Monday, January 09, 2012

Above the City - Updated

[Tuesday, January 10, 11:50 am, Vietnam time]

Last night, seven of us bundled into a large taxi to go to the Rex Hotel. This was the center of activity during the height of the Vietnam War. The rooftop bar was highly recommended, so we had reservations. Despite being a warm night, the rooftop was cool and breezy. Beige lanterns with golden designs hung from a wooden lattice and swayed in the wind. A large golden crown was perched on the corner, with stone elephants guarding it. If we leaned at the railing we could make out the former French colonial Hotel de Ville; elsewhere we saw the gleaming high rises of modern Ho Chi Minh City.

After confirming that the ice and water were all made with bottled water, we ordered our drinks. I had a mai tai and it was terrific. Janet ordered some Vietnamese appetizers: some kind of prawn-filled spring roll that was then deep fried. It was great. I'm not sure the $9 drink was really one of the "1000 things to do before you die," but it was a beautiful ambience, and certainly it was worth it having drinks and laughs with friends.

Then it was off to the restaurant: Vietnamese House. We had reservations for 8:30 pm, and it was only a few blocks away, but the traffic looked daunting so we took a taxi. Then something extraordinary happened: our taxi overshot the restaurant so he backed up, through the intersection and partially against the light! None of us could believe it, but he kept going, slow, deliberate, and with confidence until we were parked in front of the restaurant.

Our table was on the third floor, so we climbed up two different stairwells until we reached the large, round table they had reserved for us. I think at this point, we were all glad we didn't walk after all, so we save our strength for the stairs. We ended up getting four separate checks.

The meal was quite good. I got the pumpkin blossoms stuffed with prawn meat and then deep fried as an appetizer, and it vaguely reminded me of the stuffed zucchini blossoms I had had in Italy. Dad and I each got a main course of roast duck (his with orange sauce, mine with pepper corn sauce), and we split some sauteed morning glory with garlic. Dad was shocked when the bill arrived, as it was $30 for both of us, including the bottle of beer we each had. "That's all??!" he said. Then we went back to the hotel.

This is the third Sofitel I've stayed at on this trip and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the lobby, the service of the staff, and the restaurant buffet this morning were the best of the trip. On the other hand, the room has problems in design and layout.

First was our inability to find the thermostat. It turned out that the electric clock on the nightstand (which is 30 minutes too fast) also controls the room temperature. After searching, I found the lightswitch for the bathroom, but couldn't find one for the hall, until I went back to the control clock and found the button there. It's as if Microsoft decided to design a hotel room.

We slept well, and I managed to sleep until 7:30 am (according to the clock; according to reality is was closer to 7). The shower-tub had good water pressure, though I would prefer a walk-in shower for my father.

As I mentioned, the breakfast buffet was top-rate fabulous. Dad loved the lox and bread, and they had far more options than anywhere else we have eaten. We kind of pigged out. We ran into Carl and Carol and they asked what we're doing for dinner, so we invited them to join us.

For the morning, I suggested we take a long walk. Saigon is a interesting mix of old and new. At dinner, we had an interesting conversation with the waiter, who had come south from the Hanoi area. He said he preferred Saigon. It was more prosperous and people were closer. In Hanoi, he said, it was just poor and rich. I also think the people in Saigon seem happier and friendlier than in Hanoi, though the Cambodians we met exceed them in both areas.

It's still a bit of an effort to get dad to cross the street, but I have a hard time imagining how my mother would ever leave the hotel. Saigon has traffic lights, which really help a lot; it's far easier to cross the street here than in Hanoi. Dad kept waiting for a break in the traffic, but those rarely, if ever, came. I just kept repeating my mantra: slow, steadly, deliberate, and confident.

We stopped by a French restaurant I had read reviews of called Augustin, and we asked to see menus. It looked good and affordable (most entres in the $12-15 range, unless you wanted imported meat like steak, which upped the price to $25-30). Then we went to the Saigon Tax Trade Center (formerly the Russian market). This is large, enclosed, air conditioned mall. It was only 10 am, or so, so few people were out. We bought another piece of lacquerware for the same amount I paid yesterday, but with much less screaming and agony.

