After a half-century marred by war and economic stagnation, Ho Chi Minh City-a.k.a. Saigon-has come into its own with a tireless energy few places can match. (Just watch out for those scooters.)
Author Matthew Thompson Photography Michael Turek
DAY THREE | Waking up ravenous after yesterday’s adventures, you stumble down to the lobby of the Caravelle and hail a cab to Binh Tay Market (1) in Cholon, the city’s Chinese district. There, in its two-story indoor and outdoor maze of stalls, you’ll find all manner of dry goods, fruit, fish, pots, pans, wicker baskets and neon plastic toys. Head toward the back, where you’ll find an alley of food stands. Order a bowl of pho-traditionally served for breakfast-seasoning it with fresh lime, basil and sprouts. Chase that with a bag of fruit from a nearby stall: Mangosteen, rambutan, dragon fruit and pineapple all fit the bill.
Walk out to the street and flag down a cyclo, a three-wheeled bicycle with a seat perched on the front. Make sure you pick one with a shade on top: That equatorial sun takes no prisoners. Tell the driver that you’re looking to take a ride through Cholon, and negotiate a price-hopefully no more than five dollars American. In Cholon, watch fabric merchants roll out bolts of brightly patterned silk and sniff the mellow aromas wafting out of teahouses. Be sure to stop by Thien Hau Pagoda (2), one of the oldest temples in the city. Marvel at the intricate bas-reliefs in green and blue that frame the building’s roof. Release a finch from the cage out front for good luck before you go.
For lunch, head to Temple Club (3), an Indochine-style Vietnamese restaurant with elegant brick and wood decor. Grab a seat near the front window-shaded with antique scrollwork shutters-and place your order: bo la lot, canh chua tom and mien xao cua (fried beef wrapped in betel leaves, sour shrimp soup, and vermicelli noodles with shredded crab, respectively).
Image – Michael Turek
Take a cab down to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre (4), where you’ll be watching a performance of one of Vietnam’s oldest cultural institutions. Dating back to the 11th century, water puppetry is performed in waist-deep water with lacquered wooden figures controlled via submerged poles and wires. Most performances depict traditional Vietnamese folk tales with accompanying live music. Don’t worry if you’re in the dark about the specifics of what’s being said; the stories and humor are universal.
After the show, hop a scooter back to District 10 for one last Vietnamese treat: barbecue. Roll up to Lang Nuong Nam Bo (5). It’ll take a moment to orient yourself amid the overhanging roofs, awnings, courtyards, terraces, birthday parties, cordial students and sprinting waiters. Take a deep breath, order a Tiger Beer and savor the scent of crackling pigskin and open wood fires. Order goat breast with okra and eggplant-and ask to cook it at your table. They’ll bring you a mini-grill and coach you on laying strips of marinated meat for optimal charring. Still not full? Order a piglet-but be warned: It can feed a family of four.
Really, the scene here is a lot like Ho Chi Minh City: loud and jubilant, packed with activity, bursting with good food, imbued with a certain something that will stick to you-like the scent of woodsmoke on a pair of jeans-for long after you’ve left.
New Hampshire–based writer MATTHEW THOMPSON never looks when he crosses the street.