Thursday, July 18, 2013


Day 5

Woke up feeling weak and lightheaded. It seemed like a slight fever but I really wanted to see the city center so I thought I would walk around but take it easy. It was a nice, cool day (well, cool meaning low 80s and cloudy) which was a welcome break from the heat in Cambodia. I hopped on the motorbike again as my friend’s brother dropped me off in front of the Reunification Palace, the former headquarters of South Vietnam and the mark of the end of the war as the North Vietnamese army crashed into the palace during the Fall of Siagon. There are numerous meeting rooms with plush chairs, offices with military maps, and communication rooms in the basement. My favorite room was the game room, still with domino sets stacked on a table in the corner.

Like a modern palace...

Even the higher-ups still need some games every now and then.

Walking around the city center was much more manageable, although again you need to look in all directions and people will ask you at every corner if you want a ride on their motorbike. I thought maybe some food would help me feel better, so I headed over to a café and had watermelon juice (yum!) and egg over noodles for breakfast. I did feel a little better, so I kept on walking to the Ben Tranh market, again filled with everything from silk to what I now knew to be fake electronics. Then I walked to the Saigon River and looked around the Bitexco Financial Tower. You can go up to the skydeck for a view of the city but given the price ($10) and the cloudy conditions, I decided to skip it. I walked back to towards the middle of the city center on the main street lined with 5-star hotels and name brands like Gucci. I guess there’s a significant gap between the rich and poor here too.

Silk in Ben Thanh Market

Bitexco Tower

I wandered around taking pics of the French architecture (left over from being a former French colony) including the Opera House, the Post Office, City Hall, and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon. I wanted to go inside the cathedral but it was closed for lunch, so I rested up in the nearby Saigon Post Office, another landmark building.

Me and Uncle Ho in front of City Hall

Notre Dame Cathedral (in Saigon)

Saigon Post Office

My last stop was the War Remnants Museum, which is something I definitely recommend to see because of the different view of the war you’ll get here. Although it’s mostly just galleries of photos, they’re pretty moving. They do sort of demonize the U.S., but they also had an exhibit of American youth protesting the war and seemed to acknowledge that a lot of American people at least were against the war. Then plenty of photos of American soldiers being pretty brutal towards Vietnamese civilians, including the effects of the chemical Agent Orange  – well, the photos are true and that’s what happened after all. I was feeling pretty weak at this point though, so I kept stopping at each floor to rest for 15 minutes – I felt like an old lady who couldn’t walk anymore. Normally, it would have taken me an hour and a half at most to go through a museum of that size, but I ended up staying there for 3 hours. After the final floor, I went outside to get some air again and look at the U.S. planes and tanks that were also on display around the museum. God, if a ginormous tank with a flamethrower rolled up in my village, I wouldn’t know what to do. 

Actually, I've been thinking about the military as a possible career choice recently (out of the many other options running through my mind), but after going to the museum, I think even the possibility of such war crimes happening now (and I'm sure they do still happen) has discouraged me a bit. 

"The above picture shows exactly what the brass want you to do in the Nam. The reason for printing this picture is not to gut down G.I.'s but rather to illustrate the fact that the Army can really fuck over your mind if you let it. / It's up to you, you can put in your time making it back in one piece or you can become a psycho like the Lifer (E-6) who really digs this kind of shit. It's your choice."

Very powerful picture

Well, this is kind of intimidating.

For dinner, I had delicious fish and thin noodles with my friend’s family (ah, I forgot the name of the dish), and although I didn’t notice a temperature difference when I felt my forehead, they insisted I had a fever. They also served me lots of fruits – mangosteen, oranges, rambutan (Malay for “hairy”, which is basically a more natural and better tasting version of lychee), but I was losing my appetite by the end of the night, so I could only eat a few. I took some Tylenol before going to bed at a very, very early 9, only to wake up at 2, blog for a bit, and go back to sleep at 5.

(Stock photo) Rambutan: It has a funny name and shape, but it's basically lychee in the wild and it's AMAZING. Trust me. 

Well, if I had to pick when to get sick, this was the best time, since I was staying with a friend and in a convenient city.  This is the first time I’ve gotten sick while traveling (besides the occasional stomach sickness from questionably hygienic foods), and it’s not a good feeling. As a hypochondriac, I Googled dengue fever, malaria, and Japanese encephalitis, all of which have similar symptoms that appear anywhere from a few days to two weeks after getting bitten by a vector mosquito, and I decided to look out for any new developments in the next few days. Yes, I know I was being paranoid, but this was my reasoning - I got a lot of bug bites in Japan a few days before I left, but the only mosquito bite I got in SE Asia was one on my finger while I was at Angkor Wat (guess you need to spray bug spray thoroughly on your hands too!). There’s a very small chance of it being malaria because I haven’t been bitten in a malaria-affected area, or Japanese encephalitis since the chances of getting that in Japan is like close to zero. Possibly dengue – if I develop a rash in the next few days, it probably is. The sad thing is, even if I know what it is, there’s no treatment for dengue fever or Japanese encephalitis. I’ll just take Tylenol like crazy and try to take it easy for the next few weeks if this fever lasts more than a day.

