Part 3 – Pagodas, Soups & Landmarks

The plan for our first full day in Saigon was simple – explore the downtown and find The Lunch Lady, made famous by Anthony Bourdain, who filmed the Vietnam episode of his “No Reservations” TV show at her humble street stall back in 2009.

With a population of around 8 million people and divided into 19 districts, Saigon is a huge spread-out city, too big to explore in its entirety. Like with every big metropolis, though, you really don’t want to explore all of it.  Most attractions worth seeing are located in Districts 1, 3 and 5, and as we found out, some were more “visitable” than others.

The Jade Emperor Pagoda

First on the list was The Jade Emperor Pagoda – a must-see according to all travel books. A small “communal” pagoda, made up of several tiny temples gathered under one roof, also had a nice and peaceful garden and a terrapin pond. Terrapins were climbing over one another, and you could clearly see the human traffic rules of “the bigger one gets the right of way” replicating themselves in the reptilian world. One tiny guy was doing his best to climb around a big relative, who was blocking the path onto the narrow step over the pond, seemingly oblivious of his attempts. We watched him for ten minutes, till he successfully overcame the obstacle, and sat panting on top of the step. You could also buy a baby terrapin from a couple of smiley grannies at the gate, and set it free into the havoc of the pond, which supposedly does good things to your karma. Having seen how crowded the pond was, we decided the terrapin babies were better off with the grandmas.

The overcrowded terrapin pond in front of the Jade Emperor Pagoda

The garden in front of the pagoda was green and peaceful, with inviting benches around the perimeter. The fountain in the middle, though, had a high canopy roof over it, aimed at protecting the fountain sculptures from the elements. A couple dozen pigeons found this to be a fantastic spot to practice synchronized target-shitting, and more than one tourist, not quick enough to admire the surroundings and duck into the safety of the pagoda, was seen fertilized enough to start growing prize orchids on their clothes right away.

The pagoda itself was dark, misted with incense smoke, and beautifully decorated with carved statues of various gods and deities – one per each “communal” temple inside. What spoiled the scene a bit, was the abundance of fluorescent day-lamps, some with coloured strobes, strategically placed over each little altar. They blinded every visitor, and made the interior look suspiciously like a mix between a cave and a disco. Candles, or anything else would have been so much better, but apparently the gods in Vietnam deserved the best, including all advances of civilisation and modern technology.

Next on our agenda was The Lunch Lady. She had already been popular with the locals, when Anthony Bourdain‘s TV crew stumbled upon her food cart in District 3, filming the Vietnam episode of their show. The Lunch Lady does not advertise and is not easy to find, yet culinary freaks from all over the world have been finding their way to her humble street cart ever since the show. I googled the address, located it on the map, and marked the spot in the book we carried around with us. Conveniently, she was supposed to be within walking distance from the Jade Emperor Pagoda, and despite a couple construction sites blocking the direct route, we found her.

The Lunch Lady’s soup of the day

Ms Nguyen Thi Thanh, aka The Lunch Lady, a plump smiley woman, known for her soups, now proudly decorates her corner food cart with the big sign with her moniker in English. There are no menus, and the stall is surrounded with little mismatched plastic tables and kiddies’ chairs, where the visitors are sitting with their knees over their ears and eat whatever the Lunch Lady cooked for today. She does not speak English, but that does not pose a problem – she ushers you to one of the tiny red plastic stools, and brings a bowl of soup, along with the condiments of the day.

In Vietnam soups with noodles, meat and whatever come to the table in a bowl, condiments like chili paste, limes, oil, etc. are already on the table, and the bowl is accompanied by a big plate/tray of fresh herbs to be put in the soup. You mix the condiments in a little dish, add them into the soup according to taste, then top it up with herbs, and off you go!

On kiddie’s stools with Ms Nguyen Thi Thanh

The soup of the day was delicious, and despite a couple of unidentified ingredients we emptied our bowls.  Ms Thanh was kind enough to allow me to take a picture with her – both of us on tiny little red stools: can’t get more Saigon than that!

Speaking of food vendors – you can’t miss them in Vietnam, for many of those selling bread or snacks on the streets have optimised their work in a simple, but rather ingenious way.  You can hear them from afar through recorded messages blasting out of the little speakers attached to their bikes and carts. The announcements are annoying, but effective. The funny part is that the voice on the recording does not always match the sex of the seller, and you have guys driving around on bikes with sweet women voices announcing their merchandise, or little girls with low-pitched male voice messages.

