Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Ho Chi Minh City

From Phu Quoc, Angela and I took a ferry to the port of Rach Gia before taking a bus to Ho Chi Minh. Home to around 9 million people, it is Vietnam's largest city, and was the capital of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Then known as Saigon, it was renamed as Ho Chi Minh by the communists in tribute to their late leader (whose birthday was two days ago, incidentally). Today, however, local Vietnamese and tourists alike still refer to it as Saigon informally.

Honestly, we weren't expecting much out of this place before we came. Based on some reactions from people who'd been there before, it sounded like it was going to be just another Phnom Penh or Bangkok: a frantic, filthy, jam-packed metropolis of bikes, humidity and loud noises. And in many ways, that's exactly what it is. But for some reason, something about this city really clicked with us. Phnom Penh had this rather barren, lifeless quality to it, but Ho Chi Minh immediately felt exciting and action-packed, with its sea of motorbikes, bright neon lights and skyscrapers. It seemed to me like something from a gritty cyberpunk comic, futuristic but a dirty sort of future, like Vietnam's answer to Akira or Children of Men. I don't know if that quality really comes through in the photos we took, but here they are:

Our route from Phu Quoc to Ho Chi Minh.
We took this really nice sleeper bus from Rach Gia to Ho Chi Minh. Much more comfortable than the buses we'd been riding in Thailand and Cambodia!
As in China, it's rare that Vietnam really feels like a communist country, but you do see the occasional communist flag or propaganda poster.
After the poverty of Cambodia, Vietnam seems by comparison very clean and developed. However, it still has its share of squalid shacks and villages.
Crossing the Mekong River (or possibly one of its tributaries).
Many large gravestones dot the countryside.

Around nightfall we arrived in Saigon, and found our hostel in District 1. Just like the arrondisements of Paris, the city is split into several numbered districts, with 1 located in the centre.
That evening we walked around District 1, trying to find an electrical store where I could buy a replacement charger for my laptop. Fortunately, I found one, though at a cost of a hundred dollars.
For dinner, I had pho ga, a chicken noodle soup.
Angela had Bo Cuon Pho Mai, rolled beef with cheese and mashed potatoes. It's her favourite meal she's had in the country so far.
A statue of General Tran Nguyen Han, backdropped by some of the city's skyscrapers.
The next day, as we explored the city some more we saw the same statue again.
A brief visit to Benh Tan Market.

Ho Chi Minh must be the motorbike capital of the world. There are whole armies of them, numbering in the thousands, and constantly on the move, with no regard for rules or safety. Crossing the road here as a pedestrian can be pretty tricky as there aren't always designated crossings to use. Often you have to walk out in front of the endless flow of traffic and basically dodge the bikes as they pass.
A legacy of Saigon's French colonial heritage, the Notre Dame Basilica was built in the late 1800s, with all of its building materials imported directly from France.
The Reunification Palace. This was the home and work place of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, until communist tanks crashed through its gates in 1975, effectively ending the war.
A pretty park close to the palace.
More motorbikes!
Communist posters.
As in many Southeast Asian cities, there are no extensive underground cable networks, so most cables go overground instead.
To find out more about the Vietnam War, we visited the War Remnants Museum.

The museum reminded us a lot of the War Memorial in Seoul, which focuses on the Korean War. The big difference is that South Korea remains strongly pro-US, so America's involvement is displayed quite positively there. Here at Ho Chi Minh's War Remnants Museum, there were plenty of gruesome photos of atrocities committed by the US.

A section devoted to Agent Orange and its horrifying effects, with lots of tragic photos of the lives it ruined.

After leaving the museum, we took a taxi to Chinatown in District 5.

Unlike other Chinatowns we'd been to, there wasn't a whole lot of distinctly Chinese-looking architecture or decorations. In fact it was a very dirty, run-down area for the most part, but that at least made it feel more authentic than the touristy centre of District 1.

One Chinese-looking place we did find was this little temple.

Back in District 1, by a lotus pond.
It was almost nightfall and it had just rained, so the weather was a lot cooler at this point.
Back near the Reunification Palace, that evening we went to a water puppet show.
Known as Mua noi ruoc, these water puppet shows are a longtime Vietnamese tradition dating back to the 11th century. Musicians play folk music while the puppeteers - hidden from view by a screen - operate these small, wooden puppets in a pool of water, depicting scenes from mythology and ancient village life. It was all very charming and fun to watch.

After the puppet show, we enjoyed a buffet dinner. Not the best food in the world but it was very filling at least.
Near the restaurant, we watched local Saigoners play tennis under the light of the moon.

That's all for this post, but this wasn't the end of our time in Ho Chi Minh. The next day, we went on a tour of some tunnels used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War, then met up with our friends from Phu Quoc in the evening. Next post coming up shortly!

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