I wish that I knew where to begin with Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). The fact is, we had three full days here and everything is swimming in my brain. I never would have thought that I would say that I want to come back to HCMC, but I would and I do. This is not a small city by any means. It is the size of New York, approx. 8million people. There are numerous ethnic groups and business managers from around the world. It is not as polyglot as New York, but it has a very similar dynamic, and at a fraction of the cost.
All the rumours of what things cost here are true. You can get beautiful suits custom made while you wait for a handful of pocket change. Silk is sold at every corner stand. Anything you could ever want can be had in HCMC, from knock off Louis Vuitton, to the real thing. Rolls Royces go past in crowd of scooters. There is excess and extreme poverty here, just as there in other major cities around the world. It is exciting and exhilarating all at the same time.
So, let’s begin with sailing up the Saigon River to our port at Phu Huu Docks in District 9. We reached the Mekong Delta around 5:30-6:00am on Saturday Morning. While I woke up and turned on the in-cabin navigation channel, we remained fairly asleep. But, it was here that a pilot boat was sent to guide us up the Saigon River. I could tell when we hit the Mekong because there was much swaying from the different river currents converging. That was woke me up. Around 8:00am, we finally got up. I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened the window, but it sure was not what I would see. It looked as if the ship was in the middle of the jungle with no water in sight. That was how close we were to land, maybe 50metres. Looking from our Starboard side cabin, there were few, if any, signs of life. Just a lush, canopy of various jungle like trees, with a muddy river bank.
We finally made our way out to the Promenade deck to watch in amazement as the captain and his crew navigated this massive ship up the river at a fairly constant 9.5 knots. Now, to give you some dimensions, the ship is 820ft. long, by 105ft. wide. It has a gross tonnage of 68,870. It is not a tiny vessel, but the incredible technology built into this ship allows them to turn it on a dime.
The Port side of the ship showed much more human existence. Children would wave from the backs of their houses, yelling, “Hello, people,” in English. At one point a dog ran along the bank barking at the ship. There was no wealth along the river bank. We slipped past the buoys, green on the right, red on the left, with barely any room to spare.
The closer to the city we got, the more boat traffic we would see. It is amazing just how much ship traffic there is near Saigon, given it’s distance from the sea and the narrowness of the river. It is very evident that they must spend a lot of time keeping the channel dredged, as I am sure the mud must quickly want to fill it in.
Manhattan on the Saigon
As we approached 10am, we could see the city full on. I was not expecting skyscrapers that would rival New York and Chicago, but there they were. A modern city in the middle of the jungle on the banks of a muddy river. We went past a massive, and busy, shipping container port. Every derrick was busy loading and unloading massive containers with names that were familiar, like Mearsk. It could have been Elizabeth, New Jersey if not for the Palm trees. But, there was another side to all of this: large rusting hulks of dead ships stuck in the mud in various states of collapse. Some were fully upright, others partially capsized.
Watching this ship dock is as much fun as watching a world-class ballet. This massive vessel will just stop, and then, slowly, move itself sideways until it, ever so gently, touches the dock. A tug boat sits nearby, keeping its distance unless needed. Then, ship crew throw lines to the dock crew, who make quick work of pulling the massive docking lines onto the mooring piers, at which time, the ship tightens them up. It takes very little time for them to lower the gangway and get a welcome station set up.
On the opposite side of the dock, local businesses begin to set up large tents. Here, two vendors set up to sell various souvenirs and knock off goods while a restaurant was quickly built under a similar tent. The shuttle buses begin to marshall in, ready to take us the 35-40minute ride into District 1.
A rapidly growing and modernising city.
If you don’t like HCMC, wait five minutes. This is a city that is growing rapidly. Its population has doubled in just the last few years. There is construction everywhere, including our port. I don’t know what plans they have for the port, but they appear to be large. As we walked down the gangway towards the immigration officers, they just waved us off towards the buses, no real desire to inspect our papers. We boarded the bus, which interestingly is decorated inside with all sorts of seat covers, headrest covers, curtains, and fringed window valances. It certainly makes a statement. The bus pulled out and headed down a winding, multilane road still under construction, past new buildings being built next to old shacks with dogs running around. We also learned that HCMC is working to build an underground metro. This will take about 20 years or so.
