We arrived in Saigon (formally Ho Chi Minh City, but most everyone unofficially still calls it Saigon) on a Saturday night, after 20+ hours of travel. We rode to our apartment with our faces glued to the windows of our taxi, soaking in as much as our exhausted minds could take: chaotic crowds of motorbikes, neon signs, knots of people in every park and outside every street food vendor. The air heavy and humid, still carrying a lot of heat considering the sun went down hours ago, and the palm trees and dark green vegetation between the buildings signified our presence in the tropics. So much new exploration to be done, but not before a good night’s sleep and recovery.
On the heels of our arrival was another guest of the region…a tropical storm. We woke to our first day in Saigon with grey skies getting darker, and a light mist evolving to a heavy rain. As the wind picked up to serious levels, we quickly determined this was going to be an inside day - call it a recovery day from our travels. By nightfall, the wind outside our 18th floor studio apartment was rattling our windows, and we could see rain being whipped around, sometimes actually traveling upwards. We lost power a half dozen times, but thankfully never for longer than a minute.
The next morning we emerged from the storm, along with the rest of the city. Though it was fairly windy and still overcast, the worst of the storm was over. While the city started to clean up, we ventured out to explore our neighborhood.
Our apartment building, “The Manor II”, is a mix of foreigners and wealthier Vietnamese. Combined with “The Manor I”, the complex is fairly self sufficient, with its own grocery store, banks, restaurants, a travel agency, and laundry services. All very convenient for two oblivious Americans who speak little to no Vietnamese, but also pretty sterile. We wanted to see the neighborhood from more than our apartment window.
From here we can see the tightly packed tin roofed homes surrounding our building, with the big buildings of District 1 off in the distance to the left. Unlike District 1, where hotels abound and most businesses cater to tourists and their fat wallets, The Manor is in a regular Vietnamese residential neighborhood. We wake up every morning to the sound of roosters crowing from random yards.
From our window we could see a large green park not that far away, and decided it was as good a destination as any. As we walked through the neighborhood, we started to soak in all the new and interesting sights. We see racks of laundry drying on the side of the road. The air is rich with exotic aromas coming from the countless food vendors cooking over open coals. We’ll try one of these spots a little later and get filling plates of rice and tasty chicken, with traditional greens, soup, and beers, all for about $3!
Many women in traditional conical rice hats are using whisk brooms to sweep up the tree debris scattered everywhere from the storm. It seems that perhaps not a lot of white faces walk down these streets as we see many a head turn to stare at us. But these turned faces immediately break into smiles upon eye contact, making us feel welcome.
After walking about a kilometer from our building, we found Vinh Thanh Tourist Park. Despite the name, we are surrounded mostly by locals here too. This park is a popular destination for Saigon families looking to get a bit of fresh air and quiet from the noise of the bustling city. As we enter the park, we find ourselves at a small pond, ringed by lush vegetation and stilted open air seating areas for the resident buffet restaurant.
Looking back the way we came, we can see the behemoth buildings of The Manor rising in the distance.
We wandered around the pond for a bit, taking in the strange and beautiful flowering plants, giant fish, and distinct decorations of the buffet area. This odd flower in particular caught our attention. As it lay on the ground beneath the tree on which it bloomed, it looked about ready to take a bit out of anything that got too close!
We walked past the heavily used tennis courts and a sparsely populated pool, all available to the public for a small fee (at least by our standards.) Across from this is a large open grassy area covered with sculptures of various size and style. On one side there are shaded BBQ pits, with Vietnamese families and friends congregating for lunch preparations. The most striking feature of this side of the park is a giant dragon statue, covered in wicker wrapping. We could actually see this from our apartment window, and I was excited to find it.
On our way back to the apartment we took a different route, bypassing the main road with the shops and going deeper into the residential area. In some parts, we found nicer homes, with cute colorful balconies. While the style of these buildings point to their construction during the French occupation here, the overwhelming presence of Vietnamese flags makes clear the current allegiance.
In another part of the neighborhood, we found decidedly poorer accommodations. These stilted shacks, made of corrugated metal on all sides, are rarely connected to the electrical grid, and the polluted river beneath them serves as a sewer system.
But no matter where we went, we were still met by the smiles of the residents who line the streets, escaping the heat of indoors. Our first exploration of our neighborhood was a great introduction to the city, and we were excited to learn and see more.
