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Old Saigon, New Ho Chi Minh City

Call it Saigon. Call it Ho Chi Minh City. To me this capital is the perfect example in Asia of past meeting present, of capitalism and skyscrapers descending on a city. During the first five minutes of walking around in HCMC, I spotted an older woman wearing a traditional hat crossing the street with an old building and gleaming new one in the background:

To use a bit of a cliched phrase, HCMC was a bustling metropolis. There were plenty of motorcycles and traffic. I found HCMC interesting, but I think the skyscrapers and traffic reminded me a bit of Jakarta, so I wasn’t crazy about the place or smitten the way I was with Hanoi. Would it be a good place to live? Based on the dining and night life scene I saw, I think so. But tourism-wise, I found three days to be enough.

Like almost everywhere I’ve visited in Asia (Laos being the exception) malls and designer brands like Burberry have firmly staked out their spots, including in the beautiful buildings around City Hall (so much for stringent communism?):

The War Remnants Museum was our first stop of the trip. Old American planes and helicopters sit in the outdoor courtyard and Vietnamese men missing arms approach tourists with piles of books for sale. The museum focuses on the Vietnam War and the atrocities that occurred during the war. Told, of course, from the Vietnamese perspective, so don’t expect something approaching a balanced account. One quote that I noticed several times came from a famous American:

“We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” –Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense

With plenty to contemplate, we left the museum and walked around town. As I stood in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, a large group of tourists in matching shirts approached. They were speaking Indonesian. I couldn’t help myself, “Dari mana (Where are you from)?” Well, they were from Jakarta and puzzled and delighted that a pale red-head in Vietnam spoke a bit of Indonesian. So needless to say, we took many group photos together.

Next to the cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office, designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel, yes, that Gustave Eiffel. I purchased a few postcards under Uncle Ho’s watchful gaze.

The next day we went to see the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a Chinese temple. We were confused when we saw women selling small bags of fish in the courtyard outside the temple. Then a young couple dumped one of the bags into a pond where large fish came to the murky surface and feasted.

The pagoda was a nice spot to visit and sit for awhile, especially because it was in a neighborhood that was a little bit away from other attractions.

And if you thought I was done with strange historical sights, well, you were wrong. How could I not visit the bizarre James Bond meets Austin Powers meets Vietnam politics Reunification Palace? The building was constructed in the mid-60s to be the presidential palace for South Vietnam.

The Northern Vietnamese rolled their tanks over the gates in 1975, the fall of Saigon, and the building remains frozen in time, belonging to another time and era. I could just picture a bell-bottom clad woman fixing herself a drink at the bar in this room:

Our trip was also marked the fourth Fourth of July that I have spent abroad. It was very strange to drink an American beer in HCMC with my parents on the 4th. But, as the former colonialists would say, “C’est la vie!”

Getting There: AirAsia flies to Ho Chi Minh City daily.

Staying Here: Spring Hotel, probably the cheapest and yet still decent accommodation you’ll find in the center of the city.

Eating Here: See this post on food.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I experienced the same thing when I was at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. A Sri Lankan/Indian lady suddenly asked me “Apa kabar?”. By the way, speaking of HCMC, I remember my visit to the War Remnants Museum. Some of the pictures displayed were so disheartening yet moving.

    September 25, 2012

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