4 days in Japan for Two: a Tabinu experience

Hi everyone! Boy, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

The past 5 months have been quite a ride for me — and quite sadly, robbing me of any time to keep up with blog posts! Since July, I’ve moved to a different state (New York), taken on new responsibilities at work (requiring, unfortunately, working weeknights and weekends 😦 ), and found time to travel all around the US, Canada, and most recently, Costa Rica. 😀 #blessed

One of my biggest trips this year was a wonderful 2 week vacation with my boyfriend to Japan and Taiwan. Four nights and six days of that trip were spent entirely in the Kansai region: Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Kyoto. While it would have served us better to spend more than 4 days, we couldn’t pull the time together. But we were still able to see most of the popular (albeit touristy) sights and places.

fushimi inari shrine

Torii gates at Fushimi Inari

We owe much of the success of my boyfriend’s inaugural trip to Japan to tabinu: a company that specializes in building highly-personalized itineraries for those looking to make the most of their time and budget in Japan. The team at tabinu has taken their years of experience living and working in, and traveling throughout Japan to help you create your ideal trip.

Since they speak both English and Japanese fluently, they were a big help with, for example, navigating Japanese websites to look up train timetables, and finding local restaurants that offered vegetarian options, since being vegetarian in Japan is notoriously difficult. They even created a mini handbook of Japanese phrases relevant to where we would be going (or what we were eating)!

Moreover, we had total control over the cost of our trip. My boyfriend and I had a ceiling of $700 between the both of us, including lodging. I am still amazed with how much we were able to accomplish on such a restrictive budget. Under tabinu‘s guidance and careful planning, we were able to secure comfortable, clean, and convenient lodging, transportation for all 6 nights, meals, entrance fees for attractions, and even buy souvenirs all within $700! We actually had some trouble using up the rest of our yen at the end of the trip.

lunch at tenryu-ji temple

A delicious, healthy, and vegetarian (!!) kaiseki meal at Tenryu-ji Temple

We opted for an itinerary that was around 40/60 guided to self-exploration, which means we were mostly provided suggestions on what to see and when, so that we maximized our time and our Kansai Thru Passes (a 3-day pass for public transportation). The hour-by-hour, day-to-day minutiae of our trip I opted to do myself, but I was very dependent on the tips tabinu provided regarding how locals travel, eat, and see Japan.

If you are looking for a more all-inclusive experience (with airfare, lodging, and daily activities all planned for you), the experts at tabinu have finessed the balance you’re seeking between guided and self-exploring.

The service fee for creating our 4-day itinerary was USD$150, which I think was really reasonable given the amount of time and thought that was put into our trip by tabinu! They charge per itinerary, so prices will be different depending on the length and complexity (perhaps?) of your trip.

Himeji Castle

World Heritage Site, Himeji Castle — would not have known how to get to this place without tabinu’s help!

We truly had a wonderful trip and a positive experience working with tabinu, and I want to give the team credit where credit is due. So if you are planning a trip to Japan any time soon, I highly recommend checking them out!

Chùa Thiên Mụ Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam, 2013

thien mu pagodaChùa Thiên Mụ, or Thiên Mụ Pagoda, is a Buddhist temple in the city of Hue. It sits atop the Hà Khê hill and overlooks the northern bank of the Perfume River. The pagoda is seven stories tall and is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. Moreover, it is regarded as the unofficial symbol of the former imperial capital. (Interesting note: you can see Laos from across the river).

The name of the pagoda comes from the local legend about an old lady, Thiên Mụ (“celestial lady”),  dressed in red and blue. She sat at the site rubbing her cheeks, and foretold that a lord would come and erect a pagoda on the hill to pray for the country’s prosperty. Nguyen Hoang, the first Nguyen lord, overheard this tale while touring the area, and immediately ordered the construction of a temple after his visit.

