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.

London

London at Christmas…..a great time to visit.

For me, there is no place like a big city before Christmas kicks off, and London is no slouch when it comes to lighting up for the festive season. Everywhere you turn there are trees, streets, buildings and anything else that doesn’t move, festooned with bright lights, making even the usual things to do all the more enjoyable.

Luckily, I spent the first few nights in Kensington at the Holiday Inn. I say luckily because this was a complimentary upgrade from Hotels.com as my original hotel (not nearly as swank), was overbooked. A lovely predicament….my room was big by London standards, indeed I could have swung a cat by the tail in a complete circle without touching a wall. It even had a comfortable queen size bed and was in a great location. Shops, restaurants, the underground and great wandering, all right out side my door. I’m oddly happy that it gets dark in pre-Christmas London, because the holiday lights are fantastic.

Staying in Kensington I was close to Hyde Park so I took in the Queen Victoria exhibits celebrating the 200th anniversary of her birth in Kensington Palace. There were exhibits of her toys including a huge dollhouse and puppet theatre. Of course it sounds lovely to have it all and live in a palace but at what cost to personal freedom. Her history as a grownup was covered in the the crown exhibition including jewels (pretty ornate) and her story as a woman (apparently she opposed the franchise for women), mother (lots of children), wife (adored Albert by all accounts) and monarch (long did she reign).

Using both the internet and TKTS ticket both in Leicester Square (best place to get discounted same day tickets), I was able to see a number of productions. In a small theatre just off Leicester Square I saw Miss Kiddy and the Cads, the ultimate in vintage sophistication but with a modern twist giving a jazz beat to contemporary hit tunes. The audience included a couple of avid fans that never miss a Miss Kiddy show, one of whom came miles to see her. Lots of fun.

In contrast, the next night I ventured out to the Royal Albert Hall for the BT Christmas Concert featuring the Royal Symphony Orchestra with the BT choir and the London Community Gospel choir which rocked the house. People were on their feet singing, dancing and clapping, “taken to church” by the great vocals.

Seeing Hamilton in the Victoria Palace Theatre, was a highlight. Had great seats 4 rows from the stage so could see the details of the action. A real homage to the long forgotten roll of Blacks in gaining independence from England and in the writing of the US constitution.

A new musical called & Juliet was playing at the Shaftesbury and I got to witness William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway attempting to sort out their flagging marriage by cowriting a very different ending to the Romeo and Juliet. Lots of fun and quirky twists and best of all the music was chosen from contemporary hits sung to complement the story line which caused lots of laughter in the audience. Picture Juliet (not dead) singing I’m On Fire. And to cap off a perfect evening, just wandering my way through the West End, China Town and surrounding streets to and from the theatre was pleasure in itself.

Prior to heading to St. Martin’s in the Field, I was given a personal tour of the palatial Foreign Office, built to impress, by a young friend who works there. A lovely young woman, Liz and I even had a peek at No. 10 Downing as we exited the Foreign Office before heading to dine in the Crypt of St. Marin’s. St. Martin’s is another personal favourite thing to do, the acoustics are fantastic and the world class Academy of St. Martin’s performed Vivaldi’s “Winter” and were joined by a children’s choir for Christmas Carols. As at Royal Albert Hall the audience was invited to sing-along at least part of the time. London audiences love this participation element and you’d never know they had just experienced a terrorist attack on London bridge or that the UK was on the brink of a national election that might see them exit the EU. (We all know the results as I edit)

Close to St. Martin’s is Covent Garden with the Royal Opera House, Christmas markets and restaurants and where opera singers are the buskers. Cold but relatively clear, it was a good night to wander the streets all the way from Covent Garden, through Trafalgar Square, Up Regent Street and along to Oxford Circus.

Last accommodation was a tube ride away from Kensington on the Piccadilly Line to Finsbury Park where I met up with friends Dawn & Craig in a rented air BnB. Not the fanciest digs but a basic two bedroom flat with a kitchen was fine as we spent most of our time out and about. A trip to the Christmas Market on the Southbank, Harrods and Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park were great fun.

No trip to London is complete without visiting the zebra cross-walk where the Beatles famously strode their way to the Abbey Road Recording Studio. Close by is the Regent Canal and Little Venice where you can take a longboat to Camden Locks and the market and shops that were home to punk rockers but are now mainly touristy. Packed with Christmas shoppers it was cheek to jowl on the tube back to the flat.

Saying goodbye to Dawn and Craig (they left for Scotland) and I headed out to a hotel close to Heathrow for a couple of nights before I fly off to Bangkok. Another London chapter concludes!