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     Volume 6 Issue 36 | September 14, 2007 |

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Saigon, Saigon
Part II

Farhan Quddus

Lacquer handicrafts are a specialty of Vietnam along with rattan and cane products and silks. My favourite shop is opposite the Majestic Hotel on Dong Khoi. Nguyen Freres (meaning Nguyen Brothers) is a chain outlet with shops in Hanoi and Saigon, and it is a Pandora's box of interesting pieces and gorgeous home decorations. Slightly on the pricey side, but well worth the money as their products are all authentic. You feel like you're rummaging through your grandma's old relics stashed in the attic. This shop is a must for collectors and people who like to shop for unusual things. KhaiSilk is a chain boutique store and there are a couple on Dong Khoi, they sell top quality silk clothing, shawls, bags; expensive but beautiful stuff. Ladies let me tell you, carry plenty of cash and credit cards because you are about to lose yourselves in shameful indulgence.

By the first afternoon the ladies have done wonders and discovered the hidden secrets of Saigon shopping. After an hour-long glorious foot massage at a great parlour on Ton that Thiep Street, some of us decide to sit back on the sidewalk right underneath the CitiCorp NA Building on Dai Lo Nguyen Hue Boulevard for a bit of people watching! The great boulevard that runs from the River Saigon to the HCMC Municipal Building is a perfect place to feel the pulse of Saigon.

Saigon has a laidback charm that you won't find in other Asian countries; though very hard working, the Vietnamese start their day as early as 6am but by 5pm they are finishing dinner and everyone heads out to the boulevards parking their mopeds on the road dividers, and couples are seen in the hundreds sitting on their bikes and romancing in the twilight. Art galleries and sidewalk cafes are filled with people chatting and sipping Vietnamese iced coffees or beer with ice cubes.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon.

We are asked to dress up as we are going to a Spanish Tapas restaurant. The lovely Pacharan, on 7 Hai Ba Trung, District 1 is located on an open rooftop opposite the opera gardens and the Huge Hyatt Regency Hotel. The entire roof houses comfortable divan-type seating with huge pillows and the back rest is the wall of the roof. They serve great Sangria and delicious titbits; snails, octopus, great shrimp tapas, salted beef. With some good food in our bellies we head out to experience some live music. Carmen is a gem of a bar tucked nicely in the residential area of Saigon at 8 Ly Tu Trong Street. This is one place which has been enthusiastically embraced by both locals and foreigners alike. The interior is a unique mix of stone walls and steps, open brick face, unfinished plaster, thatched roofing and candlelight for an effect that is cave-like yet cheerful. Large barrels act as tables and long wooden benches are placed for seating. The place looks rustic and delightful, but what I hear as we walk through the door is mind-blowing Latin music. It sounds like The Gypsy Kings live! The two vocalists are absolutely fantastic; speaking in Spanish, the band kicks through their repertoire of Gypsy Kings, Jose Feliciano, Sergio Mendes with such panache and flair, I sit mesmerized. We sit in front and enjoyed the performance thoroughly while some European and Vietnamese women dance flawlessly to the music. After the incredible show Sudhakar and I meet Juram the lead singer to talk about doing some shows in Dhaka.

The night is not complete without a visit to the world famous Q Bar opposite the Caravelle Hotel. The Q bar was founded here in Saigon before the concept was taken to Bangkok in 1998 where it rose to fame, but remember the cooler Q bar is in Saigon!

A market in Ho Chi Minh city.

