SFO to HCMC via HKG

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 4-10 November 2018

Far be it from me to complain about flying across the Pacific in business class – but I will say this: Cathay Pacific positions itself as a “premium” airline, but my experience – while obviously better than service delivered by U.S. carriers – was a mixed bag. Check in took way longer than it should have and the agent was not especially friendly nor did she seem particularly well-versed in her job.

The flight crew was competent, but also not especially friendly – plus no slippers for business class passengers and too-small pillows. The food was decent – but the hamburger available as a midflight snack, while still quite tasty, used to come with fries but now comes with chips.

And then there were my efforts to rearrange my flights in HKG to get to Saigon instead of Hanoi, as I was ticketed to do. One agent was very helpful but the early flight to Saigon was full. Later, when I spoke with another agent and indicated that I’d be flying on to Saigon on a different airline and wouldn’t be using my onward business class ticket to Hanoi, accused me of “cheating” (yes, that’s the word she used) when I asked if I could still use the biz class lounge (and which she insisted I could not and therefore did not).

So, yes, flying up in the pointy part of the plane is always better than the alternative – but Cathay is sure no Singapore Airlines. I think they are outperformed by EVA, ANA and JAL, as well.

Anyway, enough of my kvetching about my first world problems. I had a nine-hour layover in HKG, so that was plenty of time to get into the city for a walkabout and – far more importantly – a breakfast of char siu at Joy HIng Roasted Meats in Wan Chai. And it was absolutely worth the trip in, I’m happy to say! Afterwards, I took the Ding Ding Trolley over toward Sheung Wan, then climbed up the hill and walked along Hollywood Road before heading down to check out the harbor and use the free wifi at the mall.

Back to the airport, where my flight on Vietnam Airlines to Saigon departed from one of the dreaded 500 series gates – the gates in the basement underneath the “real” gates. Instead of a jetway, passengers are schlepped out to their plane on a crowded bus. Business class this wasn’t! But once on board, the seat next to me was unoccupied which is a pretty great way to fly coach – plus there were a hot meal served on the two-hour flight!

Finally arrived at airport in Ho Chi Minh after about 26 hours in transit – and of course I chose the slowest line for Immigration staffed by an officer who was apparently VERY PARTICULAR about each traveler’s documents. Sigh… But once through, I stopped to get a local SIM card, which was easy enough – except I didn’t have exact change in my wallet, so had to dig through my backpack and suitcase for the rest of my cash and at which time I also discovered that the See’s chocolate turkey I’d brought for my friend Ak to celebrate Thanksgiving when I’m in Thailand had been smushed. Exhaustion made my reaction to this discovery rather more pointed than was absolutely necessary.

But at least once I left the terminal, I was greeted by my favorite sight after a long day of travel: a sign with my name on it, meaning a car service was here to collect me.

We were on our way to the hotel in short order – but I’d forgotten how absolutely intense traffic in HCMC is. We moved at a snail’s pace for most of the ride and all I wanted was to be in my hotel room. It was at this point I was thinking to myself, “Why do I ever even leave home? The trip takes too long, I’ve made bad decisions about my travel arrangements and my turkey is broken. Everything is ruined!” OK, perhaps I was a bit overwrought…

Made it to my home for the week, the Liberty Central Citypoint in the heart of District 1. Check in went smoothly – though they do love try and upsell which was hard to be patient with given how eager I was to have a shower…

But once in my room, shower I did, then unpacked and had a bit of lie down. I was feeling much better already – and even more so after a bowl of soup next door at the Old Compass Cafe. I’d visited for lunch last time I was here with Ak and we’d really enjoyed it – plus it’s run by the purveyors of the Rusty Compass website, an invaluable resource for places to eat and things to do in Vietnam and other parts of SE Asia.

In fact, I had a walking tour scheduled with Nhi from Old Compass for the next day – and was lucky enough to meet her that evening. In our earlier email about where to meet for the tour, I’d told her I’m easy to recognize, thanks to my big gray beard. Well, she saw me at my table and figured out pretty quickly, “Oh, that looks like the crazy foreigner I’ll be showing around tomorrow…”

Had a nice bowl of soup and more than one glass of Chardonnay – you know, just to take the edge off of a very long day. And it worked! Back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Up early and headed down the alley next to the hotel to visit a favorite from last time, Phở Minh. This little place is amazing! Just a few dozen meters off one of Saigon’s busiest streets, this alley is a quiet oasis – and the phở is very tasty. Plus it comes with a couple of bánh patê sô – flaky little meat pastries that are just delicious.

