Saigon by Vespa

Trip Start Jul 02, 2012
Trip End Oct 04, 2012

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

This morning, after another full on buffet breakfast jostling with hundreds of Asians wanting food NOW, we headed downstairs to meet our guides for the morning from Vietnam Vespa Adventures. Our guide Dat was waiting for us and took us outside where 3 very cool little Vespas were parked ready to go.  We all donned helmets and hopped on behind our drivers, setting off in to the crazy Saigon traffic.  Funnily enough none of us were scared, no one goes too fast and there is a common understanding that you are always on the lookout and no one makes any sudden movement.  

We were taken to the 'office' called Café Zoom which is owned by an American guy who has lived in Vietnam for 13 years with his Vietnamese wife.  He obviously loves Vespas – he has lots of them and the one I was on was a 1957 classic.  After completing the paperwork we were off, zooming all over the city checking out the sights.

Our first stop was a park where the locals take their birds in a cage to ‘socialise with other birds’ and to enjoy their music.  They arrive on their motorbikes with the bamboo cages strapped on the back and then hang them on clothesline like structures and go and enjoy a coffee with friends.  There were people out the front selling live crickets, worms grasshoppers and lizards to feed to the birds which they collect from the paddy fields.

Beyond the birds is a park where people come for all sorts of things.  We say boy scouts in uniform, people making lanterns for the upcoming Mid-Autumn festival, a ‘drive safely’ demonstration; people reading, playing badminton and kids playing in a playground which our guide told us proudly the "Government had just built and kids can play there for free".

After the park we jumped back on the bikes and next stop was at a memorial to a Buddhist Monk who set fire to himself on a street corner in 1963 in protest at the government’s treatment of Buddhists.  On that day he pulled up in a car, got out, had petrol poured over his head, sat on a cushion and meditated for 5 minutes surrounded by a circle of other monks and then took a match and lit himself.  The witnesses say he continued sitting in the meditation position until he fell over dead.  The government many years later also made a monument across the road which was impressive but didn’t have the same feel as the one made by the monks.  Even while we stood there, people would walk past and bow their heads before carrying on.  

After the Buddhist memorial our drivers took us to a local Vietnamese flower market.  It was an amazing place, full of not just flowers but meat, veges, clothing, souvenirs and much more.  There was even a small 'movie theatre' where you could sit and watch a movie on a large screen TV if you bought a drink from that stall!

The flower stalls were fantastic.  Thousands of flowers all brought in from the Central Highlands from 2am in the morning for the retailers who start arriving from 4.30am.  There were orchids of all colours (helped by tubes of water with food colouring added), roses by the bunch of 50 and every other flower you could imagine. 

 After wandering through the flowers, we ambled down the alleyways filled with all sorts of food stalls, cooking smells and people busy getting their supplies for the day.  We were the only non-Vietnamese people in the whole market and attracted lots of stares.  Michael was particularly focused on with the women pointing and giggling at him and calling out how handsome he was – hilarious for us, somewhat embarrassing for him!

After the market we visited a Buddhist Temple and then another market, this time full of material – any colour, pattern or style was there for the buying – shame I’m out of luggage space!

After browsing in a traditional medicine dispensary (but declining to buy the bag of snake penises supposedly very good for virility...), we headed off once more down a main road to 'District 2'  This involved going through a 2km tunnel under the Saigon Tunnel which was very clean and wide but also VERY noisy with the sound of the traffic combined with the jet engine sized air conditioning vents.

District 2 was astonishing in that the government had decided to build an 'extension to the city' there and so everyone was paid to move out and every building in the area has been demolished.  The whole place is just rubble and the guide proudly told us that next time we came back it would be all shiny and new.

After touring around for about half an hour we ended up back in the centre of town where we visited Notre Dame (built by the French colonists to remind them of home) and the old Post Office built between 1886-1891 and designed and constructed by Gustave Eiffel who also built quite a famous tower in Paris in 1889!

Our last tourist stop was at the gates of the Reunification Palace which was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.  It wasn't difficult to imagine the scene in 1975 and was a reminder of how delicate the balance between war and peace is.

At the end of the tour we were taken back to Cafe Zoom where we enjoyed a well earned cold drink and some lunch.  We attracted the attention of several street vendors and succumbed to the sales pitch of a woman selling sunglasses - who would have thought that a pair of Oakleys could be so cheap LOL!!

We also felt sad for the very thin and unhappy looking man who approached us with his cap held out and when we put our uneaten meal in his cap he devoured it there and then.  It was a sobering reminder of how plentiful our lives are and how easy it is to be wasteful.  We over ordered and the food would have been thrown out - instead it fed a starving man.  Very humbling.

The tour was a really great way to see some more of the city, go places we wouldn't have on the normal tourist trail and to experience the traffic first hand.  Great fun!

Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a very refreshing swim after the heat of the morning.  After we had cooled down we jumped in a taxi and went to the War Remnants Museum which primarily contains exhibits relating to the American phase of the Vietnam War.
The museum is effectively a propaganda museum for the Vietnamese Communist regime, as it almost exclusively displays exhibits that are highly critical of the South Vietnamese and American war efforts during the Vietnam War. It does not exhibit anything critical of the North Vietnamese or Vietcong's war effort or atrocities.  That aside, it was a graphic reminder once again of how terrible wars are. 

There are 3 levels in the museum - the first shows mainly propaganda material used during the war, the second mainly the effects of Agent Orange, and the third is mostly of accounts from the Western side. Outside, there are displays of some vehicles and tanks used during the Vietnam War
The first level of the Building has the Children's Painting Collection, the International Support for the Vietnamese People Pavilion as well as assorted hand held weapons used in the war enclosed in glass panels.

The second level houses The Aggression War Crimes Pavilion and the Agent Orange Aftermath Pavilion, where photos and documentaries of the victims of Agent Orange and other assorted horrors of the war are featured. It was very graphic and very moving.

The third level has the Historical Truths Pavilion (a room containing photographs, propaganda, news clippings, and signboards geared toward showing the wrongdoings of the U.S. government in the 1960s and 1970s.). Requiem Pavilion (a powerful collection of photographs taken by 134 international journalists who were killed during the Vietnam War), the Vestiges of War Crimes Pavilion (showing the mistreatment of civilians during the war) and the Vietnam Post War Recovery Pavilion. 

I took very few photographs while we were inside - it wasn't the kind of place you pointed at things or exclaimed out loud our snapped away with the camera.  It was actually more like walking through a church while a funeral was in progress.
There was more we could have seen however by the time we had covered the three floors, we had had enough - it was harrowing and the mood inside the building was very sombre.  People only whispered and when an American tourist spoke in one of the rooms, several people turned around and glared at her.  It was a reminder how powerful propaganda can be.  Although everything we saw was factual, it was so one sided you couldn't help but feel anti-American after seeing the atrocities they inflicted time and time again.  While some of it was too much for Michael, he learnt a lot from the experience - more than he can probably articulate yet.

It had been a very full day, and we rounded it off with a final massage and another trip to the hairdresser!

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Jo Souness on

Whoa what adventures you are having vespas are cool Vietnam looks to be a culture shock you will be sad your journey is nearing an end we look forward to your return to NZ.

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