Here's a day on our own in HCMC! This one comes with my pledge to make it snappy, already, since the last post was a bit of a slog!
Start the day off the Viet way, with pho. This one, pho tai from pho 24, was very very very good. Perhaps the best we've had. We added an egg to ours, because we have a long history of liking things with raw eggs added to them. Pho tai is made with thinly sliced raw beef - don't worry, the beef cooks in the soup, deliciously.
Not pictured - our fried egg rolls, also superb but sort of come across looking a lot like egg rolls.
Full and happy, we set out to walk the short distance past Ben Thanh market to the Reunification Palace. Walking in HCMC takes perseverance - not because of the oppressive heat, or the stifling humidity, or the air pollution - no, it's because every two and a half feet you have to dodge cyclo drivers or motorcycle taxis wanting to drive you wherever you need to go. Even if it's around the corner.
I just couldn't bring myself to barter for what our book styles the "quintessential mode of Vietnamese transport" - mostly because I was afraid I'd look like this:
A big white belly in a wheelbarrow.
We did arrive eventually at the Reunification Palace, a bevy of cyclo drivers shadowing us on the street (seriously, I think there were four at one point), but it wasn't quite open yet. So we passed the time with this coconut, bought from one of several vendors in front of the closed gates.
You'd think this would be delicious - a cold young coconut hacked open for our thirst-quenching pleasure - but it wasn't. It tasted sort of like thick, sweetish cruciferous water. We weren't big fans.
When the gates of the palace opened, we pushed our way through with a large Korean tour group. The Reunification Palace was built in 1966 where the French Norodom Palace stood prior to a 1962 assassination attempt on then-President Diem. (Diem was killed in a military coup in 1963, so he never lived in this building.) The Norodom Palace was damaged heavily in the attempt, so the building was torn down and rebuilt.
It looks like a college library. Definitely a product of late 1960s - early 1970s architecture.
Your entrance fee to the Reunification Palace includes a guided tour. The building is sort of hilarious inside. I mean no disrespect, but it reminds me strongly of Graceland. The guides are proud to point out the "lavish" decorations - the murals, the mother of pearl, the elephant foot trash cans...
The whole building is like a time warp back to 1974. Shag carpeting, low-slung couches, wood paneling, and all.
There were even two bars, though we couldn't help but think the government of South Vietnam probably should have had other things on their minds between 1966 and 1975?
The views from the building are quite nice, though. The palace does have the feeling of being somewhat removed from the craziness and bustle outside.
There are reminders of which half of the country eventually came out on top. The most celebratory, perhaps, is the gilded bust of Ho Chi Minh that greets you in the briefing room near the start of the tour.
And from the rooftop bar and dance floor, where you can buy pop and bottled water, there's a view of the helicopter pad and markers showing where two North Vietnamese bombs blew holes in the building in April of 1975, just before the fall of Saigon.
The tour ends after a walk through the frankly creepy command center in the basement. We spent some time watching another propaganda film and wandered through a room containing lots of memorabilia - pictures of modern Vietnamese leaders with heads of state from around the world.
On the way out, almost all the way to the street, there's a tank. We were told that this is the tank that broke down the gates of the Palace on April 30, 1975.
There are a couple of problems here. First - another of these tanks sits in Hanoi. Second - this tank is actually the one that re-staged the breaking down of the walls for the TV cameras, not the one that did the actual breaking. Mediated reality at its best.
We left the Reunification Palace feeling not particularly wiser. We were hungry for a snack, though, so another stop was made for a banh mi. Not a very good one, but a banh mi nonetheless.
I think it was just because we were getting on towards midafternoon, but the bread wasn't so great and the stuffing selection was lacking at this little place down the block from the War Remnants Museum.
The War Remnants museum itself is hard to describe. It's HCMC's biggest tourist attraction. It's very hard to visit, but not something that should be passed up.
It brought me very close to tears. There were eyewitness accounts of the massacre at My Lai; pictures of people horribly burned by napalm and deformed by Agent Orange; life-size recreations of the horrific conditions at the French prisons of Con Son Island; and, perhaps most surreally, preserved fetuses with birth defects caused by dioxin.
Obviously, war is never pretty, or desirable. But it's doubly hard to see the horrors of the Vietnam war documented so starkly, especially when we're at war again right now.
There is of course no mention of any atrocities directed towards Americans in Vietnam; the Hanoi Hilton is made out to be a place of relaxation, where captured POW's were treated well and fairly. This is the way the Vietnamese government glosses over their participation in the war.
We stayed at the museum until we were thrown out at closing time. I was dazed on the walk home. Husbear had to help me with street crossing even more than usual.
The conventional wisdom is that the Vietnamese are over what happened in their country just over thirty years ago. The majority of the population was born post-1975. But we still saw people - more than a few - with deformities likely caused by dioxin.
I looked more closely at people on the street on the walk home. I guess I was surprised that nobody tried to punch us on our trip, but everyone was welcoming, smiling...
We walked through a sculpture garden filled with families out for a late afternoon stroll.
