Day 12: Vietnam – Saigon Heritage

I’m going to tell this story before the rest, just in case I never complete writing about the other days leading up to this one, because I don’t want to forget this day.

Today on the agenda was having lunch with Son followed by the hopeful pursuit of finding the house my dad grew up in. Originally the plan was to meet up at noon at a rooftop restaurant called the Secret Garden, but my flight was slightly delayed and I had wait for my luggage, we ended up moving this to 1pm. I managed to get to my hotel just in time to do an early check in and walk over to the restaurant just five minutes late. We met outside and I waved as he ran across the street from his car.

Me: Wait, I don’t think I know you. You’re too clean.
Him: (Laughs) Yeah yeah. Are you ok with stairs? It’s on the 4th floor.
Me: We just climbed in and out of Son Doong like several days ago, I think I can make it up some stairs.
Him: Right.

Secret Garden is an open air restaurant and were promptly shown to our table. There were fans blowing about but still very humid and hot. Son pulls out my chair for me (Can I just say how long it’s been since someone pulled out a chair for me? Good manners are alive and well in Saigon). I end up seated next to a rooster that crowed sporadically every so often.

Him: Allergic to anything?
Me: No, I eat everything. What do you usually get to drink?
Him: Oh I normally drink water, but let me order something for us.
Me: Yay thank you. Btw you’re sweating a lot. Aren’t you from here? I am wearing way more than you and not sweating that much.
Him: I blame it on my dad’s side. They are prone to sweat. And yes it’s unusual.

I don’t remember exactly what he ordered but everything was really tasty and heavy in veges. Luckily I always take food photos.

I forget what we talked about at lunch, but conversation flowed easily. Probably about the triathlon he was going to do, where he goes for training, etc. When we finished he picked up the tab, despite my protests.

Him: What should we do next?
Me: Wait, you don’t have work today?
Him: It’s my day off.
Me: Would you help me find my dad’s house?
Him: Sure, I bet you when he lived here he probably lived in Chinatown. That’s District 5.

I found my dad’s text and the place was in District 5. We left the restaurant and headed down the stairs while jackhammering could be heard coming from the other floors. Crossed the street to where his car was parked and he apologized for how dirty it was, but it wasn’t dirty at all.

I tried looking up the address in Google Maps, but to no avail. There was no such street that matched what my dad had texted. Son suggested we head start by heading to Chinatown anyway, and we’d find it along the way.

During the drive he received a couple work calls for his side hustle startup that he had to respond to, while I looked out the window at the busy city life around us. Driving here seemed really chaotic. We were swarmed by scooters. Once off the phone I mentioned how hard it would be to drive here. “Oh it’s not that hard. You just inch out and be prepared to go slowly.”

As we approached Chinatown, he called a Google phone number and asked the lady on the line if the street that we’re trying to find had been renamed. She provided us with the updated name of the street and he typed it into the GPS. At this point I am floored by the Google Hotline in Vietnam and wondering if we have one in the United States.

We made our way down the street, the numbers are increasing and not matching the number I had. At this point Son mentioned I could just take a photo of any older building in Chinatown and my dad probably wouldn’t recognize it since he hadn’t been back since ’68. I didn’t want to do this, but then the street changed again and I found the building. He stopped the car to the side of the road where no one else was parked and traffic magically continued around us.

I started taking photos of the building from inside the car.

This is it!

The building is a now Chinese souvenir shop. When the man in the shop approached us, he talked to Son in Vietnamese and Son explained that my dad used to live here and then he began talking to me in Cantonese. My Cantonese was rusty, but did I just hear that clearly? He wanted to give me a great deal on this house, only 1 million in gold. Gold? I laughed awkwardly and politely declined, then he tried his luck selling to Son again in Vietnamese. Son interrupted and said he’d take a photo of me in front of the shop for my dad. He crossed the street to get the perfect shot. Later he mentioned that since the price of the dollar fluctuates so much here, all big purchases are priced in gold.

I’m basking in the joy of a mission completed, when he asks, “What should we do next? Want to check out an art gallery?” I agree, “Let’s do it!”

As we headed to the art gallery, Adele played over the speakers. He reached to skip the song.

Him: Adele is so whiny sometimes.
Me: But this song is at least her good stuff, now that she’s happy her albums just aren’t as good.
Him: It’s funny how when you’re happy you don’t hear the lyrics but can sing along with it, but when you’re heartbroken every painful lyric applies to your situation.
Me: Yes. I feel the exact same way.

I forget how it came up, but we briefly talked about love.

Me: I don’t know, you know me, we played truth or dare. I don’t know what exactly it feels like. I mean, I’ve cared about people deeply and loved them. But, is that romantic love? I don’t know.

Then he said something along the lines of “I’m not sure either”.

We parked in front of a coffee shop on the sidewalk, and he asked where the Art Gallery was. As it turns out, it’s one of the places he’s always wanted to check out but never had a chance. They guy points us down an alley and we come to a white iron fence. Pushing the button on the door, I hear him claiming us to be art collectors. Ha. He introduces me as such to the lady at the door, speaks quickly in Vietnamese with her since the place isn’t really open today, but we get to go in. She turns on the air conditioning upstairs where the art is and we’re free to roam around the building on our own.

