Where in the Ho Chi Minh is Saigon?!

Trip Start Nov 30, 2012
Trip End Jan 14, 2013

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Where I stayed
Sunny Hotel Ho Chi Minh City
Read my review - 1/5 stars
What I did
Central Post Office Ho Chi Minh City
Read my review - 2/5 stars
Cho Ben Thanh Market Ho Chi Minh City
Read my review - 3/5 stars
Cu Chi Tunnels
Read my review - 5/5 stars
Notre Dame Cathedral Ho Chi Minh City
Read my review - 3/5 stars

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, December 13, 2012

Day 1

An egg butty each for breakfast & we were off to the coach station at 07:15 for the 8 hour journey to Ho Chi Minh City. When we were with Deoung yesterday we asked him if the Vietnamese called it HCMC or by its original name, Saigon. He said Saigon & went on to explain that the name changed on April 30th 1975 after the Vietnam war had finally ended. Ho Chi Minh was their communist president when the conflict started & they changed the name to honour him.

We'd booked a sleeper coach in the hope that it would be a little more comfortable than your normal 52 seater coach. What we got was, well, weird. Basically they are reclining beds for children/Vietnamese people. The journey wasn't too bad though & the funniest thing that happened was Lisa jumping down from her top bunk bed, catching her trousers on the seat handle & ripping a huge hole in them. What made it even funnier is that she was just hanging from it with a huge wedgey!

We finally arrived just before 16:00. We were dropped off next to a fair. We knew we were in District 1 of the city, which is where our hotel is, but we had no idea where exactly. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were hassled to take a taxi. When we showed them the address they sighed & pointed across the road. Turned out we were dropped off about 100 metres from it!

We went to check in & were given the key to a room on the 4th floor. We opened the door to find someone was already staying there. A Vietnamese woman came rushing down the corridor & basically kicked us out. She called the reception & we were sent back down to the front. They apologised & gave us the executive suite for the first night. Perfect!

Opposite where we were staying was a travel shop advertising Vietnam Airlines. We booked our flight down to Phu Quoc with them & needed to check on something with the ticket. The woman in there couldn't help & gave us the address of the main office in the city. She told us it was 10 minutes away so we jumped in a taxi & gave him the piece of paper with the address on. He told us 10 minutes & proceeded to, quite literally, take us for a ride. We paid $20 (the same as it cost to travel 300 miles from Da Lat on the same day) knowing full well he'd just had our pants down.

We did what we had to do & thought we would make the return trip by foot. After about 45 minutes of guessing which road was definitely the right way we were offered a lift on a push bike taxi. We wanted to try in it in Hanoi so thought we would give it a go. Once we were on neither of us could stop laughing. This poor guy was less than 50kg but was so determined to get his $2.50 that to get started he jumped off to give us a push start because he didn't have the strength in his legs to get going. I think we were on there about 10 minutes (Lisa said too long!) before he finally stopped on a corner & told us we were just down the road from where we wanted to be. What had actually happened was he didn't have a clue where we wanted to go & instead took us to the City Hall, 3km in the wrong direction! The experience was hilarious though & definitely worth it. After walking round their version of Knightsbridge we popped into a hotel with a map to get real directions. About 45 minutes later & we were back near our hotel. We still hadn't eaten so decided to play it safe with a Pizza Hut.

Day 2

The breakfast room was on the top floor so we freshened up a bit then jumped in the lift. It was a weird little dining area with no windows on 3 sides. The breakfast menu consisted off:

* Bread
* Omelette
* Bread & omelette
* Tea
* Coffee

With breakfast out of the way we went back to our room to pack as we were told that when we return from our city tour our stuff will be in our new room waiting for us. We'll continue with this story later.

First stop on our tour was the American Remnants War museum. We'd heard & read a lot about there being propaganda in this museum but in all fairness, it wasn't needed. The photo's they had up were horrific. Without reading the story to some of them you could figure out what happened for yourself. I'm sure some of the incidents that were blamed on the Americans were either false or over-exaggerated but when you read about the U.S Navy Seals slaughtering a family then at the end find out it was lead by a U.S senator who later admitted to it in 2001, it's pretty clear that what happened back then is hard to believe.

We went from room to room looking at weapons used by the U.S & Times Magazine articles showing prisoners of war & casualties from both sides. The last room we went through was the most harrowing. It showed the consequences to the Vietnamese people of the chemical weapon, Agent Orange. The amount of still borns & children born with deformities wasn't nice to see. They actually had the feteus of a conjoined still birth in a glass cabinet. The effects of this chemical have continued with the Vietnamese people for three generations. It was a real eye opener to what went on over here.

A quick stop outside to get a few photos with the tanks, planes & helicopters & we were off to our second destination, the Weasel coffee shop. Basically, coffee beans are fed to weasel's. when they pass threw their system the coffee beans are collected, cooked & turned into coffee to give a stronger taste. Whoever came up with this idea they want their head testing. Needless to say, neither of us were interested.

Just up the road from this was a handcraft shop. It showed how pictures were made, by hand, out of duck egg shell & pearl stone. Some of them were absolutely amazing. We didn't have too much dong on us so we didn't get anything but we wish we did!

Next up was the Chinese Pagoda in China town. We noticed from the first day we were here that every where seems to light joss sticks. We just assumed it was because if they didn't, the smell that seems to be apart of the Vietnamese culture would be even worse. What they are actually lit for is to do with prayer. The sticks are lit so that the smoke can carry their message to God. Marvellous.

