Valentine’s Day in Saigon
Today I’m taking the time to reflect on this year’s celebrations. Now imma be real with you. As a traveling couple, there are some pros and cons about celebrating Valentine’s Day.
The (Only) Con (Actually)
Since the beginning of our backpacking trip, Tim and I have been at each other sides for the past 161 days. That’s one hundred sixty days of non-stop togetherness. We’ve basically put in about three years’ worth of a relationship for how many hours we’ve spent together. On the road, its easy to become neglectful of being affectionate towards one another. The mushy stuff falls to the wayside when you’re having traveler’s diarrhea and at each other’s throats when a hostel booking goes wrong. Now, I know I’m guilty of not putting in as much effort into my relationship as I should. I’ve grown accustomed to saying “its because we’re too comfortable with one another” when really I should acknowledge the truth that I’ve just gotten lazy. So how does one (or two rather) remedy the indifference?
To make up for our shortcomings, Tim and I decided that Valentine’s Day would be a concentrated effort to be at our best for one another.
As a traveling couple, all the ingredients for a perfect day are easier to come by. My idea of a perfect day consists of exploring new environments, discovering a cool eatery with an even better menu, and doing something for the very first time! All of this must be done in good company under a cloudless, blue sky. Now Saturday morning in Saigon rolls in and is/are there…
The sun out? Yups! It’s gloriously sunny!✓
Opportunities to explore? We’re in a big city, so duh. ✓
Delicious food in the mix? Of course! It’s Vietnam! ✓
Good company? No doubt about that one!✓✓✓✓✓✓+++++++
Okay okay! So by logic, its going to be a fantastic day!!!
We started the day off bright and early doing an interview with a school *cough cough American Academy* that happened to be *cough cough racist.* I’ll go into more detail about “the racism” in a future blog post but long story short: Tim and I were told TO OUR FACES that we should settle for a small salary because Vietnamese didn’t want teachers with “faces like ours” — meaning Asian faces — and we weren’t “real Americans”. Now how is this story relevant to the Valentine celebrations we had? Well, Tim and I automatically were up in arms TOGETHER and defended ourselves on how backwards and little-minded the thinking behind these comments were. We were a team and had each other’s backs despite how uncomfortable and tense the situation was. The hiring manager was taken aback by our response, not understanding at first how she had offended us but when we clarified the issue behind her statements, she seemed not only surprised by how unyielding we were in our defense, but also how well we supported our case… and each other. She ended up offering us the job on the spot but we walked out on the interview with our heads held high, more proud of our teamwork than anything else.
That kind of mishap couldn’t bring our spirits down. Instead, we were more poised to enjoy the day. Tim planned to take me to the Saigon Central Post Office as part of our sightseeing route for the day. The Saigon Central Post Office is one of the major attractions in Ho Chi Minh City because the structure was designed by a certain Gustave Eiffel (you know, the one of the Eiffel Tower fame). Apart from that reasoning, I also love stationery and everything related to stationery including, well, post offices! It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture considering my interests. In front of the post office, vendors were selling exquisite pop-up handmade cards featuring papercuts of Vietnamese culture like women wearing Non La (the conical hat) biking with a basket of flowers and they actually recreated the flowers using paper too! The cards ranged from $1-4. Obviously I couldn’t help myself and got two. Inside, tons of tourists swarmed the counters waiting to send their letters out. Never in the world have I been to a post office that doubles as a tourist attraction. It was definitely a sight to see! There were desks in the back of the room situated underneath a painted portrait of Ho Chi Minh. We sat at the wooden desks and Tim wrote letters with me to send to my family back in MA. Around the corner from the post office, we stumbled upon an alleyway lined with bookshop upon bookshop. Every store front sign read “24/24”. We found out the fraction is the equivalent to the western world’s “24/7.” Bookstores that are open all hours of the day? Can you believe it?!?! I was nerding out hardcore but our growling stomachs were given priority and we made our way to find some lunch.
As our luck would have it, a cool eatery was discovered only steps away from the post office. We waltzed into the uber-hip Propoganda Vietnamese Bistro with brick walls decorated with murals of propaganda-esque artwork. Every seat in the house was filled, mostly with tourists but from what we could see, this was no ordinary tourist trap. The restaurant had personality. The napkins shared the same print as the murals decorating the walls. We were given a complimentary bowl of shelled peanuts. Every bite of peanut felt like I was grinding up a batch of fresh peanut butter in my mouth. An appetizer of fresh spring rolls and two noodle dishes — I ordered rice vermicelli with green onions, strips of omelet, sauteed squid, and peanuts; Tim ordered lemongrass beef wrapped in betel leaf with rice noodles — ended up totaling me only $15 USD (about 320,000 VND). The noodle dish was bright and flavorful and left me feeling full long before the bowl was empty. We later learned that this bistro is ranked one of the best restaurants in Ho Chi Minh. For people who love atmospheric dining, this is the place for you! It’s located on 21 Hàn Thuyên, Bến Nghé, 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam.
