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

Nhà hàng Ngon, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

nha hang ngon sign

The tubers we had after our bunker crawl at Củ Chi was simply not enough to sustain us for the rest of the day. We hopped back on the tour bus and eagerly poured out onto the sidewalk, ready to be led to lunch at Nhà hàng Ngon.

reflection pool

Nhà hàng Ngon is a charming Vietnamese restaurant housed in what used to be a French villa. You enter through a leafy arch of trees and shrub-lined paths. Fairy lights sway gently in the warm air.

dining terrace

The building is painted in a warm, canary yellow with tailored, white borders accentuating the arches. Seating ranges between cafeteria-style–with rows on rows of tables–to elevated terraces with cloth canopies draped overhead. A courtyard with reflection pool sits in the center of the restaurant.

woks and spices

Along the perimeter of the restaurant are the food stalls where dishes are made to order. You are handed a small piece of paper, which is stamped when you place an order at the food stall. Sort of like dim sum, but instead of carts of food coming to you, you walk around and shop for the food you want.

making spring rolls

While the options were bountiful, it was largely vegetarian-unfriendly. Plenty of grilled seafood and skewered meats to go around, however. There was even escargot!

skewers, escargot, stuffed cake things

We were seated on the second floor–my mom and I had our own “vegetarian” table. our first dish was some tofu Gỏi cuốn [summer rolls] stuffed with carrots, vermicelli, lemongrass, and scallions. A peanut dipping sauce came on the side.

summer roll

Next was a plate of steamed vegetables: okra, carrots, squash, string beans, broccoli and cauliflower. No seasoning, just plain vegetables.

plain veggies

Then came the bowl of yellow curry with mushroom, eggplant, basil, mint, tofu, and some stewed veggie skewered “meats”. And a baguette for dipping into the curry, of course. This was an exciting departure from the plate of veggies; however, the curry was a tad salty. The baguette was warm and fresh, but dry.  Whether this was done purposefully so they could complement each other, I do not know.

curry and banh mi

Rotating waiters would drift by the table to refill your beautifully refreshing glass of iced lemongrass tea. Sweet just the right amount.

veggie pho

I never expected to see so much use of faux meat in vegetarian Vietnamese cuisine. Our next dish was vegetable pho. There were veggie fish balls, konjac, fried bean curd sheets, fried tofu cubes, an assortment of veggies–pickled and fresh–, and some shallots and scallions to top it off. The soup was flavorful enough (but had an MSG taste to it), and the noodles were pretty good.

three color dessert

For dessert we had Chè Ba Màu, or “Three Color Dessert”. A drink with pudding as its base, with green jelly, grass jelly, and some coconut jelly layered on top of each other. A wash of slightly sweetened coconut milk tops off the icy drink. This was so delicious and refreshing! Loved the variety of textures you work through as you scoop out the different jellies and beans and pudding.

Overall I really enjoyed my meal at Nhà hàng Ngon. In all honesty I can’t say there was a dish that stood out or that I can remember absolutely, but I still look fondly back on this meal as one of the most enjoyable I had in Vietnam.

Củ Chi Tunnels, Vietnam, 2013

The Củ Chi tunnels are part of a vast network of tunnels that run underneath Vietnam and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. Củ Chi specifically runs 75-miles long in total. The tunnels were critical to the Viet Cong’s resistance to American forces, and was used by the Viet Cong not only as supply routes, living quarters, and for communication, but also as hiding spots during combat.

fruit trees

Papaya, mango, cashew, and jackfruit (clockwise from top left)

We were greeted by a surprisingly thriving fruit garden that lay between the parking lot and the entrance to the tunnel grounds. Generously-bosomed papaya trees bowed to the weight of their fruit; mangoes bobbled precariously overhead; and jackfruits the size of newborns coyly grazed our heads with their spikes. We even got to see a cashew tree! Apparently cashew nuts are seeds of the cashew apple (a pseudo-fruit) that grow on the exterior of the apple.

underground hut

Our first stop was an underground hut, where we were shown a short 15-20 minute video of the history of the tunnels. On the left wall was a model of the tunnels: living quarters, kitchens, and escape routes. Many of the tunnels had an escape exit that led to a body of water (usually a river), so that soldiers could easily raft down the river if the tunnels were ever bombed or otherwise compromised. American forces typically didn’t expect this, and many Viet Cong were able to escape this way.

cuchi_trap

A demo of the hidden entrances to the tunnels. Really amazing how people manage to fit in these and find the entrances. One of the squishier members of our group decided to give it a shot and got stuck for a little trying to get out! Only light baggage allowed ;).

