Not the Usual Tour of HCMC: Medicines, Markets, and Floating Temples
Story and photos by Claudia B. Flisi

A traveler looking for a more authentic part of Saigon, Vietnam, ends up getting lost in the back alleys of a neighborhood where few foreigners tread.

Saigon, Vietnam

Phuong was lost. We had missed the ideal bus stop for the Ho Thi Ky Flower Market in Ho Chi Minh City, and now we were fighting our way through a local food market to get there. Plenty of protein forms—living, dead, and in varying stages of expiration (chickens, frogs, fish, crustaceans, but happily no dogs) —were being bartered and weighed and scrutinized by Vietnamese intent on nailing down the best bargain. We had to slither and shove our way through the crowd.

Nevertheless, I wasn't worried, partly because this was an authentic District 10 neighborhood market, not one catering to tourists. There wasn't a round eye in sight and no one bothered me, the way they do in District One's Ben Thanh Market, heavily frequented by foreigners.

Mostly I wasn't worried because Phoung, a native of Ho Chi Minh City, seemed to know her way around. I had found her through a website called With Locals; I chose her when she had responded with imagination to my request for a five-hour tour of "not the usual sights." She had proposed an itinerary far from District One: the flower market we were trying to find, a museum of traditional medicine, and a floating temple on the river. They were all located in District 10, roughly five miles north of the usual tourist drag.

Into the Streets With Phoung

She met me at my hotel at 9 a.m. wearing a bright lilac t-shirt over jeans, so I could spot her easily in a crowd. Lithe, personable, and 20-something, she occasional conducts private tours to supplement her income as an export manager and part-time yoga instructor.

Phoung, Vietnam guide

She guided me to the public bus stop and we rode for 25 minutes to the location of the city's largest wholesale flower market. The bus ride itself was an adventure. The storefronts became smaller and less lavish, sidewalks more crowded, traffic noisier, fewer cars, more motorcycles. But when we got off the bus, we didn't see a huge flower pavilion. Phuong's mistake stemmed from unfamiliarity: this district isn't her usual bailiwick. She kept stopping people to ask them where to go, and every response was different.

Her confusion was compounded by unfortunate timing. Ho Thi Ky Flower Market blossoms, shall we say, between 2 and 8 a.m. By mid-morning, the most lavish floral displays are long gone. We navigated narrow alleys with some colorful remaining flower stands for weddings (or funerals—I couldn't tell), but Phuong was looking for a large indoor market, and couldn't find it. After searching in vain up and down several alleyways, she announced that we were going to continue to our next destination by Uber; a bus would be too complicated, she explained.

Insight Into Traditional Medicine

chinese medicineThe Museum of Traditional Medicine is based in a handsome five-story wood-carved villa originally built for a family in 2003. So a visit is like taking a tour through a private home built to Viet specifications. Such traditional houses have three doors: one for men, one for women, and one for "special" (religious) visitors. The entrance to each of the villa's 18 rooms has a step; this is to prevent ghosts from entering, as Vietnamese ghosts apparently can't float over doorsteps. The family temple on the top floor reflects the country's multicultural past—Chinese with Indian influences, explained Phuong.

Vietnamese medicine also reflects these influences, according to our official guide. He was a young man with excellent command of English and a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Vietnamese medicine. I couldn't keep up with all the information he shared, but a few nuggets stuck. While the traditional medicine of northern Vietnam is Chinese in origin, some medicines in the southern part of the country are unique. Both emphasize a holistic approach to health, a combination of harmony and balance. Last, when chi flows smoothly, we are healthy.

Wine seems to make chi flow, since one room was entirely dedicated to the large wine vessels approved as a supplement to herbal medicines. A wine buried for 100 days is considered to impart a good balance of yin and yang, and an old Vietnamese saying maintains that "A man without wine is a flag without wind."

Other rooms were lined with medicine cabinets to store the herbs and plants used in traditional medicine. The lotus flower and ginseng are especially important. Each cabinet had drawers in sets of nine—nine across and nine down. This, explained our guide, is because nine is a lucky number, a belief brought from China.

To help me understand what it was like to prepare a traditional medicine, the guide gave me a ao dai, hat, and a choice of three kinds of grinders so I could prepare some herbs the old-fashioned least long enough for a photo session.

The museum holds more than 3,000 objects, some dating back 3,000 years. All these displays, the introductory film in English, the virtuosity of our guide, and the opportunity to sample an herbal tea at the end of our tour made for a multi-dimensional, multi-sensorial experience.

Vietnam temple

Both Phuong and I were ready for lunch at this point. We took another public bus to Tran Ba Giao, a crowded commercial street. This cafe-rich boulevard runs north-south just west of Song Van Thuat, a branch of the Saigon River that gave HCMC its former name.

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