The drive into District 1 would take us past extreme poverty, old buildings, new buildings, rough roads and brand new super highways, across new bridges, and of course, lots and lots of motor scooters.
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City
Now is probably a good time to discuss the name of the city. Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. Well, the answer would really depend on who you are talking to. People seem to use the names in different ways. The name Saigon still appears all over the place, and of course this comes from the name of the river which flows through the city. Some locals, mainly older residents, still call it Saigon. Younger people seem to use Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC. Others appear to split the difference, and refer to District 1 as Saigon, and the greater city as HCMC. District 1 is kind of like Philadelphia’s Center City, it is the heart of the greater city.
Historically, the city has had many names. During the Khmer era, before the 17th century, it was called Prey Nokor. Sometime in the 18th century, a village called Gia Dinh was founded at he site of present day District 1. This became a very important trading hub for Chinese, Malay, Dutch, and Portuguese ships. This became Sài Gòn. In 1955, Saigon was combined with the neighbouring village of Cholon and was called Dô Thành Sài Gòn (Capitol City Saigon). This would stay in place until 30 April 1975, when the Vietnamese People’s Army took control of the city. It would soon be named for the late leader Ho Chi Minh.
Now here is a bit of irony. Ho Chi Minh did not want to be beatified. He left strong requests that places not be named for him, that no money was to be spent on a massive tomb or memorial in his honour; but, that did not seem to matter to the many people of Viet Nam that love him. No offence is taken if you call the city Saigon; it is a recognised name, just not the official name.
Making New Friends
Francis and I have a friend back home named Cuong Pham who is from Hai Phòng in the north. We respect him tremendously for his incredible skills at English. It’s a pretty fun and interesting character. We don’t tell him how much we respect him for fear it will go right to his head. Before departing, Cuong introduced us to a high school friend of his, My. Now I know that her name would appear to be pronounced as “my,” but it is actually pronounced as “Me.” For this reason, she began using the name “Lina” while living in Australia. It made it easier, especially given the English word “me.” (e.g.. “Would you like to hang out with My (“Me”) and me?) We, however, would call her by her given name, My. Via Facebook, we arranged to meet My at the Starbucks in the Rex Hotel, which was near where the shuttle bus from the ship would drop us off.
The Rex Hotel is where, during the war, the American Generals would hold their 5pm press briefings, which the reporters dubbed “the Five O’clock Follies.” This is a true luxury, 5 star hotel. The lush lobby is lined with expensive western shops such as Burberry and Givenchy. We made our way to Starbucks and met My. A new friendship was begun, and I will forever be grateful to her for the amazing, honest, and open introduction she gave me to modern Viet Nam.
My has lived in HCMC for only 6 months, having recently taken a new job here with a Dutch marketing firm. For this reason, she is not quite as familiar with the main sites in the city. Also, she only has a scooter, and while many Vietnamese families convey a family of four on these, it would not be practical for us. For this reason, she asked a friend of hers, Khoa Nguyen (westernised version of his name) to join us. The English pronunciation of his first name is best described has Kwo. Not only is Khoa a native HCMC resident, but he has done some guiding work and owns a nice car. His Toyota, we would learn, is a pretty expensive luxury here.
Khoa is a handsome, intelligent, and funny young man who does editing work for HTV, and some work for Lonely Planet. His driving skills, in this hectic city, are very impressive.
The Vietnamese Independence Hall
We began our adventure at the Reunification Palace, which is referred to by several names, including Independence Palace. It was the Capitol and White House for the South Vietnamese Government before the arrival of the “Liberation Forces” on 30 April 1975. This would be My’s first visit here, and Khoa’s first since he was in grade school.
It is important, no matter what your personal opinions or feelings are about the war, to understand and accept that, to modern day Viet Nam, the North Vietnamese army are referred to as the “Liberation Forces.” They see the war as their war for Independence, no differently than we see our war for Independence. While all the signs throughout the museum speak of the “American aggressors,” they also see us today as friends; much in the same way we view Great Britain historically and in modern day. For the purposes of this blog, is probably easier to use the terms displayed throughout the palace, from the perspective of modern Viet Nam.