From there we continued down the boulevard to Saigon Square. This market is closer in design to the Ben Thanh market we were at yesterday, but there were almost no tourists, and no one assaulted us. Dad bought two more shirts, now at $5.50 each (he should have got them for $5, but the vendor rounded up from $10.10 to $11; I told dad to walk away, but he wasn't willing). After that, we continued down until we reached the Ben Thanh market. I got a few photos of the market for my scrap book, and then we caught a taxi back to the hotel.

I haven't decided yet what to do this afternoon. I will almost certainly swim in the pool. It's on the 18th floor and has spectacular views of the city. I may read my book or I may go to the museum.

Tomorrow, we'll take our airport transfer to Ho Chi Minh airport. Thankfully, we don't have to leave until 9 am, which we allow us to sleep in and have good breakfast first. Cindy Newman, our travel agent in San Diego, worked out the errors made by AMAWaterways, so we shouldn't have any problems.

[Update: 9:15 pm]

After such a big breakfast, I decided on a light lunch of pho in the hotel's cafe. I ended up sitting next to Nancy, her husband Richard, and her father Donald. It turns out that Donald's late wife may have graduated from LA High School with my father's cousin Ruth, and that Donald's neighbor in the managed care facility (he's 94) was the aunt of a friend of mine.

We chatted for over an hour and the restaurant mistakenly combined our bills. I promised them that if they come to the corner in Beverly Hills on Saturday morning, I'll buy them all coffee and provide them cakes and cookies.

Afterwards, I went up to the roof deck on the 18th floor. It has spectacular views of Saigon, including the Prudential Building (which has what looks like two minarets), and the tallest building in Saigon, the Bitexco Financial Tower. Judy described it as shaped like a bullet, but it's modeled on a lotus petal. Around the 50th floor, the helopad juts out from one side in a very dramatic fashion.

I brought up my book and then went swimming. The pool isn't heated, but it's pretty warm here, so the water is refreshing. Afterwards, I wrapped myself in the robe and then finished the book while glancing at the scenery now and then.

The differences between Saigon and Hanoi couldn't be more dramatic. Not only is Saigon larger and far wealthier, the architecture is different. In Hanoi, the long, narrow style of building predominates, while here that seems to be far rarer. You see much more of the French (i.e. European style). There's far more neon and western-style advertising. While the streets are more crowded, they are also wider and better maintained. We didn't see anything corresponding to the Old Quarter in Hanoi, with the narrow lanes, with tunnel houses. From the 18th floor, the contrast is between the new, tall structures, and the older, red-tiled ones.

Carl and Carol joined us for dinner. Both they and dad wanted something other than Vietnamese food tonight. I had read good things about Augustin and made reservations for 6 pm. The food was excellent, and we had a long conversation with the owner. She talked about the problems she's had with some tour guides imposing surcharges on their guests who ate at the restaurant.

The restaurant itself was rather small; she had may be a dozen or so tables. The food is definitely French. Dad and I started off with the cream of pumpkin soup, while Carol had the French Onion soup, declaring it the best she's ever had. For the main course, dad and I both got duck again. He loved his Canard a l'orange, while I very much enjoyed my pan-caramelized duck breast with ginger. For dessert, Carl and I both ordered the crepe with strawberry and coconut ice cream (very good), while dad had the crepes suzette, which he said were the best he's ever had.

They all insisted I take the front seat of the cab on the way back, so I had a ring-side view of the mayhem on the road. We had several near misses with mopeds, and one time, as we were coming down the street partially on the wrong side, he honked at a police van to get out of his way!

We're all packed, so I went up to the roof for one last view of Saigon at night. Again, I was struck by how different it is from Hanoi. Of course, the difference with Phnom Penh is even more enormous; it's as if they occupy different planets, or perhaps centuries would be more accurate.

I had one last chat with Janice, Kathy, Dave, and Janet. Their transfer will be at 3 am (yuck!). Of course, while ours is at 9 am, we'll be sharing it was Frau Fabissiner (yuck!).

Hopefully, the next entry will be either en route or from home with selected pictures (I've taken over a thousand).

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