Goodbye Ho Chi Minh City

As my three weeks of TDY (temporary duty, meaning I am still working for State, but at a different post/different country) come to a close in Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve discovered something about myself as a solo-traveler. Yes, I want to see all of the main sights and yes, I will pay to go to the top of a tall building to look out over the city. Yes, I will wander around the museum and try to make sense of awkwardly worded plaques and yes, I will get a little lost in my wanderings as long as I have a card for the hotel to hop in a cab in case I get really lost. I enjoy all of these things and have spent several afternoons and weekends doing all of it in and around HCMC, but one of my favorite pastimes here, on my own, has been finding a great spot to pull out my book and waste away an hour or two reading/people watching. (Is it really wasting? ? Probably not.)

When Thad and I travel together, we are on the move constantly, exploring new places and enjoying the trip together. With your favorite travel-buddy along, there is always something to chat about- whether it is what you saw earlier in the day or what is in the plans for tomorrow’s seeing. Solo though, those conversations all stay in my head (well, mostly- I have been known to talk to myself occasionally, but it is usually while I am on the move, sorting out directions or plans). Instead, I used my downtime from touring to relax in the shade with a book and a cool drink, sometimes on a park bench and others at a café.  (On the same theme, I also sent out spades of postcards as I enjoyed my strawberry smoothies, and sunshine, so for those in the loop, be on the lookout in about a month! I’m guessing that with the local post, that timeline isn’t too much of stretch.)

It was not a bad way to spend a few weeks.

Of course, I still prefer to travel as a couple. We’ve got almost eighteen years of co-traveling under our belts, so we’re pretty good at the divide and conquer aspects of adventure, but when that isn’t in the cards, I apparently do quite well just me, a book and a view.

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Saigon Zoo, Go Ahead and Skip It!

If you’ve read more than about three entries on this blog, you are well aware that much of my travel revolves around the ability to go see (and more importantly, touch) *all* the animals. Being based in Southeast Asia has given me some fantastic animal-touching opportunities: snuggling a koala, being a mahout for a day, illicitly touching a panda bear, etc. (Click the links for a quick jump to each of those animal-rific tales. They will open in a new window, so no need to worry about losing this one.) If the chance is there, I’m going to take it! With that in mind and with three weeks of being a solo-traveler in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the first things I did was take the chance to go visit the city zoo.

Now, zoos are not my favorite way to see animals, as I much prefer to get even closer and more personal with the critters, but I’ve been to some fantastic animal reserves/parks, which are just fancier names for zoos, but also usually with a bit more forward-thinking take on keeping wild animals. The animal-area in HCMC is called a “zoo,” but that didn’t put me off in the least. San Diego calls their animal park a zoo and it is amazingly well done, creature-centric and education focused.

So, one day last week, I skittered out of work as soon as I could, made the quick dash to my temporary apartment (a mere one block from the consulate- what a commute!) and changed into a sundress and headed out the door, all in the span of about ten minutes. My  CLO-provided map (thanks , HCMC CLO office!) said that the zoo was a convenient fifteen minute walk, so after a brief consultation with the front desk to make sure I was headed in the right direction (Vietnamese street names all still look the same to me- I have not gotten to a higher level of language understanding yet!) and a book and a bottle of water in my bag, out I went.

The map did not lie about the distance, but I may have slightly overestimated the convenience factor, mainly because I had to cross several large streets and at this early point in my HCMC tenure I had not yet grasped the finer points of local traffic patterns. (A week and a half in, I can report that I’ve gotten pretty good at playing Vietnamese “Frogger” and can weave my way across six lanes of traffic without missing a step.) Arriving in one piece at the front gate, I was a bit taken aback by the general appearance of the entrance to the zoo; rundown is a sliggt understatement. Rather than reading “zoo,” the welcome had more of a “so-creepy-you-might-die-inside-park” vibes. But whatever. I braved the traffic to get there, I was going to see what it had to offer, so I quickly offered up my two dollar entry fee and headed on in.

Saigon Zoo (the official name) is comprised of two main parts: the animals and the botanical gardens. One of these was well-worth my $2 and the other was not.

I’ve seen a zoo or two in my time, but this one ranks as one of the worst. There was a strange array of animals, everything from reptiles galore to sadly swaying elephants. The most abundant caged animal was deer- there was a huge dirt area dedicated to a herd of probably fifty critters. (The “caged” designation is key, as other than the deer, the second most ubiquitous animal at the zoo was rats. I saw enough free-range rats to last me for the next few weeks. ) The best exhibit was the sea otters, mostly because they were actually active and seemed halfway happy. They had just been fed a bucket of fish heads (where were the bodies?) and were skittering around from pond to pond eating their seafood-inspired lunches.

But, putting aside the deplorable menagerie and wandering  a few meters away , I found a decent  botanical garden. It was really more of a nice park that a botanical garden (no labels on flora, nothing seemingly in any order), but I’ll stick with their nomenclature on this one. Toss the poor city parks group a proverbial bone! The park was nice. It was filled with benches, a fountain and several smaller parks-within-a-park. It will come as no surprise that my favorite part of the botanical park was the two huge cranes who wandered by the bench where I had settled in with the book I brought along, in hopes of a peaceful evening. (HCMC is *loud,* so any bit of quiet is a nice reprieve from the bus horns, scooter squeals and general ruckus of a quickly expanding Asian city.) But back to the cranes. These two long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked buddies just walked by as if they had not a care in the world and I was just another inanimate object- a piece of the bench. (Did they make their great escape from the zoo side? If so, props to you giant cranes! Run while you can.)

