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Saigon City Hall, formally the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Head Office

Last weekend I took a quick trip to Ho Chi Minh City (nee Saigon) in Vietnam. A few long weekends had come and gone in April and May where I just couldn’t get my act together enough to plan a trip but everyone else seemed to, and since this past Tuesday was National Day I feared we’d be stuck on our own in Singapore yet again. So a few weeks ago I did a search for reasonable airfares (in other words, Bali was completely out of the question) and decided HCMC would be a good weekend destination. We’re hoping to take a longer trip across Vietnam some time in early 2012, so a weekend seemed like a good time to get one of the cities out of the way.

The short version: I loved it. A weekend was the perfect amount of time to see some museums, stuff my face with fantastic local food, and get in some shopping at the big Ben Thanh Market. Granted, there is a lot more that I’d like to see and I absolutely plan to go back (I seem to say that about everywhere I go; I really need to speak with my boss about doubling my vacation), but I definitely give it a big thumbs up as a fun city weekend getaway. For more in-depth info on HCMC and its surrounds, fellow blogger Flora has written some great posts about her many travels through the area. I know I found them really useful when considering my own trip!

One glitch arose at the start of the trip: the hubs had to take a last minute business trip to Jakarta on Friday. Despite booking the last flight of the day to Vietnam (8:25pm on Vietnam Airlines, fyi), we were foiled when his flight from Jakarta got delayed by 15 minutes, meaning he landed about five minutes after they closed check-in for the Vietnam flight. So while I sat at the gate waiting to board the plane, he called me from another terminal to say the woman at the transfer desk shut him down. I know there are rules and regulations for a reason or whatever, but it sure was frustrating sitting on the plane when I knew that he was standing at the gate, simply unable to board.

Anyway, we knew there was a chance I’d be on my own for the weekend (it turned out the hubs had to do a lot of work anyway), so during the flight I took the opportunity to make a list of things I wanted to do with my time. In my old job at Oyster I spent a lot of time traveling solo in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, so I wasn’t too worried about traveling on my own, particularly since I’ve been to Southeast Asia a few times before and have generally found it to be a safe and welcoming place for women (knock on wood).

The flight was a quick 90 minutes but it took about 45 minutes to get my visa at landing, even though I’d pre-ordered it or whatever through MyVietnamVisa (officially sanctioned by the Vietnamese Embassy). Essentially, I had to wait in a longass line to drop off my paperwork and photos, then fill out a different form (wish they’d given those to us on the plane like everywhere else does!), then wait to get my passport & visa back. Anyway, this was the biggest headache of the trip, and it really wasn’t so bad. I had an easy enough time finding a cab (although, make sure you get a Vinasun or Mai Linh taxi unless you want to get in a shouting match with your driver about what you owe, and make sure you only pay 100,000-200,000 VND for the trip, not 800,000 like the driver tried to charge me!).

I stayed at the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon, which got good reviews on TripAdvisor and at which I get a travel industry discount. It was very well-located in that it was just a block from two beautiful landmarks, the Post Office (pictured below) and Notre Dame Cathedral. On the other hand, it’s a bit further from most bars and restaurants than most of the other big hotels (the Sheraton, the Caravelle, the Rex, the Continental etc.), which are all clustered together by the Saigon Opera House. I still haven’t decided if I liked that or not; it was only a 15 minute walk in either direction (or, like, a $1 cab ride) so it wasn’t a big drama anyway.

The interior of the HCMC post office...open until 9pm 7 days a week!

I’d always heard that HCMC is modern and rather charmless as compared to Hanoi, and that might be so, but I found it to be quite lovely. The architecture is beautiful – a cross of French colonial buildings and modern buildings – the streets are wide and graceful, and it’s gridded and very walkable. It’s far less chaotic than Bangkok. The first thing you always hear about Vietnam is that it’s impossible to cross the streets because of all the scooter traffic, but I generally had no trouble at all since they do seem to respect traffic lights. I came across lots of parks and enjoyed the shade provided by many landscaped trees.

One of many lovely parks I came across in District 1

After a thorough read through Lonely Planet Vietnam and perusing some TripAdvisor forums, I decided to visit three museums: The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, the Reunification Palace, and the War Remnants Museum (which doesn’t have a website but Frommer’s gives the most comprehensive info I could find).

I found all three to be fascinating and moving in different ways. Obviously the Vietnam War (as it’s known in the U.S.)/American War permeates so much of their recent history, but the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City also had lots of interesting archaeological artifacts, exhibits relating to French colonization and the fight for independence in 1945, and even displays about the current industrialization of the country (take a look at your clothing labels, A LOT of stuff comes from Southeast Asia). They’ve also opened up the secret basement tunnels that a paranoid President Diem built in the late 1950s. On top of all that, it’s an absolutely gorgeous building (originally built for French military officers) with lovely grounds that feature both a swish cafe and a tank and warplane.

