Ho Chi Minh City ~ The Motorbike Capital of the World

HCMC moves like a gasoline generated river, ceaseless and smelly. Honking, belching black smoke, weaving between pedestrians and buses, the motorbikes live according to individual rules. There isn’t enough public transit, bikes are cheap and small and everybody needs to get somewhere. There’s a certain amount of city romance to the congestion. You can depend on the traffic, on the smell, on the horns.

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Western Food Paradise in Ho Chi Minh City

Perhaps because of the heavy influence of American troops from the war, perhaps because of the massive amount of transient backpackers funneling in on night buses, perhaps because the locals are interested in Western Cuisine, or perhaps because all the best Vietnamese food is elsewhere, HCMC is a destination for world cuisine. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to eat all the places that looked interesting, instead, I went the comfort food route. After all, it had been a month of focusing on Vietnamese food, I was ready for cheese!

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At La Cantina (175 Pham Ngo Lau), they had a decent offering of Mexican, but also an extensive Vietnamese section. Enchiladas were fine and hit the spot for which cheese was missing.

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Chucks Burgers (27 Tran Nhat Nuat) is hard to find and easy to eat. A guy from California, Charlie, moved back to his heritage homeland and brought his American food with him. This place was REAL good. They do BBQ’s every other Sunday. Take a taxi here, too difficult to find walking.

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You can never escape noodles and rice. This was my roadside lunch on the way to Cu Chi tunnels. It was very salty.

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Sticking with rice/noodles, these are rice flour dumplings, and a pork stick from Nha Hang Ngon (160 Pasteur). It was okay, but not as good as its Hanoi counterpart. The food and service wasn’t as good as Quan An Ngon in Hanoi.

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Pizza by the slice at ESPY Pizza (154 Cong Quynh) was amazing. This picture doesn’t do justice, we ordered a whole pie before, but ate it before I remembered my camera. It’s perfect Jersey Shore boardwalk, suburban Northeast pizzeria style. Recommended.

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Allez Boo, on the main corner of Pham Ngo Lau street, has a tropical decor and friendly staff. This chocolate shake tasted like a Wendy’s Frosty. We mixed ketchup and orange spicy sauce for dipping the potato skins. They also offer hookah service with comfy charis, a perfect place to chill and people watch through their giant doors.

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At Le Lay, somewhere on Bui Ven street, they had an enormous menu with one woman in a tiny kitchen seemingly performing miracles upon each order. This eggs, bacon, bread and fries plate was about 40,000 dong (2$).

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At Schneider’s Bakery (27 Han Thuyen) they have a nice selection of home made breads and pastries.

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A small Greek diner near my hostel provided some nice flavors of the Mediterranean with a lime spritzer, kebab, moussaka, spinach lasagna and dolmas.

The Garden of Catholic Guilt

Wandering in Saigon, I came across a magnificent Pepto-Bismol colored church. It had a lovely flower garden complete with statues of all the Stations of the Cross. They were pretty brutal, as anyone who is familiar with the Easter rites of Good Friday well knows. Here’s a few samples: try to find the Roman soldier spearing Jesus, or the bald man flaying Jesus, or Jesus falling for the first time.

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Cu Chi Tunnels

North of Ho Chi Minh City lies the extraordinarily extensive Vietcong tunnel system. It is the longest hand dug tunnel in the world, at over 250km of connecting labyrinthine clay tubes. They used these tunnels for their guerilla fight against the French and Americans. They planted hidden explosives and spiked trap doors among the fallen foliage. They used the discarded foreigner’s trash to mask the scent of their ventilation tubes. The walked with their shoes on backwards to confuse trackers. They successfully practiced the “hit and run” style of warfare. Our tour guide, Billy, said the war was like an extended episode of Tom and Jerry. Vietcong (Jerry), smaller and quicker, with a small, impenetrable hole in which to hide; and America (Tom) bigger and increasingly desperate. Vietnamese would sneak into USA camps at night and steal supplies (probably also cheese, just like Jerry would). The tunnels were tight, crawling room only in places. We could only do about 120 m. I would have explored more if they let us, but that’s only because I know they were unoccupied. I can’t imagine the dread of living there, constantly aware of possible attacks from above, or the immeasurable fear of looking for enemies hunched over in the dark inside their tunnel. It was an impressive exhibit, concluded with the chance to fire (35,000 dong per bullet) any of the seven major rifles used in the war. Our tour guide fought for the ARVN, and after 1975, being a lieutenant, spent 6 years in a prison “re-education” camp. It’s history, and rarely is it possible to so tangibly feel the experience first hand.

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You can see how low the man in front of me is crouched.

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There was a good bit of apprehension masked behind that excited smile.

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The VC traps were home made in appearance but viciously effective. There were about eight different varieties, all involving spikes in sensitive areas of the body.

Roadside lunch in a fly full environment.

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We also visited a temple that is dedicated to three different deities. It’s hard to understand from broken English information, but the meditation ceremony involved instruments, incense and incantations. The adherents were mostly older and seemed accustomed to tourists walking around during their quiet time. It was much grander inside than I was expecting.

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