Vietnam Day 1 (Ho Chi Minh City Tour) (07/06/2008)

I started feeling that it is tough to maintain a detailed travel blog. By the time I write about one trip I am going for another. Finally I have completed about My India trip. I am still pending in writing about Vietnam and I have already completed the trip to Phuket. I am still in process of finishing these two and I am planning to go to Bangkok and Malaysia very soon. So today I thought I will finish off writing about my Vietnam trip.

I have already wrote in my personal blog about how I felt going all alone to Vietnam. I have been to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for a weekend trip on 7th and 8th of June. I applied my visa on 4th June, booked ticked on 5th June, collected visa on 6th June and travelled on 7th June. Before I started to Vietnam, I didnt really have any information about the city nor the country that I am going to visit. But I took the bold step and started off.

Saturday morning I woke up as early as 4AM. I went to the Budget terminal by 6.20AM. This was my first international flight with budget airways (Tiger Airways). I checked in by 6.30AM and my flight took off from the airport at 7.15AM. Flight was good and the seating was also fine. I got the aisle seat. I sat in the seat for sometime and later saw that there was nobody in the last seat. So I went and sat in the window seat in the last row. I took some really good photos from the plane. I could take pics of Ships which looked very tiny in the water, took pics of the clouds in the sky and finally when I reached near to Ho Chi Mihn City, I took the pictures of the city from the top.

I landed there at around 8.15AM local time. I have already booked a room through the hostels world website. They have also arranged a cab for me from airport to room. Going in cab to hostel room costed me 12USD. I finished my immigration work and took some pics of the airport and came out. I could see somebody standing with my name card. This was the first time that somebody was standing for me with a placard :). I met that guy whose name was Tuan and we started off to the room in a Innova. I took the pics on the way to room. Spoke to Tuan about Vietnam and what all places I can see there.

I have read a lot about the Vietnam traffic and I could actually see it. There were so many motorbikes on the road. I could see huge bunches of electric wires on either sides of the roads. The road and traffic situation was much worse than what we have in India. The journey to my room took almost 30 mins. If it was a bike we would have reached much earlier. The room was located in the back packers area. The hotel room was located in a very small lane. A girl came on to the road to pick me up and took me into the hostel room. They gave me a little breakfast and gave a computer to use internet. Meanwhile they cleaned the room. Later she escorted me to the room. The room was very neat and really nice. At such a low cost I have got a 3 star range room. I was happy about that.

I saw a list of places which I could visit through the lonely planet website. I asked the girl if I can go on a full day trip? Normally the trips start at 8 in the morning so I didnt have an option to go any where. So I asked for a bike taxi to go around the city. By the time I got fresh a bike taxi was ready. The guy didnt knew English, so I asked for another taxi guy who knew English. With in 5 minutes they arranged another guy by name Wang who knew little English. We started from the room at around 9.45AM local time.

We first went to Fine Arts Museum. The Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum is very near to my room where I stayed. The building was a former commercial building way back from twentieth century. I took the ticket for 15000 dong. I was given a locker and they wanted me to put my bag in it and asked not to take any pictures. There were displays which were spread across three floors of the building. The first floor displays exhibits of contemporary art by local and international artists. The second floor has galleries displaying contemporary art from the museum’s permanent collection. The whole collection included many sketches, paintings and some statues. Most of them focus on the resistance to the various colonial rulers. The third floor was closed but I was told that it displays older works from the first century to the early twentieth century. As this sketches and paintings were not of my interest I didnt really spend long time here.

I came out and asked Wang about the next destination. It was Reunification Palace. It is also called as the Independent Palace. The entrance fee was 15000 dong. It was built first in 1865.
In 1963 it was damaged by an air bombardment and was rebuilt and completed in 1966 and was renamed the Independent Palace. It is 5-storey building consisting of 100 rooms and chambers. Even though I didnt really had access to all the rooms I was told that there is a card-palying romm on the third floor, the fourth floor was used for dancing and also had a casino there. For me the more interesting floor was the basement which contains a network of tunnels to no where, telecommunication center and a war room. Those tunnels were built to connect airport. But because of the hard soil the attempt was unsuccessful and was later used by the presidents as a hiding place during wars. I also saw a Benz and a Jeep that were used by the presidents. There were tankers which were on display out side the palace. They were used during the 1975 war by North vietnamese. Overall the place was a nice experience.

