Splashing Out in Saigon

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I’m sitting in L’usine in Saigon’s district 1. I’m eating a lime-coconut cupcake with my coffee, and I do not exaggerate when I say I LOVE this place. It feels, and looks like a cafe straight out of L.A. with the MacBooks to prove it. Attached is a boutique that might make you think you’ve accidentally stumbled back into New York, complete with sticker shock and recognizable designers. We came here twice in our brief three day visit to Saigon. It may be geared towards expats and Saigon elite, whose chic wardrobes make my casual travel wardrobe look, well, like I might be homeless. But I love it. And it’s a welcome piece of home. And I think, with places like this, I could easily live in Saigon.
While we normally operate on a very strict budget, less than rent alone back in L.A., it was Alex’s birthday and we felt like indulging for a few days. Our hotel, which we scored a free night at through agoda averaged out to a whopping $38/night in the best area in town (normally $60). That’s quite the splurge for us, free leVie water and all!
For the birthday dinner we hit up Xu, probably the swankiest upscale Vietnamese place in the city. We ate very, very well and got to try a sticky mulberry rice cocktail and fancy durian dessert. The cocktail, and every part of that dinner/ desserts: delicious. The durian? I still think horrendous. No matter how much I want to at least not hate it, every time I try it I feel nauseous. To Alex’s endless amusement.
After dinner we headed to Saigon’s best cocktail lounge situated, appropriately in Saigon’s best hotel: The Park Hyatt. The cocktails were, as expected, fantastic (and fantastically expensive for Asia at $12 each-though the endless candied cashews don’t hurt). But most notable? Climate control. Sure, we expected A/C in such a swish establishment, but there’s something different here. The whole bar is dehumidified, which for us is our own little slice of heaven. What luxury is this! So, fine dinning and after dinner drinks at Saigon’s best may have set us back a bit, but considering the whole experience was under $50/person we still think its a fantastic deal. Unlike New York where a cocktail bill for two at $100 doesn’t seem too incredibly outrageous. Even though, it is.
Truth be told, though we fit into the backpacker (or perhaps flashpacker-yes, that’s a thing) category, we still relish the opportunity to live it up once in a while. And I could say that style of travel is stuffy, or excessive, and unnecessary. And sometimes (maybe even often) that may be true. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t love every second of it. And maybe just a bit sad to be back to booking $20 or less hostels again, even though they are more than adequate. Both of us, self proclaimed hotel whores, and likers of all things bespoke had a fantastic time on our mini vacation from our vacation in Saigon.
On our second full day we indulged in a different way. A night food tour with XO tours. Essentially gorgeous Vietnamese women take you on Vespas through all the districts tourists don’t normally see for five hours of sightseeing and food indulging. Pretty much Alex’s version of heaven. It was the best tour I have been on, hands down. The guides were amazing, funny, and knowledgable. Most are students at universities around the city. We drove from Chinatown to district seven where all the expats live (and it looks like the US) to district four and some of the most poor areas. We ate bo bun hue, which is far superior to pho, as well as goat, frog, chili crab, scallops, squid, and even balut (fertilized duck embryo) which wasn’t bad at all. Complete with all the beer, banana wine, and palm sugar juice you could handle. It was an amazing night and something I would encourage everyone who visits Saigon to try. Aside from the great food you get to see areas most tourists never see.
We also, as is a mandatory experience (especially for Americans) visited the war remnants museum. Of course, it’s communist run, highly biased, and essentially a bash America museum (somewhat warranted, of course) and lacking some information, like oddly, the entire southern involvement. But it was extremely interesting, and a bit depressing. Certainly things we didn’t learn in school. For the varied perspective, and the opportunity to learn about a war I actually knew very little about, very worth it.
Overall, I loved Saigon. And I didn’t expect to. I thought it would be just another big city, but there’s something about it. Yes, it’s hectic, loud, and dirty but it just makes you feel alive. It’s a relatively young city, as compared to Hanoi and boasts an extremely cosmopolitan crowd. It’s difficult to say why exactly, but I could easily live here, at least for a while. Our guide tells us for $1200/ month you can afford a great apartment, eat out most nights and hire a full time maid. So, very, very tempting!
Tomorrow we venture onto Cambodia. Our short 16 day visit to Vietnam was one of the highlights of our trip thus far. And while many travel bloggers say they hate the country, and will never return (sighting ill treatment and rip offs as causation) we found very little negativity. Though the south is certainly more friendly. We don’t know why we had a different experience, perhaps it was ample pre-planning to avoid using taxis or being lost or ever in need of assistance. After all, we only took one taxi in Vietnam! Or perhaps we were just lucky, either way we love this country and wouldn’t hesitate to visit again.
On to Cambodia, and what marks the 2/3 point of my trip. I cannot even begin to understand how time has gone by so quickly. 90 days down, only 45 remain!

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Xu

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Dessert, complete with durian tiramisu.

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Poster at fine arts museum

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Cupcake at L’usine

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US tank at WR museum.

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Saigon, on the street.

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