagram of a human body's nervous system. 

As a fan of pedestrian zones, I had to check out Nguyen Hue Walking Street. A long paved pedestrian street dotted with trees, fountains and art exhibits, I enjoyed the stroll. Along the way we saw a building in which every balcony advertised a different shop, and were called out to by many fruit hawkers. I considered buying some mango with chilli salt, but opted instead for some delicious ripe pineapple, which the lady chopped into pieces for me. 

At the end of the street we reached Sông Sài Gòn, the river that snakes through the city. It wasn't particularly attractive, with rather a lot of flotsam in the form of rubbish and aquatic vegetation, and giant billboards advertising beer. And yet as with most cities, any little bit of nature one can get is cherished. (Except for Singapore, which somehow manages to combine a modern city with nature excellently.)

From couples to tourists (itsa me!) to the elderly, an array of people congregated along the river's banks to watch the slow ebb of the water as it drifted past container ships and skyscrapers.

A few minutes' walk up the bank, we crossed some terrifying multi-laned streets to reach the statue of Tran Hung Dao, a 13th-century military leader who looked somewhat like a cross between a samurai and a figure from the Terracotta Army.

And before heading home we of course had to see the Saigon Opera House, which opened on 1 January 1900. Stylistically, it's based off the Opéra Garnier in Paris, and was intended to please French colonists. We weren't allowed inside as a show was about to start, so we decided to return at another time. The opera house was in a swanky part of HCMC, with Gucci Stores and window displays of Moët et Chandon. We passed by two historic hotels: the Hotel Continental, which was Saigon's first ever hotel (built in 1880); and the Caravelle Hotel, which was a hub of communication during the Vietnam War as it was popular with journalists, writers and was even the location of the Australian and New Zealand embassies in the 1960's. Famously, a bomb exploded in room 514 (a floor known to be occupied by foreign journalists) in 1964, injuring several people but fortunately killing none.

The People's Committee Building is another example of the splendour of French colonial architecture. Originally a hotel, it now functions as a city hall.

By the time we reached the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, we had grown weary and were in need of rest. We snapped a few photos of the outside but decided to return on another day. After resting in our hotel for a while, we ventured out again for dinner. Yannick had heard that Banh Mi Huynh Hoa made a wicked sandwich, so we waited in line to acquire one. There were two lines: one for pedestrians and one for motorcyclists. For 35k dong (USD1.50), it was a ridiculously affordable dinner. I wanted something a bit lighter, so on the way back we popped into a small supermarket where I bought apples and ciku, a fruit that tastes like brown sugar. Though the banh mi made Yannick weep from spiciness, it was worth the wait and the mouth flames.