Do you Prefer to be Called Ho Chi Minh or Saigon?

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on time on Tuesday after two lovely flights on Singapore Air from Kolkata to Singapore and Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City. Ever since I began planning my trip, I was confused by what to call the city. The original name of the city was Saigon and it was the capital of South Vietnam until the end of the “American war” when “reunification” of South Vietnam and North Vietnam occurred, and the capital was moved to Hanoi in the far north. To add insult to injury, the name of the city was changed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC (after the founder of communism in North Vietnam). The city is still the largest city in the reunified nation and is the undisputed center of trade, commerce and yes capitalism in Vietnam. However, despite almost 35 years since the end of the war and the name change, everyone still calls the city Saigon. So one of the first questions I asked my guide and driver, who were at the airport to pick me up, was what the heck to call the city. Both men advised me that Saigon was the common name and only the politicians referred to the city as Ho Chi Minh. OK, Saigon it is.

Anyway, after meeting my driver and guide (“Minh”) we immediately dove into the traffic for my trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. (It was too early to check into my hotel so it was easier to just head off on the tour.) And about the traffic. I had always heard that the streets of Saigon and Hanoi were a complete clusterf*#k, but since I was only 12 hours removed from India, the traffic seemed like the junior leagues in comparison. Oh sure there was a lot of vehicles on the road consisting mostly of scooters and small motor bikes with the passengers carrying every possible consumer good from air conditioners and boxes of unknowns to baskets of chickens and pigs. And yes, there were horns here and there. But this was NOTHING compared to India. In fact, I actually found the traffic quite benign and the drive rather relaxing.

The other surprise was how green and clean the streets were. There was grass and plants in the medians and gardens everywhere. Even as we left the city for the countryside, I was struck by the green spaces. It was a welcome return to a more “realistic” world.

1.1288740217.aflac-dinner
Aflac dinner on the road to the Cu Chi tunnels

Anyway, we drove for almost two hours through farmland and past lots and lots of rice paddies and orchards. We finally reached the tunnels around 1:00. My guide, Minh, gave me a brief overview of the tunnels during which he disclosed that he had been a South Vietnamese Army officer and had worked closely with the Americans even spending time on bases in the U.S. As a result of his cooperation with the “American invaders”, Minh’s house and property were taken away from him at the end of the war in 1975. He is eligible to immigrate to the U.S., but lacks the funds to make the trip. A very sad story.

As Minh told me, the Cu Chi tunnels (pronounce Kue Chee) were part of a vast Viet Cong tunnel system that stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border and facilitated Viet Cong control of the rural areas near Saigon. In Cu Chi alone there were over 200 km of tunnels all dug by hand. When American ground forces were unsuccessful destroying the tunnels, American bombers were brought in resulting in a vast landscape of craters. After the war ended, the tunnels were restored to their original, narrow, claustrophobic condition.

After the quick overview from Minh, I was lead to a small below ground room where a 1965 film about the “American” war was played for me. The only thing I can say about this film is WOW, those communists are great guys and shame on the “devil invaders from Washington”. Once my indoctrination was completed, Minh and I began our stroll through the jungle to see the Cu Chi Tunnels.

First stop was a very well camouflaged tunnel covered by a wooden entry and leaves. I would have walked right over it had it not been for Minh. The guard at the first tunnel lifted the wooden entry and encouraged me to get in the tunnel. I slid into the hole and crouched down and the guard proceeded to cover the tunnel with the wooden entry. I was really too big for the tunnel and there was not enough room for me to crouch down and try to get into the very narrow tunnel leading off the hole. OK, get me out of here. Unfortunately, getting out was much harder than getting in. I was up to my chest in the hole and had to jump twice and leverage myself out of the hole with the assistance of Minh. Clearly I would have been dead if I was depending on the tunnels for survival.

