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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Good Morning Vietnam! Part 13: Livin' Large in Saigon!

Saigon was the last stop of our month-long vacation traveling through Vietnam, thanks to the wonderful trip I won from Vietnam Central Coast Tourism, and this will be my last post about our time in Vietnam! I've written previously about our two great foodie adventures in Saigon: our Amazing, evening "Chef's Tour" with the Director of "Back of the Bike" Food Tours, and the delicious morning "Pho Trail" tour, with Barbara of "Saigon Street Eats" but we did a lot of other, cool things in Saigon, too! We arrived at 6 in the morning, fresh off the night bus from Kon Tum. "Fresh" is a relative term, for although I slept, being able to basically sleep almost anywhere, even with comfortable, reclining seats, a/c, and a blankie, Dan didn't sleep well. :-( We groggily got a cab to the Hotel Majestic, the elegant, romantic, and historic (1925) 5-star hotel on the Saigon River that I had booked for us online thru Expedia, as I got a great deal- $104 a night- left our bags with the staff, and ventured out to find coffee and watch Saigon wake up! The first cafe that opened up was Caffe Bene at 58 Dong Khoi , and it was Grand! We had seriously excellent coffee, delectable, buttery croissants, and fast WiFi, so I could sip my latte and Facebook! I mean- seriously- what more can you ask for at 7am?! 
Under "notes" on our Expedia reservation for the Hotel Majestic I'd written that Dan and I were celebrating our "Second Honeymoon", and so we'd Love a room with a balcony... and then I crossed my fingers... And WOW! Did they do us proud! When we checked in, I asked if we had a balcony, and the charming lady at the desk smiled and said we had- so I was delighted. But when we walked in the room and saw what they had done for us, I totally flipped! Even Dan, who doesn't get excited about much, was stunned with happiness! :-)  In addition to the little balcony, the robes, and slippers, and all the other lovely 5-star stuff, the King Bed was festooned with two towel swans in the shape of a heart, surrounded by a huge heart of real, red, rose petals! There was a bouquet of red roses on the table, an assortment of chocolate truffles, and a lovely card congratulating us on our Second Honeymoon! We Looooooove The Hotel Majestic!
BEST Second Honeymoon surprise EVER!
Roses and chocolates!





















The Hotel Majestic is the "Grande Dame" of Saigon hotels, and the service we received was truly stellar. In addition to all of the above, their excellent concierge, who helped us fix a serious issue with our airline tickets, and their charming desk staff, the hotel has a lovely and elegant little swimming pool with a bar and a pool table, a small spa where I had an excellent  mani-pedi, and two delightful outdoor, roof-top bars that overlook the river and the city, where we had evening drinks. In two words: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
 

Rooftop Bar- and yes, it really looks like this!
Drinks overlooking the river...
Morning view from our room's balcony...

The night view from our balcony...

Me, in the pool, livin' large!



 And yes, it is Saigon. No one calls it Ho Chi Minh City, including the Vietnamese. The airport call sign is still SGN. It's Saigon- deal with it. LOL
We got to see a classic Vietnamese music performance on the steps of the Opera House:
One evening we went up to the Rooftop Garden of the Rex Hotel, famous for the Vietnam War's "5 o'clock Follies", and had G&Ts while watching the young, whiz-bang bartenders toss Bacardi bottles, as the Rex crown spun around in the neon of the new Saigon...

View from the Rex Rooftop Bar...

 











We drank and bought wonderful coffee at a Trung Nguyen cafes around Saigon...
At a Trung Nguyen Cafe...
Saigon: the old and the new...



...and imbibed G&Ts at the Park Hyatt's elegant outdoor cafe, overlooking the Opera House...


Totally amazing Saigon...
























And wandered into intriguing temples...

We had a lovely elegant dinner, which included the yummy, Vietnamese version of stuffed, fried squash blossoms, at a restaurant which enticed us in with their promise of live Vietnamese music! While the food and wine were very nice, the Vietnamese music was only outside; the lady playing the piano in the restaurant spent all evening working her way through her repertoire of classical, western music!
Squash blossoms!






Sax 'n Art Jazz Club




















After searching high and low around Saigon's INSANE constructions sites (to the point were I was literally  in tears, and Dan and I were snapping at each other in sheer frustration), we Finally found 28 Le Loi Street and the great jazz club we'd fallen in love with in 2008: Sax 'n Art!



We tried, in vain, however, to find the authentic, carved wood, right-off-the-boat Irish Pub we stumbled into on St. Patrick's Day in 2008, where we enjoyed green beer- and given all the construction throughout Saigon (the entire downtown has been ripped up to create a subway system) , it's probably gone... We did, however, find Bernie's Irish Bar and Restaurant, and treated ourselves to a dinner Dan badly needed: really good hamburgers and Irish whiskey!
Hamburgers & Whiskey at Bernie's Irish Pub!














 One of the most special things for me was the morning we went to Chabad Vietnam. We walked in just in time to join Saigon's Jewish Community in celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, which was absolutely delightful! And Dan got The best souvenir- a blue kippa (yarmulke) from Chabad Saigon!

