Pho is our breakfast today. Vietnamese eat pho (hot noodle soup with thin sliced raw beef and vegetables dropped in) any time of day. Surprisingly, it doesn’t make a hot day feel hotter. I think it functions kind of like a Gatorade — high rate of absorbtion and refreshing. Salty plum soda (soda water, sugar, and crushed pickled plum) has a similar effect. I’m also enjoying the Vietnamese coffee which is very strong, with condensed milk. New York’s Pho Bang is where I first tasted all these, but nothing compares to having them in Vietnam.
Cyclos are a hybrid of a one-person buggy and a bicycle. The cyclist sits behind and bicycles the passenger around. Cyclo drivers tend to be ex-jouornalists, teachers, doctors or other intellectuals who sided with South Vietnam and the US during the war. Their punishment is not being able to take jobs other than cyclo driver, and not being able to own land. It’s hard for them to find a wife for this reason.
We hire two of them to take us around town after breakfast. I feel a like an overgrown baby in a pram with motorcycles flowing all around my slow vehicle. But it’s a good pace to really take in the city.
Our first stop is Saigon’s War Remnants Museum. It’s interesting to see the Vietnamese authorities’ perspective on the war — it’s actually quite balanced, showing loss and horror for both sides. The economically constructed displays are nonetheless powerful by virture of their content. It hard not to just cry looking at all the photos of soldiers and families. The list of America’s allied countries gets us thinking about the current "coalition of the willing." And photos of napalm and shrapnel aftermath are bad enough, but stats on the continued effects of cancer, diabetes and environmental contamination after all the napalm and defoliants are pretty horrifying. I did not know the extent of the chemicals.
After the war museum, we cyclo to the Reunification Palace. This is so fascinating to me that it’s detailed in another posting.
After the Reunification Palace, it’s time for lunch. We eat at a restaurant called "Bun 2." While this moniker wouldn’t fly in New York, we fall in love with the food. I think bun means some kind of rice dish. I order these delicious short fat rice noodles (about an inch and a half long) covered in thick coconut milk. Heaven. And we finally brave some fresh vegetables, which all the guidebooks warn against, as they may contain bacteria to give you "Delhi-belly." No bad results so far. We’ve also become fans of pomello and soursop milkshakes — made from two native fruits we hadn’t heard of before.
The Bun 2 is enclosed and air conditioned, and combines natural materials and modern, Vietnamese inflected design, and is really charming. Bing Crosby Christmas songs play on the speakers, but most of the patrons are hip Vietnamese. Despite appearances, the meal is only $2. But there is a lot of stratification between the haves and have nots here — this is half a day’s wages for our cyclo drivers, and they couldn’t afford to eat here. And forget about the medeocre $25 French meal we later eat for dinner.
After lunch we walk by beautiful Notre Dame cathedral, in the heart of Saigon. A full ten percent of Vietnamese are Catholic. Next to it is the main post office, which is a charming old French building. Across the street is a large, modern HSBC building, a slightly jarring juxtaposition
The drivers then take us to the Fine Arts Museum. The building is a French building, lovely yet shabby. When we enter the lobby, we’re surrounded by large cut-out signs promoting a new real estate development; this wasn’t what we expected at the art museum. Yet it is congruous with all the development and advertising for houses, condos and offices around the city; this seems to be a real boom-time for construction. We slide through the one and a half foot space between a huge sign and the gallery area. We’re the museum’s only visitors. It’s not air-conditioned, and the heat here is generally sweltering — not the best for art preservation. The museum contains a few wonderful older pieces, and a lot of medeocre recent work. It’s a real contrast with the innovative structures and carefully crafted Modernist posters around town. We leave after about forty five minutes.
We also explore a street market selling everything from pomellos to shampoo. Somehow it’s not that foreign to us, as New York’s streets and stores, especially in Chinatown, are equally frenetic.
Rain starts, and we have to get back to the cyclos right away. Thunderstorms come suddenly here, and you can get completely soaked in just two minutes. We decide to brave the xe oms for the first time — the motorcycle taxis. We ride behind the drivers to our cyclos, and pay too much because we didn’t set a price first. The cyclo drivers take over from there, raising buggy-like covers over our heads, and we head back to the hotel.