We then moved on deeper into the forested area where I learned that the Cu Chi village was essentially moved underground during the war. There were underground homes, including kitchens, shops, schools, temples and meeting rooms. The entire network was ventilated. Talk about a sophisticated system that was built by hand. Absolutely amazing.

The other aspect of the tunnels was the barbaric yet simple method of capturing and/or killing the invader soldiers. There were holes filled with pointed blades that a person could simply stumble into. There were rotating wheels built into holes in the ground that would pierce a persons legs and worse when they stepped into the hole. There were fake doorways with protruding knives that would kill a person when they opened the door. Yea, these Viet Cong guerillas were very “heroic”.

Anyway, I was introduced to yet another guard who was to accompany me on a “crawl” through a tunnel if I chose to do it. Since I have crawled through a lot of weird places on this trip (ie the underground city in Turkey and the Pyramids in Egypt) I thought what the heck. So I eased into the tunnel, crouched down and began to follow the guide. As we duck waddled through the tunnel, it became lower and narrower. Yikes this was becoming rather claustrophobic. Finally, we reached a ladder where I could climb out if I wanted. Uh, yes thank you. Enough of this.

1.1288740217.me-in-the-cu-chi-tunnels
Me in the  Cu Chi tunnels

We walked around for another hour or so and saw a man making shoes out of tires as they did during the war, a women making rice paper and another woman making tapioca biscuits. As we walked, the air became heavier and heavier and I sensed a thunderstorm was coming. As we were heading towards the exit, the rains started. And this was not a little mist. This was a turn on the faucet full blast and let the water flow. We raced to the van and made it a little wetter, but it could have been much worse if it had started raining when we were a lot further into the jungle away from the van.

We started the long drive back made that much longer by the down pour and the fact that it was late afternoon. As we drove, shop owners had traded in their outdoor displays of trinkets and handicrafts for racks of rain coats. (Such enterprising folks and obviously experienced in sudden rain storms). The roads also became a rainbow of colors as the motorcycle riders donned rain coats. Raincoats in pinks, blues, reds, yellows, greens and polka dots. Raincoats with advertisements. And of course improvised raincoats of plastic garbage bags. It was deja vu as I recalled my trip to China in 1995 when a rainstorm occurred and all of the bicyclists were clad in similar colorful raincoats. (My trip was long before cars were the norm and virtually everyone road a bicycle in China.)

We finally made it to my hotel where I checked in and was given a beautiful room with a view to the Saigon River. Next up a little exploration. I decided to take a walk and as I was leaving the hotel, the bellman asked me if I would like to take an umbrella. “No thanks. I’m not going to far. Just a short walk around the area and trip to a cash machine to get some local currency..” (That’s the Vietnamese Dong – no Nandi that’s not Donger).

Anyway, I no sooner got about 3 block from the hotel than it started to absolutely downpour again. Real bright Deb! I walked another block and it became apparent that there was nothing I could do but just get wet and enjoy the rain. After another block, the water dripping from my hair was actually falling into my eyes and playing hell with my contacts. I finally stopped in a doorway and a bunch of young women just looked at me and laughed. I laughed along with them. (What else could I do?) The rain let up at bit so I walked another block, found the HSBC ATM machine, withdrew some money and began the very wet trek back to the hotel. When I got back to my room, I literally had to wring out my clothes and towel dry my hair. I was a mess.

By now it was time to think about dinner and the nightly issue of where to go. There was a restaurant close by called Lemongrass that came highly recommended on Trip Advisor and also by the hotel staff. I decided to walk the three blocks (the rain had stopped) to the restaurant. I finally found the place (it was a little more difficult than as described by the front desk staff at the hotel), but the bad news was there was an hour an a half wait. To heck with that. I decided to wander around and see if I could find a good Pho restaurant (in North America the “o” is long so it is pronounced Phoh). For those of you who are not familiar with Vietnamese food, Pho is the staple noodle soup and can include beef, pork, chicken or just veg. Peppers, bean sprouts, lime and spices can be added to the soup and it is yum, yum, yummy. So I began to wander around and stopped to ask a couple people if they could recommend a good Pho restaurant (Young Vietnamese are pretty good with English), but every time I asked about Pho, people looked at me like I had lost my mind. No one undersood what I was asking. I finally gave up and wandered by a tiny restaurant named Mitau two blocks from my hotel that was packed with locals. I walked up the stairs and was seated at the only empty table. I ordered a crab seafood soup, special spring rolls ginger tea and watermelon juice. Within minutes an older woman was at my table asking me where I was from. Turns out “Le Oanh Oanh” was the owner of the restaurant and quite a character.

