City Report: Saigon, Vietnam

April 2 – April 4, 2011
Photo set on Flickr

After two days in Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City), my friends and I were ready to throw in the towel and declared this trip to be a lost cause. The city had no notable sights to speak of, the food was below our expectation, and we had just come back from a lame day trip to the Mekong Delta.

But the mood of a trip can change in a hurry. A hearty dinner and a memorable last day stirred the three-day trip into becoming semi-enjoyable at the end. Sometimes you just never know. Anyway, here is the breakdown of my first trip to Vietnam over the Ching Ming long weekend.

Photogenic 

Saigon is surprisingly photogenic. No, there aren’t any postcard worthy architecture or attraction, but what’s readily available is a vibrant street life. Everything, from eating to conducting business to socializing, is happening on the street level. Vietnamese have a reputation of being unfriendly, but most people I encountered were more than happy to stop for a chat and have their portraits taken. If you like street photography Saigon is one of the easier places to find interesting subjects.

Attractions 

Reunification Palace

Reunification Palace, Saigon
It probably doesn’t bode well for Saigon’s tourism promotion bodies when the signature site on tourism pamphlets is the ugly Reunification Palace. How interesting you will find this former South Vietnamese Independence Palace to be is directly linked to your fascination on the Vietnam War.

To clearly proclaim who had won the Vietnam War, the front yard of the palace parked a captured American fighter jet and a replica of the North Vietnamese tank that crashed through the palace’s gate on April 30, 1975. The palace’s first two floors were some standard conference halls and meeting rooms. Originally in most of these rooms were large scale paintings, but the art pieces had all been taken away to a museum. Taking their places were enlarged photographs of the same paintings in amazingly poor quality. On one of the photograph, the lower corners displayed the two vases that happened to be in front of the painting when the shot was taken by someone careless.

Marginally more interesting were the third and top floors, where the bedrooms and recreational area were located. The palace’s former dwellers’ rather kitsch taste was especially apparent in the playroom. A mediation room, designed by the architect to occupy the top floor and enjoyed a sweeping view of the city below, was later transformed into a bar and dancing floor by the former South Vietnamese president. The South Vietnamese regime’s happy time did not last long, however, evident by the two red circles on the rooftop where bombs hit during the war.

It was also on the roof that we bumped into one of the many locals who were unfazed to wear their pajamas out onto the street. I sincerely hoped, unlike Shanghai, this fashion trend can continue to thrive in Saigon into the distant future.

From the roof, we descended a long flight of stairs to the basement of the palace. This underground labyrinth was an extensive bunker and war command room.

I will have to say the Reunification Palace is one of those places where it is famous enough to merit a visit but turns out to be a time waster.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame, Saigon
Our hotel was a short walk away from the Notre Dame. We walked past the cathedral several times each day, marveling how mismatched this distinctly French architecture (its red bricks were transported from Marseille) was with Saigon’s chaotic street scene.

No, we didn’t find the Notre Dame to be very interesting, but it is particularly beloved among the locals; many choose to have their pre-wedding photos taken at the cathedral. At night, the landmark is a popular dating spot where couples sat on their mopeds under the cathedral’s massive red wall.

Ben Thanh Market

Coffee Stall, Ben Thanh Market, Saigon
As for the Ben Thanh Market and the other sites we visited, there is nothing interesting to comment on.

Day trip

Mekong Delta 

Cai Be Floating Market, Mekong Delta
Here is an advice to anyone who plans to visit Saigon: don’t join one of those one-day tours to the Mekong Valley. Complete waste of time. At the travel agency the staff will show you a picture of the bustling Cai Be floating market. The full day tour, including transport and lunch, cost around USD $13. You will think to yourself, this seems like a good deal, and agree to sign on.

What you will find at Cai Be, at 10:30 after a two-hour bus ride from Saigon, is nothing like the promotional photo that draws you in. You are either being lied to or the tour group arrives too late, as there are only a few vendors selling their goods on their small wooden boats. Worse still, unlike its upstream in Laos, this stretch of the Mekong is a major thoroughfare. Watching motorized vessels rumbled along the river is about as interesting as spending a morning at a highway overpass. You will also question how come the river has such vast amount of vegetation, perhaps a result of agricultural runoff from the nearby farmland?

The rest of the morning will be spent on village hopping. This again is quite misleading because each of these “villages” is merely a station of souvenir stalls. If you aren’t interested in bringing home something useless, then you are forced to wait for fifteen minutes until the guide leads you away… to another “village”.

This tiresome process repeats itself until around 1 pm. For lunch, you will board the tour boat again, this time to a tiny island on the Mekong. Dubbed as the Island of Garden, its namesake garden is less impressive than your typical neighborhood park. The food served is cold and might induce diarrhea.

What’s better to do after lunch than lazing on a boat cruising some of the smaller canals of the Mekong Delta? Even if there is, you won’t have a choice as you will spend the next two hours passing by countless riverside houses and the occasional boat.

Finally you get to stretch out your legs in Vinh Long, where for the first time on the tour you will be given free time to roam around. Good thing you will be in town for around half an hour, which is more than enough time for the local market, the only attraction in Vinh Long.

After the climatic ending, you will hop on a tour bus for the three-hour ride back to Saigon. On the bus, you will probably wonder what has just happened to your day.

Cu Chi Tunnels 

Cu Chi Tunnels
On the other hand, you won’t find a better bargain than the ten bucks you pay on a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. You get to see authentic bomb craters and reconstructed traps, crawl through a short portion of the suffocating tunnel built by the Viet Cong, and best of all, fire from an AK-47 or M-16 at a shooting range. The cost is high though, at one dollar per bullet, so you better be prepared to pay a small fortune if you plan to hold down the trigger to evoke an action movie scene.