The site is that of the former residence for the French Governors General, which was built in 1871 and destroyed by a Liberation Forces bomb on 27 February 1962. South Viet Nam President Diem commissioned celebrated Vietnamese architect Ngô Viét Thu to design a new structure which has similar design features to the original. Completed in 1967, it is a masterpiece of Vietnamese architecture and design for that period.
In front of the Palace are two tanks, which are identical to the two that Liberation Forces would use to breakthrough the front gates on 30 April 1975. One is a T59 Chinese made model, while the other is a T54 Soviet made one. The crews are hailed as heroes. There is also a F5E fighter made by Northrop. According to the sign, it was in a plane like this that Lieutenant Nguyen Thanh Trung, had bombed the Palace by infiltrating the South’s Air Force.
Inside, we would tour conference rooms, banqueting rooms, the Former South Vietnamese President’s Office and Cabinet Rooms. We would tour the President’s residence, and the Bunker below the structure. While understanding that everything is presented from the perspective of the North Vietnamese victors, there was one photo caption that I pointed out to My as being fully inaccurate. It was a photo of the helicopter on the roof of the US Embassy being loaded with evacuees. The caption stated that “US Military personnel” flee the embassy. I told me that people shown in the photo were actually civilians. They may have been employees of the US Government, but they were diplomatic personnel or other civilians, not military personnel. I pointed out how no one was wearing a uniform, and that the only military personnel there, at that time, were the Marine Embassy Protective detail. I’m wondering, given the English translation on other images, if they meant “Government Personnel” instead of “Military,” but no tremendous harm.
Reading Terminal on the Saigon River
We continued the first days adventures with a visit to the Ben Thanh Market. The similarity between this and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market is remarkable. There is a combination of local and tourist shopping stalls, raw and prepared foods, household goods and souvenirs. We sat down for a local lunch of rice noodles, with an elongated meatball, and a fried egg roll like thing, topped with natural herbs. Then we had a plate of fresh steamed Spring Rolls. It was a delicious introduction to real Vietnamese food in an atmosphere that could not be beat. It reminded me of sitting at the Dutch Eating Place counter in Reading Terminal, when the Amish are speaking Pennsylvania Dutch around you.
Why did the chicken cross the road…for the thrill of it
It was also here that we would experience on of the most exhilarating and terrifying things thus far on our trip, crossing the road. We had talked with friends back in the states about this experience, but nothing can actually prepare you for it. We approached the Nguyen Han Circle with fairly wide eyes. Countless lanes of traffic made their way around past the facade of the Market building. I say countless, because scooters just make up their own lanes. After a deep breath, and following My carefully, we stepped off the curb. We kept an even pace as we walked across the road. Scooters and cars buzzed by in front and behind us. We felt our hearts race as it appeared that each one was closer than the next. But like water in a stream going around a stone, they seemed to part and go around us. As we stepped up on the opposing curb, you finally begin to breath again. Francis and I just looked at each other and laughed. I was fortunate enough to film the adventure. It’s not terrific footage, but it certainly gives you an idea of what it was like. After this thrill, we walked around a bit more and then headed back to the centre of town for more sightseeing.
Pierre Eiffel’s other buildings
Khoa dropped us off in front of the old Post Office Building, which is still functioning. Built during the French Colonial Period, it was designed by the one and only Pierre Eiffel. His signature ironwork design is highlighted in the central gallery. Upon entering, you are overwhelmed by the height and grace of the iron. On either side are two map frescos of the region. Below which are former telephone booths. When introduced, the telephone network was operated by the Post Office. These beautifully carved booths still hold pay-phones on one side while the other bank holds ATMs. I thought that was a pretty smart use for old telephone booths. They offer privacy and security. Each both was given to a different bank to install a machine. Why are we not doing that in the US? I think of buildings like the Historic PSFS building, where similar architecturally designed booths exist. Keep the design and detail, and have different banks install a small ATM. It offers convenience for the guests, and reduces the fees they may have to pay for out of network ATM.
