DAY 1 was fairly active. We fought off cyclo drivers all the way to Dong Khoi. These are bicycles with high saddles and a cart on front for transporting sitting tourists. They’re usually very cheap—however we did get “taken for aide” on our first one—lesson learned. A cyclo tour of Saigon can be fun and slightly alarming, as these bicycles vie with innumerable scooters and other traffic for the slightest openings on roads. The “drivers” work hard and it must be tiring work to earn a few dollars a day.
Dong Khoi is home to more expensive hotels and was the seat of French power during colonial days. The buildings are magnifient, from the Metropole Hotel to the Opera. It leads to the river and offers a good walking sightseeing tour, starting with the centrally located Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame’s brick construction is misleading; it’s actually covered in tile, shipped from France, to serve France’s colonial population a century ago. It is otherwise fairly unremarkable, except for some stained glass and the fine public square it fronts—as well of course for the sheer absurdity of a Catholic cathedral being planted four-square in the middle of a Buddhist country.
Across the street is a rather striking central post office, designed by Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame. I should think that the Stalinist worker statues out front were not part of Monsieur Eiffel’s original design. Inside however the high ceilings and tiled floors keep everything cool. There are banks of public phones in wooden boxes at the entrance, and large ceramic maps of Indochina. A large portrait of Ho Chi Minh now gazes at all who enter, probably placed there following the fall of Saigon to the Communists in 1975.
It was plenty hot, probably the high ‘80’s, sunny and muggy. We walked to the river and stolled along, watching a few boys jump in and out of the probably dirty water. As there aren’t many bridges, barges takes hundreds of commuters, most on motor scooters, across each day. We window shopped a little, finding a gallery that sold Vietnam War-era propoganda posters, colorful, simple illustrations of soldiers and citizens working together for the homeland, copied onto rice paper. These were wonderful, and we made a mental note to return there, on our final day of our journey two weeks hence, to purchase some for ourselves and friends.
Susan then navigated us to the Hindu Mariamann Temple, back closer to our hotel. We sat in the coloful, mythology-filled, shaded courtyard for a while, watching the devoted visit the various mini temples within the compound to pray, touching sticks of incense to their foreheads before offering it to to the Gods.
Then, home for a nap—but not before setting the alarm for a 5 pm wakeup. The jet lag, a full 12-hour difference, was crushing.
The next day I woke earlier than Susan, as is usual, and walked around the block for coffee. I chatted with a local who called himself Eddie. He has family in California, worked at the Sheraton Hotel, and spoke good English.
Later we took cyclos to the Temple of the Jade Emperor, an early 20th century pagoda north of the old quarter. As with every temple we saw, it was colorful, intricate, elaborate… and in use, as Buddhists lit incense sticks or even long, spherical ropes of incense which hung from the ceiling and burned for as long as a month. Fantastic gods, made of papier mache, sat on elaborate thrones gazing down on us and the ever-present food offerings: bowls of fruit, usually, though twice we saw whole barbequed pigs. We sat in the courtyard, with its two ponds—one filled with small turtles (occasionally plucked to have a prayer written on their shell, before returning to the fetid water), another with holy lotus plants. We chatted with a local. I asked if the woman with him was his wife; he replied no, she was his “gray area.” Apparently taking girlfriends is common among married men.
We walked to the Botanical Gardens there, which also contains a zoo and the fine Museum of Vietnamese History. Families lolled in the shade of the pretty gardens, it was nice to see so many out enjoying themselves together. We walked to see the elephants, and over a neat bamboo footbridge which took us over various wildebeests. We observed a man, not an employee, climb down into one of the beasts compounds and up a tree to retrieve fruit, which he placed in a plastic bag before climbing down and back out! There were monkeys there, but as always, not enough monkeys for me. I love monkeys. We lunched in the park’s restaurant, a casual open-air affair, on rice with grilled pork and a can of beer ($4 for two, like just about every other meal we had in Vietnam), then explored the museum’s impressive collection of old pottery, wood carvings, furniture, clothing, musical instruments…
Then it was back home, stopping for iced coffee and the odd sights that took our fancy, liked this mildewed stucco'd colonial wall with bamboo, which I found beautiful and fascinating, a perfect marriage of cultures.
That evening we met our travel mates for the first time.