Saigon, Vung Tau
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Yesterday, we met up with Tram and Lan-Tu (two of Tina's friends from last summer) at this cute coffee house called the Ciao Café, near Saigon Square. They both grew up in Vietnam but attended college in the U.S. We’ve all gotten along really well and I already feel so comfortable around them that they feel like old friends of mine. Tina and I had coconut ice cream in coconut shells with paper umbrellas sticking out – very pretty but not as sweet as we’re used to. The menu hosted the usual array of fresh fruit juice and yogurt drinks that I’ve come to adore. I can’t get enough of the delicious fresh fruit juice here – they just stick guava or watermelon or mango into a juicer and hand you the glass. Yummy, clean and healthy.
After the café, we ventured into Saigon Square with Tram’s friend who is known for her top-notch bargaining skills. Tram, Lan-Tu and I bought these beautiful sundresses with a watercolor flower print, and I picked up the entire "Friends" series for Lisa for $9. Whenever I found something I liked, the girls would send me away and bargain for me, guaranteeing a better price every time.
After shopping, Tina and I walked through the gates of the “Independence Palace,” (aka: “Reunification Palace”), past the tanks of the former North Vietnamese and into the building that served as the South Vietnamese President’s home until the fall of 1975, when its takeover signaled the official end to the Vietnam War. This building is, effectively, a time capsule because the rooms, furnishings and grounds have been left as they were the day the North Vietnamese invaded. The 70s furnishings and underground bunkers with strategy maps, the Jeeps and a helicopter on the property brought the past so close it was chilling. Tina and I rested on the roof deck for awhile and talked about the war’s effect on our families. Both of her parents left the country, while my dad flew in the opposite direction to fight in the conflict.
Finally, we finished up the day across the street at our favorite restaurant, Quan Au Ngon, for dinner. We had noodles and pork, papaya salad, Vietnamese pancake and sweet sticky rice with mung bean dumplings. Once again, perfection. I am really going to miss the abundance of fresh, cheap food when I leave here.
Currently, I’m sitting under an umbrella on the beach in Vung Tau with Tina, Tram and Lan-Tu! Dad was stationed here for awhile. Like the guidebook says, it’s not picturesque enough to justify a flight around the world, but it’s your best bet if you can only schedule a day trip in the Saigon area. To get here, we took a ferry down the Saigon River, which opens to the South China Sea, and then a taxi from the ferry dock. In the taxi, we passed a giant Jesus statue, a real oddity given that it’s the largest sculpture in the area and the country is mainly Buddhist.
Right now, we are the only tourists on this particular stretch of “Back Beach.” I guess most are at the private resort beaches. We swam for a couple of hours this morning in water so warm I continued sweating while floating in it. Something in the water prickled our skin the whole time, but we could never see anything in the water. No one developed any rashes or signs of sea lice, so we stayed in. I noticed that people play in the water the same way they would at home. Siblings squabbled over water toys; boyfriends splashed their shrieking girlfriends, parents helped their little ones to wade close to the shore.
We were repeatedly harassed by groups of men who assumed we were all American and had no clue that everyone in our group (except me) spoke Vietnamese. Tram kept telling them off and it was hilarious to watch their startled expressions. The kids all wanted to say hi to me because I look so American, and the girls relayed compliments to me, telling me that everyone was admiring my pale skin. Finally, I’ve found a place where my skin meets the cultural standards of beauty! Many Vietnamese women completely cover their skin because any hint of a tan suggests that the person works in the fields like a peasant, which is considered undesirable. I have seen women walking down the street wearing straw cone hats, a veil over their neck, elbow-length black gloves, sleeves and pants. It’s over 90 degrees outside with high humidity. How do they stand it? I guess the way so many American women tolerate walking around hungry all day. That’s the price of beauty here and they’re willing to pay it.
In any case, my super pale skin, has attracted even more unwanted attention here than it usually brings me in the U.S., but for a more flattering reason. Several times, Vietnamese people (mostly men) have taken pictures of me without my permission. Now I know what it feels like to be Julia Roberts, running from the paparazzi. People have stepped across my path to snap a photo of me, and once, a guy posed near me but his friend turned the camera at the last minute and took me instead. While no one has touched me or said anything to me, it feels invasive and makes me uncomfortable.
Lunch, which we ordered and ate on the beach, was a phenomenal plate of fresh mussels in tamarind sauce, fried calamari, fish in a clay pot with rice and some greens and fresh guava and sugar cane pieces. I’m now officially addicted to the latter, which I’ve learned to eat by chewing on them, swallowing the juice, and then spitting out the cane itself. The food in Vietnam is quickly becoming my favorite aspect of our trip. It’s delicious and so cheap.