Ho Chi Minh City - Formerly known as Saigon

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August 8th 2011
Published: August 21st 2011
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Traffic of SaigonTraffic of SaigonTraffic of Saigon

Start your engines
After a seven hour bus-ride from Phnom Penh, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. The border crossing into Vietnam was a breeze and we only needed to disembark the coach bus in order to pass through customs with our luggage and then reboard the same transport. We were entertained by two Hollywood movies and a series of Jennifer Lopez dance videos being played on the bus' t.v. - random. After speaking with another traveler who did the same journey, we found out that his bus took advantage of the music videos and sang along.

We made it to Ho Chi Minh City at about 9pm and were dropped off in the backpacker's district, also known as District 1 - this is where most tourists find accommodation. Our hotel was a short walk away from the bus-stop so we strapped on our packs and ran away from the hoards of taxi and motorbike drivers trying to offer us lifts. We were in complete shock... where were the tuk-tuks?!?! (They do not exist in Vietnam).

Minutes later, we made it to "The Beautiful Saigon 3 Hotel" after navigating through the busy backpacker's streets. When we arrived there was a slight

mix-up with our reservation as well as the room in which we were offered compared to the one which we booked... our first room had a bed full of ants and we immediately ran from the room demanded another room and a better price - both were granted, we then had no other complaints with regards to the accommodation or services, for $35/night we were offered clean, spacious and amenity filled rooms along with breakfast and good service.

After settling into our room, we headed out to the busy streets to explore the night scene and to get something to eat. It took careful maneuvering along the narrow roads, which are shared by motorbikes, bicycles, cars, all sorts of carts selling paraphernalia and food as well as locals, tourists and stray dogs.

Day 1 in Ho Chi Minh did not disappoint. After an omelette breakfast - we skipped on the noodle soup this time as we felt in need of comfort food, we set out on our walking tour. Although we don't "love" the lonely planet guide book - we decided to follow their walking tour as it looked promising, and it was great. First, we headed away from the backpackers district and walked through a park - it was nice to not have to worry about something running us over for a few minutes - and we arrived at Ben Thanh Market (Cho Ben Thanh), this is the largest old-style market in the central district with several hundred small stalls stuffed with goods on almost impassably narrow aisles. There is everything to buy from jeans, T-shirts, souvenirs to fruits and vegetables, rice, kitchen wares, flowers, meat, fast food and local-style pickled fruits and candies. Most items are not price-marked and the vendors always quote a 50-100% higher price to tourists, so bargain to save a lot of money. We asked a Vietnamese tour guide who said that even locals bargain with each other, they are obviously quoted a lower start price but nevertheless bargaining is the culture here in Vietnam. After a couple of purchases (sunglasses and some stenciled drawings) we continued on our tour.

Next stop was the Fine Arts Museum - we were both happy that we decided to stop here as it was interesting to see how it differed from a fine arts museum one can expect to find in North America. The

museum is a little bit all over the place, there are no jaw-dropping masterpieces displayed and there are some old historical pieces mixed in with violent and patriotic war-era paintings - what we found interesting were the use of vibrant and dull color pre and post the French and American wars. The museum itself is housed in a beautiful old French Colonial building and the nicest part of this museum is housed in the courtyard of the building where we found a gallery with fantastic work by local contemporary artists.

We continued to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City - nothing too special there other than the beautiful building and the three different couples we saw who were having a professional photoshoot for their wedding pictures.

Onto the first mall we have seen since leaving North America - we used it to cool off as the AC was on full blast and Gali found the Vietnam Starbucks equivalent - Highlands Coffee.

Back to the sweltering heat and the motor vehicle packed streets we sauntered over to the City Hall, originally called the Hôtel de Ville and now formally re-branded the People's Committee Hall, it's a striking cream and yellow French colonial building. As we passed this building we also noticed we were in the richer area due to the five star hotels and the designer stores which lined the wider streets (Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton...) - Gali enjoyed the Asian inspired designer shop windows. Lunchtime, we ate at a local and tourist frequented spot, it is set up in a market style where there are many Asian cooking stations with plenty of different style fare to choose from but you order off one huge menu and walk around to see what peaks your appetite. Following a tasty lunch filled with more noodle soup and Vietnamese styled pancake filled with veg and tofu, we set out to Reunification Palace.

Reunification Palace was also built in the French style and was significant for its role in the Vietnam conflict. It is preserved almost exactly as it was in 1966. It is still used today for government functions as well as to welcome worldly dignitaries. There are many rooms to wander through, interesting Asian furniture to admire, beautiful views of the city from the rooftop and an eerie view as to what it was like being in the palace during the American-Vietnam war as we made our way through the underground bunkers and war conflict rooms.