When my dinner came, Le came and sat down with me and showed me how to add the various spices to enhance the flavor of the soup. As we sat there, I asked her about the huge golf poster on the wall of a young Asian golfer. It turns out the at the young man was Le’s 21 year old son, Tran le Duy Nhat, the number 1 Vietnamese golfer and an up and coming star on the Asian golf tour. (He had just placed second in a tournament in Singapore.) Le then pulled out a Golf Magazine and there was a picture of her son in a feature article about the top Asian golfers. It also turns out that Le was a golfer in her own right and had recently been the runner up at the Vietnamese Country Club Amateur tournament.

When the special spring rolls came out (made of shrimp and fish) Le showed me how to eat the spring rolls in Vietnamese fashion. (Wrap the spring roll in lettuce and douse it with a spicy vinegar sauce.) It was fantastic. After some more tea and ginger cookies, I finally said goodbye to Le who made me promise to return before I left Saigon. It had been a fantastic dinner.

1.1288740217.our-junk-on-the-mekong-delta
Our junk for the Mekong River cruise

Next morning, I checked out of my hotel and met my new guide for my two day boat trip in the Mekong Delta. “Nam” was a pistol and turned out to be a fantastic guide. Originally, I had booked the boat trip as a solo trip, but another couple wanted to go on the trip the same time I was to go and Sinbhalo Tours (the company I had booked the trip through) had asked me if I would mind having some company on the trip in return for a reduced price. I agreed, knowing I was taking a chance, but figured if the couple was booking through an adventure travel company, I figured they had to be good folks and was I ever right. Patrick and Tina were from a town just outside Cologne, Germany, and I turned out to be a great deal of fun.

After we picked Patrick and Tina up from their hotel, we began the drive to My Tho where we would pick up our junk for our trip to Vinh Long and our overnight “home” stay in the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is confluence of canals and tributaries surrounding rice fields, farms and orchards that make the area one of the the great sources of produce for Vietnam and the world. The area is filled with farmers and fisherman who have lived in the same towns and toiled on the same lands for generations.

I had been really looking forward to this trip because I had heard so much about the Mekong Delta and the friendliness of its people. I mentioned this to Nam and he immediately began with stories about “South Vietnam” and how much better the south is than the north. This would become a running theme as I spent time in both the former South Vietnam and the former North Vietnam. There is an overt resentment in the south towards the north and a feeling that the south is still superior to the north. There is also a noticeable difference between the attitudes of those in the south (very friendly) and those in the north (very reserved and very rigid).

Somehow, the discussion turned to coffee and Nam began to tell us about the best coffee in the world, wiesel dung coffee. Apparently, there is a very particular kind of wiesel in Vietnam that comes out late at night and eats the coffee berries. The wiesel digests the berries whole and enzymes in the digestive system penetrate the berries which are then expelled, whole, in the dung hence the name. The berries are collected from the dung and processed and the result is apparently one of the finest smokiest coffees in the world. (I actually thought Nam was pulling my leg, but on the flight from Saigon to Hanoi, Vietnam Airlines in flight magazine actually had an article about the coffee, which is given as a gift to heads of state and other important visitors to Vietnam. Huh! Who knew.)