The art gallery was fun, we talked about which paintings we liked, how his friend is great at drawing and better than a lot of the work here. He ended up showing me her work on Instagram, and then we added each other as friends to share older photos. He seemed to like the moodier paintings. Then I asked him to guess what the name of a painting was, but it was a trick question since it was called “Untitled”. I laughed as he made random guesses before revealing my trickery.

Tell Tale Heart

We headed back downstairs to the lounge area where you could read books and the curator grabbed us glasses of water. We picked through the bookshelves. There were a lot of Vietnam history and travel books, and a few art books that we flipped through. It was nice sitting in silence for a bit, once in a while stirring to show each other something we liked.

He explained how he got into loving art and knowing so much about it through someone akin to an older uncle figure who was a collector. Then he asked if I wanted to check out another Gallery, and off we went.

Him: You know, I could have pretended to own the place and you wouldn’t have known.
Me: I think I would have known still. You asked for their Facebook group to find out about more events. I don’t think owners do that.
Him: Ha.

As we drove through the city to our next destination he also pointed out the different districts, and explained the different characteristics each area is known for. For the most part I couldn’t tell apart the details of things as well here. Then we spotted a Ferrari and he mentioned what a waste driving it through the city was because of all the stop and go traffic, but how there were illegal races at night.

We get to the second place and it’s an art gallery combined with a cushion shop. This one has a lot fewer pieces. We finish up quickly here and then get a text from Huynh that it’s time that I meet him for dinner.

The drop off point is the local Zoo. We park right in front of the gate as Son laments how small the cages are here and how they should or are about to move the animals where they have more space, but then land developers want to take over the land if they move, since it’s prime real estate. It kind of looks like a park, so I hoped that it would end up that way. He used to work near here and he points out the street as we pass it.

The Zoo

Huynh arrives to pick me up on a scooter. It’s now rush hour time, and we’re headed to his house to have dinner with his family. I bid Son goodbye and head off. Rush hour traffic is far worse than regular traffic and as we swerve through traffic around people I keep whispering in Huynh’s ear that we’re going to die as he laughs. He points out different areas of the city and outdoor karaoke bars.

Once at Huynh’s house I meet his adorable daughter and his wife. They ordered take out food and we all sit down to have what I think is Northern food. This is when I tell Huynh and his wife about the Lesbian Sandwich shop that John texted me about. I must make it there. I had told Son about it, but he didn’t know what I meant. Huynh then promises to take me after dinner. His wife and daughter start off pretty shy, a far cry from Huynh’s boisterous laughter, but things start to warm up as we chat through dinner. They explain how cherries are super expensive as it’s not a local item as his daughter begs to finish the bowl of them, but mangos and guava are readily available and very cheap. It was nice seeing how people live in Saigon and that Huynh favorited his daughter.

After dinner, I bid the family adieu and we headed through night time traffic to the lesbian owned sandwich shop. Huynh then bought me a fully loaded sandwich and can I just say, it was delicious. The bread was so soft, and the pate was spot on. It was filled with all the delicious meats. John did not have me go wrong here.

On the way back to the hotel there was monster traffic, so Huynh drove on the sidewalk, beeping consistently and weaving through people and traffic. This is the moment I’m really thankful to Ivan for taking me for a motorcycle ride on the freeway a couple years back. Traffic in Vietnam moves at a much slower pace, so in comparison to riding on a US freeway, this wasn’t at all scary. I thanked Huynh for dinner and the sandwich and gave him a warm goodbye.

Once at the hotel, I had just reached my room to plop on the bed when I get a text from Son, “Want to go for drinks?” “Yeah sure, I just finished dinner and am back at the hotel.”

He mentioned we’d go out a bit later and it was right by my hotel so he’d come get me. I took this time to nap a bit. At around 9:30pm, he texted he was downstairs and mentioned he was later than expected because of traffic to get downtown where I was staying. We walked into the alley right next to my hotel to find a great cocktail bar with his friend saving a table. I remembered ordering a drink with gin, but I asked for them to use Hendricks and that meant that only the manager knew how to mix it.

We ended talking about travel, settling down, and a gamut of other topics. It was nice to be out. Son then went for a smoke, and I talked with his friend a bit more about where he went to school and travel. He had also wondered why Son had picked this bar, since it was so out of their way, but mentioned he understood when he met me and saw where I was staying. A couple drinks later and we’re ready to call it a night. I give them both a hug goodbye.

The next morning I awake to a text and smile. “Safe travels Jess.”

Son, it really meant so much that you helped me find my father’s childhood home, he was ecstatic to see the photo. I’d like to think that I’m the type of person that can accomplish all my goals by myself, but with this I would have given up sooner and/or been unable to find it at all.

Thank you for taking care of me. I loved sharing this experience, seeing the city through your eyes, and spending the day with you.

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