We then walked around the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was also built during the French Colonial Period. Situated on an island in the middle of the bustling traffic that is HCMC, its red brick construction has elements of its water surrounded inspiration in Paris. As we walked around the outside of the nave, photographers were taking pictures of different women posing in various outfits from wedding dresses to punk rock cutup T-shirts.
Rittenhouse Square in HCMC
We then crossed the street to 30 Thang Park. This reminded me of Rittenhouse Square. Thang Park is situated in the front of the Reunification Palace and is a beautiful green oasis. It is a very popular hangout for young people who line the sidewalks, sitting on pieces of newspaper along the curbing and ground. Here they talk, play games, play or listen to music while drinking coffee. My was very quick to point out that the coffee here was terrible, but everyone drinks it anyway. Elderly women and other sellers hustle about from group to group, selling coffee, mango and fruits, boiled quail eggs, and large biscuit like flatbreads. On the outer perimeter, other vendors have small grills or cooking stations preparing a variety of edible treats. Khoa was waiting to pick us up, and soon whisked us off to Cho Lon (Chinatown).
Who needs Starbucks?
Cho Lon in District 3, was one of the original two Districts that made up the Capitol City of Saigon. It is also the traditional “Chinatown” area. Here, they have a saying, “District 1 is for having fun, District 3 is for eating, and District 5 is for living.” (if I mixed those up, I’m sure My or Khoa will correct me and I will edit.) Today, this is a very busy area of restaurants, bars, and other night time activities. We made our first stop to at My’s favourite coffee shop.
Upon our arrival, My negotiated for a nice spot outside under the awning. There were no regular chairs or tables, like we might be used to, instead, people at sat on the steps that wrapped the shop, or on small folding stools that sat about 8 inches off the ground. Small tables, a little taller than the stools, were placed in the middle of the group. I do not why the Vietnamese like to stay so close to the ground, but it sure gave my knees and hips a work out. Fortunately, since I have lost the weight, it was not so difficult for me to get up and down. A few months ago, I would have had a hard time.
Coffee in Vietnam is spectacular, and I really have to figure out how to make it home. It is very strong, fragrant, and thick black coffee. For my first cup, I wanted to taste it plain, without anything to alter the flavour and texture. You can order coffee, like at home, hot or cold. Many take it cold, over ice. Into a cup of ice, condensed milk is poured, over which is added the coffee. Stirring this all together makes a very sweet, yet richly flavoured treat. During our coffee, Francis gained an audience with a few magic tricks as we enjoyed the company of our new friends.
Vietnam accepts US Dollars everywhere…BULLSHIT!
Everywhere we went, I offered to pay, but I only had US. Our ship personnel, tour books, and websites that I checked with all said that
US dollars were readily accepted almost everywhere…BULLSHIT! No place we went accepted our greenbacks. If you want to spend Uncle Sam’s dollars, stay in the touristy areas. If you want to experience the real city, get yourself some of Uncle Ho’s money. Khoa said that he knew a place that would give us a good rate, even at night. He was not kidding. We jumped out, went into this little corner bank branch shop. This would never pass as a bank in the US. My negotiated the deal, VND21,010 to the dollar. I was getting an almost perfect exchange rate. I have exchanged plenty of currency in my life, and I have NEVER gotten an almost flat exchange rate. You usually money exchanging each way. This was perfect. For US$150, I became an instant millionaire with more than VND3,000,000 in my pocket. This huge sum would keep Francis and I going for the rest of the next two and half days, with some left over.
Beef Noodles, Please
From here, it was time for dinner. Now I was being fairly picky about what I ate, heeding all the warnings from my doctors. I avoided uncooked herbs and veggies, and opted only for the cooked and hot food items. We went to a bustling local “Beef Noodle” chop. Francis and I were the only westerners there. This, to me, was a good sign that we were in the right place.