Predictably, the Cu Chi Tunnels have taken on a theme park like atmosphere, but you will still come away impressed by how the Viet Cong had mastered the art of guerrilla warfare and outlasted the mighty American army in a war of attrition.

Food

Pho Hoa

Beef Brisket Noodle, Pho Hoa
Our group’s spirit was quite down after visiting Mekong Delta. One of us had severe diarrhea, and all of us were starving. What we carved for was soul food – something that’s filling. Without second thought, we took off for Pho Hoa, a popular pho (Vietnamese noodle in soup) shop at 260C Pasteur Street.

We sat down in the back room across from a female nude painting. The choice of art was a little curious, considering the shop’s rather modest furnishing. After a quick clean up by a server, our table was left with some plates of youtiao (Chinese deep-fried bread stick), sliced limes, blanched bean sprouts, sliced chili and the ubiquitous platter of mixed herbs of mint leaves, long coriander leaves and Thai basil leaves.

I ordered what I always do at a pho shop – pho with raw beef. I had had this dish for at least a hundred times, but what was served to me was totally different than what I thought I always knew. The first noticeable difference was the broth. Instead of a brown beef broth, the pho in front of me had a clear soup base. My first sip reminded me of Hong Kong’s beef brisket noodle in clear soup. It was lightly spiced with a distinctive beef flavor. I took an immediately liking of the broth and quickly devoured the small bowl of noodle, but left the minced beef mostly untouched. I didn’t want to waste any food, but the minced beef resembled a flavorless piece of chewing gum.

I ordered a second bowl of pho, this time with beef brisket. I liked this second serving even more because, when compared to the first bowl, there were no floating bits of raw meat. As for the brisket – I understood that the meat was merely the noodle’s garnish, and I adjusted my expectation accordingly. Beef is a delicacy in this developing country, so the beef slices on pho I have come to expect is probably a deluxe upgrade from the dish’s grassroots origin.

We dined at several of the more popular places in town such as Temple Club and Quan An Ngon. The food was generally good but uninspiring. To the contrary, I can still recall in detail the simple bowl of pho and the pilgrimage like experience at Pho Hoa.

Cost 

Each of us exchanged USD $100 at the airport upon arrival. 1 USD = 20,700 Vietnam Dong.

Excluding accommodation expense, the two million plus dong lasted us for our entire trip, even though we took taxi everywhere and didn’t exactly skimp on meals. We also took two day trips and bought some souvenirs.

My only gripe is the expensive visa fee that cost us HKD $100 in applying online and another USD $30 at the airport custom. It is rarely pleasant to apply for entry visa, but the Vietnamese custom takes it up a notch and makes the experience as time consuming and inefficient as possible. The vibe from the bureaucratic procedure comes off like the country doesn’t care about promoting tourism in Vietnam and all foreigners are insane of wanting to visit. But I digress.

Saigon is a cost-friendly place to visit, although prices are going up rapidly during the current economic boom. Even so, I felt unusually rich when I handed over a hundred dollars and received two million dong in return.

Intangibles 

Binh Tay Market, Cholon, Saigon
The most interesting time we had in Saigon was when we walked around in Cholon, the Chinatown of Saigon, during the last afternoon. We began our walk at Binh Tay Market, a maze-like building that contained a wide-range of stalls, from gold to shark fin to ceremonial incense. Most of the stalls were wholesale instead of retail, but nobody seemed to mind the four of us wandering around even though we were obviously not going to buy anything.

We continued onward, braving across intersections that were occupied by raging mopeds. Saigon is a haphazard city to walk around. A direct cause is obviously from traffic accident, but also because of the smothering pollution from the mopeds. Between a lack of public transportation and the low retail price of a moped, there is said to be six-million of them on Saigon’s streets.

A much needed breather was needed, and we took refuge at a Catholic church. Students from the adjacent elementary school were attending their PE class in front of the church. Each of them took turn to go in front of the class to perform a vertical throw-and-catch of a yellow ball.

The game was so simple, I was expecting the kids to not have much fun doing it. All of them, however, could not hide their excitement to stand in front of their peers. They were giggling or laughing after each throw and catch, pointing to others or running around enthusiastically.

Mr Lai at Bell Tower
Inside the church, we met Mr Lai, one of the leaders of the church and a second generation Chinese. Mr Lai, clearly delighted to see someone from his place of origin, showed us around his currently renovating building.

We climbed up a series of metal ladders to the bell tower, where Mr Lai began to share with us his life story.

Before the Communist’s take-over, the church and its surrounding land was owned by Mr Lai’s family, but these lands were forced to be transferred to the government during the Communist’s reign. That’s the reason why Cholon had so few Chinese left – most of them had left the country in the 1970s.

From our elevated viewpoint, we noticed there were many constructions in the neighbourhood, a clear indication that Saigon was booming again after the government liberalized the market.

Recommendation 

Even though we had been forewarned about Saigon’s high crime rate and the often unruly behaviors of Vietnamese, our interactions with the locals were always pleasant. Many were contented to have their portraits taken and some even posed for me. Total strangers were happy to exchange a few words or remind us to be vigilant against the possibility of petty crimes.

After decades of political turmoil and economic stagnation, Saigon is becoming a vital stop, albeit one with very limited tourist resources, for anyone who wants to get a feel of fast-growing Southeast Asia’s strenuosity.

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