The City with Two Names – Saigon

March 28, 2007 5 Comments »

Bike at the Cao Dai Temple

Bike at the Cao Dai Temple

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I always wanted to change my name. When I was about 8 years old I told my brother and sister that I was no longer going to answer to being called Sherry anymore; from this point forward I would be going by the name of Farrah. I idolized Farrah Fawcet and used to re-enact every episode of Charlies Angels each week with my neighborhood girlfriends Donna and Jenny. I of course was Farrah every week – apparently this re-enactment was going to my head.

Saigon had a similar identity crisis in the 70’s. After the Communist North won the war, it also decided to change its name to Ho Chi Minh City to honor the ‘founder of the reunified country’. However – there were a few problems with this new name. First – the South wasn’t exactly jumping for joy that they lost the war and now they had to rename their beloved city, and second – the new name is a mouthful! Therefore it also goes by HCMC. Yet much like my new name, Farrah, HCMC didn’t really stick and now it’s more confusing than ever! Saigon – HCMC – it’s all pretty interchangeable.

Saigon was my last stop on my Intrepid tour of Vietnam. We arrived in Saigon at 4:30AM and drove through the quiet, deserted city. We woke up the people at the hotel, who were sleeping there on the lobby furniture of course. No matter how long I had been in Vietnam – I still wasn’t used to the idea of people sleeping on cots and various furniture in their workplace! The hotel had an available room that we could store our luggage and clean up after our grimey train ride. I can definitely say that I wasn’t going to miss the overnight trains – I was happy that this was the last one I had to take! breakfast Our little group of 6 only had one more night together so we all hung out together the last day. We had soup for breakfast at one of the many street vendors with little tables, and squatty chairs and we got our first look at the city. I was pleasantly surprised to first notice that there was some order to the craziness. There are twice as many people in HCMC as compared to Hanoi, with more people came more cars, and more sidewalks, and more stops lights and cross walks that people actually obeyed 60% of the time. Granted – you still had to be on high alert when crossing the street, but since people actually stopped at stoplights here, you could at least see some moments of opportunity to cross the street. The only downside is that in order to bypass the stoplight – many people would just all of a sudden start driving their motorbike on the sidewalk. Just when you thought you were safe – you weren’t. Now your sacred sidewalk space was being used as a turning lane! HCMC also had tourist police – this was a first – I had never seen any tourist police before in Vietnam. They wore a colorful green uniform and walked around together and stood on street corners. I asked our guide Huong what the tourist police actually did – and he explained that they helped people cross the streets. What a great idea – a much needed personal crossing guard! However, I never really saw them do anything but stand on a corner and sometimes whistle at cars – a great idea that wasn’t really carried out to well.

We took a little walk around the city to orient ourselves and went in to see a couple of the main sites. First we went to see the Reunification Palace. The Reunification Palace was the ‘headquarters’ for the South Vietnam president and the cabinet as well as a center for the American operation during the war. In 1975, tanks drove up on its pristine lawn and took over the area in a peaceful surrender at the Reunification Palace. Photo: Phones in the Map Room of the Reunification Palace phones The history was interesting of course during the tour – but the real enjoyment of the tour was to see the palace that looked like the Brady Bunch house – ultra 70ish décor. I expected to see Florence Henderson hanging out in the one of the meeting rooms and Peter and Bobby playing ball on the staircase. The Presidential offices were like looking at a time capsule – old rotary phones lined the desks. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a rotary phone – scary.

We walked on to see the War Remnants Museum nearby. Apparently this used to be named the American and Chinese Atrocities Museum – but they had to change the name so that tourists would come…what a brilliant marketing idea…duh. (at least Farrah wasn’t that bad!) However – the old name provided foreshadowing to what was in the museum. There were some old US fighter planes, tanks, helicopters, and artillery out in the museum lawn and then the museum was filled with photographs of the war – mainly depicting the American involvement in the war. The whole thing was full of propaganda, but once I looked past all of the American bashing, I really did enjoy the pictures. There was a room that was dedicated to the photo journalists during the war – the pictures were really amazing and many of those photojournalists perished in Vietnam making it even more moving.