After breakfast, made my way to the Saigon Zoo, the meeting point for today’s tour. I was there a bit early and had the great good fortune to witness a dance troupe of local children in full costume, coming either from dress rehearsal or a performance. Sadly, I didn’t whip my camera out in time, but did manage to capture a photo of two of the boys in their sequined shorts, vests and tank tops. Get on down, little dudes!

Besides Nhi, there was one other tourist, a nice woman from Australia. I did have a bit of a rude awakening self-awareness-wise when she showed up, thinking to myself, “Oh, she’s old.” – only to realize she was likely a few years younger than I… It’s still weird to remember that I am in fact an old coot!

The tour was great, focusing primarily on the history of Saigon and Vietnam along with an emphasis on local styles of architecture. Nhi was very knowledgeable and engaging and had quite a bit of background details on the local tensions between preserving historically important and generally quite lovely old buildings and developing the city’s infrastructure and economy. She also explained that the scooter population in Saigon is the same as the human population – in other words, for every person there is a scooter. That certainly sheds some light on the insane traffic here!

We finished up with a tasty lunch at the Old Compass Cafe. I got to meet Mark, the founder of rustycompass.com, along with the cafe and tour company. He and the other woman on my tour had a good chat about the current state of Australian politics – before the subject turned to the US. Let me just say this: most people who enjoy traveling abroad, wherever they’re from, seem more likely to be “my kind of people” and I’m happy to report these folks were no exception. And let me also add that I was pretty happy to be out of the country for Election Day back home… Being away from the everyday stress of the Trump regime is doing me a world of good.

After lunch, had a nap and did a bit of catching up on social media while deciding where to have dinner. Wandered over to Secret House, sister establishment to Secret Garden where I’d eaten with Ak when I was here last year. Menu at new place much the same: had some just OK clams, some good fried rolls and some excellent seafood fried rice.

Headed back to hotel, but it was still early. I decided to walk by a local gay bar in the backpacker district. It was early, so the place was populated by a couple of pasty-but-now-sunburnt white dudes out front and some louche money boy types inside. Hard pass! And the backpacker district was kind of a hellscape – how surprising…

But once close to my hotel, I Googled “cocktails near me” and found The Alley – located literally right next door to my hotel and down the same alley as Pho Minh and The Old Compass Cafe! That is one magical alley.

Anyway, the place was exactly what I was looking for: not empty but not crowded with a mellow feel and a highly-competent bartender who prepared me a Fusion Gimlet with lemongrass and sweet basil. Excellent! And the perfect way to wrap up my first full day here in HCMC.

While it’s true that adjusting to local time here is pretty easy coming from SF, I’m still waking up quite early – which is mostly fine, save for being ready for bed by 9PM. But there’s also tons to do in the morning here, especially when it comes to eating.

I set off in search of Amen, a noodle stand serving hu tieu nam vang that I’d read about here. It seemed simple enough – right on the corner of Hiem 178 Doan Van Bd and Doan Van Bo, which I found easily enough on Google Maps. And I’d visited District 4 last time I was here with Ak and our guide Vũ. What could go wrong?

Well, to start off it was raining. Not pouring, but def more than sprinkling – though I was able to pick up an umbrella at a Circle K as I made my way on foot from my hotel to District 4. So far, so good!

Once I was over there, I recognized the street I’d started off on last time and took this to be a good sign. Sadly, it was not. I found myself on the exact location described in the article about the soup place and besides the fact that there were dozens of shops, stands and eateries, none of them bore even the remotest resemblance to anything in the photos with the article. I was zooming into the backgrounds, trying to spot matching window styles or shop signs, all to no avail.

While I wouldn’t describe the locals as unfriendly, they were all pretty busy with their own lives and the only fellow interested in my apparent confusion was someone trying to proffer his scooter taxi services. As is often the case, I was really too shy/intimidated to try to ask one of the neighborhood folks for some help. Not knowing the language makes me feel extra awkward… And as I was to find out later from two different locals, District 4 is apparently gangster territory – not that I had any problems, but I guess I’m glad I found this out after the fact..?

