Blurb: "Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon,city (1997 pop. 5,250,000), on the right bank of the Saigon River, a tributary of the Dong Nai, Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city, the greatest port, and the commercial and industrial center of Vietnam. It has an airport and is the focus of the country's highways, railroads, and Mekong delta waterways. An ancient Khmer settlement, Saigon passed (17th cent.) to the Annamese. It was captured by the French in 1859 and ceded to France in 1862. A small village at the time of the French conquest, Saigon became a modern city under French rule. It was laid out in rectilinear fashion with wide, tree-lined avenues and parks, and soon developed a reputation for its beauty and cosmopolitan atmosphere. It was capital of Cochin China and from 1887 to 1902 was capital of the Union of Indochina.
For administrative purposes Saigon and Cholon, on opposite banks of the Saigon River, were merged in 1932; in 1956 the two cities were included in the new prefecture of Saigon. Saigon became the capital of the newly created state of South Vietnam in 1954. In the Vietnam War it served as military headquarters for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. It suffered considerable damage during the 1968 Tet offensive. Throughout the 1960s and early 70s at least a million refugees from the rural areas poured into the city, creating serious housing problems and overcrowding. In 1975 after Saigon surrendered and Vietnam was reunited under the prevailing Communist government, the city lost its status as capital and was renamed after the late North Vietnamese president. The local economy of Ho Chi Minh City was disrupted during the early years of the new regime, which curtailed foreign investment and promoted collectivization. In the 1980s and 90s, conditions improved as the city gradually adapted to the new system and the government relaxed its economic policy. There is a growing industrial base, which includes the manufacture of home appliances, clothing, and shoes as well as automobile assembly. The city is the seat of Ho Chi Minh Univ. and a national theater."
Its official...Saigon is a crazy crazy city!! We thought there was alot of chaotic traffic in Hanoi...ha!! This place rolls, crawls, tosses and turns continuously - its hypnotic. However, it is far less 'Vietnamese' than Hanoi having spent time under Western rule it retains (outwardly) the appearance of a free-market city. Not that it probably is but it is definitely freer than Hanoi and the people are more relaxed, modern and friendly. We touched down and took a taxi to a guesthouse we had chosen from the LP. However, upon arrival we found that the only available room was next to a building under construction. So, backpacks on we took an hour's weary wander through some of the city's accommodation. We ended up at the Orient Hotel on De Tham street. Nice enough, clean and tidy. We had dinner at the Eden Restaurant just down the road and enjoyed some French red (nicely cheap) and watched the ole World Cup footie on the box. Retiring to our room we were unfortunately unable to sleep for a good while due to the bar next door deciding to have a drum and bass evening...
This morning we were awoken at 7am by hammering and drilling on the wall next to our bed. Ok, a room move was on the cards. We took a room to the back of the guesthouse, no view but it was much quieter. This is definitely a country under constant construction! Lunch was at a Restaurant called Bourbon Street, obviously an American theme but conducted in a very no frills way! However, the staff were very sweet and we sat and watched the rain come down on the traffic - having a bit of a giggle at the plastic tents many of the MC riders were wearing...lots of little ET's!
Trying to learn a little more about Vietnam's history we visited the Reunification Palace..odd place...full of blatent propaganda...it seems that the government has rewritten the country's history.
Blurb: "On the morning of April 30, 1975, photojournalist Neil Davis recorded a dramatic event in Saigon, a shot that would be seen around the world. As the North Vietnamese Army invaded the city, Communist tanks rushed the Reunification Palace (then ironically known as Independence Palace), crashing through its wrought-iron gates and unfurling a Viet Cong flag from the fourth floor balcony.
Reunification Palace today is preserved almost as it was on the day in April when the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist. Recent additions include a statue of Ho Chi Minh and a video viewing room with the latest version of Vietnamese history in several languages. Reunification Palace was built in 1868 as a residence for the French Govenor-General of Cochichina. When the French left, it became the home of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.
The 1960's architecture and well-appointed rooms befit a high ranking government official as was the case when the South's leaders occupied the premises. Today, it emits a spooky silence that is broken only by the numerous tour groups passing through..."
The building is spacious and dated, there's not much information to be read but its an interesting place to walk around, especially the warren of administration/war rooms in the basement. A very depressing example of 1960's office spaces! The helicopter on the roof is disappointingly a replica of the one that landed there all those years ago to rescue the staff supporting South Vietnam/USA. The tank out on the front lawn is also a replica of the one that the North Vietnamese Army smashed through the gates with in 1975.
Tired of walking and sweating (however captivating the surroundings) we made a beeline for a Highland Coffee outlet just down the road. Nicely A/C'd and empty we sat and enjoyed a coffee and a cool down. Then after some time at an internet cafe we set off for food... Dinner was at Al Fresco's, brother to the Papa Joe's Cafe in Hanoi that we had also visited. Friendly but expensive it was run by a big Aussie...we settled down to mammouth food and a nice glass of vino. We strolled home through the city that night, stopping in the park to enjoy the family atmosphere and also watch all the lovers that had met there...dotted around the park, lounging on benches, perched on bikes. All very sweet in such a controlled regieme.
We've had a good few days in HCMC. This included another trip to a museum...the War Remnants Museum, which housed a very one-sided account of the war.
Blurb: "The Remnants Museum, formerly named "The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government", was established in September 1975. The museum is an organization in charge of studying, collecting, examining, preserving and displaying the remnants of the wars against the invaders in Vietnam.
The museum displays some relics as well as photos showing crimes of American imperialism and the puppet government during the Vietnam War with the following themes: American soldiers killing and torturing Vietnamese civilians and scattering poisonous chemicals, prisons, the war against the North Vietnam. Some of the relics are airplanes, cannons, tanks, guillotine and two life-sized replicas of the "tiger cages" Con Dao prison."
All in all this is not a cheerful place to visit. Many photographs and accounts of the most attrocious war crimes - it was incredibly sad. What made it sadder was once again the communist government's denial of any wrongdoing on their own part...i.e. once they had taken Saigon they slaughtered hundreds of 'intellectuals' including teachers, lawyers, doctors and other 'threats to the regeime'. This is never once mentioned, nor is the fact that whole families are blacklisted, i.e. denied a passport, a good job and made to live in zoned areas of the city. The crime committed? These families have fathers/mothers/relatives who fought on the 'wrong side' and so now all their decendants are branded.
For us, travelling around such a country and speaking to such people, it was an eye-opener. We take our passports/freedom so very much for granted and all many of these people want to do is to have the right to leave their country and see other areas of the world. Ok...heavy bit over...
Back to fun...we did relax in Saigon - it had many comforts from home including eateries that did English Twinnings tea and museli, brown bread and full brekkies (The Art Gallery Cafe on Don Koen)...a nice treat after a few weeks of guesthouse breakfasts that consisted of white stale bagettes with Laughing Cow triangle cheeses! We also treated ourself to a splurge at the Sheraton. It had the highest viewing area in town and so we sat in their bar on the 23rd floor and surveyed the city. Some good Italian food was had at Good Morning Vietnam and Cafe 33 on De Tham...
Next it was off to Cambodia via the Mekong...this was not to turn out quite as we had hoped...