On one of our trips into the heart of Ho Chi Minh City to do some sightseeing, we planned to go to the Reunification (Independence) Palace. However, there were some mixed messages on when the ticket office would be open, and it was closed when we got there. Boo! So we pulled out our tourist map and tried to figure out what to do instead. We were propositioned, several times, by a driver of a cyclo - one of the bicycle taxis seen all over this part of the city. After his third or fourth attempt to talk to us, we finally let him make his pitch. He and his partner would pedal us around the city and take us to two or three famous Buddhist pagodas. We did want to check out some temples, and his price was good - only 250,000 Vietnamese Dong, or about $12. So we jumped on the bikes and off we rode.
A cyclo is a bit like a reverse rickshaw, since the passenger rides in the front instead of being pulled by the bike.
Our drivers were strong and tireless despite the heat, and navigated the tricky street traffic like pros. Exploring the city on a cyclo is an interesting experience. You’re in an open bike, moving along, but not so quickly as to miss all that’s going on around you. And the best part is you don’t have to worry about where you are going or how to navigate the streets and traffic - someone else is worrying about that for you.
Leaving your driver in control, you can take a deep breath, try to ignore the seemingly deadly traffic, and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the Saigon neighborhoods. It was on this trip that I noticed that shops here come in clusters. You don’t get one area with a bunch of different services, you get a bunch of options for the same service in one area. Like this block, which must be where you come to buy a bicycle.
An odd way to do things, in my opinion. Must give lots of negotiating power to the buyer and none to the seller.
And of course, riding around on the cyclo, you get to experience the motorbike masses up close!
With 80% of Vietnamese identifying as Buddhist, there are no shortage of temples in the country. On this little tour, we would visit three, all quite different from one another. Short of lots of incense and taking your shoes off outside, there were not many common elements. Our drivers were just that, drivers, and did not have very good English skills, so they could not act as guides at the temples. Our experience was one of pure observation.
The first temple we visited was Chua Phuoc Hai, or the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
Built over 100 years ago, it is one of the oldest in the city. It is fairly small, with multiple dark rooms. The most obvious features are the multiple ornate wooden carvings. From the doors to wall inlays to statues throughout the temple, intricate carvings filled every corner.
A quick online search after our visit informed me that the imagery we saw in this temple is taken from both Buddhism and Taoism, and deals with the decision of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. This was the most crowded of the temples we visited, with both tourists and worshipers alike. Most of the worshipers would burn incense or candles, pour a bottle of oil into the candle dishes to keep them burning, kneel before the central figure and bow and pray. In the thick haze of incense, with the occasional banging of a large gong-bell, it was an intense environment.
The second temple we visited was Tran Hung Dao Temple. Here is where it really hit home how little I know about Buddhism. Tran Hung Dao was a political and military leader credited with repelling Mongol invaders in the 1200s. How does that tie in to getting a Buddhist temple? Not sure…but here we are with his statue. He does have a head, our driver just didn’t get it in the picture. :)
This temple had less religious imagery and more art for art’s sake: vases, wall hangings, beautiful lanterns, and gorgeous flowers.
There was a monk chanting some prayers.
There were also more offerings here than any of the other places we visited. Fruit, money, meat, eggs, flowers, candles, and of course, incense.
And again, many worshipers on their knees, this time in front of an alter filled with offerings.
Our third stop was the Temple of the Buddha’s Relic, or Xa Loi Pagoda. This is the most spacious temple in the city, and has a large bell tower visible from the street.
In the central room, we found very few worshipers, but since this is the headquarters of Buddism in Southern Vietnam, it’s probably not always this quiet. We also found the largest statue of Buddha we had seen so far.
As usual, there was incense, but the cavernous hall swallowed up the smoke, leaving the air still fairly clear.
After the three pagodas, our drivers brought us back to the riverfront for the end of our trip. And here’s where they got sneaky. Far from the agreed upon 250,000 dong, they pulled out a piece of paper with a written price list…in English no less! No set prices, but instead hourly charges, per person! Arguing ensued, and the demanded 8x price increase was negotiated down to 6 times the agreed price. We had been scammed, and were not pleased. But there was little we could do. In all honesty, with a little reflection time, we would have walked away at the real price, and would have missed a great experience. So, (now) I’m choosing to see the silver lining here, and thank the scheming entrepeneurs for tricking us into this great afternoon.
