Vietnam Part 7 the Final Leg
When we arrived at the Cap Town for our final stay, we found scaffolding and tarps across the lobby. Apologies were made for the renovations under way. Mike asked if they had experienced damage from the deluge of rain, whose sound effects had made us feel like we were in the bowels of a storm sewer. “No, no. We had no problems.” We were ushered to a room on the 2nd floor, rather than the 1st, where we had stayed before. Needless to say, we didn’t believe the denial for a minute, and on one of the elevator trips past the 1stfloor, I stopped and investigated – wet carpets, and doorways open – presumably for ventilation. And no guests in sight. J
After retrieving our bags from storage, we headed back to one of favorite nearby haunts – Khuya, first mentioned in Part 1. It was like “old home week”. We were greeted with broad smiles and arms wide. Over snacks and several beer, we planned our ‘to do’ list for our final days. We wanted to see HCMC’s version of water puppets; we needed to see at least some of the tourist sights we had neglected during our initial stay when we were distracted by the lost visa issue; we would attempt to get tickets to a show I had seen advertised called the AO Show; we absolutely had to have at least one more morning tea in our favorite sculpture park; and we could now shop at will – with our ample United baggage allowance restored, we would be governed only by our budget.
Mike’s patience over the next few days was fairly amazing as I insisted on revisiting so many shops to be sure of my decisions. And I should have listened to his advice on bargaining, as it turned out the almost every small to medium sized shop was open to price adjustments, even the ones that looked fairly up-market. Although most of the guidebooks will tell you either Hoi An and Hanoi are better for shopping, there is still a wealth of opportunity in HCMC. One shop I really enjoyed was ArtShop - 43 Dong Khoi – in addition to quite a number of books in various languages, there is a good supply of crafts and art. I bought a couple of delightful books for the tiny twin grandbabies back home, as well as several hand-made craft souvenirs.
In the end I bought children’s clothes, some silk shoes for me, and some fabric jewelry. We hit the HCMC Bambou outlet for some more T-shirts too. We also sampled many more coffee shops that sell both fresh-brewed and bagged coffee. There is such a huge variety of types and quality of coffee in Vietnam, not to mention a huge variance in pricing. We strongly recommend this process of sampling before buying. And stay away from the big markets, as they are completely geared to tourists - with prices to match.
The next morning we went in search of the puppet show venue. After our experience with seating issues at the Hanoi puppet theater, we decided that we should book well ahead. Their address seemed to be near the Reunification Palace, but the street designations continued to baffle us. As I mentioned earlier, streets see to change names at will, and not all streets are on the hotel maps. We stopped along the way at the park for tea. After many requests for direction, we finally found the puppet show location, only to discover that the box office was closed. We would return later. In the meantime, we would start the hunts for gifts. We criss-crossed familiar territory between the hotel and the swank district near the Opera House.
En route, we happened upon a very strange sight in one of the parks. There was a group of college-aged people performing very puzzling feats. As I spoke to one of the participants, I learned that they were college students having some kind of weekend bonding activity. There were two teams competing in each event. One involved creating the longest horizontal chain on the pavement. While one group began laying head to toe on the ground, the more inventive team also used clothing to lengthen the chain – to the degree that one young man reluctantly removed his shirt to make the final winning link.
Once we reached the Opera House, I booked tickets for a performance of ‘AO’ where we could have excellent seating. The tickets were rather pricey, but booking at the Opera Box Office at least meant we were given complimentary tickets to one of a selection of museums in the city. We chose the Traditional Medicine museum, which turned out to be a wonderful happenstance. FITO http://www.fitomuseum.com.vn/ offers guided tours in English. The museum building is a combination of traditional and modern architecture, housing a huge collection of items and exhibits. Some also offer hands-on experience. I tried out the foot grinder and dressed up as a traditional pharmacist. Probably not so much fun in the real world, but it was an interesting tiny sampling of old-time VN life.
After gorging myself on shopping, we headed back to the hotel for a break and then back to the puppet theatre to book our tickets for the 6:30 p.m. show. Our advance planning meant we had relatively comfortable seating with much better legroom and very close to the stage. The show itself wasn’t nearly as impressive as the production in Hanoi, but it had its own charm. The musicians and singers were excellent and were more prominently featured than in the Hanoi show. We were glad to see another version of water puppets but if we manage another trip to VN we will definitely search out a rural location. I would love to see a production where the performers have a vested interest, and the artistry is natural rather and the details absolutely secret.
Sunday, December 1 marked our penultimate day of this long journey. The highlight for me was going to be the AO Show at the Opera House in the evening, but we had the whole day ahead of us. We decided to visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda, and shop as we walked. I think this pagoda was a good choice for us. While it was certainly full of tourists, it is an active worship site. So I put the camera away and took a meditative tour. I have probably said this before, but I value these prayerful stops, full in the belief that there is one god and it matters not where one worships.
