Tets the way...I like it...aha...aha...
Trip Start Oct 19, 2010
34Trip End Jul 23, 2011
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Danang airport is quite small and although it was leading up to Tet it wasn't as busy as we had feared. The flight was really good we even upgraded to seats with bigger legroom for £1 each so Waffle could stretch out. We felt the heat hit us as we got off the plane at Ho Chi Minh City Airport. It was about 7pm and it was 27’c...as we got a taxi to our hotel based in the backpackers area in District 1 we realised just how big Ho Chi Minh City actually is (population of about 6 million). It was formally named Saigon which it is still referred to in places although we have heard it is best to call it HCMC so as not to offend anyone. It seemed to take ages to get to our hotel and the streets were just as manic as in Hanoi except the roads were much wider and was definitely more built up. When we arrived the hotel seemed to think we were already staying there and kept asking what our room number was. It took quite a bit of explaining that we hadn’t even checked in yet! We were on the 5th floor in a basic hotel down a small side street filled with restaurants and bars, still got the street hawkers except they just sell some different wares such as dried squid snacks.
'Coca Suki Restaurant' - well, it amused us anyway!
We freshened up and headed out into another chaotic city. Even though the roads are big some scooters use the paths to avoid the stationary traffic on the roads so you have to have eyes everywhere when you are walking around. We ate at a restaurant in our street with a menu more extensive than we were used to, including Malaysian, Western and Thai meals spanning about 30 pages. I went for a beef rendang (slow cooked beef in coconut curry) and Waffle had a roast pork noodle dish which came in a large bowl for just over £1. As we sat outside eating our nosh we were accosted by loads of street hawkers selling books, bangles, sunglasses, rolex watches etc etc. We also found there are more disabled people begging on the streets too. We saw one young guy with no arms smoking holding the cigarette between his toes...he then fetched some tickets and money out of his pocket and began to count what he had...it was amazing to watch how someone can adapt to their situation. There is no sign of a curfew (in Hanoi there is a 10pm curfew where all but a couple of bars close up for the night) some night clubs and bars stay open 24 hours a day with the enticing happy hours...we saw a number of Vietnamese prostitutes sitting on scooters waiting for clients and one was suspiciously like a guy in drag so we may have entered ladyboy territory.
The next day we went to the War Remnants Museum which was previously named the War Crimes Museum but was changed so as not to offend the Americans. Taking a look at the displays and photos inside, it is definitely a war crimes museum in my opinion...it focused on describing how the toxic chemicals released by the Americans have caused birth defects and severe injuries for civilians in Vietnam. There is a room full of images of extreme deformities such as various conjoined twins, huge bulbous heads, and multi-limbed babies. Formaldehyde filled jars containing deformed foetuses lined one wall.
Wire cages which held 5 or 6 prisoners at a time
Photos of various torture methods carried out by the US, Chinese and French and awful amputations was also really emotional to see. Nail pulling, teeth smashing, water torture and barbed wire cages to name a few...horrific. In the Western world we don’t really see the extent of damage inflicted by war and this museum really puts it in a clear and moving perspective. There is even an admission from US Senator Kerry of his involvement as a marine in slaying a whole village incuding women and children.
One of the other significant building in HCMC is the Reunification Palace. It is an eerie place to visit as behind the very bland exterior lies a snapshot of 30th April 1975. This was the place famously known for the Southern Vietnamese waited cross legged on the floor inside as the Northern Vietnamese stormed it with tanks marking the end of the War. The rooms inside have not changed since that date and if you go into the basement areas you can see the bunkers with desks still with the typewriters on them.
Our next stop was Ben Thanh Market. We decided to get some t-shirts and a pair of flip-flops for me (as mine are ready to fall apart). It appears that my feet at size 5 ½ UK are hideously large in Asian standards and I struggled to find shoes that fit me, even the stall vendors found it amusing. And, Waffle’s quest to find a couple of t-shirts was a bit of a struggle too! On our way back from the market we passed Notre-Dame Cathedral, not the same design as the one in Paris but was built using red tiles shipped in from France in the late 19th century and stood out as a typical Western cathedral.