Throughout our stay in Ho Chi Minh City thus far, we have spent a good deal of time wandering through District 1, the most touristy area, soaking in the sights. There are a few standard destinations on any self respecting tourist’s list, and we’re slowly getting to all of them. Thanks to our cyclo tour, we hit several of the main pagodas. But for the rest, we’ve taken a cab into the district and just walked around.
There are several key buildings worth seeing, most from the French colonial years. The mini-Notre Dame, for example, is pretty clearly from this time period.
The Opera House (Municipal Theater) falls into that category as well.
Even with the statue of “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh) outside, you can’t hide the fact that city hall is also in the French Colonial architectural style.
City Hall is not open to the public, and Notre Dame and the Opera House were closed when we visited, so all we had to go on was the outside. Right next to Notre Dame is the Saigon Central Post Office, another dominant French Colonial building. But this was open, and once inside, Uncle Ho was there to greet us again, reminding us that despite the style, this was most definitely Vietnam.
After the chaos of the postal system in Argentina, the open, calm, organized functionality of this post office was awe inspiring!
One part of the tourist route that clearly has NO western feel to it is the Binh Tay Market, an enormous Chinese-Vietnamese market. Once inside the walls, it is easy to get lost in the narrow alleys between the hundreds of crowded stalls selling clothing, spices, fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, meats, coffee, luggage, jewelry, appliances, purses, suits sewn to order in under 24 hours, and just about anything else you can think of, not to mention the stands selling prepared food for lunch. Since it’s a big tourist draw, the stall owners are aggressive and you can’t walk more than a meter or so without hearing “Madame! Madame! Come buy! Come look! Do you need X?” ”Mine is cheapest - you need!” Along with the dense smell of bizarre foods and compact humanity, it’s an overwhelming place.
This was one of the only places in the city where I was refused when I asked if I could take pictures. Many vendors turned me away, except for this trinket stall.
And I have to be honest, I sort of snuck this picture of snake/scorpion “wine”. I wasn’t told no, but I didn’t ask either. How could I pass this up?? OK, easy to pass up trying it, that will NOT be happening, but I just couldn’t resist snapping a photo of these deadly creatures trapped in something you’re supposed to drink!
The most common tourist spot in the city is the Independence (or Reunification) Palace. This “Historical Relic” is the anchor point to the tourist part of town. The original palace was built of western style in 1871, during the French rule here. In 1954, when the French left Vietnam, new Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem and his family moved into the Palace, making it their home in addition to its political role.
In 1962, during a Coup d’Etat, the Palace was bombed and an entire wing destroyed. Diem, still a year before his assassination, ordered the western style building destroyed and had a new palace built. The new building, designed by a Vietnamese architect, is what now stands in Ho Chi Minh City, and was built to resemble several Chinese characters symbolizing, among other things, good fortune, sovereignty, education, and prosperity.
I don’t want to turn this post into a lesson on Vietnamese history, so I’ll keep this brief. Diem makes some seriously unpopular leadership decisions, gets assassinated in ‘63, chaos ensues, war, and general yickiness follow. The Palace served as the center of the administration in Saigon throughout the war. In 1975 North Vietnamese tanks broke down the exterior gates, leading to the surrender of current president Duong Van Minh and ending the war. Now the building is used for political meeting and receptions, and as a historical relic for visitors.
Many parts of the Palace and grounds have been preserved in the state they were in over 35 years ago. While the gate has been repaired, those two tanks that broke into the compound still sit off to the side in front of the Palace.
The basement in particular still reflects its prior use as war headquarters and bunker. Strategy maps cover the walls in planning rooms.
The technology used for critical communications looked different back then.
Several rooms were filled with radios, both for use in the Palace as well as replacement parts for mobile devices used in the fields. Many of these units were from the US, and stamped as such.
And as we made our way to the roof, there stands a replica of the US helicopter used for evacuations at the end of the war.
We have heard it is much better than it used to be, but propaganda still reigns in this monument to the “unification of the Vietnamese people”. We stuck our heads in on a video about Vietnamese History, narrated in English. It was very uncomfortable to hear the overtly biased recounting of the “liberation of South Vietnam from the American Imperialists”, not the mention the outright lies. For example, referring to the American protests of the war, they said that self-immolation was a common occurrence (there were five, which was more than I thought, but not nearly the frequency that was suggested in the video). The video also claimed that 80% of US colleges closed in protest of the war.