My afternoon at the zoo was definitely not what I had envisioned when I logged off my State Department systems and headed out the door for the day, but it ended up being an interesting and entertaining evening, regardless. Would I recommend the Saigon Zoo to folks headed through town? Nope. But, if I lived here long –term (rather than my current three-week TDY) I think I’d be a frequent visitor, as the breath of fresh air a bit of calm among the chaos of the city would make for a welcome reprieve. Just ignore the swaying elephants, hungry-looking snakes and slightly mangy deer.

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Spa Time in Vietnam

Spas are not a place I’ve frequented much over the years, but I do have to say that living in Southeast Asia has given me more opportunities to indulge that I would ever have had in Idaho, or anywhere in the US for that matter.  Usually, my SE Asia spa-excursions have been mostly aimed at making my feet sandal-presentable as we tend to do a lot of walking on our trips around the region. A few days in sandals and even the best at-home pedicure gets pretty beat up. Not only are my heels in need of some serious attention, but whatever polish job I did before heading out is usually chipped and needing a bit of its own TLC. But really, my favorite part of a visit to the foot spa is the chance for some cute nail art on my toes, because let’s be honest, I can do a pretty fine job of painting at my own house, with a rainbow of polish choices arranged by color and shade just waiting for use in my upstairs medicine cabinet, but anything more creative is beyond my capabilities. (I would say less than 100 bottles, but over 50 when it comes to at-home color options. There will be some major sorting done on that collection when July rolls around and I am faced a much smaller, and therefore storage-poor, living situation.)

But, with a weekend on my own in Ho Chi Minh City and my planned outings to the War Remnants Museum waylaid by the fact that it is closed on Sundays, I figured my best bet for the afternoon was a visit to a Vietnamese spa. The ladies at the consulate here were raving about the great service and prices, so if I were ever to give new services a shot, this was the time and place to do it. (I’m not deeply upset about my lack of WRM visit, as we spent several hours there the last time we were in HCMC. It is fascinating and painful and horrifying all at once.  Definitely not kid-friendly, it is quite graphic and definitely leans towards the Vietnamese viewpoint on the “American War.” I would say all first-time visitors need to make a trek there, but repeat trips are not necessary.)

With my past spa experiences confined mostly to my many pedicures and my one adventure into the awfully intimate world of body wraps (that was in the Maldives and is a whole story of its own- talk about an invasion of personal space!), I thought I would give the facial a shot. Who doesn’t want smoother skin with smaller pores?  (Actually, as I write that, I must admit to finding it strange. Do we really care about things like the size of someone’s pores? Maybe the fact that it even gets an ounce of notice says something about the world which we all live in, but I can’t deride it too much, as I am obviously aware of this as a desirable trait.)

Sign me up for one facial.

Overall, I think the treatment went as it would anywhere, but being new to this phenomenon, I must admit to a couple (okay, three) of things that stood out to me:

  • How many different pastes can one person have slathered across their face in a matter of forty-five minutes? I count six, but may have lost track in the middle somewhere. They seemed to get progressively thicker and pastier as the session went on, with penultimate layer being a mask that dried into a lovely plaster on my face, cracking whenever a muscle twitched.
  • The head/shoulder massage was a nice addition to the afternoon. About twenty minutes in, I started to wonder how many times my face could be rubbed and patted in a variety of patterns. A face just isn’t that big and my facial was supposed to last three-quarters of an hour. But, it appears they actually do know what are doing! (Imagine that.) While the second to last layer of goo hardened on my face, I was treated to a lovely head/shoulder massage that did wonders for the muscles of my shoulder and back, which have taken a beating over the last week of sitting in a closet (I’m like an TDY EFM Harry Potter!) doing biometrics for 250+ non-immigrant visa applicants each morning. (HCMC is a lovely section, but could definitely benefit from some ergonomic office supplies next time end-of-the-year funds roll around!)
  • Is Pledge somehow a part of all facials? This strange, yet not terrible, afternoon ended with a final layer of liquid being rubbed around my face, this last one smelling exactly like the lemon-scented Pledge my mom made us use each Saturday morning to dust the plethora of wooden furniture around our house. (When your father is a high school woodworking teacher who spends each summer traveling to art shows to sell his beautiful creations, you are bound to have  a whole lot of custom-made wooden pieces around the house. At our place, everything from the lamps to the coffee table to the entertainment center were lovingly crafted in the backyard shop. We should have bought stock in Pledge!)

After nearly an hour laid out on a table in a backroom of a spa that can be found at the end of an alleyway (that’s were all the good things are, right?), I walked out of the building smelling like newly polished furniture with a face that must be as close to a baby’s skin as it has been in thirty-eight years.

Overall assessment: Not bad. I am not sure I’d go in for it again anytime in the near future. I think I’d rather opt for just a straight head/shoulder massage and get my full forty-five minutes devoted to those and have less of the weird oozing concoctions smeared across my face.  Luckily, at just under $15, it was an experiment well-worth its price and one that I am sure I will be wishing were affordable when we are hanging out in DC next winter. (It snowed there yesterday. It is April! How will I survive that ridiculous weather?)

(I have no spa pictures, but here are a few photos from my first week in Ho Chi Minh City.)

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