We entered Vietnam via Cambodia through a convenient tourist bus company, apart from our door collapsing in the middle of nowhere which caused a delay, eventually making us miss our bus connection and forcing an overnight stop at Phnom Penh, at least immigration went smoothly.
With no shower and a clean toilet for almost 48 hours now, my company and I met up with a friend who is a long time expat in Saigon. Saigon because only foreigners call it Ho Chi Minh. After all the pleasantries and the much needed shower, we headed for our first experience of a proper Pho, a Vietnamese version of noodle soup, from one of the many interesting restaurants along Pasteur Street. Like among every city I’ve been, I usually get to know the people with what they eat. I find that what people eat has a direct relationship with their lifestyle, culture and history. But more of that in a while, let me take you to my first legitimate Pho experience. My friend and I ordered two of the classic Phos which you will encounter in any self respecting Vietnamese restaurants, the Pho Ga, meaning with chicken, and the Pho Bo, with beef. Pho is served with greens on the side, which tells me that the Vietnamese are humble people because they allow you to adjust the taste to your preference. Phos arrive, clueless on how to start, our friend taught us the universal Truths. First, you taste the broth, only then do you add those curious greens on the side. Basic greens consist of basil, bean sprouts, and the most distinguishable taste even after mixing them together, cilantro. As for my personal experience, I would not advise adding that tiny looking chili on my good friends, it might have ruined the whole experience for me had I not been warned against it. Instead, i was told to try it on a separate bowl to my good fortune. To the Vietnamese, the broth is always the star of the show, not the rice noodles, which are almost always perfectly cooked anyway. Each sip of broth, mixed with rice noodles, and the occasional bite of distinguishable cilantro was worth the trip in itself. We would also later discover that Phos made from street peddlers are so much better than ones that come from kitchens with roof above their heads. There are also other staples that do not cross Vietnamese borders, like Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant that has been serving only one dish for decades now, also that Bun Cha, a perfectly grilled meat in tube form, and my favorite breakfast, Banh Mi, made with sliced baguette with some meat, mostly greens and lightly added with a mayonnaise like sauce, a positive offspring of the French colonialism and Vietnamese resilience.
Pho Ga and Pho Bo
Cha Ca La Vong
After that glorious first meal, we decided to learn some history at the graphic, albeit biased Museum of American War Crimes. It was the saddest thing we have ever done in the whole trip. In hopes of clearing our minds from haunting photographs of human atrocity, we decided to go for some bright architecture that surrounded Ho Chi Minh square. The French definitely left better buildings than what has been destroyed during the war. The central post office on one side of the square, and the Notre-Dame Basilica, a stone’s throw away, are true testaments to French colonial architecture.
Around Ho Chi Minh square
Notre Dame cathedral of Saigon
The most obvious problem you will have in Saigon is crossing motorcycle plagued streets. In my pedestrian judgement, there seems to be more motorcycles than people here. Take note, Saigon might be a pedestrian nightmare but there is a brave solution on how to maneuver the dreaded crossing of busy streets and intersections. Once you’ve made the first step away from the curb, you don’t stop, hesitate, or avoid motorcycles, they will avoid you. Live by that rule and you will live. Reminds me of Bruce Lee’s famous lines, “Be like water.” It took a while before my sense of self preservation got used to turning a blind eye on motorcycles that seem to be gunning after me. So when I finally had the chance to rent a motorcycle along Pham Ngu Lao or better known as backpacker district, it was finally my turn to instill fear on some unfortunate and innocent tourists, so says the man who said “if you can’t beat ’em, join them.” My Mad Max moment ended our momentous and gratifying city tour of Saigon.
Motorcycle plagued street
My turn to harass innocent tourists!
Next on our itinerary was a day trip to the mighty Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is a river that stretches over around 4,500 km, all the way from the Himalayas to Vietnam, passing through different countries of Indochina, making those fortunate lands fertile for agriculture due to its abundant source of irrigation, making Vietnam one of the top producers of rice. Our day trip only allowed us to visit certain areas, which would be a speck of dust compared to its vast totality. After a 2 and a half hour bus ride from Saigon, we arrived at our first destination, a tourist stop where you can sample exotic delicacies which include some local rice cake which is very comparable to our bibingka, which wasn’t a surprise because we are both rice growing regions. Also some rice wine with the usual suspect of a baby cobra inside, supposed to make you more potent. Take it with a grain of salt, I always do. If everything I’ve taken where I’ve been told will make me more potent, I should have an indefinite sense of sensuality. After those tastings, we finally got in on our man powered boat, wearing cone hats that the Vietnamese people are almost known for. Curious enough, it was the woman’s legs which were doing the rowing. While she rowed gracefully, we were cruising and snaking along some beautiful tight mangroves, narrow enough to touch the greenery that surrounded us. It wasn’t the best experience we’ve had, factor in the unforgiving sun, humidity, the persistent mosquitoes and the almost unpredictable chance of a shower.
One narrow mangrove of the interminable Mekong Delta
The following day was spent on another day tour to the mighty Cu Chi tunnels. Made by the Hanoi backed Viet Cong, the armed resistance during the Vietnam war, these tunnels were dug to conceal and protect them from the US backed Saigon army and more especially, from their aerial supremacy. But what goes beyond amazing is that they have made communities out of these tunnels. This will be your first hand experience of real Vietnamese resilience. Besides the fact that these tunnels have functional kitchens, toilets, bedrooms, and most of the basic necessities for living, these tunnels stretch for hundreds of kilometers, giving possibility for the Viet Cong to travel in safety. With these tunnels, the Viet Cong employed guerilla tactics against their southern nemesis. Giving them enough perils regardless of how much more advance they are in terms of technology and fire power, to make them decide to give up and end one of the most atrocious events of the 20th century.
Cu Chi tunnels
In contrast of all the violence involved in our previous destination, we visited the curious Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh afterwards. I do not always encounter a religion that’s got some interesting selection of patron saints such as, Victor Hugo, Joan of Arc and Winston Churchill, to name a few. We then got a timely chance to watch what seemed to be like a mass. A pleasant contrast of the colorful temple and white robes of its members. Its architecture just as its beliefs seem like a mix of different religions, making it seem familiar but still strange enough for imagination.
Cao Dai temple
Contrast of white robes and the colorful interior
When it was finally time to leave Saigon and the rest of southern Vietnam, we were armed with basic Vietnamese survival skills taught by our most precious almost local friend. He taught us words for bargaining, lying, gratitude and some really really mean words. From here, we’re going nowhere but up.