Luckily, the blatant propaganda we found in this government run memorial seems to be contained, and does not reflect the attitude of the average citizen here. Whatever people here think they know or believe, it does not change the way the interact with us. We have encountered no ill will, no mention of war or our shared violent past outside of museums. We are just travelers, just another tourist with a wallet and a story, and warm smiles come our way.
While there is clearly some great day time sightseeing in and around Ho Chi Minh City, the night offers some great tourist attractions as well. This city is growing and advancing quickly, and the neon-tinged evening skyline looks a lot different than it did just a few years ago.
One of the things that made my list early was to take a dinner cruise along the Saigon River. After doing a bit of on line research, we picked the Bonsai Boat cruise. It was reported to have great food, good entertainment, and the wooden boat has a dragon head!! Cheesy fun. We called, booked tickets, and I was excited!
When we arrived, the first thing that caught my attention was, of course, the dragon head prow. Yay!
As we milled around the plank to board the boat, the entertainers for the cruise were set up outside for photos ops. Doug humored me by posing for this!
The Bonsai boat is smaller than some of the other dinner cruises, and you get a more intimate experience. We were on the second level, with only six or seven other tables…all tourists from Europe and other parts of Asia. We cruised up and down the Saigon River for a little over two hours. The view back to the city was so peaceful as compared to the blaring horn chaos of the streets.
We would occasionally pass by another cruise boat and exchange waves. We could tell we had made the right choice, we were having more fun!
The food was great, with an enormous buffet spread of soups, salads, sushi rolls, spring rolls, noodles of various flavors, curried vegetables, seafood, grilled meats, interesting potato dishes, and chocolate, pudding, crepes, and fresh tropical fruit for dessert. So tasty.
The entertainment was great as well. Throughout the dinner we had a duo of keyboardist and singer serenade us with American music from Motown up through Shakira. At first I was disappointed the music was not more authentic. But then Doug brought up that this was, in fact, authentic. Vietnamese pop culture is Western-centric, and this was essentially the quintessential Asian experience… karaoke! In fact, after dinner, it did not take long for some of the Asian guests to take a turn at the mic, laughing their way through American classics.
Throughout the night, we were also treated to a team of five dancers. They performed some very traditional Vietnamese dances, like this fan dance,
as well as some interesting non-Vietnamese styles, like belly dancing. They were very entertaining and performed all styles with grace and precision. All in all, it was a great night!
Another fantastic night out was at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater. I have to admit, at first, I was skeptical. Puppets? In the water? And all in Vietnamese? But I kept reading that this was a great thing to do in the city and that the puppetry was clear enough that the language barrier was not a problem. Tickets were only $10 each, so we decided to try it out.
The 45 minute show sells out all three performances almost every night, so we booked out tickets in advance and arrived at the theater as the sun was setting for the early show. The theater itself is quite impressive, and the giant puppet statues outside set the stage for what will follow.
We really didn’t know what to expect, but with seats in just the third row, we knew we’d have a good view! Within minutes of the show starting, I knew I was going to love it! The water puppets were worked by eight guys from inside the pagoda. The stories, from what we can tell, were a mix of simple depictions of rural life as well as lore of gods and royalty. What amazed us the most was how the show never got stale. Each scene incorporated a new element, keeping it fresh and interesting.
There were six musicians, three on each side of the stage, that played a wide variety of instruments, sang, and voiced the dialog of the puppet characters. I tried to capture a few sections on video, but as usual, my comfort behind the lens vanishes in the transition to motion pictures. Regardless, I put what I captured up on Youtube and you can watch the video here. I seemed to catch a lot of the singing, but there was a good deal of instruments-only as well as dialog throughout the show. It was completely in Vietnamese, but I’ll agree with the reviews, the puppets were clear enough that you can get the main theme, even though I’m sure we missed some jokes. In the end, we had a great time and really appreciated this ancient art form, practiced in Vietnam for hundreds of years.
After the puppet show, we walked across District 1 to find the recommended Temple Bar - a nice restaurant built in an old converted Chinese temple. The entrance to the restaurant is hidden down a long hall and up a flight of stairs, all still decorated as it was in its temple days.
The fresh fish was fantastic, the service prompt and attentive, and the prices, as always, so reasonable. But the ambiance made the night, with intricate wooden carvings, hanging lanterns, and a peaceful feel throughout the restaurant. I mean, have you ever seen bathroom doors like this in a restaurant?!
Both in daylight and by the nighttime glow of neon, Saigon has so much to offer, and we’re enjoying every minute of it!