17 August 2007

Travel: Saigon, Part 3

I started my walk in Pham Ngu Lao, an area popular with backpackers southwest of District 1. I sometimes get a little obsessive about following the guidebooks, and I was determined to find the exact start of the walking tour. Turns out there really isn't an exact start - you just begin in the Pham Ngu Lao area. Which I eventually did. First, however, I stepped out of the rain (and my plastic rain cover - street-bought for 20 cents - which seemed to increase my body temperature about 10 degrees) for another cup of coffee. It was my fourth of the day, but the first two were on my early flight while the third was with my breakfast. So, this really was the first indulgent cup of the day.

Vietnamese coffee is superb. The beans are roasted in butter (oh, the joy!), and the traditional way of preparing it is a cup at a time, using a stainless steel filter that sits atop the coffee cup itself. Because of the strength of the coffee (oh, such happiness!), it is often served as "white coffee", or with sweetened, condensed milk. A generous layer of thick milk is poured into the coffee cup, over which the filter containing the coffee grounds is placed, after which the hot water is poured in. The filter allows the water to very slowly pass through the ground beans and into the cup. Once the filter is empty, you remove it to find a steaming, black cup of coffee. A gentle stir of the spoon lifts the condensed milk from the depths of the cup, and you have a very sweet, very strong, delicious cup of coffee.

Vietnam features several fine types of coffee beans. I bought two kinds (along with a filter) at the huge Ben Thanh market (see below). They fill my little kitchen with the aroma of strong, strong coffee. Even those who don't like the taste of coffee would find the smell appealing. One of the most famous types of beans, a package of which came back to Singapore with me, is Chon, or weasel coffee. These beans are supposedly fed to special weasels and then collected from their excrement. I don't care how they get it, the coffee is fantastic. It was the most aromatic cup of coffee I have ever tried. So good is it that I had it straight up, not "white" or with sugar. I am hooked.

After my coffee break and a nice chat with two Brits who were spending the seven weeks before their move from England to Vancouver motorbiking through Vietnam, I finally took off on my walking tour. The first stop was to be a bar called Lost in Saigon, which is featured in several different portions of my Lonely Planet guide. Apparently, Lonely Planet hasn't been drinking in Saigon lately, as Lost in Saigon was closed about two years ago. I found the location with its washed-out sign, but its days of providing for thirsty patrons were over.

My walk took me northeast towards the Saigon River and to Ben Thanh Market, a huge indoor marketplace.
Built in 1914 and known to the French as Les Halles Centrales, the central cupola is 28 metres in diameter. And they pack a lot of stuff into the place. You can get anything from meals and drinks to prepared food to coffee to t-shirts to bespoke suits to souvenirs (and those ship models). The vendors are quite aggressive, and the place is very crowded, but if you are in the mood to shop, here is your place. Combined with outdoor markets in the surrounding streets, you are sure to find something of interest.

Not wanting to carry around any purchases, I left empty-handed and continued towards the river. The next stop was the Fine Arts Museum, which features art from across Vietnam. The pieces were as diverse as the country's landscape, featuring pastoral village scenes, representations of life centered around the water, and the energy of the bustling cities, as well as beautiful portraits of friends and family and a number of war-themed works. The building provides a nice setting for the art, with its classic yellow facade, high ceilings, and open walkways that looked out onto a central courtyard, which is used mainly as a parking area and badminton court. It is also quite functional as a shelter from a downpour.

The museum also houses an old, free-standing elevator, which essentially is a wooden box mounted on two rails and lifted by two rather thin-looking cables. It doesn't appear to have been used recently, but the car itself was in good condition.

Once the rain subsided, I was back out. My walk took me past street markets, grand old hotels and municipal buildings, and wide avenues that would look at home in the great cities of Europe, as I wound my way to the Notre Dame Cathedral. This neo-Romanesque structure features two square towers that climb 40 metres above street level. A large statue of the Virgin Mary presides over the square in front of the church. Inside, it is massive, with tributes along each wall to Vietnamese saints. Perhaps unique to this country, the statue of Christ inside featured a neon halo above his head. It was an interesting mix of classic and (gaudy?) modern.

Across the street is the old French-style post office, which was built in the late 1880s, about the same time as the cathedral. This still operates as the main post office in Saigon, and it was where I mailed my postcards. Interestingly, the cards I mailed from Saigon reached their destinations in much shorter times than cards mailed from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Communist efficiency?

Leaving the post office meant leaving the older, colonial history of the city behind for a while. It was time to turn to more recent history, that which for so many of you readers is much more familiar.

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