So back in June on my Vietnam trip, my next stop after Hue was Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon which it is still popularly known as. It may not be the capital, but it is Vietnam’s commercial powerhouse and a famous city, mostly due to its role in the Vietnam War as the capital of South Vietnam and where American troops and journalists had a major presence. It is located in the south, near the Mekong river delta, in perfect contrast to Hanoi which is in the north.
I left Hue for Da Nang, where I took a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. My Jetstar flight went smoothly and it got into Ho Chi Minh City airport on time, which was more modern and bigger than Hanoi’s. However I encountered a slight issue very soon, as I mentioned in my previous post about scams. I approached a taxi counter right before you exit customs, and showed the guy my hotel address, only to be given a larger amount than expected. 320,000 (US$16), he said. From websites, I knew the amount was around US$10, so I declined politely and was about to walk off when he called me back. 200,000 (US$10), he said, and I agreed.
My driver didn’t speak any English so my ride into the city was mostly quiet. Along the way, he did tell me the name of a church when I asked him. My hotel was in a side street near the end of Pham Ngu Lao, which is the city’s main backpacking drag, full of hotels, bars, and travel agencies. When we arrived, the security guy came and helped me carry my luggage inside, which was pretty good; I’d also experienced that in Hanoi. My hotel was a little underwhelming, being the newer and presumably downscale sibling of a hotel with which it shared a name, but with a “2” being added at the end. Parts of the interior were still being worked on, and the two guys at the front desk were respectively friendly and cunning. I walked to Ben Thanh market that night, taking in the sights of Pham Ngu Lao and its myriad eating places, hotels and souvenir shops. The market was just about 10 minutes away from my hotel.
The next day, I did a free daytour with Nam, a student guide who was a member of Saigon Hotpot. Like the organization in Hanoi who I also did a free tour with, Saigon Hotpot was made up of mostly university students who volunteered to take visitors around the city. Nam was studying engineering and had a really good knowledge of temples and Buddhism, certainly much more than me. As with my female guide in Hanoi, Nam’s English was remarkably fluent. I’d wanted to go to the History Museum, the Jade Pagoda, and “Chinatown”, and we went to all three. Whereas in Hanoi, my guide had called taxis to take us, Nam had us take the bus at the station near Ben Thanh market, which was interesting and cheap as well (not that the taxis in Hanoi were walletbusters). At one point, a lady on the bus stood up and began making a pitch to other passengers about kitchen tools, which she was selling. It was of course very surprising, and a first for me, though it is a normal event according to Nam.
The Museum of Vietnamese History was similar to its counterpart in Hanoi, but it’s still worth a visit if you have time. The exhibits are all on the first floor and include military weapons, Champa statues, and ethnic artifacts. The most famous exhibit is an actual mummy, laid out behind a glass case exposed in all its decaying glory- a noblewoman who had been buried in the 19th century. There’s a more extensive display of the Oc Eo culture, which existed close to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
We had lunch at the “Lunch Lady,” a local semi-celebrity who’d gotten famous after being visited by Anthony Bourdain. This wasn’t a high-end restaurant, but a typical outdoor Vietnamese foodstand that served noodle or rice dishes. True to her reputation, the Lunch Lady had a lot of customers, mostly office workers. Nam ordered for us, which turned out to be delicious pork noodles, and it was nice to sit down at one of these places to eat at last. Though, I couldn’t help notice the rat running around a few meters from us, a sight that I’d see again in Bangkok.
The Jade Emperor Pagoda was a red temple that had been built in the early 20th century by Chinese-Vietnamese. Despite being called pagoda, it’s not actually a tower but a two-storey temple. The temple’s roof resembles that of Chinese temples with its continuous curved layers, but with one striking difference- the colorful decorations on top and on the roof corners that feature dragons and people.
Outside the temple door, vendors sold birds and little turtles for believers to purchase and release. This is due to a Buddhist belief that setting animals free can earn a person merit. In Taiwan, some people also do this, releasing fish or birds in large numbers on certain days. It has dubious effects on the environment as not only do some of these animals die in the wild, or damage the local ecology, but as Nam said, end up being caught again, or fuel the capture of more wild animals just to be sold and released. The courtyard features a fish pond but more popular is probably turtle pond on one side, filled with turtles that had been released by believers who’d bought them from the vendors. It wasn’t as pleasant a sight as one might think. It was very overcrowded and dirty, and dozens of turtles were climbing up all over each other on the sides of the pond. Inside the temple, there were several halls, each with a main altar featuring a different deity, similar to Chinese temples. The main reason people visited this pagoda was for women to pray for a child. There was a second floor with more halls including one with the goddess of mercy Guan Yin. Nam did a fine job explaining the different deities and practices, helping me learn new facts and making me feel a little ashamed that I knew so little about my heritage when it came to Buddhist temples and gods.
Finally, we went to Cholon, the “Chinatown” of Saigon. This was a historic part of the city, where much of the local Chinese population lived and traded. Yet, as Nam explained, this wasn’t exactly Chinatown since many of the residents and stores were not Chinese. I didn’t mind too much. This area was indeed full of bustling trading, with cloth stores especially numerous. There was the Binh Tay market, a large market filled with food and dry goods stalls, and that also has a memorial to the wealthy Chinese businessman who financed the market. There were several restaurants and businesses with Chinese signs as well. We went to a couple of old temples, featuring similar exquisite rooftop decorations which far outdid those on Chinese temples.
We also stopped at the St. Francis Xavier Catholic church, an attractive French-built church with a tall central tower, and went inside. Right outside the front door is the grave of a former priest- a Father Tam. We happened to sit right behind a bench which had an inscription on it. Apparently this was where former South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were seized from after having fled into the church during a coup in 1963. Diem and his brother, who ran the secret police, would later be executed in cold blood, though having been quite a dictator himself, little sympathy was given to Diem. Nevertheless it was a sad part of history to encounter.