Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Saigon Stories: Part One

Hi again,

Sorry it's been a little while since the last post but we have been massively busy. Of course this has as a consequence fallen behind and we're actually now in Cambodia but I need to fill you in on the last week we spent in Vietnam. We flew down to Ho Chi Minh City (the locals still call the main district Saigon) and the flight was pretty uneventful and surprisingly the same can be said about the transport to the hotel. We were expecting HCMC to have manic roads which would be impossible to navigate, but what we actually found is that they aren't too bad (not sure if this is the case or whether we have just been in Asia for too long). Approaching the hotel through the main streets, we even spotted quite a few working pedestrian crossings AND people actually indicate here. 

The area around our hotel was packed with restaurants, bars and travel companies, similar to where we stayed in Hanoi. Our guesthouse was a treat- for 14$ a night we got a private ensuite room with hot water and a large, super comfy bed. It was in a great location and the family who ran it (and also lived downstairs) were really nice and made the stay feel like home. If you're needing somewhere to stay in Saigon, we would recommend- Ngoc Thao Guesthouse.

On arrival, we had a wander around the area. There are a number of food stalls with locals sitting around with bia hoi (draft beer), always on the customary tiny blue plastic stools outside and delicious smells wafting into the street from the open BBQs at the front. Behind our guesthouse, there was a large park with outdoor exercise equipment and we often saw the locals taking advantage of these in the early morning sometimes even taking part in some classes such as salsa and tai chi. Beyond this there were the ubiquitous cyclo drivers touting for business, more motorbikes (of course) and women selling typical tourist wares.

We decided to take advantage of another common sight in Vietnamese cities by going into a numerous travel companies to organise our next few days in which we planned to see some of the sights surrounding the city along with planning our border crossing into Cambodia (more to follow on this). After a productive afternoon, we headed for dinner and a few drinks on the main bar street in district one (main backpacker area). Beer in HCMC is much cheaper than anywhere else we have found averaging 40p even in restaurants. After teaching a Swedish guy a few card games and beating him in the process with a banana flavoured coke (crazy!) we called it a day.

Not so early the next morning, we rose to a delicious breakfast of cinnamon French toast, a breakfast burrito and Vietnamese coffee (slightly addicted to the thick liquid made with condensed milk) and we headed out for a day of sightseeing. First stop, the War Remnants Museum. We took a taxi the short distance and after a brief shouting match with the driver where he refused to take money, we made our way into the museum. Obviously, this was highly interesting but also quite distressing as the museum depicted some horrible events from the Vietnam/American war. Some highlights:

1) Exhibits on the various protests staged against American involvement around the world

2) A room dedicated to the effects of Agent Orange, a severe chemical substance which was weaponised. The majority of the exhibits focused on the continuing effects on Vietnam today in descendants of soldiers along with a preserved foetus which clearly shows these effects. Sorry, but felt it was inappropriate to photograph these images as they were somewhat disturbing.

3) A hall focusing on the consequences of war for local people in smaller towns and the massacres that took place during the war

4) A replica of the military prison where Vietnamese rebel soldiers were held captive and tortured was set up. This contained genuine devices which were used including 'tiger cages' which were made of barbed wire and could hold up to 10 prisoners at a time. Also information depicting the various forms of torture which were inflicted (most of which were incredibly barbaric).

5) A collection of tanks, planes and weapons from the war, most of which had been destroyed American equipment

It's a really informative (somewhat biased) museum and both of us had been fairly ignorant before our visit. We definitely learnt a lot about the devastating effects which carry on to this day.

After leaving the museum, we took a quick stop off at a couple of places. The first of these was Notre Dame cathedral which is a remnant from Vietnams French colonial days. 

Moving closer to our hotel, we called in at Ben Tanh market, and purchased a few more souvenirs. The market was huge, and the female sellers were quite aggressive literally dragging Rob into their stalls with vice grips on his wrists, but done with a smile of course.

We headed back to the hotel after a busy day and grabbed some dinner. After this, we planned to walk to the night market, but there was a monsoon half way so we had to make a detour to a street cafe with umbrellas to enjoy some cheap beer (such a burden). When there was a break in the rain we headed back to the hotel grabbing a taxi which cost us a whole 40p. 

More on HCMC to follow...

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