It had only been a week since Ben and Eden had left us before our next visitors turned up in sunny Saigon. Alice and George, Lawrence’s sister and her boyfriend, arrived in HCMC a month after they began their own Asian adventure. Through a combo of planning and luck, it just so happened that the day they reached us was Lawrence’s 25th birthday. Very kindly, Ali and George came bearing gifts of prosecco (we hadn’t had a drop of the stuff since leaving the UK in September), a gourmet chocolate cake and a packet of Haribo.
Unfortunately, Naomi still had a couple of classes to teach on the Friday afternoon, so Lawrence, Ali and George ventured in to District 1 to see the sights and sounds of Vietnam’s largest city. This involved a quick whistle stop tour around the Lonely Planet’s main attractions: The Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, and Saigon Opera House. Having exhausted himself with providing Ali and George with all of the history and the fulfilling the daily culture quota, we headed over to Pasteur Street Brewery Company to sample some local craft beer. PSBC, a firm favourite of ours, was the first treat of many that had been lined up as part of the birthday celebrations. Just as the remaining mouthfuls of beer were finished, Naomi arrived.
Next up was a trip to one of Saigon’s most iconic buildings, the Bitexco Financial Tower. Nestled on the 51st floor of the skyscraper is EON 51 Heli Bar, a sleek cocktail bar from which you can survey the sprawling metropolis. We splashed out on the signature cocktails and gazed out over the city, marvelling at a beautiful sunset. Throughout this trip we’ve been lucky enough to witness many stunning sunsets, and this was no different. The fiery orange sky faded as darkness descended onto the city. Having made multiple laps of the bar to ensure we’d seen every possible view, we decided to grab some dinner and a few beers near Bui Vien, the tacky scummy main backpacker area of the city, before heading home.
The following day, we met up with Ali and George at Things Café, another hidden gem of a coffee shop tucked in a dilapidated warehouse. It’s always nice to be able to recommend different places slightly of the well-trodden tourist path, and also provides us with extra incentive to try out as many different places as possible. But our main activity for Saturday afternoon was a trip to Saigon Outcast for a craft beer festival. We’d been to Saggy O’s just the once before when Ben and Eden were here, and enjoyed the chilled out vibe then so were keen to go back. We paid our 40,000 VND entry and began our search for the complimentary beer that was included with the ticket. The venue was incredibly busy, and it was perhaps the first time that we realised the sheer number of expats living in the city as they were all gathered in one place. 12 local breweries had signed up to be a part of the festival, and we slowly made our way round them all. The breweries clearly took great pride in their beers, and were very keen to hand out free tasters for us to sample. We also collected a significant pile of stickers for our ‘beer label book’ that’s been steadily growing throughout the trip, as well as many business cards so we can visit the breweries at some stage over the next couple of months.
Before we got too hungry (and sloshed), we headed for dinner. A bit of online research had uncovered a mouthwatering place that we were all desperate to try. Just along the alley on which we live are a couple of restaurants where the only thing on the menu is grilled chicken. We’d driven past it countless times in the day without giving it a second glance, but in the evening, the places transform into a smoky haze as the chickens are lobbed on the BBQ. We plucked (ahem) for Ga Nuong Anh Tu and were taken down a small alleyway and into a bustling restaurant, hidden away from the main road. We ordered the obligatory Saigon beers and waited for our chicken to turn up. The whole grilled chicken comes chopped up into bite-sized pieces, and is served with crusty baguettes and two sauces; a salt-chilli-lime combo, and a spicy hot sauce. We very quickly gobbled most of it down before tentatively nibbling on the chicken feet. We were bemused as to whether we were meant to eat the head, and in the end decided to leave it be. We vowed to be back.
Over chicken and beers, we decided that Sunday’s activity was going to be a trip to Dam Sen Water Park. We headed straight for Twister Max, one of the biggest slides, which had immediately caught our eye (there was no easing involved, much to Ali and Naomi’s distress). George and Lawrence went first, and based on the facial expressions of Naomi and Ali at the bottom, enjoyed it a lot more than they did. For the rest of the day, we worked our way round the park, trying out all the rides with scary names like ‘Black Thunder’, ‘Kamikaze’ and ‘Tornado’. We only saw a few other westerners in the park, so we were warmly greeted by most of the locals, with Lawrence taking the responsibility of saying hello to everyone. A day on the slides had taking its toll on our bodies, which now had a number of bruises in development so we retired from the park and onto our final treat of the weekend. Pizza 4PS has established itself as our go to restaurant when we fancy a treat. Who cares that we’d only been there a couple of weeks ago with Ben and Eden. All guests deserve a chance to eat a pizza with a burrata in the middle and it was Lawrence’s birthday just a couple of days before.
Ali and George weren’t due to leave until the Wednesday, so we knew that we had dinner plans to look forward for a couple of nights as we strolled in to school at the crack of dawn on Monday morning. We went to our favourite ‘com suon’ place in the city, where the grilled pork chops are as big as the plate. The food went down a treat; we were starting to convince them that we were locals etc. Our search for a post dinner beer wasn’t quite so successful, but we parted, knowing that we would have one final dinner left, or so we thought. Then boom, the baddies of Vietnam struck…
Unknown to us at the time, Ali and George’s night took a turn for the worse when the hooded villains of HCMC rode past on a motorbike and callously snatched Ali’s bag. Whilst we slept peacefully, they negotiated trips to the police station, and tried to come to terms with the fact that her passport was gone forever. It was only upon waking up and processing the hundreds of panicked messages in the Jones’ Family message feed that we realised what had happened. Now without dwelling on it too much (this is our blog after all, and we both got a good night sleep whilst they were showing the police exactly where the crime occurred on a hand drawn map), the bag snatch meant they had to completely re-plan the remainder of their trip in order to obtain an Emergency Travel Document. A massively stressful number of days followed, in which they became familiar faces at embassies, consulates and immigration offices, but the end result was that their trip could continue with a revised route.
The upside of this kerfuffle/travel nightmare meant they would be in HCMC for another week. A quick accommodation change (the mugging happened on their hotel doorstep) saw them move closer to us, which made it a lot of easier to meet up in the evenings for dinners and drinks, and enabled them to stroll to BoTows for a swim in our pool. The weekend came round incredibly quickly, so we all took a trip back to Saggy O’s for a browse around a Boho market, went to the cinema in a half finished shopping mall to see ‘Beauty and the Beast’, chilled at the pool, and drunk coffee in Lawrence’s favourite place. 4 people searching the web also turned up some more great food finds, including grilled octopus, and a chicken and sticky rice spot, where we regretfully ordered a disgusting salty fruit juice.
By the time it came round for Ali and George to leave, we had become so used to them being in the city that it felt like they lived here. Undoubtedly, the bag snatch was a nightmare, but in the face of all the potentially trip ending repercussions of a stolen passport, they remained upbeat and saw their extra time in Saigon as an opportunity. For us, it was fantastic to have that additional time with them, and for the chance to explore more of the city together. There was a mixture of emotions on the day that they left for the Philippines. It was sad to say goodbye to them, but also a relief to know that they had made it out of Vietnam and their adventure was continuing.