Overview of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 11/23/19

NOTE: Along with John I have also caught a cold.  Because I need to take colds seriously, we have cancelled our excursion for 11/24, and 11/25 is a day at sea. This gives us two days to try and get well before we visit Cambodia. I probably will not have much to write about for those two days.

If you enjoy bus rides than this is the cruise for you. Today, especially, the ratio of time on the bus to time actually seeing something interesting is especially poor. Our excursion of six hours included about one hour and fifteen minutes of seeing something interesting. Since our boat is docked an hour away from the city, that is two hours sunk in just going back and forth. Driving in Ho Chi Minh City is especially tedious because there is so much traffic. And this is on Saturday when there is less traffic.

There are masses of people on motorbikes and scooters
The people wearing green jackets or helmets are employed by Grab, the motorbike Uber of Vietnam

We finally reach a temple, Jade Pagoda, to see. It is a combination Buddhist/Hindu place built in 1900. Our guide suggests we go in and put our hand on our hearts and make a wish. Our guide, along with the majority of Vietnamese, does not belong to any organized religion. I find it uncomfortable to be making wishes and taking pictures where people are worshipping. Our guide does not come in with us so other than the Buddha we have no idea what we are looking at. This took up 20 minutes of our non-bus time. Some of the statutes in the Jade Pagoda –

A Buddha
A revered figure
Another revered figure

Now we crawl along in the traffic while the guide points out a couple of things. Here’s the Opera House.

Opera House in Saigon

Here is the Post Office built by the French.

Saigon Post Office

We stop for five minutes to take a picture of the reunification palace.

Reunification Palace

Interestingly our guide,who is a young woman, says that there are still a lot of people in South Vietnam (she refers to South Vietnam as if it were still a country) who are angry that North Vietnam took over the South. She also says that the Americans did not lose the war. They just gave up.  She also told us that South Vietnamese and maybe all Vietnamese hate China and Chinese people and especially Chinese tourists. She says the Chinese are rude and crude. She gives us examples of bad behavior.

Then we ride around a block a couple of times so she can show us where the iconic picture of South Vietnamese trying to get on to the last U.S. helicopter was taken. She says it was not on the roof of the U.S. Embassy but on the roof of the C.I.A. Building.  We cannot see what she is referring to.

Then we go to a wood lacquer workshop where art is made by inlaying pieces of wood, eggshells and other things. There is a short presentation and then a “buying opportunity.” They have western toilets and there is some weak air conditioning so we are pretty happy about that.

Man working with eggshells
Finished eggshell pictures
Close up of eggshell picture
Mary in store for “buying opportunity.” We are part of the green fan group.
Part of the showroom

Our last stop is at the Banh Thant market which we saw yesterday. John and I walk in. It is crowded and very hot. We walk out. John stops at the men’s room while I wait outside. Unfortunately it is a place for sex workers to be standing. We all side eye each other. I move to another spot. John comes out and we spot our bus. We are early but the bus is air conditioned and quieter so we are happy to get aboard.

After this we go back to the ship. We take showers. Neither of us is feeling well but we go for dinner and cobble together a dinner out of four starters – shu mai, summer rolls,spicy prawns, and pho. It is quite enjoyable.

Our starter – spicy shrimp and summer roll
This is followed by lobster and pork shu mai
Vietnamese pho

I am really glad that we have cancelled our outing for tomorrow and that I have two days to try to kick this cold before we land in Cambodia and have our Cambodian Cooking School excursion.

Saigon Cooking School. 11/22/19

Today we take the bus into Ho Chi Minh City (hereafter indicated by HCMC or Saigon) to meet with a local chef, go to the enormous Ben Thanh market, and then make our way to the Saigon Cooking School. At the school we will prepare a three course meal for ourselves and eat it! But first a few words about HCMC.

Saigon is nothing like Hue. It is modern and bustling. The traffic is monumental. No one seems to pay much attention to the traffic laws. The prices in the market are inflated about 70% and you are expected to bargain the seller down. (Not my favorite way of shopping so we buy nothing.) It is a big city of 10 million people hustling to get by. It is not clean. Due to the extreme heat and humidity and very little air conditioning people sit out on the sidewalk if they can find space between the motorbikes.

We are docked outside of HCMC so it takes 45 minutes to an hour to get into the city
Our port, Saigon Premiere Container Terminal, is located in Nowhere, Vietnam. There is no town to walk to just a huge parking lot filled with newly arrived cars
Apartments are high rise and also in smaller units in HCMC
We are told not to take our phones out to take pictures because motorbikers snatch them from your hands as you are taking a picture. I risked one of men selling coconuts to drink

We meet our chef outside the market and she takes us inside to talk about the various fruits and vegetables that we will use.

Chef talks about limes and kumquats. Lemons are expensive so these green kumquats are used for a similar flavor
Behind our chef are turmeric, young ginger, lotus root and she is holding a banana bud
Here she is discussing the difference between Thai basil and lemon mint
Some more of the coconuts to drink from
There are oodles of spices, teas,and coffees. (There is a special weasel coffee which is made from coffee beans that have passed through the weasels’ digestive systems. Farmers collect the poop to make it. Yum)

After our visit to the market we take a short drive over to the Saigon Cooking School where there are cookers and ingredients for each of us. We put on our aprons and get to work. It is all quite comprehensive and we use a real propane cook top. I manage to set my towel on fire. The first dish we make is sour soup with prawns. We cut up all the vegetables and cook it ourselves!

John looking Iron Chef-y
A look down the table at our cooking accoutrements

The ingredients to our sour soup with prawn are water, elephant ear stem, okra, prawn, bean sprouts, tomato, pineapple, tamarind paste, rice paddy herb and saw tooth coriander, sugar, fish sauce, salt chopped garlic and cooking oil. We sit down to eat our creation.

Sour soup with prawn or in Viet canh chua tom

Now the chef expects us to move a little faster. I really have almost no time to take pictures. Finally I give up with the picture taking and just concentrate on the cooking and getting my phone out of harm’s way. Our next course is lotus stems salad with prawns and pork, goi ngo sen. The ingredients are sugar lemon juice, fish sauce, long chili, garlic for the dressing and pickled white radish and carrot, fresh lotus stems, pickled lotus stem, prawns, lean pork, onion, Laksa leaves, peanuts, fried shallots, and deep fried lotus roots. We have a tool to cut the carrots into fancy julienne and a peeler which is much more difficult to use than my OXO one.

Our chef is mixing the lotus stem and carrot in the picking juice
Our delicious salad, lotus stems salad with prawns and pork or goi ngo sen

Our last dish is chicken stew in a clay pot with ginger, basil and coconut juice or ga kho gung. This takes quite a bit of cooking and pressing of the tamarind paste. This is where I set my kitchen towel alight but smother it so quickly that no one notices. They are really busy chopping and stirring and trying not to get burned or set their own towels afire. So we are dealing with sharp knives, a really hot propane flame, and a clay pot that you cannot touch unless you are using your towel (which puts it really close to the open flame.) Chef tells us to concentrate!!

John enjoys a Saigon special beer as a reward for all his hard work
Chicken stew in a clay pot with ginger, basil, and coconut juice or ga kho gung (forgot to take a picture before I had eaten most of it)

Our chef whose name is maybe Ugen or maybe some thing else compliments us on a job well done and says we have all graduated from The Saigon Cooking School. Yay! She gives a folder with our recipes and a coaster to commemorate our day.

We cooked, ate, and had fun!!

It has been a long day of learning and cooking and we arrive back at the boat about 7 hours after we left. Everyone is pretty tired out but happy that we had this experience.