Vietnam, Part 2

Julia’s last day of work in Vietnam, Saturday, was very light in schedule. After just a few hours of work in the morning, she was free to spend the rest of our time in HCMC/Saigon doing whatever we wanted! Sophia (one of Julia’s coworkers) co-owns a cafe that she invited us to, and it was very close to our hotel, so we agreed to meet her there for lunch! We walked to the address that she gave us (side note: it was very refreshing how every place we went in HCMC had an actual address. Businesses in Thailand don’t have addresses – just the name of the business, the street name (sometimes), and a zip code. If we are lucky, it’ll have “near something something Wat). As we got close, we just happened to run into Sophia on the street outside her cafe! She was walking to the local convenience store to get some ice, as her shop had run out.

This is another thing that we take for granted back home. When you go to a restaurant, café, or anything like that, you just assume that everything on the menu is in stock. On the rare occasion that something is sold out or an ingredient has run out, there will usually be a sign, or a server telling you preemptively with an apology. In Southeast Asia, that is simply not the case. Many times we’ll go to a restaurant, decide what we want, and order – only to be told “sorry, we don’t have that”. It’s not just the restaurant we had gone to the previous night – that happens all the time. Most restaurants and cafes buy all of the ingredients they think they will need that day at the morning market, and if they run out, they run out. It’s simply a different attitude.

Anyway, it’s a good thing that we ran into Sophia, because even with her address, it would have been very difficult to find her cafe. The address actually led to a back alley – something we hadn’t really come across before in HCMC. It turns out that in HCMC, there is no wasted space. Just how the part of the buildings that face the streets have businesses and apartments, the alleyways are full of them as well! One would think that the lack of exposure to foot traffic would render alleyway restaurants and shops with fewer customers, but every such place that we visited was booming with business. The word gets around about these places somehow! In this particular back alley, there was a staircase with several signs pointing up indicating what shops could be found, including Sophia’s cafe, Mockingbird Cafe! After walking a few stories up a staircase that didn’t suggest that anyone lived in this building at all (and we didn’t see anyone else on our way up, either), we turned a corner and walked into Mockingbird Cafe. This place was as busy as any of the coffee shops out on the main road – when we showed up, it was standing room only!

 

Julia got a grilled ham and cheese and a coke float, and I got a noodle dish and a dessert consisting of ice cream, a poached pear, and burgundy wine reduction. One of the other patrons was playing a guitar that seemingly belonged to the shop, and we got to chat with Sophia for a while. A great lunch at a fun place that also had great views of the city!

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This place was worth the hunt!

After lunch, we decided to head to a couple of the touristy destinations in town. As we were walking up to a museum that had unfortunately just closed, a local on a moped asked if we needed a ride anywhere. Thinking we had an easy out, I said “sorry there are two of us”. That’s when another local popped out with a moped of his own! They had a photo album of fun pictures of all their other customers they’d taken on city tours. Thinking it would be fun and cheap to take transportation this way, we agreed to go with them. They asked us where we were going, and we pointed at a couple of temples that we had heard about. They said they would take us to both temples and then back to where we were. We asked how much it would be, and they said not very much, cheaper than a taxi, so we were off!

We pulled up to the first temple in no time, and started walking around outside. Before we got a chance to walk inside, we were approached by some locals carrying incense sticks. Before we knew what was happening, the incense sticks were unwrapped and lit in our hands. Realizing what they had done, we tried to give them back, but they refused. They followed us around for several minutes while we were walking around outside trying to get money from us (even though we made it clear many times that we didn’t want anything), so I finally gave them a couple dollars to stop bothering us – but apparently that wasn’t enough money. We finally went inside the temple to escape them, though luckily I was able to snap a few pictures without them interfering.

We walked inside and were taken aback a bit to see swastikas everywhere. I recalled that the swastika was actually originally a Buddhist symbol long before the Nazis appropriated it for their own means. Obviously, the swastika is rarely used by Buddhists in the Western world, and apparently it is also not widely used elsewhere, but we saw this symbol all over this particular temple in HCMC. After looking at some paintings depicting Buddhist teachings and a very tall central Buddha statue, we walked back outside and were hounded again by the same locals trying to get more money out of us. We ignored them as best we could and walked back to our drivers. The locals started talking to our drivers, and thankfully they seemed to side with us because they ignored them as well and we drove away without any further confrontation. On the drive to the next temple, we were lectured about how it is important to not make eye contact with any locals outside temples because they scam tourists like that.

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If you zoom in a bit, you can see a giant red swastika emblazoned on Buddha’s chest

As we pulled up to the next temple, we realized that we were already nearby where we wanted to go for dinner that night. So, instead of keeping our drivers waiting (and paying more to have them take us back), we asked to pay them before we went up to the temple – and soon regretted not having agreed on a price earlier. They asked for ten dollars each, which may not sound like a bad deal, but it’s far more than we would have paid if we had simply hired a taxi to take us to the two separate locations. I laughed at the irony of the drivers lecturing us how not to get scammed, then handed them half what they asked for, said it was a fair price, and walked up to the temple with Julia without looking back. Lesson learned – always agree on a price before buying anything. Luckily, they were gone when we left the temple and we didn’t see them again for the rest of the trip.

The temple itself was nice – we had inadvertently showed up right as a service was starting. Dozens of locals were already on mats and kneeling outside, as the temple was full. A monk was chanting, and everyone in the crowd was chanting along with him, while bowing their heads to the floor in front of them, and alternating between a sitting and kneeling position. It was a very serene experience, and we simply stayed and watched for a while.

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This service was “standing” room only-the inside of the temple is full!

We left the temple and started walking to our intended destination of the night – Acoustic Bar! Sophia and Thuy both recommended this place to us because they have live music every Saturday night, and it’s supposed to be very good. We got some street food on the way and then were the first guests inside, so we got great seats for the show! The first band was a group of locals, that started off by playing songs they wrote (or, at least songs that were in Vietnamese that we didn’t recognize). When they were tuning their instruments I knew I would enjoy the show, since the lead singer had an Alice In Chains t-shirt on. They played a great style of music for their songs, a little bit of grungy metal. They were all very impressive musicians, especially the guitar player who had some amazing solos. After they played a few of their own songs, I got excited as the opening lick of Enter Sandman by Metallica started playing. They played a few more covers of 80s era rock songs and really killed it!

The next band that came on was a Filipino band with a female lead singer, who played only covers. In general, Filipinos speak excellent English, so the singing was a lot better than the covers of the Vietnamese band – we’ve seen a lot of cover bands in Southeast Asia and most of the singers are clearly just reading the lyrics and sounding them out without really understanding them (if you ever get a chance to see a Thai person that can’t speak English singing Can’t Stop by Red Hot Chili Peppers, it is certainly an interesting experience). They are still very entertaining and fun to listen to, but a singer that knows the meaning of the words can sing it with just a bit more nuance! The band sang a few “crowd pleaser” songs such as Don’t Stop Believin’, but with an early day ahead of us, we left partway through their set to go back to the hotel and get some rest.

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