Sunday, 28-12-2014. Day 130.
Exploring District 1.
We arranged through the Blue River Hotel for a taxi to pick us up at the train station and take us to the hotel. And we're glad we did. It was only a short trip, maybe 15 minutes, but the sun had not yet shown up and the hotel was down an alley in District 1 that would have been hard to find on our own, especially at 5:45 in the morning after a 32-hour train ride.
The hotel manager hotel met us and gave us the key to our room. We had to be quiet because people were still sleeping—even one person right on the floor behind the reception desk.
We were on the third floor and there was no elevator, so I tried to be as quiet as I could while carrying our three bags (at 18 kilograms each) up the steps one by one. After we got everything in the room and unpacked the essentials, we went to sleep until 11:30. When we woke up, we were hungry.
We got a map of the area and a few restaurant recommendations from the hotel manager, and we set out to try Pho Quynh, a nearby corner shop that's been making pho (the famous Vietnamese soup, pronounced fa?, like you're asking a question) at this same location for some 35 years.
This put any bowl of pho I've ever had in the U.S. to shame, and I've had a few. Even Jackie loved it. It was so good, we ate there almost every day while we were in District 1.
From there we walked around for a while, checking out the neighborhood. There are a lot more motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) than there were in Hanoi. It was glad we visited Hanoi first to the the beginner's course on crossing the street in Vietnam.
We were staying near 23-9 Park (also called 23 September Park), named for the day Ho Chi Minh rallied the country to battle the returning French in 1945. It's a narrow stretch of greenery interspersed with concrete play areas, about a block wide that runs along the length of Pham Ngu Lao, one of the main streets that borders the backpacker's district.
After walking down the length of the park, we dodged the motorbikes and crossed the street to Ben Thanh Market, which sells everything from knock-off backpacks to knock-off shoes to one-day suits to lots of durians and squirrel coffee.
We knocked around the market for a little bit. I keep looking for a better, sturdier daypack, and Vietnam is the place to get it, but the shopkeepers make it really hard to browse. As soon as you show interest, the vendor comes swooping in and starts bargaining. And that's fine, but it inhibits finding the right item. So she was giving me a great deal on a backpack I didn't want. She didn't want to let me look at her other stuff, so I passed.
HCMC was a lot hotter and more humid than Hanoi, so we went back to the hotel to cool off for a bit for before heading out to dinner. The hotel manager recommended Nha Hang Ngon (which meants Restaurant Delicious, I think), which was about 20 minutes away, so we took a short walk as the sun started to set.
We found the place without too much difficulty (even though a lot of restaurants have Ngon in the name) The restaurant had people cooking and preparing food along the sides of the dining area, so we could see what was being prepared as we were walked to our table. Since we'd had an education in Vietnamese food from Ha (our Hanoi street food tour guide), we even knew what we were ordering. The food was pretty good, too.
When we left, the line to get in was out the front door and down the block. Lots of fancy cars (which usually means wealthy folks) were pulling up and dropping people off. The place seemed pretty popular, and by eating early, we'd managed to avoid the rush.
Before heading back to the hotel, we stopped in at a nearby Fanny's for ice cream. We'd learned about it from one of the Australians who was on our Ha Long Bay cruise, and we're glad she mentioned it. There were some great ice cream flavor and concoctions—they even have a 15-scoop ice cream fondue platter on the menu.
After ice cream, as we walked back to the hotel along 23-9 Park, an older woman walked up to us and asked us if we spoke English. We told her we did, so she asked, "Do you know where I can get a drink around here? A proper drink, not just a beer?"
It was a weird question, because we were in the backpacker district which had a lot of taverns, bars, and all sorts of other watering holes within rock-throwing distance. But we didn't really know about the night boozing scene in HCMC; traveling with kids sort of puts a damper on that sort of thing. We told her as much, so she thanked us and wandered off, away from the highest concentration of bars in the area. I still don't know what that was all about.