March 15th – 18th 2011
I used to call this place “Ho Chi Minh City” but “Saigon” just rolls off the tongue much better.
It was relatively painless getting here. Caught a shared van to the border, got stamped by both Cambodian and Vietnamese immigration, then saw one of many tourist buses waiting for their clients to board so I paid $5 to go from the border to Saigon.
Saigon is a modern looking Asian city sans skyscrapers but they do have the odd high-rise here and there. After all, this is the economic capital of Vietnam. The backpacker area of Pha Ngu Lam is packed with places to stay, travel agencies, bars, restaurants, and many kinds of shops selling everything from clothes to bootleg DVDs. The place is constantly buzzing. There’s a piece of open space nearby which always has people jogging or people loitering around their motorcycles and watching people play “Jianzi” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jianzi)
The first thing that struck me about Vietnam is, almost everybody and their mothers are on motorcycles. Each time there’s a red light, they start clogging up the roads and once green hits, it’s like a dam bursting. Crossing traffic is really as suicidal as they say it is but the trick is to have no fear. If you wait and wait for the roads to clear up, you will never cross. Just step onto the road and walk, keeping your eye on both sides of the roads of course. Cars, buses, and motorcycles WILL be coming at you but they try to avoid you.
(Horde the road.)
I was really interested in visiting the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum so I started with a motor-ride to the palace. It was here that Saigon fell to the Communists, when tanks ran over the gates. The palace was quite modern and not a traditional looking palace. The rooms were well-decorated and one can imagine the leaders of countries meeting here. Unfortunately, I forgot to charge my camera and couldn’t take many pictures.
The War Remnants Museum really moved me. It was told with an anti-American voice. There was a floor with many pictures of the soldiers and victims of the Vietnam War and it was brutal to go through each one. I did not realize the USA used chemical weapons during the war. Dioxin, nicknamed “Agent Orange” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange), left a lasting mark on many people, then and now. So many kids borne after the war were deformed and mutated and the pictures of them were just brutal to look at but I went through each one, reading all the descriptions or stories. I would recommend everyone to make a trip here when they visit Saigon. It has been one of the best museums I’ve been to in 10 months of travel, maybe because the material interested me.
Another day, I took a tour to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Vietcong during the war. It was pretty cool to see how the tunnels were made and how small they were. Only small and skinny Vietcong could use them. There were 3 levels, each one serving a purpose, from living quarters to escape route into the Saigon River. There was a bigger version of the tunnels created for tourists to crawl through for the experience. It was very hot down there and it was exhausting to crawl through and I can’t imagine crawling through the real thing. Not only that, the Vietcong made some nasty looking traps to be used on the enemy. Let’s just say if you fell into one of their traps, you would have been stabbed by at least a dozen foot-long metal spikes.
(Typical tunnel entrance. No fatties allowed.)
Another day, I took a day-trip to visit the Mekong Delta. The bus took us to My Tho where we boarded a boat to visit several islands on the Mekong River, the main one being Ban Tre. We tried some famous Vietnamese coconut candy and visited several small towns on the islands but it was all set up for tourists and not very authentic. I did enjoy wearing the wide Asian straw hat all the boaters wore though. I held a bee honeycomb and I even held a python around my neck. They are such beautiful creatures.
(Packaging coconut candy.)
(She was only a few year’s old.)
I’ve had plenty of Vietnamese food in the USA, considering I’m pretty much 1/8th Vietnamese due to friendships and family relationships. But when my Cu Chi Tunnel tour guide told us that she knew of a place that served dog, I jumped at the chance to try it out. After the tour, I asked the guide to show me where it was and she took me through random streets and alleyways until we reached a small obscure place with several Vietnamese men sitting outside, eating and drinking. There weren’t any skinless dogs strung up though. The shop buys their meat from villages and chops them up. Thi (the guide’s name) ordered a plate of dog and it came roasted, looking a lot like roast pork pieces. I was more excited than afraid to try it. It also tasted a lot like roast pork. The proper way to eat it was to wrap it up in some minty-tasting leaves they provided, then dipping it into some special sauce, which might’ve been octopus or squid ink, I wasn’t sure what Thi told me. Anyway, Thi said she ate it all the time so she only ate a little bit, leaving me to finish most of it. As dog wasn’t a filling food, Thi told me of her favorite pho place nearby so I downed a big bowl of delicious pho, with all the different cuts of meat in it.
(If you didn’t know that was dog, would you eat it?)