Beginning in the summer of 1963, the Thiên Mụ Pagoda became a hotbed of anti-government protest. South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority felt discriminated against under the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem, who showed strong favouritism towards Catholics. Catholic priests led private armies against Buddhist villages, and discontent turned into outrage when nine Buddhists died at the hand of Diem’s army on the birthday of Gautama Buddha.

banks of perfume river

A protest march was ended when government forces opened fire — this sparked a series of Buddhist protests across the country, and Thiên Mụ Pagoda was a major organizing point for the Buddhist movement.


prayer session

The pagoda once again became the focal point of discontent when a person was murdered near Thiên Mụ, and anti-communist protests closed traffic around the Phú Xuân Bridge. The communist government responded by arresting monks for disturbing traffic flow and public order.

the car

The Austin motor vehicle pictured was driven by Thích Quảng Đức, a Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at an intersection in protest of the persecution of Buddhists. Wang told us that Duc’s heart remained intact and did not burn. As a result, the heart is considered to be holy and is now protected in a glass chalice at Xa Loi Pagoda.

Quick aside:In Buddhism, a relic is called 舍利子 [se li zi], or Sarira. It refers to a pearl or crystal-like bead purportedly found among the cremated ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters. The Sarira are believed to embody the spiritual knowledge, teachings, and living essence of the masters.

Tomb of Tự Đức, Hue, Vietnam, 2013

tu duc entrance

The Tomb of Tự Đức is located in a narrow valley in the Duong Xuan village within Hue. Nguyen Emperor Tự Đức reigned the longest of any monarch of the Nguyen dynasty, for nearly 40 years. He had over a hundred wives and concubines; in spite of this, he was unable to produce an heir (possibly because he became sterile after contracting smallpox).


His epitaph is inscribed on a stele the largest of its type in Vietnam, brought from a quarry over 500 kilometers away. It took four years until the stele was transported to the pavilion. Etched into the stone is the Khiem Cung narrative: composed by the Emperor, a retelling of his life and imperial cause, his misadventures and diseases.


Temple buildings served as a palatial retreat for Tu Duc and his wives, and eventually the tomb’s palace buildings became his place of residence.

Luu Khiem lake greeted us when we entered the temple area. The Emperor used to come here to compose poems, read books, and admire the flowers in the company of his escorts. I can imagine it being far more beautiful in its heyday, instead of the swampy mess of algae blooms and dying trees that we saw.

luu khiem lake

In the middle of the lake sits a tiny island where the Emperor would hunt small game. The lake is also large enough to boat across, which Tu Duc would often do.

Although the palace and tomb site have a reputation of grandeur and luxury, most of it seems to be in a state of disrepair. Faded lacquer, cracked paint, chipped wood. Barren, quiet, and lonely. Cracked tiles, scratched out inscriptions, and a desolation felt most deeply when the only sound that cuts through the gray, winter air is the mechanical clicks of tourist cameras.

du khiem pavilion

a quiet temple

Tu Duc was actually buried in a different, secret location in Hue. Not at the place he spent two decades planning, building, and living in. The 200 laborers who buried him were all beheaded after they returned from the secret route, to protect the true location of Tu Duc.

Phước Thạnh, Hue, Vietnam, 2013

Boy, it’s been a hectic couple of months! Forgive me from my blogging inconsistency–three weeks of eating my way through Kansai and Taipei; spontaneous lighthouse sightseeing in Portland, Maine; and hiking through the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee for July 4th weekend. It’s been exhausting and thrilling, and oh dear, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to a point where my blog posts are written in present tense! 😀 What a wonderful problem to have, to be blessed with the resources and companionship to travel — and to have a bottomless repertoire of experiences to share!

Anyway, I won’t keep you any longer —

phuoc thanh entranceLunch in Hue was at Phước Thạnh Restaurant. Everyone was seated at long tables in the center of the restaurant, with enough chairs for about 15 people on each side.

The food ranges between good and okay. Nothing stands out in particular, but I didn’t leave with a bad impression of the place. Perhaps we were simply victims of inexperienced vegetarian cooking.

First dish was a small bowl of pho, with fried tofu and vegetables. The relatively generous amount of veggies was a pleasant surprise.

