I had been looking forward to coming to Ho Chi Minh City, or formerly and really still to this day known as Saigon. To me it was the place in Vietnam with the most mystery and where we could learn most about the country’s history. By the time we came to Saigon though we were a little bit disillusioned with Vietnam (despite having spent a few lovely days in Hoi An) and just in general, approaching the halfway point of our travel in Asia, we were becoming a bit tired and restless. We had decided that we will not spend much more time in Vietnam, we needed a change of scenery and decided to make our way to Cambodia and then to Bali as soon as possible. But I still really wanted to see Saigon, so here we were. You know you are in Saigon, when you see this:
We stayed near ‘the Khao San road of HCMC’, Pham Ngu Lao Street, not by design, more by luck as that was where we found the best value accommodation. But it turned out to be a good location for us anyway as we could easily walk to the city’s official Sinh Tourist office and arrange for some excursions.
The Sinh Tourist was founded in 1993 and was originally called the Sinh Cafe. It really was a cafe on Pham Ngu Lao Street where travellers would meet and share travel stories – and hence the Sinh Cafe travel agency was born. The agency became so popular with travellers that many impostors and fake Sinh Cafes started opening up all over Vietnam. So when you are in the country, be careful when choosing an organised tour, make sure it is the real Sinh Tourist otherwise you might get false offer or a sub-par tour in exchange for your money.
We signed up for a two day tour – on day one we would tour the Mekong Delta and on day two we would make our way to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penhon the Mekong river via speedboat. What a cool way to get to Cambodia! 🙂 But more about this in my next post.
Before our two day Mekong river tour we spent some time exploring some of the sights of Saigon.
We asked our hotel reception desk to call us a taxi and take us to the Emperor Jade Pagoda. We wanted to make sure the taxi we used was from a verified company – there are so many stories about taxi drivers that are rip-off merchants here. Vinasun is the most trusted taxi service.
Our first stop was the Emperor Jade Pagoda. The pagoda is definitely for the locals, I don’t think there were any other tourists there. While I enjoyed experiencing the religious rituals of the locals at the same time I couldn’t help feeling as if we were intruding on an intimate family activity on a Sunday morning. The pagoda itself was small, but very atmospheric with lots of statues inside and hundreds of incense sticks burning and filling the air with their fragrance.
After the Pagoda we tried to walk to the Museum of Vietnamese History, which is next to the Zoo. Since there were absolutely no signs in English, only in Vietnamese (which is fine by the way) and we only had a totally useless map of the city (on which the streets were not named and the scales were totally off), it’s needless to say we got lost. We had to hail another cab and try to explain to the driver where we tried to go to. Explaining it was not easy. The driver spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese. We pointed at the map, we tried to use words like ‘Museum’ and ‘Zoo’, which we thought were pretty universal, but nothing. After driving around for a while he first took us to the wrong place. Then more pointing and more loud repetition of the words ‘Museum’ and ‘Zoo’ and ta-da, somehow we ended up in front of the museum! 🙂
The museum was really lovely actually, but we could only enjoy it for 45 minutes as it shut for two hours for lunch and a bought ticket was not valid for the whole day only for one entry, so we couldn’t return. As we exited the museum, we went straight to the zoo.
Well, what can I tell you about the zoo. It was pleasant enough and it was obvious that this is where families come for a nice Sunday afternoon with their children. We enjoyed walking around, but mainly for the beautifully landscaped public spaces rather than the animals themselves. While the animal enclosures were passable, the zoo still made me feel a bit uncomfortable, especially as we got to the elephant enclosure. After learning more about the issues of South-East Asia’s elephants I was a bit more sensitive about seeing these beautiful animals in such an unnatural environment, especially that almost every single one of them were clearly mentally unstable! They were constantly swaying back and forth with their legs chained to posts as a nearby loudspeaker blasted dance music all day. It was heartbreaking, especially as the locals and even some tourists were totally oblivious to this and thought the elephants were dancing to the music! I couldn’t really watch, so we quickly moved on. I think what this zoo reminded me mainly of what zoos were like in Hungary when I was a kid about 25-30 years ago: little regards for animal welfare from the zoo operators and visitors’ ignorance on animal issues. Times have changed though, and while Hungary moved on with its zoos it seems like Vietnam hasn’t yet. Although a bit of Google research has revealed that the Saigon Zoo will be closed shortly and all the animals will be moved to a larger scale safari project, which sounds promising.
In the afternoon we went for a walk in Tao Dan Park, which is a beautifully manicured little park. The grass was so inviting, we wanted to have a little sit down for 5 minutes but as soon as we sat on the grass an official looking fellow turned up and told us we couldn’t do that! But there were locals sitting on the grass, so not sure what that was about .. 😀 We also desperately needed some water and Adam went in search for a bottle. After walking around in the area for about 20 minutes, he returned with a teeny cup of fizzy drink. He said the only person he found selling water was a lady on the street who wanted a ridiculous amount of money for a small bottle. Adam was so offended by the price that he just walked off… He came back with an equally expensive cup of fizzy drink, but it was the principle.. 🙂
From the park it was a short walk to the War Remnants Museum. I looked at the map and had a rough idea how far away it was, in which direction and how long it would take to walk there. While walking we were constantly beeped at by taxis and shouted at by cyclo drivers for a lift. We told everyone politely ‘no thank you’ and most of them moved on immediately, except one man who told us we were going in the wrong direction and for 100000 dongs he would take us to the museum. Now while that may only be about £3, taxis in the city cost around 30000-50000 dongs for an inner city journey and I immediately knew he was up to something. I firmly told him ‘no’ and walked on. I think Adam was sick of walking and would have gladly taken the ride, but my cynicism won over. Also as we got to the museum it was clear the driver would have literally ‘taken us for a ride’ as we were going in the right direction anyway and it took us precisely two more minutes to reach the museum.
War Remnant Museum was humbling. And shocking. The photograph exhibitions were thought-provoking and horrendous really. What went on in Vietnam in those years of the Vietnam War seems incomprehensible, how could something like this ever happen? And Vietnamese are still very much feeling the effects of its atrocities today. I want to give a balanced opinion of the museum though and to me it also sounded a lot like communist propaganda in certain cases. But that still didn’t take away from the power of the exhibition. I actually got a little light headed in there after walking around, reading the stories, looking at the pictures… I had to have a little sit down. It’s a heavy topic and the photos and descriptions are holding nothing back.
As we left the museum, the skies opened and a massive thunderstorm ensued. The rain was coming down really hard so we decided to hop into one of the taxis that were lining up outside the museum. Wrong decision!! We let our guard down and went for the first car, instead of making sure it was a trusted company, like Vinasun. Within about 3 minutes we knew the guy fiddled with his meter as we both watched it jump from 30000 dongs to 36000 and then up and up and up in quick successions…while we were sitting in traffic!! We quickly looked at each other to make sure we both saw that, and Adam told the guy to stop the car immediately! I think by this time in the day, we got a bit fed-up with people trying to scam us, so we were like ‘we’re taking no bull*shit’, pointed at his meter, threw 30000 at him and jumped out the car into the pouring rain. We waited for the first good taxi, hailed it and headed back to our hotel. No-one messes with us!!! 🙂
In the evening we had the most amazing pho in a pho-specialist fast food joint. It was amazing and it had purple noodles 🙂
I know that in a couple of days we spent in Saigon we hardly scratched the surface of this very complex city. But we did our best. Looking back I think I actually prefer Hanoi as a city, and I never thought I’d say that. We weren’t quite done with Vietnam yet however, we still had the Mekong Delta to discover .