Saigon – the mixture of colonial style and the contemporary modernity
In the beginning we had some problem about how to actually call the city? Shall we use its official and the tongue-breaking name Ho Chi Minh City? Or we should stay with it’s historical version – Saigon while risking the anger of the officials and possibly the locals? This problem got solved very quickly. “Saigon” is in common use by both tourists and the locals and nobody bothers about using the official name.
The visitors should keep in mind that Saigon has 14 million inhabitants and no subway. This is making the trips from point A to point B quite long. On the other hand, half of the city’s population is using the motorbikes to travel which provides for some flexibility on the roads. Subway is currently under construction.
Almost all visitors to the city stay either in District 1 or 2, the most centrally located ones in Saigon. They also create good opportunity to discover the flavor of the city on your own feet.
We decided to make short, 2-3 hours slow walk from the Main Post Office, an impressive colonial building where stamp collectors can find some stuff to buy, the Norte Dame Cathedral looking rather like average European parish church despite significant Christian community living in Vietnam and then along the Dong Khoi Street, the beautiful avenue sinking in greenery of plane-trees and ending at the river bank.
To sum up, this was a very good choice for the first discovery experience just after arrival. It made it possible for us to touch the colonial history of this place and make some observations about the daily life of its inhabitants.
Trip 1 – Cu Chi Tunnels
Usually, we had a problem when going to a new city on how to make the stay efficient in terms of exploration. TripAdvisor with the ranking of its attractions is certainly useful. In case of Saigon there was no doubt about Cu Chi Tunnels being the main attraction recommended to see when in Saigon. As Cu Chi Tunnels are located some 70km from Saigon, you have to make a choice about how to get there. There are plenty of tours available in internet. Also this time we were not disappointed by the offer of GetYourGuide.com and we took the company owned by a French guy living in Saigon – Les Rives. Excellent guiding service, modern speed boats making the trip even more enjoyable on the river and …. delicious lunch.
Les Rives know their job and they bring the tourists very quickly to Cu Chi. Actually, we were one of the first groups arriving at the place, still in the morning hours when the sun is not yet that nagging.
Vietnamese history of the last 50 years is marked by the long domestic war with involvement of 2 world powers. The war costed the life of 3 million of Vietnamese people and it ended in mid 1970s with the withdrawal of the US armed forces and the incorporation of the Southern Vietnam into re-unified socialist republic under the leadership of Hanoi.
During the trip to Cu Chi we did not experience any propaganda slogans from the guide about good Vietcong and bad Amis. We just heard the truth about the very complicated historic developments, the Northern influences spreading very quickly throughout the South and the ruthless attitude to enemies on both sides.
Cu Chi is a complex of several hundreds kilometers of tunnels connected with each other, which was aiming at defense and survival of Vietcong partisans when fighting against Americans. The complex includes small factories, kitchens, living areas, infirmaries. Today, it is located in the forest. During the Vietnam war the area was deserted because all nature and wide life were killed by the napalm bombs.
Districts 4 and 5 and Saigon from the river
This was the second amazing trip organized by Les Rives. We decided to explore real Saigon, distant from tourist areas. We were picked up by the driver of the old American military jeep and the journey started. Impressions were amazing. First we were brought to Tan Thanh market in District 5, the biggest marketplace on several nectars offering spare parts for motorbikes for 8 million motorbike owners in the city.
After that we went to Chinatown to visit some local pharmacies and the Ba Thien Hau temple, the Chinese pagoda dedicated to Mazou, the sea goddess. During the trip, the sensitive tourists have to wear the face mask. The level of air pollution in the local districts is very high and one can get dizzy.
Saigon from the river
Two hours later we were boarded on the speed boat (the one servicing tourist groups to Cu Chi in the morning) and we started exploring the city from the Mekong side. First we stopped at one of the houses at the river to buy some fresh coconuts, then we turned back towards skyscrapers district, city centre, the harbor and the narrow channels in the outskirts of the city centre with plenty of houses built directly on water. The additional impressions were created by the sunset over the horizon.