1.1288740217.kids-learn-to-drive-at-a-young-age
Yep … really

Anyway, as we headed to the Mekong Delta, we drove through village after village, past markets and lots and lots of motorcycles. Every now and then we would pass motorcyclists with children hanging onto the handlebars and wearing goggles. It was hysterical. (I tried so hard to get a photo of a child with goggles on, but try as I might, we flew by so fast I never got a shot of a child with the goggles. However, I did get one of a child hanging onto the handle bars.)

1.1288740217.on-the-junk-on-the-mekong-river
Me on the junk on the Mekong River

We finally reached My Tho on the Mekong River and boarded our huge junk for just the three of us and settled into bamboo lounge chairs. A quick 20 minutes later and we were at Ben Tre, a small town famous for its keo dua (coconut candy). We got off the boat and went into the factory. We saw how they press the coconut juice out of the coconut, how it is mixed and cooked and then set out to cool. Once cool, the coconut is cut into little squares and wrapped in rice paper and then plastic. We were offered samples of every kind of coconut flavored candy and also tasted a rice whiskey that was SUPER strong (very similar to straight grain alcohol) and a snake rice whiskey that was just a strong. (The snake is fermented in the alcohol. I have no idea what the snake adds to the mix, but I saw the bottle of alcohol with the snake in it and it was icky.)

1.1288740217.pressing-the-coconut-to-make-candy
Pressing coconut into candy

After the factory tour (and purchase of the requisite coco flavored coconut candy and banana flavored coconut candy) we got back on the junk and spent the next half hour or so relaxing in our bamboo chairs as life on the Mekong passed us by. There were fishermen reeling in their nets, ferries taking cyclists to the other side of the delta, women cleaning clothes by the side of the river and people transporting produce in their boats. We finally reached a little tributary where Nam informed us we would get out and take a small boat for a ride on the tributary to get up close and personal with the Delta. After our Captain parked the junk, we all got in a very tippy little boat with a very elderly woman who proceeded to row the boat through the tributary. (It felt a lot ridiculous sitting there while this 70 something woman stood at the stern rowing the boat.)

1.1288740217.bridge-over-the-mekong-river
Bridge over the Mekong River

Anyway, the trip was wonderful.  We floated through overhanging palms and exotic plants. There were flowers and bridges and small homes and chickens and children and laundry. It was a confluence of river life and it was wonderful. We reached a small bridge where we docked and got out for a stroll around the village. We ended up stopping at a small restaurant for tea, biscuits and fruit (tiny tasty bananas, dragon fruit and lychee fruit). We were surrounded by chickens, chicks and dogs all begging for a bit of biscuit.

1.1288740217.on-the-mekong-river-in-the-mekong-delta
Floating on the Mekong River

After tea, we walked through the orchards back to the boat. After climbing over two other boats parked in the same area as our boat we made it back on and headed back out into the Delta. We lazed around the boat for another hour or so and then were served a spectacular lunch of soup, noodles, rice, giant shrimp and veggies. After finishing lunch with tea and fruit, we spent another hour or so dozing in the warm air watching life on the Delta.

We reached Vinh Long and visited a small floating market where boats sell produce from their boats to the residents of the delta. Each boat that participates in the floating market ties to a pole samples of the produce that is being sold on the boat in order to provide notice to potential buyers about the type of produce being sold. It was fascinating to watch life on the delta.

1.1288740217.house-on-stilts-on-the-mekong-river
House on stilts on the Mekong Delta

At Vinh Long, we transferred to a smaller boat for our short journey to the home where we would have our homestay. The smaller boat was yet again a small tippy boat helmed by a woman. Every time I got in the boat, I almost ended up tipping us all in the water. Balance is not my strong suit and these little boats required a great deal of balance.

We reached the lovely residential area about ten minutes later and were given a small tour of Mr. Kiets Historical House that was built in 1838. It was a beautiful home set in an orchard surrounded by ponds filled with fish and gardens. In addition to running a home stay residence, the owners also run a small lunch time restaurant. We were shown our rooms and advised that there would be another couple joining us. Patrick and Tina took the private room and I took a bed surrounded by mosquito netting in a very large communal bedroom separated by large curtains and storage areas.

