S-S-S-S-Ho Chi Minh City!
06.03.2011 - 08.03.2011 32 °C
6th March 2011
Sleep and lots of it! We had a good rest last night but were still only up at 9am! Our first problem of the day came when Jen showered and plugged the hairdryer in – but nothing came out! Noticing that the light wasn’t on the TV Stew flicked the light switch – no lights. Power cut! Breakfast should be entertaining then... Once dressed, we made our way up to the rooftop restaurant to see what delights were on offer. The restaurant was small and narrow with just two rows of tables either side with around seven or eight tables in all. Finished in white with bamboo blinds suspended from the ceiling to the tops of the walls it was brilliant in the morning sun and dazzled us as we took our seats and afforded a view of the roofs of adjoining and nearby houses and businesses in the area. Sure enough, we were told that the menu was limited due to a power cut in the hotel and instead of the usual eggs, toast and coffee we’d be breakfasting on a bread roll with some jam and butter, a banana and orange juice! It wasn’t great but it was food and we were hungry enough to devour it all before heading out on our first day of sightseeing in Saigon! We had decided to make the must-see War Remnants Museum our first stop and, as it was another beautiful day we opted to walk. Armed with our map of the city given to us by Nungh we set off along the road, popping into various shops on the way, and watching life unfold on the streets of the city. The first thing we noticed about the area was the street hawkers. All adorned with conical hats and clothes of every colour and material, they walked, pushed carts or cycled up and down the bustling streets parading wares ranging from fruit to pastries while others struggled with carts or bags laden with cardboard, cans and plastic bottles. It was fascinating to watch them ply their trade and all seemed so content to do so.
There are many shops here to satisfy the tourist in all of us. Clothes, books, films, souvenirs and myriad art shops sit side by side. A favourite subject of the art shops here is the Afghan girl with the amazing green eyes captured on film by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry in 1985. Some were amazing reproductions and some weren’t so good. One art shop that captured Jen’s imagination made pictures using nothing but rice! The rice is baked for varying lengths of time to achieve all the colours required (from almost white to dark brown) to achieve the desired result. They were quite stunning and we watched a young artist while she worked. It was fascinating and very clever.
The backpacker’s district is a buzzing area but things began to quieten down and thin out as we headed out towards the museum. What did become very apparent was the sheer number of mopeds on the roads here! We came to a crossing and waited for the traffic to stop so we could get to the other side. The cars stopped and within seconds were engulfed and surrounded by hundreds of mopeds and motorbikes that seemed to come from absolutely nowhere. They are even driven on the pavements when the roads are full or when junctions are busy or need to be circumvented! Not fun when you have no idea they are behind you while you are walking down the street though!
It was a long walk to the museum and we made it there after around 45 minutes – only to find it closed! Mental note to oneself – check opening times of museums beforehand! It was due to open at 13 :30 so we had a bit of time to kill and started walking to a nearby Pagoda that Nungh had pointed out for us on our map. We really shouldn’t have bothered! It was the most drab and uninspiring pagoda we had ever seen, so much so that we didn’t even bother taking a photograph of it and cannot remember its name! We turned around and headed for the Water Puppet theatre to book a couple of tickets for the 5pm performance. Water Puppetry is a long standing tradition dating back to the 11th century. Devised and performed by farmers working in the rice fields (when they flooded) as a way of keeping the children and villagers entertained (as well as the spirits appeased), it has continued ever since and shows were based on popular stories and legends of the time. Puppets are handmade from wood, hand painted in vivid, brilliant hues and lacquered. Most have moveable limbs and heads. Our walk took us through a small park where we came upon a group of around 15 youngsters all sitting in a circle and singing a song. They looked as though they were really enjoying themselves and were giggling as they sang. We slowed down as we passed them and applauded them when they had finished. This made them laugh and they applauded us loudly for applauding them! Entering the gate to the puppet theatre we walked through a small market selling mainly clothes and t-shirts with the odd candy stall and food hut until we came to the box-office. Keeping up with tradition, it was shut! Thankfully it was due to reopen within half an hour so we found a small cafe and sat down for a coffee and coke and waited.
