Ho Chi Min City (HMC) – formerly Saigon, did not disappoint – it was much as expected, really big, hot, humid, with millions of motor-bikes travelling every which way, but overall, rather splendid, with a wonderful blend of people and architecture, with a very special buzz. We took a car and driver from Mui Ne, on the coast, to HMC. It seemed like there was a wedding every mile of the route on the four-hour journey. Our first glimpse of HMC was of the suburbs, thousands of small shops, semi-industrial, then industrial, then finally a bridge and Zone 1, “Saigon”, the tourist hub and historical center. HMC is the largest, busiest and probably most exciting city in Vietnam. We stayed for five nights in a very comfortable hotel, overlooking the Saigon River and had one night away, on board a wooden passenger Junk on the Mekong River Delta. We were a short walk from all the major attractions, including shops and restaurants but were warned to be careful walking beside the Saigon River at night – this was not like the late night walks around the lake in Hanoi, nor was it as safe. To familiarize ourselves with HMC and get our bearings, we took a half day guided city tour in the first afternoon. This included:
- Chinese district
- War Remnants Museum
- The Reunification Palace
- Notre-Dame Cathedral
- Central Post Office
We were both very moved by the War Remnants Museum. Whilst we recognized that the museum presented a very biased view of the American war, as it is called in Vietnam, we were stunned and almost speechless at the mountain of evidence, in the form of photographs, challenging the US record in Vietnam. We were a little disappointed with the Reunification Palace. For us, the Reunification Palace was a bit of an anti-climax, highlighting an unfortunate period in Vietnam’s history, very sparsely furnished and little going for it. Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office were stunning examples of French architecture, facing each other on the square, a very grand sight, so pleasing to the eye. The post office is still a working building, being Art Nouveau in design and truly beautiful. With regard to the Chinese district, for us, this was just like any other Chinese district and not that different to any other, however with lots of the usual sort of buzz. Our second afternoon, we took a trip to the amazing Cu Chi Tunnels, that were critical to the outcome of the Vietnamese /American war. It is now a huge tourist attraction with demonstrations of how to slide into a tunnel and how to get out. The entrance is usually very small and Alf got stuck in the first tunnel entrance and had a couple of helping hands get him out, he then quit whilst he was ahead and did not venture hundreds of yards, underground on all fours, as was required. The tunnels were designed for the small framed Vietnamese , not the likes of Alf! The network of tunnels ran several levels deep and consisted of innumerable trap doors, with horrendous torture spikes, weapon factories, field hospitals, command and storage centers and kitchens. These tunnels consisted of many moving parts making them a livable structure for a long period of time. There were lots of examples of war at this time and we left there with a sad feeling of wasted lives for those on both sides that did not manage to survive.
We walked extensively in Saigon, including visiting the famous Binh Tay Market. One day, we had lunch on the roof of the legendary Rex Hotel, another perfect example of beautiful French colonial architecture, on Lam Son Square – the centre of the square has an imposing statue of Ho Chi Min and marks the centre of district one “Saigon”. We had some wonderful authentic Vietnamese food but walked out of one well-known restaurant to which we were recommended. We both scanned the menus, saw Goat’s Penis, and rats, looked at each other and exited really fast!
One of the highlights of our visit was our cruise on the Mekong River Delta. We left HMC and joined our lovely wooden boat at around noon, where we had a full twenty-four hours on the Mekong, before returning to HMC. Whilst we made two stops to local villages on the delta to explore their way of life, perhaps the greatest pleasure was just sitting on deck watching the scenery of the Mekong River pass us by. We saw the usual array of barges and fishing boats busy about their work. We could see farmers in their fields and hear children in their schools on the banks. We saw water buffalo having a cooling swim and fishermen waiting for a catch. The vegetation on the banks of the Mekong is very lush and looks like a typical jungle. Although this was Winter, it was warm enough for us, with temperatures in the early thirties Celsius. Perhaps one of the biggest highlights was watching the sunset on the Mekong River which is a truly wonderful sight, especially when also enjoying a glass of wine or two! We were up very early in the morning, not to miss anything on the river, including the sunrise, of course. After breakfast, we left our Junk for a smaller vessel in which we explored the famous Ca Be floating market. Ca Be is the largest town in the Mekong Delta, and this was no ordinary floating market. For a start, this was a wholesale market and families brought their produce on little boats for the multiple day market. High up on a mast was a plastic example of their produce, generally fruit and vegetable but with every exotic imaginable. One boat gave a demonstration on how to cut a perfect pineapple in seconds, it looked so easy! We took some wonderful photos and video footage which we shall share in due course, after editing and given some free time!
Returning to HMC, we spent the afternoon looking in the shops and admiring the beautiful architecture including the Opera House that was closed. We had a lovely meal that evening, and early next morning took a taxi for HMC airport for a flight to Siam Reap, Cambodia to visit the UNESCO listed, archaeological site of Angkor Wat. Watch out for our next blog.