I also noticed that–across all of our meals in Vietnam–all of the broths were suspiciously flavorful..like perhaps they used MSG (?) ;). But in all honesty, MSG-flavored soup is better than boiled water with salt any day (unfortunately, this actually happens sometimes).

vegetable pho

Then a tapas-sized plate of bánh xèo. This was really tasty. The pancake was crunchy like taco shells, but not overly greasy. We stuffed these with lettuce, carrots, and cucumber slices.

bahn xeo

Some spring rolls came up next, with vermicelli, mushrooms, and more bean sprouts on the inside. It seems that at least half of every meal we’ve had in Vietnam had deep fried foods. Don’t get me wrong, fried stuff is delicious, but eaten meal after meal, day after day, you start to feel heavy and greasy.

spring rolls

Banh cuon — Vietnamese rice noodle rolls. The rice noodle skin was far too thick. There was naught but a sliver of lettuce and 3 bean sprouts at most.

bahn cuon

I’m not sure what this is called, but it reminds me of 肉圆 [rou yuan, or ba wan in Taiwanese], a Taiwanese street food with disk-shaped translucent dough. It was sticky, and kind of tasteless.

steamed sticky rice

The desserts served in cute pandan-leaf boxes were one of my favorite parts of the meal. In each larger box, there was a black sesame mochi-like ball stuffed with cassava and coconut paste. This was a bit dry for my taste, but I love the flavor of black sesame regardless.


Khanom Man is a cassava cake, made with grated cassava, mung bean starch, tapioca flour, and shredded coconut. This was wrapped in the smaller box and was the one I enjoyed more out of the two. I’m addicted to all things coconut :).

PSA: I also finally caved into getting an Instagram (resisted for so long), so if you enjoy my photography, you can find more of it there!

A Quiet Day in Da Nang, Vietnam, 2013

hyatt regency danang

We strolled along the beach of our hotel, the Hyatt Regency Danang, early in the morning before breakfast. There wasn’t a morning call (usually they’re at 5am or 6am…), but we wanted to make the most of our time anyway.

tiny sand crab

Almost stepped on this little guy! He blended in too well with the sand. Watched him quickly scurry back into his hole after a close call with my foot.

gardener at work

hyatt gardens

A gardener was hard at work on this peaceful morning. We were the only guests walking through the hotel.

Breakfast was still mostly vegetarian-unfriendly, but nonetheless tasty to look at! There were fresh baguettes buttered and grilled that we ate plain, since we couldn’t use most of the bánh mì ingredients. We also had some of the rice noodles with scallions and fried shallots, as well as a “sweet and sour” bowl of dry pho noodles that I improvised.

hyatt danang breakfast

For most of the trip so far, my mom and I were rather disappointed with the famous Vietnamese coffee. But that morning we noticed that most people were ordering iced Vietnamese coffee. We had only been drinking it hot. We quickly flagged a waiter and asked for two glasses of iced Vietnamese coffee — they were almost running out! — and boy, it was a world of a difference.

This was coffee enlightenment. Drinking it cold somehow reveals the layers of flavor in the melange of sweetened condensed milk and dark roast coffee grounds. Sweet and bitter, muted by the heat when drunk hot, become vibrantly complementary when cold. Love.

cham museum pot

We stopped at the Museum of Cham Sculpture, a moderately small museum featuring the world’s largest collection of Cham artifacts. The Chams are an ethnic group in Southeast Asia, concentrated between Cambodia and Central Vietnam. At the height of the 9th centruy, Champa controlled what is essentially two-thirds of Vietnam, from Hue to the Mekong Delta.

Champa worshipped fertility and sexual organs through the Hindu god Shiva: linga is the male organ, and yoni is the female organ. The two are commonly featured in the sculptures at the museum, and are supposed to represent Yin and Yang.

entering hue

Our next destination was the city of Hue, where we would visit the tomb of Tự Đức, a Vietnamese emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. Since the road to Hue from Da Nang was a long one, about a 2-3 hour trip. Vietnam officially has no highways, even to this day. The only highway runs through its dense forests and mountains, which makes maintenance difficult. As a result, the highway is not used by the common people, but has instead been adopted by cows and sheep herds.

