Hong Kong, SAR China – 11 October 2017
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 11 & 12 October 2017
We had all morning and part of the afternoon to finish up our visit to Hong Kong before heading to the airport. We were up early and taxied to the Victoria Peak – a trick I’d learned before my last visit, i.e. taxi up early to avoid the crowds for the cable car up, then ride it back down with no waiting. Views were quite good and we had very nice weather.
Once back down, we made a beeline for Maxim’s Palace for dim sum. It’s quite well-known and the dining room is huge with a nice view of the harbor. As for the food? It was OK. Honestly, I still like the dim sum better back in SF at Yank Sing. Maybe because I grew up with it, maybe because it’s geared to Western palate – who knows? I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was disappointed, but I also wouldn’t rush back here if I were in Hong Kong again.
As much as we enjoyed our time in Hong Kong and at Disneyland, the fact is neither Ak nor I had fallen in love with the city the same way we had with some of the other places we’ve visited. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that we had more misses than hits when it came to meals – and just about everything (with the exception of public transit) felt rather breathtakingly expensive.
We took the train to the airport. Wow! It’s amazingly easy. Taxi to the in-town air terminal where, if we’d not been flying cheapo VietJet, I could have checked my bag in before boarding the train and it would be transported and checked into my flight. Even without this added benefit, the train is great and leaves you off right inside the terminal.
We were very excited to make our first visit to Ho Chi Minh City, especially given how much we’d enjoyed Hanoi last year. The flight from Hong Kong was mostly uneventful, save for the weird charade that so many low-cost carriers put their passengers through – that is, weighing carry-on bags, telling you they are overweight and forcing you to offload some stuff into a separate bag which I just moved back to the other bag before boarding. Eh, you get what you pay for…
The ride from SGN airport to our hotel in District 1 was surprisingly fast and soon enough we were relaxing in a spacious (especially compared to our cozy accommodations in HKG!) room at the Liberty Central Citypoint, with a lovely view toward Nguyen Hue St. and Bitexco Tower – along with the somewhat less lovely view of the subway station being constructed just next to our hotel.
The evening started off inauspiciously when the first two ATMs I visited refused to dispense any money. I naturally assumed that I would be completely unable to acquire any cash and that our trip to HCMC was already ruined, but as it turned out, the third ATM I tried gave me the VND3,000,000 (US132) I’d requested. Sadly, this episode put a bit of a damper on our first evening, but we got through it.
Next morning, we were up early and had some phở up the street at Phở24 before returning to our hotel to meet our guides from Saigon Free Walking Tours, Kiara and Tien, for our Saigon City tour. We started of at Ben Thanh Market, just a short walk from our hotel, where we met up with a couple of Aussies who joined our tour. Spent the morning walking about District 1 while our guides talked about the history and pointed out different sights.
We stopped by the beautiful Saigon Central Post Office and had a look around before checking out the exteriors of Notre Dame Basilica across the street. No visiting the inside as it’s under renovation right now.
While we were walking around, Tien pointed out the building just next to where we’d had a coconut coffee at Cộng Cà phê. We were about a block away, so had a good view of the six-story apartment block which had a small square structure on top. It was the site of the now-iconic photo of a CIA Air America helicopter boarding evacuees during the fall of Saigon.
I don’t know why I found this so astonishing. I suppose it’s such recent history that it still feels very much a part of my own memories of watching the news as a child. There’s also something quite jarring about walking through a lovely tree-lined neighborhood (and across from a shiny mall) and being reminded that it wasn’t too long ago there was a war taking place right on this very spot – and all the human suffering that is the result of war. The location felt so ordinary, so the thought of helicopters evacuating people from the roof felt really extraordinary. It was fascinating, yes, but still difficult to wrap my head around.
Next stop was Independence Palace – it’s another spot where it feels difficult to reconcile the history of what went on in this building with the fact that the palace itself is an amazing example of mid-century design interpreted through the eyes of architect Ngô Viết Thụ. The building is marvelous – it’s airy facade and light-filled interiors give it a gracefulness one might not associate with a largely concrete structure.
Even more amazingly, virtually the entire building is open to visitors, from the public conference and meeting rooms on the main floor to the private residences and rooftop to the underground bunkers and sleeping quarters. Much of the original furniture remains – which is so wonderful to see! Until that is, one envisions Henry Kissinger sitting here plotting with the South Vietnamese government. It’s eerie. I enjoyed the building most when I was able to appreciate its design – but it’s not always easy to separate that from what went on here, especially from its opening in 1966 through the liberation of Saigon in 1975. For me, this was the highlight of today’s tour.
We headed back to the post office to say our farewells – but our guides really went above and beyond the call of duty as they not only shepherded us to the Mobifone store to get local SIM cards, they stayed around to ensure that the surprisingly lengthy process completed satisfactorily. Ak and I were very grateful!
Lunch at a place across the street called My Banh Mi. It’s def catering to the tourist crowd – but the food was delicious nevertheless. My banh mi was probably the weakest link, but our crispy rolls and Ak’s pork with noodles were excellent.
After such a vigorous morning, it was obviously time for a massage. We headed to Moc Huang Spa which had good reviews online. They were able to take us right away and I thought the experience was amazing. The massage was definitely of the “intense” variety, which I really like. It might be hard to endure at certain moments, but I know that I’ll feel like a million dong afterwards. I was a little worried that Ak wouldn’t enjoy his massage, since he prefers a more relaxing style of massage – but he was snoring away in the next room, so I assumed he’d survived (despite his subsequent statements that the massage was way too strong and his refusal to believe me when I told him I heard him snoring through most of it).
Dinner that night at Secret Garden. I’d’ve never found it on my own, but the internet gave good directions to the appropriate alley, as did a local scooter driver who helped the two lost looking foreigners trying to figure out which building to go into. There’s a fairly long climb up the stairs (no lift in the building!) to the roof – and then we were welcomed to a charming little oasis on the top of this apartment building. It was raining pretty hard this evening, but the space still had a nice indoor-outdoor feel to it.
Food was great! Ground pork grilled in lemongrass was excellent. I didn’t take notes of what else we ate – but we had soup and meat and noodles and salad. It was all lovely and in a great space with friendly service. And there was a cat there too! Sadly, we didn’t even notice her until the end of the evening as she was fast asleep on top of cabinet across from our table.
After dinner, we wandered toward the river in search of Snuffbox, a bar I’d read about somewhere online. We found the location easily enough – but it seemed to be a block of darkened buildings and warehouses, though with some street vendors and locals hanging out – and who once again came to our rescue and pointed us into the correct nondescript staircase. We climbed up one flight and found ourselves inside a lovely jewelbox of a bar. I think we were the only patrons (it was still early) and we were made to feel very at home. Fancy cocktails were very tasty and we had an extremely engaging server who guided us through the menu and chatted with us about our travels and some of the upcoming goings-on at the bar.
It was a great first day in HCMC, especially after last evening’s rather difficult start. Tomorrow morning: food tour!