At Chabad Vietnam


Chabad Jewish Center, Saigon, Vietnam
























From there we walked to the nearby Saigon Zoo & Botanical Gardens, one of the oldest zoos in the world, dating from 1864! This was Dan's favorite day, and we both loved it!  The zoo truly impressed us both: the grounds and the animals were in excellent condition, the animals all looked content, the zookeepers were in attendance all over the park, feeding, and caring for the animals, and it was truly delightful to see hundreds of Vietnamese families enjoying the park, the rides, and the critters, as we were!

Bahn Mi for Dan!

At the Zoo - Giraffes




Petting a kid who escaped from the pen!





Being silly!
Bears!



Sleepy tiger...

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Wild turkeys- literally! LOL











And then we got to go shopping! Passing by Diva Silk, with their beautiful window display of custom-made clothes, for 3 straight days was simply too much for either of us to stand! So Dan went in to have an embroidered chef's shirt made (so he looks fly when presenting Vietnamese dinners to our guests at the Elkhorn Inn), and then I wanted a lovely, hand-beaded silk pant suit... and then Dan decided I should have another fabulous Ao Dai made, too!
Me, being fitted for my Ao Dai...




I also did a little 'window shopping', nearby, admiring the beautiful and unique Vietnamese designer clothes that I wish I could afford... The two places I felt  had the most interesting and unique clothing were Thuy Design House and Mai Lam. Both had truly exceptional, and truly Vietnamese, one-of-a-kind GORGEOUS clothes, that I hope I can afford one of these days! If you're any kind of an artist, designer, or design-loving "fashionista", check out their websites!
Me in my Ao Dai, & Dan in his Chef's Shirt!





Our last morning in Saigon we had a lovely brunch at Vietnam House on Dong Khoi Street, a delightfully chic and elegant cafe, with a young, attentive waitstaff in hipster pork-pie hats! We had seriously yummy fried pumpkin flowers, roasted duck breast in pepper sauce, and beef with green peppers, and wine, and enjoyed every second! 
Vietnam House
 Our final shopping stop was at the huge and sprawling Ben Thanh Market, as we had to buy Snake Wine (yes, with  a snake in each jar - see below for a photo!), a pair of pumps to go with my new Ao Dai, and One More Giant Suitcase (as we did last time...) to shlep all the clothing, shoes, wine, local liqueurs, spices, gifts, and coffee home, not to mention the wooden statue and the Highlands basket. LOL I will say that when I put my mind to it I am VERY good at packing breakables, having brought back 32 glass bottles of wine, olive oil, and honey from Israel, followed by a record-breaking 38 from Chile, and yes, we got everything home from Vietnam intact, too! Everyone has a talent, and mine is obviously packing liquor bottles rolled up in my clothing!

On our way back from another fitting at Diva Silk, and after being proffered their brochure at least 6 times, we finally decided to take our chances and go upstairs... and enjoyed ginger tea and really excellent massages (where the petite and fiercely, powerfully strong Vietnamese masseuses walk on your back! Yes!) at the Blue Moon Spa! We then then walked through the park, exercising ourselves vicariously by watching Vietnamese of all ages diligently working out on an assortment of fitness machines...


...on our way to see the Water Puppets! I fell in love with the Water Puppets when we first saw them in Hanoi in 2008, and when I found out there were performances in Saigon I just Had to go! A traditional form of folk theatre from Hanoi, akin to "Punch and Judy", the puppets actually perform in a stage of water, acting out fun and fanciful scenes of village life and folk tales (dragons, koi, water buffalo, royal processions, etc.), with the actors who control the puppets actually IN the water with them! The musicians sit on either side of the stage, and the performance is so exciting and so much fun that you truly don't have to understand one word of Vietnamese to thoroughly enjoy it! This time we got to sit in the front row, where we could see all the deets and get splashed a bit, too, and we enjoyed it even more than in Hanoi!
Watter Puppet Theatre


Water Puppets


The fire-breathing dragon!

The puppeteers!


















Like always, I wished our trip was longer- I wish we'd had a day or two more in the Highlands, and one more week to do a cruise through the Mekong Delta! (And another week to go up to Sapa! And, oh, say, a month in China, too! LOL) Next time!
Our overnight Vietnam Airways Business Class flight from Saigon to Frankfurt was a joy: sleeper seats, champagne, drinks, delicious food, served with real silverware and linen, and charming, attentive service... THIS is what flying was meant to be!

Dan, livin' large!
THIS is what flying should be all about!
Elisse, livin' large!












For us, a lot of the fun of traveling is bringing the trip home with us so we can continue to enjoy it, and share it with our guests at the Elkhorn Inn- and that usually means food and booze! But this time we did something new: When I got home I found sources for a lot of the Vietnamese herbs and greens we enjoyed in Hoi An and Saigon, and planted them in the Elkhorn Inn garden- and they're doing great! We (and our guests) have been enjoying them in salads, and we just made a Vietnamese kimchi, too! And now Chef Dan can make a REAL Pho!
Hot & black pepper, spices, & condiments...


Tamarind candies...

Wine & village liqueurs...

Weasel coffee from Buon Ma Thout!

A Highlands carving, Nha Trang spa mud, & our Hoi An Cookbook from Vy's Market...

A water puppet...

Highlands embroidery, Sim Wine & Snake Wine...










The Vietnamese herbs and greens we're growing in our garden!



Highlands basket from Kon Tum...

My Hello Kitty motorcycle mask...
Royal Hue Liqueur

Chef Dan and his Foodie Wife, in our Vietnamese duds at the Elkhorn Inn!



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