We said good bye to The Lunch Lady and walked back to the hotel through the old part of Saigon, filled with historical and literary landmarks.

The Worker & Kolkohoz Woman statue in front of the Central Post Office

Saigon’s central post office, designed by none other but Gustave Eiffel himself (yes, that same one who gave Paris it’s initially well hated and now much loved steel tower) is a sight in itself. Although the middle of the facade was covered with scaffolding when we saw it, the freshly painted wings of the buildings along with the impressive interior were definitely worth seeing. The metal constructions holding the balcony over the main entrance did not leave any doubt as to the authorship of the design. On the right-hand side of the building was a statue, suspiciously resembling that of the monument to “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” – a symbol of the Soviet era, still decorating the main entrance to the Russian Exhibition Center in Moscow, and known to every person born in the Soviet Union as the logo of the Mosfilm, the main film studio of the USSR. I took a picture in front of the relic – just for old times’ sake.

The Notre Dame Catholic Cathedral next to it (could they have found a more French name?…) was equally impressive, but stuck in our memories not due to its architectural values (after all, you can’t possibly surprise Europeans with another Romanesque cathedral…), but with an unexpected parade of about a dozen Santa Clauses in front of it. Boys and girls dressed in Santa outfits were posing for group photos using Cathedral as a back-drop.  We could not figure out if it was a college graduation, a reunion party, or something else, but the sight of a big group of Vietnamese Santas in full gear in +30C heat was priceless.

The Santa Claus parade in front of the Notre Dam Cathedral

We passed by the Continental Hotel, immortalized by Graham Greene in “The Quiet American“, the tall building of the Caravelle Hotel that housed international press corps during the Vietnam War (quite fittingly known in Vietnam as American War), walked through the pungent Ben Thanh Market, and overwhelmed by the variety of sights, smells and experiences reached the hotel and turned in for the night.

Part 4 – The City Of Contrasts

The title line, shamelessly borrowed from an old Soviet movie, probably best explains today’s Saigon.  Each one of the 19 districts comprising the city is different, and often even moving around the corner in the same area you find yourself on a completely different planet.

The best example of such dichotomy can be seen between the former China town area of Cholon in District 5, and the downtown old Saigon in District 1.  Despite the name, the old part of town boasts modern steel and glass sky-scrapers, Versace boutiques, and fancy colonial-era hotels, renovated to mint condition.  Cholon means “market” in Vietnamese, and the whole area is just that – one big (and I must say, quite dirty) street market. Hundreds of street shops selling cloth have their goods displayed right on the dirty pavements, shop owners measuring the yards of silk or cotton by stretching them out in the middle of the street.  Shops next to them will be selling plastic dime-toys and tiny Santa Claus outfits, and all this will be sprinkled with fruit stalls, spice shops, inevitable odorous food carts, and motorbikes with broken exhausts, dashing in-between people munching on their noodle soups on the side of the street.  The air in Cholon was heavy, grey and dirty, and you could almost feel the exhaust grime collecting inside your lungs.  All this gives the area an uncombed and unwelcoming feel, very far from your regular “China Town” anywhere else in the world.

A colorful wall in the yard of one of the pagodas in Cholon

We went to Cholon in search of architectural attractions – the Lonely Planet guide promised a dozen pagodas tucked in-between the chaos of the district.  We found most of them, even though it seemed they were built with every attempt at preventing people from seeing them.  Some were so overcrowded by nearby food stalls and cloth shops, that you needed a magnifying glass to locate them.  After about ten, we were all pagoded out, and were happy to leave this part of town for a bit more air.

Inside the pagoda – you risk being blinded by the fluorescent lights

In general, I regret to say that even though Vietnam is a great country with fantastic cuisine and exceptionally friendly people, and I am definitely glad I had a chance to visit and get to know it at least a bit – I will be in no hurry to return.

What it stuck in my mind for, and what eventually made us leave after only ten days, was three things: the already mentioned rock-hard beds, street odors and dirt. I am not being nasty or snobbish here, but I am extremely sensitive to smells, and in Vietnam you encounter a lot of them, mostly of the unpleasant variety. The mix of food being prepared, garbage rotting on the streets, motorbike fumes, and God knows what, creates a concoction that turned out to be unbearable to my nose.

