Our Augie group arrived in Saigon on Saturday. The realization hit me as we were landing that we were finally here. It still seems surreal. On our first day, we visited a Chinese market with our tour guide leading the way. In a way it was nice because the Tet holiday ends on Monday (we were told Tet and the Chinese Lunar New Year are the same thing, but because the Vietnamese and Chinese aren’t getting along, they don’t want to associate the Chinese people with the beloved holiday), so only a fraction of the stores are actually open until then. Each booth was open for a half hour on Saturday, yet we still got a glimpse of the unique food options the Vietnamese hold dear (think dried seahorses and shrimp etc…). Our next stop was the Notre Dame cathedral (in which some of us chose to attend Catholic Mass at on Sunday) and the post office, both of which are examples of French Colonial Architecture. We were all taken to a Vietnamese restaurant on the 12th floor of a nice complex. The Lemongrass Cafe, which overlooked Saigon, was really a treat. We got to practice our new skills with the Vietnamese language (“Cam Un” which I have no idea how to spell, sounds like “come on” but is actually “thank you”. I always feel rude when I say it).
Sunday was a free day. As stated, I went to mass along with about 12 other students. It was a nice four or five block walk from our hotel to the cathedral. Oddly enough, the homily was spoken by a Canadian priest who was wrapping up his tour in Vietnam, so we were able to understand most of what was said. After mass, our professors chose to break us up into three groups of seven for lunch so that we could show our friends some of their favorite restaurants later. I went with Dr. Ericson to a restaurant that is run by a Japanese man and some young adults that he has taken in from the streets. The food was served family style a la the Parthanon in Chicago’s Greek Town. It was a nice opportunity to get to know some people I hadn’t really talked to before.
In the afternoon Rachel B, Neil, Logan, Rachel W and I ventured out to the Vietnamese market. On the walk over, we passed the Continental Hottel (which is where Grahm Green’s The Quiet American takes place. We English majors have been geeking out about this the entire time we’ve been in HCMC). The market was the first opportunity that we had to haggle, which was interesting. I didn’t buy anything but haggled for a pair of sunglasses for Logan (150,000 VND down from 350,000 VND). It was much more crowded than the Chinese market, so the smell of dried fish was overwhelming. After a while, Neal and I got separated from everyone else, so we walked past the dried fish a lot. I had to hold my breath. When we finally met up again, we headed over to a coffee shop we spotted earlier. Let me tell you, looks can be decieving. From the outside, this place looked pretty legit. So when half of us ordered smoothies and the other half ordered iced coffee, we didn’t think twice. It was only after we took our first drink that Rachel W pointed out where the ice came from: a battered cooler in the corner. We nervously laughed as we drank our overpriced smoothies. On our way out we ran into another bad omen when the ice delivery woman drove up. She was carrying a green sack made out of plastic fibers filled with ice, with another on the back of her motorbike. The immediate reaction was to rush home to take some pepto/immodium. Luckily none of us are sick (yet), but we’ll probably listen to Ann’s advice on the ice from now on.
Also, it was Rachel Bruce’s birthday yesterday (she turned 21), so we went out for drinks in one of Saigon’s most exotic bars, The Rex. It’s on the 5th floor of the Rex hotel overlooking one of the main streets in Saigon. The drinks were roughly the equivalent of what we would get in America, but the view is fantastic. We happened to go when there was a live band. About two songs in, the singer noticed we were singing along and gestured for us to go dance. No one else was dancing, so naturally we had to show the crowd how it’s done. By the end of the night, half of the bar was dancing with us, including a couple from Connecticut and a group of 50-something Swedish tourists.
Since I’m having a hard time with the formatting of the photos, the descriptions are:
Our group at the airport in saigon,
Notre Dame Cathedral,
The interior of the post office with a good luck tree,
Two photos of the Chinese market,
A family on a motorbike (kids don’t ware helmets… apparently it’s unsafe?),
Incense at the temple of the water goddess,
A mother and son praying to the goddess.
[if you click on the photos, you can see them in a higher resolution]