Saturday, December 20, 2008

Silly Pedestrian, Sidewalks are for Motorbikes: HCMC/Saigon


Destination: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Number of Days there: 4 days

Times we took the: Boat: 0; Bus/Minivan: 2; Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 2; Motorbike: 0

Where we stayed: Happy Inn ($22 US) - pricey, but good value with all the bells and whistles - WIFI, Air-con, etc.

Favorite Restaurant: Quan An Ngon - the same great place we wrote about in Hanoi makes a return. Street Vendor food meets casual dining for a unique combo that really works! Siagon also shows off it's cosmopolitan side with Fanny's Ice Cream - handcrafted desserts and ice cream served in whimsical shapes and designs.

One thing Unexpected: Having to deal with the hassle of Bangkok Airport being closed and our visa expiring at the same time.

Best of: Cu Chi Tunnels and The War Remnants Museum

Worst of: Talk about crowded and loud - 10 million people + 8 million motorbikes = constant headaches and pollution.

Special Moments: Our "Happy" tour guide serenading us with his propaganda laden song "Ho Chi Minh...Vietnam" as we walked out the tunnels of Cu Chi.

After spending too much money in rainy Hoi An, we made a bee line for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon). HCMC is the largest city in an already over crowded country and it certainly shows. With over 10 million people and nearly 8 million motorbikes, it's just as crowded, noisy and dirty as any other big city. The pollution is so rampant here that people regularly wear face masks while out and about. Despite the constant honking and fumes from the motorbikes one can find charm within its layers. Compared to Hanoi in the north, HCMC is far more cosmopolitan. There is a distinctive western feel to the downtown area complete with the high end shops and restaurants. Capitalism is alive and well. Can anyone tell us what the pink thing is in the photo below? These two were handing out samples of banana flavored gum, but we have no clue what the pink guy is supposed to be.

The War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum, lives up to its reputation as a must see. Haunting photos of the war era show the atrocities of war. From the pictures of journalists killed to the Agent Orange room, it's a moving collection. They also have the compulsory large military pieces sitting in a courtyard outside that every war museum in Vietnam has.

Along those same lines, we also made it out to the Cu Chi tunnels. Built by the Viet Cong and villagers supporting the North Vietnamese, the tunnels served as a home, hideout, transport and military storage during the war. The tunnels were quite extensive, covering miles and miles underground and out of detection from the South Vietnamese and American contingency. Our guide was a survivor of the war and fought against the Americans in these very same tunnels. It was amazing to think that with all our superior firepower, weapons and technology we were pushed back by trap doors, ancient weapons and some great propaganda from Uncle Ho (Chi Minh that is).

On the lighter side, HCMC also provides endless shopping opportunities and so we hit up the Ben Thanh Market several times. The main difference between markets in Vietnam and others in the region is the personal space aspect; as in, there is none. As we passed through the clothing section not only were we greeted with the usual chorus of "T-shirt!", "Come look at my shop!", etc. but their hands joined in. They like to grab you on the arm to get your attention and one lady even grabbed Jason's face to try and force him to look at her shop. I suppose that when you live in such crowded conditions all the time your comfort zone shrinks considerably.

The rest of the time we had left in Vietnam was spent working on how we were going to get out. We had a flight scheduled to leave for Bangkok, but with the airport being shut down by the protests there we had to make some quick change of plans. After sitting on hold for eternity with Air Asia, we finally worked out an alternate plan. Instead of going to Bangkok and then to an island, we flew to Kuala Lumpur and made our way up to the islands from there.

We hopped on the plane and headed to our next stop - Langkawi, Malaysia.

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