The main city in southern Vietnam, and the former capital, Ho Chi Minh City is the most popular starting or ending point for backpackers and tourists heading into Vietnam. One thing’s for sure, the place has a lot going for it, I had a brilliant time a couple of years ago when I visited again. It’s a surprisingly friendly city with a lot to see and do. As with Vietnam as a whole, it’s a pretty cheap place to see and do whatever it is that you’re seeing and doing, and as cities go in South East Asia, it’s hard to beat.
Sure, many prefer Bangkok, but for me Ho Chi Minh is not quite as mad, not quite as hot and not quite as humid. Sure, crazy might just be your cup of tea when it comes to your South East Asian capitals, I don’t know, but for me Ho Chi Minh City has just the right mix. Here’s some of what I have to say about the former Saigon in my just released ebook, Short Journeys: Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh is a great city for relaxing, people watching and meeting people. You never know what you’re going to see or who. At Hotel 64 where I was staying I spent an evening or two with a couple of other backpackers staying there seated with beer in hand watching the city go by. It’s just from an intersection with a couple of bars on different corners, apparently owned by the same people. One is called ‘Crazy Buffalo’ and has a giant neon buffalo as it’s sign which flashes at you 100 or metres away. It was ugly but at least it was an unforgettable landmark to lead me back to my hotel if I was ever lost.
If you want to meet locals and get to know something of Vietnam today, there is a wonderful park in District One in Ho Chi Minh City perfect for that. It’s also a great place to chill for a while, relax, read a book or watch people playing hacky-sack. Ho Chi Minh City is divided into districts, and the area I was staying in was District One, and that’s pretty central and well located. Roughly translated this park is called September 23rd Park, in Vietnamese it’s somewhat harder to say – Cong Vien 23 Thang 9.
The park was maybe a ten minute walk from my hotel. I strolled down there one evening to see people playing hacky-sack, which really impressed me as person with very little hand-eye co-ordination. There were also games of badminton going on and student groups meeting and discussing things. BUT no-one came to talk to me as I read my book. Then I saw a couple of guys from the hotel chatting with a group of Vietnamese university students, and I joined in. There was a pretty large group and it was an involved and interesting conversation. I felt like I was getting to know a bit more about life in Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City. To top it all off, after a while (i.e. hours) we went to karaoke and sang our hearts away for a couple of hours.
Temples Around Town
Leaving politics and moving on to things you might like to see and photograph, there are dozens of temples around the city, many of which are worth seeing. Take your pick I say, because there’s only so many you can see before you are ‘templed-out’ as it were, but getting from to another can be a lot of fun and a good way to see what is a large city.
Challenge yourself to conquer the bus network, it’s very cheap (tickets are usually less than fifty cents) and they go most places. I took bus number one to the Cholon District, not sure what happened to the numbers there. This area is Chinatown in Ho Chi Minh City, and was beautifully decorated with red lanterns. Chinese New Year had just been before I arrived, so I’m not sure if that’s related.
The streets were full of motorcycles, the footpaths hard to traverse and there were men playing chess on the footpaths as well. Above them the power lines were mixed with the telephone lines and who knows what else – there were really a lot of wires up there. I bargained a moto (motorcycle taxi) to take me to the Ciac Lam Pagoda, the motorcycle rider wanted 50,000 dong, I got him down to 20,000. I always felt good if I got the price to less than half the opening bid.
Really, for all its dangers, being on the back of a motorbike is a great way to experience Vietnam. It’s the way so many locals get about, you’re out in the… city air and there’s a kind of freedom you feel doing it that way! It seemed that I had misread the map and Cholon was not so close to the pagoda, but that made for a longer ride on the back of the motorbike so I wasn’t complaining!
This pagoda, a functioning temple, has seven separate levels including the ground level, which was pretty cool, and a nice space inside too. It was next to a shady park, quiet and perfect for a bit of chilling time. Back in Cholon there are more temples to see, I quite liked the Quam Am and Thien Ham temples. As is usual for temples in Vietnam, they are both functioning, quite attractive and interesting. The columns are decorated with dragons and there are a number of statues, and plenty of incense burning.
War Remnants Museum
Okay it’s a little ‘different’, and it demonstrates a very Vietnamese opinion on the conflict of the 60s and 70s, but the Remnants of War Museum is something you really should see if you’re in town. The exterior of the building is big, grey and concrete and outside the building, inside the fence, stands an arsenal of war with helicopters, tanks and more.
An American jet at the War Remnant Museum
Inside you’ll find a number of exhibits, and the politics is rather anti-American. There is a very confronting and shocking room devoted to Agent Orange, and another exhibit devoted to protests in primarily America against the war of the 60s and 70s. It’s the ‘American War’ there, of course it couldn’t be the ‘Vietnam’ War. The only thing I felt really bad about was the portrayal of the South Vietnamese who opposed the north, who were referred to as ‘puppets’ of the US and presented in an even worse light. The winners write the stories I guess. Interestingly nearly all the bomb shells, tanks, guns etc displayed were American. It seemed the north won the war without any weapons at all!
There’s much more in Short Journeys: Vietnam, so if your interest has been piqued, why not take a look. Only available at the moment at Amazon. Ho Chi Minh is a great city in a great country. There’s so much more to it, and with day trips you could easily spend a week there and not be bored for a second. That’s all for today’s Sunday Spotlight, until next time, may the journey never end!