Day 2, Saigon: Ben Thanh Market & Vietnamese Water Puppet Show
French-style baguette and Vietnamese coffee were common fares on the free-breakfast menu of most guest houses in Vietnam although other options were also available. I had breakfast at Nhat Thao Guest House, which offered 3 types of filling for the baguette and my usual habit was to order a different type each day. My first breakfast was egg baguette with black coffee. I like the thick and fragrant coffee, one of the best coffee that I could never forget.
Joanne and Chavez also joined me for breakfast. They started the day by exploring the shops around Phạm Ngũ Lão after breakfast while I made my way to the bus station for SaigonBus No. 152 to Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Shren and Jeff were due to arrive at 9:00 am and they needed my "assistance" to get to the guest house.
Traffic was quite smooth and I was dropped off at the international airport albeit too early. Note that the bus might stop at the domestic airport instead of continuing to the international airport, but it was just a short 200-metre walking distance between them.
One thing about Vietnamese was their emphasis on dressings. They put on formal clothing, such as long pants and shoes when going to the airport to send or pick up their friends or relatives. I was in bermuda shorts and sandals — just like all tourists do when travelling in Indochina. It was unnerving to notice that they were staring at me, or rather, at my lower half body, disapprovingly. Was my bermuda shorts and sandals an inappropriate dress code at the airport? Or was it my worn-out-looking sandals that got on their nerves? Well, it was not so bad to be the centre of attraction sometimes — but for the wrong reason!
One hour's wait and my friends stepped out of the airport with four baggage! Instead of taking the airport bus, they preferred a cab for convenience and it was the beginning of a mistake. Most cab drivers outside the airport demanded exorbitant rates to Phạm Ngũ Lão and refused to use their meters, we refused them too. We finally hopped onto a VinaSun cab after the driver agreed albeit reluctantly to use the meter. Anyway, he made us paid for the 5.000 dong airport surcharge and took an extremely long way to Phạm Ngũ Lão. The final cost was 112.500 dong on the meter! — anyway, my friends paid.
(If you have read Day 1, SaigonBus 152 from the airport to Phạm Ngũ Lão costs only 3.000 dongs per trip in 2010. It costs 5.000 dongs in 2018. It's only 30 Singapore cents. Still very cheap!)
After my friends checked-in at the guest house, Joanne and Chavez were also back from their short walk, and we all hit the street again. It was almost lunch time. We walked down Bui Vien Street in search for something more local. At an alley off Bui Vien Street, we came across a shop selling Bún bò Huế (or Huế-style beef rice vermicelli soup) at 20.000 dong per bowl. Without hesitation, we sat down at a low table by the road side, ordered five bowls and ate like locals.
One thing noteworthy about Vietnam's beef noodle was that they always taste good regardless where you tried it.
We discussed about the cycling trip by Innoviet over lunch and decided to head back to Pao Cafe for more information. Mai, the staff at the tour desk, was most willing to introduce us the packages in more details. We decided on a 2-day eco-adventure package to Vinh Long (near Can Tho in Southern Vietnam), that was less travelled by tourists.
At a cost of USD100 per pax, the guided tour package included an overnight stay at a local Vietnamese house in the Mekong Delta, visit to a floating market that was smaller than Cai Rang Floating Market, all meals during the trip and a cycling trip to get closer to the villages and rice fields. We opted for a mini-van transfer instead of taking the local bus, which will need about 5 hours to get to the destination. The cost was considered high but taking the package was much better than us managing a 2-day trip to Can Tho and the hassles. To top it all off, Mai gave us 5% discount as we had dined at Pao Cafe the day before — so it's only USD95 per pax for us. We were scheduled to depart the next day.
We went back to our guest house and informed the staff at the reception of our trip the following day and tied down all necessary arrangements for baggage deposit as well as pre-booking of accommodation for after our return from Vinh Long. Then, we headed for Ben Thanh Market on foot.
Less than 100 metres out of the guest house and we came across another stall selling trứng vịt lộn (boiled duck embryo eaten from the shell). Without hesitation, I ushered Jeff and Shren to a knee-high table and short stools and ordered two eggs for them — oh, they were warned before coming to Vietnam that I would make them tried the duck embryo. With much courage, fear and time lost, they managed to finish them. "Fear Factor 1: Trứng vịt lộn" was conquered successfully.
We also tried other snack from a mobile vendor further down the road. It looked like spring roll with some ingredients but the rice paper was tougher to chew.
