Ho Chi Minh City

Trip Start Nov 14, 2011
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Trip End Feb 28, 2013


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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mary's Impressions:
Our next stop was Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) still referred to by its former name of Saigon by most Vietnamese people we met.

If Jeff and I thought that Hanoi was a city of motorcycles and scooters, HCMC is 100x more intense. HCMCis a larger city of 7.2 million people. We could feel that we were in a big city.  The city is more spread out as there are not the multiple of highrisesas most buildings are 2 – 4 stories high.  What does hit you is the amount of motorcycles and scooters in this city.  There are so many motorcycles and scooters, you feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of motorcycles and scooters that are constantly driving past you at all hours of day and night.  On the day we arrived, our taxi had to force its way slowly into the dedicated motorcycle and scooter lane in order to change lanes.  This was truly a feat as we felt like we had entered an ant nest where the ants were converging around us not giving up any ground to allow us to move.  What's amazing is that with all the commuters each vying for space on the roadways, there was no signs of road rage evident.  Motorcycles, scooters and cars may cross paths perilously close and may be forced to stop, yet the commuters continue on their way without a single angry word passed between them.  I truly doubt that I would be able to maintain such a calm disposition in similar circumstances.  Our experiences of crossing the streets in HCMC were similar to our experiences in Hanoi.  In HCMC at least there are traffic lights to provide you some comfort when you can attempt to cross the road.   However it’s a false comfort as the pedestrian is still the one who needs to be watchful.

Our preferred method of transportation is walking as Jeff and I feel that we can take in more of the places we visit by walking the streets.  This proved to be difficult as the sidewalks of HCMC are not really pedestrian friendly.  Our daily walks throughout the city were a constant obstacle course as we found sidewalks taken over by pop up portable businesses  (re: vendors selling items, barbers cutting hair, ear cleaning, shoe and clothing repairs, bike repairs, restaurants, the list goes on).  It seemed that the only ones who were foolish enough to walk any great distances were the tourists.  Most Vietnamese preferred to travel by bike, scooter or motorcycle from point to point.  Despite this, we continued to walk and we were forced to either walk around these various entrepreneurs or walk on the roads where we had to avoid the motorcycles, scooters, cars and buses speeding by.  Let’s just say we were a bit reluctant walking any great distances while we were in HCMC.

HCMC was a place that I wanted to visit due to the historical significance of the city as a result of the conflict between North and South Vietnam.  I remember the images on TV as a youth when the city of Saigon fell.  The most vivid image was the crush of people pushing themselves at the gates of the palace as American helicopters were on the roof of the palace trying to carry people away.  We visited the palace now called the Reunification Palace where on display are the Chinese and Russian tanks that were used to smash down the gates and a helicopter located on the roof was also on display.  There are also displays covering the events of 1975 when South Vietnam was forced to relinquish power to North Vietnam.  The building’s architecture and room styles are also interesting to see – the architecture from the 1930s, interior decorating style from the 1960s – clean, simple lines.  From here we also visited the Remnants War Museum.  This museum provides numerous displays on the atrocities of the American war (as the Vietnamese like to call it).  The displays are slightly biased however the museum’s goal is to present the message that peace is a better alternative to war.  In this, the museum accomplished their task.  What we did find fascinating was the displays showing the impact that dioxins, specifically Agent Orange, had on the people of Vietnam.  Current generations of Vietnamese are still living with the consequences of these chemicals that were unleashed on their country (re: children born with deformities, pre-mature cancers, blindness and/or mental handicaps).  This is the burden and reality that the Vietnamese must deal with.  The knowledge that I gained from visiting this museum made me more cognizant when I passed by people with either deformed limbs and/or stunted growth as they begged or tried to sell their wares.  There is an organization called The Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) who has partnered with Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign (American group).  Both groups are actively working to raise awareness of the impacts of Agent Orange.  They are also looking to obtain compensation and provide assistance to those who have been impacted by this harmful chemical.  For more information refer to http://www.vn-agentorange.org.

In our many walks throughout the city, we came across numerous Shampoo and Spas places where young Vietnamese women are out front or waiting on sofas near the doors for potential clients to enter.  In some places, these women were dressed in identical skimpy outfits.  Majority of the women were young and attractive.  We surmised that these places were probably offering a bit more than just the standard shampoo and spa/massage experience.  On one of our evenings looking for dinner, we happened to eat at one of these "Restaurants for business men" where young, attractive Vietnamese women are there as eye candy to be attentive to male’s needs (re: either helping to feed them, sit at their table and have drinks, laugh at their jokes, etc.).  Let’s just say that we were not serviced as well as some of the male only clientele.

Our walks took us to various parts of the downtown centre  - old and new (Districts 1 & 3).  Some of the highlights were the Ben Tranh market (large indoor market where one can find food, clothes, shoes, textiles, jewellery, arts and crafts), the HCMC Fine Art Museum (not much of a gallery however they did showcase some interesting Vietnamese artists), Notre Dame Cathedral, Hotel de Ville and Bac Ho Monument (Ho Chi Minh), the Opera House, Saigon Centre (HCMC’s First Shopping Mall). We also had a chance to meet with some friends of our friends back home - Bill and Colleen.  It was fun getting to know them as they have lived in Vietnam for about 4 years, spending their time enjoying Asia and teaching English part time. Meeting Bill and Colleen gave us inspiration on the various types of lives one can live - anything is possible! 

To some extent, HCMC is representative of the country of Vietnam.  There is great potential within this country as it continues to develop and progress.  Perhaps it’s the Buddhist within the Vietnamese who do not wish to dwell on the past and the hardships they have endured.  They look to the future with open hearts of what their country can become.  I believe that the people of Vietnam will be successful in accomplishing this task.
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