Soaking Up Saigon

Last on our list for Vietnam was Saigon – it might be called Ho Chi Minh by the government, on maps, and by those in the north, but its still Saigon to the people that live there.  I would call it Box Hill north.  Arriving in Saigon felt pretty good, we had covered a lot of territory in our month in Vietnam, and we had almost travelled the entire length of this long, narrow nation overland – even if we did fly the last little bit.

Suburban Saigon from the air

Suburban Saigon

Saigon feels like a more modern version of Hanoi – there are a lot of  more modern touches (shopping centres, international chains, fine dining), and not as much of the history of Hanoi – but they are both densely populated cities where each hidden, twisted lane way reveals a whole new element of activity.

Out hotel – Hello Hotel (which was amazing btw, can’t recommend it highly enough) – was down a long alleyway in the middle of the busy tourist district.  But as soon as you stepped of the street in the alleyways, you felt suddenly miles away from the touts and tuk tuks and traffic.  In fact i think the lane ways were our favourite part of the city – they give Saigon an extra hidden element.  Real life goes on away from the busy main streets.

Saigon lanes and alleyways

Colourful alleyways

As we travelled south in Vietnam, the monsoon became more apparent.  And we couldn’t have been happier.  When the temperature hits 36 at midday with thick humidity, its great to look at the sky and see the dark clouds building and know that a refreshing deluge will wash the streets clean and return a much more liveable temperature to the sweltering neighbourhoods.  The cool change meant we could see Saigon our way – by just walking and walking and walking, and stumbling on scenes like the photo below (the kind of strange sight you just don’t see in the staid, serious streets of Melbourne).

This is Saigon.  Best photo.

Just look at this photo for a while. Its so good. This is Saigon in a picture. A demolished building, men drinking coffee on ridiculously small chairs, a nude baby making a run for it, a motorcycle swooping in.

Just as Hanoi’s tourism industry is dominated by trips to Halong bay, Saigon’s is dominated by the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known here – or the ‘American War of Aggression as it is still called in the north).  Most tourists visit the Chu Chi tunnels – part of the massive tunnel network which housed so many Viet Cong soldiers during the war.  But with the knowledge we would be in Phnom Penh in a week, I was unsure how much horrifying history I could deal with.  Visiting the war remnants museum was enough for us – seeing the effects of the war on the Vietnamese people, and in particular the generations long effects of the tonnes of agent orange that were sprayed here was pretty sobering.  Many children are still born here with serious defects due to the chemical agents sprayed from american planes – a wrong that will never be righted.

Remnants of war

Remnants of war

I’ve heard a bit of criticism of the Vietnam war museums, by people saying they portray a very ‘Vietnamese’ view of the war – highlighting the atrocities of the US and its allies, while turning a blind eye to the actions of the Viet Cong.  And this is true, but in this statement is the silent assertion that the western version of what happened in the war is the true version.  The atrocities in these museums occurred, 80 million litres of the chemical defoliant agent orange were spread over the region, up to 500 civilians were slain in the Mi Lai massacre, horrible things took place.  We have all heard the phrase  ”History is written by the victors”.  I don’t think these museums present any less of a truthful portrayal of what took place than the Vietnam museums of the west.  When we approach any historical text, or a museum or site, we need to keep in mind who is presenting this information to us, and keep this in mind when taking it in.  This is just as important in Australia or America as it is in Vietnam.

Our other highlights of Saigon included – visiting the popular 4P’s Pizza for some inspired Japanese themed wood fired pizzas (yes that is a thing).  The #2 restaurant in Saigon (out of 500 on trip advisor) takes some finding, down a lane way, round a corner, and down another lane way, and we stumbled in on a friday night to find them fully booked.  All of a sudden it felt very Melbournelike.  Luckily they set us up in the cafe next door and ferried in some incredibly tasty pizzas.

4Ps Pizza Saigon

4Ps Pizza Saigon

Saigon turned out to be a bit of a foody city.  Aside from the amazing street side rolls (ill get to that in my next ‘best of vietnam post’), we ate some fantastic dim-sum, some great japanese food, and some interesting crepes with cheese so strong it burnt my throat.  We also got to catch up with Asha’s aunty Lee – and its always so great to catch up with family of friends who are living overseas.

Dim Sum Saigon

Dim Sum Saigon

As we rolled out of Saigon on a bus bound for Cambodia, we realised that despite all of the scary stories of taxi scams, aggressive touts and rip-off merchants, we had made it through Vietnam without anything like this happening to us at all.  In fact it had been quite the opposite.

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Ryan June 7, 2012 Vietnam