The roads we drove on were a roulette of paved pothole paths or dirt roads under construction. Sometimes there was only one lane, for two-way traffic!

Vietnamese coast

But the coastal scenery was beautiful. Wang taught us how to catch fish with a water bottle:

  1. Cut the top of the bottle off
  2. Put a rope through the top
  3. Put a metal plate at the bottom for weight
  4. Drop a piece of bread at the bottom for bait
  5. Catch fish, and reel it win with the rope!

Rice fields of Vietnam

The Vietnamese countryside scrolled past us, as Wang continued to illuminate with details of life in Vietnam. Apparently a sizable source of income for the rural Vietnamese is finding the remains of Americans from the war, and turning them over to government so that they can be returned to their families in the US. About $200 USD is paid for every batch of American — a significant amount of money for people who live on $1-3 USD a day. But many have taken to gaming the system by manipulating cow bones to look human, and turning those in instead.

You can also earn monetary rewards from the government by reporting homeless people or robbers. The homeless are taken in and fed, and given an allowance too! A win win for all. 🙂

Tam Tam Cafe: Hoi An, Vietnam, 2013

tam tam cafe

Dinner in Hoi An was at Tam Tam Cafe, a trendy and spacious restaurant in the heart of the village. i’m not sure if tapas-styled meals is typical at Tam Tam, but all of our plates were limited to a few bites each.

Our meal began with a few sips of vegetable soup with choppy, short belts of rice noodle. It erred a bit on the oily side.

rice noodle soup

Then came bánh xèo, Vietnamese crepe: crispy, savory pancakes stuffed with corn and bean sprouts. Lettuce served on the side to wrap the crepes in.

banh xeo

A plate of crispy vegetable spring rolls was next, with alfalfa and carrot flowers plated on the side.

spring rolls

Green papaya salad was a pleasant surprise. I had always thought of this as a Thai dish; the generous sprinkle of mint petals was a sweet twist. We each had our own bowl of deliciously crackly flatbread. It broke apart like brûléed glass with a gentle press of the thumb.

papaya salad and flatbread

Rice noodle dumplings topped with a healthy dose of deep-fried shallots.

rice noodle dumplings

Then a marriage between dainty, mixed greens, lime, red chili, snow peas, and thick, deep-fried wonton strips.

wonton salad

Dessert was chewy, Vietnamese macaroons. Coconut fibers stretched as you pulled the cookie apart. And the perfume of almond.


And vanilla and mango cake to celebrate a group member’s birthday to boot(this wasn’t on the menu ;).

While I don’t know how traditionally Vietnamese the food served at Tam Tam Cafe is, I certainly still enjoyed it. Good food is good food. Some places encounter difficulties with creating a well-rounded vegetarian dish — monochromatic and serving only tofu or only stir-fried vegetables — but this wasn’t the case at Tam Tam. The dishes were well balanced: a centerpiece, a twist of orange, a spike of red, and ribbons of green.

If you’re hungry in Hoi An, drop by Tam Tam Cafe!

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2013

hoi an during the day

Hội An is a UNESCO World Heritage city just south of Da Nang, with more than 2,000 years of history. It was once a principal port for the spice trade with Indonesia from the 7th to the 10th century and a major international port as well. Multiple cultural influences have shaped Hoi An throughout the years–from the Cham Kingdom, whose people came from Java, to Arab and Chinese traders, and the Vietnamese who settled there relatively recently.

entrance to old town

quang trieu temple

Our day began at Quang Trieu Assembly Hall, a building built by Chinese from the Guangdong province. Chinese fishermen and traders would use this hall as a rest stop and to exchange goods. Many of the statues you see are scenes from Cantonese musical dramas.

bird in cage on a quiet alley

A lonely bird on a quiet alley.

