Thursday, January 04, 2007

Saigon, Vietnam - Once the Thriving Capital of French Indochina

After a fantastic trip to Cambodia, we landed in Ho Chi Minh City in the late evening of the 27th of December. In a show of traveler's solidarity, I offered to share our pre-arrange taxi to the hotel with a chap we'd met while waiting for our plane in Phnom Penh, which saved us a couple of bucks, always a good thing.

After staring wide-eyed out the cab's windows as the chaotic traffic of the city rushed all around us and our driver somehow managed to avoid hitting anything or anyone, we arrived in the Pham Ngu Lao area where out hotel was located. My lack of planning for this part of the trip was such that I didn't even know where our hotel was in relation to the rest of the city, and at this point I didn't really care. In the end, this was a great area to stay in. The Pham Ngu Lao area is located on the west side of District 1, near some markets and about a 20 minute walk from the downtown area. Its close but not too close proximity to the sights make it a very popular area for budget travelers and the streets are crammed with guest houses, hotels, restaurants and cafes providing services to tourists. Ends up it was a fantastic place to stay. Our hotel was the An An Hotel, one of the larger ones in the area, and we had one of their luxury rooms on the top floor for a reasonable price. The staff at the hotel were very nice, helpful and the place was clean, which is more than one can say for many of the other places in the area.

Bui Vienh street at sunset.

We made a quick run out of our hotel for some Pho (noodles) which turned out to be delicious, before heading back to our hotel and getting some sleep. The following 4 days were a jumble of walking, eating, sightseeing, walking, shopping and walking.

The Streets
The streets of Saigon are seemingly forever embroiled in utter chaos. In contrast with our trip to Cambodia, where we were isolated from the streets by our car and driver, we faced the streets of this city on foot. I was constantly amazed at how we survived something as simple as crossing the street. Here is a typical street scene, which we saw repeated time and again at countless intersections. You'll notice the traffic heading toward the top of the picture hasn't quite yet finished passing, as evidenced by the shadow of a car on the right hand side, and yet some traffic has managed to make it through the intersection in the other direction already and the horde of motorbikes are on their way, horns a blazing.

It really was fascinating to see the ebb and flow of vehicles on the street, and the fact that we did not witness even one accident is a testament to the skill, patience and courtesy of the drivers in this city. Everyone just seems to take their turn, honk their horn to let others know they are coming through and find a hole in the traffic. Amazing. Crossing the streets as a pedestrian takes a bit of getting used to, though. Our first little while in the city, I was a bit hesitant, even taking into account my experience in Beijing which is similarly unfriendly to walkers. The key is to be confident, time your crossing so that most of the traffic moving against you has stopped, and march confidently out into the intersection keeping an ear out for the horns of approaching vehicles. By the end of our time here, I was a seasoned pro, and I think Yoshiko was no longer terrified of crossing streets, though she still would not undertake a major crossing on her own. On our first adventure out into the mean streets of Saigon, I spotted this little guy sitting on a motorcycle waiting for his master to come out of a store.

When thinking of all our traveling on the streets of Saigon, what strikes me the most is that this is a very dirty city. You are constantly having to step over garbage or various fluids which have run down from some shop\construction site\toilet\food stall and there are some pretty ripe smells floating out and about most of the area we walked through. I guess this is because the Vietnamese, at least in our area, seem to live out on the streets. Plastic tables are set outside all over the sidewalks, kids and animals are running around and street vendors are pushing their carts of food around selling to the people lounging around on the sidewalks. Quite a different lifestyle than clean, orderly Japan, that's for sure. Something else which is ubiquitous with the streets of Saigon are these cyclo drivers.

They are all over the place in tourist areas and are one of the cheapest ways to get around the city, at about a dollar an hour. These guys have it pretty rough out there, pedalling around in the hot sun. I understand that most of the cyclo drivers are former South-Vietnamese bureaucrats or US Army collaborators who were stripped of their identity papers when South-Vietnam fell to the communist North. With basically no rights of ownership, no residence and no future, these guys have taken up riding cyclos instead of begging for money on the street corners, which to me commands a lot of respect. Many of them are Western educated, speak great English and can serve as wonderful tour guides.

The city really comes to life at night. Here is a 1/6th of a second exposure of the goings on around the traffic circle.

