At the beginning of April, we met our good friends Aaron and Heather (A&H) in HoChiMinh City (HCMC), Vietnam. After being fleeced by a cab driver, we all met them at the AirBnB we had rented. It was nothing special except that it was perfect for us: 2 bedrooms , a refrigerator, internet, and a table to sit around on the 4th floor overlooking an authentic neighborhood. We arrived before noon, unloaded our belongings, and were all out the door in what seemed like a flash.
Like every big city Susan and I end up in, we walked - a lot. We grabbed lunch at Pho2000, made famous by a stop from President Bill Clinton, and it was excellent. As we left, and after I left my water bottle, Aaron picked up some street-vendor style RayBans, and we marched on. We nervously froggered through Saigon’s legendary traffic while crossing several streets on our way to the War Remnants Museum. We had a fun photo-opp with a coconut vendor, but then found it closed for lunch. To pass the time we found a quaint cafe to re-a-quaint ourselves for an hour.
Aaron and I were mid-conversation as we turned the corner to enter the museum, and we fell silent. It was nothing we saw or anything that was said, the museum carried a power that put an end to the conversation. We paid and entered. I really enjoyed reading about the photographers and journalists on the first floor, and most of me detested the weaponry on the second floor. We had read stories of the propaganda style reporting and one-sidedness of how the war was told here, but it just looked like how America would have told the same story if the roles were reversed. The truth lies somewhere in between.
We left and walked some more. We saw some weddings at the Notre Dame Cathedral, visited the post office, and stood outside the Reunification Palace for a group Selfie. We sought and found a rooftop view, and on our exploration back we went to a restaurant Aaron and Heather had read about. It had a French Colonial feeling, excellent BonMi Sandwiches and Spring rolls, and was budget friendly to boot.
Energized by dinner we wandered a bunch more, until we must have looked dazed and confused because a man basically told us to sit down at a tiny table and have a beer. Respite completed, we strolled through a park and saw women rehearsing dance choreography, and 10+ Chihuahua’s being walked around a fountain. Pushing onward we happened upon the backpackers/red-light district which was unnerving and awkward - neon lights, darkened windows, lots and lots of old white men. We made our way back and saddled up to the table to enjoy each other’s company until bedtime.
Sunday’s early start began with some seafood fried rice and Vietnamese Iced Coffee. A&H were down to start the day on the John and Susan simplicity plan. As usual, I found some obscure place for us to visit. We decided to walk as I thought I remembered some beautiful Pagoda’s along the way.
We wandered through many streets, making eye contact, saying hello, and generally engaging locals. We wandered along: spacious, raucous, tree-lined streets; squished shopping alleys; mini-markets; and we snacked with street food vendors. We admired the traditional clothing for Vietnamese women in HCMC, which were described to us as pajamas . Everyone was very friendly and welcoming.
We happened upon old Chinese Pagoda’s along our walk, and somehow we forgot to eat. We were slogging our way through the hot streets when we passed by a roadside bakery and turned back. A small, street-side shop with free-standing baking ovens (think subway). Aaron asked for 2 BonMi rolls ($1). We started walking and as each of us bit into the warm bread with a satisfying crunch, smiles and laughter returned to the group. We stopped at a Jackfruit vendor and bought 1 KG (2.2 pounds!) and a crowd quickly gathered. The woman called out in Vietnamese and a muscular English speaking chap came out and he laughed as we were paying and asked if we wanted to buy more!
Reinvigorated with a weighty bag of fruit, we ventured into some more alleys and found ourselves lost. Hello’s rang out from darkened houses with people lying on their cool floors. Eventually we hit another dead end. As we checked our maps for an awkward minute - a gentleman said “Pagoda?” and then moved a moped, opened a tiny green door and we were through the rabbit hole to the backside of the Pagoda we sought. It was unimpressive, but the journey to it was epic, and of course Susan made a friend on the way out!
We headed back to the apartment, squeezed in a round of Carcassonne, and showered in haste as preparation for the A&H luxury tour (actually XO Foodie Tour). A foodie tour on mopeds with a price we were reluctant to pay. Even before the trip A&H were showing their generosity as they paid for it ahead of time and guaranteed us a unique experience and lasting memory. There was too much to share, but imagine each of us on the back of a moped with an English speaking female guide at the wheel. We learned a little of Saigon’s history, saw a lot of the ‘Districts’, ate some frog, Heather and I did crowd captivating chicken dance, and a few Facebook besties were born over those 5+ hours of fun. Joy, sadness, and a ton of laughter as the night closed with us being dropped back off at our apartment. Definitively, a highlight of the weekend, and a memory we are so happy to have! Thanks again Aaron & Heather!
As we boarded the bus to Cambodia, I could not help to think what an honor it is to be allowed into this beautiful country despite our painful history. The people were invariably kind. When we told them we were from America or Chicago, we always got a funny anecdote and a smile. “I know Chicago.... Al Capone!” No matter what happens from here, we will always have HCMC.