Vietnam is not on my top destination choices for a vacation simply because for someone born in 1970, it is not really a place but a war. But one of my closest friends since high school and my “kumare,” Anna Marie “Mayie” Monteverde Sencio, wanted to celebrate her 40th birthday (and her first real vacation in years) there and she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. You see, we promised Mayie we would go anywhere with her for her 40th birthday (thinking it would be in one of the restaurants in Metro Manila where she is now based). So off we (Mayie, her only child and my godchild Alexie, Neil and I) went on Cebu Pacific’s midnight flight to Ho Chi Minh and marked Mayie’s 40th up in the air.
Patmei & Mayie, both turning 40 in 2010, start their new life in Vietnam
We arrived in Saigon (yes, they still call Ho Chi Minh by its old name) around 1:30 in the morning, Vietnam time, and although Mayie’s sister, Ailee, agreed to be our host for the duration of our stay there, the deal did not include airport pickup at such a ridiculous hour. And so our adventure with Vietnamese taxi drivers began.
Despite the recently launched “Vietnam: Your Destination” campaign of the Vietnamese tourism industry which aims to attract 4.2 million foreign visitors to Vietnam in 2010, there is not a single travel brochure or city map available at the airport (or anywhere in the city for that matter, as we learned later on). So we were left to rely on the instructions texted by Ailee on Mayie’s Blackberry plus a computer printed map (from Google maps) on how to get to their house. Mayie gave directions to the non-English speaking taxi driver who just kept nodding, giving us the impression that he understood. Two stops (where the driver had to get down from the taxi to use the car’s headlights to read our map) plus several kilometres and dongs (the Vietnamese currency) later, we finally located the gated village where most of the expats in Saigon live. We were greeted by Ailee’s husband, Dr. Reiner Hengstmann, the global head for social and environmental affairs of PUMA AG (the German multinational company that produces high-end athletic shoes and other sportswear). Reiner told us that what we paid the taxi driver was tantamount to highway robbery. Oh, well. Good morning, Vietnam!
Our first taxi ride may have been bad, but our accommodation was certainly grand. Reiner and Ailee’s home in Saigon is practically a mansion! It’s a huge house done in French colonial architecture style made of marble and hardwood. It’s filled with beautiful works of art, even the furniture are one-of-a-kind pieces. No luxurious hotel could beat their warm home, especially with the aroma of Reiner’s delicious coffee especially made in a state-of-the-art coffee maker they brought all the way from Germany. Our daily breakfast croissants and bread with assorted jams and jellies gave us a taste of Europe in the tropics.
Neil & Alexie in front of the Hengstmann residence, our luxurious home in Saigon
We only slept for a few hours because we were eager to explore the city (translation: shopping). And boy, the musical was right — the heat is really on in Saigon! It is several degrees warmer than Davao (imagine that!). We had lunch at Wrap and Roll, Vietnam’s answer to McDonald’s. It’s Vietnamese cuisine fast food style. The big lunch sustained us for the rest of the day as we managed to cover the entire District 1 of the city by foot and saw all the important sights and shopping places in just one day.
Vietnamese fastfood lunch in Wrap & Roll, their answer to McDonald’s
We didn’t have time to freshen up for Mayie’s birthday dinner so we were all sweaty and sticky and hungry by the time we met up with Reiner, Ailee and their 3-year old son, Niklas at Pomodoro in Hai Ba Trung (District 1). Although we were in Vietnam, we wanted something more filling than spring rolls, vegetables and pho (soup) so we all decided to dine Italian. Pomodoro serves classic Italian cuisine in an informal, family-oriented Trattoria atmosphere. It was chosen Best Italian Restaurant in 2004. We had pasta and pizza and wine. Their seafood pasta is superb and their tiramisu is so good Niklas had to use two teaspoons to eat his (yes, that’s how good it is that 3-year olds love it).
Niklas loving every bite of his tiramisu
After that fantastic dinner, we all went home and continued the birthday celebration with a great bottle of Bordeaux wine from Reiner’s collection while talking about and planning our trip to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels the next day.
Mayie’s 40th birthday party may have ended, but her new life of adventure just began.