From the Palace we started off to Notre Dame Cathedral. This was the first time I was going to visit a church. I have always seen a church in movies, so it was exciting. Even though Vietnam was a predominantly Buddhist country, Notre Dame stands tall in the center of Saigon. This was built during the late 1870s-1880s by the French people. Hence this name was given to it. We can visit it at anytime. We can even attend mass if we desire. Masses are held in Vietnamese and English. But this place tend to shut down during lunchtime. My timing was wrong and I went around the lunch time. Hence couldnt get a complete tour of it. I heard that we can go up the belfry, from where you have a very nice view of the city. As there was no time, I took some pics inside and came out of the Church. Outside I could see that couples were taking pics for their marriage album with this church as the back drop.

As soon as I came out I could see Vietnam General Post office just adjacent to the church. It was build during 1886 to 1891 by by Gustave Eiffel. Once again French architecture style building. Once I entered the post office I have noticed a huge clock and some cavernous interior. The design on the ceilings are immense and it has the feel of an old train station. Most important you also can’t miss the massive portrait of good old Ho Chi Minh. Inside the postoffice to the right and left you have telephone booths with watches showing different time zones. They also sell stamps and souveniers inside. The post office is one of many places where you’ll be mobbed by people, including children, selling postcards and other tourist trinkets.

The next place I visited was The War Remnants Museum. I got an opportunity to see the “American War” through the eyes of the locals. We can see the Vietnamese side of the story and see American brutality in the war. This was formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. Inorder not to make American and Chinese visitors offended the name has been changed. This museum is flocked by many Western tourists. We can see many of the atrocities not reported in the media. Here we will be greeted with lots of photo galleries which would depict the horrors of the Vietnam war. It was really heart-breaking to see the pain and tears the victims have to go through for this war. When I was there, I have seen many American tourists taking time to read all the writings on the photographs. I could see the sadness in their eyes which was there in almost everybody visiting this museum. This is a truly good educational tour – something that you would not read much about in our history textbooks.

One of the picture that I remembered was of an American GI cutting off the head of a Vietnamese Congress soldier midway through. There was one more photo photo that caught my attention, a grim photo of a mother fleeing away from her enemies with her children. There were many such Heart-wrenching pictures on the devastation of war. This was very depressing to know about America. I guess this is possibly one of the few museums in the world that would allow to take photos of the exhibits. Many of the photos were gripping Pulitzer-prize winning photos. I have also seen two deformed babies preserved in formalin who were kept in the exhibits. I actually didnt know so much about this war. I will have to admit that I was quite disturbed by seeing all the photos. It was not only me but I could see the same feeling on other tourists faces.

Then went to Jade Emporer Pagoda. This is one of the most interesting pagodas in Vietnam. The Emperor Jade is filled with smoky incense and fantastic carved figurines. Here in Vietnam one thing I have observed is they use lot of incense sticks. I heard that it was built by the Cantonese community around the turn of the 20th century. This is still buzzing with worshippers, many lounging in the front gardens. I could also see some pigeons in the pagoda premises. The dominant figure in the main hall is the Jade Emperor himself. He is referred to as the “god of the heavens,” the emperor decides who will enter and who will be refused. In a room left there is Kim Hua, a goddess of fertility, and the King of Hell in another corner with his minions, who undoubtedly gets those the Jade Emperor rejects.

