Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Miss Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
      Wow, what a difference a city makes.  Ho Chi Minh City (which I will alternately refer to as Saigon or HCMC) has a much more European flavor than the other cities we’ve visited in Vietnam.  We checked into the Continental Hotel, built in 1880 in much the same colonial style as the Hue Morin hotel (the one where Charlie Chaplin had stayed) – but this hotel had not been renovated as successfully as the one in Hue.  The lobby was gorgeous with marble floors, a grand piano, and lots of cool molding on the ceiling, but the rooms were definitely aged and a little on the creepy side.  But the location was fabulous, right on the main shopping drag (Dong Khoi Street) where one can find Versace, Prado, Gucci, etc. (Question:  Where does this high-end shopping fit in to a communist country??  I do not know!)

      Earlier in this blog I wrote that I was surprised at the lack of French food considering how long the French occupied Vietnam, but Saigon proved to be the place to find French cuisine.  Our first meal was a welcome one with plentiful French bread, quiche, pumpkin soup, and French custard for dessert, along with a beautiful gateau for Sarah Reedy’s 28th birthday.

      After such a sumptuous meal it was a cold, hard, jolt to visit the War Remnants Museum, which I will describe in a separate entry.  We had a lot of free time in HCMC and I spent it risking my life walking around the streets of insane traffic.  I literally spent 15 minutes at one road, afraid to cross until a Vietnamese guy came up to where I was crossing and I gingerly followed him out into the sea of cars and motorbikes.  At one point I grabbed the poor guy’s arm as I was sure we were about to die.  He spoke no English but I think he understood and tolerated me as we crossed with motor traffic careening around us wildly.  I spent a peaceful few minutes looking at the Saigon River until it occurred to me I was going to have to re-cross that road to get back to my hotel.  Oi!  Well, I made it through creativity and sheer luck.
Tran Hung Dao is a Vietnamese hero who defeated the Mongols back in the day

Much of Saigon reminds me of Paris

Statues of Ho Chi Minh are everywhere... and he appears on every single denomination of Vietnamese currency

Old French colonial building, then used by the Saigon-based South Vietnamese government, and now it's the Ho Chi Minh City Hall

The Saigon Opera House

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Hotel Continental, which was "the" place to stay back in the day (now it's a little worn down and creepy)

Ho Chi Minh city is a weird mixture of the old and the new

      Another time I did a walking tour with Eric, Alex, and Kristin as we checked out the Notre Dame Cathedral which is still allowed to hold services despite communism (it’s left over from the French occupation but there are still a lot of Catholics in Vietnam).  There is also a beautiful old French train station which now functions as the central Post Office (it reminded me of the Musee D’Orsay in Paris), and several other official buildings built by the French but now used as communist government offices.  We also wandered over to the Reunification Palace which had been the seat of the South Vietnamese government during the war and the site of the iconic photos of the North Vietnamese tanks crushing their way in at the end of the war.  Of course, no visit to an Asian city is complete without going to the market so we did and I actually managed to find something I’d been looking for the whole time I’d been in Vietnam at a reasonable price – some embroidered pictures of river life.
The century old French-built train station in Saigon is now the Ho Chi Minh City post office

Inside the old train station, with the obligatory picture of Ho Chi Minh

The old phone booths from the train station now house ATMs and computers

Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City

The communist government still allows Catholics to hold church services but evidently there are restrictions

Reunification Palace - where the communist tanks rolled in to end the war in 1975

My travel buddies, Alex and Eric

      At night I walked down Dong Khoi street by myself, choosing not to visit the high-end designer shops but feeling safe because they were there.  I was looking for a good restaurant and, embarrassingly, when I passed one of the many German restaurants (why DO they have so many German restaurants in Saigon??) the bratwurst spoke to me so I ate bratwurst and sauerkraut served to me by a lovely Vietnamese girl wearing a dirndl skirt and a Vietnamese wine steward wearing lederhosen!

      Fulbright had scheduled a visit to a paper recycling company associated with the Siam Cement Group while we were in Ho Chi Minh City.  Not the most exciting stop on our itinerary, but interesting that this part of the world is trying to focus on sustainability. 
Hard-hat tour of the paper factory

Paper to be recycled