Monday, November 17, 2014

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

We watched a hazy Sunday sunrise from our hotel window, ate a standard hotel buffet breakfast, then ventured  out along what turned out to be a very busy chaotic market street, until we reached a bigger street, and eventually a lovely park, full of young people playing games, singing and playing guitars.  Of course, there was one handsome university student who introduced himself and wanted to practice his English.  I always think afterwards of questions I should have asked, and Vietnamese phrases we could have asked for help with.

Through another park also full of families and young people practicing sports (some doing amazing kicks to hit a paddle high above their heads), we eventually reached the War Remnants Museum, where were greeted by a man with no arms above the elbows, a victim of a land mine in 1977.  We ended up buying a book from him, I think we were kind of in shock at the moment of meeting him.  I can now see that the book was a pirated copy, and we paid way too much.  But, our guilt at meeting him!

The War Remnants Museum was very powerful.  A lot of it was devoted to victims of Agent Orange and dioxin, part of it a special exhibit for November.  I was most moved by a large exhibit devoted to the photographers who documented the war, most of whom died doing so.  The exhibit included many very famous photos, some of them taken from cameras after the photographers had died.  It was a memorial to photographers from many countries, many of them very famous, some of them women, including many from North Vietnam, going as far back as the French war.

Outside were American tanks, bulldozers (the thought of those monsters being airlifted to remote mountains and rice paddies was mind-boggling), planes, and helicopters.  There was also an exhibit of torture and prisons, some of it so awful I had to stop looking, including a guillotine (not sure I'd ever actually seen one before).  Tiger cages made of barbed wire in which prisoners were confined, sometimes several in one cage on hot sand.  They couldn't sit up inside them.  Looking at all this in the heat, which didn't even approach what those confined in the cages endured, made the horror of it all even more real.  The museum closed from noon to 1:30, perhaps a borrowing from the French sacred lunch hour or two when all shops close, at least in rural France.

We found our way to a nearby Mexican (!) restaurant listed in our Lonely Planet guide.  The food was good, probably not real close to what you would find in Mexico, and actually maybe more like you'd find in an American Mexican Restaurant --  burritos, enchiladas.  The "Mexican rice" which I didn't eat, looked more like something Asian.  It was yellow.  The food was too much too eat -- we should have ordered one dish for two of us.  A bizarre aspect of the restaurant was that in the air conditioned inside room where we chose to sit, they were showing what were supposed to be Spanish language films, and the first one was a cartoon in Spanish, but the second one some kind of Templar movie with Jon Voight and Nicholas Cage -- we'd never heard of this, but I just looked it up and see it was National Treasure.  We didn't stay past a wild car chase through London, although a section with clues to Cibola was beginning.  Maybe that was going to be the Mexican connection!

Then on to the Reunification Palace, also called the Independence Palace the fancy White House, all in very sixties/seventies style that was built during the war and where Thieu (I think) gave his two- hour resignation speech) and where the North came in, apparently without a fight and took over.  Big, elegant rooms.  I gave back the little brochure, or I would be more accurate. It was very lavish and beautiful, and still used for official function, set in the midst of a big park with tall trees, and replaced an older French building.

Here is a scene from right near our hotel, which is so typical.  Women selling vegetables and clothes, a woman working on a sewing machine, and older woman smoking, squatting on the side walk with cups of tea in front of her.

We were quite exhausted after our hours of walking in humid 90 degree temperatures, and came back to our hotel room from which we didn't stir again!

This hotel (Sunland) is rather odd, a tall tower with quite posh rooms, and a huge Las Vegas type sign shedding its light over the rooftop bar and restaurant (where the food is rather mediocre), but the views along the Saigon River and of the city lights are spectacular.  There is also a quite pretty rooftop pool on a level just below the restaurant.

There is a big bathtub in our bathroom, which is divided from the room by a translucent panel painted with mountains and oceans.  I'll try to capture a photo of Kent bathing behind it ( :-). However, the tub has a flimsy plastic shower curtain, and is surrounded by flat slate tiles that collects the water from the shower, which eventually runs onto the floor, no matter how careful we try to be.

I booked the hotel rather hastily, based on a good price (Saigon is more expensive than Hanoi or Hoi An), great reviews and several comments that it was easy to walk to major sights. The major sights are not that far away, but the streets are not easy to walk, filled with street-side markets and motorcycles that leave almost no room for walking.  There are no charming little restaurants nearby, although there are many little holes in the wall, which after walking through the displays of fly-covered meat, flopping fish, and struggling frogs somehow don't have much appeal for us.

We followed a suggested walking tour through Old Saigon this morning, and went to the top of Saigon's premier flashy skyscraper, The Bitexco Financial a Tower, built to resemble a lotus bud.  We and ended up at the wonderful Gustave Eiffel-designed post office, still in use, no air conditioning, fans whirring, air circulating through a raised  section of vaulted roof and louvered ends.  Nearby, Notre Dame Cathedral across the street, and Dunkin a Donuts to one side!  iced coffee and donuts in cool air conditioning hit the spot, incongruous though it seemed in the heart of "old Saigon."

Post Office

On our walk up the posh Dong Khoi Street ( which was walkable), where I should have booked our hotel (and almost did), we stopped at the Opera House, now known as the Municipal Theatre, and got two of the few remaining tickets to what promises to be an interesting classical music concert tomorrow night.  The theme is classic movie music, and features an award-winning young Vietnamese flutist.

detail from needlework display in Bitexco Tower

Flowers on bare branches in the park

I am still having trouble coming to grips with the horror of the Vietnam War, or the American War, as it is called here, and the beauty of the country and the people I see before me.  There is so much poverty, yet such energy and optimism.  So many people are working very hard for very little.  So many people died during the war, and also in its aftermath when opponents of the communist Hanoi government were punished, and so many chose to flee.  The lives of so many Americans were also lost, ruined, and the whole nature of American society changed in painful ways during those years. 1954-1973, are the dates they give here for the American War, but most of us didn't even know about it until the mid 1960s.


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