Aka Saigon

Trip Start Dec 30, 2010
Trip End May 05, 2011

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Where I stayed
Kim's Guesthouse

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, February 26, 2011

It's funny, if I want to refer to this place in a positive way I tend to call it Saigon, and if negative its proper post-colonial name 'Ho Chi Minh City'.  On the whole HCMC seems to have overtaken and eradicated most of the romance of the former French capital of Cochinchina. 

The first thing to say about the place is that there are a huge number of motorbikes which seem to follow no traffic rules, making all forms of transport in the city, perhaps especially walking, rather a hazardous experience.  Once you get over that however (India had trained me well: walk slowly and at a steady pace...) you can begin to enjoy the metropolis a lot more. 

I had decided to change my itinerary to avoid rushing through both Vietnam and Laos.  Rather than attempting to do everything I'm going to concentrate on South Vietnam then cross into Laos and head north. This way I can save Hanoi and nearby Halong Bay and Sapa for another trip.  As such I made it my mission to see as many museums as possible in Saigon, since I wouldn't get the chance in Hanoi.  Feeling slightly better on my first day in the city, I walked via the market (nothing special) to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City which I hoped would give a good overview.  In fact it was laid out in a rather illogical way and thus quite confusing, but I did enjoy both the colonial mansion which housed the exhibits, and the 3D murals of the communist struggle for independence.

Around lunchtime I saw one of the thousands of street vendors in Vietnam selling French-style baguettes, and for some reason I had a major craving for some brie.  Instead I settled for an iced coffee, treating myself to a Gloria Jean's in a bout of Australia nostalgia, then walked on to the 'War Remnants Museum'.  I arrived two hours before closing time and knew it wouldn't be long enough, but I did see most of the exhibitions, including some shocking photographs of the effects of Agent Orange, which made me wonder about a severely deformed man I'd seen in Phnom Penh (think Elephant Man).  I had saved the photojournalism exhibition for last, which meant I only got less than halfway through.  It contained images from about 70 photographers of various nationalities, all of whom had died during the war.  Included were Robert Capa's last shots of colour film and b/w, taken just before he stepped on a landmine, and several large reproductions of pages of Life magazine showing photo-essays  by Larry Burrows

I left the museum when the alarm sounded to get us all out of there, and on leaving met Roland and Anne.  As we walked we passed a supermarket, where I bought some Camembert as they had no brie, and Roland bought some Roquefort and Vietnamese red wine.  Anne had a steak craving so after she got her iron fix we walked back home through the park where several groups of people were doing aerobics.  We had a fantastic French-themed evening with cheese, baguette, wine and the Parapluies de Cherbourg soundtrack, and I looked through some of Roland's photos from the Lebanon war, as I was in the war-photo mood!  The cheese was perfect in every way, but I ended up eating half a Camembert and consequently felt rather sick!

The next day we decided to have day trip to the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong during the war.  Anne looked up local buses so we had a long but interesting journey there and arrived at lunchtime thus ensuring we avoided the tour crowds.  It was a really hot day but luckily we were often shaded by woodland.  After watching a film about the history, a tour guide pointed at a large map and made lots of indistinguishable noises we think were meant to be English but no-one could quite make it out.  Then he led us to the tunnels and we had fun crawling through some of them.  The last one the others sensibly decided to give a miss, but I persevered through, discovering it was the longest and narrowest of all, even going up and down as well as side to side, just to make it all the more claustrophobic and disorientating.  Oh yes and there were quite a few bats down there to keep me company.

By the end of the tour we were really tired and boiling hot so headed back to the bus stop (i.e. corner of road) and flagged down the first bus that came along.  It took us a while to realise we weren't going the same way we'd come.  To cut a long story short we took several buses that afternoon and had a bizarre encounter with an uber-friendly conductor who spoke no English but bought us a drink and paid for our final journey back to HCMC.  It was about 6.30pm by the time we got back, and after some food, a shower, checking of emails and reading a good chunk of my depressing French book about the Cambodian genocide, I fell asleep after a long day.

The next morning I ventured into the city in search of a particular bank recommended by the Lonely Planet for its impressive architecture, only to find it had moved premises, and my requests for 'dollars' merely resulted in directions to the toilet.  Just from walking round that short period in the heat of the sun I found that HCMC was getting to me in terms of the heat and the traffic.  In the afternoon I managed to finish off the War Remnants Museum, and see the interesting Reunification Palace which is a 1960s build with 1970s decor left as found (think a high class version of County Hall in Worcester - mustard carpets, pine cladding, concrete and vertical glass windows).  It was the HQ of the South Vietnamese puppet government, and has been preserved how it was left when communist tanks entered in 1975.  There were even war planning rooms in the basement much like the Cabinet War Rooms in London.

That evening we booked a bus for the following day to Dalat, a town in the mountains said to be much cooler in climate, with beautiful scenery.  Just what the doctor ordered.

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Dad on

Holl's, Received your postcard today from Angkor Wat - looks really impressive, perhaps Mom and I should go!. It seems to me you're going to be museum'd-out! Take it easy and watch out for motorbikes, particularly if you're driving! Love Dad

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