Ho Chi Minh City

January 17

Chocolate croissants on the Mekong Express

Before heading to Saigon, Michele rushed over to the local bakery and got a bag of fresh croissants. A taste of decadent colonialist influence as we crossed borders…but a delightful treat for a long bus ride.

Dropped off on a Ho Chi Minh street in the middle of urban chaos, we chose the driver who seemed to know where we wanted to go and sure enough, we ended up at the Hotel Continental. We settled in, after some rearrangements (I wanted the Graham Greene experience!), moving to a corner room looking out on the National Theater plaza and Dong Khoi street.


To slow down the pace a bit and get a feel for this corner of town, we took a table outside the hotel. I sipped Singha beer and Michele a gin and tonic while we listened to Que Sera Sera over the speaker system. A nice fatalistic message in a communist country that yearns for a market economy.

After wandering down Dong Khoi, we sat at the river front and watched the Dinner Cruise boats compete for customers. Business was slow. There were more rats than tourists at the water’s edge. We opted to stay on land for dinner. We chose a bistro that seemed to be straight out of the Vietnam war era, a two-story restaurant with open air seating upstairs. Yet after dinner, on the route to the hotel it was clear we were in a very different world. Dong Khoi was the 5th Ave of Ho Chi Minh City with swanky stores, pricey coffee shops and high-end hotels.

2 P1010583

Hotel Continental Saigon

132-134 Don Khoi Street, District 1

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Email: continentalhotel@vnn.vn

January 18

A Splash of Puppets

 Breakfast service spread out across a large dining room was excessive. Grey haired travelers packed the tables in the courtyard, making it appear a bit like a Vietnamese version of the Marigold Hotel. So the question had to be asked, “What are we doing here?”. Rather than contemplate the metaphysical, we heard our stomachs growling so we plunged into the smorgasbord.

A late start meant we reached Notre Dame and the Museum during lunch hour so we paid to enter the zoo. If Vietnam had an ASPCA, they should be shutting down the pathetic institution for cruelty to animals great and small. The only creatures appearing to have a good time were the love bird couples hanging out in quiet spots around the grounds. One lone gibbon did have an island all to himself, and I realized he might be the only monkey/ape I would see on this trip. We had nixed the Gibbon Experience in Laos due to safety concerns and our peace of mind. (Why pay $400 to stay in a shack in a tree, and plunge along questionably rigged zip lines that any wild gibbon in his right mind would stay miles away from?)

We backed away from the doomed menagerie and retreated into the Museum of Vietnamese culture and artifacts. We lingered around the exihibits so we could attend the Water Puppet Show. And it was magical and surprisingly hilarious. Like street theater it was right up close and personal, with dragons squirting the audience, and frolicking fish splashing the front rows. The humor in many scenes was infectious, as the Japanese tourists up front could not keep from laughing hysterically. Once the show was over, the actors took a bow, wading out in the pool from behind the curtain looking like flood victims. Apparently, this art form started when flooding hit a village and since the show must go on, the performers waded in.

Finding a safe walking route is a challenge, and often you are faced with obstacle courses. I carried a mini-LED light to blink at drivers at “cross walks”. Hundreds of mopeds and motorcycles rush through intersections and no walk signals to be seen. Pedestrians are on their own. We realized that the only strategy is to head into the mayhem with fierce resolve. To hesitate is to tempt fate. The system works on predictability and mopeds anticipate your trajectory..and plan accordingly. If you freak out, that throws the flood of mopeds into damage control. Making our way to the Notre Dame Cathedral was a challenge in navigation, and Michele, the titular catholic in the family, said a few Hail Marys.


At the Continental, our laundry came back pressed and in plastic bags almost like new, and our train tickets were delivered to our door. Michele has worked miracles herself. Hail Michele!

January 19

A Crooners Return

 Good Morning Vietnam brought an orchestra to the steps of the National Theater, and just like a drive-in movie theater, scooters pulled up behind the rows of seats to watch. We had free balcony seats looking out from our French windows.

First thing out the hotel door, we made sure we bought tickets to an event at the National Theater so we could get inside. Prices were exorbitant but Michele was on a mission.


