Well only my tenth bus it feels like many more. This unlike the last one was quite late so thinking I’d arrive at 5.30pm we then turned up at 8.30pm. Oh well it’s cheap and convenient so can’t complain. There was also a screaming baby which the mother insisted on walking up and down. At one point the driver stopped and took her off the bus – maybe he needed a break too. Luckily we were dropped right in the backpacker area so I made my way to the alley I wanted and although the original option I wanted was full another guesthouse which was better was available. I have an inside room – no window. It’s very cosy and no window means no noise – hurray!! (The hooting is out in force)
As it was so busy I decided to go straight out and explore. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or as it’s still known by non government officials – Saigon has a certain buzz about it and just reels you in. The backpacker area has loads of cafes and outside eating places, dirt cheap of course. Despite the hellish journey I was starting to feel very happy that I’d arrived. I suddenly developed a sweet tooth so ordered some pineapple fritters with ice cream and a local glass of pure sugar cane juice. I think it’s an acquired taste something like watermelon and honey combined. It was okay. I went back to my room and just as I’d got in to bed something fell out of the artificial tree in the corner (obviously compensating for the lack of a window). I turned on the light but couldn’t see anything. Then all of a sudden a rather large cockroach scuttled along the wall. I don’t actually mind them but don’t particularly like the idea of one crawling across me in the night so tried to catch it. They’re pretty quick so I couldn’t. He couldn’t have been very well as thirty minutes later he was upside down on the bathroom floor. I put a glass over him and he was removed by the cleaning service the next day – poor thing !
I was going to stay for 2 days but decided to squeeze as much out of my visa as possible so managed 3. I had been told Saigon is double the size of Hanoi in terms of traffic and population (8M) but there’s a kind of organised chaos about the place. It has benefited from it’s colonial past with grander buildings, now occupied by government or museums and it’s more of a business place. It does warn you in the guide books that you need to be more careful because of street crime and as I type this the girl sitting next to me is calling home to say she’s just been robbed. Apparently she was on her way to the cash point and a couple of guys just came by on a motorbike and grabbed her purse. I must admit I’ve been trying to go in to closed areas when making a withdrawal. Generally, I’ve found it very safe.
Sunday I decided to get up early and do the walking tour recommended by the Lonely Planet as it takes in a lot of the cities main sights. I went to one of the outdoor street places and ordered some pho (the breakfast noodles). I ended up chatting to people so started later than expected.
The first thing I noticed apart from the usual motorbike and cyclo shouts was that they have tourist police in the main areas. They are in quite a bright green uniform rather than the usual khaki colour of the main force. They seem to be there to help with directions, street crime and crossing busy road junctions. Mind you I still got offered marujuana in front of one last night.
My first stop was the indoor market, there are some other items that weren’t in Hoi An so I just checked the prices and went on my way. Next stop the “Fine Arts Museum”. That was in a beautiful old French building. There was a special exhibition by artist Le Thi Kim Bach. It was described as a friendship exhibition but most of the pictures were titled comrade and if the subject wasn’t from Vietnam then they were from Ukraine or Cuba.
Next stop the local street market, that was quite handy as I needed to pick up some cotton. Parts of my bags are literally bursting at the seams. On the way I discovered a lovely street with antiques – more on that later. Then a quick visit to the Municipal Theatre in the other main tourist area of Dong Khoi and then on to the Ho Chi Minh museum. This again being in a splendid colonial building just looked far grander than the Hanoi version and seemed to be a popular spot for couples to get their wedding photos taken. One couple kindly let me take a picture which I’ve attached. The museum had a lot of information on the make up of Ho Chi Minh city and again quite a few artifacts from the war as well as agricultural and farming information.