The main street of the Old Town is Tran Phu. We strolled past old, heritage hotels, tourist souvenir shops, and teahouses until Wang stopped us in front of a larger, wooden building. The Old House of Tan Ky. Seven generations of the family have worked to preserve this ancient house.

old house of tan ky

There are way too many tourists to fit in this house.

The house features a triple-beam structure that stands for heaven, earth, and human, and five round blocks to represent the natural elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth): features of Eastern philosophy.

Duc An medicine shop

We then went a few houses down to Duc An Old House, which has been run by the same family for 400 years. It became the most successful bookshop in the 17th Century and carried famous Vietnamese and Chinese texts, as well as political works by Rousseau and Voltaire, to name a few.

In the 1900’s it became a Chinese medicine dispensary. When anti-French revolts and movements began, the house became the darling gathering place for youths and intellects.

tran phu street

Tran Phu street.

lantern vendor

A bike full of lantern frames.

What was most interesting to me–and something you won’t find through pure research on the web or in tourist books–was that some of these houses were also used as opium dens. Upper floors were furnished with cushioned seats or beds for you to cozily drift off into ephemeral bliss.

afternoon tea

Care for some afternoon tea?

But such things were not meant for us to experience, so we made our way to the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, or Chùa Cầu. The bridge was built to create a link with the Chinese quarters across the river, and now connects Tran Phu St with Thi Minh Kai street.

japanese covered bridge

Sculptures of a dog and a monkey sit at one end of the bridge as symbols of sacredness in Japan and of the years many of the Japanese Emperors were born. A roof was constructed so that it could be used as a shelter from both rain and sun. It is the only known bridge to have a temple built inside it, which honors the God of Weather, Tran Vo Bac De.

boat vendor

We walked down towards the Thu Bon river, where the boats were. Hội An is a city to experienced at night–when lanterns light up the river like twinkles of starlight. The sun was waning, and a few of the villagers had already set afloat tea lights in colorful paper “lilies” on the water.

restaurant on street

Our tour included a “bicycle” tour of Hội An: the bicycles were actually a hybrid of stroller and bike. We kicked back in our chairs, while someone else did the peddling for us. Down Bạch Đằng street we rolled, passed various street vendors and brightly-lit restaurants.

local market

Boat vendors paddled up and down the river, seeking to make eye contact with a curious tourist who’d be willing to buy his wares. We rode past the local markets; a cornucopia of vegetables, meats, fish, and fruit poured onto the streets, splayed out in baskets or on small planks of wood.

hoi an lanterns

My favorite part Hội An was the lanterns. Maybe a third of the shops we passed were lantern stores that hung a curtain of paper lanterns, of psychedelic shapes and colors. It was wonderful.

paper cutouts

Another popular craft you’ll see in Hội An were the 剪紙 [jian zhi, Chinese], or paper cutouts. The streets were tiled with meticulously snipped and intricate cards of boats, flowers, dragons, and pictorials of Vietnamese lifestyle. We bought several of these to gift to family members, and a few for ourselves to take home and admire :).

hoi an at night

Da Nang, Vietnam 2013

It had been only two days since we first landed in Vietnam and yet it was time to fly again. We made our way northward to Đà Nẵng, one of the major port cities in Vietnam and the largest city in Central Vietnam.

My mom and I started our day with a brief stroll through Ho Chi Minh.

My DIY bowl of pho for breakfast, since the broth isn't vegetarian. :)

My hacky soup-less breakfast pho (broth isn’t veggie).

A quiet morning

A quiet morning in Ho Chi Minh.

Families and friends break bread together.

Families and friends break bread together.

And then we took off! Mountaintops peaking over woolen clouds was a wonderful thing to see.

mountains and clouds

We descended through a thicket of  gray, where we lost the sun. Chilly, was my first thought when we landed. This I was not prepared for, in my shorts and light t-shirt. Tangles of cool wind wrapped themselves around my bare legs and arms. Luckily for us, lunch was the first order of business. Hot pot at 4U (For You) Restaurant.

hot hot pot

This being an oceanside city, we went to a seafood restaurant. Naturally, all the hot pot was seafood hot pot. My mom and I fended off the cold with sips of hot tea that grew less hot with each draft that came through the windows. We looked at the other tables’ bubbling pots of warmth longingly and prayed that hot soup would be one of the things served.