However – there was also a room dedicated to the American use of Agent Orange – complete with fetuses of unborn, deformed babies…don’t eat before you go. After seeing the whole museum it kind of leaves a knot in your stomach as the pictures are gruesome. However my emotions were conflicting, I felt two very distinct waves came across me – guilt and anger. The guilt was from simply walking around the museum as an American. There is no denying that we did use Agent Orange, and that we were involved in killing civilians and it certainly didn’t make me proud. However – at the same time – the anti-American propaganda angered me. It made it seem like we just came over here to try to take over their country for no reason, and it had no mention of the fact that the country was already in a civil war that we joined. However, I knew that I couldn’t really get too worked up about it – there are two sides to every story and this was their side – after all, I was on their soil – I couldn’t expect them to tell our side of the story. In the end – the whole situation was unfortunate and there are many sides to blame – end of story. Overall, it was a good museum to go see – and it only cost $1USD.

Photo: Woman praying at temple
praying woman As I walked around Saigon I was amazed by how ‘Westernized’ it was compared to the rest of the country – yet compared to other countries I’ve visited in the area – it was the least ‘Westernized’. The only chain store I saw in the whole country was Kentucky Fried Chicken – and that was only in the South. After being in Vietnam for a month, seeing KFC is rather shocking! Saigon was an oddity compared to the rest of Vietnam – it also had big buildings (30 stories), financial institutions, businessmen in suits, and when you said ‘no thank you’ to someone trying to sell you something – they generally listened and went away. It was refreshing for a few days! I said goodbye to my Intrepid travel group and immediately went to meet next travel group – my family. My sister’s family, her in-laws, and my aunt and uncle had arrived that afternoon in Saigon and we were continuing to tour around South Vietnam as a large group of 13. This was quite a shock for me – not only was it the largest group I had traveled with to date, but it also included kids and even an 11 month old baby, Jack, my sister’s nephew!

Photo: Man demonstrating how to get into the small opening of one of the tunnels
tunnels We all went to see the Cu Chi tunnels near the boarder of Cambodia. This was also a typical war site that had a good deal of propaganda associated with it – but to my nieces – it was a fun tunnel system to crawl through – kind of like an amusement park. The site not only had tunnels, but it also showed you the way that the VC lived during the war – how they worked, made weapons, and lived. The area even felt authentic as there was gunshots in the background! There was a shooting range associated with the Cu Chi tunnels where you could shoot automatic weapons for $1 USD a bullet. I really wanted to try the shooting range, but unfortunately we ran out of time. It really astonished me when I would think about people living like this for years and trying to fight a war – this was a hard life. We all tried our hand at crawling around in the tunnels. I followed my nieces in who fit much easier than I did. I had to ‘duck walk’ for a bit as the tunnels were so small. I came out of the 100 meter tunnel covered in dirt and dripping with sweat as if I had just ran 6 miles. It was stifling in there.

We next went to see the Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a religion that is a mix of Buddhism, and Christianity, with a lot of superstition thrown in. It only exists in this remote area of Vietnam/Cambodia and it was actually a ‘safe place’ during the war. As we drove up to the huge gates of the Cao Dai temple all I could think about was Salt Lake City and the Mormon Tabernacle. The temple was huge and the grounds were massive – all walled in – a little world of its own. temple They worship every day at noon, so we were able to see the last part of the worship service – it was a stunning site as everyone there was dressed in white. On the way back to Saigon it was a long painful/bumpy bus trip. We stopped along the way to look at the Rubber Tree farms. The government had planted these farms about 16 years ago and they had acres and acres of rubber trees neatly growing in rows. The rubber trees are used to produce latex – I had to giggle to myself as I looked out the window of the bus and imagined a whole condom forest! Of course I had to keep this thought to myself as it wasn’t quite ‘niece appropriate’!