Then, we were at Ben Thanh Market and it was very crowded.
We decided to split up and do our own exploration. I advised them not to buy any stuff yet, but just to check the prices as we would be back in Saigon after 2 days. As usual, I did not fancy buying anything but took some photos of the activities in the market.
I met Joanne and Chavez at a dessert stall and decided to order chè (Vietnamese dessert) at 15.000 dong each. The ingredients were laid out in layers and topped with crushed ice and coconut milk. It was colourful and it tasted like Peranakan chendol except for some chewy jelly-like stuffs.
After dessert, I decided to buy some coffee powder. I was amazed by the sheer number of coffee varieties displayed in a shop. Knowing that the so-called "chon weasel" coffee sold in the market might not be the real stuff, I still bought some of it to try, along with some other types of Vietnamese coffee.
And the stall owner gave me two Vietnamese's traditional coffee makers for free — which I kept till today and used it several times when making coffee from powder.
(Vietnam is in fact the world's second largest exporter of coffee, mainly the more-bitter Robusta beans.)
We rendezvous at the front entrance of Ben Thanh Market an hour later. Jeff and Shren had bought two big luggage at 400.000 dong each. We headed for Tao Dan Cultural Park, which was some walking distance from Ben Thanh Market. Barely 10 minutes on the walk, Jeff exclaimed that one of the new luggage he just bought was damaged, one of the wheels had came off, and we had to return to the market to have it refunded. So much for quality but the price was a good indicator of how cheap the goods in the market could be.
Golden Dragon (or Rồng Vàng to the locals) Water Puppet Theatre was situated on the northern edge of Tao Dan Cultural Park. It was only 3pm when we reached the theatre but the next show was not scheduled to start until 5pm. We bought five tickets at 80.000 dong per person and decided to find a place to rest our legs.
We settled down at Cafe 188, located diagonally across the road junction from the theatre. The settings of the cafe was rather cozy and welcoming us from the heat outside. The waitress, dressed in a pink maid costume, was not able to speak much English but understood what we want to order. We ordered our drinks and some finger food and rested in the cafe until it was time to head back to the water puppet theatre.
I had seen a water puppet show before, in Hanoi 5 years ago, and was expecting something different this time. To my dismay, it was exactly the same story and only in Vietnamese language.
The water puppetry was performed in a pool of water with the water surface being the stage. The puppeteers stood behind a screen and controlled the puppets using long bamboo rods and string mechanism hidden beneath the water surface. A traditional Vietnamese orchestra, on both sides of the stage, provided background music accompaniment and also story-narration.
The show was about some Vietnamese folk tales that were told by grandparents to their grandchildren. It took about 50 minutes.
After the water puppet show, I led the way to Saigon's Notre Dame Cathedral. It started to drizzle on the way there. We took about 10 minutes to reach the cathedral but darkness had already crept in.
A sudden heavy downpour sent us running towards a Coffee Bean outlet across the road. I was the only one with umbrella despite the fact that I had informed the others to bring umbrellas as it was the rainy season. With a heavy rain outside and not a single covered walkway, we ordered beverages and cakes to kill time. An hour later, the rain was still raging on outside. Chavez went out with my umbrella and returned with five disposable raincoats. It was then the rain subsided to a slight drizzle again. We kept the raincoats for future use.
We continued our journey down Đồng khởi Road. The city central had developed quite a lot from 5 years back. Gone were the cheap restaurants, where I had my very first dinner in Vietnam, and the sleazy bars with sexy girls calling out to every male passerby. Boutiques, high-class restaurants and shopping centres had spouted all over the central area. But the locals were still on these streets in their conical hats and bicycles, a real fusion of traditional culture in a modernising city.
We saw a mobile vendor peddling har gow (shrimp dumplings) and Shren immediately went up to order one serving for all to share.
The har gow (it's actually a Cantonese name) was undeniably good and savoury with the spice and sauce.
We walked further down the road and came to a Vietnamese restaurant named Restaurant 19. There was another restaurant nearby but we went into Restaurant 19 instead since we had no preference. We ordered some Vietnamese dishes but the food was not that fantastic and quite pricey. We preferred simple fares after all.
It was 8.30pm after dinner and we decided to head back to the guest house to pack our baggage as we were going on the 2-day trip to Vinh Long the following day. We took the straight road of Hàm Nghi to Phạm Ngũ Lão and came across a local provision shop. I dropped in for a look and bought two bottles of fish sauce of the famous Phú Quốc brand — one item checked-off from my shopping list.