With tickets in hand for the 5pm performance we retraced our steps back to the War Remnants Museum and, thankfully, that had reopened too. The grounds surrounding the building are home to a number of aircraft and tanks that were used in the Vietnam War including a reconnaissance Cessna, a USAF F-5A fighter jet, a UH-1 Huey combat helicopter and a M48 Patton tank. There were also replicas of some of the “tiger cells” where prisoners were kept chained up but, after seeing one cell and after what we had witnessed in Cambodia, we weren’t in the mood to see any more so we walked up the steps and into the main building. The museum used to be known as the Museum of American War Crimes and, although renamed to the War Remnants Museum when relations with the US returned to normal, the theme is still very one-sided, with the US coming out as the bad guys. The causes of the war are explored in some detail but the majority of the exhibits here lean towards the heroes on the Vietnamese side and the atrocities carried out by US soldiers. A number of different weapons including machine guns, rifles and rocket launchers were showcased as well as a large part of a B-52 bomber shot down over Vietnam. Stories and pictures of Ho Chi Minh (or Uncle Ho as he is affectionately known here!) and his struggle against the South Vietnamese and US forces are explained in words and pictures. More harrowing stories were found on the second floor. They were of photographers sent to report on the war effort, most with their final photographs before they were killed. The most tragic stories, though, were of the massacres such as the My Lai massacre when US soldiers turned their weapons on a two villages full of unarmed men, women (some elderly) and children (some small babies) and left them in a heap by the roadside, in ditches or outside their homes before setting the entire villages alight. We saw some people walking away crying after reading the accounts. Together with photographs and stories showing the effects of Napalm, Agent Orange and other toxins used on the Vietnamese people and their continued effects today, the whole experience was fascinating but very, very sad and we came out of there some 2 hours later quite in need of some cheering up!
We had half an hour to get to the Water Puppet theatre and got there in plenty of time and were shown to our seats in the small auditorium. We didn’t have a clue what to expect and but felt it would lift our spirits whatever happened! It wasn’t too long before the lights went out, the twangs, whines and thumps of the music started and the curtains slid aside to reveal a small water filled pool with a small orchestra either side of it. The musicians doubled as the voices of the puppet characters and many different puppets glided across the water. Men, women, fish, ducks and dragons zipped across and under the surface of the milky waters. Brilliantly coloured monsters swam and dived in and out of the water as boats and canoes floated around. It was very clever and not once did we see even a glimpse of the puppeteers. The show lasted around forty minutes and, although entirely in Vietnamese leaving us with absolutely no clue what had just gone on, we thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle if not the grating music!
It had indeed lifted our spirits and had also given us an appetite and we elected to have an early meal on the way back. The sunlight was just beginning to fade as we started our trek back and more than once had to quick-step out of the way of a pavement bound motorcycle and run flat out to cross a busy road. Back in the familiar surroundings of the backpacker’s quarter we found a Pizzeria and tucked in with gusto before taking a slow, leisurely stroll along the buzzing streets and past the packed street bars selling cheap beer (you could always tell the cheapest ones as the pavement was crammed with people!) back to our little hotel, venturing in and out of some of the shops on the way. We felt a guidebook on Vietnam would be a good idea and couldn’t believe it when we happened across a bookshop selling the Lonely Planet guides for the equivalent of £3! Quite happy with our stroke of luck we went back to our room to do some research for the rest of our stay in both Saigon and Vietnam in general. As we flicked through the pages, the reason for the £3 price tag became clear. Every page was a photocopy! These people are nothing if not dedicated in their pursuit of a quick buck! The shop had been full of guidebooks on every country imaginable! We just had to laugh but it proved good enough for our use and we went through it as best we could (some of the pages were illegible!) until the day’s efforts caught up with us and we gave in to sleep.
