Day 2 – We woke up early to get ready for our day tour and was surprised that HCMC was already fully bright at 6am in the morning. The sky light looked comparable to 7.30am in Singapore. We washed up and headed downstairs, ready for the tour. The day tour costs USD8 and can be conveniently charged to our total hotel bill with Chanh. When we arrived at the lobby, to our second surprise of the morning, our hotel stay actually included free breakfast!
We sat down in the kitchen behind the hotel lobby and was served 2 sunny-side-up eggs, 1 french loaf, 1 orange (or was it lime?) juice, 1 cup of coffee and a huge bunch of bananas. Eggs were standard, but the rest was full of surprises. The french loaf was surely a remnant of the days as a French colony, but this one was injected with a local flavour. The bread was tough but crispy on the outside, yet very soft on the inside. This made it much easier to chew and to swallow. I cut open part of the bread and put in slices of eggs with half-cooked yolks. I then sprinkled the eggs with a bottle of condiment which Chanh claimed to be ‘pepper’. This combination tasted great! Soft, chewy and flavourful. On closer examination, the ‘pepper’ bottle actually contained a salt and pepper mixture, which explains why it was able to enhance the taste of my french-loaf-egg-sandwich.
The coffee tasted great too! Strong and thick, just the way I liked it, and certainly much better than the Nescafe I have been drinking every morning for the past dunno how many years. I would later come to learn that Vietnam is actually the world’s second largest exporter of coffee, after Colombia. I enjoy drinking coffee but I’m not an expert at differentiating the taste. All I can say is that Vietnam coffee is good.
I will talk more about the orange (lime?) juice in Day 3. On to the bananas! Raw looking green bananas with a lot of black spots on them. The type that I would not choose if I was buying bananas at the supermarket. Dear2 tried the banana anyway, and she found it good! Funny how everything in Vietnam tasted good. It was different from the bananas we have in Singapore, but different in a good way. I can’t really tell the difference becos I don’t really like bananas to begin with. Maybe Dear2 can describe the difference better.
And finally we’re on our way. Our tour guide came to pick us up at our hotel and we followed him to a bus that’s going to take us on our day trip. The bus would become fully packed with ppl from other hotels joining in the tour. As a result, the tour guide had nowhere to sit and had to bring in a plastic chair which he placed at the center aisle of the bus, near the door. Our guide, if I remembered correctly, his name is Minh. He is a survivor from the Vietnam war where he worked as an interpreter between the Vietnamese and English language. During the trip, he would share with us his many experiences from the war time and the many events that took place from after the war until modern today. He also shared with us his beliefs and ideals, and how valuable it is to have peace and happiness. From his talks, I was able to appreciate the hardship that the Vietnamese ppl have went through, and I was also able to feel his sense of patriotism towards his country. I was truly touched by his story.
We made our first stop at this handicapped handicraft factory for a visit as well as for a much needed toilet break. Here, we saw a large group of ppl with disabilities, mainly in the lower limbs. They were working at producing works of art shown in the picture below. Some were hand painted, but the really fascinating ones was those made using egg shells. The craftsmen skillfully pasted the crushed egg shells on the painting board, replicating a template piece solely by eye. Subsequently, the surface was polished until a uniform shine was achieved and the product can be sent to the marketplace for sale. It really goes to show how ppl with a deficiency in one area can be highly proficient in another.
Continuing with our journey, we travelled along the highway further out into the suburbs. Here, we began to observe more open spaces and rice fields. Occasionally, some cows can be seen in the fields, but they always seemed to be resting and not doing any plowing. Maybe plow time was much earlier in the morning? Frequently seen next to cows were these white feathered birds with long beaks and tall slim legs. I don’t know what species it belonged to and so that’s about the best description I can give. The bird does seemed to be feeding on some kind of insect (fleas?) on the cow. It would be interesting to find out more about this cow-bird relationship.
We reached our first main destination, Cao Dai Temple. According to the guide, this religion currently holds about 2.5 million believers around the world and even have a temple in USA. For more information about this religion, you can check out Wikipedia. We arrived at 11.50am, just before the daily prayers at 12noon. The temple itself was interesting from an architectural point of view, but I wasn’t very impressed by the prayers ceremony. It was, well, like a very typical religious ceremony. However, the exterior was quite impressive, with bright colours and a mixture of architectural symbols that seemed rather uncoherent. But Cao Dai represents a blend of different religions, so maybe that’s what the builders were trying to demonstrate with their temple design as well.
