Sampling Vietnamese food was a big part of our Saigon itinerary, but we also had to burn all those pho and banh mi sandwiches. So we walked. A lot.
Staying in District 1 is a good place to start. Ben Thanh Market, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office, and Reunification Palace are all within 10- to 15-minute walk from each other in that order. We started at Ben Thanh because it’s the closest to Pham Ngu Lao area. We had no intention of doing any shopping yet but we wanted to see what was being sold (years of sourcing while working for a magazine are not so easy to shake off). There are a lot of clothes, fabrics, scarves, watches, bags, coffee and humble eateries of Vietnamese food.
What caught my eyes were the parcels of fresh spring rolls stacked behind a counter; I asked the lady behind the glass counter if I could have one. Then to my horror, she started screaming and shooing me away. My husband put away his camera thinking it would calm her down, but she was still screaming and motioning us to leave. I asked for one spring roll again and finally another woman got a menu and pointed that you order three per serving. I stubbornly sat and ordered three. Those spring rolls were probably good, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Fresh spring roll lady glaring at me didn’t help.
P and I walked off the negative vibe to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, then to the Notre Dame Cathedral (where both places had pre-nuptial photography sessions happening), the post office across the street, then to a cozy cafe nearby, where the servers were pretty nice and nobody was shouting at us from behind a counter. After we cooled down with an iced drink and air-conditioning, we marched off to the Reunification Palace, where there were just banquet halls and a series of function rooms filled with long tables and chairs for what I imagined would be important government meetings and events. By the second or third floor, I was bored and already wondering where we were going to have dinner.
Walking involved a lot of crossing the street–and since this is a Saigon entry, let me be predictable and mention the motorcycles. Before the day was over, after several times of crossing the street and gripping the arm of my husband (who seemed to be getting the hang of maneuvering through Saigon’s sea of motorcycles), I thought I could very well do it on my own. I walked ahead of him, looked only to one side of the street because it was one-way anyway and got up close and personal with a motorcycle and its driver coming from the wrong side of the street. It happened so quick there wasn’t even time for my life to flash before my eyes. I’m grateful the driver had a pretty quick reflex. I was so relieved when we got back to our hotel. And for dinner we didn’t go very far; I hugged the sidewalk while we walked around the streets of Pham Ngu Lao, De Tham and Biu Vien. (FYI, there are a lot of restaurants and pubs in those streets, serving ‘international’ food; most are mediocre, some awful.)
In the evenings, after dinner we would either go to one of the bars to have a beer, but one night we decided to see the water puppet theatre. Water puppetry has been part of Vietnamese culture since the 11th century. Farmers used to stage it to appease the spirits and flooded rice fields were typically the setting. Nowadays, the puppeteers are submerged in a pool stage and musicians at either side provide dialogue, narration, and of course music. The theatre is small, the seats a bit old and musty, but the show, which is entirely in Vietnamese, is a unique treat to watch. Just don’t sit in front, unless you want to get wet. Those puppets sure can move.
On our last night in Saigon, we got our entertainment on the street. One guy started breaking into a dance to the tune of Michael Jackson hits while his accomplice held the boom box. We were in the balcony of a restaurant that afforded a good view of the street below and of his dance numbers. Jackson-dancing dude danced while the motorcycles rode past him, while people took photos and videos, while people ate their skewered meats, while he was being screamed at and shooed away from his first ‘post’ by some lady. I felt for the guy.
Ben Thanh Market, Cho Ben Thanh; Ho Chi Minh City Museum, 65 Ly Tu Trong St., ticket 15,000d; Notre Dame Cathedral, Han Thuyen St.; Central Post Office, 2 Cong Xa Paris; Reunification Palace, 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, ticket 30,000d; War Remnants Museum, Vo Van Tan St.; Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1; daily show 5 pm, 6:30 pm, 7:45 pm; ticket 147,000d, all in District 1