1.1288740217.my-homestay-in-the-mekong-delta
My homestay on the Mekong Delta

After getting settled, Patrick, Tina, Nam and I headed out for a walk through the area along a very narrow path used by pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. The sound of a horn in front or behind us sent us jumping for the side of the path. As we walked and dodged the traffic, we passed by a lot of children coming home from school, women taking the shells off longan fruit for extra income and numerous small stores. There were many small homes along the path where we saw tombstones in the yard and roosters penned in cages. Apparently, it is popular for farmers to be buried in their yard so the side of tombstones in the area was common. The roosters, we soon learned, were used for cock fighting, which is apparently a very popular “sport” as Nam told us. Although I realize every country has its own customs and traditions, I was repulsed by the notion and had to bite my tongue to express my disgust.

1.1288740217.boys-being-boys-at-a-school-in-the-mekong-delt
Boys beings boys at a school in the Mekong Delta

The most enchanting part of our stroll were the children. Friendly happy “hellos” from the young ones greeted us everywhere we walked. And the kids were so darn cute, it was impossible to refrain from pulling out the camera and snapping photos of the kids left and right.

So after our lovely little stroll (excluding the cock fighting thing), we got back to our homestay and were left to rest for an hour or so. By the time we were roused again at 6:30, it was dark and the other couple (from France) had arrived. It later turned out that 4 more people arrived, 20 somethings from the U.S. who ended up drinking coconut wine all night long.  They seemed to be having a good time, but were rather noisy in the middle of the night when everyone else was trying to sleep. But there was retribution the next morning since Patrick, Tina and I as well as the French couple were up at 6:00 a.m. and moving about waking up the 4 at the crack of dawn.

1.1288740217.kids-looking-at-their-picture-on-a-camera
Kids looking at their picture on a camera

Anyway, prior to dinner, our hosts put us to work in the kitchen teaching us how to make spring rolls and stuff pumpkin flowers with fish paste. Unfortunately, my “rolling skills were pretty lame and I ended up with a very tiny spring roll, a very long skinny spring roll and a bulky overstuffed spring roll. I was much more successful stuffing the pumpkin flowers, which required much less skill. (I mean how hard is it to take a spoonful of fish paste and put it inside a large opened pumpkin flower?)

Dinner turned out to be wonderful. We had soup, our spring rolls, rice, the deep fried pumpkin stuffed flowers and fish rolled into rice paper. Our hosts also made some special dishes for Tina since she does not eat fish. Although the three of us were still stuffed from lunch, we ate what we could with our Vietnamese beer.

After dinner, Nam brought out the special Vietnamese rice whiskey and it was brutal. Straight alcohol. I had one glass, but Patrick had at least 3. I think Nam was feeling pretty good because he started to regale us with stories about the former King of Vietnam who had over 200 children and whose last name was Ngyun (hence the popularity of the name). Nam continued to chatter about the “prowess” of the former King, and the fact that the King would “service” up to 6 of his concubines a day. Yikes. This is too much information for me. So with that, I decided to call it a day.

1.1288740217.our-longtail-boat-on-the-mekong-delta
Our longtail boat for the trip to Cai Rang floating market

I slept very well in a comfortable bed surrounded by mosquito netting and was up at 6:00 a.m. as I mentioned. We were setting off for our 2 hour drive to Can Tho and the Cai Rang floating market, which is the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta.

When we reached Can Tho, we boarded our long tail boat and passed by numerous “stand up” rowers who were picking up their produce for the day. (Stand up rowers are just what the name implies. People stand in a box in their boat with long oars and row the boat. It is quite an impressive combination of strength and balance.) As our boat meandered through the floating market we saw boats that doubled as store fronts and living quarters.

