February 2nd, 3rd and 4th
Days 8, 9 and 10
Saigon – everyone calls it Saigon and is known as HCMC for short
After a very early start and a packed but uneventful flight where everything, apart from check in, was done for us, we leave the airport, our bus is waiting and we head to Saigon. Everyone calls this city Saigon.
Our hotel is the Family Inn, Saigon Hotel http://www.familyinnsaigon.com/ once again very central, clean and with windows. Bob and I are doing well with our hotel rooms and all have way surpassed our expectations. Before we arrive at our hotel, because our flight was so early, our rooms aren’t ready so we are taken on a city tour of Saigon.
It is a massive city and was once the capital of Vietnam. Parts of it are incredibly modern and indeed you could be in any major European city with Financial Centres, Skyscrapers etc. There is a marked French influence in this city and is so much the opposite of Hanoi and yet not much different either. The traffic, as usual, is chaotic. Once you start to cross the road you just don’t stop, ever, of you will be stranded in the middle of the road with traffic, tuk tuks, motor bikes, cars, buses etc dodging you and blaring their horns. Don’t be fooled by pedestrian crossings either. Yes there’s a green man but in reality this means absolutely nothing as there seems to be a free right hand turn but everyone coming from all directions seems to be making a free right! It really does suit my natural jay walking skills, I love it and breathe in the intensity of this frenetic city.
Our first stop from the airport is the War Remnants Museum. http://warremnantsmuseum.com/ Before you enter there are original US Armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons outside. Me, being a total pacifist, walk past these. Our visit to Vietnam, to date, has had some interesting propaganda. Most amusing were the clips of how well the US POW’s were treated in the Hanoi Hilton, celebrating Christmas etc – eh I don’t think so. By now I listen to it all and take what I believe to be true. I do believe this was a war between 2 super powers, Russia and the US with too many lives lost. Some of our group had no knowledge of this war at all. As a teenager I remember seeing the anti-war demonstrations on tv this was just before the end of the war. In this museum I was to see hundreds and hundreds of photos taken from around the world of anti-war protests, despite looking and looking I did not see one photograph that was taken in Ireland. Are we too neutral to even have an anti-war demonstration? Were we too tied to the US in the 60’s and 70’s to not speak out? Did we actually protest but are seen as such a tiny country no photograph was worth recording?
Entering the museum there is a room celebrating the lives of the Vietnamese since the war. It really does show how far they have come and the support they received to help rebuild their lives.
The exhibition takes place over three levels and I started on the top floor. I knew if I went to the 1st I’d just leave, but more on that later. On the top floor is the Requiem Exhibition. This is very moving. It was compiled by legendary photographer Tim Page and documents the work of photographers of both sides who were killed during the war. It includes the work of the famous war photographers Larry Burrows and Robert Capa. I cannot stress how moving I found this exhibition. Many of the photographs are the final rolls in photographers cameras which were only developed after they had died.
When we came to the 1st floor exhibition Bob had to leave. I couldn’t as I felt it was my duty to honour the innocents killed in this war. It was awful and I mean truly awful. From photographs of atrocities to children, to a glass case of deformed fetuses either lost through miscarriage or abortion, to the photographs of children born since the war and deformed beyond anything that medical intervention can help. There are also images depicting the brutal My Lai Massacre http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/my-lai-massacre The famous photograph of the napalm Girl. The words of wisdom from a child. the horrors that the dropping of napalm and other Dioxins have now got into the DNA of those who survived and future generations will be deformed beyond belief. The totally unneccessary and brutal massacre of a village. How is this a way of winning a war? How arrogant were they to take out random villages? Makes no sense to me. How can a human being do this to another? There was a quote from an US soldier to others saying ‘Don’t let this fucked up war fuck with your head too’ Will man ever learn from previous wars or is it a case of taking things to a next level? After all look at ISIS now. One thing for sure the force of evil definitely does exist.
We were a quiet group leaving and we continued on our tour. This took us to Notre Dame Cathedral, a very imposing building which unfortunately was closed. We also visited the Central Post Office which is amazing. It is also a working post office still but the design and decor need to be seen
It was now lunchtime and we found ourselves at Pho 2000 http://www.pho2000.com/ This is tiny and is above a group of even smaller shops, you’d struggle for a sign but it is very close to Ben Thanh Market. Not only is this tiny restaurant famous for its food, what really put it on the map was a visit from Bill and Chelsea Clinton. The food was fantastic but think fast food canteen as opposed to luxury. By now I am totally hooked on Vietnamese coffee and, as usual, order 2 at a time.
