Starting in Saigon

Trip Start Feb 23, 2011
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Trip End Mar 26, 2011


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Friday, February 25, 2011

Our Vietnam trip started in Ho Chi Minh City in the south and will finish at Hanoi in the north. On the way, we will be staying at the beach at Mui Ne, then go to the highland city of Dalat, to Nha Trang on the coast, to riverside Hoi An, to the imperial city of Hue and then on to Hanoi. From Hanoi we will go to the mountains at Sapa, and then to famous Halong Bay. It is a long and narrow country, and from HCMC to Hanoi is nearly 1800 kilometres, so there is a bit of travel involved.
 
HCMC or Saigon? Even though HCMC is the official title, Saigon is still used, particularly for District 1 where we stayed. We flew into the city from KL and walked out of the terminal and straight into the 152 bus (20c each and 20c for each suitcase). We had read that HCMC is a traffic nightmare, and at the first intersection we saw a wave(?) of motorbikes streaming towards us like a swarm of monster mosquitoes. Amazing! This first impression of HCMC traffic was correct in that motorbikes rule, but there are not that many cars, and the streets are not huge, wide streets, so overall it is not as crazy as we had been led to believe, (or like the traffic in some Chinese cities). The footpaths are clogged with parked motorbikes and that is a huge nuisance but they certainly are the mode of transport for locals. Whole families are transported on one bike, and it is interesting to see tiny Vietnamese young women jump on with stiletto heeled shoes and with their faces almost completely covered with masks (for the sun as well as the pollution, we imagine).
  
On this first day the bus stopped near the Ben Thanh Market and from here we walked to our hotel. The Saigon Mini Hotel 5 in District 1 is in a street of hotels, eating places, bars etc. The area obviously caters for tourists as there is a wide range of food available and by the number of bars it is also party central. For our first meal we walked around the corner to a pleasant upstairs restaurant and had Banh Xeo, a delicious large rice pancake filled with bean shoots, prawns or pork.  It is served with a herb salad and dipping sauce. Sensational.
 
We found that the architecture clearly illustrates the city’s diverse past. There are basic Russian (we assume) designed buildings beside elegant but usually dilapidated French villas. Control of the city passed from the Nguyen Dynasty to the French in the middle of the 19th century, and during the French occupation there was much development in architecture and infrastructure. It is easy to see how Saigon became known as the ‘Paris of the east’. The Vietnam War halted development, but since 1975 the city has modernised. This is particularly obvious in the Dong Koi area, where many designer stores and restaurants sit beside historical buildings.
 
What we have heard about Vietnam is mostly about the war or the food. It is hard to think of this country without thinking of the war. Interestingly, what we know as the Vietnam War is here called the American War - much more apt. We were a bit too claustrophobic to visit the tunnel complexes remaining from the war at Cu Chi outside of town, but we did visit the War Remnants Museum in the city. (It was previously called the ‘War Crimes Museum ‘ and before that the ‘Exhibition House of Crimes of American Imperialist Aggression ). Events here are understandably told from a Vietnamese perspective.. There are disturbing photographs of war wounded and the horrific long term impact of Agent Orange. Outside is an assortment of war machines. We didn’t see all the exhibits as an alarm went off and we were ushered out. Not sure if it was a fire alarm or if it was lunchtime. We wondered if in the future there will be a similar record of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
 
Near here is the Reunification Palace, a stark Russian designed building where a North Vietnamese Army tank stormed through the gate in April 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. Most of the original building (once the French governor General’s residence) was destroyed when it was bombed in an assassination attempt on the president, and the new building is where the then president of South Vietnam fled from the roof by a helicopter. Inside it has huge rooms decorated in a simple yet still quite modern style, and we liked the way it was built to be cool without air conditioning.
 
There are other buildings in this area on the tourist route. Notre Dame Cathedral is the largest church ever built in the French Empire. 
 
 The General Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel beside the church is a beautiful building, with an apricot and cream fašade decorated with carvings of famous philosophers and scientists. The inside is magnificent, with vaulted ceiling, intricate tiling and antique maps. A little further is the impressive People’s Committee Building which is modelled on the city hall in Paris, and nearby is the Municipal Theatre or Opera House. All in all a gorgeous group of buildings.
 
