Wednesday, October 29, 2008

International Saigon and Old Friends

updated on December 3rd
We have eaten primarily Vietnamese and Cambodian food on this trip (out of choice) being pleasantly surprised at the variety of styles and freshness of ingredients. I know we've only seen (or eaten) the tip of the iceberg so far. but everynow and then I'd like something off the Vietnamese path. So last night we walked a few blocks from our hotel (the very nice and conveniently located Renaissance Riverside Hotel) to Pacharan...a Spanish Tapas Restaurant. Located on Hai Ba Trung (across from the Park Hyatt) the Pacharan is a 4 story hotel with big windows that look out over the interesection. Warm tones and arched doorways with comfortable tables and a not too loud but still humming ambience. Excellent wine list reasonably priced and one heck of a red sangria!!!!. We had an excellent dinner...prawns in garlic, pork in moroccan spices on a skewer, fried potatoes, some cold dish with a mix of seafood and chopped vegetables, a toasty bread with tomatoes, garlic, and a few surprises. Then a rice pudding with glazed sugar on the top like a creme brulee (yum!). After our trip to Spain we continue up Hai Ba Trung to O'Brien's pub...which we found on the first try (this is definitely not Hanoi). Copper topped bar...several floors for eating...a beautiful bar back with my favorite, Jameson's on the shlef...a shot of jameson's and a wee bit of guiness and I was a happy ex-pat in Saigon. Walked home and got in just as it started to rain. What a lovely evening.

Other observations and experienes in Saigon (out of order...but what the heck).

First off...had a great visit with my friend Doug Knapp. He is teaching at an American School in Saigon (just started in August...still adjusting). He was a good buddy of mine in College and was the person responsible for getting me into birdwatching! All these years later (30 to be exact) we met up again in Saigon (thanks to a facebook connection). We spent a too short evening trying to get caught up on 3 decades over many beers and food from the 7th floor buffet at the Renaissance in Saigon. Great time...hope it isn't another 30 years!

Prior to going to Cambodia we spent 4 days in Saigon still with the Smithsonian group...a few tidbits from that:

Al Fresco's a restaurant (several locations) near the Renaissance Hotel offering "American fare". Good food...great thin crust pizza, what looked like fabulous ribs, egg breakfasts, salads, very helpful staff. After 3 weeks of asian food (which we love don't get me wrong), a little pizza was pretty close to heaven.

Diamond Department Store. An upscale department store complete with a food court and on the top floor a bowling alley and video arcade...which was doing good business with local in the middle of the day.

Saigon Trade Center. Kind of a cross between a mall, department store, and supermarket. Loved wondering through the grocery store/supermarket and looking at everything! Found the rice crackers/cashew brittle cookies that I love.

CuChi Tunnels. Wow...what an experience. Located about 1 1/2 hours outside of Saigon this area was known to be heavily communist during the war. And consequently was heavily bombed and attacked. As a result the creative and industrious vietnamese dug a series of tunnels and rooms over the course of decades of conflict totalling at the end over 200 kilometers of tunnels housing at one time 6000 people. Amazing. The attraction is operated by the military and not only do you get a tour, have the opportunity to squeeze your bigass western behind into a skinny tunnel made for short slender vietnamese, but you can also pay (per bullet) to shoot an AK 47 or similar (there were no takers in our group). It was a well done attraction and truly painted a picture of how horrible and terrifying it must have been for both sides in that area.

later we visited the ARt Museum of Saigon housed in an old Chinese merchants home not far from BEn Thanh market (and designed by the architect who designed the Ben Thanh market) . There was a bit of ceramics (ancient and nearer in time). But most of the interesting work were paintings and sculpture from about 1900 to modern times. Many pieces were quite thought provoking and sad. Although I know some were probably created for propaganda purposes I belive they also reflected the life and attitudes of the times in Vietnam. The museum like many (all?) others we've seen has no climate control, open windows, no humidity control and virtually no security. It is a wonder these pieces of art survive at all.

For more modern art work we visited an excellent gallery on Dong Khoi Street in Saigon...the Thanh Mai Gallery...5 (or was it 6) floors of interesting artwork from current artists in Vietnam today. Many different styles and subjects. In particular we liked the works depicting monks by Bui Van Hoan, Arresting faces of women by Nguyen Van Cuong and bright colored rurals by Vo Ta Hung.

Our farewell dinner (since some people were not going onto Cambodia) was at an excellent restaurant called the Mandarin Restaurant (11A Ngo Van Nam St District 1). It is on a small side street nestled amongst "air condioned karaoke bars" (a whimsical euphemism for places where you can arrange for female companions for the evening). We had very good crispy spring rools and some type of marinated beef that we all likes. Good wines by the glass.

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