An afternoon lunch at the Temple Club, in 29-31 Ton That Thiep, District 1 is a highlight for me on this trip besides Carmen; I am so impressed with this restaurant. While stepping out of the foot massage parlour we have all grown to love we try out a restaurant where Sandip proudly tells us that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie dined there every night on their last trip. That is enough incentive for the rest of us to try it out! The building is old and kept in its original state with a narrow corridor lined with ceramic elephants carrying candles on their backs. You climb a narrow spiral ancient staircase and walk into an old world Indo-Chine ambience that takes your breath away. There are 3 sections in this beautiful restaurant; as you enter you are facing the dark wood bar with intricate cupboards, shelves and tall bar stools. On your right is a private room designed for the 'French Sahibs' with plush leather retro armchairs, a newspaper stand, gorgeous lacquer artefacts, Chinese partitions, and statues. On the left side of the door is the dining area with round tables and rattan and wrought iron chairs. We sit by the window and start ordering. Omar orders the Pho Bo (Beef Noodle soup), which is the staple in Vietnam. If the Pho is good you know the rest of the food will be too. Ratings of Vietnamese food is measured by the level of fragrance of the Pho Beef broth; if it's too light and shallow, you know the chef is cutting corners. The usual Bo La Lot (Beef in betel leaf), Goi Cuon (Fresh Spring rolls), Chao Tom (Shrimp mousse on sugarcane sticks) are ordered with plenty of lettuce, basil, pergola, seaweed, coriander leaves, Nuac Mum (Fish sauce). The combination of the rolls, herbs, lettuce and the aroma of the anchovy sauce is seductive; Vietnamese food is so subtle you either love it or you hate it. The Ca Bo Lo (Baked fish with vegetables) along with steamed rice and the Beef in coconut water is absolutely priceless; the fresh green collards with juicy stems of morning glory lightly sautéed in fish sauce with glistening garlic pearls is cooked to perfection. What a meal! I will be coming back over and over again here, and not because of Brad and Angelina's endorsement.

I am content with everyone doing their little day tours on their own where neither Sandip nor I are asked to join since we have both done it before. While driving around town I do the occasional “Mr Know It All” history narrative of the landmarks of the city; driving past the Old Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Re Unification Palace, the war museum etc. With sightseeing out of the way and only a couple of days left, the entire posse want to reduce their stay in Bangkok and extend in Saigon. Wow, mission accomplished; Vietnam in and Thailand-Singapore-Malaysia-Hong Kong syndication out!

The ladies are now on turbo mode, it seems that two whole days were spent merely browsing the city shops so the real race will start now. One of our friends, Lipi, had discovered a shopping goldmine called the TAX CENTRE; right next to the Saigon Centre, this is the MBK of Saigon, the sister ship of Central.

I am scared, actually petrified because I know I will be asked by Zarah to go on our customary joint shopping trip that we reserve for the last day of any trip. I once walked into MBK (in Bangkok) and came out clammy, sweaty, disoriented and suffering from a severe bout of claustrophobia. I have sworn never to step foot in the place again! The Tax Centre is a mall but not as bad as MBK thank God, a good variety of and great bargains for lacquer artefacts. They even have a supermarket where I buy large amounts of rice paper and pate. The secret to good shopping in TAX is to gather your finds all together and then go for the kill - demand 70 % discount, you could get away with 35 % - 40 % easy, if you are smiling and persistent and keep adding to your stash. Practically all the Dhaka ladies are there and some more, a distant niece of mine whose husband is posted in Saigon is there too meeting her friend Shammu from our posse and she is amused by the mad shopping spree.

Some of our friends even manage to get in an afternoon round of golf while the others roam the streets of Saigon. After a couple of hours of shopping I take the group to a great lunch restaurant, the Vietnam House on 93-95 Dong Khoi Street. It is a tourist hangout but definitely worth a visit; great set menus, tasty and affordable, their seafood starters and the crab is fantastic, the clay-pot dishes are superb too. While on the subject of restaurants, I must mention that we all did take a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels an hour away from Saigon. This is where the Viet Cong fought the Americans and defeated them with their ingenious network of tunnels and simple but lethal weaponry. Better known as 'Ho Chi Minh Trail', this is a must-see; though only the bravest should venture into the actual tunnels, some of which are only 80cms wide in places! But it is fascinating to see the perseverance and determination of the Vietnamese into fooling their enemies. On your way back from the tunnels, stop for lunch at a beautiful open- walled restaurant called Ben Ney located on the banks of a river. The setting is picturesque and the garden surrounding the restaurant is beautiful. The food so cheap and so delicious you want to pay them more! Sit back and enjoy their stir fried squid, the lotus stem salad with shrimps, the legume soup, the Ca Kho Tho (fish in caramel sauce), steamed fish with chilli and lime, oh you are in for a gastronomic treat.. please tip well, we don't want this place to close!

