Tag Archives: Saigon

Shopping with Uncle Ho (and why I’ll never own an ao dai)

10 Dec

Reproduction propaganda posters bought on Dhong Khoi road

Mister Noodle and I both like shopping and faced with a new urban place to explore we both tend to hit the shops. Saigon was no exception so, eschewing all the other information you can find in much better written blogs and guidebooks, here is a quick rundown of where we went and what we bought…ardent consumerists that we are.

What we got

Like a bad parent I am going to talk about my favourite first – Mr Pham-Van-Tu. This beautiful, handmade bear was discovered in Nagu, a little shop tucked away in the arcade of the Hotel Continental. He is made of silver and ivory striped silk, has fully functioning joints and was throwing himself at customers for a mere 20USD.

A very cultured bear indeed

He seems to be quite at home in Singapore and has even been catching up on the works of the Hotel Continental’s other famous resident, Graham Greene. Mr Pham’s name derives from a little side character in The Quiet American who ‘never…dressed carelessly, [or] said the wrong word.’ Just the sort of name for such a well turned out, respectable little bear.

 No introduction required for our next purchase (or prizes for guessing who chose it)…  

Our very own Uncle Ho courtesy of Saigon Kitsch

I have to say that up against the striped splendour of my bear, Uncle Ho is looking a little lacklustre. However, I have been informed that a style makeover is in the offing with Mister Noodle planning some prop art decoupage. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes! Along with Dogma, Saigon Kitsch is part of a funky two storey shophouse located on Nguyen Van Thu. Both levels are filled with quirky gifts, posters and clothing that have more than a hint of 1960s Vietnam about them.

Zen Monkey, Tara & Kys Gallery

Saigon is also a good bet for interesting art work – the authenticity and originality of some of it has to be taken with more than a little pinch of salt but I figure that if you like it, those sorts of things really don’t matter. Vietnam has very strict laws governing the export of antiques from the country so the chances are that if propaganda posters are your thing, you’ll be bringing back repro ones anyway. As well as the posters above, we also brought back a couple of prints from Tara & Kys Gallery situated at 101 Dong Khoi Street. The shop is worth a visit for its architecture alone. Going up the wooden staircase to the first floor showroom you have a real sense of what the shophouses would have once been like. If houses could speak, I am sure that this one would have more than a few stories to tell.     

What we would have liked to have got were dong, time and a western woman’s proportions no object…

1. Mai Lam military jacket. Mister Noodle would have plumped for one of the beautifully embroidered military jackets at Mai Lam’s at the Hotel Continental. Frustratingly I couldn’t get hold of an image to put on the blog but believe me they are exquisite, which probably explains the 1,200USD price tag. Mai Lam’s is also an interesting place to go just for a bit of window shopping – the garments are draped and hung across old-school wooden furniture and set against a very evocative backdrop of chandeliers and scooters.

2. A bit of bespoke. Saigon is famed for its tailors who can run up a suit in less than 24 hours. We didn’t get our act together this time to put their sewing skills to the test but it’s definitely on our list for our next visit. Since getting back to Singapore I have been given a good tip for a tailors near to the Sheraton Hotel so we’ll make sure we get suited and booted when we are next in town.

3. Oh dear, ao dai. Finally, the ao dai…

I fear that the closest I will ever get to owning an ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress, is the one depicted in the print we bought, above. There are many, many elegant women sporting gorgeous silk ao dai in Saigon and I know that I would do nothing for the outfit’s image were I to don one. My Suffolk-girl proportions are just not designed for the slim fitting dress/trouser combination and will have to be consigned, forever, to the list of items I would love to wear but just don’t suit me. Depressingly, with age, this list seems to be increasing and currently includes: converse trainers, cropped trousers, boyfriend fit jeans, hats of any description, and red dresses*.

With the exception of the absent ao dai, we gave Saigon a pretty good run for its money, and have some souvenirs I know we will treasure…along with at least one I hope won’t ever see the light of day outside this apartment. Eager to dispense with the dong at the airport, Mister Noodle purchased a replica Vietnamese army hat. Does it suit him and will he ever use it? Let’s just say it probably belongs on the same list as my ao dai.

*That last one has been off the list ever since the age of seven when my mum told me I looked like a skinned rabbit in a Tammy Girl dress. In hindsight, considering the weird, clingy mohair material, I guess see she was probably right.

Miss Saigon? I do already!

