The old capital of South Vietnam is a city with a split personality. Since the fall of Saigon it has been known to the North and the rest of the world as Ho Chi Minh City, but to its residents it will always remain Saigon. More cosmopolitan than the official capital of Hanoi, the capitalist influences of the past have been hard to do away with. The city appears wealthier and happier than its northern compatriot and residents are keen to point out its superiority. Saigon is a pumped up, beefed up, cooler older brother, harder, faster and stronger than Hanoi on every level.
There are 5 million motorbikes in Saigon and it is not unusual to see them queued 30 abreast and a hundred deep across 3 lane boulevards, edging their way home through the traffic. Crossing the road is an exercise in confidence and pace: hold your head up high, step out into the road and walk at a steady pace through the moving traffic. Never slow down or run, just allow the bikes to weave their way around you, after the tenth time it gets a little easier and your heart beats a little slower!
We spent three nights in Saigon, but with its café culture and fun atmosphere it would be easy to spend a life time (and a small fortune) in the city. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which is interesting and informative, if a little biased. There are lots of photographs of second and third generation victims who have birth defects and disabilities as a result of the Agent Orange chemical used during the war. It is difficult viewing and very moving, however it appears every disability is blamed on Agent Orange, including Downs Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. There is also a moving display of photographs taken by members of the press who lost their lives whilst reporting on the war. Akin to the visiting Auschwitz or the killing fields, it may be uncomfortable viewing, but to see these images really helps to bring home the atrocities committed during the war in Vietnam.
We also visited Independence Palace, which is where the government of the South ran the country from. The iconic images of tanks crashing through the gates of the palace, symbolised the fall of Saigon, the end of the war and reunification of Vietnam. The Palace is an Austin Powers type relic, exactly as it was before the fall. The opulent upstairs cabinet rooms are a mishmash of kitsch lime greens and purples, padded doors and spiral carpets. Downstairs is a maze of bunkers with maps and, telephone exchanges and radio transmitters, from where the war campaign was conducted. The palace was a more light hearted look at the era and an afternoon exploring it is a good antidote to a tough morning at the war museum.
We also took a trip out to the Cao Dai temple complex and the Cu Chi tunnels. Cao Dai is a Vietnamese religion started in the 1920’s which combines a little from Buddhism, Taoism, and seemingly every other world religion to create something new. As well as worshipping most known Gods, deceased family members are also worshipped as are modern day masters such as Victor Hugo, Bill Clinton and David Beckham. The temple is colourful and intricate using a host of religious symbolism. We watched the monks perform a ceremony in their colourful robes and marvelled at the architecture.
The Cu Chi tunnels are the tunnels used by the Viet Cong to evade capture by the US. We learnt how the complex maze of tunnels housed entire communities, who literally went underground and into hiding during the war. These men, women and children became important soldiers during the war and proved almost impossible to track due to their ingenious skills. A portion of the tunnels has been widened specifically for tourists to go through. Despite its modifications, it is very tight, hot, humid and claustrophobic. Traveling just 20 meters, hunched on your hands and knees in a tunnel that has been widened is hard enough, the thought of living in those conditions is mind boggling. There are also lots of interesting booby-traps and a chance to taste the food the Viet Cong ate. The Cu Chi tunnels are a great place to visit, a real hands on experience that children would really love.
The Vietnamese like nothing better than to sit on the side of the pavement, on mini plastic chairs, eating, drinking and socialising, Saigon is no exception. Although due to some kind of police crack down during our time there the plastic chairs had been removed from the backpacker district. We heard conflicting stories about accidents, drunkenness and pavement ownership but we are still unsure as to why the furniture was not permitted. Not to let this deter them, the canny business owners laid down large mats and encouraged their patrons to sit on the ground at road level and enjoy the view. With cold bottled beer for just 12000VD (US$0.50, 33p) we joined the masses and spent a sociable evening on the ground.
During our time in Sapa we met four Australians in their 70’s who had travelled to Vietnam to take advantage of the cheap dentists. They had paid around £7000 each for their trip including flights, sightseeing a lot of root canals and a full set of porcelain veneers, which would have cost around AUS$100,000 at home. With the help of some British dentists we calculated the cost to be upwards of £50,000 in terms of the work they had done. Looking at their before and after pictures it was a great job and they certainly got value for money. We have decided that as we approach our old age we will revisit Saigon as dental tourists and get all our teeth replaced. With this in mind we feel less guilty about all of the sugar cane juice we have been drinking!