Parked up on the roadside we saw a 'Che Gevara’ slogan Vespa which looked really cool. It had army camouflage, netting and small twigs across it like a jungle style army helmet. Waffle is so keen to own a bike when we return to the UK he is now choosing the make and colour he wants!
There are not many sights in the city, the biggest disappointment for us was a pagoda that was highlighted as a site to go to. It took us quite a while to find the Jade Emperor Pagoda as the roads didn’t seem to match our map and when we did find it, it was small and not very impressive at all. You could buy turtles at the entrance to be released into an overpopulated pond in front of the pagoda which was a bit pointless as they were scooped out of the same pond in the first place! But that was probably the highlight to this pagoda to be honest. We found that when we walked to the Chinese District, Cholon, there was a much better pagoda to visit which is not rated so highly – filled with intricate carvings and masses of incense burning away. There were a lot of people praying for good fortunes in the forthcoming new year.
With just a couple of days left before tet, the shops were preparing for the festivities as well and in Cholon we saw a few of the shops were filled with Chinese dragon costumes as well as the mandatory red and yellow lanterns and charms that are everywhere in Vietnam. Outside one of these shops we watched our first dragon dance. As the drummers beat a rhythm and the performers swirled the dragon the traffic came to a stop and watched.
In the more upmarket part of the city there are large impressive colonial buildings and 5 star hotels. These streets are lit up with huge lighting displays this time of year and sponsored spring/tet displays leading up to the big day. In downtown, one park is filled and I mean filled with masses of flowers and bonsai trees. Every night we passed the park leading up to Tet trucks continually unloaded more and more flowers!
In one week our meals at night were ranging from Asian, Mexican, Italian, Lebonese (including a go on apple flavoured shisha pipes in an authentic middle-eastern style chill-out room) and a 500g ‘The Big Cheese’ beefburger (that’s about 17 ozs with 4 cheese slices, 6 slices of bacon and all the trimmings on a bap the size of your head - Waffle was determined to eat every morsel, and did but wasn’t hungry again until 24 hours later!) – by the way, only Waffle dared this monster, I had a normal size burger.
On the 31st we changed hotels to a 5 star one on the other side of the city closer to the Chinese Quarter. We decided to treat ourselves for the new year and it lived up to expectations and more...We upgraded on arrival to the corner junior executive suite on the 22nd floor which has a large completely private balcony with views of most of the city (Waffle has been parading naked on it so it is a good job it’s not overlooked), living room, dressing room and separate bedroom. We also get free laundry service, a huge buffet breakfast, afternoon snacks such as scallops on parsley risotto, pate on brioche, cheese board and small cakes, oh and all the drinks you want from 5-7pm so we are making full use of that! There is also a swimming pool, sauna, gym and stream rooms so we can really live it up for a few days but I hope it ain't spoilt us too much.
On Tet New Years Eve we ate at the’ Top of the Town’ on the 25th floor of our hotel which overlooks the city and then just before midnight we returned to our room so that we could watch the shows from our balcony. Dead on 12 o’clock the fireworks started across the city. We had the best views...We watched the two main displays for about 20 minutes of continuous streams of fireworks. There were so many that the intense smoke from them started to obscure the display but it was still wonderful. Every morning, the noise of drums echo around the streets below and we have seen more dragon dances in the streets as the days go by.
We have really enjoyed HCMC, probably because of the posh hotel room more than for the city although it is a great city in itself - International foods, all night entertainment, illuminated boulevards and festive atmosphere makes up for the lack of tourist sites.
Next stop Cambodia...so in a couple of days we will be making our way out of Vietnam (our home for the last 2 months) to Phnom Penh in Cambodia hopefully seeing part of the Mekong River on the way.
New country, new culture, new ventures...Waffle is already getting sentimental about good ole’ Nam, we are gonna miss ya, Vietnam!
(click here for more Saigon pictures)