Because we’d elected to arrive a day early for our tour, we had a day to ourselves. The Park Hyatt is centrally-located, within a stroll of the major tourist stops on the map so, having fortified ourselves with a wonderful breakfast, we ventured forth.
I’ve already explained that walking in Saigon is fraught with danger. For a start there are few footpaths not covered with street vendors and parked motorbikes. Then you have to be ready to dodge the motorbikes who find the road too crowded and take a shortcut. Add to that a closed-off area being excavated for an underground rail system and one has no choice but to face the trial of Crossing the Road. We discovered that If we found a crossing with lights, we’d at least have a better chance of making it over the road unscathed. Also, you can join in with others and make a larger target.
Traffic is always noisy, but Vietnamese traffic is constantly underscored by the toot of horns, ranging from a blast from a bus to the polite chirps of motorbikes. While in Australia using a horn without good reason is illegal and usually means “get out of the f***ing way *sshole”, in Vietnam it’s normally just saying “hey, I’m here, coming through.” It’s important because of the absence of any regard for traffic lanes or right of way. If you don’t push in you’ll stay where you are. It’s all quite amicable. I only saw one incident where a bus pushed somebody off the road, no doubt for very good reason. And because the traffic isn’t moving fast, any accidents are minor.
Vietnamese houses tend to be tall and very narrow because the land is expensive. We were told later that multiple generations lived in the houses, one floor each. And often a business was conducted at street level. All the power poles were covered in wires – common in Asia. And street vendors were everywhere, doing a roaring trade. I have heard street food is safe as long as you see it cooked and while I know my inflexible creaking Western bones might have been able to sit on the little stools, I reckon I’d still be there trying to stand up.
We noticed that many of the women kept themselves covered up. We saw lots of surgical masks, too, especially on motor bike riders. The city has a high level of pollution, so that was understandable. But the head to toe covering for women was apparently more about aesthetics. Very pale, ‘porcelain’ skin is highly prized in Vietnam so the women do what they can to protect their skin from the sun. For those working in the fields, that’s not possible, so smooth, pale skin is also a sign of class. There’s a roaring trade in skin whiteners, too. Just like in the West but the other way around. Fashion’s a bitch.
Vietnamese national dress for women was full length, loose trousers topped with a long sleeved, full length tunic, as at left. It’s elegant and beautiful – although it looks warm to me.
Needless to say, the shops around the Park Hyatt were the upmarket retailers, all air-conditioned and all filled with Christmas carols. It goes to show that living in a communist country doesn’t mean there aren’t any rich people. We saw a LOT of expensive cars on the road with badges like Mercedes and Audi, and lots of high-end Toyotas. It seems a Merc (say) would cost $US100,000. But the government taxes these vehicles at 200% so it’ll cost you $US300,000. That’s in a country where an average worker will earn around $US150 a month. I think it’s safe to assume some people are more equal than others. Certainly the Communist Party exercises the most control in the country.
After dodging the traffic for a little further, Pete and I headed down a laneway which turned out to be devoted to bookshops and coffee – and NO motorbikes. It was surprisingly quiet after the crowded main road. Seems Harry Potter has been translated into Vietnamese. After a double latte in a cafe, we found that the road came out next to the main post office and opposite Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral, which is closed for renovations.
We visited the post office, of course. Call it ex-professional interest. Like most POs it has diversified into tourism, if not up-market hotels. Once again, it was colonial French architecture.
We walked past a park fronting what used to be the town hall, built in elaborate French style. It’s now the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Building, an official Vietnamese government site. The large golden statue of Uncle Ho was erected in the park and makes a subtle statement about the current political situation.
We visited the Independence Palace, a site redolent with Vietnam’s post world war II history. There had been a palace on this site for many years, originally the Norodom Palace which was the home of the (French) governor of Vietnam from the 1870’s. It’s fascinating how, after being overrun at home by the Germans in WW2, European powers like France and the Netherlands thought they could just return to Asia with the Japanese now kicked out, and resume business as usual. The Vietnamese had had enough of colonial masters and the French were sent off to their shattered homeland in 1954. In 1955 Diem declared himself President of the Republic of Vietnam. It wasn’t an entirely popular move. Diem’s family was notoriously corrupt and they also tried to push Catholicism on a mainly Buddhist population. Here’s more about that story – and the iconic photo of the burning monk.
In 1962 a young pilot in the Vietnamese air force let the world know his feelings about the Diem regime by bombing the palace, severely damaging the building. Diem decided to build a new palace, which was completed in 1966 and was the site of several historically important meetings between the Americans and the Vietnamese. That’s the building we visited. It was also the place where a Liberation Army tank crashed through the gates to signal the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. In July, 1976 Vietnam was reunified under a communist regime and the Independence Palace was renamed to the Reunification Palace.
After visiting the palace, we spent some time in a museum attached to the site. It contained audio-visual footage showing life in old Saigon and explaining some of the history.
Although we didn’t visit the opera house, we walked past it on our way to a group dinner. The opera house is French colonial style, a remnant of the past. I don’t think the French did much for Vietnam other than use it for raw materials. It was going to be interesting to see a little more of the country’s own history later in the tour.
The group dinner was at Luc Nguyen’s “Vietnam House” restaurant. He’s just one of many successful Vietnamese refugees who made it to Australia. He’s best known in Australia for his “Red Lantern” and “Fat Noodle” restaurants in Sydney.
Yes, we did go to the central markets – but we went to markets everywhere, crowded alleys with stalls offering everything you can imagine and I’ll show you those later. This Saigon market was famous for knock-offs. Reebok, Nike, Samsung, Apple, Dior, Chanel – you name it. Some of it may well have been good stuff, too. After all, they make a lot of brand names in Vietnam. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the factories make a few extra and sell them on the side.