Ho Chi Minh City – or is it Saigon?

There’s still confusion about whether the city is called Ho Chi Minh City,
or Saigon (its previous name until the North Vietnamese won the war), and
because its such a mouthful many still refer to it as Saigon (the inner
city is still officially called that, while the greater metropolis has the
longer name), or HCMC. I’m going to call it Saigon, and hope you’ll
forgive me.

We woke up in our guest house, called Hotel 127. The Vietnamese have
adopted the same functional naming system for many of their businesses as
the Chinese, with numbers instead of names. So there are builders called
“State joint partnership Construction Number 3” and “Petrol Station 1932”.
Despite the austere name, our guest house is pretty good. We’ve got a room
with two double beds, air-con, TV and fridge, for $20 a night including
breakfast and dinner! The staff are incredibly friendly, and it is really
modern and clean, a complete contrast to the miserable guest house in
Phnom Penh. Hurrah!

The city also has lots more to see and do than Phnom Penh. Even just
wandering the streets is nice, with lots of little shops selling arts and
crafts. The girls attract a lot of attention here, with women clapping
their hands, or just crossing the road and grabbing them to pat their arms
and feel their hair. Vietnamese parents push their small children forward
to shake their hands, and then run after them as they disappear giggling.

The streets are much more chaotic here. 10 years ago they were full of
bicycles, but now everybody seems to own a motorcycle (well not everybody,
but in a city of 6 million people there are 3 million motorbikes). And
there seems to be about 50 motorbikes for every car, so crossing the road
with four of us is a feat of daring, requiring eagle eyesight and
anticipation. There seem to be no road rules, other than generally driving
on the right, but even that is ignored if you are turning into a road, or
intend to turn left in a hundred metres or so. Even after 3 months of
getting used to generally chaotic Asian traffic, it is scary to cross the
road here – something I’ve not felt elsewhere.

Ho Chi Minh

For our sightseeing, we grabbed a taxi ($1) across the centre of the city
to the Reunification Palace. Having passed lots of French-colonial
buildings on our way, it was a bit of surprise to come around the corner
and see a concrete and glass building and not a ‘wedding cake’ kind of
palace. It turns out the original 19th Century palace had been destroyed
by a failed assassination attempt on the president by his own air force
bombers, hence the grand 60’s design of the replacement. When the North
Vietnamese stormed the city in 1975, they drove tanks straight through the
ironwork gates and rushed up to the top floor to unveil their flag.

The perfectly preserved Formica palace

Then they preserved the whole place, making it a shrine to 60’s interior
design. Although I believe guidebooks are reasonably accurate considering
all the information within them, I couldn’t agree with it’s description of
the palace “Its spacious chambers are tastefully decorated with the finest
modern Vietnamese arts and crafts” – unless Formica was a modern
Vietnamese craft. The palace is a shining example of concrete facades,
walls of glass doors, and brown furniture made of shiny plastic and
Formica. In fact, it looked more like the film centre of an Austin Powers
movie, or an old Bond movie The government have left it unchanged, so the
big desks still have 5 different coloured circular dial phones – not
working, although we did pick them all up to see if one of them had a
hotline to the White House.

Later on, after a drink, we walked round the War Remnants Museum, a
display dedicated to displaying some of the history of the Vietnam War.
Although it was interesting, and told some sad stories, the whole
exhibition was a story-telling mess, except for one powerful part being
the photographs, and stories of individual war photographers who’d died
covering the conflict. (By comparing what we’d seen with the guidebook’s
rave review, we discovered that the museum was being renovated, and the
displays had all been moved to some outbuildings in the car park. So
perhaps that was the reason we were so underwhelmed by something the
guidebook had raved about. It could also be that we’d only recently seen
the Genocide Museum in Cambodia, which tells a simple story very well).

In the evening, for the girls, we went to see the Ho Chi Minh City Circus
troupe, in a big top on one of the parks. They loved the two hour show,
including clowns, acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists and bare back horse
riders. They even loved the little dogs barking out answers to maths
questions. I bet that when we’re back in England, and people say “What was
the best thing about your trip?” they’ll say “The little dog that barked
the answer to 2+2 in Vietnam”.