Given Cambodia’s reluctance to let us leave, it’s a miracle our flight didn’t nose-dive into the depths of Cambodia’s landmine-ridden jungle. But alas, we landed in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), Vietnam! A 45-minute flight wouldn’t even get you out of Southern California, but it transported us to a completely different world. We’d jumped from a lagging third-world country to a thriving 21st century metropolis! There were movie cinemas, trashcans, Pizza Huts, and working traffic lights! People were chubby! They used the Roman alphabet characters! Our taxi (not tuk tuk) dropped us off at Saigon Central Hostel, where Tom and his sister enthusiastically took our bags, learned our names, and gave us a run-down of tourist excursions in Saigon. We were famished, so the siblings gave us directions to the nearest shop selling pho, Vietnamese meat and noodle soup. “But wait- it is now pouring! Let us grab you raincoats!” offered their mother. We certainly weren’t in Cambodia anymore.
In the hostel’s loaner ponchos we looked like a box of Crayola Crayons that were left in the backseat of car on a Texan summer day. We couldn’t find their pho place, but we had plenty of alternatives- Saigon’s District 1 is brimming with eateries. It’s difficult to differentiate between restaurants and street food in Vietnam- miniature plastic tables and chairs spill out of hole-in-the-wall restaurants but also surround curbside carts. Saigon’s sidewalks are jammed with little Fisher Price dining room sets. There’s no need to stress over where you should eat in Saigon because everything is bloody fantastic. After all, Anthony Bourdain’s favorite culinary country is Vietnam. The Vietnamese know what they’re doing – the four of us were clueless, but our friendly waiter just asked if we liked seafood and produced a three-course meal consisting of Saigon beer, seafood porridge, spring rolls, and noodle soup. Our bodies were so happy to ingest protein, after being vegetarian while in Cambodia. We literally licked the bowls clean, and the meal set us back a whopping 80,000 Dong ($4).
Saigon is a champion of convenience and cleanliness, something we’d been missing in Cambodia. Their Vietnamese coffee? On point. Their Circle K convenience stores? Just like a miniature CVS! Their meat? Food-poisoning free! We only spent two nights in Saigon, preparing for our month-long journey into Vietnam’s stunning northern regions. Our first task? Getting pedicures before hitting the beaches of Mui ne, Hoi An, and Ha Long Bay… duhhh. Plus my knotty back was begging for a massage- it’d been a whole week away from Siem Reap’s “Pura Vida” 90-minute oil rubdowns.
Well it turns out Siem Reap does have an edge over Saigon. A Vietnamese spa salesman lured us up an industrial elevator into a “spa” with fluorescent lighting, where we endured the worst pedicure our lives. Silken had to ask them to cut her nails and apply a second coat. Then they went HAM on my big toe, slicing off cuticle cells until I was gushing blood and squealing. I limped home and had an ice cream cone to make my toe feel better. I’m pretty sure I’ll grow a sixth toe. I hope franken-feet are en-vouge when I get home! Now that we have the gift of hindsight, Nicole and I are really homesick for Siem Reap. Vietnam’s amazing, but Cambodia will always hold a special place in my heart.