Tuesday 26 June 2018

A Visit to Vietnam: Turf I

This entry is called turf because we spent a lot of time on land.

I'm splitting up our time on land because we technically spent two days on land in Vietnam; and we did a lot of stuff in those two short days. The first day was our last outing with our group. The husband and I were staying an extra day on our own.

We were driven into the city bright and early and dropped off at a street restaurant for breakfast. The restaurant only served one item, banh cuon. Banh cuon(s) are rice noodle rolls with a pork and woodear mushroom filling. My mom always made it as an after school snack for me when I was in grade school. The banh cuon was serve with Vietnamese ham. I didn't eat any of the veggies in fear I would get sick, but the banh cuon was delicious!

First thing in order, Ben Thanh Market (above right). This well-known marketplace was much talked about amongst our group during the week, so we were all very excited to finally see one of Saigon's oldest marketplace for ourselves - the sweat, the un-foodsafe meal preparations, the tourist traps, we were ready for it!

Let me tell ya - they were not kidding when they said it would be hot and stuffy inside the Ben Thanh Market. That was an understatement. You are literally cooking in that oven of a market. There is no breeze, and the air is stale. Mind you, it still smelled of nuoc mam (fish sauce) and sweet fruits. It didn't stink, but it had to be one of the most uncomfortable environments I'd ever been in. But let's get to the good stuff, shall we?

There were a ton of fruit stands with fresh or dried exotic fruits and flower stands with beautiful arrangements that were made fresh daily. The shopping here was all a tourist trap. Everything that had a brand name on it was fake, some were pretty cheap, but some items, like Nike and Fjallraven, were so ridiculously priced you might as well just buy the real thing. They had a lot of souvenirs and specialty items too, but those were overprices compared to the Mekong markets. I was kicking myself for not buying a conical hat! My goal was to buy one thing: an ao dai! (Well actually two, because technically we were in search of an extra hand carry luggage but we weren't willing to spend more than $20 Canadian for one!)

An ao dai is a tradicional fitted silk tunic worn by mostly Vietnamese women. It falls at your knees or sometimes your ankles depending on the style, but it has slits all the way up to the waist, and is worn over trousers.

It was a lot harder than I thought it would be to buy an ao dai. A lot of them were tacky with lots of neon colours and strange patterns. Another option was to get one custom made, but that cost nearly $200 Canadian for the whole outfit. After looking at multiple stands and getting separated from our group, I managed to find a white one with cherry blossoms on it. I paid a higher price for it because I bought it from a government regulated stand with fixed prices. It was pretty sheer as it was white but it was the nicest one I saw and I was happy with my purchase.

rice cake, dried shrimps, crispy pork skin, scallion oil,

After finding our group again, we decided to split up for lunch because everyone wanted to eat something different. The husband and I went to the banh beo hue stand. Banh beo are little rice cakes with mashed mung bean and dried shrimp served with nuoc mam. This was also another snack my mom prepared as an after-school snack when I was young, but here in Vietnam, they also had little tapioca dumplings in the dish. I loved the tapioca dumplings, and they were the one thing my mom didn't make at home. The food was prepared in front of us and we ate it on low plastic stools at the counter. It was one of the most delicious meals I had in Vietnam!

After lunch, it was time for us to part with our group. We said our goodbyes and were dropped off at our hotel while they headed to the airport. We were staying at the Intercontinental Saigon, a much nicer hotel than we were used to. We freshened up and went back out again. We had a few places to visit on our to-do list and the husband was on the hunt for a suit tailor. Our first stop in our own was the Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral and the post office, which were both a convenient block away from the hotel and across the street from each other!

Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral is another well known symbol of the old city. The French-inspired cathedral has two bell towers just like the Notre Dame de Paris. However, it only has six bells unlike the ten in Paris. During our visit, it was under construction - and it was closed to visitors due to a private celebration of life. In front of the cathedral is a Virgin Mary statue. In 2005, it was reported to have shed a tear, causing thousands of people to flock to the statue.

Across the street is the Saigon Central Post Office. The building is remnant of French colonial times. Inside is a fully functioning post office, and a few souvenir vendors. It reminded me of a train station, with its high ceilings.

The husband had done a lot of research prior to our trip, and was set on getting a suit made at Tuyen Fashion Tailor. We walked-in with no appointment, but Mr. Tuyen gladly took his measurements and promised the husband a suit in 48 hours. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to complete a dress for me. We found another tailor, Sang Trong Lua or Elegant Silk, who promised to complete two dresses in 48 hours.

It was a funny thing - everywhere we walked, we ended up at the Ben Thanh Market. It was the centre of the city. That evening, we wandered around the area, and got a massage. Be careful when you are lured off the streets into a massage parlour! The discounted prices that they show you before you go in are not what you end up paying. They gang up on you, and tell you a sob story to try to force you into giving them a big tip. We also came across a few new shopping malls, Vincom Center, Diamond Plaza and Parkson Plaza. Ho Chi Minh City was very fashion forward, so I loved window shopping at all the little boutique shops and larger department stores.

