The 5-hour flight from Seoul got us into Vietnam a bit late – almost midnight – but the warm, humid air of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) was such a wonderful contrast to the bitter cold of 5F that we left behind in Korea. In our cab ride to the hotel, it was immediately apparent that we also left behind the high-tech, first-world, super-modern Asia that was Seoul. Motorbikes were everywhere, streets were torn up from construction and even the power lines looked overburdened and sagged precariously close to the sidewalks. Our cabbie only ripped us off slightly -it was after midnight, after all – and we arrived at the Hong Vy3 hotel where the friendly staff took us to my first-ever windowless hotel room. At least the A/C was working!
We woke up super-early at seven a.m., both from the excitement of being in a new city, and the jet lag where we were 2 hours ahead of Vietnam time. Breakfast was a real treat – no kimchi! – and included lots of fresh pineapple and baguette as well as one of the most delicious yogurt drinks I’ve ever had, and the famous Vietnamese coffee. Yum.
Our first stop was the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Despite my husband’s superior navigating ability and our fairly decent map, we managed to get lost in the heavily under-construction streets. Crossing the road was the first huge obstacle – as well as the most memorable thing about the city. If I thought the traffic was crazy in Istanbul or Moscow, they had nothing on the sea of motorbikes that rode about on these crowded streets, which by the way, didn’t have any traffic signals. Trying to cross at first was a leap of faith, hoping that the sea of motos would swerve around you as you gingerly made your way to the other side. We were lucky that they did.
After a half hour of walking through the streets which smelled of fresh-fruit, incense and gasoline from the thousands of motorbikes, we finally found our Pagoda. It was smoky from incense/humidity inside and was intricately decorated. Offerings of coconut milk and fruit were on the altars in front of these grotesque demonic Buddha statues. Outside, we watched a woman pray over a cage of birds with incense sticks. Finally, her friend released the birds by placing them in the hands of the praying, kneeling woman and they flew away.
Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum, formerly known by the less politically-correct title of the Museum of American War Atrocities. Lots of pictures of the people affected by Agent Orange and nasty descriptions of torture techniques. Outside were some of the cages they used for political prisoners. We tried to wash the propaganda out of our heads with a tasty lunch of banana flower shrimp salad, spiced rabbit and spring rolls before we headed for our next dose of anti-Americanism at the Re-unification Palace.
We took a tour led by Vietnamese tour guides dressed in these gorgeous silk long-sleeved, flowing shirts and pants. The decor was very kitschy, 1950s Cold War-style conference rooms and bunkers. We again heard about all the terrible things the Americans did – quite reminiscent of the Russians’ diatribes against the Germans at the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Apart from all that, it was still an interesting place and history that I knew little about. We saw the tanks that “liberated” the palace from the South Vietnamese and escape routes used by the parties in power at the time.
Our second day here was a bit more laid back. We visited the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, which had a wide assortment of historical stuff on display. After a quick trip to the Indian mosque and some spicy Indian food for lunch, we next we headed to the Saigon River, which was much browner and dirtier than I expected. We sat and had ice cream out of a coconut while watching the river.
All in all, Saigon was incredibly interesting, if not the prettiest place I’ve ever been to. You can already see the signs of capitalism and growth in the area around the city center, which is already looking more like 5th Avenue and where the prices are starting to match it. They even have traffic lights.
Have you traveled to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh? What were your impressions? Leave a comment below!