8 Dec
Cocktails at the Purple Jade, Intercontinental Asiana, Saigon

Saigon, like the picture of our cocktails above, proved to be one part elegant, one part funky, with a little bit of an edge and a hint of darkness. After just 48 hours I have to say that I am in love with the city and know we will visit again. Here’s just a little taster of what we did and where we went…

Getting there

Mister Noodle and I took the 8pm Jetstar flight out of Changi and thanks to the wonder of a -1 hour time difference and a punctual service were in Saigon just after 9pm. Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport proved to be a revelation – with the international terminal built in 2007 it was bright, clean and surprisingly empty for a Friday night. Having read a tip in the inflight magazine we headed straight for the information booth where we picked up a taxi token for just 8USD and were soon on our way into town and heading into our first uniquely Saigon experience…the traffic.

Saigon Scooters 

Just as every guidebook, blog and article will tell you, there are scooters, everywhere. They don’t stick to any particular lane, they rarely have less than three people on them, and their horns are permanently set to ‘blaring’. From the back of our taxi it was like watching some intricately choreographed piece of modern dance, to a soundtrack of what I am guessing was the latest in Vietnamese techno, courtesy of our taxi driver. Whilst the whole experience was crazy, alien and a little bit seat of your pants, as the sights and sounds of the City sped past, both Mister Noodle and I could tell we would like this city.

From the ridiculous to the sublime

There couldn’t have been more of a contrast, as we were whisked out of the hurley burly of Friday night Saigon and into the Intercontinental Asiana, our home for the next two nights. When originally planning our trip we were determined to book into the Hotel Continental, the hotel Graham Greene stayed in whilst writing part of The Quiet American. However, a bit of research suggested that there might not be quite enough old world charm to justify the price or lack of modern amenities. We plumped for the Intercontinental and I am glad we did. I could wax lyrical about this hotel but this is neither the time nor the place, so I’ll save it for another time and another post. Back out into the city and our first mission, crossing the road and reading a map…

History is written by the victors

Thanks to Mister Noodle’s superior navigation skills and a good deal of scooter-dodging we were soon at our first stop, the War Remnants Museum*. I had read up about the museum in advance and had an idea of what we were in for as the bulk of the exhibits on display are photographic records of the Vietnam War. Originally called the Museum of American War Crimes, but renamed under conditions of the 1997 trade agreements with the US, the museum pulls no punches, either in the images on display or the political slant of the narrative which accompanies them. I would wholeheartedly recommend visiting the museum, however, I would not suggest spending a long time there on any one visit. Most of the artefacts depict in stark and shocking photographic detail the damage war does but after a while what I found to be more disturbing than the images was how quickly I become desensitized to seeing them. The point at which you find yourself somewhat blithely walking past another set of images showing the horrific effects of Agent Orange is the point at which it is best to leave.

Soaking up the city

Attempt at arty sepia shot - and lots of cables

Back into present day Saigon and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the weekend – just walking around soaking up the city. Due to the limited time we had to explore, and the belief that two legs are better than four wheels, we mainly stuck to the District One area. Relatively small in size, the district was brimming with life – from the elderly ladies wearing their non la (conical hats) and crouching on the pavements, cooking up snacks over open coals, to the young couples having their wedding photos taken outside Notre Dame and in the midst of the traffic, there was something new to see at every turn. There were so many beautiful things to capture on camera so why, when I get home, do I find I have this…

Arnie gets communist poster style make over

and this…

Who needs health and safety guidelines when you can stand on a motorbike to fix electrical cables?

I guess it just means we will have to go back again so I can pluck up the courage to ask one of the lovely hat ladies for their picture, get shots of things like the ritzy, glitzy shoe mountains at Ben Thanh Market and the architectural legacies of French colonial rule and not men fixing cables in the middle of the road. Ah well, you live and learn. So long, Saigon…for now.

(Those who know me well will note the absence of any real mention of Saigon shopping. The truth is the shopping was so good I have decided it is deserving of its own standalone post…to follow).

*I could not find an official site for the War Remnants Museum but for info, it is situated at 28 Vo Van Tan Street (District 3), and is open daily from 7.30am – noon, 1.30pm – 5pm. The admission charge was 20,000 dong (approx. 1USD).

SGN for the weekend?

3 Dec

You betcha! The minute the school bell rings this afternoon Mister Noodle and I will be heading off on a weekend adventure to Saigon. The bags are packed, the guidebooks marked and with just 48 hours to spend with Miss Saigon there’s a whole lot to do.

Passport? Check! Guidebooks? Check! Travel journal? Check! SGN here we come!

I am ashamed to admit that our shared knowledge of Vietnam currently stands at one Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, a Graham Greene novel, numerous war films, and a two-hour Top Gear special. Hopefully after this weekend I will come back with something a little more insightful – check on Monday to see how we got on.

Have a good weekend X

PS. A special mention must go to my friends Hayley and Alison for equipping me with my beautiful pink Smythson travel journal. It has so far recorded our move to Singapore, our honeymoon in Bali and has elegant, tissue-thin blue pages ready and waiting for Saigon.