After a bit of discussion with My, while Khoa parked, I settled on a simple, straight up, Pho with beef. She also informed the waitress that I must have my meat cooked very well. Francis was able to be a bit more adventurous and went for the chef’s special. This contained things that Americans would normally accept, like full meat, but also other parts of the animal that most Americans were be revolted by. There was bits of tripe, tendon, cartilage, and other soft tissue. What Americans would throw away or otherwise discard, is used in Vietnam. At one point, Francis pulled up a big piece of cartilage on his spoon and asked what it was. This semi-translucent white jelly like substance sat there, jiggling on his spoon. I said I thought it was cartilage, knowing that I saw that among the ingredients on the menu. My’s reply was classic, “It’s some part of a cow.” Francis, always brave, popped it in his mouth and began to chew. I think he managed it all right.
We had a terrific discussion of the regional differences of Pho. My is from Hai Phong, in the North, while Khoa is from HCMC in the South. Pho is made differently in each of their regions and both claim that their regions way is the best. As I understand it, the Pho in the South is a little more spiced and finished. I’m guessing that this might be due to French influence, but I do not know for sure. I will need to learn more about it. The south also uses a dish of very thick, almost jelly like, Soya Sauce. This adds a bit more salty beefy texture to the dish. What an education!
Finally the bill came, and I was eager to treat our friends to dinner. My looked over the bill, handed it to me and said, “Let’s see how you do with it.” If I recall correctly, the dinner for four, with beverages, came to VND187,000, approx. US$8.90. I handed the waitress two VND100,000 bills, got back the change, and we were off. To put this price fully in perspective, when we were at Starbucks this morning, I bought a tall and a venti iced coffee for VND110,000.
Vietnamese beer, a people watching extravaganza, and a memory for a lifetime
Dinner done, it was time for dessert. My and Khoa had the perfect Vietnamese treat lined up for us, ice cream. The French influence runs deep here, not unlike in Philadelphia. We ventured over to a very busy ice cream cart. My arranged seating, which consisted of four folding stools placed on the sidewalk in front of a dental clinic among a bunch or parked scooters.
The Ice cream service is quite interesting. The only flavour was cocoanut, and no part of would go unused. They crack open the cocoanut, and pour the juice into cups, which is then presented to you as an extra treat. I had never drank cocoanut juice before, and while I didn’t mind it, it would be my first choice of beverage. It might be better colder. They then scrap the nut out, saving the meat for shredding and making more ice cream. The shell is now used as the bowl. In the shell bowl they add some dark brown sticky rice, some nuts and cocoanut shred and the ice cream. I cleaned the bowl; what a treat!
Now we were off to our next and final stop for the evening. As it was now dark, and the lights lit up the town, we headed over to Bùi Viện Street, which is also referred to as “Westerner’s Street.” The nickname is due to the high number of Europeans In some respects, it reminded me of the way South Street used to be on a Saturday night. Every type of person and style you could imagine was there. The street, though only about 15ft wide, had multiple lanes of traffic moving in both directions. Pedestrians were also forced into the street due to the congestion on the sidewalks. The sidewalk is the outdoor seating area for all the bars and restaurants and are packed with people sitting on stools, eating and drinking. There is absolutely no way that anyone could walk down them. Francis described it as resembling a parade, with everyone on the sidewalk facing the street, watching the parade/show of traffic.
Along with all the scooters, cars, bicycles, pedestrians, vendors also joined in the traffic flow of the street. Carts selling all sorts of treats marched or pedalled by. We ordered Hanoi beers all around. Total cost was less than VND80,000 for four. Francis and I, ever the beer lovers, went for a second round. This time we ordered 333, which is pronounced “ba ba ba.” This is their version of Natural Light, and was our least favourite of the Vietnamese beers we had tried.
So, to rank the beers we have enjoyed from most liked to least liked, they would be Red Saigon, Hanoi, LaRue, and 333 as our least favourite.
Exhausted, excited, thrilled, and amused, it was time for us to head back to the ship as it was about 10:00pm. My and Khoa escorted us back to our shuttle stop, and My waited with us until the bus arrived. We made plans to meet back up the next morning for another full day of adventure.
Part two of HCMC will be posted soon.