Saigon: Good Morning Vietnam

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July 12th 2012
Published: July 13th 2012
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We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it seems everyone calls it still, there is in fact currently a movement to have the former name restored, about 6.30am and did not feel we could start the full day of exploring, we had a mission set - find a room as quickly as possible that would allow us to check in straight away for a reasonable price. We were, for the first time, dropped right in the heart of backpackers central so had an abundance of hotels/ guest houses to choose from. The first couple were classed as too expensive at $20 a night but we found one for $15 and settled. Having used Lonely Planet they had suggested rooms were about the $12-20 mark and we were very lucky to have spent three nights in Hanoi at $8 a night. We were very grateful to check in immediately and laid our weary heads for a couple of hours till we felt we could face the constant stream of hawkers, cyclos and beggars.

Setting out at 9.30am we were immediately hounded with tour companies selling tours and bus journeys so we quickly got the second job done and dusted- booking our morning coach to Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia. At $10 a piece we got the cheapest going and wondered what would be awaiting us! We had a route mapped for a quick tour of the city named as mini Paris. First stop was the reunification palace where the tanks stormed in on 30th April 1975, the North finally claiming victory of Saigon and proceeding to change it's name. We didn't go in though as we had been forewarned there was nothing to see nor any history to be gained. We moved to the next stop where Ben had visited exactly five years previously, that was weird when Lauren looking through Ben's passport discovered we were currently for the next two weeks, matching his trip of 2007 to the exact date! Not that Ben could have told you this!

This stop was the War Remnants Museum. A large collection of American warfare was housed outside including tanks and a number of air Bourne objects. You then continued to look at a set up of the main prisoner camp that is on an island a little bit from the centre within the Mekong Delta. It was horrifying to read about and see pictures, of the torture that American soldiers performed on suspected communist civilians. Without going into too much detail, it involved tiger cages- cramping people in with no space to stand or eat for days on end, burning the insides of a person so they could not eat thus starving to death and drilling nails about 6" long through skulls. The pictures showed some survivers and how they had been found literally skin and bone and reenactments of how torture was performed. It was very chilling despite the overbearing heat. Lauren became very sick and we retreated to the main building. Here was housed a collection of pictures by school children from recent years depicting their views of the Vietnam war. Bearing in mind that after the fall of Saigon all schooling was changed to that of a communist society and children's books were burned demonstrating they no longer were true and significant. The point we make, the absolute horror that this museum presented was still run by the communists that run the country and this is a complete propaganda exercise. Don't get us wrong I'm sure the Americans cannot paint a picture where they are not evil but you had to be aware there are two sides to every story. The walls were also filled with posters from most democratics around the world appealing to the US to stop the war. You must also remember that Americans themselves were doing this within USA, students at a march were killed during the 70's and three people drowned themselves in front of government officials to make a stance. One can learn an incredible amount on the war from the communist Vietnamese side but you need to turn to history books (not in Vietnam) to gain the full truth. What cannot be denied is that Vietnam civilians took a huge hit in the number of deaths and casualties in a pointless war as the Americans withdrew having had several court rulings declaring the war as illegal and inhumane. Without sounding like, probably an inaccurate history lesson we wont continue other than to say the damages of agent orange/napalm was also shown in an exhibition, again similar to Laos showing how this effects children being born every day in the country. There was also a letter written recently by a man who is severely deformed to President Obama appealing for help but we saw that America still pays billions of dollars to the victims of the atrocities this was caused.

It is hard to believe as we ventured to our next stop that this is still a practising communist country, they play the capitalist game well. We headed to a mall thinking we would have a decent choice of eateries as we had not enjoyed Vietnamese food thus far, and actually shared a pizza hut, one of few chains that has made its way East. Others included KFC although we were not brave enough to try any chicken (Ben had a bad experience in Malaysia) the only other chains were not of the food variety. This is where we encountered full steam ahead capitalism. The "nice" area of town before the river was home to the fashion capital. Opposite the Opera Theatre was home to every big brand name one can imagine, from Louis Vuitton, Christian Laboutin and Gucci. Plus a large number of high rise upscale sky scraper hotels from the likes of Renaissance and Starwood resorts. We enjoyed walking these streets as it gave a brief hiatus from the huge number of Vietnamese that want to take you on a cyclo around the city and hawkers selling street food and local artefacts. Something we had read that most of these will be seized at customs as declared Vietnamese products.

