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.