1.1288740217.selling-produced-at-the-my-tho-floating-market
Selling produce at the My Tho floating market

We saw boats floating by with people selling soup to the vendors. And we saw enormous boats selling produce and mom and pop “shop” boats selling the same. It was a morning ritual that is repeated every day, 365 days a year and it was absolutely enchanting.

1.1288740217.stand-up-rower
Stand up rower on the Mekong River

After about an hour of watching the daily routine, our boat moved away from the the floating market and we were off on a lovely cruise around the tributaries near Can Tho. It was peaceful and calm as we floated by homes on stilts, children riding bicycles to school, women cleaning clothes and both men and women stand up rowers passing us by. We stopped briefly at a bamboo bridge used by the farmers to cross over the Mekong and tend fields on the other side of the river. Nam had each of us take a walk on this very narrow arch over the Mekong, and I can tell you first hand this thing was made for (1) people with feet much smaller than mine and (2) people with much better balance than I. I made it to the center of the bridge and back as instructed, but it was a little dicey for the clumsy side of me.

1.1288740217.crossing-the-mekong-on-a-bamboo-bridge
Crossing the Mekong on a bamboo bridge

Our next stop was a fish farm where we saw thousands of penned fish swimming around and swarming food. It was a very smelly stop, but the families that operated the farm were quite friendly and one child in particular was especially adorable.

We then got back in the boat and traveled along the river past and through more tropical plants and hanging trees to reach our stop and trip back to Saigon. We jumped in the van and made a quick stop so that Nam could pick up tapioca cakes for us to try from a roadside stand. The cakes were warm and tasty, but quite frankly I still prefer the tapioca pudding to anything else.

1.1288740217.fish-traps-in-the-mekong-delta
Fish farm on the Mekong Delta

As we drove, Nam pointed out cages filled with rats at a roadside market (which are considered a delicacy in Vietnam). He even described numerous methods for cooking Ben and his colleagues. Ick! We passed cages of ducks and chickens on the back of motorcycles and the same scenes we saw the day before on the way to the Mekong: markets, motorcycles carrying every kind of product and three and four people crammed onto the tiny little motorbikes. Despite the sameness from the day before, it remained different and fascinating.

We finally reached Saigon. I said goodbye to Patrick and Tina (who had been wonderful companions for the trip), checked back into my hotel and got cleaned up. Then it was time to head back to my favorite little restaurant, Mitau, for dinner. I sat down and did not see Le anywhere. I ordered the same crab soup, but this time ordered a noodle dish with nuts and veggies. By the time my meal arrived, Le had returned and greeted me like an old friend. She sat down with me and asked where I was headed next. When I told her Hanoi, she immediately warned me that the folks in the north are not nearly as friendly as the folks in the south. Le rationalized that “it is cold in the north so the people are not friendly”. (Cold being relative since the average temperature in the north is in the mid to upper 20s or low 80s.)

As we sat there, Le told me that she had made a CD and she wanted to give me a copy. She proceeded to produce a very professional looking CD with her picture on the cover (from the a period when she was much younger and she was, quite frankly, beautiful). I was honored by the lovely gift and promised her I would immediately listen to the CD upon my return to Seattle.

As I was preparing to leave, Le insisted I stay for some more tea and a fabulous local dessert of lotus seeds in a sweet milky mixture. It was delish. I finally left Mitau promising Le that as soon as I listened to her CD, I would email her to tell her about my reaction. (I sure hope that I like it.)