Dirt is another thing.  I cannot say it’s specific to Asia in general or Vietnam in particular – a while ago it was the dirty streets that made me leave my own country in the first place without much looking back.  Maybe dirt, grime and garbage are socialist things, but just like I hated the streets of Russian cities full of litter, all the places we have been to in Vietnam bore a painful and unattractive resemblance to my home country.  In Vietnam, though, due to much higher temperatures, garbage covering the streets, had a chance to rot much faster, and odorize the atmosphere in no time.

To add contrast to our experiences in District 5, on the way back we happened upon the cleanest public toilet in the world. Located in a park, it was free of charge, spotless, and you were expected to take your shoes off when entering it (!!!). You were provided with a pair of slippers to wear instead, and the place looked absolutely sterile. In contrast to the streets, it did not emit any unpleasant odors. You could eat off the floor, if you wished! This oasis of cleanliness was in an unexpected and rather stark contrast to everything else we have encountered in the city so far.

Tanks outside of the Reunification Palace

After overdosing on pagodas, we decided to get a taste of more modern architecture, embodied in the Reunification Palace located in the center of Saigon.  Originally built as an Independence Palace for the president of South Vietnam during the American War, with the arrival of communist tanks pushing through its gates in April 1975, it became the main symbol of the fall of South Vietnam.  Ngo Dingh Diem, the president of South Vietnam, who the palace was originally intended for, was so unpopular with the people, that not only his own air force bombed his previous palace (resulting in his designing a reinforced bomb shelter in the basement of the new one), but he did not have a chance to see his new digs finished, as he was killed by his own troops a year after the bombings, and three years before the completion of the Reunification Palace.

Helipad at Reunification Palace

The building itself is grand, but rather typical to the architectural style of the 60-es in its plain, concrete simplicity.  Complete with an in-house movie theater, library, games room, disco bar and a helipad on the roof (eat your heart out, James Bond!), the building also boasted an underground part, that was probably the most interesting to visit.  The basement has not only a bomb shelter, commissioned by Diem, but a whole intricate system of tunnels, communication rooms, and command posts, complete with war maps and the terribly outdated (by today’s standards) communications equipment.  The visit to the Palace was definitely time and money well spent!

Due to the specifics of the audience, we had one more item on our agenda.  The Lonely Planet guide mentioned an Irish pub, located somewhere in the vicinity of the Reunificaiton Palace, and we were inclined to find it, and put it on the “worldwide list of visited Irish pubs”.  Having combed through the area we realized that the pub mentioned in the book was long gone, but by lucky coincidence stumbled onto another one, proudly displaying the Guinness sign above the door.  They only had canned Guinness, but sitting in a chilled interior with a cold Guinness was a very welcome addition to the day.

Bernie’s Irish Pub in Saigon

Having spent the whole day walking, in the evening we could only venture out in the neighborhood for a nightcap before going to bed.  Having ducked into a parallel alley in search of a place that would sell wine by the glass, we were in for another cultural surprise.  In one of the buildings, tucked between restaurants full of people and bars with loud music, we saw an old woman lying on the floor with a bunch of monks chanting behind her, and a group of relatives sitting in silence in the front.  We weren’t quite sure what it was all about, but the freaked-out faces of the next-door bar staff where we parked our asses, confirmed our worst suspicions: the woman was dead, and the family was sitting vigil. In a small temple opposite the place you could see more monks preparing food and flowers for the ceremony.

We were rather shocked to see all this out in the open, in the middle of a bustling backpackers district, with no attempt to hide the overly private ceremony from the eyes of the onlookers and passers-by.  However, having read a bit about the country and its traditions, and spoken to a couple of foreigners living here, we realized that Vietnam was not big on privacy.  Religion-wise it’s a weird mix of Buddhism, Thaoism, Catholicism and Confucianism. Even people considering themselves Buddhists or Catholics, would have borrowed bits and pieces from other religions, especially Confucianism (which technically speaking is not even a religion, but rather a system of beliefs) with its collectivism, the importance and prevalence of the group over individual and respect to elders.  People live as a group, and their lives are often laid out there in the open – privacy is not something to strive for, but rather something to avoid.  This easily explained the dead body in the middle of a bustling street.  The bar staff were only freaked out that the scene might scare away the tourists.

Nevertheless, we finished our wine as soon as possible, and retreated back to the hotel.  The story of the vigil does not end there, though.  The chanting continued throughout the night, and was so loud that could be heard through the closed windows in our hotel room a street away from the temple.  Hard beds now paired with vigil chanting throughout the night, and we were very ready to leave Saigon.

We had, however, one more item on the agenda, and this was planned for the following afternoon.