The thing to do in Saigon seems to be to have a drink on one (or more) of a number of famous French built hotel rooftop bars. Graham Greene immortalised the Continental Hotel in his book ‘The Quiet American’ and he lived here for several months, but other writers including Somerset Maugham were guests, and Walter Cronkite and other journalists would spend hours here. (I am currently rereading the Greene book after buying a cheap ‘copy’ on the street, and still think the main character of the book is unlikeable). The Caravelle Hotel became famous as diplomats and journalists stayed here during the Vietnam War and countries including Australia based their embassies there. The Rex Hotel is also famous because US military officers did their briefings from there. After the sombre time at the museum we took the lift to rooftop bar on the Rex hotel. It is decorated with plaster elephants and such but it was good to sip a Ginger Mojito enjoying the view.
   
A day trip to  the Mekong delta took us through fields of rice and vegetables. The people here are mainly Buddhist, and in many rice fields are the colourful tombs of family members. They do not believe in cremation and their own land is the only burial place they can afford, so even when they move to the city, after death their body is brought home. Besides agriculture and fishing the delta areas rely on tourism. We had lunch on one of the islands. The centrepiece was ’Elephant Ear Fish’, which was sitting up on a specially made stand. Interesting, but very tasty. ’
 
I took some great 'people' photos here, but unfortunately no longer have them, as my camera was snatched from my hands only two blocks from our hotel at the end of our second day here. We had been out all day, and I was being particularly careful as I had heard stories about such events. We were walking along a fairly wide footpath that was relatively crowded with people, trees, parked motorbikes etc. I was holding the camera with two hands against my chest as I had just taken a photo and was about to take another. I asked Bob what street we were in and felt this huge bump. Two guys on a motorbike drove through all the people etc, yanked the strap (not sure if they cut it as I didn't lose my head in the process) and accelerated off at such a rate that neither of us saw anything. I was left with only the lens cap in my hand. No one around seemed to either notice or be perturbed. I was thinking - did that just happen or not?

Getting a police report was a saga. There was a police office not far from our hotel. As we walked back I asked the policeman sitting on a bench on the footpath about a report. He had very little English but we understood to come back with someone from our hotel. The staff must be used to doing this, as one of the girls immediately came back with us. 

She took us up the stairs and on the open verandah where three young officers (?) were lying around watching football on television. In the next room an older man finally came out and started a very slow process of getting the report done. First step was that the girl from the hotel had to go with us to where it happened. - no matter that we could show him exactly where on the map.That done, back at the station, he unlocked his drawer (there was hardly anything in the room),took out a couple of photocopied forms, and told our girl to tell me to fill it in. She then had to translate what I had written onto the form. When that was done he proceeded to start the other form, and through her asked me every question again and wrote it down. He wrote for ages and finally asked me to sign it. We had been there over an hour now, and finally he took two new sheets of paper from his drawer, locked it, and went upstairs. We assumed he was photocopying the forms. Ten minutes later he came back and said we could come two days later at 8am. As we were leaving at 7.30am that day that was not possible, so he said come at 7am.

When we went back at the appointed time he was not there. The only guy there was convinced we needed a report done and wanted us to come back with hotel staff. We asked him to look for the report, and he opened up various folders, (all with a few reports inside), but not ours. As time was running out, Bob went back to the hotel to get help and I stayed. My staying seemed to throw the guy, so he went outside and used his phone. Not long after the older guy who we had written the report came from next door, only half in uniform. He got the report from his locked drawer, fiddled around writing a few things, and then wrote 100,000 on a piece of paper. Who was I to argue? 100,000 dong  is $5, so I paid and left. The hotel staff acted shocked that I had to pay but this seems to be the way.
 
In the intervening day we had been to the Mekong for the day.  When we got back we bought another camera and flew around some of the places we had been and took a quick pic.There seemed no point in agonising about it any further as we have not had any similar dramas when we have travelled in the past. A few days relaxing at the beach seemed a good idea now. 
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