Although the metropolitan area of the largest city in Vietnam is now known as Ho Chi Minh City most locals still refer to it as Saigon, and the city centre is still known as Saigon.
We stayed in a guesthouse just a few blocks from the main backpacker/tourist area but that small distance made a big difference in the ambiance of the neighbourhood. Our guesthouse was up a small lane, with a number of other guesthouses, small hotels, small businesses and a small temple. Our small room was very comfy and from the terrace outside we had a big view over the rooftops.
That first afternoon we walked into the main backpacker area where Sue booked a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, just outside of Saigon, for the next morning (my stomach we still a bit iffy). We ate some pho (noodle soup) at a local restaurant and walked through a long narrow park, situated between the tourist zone and a business area. There we saw school kids doing various physical exercises and one class learning about automatic weapons from a chart (and me without my camera!).
Saigon impressed us with its orderly traffic and, despite being a huge city, its friendly and open feeling. Motorbikes seemed to stay in the right hand lanes and people obeyed the traffic lights. And there was little of the Hanoian ‘beep, beep, honk, honk’. All of which went a long ways towards making us feel safe and comfortable in this huge city.
The next morning while Sue went on her tour I wandered about and visited the large market nearby.
Like many markets we’d visited this one had broad main aisles with numerous small aisles branching off. The usual assortment of dry goods and food stuffs created canyons in the large covered space. Besides the market I went in search of a memory stick for my computer so I could free up some harddrive space – all the photos I was taking were filling it right up. I love the Vietnamese shopping experience: I went to a computer store and after some pointing and sign language made clear what I wanted. While I sat on a stool at the counter they phoned around, found what I wanted, had it delivered and within 20 minutes I was on my way.
After Sue got back from her tour we ventured back into the hubbub for a little sightseeing and dinner at a vegetarian restaurant. In the backpacker area there are some small lanes, lined with mini hotels and restaurants, including our sought-for veggie option.
Some of the available food combos are interesting…
Pizza and Pho, both Popular!
After dinner we walked back and admired some of the neon signs.
The next day I felt better so we decided to do a walking tour. As we walked through the park to the market we noticed a new building emerging through the roof of an older one.
As we looked back along the block we could see the old roof line continuing and the new buildings popping through it all along the block. We toured the market then walked through a section of upscale stores and hotels situated along broad boulevards. After lunch we visited the Museum of War Remnants. Out front were a selection of captured American aircraft.
Inside were displays presenting the Vietnamese view of the American War (as the Vietnam War is known here).
Some of the statistics (number of Vietnamese/Americans dead; amount of ordinance used; civilians killed) are quite horrifying and a reminder of just why the Vietnam War lost support amongst the American public. I found the display of photos, taken by journalists from both sides and from around the world, fascinating (this display is curated by an American photo-journalist, Tim Page). A number of the images I was familiar with from the time they were published but many I’d never seen before. And I’d forgotten that Robert Capa, famous for his iconic images from the Spanish Civil War and WW II, had died in Vietnam during the First Indochina War (with the French).
Following the Museum of War Remnants we visited the Reunification Palace, the former Presidential Palace. As we walked through the building I couldn’t help but think that it’d be a great set for a David Lynch film. A strange combination of minimalist 60s architecture and often lush, sometimes baroque, furnishings. Plus the now archaic communications gear and a display of animals and animal parts (e.g. severed elephant feet in a row).
and if you look through the side doors of the cinema you can see the President’s private chopper…
Downstairs was a warren of rooms and tunnels with the communications gear and war rooms. All very atmospheric and photogenic.
However, we didn’t want to spend long in the city. I think I may seek work in Saigon, or least another southern Vietnamese city, next school year, so we figure we’ll have a longer visit in the future. We wanted to chill out and stop moving so often. Rabbit Island had spoiled us. As had the Delta.
We booked a bus to Nha Trang, a beach front city, and headed back to our room. Dinner was at a small restaurant on the corner of our lane; then back down the lane, past the colourful little temple all lit up.
Including a statue of Quan’Am, a Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion, frequently seen in Vietnamese shrines.
All in all we had a brief but pleasant time in Saigon. If we hadn’t had such a strong desire to return to the ocean we might have stayed longer but the water was calling us.