Friday 23 March 2012

Sightseeing in Old Saigon

With the guidance of our helpful homestay host, we travelled easily by the cheap-as-chips public bus system to our next destination, Ben Tre. Unfortunately, it was a terribly dull stopover with nothing much to be said about the town. One mildly curious oddity was perhaps the fact that our hugely cavernous and mostly empty basic hotel, run by what appeared to be government officials alongside likewise lacklustre Communist government buildings, had access to the fastest internet, ever. At 30 megabits per second of upload and download speed, it was the perfect opportunity to catch up on photo processing, blogging and video-chatting with family, before cruising through the rest of the Mekong Delta to Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. Despite the official change, locals comfortably refer to their home city by both names. Well, the buses at least still displayed signs to Saigon.

Strangely enough, the crazy noise and traffic that Ho Chi Minh City is known for did not bother us much. Yes, the density and sheer number of motorbikes beeping and buzzing about is intense, and yes, crossing a roundabout in peak hour traffic requires a bit more care and effort than usual, but after the chaos of Mekong Delta highways, there was a certain sense of order and rhythm to the city’s streets that we kind of fell into. Plus there was this really cool network of little alleyways where one could escape the noise and just explore. We discovered a key indicator of a good alleyway (one that actually goes somewhere) was the motorbikes; if we saw one zoom out of a seemingly ordinary gap between two buildings, chances were we’d find an awesome coffee shop, a busy noodle stall, or maybe just a really nice shortcut. We scored well with our hotel, where the alleyway next door served delicious wonton egg noodle soup (with heaps of spare part options), alongside top notch ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee), a great start to a morning of sightseeing.

Saigon Alleyways - view from our hotel, Saigon
Over the next few days we knocked over some essential Saigonese sights and activities. We visited the Reunification Palace, where the communists rolled a tank over the gates in 1975 to officially claimed power in South Vietnam. We were guided through a lacquerware workshop where we learnt the tedious nature of handmade artwork. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which although rather one-sided, demonstrated terribly well the atrocities suffered by ordinary civilians during the war in Vietnam. A surprising number of iconic photos were on display, and an entire exhibition called Requiem was dedicated to the works of photographers who died in the field. Some images were downright disturbing however, and the uncensored gore of it left me feeling a little ill by the end.

The Wrong End of a Mini Gun - War Remanants Museum, Saigon
We wandered the tourist path of old Saigon in District 1, starting with collecting souvenirs and a requisite conical hat around Ben Thanh Market. Munching on a couple of tasty banh mi (Vietnamese tasting French baguette sandwiches) we strolled the Dong Khoi drag to view such specimens of French colonial architecture as the Continental and Caravelle hotels, the Municipal Theatre (formerly the Opera House), the People’s Committee Building (formerly the Hotel de Ville), and the Central Post Office (where we posted home our new collection of souvenirs). We joined in the celebration of Mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral, although it was a bit hard to follow in Vietnamese.

Notre Dame Cathedral - Saigon
We searched for the best bowl of pho that we could find. We started off with a serving at one outlet of Pho 24, the largest noodle soup chain in the country, which was actually quite tasty and set the standard for our future tastings.

Pho 24 - Saigon
We also tried Pho 2000, where a former US president of the Clinton variety ate a bowl of the “dish that built a nation”. I hope he wasn’t as disappointed as we were with this mediocre effort.

Pho 2000 - Saigon
Finally we found the popular Pho Hoa, a well regarded outlet that had it all – tendon, tripe, beef balls, rare sliced beef, fatty flank beef – everything needed to make the ultimate pho bo dac biet. Accompanied with huge piles of fresh herbs, it was the wonderfully aromatic steaming bowl of flavour and texture that we had been searching for. Satisfied, we dieted from pho for a few days after.

Pho Hoa - Saigon
We finalised our war effort with a trip to part of the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of underground tunnels that facilitated Viet Cong communication, coordination and attacks. Despite being in a big crowd of tourists, it was interesting to see the trapdoors and hidden openings used by the VC, and we got to crawl through 100 metres of the tunnels themselves. We also tried our hand at firing live rounds from an M1 rifle. My first shot ever out of a gun was so startling that I jumped back a metre.

Tia Firing an M1 Rifle - Cu Chi Tunnels
Ben was little more experienced and therefore a lot calmer.

Ben Firing an M1 Rifle - Cu Chi Tunnels
Although the story presented at this site was again mostly one-sided, one of our tour guides was actually a South Vietnamese army veteran who fought alongside US soldiers. Mr Bing Lee’s more personal version of events painted a very different picture of the Viet Cong and the US army to what was presented in the museums. As they say, the first casualty of war is the truth.

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