Sunday, June 10, 2018


Saigon. I love the sound of that word. Any combination of mysterious, dangerous, violent, or embattled creeps into my mind when I hear it. The pages of history have not been kind to Saigon and today it is nothing that I imagined. It can be intense, fast, bright and loud but it is also friendly, kind and welcoming. If you are not careful you will be scammed and lied to because well this is Saigon and it has had a hard history. After a 7 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh I excitedly jumped off the bus into the street madness. I headed to the nearest coffee shop, sipped my hot coffee and watched it all unfold in front of me. Saigon. I was actually here.

Of course it is now called Ho Chi Minh City but the locals all call it Saigon and that is good enough for me. I dropped my bags off at my hotel, the Thien Phu. This is the off season in Vietnam but there are quite a few people around and I can only imagine the chaos of high season. Anyways my room was on sale plus gave me my "genius discount", good times. The room that was $22 a night now cost me $6 a night. I immediately booked in for 5 nights. Yup, a single room with my own bathroom cost me less than any nasty dorm room. I was off an running. The first thing that Gus the owner said to me, before hello or welcome, was "no bar girls, no street girls. I will kick you out I do not care what time it is". I liked him immediately.

If you are a fan of a city with an easy to follow street grid pattern then Saigon is not for you. There are a few main arteries that you can navigate with but ultimately the city planners..shit there were no city planners. To add to the mysteries of location and direction are the alleyways. Narrow and at times creepy but hidden in them are small hotels (mine included), restaurants, massage parlors (yes those kind), barbers, hairdressers and nail salons. In one near my hotel I stumbled across a bagel shop/bakery and I ended up going there every morning for breakfast. The alleyways are strange but they are a part of the total Saigon package. I am sure if you wander them at 3:00 am you will find trouble but otherwise they are an oddity that needs to be explored.

My hotel was a 3 minute walk to Bui Vien street which is one of the many backpacker friendly streets in town. It is filled with bars, restaurants and massage parlors where the girls will absolutely "love you long time". Street food at all times of the day and night is fantastic. Soup, fresh spring roll wraps and bánh mì became my diet. Bánh mì are meet and veggies served on fresh banquettes and are everywhere, plus they cost about $1.50 . If you get up early enough and head out for coffee, you will catch the late night stragglers heading home including happy tourists and exhausted bar girls.

There are lots of things to see and do in Saigon so with 5 days I had to pick and chose. I am not one to run around like a lunatic trying to see every site when I go somewhere just to "do it". I asked Gus about the Reunification Palace. "Don't go, it's all propaganda" was his immediate answer. If a Vietnamese local tells me something is only government propaganda I am heading straight for it.

The building is iconic as photos of tanks crashing through the gates in 1975 were shown around the world. Today, two of the tanks sit in the court yard as a subtle reminder of the times. There is also an iconic photo of a North Vietnamese soldier unfurling a Vietnamese flag over the building during the fall of Saigon.

The rooms are ornate as they are historical. In these rooms Americans met with South Vietnamese leaders to discuss the war. It is also where, in 1973, Henry Kissinger sat down with the president of South Vietnam and told him that the USA was going to stop supporting the south and begin leaving Vietnam. Propaganda filled the halls as Gus had said it would, however wandering the halls and looking into the rooms of history held my attention. As with so many places in the world it never ceases to amaze me how lavish the people of a government lived while the population suffered.

The war museum, formerly the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, is now called the war remnants museum. Few museums anywhere convey the brutal effects of war on its civilian victims so powerfully. Many of the atrocities documented here were well publicized, but rarely do Westerners hear the victims of US military action tell their own stories. While some displays are one-sided, many of the most disturbing photographs illustrating US atrocities are from US sources, including those of the infamous My Lai Massacre.  -- Lonely Planet

I did find time to go up the Bitexco Financial Tower and Skydeck which gave me a 360 degree view of the city. Although a bit hazy the views were spectacular. There is also a World of Heineken experience and because I did not check the times before I left it was closed when I went. What a dufus. I wandered the markets, walked to the riverfront and got caught in a torrential downpour.

Saigon was more that I expected and a great way to quickly immerse myself into the country. Yes, Vietnam is more that just a war however if you go looking for it you can fill your time with reminders of it. Much like Cambodia most people on the street are younger but when you see someone over the age of 50 you know that they have experienced more suffering that we can imagine. I am finding people will share their family experiences if you ask but it is not a priority for them and they do not elaborate.

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