Sweltering in Saigon

It has been somewhat confusing just knowing what to call this place. On the map it is ‘Ho Chi Minh City’ but everyone calls it Saigon. I can’t remember who we spoke to but apparently the centre of the city is still officially called Saigon so we’re just going to call it that since the locals do too. HCMC is too long and hard to pronounce, according to the manager of our hotel.

We got off the train from Da Nang at 5am and caught a taxi to our hotel. Fortunately they were happy to let us in and give us a room for an extra half day so we could unpack and have a rest. We slept for a few hours and then caught a taxi to the river and planned to walk back via some site of interest.

Saigon is clearly a much wealthier city than Hanoi. There are top-end boutiques, huge gilt hotels and million-dong ($50) buffets advertised. In our walk we found a Myer-like department store where we saw our first proper supermarket in nearly a month. I love looking through supermarkets in other countries. We bought a small sharp knife with a plastic cover to use for making sandwiches and cutting fruit then wandered around the mall. We stopped for a food at a Highland Coffee shop which seem to be modeled on Starbucks. For the equivalent of $10 we had 2 baguettes and 2 iced shakes, which was probably extortionate for Vietnam but we chose it for the view over a busy intersection, hoping for a repeat of the Hanoi City View, where watching the streets was like some unending episode of Funniest Home Video traffic edition. Sadly that part of Saigon was quite tame and there was no crazy driving to watch apart from the odd person on a scooter texting on their mobile.

We meandered around in the 38 degree heat and stopped at one of the roadside cafes. I put some ice from my drink in my damp cotton scarf and ran it around my neck. It’s hard to convey in words just how unpleasant the heat here is, particularly combined with levels of pollution that are visible when you blow your nose. Urk.

We decided our last stop would be the War Remnants Museum. Mostly photos, it told stories from both sides of the Vietnam War. I was very conscious, walking around, that I knew very little about the war, my studies at school focused pretty much entirely on ancient history. The depiction of the war crimes perpetrated by both sides was horrific and so this morning I’ve been reading up on the causes of the war. It certainly is complicated. Some of the worst things were the pictures of people affected by Agent Orange and the devastation it caused. I can’t comprehend how a country goes through something like that and seems able to forgive and move on.

From there we headed back to the hotel. Or tried to. We got lost and our paper map and Luke’s phone couldn’t help us so we ended up jumping in a taxi when we reached the end of our combined tethers.

We bought sushi, salad and sandwiches from the local mini mart for a quiet dinner on the deserted rooftop terrace and decided on a tour for the following day. Luke had found an expensive but highly recommended tour on Trip Advisor that used a speedboat to take a small party up the Mekong and avoided using buses. Sounded ideal so we asked our hotel manager to book it.

There was some kind of confusion the next morning. We thought (as advertised) that the tour would pick us up but then the hotel called us a taxi and gave us an address so we jumped in and ended up at a travel agent who had us booked on a different, much cheaper ($14) tour. We weren’t getting on another stinkin’ bus so we asked her to call the tour we’d asked for but they’d already left for the day. Le sigh.

We caught a taxi back and talked to the manager who apologised for the confusion. Apparently when Luke had shown her pictures of the tour on his laptop she had not realised we wanted that exact tour and thought we just wanted to get to the Mekong. She agreed to take all the taxi fees off our booking and tried to see if we could fit on the next day’s tour but we’re flying out mid afternoon so it wasn’t going to work. So today we have the day to ourselves. Might see a movie then go on an evening river cruise. Quite disappointed as the tour we’d wanted looked pretty great. These things happen though, I guess.

No photos – for once I’m glad I didn’t take the camera out yesterday. It was just too hot to be carrying anything.

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6 thoughts on “Sweltering in Saigon

  1. Hi Amanda,
    You are certainly having an amazing time! What an incredible variety of experience! What has struck me about your photos is the colours – so many and everywhere!

    Continue to enjoy yourselves,

    Tim 🙂

  2. Glad you got to the Museum at least, I totally agree with the sentiment about their resilience, having experienced the atrocities of Agent Orange it is amazing they welcome today’s generations of Americans and Australians back to their country, I know tourism is their survival mechanism however we were fortunate to meet a lot of people who did not want to sell us anything – just to talk to us – this was because we went with a small group with Intrepid and our Australian group leader had been traveling through Vietnam as a tour guide for over 2 years and was engaged to marry a Vietnamese national, she was from Melbourne but she had fallen in love with the place and the people – said she could never live in Melbourne again – and she took our little group of 5 from Albury out with her every night and introduced us to her friends and “locals” so it was wonderful to experience that without the pressure of someone desperate to sell us something.

    We went on a full day/night tour of the Mekong and it was quite fascinating, our Tour Guide had fought on the side of the South Vietnamese and had been an aircraft engineer, his Brother (a pilot) was shot down 5 times throughout the war and died on the last occasion, he told us that the Vietnamese are very curious people and will ask you anything about everything about your private life, however if they ask you something that is too private or you just don’t want to go there you should just change the subject and they will understand you don’t want to talk about it. When we were canoeing down the silent Mekong through the jungle I asked Sonny (the Guide) “Was their much action in this part in the War?”, there was silence and I first thought he didn’t hear me, but then he purposefully changed the subject and both Michael and I knew it was too painful for him to speak at that moment. Later that night as we were swinging in hammocks in the sunset and having a few of their “Snake” wines (pure alcohol) he started to tell us all about his and his brother’s experiences in the war, (and afterwards) and you could have heard a pin drop in the jungle that night, we all just shut up and listened (and cried softly into our snake wine). It was one of the most grounding experiences of my life, to listen to the absolute terror of fighting that war, and the pain of losing your beloved only brother, and then the horrible humiliation they were put though when the war finished and they were on the “losing” side. He lost his wife and small children to a wealthy Chinese businessman as he couldn’t support them and wasn’t allowed to work in any other job than a Cyclo Driver or that type of thing, his children because they were South Vietnamese were not allowed to attend University – so his wife escaped to China to give them a better life with another man.

    On a brighter note… Sonny (obviously not his real name lol) was such a funny guy – in later years when he was allowed to do better things he became a “Wedding Singer” and you would be suffocating somewhere in the heat down the Cuchi Tunnels and he would break into some utterly inappropriate 70s and 80s American pop song and giggle to himself like a naughty school girl – he was a beautiful guy we got very lucky!

    And as for the blogging – yes we got in trouble from our mates when traveling for just for “EMAILING” our kids each day – ha ha they thought it was wasting precious time, but I (like you) treasure it now because it is my record of our trip and also they loved receiving the emails back home and reading of our adventures, and I hope it encourages them to travel too whenever they can.

    • That’s quite the experience. I’m glad I went to the war museum – as you said, it was disturbing, but eye-opening. The Agent Orange stuff was especially horrific, especially considering it is still affecting the Vietnamese people today. Very sad.

  3. Wow – sounds like you saw a very different side to Vietnam. We were particularly looking forward to today’s tour because they apparently have guides with very good English and we’re dying to ask more about the country. Perhaps we’ll learn more about history in Cambodia. Sonny sounds like an amazing character. I envy your experiences!

  4. Yes I think we got very lucky with the combination of our Group Leader (Intrepid Travel) and then the Local Guides who Intrepid employed, we had a lot of free time as well to just do our own thing so it was a good mix (but of course an expensive way to do it compared to just finding your own way).
    Have to correct two things – Sonny was an aircraft “mechanic” (not engineer) and I his brother’s plane crashed 5 times, shot down on a couple of occasions (incl the fatal one) and crashed the others from memory.

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