HCMC (Saigon) -11 Weeks of Advanced Motorbike Avoidance
It has been ages since I last posted an update on our adventure and it suddenly struck me that I had better do it quickly before I forget! Also, my wise sister said I needed to exercise my brain. So, for your information and enjoyment here are some words and pictures about our time in the largest city in Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City.
We arrived in HCMC on Christmas Day 2012. If you remember, we’d been in Cambodia for the previous month and unfortunately had to leave because our visas had expired. The journey was by bus and we’d chosen one of the ‘best’ companies to travel with. We were supplied with a free pasty and bottle of water but neither of these little luxuries made the journey shorter or more comfortable. The route included our first border crossing by land which was a novel experience. We already had to have our visas for Vietnam organised in advance so crossing the border basically meant getting off the bus with all of our luggage, filing through passport control and customs as if we were in an airport and then getting back on the bus. We had our fingerprints taken here for the first time too. Lots of other countries have the equipment to do it at their immigration points in airports but we’ve never had to before (the good old British passport truly is a good thing to travel with I reckon.)
After such a long (8 hours ish) journey we were pretty tired. We ate, found a place to stay and had a little nap. Then we went out for more food, came back and made some Christmas calls via Skype and I was getting excited about having a bath. Alas, it was not to be. Neither the hot water or the plug to keep water in the bath was working properly so that idea was out of the window. A luke warm shower and an early night followed. Not very Christmassy but it was fine you know. We just sort of skipped Christmas. No shopping and presents, no drinking, no nothing. I missed the family time and the food but we were too tired to care. When we do have another Christmas at home I’m sure we’ll appreciate it more.
There was very little in the way of Christmas celebrations in HCMC – the same as we’d seen in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The odd bit of dusty tinsel here and the strains of an overplayed Christmas track leaking from a tourist bar there was all we encountered. (Oh, and a few drunk foreigners stumbling around the place and some decorations at some of the bigger shops in town) Before we knew it it was all over and we had a new city to explore.
The Reunification Palace
One of the sights to see in HCMC is the old home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It is also famous for being the “place the war ended” when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the wall in 1975. As it was bombed in the early part of the war it was rebuilt starting in 1962 and remains as if frozen in time during the 60’s.
It was an odd sort of tourist attraction. I suppose the equivalent of Buckingham Palace but rather different. The ticket price included a free tour guide who enjoyed telling us lots of quite uninteresting details about the architects and such like while we peered into roped off banquet halls, bedrooms and offices and trailed from the bomb proof bunkers in the basement full of old communication equipment up to the helipad on the roof.
New Year’s Eve
After a few days wandering around New Year’s Eve came upon us. We had read that it gets a bit busy but nothing could have prepared us for what was ahead.
We headed out into the early evening and picked up a cheap (31p) beer from the 7/11 and headed towards the festivities in the heart of the city. We were based in District 1 and only about a kilometre or so away from the main action.
First we explored the long, narrow park that borders the north side of the main ‘backpacker’ area where all the cheap accommodation is. The park was heaving. The atmosphere was quite family orientated with loads of stalls giving away free (terrible) tasters of wine, tupperware for sale, clothes and all sorts. A whole section of the park was dedicated to food. There were lights everywhere as well as a noisy show for the kids and roving sellers of all sorts.
As we left the park we tried to walk into where the main city celebrations were planned. This is when we realised the true extent of what ‘busy’ really meant. It was crazy, and it stayed crazy for the entire night. So, so, so many people were on the roads that they were actually pretty stationary. At times there were 3 or 4 people per bike with millimetres between each wheel and wing mirror. We had to weave through the mass every time we needed to cross a road, being careful not to burn ourselves on the hot exhausts. It was still almost as busy when we got to the pedestrianised area.
We spent the evening having a few cheap beers, looking out for a bar that we might squeeze into and marvelling at just how many people had flocked to the city for the night. (We later read that 8 MILLION people head to District 1 for the celebrations and I can believe it.) The city’s display of lights on all the main roads was pretty impressive too.
Taking it all in was an experience in itself and although we did attempt to get to the epicentre where there was a sort of concert being held it was just too hot and difficult and we could hear everything pretty clearly anyway. At about half 11 we had a mini disaster and Henry lost a contact lens. We decided to call it a night and took a (very slow and laboured against the flow) walk back to our guesthouse.
We had a few of our early morning walks to explore the landmarks in the centre of Saigon. (The old name is still used for the middle part of HCMC and also when referring to the whole city at times. “Saigon” is certainly less of a mouthful.)
Wandering around the centre of Saigon you see all sorts of old colonial buildings from the time of French rule mixed in with designer shops selling things at the same prices you might find in London along with street sellers selling sunglasses etc for as much as they can get. It is an odd mix and with so many aspirational shops it is hard to remember that we are in a communist country at times.
The War Remnants Museum
Something that I went to see on my own one day was the War Remnants Museum. It is a museum with lots of photos to look at, lots to read and a few artefacts (guns, uniforms etc) spread across the 3 floors. Outside there are some tanks, helicopters and jets to look at too. Wandering around on my own I had plenty of time to read all the information. I had read in advance that everything there was a bit ‘one sided’ but having not been to an American museum about ‘The Vietnam War’ it is difficult to comment on the objectivity of a Vietnamese museum about ‘The American War’.