And a full 1 second exposure at the same place, crossing the street here was a bit of a challenge. You really had to pick your moment. On occasion, the local tourist police would spot s group of stranded people and help them through the intersection.

The Markets
Our main source of entertainment for the duration of our stay was Ben Thanh Market and it's surrounding area of shops and vendors.

This market was built by the French a little over 100 years ago and is now the most centrally located source of good, cheap stuff in Saigon. Inside, you can find everything from silk goods and clothing to fresh coffee and dried squid. Just walking around was interesting, and actually making a purchase was doubly so. Like any of the markets you visit in this part of the world, haggling is key and we certainly did our fair share. Yoshiko enjoyed the experience, and in the case of the lady pictured below managed to knock 50% off the asking price for a nice handbag.

Sozo Cafe
A little place down the street from our hotel turned into our regular hangout while in the city. We stopped in there at least once a day, partly for the great coffee and food as well as the atmosphere and free Internet, but also because it serves a good cause. *steps onto soapbox* When traveling to developing countries, I think it is important to not only support the local economy by spreading your cash around, but also trying to seek out that one special place which helps disadvantaged people. The Lonely Planet guidebooks are great at pointing out some of the shops and restaurants which turn 100% of their profit back to the community or helps to train people who would otherwise have very little going for them in their life. *steps off soapbox* Sozo Cafe, is one such place. From it's humble beginnings employing street youth to stock and man a cart selling homemade cookies to tourists on the streets, Sozo has grown to 2 full fledged, full menu cafes while still sending out t-shirt clad youths into the streets with baskets of goodies. The French baguette sandwich here was really good.

The City
Since Ho Chi Min City was the capital city during France's colonial days, it has an interesting feel to it. Some of the architecture is quite nice, making you feel like you are in a major world city, but at other times you are reminded of the poverty and the lingering effects of war that are all around you, such as when a beggar with no legs ambles by and asks you for some money. The airport is a good example of the state of affairs in communist Vietnam. The airport has not had any obvious upgrades since the 1950s and 60s, back when it was a major hub for the region. Out between the landing strips, you can still see the overgrown remains of bomb shelters which served to protect aircraft during the war between North and South. You definitely get the feeling that the country is in the grips of a massive change now with stores selling designer goods popping up all over the place and Hummers cruising the streets. One of the dominant features of the city is the Saigon River which runs through its core.

Here is a perfect example of the duality of this city. As passengers disembark from the fancy hydrofoil which links Saigon to other locations along the Mekong Delta, while a man gathers fish in the dirty water below the platform.

Near our hotel stood this large church, a remnant of France's presence in town. Traffic circles are also quite common, and a pain in the ass to navigate for pedestrians.

The downtown core of the city is centered around the Dong Khoi area where one can find some of the city's best hotels, restaurants and which is within spitting distance of the city's main sights and activities. This is the Municipal Theater, which sits at the end of Le Loi street in the center of town.

As I mentioned before, the city really comes alive at night, thanks to well designed illumination of some of the key buildings. I hadn't even noticed City Hall until we walked by it's brightly lit facade one night.

One of my disappointments from this segment of the trip was the way that Lonely Planet played up this pagoda as an ornate masterpiece of Buddhist artwork. While the story behind the statues housed inside were interesting, our visit to this pagoda totally turned us off visiting any of the city's other Pagodas. I guess I've been spoiled by the stately Japanese temples and shrines carefully laid out and constructed. To me, the Jade Emperor Pagoda was just a red painted concrete building, and had it not been the start of our walking tour of the city, I would have gladly skipped the visit.

Street vendors are ubiquitous in this city, probably since it's easy to shop from a motorbike along the roadside. Here, an old lady waits for her next customer.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral, which sits near Reunification Palace was a nice building to see. The stained glass was destroyed in the Second World War, which is unfortunate, but it remains a lovely building.

This is apparently a popular place for wedding photos. This couple was posing in front of the church, though from my angle you see the city's Main Post Office as a backdrop.

Another of the disappointments was our failed visit to Reunification Palace. I would have liked to go inside and have a look, but as the clock struck 11AM while we were waiting in line to buy tickets, the ticket lady closed up shop right in front of us. Quite peeved at that. We did manage to get a look from the outside of the building. This was where the President of South Vietnam turned over power to the Communist forces who literally crashed through the palace gates with tanks in 1975 during the fall of Saigon.