Next stop, War Remnants Museum, there are various U.S. military tanks, jets and helicopters displayed outside the building as well as a simulated "tiger cage" prison and replicas of the bunkers and statements made by the Northern Vietnamese and Vietcong prisoners reflecting their experiences and feelings regarding the war. Within the building, there are three floors of exhibits displaying man's cruelty during the war, which includes halls full of disturbing photographs of the victims of Agent Orange (Dioxin). There is very obvious bias in this museum as there are no displays or recollections of any unpleasant deeds having been committed by the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong. We both left this museum shaken and needing more information from the other side to comprehend what we had seen.

Vietcong, also known as the National Liberation Front was made up of both guerrillas and the Southern army units including organized peasants in the controlled territory. They were mostly stationed in South Vietnam and fought the United States and South Vietnamese governments during the Vietnam War.

After more walking, we passed the French styled Notre Dame Basilica and post office and we finally walked back to our hotel. We attempted to eat dinner at an up-scale restaurant but failed to find one instead we dined at a yummy pub-like restaurant where Seth ordered a bucket filled with various bottles of Vietnamese beers, Vietnamese type of nachos and quesadilla - so local of us...

Day 2, we set out on a day trip to visit the Mekong Delta and tour various local industries. The tour bus picked us up at 8:30am and we arrived along with the 25 other tourists a couple of hours later. First, we boarded a wooden motor boat steered by a rudder which could hold about 40 people, we were accompanied by the boat's captain and our "English" speaking tour guide - we could not really make sense of his explanations. The boat took us along the Mekong to the Coconut candy manufacturing site, there were about 8 women cracking coconuts, mixing the fruit with other ingredients, shaping and forming these tiny delicious candies; with such flavors as ginger, peanut, chocolate... Mmmmm. Next, we visited the pet Cobra/anaconda - not sure what it was but it was massive
Banh StandBanh StandBanh Stand

Holding Banh - a Vietnamese steamed sweet cake filled with veg
and people were excitedly being photographed with it - we have already done that in the Bolivian Amazon and that one experience was sufficient for both of us. On the same island we sat down to some tea, which was served with lemon, honeycomb and honey, the honey and honeycomb "factory" can also be found on the same island - the tea was delicious and while we were enjoying it we were showed a beehive by one of the local children who picked up the bee filled board without any sort of protection and began walking around showing us the bees hard at work making the honeycomb... Conveniently all these products were for sale. We then sat in a little wooden crate and were then given a ponyride to our lunch; vegetable broth, white rice and steamed veg. On our way back to our boat we passed the alligator pond, where you could buy meat to feed the alligator... so many tourist gimmicks filled this island. Back on the boat before we could leave the port a crazy storm stirred and we waited it out for about 20 minutes at which point we headed to the final stop for the day tour, Unicorn Island, where we were given rides on these narrow little canoes through the islands "roads" (life in the Mekong Delta revolves much around the river, and many of the villages are often accessible by rivers and canals rather than by road) then to the market where we enjoyed a table set out with fresh, typical fruit and some Mekong traditional live music, cai luong, a form of Vietnamese folk opera. Back to the boat, then onto the bus for our journey back to Ho Chi Minh, following a dinner of typical Vietnamese Pho, which Seth was craving, we called it a night as the sudden storm through the region earlier that afternoon brought with it many little bugs that were swarming us, making it unpleasant to remain outside (They were gone with the onset of heat the following morning).

Day 3, we took a half day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, these are what essentially allowed the Northern Vietnamese and Vietcong to win the American war. The tunnels of Cu Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the greater surrounding areas. The Cu Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Vietcong's base of operations for the offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Vietcong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Vietcong in their resistance to American and Southern Vietnamese forces, through which they secured American withdrawal from Vietnam and ultimate military success. The 75-mile (121 km)-long complex of tunnels at Cu Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam and turned into a war memorial park. These tunnels are a popular attraction, and tourists are able to crawl around, which we did, in the safer parts of the tunnel system (Gali quickly exited as they were quite suffocating). Some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists. We both attempted to fit into the original tunnel opening and "just" fit - this was a clever way to defend against the larger Western soldiers who were not able to fit though these narrow ways. We then were shown demonstrations of various booby-traps the Vietcong used against their invaders. The traps were not intended to kill; they were placed there to seriously injure and torture the American combatants. As well, we were told that everyone in the village fulfilled a roll to ensure the success over the Americans whether it was a man, woman or child - everyone had their duties. It is at this point that we started to understand why the Americans employed some of the tactics that left us speechless at the War Remnants Museum... Back to the bus and 1.5 hours later we were dropped off in Ho Chi Minh where we continued exploring. We found ourselves in the more financial district, came across some embassies and had a chance to scope out a few of the impressive skyscrapers that are in the midst of being built.

As our flight to Danang was at 6am meaning a 4am wakeup call, we called it a night earlier than usual.

Ho Chi Minh provided us with palpable hustle and bustle, a couple of history lessons and insight into the up and coming modernized Vietnam, this was a great way to begin our journey in Vietnam.

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