Sitting for a moment and admiring the colonial post office in central Saigon, Ryan’s beard was once more getting all the attention. An elderly gentlemen pointed and said “You look like Hercules.” Slightly confused at this beginning the conversation got a lot weirder. Next our new friend showed us his biro creations, mainly badly drawn 1960s film stars, our favourite being Clint Eastwood. We were also treated to a rendition of ‘well known’ songs whistled with over the top arm gestures, he was quick to tell us he was the best whistler in the world…presumably winning the coveted title in some kind of whistle off with his nearest rivals. We also heard about his super natural powers, mainly involving thinking about trees falling on his ‘enemies’ and then them actually falling on them, before deciding Ryan was the man to travel the world with and make his musical fortune! Well Josh welcome to SE Asia….
We were joined for a few days by our old Perth housemate Josh and were determined to show him as much of hectic frenzy of Ho Chi Min City as possible. Saigon, as it was formally known, though not the capital of Vietnam, is the largest city in the country and the financial capital. Capitalism is alive and well in the metropolis which seems to sit within the communist governments remit somehow…communist propaganda poster on the side of a Mc Donalds, don’t mind if I do Saigon!
And where better to start a trip to HCMC than a night-time, roadside bar with draft beer for less 40c a pint? Well I can’t think of it. The night was made better by locals insisting on buying us the drinks and trying goat udder (yes goat udder!) from the bars menu…in case you were wondering its very very chewy. I think we were going to like it here. Well apart from the continuing threat of death every time you attempted to cross the road from the millions of mopeds speeding in all directions with no intention of stopping.
Ever wanted to pretend you were on the set of Madmen but during the cold war? Well now you can at the Reunification Palace…the scene of the famous photos of the communist tanks crashing through the gates marking the symbolic end to the Vietnam war. Inside the luxurious decor of the 1960s and 70s south Vietnamese government transports you back to that era, especially in the bunker where the military decisions were made on huge maps, old school radio equipment buzzing in the corner. Outside as we eat our first of many Banh mi (pork, pickled veg and coriander sandwiches) an english student asked us questions about GM foods for an assignment…just another day in Saigon.
Like all good tourists we went to the war remnants museum, where the atrocities of the Vietnamese war are described and often photographed in great detail. The graphic langauge and images used throughout are a throw back to the Cold War and lets just say the Americans don’t come out of it well. This theme was continued at the Chu Chi tunnels outside of the city, where determined Viet Kong fighters lived and fought underground for years in a complex network of tiny tunnels, replying the south Vietnamese attracts repeatedly. We got to go through a section of the tunnels which has been widened by a third for large western tourists but were still so cramped you had to scramble through on all fours.
We headed to one of the many Cao Dai temples, which only exists in south and central Vietnam. In the early twentieth century some guys got together and thought why only worship one religion? Why don’t we take our favourite bits from many and form our own? Ok so maybe it was a little more complicated than that but they do worship buddha, Jesus Christ and Muhammad all in the same temple with a bit of french poetry thrown in for good measure. We were lucky enough to see a service, one is held every six hours, with the congregation dressed in pure white, blue, yellow or red costumes for the senior monks. It was a beautiful experience with the all-seeing eye of the father watching you throughout the building.
Back in the city centre we were taken for a lovely Vietnamese meal followed by tea by some friends we had met in Vinh Long and learnt a little more about what it was like to be young and live in HCMC. They were so kind to us and insisted on buying us dinner…the favour will be returned when you make it to the UK! A real highlight from our stay in the city was seeing the AO show at the Saigon Opera House. Not only did we get to see the inside of the french designed theatre but also a beautifully choreographed circus/ dance performance depicting Vietnam’s move from traditional to modern using lots and lots of bamboo. OK so it’s a little pricey if your on a strict budget but I would say it’s completely worth it and who doesn’t love bamboo?
We ended our time with Josh and Ho Chi Minh City with a trip up the Bitexco tower, the highest skyscraper in the city. Heres a hint instead of paying $10 to go up to the viewing platform go to the cafe on the 51 floor and have a coffee for half the price. We were treated to great views across the city plus a great beverage…
Thanks for having us Saigon, you have taught us to boldly walk out in front of oncoming traffic fearlessly!
Next time Russians and mountains…