7th March 2011
Woke up to find out we had missed breakfast! It was 11am and neither of us had stirred once in the night! We jumped out of bed as we needed to go to the Chinese Consulate today to get our visas for China, which would take about 3 or 4 days apparently so we would also need to extend our stay here. We got showered and dressed and went to see our ever helpful and smiling receptionist Nungh to ask to stay for three more days and for her advice on travelling to the Consulate. Unfortunately the hotel was fully booked so that meant another errand added to the day’s itinerary – find another hotel. When we asked her the cost of a taxi to the Chinese Consulate as we needed visas for China, Nungh told us it should only cost a couple of hundred Dong but she could sort the visas for us and get them within 3 days! We nearly bit her hand off! She told us we would need two passport photos and where to get them done, and the address of the hotel we would be staying in once we’d found one! It was at this point, after she had told us the cost of the taxi, that we asked her how much we should expect to pay for a taxi from the bus station. No more than two hundred dong! She was appalled when we told her how much we had been charged in a metered taxi! Our very first taxi ride in Vietnam and we’d been screwed without knowing it! Ah well – nothing changes! With a bad taste in our mouths we walked out into the heat of the midday sun and went in search of the photography shop, a small place in the centre of the main thoroughfare offering all manner of services including photo enlargements, photographs for sale, bespoke portraits, CD and DVD burning and, of course, passport photos. After having our snaps taken, we were told they would be ready at 3pm so that gave us time to sort out another hotel, of which there were many, and we wandered up and down the streets trying to find one that looked half decent. We settled on a small one a little way up the main street that wasn’t too far from our current hotel and went in to ask the rates and to see a room. It was more expensive but the room was nice so we booked it for three nights and paid a deposit. By this time our bellies were complaining so we found a coffee shop called Sozo and had some lunch. This place became our regular coffee and lunch haunt as not only was the coffee and food delicious but they only employed disabled and underprivileged people in order to give them a chance in life, which we thought was brilliant. They were so nice too! Stew took a shine to the little cashier lady who couldn’t walk without the aid of crutches and seemed to be in almost constant pain but not once did the smile slip from her little face when she addressed a customer. It was still too early to collect our passport photos so we went in search of the local supermarket to get some things and in doing so passed a lovely looking little hotel that we had simply overlooked and that was actually closer to where we were currently staying. We went in and asked the smiley young guy running the place his rates (they were much cheaper than where we had just booked!) and to see a room. The room was quite nice too so we told him we would be back soon and went back to the hotel we had booked earlier and got our deposit back! After reserving a room at the new hotel we found the supermarket and got some things before collecting our passport photos and taking everything back to our room, giving Nungh all the information she required for our China visas, holding our breaths as we handed over our passports... That part was the worrying part! After cooling down a little in our air-conditioned room we headed out once again, this time to book a tour for the day after tomorrow to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, a set of tunnels dug out during the Vietnam war that were used by troops to move around literally under the noses of enemy forces without being detected. After booking our trip we just went for a wander around some of the streets we hadn’t visited and just ambled in and out of the shops before deciding to go and see the night market. It was quite a walk but it was yet another wonderfully warm night so we set off, marvelling once again at the huge numbers of motorbikes on the roads! At a set of traffic signals, when the swarm of two wheelers enveloped all the vehicles around them, you could see half a mile down the road there were so many headlights clustered together! It was blindingly bright and the noise as they all pulled away together was amazing! The night market, though, was not amazing at all. In fact we wished we hadn’t bothered walking all the way there as it wasn’t at all what we were expecting. There were two lines of stalls that stretched about fifty metres and they were selling the usual belts, fake watches and clothes. It took us about five minutes to do the circuit and before we knew it we were walking back towards the backpacker’s quarter. It was dark by now and we somehow took a wrong turn and the walk ended up being much longer than it should have been! Our legs were aching and our stomachs rumbling so we found an Italian restaurant to placate our bellies and had a really nice meal before trudging back to our hotel to pack our bags. We ended up watching a movie on the laptop instead – we can pack in the morning! Tomorrow we would be moving out.
