Once Upon a Time it was Saigon…Now Ho Chi Minh City.

The Wild West of the traffic world….

Ho Chi Minh City is the Wild West of the traffic world. There are more scooter/motorbikes here than anywhere on the planet I am sure. It’s as if my travels through Vietnam led to this crescendo of ever pulsing veins of traffic coursing through the heart of the city, pumping its way out to the eighteen districts that make up HCMC. Imagine crossing this road…..we did and we survived, without a cross walk or a light I might add. There is an art to this!

Saigon it was, that was until the communists rolled into town in 1975, taking control of the city and renaming it HCMC a year later. In spite of the official change, the name Saigon still lives on, particularly in the French Quarter and many people use it to this day.

Districts 1,2 & 3 are where most foreigners hang out and within this area is where most of the sights are located including, museums, palaces, pagodas, temples, towering skyscrapers, glitzy malls, trendy restaurants and more down market tourist bars and clubs around the “Backpacker Area”, which is where we stayed in the Beautiful Saigon 3 Hotel. A great small boutique style hotel, it was clean, friendly staff, good breakfast, up a quiet alley-way but close to everything, I would recommend it if you are on a budget.

A walkable area, both night and day, we took in the sights mainly on foot. We had time to visit the Night Market, one of the high end shopping malls (WOW), the beautiful old French Opera House, and we wandered along streets lined with other examples from the French colonial period.

The War Remnants Museum as it is called was an interesting stop. Meant to depict the horrors of war in general and the war with the Americans specifically. With three million dead, and two thirds of those being non-combatants it’s hard not to feel anger at the fate of those poor souls. However, in spite of some hard hitting exhibits the message of the museum is clearly one of peace since the brutality of war ultimately effects more citizens than combatants. There are photo displays of mutilations, napalm burns, torture and massacres including the famous My Lai where American troops murdered nearly a whole village of innocent elders, women and children.

But in a spirit of apparent forgiveness there is a large display of photos on the “peace movement in the States” and subsequent visits and charitable acts of American Vietnam veterans. All in all a moving place and for those more mechanically minded there are some tanks, planes, bombs etc outside that you can wander around and see up close.

The Reunification Palace, previously the Independence Palace (to celebrate independence from France), was renamed to signify the reunion of North & South Vietnam. Located on park like grounds, it’s working days were in the 60’s and 70’s and everything is preserved from this time, a gentle mix of modern style furnishing with Asian materials and symbolism. There are a number of floors with meeting rooms, hosting areas, the presidential library and private suites. All eerily preserved and roped off with red velvet and brass.

With limited time, we really wanted to experience at least some of the Mekong Delta, so we signed on for a day trip to cruise around Dragon, Unicorn, Phoenix and Tortoise Islands. The first stop in the tourist van was a beautiful pagoda and temple, and if you look closely below you will see my selfie.

After the Pagoda we boarded one of dozens of sampans and cruised through the brown water channels, narrowly missing other sampans as they paddled by. We were taken to a fruit orchard where we saw where they grow mangoes, jackfruit, something like a lychee but smaller, dragon fruit and pomelos. The best part was getting to taste everything the farmer grew.

After the orchard we were paddled in a tippy sampan to a honey farm where we got to hold the honeycombs while the bees slept peacefully but we were warned not to drop them. After the bee combs we were introduced to a boa than snaked it’s way around my shoulders and then proceeded to probe my arm with its head. Much more dry and solid than you would expect I was nevertheless glad when Dave snapped the photos and the snake was taken away by its owner.

Back on a larger boat we cruised around the Mekong delta and more of its islands. It is a busy river and much traffic in a variety of shapes, sizes and conditions floats by. The river, we were told, is brown in colour due to diluvian deposits of clay, sand and silt at the mouth of this long and flowing river and not to more unsavoury confluences.

Three days is probably not enough for Ho Chi Minh, especially given it’s proximity to the Mekong Delta and the famous floating markets that you can visit but are some distance from the city. However we were anxious to move on to Phu Quoc Island and the beautiful beaches where we could restore ourselves before my friends head home to Canada.

Hanoi Vietnam

The thousand year old city.

Flying in to Hanoi my excitement increased at the prospect of finally seeing a country I have long wanted to visit. Arriving in time for the Lunar New Year, Tet as it is known in Vietnam, added some spice to the visit with all the many special events taking place in this 1000 year old city. In spite of its age, Hanoi is still a thriving capital, with an historical Old Quarter and an elegant French Quarter at the core of the city. Because Hanoi is located in the delta of the Red River, it is peppered with lakes and parks adding beauty to a city that 7 million people call home.

