We had only been in Vietnam for about an hour, and we were already millionaires! In Dong that is… With an exchange rate of about 21,000 Dong to $1 US, so is everyone around here, but this blog isn’t about everyone. We arrived in Vietnam by speed boat from Phnom Penh (Hang Chau Speedboat, $24 each) – departing in the afternoon from the dock on the riverfront and cruising down the Mekong river for about 4 hours. The ride down the wide river was uneventful, and fairly comfortable, and the river border-crossing was unique and very smooth. Off the boat to get our Cambodian exit stamp, then five minutes later off once again to get the Vietnamese entrance stamp.
Eventually, we arrived at the beginning of the Mekong Delta, and the boat turned right down a narrow waterway. At this point, the scenery became very interesting, and life on the Mekong Delta was ours to view. At dusk, it was teeming with activity: boats coming and going with various cargo, lots of people bathing in the river, children playing by the banks, some water buffalo cooling off, and the sun a big red circle behind the treetops. We turned into an even smaller waterway, and eventually pulled up to a dock, nestled between a long line of buildings right on the riverbank. We hopped off the boat in Chau Doc and, dodging pushy cyclo drivers, walked about 8 minutes to our hotel, on one of the main streets, opposite the French market building.
We scoped out the only vegetarian restaurant in town, and sat down in the fan cooled street side eatery. After eagerly showing us the cans of “Com Chay” (vegetarian food) fake meats, we ordered beef with mushrooms, and Jordan was very excited to try the tempura shrimp ($6 with drinks). The fresh coconut was automatically cold, and Jordan was also very pleased to discover that this is the norm in Vietnam. Chau Doc was closing down at 8:30pm, and we wandered around looking for a convenience store that was still open, before heading to bed.
The bus company picked us up in a minivan at 7:30am for our ride to Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon (locals mostly refer to it by the latter). A jolty 15 minute route, picking up a total of 12 passengers in an 8-seater van. The bus itself (Phuong Trang, $8 each, 6 hours) was quite comfortable, and the views as we drive through the Delta were an interesting way to complete the picture from the previous night’s boat ride. Felix noticed an interesting phenomenon: graves were visible everywhere beside homes and fields, a stark contrast from Cambodia and Thailand, where most people cremate their dead and place urns in the pagodas. Vietnam also practices a different form of Buddhism than that of Thailand and Cambodia, and the look and feel of the temples and shrines was also noticeably different.
We arrived in Saigon in the early afternoon, took a city bus from the bus station into downtown ($0.50 each), and then a taxi to our hotel ($2.75). The Saigon Lotus Apartments, where we stayed for the duration of Pesach, had recently opened, was quite clean and comfortable, and 3 doors down from the Saigon Chabad House. A little pricier than our norm, it was well worth the $33/night (discounted from the $40 list rate), as our room included unlimited drinking water (from a large jug in the room), free laundry (collected daily by the housekeeper), breakfast, a mini-kitchenette, an awesome shower, and Kaori, the pre-trained-as-a-shabbos-goy owner. It was so nice to settle into one place for more than a few nights, and Shabbat at Chabad was warm and friendly. We met back up with Ariel, an Israeli who we had met on Shabbat in Bangkok a few weeks ago, with whom we became instant friends and spent a lot of time with over the week and a half in Saigon.
On Saturday night, we enjoyed a drink on the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel, which is listed in the book “1000 Places to See Before You Die” – a favorite of Jordan’s. It was classy, had a a good band, and a nice view of central Saigon. On Sunday, we had a lazy morning, and then went to find the local large supermarket as part of our preparation for the holiday and its harsh restrictions on our diet. Once we had found the CoOp Market and knew we would have what to eat, we headed over to the central Ben Thanh market. An indoor market left from the French colonial period, its stalls offer all sorts of wares, from fruits and veggies to clothes and cosmetics, electronics and souvenirs, and more. We found Felix two shirts to wear for the holiday ($7.25 each) and some small gifts to bring back home. Then, we walked around downtown Saigon until our feet hurt, went back to the CoOp to get the holiday necessities, and got dinner at an unimpressive hole-in-the-wall veggie restaurant near our hotel ($7.50).
Monday morning was the eve of the Pesach/Passover. We woke up early enough to burn our chametz in the alley our hotel was on (the locals thought it strange and were eager to see what the white people were up to, although they seem to burn stuff on the street regularly), and then rush over to Tous Les Jours, a French bakery/cafe that we had been eyeing since we saw it the day before. Yummy veggie croquette, custard Danish, chocolate bear claw and coffee/tea ($6) were the perfect last chametz. We then went to the Fito sponsored Museum of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine, which Jordan found on Trip Advisor and was excited to see. Located a little further away from the tourist area, the museum was a 10 minute taxi ride away ($3). After paying the admission (a hefty 50,000 dong / $2.5 each), we were taken on a private tour of the museum by Phoung, a fun and knowledgable 26 year old, who gave a great tour and made it a fun experience. We learned about the history of Vietnamese traditional medicine, its relation to Chinese medicine, and how using leaves herbs and plants as treatments evolved into a multi-million-dollar corporation (Fito, whose founder created the museum).
