04.03.2017 - 08.03.2017
Well, we’ve made it to our final stop in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City. This city, which used to be named Saigon, was the capital of Vietnam from 1949-1975. However, once the Vietnam War ended, Hanoi was given the title and became the capital of a reunified Vietnam. We didn’t spend a ton of time in the city itself, but from the time spent walking the streets, we quickly realized that this city has a great energy about it. It reminded us strongly of Bangkok - and as many of you know, we LOVE Bangkok, so we knew we were in for a treat.
Trying to find our way around the city streets brought us back to our “pre-beach town” days spent in Hanoi; the motorbikes were back (8 million to be exact) along with the constant honking and people-packed walkways. We did however notice that there was much more structure here; less motorbikes driving on the sidewalks (they often had dedicated lanes), streets with real lines, large boulevards and even a traffic light or two dotted throughout the city where the drivers actually paid attention! Aaahhhhh Even though the sidewalks have bikes and food stalls all along them, there is still room to walk which was nice. The city is still crazy, busy and loud BUT, there just seemed to be a bit more order and respect for pedestrians here. We were staying in “District 1” though, and didn’t venture too far from there, so who knows, maybe the rest of the city was like the Hunger Games everywhere else!
Our first stop in Saigon brought us along the Mekong River for some sunset pictures. Unfortunately, it was pretty underwhelming. Dirty and brown, with garbage and weeds floating in the current and a pretty lackluster river front. Well, at least we saw it. Our walk home was much more interesting, with traditional dancers performing in the middle of a square and seeing all the neon signs and bars light up for the long night ahead. Finally, some night life!
We ended up heading to Bui Vien Street where we initially sat down for "just 1 beer" - famous last words. We found this small roadside stall that had multiple plastic tables and chairs packed in the stall itself and also flowing onto the sidewalk. As the sun started to set the street got busier and busier and busier. By 10pm the street was so packed you could barely drive down it anymore and all of the roadside stalls and pubs were exploding with people. We ended up sitting with a couple of guys who have been living in Vietnam for some time, one a teacher and one works oil and gas. Both men have extraordinary stories to tell from their work and their life experiences living in HCMC. The hours went by (as did the beers), and before the end of the night we were eating quail eggs dipped in salt and pepper - actually quite delicious.
The next day we spent sobering up wandering the streets in the heat, trying to find as much shade and air-con breaks (air conditioning) as we could. The day started with us finding the Notre Dame Cathedral and the famous Saigon Central Post Office right beside it. Though the French influence was extremely noticeable in HCMC, the post office had its own Vietnamese feel - even though it was also designed by a French architect. The rumor is that Gustav Eiffel (yes, THAT Eiffel) was the famous architect behind this beautiful design, however, fact states that Villedieu was the true vision behind this building. Unfortunately for him, everyone still believes it’s Eiffel.
From there, we walked, and walked, and walked to our next destination – the Independence Palace or the “Reunification Palace” as it is now known. This place was like a blast from the past; imagine Austin Powers in the 1970’s and you’ve got it. The architecture was clearly from the 70’s era and as we explored the inside, we experienced first-hand what that time must have been like. Big, round faux leather chairs sitting on lime green or rusty orange carpets, massive oval wooden tables with pastel coloured dial up telephones sitting on top, red velvet staircases and thick yellow curtains from floor to ceiling... we could keep going! It was an experience for sure.
On a serious note though, this was the place the President lived and worked before and during the Vietnam War as well as where the war ended in 1975 when the North Vietnamese Army crashed through the front gates. It has also seen its fair share of suffrage as it was bombed in 1962 by rebel pilots who were supposed to fly north to bomb the Viet Cong. It was rebuilt by 1966 and continued to be a functional facility, however today it is basically a museum filled with tourists, vying for a chance to see the 2 red markers on the roof where the bombs were dropped. Definitely a site to see in HCMC.
Our last stop on this sweaty day was the War Remnants Museum. This is the first place Sean and I truly felt the propaganda in this country. This is a museum that has kept artifacts and pictures from mainly the Vietnamese War - or for the Vietnamese, the “American War”. Floors upon floors are showered with photographs throughout the war, old bombshells and guns, and stories from local people. The challenging part for us was, that everything seemed to explain how horrible the American’s were and how the country was settled and peaceful before they arrived and just started “bombing for no reason”. There was never any mention of the communist dictator and murderer Ho Chi Minh, other than to say he was an amazing leader trying to liberate the south from the American’s. Now, we’re not trying to say that the American’s were in the right and should have done what they did, but it was difficult to know that only one side of the Vietnam War story was being told.
We had heard from a few people that HCMC was a city that could be missed and was a bit "scammy", as in tourists are constantly being scammed or ending up in bad positions, however our experience here was the complete opposite. Please keep in mind that we both love the hustle and bustle of big cities with great nightlife scenes, but we thought HCMC had a great feel to it, with lots of energy, great people, great sights and air that isn't completely riddled with exhaust. Even if you only have a day or two, give HCMC a chance, because we think you'll love it.