By now we were a bit hungry but we had one more stop to make before lunch. Cho Len was a market we had read a lot about before we came out so it was a good opportunity to see it. We were inside for all of 10 minutes before we decided we had seen enough. It was a wholesale market that was crammed full of the same things. We grabbed some nuts then headed across to KFC for a cheeky chicken sandwich before meeting our guide to take us to the restaurant for lunch.

The reason we sneaked in a KFC was because we had been told that we would be having Pho for lunch. Its the Vietnamese national dish which basically consists of noodles, noodles, more noodles & noodles. Theres also quite a lot of water & a tiny piece of chicken as well...

After the food experience we headed for the Reunification Palace. Basically, it's the Presidential palace of the Republican south from during the Vietnam war. It fell when two tanks busted through the gates in 1975. Some of the palace was destroyed in the months before it's capture but it had been rebuilt & the rest of the palace was reserved before being turned into a museum.

Our last stop of the tour was the Notre Dam Cathedral & the Post Office, both built by the French. Fortunately, they were right next to each other so we got a few photo's then made our way back to the bus.

Day 3

Another early start today as we were off to Cu Chi to see the tunnels from the Vietnam war. It was about a 2 hour journey to get there & on the way we made one of the typical unscheduled/scheduled stops to have a look in the Handicapped Handcraft shop. Before we went in we were told by our guide, Chi, how the factory was started by the government to get the disabled people off the streets & away from crime. The crime he was talking about was pretty special. They were all physically disabled so they had their wits about them. They used to hobble on to buses (a lot of them were missing legs) full of tourists & demand that everyone handed over their belongings. If they didn't then they would either have a gun or a grenade & threaten to kill everyone. Lovely people. We couldn't wait to meet them. When we got inside we realised it was a similar handcrafted workshop as the one we had visited the day before. Not wanting to miss out again we got a really nice picture of Halong Bay.

By now we were only about 30 minutes away from the tunnels. Our guide, Chi, was really entertaining & went on to tell us a lot about his sugars (girlfriends) & the local area. One thing neither of us realised was that the people of Cu Chi were fighting their own battle during the Vietnam war. Initially, they didn't want anything to do with the Communist north or the Republican south. They just wanted to stay out of it. Unfortunately for them the Americans saw that land as strategically important & proceeded to bomb the sh*t out of them. This led to them accepting help from the Viet Cong. For more than 10 years 16,000 people lived underground crawling around in 200 miles of tunnels. The tunnels were dug out using a small spade & a bamboo basket. To stop the Americans from knowing where their tunnels were, by leaving huge mounds of mud about, they would take it to the river & dispose of it there.

We were shown how they had managed to live off their land. They would only cook once a day & it would be first thing in the morning. This was to help disguise the smoke coming out through the filter system they had devised at the top of their tunnels as it blended in with the morning mist. For a toilet, they used American ammunition boxes which were used until full then taken to the Mekong river & cleaned. Ventilation was carefully disguised in the shape of giant ant nests. We were also told how they even used unexploded American bombs to make their own weapons. A lot of the traps set by the Vietnamese weren't meant to kill Americans, just maime them. The worst trap was an absolute shocker. Their foot would go into a metal basket & stab into a spike on the bottom. Every spike had a hook on it meaning there was no way to pull it out without ripping flesh. To make it even worse there were spikes with hooks on them that would tear down four parts of their leg. We were told that there is no way to remove this trap & that the soldiers caught in it would have to have their legs amputated. Chi went on to tell us how the Americans started using dogs to sniff them out. This was just another chance for them to eat as they set dog traps, again using huge spikes.

The Americans tried a variety of ways to flush them out of the tunnels. They used smoke grenades but the Vietnamese just dug in lower & sealed off the first level with a trap door. They tried drowning them out but they made sure that the last level had an exit that led in to the river meaning there was no chance of it happening.

We went through the rest of the jungle with Chi until we got to the firing range. We had a choice of firing a wide range of weapons but the queue was huge & we only had half an hour there.

The last part of the tour was the chance to go through 100 metres of the tunnels ourselves. Chi told us that there were exits every 25 metres so if anyone was feeling claustrophobic they could come out. We followed another couple down but they decided to let us go first. Lisa went down & decided it wasn't for her so she went back followed by a few others. I ended up being the first one in & it wasn't the nicest of experiences. The tunnels were about 120cm tall but I had my bag on my back as well which made it seem even smaller. After the 25 metre mark I started to regret not getting out. The tunnel became narrower & the humidity down there was horrible. I ducked out at 50 metres & met back up with Lisa by the exit. A guy came out at the end & he said that the last 10 metres were left to the original size & that he had to crawl through it. No. Thank. You.

By the end of the war there were only 5,000 Cu Chi natives left. We were both left amazed by what we had learnt & couldn't believe the brutality that went on.

We got back to our hotel for about 15:30. We were planning on going to the Taste of the World Culinary Festival in the evening so we chilled out for a bit before getting showered & heading out for about 17:30. We walked through the stalls looking for something that looked like it didn't bark or wasn't still alive before settling for good old chicken fried rice. We went to the Fosters tent for a bit then headed off to look for vests we had seen whilst driving around on the coach through the day.

We knew that there was going to be a Muay viet (Muay thai) at 19:00 next to the culinary festival so we headed back there. We watched three fights, one of which were girls. They were right little tough nuts! After about an hour we made our way to a few of the shops we hadn't been to yet. We managed to find a shop that sold vests that we had wanted in Hoi An so we grabbed them then headed back to our hotel. We have to be at the airport for 08:00 so it's another early start in the morning. Until tomorrow...

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