Monday, June 11, 2018

16 May 2018 - Day 5 - Last full day in Ho Chi Minh City

This morning when I was down for breakfast Ms. Yang told me that a couple of Indians would be occupying my room from the next day onwards for three days. From the large scribble board hung on the wall near the staircase I could make out that a fair number of Indians have stayed in the homestay before. The endearing remarks on the board did complete justice to the way guests are handled by the two sisters in the homestay. When I was nearly completing an extra cheesy omelette with cut fruits I met a couple from Hamburg, Germany who were in HCMC to celebrate their honeymoon. While the lady worked in a corporate office the gentleman worked as a chimney-sweep. I shared some information about what to do in the city in three days and the kind of foods that one could feast on. I also told them that they would be surprised how far their Euro would go in the city! They seemed to be bothered a bit about the climate in the city.

I was headed to the Bitexco Financial Tower first thing after breakfast. Ms. Yang found me a Grab bike – I did not quite understand why the App on my phone refused to work. I uninstalled and installed the App many times thinking that some update may have been missing. But, nothing seemed to make it work. Therefore, from the homestay I had to seek Ms. Yang’s assistance and everywhere else I had to depend on the goodness of a kind Grab biker who would accommodate me without an App booking. The latter was quite tough especially without knowing the local language. The weather was perfect for a 360-degree view of the city from the Skydeck of the Bitexco Tower. The tower, shaped in the form of a blossoming lotus flower, is the most iconic landmark in HCMC. The landmark is the proud proclamation of the Vietnamese people of their aspirations and resurgence.

There are two entrances in the Bitexco Financial Tower. The first is the one to access the offices that are housed in the tower and the second one is the one to the Skydeck. I came to know that one can visit the cafes located on the floors between 50 and 52 without an entrance fee but must order something in the cafes to lounge around there. The prices of items sold in the cafes, again I was told, could set one back more than the entrance fee to the Skydeck. Moreover, the information that a visitor could get from the Skydeck is far more than what one would get from the cafes. I paid the VND 200,000 entrance fee and got a ticket with a stamp that entitled me to a discount at the Saigon Opera House show. Before I got to the lift that would take me to the 49th floor of the tower I was asked to pose for a photograph that would later be photoshopped with the background of your choice. I politely declined the offer. Before I could feel it, I was exiting the lift on the Skydeck. When it was inaugurated in 2010 it was the tallest tower in Vietnam. It soon lost that claim to fame but continued to wow visitors with its views and iconic engineering presence. At 860 feet it is among the coolest tallest towers in the world. Free binoculars placed at regular intervals with touch screen computers that explain each landmark help you to identify the city’s icons and gives a synopsis of the development of the city, the importance of the landmark and the architecture. I spend considerable time there reading up from the touch screens and looking through the binoculars to get more familiar with the city. Also, the photographs and videos that I could get from there warmed the cockles of my heart. One must be careful to avoid reflections from the glass, as the Skydeck is fortified by a thick glass wall all around. The well-stocked souvenir shop has many takeaways, of course at a price, that could keep memories of the visit to the Skydeck and the city alive for many moons.

HCMC is a city where you can literally shop till you drop. Having tried out the Ben Thanh market the previous day I walked to the Saigon Square market from the Bitexco Financial Tower. This is a market for bargain hunters. The air-conditioned shopping arcade is full of stalls selling fashion accessories, luggage and much, much more. Bargaining is the name of the game. Atrocious prices would be quoted, and equally atrocious bargain rates would be quoted back with no acrimony and distress. I struck deals for a few more T-shirts after scouring the markets thoroughly. Across the road from the Saigon Square market is the five-story Takashimaya shopping mall for an upscale shopping experience. This is the first Japanese store in HCMC that displays a wide range of goods from Japan, in particular, and Europe and US, in general. You name the brand and it is there, be it apparel, jewelry, ceramic, watches, toys or luggage. What fascinated me was the large food court with popular Japanese food kitchens offering quality sushi, sashimi and ramen dishes. Being close to lunch time the food court was quite active and, I am sure, that this is the place to come to see the largest grouping of Japanese in the city!

I managed to get a Grab bike after numerous appeals, since my App was not working. I got down near the homestay and looked around for some place to eat. I found a Chinese restaurant, on top of a bike repair shop, and decided to try out the fare there. As was to be expected, language was the first barrier. However, that was surmounted quicker than I had expected. When I spoke to the girl who gave me the menu in English she giggled, almost uncontrollably for a while, and called for an elder lady behind her. The sprightly lady surprised me with flawless spoken English and she helped me choose a dish comprising of sticky rice, stir fried veggies and pork. To feed the parched throat I ordered a cool drink of ginger and lime. The drink certainly gave some relief from the heat I had suffered in the morning and the food sated the hunger pangs that had begun to gnaw the pit of the stomach. The lady came again and again to ask if there was anything more I needed. Such family run businesses abound in the city and serve fresh and healthy homely food at very reasonable rates.

The evening was reserved for the AO show in the City Opera House. After a short rest to recoup the energy required for the rest of the day Ms. Yang fetched me a Grab bike for the ride to the French style 19th century building. The Opera House, built in 1897, stands in the heart of HCMC and is a fine example of French colonial architecture. I had reached well in time so as not to be disappointed about the ticket. Young boys and girls were at hand to help with the reservation. The seats for the shows are divided into three sections, Aaahh, Ooohh and Wwwoww. Aaahh tickets were the cheapest while the Wwwoww were the costliest, which were based on visibility of the stage and audio experience. A young girl explained to me that the Ooohh tickets would be just fine for me with a 20 percent discount I was eligible for with the stamp on the Bitexco Financial Tower entrance ticket. Once I bought the ticket I was ushered into the foyer of the brilliant building where a huge chandelier welcomed patrons. I was transfixed by the ornateness of the immediate vicinity, when a free tour of the theatre was announced prior to the show. The purpose of the tour is to familiarize people with the history and uniqueness of the Opera House. Moreover, as the guide told us repeatedly, taking photos and videos during the performance is a strict no-go. So, the tour was also an opportunity to take pictures and videos. Once the tour was done I gravitated to the corner where free welcome drinks were on offer. I had many cups of cold lemon mint tea. The one-hour performance was jaw dropping, to say the least. Using bamboos poles, sticks and cane baskets as props the story of Vietnam's transformation from an agrarian to a modern society was told in an acrobatic dance form with outstanding music. It was a masterpiece and I was glad that I made it to the show. When the bows were being taken, convinced that the show I come to an end, I took a few photos and when I started a video I found an infra-red light pointed to my phone from somewhere behind me. I quickly put down the phone, feeling bad about having broken an instruction that was reinforced so many times before the show had begun!

I decided to walk back to the homestay as the evening was cool and I wanted to spend as much time outdoors as was possible before curtains came down on the vacation in this beautiful city. I took a short detour and landed up in front of the brightly illuminated Town Hall, built in the first decade of the 20th century in classic French style. The Town Hall is not open to public but is a favorite with tourists, especially in the night with its illumination on. Right in front of the Town Hall is the massive statue of the great Uncle Ho, as the famous Communist leader and first Prime Minister and President of North Vietnam was referred to. The entire area was being readied for celebrations over the week with massive enclosures being set up. Performers of every age were up on the stage in batches, being choreographed for shows.

When I reached the homestay, Ms. Yang told me that she would get me sticky rice and chicken for breakfast by 8.30 am and that she would arrange a taxi after 12 noon to drop me at the airport. The fairy tale vacation had come to an end.

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