8th March 2011
Yet again our weary bodies failed to wake us in time and we missed breakfast again! We showered, dressed and begrudgingly packed our bags then hauled our stuff down to reception to check out. We made sure Nungh had all the information she would need for our visas before we said our goodbyes and ventured outside into another stifling day. The heat was incredible and was exacerbated by the packs on our fronts and backs! We were melting before we’d even reached the end of the alleyway! Thankfully it only took us about ten minutes to reach our new abode but, once there, had to haul ourselves and our bags up three flights of stairs as there was no lift here either! After washing some clothes and hanging them on the huge fan fixed to the wall to aid drying, we got some things together and set off towards the Independence Palace, the place where the South Vietnamese President surrendered to the North Vietnamese in 1975 heralding the end of the Vietnam War. It was another long walk in the baking sun and when we finally got there we were so pleasantly underwhelmed.... it looked like a cross between the Thunderbird’s Tracy house and Harrow civic centre rather than a palace! The place was huge and very sixties – all grey/white concrete and glass surrounded by ornate black gates and railings and carefully manicured grounds. We’d walked a long while to get here so it seemed daft not to go in and take a look around. After paying a small entrance fee we walked along a driveway, passing a huge fountain in the middle of the front lawn and entered the Palace. There wasn’t much to see downstairs other than a large auditorium with scores of green chairs neatly lined up facing a small stage with a golden bust of Uncle Ho staring back at them on a backdrop of bright red velvet curtains over a varnished wooden lecturn. Two further floors revealed the living quarters of the President and his family, including the bedrooms, dining room, areas for entertaining guests (including a bar and dance floor on the roof together with a helicopter!) and kitchens. The other rooms were for receiving important guests, the banqueting room (complete with a gorgeous wall to wall panelled mural at the far end), reception rooms for the President’s, Vice President’s and President’s wife’s guests, the official offices of the President and various meeting rooms. The basement revealed the war rooms with many corridors and offices housing different telecommunications equipment, maps, meeting rooms, and getaway vehicles for the President and his entourage! It was all very interesting and one area set aside in the basement showed photographs and the history of the palace during the conflict and the famous shot of the tank bursting through the gates, liberating the palace from the South Vietnamese government. A similar tank to the actual one that liberated the Palace in 1975 stands in the grounds outside.
After having our fill of the civic centre lookalike we elected to walk the fairly short walk to the Notre Dame Cathedral and the nearby famous Post Office building, designed and constructed by Gustav Eiffel when Saigon was part of French Indochina in the early part of the 20th century. The Notre-Dame Basilica is the city’s main church and looks only a little like its Paris counterpart from the outside. Unfortunately we were unable to go inside as there was something taking place at the time of our visit but Stew managed to get a snap of the inside when he quickly stuck his camera through the gates just as someone opened the door!
Disappointed at being unable to see the interior we turned our attentions to just across the street to the magnificent Saigon Central Post Office building. The facade, although absolutely majestic, does not compare to the grandeur and sheer magnificence of the interior. Kept absolutely immaculate it is painted in pastel yellow and cream with a high, arched ceiling inset with skylights covered with shiny, black ironwork. Highly polished, dark wood booths (which were originally telephone kiosks but are now mainly ATMs!) flanked the entrance while the counters sat directly below the arched ceiling. All of this was watched carefully by the eyes of Uncle Ho through a huge portrait that hung on the far end of the hall. Above each row of booths were clocks showing the time in various countries around the world. The floor was a complex arrangement of small blocks of tiles in various colours forming different shapes and lines. It was absolutely stunning and we walked around for a while and even visited the small souvenir shops on either side of the vast entrance.
After a little while we went in search of an energy boost to revive our flagging legs but first had to ‘enjoy’ a visit to a shopping centre for Jen to quench the female desire for some retail therapy! Next on the agenda was food and, as it was getting dark, we opted to dine closer to home and so headed towards the backpacker district where all the restaurants and bars reside. On the way back we passed a cinema and decided to pop in to see what was playing. The new animated film Rango was on in 3D so we queued up for tickets... it was full! We agreed we would give it another go tomorrow so carried on our walk back for something to eat. Declining the offers from touts to dine and drink in the huge and colourful Crazy Buffalo Bar (complete with massive neon buffalo head adorning the entire building!) on the corner of the main street, we elected to revisit the Italian we dined at last night as the meal was so delicious. This time we went for the Risotto and, once again, were not disappointed. Feeling more than full and more than content we trudged home (grabbing an ice cream from 7-11 on the way despite almost overflowing with food!) and flopped on our new comfy bed for the night.