I have a friend, E, who balks at the idea of a trip to Ho Chi Minh. She complains that there really is not much there aside from the cheap North Face bags being sold there. But surely there should be much more to this city other than factory overruns right?
Right! For as soon as my friends and I stepped-out of our hotel on our first day in Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon, as it is popularly known among the locals, I knew that E could have been balking at the wrong city. The revving hordes of motorcycles winding through the roads of Ho Chi Minh is already a reminder that this is no boring place. Saigon is also well represented in the “East Meets West” adage of most cities for its history of being once the capital of French Indochina.
So before you go and buy your dirt cheap and brand-new backpacks, grab the most reliable one you have first and get ready to dance with motorcycles, be french with you architectural tastes, brush up with important history and open your eyes to a glimpse of life on the riverside (yes, get out of the city for a while!)
Welcome to Motorcycle City
|It’s the motorcycles you should really watch out for.|
Remember that twitter boo-boo that a Philippine presidential staff once made when she commented how she might get killed from crossing the streets of Ho Chi Minh while on a convention there? Well, while etiquette says that if you are a government employee under an official assignment should you make no snide remarks about the country that is hosting your ass (and to the whole unsupervised world of social media at that), let me just say that sister’s preaching the truth. Saigon’s streets are famous for these swift motorcycles and the fact that they come in droves makes you think that you don’t stand a chance in surviving to the other side (certainly no pun intended). But most busy streets are usually manned by men in green uniform who help people in crossing the streets. It will help that you are Caucasian for them to recognize you as a foreigner right away because if you look just like any other Asian then you presumably should know what to do. No offense meant, but this is based from experience and quite frankly, I do get why they are like that. If I were them my mindset will be like this: If you look like you live here, then you should be able to cross the streets here! Besides, its all part of the experience. Don’t be such a wuss.
French Colonial Architecture
If you are into architecture, then Ho Chi Minh will satisfy your fantasies– especially if you like them French. Saigon, as what Ho Chi Minh city was once called, was the capital of the French Indochina starting in 1859 and to this day, the French influence is very visible on a lot of structures around the city from apartments to hotels and even government buildings.
Dong Khoi Street, in particular, is lined with gorgeous 1920s French apartment blocks and is also where The Saigon Opera House and Continental Hotel is found– both important buildings that feature French Colonial style.
|Saigon Opera House (Ho Chi Minh City Municipal Theatre) on Dong Khai St.|
Notre Dame de Saigon Basilica located in the Paris Commune Square features Neo-Romanesque style that harkens the prevailing architectural style during its construction between 1863 to 1880. During the start of its construction, it used materials imported from France, more notably its outside brick walls that are from Marseilles. From the number of tourists that are wandering around the area, it is obvious that this is one of the more popular sights in the city.
|Notre-Dame de Saigon Basilica|
The Ho Chi Minh City People’s Commitee or Ho Chi Minh City Hall (Hôtel de Ville de Saigon) is also quite a sight to behold. It was built around 1902-1908 and is also exemplary of French colonial architecture. It was also said to be modeled after Hôtel de Ville de Paris (Or Paris City Hall. Why does everything sound so much better in French?)
|Ho Chi Minh City Hall|
Another important building featuring French colonial architecture is the Central Post Office which was designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel (sounds familiar? Yes, you are right he is the same person who designed the Eiffel Tower. Five stars for you.) I wasn’t able to go here actually but my friend Clarisse has and so the photo is taken by her.
|Central Post Office (Photos by Clarisse Hernandez)|
A sad but important history
See the things I teach you here? Architecture and now History? While we are all becoming quite the “educated” people that we are, it is a fact that among the popular tourist attractions in Vietnam have something to do with the American-Vietnam war. This might seem depressing but it just goes to show how the war have affected the Vietnamese and how they value their history and people.
|The Reunification Palace|
The Reunification Palace was the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War until April 30,1975. Going through its halls, which has been preserved to look like what it was in 1975, leaves one with an uncanny feeling– its strange yet familiar, and not in a nice “those-were-the-days” way. Entrance to the palace is at VND15,000 and we don’t know if it included a guide but we just joined a group with an English-speaking guide anyway despite the odd stares that everyone gave us. As we go through the different rooms of the palace (and with the information from the “free” tour guide), I can’t help but visualize how turbulent such a time was then– secret basements, war rooms, etc. I strongly suggest you visit this place for it will give you so much insight about Vietnam, the war and its people.
There’s also The War Remnants Museum which we weren’t able to go to due to time constraints and also, I don’t think I have the guts to look at the photos and all the war crimes stuff used in there (I did say “stuff” because I surely do not know what I am talking about). All that agent orange photos on the internet alone can surely ruin an entire day for me. (And now talking about it makes me feel bad again!)
Parks and Recreation
|No need for the gym, the city parks got your fitness covered.|
You know what I envy most about Saigon? It’s the fact that they have parks, big or small, everywhere all throughout the city. While there are parks in Manila, I don’t think its enough for I certainly do not have conversation lines like “I’ll meet you at the park later” or “lets have a quick run at the park after work” at my disposal. Seeing these pockets of green in HCM shows that living and breathing parks can be done in developing cities! They even have exercise equipments in these parks that everyone can use for free, so for sure they also ran into each other and say, “Oh so sorry you have to see me like this, just came from a work-out at the park”.
A River runs through it
We also took a day off from the city and went to The Mekong Delta in the southwestern part of Vietnam. It took about 2 hours of bus ride from Ho Chi Minh and a quick yet heavy shower of rain for us to finally jump in a small boat that took us to the tributaries of the Mekong Delta. It has been said that the Mekong Delta is a biodiversity treasure trove, with over 10,000 species calling it their home. I know this, at least on the part of scary-looking fishes anyway, from watching a lot of “Monster Fish” on National Geographic.
As part of the tour, we also got to see how Vietnamese coconut candies are made (and I later on discovered that their sticky sweetness do not sit well with my braces) and how guests are welcomed in the Delta– by putting a big snake around your neck (leis are sooo cliche!). 🙂
|Left: Making coconut candies. Right: A girl being welcomed by a snake. Both: people I do not personally know but have more photos in my camera than me.|
As you can see, there’s more to Saigon than those North Face Backpacks although it doesn’t hurt to know that you could buy them for a fraction of the price there. Where exactly? At Saigon Square. They are everywhere there and they’ll know if you’re Filipino because they have all done wholesale transactions from Filipinos so they got your accent and looks down pat. Gah, we are so predictable aren’t we? (If only those men in green uniform can have that same ability.)
We’d like to think that we have sponsors that pay for all our travels but the truth is everything came from our holey pockets. Still, we had a good experience with these people so we highly recommend them:
177 Ly Tu Trong St, Ben Thanh Ward
Dist 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
(reservation made thru agoda.com)
Mekong Delta tour arranged by:
Vinaday Travel (look for Lee)
228 De Tham St., Dist 1, HCM city, Vietnam
Tel: (+84-8) 38388382 – 38388387
Fax: (+84-8) 38388392
***You know what else is so good about Saigon? The Food. I don’t think it is possible for you to not have a good meal there. Every gustatory delight we had is on the upcoming post.
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