February 2 – 5, 2013
Saigon was intense. The heat was almost unbearable which made it difficult to be outside in the middle of the day. All the concrete did a good job retaining and radiating heat. The traffic was congested, endless and aggressive. It wasn’t that hard to ride in, but it was physically and mentally exhausting. Walking meant literally walking in traffic as the sidewalks were taken over by parked motos and people selling things. Our hotel was right in the middle of the “backpacker” area which was a snarl of bars, hotels, restaurants and kitsch shops. All of this energy was a little more than we could handle, especially after the last week of lazy meandering in the Mekong Delta.
But it wasn’t all just hiding out in the hotel, sulking from the heat. One day, we visited the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, which was housed in a beautiful building constructed with antique carved panels from around Vietnam. The museum had many artifacts and tools on display. An English speaking guide showed us some of the plants used to treat various ailments, and the tools used to prepare them, such as crushing wheels and kettles. We watched a brief video that discussed the modern industrial production of traditional medicines. We finished up the tour with some funky mushroom tea. Chan bought a bottle of natural cough remedy to see if it worked any better than the regular drugs he was taking (it didn’t, unfortunately).
During the hottest part of the day we went to an arcade. It was so much fun to spend an hour shooting bad guys, racing cars or snowboarding through an obstacle course.
The next day we went to the War Remnants Museum which was surprisingly well done and only a dollar or two to get in. In the courtyard of the museum were a number of US tanks, airplanes (including a jet), helicopters and other captured weapons on display, which were interesting to see up close. Inside the museum were tons of interpretive panels about different aspects of the war, including a section on the improved relations between Vietnam and the United States following visits by Presidents Clinton and Bush. There was a moving exhibit on influential war photographers, many of whom lost their lives in the conflict. A whole section of one floor of the museum was dedicated to the display of captured small arms, everything from M-16s to Bazookas and Uzis. It was remarkable how old most of the war implements looked. Finally, there was a large exhibit that consisted of photographs of severely deformed children and adults from several generations of Americans and Vietnamese, who were affected by Agent Orange exposure. The museum was well organized, informative and surprisingly lacked an air of hit you over the head jingoism we had expected.
While in Saigon, we had some supremely mediocre western food, a couple solid Indian meals and a mixed bag of Vietnamese food. Chan obviously was able to try a greater variety of local food, including: Bun Thit Nuong which was grilled marinated pork served over noodles and Goi Du Du Bo which was sweet and salty beef jerky served over a shredded papaya salad with a crazy spicy sauce. He also braved a strange drink they served him called Che Thap Cam which was an odd variety of cooked beans and jello things served with ice and a bunch of coconut milk. We had a great midmorning fruit salad in an alley one day, which came as a pile of diced fruit served in a big bowl with a serving of yogurt and crushed ice – you mix it all together into a yogurt fruit soup thing and, well, eat it!
We spent a while looking at the map and came to the conclusion that Vietnam is a very long country. We decided to cheat a bit to spread out our sightseeing, and picked Dalat as our next stop. It was a bit tricky to sort out the bus situation, since we were in the days leading up to Tet where everyone was traveling by bus, train or plane somewhere to celebrate. We finally found a travel agent who was willing to call more than one bus company and we were assured that we had ticket on a “sleeper bus” to Dalat.