Does Anyone Walk in Ho Chi Minh City?
Trip Start Dec 28, 2010
57Trip End May 04, 2011
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Where I stayed
Blue Diamond Hotel
On our way to the hotel and at the start of our sightseeing, we quickly saw how chaotic and busy HCMC is. There are thousands upon thousands of motorbikes and scooters in the city. It seems like everyone has one. The motorbikes and scooters outnumber cars, vans, and trucks, by at least 30 or 40 to one, if not more
We remembered the words of Carol's aunt, uncle, and her cousin Sophia when they advised us to walk slowly and patiently across the street. The vehicles will avoid you, but whatever we do don't run! Fortunately, we had some practice in Bangkok, but that paled in comparison to the chaos of HCMC. As Ben described it, it's a respectful chaos – people may be all over the place, but everyone will make the effort to avoid hitting pedestrians and other motorists. The only other pedestrians we noticed were other tourists, students and older women with traditional straw hats. Otherwise, everyone is on their motorbike, probably a smart way of avoiding sweating bullets from the humid 30 C conditions.
Our sightseeing began with a visit to Ben Thanh Market, which sells everything imaginable (and we safely managed to cross a few intersections!). We just grabbed a mango drink and then found a vendor selling Vietnamese subs
Next, we made our way to the Museum of Fine Arts. We arrived 20 minutes before closing, but the staff let us in for free. It's a neat little museum, housed in an old French colonial house. Much of the art depicts rural Vietnamese life and the Vietnamese's struggle for independence. Some of the art was very, very interesting and well done. After our brief visit to the Fine Arts Museum, we walked down to see the Opera House, which again was in the French colonial style.
A little further up was the Roman Catholic Cathedral, which was the first that we've seen on our trip. We arrived near closing time, but again we were allowed in for a quick visit. The Cathedral was quite simple and not filled with extravagant relics or artefacts. The apse was very plain, and the two chapels – one for the Virgin Mary and the other for St. Anthony - were actually more ornate. There were numerous “thank you” plaques on the walls printed in Vietnamese and French.
Across the street from the Cathedral is the impressive post office, which is housed in a huge colonial style building. It's not as awe-inspiring as the post office in Madrid, but it's not far behind it.
We had dinner with the locals, eating at an outdoor restaurant located on a very busy street. We had rice with barbecue chicken and rice with pork belly. Both were quite tasty. For a drink, Carol thought she was ordering a lychee beverage, but it was actually water chestnut. Still, it was pretty good
On Wednesday we were supposed to go on a tour to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Great Temple, but Ben was extremely ill overnight again. Instead, we went to see a doctor, who diagnosed Ben with food poisoning and traveler's diarrhea. That took up most of our morning.
Later in the morning, Carol went out on her own to explore the city, but she immediately found out that many of the city's sights are closed between noon and 2 pm. So the Vietnamese do take a siesta here! And given the heat it's not hard to understand why. After stopping at the War Remnants Museum and Xa Loi pagoda, the Women's Museum was opened at 1:30 pm with free admission. There were three floors of black and white photographs of women from the wars. They smuggling, formed guerrilla teams, made landmines and booby traps, and held demonstrations to protest conscription and forcible moves to hamlets. Besides doing all of those things, they also farmed, and raised their children! Some were just teenagers, many were imprisoned and died, and there was also a wall of mothers, showing how many family members they had lost in the war (one mother lost eight children).
The War Remnants museum was a disturbingly graphic exhibit of the Vietnam War (referred to as the American War here), where there were numerous anti-American and anti-French references
Thursday was supposed to be spent on the Mekong Delta, but Ben's condition didn't permit us to go. Although Ben was feeling a little bit better, we decided to play it safe and stay in HCMC. We headed for Cholon or Chinatown to see some pagodas. We ended up seeing five of them, and skipping the last two listed in our guidebook. Thien Hau Pagoda was memorable for all the incense that was burning, including a ceiling full of golden Christmas-tree shaped coils that were dropping ashes here and there. Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda was under renovations. Quan Am Pagoda had fancy gold panels out front, and was quite large inside, with numerous shrines that many locals were burning incense for. Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda had a sacred horse inside, who supposedly protects those going on a journey who give it an offering. By the time we reached Ha Chuong Hoi Quan Pagoda we had seen enough! The guidebook says they have four carved stone dragon pillars imported from China.
Our last stop in Cholon was the Binh Tay Market. Like its sister market – the Ben Tranh Market – this market had everything and then some
Given Ben's weakened state, we returned to the hotel after having a simple lunch in Cholon. We rested and then went out again for dinner, but afterwards Ben wasn't feeling well. He simply hadn't recovered from whatever illness he's battling.
Friday morning Ben wasn't in much better of a state, so Carol went on the Cu Chi Tunnels tour on her own, along with a bus full of other tourists (including a couple from North Battleford, Saskatchewan!) and our guide named Tin. The bus ride took two hours to reach the tunnels, mostly because traffic was horrendous.
The Cu Chi Tunnels, 70 km north of Ho Chi Minh City, were a 250 km long network of underground tunnels, traps, work and living areas, command centres and kitchens used by the Viet Cong during the war
As part of the tour, a short black and white documentary was shown. The main message was that the Vietnamese were peaceful people and even though the Americans tried to destroy them and their land, they conquered. Their soldiers were given "American Killer Hero" awards, and through their innovative methods of digging the tunnels and making landmines, they succeeded in forcing the Americans to withdraw.
The rest of the tour was a guided walk through a forest of models that represented the tunnels - the narrow camouflaged entrances, booby traps, the "termite hill" which allowed ventilation, and weapons-making and meeting rooms. We also had the chance to crawl through a short tunnel built for visitors - wider dimensions than the real tunnels in order to accommodate larger tourists! Some found it claustrophobic and had to surface right away. The tour ended at the souvenir shop, where those who wished to try out rifles (ie. AK-47, M-16) could purchase bullets and proceed to the shooting range. The shots were extremely loud and jarring, and made one wonder if it was to remind us of the horrors of war, or just fed into some tourists' excitement of shooting a weapon.