Following check in and refreshing we meet the Diamonds at 16.00 and head to the Alto Heli Bar, http://www.visit-mekong.com/vietnam/alto-rooftop-bar.htm for sunset downers. This is on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower and we arrive after approximately 30 min walk – we’re still walking everywhere and probably driving people nuts! We are literally just in time for the end of the Happy Hour so once again, mojitos are ordered. It was lovely to be away from the hustle and bustle of this city, so high up and watching the sun set. We figured we would be eating in the market, which we had passed on the way, so instead of doubling back to the hotel we contacted Khanh and met them there. The market was its usual crazy market but yet again the meal was fantastic.
The following morning we were off on a boat trip through the Mekong Delta, also known as the River of Nine Dragons. We meandered along through canals between My Tho and Ben Tre. Ben Tre is famous for its coconut candy and we stopped at Huong Dua to watch local crafts people at work including sampling some coconut candy and rice wine, snake wine and some other shot! Leaving there we boarded an unusual type of Tuk Tuk – we’d to wear helmets, for a tour. It was hilarious. We arrived at a restaurant to sample the famous Elephant Ear Fish, I elected to go vegetarian again and following another fabulous meal we relaxed in hammocks. It has to be unbelievable that we have not had a bad meal in this fabulous country yet. After lunch we were back on the Tuk Tuks and off to the river again but this time we were on Saipans. There were four to each boat and as we paddled slowly through the Mekong Delta, all wearing tradition Vietnamese Hats, it reminded me of the mangroves in Florida. We arrived back on our boat and sailed through fishing villages on the way back to Saigon.
Tonight marks the end of the Vietnamese leg of our tour and our final day with Khanh. Often some people leave the group at this stage and others join but we are lucky that all 16 of us are continuing on the Cambodian leg with a new guide who we will meet tomorrow. We all head for KOTO, http://www.koto.com.au/ for a group meal. KOTO stands for Know One, Teach One as learning should be passed on, knowledge is there to be served. This is a Training Centre in both Hanoi and Saigon for hospitality for disadvantaged children. We had a private room and it was really a lovely evening. The food was more similar to fine dining but was lovely. An official tip for Khanh was collected and I gave a short speech presenting him with it, a pair of chopsticks and thanking him. Debbie and I had heard of Bar Saigon Saigon, http://www.caravellehotel.com/restaurants-and-bars/saigon-saigon-bar was worth visiting so we persuaded most of the group to go. This is set on the rooftop of the Caravelle Hotel and was the first 5 star hotel rebuilt after the war. Many of the war journalists and photographers hung out here during the war and the photographs that hang on the walls are fascinating. Cocktails were good too, mojitos of course! However, prices were expensive compared to what we were by now used to paying, view magnificent, more a place for the beautiful people to hang out with dreadful service. Don’t think our group were too impressed!
The following day was a free day as our Cambodian leg of the tour starts with meeting our new leader from Intrepid at 18.00. However, us being the group we are had other plans. The optional trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/cu-chi-tunnels was in the morning and a few of us elected to go. It/they were incredible, 200km of underground tunnels with the opportunity to go in excess of 100m down one. A few of us, including me, did it, one reversed out after a few seconds, Debbie and others chose not to go down fearing claustrophobia. It was very tight and for much of it you are on your knees crawling. There was a display of the many items of torture and ways of trapping POWs that the Vietnamese used. Just horrific and it really upset me. There was a constant drone of shots being fired, you had the opportunity to fire an AK47 and the noise, I found to be very upsetting. The entire place was too real and too horrible and I was happy to leave.
