The first thing you notice about Saigon is the traffic. Walking out of our hotel onto a main road we were confronted with a mammoth amount of motorbikes, weaving in and out of trucks, buses and cars. The air is thick and polluted, people continually beep their horns and everyone wears face masks.
We were in search of something to eat and walked through the streets looking at restaurants. The shear amount was overwhelming and coupled with the fact that all the restaurant staff were on the streets trying to get you to come inside meant we just kept on walking. The streets are so busy, not only the traffic but the amount of people. Vendors set up and walk up and down the streets selling to tourists, the paths are lined with parked up motorbikes and the shops spill out onto the streets. We walked right out of the tourist district and settled on a café a bit further on where we sat and just watched the traffic. You see all sorts of sights, motorbikes pilled with boxes, pipes, fruit and veg, pretty much anything, they can or cannot fit on a bike. We saw dogs sat on motorbikes, people on foot weaving in and out of the crazy traffic to hand out leaflets and road sweepers that sweep up leaves in the mists of it all, god knows how they don’t get ran over. This was our first day in Saigon, all we did was have a walk around the streets. The city seems a lot bigger than Hanoi, the roads are a lot wider and the buildings taller. As always there is a lot of litter but there are also a lot of people employed to sweep it up.
After our first impressions the next day we were ready to see some sights. The last month or so we have not really been very interested in sightseeing and have just been enjoying our destinations, living and walking around towns however there were a few things that we wanted to see, Liam in particular. After breakfast we walked to the Reunification Palace. It was extremely hot and we walked from shaded tree to shaded tree to stay out of the scorching sun. After a few hair raising road crossing we had our method sorted, basically just don’t look, walk across the road at a consistent pace and the traffic pre-empts your pace and dodges you. Well we haven’t been ran over so we assume it’s as good a method as any. It was not far and once we got there we realised it was closed until after lunch. Luckily we had not had a productive morning and we only had to wait forty minutes so we decided to get a drink in a café and wait. We went to the nearest restaurant and asked if we could just have a drink. The waitress directed us to the café on the sixth floor. The café was beautiful inside and had really nice views across the city. We ordered our drinks, Liam a beer, Chelsea a homemade lemonade and we sat for a while looking over the city, strangely enough listening to Boyzone.
The palace opened at 1.30pm and cost 30,000 dong each (about £1) to enter. The palace was not really what we expected, it looked more like an office building, with a green at the front and a fountain. Along the road to the palace were old propaganda posters lined up which were interesting and there were a few tanks and a plane to look at.
Once we approached we were directed to the left by several guards who led us into a room where tourists were sat in rows and a lady at the front talked them through the guided tour, which we apparently had to be part of. We walked up to the second floor and started the tour and managed to slip out in front and ditch the tour. We walked around the palace at our own pace on our own and again were a little shocked by it. It felt empty and uninviting. Several rooms were open for viewing like the meeting rooms, the banquet room and others, a cinema and bedroom. Each room was set out as if it was an office, very minimal, basic furniture and not at all decorative like other palaces we have seen. We walked around the sterile halls peering in the rooms until we got to the roof. On the roof was a helicopter and we sat and had a cold drink. The last bit of the palace was the basement. This was a series of underground eerie hallways with rooms branching off with different office and intelligent rooms for the leaders and army. There was a lot of old intelligence equipment down there as well as some old cars and a gallery of old photos, maps and memorabilia.
The palace is not a particularly nice sight but it is interesting as a piece of history and to understand Vietnam in the 1970’s.
After our walk around the palace we headed to the War Remnants Museum which is really close by and costs 15000 dong to enter.
The first exhibit is a courtyard filled with military planes, tanks and arms. Liam loved it and after making sure he took at least one, but in most cases two photos of every item we were allowed to move on.
The other outside exhibit is a mock-up of the tactics and conditions used on Con Son island. There are tiger cages, small barbed wire coffin cages to keep prisoners inside, a guillotine and cells, as well as photos of war tactics and prisoners. It is extremely grim and disturbing and shows some horrifying sights of what people faced. Inside the museum is one of the best we have been to in Southeast Asia in terms of quality exhibits and information. We are used to faded photos, old exhibits and dusty relics but this was in excellent condition, well maintained and extremely busy. Normally there are just us and a few other tourists when we visit museums but this one was absolutely packed out. There are three floors of exhibits, mainly it is harrowing photos of war tactics, acts of war, the aftermath of war and the devastating effects it had on not only the armies involved and the civilians but also the landscape and economy of Vietnam but there are also some relics. There are cases full of weapons, huge pieces of shrapnel and different bombs. It is an extremely sombre museum and the main focus is on the effects that war has on people and the importance of peace. We spent a while looking around the different rooms and the highlight was an exhibition that was donated to the museum which has collated photos from the war from an impartial view. It shows amazing and devastating photos taken from all sides from the reporters that risked their lives to document the events and there is a tribute to reporters from all different countries.
We spent all day visiting the palace and museum and were tired walking back so we called into a café for a delicious blended iced mocha coffee. In the evening we got our first sight of the streets at night.
The main road is bright with neon signs and stalls set up selling BBQ skewers. We decided on a Vietnamese restaurant called five oysters and ordered a selection of dishes to share, beef salad, grilled octopus with chilli, fish spring rolls and Banh Xeo, a thin crispy pancake stuffed with seafood and meat, beansrpouts and veg.
Our final day in Saigon was a lot slower paced. We decided to visit Benh Thanh market just for a leisurely wander around. It was only a short walk and a few sketchy road crossings away and were only sold drugs twice on the way. We have noticed in Vietnam that there are a LOT of people selling drugs, especially in Saigon and everywhere we walk we are approached. The market is a huge indoor market and sells all sorts of things. As soon as we entered we were heckled for all sides to buy things, even grabbed. It was beyond off-putting and we instantly did not want to buy anything or even browse. We walked around for approximately six minutes before we decided to leave. It mainly sold tourist souvenirs, clothing, confectionary, and beauty products but there was also a street food section and a fresh produce area. Compared to other markets we have seen in Southeast Asia it was not particularly interesting and not enjoyable to walk around unless you enjoy being heckled at and pleaded with to buy crap.
The rest of the day was spent wandering the busy streets and moving from café to café talking.
We have booked our bus for tomorrow morning which will take us to Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. Saigon a name which evokes the exotic is a city which to us seems to be in a limbo of booming prosperity in a still developing nation. Glittering skyscrapers sit next to crumbling pavements pilled with litter. The cities inhabitants benefit from 21st century commodities which the city itself seems to not yet be able to deal with. We have enjoyed Saigon but have realised that we prefer the countryside and the quiet coasts to the chaotic and polluted cities.