The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City

Lonely Planet calls the Reunification Palace “an example of classic 1960s architecture.” Of course, I find that to be an oxymoron but the interior of the building is a bit chilling in that it hasn’t changed since the South Vietnamese government evacuated in 1975 (after two tanks crashed through the main gates). It was neat seeing the cabinet room, the first lady’s entertainment parlour, the rooftop zen garden, the emergency underground bunker and even the spot where a covert soldier dropped a bomb. Replicas of those two tanks are still on the grounds, as is a replica fighter jet reputedly stolen from the South Vietnamese/American coalition (note the X through the original logo):

A purloined fighter jet on the grounds of the Reunification Palace

Just about everything I read about the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government of South Vietnam,” then “The American War Crimes Museum,” then simply “The War Crimes Museum” until gaining its present name in 1993) warned that it’s an emotionally draining experience. I’m glad I followed suggestions to end the afternoon there, as I think I would have otherwise staggered around in a traumatized daze. The front yard, as it were, is filled with examples of all the different tanks, planes and helicopters employed by the American coalition against the North Vietnamese (I’m not sure if it’s comprehensive or merely a sampling). I never realized how large a Chinook helicopter was until I saw one up close:

Chinook helicopter at the War Remnants Museum

Inside there are two floors of exhibits. As I recall the first floor displays propaganda and anti-war posters, while the second is filled with incredibly moving (and at times disturbing) images. I was basically awed by the “Requiem” exhibit, which is a tribute to many of the brave photojournalists who documented the war and were killed in action. As a journalist (though not one who would ever be so brave as to cover a war zone), I was simply floored by the what these men and women were able to capture and share with the world. Fortunately all of the photo captions were in English (as well as French and Vietnamese), and in many instances reading the back story to a photo was even more upsetting than the photo itself (i.e. just about everything relating to the My Lai Massacre).

I was born after the war ended, and I’m fortunate that no one in my immediate family fought in it, so just about everything I know about Vietnam and the war comes from the movies, music and TV shows I grew up with. I think the first awareness I had of the war was the episode of The Wonder Years where Winnie Cooper’s brother is killed in action. My opinions were formed by what I read, what I learned in history class, what my parents told me second-hand, and perhaps what I saw in movies like Platoon or Apocalypse Now, but it’s always been hard to synthesize. I know it was essentially wrong, and I know it had a traumatic effect upon the social and political fabric of the United States, but I also know that nothing is so cut and dried. Being in that museum, though, was so profoundly upsetting if only because I’ve now had the chance to travel across Southeast Asia and see what a beautiful, gentle and peaceful place it is. The idea of it being torn apart by war – regardless of who instigated it and what their motivations were – is indescribably heartbreaking.

Tanks at the War Remnants Museum

Every time I met someone and they asked me where I was from, I felt strange, even guilty, telling them I was from the U.S. Again, I wasn’t even alive during the war and the rational side of me knows that time eventually heals these wounds – I have friends who are German and Japanese, for instance, and it’s not like I associate them in any way whatsoever with the events of World War II – and yet I worry that the complicated feelings of the Vietnam War will never truly subside. Perhaps it’s better if they don’t to ensure such atrocities are never repeated.

One of the true highlights of the trip came on my first night when I was eating at a local restaurant near the hotel. I was perched on one of those teeny-tiny stools, eating off a child-sized plastic table, and basically just soaking up the atmosphere while locals chatted all around me and scooters occasionally whizzed by. At one point I noticed a few guys at the table to my left looking at me. I wasn’t quite sure what to do or say, but suddenly one of them pointed at my beer, then swung around with his own beer, motioning that we should clink glasses. Aha! The universal language of cheersing.

I gave them a big smile and and happily clinked glasses, then shyly went back to finishing up my pho. A couple minutes later one of them came over and asked, in broken English, if I wanted to join the family at their table (there was also a little girl, a mother, a father, and one other guy). Despite the language barrier, they generously offered me each of their dishes to try, and insisted on ordering me another beer. We continued to toast (the Vietnamese phrase for “cheers” is apparently “YO!”) until I could no longer keep my eyes open and let them know I had to turn in for the night. It’s unexpected moments like that, where you feel so incredibly welcomed and enveloped in the warmth of strangers’ generosity, that make travel so wonderful and exciting. As corny as it sounds, I also found hope and optimism in that moment as I reflected on the sadness of my visit to the War Remnants Museum. We’re all just people, and there’s no better way to move on from a painful past than to sit together and happily appreciate all that we have in the present.

**

Per usual I’ve written far too much, but I still want to discuss all the amazing food I tried on this trip. Look our for Part 2 later this week!

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