Day 7, Saigon: Popular Landmarks & Vietnamese "Breast Milk" Experience
It was coming near the end of the Vietnam trip and we made Day 7 a day for just walking around Saigon and eat. We planned to wake up late in the morning without a meet-up time. But I still got up around 8.30am for my free French-style breakfast at the guest house. I waited patiently for the others while sipping my usual hot cup of black Vietnamese coffee, munching slowly on the egg-and-cheese baguette and smiling at the guest house's non-English speaking staff since we could not communicate much. They did not mind at all when I gestured to take photos of them doing their work.
Joanne and Chavez joined me shortly but Shren and Jeff skipped breakfast — they would be flying back to Singapore in the evening and were busy with checking-out and depositing their luggage at the counter. It was after 10am when we hit the street, starting with some shopping at the gift shops along Bui Vien Street. Not all the shops were opened for business at this hour. While the others had many more last-minute things to buy, I satisfied myself with taking photos of the activities along the streets.
Before noon, we went for early lunch at Pao Cafe. Mai, the sales girl at Innoviet's tour desk, was not on the morning shift. Though we had been staying in Bui Vien Street for several days and visited the restaurant a few times, it was the first time Shren and Jeff actually dined here. While the others ordered the same fried or soup-based beef noodles and self-wrapped spring rolls, I tried their seafood noodle for a change. Nevertheless, beef noodle soup was still the signature dish of Vietnam.
After lunch, we headed towards Notre Dame Cathedral in Central Saigon. It was a fine day to visit Saigon's famous landmarks before the trip ended. As usual, we tried some light snacks along the way and did a brief stopover at Ben Thanh Market.
I saw some star apples at a fruit stall and bought two of them without hesitation. I was delighted to find the star apples since I was told it was out of season the day before. (Read on to find out why it was so special.)
The first stop for the day was the People's Committee Building, formerly the City Hall, but the building was not opened to public. It was one of the most photographed buildings in Ho Chi Minh City.
A statue of Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho (Bác Hồ), holding a child, stood in the park in front of the building. The revolutionary leader of the Viet Cong, during the Vietnam War, was depicted as a hero who cared for the children, the weakest member of the society.
A short distance's walk, after passing the People's Committee Building, brought us back to Notre Dame Cathedral. It had turned cloudy and drizzling slightly. Not wanting to waste another opportunity to photograph the popular landmark, we busied ourselves taking photos of the French cathedral and the statue of Virgin Mary (with pigeons) in front of it. Fortunately, it was not so dark, unlike the visit on Day 2.
Right beside the cathedral was the oldest Post Office in Southeast Asia.
We went inside to explore the still-functioning post office. The decorations and layouts were still the same as what I had seen 5 years back.
I suggested to the others to get a postcard, write something on it and post it back to themselves or someone else in Singapore. Though I had done the same thing 5 years ago, I did it again for the fun of it.
It was 3pm when we exited from Central Post Office and took a short break at the other end of Notre Dame Cathedral where there were several street vendors selling all sorts of snacks and beverages. We bought some spring rolls and Shren bought some beverage. She got a shock when she was told it costs 50.000 dongs a cup (one bowl of beef noodle in a restaurant cost only 30.000 dongs). She was about to reject the purchase when the vendor, noting the bewildered look on Shren's face, corrected the price to 20.000 dongs.
We rested a while before retracing our footsteps to a coffee outlet which we had noticed earlier. Trung Nguyen Coffee House was a coffee-chain in Vietnam, similar to Starbucks or Coffee Bean. We were seated to a table and presented with a menu that resembled a newspaper. We placed our orders and were served in no time.
We ordered both hot and iced coffee but all orders were served using Vietnamese's traditional coffee makers. Glasses of ice accompanied the orders that were supposed to be iced coffee. After the hot coffee had completely dripped out from the coffee maker, it was poured into the glasses of ice.
I ordered the hot cà phê cứt chồn or weasel coffee. It was said that the coffee beans had passed through the digestive system of a weasel. Real or not, the coffee did taste smoother and much more aromatic than any coffee I had ever tasted before.
Well, it was said that Vietnamese farmers regarded civet cats (or weasels) to be pests and killed them, so there was not many civet cats in Vietnam that could help to produce all the chồn coffee. Most of them were "synthesized". It would be rare to find the real stuff.
Closer to dinner time, we were back at Ben Thanh Market but did not enter as it was about to close for the day. There were a lot of street vendors along the road besides the market, selling numerous food stuff. We tried a couple of light snacks but saved our stomachs for dinner. The restaurant that we planned to have dinner this evening was not setup yet.
At the rear of Ben Thanh Market were several shops operated by the Ben Thanh Group. It was unbelievable that goods sold in these shops were so much cheaper than those inside the market and Binh Tay Market in Cho Lon. The items on sales had fixed price tags, no bargaining required. The real deal was right here, behind Ben Thanh Market! The same backpack, which the girls had paid with 300.000 dongs in Binh Tay Market after some tough bargaining, was quoted as only 234.000 dongs here.
At 15 minutes to 6pm, the head of a long "dragon" appeared on the road. Carts and tentages were pushed and pulled by the locals along the road to where the night market should be. Within 30 minutes, stalls were setup and several restaurants sprung up from nowhere. We did some shopping around while waiting for Hai Lúa Food Countryside, the restaurant that we had patronised on our first day in Ho Chi Minh City, to be geared up.
When we saw the ladies of Hai Lúa Food Countryside barbecuing fishes on a big fire, we went in and were seated. We ordered barbecued fish again, a dish of shell fish and a vegetable dish. Shren and Jeff agreed with us that the barbecued fish was indeed splendid.
(See Day 1 post for more photos on Hai Lúa Food Countryside and the barbecued fish.)
After dinner, we walked back to Phạm Ngũ Lão. Shren and Jeff retrieved their baggage from the guest house and took their pre-booked cab to the airport for their Jetstar flight back to Singapore. We bade them goodbye and went to Pao Cafe to look for Mai to have a chat before our departure the following day. We had a long chat over some drinks.
We returned to our rooms to wash up and packed our backpacks, getting ready for check-out the next day. Then, I gathered all unconsumed fruits — leftovers from the day before — and the two star apples that I bought in Ben Thanh Market in the afternoon to my sister's room. We continued with part two of the fruit feast. This was when I demonstrated to them how to eat the star apples.
The star apple, or milk fruit, had shiny, pale-greenish skin like an apple but rounder in shape. The centre of the fruit resembled a star when cut into halves. The easiest way to eat the star apple — for the uninformed — was to cut it into halves and eat the white flesh with a spoon.
However, I had read online that Vietnamese farmers disapproved of the above method. They claimed that it was not the correct way to truly appreciate the amazing fruit, which they called vú sữa (meaning "milk from the breast" in Vietnamese).
And so, I demonstrated how to have "breast milk" the Vietnamese way.
I took the last uncut vú sữa and squeezed it hard, using one hand, to crush the saps inside the fruit and mixed it with the milky juice. The fruit was not soft and I had to use both hands to squeeze when my hand got tired after some time. When it was ready, I took out my pocket knife and cut a small hole on the fruit.
The milky mixture could be seen through the hole. Then, I put the hole (like a "nipple") to my mouth and sucked and “fondled” with the fruit at the same time. The milky mixture was really sweet. And that was how star apple was called “milk from the breast” in Vietnam.
When I said I had tasted Vietnamese "breast milk", this was what I meant! What were you expecting?