fishing net South of Saigon you can easily get to the Mekong Delta. I use the word easily a bit sarcastically as it takes a 3 hr bus ride on less than perfect roadways dodging motorbikes, bicycles, and trucks on a little two lane road. Our big group had it’s own bus, and everyone was well armed with video cameras – we were the ultimate vision of western travelers…fanny pack wearing, melting in the heat, and tricked out with electronic equipment! As the new arrivals to Vietnam were taking video of the chaotic, dangerous traffic – I felt like I had adapted to this craziness over the last month. I had evolved to knowing that even though we were inches away from a head on collision – it would be alright – no worries – the driver would lay on his horn, and swerve at the last minute narrowly avoiding a bicycle full of children on his right. This is how it worked in Vietnam. We arrived in the delta and immediately boarded a wooden boat to see life on the river. We spent the day seeing floating markets, coconut candy factories, puffed rice factories, and antique houses. My favorite thing that we visited was something that wasn’t part of our itinerary/tour – a Vietnamese wedding. When they get married here they have a two day party – one day at the grooms house and one day at the brides house. Photo: Bride and Groom bride groom They put up big tents and invite all of the relatives for food and drink – it’s a big party similar to our wedding receptions. Our tour guide actually noticed the big red tent and told us that there was a wedding party going on so he took us near the tent so that we could look in and watch what was going on. As we all peered in at the partiers, soon a couple of them came out and invited us in. I am not one to turn down a party! It was chaos – everyone wanted to shake our hand, everyone wanted to play with the baby Jack, and everyone wanted to feed us booze. We sat down and became part of the party! They gave us food, rice wine, and beer and all crowded around us to try to talk to us. It was official – I am now a Wedding Crasher. I kept thinking – what if a tourist bus came and crashed my wedding party – I don’t know that I would be that thrilled about it – but we were like royalty! I think we could have stayed all day, but we had to move on – I did one more shot of rice wine for the road, wished the new couple well, and went back out into the hot sun – sad to leave my little wedding oasis!

hamock BW Life on the Mekong was what you would expect – hot and wet. It looked like a hard life – yet there were millions of people living along the delta. Unlike the rest of Vietnam – I can’t really describe it as beautiful – but it was definitely interesting to see how life was lived on the water. All of the businesses were family owned, with family living areas on the 2nd floor or in the back. The back of the house was normally on stilts in the water. The floating markets were my favorite thing to watch. It was kind of like a big wholesale market. A big boat of cabbages or pineapples would sell to smaller boats and the smaller boats would then take the goods somewhere else to sell. I had a hard time understanding why all of this needed to take place on the water – but I can only assume that these shipments of cabbages came from quite a distance and the only way to transport them was by boat. girl BW Normally the larger boats had complete families on them – you’d see little kids helping their parents, they would have a few hammocks that they slept in and maybe even a potted plant on the top of the boat for some much needed décor! They sold everything in the market; veggies, building materials, there was even a drink boat – I had one vendor row up to our boat and offer me a beer at 9AM. I had a blast that morning at the market. I was sweating in the hot sun, trying to keep my balance on the back of the boat, with my big camera around my neck, my little point and shoot camera on my wrist and a pineapple in my other hand…quite a juggling act! I was exhausted by the time we finally got to land!

Finally, our group had planned for a couple of beach days and some traditional ‘vacation’. After spending hot, sweaty days in a boat on the delta we left the Saigon….errr Ho Chi Minh City area for good and took a 3 hour slow, bumpy bus ride, and finally a 3 hour ferry ride – we arrived at our beach destination – Phu Quoc Island off the southern tip of Vietnam. We were all in some need of a little air conditioning, beach, and western food for a couple of nights! Signing off…your vagabond traveler…Farrah.

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