We also took in the sights of the Notre Dame Cathedral standing beautifully in the heart of government quarter overlooked by a huge HSBC! It was a beautiful building and we got a great photograph as birds flew around the spires. We enjoyed a caramel ice drink and reflected on the day so far. We walked along the river for a while but the lack of sleep was taking its toll so we headed back to backpackers area taking in some culture along the way of huge markets and the back streets, how real Vietnamese live in the city. Everyone again seems to own a bike and they still beep incessantly and drive the wrong way on pavements, there is no logic to how they drive and when, traffic lights were the most pointless additions to the over crammed streets.

We rested for a while then went on the hunt for food deciding to stay close to the area knowing we would stumble across something pretty quickly, we were also still very mindful that we wanted vegetarian food! We happened upon an Italian having been thrust menus from hostesses at every restaurant with a lovely menu and Italian chef, aptly named "Good Morning Vietnam". Despite the rice grown here in abundance around the city and country in the thousands of rice fields, Lauren decided she wanted risotto, made using imported rice- typical! Thus making it more expensive but having only paid for the museum we had some money spare! Ben had a pumpkin pasta too which was yummy and as usual we shared meals! Ben also enjoyed his last Saigon beer. That's one thing to keep costs low Ben enjoyed the local beer often cheaper than water but once in a new country you would be having their local brew but needless to say Ben was enjoying his mini world tour of beers, kindly started by his work colleagues back home who got him a fine variety for part of his leaving present!

We could have really gone to town as the nightlife seemed very good even in this small area of a huge city but an early start was beckoning, and as you may have realised that's not the travelling we have come to do. We still question what exactly we have come for, and more and more it becomes prominent it is to see how other people live finding the most fulfilling times being the bus journeys travelling through disparate villages to see how life really is. It is here that we witness the hard working women ploughing the rice fields knee deep in water and carrying huge bamboo baskets of rice on their solid heads. Deep in thought we retired preparing for a day early start in Cambodia.

We were ahead of ourselves since changing the flight to Hanoi last week but Vietnam was proving an expensive country and although there were plenty of things we could have done in Saigon we felt that we saw what we wanted to, and instead of a 12 hour journey tomorrow we would break it up with an overnight. The other things involved a bit of parting with money which due to the cost of the visa we were keen to keep costs low. The activities could have been visiting the underground tunnels at Cu Chi showing actual networks used in the war, but after today's harrowing experience we had seen enough of the horrors of war. Also you could do a river cruise but the weather was turning as we came to an end and monsoon season was fast approaching we decided to bail.

Things of note:

Not too much different from Hanoi, although Hanoi is more infectious with its stunning lake backdrop and crazy traffic. The traffic, as said, still hits here in their millions of bikes but it's more of an annoyance!

You can watch water puppetry here but the best is in Hanoi.

The cyclos are not as wide as Hanoi and you sit one in front of the other rather than side by side, seeing 4 on one cyclo was an incredible sight!

Every city seems to have a Ho Chi Minh museum!

As said there were some that call it HCMC others Saigon with no reason why, there was one place that perhaps should have called it Saigon- "Ho Chi Minh's communist school for Ho Chi Minh City" bit of a mouthful!

What would we do differently:

Perhaps visited the tunnels but the idea of being cramped up with god knows what crawling around might have pushed Lauren over the edge and a one way ticket out of South East Asia!


Near Misses:0 - nearly had one when we were ushered into a very expensive restaurant in the mall without really noticing as they offered 20% discount but then put on 20% in tax and service charge we bailed saving ourselves at least 500,000 dong ($24) and had the pizza hut which was a happy 98,000 dong ($4.60) for pizza, side and drink each!


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