Saturday, January 17, 2015

Discovering Saigon

It's been quite a time since I actually returned safely to Switzerland, and to me that epic South East Asia trip still seems so unrealistic in hindsight. Sometimes it's hard to believe what I've been through my 6 months odyssey, and I've been thinking about it a lot recently. That's why I finally decided to finish my travel blog about my Vietnam trip. Let's do this!

After my explorations in the Mekong Delta (check out my previous post) I head north-east to my next major destination, the former capital of South Vietnam. Saigon, nowadays called Ho Chi Minh City due to political reasons, is pretty much the most westernized, developed and pretty much most preferred Vietnamese city by westerners. Over 8 million people (!) live in the city center and the outskirts, making it de facto the biggest city in the country. With a cheap travel coach I finally arrived in the probably largest concrete jungle of South East Asia.

Welcome to Saigon. Note the city's highest building in the background, the Bitexco Financial Tower

This metropolis definitely overshadows everything I've seen before in the country, even after I already saw the extremely fast growing cities in the Mekong Delta. Thousands of (sometimes western) cars, hundred thousands of scooters, huge avenues, lots of small shops and hundreds of restaurants, pubs, bars and big companies. It's in Saigon where the country's fast economic development can be witnessed best. While famous western brands like McDonald's, Burger King or Starbuck's are pretty much unknown in the Vietnamese countryside, you can bet that you'll find them all in Saigon.
... in the former capital of South Vietnam.

The western influence, as seen...

«Ca Phe Sua Da», a Vietnamese coffee legend

Saigon's skyline at night from the roof top of a hotel

It was here in Sagion where I discovered the awesomeness that Vietnamese coffee is. Whoever travels to this country has to try at least once the legendary ice coffee, even if you don't like coffee at all. The Vietnamese traditionally enjoy their coffee with lots of ice and condensed milk in glasses of various sizes. Normally you're a given a glass with a coffee filter on top of it and you patiently have to wait until the filtered coffee liquid drops into the glass. Afterwards you mix it with condensed milk and put a lot of ice in it - that's «Ca Phe Sua Da», meaning Iced Milk Coffee.

Of course Saigon offers quite more than only coffee and skyscrapers. Being the former capital of South Vietnam and an important city of the French Indochina colony, Ho Chi Minh City has gone through lots of historical events. If you're looking for decent museums and cultural buildings in Vietnam, then you've got quite a selection.

The former city hall built in French colonial style...

... which can be found pretty often in Saigon.

The fancier quarters of HCMC
The distinctive Bitexco tower is accessible to...

... the public for a few bucks and offers a great view over the city.

A historical location well-known to tourists is the excellent War Remnants Museum, one of the most popular exhibitions in the country. Built in 1975 and originally named the «Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes», its original purpose was to expose foreign war crimes to western tourists and other visitors. With time flying by it changed a bit its tone from cheesy propaganda to a more general view on the Vietnam War - even though the exhibition remains a bit biased of course. Don't forget that Vietnam still is ruled by a pseudo-communist one party-system with tendencies of a rather liberal market. It's pretty clear that the party lives from glorious stories from the past and still loves to spread at least some propaganda. I nonetheless recommend to check this place out if you're looking for a great museum in HCMC.

One of the country's most visited museums, the «War Remnant Museum», in its full glory

Along with many vehicles, like this legendary UH-1 Huey...

... or this captured Tiger fighter,...

... over to a whole exhibition dedicated to «Agent Orange».

... the exhibition ranged from many weapons...

This latter section was by far the most...

... impressive/depressing one. Note these unborn babies. :(

Remember the Mangrove forests of Ca Mau I visited before? That's how Agent Orange was used on it back then.

During the long war the Americans used among other chemicals the defoliant «Agent Orange», which was sprayed on suspicious forests and bushes in order to hinder the enemy from using the plants for visual cover. Dioxin, one of the many extremely toxic ingredients of this deadly cocktail, is still responsible for many deformities and disabilites with kids whose parents were affected by the chemical back then. If you'd like to learn more about this indeed tragic aftermath of the Vietnam War, I highly recommend to watch the documentary My Orange Pain. You might learn a thing or two.

Carefreely strolling through the city can be quite rewarding as well, as Ho Chi Minh City is a pretty safe city. If you're too lazy for walking, you can simply hire a motorbike taxi which skillfully maeanders you through the chaotic traffic of downtown Saigon. And yeah, there are indeed so many scooters on these streets...

In terms of food the town isn't too bad either
It can be quite tricky to cross the street in HCMC

It was also interesting to see how the Vietnamese still make good money out of the war. In downtown Saigon there's this obscure market that sells shitloads of wartime-era collectibles, equipment and memorabilia. If you're looking for old U.S. ordnance M14 or M16 magazines, disarmed claymore mines, shabby Pith helmets or fake uniforms, you may take a look at the Dan Sinh Market.

A scavenger's and history buff's dream,...
... the Dan Sinh Market in Saigon.

Looking for C-Rations, tiger stripe uniforms, VC accessories...?  You name it, they sell it.

Even more historically important than the War Remnant Museum is the Reunification Palace, formerly called Independence Palace under the South Vietnamese government. During the reign of the South Vietnam regime this building was used as the presidential residence. You could therefore say it was the South Vietnamese pendant to the American White House - all inclusive with a cinema room, presidential bunker, strategic command center, helipad on the roof and even a disco next to it. It's needless to say the political elite of South Vietnam lived quite an enjoyable life.

The Reunification / Independence palace already changed its hosts for many times. Not always for the better though.

One of the many presidential conference rooms...

... but not as important than the in-house cinema.

One of the bunker corridors below the palace
The president's strategic command center

A UH-1 Huey helicopter used for emergencies / evacuations
The view on the world famous courtyard...

... during the historic fall of Saigon on April 30 1975.

... which was stormed by NVA and VC troops...

That fateful day symbolically marked the fall of the South Vietnamese government and the vicotry of the North

Most people may remember that building best from the memorable events during the Fall of Saigon in 1975, when NVA and VC soldiers broke through the palace fence, overran the palace and waved their communist flag from the building. Herewith the almost 30 years long lasting war against the French, American and South Vietnamese forces ended with a big bang; but it sadly wouldn't be the last war for Vietnam.

While it was here where the everdragging war finally ended years ago, it was only the beginning of my epic Vietnam odyssey. What more (mis-)adventures laid ahead of me?...

0 Kommentare: