We left the tourististy Nha Trang (nothing major to report there) and headed south yet again on another night bus. This time I was unfortunate enough to get one of the smallest sleeping booths the world has ever seen. I spent the next 8 hours curled up in a ball in order to fit into my Vietnamese sized compartment. Luckily I was that tired from the night before that I did mange to fall asleep for most of the journey only to be woken up by someone throwing up in the toilet which kindly enough they had left the toilet door open so the whole bus could hear.
We arrived in HCMC at 4am and then took a taxi to the Pham Ngu Lao area of the city which is where most of the backpackers go and therefore the heart of the action and the best prices. One of the first things you notice as you go through HCMC is that there seem to be people bustling about everywhere even at 4am. Another thing that is high on the agenda at this time in the morning is aerobics. You get to see lots of crazy Vietnamese people jogging, bending about and generally awake and too healthy for that time of the morning. When we arrived at our hotel the place was closed up and fully locked up, so we grabbed a coffee to pass the time before 6am when they opened up. At this point I had only been in the city for around 30 mins and whilst I walked to the coffee shop (not more than 100 yards from the hotel) i was propositioned for a “massage” by 2 suspicious young ladies ona back of a bike!
Eventually we booked into another hotel after waiting for so long at our original hotel. We had a room with AC, cable and a sort of a view of the city for 15 dollars per night, and after a quick nap we were ready to have a quick explore of the city. How things must have changed from the sleepy days pre-16th century, when the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor was established on a vast swampland. Saigon’s origins date back to the early 17th century when the area became home for refugees fleeing war in the north. Towards the end of the century, once the population was more Vietnamese and Cambodia weak enough, Vietnam annexed the territory. Over the following decades Prey Nokor developed into the Saigon when the French found when they conquered the region in the mid 19th century. Within a very short time the French began to leave their mark on the city and still today some of the best hotels in Saigon are within grandiose colonials overlooking gorgeous boulevards dating back to Saigon’s heyday as the Paris of the Orient. For the French, Saigon became the capital of Cochinchina — an expansive region encompassing parts of modern-day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Through the next 100 years, they extracted as much as they could from the region — much of it passing through Saigon’s ports. Often cruel and thoughtless, French rule remained over the city and Cochinchina until their exit from Vietnam following their defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
When the French opted out of Vietnam to avoid recognizing the communist victors, they left the south under the care of Emperor Bao Dai who had made his capital there in 1950. Subsequently, when Vietnam was officially partitioned, the southern government, led by Ngo Dinh Diem, kept the capital at Saigon. And there the southern capital remained — throughout the topsy turvy period of the American Veitnam war. Then, as America’s role in Vietnam’s pains drew to an end, Saigon swelled to the eyeballs with refugees fleeing troubles to the north — just as Prey Nokor once did. When the South finally fell in 1975, what remained was a paltry shadow of its more grandiose days. Fittingly, the following year the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the late leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. Despite this, many still know the sprawling town as Saigon, and the name still refers to central District One.. The communist victory was followed by widespread repression and re-education. The economy buckled under a heavy hand from the north as entrepreneurial spirit was all but stamped out, and the Chinese trading class were particularly hard done by. Simultaneously, Saigon’s elite and pretty much anyone else with the means did their best to get out of the country, and through the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnam’s “boat people” were featured in media worldwide.
Today HCMC is a vast city with towering developments springing up everywhere with shopping malls, neon signs and millions of mopeds! The city itself has around 8 million people living in and around it however there are a registered 5 million (therefore likely to be more) mopeds in the city which gives rise to mayhem! The noise and pollution from all these bikes hits you the most in HCMC. At first it seems impossible to cross any road but the best policy on any road is to look straight ahead and just cross. Sounds absolutely mad but they avoid you rather than you trying to avoid them, and it does work.
There are a lot of sights in HCMC but the main place we visited was the War Remnants Museum which is dedicated to documenting the various alleged war crimes undertaken by the US. If the only side of the Vietnam War you have seen has been through films such as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, then a visit here should help bring a bit of balance. Although the name of the museum has been changed from that of the Museum of American War Crimes, the Americans were the main perpetrators of the horrors you will see inside this museum. The museum has a large number of photos detailing atrocities along with a selection of war booty and detritus and although the museum is very one sided (ie to the Vietnamese) this is a must see. There is an outstanding exhibition entitled Requiem, honouring the journalists who died during Vietnam’s many conflicts. All the photos were taken by those who lost their lives — it is a particularly moving display. The whole exhibition was a very moving display and although slightly one sided it hits home the effect of the Viet nam war.
Another good experience is the Cu Chi Tunnels (which i will document later as it was a whole day out) which is a massive network of underground tunnels and chambers used in the Nam war. Whilst I was in HCMC I also managed to meet up with Anthony someone I had befriended in Sydney all that time back in Australia. I met up with him and a couple of other people he had been traveling with so we hit the town one night and went to an aptly named club called “Apocalypse Now” and had a great night out. Feeling a little fragile the next day we had a wander around the city and sampled some of the excellent cuisine that the city had to offer. Banh Xeo which are large Vietnamese pancakes deep fried with shrimp and filled with beansprouts and more and more of Cau Lau (tasty noodle soup).It was soon enough time to leave HCMC but first I had to obtain my 60 day visa for my next stop – Thailand to meet up with Gary and Trish and to get to Koh Tao to start my divemaster program. I really enjoyed HCMC once I got past the absolute madness of the place! A city that does not sleep and a great place to explore..