The tunnels had plenty of trap doors and strategic air filtration systems that were able to deter attempts to flush the entrance with gas, water, or hot tar. Walk over the wrong patch of ground and you could meet a grisly (and rather medieval death), as shown below.

death traps

Chickens roamed the cafeteria area freely. There was also a shooting range to practice in, if you so desired! I thought about doing it, but the rounds were rather expensive — about $20 for 5-10 bullets(??).

chickens and shooting (but not together)

Can you find the baby chick?

We also walked past tents demonstrating daily chores of people working in the Viet Cong.To make banh trang (rice paper), you ground rice and mix it with water so that it becomes a slurry. The batter is then spread onto a cloth stretched over a pot of boiling water. Cover with a bamboo lid and let it steam for about 30-45 seconds. A rolling pin (of sorts) is then used to lift and transfer the rice sheet to a cooling “rack”–a long, woven board of bamboo.

rice paper

There was another tent where we got to see how old materials–namely rubber taken from tires of destroyed jeeps–were repurposed to make sandals because they’re water resistant and don’t slip.

shoemaker

Many Viet Cong actually led double lives. Scarves disguised the identities of “normal” women who worked in rice fields but then tunneled into headquarters at night to fight in Viet Cong attacks.

the fighting bunkerAnd then it was our turn to experience tunnel life. We went down “The Fighting Bunker”, a dark and dank hole that no one should have to subject themselves to living in. The air–well, there really was no air–was so stale, so humid, and basically all CO2. There was no way to move or walk about. We had to army crawl our way to get from one room to another, and to the end of the tunnel. While this tunnel was less than a hundred meters (maybe not even 50m), the several minutes it took to inchworm our way on elbows and knees was exhausting.

We were congratulated on successfully navigating the tunnel with a highly-anticipated meal, Viet Cong-style. On the menu was a single item: a starchy, dry, potato-like root (I forget what it’s called). It was like eating flour. Dip in crushed peanuts for protein and fat intake. On a generous day, treat yourself to some freshly-roasted cashews.

starch and protein

So concluded our tour of the Củ Chi tunnels. Tunnel life is fascinating, rough, and dangerous. I left with so much appreciation for what I have thankfully not had to go through (hopefully ever). Visiting Củ Chi is absolutely something you should experience if you are ever in Vietnam.

Life in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

Breakfast was early–we had a long day ahead of us! The Sheraton’s buffet was everyone’s dream except ours. There was a dearth of vegetarian options, mostly limited to fruit and salad. It was also packed at 7am. In Chinese we say it’s like a 菜市場 [cai shi chang], or street market: Chinese grandmas and grandpas shoving their way through a pulsing crowd, with handfuls of leek and bok choy in hand yelling at everyone and everything. So if you want breakfast without a line, get to the door before breakfast opens up.

sheraton breakfast

I managed to snag 2 slices of passionfruit, some jackfruit, star fruit, some pomelo, and red guava! Fruits I wish we could find as easily (and cheaply) in the US. I can only eat apples, bananas, and oranges so many times every day. When I was growing up, my mom made me eat a banana literally every day; when I hit high school, I felt like I was old enough to tell her no. And I didn’t have a banana for all 4 years of high school, until I got to college and had no other options.

We couldn’t have the pho, the rice, or any of the other (mostly seafood) dishes. But the banh mi station was our saving grace. French baguette, a crispy fried egg, and some pickled veggies. Slather sweet, sour, and spicy sauce on top. It wasn’t the best banh mi I’ve had, but it was good enough to tide me over for the morning.