1.1288740217.woman-buying-herbs-at-the-cho-binti-tay-market
Woman buying herbs at the Cho Binti Tay Market

The next morning I was up and ready to go by 8:00 a.m. for my city tour of Saigon. First stop was Chinatown. (It seemed like an oxymoron to me that Vietnam would have a Chinatown, but Chinatown is in fact inhabited solely by Chinese and features Chinese markets and Chinese temples and pagodas. Our first stop was Cho Binti Tay Chinese market. This market sells in bulk and is used by the locals to buy their produce, clothing and various sundry supplies that they sell at their local roadside market stands. The place was chaos at its finest. People were screaming and pushing and shoving everyone and everything out of their way as they moved through the narrow aisles. It was very easy to locate goods though as all of the products were arranged and located together according to the type of product. And everything and I mean everything could be bought here. You want dried fish? … No problem. Spices? … Absolutely. How about underwear? How many cases you want? Purses? How about a whole crate of Pradas uh make that “Fradas”. It went on and on and on. One of the most interesting areas for me was the egg display. Not because I like eggs, but because I have never in my life seen so many kinds of eggs. Standard chicken eggs were lost in the array of quail eggs, duck eggs, ostrich eggs, swallow eggs and on and on. It was a cornucopia of eggs.

1.1288740217.quan-am-pagoda
Quan Am Pagoda

We left the market after tolerating the madness for an hour and moved on to the Quan Am Pagoda, which was built in 1816. The Pagoda was a work of art with the rooftops decorated with ceramic statutes depicting wonderful scenes from Chinese fables. The original front doors are guilded in gold and lacquer and the place was absolutely spectacular. I wandered around for quite a while as I looked at the various ceramic figurines, but eventually the incense got the best of me, and I signaled to Nam it was time to go.

1.1288740217.war-remnants-museum-ch-47-chinook
War Remnants Museum (CH-47 Chinook)

Next up was the War Remnants Museum. This is a museum dedicated to a “history” of the Vietnam uh make that “American” war. The area around the museum holds an array of military vehicles and aircraft left behind by the Americans. Included were jeeps, Chinook helicopters and various ground artillery used by the military.

In addition to the military aircraft, there was also a section outside dedicated to the imprisonment of the North Vietnamese by the Americans. Perhaps the most disturbing display was the “Tiger cages” used to “house” the Viet Cong. These things were the size of a large coffin and up to 7 prisoners were stuffed into these things when they were being punished. In addition, the display included various holding cells and pictures of atrocities meted out to the North Vietnamese. It was a brutal, brutal reminder of just what happens in war time. (I have no idea how much of this was played up by the communist regime, but even if only a 1/20 of it was true it was still an ugly reality.)

1.1288740217.tiger-cages-at-the-war-remnants-museum
tiger  Tiger Cages at the War Remnants Museum

I wandered around the inside of the museum and noted with amusement the propaganda posters. However, it was, quite frankly, the only thing I found amusing about the place. In addition to chronicling a history of the North Vietnamese version of the war, the museum included numerous displays about the use of Agent Orange by the Americans and the subsequent rise in birth defects in the Vietnamese population. All in all, it was a very sobering walk through time.

After the War Remnants Museum, we made a quick stop at the Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Post Office. Both buildings are renowned for their French architecture and French motiffs. Nam said that the Saigon Post Office was designed by the architect of the Arc de Triomphe, but I have no idea if he was correct or not. As we were leaving the post office, a bride and groom arrived at the Notre Dame Cathedral (which is across the street from the Post Office) and were posing for pictures. Apparently, this is a very popular thing to do in Vietnam. (Also, Nam advised me that it was wedding season in Vietnam. The groom’s family pays for the wedding and a dowry and typically wedding season hits full stride after the crops have been harvested. Since it was fall and the crops were done, weddings were taking place everywhere we looked.)

1.1288740217.king-of-the-hill-uh-hell-at-jade-emperor-pagod
King of the Hill uh Hell at Jade Emporer Pagoda

We next moved on to the Jade Emperor Pagoda aka Phuoc Hai Tu built in 1909. This was also a Chinese temple and it is known for its array of amazing divinities and outrageous heroes built out of paper mache and representing both Taoist and Buddhist traditions. As we walked in, Nam told me that the most important figures in the Pagoda were the King of the Earth and the King of the Hill. Huh???? I got the King of the Earth part, but what’s with the King of the Hill. Visions of television cartoon characters filtered through my head as I looked at Nam in confusions. “King of the Hill??” “Yes, yes.” “Uh Nam I don’t get it what is a King of the Hill?” Nam directed me over to a large glass case and there it was the King of the HELL. My bad. Slight misunderstanding in how Nam was pronouncing King of the Hell. (Although I laughed about it for hours after that.)

