Saigon Shakes and Hanoi Rocks: Time to Tour Vietnam

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Preparations for travel: visit to the local spa and packing

Time for a proper winter vacation! To make life easy, Hattivatti and friends decided to try out a tour of Vietnam fully organized by a travel agency. Two weeks, 5 flights, six cities, and one overnight cruise is the plan. Let’s see how this goes 😎

First stop: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

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Good morning Vietnam! After 10 hours in the plane, flying 5 hours forward in time, landing occurred bright and early at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Clearing customs and collecting luggage took less than an hour, even though the passport control was no laughing matter. Then on to a bus for the first ride of many to come on this trip, a city tour of central Saigon.

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First experiences in Saigon: mopeds and red flags abound

Stops were made at the Independence Palace (previously the presidential palace), where the independence of South Vietnam was surrendered in 1975, the local Notre Dame cathedral and main post office, reminders of the French colonialist era, and the Jade Emperor Pagoda, where the travellers lit incense and prayed for health and good fortune on this trip. The tour ended at Batalis, where a ten course lunch served as an introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. With full stomachs and droopy eyelids, checking in to the hotel was a welcomed event.

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Visiting the Independence Palace, with cute phones and really big rugs

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First temple of the tour: the Temple of the Jade Emperor

A cooling shower and a quick nap had a reviving effect, so it was time to brave the streets of Saigon. 10 million mopeds and scooters swarm daily in the streets, honking and beeping as they go, largely ignoring things like red lights and lanes, and even driving happily in the wrong direction or on the sidewalks. Getting across a road as a pedestrian in these conditions is not an easy task, but soon enough the correct method was found: just step off the curb and start moving forward slowly but surely and the mopeds will swerve around you a bit like flowing water. Unnerving but luckily not as dangerous as it seems, since the drivers want to avoid collisions as much as you do.

The first evening in Vietnam was spent tasting local craft beers at Pasteur Street Brewing Company, eating dinner in the backpacker district near a hostel advertising prices starting from $3 per night, and walking around District 1. The sun set around 6 pm and along with the sunset the mood of the city changed as the traffic amount decreased a bit and some streets were overtaken by night markets. Saigon after dark seemed to slow down and relax after the hustle and bustle of the day. People appeared in the parks once the temperature cooled to below 30 to dance and do sports, such as jianzi, which looked like a form of badminton played without rackets where the shuttlecock was kicked over the net instead.

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In the mood for some Vietnamese craft beer

The second day began with a visit to the War Remnants Museum, a photographic crash course into the horrors of the Vietnam War, begun as a colonial war by France and transformed into a civil war prolonged by the US. There are no words to describe the savagery and suffering captured in the photos on display, but some numbers maybe give an idea of the degree of destruction: more bombs were dropped by the US in Vietnam during the war than were dropped by the allied troops altogether in World War II, and the amount of Agent Orange poured on southern Vietnam contained an estimated 170 kg of dioxin, 85 g of which would be enough to devastate a city with 8 million inhabitants. Images of the deformed offspring of those exposed to the chemicals were just as shocking as those of soldiers holding up parts of mangled corpses. The mantras of “aggression and firepower will bring victory” and “bomb them back to the stone age” were clearly taken literally…

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At the War Remnants Museum, not a happy place

Next came a visit to the Chinese part of town. The Temple of Thien Hau, protectress of seafarers and merchants, was a calming place, whereas the unbelievably crowded Binh Tay wholesale market was as far as possible from relaxing. Beautiful fabrics, cheap handbags, and all kinds of dried foods ranging from mushrooms and fruit to fish and shrimp were piled high along the narrow aisles. Mopeds piled high with boxes and bulky bags streamed continuously in front, chaotically loading and unloading nonstop.

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At Thien Hau temple, admiring the altar

In addition to the continuous moped onslaught, another danger appeared to be lurking in the streets, or actually above them. While moving around the city, it was impossible not to notice the large amount of hazardous looking electrical cables hanging all over the place and crisscrossing the streets. It makes one wonder how safe it is to move around especially during the rainy season…

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Hattivatti does not approve of this wiring

After lunch at a French style restaurant, the Cordon Blue, and a couple hours of rest, the travellers were taken to see a Vietnamese water puppet show, a quite unique artform dating from the 11th century. A nearby restaurant favored by locals, Dong Ba Hue, was chosen as a suitable place for dinner. The place pretty much served only one dish, a beef soup called bun bo hue, but it was definitely nothing to complain about. Two filling bowls and a couple beers cost a measly 120 000 dong, equal to about 5€. Not bad at all!

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Getting ready to enjoy some bun bo hue soup

To balance out the very decently priced dinner, Hattivatti and friends had beers at the Bier Garden and then headed up to the rooftop terrace bar situated on the 20th floor of the Grand Hotel. Tasty coctails and great views of both the city skyline and the Saigon River were enjoyed along with a few friends from back home who happened to be travelling in Saigon at the same time. The evening ended with beers in the backpacker area, where five half liter bottles of the local Saigon beer cost only 50 000 dong (about 2€). Quite a contrast to the drinks in the Grand with prices ranging from 90 000 to 170 000 per drink.

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Views from the Grand Hotel

The next morning started early again with a daytrip to the Cu Chi tunnels, an area with 250 km of tunnel networks used by the Vietkong during the war. On the way, a stop was made to see how rice paper is made, still using the traditional steam ovens and laying the sheets out to dry in the sun on bamboo screens. The heat and humidity experienced in the city were just as bad in the jungle, and scampering through even the widest well lit tunnels underground made sure everyone’s back was soaked with sweat. It’s unbelivable to think that people actually lived for years in these extremely tight tunnels.

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Feeling a bit claustrophobic in the Cu Chi tunnels

After a visit to the Ben Duoc Memorial Temple for remembering the martyrs of the war  and lunch on the Saigon River, it was time to head back to town. A BYOB terrace was discovered on the roof of the Le Duy hotel, with nice views of the nearby areas. Dinner in the evening was enjoyed at Barbecue Garden, an outdoor place with gas grills on the tables. A large meal of beef, fish, squid, veggies, rice, and a few rice paper rolls with beers and other drinks for five people cost around 1 million dong (a bit less than 50€). A short stroll with a stop at the Bar’s Bar (chosen solely based on the somewhat funny name) brought the day to an end. Tomorrow would start early with a ride to the airport and on to Hanoi.

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A really good place for dinner!

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