It seems like an absolute eternity ago that I was in Ho Chi Minh City and in many respects it was a long time, but it feels much, much longer than the 6 or so weeks it has actually been. That's primarily due to the fact that the last 6 weeks have been a busy time. Weeks full of information, transportation, fresh faces, international visas, reasonably priced cuisine, and cheap beer. I'm quite literally bursting with stories to write about, but primarily for myself I'd like to write it all chronologically, however long that may take. I can only hope that I'll keep up with writing when I return back to Canada, as it's been a tremendously fruitful last year or so for my blog, thanks to my trusty readers (I appreciate the false sense of importance you impart to me!). So, let's talk about Ho Chi Minh City. Firstly, I'll quickly note that (for the most part) I'll be calling it Saigon in my blog, as it's often referred to anyways by the Southern Vietnamese people. The name Ho Chi Minh City was assigned to the city by the North after the fall of the South around 1975, so I'd rather refer to it as Saigon. Also, for some reason or another, Saigon has a certain ring to it that I've come to love, and it also happens to speak volumes more to me than Ho Chi Minh City. I actually spent time thinking about some sort of peculiar Canadian equivalent for something like this, and concocted the idea that it would be like Quebec taking over Toronto and renaming it Samuel de Champlain City. I know it doesn't entirely fit the bill, but it gets the brain moving, doesn't it?
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Firstly, I should mention that we were CouchSurfing in Saigon with a kind Swiss-Filipino fellow who has been living there for just over ten years. He was gracious enough to let us take the spare bedroom in his apartment, which was conveniently located near District 1, for a whole three nights. I can't possibly recommend CouchSurfing any higher, as it's a fantastic community. You meet intriguing and generous people, end up getting invaluable information on the city from the host, and often partake in activities that you'd otherwise snub. Take, for example, the fact that Bri and I joined Jerry for his swing-dancing class on our first night there. That's the stuff that CouchSurfing is made of if you'll allow yourself to accept those challenges, and occasionally embarrass yourself slightly in the name of a new experience. We'll actually be CouchSurfing again in about two weeks in Brunei with a brother and sister who seem to be teeming with kindness.
|The beginning of a burgeoning dancing career?|
Saigon isn't necessarily the best city in which to walk around with a check-list while carefully ensuring you've "seen everything." It's more a city to walk around and hopefully get lost in while purposely ignoring your map, especially in the central districts. Although, like every city, there are certain sights which shouldn't be missed. Here's what I found along the way.
The Reunification Palace was actually one of the sights that I didn't want to miss, as per its historical value in the formation of Vietnam. Not surprisingly, it wasn't always called the Reunification Palace, but rather the Independence Palace (when the South used it as a headquarters during the war). As with the changing of the city name, the South seems to still refer to this place by its original name. Long before either of those names, it was the Norodom Palace, and it was constructed by the French Colonialists in the 19th century. The bottom line is that names change upon conquest, and this usually creates a bit of tension. Anyway, my absolute favourite part about this place is that it serves more or less as a time capsule. The building that stands today was built in the early '60s, and hasn't been renovated or touched really since it was built. It wasn't even really touched after the North burst through the front gates in 1975 (a monumental event that ended the Vietnam War). Perhaps I'll need verification from my parents, but this place looks to mark its place in the '60s era with an exclamation mark.
The boardrooms were neatly drawn up and simplistic according to the standards of the '60s, and the recreation rooms were downright groovy, also according to the standards of the '60s. The first picture will show you the former with the cabinet meeting room, and the second picture will show you the latter with the gambling room. Needless to say, the gambling room is hands down my favourite room in this complex. It looks like it's straight out of an Austin Power's movie.
The War Remnants Museum is something to behold, and it will unquestionably leave an impression. This is by far the most anti-American exhibition I've ever experienced. To be honest, I was blown away. The first floor of the museum essentially just displays what a united front of protest there was against the US "aggression in Vietnam" (this is the term they use throughout the exhibition). The subsequent floors paint a dark, disturbing picture of what the United States did during the war. They hold back no graphic content when displaying pictures of the effects of agent orange, and maybe they shouldn't. It's interesting to note that the original museum was put together in 1975 and was called the "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes." Then, in 1990, it was changed to the "Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression." Finally, in 1995 it was changed to its current name. From what I can gather, the names were changed, but the content inside remains just as striking and condemning as it ever was. Quite honestly, there really isn't much defense for what the US did in Vietnam, and this museum was proof enough that Vietnam hasn't forgotten about the atrocities that occurred...and they likely won't.
The Golden Dragon Puppet Theatre is the premier place in Saigon to watch some ancient water puppetry in action. Water puppetry is famous around Vietnam, and has been since it originated in the North around the 11th century. It was a 50 minute long show depicting events of cultural importance to Vietnam, and managed to be entertaining even though I don't speak a word of Vietnamese. I wasn't discouraged by the lack of English, and in fact would have been very discouraged had it been in English as it's a Vietnamese show (and has been that way for hundreds and hundreds of years). They handed out a program to try to help out their English audience, which I adored because of the straightforward titles for each specific act. My personal favourites were: "4. On a buffalo with a flute," "7. Rearing ducks and catching foxes," and my top choice goes to "15. Unicorns play with ball." The acts tended to follow the descriptions pretty closely, so you can imagine the show as nothing if not entertaining.
The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica seems out of place in this modern Asian city, but only until you remember that the French colonized it. In fact, all the building materials were brought from France in the mid to late 19th century. I think it compliments this modern metropolis pretty nicely, and adds a bit of class to the city's sometimes dirty exterior.
Also in the eloquent French style is Ho Chi Minh City Hall, perhaps more appropriately known as Hotel de Ville de Saigon. I wouldn't necessarily plan my day around a visit here, but it was definitely worth walking past and taking a moment to appreciate. You can say what you want about the French, but their architecture speaks for itself, even when it's halfway across the world.
One last note on transportation. All around Saigon you'll find gentlemen who will transport you on the back of their motorbike for next to nothing. It's common practice, it's exciting, and it's a true Vietnamese experience. I certainly couldn't do it every time I wanted to get somewhere, but a few times gave me that extra special feel for Saigon.
Well, I've officially written about all the destinations I visited in Vietnam (Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue and Hoi An, and Mui Ne). Seeing as I'm on the road, I'll dare to call that an accomplishment. It's simply an impossibility to think that I'll be able to write about all that I've done while I'm travelling. However, it's a comfort to know that I've officially knocked one country off the list. Vietnam won't stand as my favourite country on the planet, but it was a fantastic experience. Hoi An, specifically, will always remain a city on the forefront of my mind as long as I live. In the past, Vietnam has been a country that has been colonized, invaded, and generally exploited. It's fair to say that now Vietnam is creating their own destiny and has an exciting future ahead of it. Whatever direction Vietnam is heading, I'll always have warm feelings for that bustling, beautiful country.