And to digress for just a moment: it’s been a while since I’ve traveled solo. I absolutely enjoy it! But it does have a way of preying on my own insecurities. Whenever I’m on the road, all my social media – whether it’s this blog, FB or IG – is putting forward a narrative of how amazing a time I’m having. And that’s true! Even when I’m being self-deprecating, I’m posting the best parts of travel. But I’d forgotten that I tend to be very hard on myself when I travel. Despite the fact that traveling on my own means I can do whatever the eff I want, there’s often the voice in my head saying things like, “Ugh, why are you going to same place for breakfast again? You should try someplace new!” or “Why are you eating in this restaurant? It’s mostly tourists! Why aren’t you going somewhere authentic and local!”

I suppose to some extent it’s an outgrowth of travel shows like Bourdain’s, which prize “authenticity” above all else – which is kind of silly, since he had a whole team of researchers and producers mapping out his shows. When I travel, I can be just as judgmental of others, wondering who’d come all the way to Vietnam to eat in a mediocre Italian restaurant? I’m trying to check these thoughts when I have them – because the fact of the matter is, for any Westerner (Americans in particular) to come to Vietnam is a pretty amazing travel itinerary, no matter if you eat banh mi on the street or duck into McDonald’s for a burger. I mean, it’s obviously a fascinating country – but it’s very different from home for most people and managing to roll with those differences however works for you is pretty great.

Anyway, I’m trying my hardest to be nicer to myself about my choices – but it’s not always easy when I’m on my own and responsible for all my decisions.

Back to District 4. My plan to eat breakfast at Amen was stymied. BUT! Luckily, I still had the name and address of the best pho I’d ever had from my food tour last year – and it was only about an eight minute walk from my current location, so off I went.

Found the place with no problem (thanks again, Vũ, for sending me the address last year!) and had a delicious bowl of soup. Sure, I never did find my OG destination, but who could complain about a great meal at Pho Mui?

Next stop: ANZ Bank ATM. I’d read online that they had a higher limit on withdrawals. The ATM I’d used the other day gave me a mere 3 million dong (heh) – about US$125. It was about a 20 minute walk there – which was both nice, insofar as I saw some different parts of the city, but also an occasionally harrowing reminder that HCMC is not exactly a walker’s paradise (I’ll call out again the stat that the number of scooters is 8 million – the same as the number of residents).

Arrived at the location on Google Maps and discovered a construction site. Super! Eh, it’s fine – and as it turned out, the additional 3 million dong (heh) I withdrew from some other ATM was more than enough to get me through the rest of my visit to Saigon.

Wandered around for a bit. Grabbed a banh mi from a place with good reviews online – it was fine, though nothing to write home about, IMO. I also stopped by Cộng Cà Phê, a place I’d been introduced to in Hanoi: a Vietnamese chain (though they’ve just opened their first shop outside the country in Seoul) of coffee places with a communist military theme – and which serves frozen coconut coffee, essentially the world’s greatest coffee milkshake prepared with coconut milk slush. If they manage to open a branch in SF someday, I’d be both delighted and frightened of how much weight I’d gain… But for now, I’m on holiday and they are delicious, especially after walking around in the hot weather.

Tonight I was meeting up with Vũ. He’d been our guide for a street food tour when I visited Saigon for the first time last year with my friend Ak. We’d kept in touch a bit and he’d told me if I ever returned, he’d take me around to new places to eat – and on his own time at no charge! I’d’ve been happy to simply sign up for another tour, but he’d graciously insisted that he’d take me out on his own time.

He’d also told me that it would be best if I traveled on the back of his scooter – which, while I was still home in SF, sounded a bit daunting – but once I was here, I said, “Eh, when in Rome… And that’s why you paid a little extra for that trip insurance with medical evacuation coverage.” So, we met up in District 5 at 5PM, I perched the tiny helmet he brought me on my giant noggin and off we went!

And honestly? It was fine. Sure the traffic was crazy, but for the most part the pace is not Indy-like – and Vũ was a very steady pilot. I mean, yes, I may have clutched him once or twice when we hit a bump, but at no point did my life flash before my eyes.