Later on Monday evening, all showered and ready for chag, we hopped a taxi to the Continental Hotel ($2.50), right beside the HCMC Opera House, where we joined a crowd of 180 travelers, business people, and others living in Vietnam. The Seder was led by Rabbi Menachem Hartman, and Felix had the honor of reading a number of selections from the Haggadah in English from the stage, at the Rabbi’s request. We opted to sit far from the Israeli traveler contingent, and wound up sitting with three American guys in their late 20s, who were excited to learn and participate in the Pesach experience. The Seder was definitely different than the homey familial Seders we are used to, and possibly the quickest reading of the Haggadah ever. We were on our way back to our hotel by 10:15 and we only started at 8pm. The food was fine, but nothing exciting. Since we felt like we didn’t really do a real Seder, we decided to go to Chabad for their second Seder the next night (even though we only kept one day of chag) which was much smaller and in the Chabad house. It was nicer, the food was better and we actually went through the Hagaddah. We spent more time at Chabad over Shabbat and the second Chag days.
On Wednesday we explored the city armed with matza and hard boiled eggs. First we visited the War Remnants Museum ($0.75 each), where we learned about the history of the Vietnam War, told from the perspective of the winning side: the North Vietnamese Communists. The museum was more interesting than we had expected and we spent about 3 hours there. It was mostly photos and explanations, along with quotes from various historical figures, often highlighting anti-war American politicians. We then walked to the nearby Reunification Palace ($1.50 each), a 1960s attempt at a Vietnamese White House, which has been preserved in exactly the same state as it was when the North Vietnamese tanks crashed through its gates in 1975. The building itself was a little on the boring side, but some of the rooms were beautifully decorated. The most interesting part of the palace was the bunker in the basement, full of situation rooms, communication centers and secret passageways.
After a full day of museums and history lessons, we needed a break! So, we went to see a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater was a 50 minute show ($7.5 per person), with live musical accompaniment/character voices, and an impressive show of puppets emerging from a small pool where the stage would normally be. The audience included many children, but the show had enough charm that we remained entertained throughout. It reminded us a little of “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland. That evening we went over to Chabad, and together with Ariel made a delicious dinner of Matzah Brie and salads.
Thursday morning was a productive planning morning, figuring out where to go after Saigon and booking some transportation. Having checked off most the items on our Saigon to-do list, we decided to take advantage of being in a big city and go see a movie. Along with three friends (Ariel and two others from Chabad), we saw Oz: The Great and Powerful 3D ($6 each). Jordan really enjoyed it, even though she missed having some popcorn at the theater. To make up for this, back at the Chabad house she attempted a new invention – that we now call “Saigon Pancakes” (homemade matzah meal, eggs, bananas, sugar), which were a fast hit. Friday was another shopping day, this time at the indoor Saigon Center, and then around downtown Saigon, stopping for fruit juice at the Highland Coffee in the rear of the Opera House.
We spent a nice Shabbat at Chabad, which was followed on Saturday night by another round of Saigon Pancakes, by request of Shira and Shachar (the Chabad Israeli preschool teachers). We sang happy birthday to Jordan, whose birthday was on Sunday, and had some Pesach brownies, which the girls had received from Israel. We then headed off just two of us to Level 23, the rooftop bar of the Sheraton Hotel, for a special birthday celebration. The view was great (a follow up to the good view from the Rex a week earlier), and the band was even better, playing pop hits and riling up the crowd. We relaxed with some Pellegrino and Watermelon juice overlooking the city ($14).
Early Sunday morning, we left the city for the first time on an organized tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels ($10.50 each). The tunnels are the underground infrastructure built by the VietCong west of Saigon, near the Cambodian border, as part of the effort to fight the US Army and its South Vietnamese “puppet” counterpart. The drive there was about 90 minutes long, and on the way we passed through many rubber tree plantations, a big Vietnamese export. The tunnels were tiny holes in the ground, barely large enough to slide into, and then crawl through on your knees. All around the site were booby traps and sunken straw huts, each with a display of another aspect of how this place once operated. We experienced a 40 meter crawl in a hot dark and stuffy tunnel, the noise of gunfire from the shooting range (an optional tour add-on, your choice of M16 or AK47), and a taste of tapioca root, which was the main sustenance of the VC fighters.
Second chag was more of the same, and many more rounds of Yaniv (an Israeli card game that Jordan is now a champion of) were played. As much as we had come to feel at home, we were ready for some chametz! As soon as we could on Monday night we walked over to the Loving Hut, an upscale veggie restaurant, where we enjoyed some rice, noodles, veggie meat, and Banana Flower Salad ($10.50). By now, we were ready to leave the city, but packing sucks and we’ll miss the daily laundry service, our friends, and the comfort of being in one place for more than 2-3 days. Still, there is much more of Vietnam to discover, and we’re ready to get out and explore!