Alas, our first dish was a plate of seaweed and sesame mushrooms, stir-fried with veggie ham. And a large plate of plain, steamed cauliflower. Tasty, but too much faux meat for my taste.

mushrooms and veggie meat

a giant plate of cauliflower

Doughy buns stuffed with cabbage. Too much dough, too little stuffing. The dough was too wet: mushy and sticky. We ate only the stuffing.

vegetable buns

Rice noodles stir-fried with red chilies, yam leaves, and peanuts followed. There were more peanuts than noodles. Slices of veggie ham laced the edges of the plate–an afterthought, perhaps to make it “meatier”.

rice noodles with peanuts

Then came the long-awaited soup: a thick, curry soup with deep-fried tofu cubes, fake “beef” slices, and woodear dropped in. Hot, but it would’ve been more comforting had it been less greasy.

greasy curry soup

Lunch finished with a plate of pineapple and grapes to aid digestion. A good way to end a hefty meal. Suffice to say, this was a lot of food and we couldn’t even get through 1/3 of what was served. We shared the rest of our food with the other tables so it wouldn’t go to waste.

fruit for dessert

Overall, I thought it was decent. Good enough. The others in our group looked pretty satisfied with their seafood feast. 4U has a higher price point, so if you’re willing to take a gamble, go for it. If not, I’m sure Da Nang has plenty of better and less expensive seafood options that also have a seaside dining balcony.

the view from our room

We retreated to the contemporary Hyatt Regency Danang Resort for a siesta. This was an absolutely wonderful resort–I highly recommend staying there if it’s within budget. Most of the hotel is open-air, so we were able to soak in the briny ocean air under the comfort of sleek luxury.

the pool at hyatt regency da nang

The hotel spans several buildings, some of them residences. It’s essentially a college campus. In the heart of it is a palm tree-lined Roman Grecian pool over which gentle bridges arch and fountains feed into its waters.

our room at hyatt regency da nang

We lucked out with an oceanview, balcony room. A large, swivel-y sofa chair outside was the perfect retreat. And if you simply couldn’t tear yourself away from the view, don’t despair! The glass shower sits adjacent to the balcony, so all you have to do is roll up the shades to be able to bask in seaside glory as you shower. Our room was spacious, impeccable, and so relaxing.

Cruise down the Saigon, Ho Chi Minh 2013

I was still in a food coma from our delicious lunch at Nhà hàng Ngon, but somehow it was already dinner time. Signet arranged a “cultural” cruise for us down the Saigon River: we were to dine on Euro-Asian food and feast on traditional music and dance.

the cruise ship

We boarded an ornate, rose wood ship and were greeted by women in light blue áo dài who led us to our table. Waiters whipped around the deck with cocktails in hand. Chilled and only lightly alcoholic–just enough to whet the appetite.


An hors d’oeuvre of baguette slices were served with a dollop of vegetable slaw or meat slaw (is that even a thing?). Baguettes are clearly French influence, but the slaw may just be a Vietnamese take on what they think foreigners enjoy slapping on their bread. :p (Extra) salty peanuts slid in alongside the plate of hors d’oeurvre.

As we sat waiting for our table to be called to the buffet, we were treated to the first traditional dance of the night. I’ve struggled to find the name of this; but it was a very lively and airy dance with a lot of swishing of dresses and twirling.

vietnamese dance

Then we were finally unleashed unto the food. A seafood buffet that the others in our group had been itching to dive into.

My mom and my meals were specially ordered for us, since there were very limited vegetarian options. Since it would be a while before we were served, I decided to throw convention to the wind and start with dessert first. And a glass of wine.

dessert and wine

A table of shot glasses filled with white chocolate and milk chocolate creme piqued my interest–or should it be the flan? I did fancy the cream puffs as well, and the glazed donut holes…there’s no shame it trying it all, now is there?

