Published: July 20th 2012July 20th 2012
Greetings from Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and country number 69. Arrived here safely on Tuesday evening local time, and fortunately my last minute nerves have given way to just an excellent, superb start to my summer trip around south-east Asia. The first few days, despite recovering from jet-lag, have just been amazing, and I am so excited to see so much more in this region of the world.
So first up, touch-down on Tuesday evening in HCMC, after a change of plane in Singapore – and again, I just have to say, my feeling is still that Singapore Airlines is just the best airline company in the world: they make flying a real treat with so many small details that make the 13-hour journey a breeze. The last 2-hour stint to Ho Chi though was marred by what I can safely say was the worst air turbulence I have ever felt, and this is having taken many flights in my time. The approach to landing in Vietnam was literally like a rollercoaster – up and down, lots of banging, and with half the people on the plane actually screaming, I seriously had to put my
Buddhist breathing techniques learned a few years ago into practice. We were flying through a thunderstorm to land, and one of the air hostesses later told me that in five years of flying she’s only ever experienced it once previously like that. Hopefully the next 11 flights will involve a little less drama.
So after 20 hours or so on the road, I arrived rather wearily at the stunning Beautiful Saigon Hotel in the travellers’ part of Saigon – for only £20 a night, it’s like a four-star hotel, with air-conditioning, lovely bathroom, flat-screen TV, fridge with minibar, computer, wi-fi and much more besides, it really was a comfort to arrive and lie flat to sleep my first night in Asia. Did go for a quick, jet-lagged 20 minute walk around the area though, which seriously felt like Leonardo DiCaprio’s arrival in Bangkok for the first-time in “The Beach” – Pham Ngo Lao is the travellers’ centre of the city, with every other person being a westerner, and the other people being locals out to sell you something. But not at all nastily or pushy like in Egypt, which was more than welcome. During my brief evening stroll I
was offered motorbike rides, Mekong Delta tours, books, souvenirs, and in very hushed tones after all else failed, “marijuana?”. Needless to say I did not partake of the services, and ended up back in my hotel room for a full on, flat-bedded night’s sleep.
First day here I spent sightseeing around the city. For ease of reference I’m going to call it Saigon from now on, as although the city’s name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1975 after the end of the Vietnam War which allowed the communist north control of the south and thus naming the largest city in the country after Vietnam’s communist revolutionary who declared independence from the French in 1945, HCMC is a bit of a mouthful. Most locals seem to call it Saigon anyway, and it does have a more romantic, oriental ring to it. First up, the Bitexco Tower, Vietnam’s tallest building at 262m for stunning city-wide views. After this a deco at the People’s Committee Building with its famous statue of Ho Chi Minh himself outside, a wander up to the French-built Notre Dame Cathedral, then to the Reunification Palace – government building whose gates were famously knocked
down by communist troops in 1975 signifying the sudden and surprising victory of the North – and finally the War Remnants Museum, for some pretty harrowing photos and insights into what the locals refer to as “The American War”, taking over the best part of the 1960s and 1970s.
Understandably, the museum, and most attitudes around here, are rather one-sided, and to be honest I really don’t know enough about the situation to be able to give my full opinion. But I liked very much what a tour guide said yesterday, that we must remember both the 58,000 US casualties along with the 2 million Vietnamese, both being victims of the war played by politics at a higher level. Indeed, what I do believe is that any critique of the Americans during this time really should be considered in the context of the regional and global picture, and cannot to my mind be taken within the context of just Vietnam itself. Despite making mistakes, the Americans still have my support in everything that they do and have done, because without them the world would indeed be a much more unstable place. One benevolent hegemonic power far outweighs the potential
catastrophe of having various spheres of influence competing for control.
Anyhow, I digress, and thus should bring this blog back to my second day, another great one! Took a tour to two nearby sights of interest, both within 100km of Saigon. First up, the Cao Dai Holy See, near the border with Cambodia. Founded in 1926, it is one of the world’s newest “religions”, with 3 million followers worldwide (mostly Vietnamese). In actual fact, rather than being a new religion, it combines elements of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, with Chinese philosophy thrown in for good measure. At first glance it seems nice, as to my mind there seems much truth in most world religions. But visiting the Temple, and watching a service with adherents all dressed in white, standing in perfect rows and lines and all chanting and bowing together at the same time, just seemed like the stereotypical dodgy modern cult to me, and didn’t feel right. Finding out that part of the religion involves seances with passed spirits, including regular contact with those of William Shakespeare, Napolean Bonaparte and Winston Churchill, just rings very high on the odd factor, and I can put it down now to
Ben Thanh Market
Ho Chi Minh City
at least an interesting experience. Second visit after this, the amazing Cu Chi Tunnels – a system of 250km of subterranean tunnels varying from 3m to 12m in depth below a vast swathe of jungle north of Saigon. They were first dug by the nationalists during the Independence War with France during the 1950s, and continued by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Originally housing around 16,000 people during the war, who lived underground to escape the bombing and travelled through the tunnels to attack the US troops, over the years numbers dwindled to around 6,000 as more and more Viet Cong were killed by flooding, poisoning or the blowing up of the tunnels. Still, clambering through only 40m of the tunnels myself, which was flipping hard work, was a testament to the tenacity and resilience of the Viet Cong during the war, and a learning experience that despite being so ill-equipped and poorly prepared for conflict with the world’s number one superpower, it is perhaps the belief in fighting for one’s homeland against an external aggressor that counts for more than material weaponry in war…?
Anyway, to bring me up to date, took a tour today of
the also-nearby Mekong Delta, which begins about 60km to the south-west of Saigon. The Mighty Mekong, as dubbed by the National Geographic, after travelling 4500km from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, splits into five distinct distributaries in Vietnam before emptying out into the South China Sea. Just over 17 million people make this region their home, with a large proportion making their living from the water – fishing, rice-farming, and increasingly tourism. Flying over the Delta from Singapore, I was amazed to see that there seemed to be more canals than roads, linking houses and villages, and today it was a pleasure indeed to explore these canals and backwaters by boat. A pleasure at least until the heavens opened, as is a daily occurrence here right now during the rainy season. But still, a great day, with some great photos of delta life.
So here we are, now up to date. Having an amazing time already, and looking forward to so much more during the next few weeks. The Vietnamese so far seem such a lovely people, so warm and friendly, with smiles given generously. It is amazing to consider the hardships these people
were experiencing only a generation ago, as well as the tumultuous times they have seemingly had ever since Chinese overlordship over two millennia ago. With a language that is fascinating to listen to, affectionately sounding like high-pitched ducks quacking at speed, this country and its people have made a very good impression on me so far indeed.
So it is on this high, positive note I leave this blog for now. Tomorrow I fly up to Danang in Central Vietnam to explore a few sights around there (relieved to be flying as most other travellers end up there after two night bus journeys, though hoping the air will have settled somewhat by tomorrow…!). Will now upload the photos so far.
All the best
There are more photos below