Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A day exploring Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is not exactly a huge tourist city. Most of the people that come there are just passing through, like us, for a day or two. The Cu Chi tunnels seem to be the most popular thing (though they aren't actually in the city), and the Mekong Delta is also very popular (also not in the city). There are a few things to see in the city, besides just to experience the overwhelmingness of it all.

After coming home from the Cu Chi tunnels, the bus dropped us off within walking distance of the War Remnants museum. We headed over there and walked around there for about an hour. This museum is very interesting. They had some American military vehicles scattered about out front. Inside there were many incredible photographs from the war. Some were quite graphic, one of my friends decide to skip out on the experience. They had guns from the period and there was one gallery dedicated to Vietnamese children's paintings depicting war and peace. I was impressed to see Korea make a good representation on many of the children's paintings (as noted by the hanboks worn by the people in the paintings).

The next day we left our hotel around 11, and started walking until we hit Ben Thanh Market. This was a great place to shop. Some of the things were much cheaper than we had seen in Nha Trang. Other things were about the same price, so it's all hit or miss. Here, like everywhere in Vietnam, you must bargain for everything. I found that whatever price they name for you is probably almost double what it is worth. Maybe more. It seems as though the trick to bargaining is pretending that you don't really care whether or not you buy it. If it is something that they know you love, they aren't going to budge much on the price, because they know you'll buy it regardless.

We left here and continued walking. We found a shop that sold old propaganda posters. Many depict crushing the American enemy, but others just suggest that working hard will improve the country and praise Ho Chi Minh. They had some very large posters that were probably originals, but there were no prices listed and I assume that they are quite expensive. Two of my friends picked up replicas for $10 USD each. I wanted one, but I wasn't quite sure what I would have done with it once I had it. It's sort of an awkward thing to own really.

We then continued to wander, stopping in many of the shops along the way until we got to the Opera House. We didn't go it, but it is a pretty building. Close to there was the gigantic City Hall. This was a much more magnificent building than any other building that we had seen and would see. Too bad we couldn't go inside.

From there we headed over to the Reunification Palace (Independence Palace). This was the home of the South Vietnamese president before the country was unified. You can tell by the architecture that it was obviously built in the 1960's (1962 to be exact). I think that architecture from this period is absolutely hideous, but that's just my humble opinion. Many people might know this building, because this is where people were evacuated from the rooftop once the official handover of power of South Vietnam was handed over to North Vietnam in the Fall of Saigon. There is a famous photograph of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the front gate of this palace.

At the Reunification Palace you are able to walk through and view all the rooms. I highly suggest a tour, because we walked through on our own and didn't really learn a thing. The only signs posted tell you the names of the rooms. From the rooftop, you can see a nice view of the city, and there is an interesting photo gallery in the basement.

From there we walked through Tam Dan Park to Notre Dame Basilica down the road. On the way there, we saw quite a few propaganda posters around. I'll post the photos here, if anyone can translate for me, I would be much obliged. We arrived at Notre Dame, but we didn't go in, though I wish we had. No one else seemed too interested, so I didn't push it. If you read my blog often, you'll know that I have a slight obsession with ecclesiastical arts. Oh well, it was nice to see from the outside at least.

From there we headed towards the river. We tried to find the Hard Rock Cafe, because my friend wanted to buy something there, but it seems as though it disappeared into thin air. We ate dinner at Pho 24. This is a restaurant chain that serves mostly only pho. What is pho? Pho is Vietnamese noodle soup. It is commonly eaten for breakfast, but it can be eaten at other times of the day as well. It's delicious, and I highly recommend you go to your local Vietnamese restaurant right now and eat it. Pho ga is chicken soup and Pho bo is beef soup. Don't ask me the pronunciations, I'll be sure to botch them.

We arrived at the river (after a perilous experience crossing the road) and walked along for a little while. It was nice to see, and there were lots of river cruise boats along the river, but otherwise, not much to see. We then headed back towards our hotel because we were flying out that night.

When we got back to the area where our hotel was, two of my friends went to pick up some clothes they had custom made for them. Custom tailoring is quite common in Vietnam, and you can see any number of shops that will offer to custom make clothes for you for quite cheap. Each of my friends ordered a few things, and some turned out better than others. None of the clothes they had made were on display in the store. They chose clothes from "catalogues" and the tailor did her best to recreate the design. One dress turned out to be something completely different from what she had asked, but the others turned out pretty well. I would suggest though, to order something that they have an example of in the store instead of from catalogues, because that way you know exactly what style you're getting. I would also leave yourself ample time, because sometimes they need to make adjustments after you try them on. We were so rushed to catch our flight that we were rushing them, and I don't think they quite did as good a job on them as they would have if we hadn't rushed them.

After the tailor, we headed back to our hotel, got our things and caught a cab to the airport. I highly recommend catching a metered taxi rather than calling a van through your hotel. While this is more convenient, its much much more expensive.

All in all, I loved Ho Chi Minh City. It is vibrant, exciting and fast paced. I contemplate to myself if I would want to live here someday. I feel as though I would be afraid to ride a bike or motorbike in the streets, but it might be less stressful than being a pedestrian here though. Well, who knows where life will take me, I wouln't worry about it now.

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