We woke to a gorgeous Saigon morning. The weather here is Eternal Summer. I miss four seasons at times and sometimes it can get a little too muggy for (real) comfort. But Sunday was so lovely. Almost (but not quite) balmy! Blue skies when family or friends come to visit is one of those Acts of God that we couldn’t be more grateful for!
Since it was Sunday and we enjoy going to mass on occasion at the Majestic Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, we attended.
Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral, officially Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, is a cathedral located in the downtown of Saigon, Vietnam. Established by French colonists, the cathedral was constructed between 1863 and 1880. It has two bell towers, reaching a height of 58 meters (190 feet).
All building materials were imported from France. The outside wall of the cathedral was built with bricks from Marseille. Although the contractor did not use coated concrete, these bricks have retained their bright red color until today.
Inside it’s hushed like all good cathedrals should be and even a little cool. The fans hiss and the air is full of music. The choir echoes in the principal nave . The organ thunders. The place could be updated a bit. It’s a tad under the weather in the interiors. But maybe that is part of the charm.
The mass is in English and the place is full of tourists and expats alike who come to experience a bit of “church” in Vietnam. Even some who never enter a church usually find it on their to-do list while in Saigon.
An hour later we emerge all blessed and ready for brunch!
Au Parc just down the street is a blissful bistro-retreat with a North Africa French Colonial Vibe.
Everywhere in Vietnam (and many parts of Asia) electrical wires festoon the streets. Most are “dead” wires left from some disconnected service. And many are live. Seems like a kind of Roulette to me when more wires are strung to add some new service. Recently new bylaws require that the multitude of lines must be strapped together so at least the danger of a loose wire maliciously zapping someone is lessened considerably!
Au Parc invites casual outdoor dining or welcomes diners inside.
There are bistro tables with tile tops. And vintage French tile floors. Two floors of comfort with air conditioning and lazy fans.
Huge paintings of souks and scenery seem to whisper Marrakesh. A bit out of place for Saigon one might think. But from one ex-colony to another maybe it’s not so outlandish. The ambience delights and the Turkish Brunch with Hummus and Pita Bread and Spinach and Feta Omelette is a treat.
The rear of the restaurant is a sun-splashed space with a courtyard ambience. Comfortable banquettes and cushy pillows invite lounging. Who wouldn’t relax and smile surrounded by chrome yellow walls, those splendid tiles underfoot and the hum of Sunday afternoon chatter in the brunchtime air?!
Service is attentive. Some of the staff all look like they’re 14. Young people in Vietnam can take a long time to appear “all grown up”. How lucky can they be!
Servers at Au Parc are always terrific at serving with a smile and getting your order as right as possible. Even though English might not be very conversational, the smiles never waver.
After brunch we head to the famous Independence Palace…formerly the Palace of the President of South Vietnam. When the country was divided at the 17th parallel in 1954 after the hostile eviction of the French. After America and Russia put their heads together and made a plan for the Poor Indochinese Country of Vietnam. (or something like that some people say). Who knew how it would happen and at what cost it would be to see the two parts put back together again. Unlike Humpety Dumpety..”.the horses and the men finally did it get it put together again”. What a day April 30, 1975 was! Depending on one’s point of view Saigon “fell” or Saigon was “liberated”. Nevermind the politics. Vietnam became one country once more on that day. It was wonderful and terrible. The years after suffered under the curse of a repressive government for too long. But slowly change came along and now in 2012 Vietnam is pretty “free”. Business is growing by leaps and bounds. Tourists are trekking to this charming country. And the President’s Palace is not needed anymore because the capital is in Hanoi. Nearly 2000km north.
The building is now known as Reunification Palace. It’s a modernist place. Doesn’t feel like a palace. Not many Presidents’ homes have been built in the past 50 years. Anywhere. The old palace was damaged by bombs in 1962 and the building razed. A new structure was designed. It’s a beautifully ordered modernist 1960s architectural gem, I think. the interior design is definitely 60s. All with Vietnamese/Asian twist. But with a lot of Western influence too. The formal public spaces are unusually “human” Dave thought as we were toured through. I agree. It’s not grand. But it is impressive. The indoor rooms and outdoor loggias blend seamlessly and restfully. Completed in 1966, it had only 9 years to serve as the public and private residence of the President. Now it serves as a museum and meeting venue for government and other functions.
From the graceful curving driveway up to the front entrance to the rooftop party place to the underground bunker-like operations center, the Reunification Palace is well worth a visit.
I’ve been there several times in my five years here. I always enjoy a review of the place.
After the tour we walked back to Dave’s hotel room to chill out for while.
Around 5pm a 15 minute taxi ride took us to Phu My Hung or District 7. It’s the site of the New Town…a kind of New Saigon. Wide boulevards and enclaves of townhouses and glass walled apartment buildings are well planned and organized around a kind of town center with modern shops and restaurants. A large convention center for expositions is a contemporary structure well designed for car shows and food expos and the like. Upscale car dealerships like Mercedes Benz and Porsche line the avenue.
Progress? Maybe. Maybe not. But it all has that familiar sensibility to us “foreigners” living here.
The most glamorous of all Vietnam’s shopping centers is the large kidney bean shaped Crescent Mall. Well named. Befits the architecture but also mimics the street outside bordering a small curved lake. We wandered the Mall with it’s crisscrossing escalators and LED lighting glowing from indirect soffits in all the neon tones of pink and blue and green and gold.
Outside the street and sidewalk is a lazy quiet change from the unending hum and thrum of old Saigon across the river “over there”! Strolling down the short crescent we passed through the first real Flea Market in Vietnam! Mostly young people come on Sunday to hawk their wares. Maybe 30 or 40 stalls are scattered in a square and since the first Sunday Market only 2 months ago it’s at least doubled in size. Some interesting crafts and clothes and a variety of junque can be found. It’s not begun to be outstanding but it’s a start and fun for everyone. Dave found a little treasure or two for Weyitu at the Market, In a kids’ shops nearby a treasure for Tariku.
At the tip of The Crescent lies a magnificent Moorish looking building. All white with graceful quatrefoil topped windows. Elegant and cool. Sculptural. It’s Cham Charm. The most expansive of all the Khai Silk chain eateries. The Cham religion was an ancient belief system related to Indian Hinduism and Thai Buddhism. There is no evidence of this religion in practice in Vietnam anymore. But there are some scattered ruins of brick monoliths here and there throughout the country. It’s an interesting moniker for an Buffet Restaurant. The religion here is haute cuisine buffet style. It’s no ordinary place. The gardens just inside the wall through the entrance are calm and green with fountains bubbling out of ordered pots in tiers on each side of the walkway. A grand long set of stairs climbs to the front door. The walls on each side are decorated with Apsara relief sculptures. Apsaras are the famous Dancing Musician Lovelies of the courts and temples of the Cham and the old religions of Cambodia and Laos and Thailand.
Enter Cham Charm! I’m not a buffet fan. But this buffet is set out in counters and tables and carts and food preparation centers and at least one grill and tiers of desserts to take your breath away. The walls and columns are decorated in relief motifs. The table and chairs and linens….everything is superb. This is the Big Treat Dinner for us!
As we exit Cham Charm into the heady evening air of District 7’s Crescent Shopping Mecca we leaved truly charmed by the delights of this Eating Establishment of the Khai Silk Dynasty.
Tomorrow we’ll head down South to tour a part of the famous Mekong Delta.