Mike on the other hand was far more interested in the pagoda’s turtle pool. A huge number of these creatures are crammed into a fairly small concrete pond. The big ones had no qualms about trammeling the smaller ones in their attempts to get to a resting spot outside the pool. And by their enthusiastic rush to food, it seemed that they really like their diet of VN style French bread.
Well exhausted and thoroughly dusty, we headed back to the hotel for a shower, a rest and a change of clothes. We decided on Indian food (again!), this time at Baba’s Kitchen. You will find no end of good reviews on TripAdvisor, but while it was certainly a good meal, I don’t think we would favor any one of HCMC’s Indian restaurants over another. They were all good, but none great. http://www.babaskitchen.in/
That cannot be said of the AO Show. It was an amazing show in a beautiful venue. AO has been reviewed as an Asian Cirque du Soleil, which I think does neither Cirque nor AO a favor. It doesn’t come close to Cirque’s professionalism or gymnastic talent. And it does nothing to convey the absolute creativity and naturalism of AO. The props are all made from bamboo; the music and musicians were a wonderful surprise, and the performance sheer magic. All I can say is that it remains one of my fondest stage productions, anywhere, anytime. My only wish is that they offered lower prices for residents, as tickets are completely out of reach for other than tourists or upper middle class VN. Below is a link to various YouTube videos for the show. Have a look at them all, and you might get a sense of the marvelous experience we had.
Monday, and our last day before travel. We were pretty much shopped out, and we were short on museum exposure, so we decided to visit the Southern Women’s Museum. The Trip Advisor link is below, so have a look at the reviews, as they give multiple perspectives. I did find the one that complained it was named the “Southern….” Museum, when it represented all VN women. Think she rather missed the point.
Unlike the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi, this place is rife with propaganda. While the word is generally used in a derogatory sense, I think it’s good to remember that its less loaded meaning is to disseminate information for a purpose. One might argue that this museum satisfies under any definition, but in any case, it offers an education in how much involved women have been in Vietnam’s cultural and military history. There is also a very interesting collection of the history of aodais, the traditional form of dress, as well as exhibits of textiles and weaving, and the inevitable tribute to Ho Chi Minh. Even without a guide or complete translations, it was definitely worth the trip. Also, check out the kiosk for goodies. Despite having shopped most of the day before, I still bought two gorgeous bracelets, and some zodiac charms at extremely good prices. The museum and the shop together no doubt triggered Mike to ask the girl helping us if she knew where we might buy an aodai. We had looked in many shops, but found only aodai for women – I was shopping for my 9 year-old granddaughter. We were directed to a market about a mile away, but first we wanted a coffee, which was in the opposite direction.
This route took us past a demonstration by farmers against the current government land purchases, which seem to be much like what is going on in parts of China. Farmer’s are being asked to sell their land for development, but the farmers’ arguments seemed to be that the compensation is neither adequate nor appropriate. Several demonstrators asked us to take a picture of them “to let the world know”, but we were hardly educated enough to side with their position, and the police were certainly not in favor of us lingering.
We found our cup of coffee, and very cheap too, based on a sign outside a fairly up-market shop. We were shown a menu first, but the prices were all quite high. We were about to leave, but asked first why the price on the sign wasn’t listed on the menu. “Oh, you want an ordinary coffee?” Um, yes….and a very delicious iced-coffee it was, “ordinary” or not. Along the way, we had browsed in pottery shops looking for a traditional style wine carafe, pricing as we went. In the end we bought two at the first shop we’d entered - isn’t that often the case?
We eventually made our way to the Cho Tan Dinh (Cho means market). After the standing at the museum and the walking in the heat, it seemed a lot further than a mile, but it was absolutely worth the effort. This was a far more interesting market than the tourist one, Ben Thanh, and with the upcoming Tet celebrations, we had no trouble finding a child’s aodai. And loads more interesting things including lots of sweets! So if you’re interested in something off the tourist track, I would check out the links below.
The only thing left to get was our coffee, so we hit the two shops Mike had settled on and then headed back to shower and pack. With all our new purchases, packing meant unpacking everthing and then repacking. Clothes had to be wrapped around breakables. Liquids needed to be secured. Crushable items needed to be away from heavy items. Hooray, all packed! Then only to discover more items! It seemed to take forever. When it was finally complete, we headed out for one last visit to our favorite haunt Khuya. We had two heaping plates of their fantastic French Fries, were offered yet again an unknown but delicious dish at no charge, and had several final beers. As we were trying to explain that we were leaving for good this time, the owner appeared. His English was excellent, so we were finally able to convey our compliments for excellent service and food during our multiple stops in HCMC. A few hugs and a couple of photos, and we were done.
And this abrupt end is how it felt to us at the time. We had spent a very long time away. We still we were leaving with a little reluctance, but with a myriad of memories of a wonderful land and people.
Link to photos:
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Vietnam Part 7 the Final Leg