In retrospect, arriving in Saigon at 4.30am on Christmas Eve wasn’t the best idea we have ever had. However the rejuvenating properties of the bowls of Phó soon did the trick, so we decided to jump in a taxi and try our luck getting into our home for Christmas, Ms. Yang’s Homestay in District 3 VERY early. One slight problem. We had waited around for a couple of hours and all the trains had arrived and left for the morning – consequently there were no taxis in the station! Bypassing the rows of motorbike taxis, we walked out into the street and took our chances flagging one down. Fifteen minutes later, and still very early we were being welcomed with open arms by Ms Yang herself. First impressions? This is a really great place to stay in Saigon.
Unpacked, showered and a nap later, we were ready for an early lunch and asked Yang to suggest a place nearby. She went one better and walked with us to her favourite place, a small noodle shop just around the corner. She also ordered her favourite dishes for us to try. Customer service of the highest order!
Saigon was already to celebrating Christmas. The place was ablaze with lights in Distrit 1. A far cry from the first time I was here over 25 years ago when the only lights were from people’s bicycle lamp! The people were beginning to arrive in the centre for the celebrations but we were knackered so intent on a relatively early night, we headed to the Hard Rock Cafe for burger, beer and home. The place had all the atmosphere of a shopping centre, indeed it was in a shopping centre! Couldn’t get a table downstairs to watch the band ( which at least would have kept us awake) and one look at the astronomical prices on the menu and we decided to head of to a smaller burger joint, Chucks Burgers. Cheap, cheerful and excellent burgers – and an early night. Boring or what?
On our return to our Homestay we pass by a church where a carol service is progress which is full to overflowing. The masses of people who can’t get in are surrounding the church and spilling over into to the surrounding streets. Quite strange to experience this in 30c heat! Much has changed in Saigon since our previous visits. A lot busier, and lots of new skyscrapers have been built. The square by the legendary Continental and Caravelle Hotels and the Opera House, once one of the most beautiful in Saigon, is now a massive building site as they dig the tunnels for the new Metro system. It is financed by the Japanese and it was interesting to see the hordes to Japanese tourist photographing the works – must be on all the Japanese tour schedules!. Saigon is often bypassed by many tourists in favour of the perceived better attractions of Hanoi. They are very different cities but for me, Saigon should not be missed. There is an incredible energy about the place and there is so much to see and do in the city; it is also undoubtedly the culinary capital of the country. Over the following days we would re-familiarise ourselves with a few of the more famous sights:
Forever associated with the fall of Saigon at the end of the American war, the palace has changed little since those famous photos of the tanks crashing through the gates signifying the end of the war. A Vietcong soldier ran up the main stairway to unfurl the the VC flag from the balcony and was met by General Minh who had taken over as head of state only hours earlier. Minh greeted the Viet Cong soldier saying “I have been waiting for you since early this morning to transfer power to you” . The VC officer replied “There is no question of you transferring power, you cannot give up what you do not have”. Not a bad line to come up with in a tight situation! So on 30th April 1975 Vietnam finally became master of its own destiny. The inside of the palace hasn’t changed since last we visited. In fact it hasn’t changed much since the old photographs from the sixties that line it’s walls. The reading the inscriptions that accompany the photographs give an insight into the excesses and luxurious life led by the much vilified President, Ngyuyen Van Thieu.
Helicopters on the roof, tanks and jets in the gardens but probably the most interesting exhibits are down in the basement where all the communications equipment is still kept. Alongside this is the presidents bedroom quarters close by to a firing range??
War Remnants Museum
The first time I visited this place it was nothing like the place it is today. Then only a few rooms were open and these contained some of the most horrendous sights I had ever seen. There were very few visitors then and those of us that we’re there were locked into a room to watch a 15 min black and white film showing the atrocities perpetrated during the war. Not pleasant viewing by any standards. These days the exhibitions are more “sanitised” but still a stark reminder of the real effects of war. There are still some horrendous photographs on show depicting the war, the atrocities and, most movingly, the dreadful effects of “Agent Orange” which caused so many appalling birth defects, still evident in some of the people today, generations on.
For me, one of the most moving exhibits was a letter written to President Obama by a young man horribly affected by Agent Orange explaining the continuing effects on him and others like him and and asking why the US government has done nothing to help…
Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office
Two of the most iconic sights in Saigon are close together in the centre of District 1 and are unaffected by the Metro works happening. The post office, still one of my favourite sights in central Saigon is a beautiful example of colonial French architecture. A gigantic mural of Uncle Ho is on the end wall overlooking the activities of the still functioning post office. Along both sides the dark wood phone boxes still remain, although on one side they have now been converted to ATM booths.. Much of our time here was spent just wandering the streets, soaking up the atmosphere and sampling the amazing food choices. We are about to take a side trip down into the Mekong Delta but will be returning in couple of weeks to meet up with friends Leigh and Alan who are joining us from England for few weeks.
Some of our favourite foods in Saigon