The Saigon Art Museum is housed in two old French colonial houses. Filtered light came in through shuttered windows along long hallways. The silence was seductive. Not a patron or tourist in sight. The art ranges from social realism, to abstraction with a few startling nudes in between. Once you get past the heroic mythology of the social realism and anti-colonialism permeating certain rooms, you can wander room to room without any interference and appreciate recent and past expressions in various mediums. Art was for sale in the back courtyard and we bought a few tiny sketches. The large paintings of nude Vietnamese women seemed destined to appeal to those enthralled by an exotic orientalist perspective complete with the allure of seductive beauty.

When I suggested a cross town walk, the Chalon district did not seem quite so far on the map. We had survived several boulevard crossings, why not go for broke. Given the looks in our direction, I do not think some of the neighborhoods we trekked through had seen an American visitor in a while. Hungry and hot we found a lunch spot. We were the only foreigners. We pointed in the direction of what looked great on the next table over.


Gaining some sense after our energy was restored, we jumped in a tuk-tuk to the Chalon Temple. The light of the temple courtyard traces the incense smoke spiraling up past dark wood beams. The chanting vibrated in the muggy still air. Fruits and vegetables were neatly arranged near the sacred relics as supplicants ignored the interruption of an intrusive clicking camera.

Michele had been concerned about the proper attire for our evening at the National Theatre, trying on inexpensive but colorful dresses as we wandered across town finding multiple clothing shops. On entering the performance hall, and to our relief, it was clear attire was casual…actually very casual. On stage appeared a live orchestra and an aging Perry Como style Vietnamese-American crooner. The backdrop was a huge video screen filled with flowers and leaves moving in a gentle breeze. Once the music started, we were feeling a bit culturally discombobulated. Was this a sample of 60’s Saigon? Good Evening, Vietnam! We headed out for dinner (after rubbing elbows with the Ho Chi Minh monied elite), and ended up at the only restaurant nearby open late, The Bier Garden. The seats were occupied by aging European men drinking alone. I had a flashback to a Manila restaurant, mid-80’s where a highly recommended goulash was served but the crowd of aging males broke into a very mean Uberland del Ales. This Bier Garden was beginning to show signs of such decay.

By the time we returned to the hotel, signs of the two courtyard wedding receptions had vanished.


January 20th

Toasting the town on the Rex Hotel rooftop

With almost a full day before the overnight train to Hoi An, our ambitious plan was cover two temples, a palace and one rooftop bar. Tran Hy Do temple held massive figures honoring past military leaders as saints. Devotees were leaving offerings, stroking a wooden horse, releasing gold fish into a cistern “pond” and placing turtles in a tank after inscribing messages on their shells. Having raised turtles I was a tad judgmental…these creatures were piled in a hell hole that seemed anything but sacred.


Xa Loi was quiet during lunch hour, but somewhat haunted by the history of President Diem storming the gates and killing monks.

A last minute decision to tour the Palace (x-US Embassy) was brilliant since the site is outrageous in many dimensions. From the basement bomb proof communications room to the upper level Rat Pack style play room, it is testament to entrenched and corrupt power with a touch of privileged decadence to add to the glimmer. One can stand on gleaming marble and look down on the palace grounds entrance where North Vietnamese tanks rolled over embassy gates as the propped-up nation toppled.


Food for thought…but we were out of there to seek lunch. By chance we wandered into a destination luncheon place, Nha Hang Ngon, where we sampled our first Banh Xeo crepe …complete with eating instructions through pantomime from our waiter.

Michele’s persistence got us to the Rex Hotel rooftop bar to sip a drink and reflect on the various characters who took in this view over the years. Not hard to imagine the crazy journalists slinging back tales and drinks as all hell broke loose around them.


Replenished with pastries, we braced ourselves for the rush to our train cabin. With a plan of attack, we pressed for a prime pole position to race to the car and claim our territory, or bunks in this case. No need though for any hyperventilation since all was well. We staked out our berth without rolling over anyone. Our cabin mates were two young Swiss women with whom we chatted into the night until settling into our private spaces.


Unfortunately, the train proceeded to run into someone. A sudden braking and abrupt stop dislodged baggage and tossed people around including a baby in the cabin next to us who screamed. Stewards moved through the car with stacks of white towels…and in a few minutes we were moving. No investigation by authorities. We had a schedule to keep.