Then it was lunch time so I decided to walk towards the War Remnants Museum and eat nearby. Due to the heat I ordered a salad but I could have chosen such appetising delicacies as gruel, grilled cartillage or rooted pigeon (as least it would have been cooked with a smile on it’s face) from the menu. Then on to the “War Remnants”. It’s a bit of a shame that apart from a French guillotine it seems to be dedicated to the “American War”. Although there was a great exhibition of photos taken by press journalists who unfortunately lost their lives during the conflict. Agent Orange was also a clear feature. They actually had some encased in a display along with several photos of the type of defects it causes. It mainly seems to affect children born to agent orange inhalers. There were some awful foetuses in jars. They also had a large appeal in place as some of the defects suffered by surviving children involve missing limbs and bodies totally contorted. It was shocking. Then to jolly things along they had some examples of tiger cages. These are small prison cells where prisoners are kept in the dark apart from bars along the roof – hence the name. Time to move on and go to Independance Palace. The old headquarters of the South Vietnamese president. Apparently there were some famous press stories in 1975 with the VC crashing through the gates in tanks to declare a reunified country. The gambling room had a particularly seedy 1970’s feel to it. Time to go to Notre Dame (yes they have one here) but just as I arrived the heavens opened so after taking shelter under the nearest awning I managed to find a taxi and high tailed it back to the guest house. When it rains which it tends to do during the night or in the afternoon (it’s rainy season)- you know about it. Although so does the UK these days.
The next day I’d booked a trip first to go to the Cao Dai temple. It’s 2 hours out of the centre so another early start was required. Cao Dai has 3 Million followers in Vietnam and was started in 1926. It’s a mix of Taoism, Confucionism, Christianity/Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Vietnamese spiritualism. So it’s takes the “best of breed” philosophies from each. It was set up by an ex civil servant, Ngo Minh Chieu after he’d had a series of dreams. Their symbol is a huge eye known as the divine eye. Due to all the religious mixes the elders wear different colours like blue, red or yellow depending on their faith leanings. While the youngest members wear white. The temple was really decorative and in order to encourage the religion they allow tourists to go to an upstairs viewing balcony to watch the mass. It was a wonderful spectacle of chanting.
Time for lunch and then off to the Cu Chi Tunnels (the world famous ones). These are 200km long and the area was always controlled by the Viet Cong despite being in the South. We got to see the various traps they used on the enemy and the booby traps for the tunnels themselves. There again were 3 levels and some parts were just too small for Americans to get through. The cooking areas had ingenius vents that expelled smoke more than 100 metres away and food was only prepared between 4 and 6am. It was raining heavily. Luckily I was fully prepared – boots, camouflage top and of course the brolly.
We actually did quite a big tour overground and again there were B52 bomb craters and even an M41 tank that had been stopped when a land mine blew up it’s tread. Then it was tunnel time. Unlike the Vinh Moc tunnels these were a lot smaller, you had to crouch down and also there was no lighting so it was pitch black. The section opened was only about 50 metres long but a lot of people went straight down and then straight back up. I wouldn’t advise it if you suffer from claustrophia. I’d forgotten the torch and then remembered the lighter so flicked it on every minute or so to make sure of steps and turns. I’ve attached a photo. If I look like a rabbit in headlights it’s because I cannot see my photographer – it’s so dark.
Time to journey back to Saigon and some local food and a couple of beers. I, like most people have taken to beer here. It’s so hot it quenches your thirst.
Today, yes amazingly I’m right up to date I had a lie in and then went to a local cafe for breakfast. I bumped into Miriam from Sapa/DMZ (we may yet run in to each other again in Thailand) over breakfast and then decided to potter around town and complete my halted walking tour. I very nearly bought a Vietnamese Wedding Cake Box in the antique area but think I’ll leave that as a future holiday purchase. Although I thought they were bluffing regarding the age but they don’t seem to make them any more and there was an exact copy of the one I wanted in the history museum. The history museum (again a wonderful Sino French building) was really good. It explained all about the various dynasties and had a lot of exhibits going back to the Bronze age. Of course as usual it only mentions successful Vietnamese battles but that’s probably a cultural point about “not losing face”. I then walked back along the river and am now up to date. I leave at 8am for Cambodia, a 6 hour journey by bus straight to the capital Phnom Penh.
I’ve had a wonderful three and half weeks here, I would have liked to have gone to Dalat but ran out of time and have heard mixed reports on the Mekong Delta – another time. Certainly if I hadn’t been travelling on my own I would have gone more off the beaten track. Saigon is wonderful and I can see why expats live here but my favourite has to be Hoi An. Bring those examples of clothes you want made here (even just pictures) and it will cost a fraction of the price. If you come hear on holiday with money you can live like a king on less than most places. It’s certainly cheaper than Thailand or Bali. I also prefer Saigon to Hanoi and do skip Natrang.
I will be back but for now it’s “Good Evening Vietnam”.
Plane = 5, Bus = 10, Train = 2, Boat = 2, Sunglasses = 3, Mosquito repellant = 4