Motorcycle mayhem in HCMC


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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City
November 22nd 2009
Published: December 22nd 2009
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After a busy morning in Hoi An (mainly spent in tailor shops) we had a last lunch with Ros and Michael before heading back to Da Nang airport and our flight to Ho Chi Minh City. We had no real desire to visit this city but as we had decided to head into Cambodia via the Mekong River HCMC was on the way. It was busy - much busier than Hanoi - we had never seen as many motorbikes in one place before. The streets were moving rivers of motorbikes! A bus dropped us in the backpacker area of the city where we found a very comfortable hotel to stay in. The surrounding streets were full of Western tourists, many of them French as they seemed to be the nationality who traveled in large numbers throughout Vietnam. There were many Aussie men as well, many I guess were Vietnam Vets. There were too many overweight older men with young Vietnamese women on their arms. Sadly we've seen a lot of that everywhere we've been in Vietnam and Bangkok, but it seemed to be more obvious in HCMC. There was plenty of choice re restaurants but all were very noisy -
Good luck wishes on temple wallGood luck wishes on temple wallGood luck wishes on temple wall

Each wish cost minimum US $500 - there were walls covered with them all through the temple
there was the constant roar of motorbikes to be heard.
Our hotel room was very quiet however and next morning we wandered the streets, checking out the shops and buying a lot of DVD's. Very cheap (copies of course) but the quality seemed to be good. We booked a city tour for the next day - it seemed the easiest way to see the principle sites - and were up early waiting for the bus to collect us. We enjoyed our day out, though as with all such trips, you're herded around a bit and rushed through some things you would like to spend more time in. Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum - highly recommended but not pleasant to see. The sickening photos and story boards made my stomach heave and I confess to cutting short my time there. Next stop was a very impressive Chinese temple where you could buy a pyramid of incense and a wish for a small amount of money. You're wish was written on a slip of paper and attached to the incense which was then hung up above the altar. It was removed once the incense had burned down. There were dozens of locals buying incense. If you made a large donation your wish was written on large slips of pink paper and attached to the wall. A Chinese lady on the tour read out some of them - all were for donations of over US $500! It was a wonderful temple to see. I am constantly fascinated with how other people practice their religions - the dedication, fervor and money that is involved.
Our next stop was at the largest market in HCMC - it was a wholesale market and not particularly interesting so I soon left for a wander around the nearby streets which were much interesting. A visit to a lacquer factory followed which to me was the highlight of the tour. Vietnamese shops are full of lacquer products - most in amazingly bright colours. All are made from bamboo or coconut shell which are painted with lacquer colours, then dried and polished. Many are also painted with pictures depicting Vietnamese life. Others are covered in tiny pieces of egg shell - each piece is pressed on with a tiny pair of tweezers! Very detailed work... Also they were making furniture inlaid with mother of pearl here as well. It was great watching them cut each tiny piece of shell with miniature saws to form pieces of their picture. It all required an incredible amount of patience!
The Independence Palace was next on the tour schedule - this building was the home of the president of Vietnam's corrupt government from 1965 - 75. It was made famous by the photo of the North Vietnamese army tanks crashing through the front gates, signaling the fall of South Vietnam. I loved the building as it had been left in it's original state - it was great to see a house decorated (with style and taste surprisingly) from the time that I was a young woman. Makes a change from decor from centuries ago. We spent a long time there - it was very large - and we saw every thing from the war rooms in the basement to the private cinema, casino and even his bedroom. Last two stops were side by side - first one was the Notre Dame Cathedral, built by the French in 1880 - not interesting to us but no doubt fascinating to the Vietnamese tourists who wouldn't see a Catholic Church often. Fifteen percent of the population in Vietnam is Christian - a figure which surprised us. Across then road was the very impressive Post Office which was our final stop. A very large building, again built by the French, and handy to stop here as we were able to get the prices and paperwork needed to send our Hoi An purchases home. The bus dropped us at a large market area close to our hotel - we spent a short time there before heading back to the air conditioning.
Next day saw us back on another tour bus - this time we were heading out close to the border with Cambodia to visit the Cao Dai Temple. The 96 klm trip took 3 hours, including the 'toilet' stop where you are encouraged to buy overpriced souvenirs. The visit to the temple was great and we were very pleased that we made the effort to go there. Cao Daism is an odd religion - it began in 20th century Vietnam and contains elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Spiritualism, Christianity and Islam. It is a very wealthy organisation - the grounds were enormous as they house hospitals and schools plus the massive brightly coloured church. The followers worship in different coloured long robes - each religion having their separate colour. The newer members of the congregation worship close to the door of the temple and after 5 years they move closer to the altar - it takes 35 years of worship to attain the privilege of worship next to the altar, which was ornately covered in gold and stood in front of a large globe inset with an all seeing eye. Non members of the church are allowed to watch the midday service from a balcony around the temple. It was fascinating to watch (though we found the chanting a little tuneless to our ears) as each group had supervisors who prodded and poked the worshipers if they had an elbow or foot in the wrong position. Yet again another insight into odd religious practices. No money was charged to allow us to enter though maybe the tour company made a donation to their cause.
Another two hour drive back towards HCMC took us to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a reconstructed tunnel (large for Western bodies) which forms part of the 200 klm tunnel system which the local guerrilla movement of the Viet Cong fought the Allies during the 'American ' war. When we were last in Vietnam the Vietnamese war was only known as the 'American' war - this time we've seen it referred to as the Vietnamese/American war by some tour guides. This area was heavily bombed and the guerrillas lived underground for years, building schools and hospitals as well below the grounds surface. Jerry went through the tunnels - nothing would have got me into them - he seemed fine though very hot when he came out. Most people in our group who went in used the escape hatch to get out halfway along. They all said it was stifling and dank. We were shown many of the booby traps the Viet Cong used against the Allies - ugly contraptions of bamboo and iron spikes which were buried in the ground or hung from trees.
Upon our return to the outskirts of HCMC we were caught up in the evening rush hour traffic jam - we though we were unlucky because we had passed through a very heavy rain shower and thought that the traffic had built up because of it. The guide told us though that it was normal and happened heavy day. The traffic, mainly thousands of motorbikes, completely clogged the roads. Everybody was very patient - there were no horns blaring - they just moved forward every so often and accepted that weren't going anywhere quickly. All the people on the tour bus were fascinated with the sea of motorbikes though the novelty wore off after an hour! HCMC has 5 million motorbikes for a population of 9 million - it will be horrific when they all get cars. The law requires that they all wear helmets and the shops are full of designer helmets - children's helmets in the shape of animals, ladies helmets which look like hats you would wear to the races (with wide brims, feathers and flowers) and trendy helmets in the shape of baseball hats. Many of the girls helmets are covered in rhinestones etc.
Eventually we made it back to our hotel - we decided that one traffic jam in HCMC was enough for us. Can't imagine being caught up in one each day. Our last day in the city was spent posting two very large boxes home - we paid a small fortune for it - one has been received, the other took the slow route - hopefully it will eventually arrive. We were pleased that we visited the city, though have no desire to return. We were leaving next day for a 3 day trip down the Mekong towards the Cambodian border, which we were looking forward to. Originally we had planned on doing it independently but after checking the price of the tours realised they were by far the best option.


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