It doesn't matter, I saw it all last time
Trip Start Jul 11, 2005
62Trip End Apr 04, 2006
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Where I stayed
I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad
- George Bernard Shaw
Bigger is not always better
Having left the quietness of Muine it was time to up the ante on all fronts and dive head first into Ho Chi Minh City. This is the heart and soul of Vietnam; a bustling, dynamic and industrious centre, the economic capital and the cultural trendsetter. Formerly known as Saigon, it's the biggest city in the country and has the largest metropolitan area in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It certainly feels like a big city, unlike Hanoi, where the laid back, tree-lined streets give a feeling of a large town rather than that of a sprawling, over populated, polluted city.
**HISTORY LESSON ALERT**
Ho Chi Minh City has undergone tumultuous change since its founding in the 17th century. It was captured by the French in 1859 and became the chief port of French Cochin China. The city became the capital of a large area, including present-day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, in the late 19th century with the French modelling the city after their own image. Ho Chi Minh City today still wears its French influence for all to see with wide boulevards, French architecture and a devout Catholic population. But the French never won over the hearts of the locals and so resorted to running the city as a ruthless, money-making enterprise based on opium, tea, coffee, rubber and alcohol. Not surprisingly anti-colonial groups sprang up, especially in the decades prior to WWII. Most of these groups were organised by the Communist Party who organised several successful strikes before the government initiated a brutal crackdown on their activities. The city was occupied by the Japanese in 1940. The Japanese occupied French-held regions in Asia during World War II. They, along with the French, met strong resistance from a force of communists called the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and funded by the U.S. and Chinese. Ho's declaration of Vietnamese independence after WWII sparked violent confrontations with the French, culminating in the French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The country was divided into North and South provinces by a peace agreement negotiated in Geneva, with Saigon declared the capital of the south that same year. Ngo Dinh Diem, a communist-hater and fierce Catholic, took control of the south and soon saw almost a million refugees streamed from the communist north into his region. When it came time for all country elections, Diem, sure that he would lose to Ho Chi Minh, held a rigged referendum and declared himself president of the republic of Vietnam. The communists in the north were having none of it. In December 1960 they north announced plans to 'liberate' the south with the formation of the National Liberation Front (known in the South as the Viet Cong, or VC). Meanwhile, unrest at Diem's tyrannical rule was boiling over into massive demonstrations and even acts of immolation by Buddhist monks. He was assassinated by his own troops in November 1963. Throughout the 1960s, more and more American and other Western troops began pouring into Vietnam to assist the southerners in their guerrilla-style war with the Viet Cong. The Americans were fearful of the spread of communism beyond this little corner of South East Asia and by 1969 over 500,000 USA troops were in the country. But things didn't go well for them. The following years saw the US withdraw from the seemingly unending conflict and in March 1975, with the Western forces long gone, the North mounted a surprise attack on the South's Central Highlands. The South decided to concede some ground, so retreated to a more defensible position. This unplanned withdrawal turned into a rout as the Southern army panicked and the Northern army kept marching. South Vietnam's President Thieu resigned on 21 April 1975 and fled the country, leaving his deputy in charge. He lasted a week, and his replacement survived for 43 hours before surrendering the city to the Communists. The first official act of the North Vietnamese was to change the name of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, shortly followed by the declaration of the city as the united capital.
The Place to be
Central Ho Chi Minh City is the place to be at night on weekends and holidays. The streets, where much of the city's life takes place, are jam-packed with young locals cruising the town on bicycles and motorbikes, out to see and be seen. There is a myriad of street markets, shops, pavement cafes, stands-on-wheels and vendors selling wares spread out on sidewalks. But there is a down-side to every city, and Ho Chi Minh's streets are filled to bursting with poverty and sadness. 'Rural refugees' continue flocking to the city, attracted by the surface glitter. Few find the pot of gold. That the city is developing is without question. The big question is, 'developing into what?'
Not being any different
The downtown area of Ho Chi Minh City is now officially called District 1 and budget travellers tend to congregate around the Pham Ngu Lao area at the western end of District 1. And we were no exception. Getting off the bus I was, thankfully, familiar with the area having stayed here before and we quickly found reasonably priced rooms in the An Phu Travel hotel which was, surprise, surprise, right where we were dropped off upon arrival in the city. Man, these guys could have killed us on the road from Hoi An to Nha Trang and here we are giving them more money. There's a lot to be said for conveniences, especially when you're arriving in a busy, sweaty city late in the evening and you have 22kg of bags on you back.
Go2. The only sight I saw
The main sights to see in the city include the Reunification Palace, the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, Ben Thanh market and the harrowing War Remnants Museum. I'm not quite sure what happened but my return to Ho Chi Minh City didn't involve seeing any sights. We had 2 nights in the city and one full day. Shortly after arriving on our first night we found a Bar, called Go2, where we just hung out for the 2 nights. The following day I was quite content to recover from the previous night's debauchery while getting ready to do it all over again for our last night in the country. But that's okay; as the title of this entry states, I've seen it all before. Admittedly I was a little sad at missing out on the War Remnants Museum, still to this day the best museum I've visited anywhere in the world. But not to worry. As you'll see from the pictures posted for this entry there isn't much to report from Ho Chi Minh this time around. Most of this entry was an unwanted history lesson. Aggh well, But I hope you enjoyed the entry anyway.