Ho Chi Minh City, still often called Saigon, is a whirl of pulsating energy amidst it’s modern concrete skyscrapers, cosmopolitan restaurants and chic boutiques intermingled with French Colonial charm and dire poverty.
Wandering through timeless alleys with high end shops next door to squalid eateries, massage parlors and nail salons, adjacent to incense-infused temples was dizzying and electrifying all at the same time. Stepping out of an alley, any alley we were constantly accosted by high speed motorcycles whirling past us from different directions – the assault was constant and merciless.
During one of our daily walks we saw a bride teetering, trying to save her white gown from getting sullied by the dirty street. Watching her, my eye caught a sign – Vegan Cafe. We immediately crossed the street and stumbled into an alley with various high end boutiques next door to open living quarters and a cafe called Man Tu Vegan. This restaurant serves a buffet vegan spread at lunch and an a la carte menu at night. The place was absolutely packed with business dressed Vietnamese patrons. The food was amazing (even though most was cold as we arrived at the end of lunch). – Each dish had a different flavor and taste – even Rob liked it. We had to be reassured a few times by the owners that the food was truly vegan. Patrons only pay what they can as the cafe tries to promote a vegan lifestyle.
After our meal, it was recommended that we go up the stairs in the adjacent building to see some of the artsy bars, shops and cafes including the Zen Tea Garden which is owned by the same people as Man Tu Vegan (and has the same concept – pay what you can). The cutest tiny cafe with many books and plants and a huge window overlooking the street. Actually all the bars and cafes in the 4 story building were delightful, hip, artsy and incredibly funky. They reminded me of the Golden Gai area in Tokyo.
During our walks throughout the neighborhoods of Saigon we noticed many vegan and vegetarian restaurants, and a second one that was truly exceptional is Veggie Saigon. We went back a few times sampling as many things as we could – it was 100% vegan and delicious!
We were told that visiting the War Remnants Museum was a must as few museums convey the brutal effects of war on its civilian victims so powerfully – the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem has some similarities to this museum. Many of the atrocities documented here were well publicized, but rarely do Westerners hear the victim’s first hand accounts like they do in this museum. While some displays are one-sided, many of the most disturbing photographs are from US sources, including those of the infamous My Lai Massacre. I was really moved by all of the reunification pictures (taken after the war was over). The picture above depicts two sisters, one from the North and one from the South of Vietnam who were separated until the war was over.
We finished our 4 day stay in Saigon knowing that we didn’t get to see everything, but we saw enough to understand the dichotomy of it and it’s citizens. We saw many luxury hotels, high end cars, expensive restaurants in Saigon. But we also saw dirty children sleeping on the streets, emaciated people just trying to survive another day and drug addicts shooting up in the parks. Some of this of course can be found in most large cosmopolitan western cities….but not all of it. The struggle on many faces here is palpable and I really hope that it gets better for them and soon.