Hoan Kiem Lake is in the heart of the city with the Old Quarter to the north and the French Quarter to the south. You can walk around the lake in 30 minutes except of course if its New Years Day and most of the 7 million people have flooded the core of the city in celebration. There is a small island connected to the shore by a red lacquered bridge and on the island is the Den Ngoc Son temple where people were busily making offerings in the hopes of having blessings for the New Year. In the middle of the lake is Turtle Tower, erected to tell the story of when the King relinquished his battle winning sword to a Turtle who had temporarily bequeathed to to him in order for him to vanquish the Mongols.

People watching, was at a premium on this special day and a lot of the people were dressed in their finery to usher in the New Year. One elderly lady in a beautiful gown and faux fur coat offered to pose for me when I commented on her dress.

Taking the Hop on Hop Off Bus was a good idea for our first day in Hanoi as it gave us the big picture and helped us decide what we would want to return to on day two. The bus of course had English audio and gave a great overview.

After the HOHO Bus we bought tickets to a water puppet show, a highlight for me. The puppet show was accompanied with ancient instruments and the stories and legends were acted out by puppets In a watery stage. It was really stupendous and the puppets were phenomenal in both costumes, maneuvrability and detail. Vocals were provided by the musician on the flanks of the stage. No flash photography during the show so no pictures except the “water” stage and some of the musicians. The puppets would emerge from behind the screen and act out there parts in the water.

The Old Quarter is a wonderful place to wander and we spent the first evening and some of the next day in the labyrinth of streets named after the artisan guild that occupied them, some for the past 5 centuries or so. Han Quat, for example, is still full of red banners and lacquerware for funerals and festivals and Hang Ma is still home to merchants who sell paper objects.

The narrow houses are called “Tube Houses” and some of them are so narrow at the street they only measure 2 meters. For tax and other reasons Tube Houses grew up and back but never wider at the curb. If you peek down the narrow passages that lead away from the street frontages, there are dark and mysterious storage and living areas.

From dawn til dark the Old Quarter was packed both days that we were in Hanoi. Tet is not just a one day celebration, providing the holiday revellers time to enjoy the fantastic street food, the coffee houses with games or just strolling and soaking it all up.

In the French Quarter there are some remarkable examples of French architecture including the Hanoi Opera House. Day 2 and with a route established by HOHO Bus we wandered for hours, following our noses and stopping at the Women’s Museum, the most visited museum in the city. It was interesting on many levels and certainly telling the story of women tells the story of the country and there was a great emphasis on the bravery, ingenuity and heroism of the women who survived the many violent conflicts that shaped the history of Vietnam. Pink headphones with English audio helped to understand the significant events of the past including family, history and fashion. The exhibits were interesting and engaging and often told the story through the voice of individual women.

Leaving the Women’s Museum we wandered through the French Quarter and came across a New Year’s book fair. Full of families there were books for all ages and it was heartwarming to see so many book lovers in one place, the stalls all decorated for Tet. At this point Dave & Christine felt the inevitable jet lag that is the travelers Bain and they returned to the hotel.

In keeping with the literacy theme I headed toward the Temple of Literature (you gotta love that for a temple name) for the annual calligraphy fair. The Temple is a remnant of the 11C city and consists of 5 inner courtyards modelled after Confucius’s birth place in Qufu China. The entry gates to the courtyards have names like; Well of Heavenly Clarity. The Temple served as a university, where between 1442 & 1779, student results were carved into stone pillars called the Doctors. In the courtyards, Hanoians lined up to buy calligraphy scrolls, insurance for New Years. At the altars inside the courtyards, people were shoulder to shoulder praying and making offerings.

Continuing along the streets of the French Quarter until I reached the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh where white uniformed guards ceremonially guarded the tomb, I entered the giant plaza that makes up Da Ninh Square. Close by were the government buildings and along the way the Canadian Embassy.

On the way back to the Old Quarter where I meant to finish my day with some street food, I came across a wonderful treasure, one of those places that if you were looking for it, you’d probably never find it. But wandering paid off. Along both sides of the railroad track, which were still in use, was an array of small restaurants, food vendors and merchants busy using the space provided by the tracks to back and forth, running hot plates of food and drink from kitchens to tables, up and down spiral staircases and seemingly oblivious to the potential danger of a train.

However, having some kind of advanced warning system there were suddenly shouts and whistles warning everyone off the tracks. I was sitting at a small table, having some delicious noodles when the excitement of the train coming happened, so I had to draw in my knees and hold my breath with everyone else as the train thundered through. As soon as the train disappeared down the tracks the bustle of activity started up again as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Hanoi is a great city and schedules being what they are we had to see as much as we could in the 2.5 days we had. And now on our way to Halong Bay.