He took me all over town. We ate soup with dumplings, quail egg salad, banh mi, banh xeo, rolls and – to wrap up the evening on an especially festive note – a whole bunch of meat and seafood that we (and by “we,” I mean Vũ) grilled up ourselves on a little table top charcoal grill at an outdoor place that also served plenty of cold beer. Oh! And had coterie of lovely cats – who were also surprisingly finicky about what they’d eat! I guess they are so used to being fed by the patrons, they can afford to pick and choose what they like.

It was a great time, especially seeing parts of Saigon I’d’ve never seen on my own, plus eating like a local. Plus Vũ laughed at all of my corny jokes. He really hit this one out of the park.

Thursday was looking to be pretty chill. Wandered around District 1 after a breakfast of pho at Pho Minh again. Compared to other parts of the city, it’s relatively walkable – once you get used to the fact that sidewalks are also used as shortcuts by in-a-hurry scooters who just can’t with the traffic – and there are lots of trees and lovely old buildings.

Eventually made my way to Moc Huong Spa, where I’d had an excellent Thai massage last year when I was here with Ak. He’d complained that his massage was too strong – though I pointed out that he’d been snoring quite loudly during his treatment, so it couldn’t have been that bad!

Anyway, things were not quite the same, sadly. Reception was hectic and disorganized. Several different folks talked to me about the treatment I’d reserved and no one seemed to be communicating with each other. There was another large party there waiting for services, so the whole process was super unrelaxing.

My therapist eventually collected me and took me upstairs for my massage – and it was pretty clear from the get-go that she didn’t know WTF she was doing. I mean, I assume she’d had some training in massage, but not in Thai massage it seemed. Some parts were OK – other parts felt like she was just making stuff up. She had me hanging off the side of the mat, my limbs ensnared in the curtains surrounding the treatment area;  she was twisting my body around into some weird positions; and at several points elbowed me in the face while manhandling me. Honestly, I should have stopped the massage and either left or asked for a different therapist – particularly since later that day, the crick I’d had in my neck from sleeping funny had been made substantially worse by this therapist’s terrible massage. Boo! A real disappointment.

But I did stop for another frozen coconut coffee, so the day wasn’t a total loss. And I was looking forward to my Mekong Delta bike tour the next morning!

 

 

 

Weekend in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 13 & 14 October 2017

Today’s agenda was rather similar to yesterday’s – though this morning we had a food tour! Our guide Vu from Vietnamese Street Food Tours met us in the lobby promptly at 8AM. This was one of the few tour companies that had options that didn’t require traveling by scooter. Now, I’m all for adventure and trying new things when I travel, but I’m also pretty focused on remaining alive – so today’s walking tour was much more my speed.

We first went by taxi to District 4 but the remainder of our morning was spent on foot. We started off having what our guide told us were called Cambodian noodles. Really good – a little spicy, a little sweet. I did refrain from eating the pork intestines that are one of the ingredients – I’m not as adventurous an eater as one might hope.

We continued through the market area and tried lots and lots of different things, including a really nice banh mi, traditionally-prepared Vietnamese coffee and the best phở I’ve ever had. According to Vu, Phở Mùi is well-known (and typically mobbed for breakfast and lunch) thanks to the 14-hours the broth spends simmering. It was really delicious with a depth of flavor unlike any other phở I’ve tried. Really amazing!

Wrapped up our morning with a wee dessert: egg custard, served in an eggshell. Really yummy and just the right amount after all we’d eaten over the course of our walk.

Tours like this are a great reminder to me of how lucky I am that English remains the lingua franca of travel (though I suspect Chinese will soon replace it, given the huge number of Chinese citizens who travel internationally). Wherever I go, there’s a high likelihood that some locals will speak enough English to communicate – and I can always find a guide who is fluent, like Vu. I always enjoy hearing the vocabulary used by people who speak multiple languages – in this particular instance, Vu observing (accurately!) that Ak’s floral-printed sneakers were “outlandish.” I have to remember to use that word more often!

Ak and I spent the afternoon at the War Remnants Museum. It’s absolutely a must-see for anyone visiting HCMC, but it is also harrowing. I suppose to some extent this is especially true for me as an American – it’s hard to fathom the horror of war, especially one where the underlying reason was largely, “We don’t like the form of government you’ve chosen for yourselves.” The most dispiriting thing is realizing that the U.S. government appears to have learned nothing from what happened in Vietnam. We continue to intervene in the business of other countries that don’t want us there with no clear strategy of what we’re doing.

