Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Exploring Ho Chi Minh City

***This post is part 20 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

In many ways, Saigon's relationship with Hanoi reminds me somewhat of that between Shanghai and Beijing. If Hanoi is the uptight, staid elder statesman, then Saigon is his rebellious and seductive mistress out on the prowl. Saigon exudes confidence, from the towering new skyscrapers to the mega-malls filled with teenagers to grandmas all decked out in the latest fashion. Granted, this is a city of more than 7 million people, and perhaps a vast majority of them still live within meager means, but there is the sense that Saigon is at the tip of the modernity spear in Vietnam, and despite the clampdown and torment it endured after the war, there was always an impatient population bubbling just beneath the surface.

Saigon is a thoroughly modern metropolis... chaotic, cosmopolitan, and full of charisma. This is especially true in District 1, located around the city center, where the bulk of the business, tourist, and shopping areas all converge. I would definitely recommend staying at a hotel in this vicinity so major tourist spots are within walking distance. Some of the more well-known sights in Saigon include the Notre-Dame Basilica, the Reunification Palace, and the War Remnants Museum. The Reunification Palace (formerly the seat of government for South Vietnam during the war) is definitely worth a visit, since it has been meticulously maintained and almost appears to be suspended in time.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

Saigon Central Post Office (designed by Gustave Eiffel)

Reunification Palace

Cabinet Meeting Room

War Remnants Museum (aka American Military Equipment Museum)

One interesting thing I noticed about Saigon was that cars actually obeyed the signal lights (for the most part at least), whereas in Hanoi, a red light and a green light might as well have been the same color. Also, the wide, tree-lined streets and French colonial architecture provided a generally more pleasant atmosphere, at least in District 1.

Streets of Saigon

Of course, many people also take day trips (or longer) to experience life on the Mekong Delta, or see the Cu Chi Tunnels built by the Viet Cong. We had 3 full days in Saigon, and 2 were taken up by visiting sights in the city, so with one full day left, we decided to do the Mekong Delta day trip with Saigon River Express. This was booked directly with our hotel, and consisted of a fun speedboat ride to and from the delta area. For a day trip, this was an incredibly worthwhile tour, stopping at a Buddhist pagoda, a bustling and vibrant market, a small village on the delta, lunch at a local orphanage, and an interesting look at a Cao Dai temple. This was definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip.

Building boom along Saigon River

Riverfront shanty towns

Everything is transported by water here...

... and I mean everything

Local market

I think the pig is smiling

One of the smaller tributaries along the delta

Delicious fish for lunch (cool presentation too)

Cai Dao Temple

One of the more interesting (and colorful) religions I've come across, combining the powers of Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, Laozi, etc.

There is plenty of nightlife in Saigon, and some of the bars and clubs there reminded me of the large venues I've visited in Los Angeles or New York. Plenty of pricey drinks, bottle service, reserved booths, and other status symbols for sale if that's your cup of tea. And I must say, the younger Vietnamese sure know how to dress these days... I felt like a slob in the club compared to most of them!

Saigon is definitely a city I'd like to visit again someday. In another decade or two, it may be well on it's way towards becoming the next Shanghai.

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