now…where was I? (Saigon, Day Three, pt 2)

Places in Viet Nam that I have been nearly run over by a 50cc scooter, slightly edited:

— Streets, too many to count
— Sidewalks, at least two dozen
— Sitting down at a restaurant, four or five times
— On a boat, once (so far)

Greetings from Hoi An, Vietnam, where I am once again sitting in an Internet cafe, surrounded by children of apparent ages from 5 to zygote, all of whom are completely and totally kicking ass at CounterStrike. Remember this the next time some random person with an incomprehensible nickname hands you your head in an online game: it’s probably one of these kids.

But Hoi An is a set of stories of its own, and we’re not even close to there yet. So anyway, Cholon, continued.

We spent about half an hour wandering the central market in a heat-drugged daze, and then set out to explore some of Cholon’s pagodas. Although Saigon’s Chinatown is mostly Chinese by ethnicity only, Vietnamese being the spoken language everywhere, there are still some impressive Chinese-style pagodas there, set down as small oases of peace and tranquility amidst the extremely — extremely busy streets.

A full writeup of the pagodas, I’m afraid, is going to have to wait until I have both my notes and my pictures in front of me; suffice it to say that I took several dozen photos and am praying that most of them come out. The one that particularly sticks in mind was composed of a series of semi-open courtyards behind the main facade, and had thousands and thousands of ceramic figurines decorating the edges of all of the interior roofs. (We’ll see if any of those photos came out.)

Past the pagodas, we took a brief walk through Cholon’s fabric market, which was several square blocks of stores selling any fabric under the sun — but this being the beginning of the trip, with several more fabric markets in front of us, we opted not to buy anything yet.

Having had enough of the cyclo experience for one day or indeed one lifetime, we flagged down a meter taxi to take us back to Dong Khoi (district 1) and to the Jade Emporer Pagoda, probably Saigon’s best-known. This pagoda was a somewhat more sprawling one, tucked into a little side-alley by the river. The rain was just starting to mist down as we came in, and one of the attendants happily led us through the various side-rooms and up to the second floor, where an open balcony afforded a beautiful view of the courtyard and the clay-tiled roof.

By this time, we were pretty thoroughly pagoda-ed out, and decided to try to find one of Saigon’s attractions that the people had raved about: Fanny’s Ice Cream parlour. Unfortunatly, while Fannys was listed in both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide books, neither one of them saw fit to actually mark it on their maps, and after wandering around somewhat fruitlessly for about 20 minutes, we finally asked a shop attendant who gave us directions…which could charitably have been called crack-addled. After walking about another two miles based on her description, we gave up and flagged down a meter cab, showed him the address, and were promptly ferried to a location less than 5 minutes’ walk from our hotel. Sigh. The good news is that the ice cream was excellent, and I devoured a concoction made from chocolate ice cream, Vietnamese coffee, whipped cream and Kahlua that was more than enough to restore me to functionality.

After meandering back to the hotel by way of some of Saigon’s tonier shopping streets, we changed shirts (uh, did I mention that Viet Nam is kinda humid? in the same way that Antarctica was kinda cold?) and walked over toward an alley behind Ben Tranh Market to sample some of what was allegedly the best Hue-style cuisine in Saigon.

This was a small tactical error.

Those of you who know me are probably well aware that I have…trouble with foods of a certain gelatinous texture. Eggs, jello, aspic, certain puddings and especially those awful agar-agar jelly shot things — at my best, I can quickly swallow them without gagging. At worst, well, we won’t dwell on that.

Hue-style cuisine, of course, turns out to rely almost entirely on demitasse-sized cups of congealed rice starch, topped lightly with things like dried shrimp paste and small bits of pork rind. It is beautiful to look at: the shrimp paste looks almost golden suspended on top of the white jelly. But alas, if ever there were a food designed to press against the limits of my culinary adventurousness, this was it. I’m pleased to say that I didn’t embarrass myself: I finished most of it and didn’t make any noises to offend anyone else in the restaurant, but I can’t say it was a terribly enjoyable experience.

We topped the evening off with drinks on the Rex Hotel’s rooftop garden, scene of many an after-hours journalists’ drinking binge during the American war. We treated ourselves to crepes flambe (prepared tableside, no less), toasted to an excellent trip, took a few photos of Saigon from the roof’s edge, and then retired early in order to make the next day’s trip to the Mekong Delta.

Which is another day’s post.

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