The #2 quality you should have while traveling after flexibility is OPTIMISM. Even though I got sick, I’m very thankful it was when I’m staying at a friend’s house, my fever wasn’t that high, and I still got to see a lot of HCMC. Also, my travel plans worked out perfectly in terms of the strenuous stuff - I definitely couldn’t have had the energy to bike around Angkor Wat like this. And when I was planning for the trip, I was about to book overnight trains to Da Nang to see Hoi An after HCMC, but at the last minute, I decided against it because there just wasn’t enough time to do each place justice. So instead, I booked a direct flight to Hanoi, which will be only 2 hours of traveling (and surprisingly cheap - almost the same price as the train) vs. the 15 or so hours to Da Nang on the train. Of course, I would still love to see places like Hoi An and Hue some day (excuse to come back to Vietnam!) but it did somehow work out perfectly. Fingers crossed that I’ll be fully recovered by Laos because that will be a bit more work.

Day 6

Felt MUCH better today, although it could have been just because of the Tylenol. I decided to stay in mostly and just rest up, since I had seen mostly everything I wanted to in the city center yesterday. My friend treated me to delicious Banh Mi at a local food stall for breakfast – the meat was so fresh and the bread was also crisp because it had just been baked. I took a picture with my phone around the area, but then my friend told me to avoid taking photos in the local streets if I could – someone had been doing the same with a fake Chinese iPhone and had gotten their hand cut off as a motorbike came by to steal the phone. All for a fake iPhone… I lounged around in the morning in a hammock watching the Vietnam television’s version of MTV and attempting to study for the GRE with little success. Vietnamese TV, at least at my friend’s house, has lots of international channels too with English, Korean, and Chinese channels (although the Korean and Chinese are often dubbed over).

Banh Mi - oh man so good. Best breakfast in a while.

For lunch, we went out again for pork sausage, a Chinese vegetable I’ve already forgotten the name of (but would like to know because it was so good!), and “broken” rice – called broken because it’s almost like a couscous quality. I also had a sweet southern Vietnamese dessert called chè with shaved ice, various beans, jellies, and coconut milk mixed into one delicious drink, as well as a sweet pastry. So full, but so satisfying :)

Chè with lots of beans and jellies :)

In the evening, we went to a massage place because my friend told me it was really cheap in the area. I’ve never gotten a professional massage before because it’s not really a thing to do back home and even when I’m traveling in places that are famous for their massages (especially Thailand), I’m a little intimidated by figuring out the best places. We were originally just going to do a foot massage for $4, but they had a special that day for 45-minute foot + 90-minute full body massage for $10. We did the foot massage first, watching the music video channel again. Vietnamese foot massages actually encompass the legs, and the guys who did it for us also added a brief shoulder massage at the end. It was a little painful, but your feet and legs after all are the parts of your body that endure the most. We tipped at the end, and I put down the same amount as my friend – but then they gave us a funny look when we gave them the tipping receipt. Oops, I guess it was too low for the place.

Next, we went up to another room where the women gave us the body massage. It wasn’t as painful as the foot one, maybe because the women were tired at the end of the day, but it still felt good. Massage is like acrobatics in a way – my masseuse had me do all sorts of stretches that I never knew existed. The best part was when they used these hot stones to rub across your body – it’s a burning sensation, but it’s not too painful and somehow your back appreciates the searing sensation. They also did a head massage at the end which felt awesome.

I gave a larger tip (30%) this time. I don’t know how my masseuse felt about it, but my friend’s masseuse asked her, “Are you sure this is (amount)?” and gave her a look afterwards. So I guess it was still low. Apparently, they sometimes get tipped the same amount as the price of the massage from generous men, so of course, anything we tipped would have been ridiculously low. But that massage place paid their own workers at least, so I didn’t feel too bad.

We ate dinner at the house – pork and lady fingers with shrimp-flavored sauce. I LOVE Asian meat because they keep all the good fatty stuff people trim off in America. Then we ate a ton of rambutan, and watched the Vietnamese version of Don’t Forget the Lyrics and the soccer match between the Vietnamese national team and the Arsenals, who they had invited to play in Hanoi. The Arsenals won 7-1, but the Vietnamese people are pretty patriotic and cheered just as loudly when they scored a goal.

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