After lunch, we continued our urban exploring hitting up The Independence Palace first. It was bit of a yawn but I’ll blame it on the midday heat more than anything else. The ticket was only 30,000 VND. We continued on over to The War Remnants Museum. On our way there, Tim was approached by a man selling fresh coconuts who decided to randonly unload the carrying pole strewn across his shoulders and placed it over Tim’s shoulders!!! Tim and I had no idea what was going on so we assumed the guy was just tired of carrying his coconuts. If you don’t know what a carrying pole is, its a long bamboo rod that balances two carrying apparatuses on both ends and is used to carry heavy loads for long periods of time. The guy was laughing and smiling so we were naturally laughing and smiling too. Then he proceeded to get two coconuts, cut them open and offer them to the both of us. Tim felt bad thinking it was a gesture of kindness so he pulled out his wallet to pay for them and then the coconut salesman stopped him and said, “One. 30,000.” We were both duped by this seemingly innocent coconut con artist! But the stunt left us impressed at how well the trick was played out! Plus they’re the best fresh coconuts I’ve ever had! We had arrived to the War Remnants Museum just an hour before closing time. The ticket was only 15,000 VND! It was refreshing to be charged fairly for admission after being in places like India and Nepal where foreigners have to pay a steeper entrance fee than locals. The War Remnants Museum delivers the perspective of the Vietnamese War from the side of the Vietnamese so it was real reversal of what I’ve been taught in school. The accounts from the Vietnamese P.O.V were so tragic and downright horrific that I had a very visceral experience and almost burst into tears in the middle of the museum. My stomach was churning the whole time reading war crime after war crime. It was not a very romantic way to end our of sightseeing spree but Tim and I both share a passion for learning about other cultures so it was a good thing to do together.
After taking some time to decompress from the bleakness of the War Remnants Museum, we headed out for dinner. Tim had been planning to take me to a Hot Pot restaurant but our plans were thwarted as we arrived to a closed restaurant. There was no chance for dismay for, as fate would have it, the popular sidewalk cafe that had been closed all of Tet reopened that night and it was right across the street. Every time we’ve passed by Quán Ốc Út Trang, we’ve noticed every table is full of diners having a grand ol’ time! When we got there, it looked like we would have to wait since all the tables were filled but they ushered us to hang tight and scurried into the cooking area to produce a fold-up, silver table and two small plastic patio chairs to match! In Vietnam, outdoor eateries are done a little differently than anywhere else I’ve seen in Asia. Here, the seating area isn’t found indoors — it actually spills out onto a sidewalk like an organic being of sorts, being added to and subtracted from in conjunction with the demand. They erected a cozy seating area in a small space of sidewalk that had been empty when we arrived and we sat down immediately, inches away from motorbikes zooming by into the night. The menu was hefty and slightly intimidating but looking around, it seemed as if no plate was left untouched so we hoped for the best ordering fried garlic mussels, a stir-fried noodle dish, and sweet and sour bbq pork ribs. Before the meal came out, a server left a bowl of quail eggs on the table which to my surprise, were not ordinary hardboiled eggs. They were prepared in the style of Filipino balut meaning they boil the egg just before the chick is about to hatch so you have a bit of underdeveloped quail in the tiny egg! It might not be the most appealing meal but I’m a fan of local eats. Also, the eggs were complimented with garlic-infused salt, a little chili pepper, and lime creating this tangy, zesty little pop-em-in-your-mouth appetizers. My favorite part of the meal were the fried garlic mussels. A small plate of mussels came out topped out with fried garlic chunks which were light but super savory. It was definitely not sexy having garlic breath on a date but we both agreed they were worth the trouble. The meal ended up being waaaay too heavy for me to finish off but it was the perfect way to cap a perfect day.
I have to admit, as a traveling couple, Tim and I get the best of the best each and everyday. We’re surrounded by the possibility of new adventures at every turn. What most only dream of has become our everyday reality. We’re building a life together in different places that we can always return during late nights of storytelling. On the road, we’ve let go of the material and replaced collecting things with collecting memories. Everyday I grow richer and richer with more memories I can count. I couldn’t ask for a better love than this one.