We return to the hotel and I find Vin at the PC very quiet. A guy approaches him and asks is he the fellow with the Intrepid Group who has had his bag snatched. Poor Vin, he’s 22, first time travelling on his own and his bag was snatched while he sat to look at a map. The snatcher immediately jumped on the back of a motorbike and took off with Vin’s passport, cards and cash. This totally sums up HCMC to me. There is an edge to it I don’t like. The hotel, when I go outside won’t let me continue if I’m wearing my necklace. It’s small with a few tiny charms on it. I’m travelling with a Pacsafe backpack and find myself locking it to everything. It is the first and only time in Vietnam I have found anywhere intimidating. The men are constantly being invited to massage parlours, which are everywhere, full of girls sitting as a group to the front of the shop, painting their nails and looking thoroughly bored. Drugs of all sorts are also being offered to the men and openly. In a bar on our last night there was a mafia type chap with minders and lots of girls. I have enjoyed what I’ve seen, enjoyed our time in Alto Heli watching the sunset and also the time we spent with some of the group on the roof top of a bakery but I will not be sorry to leave and have no desire to return. The single travellers, unless electing to come with the group are going to a hotel with a roof top pool and relaxing, they just don’t feel comfortable wandering around on their own.
That afternoon Bob and I returned to the Reunification Palace http://www.vietnamonline.com/attraction/reunification-palace–ho-chi-minh-city.html The gardens are splendid and again some American Fighter Jets are on display. This was the home to the South Vietnamese President until the end of the war. It’s opulence is phenomenal. It is an oustanding example of 1960’s architecture, very airy and spacious with meeting rooms on the ground floor and reception rooms upstairs. There are the Presidential quarters including games room. On the roof top is the Presidential helicopter, ballroom/nightclub and cinema. The double basements are fascinating, war rooms, telecommunications centre, a warren of tunnels. It really is extraordinary. The Palace is shown very vividly in two world-famous photographs
- 30th April 1970 The Communists Tanks arrived crashing through the wrought iron gates. A soldier ran into the building, up the stairs and hoisted a VC Flag from the balcony. In a private reception chamber, General Minh, who had become Head of the State 43 hours before, waited. As the VC Officer entered the room Minh said ‘I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you’ the VC Officer replied ‘There is no question of you transferring power, you cannot give what you do not have’!
- The other photograph is of people queuing up on the roof to board the helicopter and be evacuated at the end of the war.
Usually the Intrepid meeting with the new leader is at 6pm, however, we as a group, throw everything. The girls had discovered that the A OH Show were playing in the Opera House. This show is Vietnamese and is similar to Cirque du Soleil. The majority of us wanted to go and Khanh arranged the purchase of the tickets. It was an oppportunity to see not only this highly reviewed show but also to enjoy an evening at the opera house, BUT we would not be able to make the 6pm briefing. It was suggested that it be delayed but some of us didn’t want to be rushing back from the show so it was fixed for 4pm.
After the visit to the tunnels, earlier, we all said our goodbyes to Khanh who was taking a 3 day rest before starting again with a new group. As I entered the hotel I met him heading out for lunch before checking out, however, he didn’t even get his lunch ordered before he had to return to assist Vin and indeed gave up his free time to help him getting a temporary passport, giving him cash and going with him to the various official departments to get Vin sorted.
So we arrive to the meeting at 4, when eventually Fila, our Cambodian leader arrives. He thought the meeting was in the lobby despite the note specifying it was on the top floor in the restaurant. He began by saying that in his 6 years with Intrepid he never had a meeting changed from 6pm! Hmm not the best of starts in my opinion and it got worse. He talked and talked, a lot, so was interrupted and asked to be aware that the meeting needed to be over by 4.50 as we were heading to the Opera house. I thought he was quite put out and harassed, however, we were a group of now 15, 8 of whom were together 2 weeks longer. We had gelled well as a group, plenty of Irish craic with some quiet young folk and we were not afraid to speak out. Daniela, who works at the Sydney Opera house knew this was too good an opportunity to miss and had told us all about it. Fila was still going on a bit, said he needed our passport and insurance details all over again and wanted to talk about the group kitty. Well we were well ahead of him. Khanh had already given me a photocopy of all our details to hand over, we were keen on the kitty but said as we were not going out for an official group dinner we’d sort it out tomorrow. The group kitty was a great idea so far. It was used for tipping drivers, restaurants, bell boys etc of all the group activities. Khanh kept a running total, made us all double-check it before the KOTO dinner and handed us back any surplus despite it being a small amount and we all said keep it, he said no that it was ours and insisted we take it. So anyway, having heard what the plans were for the following day we abandoned Fila and took off to a great night at the Opera House and the fabulous A OH SHOW!