The Return to Sai Gon

A capital time in the capital, featuring veggie restaurants and ambling around art galleries

18/03 (cont)  

Catch up on my time in the Mekong Delta here.

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We arrive back in Ho Chi Minh, and try to check back into the previous cheap hostel – to no avail. It’s a Friday night and it seems most of the hostels are booked up.

We try every hostel on Bui Vien Street, until eventually we come to Koniko Backpacker’s Hostel, where beds were $6 a night when you forfeited breakfast. Further down Bui Vien Street was a vegan Vietnamese restaurant, where we shared a tofu banh mi (25,000₫), yellow curry (tasted like a green…) and rice (55,000₫) and tofu in caramelized coral, one of the most flavoursome and delicious tofu dishes I’ve ever eaten, for 60,000₫.

After such a good meal, we walked it off and ended up drawn back to the expat drinking spot we had previously frequented, and I ventured for a rice wine. At 15,000₫ you certainly got your alcohol’s worth for the money, but though the spirit was strong it was still sippable, and had a slightly sweet, popcorn-like flavour.

19/03 This is art attack

At this point my companion’s visa ran out, and they headed off to Cambodia. We breakfasted at a pizza place further down from the hostel as, like Da Lat, Ho Chi Minh does not do early mornings. Tea was 20,000₫, and a crêpe (it was a pancake) with honey came to a not-so-sweet 45,000₫. We were able to pay in a mix of dong and dollars, a feat of economics that occurs so naturally in the Asian metropole.

After parting ways, I began walking. Heading for the galleries of Dong Khoi, I saw the Notre Dame cathedral, the Opera House & the Reunification Palace, all without intending to. Outside the Reunification Palace was a man making the coconut rice wafer rolls that had brought me such joy in Da Lat, so I stop for one, and educate three American tourists as to why they are so delicious.

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coconut snack in action

Around Dong Khoi is an interesting mix of galleries, displaying a variety of arts; some mass-produced Vietnamese art designed for tourists, some landscapes, some politically motivated pieces, some portraiture. In amongst the galleries are the high end shops; the Western fashion houses and some boutique Vietnamese craft shops.

After meandering aimlessly, I meandered to the river, then towards the Botanic Gardens. Unfortunately the Gardens are within the Zoo, and visiting a Zoo on a Saturday is pretty low on my list of to-dos.

At this point, I discover that big bottles of water bought from mini-supermarkets are cheaper than I could have ever hoped for; some as cheap as 6,400₫ a bottle (rounded up to 7,000₫ at the counter).

The day was still young, so I headed towards the Fine Art Gallery, via Ben Thanh market. I wanted to buy souvenirs not just to remind myself of how much I love Vietnam, but to remind myself to return. I got a coconut bowl, that now sits atop my chest of drawers and often houses my keys, and a hanging mobile of mini-straw hats – a lot more portable than trying to carry one back as I did last time, a gift to shade my granddad when he gardens.

Still struggling with MapsMe, I end up entering the back entrance to the gallery and not paying entry. The art is divided up as pre-1975, and post-1975 (independence). An interesting mix of politically charged paintings as well as celebrations of the mundane and expressions of internal emotions, the viewer is left to take their own meaning from the pictures as they are displayed without commentary.

I didn’t come across anything too old on display, but the buildings were so labyrinthine that there’s a real possibility that I missed out a whole floor. The building itself was a beautiful, slightly fade, old colonial affair, dominating its street corner.

After a brief stop at the hostel to unload my wares, I set off to find a coffee shop across the other side of the central park. I ended up passing a superstore; urged by an odd kind of curiosity towards such a Western concept in an Asian place, I went and had a look. Nondescriptly global inside, the only noticeable difference was more vegetables and less packaging. Although the supermarket was super busy (unsurprising, given its central location) it had a sort of hushed calm to it – something completely alien to most supermarkets back home.

With a bit more cash than anticipated, I headed back to the vegan restaurant from last night for dinner. Friend eggplant in breadcrumbs to start came in at 50,000₫, followed by “broken rice,” deep-fried vermicelli and noodled tofu for 55,000₫.

I had intended to head over to ArtNSax, Ho Chi Minh’s famous jazz bar, but having read that the prices were a bit steep I decided to stop for a drink on the strip first. By the time I’d finished my second mojito (2-4-1 in happy hour, 90,000₫ each) I’d become acquainted with the Australians to my left, and a Canadian reporter who joined my table. There’s something still so novel in seeing a lone woman at a bar, I rarely find myself alone for long – for better or worse.

I return to my hostel, and end up chatting with Henry, who sometimes works on the desk. When Henry heard how much student debt I’ve accrued, he freaked out. He worked it out to be over a trillion dong, and preceded to make a passionate case for my immediate return to Vietnam as an English teacher. He followed it up with an email invite:

Don’t worry Henry, it won’t take much to bring me back.

20/03 And thus this chapter draws slowly to an end…

I dreamt of street banh mi – the meaty kind – last night, so headed back to the vegan place (third time lucky) for a tofu version, lest I break my decade of vegetarianism. After the surprisingly cheap night I had last night I felt like a bit of a baller, so splurged out on a Vietnamese cherry juice as well. One of the least sweet foods I’ve tried since being in Vietnam, it certainly had a kick that woke you up.

After breakfast I headed towards an extremely highly rated Pagoda on TripAdvisor, the Jade Pagoda. Although many people posted that it was “the most impressive pagoda” they’d seen, I felt it fell a bit short, though it did have a lake of turtles outside. I stayed in the peace of the compound for a while, before heading to the Ho Chi Minh History Museum.

My journey was disrupted by the sudden appearance of an enormous Book Fair, taking over an entire park. The fair was still setting up, but people were already browsing and buying – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many books in one place before. It was an encouraging experience, but due to space constraints in both my backpack and my house, I left empty-handed.

When I arrived at the museum it was still closed for lunch, so I sat on the steps outside. In the park there was an international school information day, complete with fun English games and selfie opportunities. My lack of enthusiasm for selfie-taking definitely set me apart from a lot of people in Vietnam…

The museum eventually opened, and covered an enormous chunk of history: from Neolithic settlements in Vietnam, through to tea-drinking ceremonies throughout time, via the systematic occupations and oppressions of the Vietnamese, and their rebellions and uprisings in response.

I returned to Bui Vien for the final time, and decided to give the gimmicky DIY stir fry place another go. This time my meal came to 46,000₫; 1 leafs, 2 mushrooms, 1 tofu and organic noodles. I decided to spend some of my remaining dong on a manicure and pedicure – a luxury I can rarely afford in the UK. “You’d have such pretty nails if you took care of them more” the woman said. I replied that a manicure in UK would cost at least 400,000₫ – 10 times as much. She conceded to my point of view.

I went and sat in the central park to plan my final hours. Just as I was weighing up distance I could travel vs what I could do with my time, a Vietnamese student interrupted my calculations: “do you mind if I practice my English with you?” The next hour and a half is spent chatting about everything; from education systems and politics through to arts, crime and the legacy of the American war.

I spent my final 39,000₫ on some pineapple with chilli salt, green tea matcha popcorn and a bottle of water. The taxi to the airport was mainly uneventful, save for the normal traffic madness. I chatted a bit with the driver but his English wasn’t quite as good as the student, so we hit a few stumbling blocks. I arrived, queued, snacked, and was soon on the plane.

Unlike my last trip there wasn’t the same sense of finality, of leaving behind something important. I know I’ll be back.

And on a final note, some more enthusiasm for Emirates Veggie food

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