Saigon on a hazy morning

Saigon on a hazy morning

Most Vietnamese eat a much simpler breakfast: coffee and pho. Street vendors can make $100/day just from selling coffee alone. This was evidenced by the tiny woman with a coffee cart right across from the hotel–it was early rush hour, and she already had a queue of at least 10 people. (I wanted a picture, but she kept glaring my way…).

Rent in Ho Chi Minh can get really expensive; it’s no better than what we see in NYC or SF, topping out at $3,000/month. Utilities average $100/month. The average Vietnamese takes home only around $500-700/month.

morning traffic

Morning traffic

Currently, the written Vietnamese language uses the roman alphabet, totaling 24 letters with the exception of W and Z. Its earliest form used Chinese characters, but evolved to using the alphabet after French occupation. Traditional Chinese was taught using Taiwanese textbooks before that, because Vietnam had (or has?) a peaceful relationship with Taiwan.

catching up

Catching up with friends

Spoken Vietnamese is a mix of Cantonese and French. And like China, they follow the Lunar calendar and hand out red envelopes on New Year’s. Students get 2 weeks of break for New Year’s, and workers get 9 days!

Vietnamese history totals 4,000 years. When the Chinese Communist party took over in 1975 and united southern and northern Vietnam, they also stripped everyone of their money. Businessmen, scientists, and chefs all fled. Refugees had to pay upwards of 20-30,000 VND to escape, an extraordinary amount at the time.

Businessmen melted all their gold, molded it into chains, and painted it black to disguise their wealth so that they could escape safely.

trash and phones

Trash collection next to a mobile phone store

Our tour guide, Wang, told us that he actually came from a very wealthy family that owned a prep school before the takeover. His brother escaped by rickshaw to Hong Kong, spending 40 nights on the sea before he reached land. He luckily had no encounters with the widely-feared Thai pirates that would smuggle and rape refugees.

A short side story on my family history

When my grandma was escaping from the Communists, she and my grandpa fled from Zhejiang Province [浙江省] in China to Guangzhou, where all the ferries to Taiwan would depart from the mainland. By the time they arrived, there was only one ferry left and it had already started to move away from the dock. My grandma was a few months pregnant with my aunt (the oldest and only) at the time. My grandpa jumped first as the ferry chugged further away; my grandma leapt and her feet scraped the edges of the ferry, but my grandpa caught her in time. And that’s how my mom’s family first settled their roots in Taiwan.

Anyone could be a spy for the government in those days; it was impossible to successfully get out. Wang’s mother paid a smuggler to take him to Thailand, but the guy took the money and left Wang stranded in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. He was a teen at the time, and it took him 6 months to find a way out of Cambodia. A soap trader took him under his wing and made him tan on the deck of the ship every day so that he would look less Vietnamese.

roadside shack

A shack off the side of the road

Even more incredible was that Wang’s mother sewed gold and money into his underwear: enough to buy 3, three-storied houses. A lot of cash. It was very heavy, and Southeast Asia’s steamy climate is unforgiving. But Wang said he couldn’t risk taking the underwear off–and so he wore the same piece of underwear. For weeks. Until he reached Thailand.

He then used the money to get into the trading business, and eventually make his way back to Vietnam to raise a family. Many Vietnamese soldiers, on the other hand, bought their way back by marrying rich Cambodians and abandoning their marriages after taking the money.

early morning fishing

The daily catch

It is no wonder that with so many wars, that it has taken Vietnam so long to recover. There aren’t even highways in Vietnam yet, just local (and typically one-way or one-lane) roads. (Fun fact: the first time toilets came to Vietnam (before 1975), people actually used it as a fish tank or to wash vegetables!)

Amazing what you can learn on a bus trip. Our primary and secondary education in the US simply glosses over the ramifications of wars we forcefully waged on other countries. I was looking out the window as Wang was telling his story: each frame of passing scenery unfolding generations of struggle unknown and forgotten by us, but in which others continue to live.