Saigon and making travel companions

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June 9th 2009
Published: June 12th 2009
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Saigon and around

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1: Saigon Traffic from a Xy Clo 90 secs
So, I’m no longer travelling solo anymore. Since I’ve been in Saigon I’ve met up with Mike and Eddy from Blackpool and we’ve been hanging out at Bia Hoi places until 2 in the morning. Alongside us has been a Dutch guy (the 6’3” kind) from Amsterdam by the name of AJ. I shared a room with him in a dormitory at a hostel called Yellow House along with a Hong Konger called (no jokes please) Ken.


First off I arrived at Saigon train station at about 7pm. I then got a motorbike to the hostel through the mad streets of Saigon, millions of motorbikes and scooters dodging in and out of each other with abandon. There was me perched on the back with a huge backpack and a cowboy hat on.

The next day I ran into Eddy and Mike outside the Reunification Palace (which used to be the Presidential Palace of the Republic of South Vietnam until the gates were crashed into by North Vietnamese tanks). Pretty famous scene actually and we got to see lots of photographs within the former palace detailing that fateful day. That same year, Saigon merged with a surrounding province and was officially renamed Hồ Chí Minh City). However, the locals still call it Saigon and so will I.

The palace itself is impressive because it hasn’t changed since the day it changed hands and is preserved as the epitome of 1970s cool interior design with a games (gambling) room, private cinema, operations rooms in the basement, Mercedes Benz and of course a helicopter on the roof!
I lost Mike and Eddy at the Palace but met them again at the propaganda-tastic “War Remnants Museum” which is housed in the former American Information Service Building. Lots of US military hardware on show outside and gruesome if badly presented photographs of dead and mangled people from the war, exclusively caused by the Americans of course. No hint of fairness in the lame presentation which seemed to be lifted mainly from newspapers from the time. The second level was pretty good because it featured photographs from war reporters who had died in the war. I just wish the Vietnamese were able to use this to provide some context to the whole conflict, a lost opportunity.

That evening Mike, Eddy and myself went out for a few drinks to a multilevel bar called Go2, all the while dodging the touts and motorbikes who are constantly asking you if you wanna buy shit. Sod off already! Eddy dropped some money which some German chicks sat up there handed back to Eddy. Anyway, we got talking and as we were going off to our

bia hoi

quest he asked them if they wanted to join us. Down the street sat outside on the pavement of a bia hoi gaff (nursery seats on metal tables) the German lasses joined us. A good evening was had by all and we enjoyed the company of three very intelligent young German women, all witch outstanding English skills.

The next morning I was sitting down at breakfast and who comes down but one of the Dutch girls I’d met in Ninh Binh a few weeks earlier! However, there was bad news, Linda told me that Sacha had been mugged in Nha Trang and had had her shoulder broken. Poor Sacha was in a shoulder sling and they had spent a week in My Nui recuperating from the shock as well as the money and lost camera. Bummer! Anyway, my misfortune was put into perspective by what I think had probably ruined their entire 3 week holiday in Vietnam. I caught up with Linda outside the hotel, trying our best to ignore the sunglasses seller who stood in front of us never tiring of the words “no thank you”.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Later that morning myself, AJ, Eddy and Mike all went on an organized tour of the Củ Chi tunnels a few hours outside of Saigon. The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels which are part of a much larger network of tunnels connecting to the Ho Chi Minh trail. Several military campaigns occurred here during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. Despite bombing the shit out of the area with B-52s and two operations to flush out the VC the Americans and South Vietnamese (remember them?) were unable to. Of course, we went inside the tunnels, barely able to crouch along them and also were shown secret holes in the ground that were then covered up. A complete nightmare of a place if you were fighting there what with the shoot and run tactics, booby traps and mines everywhere. To top it all off, there was a shooting range on site where you could fire different guns. Of course, I didn’t fire a gun, as it was a dollar a bullet and you needed to buy a minimum of 10, but AJ fired an M-60 (lasting a second but making my ears bleed) and Eddy fired an American M-16 - a few others on the group did AK-47s. But the crack of noise as well as the power from those things makes you rethink what war is about, and it’s pretty frightening to be honest.

All through our tour we had a peculiar tour guide, an old geezer who shouted at us like we were in the army and kept saying “’stand!” at the end of every sentence. He said he fought with the Americans in the war (as well as U.S. Senator John Kerry) but was then obnoxious with his anti American jibes, and in the end we didn’t know what to believe, so I just ignored his petty ramblings. He eventually went loopy on the return bus journey, basically lecturing us from the aisle about his family, his wife (who he’s divorced or mayb enot) and the war and blah, bah , blah. Silly Hong Kong Ken gave him a few dollars tip at the end, much to my derision.

Later on I ran into Bonny, the Chinese girl and she said she was meeting with three German girls later on for dinner. Yep, it happened to be the same German girls we had met and had drinks with the night before, so I agreed we’d swing by later on. The boys and I walked to a place in town for a slap up meal where we got to bbq our own food on a hot plate in front of us. Really nice food and great company, all getting on like a house on fire, Saigon seems to be very kind to me. I’ve actually felt for the first time that I’m having some kind of university experience in a backpacker abroad mode. Later on we all met up with Bonny and the German girls again and had a few drinks before they parted for Bangkok the next morning.

Chinatown and strange views

The next day AJ and myself went to the Chinatown of Saigon, not much of one these days because the Communists have persecuted them over the years and they’ve become the infamous boat people. But anyway, we took a motorbike to the area and wandered around visiting the temples and stuff, it was really nice and in terms of religious stuff very different to elsewhere I’ve been to in Vietnam. That evening we went to view sunset from one of the towers downtown. I grabbed a xyclo that went slowly though the traffic and then we went to two hotels, the Palace which had fine views. Then, we looked behind us and there was the Sheraton. So, up we went to some mad numbered floor and had our 2 for 1 cocktails whilst watching the sun set over Saigon. I had a Moonwalker by the way.

When we got out of the Sheraton, there was only one bike available for rent back to the hotel. However, out of nowhere comes a lady on a motorbike and asks me to get on the back, and so I assented. As we’re both driving off someone jumps on the back and it’s some young woman clasping onto me! In and out of traffic through the bright lights of Saigon and I’ve realized that these ladies are of the night shall we say and as we had walked out of the Sheraton, we were prime fruit to be picked. A number and name was written down by the Madame and given to us when we got to the hotel, offering some services. A pretty funny night all in all.

Anyway, I’ve had a real laugh in Saigon, it’s hectic to be sure, and to see the traffic join each other at cross sections is staggering. But it’s not that different to Hanoi, there’s less things to do in the city itself and it’s not as grand or as pretty but I’ve really liked it.

New Vietnamese word I've learnt Cam urn - thankyou.

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