There was an excellent (and extremely difficult) exhibit focused on journalists who had been killed while covering the war. Seeing their work preserved and their stories memorialized felt agonizingly personal. I had to stop a few times to regain my composure – but it was a very effective presentation that should not be missed.

We spent the rest of the afternoon mostly wandering about District 1. Despite the crazy traffic, HCMC is actually pretty nice for walking. There seems to be regular greenspace and still plenty of charming old buildings and tree-lined streets. It was a nice way to decompress after the museum.

Before dinner, we stopped for a cocktail on the roof of the Rex Hotel. A nice view of Nguyễn Huệ Street from our table and decent cocktails – though I did manage to not only knock my drink over, but to shatter the glass in the process. Ugh, I’m a disaster!

Dinner at Quon Bui. We managed to get into a taxi just before a really epic downpour. Happily, our driver got us right to the front door and the restaurant had someone stationed out front with an umbrella to shield arriving patrons. Sadly, though, the weather put the kibosh on our plans to dine al fresco on the roof.

But the room was lovely and we enjoyed a great meal. We totally over-ordered, not realizing how big the hotpot would be – but the fish and noodle with greens was really delicious.

Made an early night of it, returning to our hotel to share the tiny cake we’d pick up while out shopping earlier. It was beautiful to look at, but rather ordinary tasting – plus, in a highly illegal move, it contained no layers! RUINED.

Saturday was our last full day in Vietnam. Ak and I had contemplated visiting the Mekong Delta. There was a bike tour that sounded great – but weather seemed really iffy with possibly torrential rains plus the bus ride there was two hours. We decided to save that trip for next time and just spend our day exploring Saigon.

We didn’t venture too far afield. Our first stop was for phở for breakfast at a place next door to our hotel. As is so often the case here, it was away down a narrow alley that turned it another quite charming little alley. The hidden location along with the pastel pink and green interior of Phở Minh really made it seem like we were far away from hustle and bustle of the streets of Saigon. It was wonderful.

Our server recognized that we were not Vietnamese speakers, so she just confirmed “Phở?” and we nodded. She first brought us some delicious little meat pies that I discovered are called bánh pa tê sô – which is from the French “pâté chaud.” And then nice big bowls of phở – which were tasty, though yesterday’s phở remains the winner.

We spent the morning visiting a couple of museums. First up, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts. It’s in an impressive old building that was originally constructed as a residence for a wealthy businessman and his family in the early 1930s. The collection was mostly contemporary art and I did enjoy some of the collection – though there wasn’t a whole lot of information on what was being shown or how the works were organized. Of course, given that I’m good friends with more than one paintings conservator, I was made very uncomfortable by the fact that the only climate control for the galleries was ceiling fans and open windows…

Next was the Gia Long Palace, another gorgeous old building housing some exhibits of propaganda material and the history of the city. We had a quick look around before deciding we needed to refuel with a frozen coconut coffee at Cộng Cà phê… which was right next door to building that I’d seen the other day, former home of a CIA apartment and the roof of which was used for helicopter evacuations during the Fall of Saigon. It still boggles my mind to imagine that this beautiful and charming neighborhood was a war zone when I saw it on TV as a child.

We found a charming little place next to the hotel called The Old Compass Cafe – it’s run by the same folks who run the website The Rusty Compass which is an invaluable resource on things to do in Vietnam – especially restaurants. Down an alley and up a few floors in an apartment building, it’s another one of HCMC’s many, many little hidden gems.

Back to hotel for a swim in the quite lovely rooftop pool, along with a snack at the bar. Then a foot massage at an unmemorable but adequate place nearby. Then, time for dinner!

Tonight we ate at Chi Hoa. Crispy rolls, really excellent bbq pork ribs, steamed bánh mi (which was not as interesting as it sounded), shrimp and some delicious clams. A really great dinner!

Sadly, this was our last night in HCMC before flying back to Bangkok. We’d had three full days here – and honestly, as much as I enjoyed it, I wish we’d had more time here. There’s lots more of the city that we didn’t see and plenty of nearby places to visit outside Saigon. I really liked it here very much. It’s definitely a big noisy city – but there are trees and greenspace, lots of great old architecture and every alley and nondescript building seems to contain a cool bar or restaurant or cafe or shop or something. It’s a city that I hope to come back to and learn more about.  

Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh

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!