After finding a local Buddhist temple called Xa Loi in all of its quiet unassumingness, I slipped across the street to one of the few open restaurants.
It was a local place with expansive seating options and interesting displays like stuffed cobras all hooded-out and ready to bite through the glass. The menu was bilingual, and I opted for a few things like fried prawns in tamarind sauce and seafood fried rice. I stayed away from the more “exotic” options such as the following:
Yep, I avoided anything that seemed ambiguous to the translators.
After lunch, I journeyed back toward District 1, coming up the side of Independence Palace, forever immortalized in the photographs of the Viet Cong troops crashing in through the gates of the palace. Today, it’s a pearly white retro 60s building that’s pretty quiet save for the endless tour buses “crashing” through the side gate to drop off their charges.
I purchased a ticket from the little kiosk in front of the main gates and strolled through, taking in the wide, sweeping driveway and flower-decked fountain in front of the Palace. In terms of palaces, if you’ve been to Buckingham, anything in Vienna, Budapest, or the like, this one doesn’t seem very grandiose and flashy. It’s almost understated in its interesting architecture.
I went up the front staircase and walked up to the very top, which is the roof, and viewed the surrounding parkland and the helicopter landing pad first. I worked my way down floor by floor, peeking into State rooms and restored chambers. Everything is quite humble in terms of furniture. Signs are in French, English, and Vietnamese, so it’s easy to read about the purpose of each room and how some of them were restored.
The most interesting part of the palace, in my opinion, was the bunker. The war rooms and tight squeezes in the halls were interesting, as were some of the period pieces left in place.
The palace itself wasn’t very crowded despite it being a holiday time, so it was an enjoyable experience in terms of reading signs, taking photographs, and enjoying the view to the front gates from the upper floor balcony.
The grounds themselves are big, tree-covered, and had a few old tanks hanging around. There were a lot of war machines in the front lawns of museums in HCMC. I was almost surprised if there wasn’t a plane perched in a grand building’s front lawn!
I walked back around and out the front gate, continuing my journey into District 1, the central-most district and certainly the most popular for tourists. It was a hot day, so a good coffee was in order, and HCMC does coffee shops well, from the ubiquitous Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf shops to more local specialities. I came to really appreciate the local joints by the end of the week.
I wanted to grab a quick Starbucks, but both of them near the palace were closed for the Tet holiday. At one of them, a guard quickly ran out to me, crossing his arms in an “X” pattern, to indicate it being closed. This I understood, but I did want to read the sign (printed in tiny English font) about when it would reopen. He didn’t want any of this rebellious behavior, and he shooed me off like a stray dog before I could read it.
No macchiato for you!