South of the 17th Parallel- Ho Chi Minh City.. or Saigon?

21 Nov

Whether you call it Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon the major city in the south of Vietnam is bursting with colonial charm, fantastic flavours and enough sights to easily fill a few days. When people ask me what part of Vietnam is my favourite I honestly can’t decide. Every place I visited had its own unique twist to it and inspired me in different ways. Even the North and South were equally incredibly and I wouldn’t hesitate to return to either. IMG_1368

I managed to spend just over 2 days in HCMC at the start of the year and got a good feel for the city in that time. Arriving from Malaysia and seeing the sprawling lights from the city from the plane (while somewhat delirious from travelling for 12 hours and being incredibly sick) I was expecting that HCMC was going to be a typical large Asian city, polluted and crowded. Driving to my hotel it was crowded with motorbikes as is to be expected but also there were a number of green areas throughout the city and a good mix between modern and colonial architecture. It is a city that is rich in history particularly from the War and has more than enough to keep the military history buff interested for a while. As I am quite fond of my military history I’ve compiled a top 3 sights.

Cu Chi Tunnels- They are a bit of a hike from HCMC but it’s a nice drive through the countryside and well worth the trip. It can be argued that there are many better tunnel complexes in the country but these are very accessible (and popular). The Viet Cong used the tunnels to fight the Allies during the war and were quite self sufficient in them and tunnels proved to be an effective tactic in waging war. IMG_1392 The complex these days can seem like a bit of a theme park but with a decent guide there is a lot to learn and you can even get down into the tunnels (widened for tourists). There are a few access tunnels that they get a few of the visitors to try climbing into as an example of how small they really were. I tried and at 6ft found it rather difficult and couldn’t imagine living there. So apart from tunnels, old military hardware and sampling some of the root vegetable and tea diet of the fighters there is one attraction which draws a crowd- the shooting range. Having gunfire in the background at all times while exploring the complex is an experience in itself however I could not resist the temptation to shell out a few dollars and have a crack at firing an AK47. There were also M16 and other machine guns to try out and it is understandable that some people have reservations when it comes to shooting but it was good fun and I’d happily have another go at it. IMG_1407 Reunification Palace- The former seat of government in HCMC some of the most memorable pictures I remember from my history course are those of the North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the front gates of this place. It’s a bit of a labyrinth with it’s many levels and rooms however it has been kept in spectacular condition and is good to have a look around. Also you can go up on the roof and see where the helicopters evacuated from and stroll around the grounds and see various planes and tanks on display. I wouldn’t mind going back as last time I was there I was still recovering from the last traces of the bug from Indonesia and couldn’t really take it all in.IMG_1364

War Remnants Museum- I feel that this is somewhere I will never be able to remove from my memory. The museum shows the War from the Vietnamese point of view and is confronting and tragic. A modern building in the middle of HCMC, I’m glad I had the chance to spend a bit of time there and see everything properly. IMG_1379 - Copy Other than displays of weapons and other hardware there are some horrific displays of photos and preserved foetuses showing the effects of Agent Orange and an excellent exhibition of photos from photojournalists during the war- most of whom died or are missing and the museum explains their stories incredibly well. I think the most shocking part of this museum was seeing the War from the other side’s point of view. It’s very easy to stick to what we learn about at school and not consider what other people went through and it really makes you question what you think about the War.

On a lighter note there is much more to HCMC than war history. For shopping you have everything from the huge Ben Thanh Markets (among others) with amazing fruits and vegetables on sale to the high end shopping in the centre of the city. There is food everywhere with all different restaurants and street stalls. It was here I learnt that Pho was very different to what we had at the takeaway down the road- delicious! There were also a number of rooftop bars that a worth checking out, the Rex Hotel bar and Saigon Saigon spring to mind. Neither are cheap but they have quality cocktails and are a good place to watch the sun go down and by Western standards they really aren’t expensive (roughly $7 for a good quality cocktail).IMG_1381

HCMC was full of surprises. I felt comfortable walking around the city by myself although I often had the company of cyclo drivers who seemed keen for a chat even when I told them I wasn’t interested in a lift. The food, culture and people were great and it was a perfect introduction to Vietnam for me. My only real regret was not having enough time to see everything, there is so so much to see. Luckily for me though I’ll be back there in 2 months, much sooner than I expected to be so will be trying out some new restaurants, shopping up a storm at some of the markets and getting lost in new parts of the town and of course reporting it all back here.

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