We grew antsy with the slow service and took matters into our own hands by making rounds at the buffet. There were a few dishes at our disposal: vegetable vermicelli that was a bit too wet and a spinach and feta pastry that was much too dry.

buffet food

When we sat down with our pickings, the rest of our dinner was also finally ready. A bowl of pho to start. Noodles went down smoothly, but the broth tasted distinctly of MSG.


Sushi was next. Too much rice, and rather odd fillings chosen for the roll: mushroom, celery, carrot, and tomato. Cucumber, pickled vegetable, and avocado would have suited me better.


Then came a small bowl of curry with a plate of baby, buttery baguette-bread-not-really-baguettes. The vegetables were chunky, meaty, and soaked up the curry well. I liked this one the most.

curry and baguettes

And then–a plate french fries! Gotta include some vegetables for those vegetarians. But wait! What if…what if we drop handfuls of these fries on the sides of a plate of cucumber salad?! Yes, that’s perfect. The American tourists will love this.

french fry salad

Let’s throw in a bowl of pumpkin soup too. They like that creamy, buttery stuff.

That’s what I imagine was running through the chefs’ heads as they drummed up dishes for us. It was quite an amusing meal; I guess they just don’t have many vegetarian guests :).

I don’t know about you, but I have this quirk where if I don’t particularly enjoy what I’m eating–even if I’m served a lifetime’s worth of food–I’ll continue looking for things to eat. I was definitely full by this time, but I simply wasn’t satisfied.

banh xeo

So I found a bánh xèo [Vietnamese crepe] station and ordered one with vegetable filling. This was just satisfying enough.

Those who didn’t spend over an hour waiting for their food to arrive had finished and were dancing on the floor to some swing music. I desperately wanted to join, but alas, the food in me would not have it.

bamboo dance

The dance floor emptied to make way for múa sạp tây bắc, or the bamboo dance. Múa sạp originates from the Northwest highlands of Vietnam. Four to six people hold two sticks of bamboo each while 8 other dance in and out of the bamboo in a 4/4 rhythm. The audience was invited to join in, but most were too shy.

music and dance

The rest of the night was filled with dances from different countries–Spain, the Phillippines, and even Russia. A fabulous Filipina took the stage and filled the air with sonorous notes of Latin love songs.

view from saigon river

I think the cruise ships had more lights than all of Saigon’s buildings.

City streets, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

our lady churchWe stopped briefly by the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, a beautiful brick church in downtown Ho Chi Minh. A vestige of French colonialism.  It’s precariously located on the edge of a rotary — our bus driver had to sweep around multiple times before there was a gap in traffic during which we could be unloaded.

Construction for the cathedral began in 1863 and completed in 1880. The two, imposing bell towers reach a height of 190 feet. The bricks from which the cathedral was built were all imported from Marseille; in fact, all building materials were imported from France.

Across the street and in front of the church is a tiny square, a flower garden where a statue of Our Lady of Peace stands to this day. The interior of the church was modest: white-washed and wooden pews.

interior of central post officeWe then walked westward across the street to the Saigon Central Post Office [Bưu điện Trung tâm Sài Gòn]. The post office is now more of a tourist attraction than it is a functional building. Its architecture is a blend of Gothic, Renaissance, and French influences. Some sources say that the building was designed by Gustave Eiffel — yes, that Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower –, but Wikipedia claims that it was actually designed by architects August Henri Vildieu and Alfred Foulhoux.

One can still buy traditional post stationery and even use an old-fashioned glue pot to stick stamps to letters. We unfortunately had only half an hour to explore both the church and the post office, so the most we were able to do was stand outside and snap some pictures. If, however, you fancy a taste of the old-world romance, this article has a couple beautiful pictures of the post office. 🙂

saigon central post office

for some reason I found this balcony interesting

for some reason I found this balcony interesting

a busy cart on a street corner

a busy cart on a street corner

on the other side