This morning, we had a fantastic breakfast at our hotel, the Palace Hotel Saigon. They had noodle soup (fish or pork), sticky purple rice, toast, omelets, silky, rich coffee, and tons of other options. The rice redefined sticky: it was like it had been cooked in glue!
After breakfast, we met in the lobby and walked to the center of Saigon. The buildings, old and new, were fascinating! There were beautiful French ones from the 1800s, historical ones from the war era, and glittering new ones built from glass and chrome.
There were so many people on scooters! Easily five for each person in a car. Some wore western-looking clothes, but others were dressed more traditionally. Many were wearing Non La (conical hats). Some street vendors were juicing fruits right on the sidewalk! The most exciting part was crossing the street. There are no breaks in scooter traffic, so you just walk steadily across in a small group while they zoom around you. It’s exhilarating, and actually pretty safe. Still, most intersections where there are tourists have special green-clad tourist police to protect visitors and help them cross. In the main big square at the center of the city, we saw about four different couples who were taking pictures because it was their wedding day. Our wonderful guide Hau told us that most couples in Saigon take pictures there for luck.
We visited the Catholic cathedral and the post office. The cathedral was gorgeous: red brick on the outside, stained glass and dark wooden pews within. The huge post office had clocks displaying the time in places around the world, soaring ceilings, a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and a shopping counter with souvenirs in the middle.
After we left the post office, our bus took us to the Reunification Palace. Before and during the war, it was a the residence of the the South Vietnamese president. It is the place where the famous picture of the communist tanks breaking through the gates was taken. We saw replicas of the tanks and learned about the history of the rooms inside where important meetings had been held. The furniture was fabulous! It was like Vietnamese-fusion-60s-mod furniture. After seeing the aboveground part of the palace, we went underground to see the secret rooms where important planning had happened during the war. Very eerie.
Afterwards, we had lunch at a famous restaurant called Pho 2000 where Bill Clinton ate in the 90s to normalize relations with Vietnam. The pho was excellent! When we had eaten our fill, we went across the street to the Ben Thanh market. It is the biggest market in Saigon, and Hau told us that no one who comes to the city is considered a real visitor until she has been there. It certainly lived up to the hype. It was so chaotic! Very crowded, with tiny aisles between stands. People were selling flowy pants (quite aggressively), shoes, T-shirts, handbags, and so much food! At every single shop, they would say, “Something for you, miss?” or “What you looking for?” I had never bargained before, but I learned quickly: I spent $15 on my first pair of pants, and only $5 on my second pair of virtually identical pants! Embarrassing, but at least I learned something. If you started negotiating and then tried to walk away because the shopkeepers would not lower their prices, they would grab your wrist and try to reason and plead with you. Sometimes it got to be very uncomfortable.
When we were finished shopping, we headed back to our hotel via bus for some relaxation time. We swam in the outdoor pool on the top floor. It was gorgeous! There was a wonderful view of the city and the Saigon river, and the pool itself was deliciously refreshing.
Later, a small group of us walked the few blocks down to the Saigon River. We watched the dining boats flow by languidly and the people sitting by the river. We even got to go up to the roof of the Hotel Majestic, which had a stunning view of the city, the river, and the lush forested area on the other side. Alethea even ordered coconut milk in coconuts for us to sip, which perfected the idyllic scene.
Back at the hotel, we loaded onto the bus, which took us out of District One, the nicer business district, and into District Three. There, we shared hot pot for dinner. It was boiling, but we ate eagerly despite the heat because it was so scrumptious. After dinner, the bus took us back to our hotel.
We all checked in by sharing our impressions of the day. Afterwards, some of us went to bed and some went on a short walk to see two beautiful old hotels. First, we went to the Rex, where war debriefings, dubbed the “Five O’Clock Follies” by journalists, were held every evening by American generals during the war. The rooftop had a breathtaking view of the bustling city. Alethea told us that it had been a hotbed of drinking, smoking, gambling, and prostitution for scared men during the war. Next, we went to the Hotel Continental Saigon, a gorgeous and romantic French building where “The Quiet American” is set.
Finally, we walked back to the hotel and went to sleep, totally exhausted. Truly an amazing first day.