Soon after, we set off towards our next stop, lunch! We stopped at this small restaurant along some main road. The restaurant was managed in a very similar way to our cooked food stalls in kopitiams here. I ordered beef rice while Dear2 order some squids. Lunch was not included as part of the packaged fee so we had to pay for it. Food was decent but was priced at around VND40k which is very similar to Singapore pricing. For a restaurant out in the countryside, it certainly is making a big profit off tourists like us.
We arrived at our second main destination for the day, Cu Chi Tunnels. Again, for more details on this ‘tourist attraction’, please check out Wikipedia, or even Travel Wiki. Basically, it is supposed to be a site very active during the Vietnam war and now opened to public to educate ppl about the living conditions during that time. I thought the entire area felt too touristy and was more like an outdoor wax history museum. There were lots of exhibits, but everything felt rather fake and they looked more suitable for a city museum rather than an actual war site. For us, the highlight of this destination was the walk, or rather, crawl through an enlarged version of the tunnels used during the war. The tunnel was only 100m long, but the actual crawl inside felt much longer than that. Upon entering the tunnel, space became so constrained that there was just enough space to shuffle my feet. There were also upclimbs and downclimbs in the tunnels and the light bulbs were spoilt in some sections so we had to crawl forward in pitch black darkness. Also, the air was stale and humid, making breathing somewhat heavy. Having sufficiently experienced life in the tunnels, we exited the tunnel slightly before the end using one of the numerous emergency exits . It was tough. I really cannot start to imagine how the ppl back then lived in tunnels that were smaller than these during the war. At times like these, we can really appreciate the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
Another 2 more hours on the road took us back to HCMC and the end of the day tour. The time was about 7pm and we decided to head back to our hotel, which was walking distance away, for a small wash up before heading out for dinner. We had dinner at Pho 24, a restaurant chain selling pho, the traditional Vietnamese soup. It was yummy! And it was natural! The soup tasted so flavourful and yet didn’t leave our mouths and throats dry at night. This meant that the sweetness in the soup came from the long hours of preparation and boiling. Somehow, Singapore pho just doesn’t taste the same, I prefer truly Vietnamese local pho. I heard pho in Hanoi tastes even better! Can’t wait to visit Hanoi just to eat the pho.
After dinner, we had a stroll along the slightly less busy city streets. We went pass Ben Thanh again but did not go in. We continued walking and ended up at the Rex Hotel where we can also see the City Hall building, and a little bit further down, the Municipal Theatre. We had intended to visit these places during Day 1 but the rain prevented that. The night view was also nice, and it certainly had a different flavour from those typical pictures of these sites that we so often see in guide books. Too bad our dated Olympus camera from the 3.2 megapixels era couldn’t take any decent night photos. At the very least, we had those images tucked away as memories in our heads. We walked up Dong Khoi St and ended up at the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office. These famous buildings did look different at night, but we were preoccupied with other things. We noticed that the main entrance of the closed Post Office was a gathering place for Vietnamese youth and dating couples. Each couple was usually accompanied by their motorbike while they hugged, cuddled and enjoyed each others’ company after a hard day at work. We had stumbled upon a dating spot, what an unexpected find! We didn’t stay longer as we felt slightly insecure being the only foreigners amidst the mob of local lovebirds, so we hailed a taxi and headed back to our hotel.
To our horror, our hotel was closed! For a moment, we thought we were locked out. Was there a curfew that we didn’t know about? Oh no! Locked out in a foreign land, what were we going to do? Slight panic rose up our stomachs. Suddenly, Dear1 noticed something on the wall outside the hotel doors. A doorbell! Ding dong! And the ever present Chanh came to our rescue and opened the doors. We were saved. He explained to us that there was no curfew but just that he had to close the main doors for security reasons. We thanked Chanh for waking up just for us at around 11pm at night and we retreated back to our rooms for a good rest after a long day. Just before retiring, we booked our full day tour for the next day with Chanh, a trip to Mekong Delta.