We grabbed pho at the end of the night before turning into our swanky hotel for a good night's sleep. Tomorrow, we will be exploring for a full day! Stay tuned... 

Tuesday 12 June 2018

A Visit to Vietnam: Surf

This entry is called surf because we spent a lot of time on the water.

Our next field trip was a day tour in the Mekong Delta. This was a must-do on my list for Vietnam. Thankfully, we were doing it as a group as opposed to just to two of us. As a group, we had a translator, which was so helpful. I may look Vietnamese (and I may have a Vietnamese last name), but I don't speak or understand the language!

We started the day off with a bowl of pho in downtown Saigon, and then we were shuttled off to My Tho. My Tho, which is located in the Mekong Delta region, was a three hour drive south of Ho Chi Minh City (in a lot of traffic). The Mekong Delta is a maze of rivers, swamps and islands, which you travel through by boat. On the river, there are floating villages and markets.

To start our tour, we took a long-tail boat from the port to the first of four island, Unicorn Island. There, we stopped for kumquat honey tea and a sample of the tropical fruits grown in Vietnam. Durian is a must-try in Vietnam. It's a very fragrant, unique tasting, sweet and creamy fruit. Durian was one of my favourite fruits while I was growing up (in Canada), but unfortunately, I've developed an allergy to it. Jackfruit is another plentiful fruit in Vietnam. It has a slightly subtle sweet, milky flavour. We saw so many jackfruit trees during our walk through the island. During our tea time, a group of Vietnamese women also sang "If You're Happy and You Know It" in Vietnamese and English to us.

Soon after, we headed towards the dock for a journey into the river. We got into a rowing boat with two rowers and set off into the busy canals. It's amazing how smoothly traffic flows on the river. Everyone moved at the same pace (I guess no one is in a hurry to get anywhere), they knew their safety zones, and everyone was respectful of one another.

Even though there was an abundance of greenery, there was no shade and it was very muggy. I came prepared with my fedora hat, but everyone else was loaned a conical hat.

It wasn't a very long voyage - it only felt long because of how slow the boats moved, but it was a very smooth and enjoyable voyage. Soon, we were at another dock, and what do you know! Our long-tail boat and tour guide was already there waiting for us. We got back into the boat and sailed to Turtle Island, where we were shown how coconut candy's made. We got to sample a few different flavours of candy. While I had heard that they try really hard to force or guilt you into buying the candy, our tour guide and the workers did not pressure us at all.

We were then led down a dirt path for a horse pulled carriage to our lunch destination. They had a very small, young adult horse pulling the six of us. We were wary but she did it!

It was an interesting restaurant experience. There was a little zoo with a crocodile pen, caged pythons, chickens and porcupines in the same compound. The restaurant, Viet Nhat, had open air seating under a pavilion by the river. Our tour guide ordered a bunch of local dishes for us. We had fried elephant ear fish, salad rolls, stir-fried morning glory, and fried rice.

After lunch, we walked around the zoo area. They had a lot of tourist activities. You could buy a fish and feed it to a crocodile on a fishing pole, or buy a bucket of small fish to feed bigger fish.

Soon after, our tour guide was back and we were in another boat heading towards another island. Phoenix island was next. Phoenix island was probably the most lush and charming out of the all the islands we visited. Lots of greenery surrounding colourfully painted dragon pillars.

A note worth mentioning... We saw a lot of caged roosters on the other two islands, but on Phoenix, we saw a lot of advertisements for cockfights, which took place earlier in the day. We were also shown a large arena used for cockfights. It is a cruel reality, but this is real life in Vietnam. Cockfighting is a legal traditional sport in Vietnam. It is only illegal to bet on the sport.

Phoenix island was pretty much deserted by the time we were touring it. Perhaps most of the tourists passed through in the morning during the cockfights. We passed a narrow bridge made of two bamboo poles known as Monkey Bridge (bottom left). I didn't dare walk across it, but some of us did. We toured the thatched museum dedicated to the Coconut Monk, and viewed the Hoa Binh Tower. We also walked along a couple rows of souvenir shops before arriving at the other end of the island, where our original long-tail boat was waiting for us.

I'm not sure why we didn't visit Dragon island, but by the time we were leaving Phoenix island, it was late in the afternoon and we were all so very exhausted. On the way back to the mainland, we enjoyed a young coconut.

It took a little less than three hours to get back into the city, and most of us fell asleep during the ride.

Our group headed to Caravelle Saigon for dinner. We were severely underdressed for the five-star hotel restaurant, but a reservation had been made earlier in the day, and it couldn't be cancelled. Luckily, Ho Chi Minh City was full of tourists, so we managed to blend in. There was a wide range of food from sushi to wonton soup to salads. There was also a seafood buffet which featured a raw bar. You're able to choose your own seafood, and how you want it cooked. There were many different types of desserts, including a chocolate fountain. Our meal was delicious!

We hit the road right after dinner. We had a 1.5 hour drive back to where we were staying, and we had a loooong day. Coming up, we'll be on land! Any guesses what that entry will be called? Stay tuned for more fun in Vietnam!