The Pagoda was also quite interesting because it contained a very large fish pond and very large turtle pond. Apparently worshipers bring all sorts of gifts to the deities in hopes of having them bestow good luck and good fortune on them. There was also a large furnace where worshipers burn fake money. This is supposed to help them with their finances. Not sure I understand the logic, but I guess their finances are helped by not burning real money.

By now it was about 1:30 so Nam asked me what I wanted for lunch. I told him that for a couple days now I had been trying to go to a good Pho restaurant, but no one knew what I was talking about. Nam looked at me strangely and asked me to spell it. Once I did, he started laughing and told me it wasn’t pronounced Pho (Phoh), it was pronounced Pho (Phaw). No wonder no one could help me. They didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about. Anyway, once that was cleared up, Nam insisted we go to Pho 2000, which is a Pho restaurant where former President Clinton ate. We stopped and pictures of President Clinton were all over the walls. (In fact, the restaurant was renamed for the year in which President Clinton ate there.) The Pho Ga was fantastic (Pho with chicken), and I left very happy.

1.1288740217.reunification-palace-in-ho-chi-minh-city
Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City

The last stop of the day was the Reunification Palace, which was the former Presidential Palace (office and residence) of the President of South Vietnam. As we drove towards the palace, we passed the former US Embassy, which, for those of you who are old enough will remember, is famous for the scenes on T.V. of helicopters airlifting Vietnamese out and away from the North Vietnamese march on Saigon as the American pulled out.

We reached the Palace and I waited as Nam purchased my entry ticket. As I waited, I noticed a sign near the entry. It read “Dangerous items – bombs, mines, guns, knives, explosives, combustibles, noxious things, etc. – are prohibited.” Thank God I saw the sign!! That pipe bomb I had been carrying with me all day would have really screwed up my pass through security.

Anyway, we walked around the Palace (love the name by the way … “Reunification” is a big theme for the communists in Vietnam as the North and South were finally rejoined after the invader forces kept them apart for so so so many years) and looked at the two tanks that had crashed through the gates of the Palace on April 30, 1975 when the South surrendered. We entered the Palace and it was like walking back in time. Everything in the Reunification Palace remained virtually the same as the day the North Vietnamese took over South Vietnam on April 30 1975. The President’s office was in tact, although all of the papers had been removed. There were meeting rooms with the same 1970s furniture as the day of the takeover.

We saw the President’s film room where he could watch movies, and the First Lady’s dining room. As we passed through these two rooms, Nam was laughing. Uh I don’t get what’s so funny Nam. Finally Nam explained to me that these rooms were so outrageous to the Vietnamese. No one had seen them or knew about them until they were permitted to visit the Palace after the “reunification”. The extravagance of these two rooms was unthinkable to the Vietnamese. (Uh Nam, you should see some of the perks our politicians enjoy. And quite frankly, these two rooms were pretty austere by any standards, even back in the 1970s.)

1.1288740217.the-streets-of-ho-chi-minh-city
The streets of Ho Chi Minh City

We walked through the residence portion of the building and then down the stairs to the specially built war rooms that housed the President and his staff during bombing attacks. There were radar and phone rooms and sleeping quarters and meeting rooms. Quite frankly, the rooms looked a lot like the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms my niece Jenna and I visited in London.

As we wrapped up the visit, the tropical rains once again poured down on Saigon. My flight was in two and half hours and it was a fitting way to end my wonderful visit to “South Vietnam”.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

Leave a Reply