By Roger Allnutt, Special to the Van Nuys News Press
VIETNAM, ASIA — The lights change and a throbbing, noisy mass of motorbikes and scooters surge away at all junctions in central Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, still referred to by many inhabitants as Saigon. It seems amazing that there aren’t lots of crashes as riders join in from side streets, cross against the on-coming traffic, swerve to avoid pedestrians – but it is all done with equanimity and no one seems to get into the road rage which would surely result on our streets.
It is estimated there are 37 million motor bikes in Vietnam (a country with a population of 93 million) and most seem to be in this city. Two or three on a bike is commonplace including families with children and the loads carried can be amazing.
Parking all these bikes is another problem and there are amazing ‘car parks’ crammed to capacity with vehicles of all shapes, sizes, colour and state of repair. A very efficient parking and retrieval system seems to operate!
Despite this sense of overwhelming numbers of people and vehicles I felt perfectly safe in Ho Chi Minh City, although I took normal precautions especially to avoid situations where the reputed pickpockets would be operating.
Some of the main streets of Saigon are wide, tree-lined boulevards, a legacy of the period of French colonisation. Nguyen Hue has a wide pedestrian only section in the middle; deserted in the mornings but crammed with young people every night, socialising or just looking at their ubiquitous cell phones.
Some stately buildings still remain and in a few cases lots of money has been spent in returning them to their former glory. My favourite is the wonderful Central Post Office (pictured above) adjacent to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral right in the heart of the city. It was built in the late 19th century to a design by Gustav Eiffel; a vast colonnaded interior dominated by a high vaulted glass ceiling; a cool retreat from the humidity outside.
I’m not a devotee of churches and pagodas but the Notre Dame Cathedral, the brightly coloured but rather grotesque Emperor of Jade Pagoda and the much older Giac Lam Pagoda (from 1744) are worth tracking down; a taxi is warranted to get to the latter two as they are away from the city centre.
On Le Duan St, one of the main boulevards in Ho Chi Minh City is Reunification Hall (sometimes referred to as Independence Palace), once the home of the South Vietnamese President, and where a Communist tank crashed through the fence on the day (30 April 1975) Saigon surrendered to end the Vietnam War. A replica of one of the tanks is ‘preserved’ in the grounds.. A tour of the palace is recommended to see the lovely staterooms, residential quarters and underground bunkers. Many rooms contain superb furniture with lacquerwork inlay. (See page 9)
Two museums that should be included in any visit to Saigon reflect different ends of Vietnam’s history spectrum. Near the zoo is the History Museum covering over 3,000 years of settlement in Vietnam, a fascinating collection of artefacts. Check out the times of the short water puppet theatre show, a traditional Vietnamese form of theatre with the puppets (peasants fighting off wild animals, ducks being hunted by foxes) performing in a sort of murky mini swimming pool. Very intricate.
The War Remnants Museum which has had a name change from its earlier Museum of American War Crimes is a rather full-on history of the atrocities by the French and then the US and her allies against the glorious fighters of communist Vietnam. Some interesting material including photos of anti-war rallies but it is all rather grim.
As with most Asian cities the markets are great places to explore. The Ben Thanh Market is the largest in the city, a rabbit warren of narrow aisles with stalls selling fresh produce, flowers, material, clothing, shoes, perfume, sunglasses, and household items.
The local markets are more basic. Stalls stacked with the freshest fruit and vegetables, fish and crustaceans still swimming in buckets of water, and live chickens and ducks waiting to be selected for the evening meal – animal liberationists would have a field day here. Piles of eggs are graded in some mysterious fashion while huge bags contain rice of different quality and texture.
The French influence is still apparent in the lovely fresh baguettes (about 30 cents) and you can have them filled from a range of exotic fillings; egg seemed the safest!
In other places the markets have large sections for all sorts of household goods, pots and pans, nails, building implements; repair shops are everywhere as the millions of bikes need constant attention. Nothing is discarded or wasted.
Restaurants are inexpensive and there are hundreds of excellent places serving delightful and inventive dishes. There are a number of restaurants around Dong Khoi Street near the old Opera House in the centre of the city. For some fantastic Vietnamese dishes try Lemongrass in Duong Nguyen Thiep or indulge in a buffet banquet at most of the top hotels.
There is a range of accommodation available in Saigon. I would highly recommend the Renaissance Riversidee Hotel for excellent rooms, great food friendly and helpful staff and facilities include free wifi (standard in Vietnam), gym and roof top pool. The beautiful French colonial style Majestic Hotel and the Caravelle famous with the media during the Vietnam War days are other good options as are Sofitel, Duxton, Grand and Intercontinental
Tourist companies offer a range of day and half day tours from Saigon which will give you a feel of the countryside. Guided tours are recommended as driving yourself would guarantee a major anxiety attack and local buses looked ramshackle and very crowded.
Popular tours include a visit to the beach resort of Vung Tau, a trip on the Mekong Delta and a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, part of the extensive network of such tunnels stretching to the Cambodian border used by the Viet Cong during the War.