Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is a beautiful,
modern, clean, and progressive city alive with capitalism. The relationship
between the city and former enemies has warmed and grown over the years.
This has resulted in a great amount of foreign investment and trade with
countries across Asia and the Western world. There are ultra modern structures,
high rises and neon signs mixed with lovely French colonial buildings and
traditional Vietnamese structures. Most streets are lined with lovely blooming
trees, sculptured hedges, and decorative vegetation. But many of the old
traditions remain. The sidewalks are still filled with generations of families
hustling out of small shops to earn money while elderly women peddle the
country's famous pho noodle soup from street stalls. As in all the Asian
countries we have visited, the streets teem with pedestrians, carts, bikes,
motorcycles, cars, taxis, buses and larger vehicles in an interplay that
runs amazingly smoothly and with very few accidents.
A good way to explore the many tree-lined streets
of the city is by Cyclo (a 3-wheeled open pedal-taxi) -- an experience
which resulted in our taking many hundreds of photographs, although they
don't do justice to the actual chaos. Unfortunately it was 4:00 pm ...
RUSH HOUR! or rather MAD RUSH HOUR! The drivers didn't seem to worry, and
they even emphasized that we didn't need to worry about being killed.
They were calm and steady and maneuvered their bikes easily and casually.
The cyclos were simple and obviously had travelled countless kilometres.
They employed a primitive braking device: a simple tall metal shaft that
the driver pulled on to brake the rear wheel. For reflectors many of them
recycled old CD discs attached to the rear of the cyclo and some of these
discs even served as license plates!
After a lengthy visit to the War Remnants Museum
we lined up behind a row of cyclos and their drivers/pedalers. We were
soon on our way through the crowded street past the Museum and past a variety
of buildings - many of them sporting signs in both Vietnamese and English:
government buildings, hotels, tourist attractions, Western franchises,
parks, and even another Water Puppets theatre similar to the one we had
seen in Hanoi.
Our first stop was at Independence Palace,
also known as Reunification Palace, built on the site of the former Norodom
Palace. It was the home and workplace of South Vietnam President Nguyen
Van Thieu during the Vietnam War. It was also the site of the symbolic
end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when
a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates. The Palace was
later declared to be a National Cultural and Historical Relic and is open
to visitors as long as official receptions or meetings aren't taking place.
The gates were closed during our visit so our stop was mainly a photo op
and an opportunity for our local guide, Mr. Law, to provide historical
We carried on past numerous sites that were
being prepared for the 40th Anniversary of Independence/Reunification Day
(April 30th) celebrations with setups similar to those we saw at the museum.
Workers were setting up bleachers, stages, sound systems, toilets, lights,
decorations, etc. In fact, the whole city was blanketed with red
banners that read "Long Live the Glorious Communist Party of Vietnam."
Thousands of military personnel and civilians were poised to take part
in weeklong rehearsals and celebrations over the next few days.
Our next stop was the Saigon Central Post Office
near the Notre-Dame Basilica, the city's cathedral. Both these buildings
were constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the late
19th century and the architecture reflects the cultural influence of the
time. The Post Office is one of Saigon's major attractions and tourists
marvel at the elaborate exterior and interior decor.
Visitors are transported to another time and
place in a structure that resembles a 19th century railway station rather
than a post office in Asia. There were ornate colonial furnishings, a gorgeous
pattern-tiled floor, two high glass canopied ceilings, numerous wickets,
and beautifully carved doors on rows of phone booths -- many of which contain
ATM machines. The walls displayed huge original wall maps of the Saigon
area and of the telegraph network between South Vietnam and Cambodia --
the captions were all in French.
All of this was overseen by a giant portrait
of Ho Chi Minh, beneath which was seated an old man behind the sign "Information
and Writing Assistance." Mr. Duong Van Ngo has been working here since
he was 17 as a polyglot public letter writer. Being the last letter writer
in old Saigon, he's a source of stories of how he could connect people
across the planet with his fountain pen.
Outside the Post Office on our way to the Cathedral
we passed large statues that were constructed in 1998 to symbolize the
contributions of the post office's staff in wartime and present day.
Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral was established
by French colonists between 1863 and 1880. Much of the building material
was shipped from France. There are two bell towers, with massive
rows of bells. In the centre is the largest bell, rung only when a pope
dies. The Virgin Mary statue in front of the Cathedral attracted thousands
of people and caused massive traffic jams in 2005 when it was reported
to have shed tears. Even the declaration from Catholic church officials
that there were no "tears" did nothing to stem the tide of "wanna believers."
Leaving the Cathdral, we carried on through
streets decorated overhead with elaborate banners and lights, past the
Opera House (under construction), the American Embassy, along the Saigon
River, and past the towering Bitexco Building, the 124th tallest building
in the world, with a helipad located on the 50th floor.
Eventually we reached the Ben Tahn market.
We were dropped off at the entrance and Beam led us to Pho 2000 restaurant.
It was a noisy, busy place with its major claim to fame being its signs
and photos boasting that "President Clinton Ate Here." On the ground
floor was The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf Cafe with the main restaurant on
the upper level. We had a big bowls of pho with beef and a plate of beef
stir-fried with tofu. It was good...and cheap! Several of us shared a cab
back to our Golden Rose Hotel -- total cost $2.00.