By the time we got close to our hotel, we were starting to get pretty hungry. Hai, our wonderfully friendly guide from the previous day, had invited us out to eat a little later on, but snacks were in order since our meeting was still several hours down the road.
Luckily, as we turned the corner onto D De Tham, we spotted this woman making banh mi at a furious pace.
We bought two and brought them up to our room along with a couple of beers purchased at the Hong Hoa's grocery room.
These were quite good - good bread, good meats, great pickles, and a lot of spicy peppers just like Husbear likes them.
We also munched on our big bag o' fruits from the previous day's Ben Thanh trip. Some of these fruits were really difficult to get into without a knife! There we are, all hacking away, trying to poke our thumbs in so we can peel a milkfruit...
Would you like to compete in a quick "match the fruit" game? In this picture, find the following fruit:
I'll even give you a head start! Here's what a rambutan looks like on the inside. (No, not in jail. The interior of the fruit.)
I know this is sort of sacrilegious, but honestly, neither of us were huge fans of any of these fruits. They were interesting, particularly to look at, but their flavors were overall too subtle for us. Perhaps trying them a few more times will lead to the rambutan DT's so many people seem to have? (Whoa, whoa, whoa there missy. Speak for yourself. Personally, I was a huge fan of the custard apple - the ripe one at least, and I could pop little rambutans all day. Also, the mangosteen makes a strong case for itself -L. Pants).
Of course, we are experiencing strong physical withdrawal symptoms for certain other Vietnamese foods. Some of these are the ones Hai sought out for us later that night.
We met at the Rex Hotel, where the foreign press corps were briefed by the American military during the war. Now it has a beautiful rooftop bar and several restaurants. We weren't going to be eating anything that fancy, though - Hai was taking us for banh xeo.
It's an insanely delicious, crispy yet soft crepe filled with your choice of ingredients. Most traditional is pork and shrimp and bean sprouts.
There's a street called Dinh Cong Trang that's the epicenter of these crepes in Saigon. We ordered three, which was probably overkill, and tucked in.
You take a chunk of pancake, wrap it in lettuce with some herbs (a basily one and a minty one) and dip in fish sauce. There's an interplay of textures and flavors and temperature... oh, jeebus, writing about this is making me SO HUNGRY.
The women cooking the banh xeo sit out streetside, because making these crepes takes an extremely hot skillet and is overall a meltingly hot business.
Off to a great start, we walked out of the restaurant and down the street. Husbear was telling Hai that what he really wanted to try was hot vit lon, otherwise known as balut.
This is a culinary item that most Westerners have a lot of trouble with. It's actually made an appearance on Fear Factor, and, apparently, on Survivor. It is a duck egg, containing a duck embryo just days from hatching. In Vietnam, the Philippines, and Cambodia they're considered delicacies, and people walk the streets pushing carts filled with them.
So, here goes. Hai was rather surprised that we wanted to try them! I think he thought we were cute.
They're steamed and kept hot in a basket lined with corn husks. You eat them with rau ram, a strong-flavored herb, and perhaps a little salt. (And don't worry - if you really want to try them, they can be bought right here in the States!)
You crack the top with a spoon and suck out the warm broth on top. The juice itself tastes a lot like duck confit. It's the texture that really got me - that and the fact that I pulled a tiny, featherless duck out of my egg with my spoon. Eesh.
You may want to skip this picture of Husbear's hot vit lon.
It wasn't bad! I was floored. The texture, while a little difficult, didn't disgust me like I feared. I would eat another one of these, though perhaps not anytime soon. (I thought it was totally yummy and I notice girlie failed to mention that I had to finish her egg for her... -L. Pants).
Next... a drink to wash that duck egg down! How about nuoc mia da?
This is a refreshing sugarcane drink sold all over Vietnam. It's wonderful freshly pressed - a little sweet, lightly vegetably, and totally refreshing. These are good. We can buy nuoc mia in cans here in Austin, but I imagine it's not going to be the same thing at all.
Husbear thinks this next item will be a real crowd-pleaser... I'm not so sure. We walked down the street to Huong Rung 2, the second outpost of the restaurant where we'd eaten field mouse and eel the previous day. Husbear wanted...
Palm worms. Duong chen bo, I guess. These were probably the size of my thumb, and we ordered two. I'm not sure why we ordered two, as I was 80 percent certain I wouldn't be trying them. When they arrived at the table, they erased my last little bit of doubt. No freaking WAY was I putting that thing in my mouth.
Their appearance didn't stop Husbear. No siree.
The report? They tasted to him mostly of the garlic and butter they were fried in. He said the heads weren't bad - they were crunchy, while the innards were sort of goopy and not particularly desirable.
I barely managed not to throw up on the table.
From here, we went and ate a couple more normal things - some banh cuon (rice paper wrappers filled with pork) and che, a sweet icy dessert with mung beans and brightly colored tapioca bits. But, because I love you guys, I'm just going to leave you with this last picture of Husbear about to eat a palm worm.
Hai, thanks for showing us a great night on the town! We are in your debt.
Tomorrow (chronologically) - we take an early morning boat into the Mekong Delta, where we see coconut candy manufacturing among other things.