Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Mar. 21-23

Ho Chi Minh City is the huge commercial heart of Vietnam, and Saigon remains the heart of the metropolitan area. Hanoi, in the north, is an ancient seat of power and the governmental capital, but it is much smaller and quieter than HCMC.

Saigon is somewhat like Bangkok. It sits on the Saigon River, 60 km from the South China Sea. Not quite as hot as Bangkok, at least during our visit, its traffic is less gridlocked, too. Our two days in the city were interesting and fun. We look forward to coming back in a few years.

Development of high rise buildings, roads, and sidewalks is in progress everywhere, and commerce is absolutely the order of the day. Our room on the 8th floor of the Renaissance Saigon overlooked the lively river at a major ferry depot. The crush of motor bikes rushing back and forth with every trip was amazing, like watching an animal ingesting and disgorging a huge meal every 10 minutes. Fascinating. The river bank opposite the city is still relatively undeveloped, but it's obvious that won't last long.

Wednesday afternoon we took a walkabout and found the city pleasant, with French-style buildings, lots of parks and squares of green space (another difference with Bangkok, which has little green space), and street markets everywhere. When it started to rain, we returned to the hotel for a quiet evening and rest before our full day tour Thursday.
Our excellent guide, Anh, from Ann Tours, developed a tour for us starting with a visit to the Saigon Public Library, built on the site of a horrible prison, where, among other nasty things, the French introduced use of the guillotine. Our time here was a highlight of Saigon. We met the library's director of human resources and professional development, Le thi Thanh Thuy. A delightful woman, she spoke English and French very well, and gave us good insights into the impressive work they are able to do with a relatively large staff, but VERY little money. Their first childrens' room opened this past January. It was great fun to see the kids using the computers and happily learning new things. The library is also heavily engaged in creating talking books and tactile books for the area's many blind residents.

The Jade Emperor Temple is one of the oldest Chinese temples in Saigon. Quite busy with devout locals and tourists. You'll see a photo of a turtle pond, because many who worship at the temple release an animal (usually small birds or turtles sold nearby) to bring themselves good luck. The temple seems to incorporate several different religions. As I've remarked before, Vietnam has many different ethnic groups and religions, including Buddhists, Catholics, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Protestants, plus followers of Confucianism, Taoism, and ancestor worship. This is one remarkable difference between Vietnam and Thailand, where more than 90% of the population follow Theravada Buddism and most come from the same ethnic group.

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum is a wonderful, old French Beaux Arts mansion that now houses paintings, photographs, and artifacts in rather dusty conditions. Like many similar public buildings, it is the favorite place for brides and grooms to have their official photos made, and we saw several such contingents busy with posing on the curved stairway and on the balconies. The 1970s jet fighter plane and helicopter on the lawn seemed a bit incongruous, but, hey, it's their museum.

Lunch was at a traditional Pho (noodle soup) restaurant crowded with locals and a few tourists at long, family style tables. The big bowl of broth comes with chicken or beef, noodles, and lots of green herbs that you add to your preference. Delicious.

The former palace of S. Vietnamese's last leader, President Thieu, and his predecessors, now called the Reunification Palace, is a more modern style than I remembered from the newreels. Everything about it is a 1970s time warp, the furniture, draperies, etc., but the expansive lawns, trees, and fountains are a pretty oasis in the city. Anh showed us all the public rooms, the family quarters, and the basement war rooms, which are remarkably similar to Churchill's World War II war rooms beneath London.

After quick trips to the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral (built in the 1870s by the French and the major seat of surviving Catholicism in modern Vietnam) and the beautiful old French-built Post Office next door, we opted to forego the War Remains Museum in favor of a ride to Saigon's huge Chinatown (whose residents speak five different Chinese languages, plus Vietnamese and often English) in search of gifts to take home to the grand neices and nephews.

We celebrated our last night in Vietnam with dinner at the Temple Club restaurant. Hidden in the back streets of the Central District of Saigon near our hotel, the second floor Temple Club has a stunning dark, carved wood d├ęcor in a moderately lit French colonial house. We ate on an enclosed porch overlooking the street, where a lively motorbike parking enterprise was efficiently run by two women of a certain age in an ever moving collage. The food and drinks were quite good, I had soft shell crab, and the atmosphere quietly festive.

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