Travel / Vietnam

Sleepless in Saigon

We’d had a bit of a break from the crazy traffic and crowded streets of a big city since we left Hanoi, but all that was back with a bang as soon as we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as many people still call it). The roads were full of traffic and mopeds took to riding along the pavement to avoid the jams. Restaurants spilled out onto the streets and hawkers called out to us from every direction. Modern, shiny skyscrapers loomed nearby. It was a little overwhelming when we first arrived in our hostel in the heart of the city, but we soon got used to it all again. We were only in Ho Chi Minh City for a few days, but we managed to fit a lot in and get a fairly good feel for the place.

The main thing I would recommend anyone seeing if spending a couple of days in HCMC is the War Remnants Museum. It’s not got the cheeriest of titles (it used to be known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes) and unsurprisingly parts of the museum are particularly grim, but it was extremely informative. It didnt seem quite as one sided as the Hoa Lo Prison Museum in Hanoi, and a lot of the accounts are from Americans themselves. It’s a good chance to learn about some of the most brutal atrocities in Vietnamese history from first hand sources. The photography exhibition on the top floor was by far the most upsetting and impossible to forget. It seems like recently I’ve been recommending a lot of quite depressing museums and attractions, but it just so happens that they seem to be the best places to learn about Vietnam’s turbulent past (and I’m afraid there’s more to come in future posts on Cambodia, too.)

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Ho Chi Minh City is big and glitzy like lots of modern Asian metropolises, but it’s also got lots of beautiful old buildings; all you need to do is just look up. The French quarter is the place to go: hotels with beautiful balconies bursting with flowers; designer shopping centres with stained glass and mosaic tiled arches; an impressive domed opera house; a large cathedral and the well known central post office. It’s a wonderful part of the city to walk around, it feels like there should be a film or a fashion shoot happening somewhere. The central post office was the most impressive building. It has high ceilings, old maps on the wall, original wood panelled ticket and telephone booths. It also has a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh at the far end. It doesn’t sound like much of an honour, having your portrait on the wall of a post office, but this one’s a bit of an exception.

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The other big sight that was left for us to see was the Reunification Palace (the old presidential palace of South Vietnam). Many of the rooms have been preserved from before the reunification of Vietnam. It’s home to beautiful banquet rooms, retro chandeliers and furniture, presidential bedrooms, games rooms, offices and underground war bunkers. There’s information all through the building about what each room was used for, and also the story of what happened during the Vietnam war, and more memorably, in the fateful day in 1975 when a tank mowed down the ornate front gate and Northern Vietnamese troops stormed the palace. It’s a really interesting place to visit and is much less depressing than a war museum (although also less hard-hitting).

On our final evening in the city, Matt arranged for us to meet up with his Vietnamese friend, Hiên, for a traditional meal in the suburbs of the city. As we got out of our taxi, we looked completely out of place, as it wasn’t a place many foreigners frequented. When it comes to food, this is usually a good sign. The speciality of the restaurant we visited was goat cooked all different ways, and a lot of beer. Although the food wasn’t the greatest for vegetarians, the others really enjoyed it. We allowed Hiên to order on our behalf, letting the local order is usually a wise choice, and he ordered me an array of veggie things too. It was probably the most memorable meal we had in Vietnam, eating unusual food with our own local food expert telling us what everything was, and how to eat it (eat this with this, dip this one in this sauce…).

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I think we only skimmed the surface of what Ho Chi Minh City has to offer. It’s so huge, that in a few days that’s always going to be the case. I think we did a good job in the time we had though, learning about Saigon’s historical importance, eating some local food, meeting up with local people and admiring the beautiful architecture. It’s a frantic and interesting city and the only place I’ve ever been where you can see a communist flag flying outside a Cartier shop.

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