Trip: Da Lat to Saigon

This would be the final journey with Hung the driver. He had started out being quiet and professional, but during the trip he had really opened up. Our ideas about travel and food were slightly unusual for him, and he was having fun along with us. Being able to talk to Duyen helped, and through Duyen, he could also talk to me. Hung is great company, and he has a slightly barbed sense of humor that's very funny.

The trip from Da Lat to Saigon was about 4 hours, but other than the descent from the highlands back to sea level, there's nothing at all about the drive that was interesting. The South is prosperous but relatively recent, and history is something more that people carry around in their heads than live with physically. In this sense Saigon is like Hong Kong, though it will be a while yet before Saigon becomes a city of the future.

We arrived in Saigon after dark. The outskirts of Saigon were like the villages along the road, but as we got closer and closer in, there was more noise and neon. We pulled up to a hotel, across from a big restaurant (or was it a disco?) that reminded me of a ferris wheel. Thinking that perhaps we could find a quiter place to stay, Duyen called his brother, and we sat down and had a beer in the hotel restaurant while we waited.

As with all the hotels on our list (save for one), we ended up staying somewhere else. The place we settled on was nice, vaguely reminiscent of the first place we stayed at in Hanoi. Where the staff in Hanoi came from villages in the north, the staff here came from villages in the south. The hotel was a bit more elegant, and the owner lived abroad.

Aside from sleeping in the hotel, we spent the rest of our stay in Saigon with Duyen's brother and his family, who showed us amazing hospitality. The quality of the food improved immeasurably as well, since here were people who knew all the local restaurants. Unlike the cab drivers and tour guides, they had no alliegance to any restaurant owner, except for the ones who cooked well. That night they booked dinner at a large and famous restaurant, and the meal was memorable.

The restaurant was a large, open pavillion. There was a band in the main part of the restaurant, since Vietnamese people seem to love loud music whenever they go out. We went to the back garden, which was as large as the main part of the restaurant, but with the advantage that you can actually talk to the people sitting next to you. There was a fountain next to our table with some grotesque-looking statues. Hung pointed out that these statues could be from Hang Nga.

The staff were very smart-looking, and waited on us very well. The table was full of little things for us to eat while we thought about what we were really going to eat. Our waiter answered countless questions about the food, and brought the fish over in a net for everyone to look at before having it cooked. The fish was delicious. There was also goi la sen, a lotus and shrimp salad, squid, snails, a huge number of other dishes, beer, coffee, tea – and we were stuffed. A great start.