Some of the tanks, whose capture of the palace was caught on camera by foreign journalists, remain on the grounds of the palace.

After being turned back at the gates of the palace, we made our way up the street to the War Remnants Museum, which houses exhibits related to what is now called the American War. From what I understand, this museum was once called the "Museum of American and French War Crimes" but the name was changed to avoid insulting the throngs of Western tourists who now flock to the museum. While the propaganda inside continues to be pretty strong, with the impact of the war on women and children taking center stage, it is hard to argue with graphic photographs of some of the atrocities perpetrated by American forces in Vietnam. Here sits a US tank, captured by the North-Vietnamese during the war.

The exhibits outside the museum are very interesting, with authentic military vehicles preserved for the public to view. Here you can see the minigun of a Bell UH-1 "Huey" helicopter, which was used to support ground operations deep in the jungles of Vietnam. Everyone remembers the scene from Apocalypse Now when the Air Cav attacks a village on the shores of a river with music from Wagner blaring from the speakers... it was interesting to climb up on one of those choppers. This minigun fired at a rate of up to 4000 rounds per minute from its six barrels, a very effective and devastating weapon.

Inside one of the smaller buildings, a series of photographs follow the progress of the war from the early days of guerrilla fighting to the full scale modern warfare that ended up winning the war for the North. Many of the photos show the horrors of war, with US soldiers lying bloodied and battered along with the Viet Cong. This photo shows a US Marine holding up the remains of a VC soldier killed with a grenade launcher. I'd seen it before somewhere, as I'm sure many of you have.

Some of the more disturbing exhibits showed the effects of the wide spread use of Agent Orange to cut back the forest and eliminate it as a place of safety for the VC soldiers. Another exhibit outlines one of the worst massacres of civilians by US forces in Vietnam, that at Son My (also known as Mai Lai). Anywhere from 300 to 500 civilians were slaughtered here by frustrated US soldiers. The publication of photographs of the massacre taken by an accompanying photographer dealt a serious blow to support for the war in the US. Events such as these not only underscore the horrors of war but how it affects the psychology of those involved. To these soldiers, whom witnesses describe as using babies for target practice with their pistols, the Vietnamese villagers were not human beings. It is difficult to understand how such a thing could happen, and I'm sure we all hope we would act differently were we placed in the same situation, but who really knows?

New Year's Eve
Our last night in Vietnam was December 31st, New Year's Eve. Out on the street near our hotel, preparations started early for the evening's festivities, with De Tham street blocked off for a street party. As the sun went down, the action started on the stage set up in the middle of the party.

The streets were jam packed with people, and we didn't stay long, opting to go further down the street for dinner and relax in our room until midnight approached.

We did make it back out on the streets, and after turning down the offer from the hotel staff to attend their other hotel's party, we made our way into the throngs of people to count down the last seconds to 2006. The crowd was pretty wild, and a few people popped their Champagne a little early, but the live band did a good job of counting things down for us and the crowd erupted in jubilant celebration as the clock struck 12. I think this was the first time I'd been in a crowd of strangers for New Year's Eve.

The next morning, we got up early and hopped a cab to the airport. Our flight to Narita actually landed a little early, though due to the distance our plane had to taxi to the gate we still managed to miss the final bus to Utsunomiya by 5 minutes. We instead hopped on the trains and got home around 11:30PM, tired but satisfied with our trip.

So that was how Yoshiko and I spent our first Christmas and New Year's Holiday as a married couple. I am now sick and tired of blogging, don't expect a new post for the next little while, at least a couple of days... lol


Blogger c4r01in said...

how can you post pictures this big?

7:46 PM  
Blogger Michel Lafleur said...

Using the blogger tools, you cant.

I use an external image hosting service,, and am able to choose the size of the pictures I want to post.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous max said...

Thanks for giving a good review of Sozo. We try our best! You could put our website in your links if you wanted. Thanks ~ Max

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Luu Thai Anh said...

u did a very good job in my city. I like your writting so much. By the way i got ur blog from google research.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Luu Thai Anh said...

may i put this entry about my city on my blog?

9:15 AM  
Blogger Michel Lafleur said...

Glad you approve of my writing!

Of course you can put it on your blog if you like.

9:31 AM  

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