A Travellerspoint blog

Saigon, Vietnam

days 87-91

semi-overcast 34 °C


Having taken 2 buses for our 2 long trips so far in Vietnam, we opted for the train for the 6 hour journey from Nha Trang to Saigon. Aside from the suspect looking and pretty foul smelling food that wafted past on a trolley every 20 minutes or so, the journey was eminently more comfortable than either of the bus rides. The train was clean, the seats were comfy and I had enough battery left on my iPod so that I didn't have to listen to the films being shown at far too high a volume for the weak speakers they were blurting out from.

We arrived in Saigon late in the afternoon and made our way to the 'My My Arthouse' hostel, located 50 metres or so behind the main backpacker strip down a windy alley that was barely wide enough to fit a motorbike down. It had come highly recommended by people that we had met along the way for its proximity to the heart of the action but quietness at night. The hostel was full but the outrageously camp and highly friendly proprietor Kim informed us they had a new hostel located a further 5 minutes walk into the bowels of the back-alleys of the Pham Ngu Lao district and although they only had 1 room left which consisted of 4 bunk-beds and no windows, it was cheap, it had A/C and it was spotlessly clean so it was more than passable for our four days in the city.

After an early start I was knackered and fancied an hours sleep so I arranged to meet Lou and Bettina in a bar 10 minutes walk away a bit later on. By the time I got out it was dark and the street that had looked pretty respectable by day had acquired a certain sin-city edge to it by night. Within a couple of minutes of leaving the hostel I was accosted by 2 pretty girls asking “do you want some?”. Without really looking at the girls, I politely enquired what kind of product or service they might be offering. When I did turn around to look at them, their sultry glances, short skirts, low cut tops, over-the-top makeup and the fact they were blowing kisses at me gave the game away and I carried on walking. I was then offered the usual medley of things that you get offered on the streets of large Asian cities; unidentifiable food-stuffs, massages, drugs, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Despite the definite edge to the city, it didn't feel dangerous at all and the low crime figures against tourists (minus the infamous drive-by bag snatchings performed by motorbike gangs) backs that up.

On our second day we walked the 15 minutes or so from the backpacker area to the war remnants museum which is a must-see no matter how short a time you have in the city. As you walk in to the complex there is a display of American tanks, planes, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft turrets. Getting so close to these killing machines sets the tone for the inside part of the tour which although has a slightly propagandist slant to it, is nonetheless haunting, harrowing and upsetting in equal measure. Spread over 3 floors, there are thousands of photos of terrified civilians, a section on the almost unified world-opinion against the war, and an interesting section on the second and third generation effects of agent orange which include disfigurement and much shorter life expectancy.

Just around the corner from the war remnants museum lies the reunification palace. Originally built as a palace to serve the Southern Vietnamese government, it became a symbol of reunification after the communist tanks smashed through the front entrance on 30 April 1975 which signalled the end of the war and victory for the North. The palace has been left in the same condition it was in that day and a free 30 minute tour takes in several rooms that although look dated, have been well-kept, maintain their splendour and look befitting of a grand palace. The tour also takes in the underground war-rooms where the American/South Vietnamese strategy came directly from. Built to withstand the strongest bombs the North Vietnamese possessed, the passage ways and rooms have been left in the same condition they were in in 1975, with desks, phones, typo-graphs and other various instruments lying in their original positions.

Another essential trip as long as you can cope with the vast hoards of other tourists are the Cu Chi tunnels. The 'secret weapon' of the Viet Cong, the tunnels baffled the Americans and provided the Viet Cong with a base of operations a mere 30km away from American-held Saigon. At their peak, they totalled 200km in length, stretched all the way to Cambodia and had a complex network that included protection against deliberate flooding and many 'dead ends' to confuse any American soldiers small enough to be able to fit in. As part of the tour we were offered the opportunity to try and lower ourselves down into one of the original tunnels. I just about managed to fit my arse in but my shoulders were too wide. Later on in the tour you can descend into the ground and travel 100 metres along the tunnels and although these tunnels were widened to twice the original size, I still struggled to make it through and although the widened tunnels are air-conditioned, I still got out the other end feeling claustrophobic and dripping with sweat. Imagine living down there for 8 years.

Although Lou and I were staying until Monday, Saturday was to be Bettina's last night of her trip before flying back to Sydney on Sunday, so we had the obligatory night out with the obligatory Welsh guy with the colonial hat and sang the obligatory abysmal karaoke that had become a theme of South East Asia. After Bettina left on Sunday, Kim had told us he wasn't very busy that night and so we could probably have the room to ourselves, although if they got full then we would have to share. As we were feeling a bit hungover, and wanted an early night, we were dreading 2 young English or Australian beer louts coming in. So we were pretty relieved when at about 7pm 2 young Chinese girls came in, made themselves comfortable and watched Wolves – Everton with me.

If you can bear the ridiculously busy roads then Saigon is a city you could easily spend a week looking around. You can haggle in the market, people-watch in the park, stroll along the river and generally mix in with the locals. We managed to squeeze in the highlights during our 4 days but a week would really do the place justice.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 23:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tunnels vietnam co saigon chi ho min

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