April 10, 2012

Pho, Motorbikes, Chinatown and Markets in Ho Chi Minh City: Vietnam Part 1

We flew into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam early in the day. First glimpses of the city gave the impression that it was a clean place. The airport is new, open and spacious. The streets are wide, clean and lined with trees and grass. So far so good!
Arriving at the Airport

Our hotel has in the heart of the city, New World Hotel. One side looked over neighboring buildings; the other side had an enormous park full of mature trees and grass that was used constantly for exercise. I had to change money into Vietnam Dong. Now my wallet was beginning to look like a rainbow: US Dollars, Philippine Pesos, Cambodian Riel, and Vietnam Dong...phew. It was really hard to do the conversion for Vietnam Dong 21,000 to 1 USD. That meant the tour for the second day was One Million Dong! OUCH! 
Money from 4 Different countries

I AM A Millionaire!

The view from our window

The park across the street

One thing we had to get used to is all the motorcycles! It made traffic seem intense. Not many people can afford a car so they ALL have motorcycles. Hundreds—scratch that—THOUSANDS of motorcycles would come out onto the streets. None of us in the group could get used to the magnitude of the bikes. Unlike Manila, they actually stay in their lanes and buses follow traffic rules (that was refreshing) but crossing the street was still an exciting adventure. The ground rules are  #1 Commit to crossing. #2 Once you start, don’t stop, hesitate or fall. Doing any of the above you will die. People will go around you if they can see where you are walking and how fast. #3 if panic sets in just take a deep breath and DON’T LOOK!

Actually, there were several times our group members would grab each other’s hands and scream as they crossed the street. Some of the rest of us would verbally encourage them as if we were crossing a war zone, “you can do it, just keep walking! Don’t stop…almost there…” It was comical. At one point we were crossing and three Korean girls were crossing behind us. I looked back and saw they were holding hands and had panicked faces much like our group. One repeated over and over in her accented, broken English, “Don luk, jus close eyes an wok.” Hey whatever gets you to the other side, right!

We ate lunch in some random mom and pop style bakery—it was so good we ended up going back a second time. Then we were off to explore some more. We drove through the streets of Ho Chi Minh to the presidential "Reunification" Palace that has been vacant since the war. The façade architecture screams 1960s—little did we know the inside décor would too! I could picture the Asian version of Brady Bunch being filmed here. Hehe…Actually it was a really beautiful building. The large open rooms and hallways were breezy and cool. The tour guide walked us through room and after room and we saw how grand life was in the Palace for those presidents that served here—even if the carpets were avocado green and the wall covering gold and burnt orange.

LOL..and I did not EVEN SAY "CHEESE"

At the top, there is a garden and ballroom. We went to see the view and I started to take photos of an older man tuning the grand piano. He turned around and in English said, “Hey! Where are you from?” When I told him Hawaii, he said, “Oh wonderful! I play American Country music! Do you want to hear?” With that he sat down and played “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” for us; Our own private concert. He was beaming with happiness to share his talents with us. 

We visited the historical buildings left behind from the French: Notre Dame Cathedral, the National Post Office, and the Opera house. All of which were elegant buildings even now. We were surprised to find out that Catholicism is the second largest religion in Vietnam. We wanted to go inside and see the cathedral but they were closing as we walked up to the gate. Luckily, I was able to slip in and take some photos while everyone else crowded outside and looked in through the gates wanting to enter.
The back of Notre Dame Cathedral

The Post office

Inside the Post office

Nortre Dame Cathedral

The Opera House

As we were leaving a group of high school students came up to us and asked if we could speak English with them and answer their questions. It was fun to see them trying so hard to speak English--and not be embarrassed in front of their peers too. 

Practicing the English Questions

"Wait, what did you say?" It took several of them to figure out what they were trying to say...

We next took a tour of Chinatown. We wanted to get out and walk so the surprised tour guide let us out for a few blocks as we made our way to an old temple. As always with Chinatowns, there is so much to see and buy. We stopped and smelled spices, admired the French Architecture left from colonial years, and would stop on street corners to wait for all the motorbikes to whiz by as we took photos (such tourists I know).
A Catholic chapel that looks like a Pagoda

The Traffic Guard
The Traffic while he sleeps...

The temple in Chinatown

Burning incense to ancestors

Our night ended eating at Pho 2000, a really popular Pho place that President Clinton once ate at. And if you did not know that beforehand (our guide told us at least three times) then you would know when you walked in because there are several LARGE photos of him being there. As we all trailed in we took photos next to it. The people eating nearby were already staring at our large group, now knew we were utterly crazy to be taking photos with photos! HAHA. The Pho (pronounced PHA) was wonderful! It is a dish we will be making at home. A warm broth with noodles, meat of your choice (I like mine with tofu), vegetables and seasoning to taste; A perfect dish for a cold snowy day. Too bad it does not snow here—or anywhere we have lived in the last few years for that matter.
Night Markets

Pho 2000! I just about got ran over taking this photo!


Peaking in the kitchen for a photo

Then we hit the night street markets. We put all of our bargaining skills we practiced in Cambodia to work. It was a blast. We were all buying things—most of which we did not need OR have room for in our suitcases, but we had fun doing it.  We found in Vietnam the sellers are not as aggressive as they are in Hong Kong and not as loud as they are in Manila, but more helpful than they were in Cambodia.

What a good day—can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!
The little shop keepers come out of nowhere

The Street Rice

The coconuts (Hiva says they are "the sweetest!") that accompanied every meal and walk the ENTIRE TRIP

All the Cigarrettes to choose from. the package warnings just say : SMOKING KILLS. Simple as that. I thought is was funny that one of the brands is "Bastos" that means "Rude or Belligerent" in Tagalog

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