Noodle soup and war atrocities

Trip Start Oct 15, 2010
Trip End Jan 11, 2011

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Saigon: the name evokes mystical images of an oriental colonial city so beautifully portrayed in The Quiet American. Today, of course, it's a big, modern city whose French colonial past is still detectable amongst the street vendors and millions of scooter. Wide boulevards separated by parks run through it and some of the buildings from that era still stand unharmed, for example, the continental hotel where parts of Graham Greene's book play out. At the end of the American war, as it is known in Vietnam, the communists renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. However the use of the term Saigon lingers on and the two names are used interchangeably.

Our guesthouse was in a dense block of buildings divided by little alleyways. As we stepped off the boulevard any hint of the city's French past disappeared. Pedestrians and scooters wound their way around the many street vendors that lined the sides of the tiny lanes and the air was pungent with fish sauce. Our guesthouse owner led us to one of the many tall narrow buildings and sat us down at her kitchen table. The ground floor consisted of just one room about 2.5m wide and 5m long. It served as kitchen and dining room for Mrs. Long's family, hangout lounge for her two bedroom guesthouse and a classroom for the children that come to learn English from her (she is a 'retired' school teacher). We were only spending one night at Mrs. Long's as she was booked out for the rest of the time because of her excellent online reviews. However we found we were invited back for coffee with her every morning for the rest of our stay in Ho Chi Minh City. Mrs. Long is a lovely, welcoming woman and takes care of her guests like a mother.

We originally came up with the idea of coming to Vietnam after both reading Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour, so in a way we are primarily here for the food and the rest is a bonus. With that in mind we headed out for our first bowl of pho, a soup that forms the basis of the Vietnamese diet. The vendor put some rice noodles into a bowl, covered them in a delicious broth and threw in some thinly sliced beef which finished cooking in the soup. It was then up to us to add veges, such as mung beans, and flavour the soup with our choice of chilies, lime, fresh herbs and condiments.

After lunch we headed to the Reunification Palace which belonged to the successive Presidents of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Besides maintenance it has been left untouched since the second to last president fled the country in 1975, leaving behind a freshly appointed president to surrender. The building's 60's architecture and decor is incredible and the communications center and war room in the basement are fascinating. It's easy to imagine Vietnamese and American men sitting around in 60's or 70's attire, chain-smoking while they strategise. This image is aided by the maps that cover the wall and still portray the final strategies in marker pen.

After a breakfast of Mrs. Long's home made noodle soup (mmmm...) we spent the following morning hunting down one particular food stall in a city of thousands of street vendors. Stopping to check out some sites along the way we made our way across District 1. I had first heard of the Lunch Lady from an excellent food blog ( but it is actually Anthony Bordain who is responsible for her swell in popularity amongst international foodies since she was featured on his TV programme No Reservations. We arrived at the block in which we had read she was located and strolled through its lane-ways, stopping to peer at each street vendor. Finally, on the corner between two little streets, behind a cart  surrounded by little plastic chairs and tables we spotted a woman that we recognised from the photos on the net. Unlike most soup vendors, who specialise in one dish, the Lunch Lady makes a different soup every day of the week. We ordered two bowls and I had a couple of fresh spring rolls to accompany it. We spiced up the delicious rich broth with chilies and lime. The chicken leg was wonderfully tender, it fell away from the bone, and the firm texture of the noodles was a highlight. 

The bill for the meal came to an incredible 48,000 dong, which is about NZ$3. Yes, the Vietnamese dong exchange rate is amazing, it's pretty funny discussing how many million to get out when we go to the ATM. We are completely baffled by how cheap everything is in Vietnam, including food, beer (usually less than NZ$1 a bottle), accommodation, tours and entrance fees, even though we're surely being charged tourist prices.

I was so stuffed I could only waddle my way to the War Remnants Museum where we spent the afternoon reviewing the horrors of the American war. Admittedly it was a fairly one-sided presentation, after all it used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes, but this didn't take away from the very real human suffering displayed. One of the most effective exhibitions was the 'tiger cage' section, which contained examples of prison cells and torture techniques, including many photographs where the torturers had lovingly documented their work. The other extremely moving display was the work of photographer Phillip Jones Griffiths, showing the horrific effects of agent orange. And let's not forget that this hideous chemical was allowed to be manufactured in New Zealand by the American company Dow Chemicals. Shame. After you have seen images of birth defects and entire families subjected to lives of illness and deformity I don't know how it would be possible to defend the motives of the West, even if you believed in them in first place.

The next day we were booked in to learn yet more about the war. Our bus was headed for the Cu Chi, a village that literally went underground during the war. The result was over 250kms of tunnel network that was a Communist stronghold just 50kms from Saigon. A huge amount of the American war effort concentrated on trying to eradicate it, but for every strategy they came up with a counter strategy was devised. Sadly, the tunnel area itself was disappointing, so highly manicured that we felt it did not well reflect it would have been like. Our group was herded from site to site and given the opportunity to pose for identical photos (in foxhole, on tank etc). However our guide did avoid the 'tourist tunnel', which has been expanded to allow Westerners to fit through comfortably, instead allowing us to crawl through a tunnel still in actual size. This were so small we had to go on our hands and knees, rather a claustrophobic experience and it did make the mind boggle that people survived these conditions. Also on display were many different sort of traps that the Viet Cong used on the US soldiers, which did illustrate what a terrifying experience being a GI in Vietnam would have been. And for Nathan there was a real highlight - getting to shoot an AK-47 on full automatic! (I abstained).

The best part of the trip for me was actually the bus ride. We were seated right up the front behind the windscreen. It was very entertaining watching the driver negotiate the incredible Saigon traffic. Our guide explained that there are nine million people in Ho Chi Minh City and five million scooters. "It's not 'no money, no honey' here," he said, "it's not scooter, no honey." He spent a large part of the journey telling us about life in Vietnam. He told us that there is no such thing as gender equality in this country and women really are second class citizens. He even admitted that outside of work he treats women poorly. "If I don't," he said "they think I am strange. The think I am lady-boy. My friends and my family think I am lady-boy." While he refused to enter into an arranged marriage this was not an option for his sisters. "I feel sorry for my sister. It is very unlucky to be a woman in Vietnam." I was also impressed with the picture he painted of Vietnam before it was 'opened' to the free market in 1990. It's amazing to think what the older generation have gone through, first decades of war (before the Americans it was the French, and before them it was the Chinese) and now 20 years of huge social change.

We decided to spoil ourselves and went to La Fourchette for a wonderfully rich French meal. The food was great, particularly our mains which were the duck leg confit and the pork red wine stew. The pork was so tender it fell apart effortlessly and the new potatoes in the stew were delicious. The outside of the duck was beautifully crispy and served with incredible garlic fried potatoes. And we had wine (yes, wine!) to accompany it. Overall it was a really nice way to spend the last of the time we had in Ho Chi Minh, a city we feel offers us a great promise for the rest of Vietnam.
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Robyn on

Brought back some wonderful memories reading this blog - I just knew you would love Saigon and I'm sure the rest of Vietnam will continue to amaze.

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