Jan 30th was a busy day as we switched cities again. This time, we travelled by plane from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City where we were met by our last guide.
Ho Chi Minh is the largest city in Vietnam and its commercial center. With its 8 million residents, it is a modern city, constantly evolving and adapting. It is the place where you can find French wine, delicacies and international cuisine.
After a quick stop at our hotel (located in the Dong Koi district, the most bustling and interesting area of town) and a lunch of tuna sandwiches on a small side street (nice change from all the “Vietnamese set menus”), we set off to explore the surrounding streets. The city is moving fast into the 21st century, now building an underground rapid transit system connecting downtown Ho Chi Minh in District 1 at Bến Thành Market and Suối Tiên Park in District 9, forcing some street closures.
As we are approaching Chinese New year, you can feel excitement building up. We see more and more shows in the streets, residents practicing dance routines for the big day and more decorations are appearing all over the place.
Kumquat trees and flowers are everywhere and businesses are starting to slow down. We know they will be closed for up to 10 days during the holidays. Even banks are closing for 5-6 days.
Traffic in Saigon is as busy as in Hanoi but somehow more organized. A lot of streets are one way only which facilitates crossing and there are street lights at some intersections, not that motorists and especially scooters obey them. Some streets are 4 cars wide. Add to this scooters weaving in and out and every which way, even on sidewalks, it makes for an interesting experience.
The next day was spent on a walking tour of the city including the whole Dong Koi district where we saw all the main landmarks and we were explained the French influence in the 19th Century when Saigon was then dubbed “Paris of the Orient”. It is easy to see why.
Dong Koi street, called rue Catinat during the French era is at the center of most of the action in Graham Green’s novel “ The quiet American”.
Some of the highlights from the French colonial time are: The General Post office, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Municipal theatre, The Caravelle, Continental and Rex Hotels that all retain a French flair and have historical significance.
We also visited the historical Reunification Palace, a symbol of Vietnam’s political history. The building went through several different identities. The former residence of the French governor general in the 19th century, it was later occupied by Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam (then called the Presidential palace). After a bombing in 1962 (during a failed assassination attempt), it was rebuilt but another president (Van Thieu) was then in power. In 1975, the palace’s gates were knocked down by a North Vietnamese Army tank.
Today, it is a museum; the large rooms are richly but simply decorated. There is a beautiful collection of gifts received by the president from other heads of state. The basement was used a bunker and military operation center during the war, we can see all the radios and instruments used at the time. There is a helipad on the roof and the terrace offers a view of the park surrounded street leading to the palace.
Next was the Emperor of Jade Pagoda, a small house of worship but one of the city’s most ornate. It honours Ngoc Hoang, King of all heavens. It was build in 1909 by the Cantonese community. We were impressed with the large wooden doors, decorated with intricate carvings of gods and men and can only imagine the time required by the artisans to render such detailed artworks. Buddhist and Taoist deities representations are numerous and colourful but the atmosphere is one of respect, faithfulness and reverence. Faithful pray and address the ancestors.
Tomorrow, we are setting out early to the Củ Chi tunnels and the province of Tây Ninh near the Cambodian border where the The Cao Đài religion originated.
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