On our way back from Cu Chi I ask the driver to take us to one of many lacquer warehouse/factories that are very common tourist haunts. These are large houses converted into factory/showroom where the backyard acts as the factory and the gallery is up front. The tour starts from the back showing you how laborious lacquer manufacturing can be and ultimately ends in a world of some exquisite works of art and décor. Prices are higher in these galleries but the range and choices are endless.

The ladies have heard much about the legendary Ben Thanh market and all of them want to raid the place before going back to the hotel. Where does the energy come from I wonder? It is 6 in the evening and the men are all slouched in the bus with no desire to even step out of the vehicle. An agreement is made; we drop the ladies off at the entrance of this humungous market/bazaar and head off to the hotel for a well-deserved dip in the pool. Ben Thanh is the second most visited site in Ho Chi Minh City. Thrice the size of New Market and the equivalent of Chatuchak Market, this place sees a million footsteps a day at least.

On our last day in Saigon Zarah and I keep our traditional last day shopping agreement. After the necessities are dealt with, we break for lunch at a place called Deli Gallery on Dong Khoi which is a restaurant cum art gallery. All the walls are adorned with various artworks and the menu is quite nice; it has the names of dishes on one side and miniature pictures of all the paintings of the gallery on the other. Soon I am transfixed on this 7 feet X 7 feet abstract of a Vietnamese village done in small rectangles of wild hues of blue, red, yellow and flaming orange. The painting has no price tag (of course why should it!) and the attendant says it's a steal at US $3,500 (only two ever painted!), Zarah reminds me that in order for us to do justice to this mesmerizing piece of art I must first invest in a large house with walls big enough and that our 'sardine can' apartment would be better off with smaller and cheaper works of art. After a bit of browsing, we are both hooked on a beautiful bathing semi nude and a Vietnamese abstract of a country house. I order a steamed Burramunda fish with XO sauce and lotus stem salad. The fish is amazing and the salad fresh, crunchy with a tangy lime dressing. After lunch we step upstairs to the gallery and meet the owner, Mrs Giang who is a real salesperson. She finally agrees to our cut down prices and our chosen artworks are carefully packed up and handed over to their proud new owners.

Sandip is still a workhorse, he is going to show me Saigon's most popular Jazz Club tonight and then a host of other clubs we have missed even though it's a week night. There is so much to see and do in a city like this one that 5 days just doesn't seem long enough. The “Sax and Art” located at the end of Dai Lo Nguyen Hue Street is a small cosy place with a large piano, a drum kit and 2 bar stools for the bass player and the saxophone player. The singer in a white suit jumps up on stage, he looks Japanese and resembles the former Japanese Premier Junichiro Koizumi with the exact wavy wild white hair, and starts singing some Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra favourites. The band is amazingly tight. A trumpet man gets on stage and takes my request for “Miles Ahead” by Miles Davis, Oh wow, I am impressed! Jazz is catching on in Saigon again, a revival after many years of ban. I am in love with the club. The singer's name I think was Lee, he dedicates a song for us and we dance along the narrow walkway. The place closes by 1230am and I am by now exhausted. For a man who came to relax and de-stress I am ready to pass out and wake up in Dhaka. So while the others head on to 'Gossip', a local trance club, I head on back to the hotel to slip under the sheets and doze off with the TV channel on CNN……..Good Night Saigon! I shall be back…

Farhan Quddus, is a travel consultant and Managing Director, Travel House Limited


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