The atrocities of war and a hilarious beer drinking session with John & Jasmin

Lonely Planet could indeed have been correct when they described Cafe Sinh To as having “the best fruit shakes in Pham Ngu Lao.” The menu is extensive and includes rambutans, dragon fruit, avocado, taroroot, and green dragon (whatever that may be!) and all for only 5000VND. You can even mix 2 or 3 of your favourites for exactly the same price. So this is where I chose to have my breakfast while I waited for Kotoe to wake up.
When she arrived we had more or less decided to take a cyclo ride around the city with a driver who I warmed to due to his cheerful nature, enthusiasm, knowledge and eagerness to please his prospective customers. However I assumed that the cyclos seated two people (as they do in Cambodia) and that the $7 he quoted us was for the both of us. They don’t and it wasn’t, and unfortunately neither of us could afford to pay $7 each, plus the entry fees to the museums we wanted to visit. I felt terrible watching his endearing smile so quickly disappear when I broke the news to him.
Instead we hired a couple of moto drivers for the day at a price of $3.50 each. They drove us firstly to the War Remnants Museum, which was opened to the public on September the 4th 1975. The outer grounds are home to a collection of U.S armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons. There is also a model of the tiger cages used by the south Vietnamese Military to house Viet Cong prisoners on Con Son Island, and a guillotine used by the French on Viet Minh ‘troublemakers’.
Inside there are photographic exhibitions displaying the atrocities of war. Many photographs illustrating U.S atrocities are from U.S sources, including photos of the infamous My Son massacre and a pignant black and white photo of a G.I from the 25th Infantry division with a satisfied grin on his face as he carries the mangled body of a grenade victim. A further exhibition ‘Requiem’ displays a collection of photos taken by 134 war reporters (from 11 nationalities) who were killed during the Vietnam war. Finally there are pictures taken by Japanese reporters Ishikawa Bunyo and Nakamura Goro, including dioxin (agent orange) victims and those wounded and deformed by napalm and nail bombs. Visiting the museum is a disturbing experience but it’s a poignant reminder of the brutality of war and a vital lesson in the understanding of Vietnam’s history.
We were next driven to the far western side of the city, to Giac Lam Pagoda, which dates from 1744 and is believed to be the oldest pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. The main sanctuary is filled with countless gilden figures, lamps and miniature statues of Bodhisattvas, and although it’s a very beautiful place, it did remind me of being in an old antiques market! The Jade Emporer Pagoda was our final stop before lunch. It was built in 1909 by the Cantonese congregation and is an incredibly colourful Chinese temple. It contains statues of ghostly divinities, grotesque heroes and decorative wood carvings, and the strong aroma of burning incense follows you wherever you tread. In the garden is a couple of lotus flower ponds containing coi carp and turtles.
Our drivers took us for a lunch of Pho and Vietnamese tea at a local restaurant, where the tiniest, most delicate little tom cat was finding his feet as we entered. After re-fuelling, we made our final stop of the day at the History Museum, which has an excellent collection of artifacts illustrating the evolution of cultures in Vietnam. Still getting used to the local currency upon our return, I almost started a full blown argument with my moto driver because i mistook the 50,000VND note he gave me as change for a 5000VND note! Easy mistake, I was profusely apologetic and he – fortunately – saw the funny side . . .
In the evening we ate at Lac Viet, one of the cheaper Vietnamese eateries down a little alley off Phan Ngu Lao. I ordered chinese spinach (which is actually morning glory) with garlic and cheese, and a drink, and it came to the grand total of 15,000VND – under a dollar. After the meal we decided to wander around the shops in order to make room for a beer or two. We walked past one of the numerous stores selling knock off North Face and Berghaus rucksacks and backpacks and spotted the British couple we’d crossed the border with from Laos to Cambodia. We’d previously bumped into them twice in Battambang and thus shared a joke about the fact that we were stalking them, so I crept up behind them until I was close enough to utter the words, “found you!”
We subsequently joined them for a few litres of Bia Hoi at a nearby cafe, and I can honestly say it was one of the most entertaining and enjoyable evenings I’ve had the pleasure of being part of. I cannot remember why but at one point we were trying to explain to Kotoe what an otter was. After comparisons to a small furry sea lion and a large aquatic ferret, and a number of very bad but highly amusing sketches, Kotoe finally understood what creature we were describing! We also solved the mystery of the men on bikes with briefcases and tambourines : they’re actually masseurs. We know this because one of the guys sitting next to us stopped one of them and exchanged 10,000VND for a shoulder rub. The couple are called John and Jasmin, and they are two of the coolest, genuine, most entertaining and original people I’ve met since I’ve been travelling. We’ve exchanged email addresses and I seriously hope I run into them again.
Photo is of a statue in the history museum who had Kotoe and I in stitches because he looks like he’s on drugs!
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