It all seemed factual to me. In fact the whole place was full of quite horrifying facts, with photos to back them up. As in Cambodia I felt that my GCSE and A level in history had completely failed to educate me about this quite awesome human conflict. I’d seen a few films of course but they were either Hollywood tales of the camaraderie of the American troops or, absolute gore fests that made me hide behind a pillow and so the film industry too had failed to give me a firm grounding in the conflict. Since visiting the museum I have read quite a bit and we’ve watched a few documentaries online to explain it all to us and we are just now getting a handle on the whole thing.
What shocked me the most was learning about Agent Orange. (for Wikipedia link click here) Made by good old Monsanto it was sprayed over much of the forrest of South Vietnam as a defoliant at up to 13x the recommended strength. The intention of the Americans was to clear the areas where the North Vietnamese troops were hiding, destroy food crops and the ability of the rural population to feed themselves and therefore force them to move into the US controlled cities. The immediate results were massive deforestation, malnourishment and famine in the rural areas and the plan to move people to the cities worked. The population boomed in Saigon and many millions were living in new slums. At least 4.5 million people were exposed to this awful, carcinogenic chemical at the time.
Worse than all this through is the fact that the dioxin left from those sprayings is still affecting people TODAY. Really. Babies are still being born with mental or physical disabilities because the dioxin actually changed the genes of their parents and grandparents. I have omitted the photos of actual deformed preserved foetuses that were on display because I don’t want you to stop reading my post!
Some reports say that over 3 million people are living with the effects of this terrible weapon in 2013. The people of Vietnam will continue to have problems because the dioxin is still here. The food chain is still very contaminated in some areas and the change in genetics is permanent. This dioxin stuff just does not go away. The $300,000,000 offered by America a few years ago seems like a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to combat these problems. If I was an American I think I would find it hard to come here as a tourist.
The next big celebration was Tet – Vietnamese New Year. The city went flower crazy. It is the biggest holiday by far in the Vietnamese calendar and the one where most people try to get home to see their family. Because of this the biggest city in Vietnam becomes quite empty. Many shops and restaurants close and the roads are noticeably more manageable.
The long park near where we were staying turned into an enormous flower market in the days approaching the New Year. A sea of yellow chrysanthemums replaced the worn grass and people flocked to buy flowers and trees to decorate their houses.
I’d read that there was an even more impressive display than the market in the park and went alone on a solo mission to capture the flower festival in all its technicolor glory. One of the main roads in the centre closes to traffic for a week and becomes ‘Flower Street’ with enormous displays put on by the city and themed around the animal of the New Year (2013 is the year of the snake.)
It was completely packed and adjusting my settings for the perfect shot was the last thing I could think about as I was swept along the main road of Nguyen Hue with thousands of families all there to capture the perfect portrait with the flowers.
I enjoyed the impressive display though, the scale of it was breathtaking and the atmosphere was jovial. Even though it was packed and I had my lovely camera with me there was not a point that I felt in danger at all.
It was incredibly busy in both the pedestrianised zones and on the roads that day. Walking back to the guesthouse was entertaining. Everyone who was still in the city wanted to see the flowers and join in the central celebrations.
Chinatown – Cholon
During Tet we also went to visit Chinatown but it was absolutely deserted. We found a temple with a few people worshiping but most of the shops were closed and the streets were empty. The only really memorable thing was how novel it was to travel in a car (we took a taxi there.) Although I went in a few at home last September, Henry had not been in a car since we were in Bali last summer!
We stayed in loads of different guesthouses and small hotels in our time in HCMC. One of them was on one of the main tourist streets and overlooked a few streetside bars. They were just shops in the daytime but as night fell they packed as many small plastic chairs as possible onto their section of the pavement to sell cheap beers. Here’s one of our views of the street bars:
One of the things I will remember most about HCMC though was our time staying in the lanes. They were often very small and the houses were built so close together that at times they were almost touching.
Being so narrow did not stop the motorbikes from roaring down them though so you had to be careful. I did get hit on the arm once by a wing mirror (oh, and my foot was run over by a bike while I was standing on a pavement once but other than that we escaped injury.)
Ho Chin Minh City is a vibrant place that has a lot of people (over 6.5 million) living in a relatively small amount of space. It is not diverse like Kuala Lumpur, nor as developed as Bangkok and is far cleaner and has a lot less extreme poverty than Mumbai. But is is a big Asian city and possibly has the most motorbikes we’ve ever seen.
One lasting impression we have from Saigon (and in fact from all of Vietnam so far) is that this is the place where people have attempted to rip us off most often. We are pretty wise about it after our travels so far but overcharging ridiculously for simple items like water, soap and toothpaste drove me into many prolonged haggling sessions and then ultimately into big chain shops like 7/11 which had marked prices. Restaurants often make ‘mistakes’ on the bill which you have to check and you need to check you’ve not been short changed on almost every transaction. It is wearing but (I think) the problem is that so many foreign visitors will pay it unquestionably, either because they do not expect to be ripped off, because they still think it is very cheap compared to home or because the exchange rate is such that it makes it a bit tricky to work out what the ‘real’ price is (you’re generally dealing in the 100’s of thousands of Dong, withdrawing several million at a go from the ATM.
Finally, a few more pics from the city:
On the 11th of March we got a taxi to the airport for an internal flight to Da Nang in central Vietnam… more on that in the next post!
25th December 2012 – 11th March 2013