In this trip I have been to church, Chinese temple and now my next place is a mosque. I have been to Saigon Central Mosque. I was surprised to hear that this was built by South Indian Muslims. This was built in 1935. This is located in the middle of the bustling Dong Khoi area. Once I entered the gate I saw the sparkling white-and-blue structure. There is a pool for the ritual ablutions required by Islamic law before prayers. I took off my shoes before entering the mosque. I met a guy in the mosque who has been to chennai. He was a south indian living in Vietnam. I took some pics in the mosque. It was a nice experience as this was the first time I have been to mosque.

After visiting the Mosque I asked the taxi guy to take me to some local restaurant where I can have some local food. He told that the Vietnamese local food that is popular around the world is called bowl of pho (noodle soup). He took me to a small road side food court but they had beaf noodle soup. I was strict on eating chicken and hence he took me to another food court. He ordered the food. Meanwhile the lady at the food court brought me a wet tissue which has really helped me after travelling for more than 3 hours in that hot sun. Then we had the bowl of pho. The taste was really good and hot.

From there we went to room to charge my camera and take rest for 30 mins. I charged my camera and took a short nap. Meanwhile I got a call from room service and was told that taxi guy has arrived and I have to come down. By the time I got ready and went down it was heavily raining. We waited for 30 mins and at 2.30PM we again started for the rest of the trip.

The afternoon trip started off with a hindu temple on the way. Though my experience here was bad but still liked the temple. A lady here forcibly made me offer 2 small garlands and some incense sticks and took 100K Dong from me. This was really bad. But then I felt good to see Indian godess there. I took some pics in the temple and moved on with my journey.

We were now going to History Museum. On the way to this History museum I could see many other places. I have seen a building called City Hall which was previously a French Hotel. There was a huge statue of the famous Ho Chi Minh along with the national flag. I took some pics there. The sun was right above my head and it was too hot, so didnt really spend so much time there. Further on the way I came across Embassies of US, UK and China.

We then went to History Museum. The museum was a stunning Sino-French-style building. This was worth a visit. There were many valuable relics taken from Cambodia’s mystical Angkor Wat. They definitely deserve some minutes. Then the museum also has a fine collection of artefacts which illustrates the evolution of the cultures of Vietnam dating back to the Bronze Age. It also has a good museum gift shop. I couldnt take any pictures inside. Inorder to take some pics I had to spend some more money which I didnt really wanted to spend. I have taken some pictures from outside the museum.

Next was the Qan Am Pagoda. It was the last Pagoda far away from the city. It was really nice with Chinese architecture. The roof is decorated with fantastic scenes rendered in ceramic depicting traditional Chinese plays and stories. Once I came out I could see a buddha statue out side in white color, which was very beautiful. I have seen the garden around and then started to my final place the Ben Tanh Market.

This place (Ben Tanh Market) is listed under Patricia Schultz’s “1000 places to see before you die” so it’s a must see. It is a square building with four gates that look onto Quach Thi Trang Plaza, Phan Boi Chau, Phan Chu Trinh, and Le Thanh Ton Streets. The side that looks onto the plaza has a tower with three clocks, all made by Citizen and none showed the correct time. I heard that since the last interior makeover in 1985, the clocks seem to work properly most of the time, so kudos for the new regime. With over 3000 stalls in the market, there is nothing you cannot find in this oldest and busiest market in Vietnam. You name it you will get it in the market. Shoes, T-Shirts, Goggles, Snake Wine, Pho, etc. Some of the things that we need to take care when we are at this market are:
– Bargain Bargain Bargain
– You must be fast in numbers to convert to your local currency.
– Try avoiding Fridays and Saturdays. These days the crowd is incredible. Lots of foreigners shop and hence the prices are on the higher side.
– Dress lightly

After buying 2 goggles I started back to room. I was totally tired. I wanted to go to a pub, but the driver told me that it was far. So I went home got fresh and came out to just go around. Took a strol for 30 mins and then had dinner at an Indian Restaurant. As tomorrow I have to go for the Cu Chi Tunnel trip I decided to get back to bed. I browsed internet for sometime and at 10PM I went to bed. Over all my first day was a busy day.


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