Tag Archives: Saigon

An artists’ colony on the Saigon River

Cool and rustic

On our last morning in Saigon Pete and I joined two of the ladies in our group to visit an artists’ colony on an island in the Saigon River. We were taken to the location in an SUV, crossing a brand-new bridge and driving through a neighbourhood studded with very expensive houses. This was going to be one of Saigon’s up-market locations.

We were told that people could now own land and the simple little artists’ colony was now an expensive piece of real estate. The owner, a well-known artist, had resisted all attempts to get him to sell. It’s a rustic property with a number of different rooms separated by court yards. We were met at the gate by a phalanx of dogs, medium sized animals of no recognizable breed. Our guide told us not to touch them. I noticed several quite small puppies being guarded by mum. While they were inquisitive, they weren’t specially friendly and they clearly weren’t allowed inside. Made sense. Nobody wants dog pee on their masterpiece.

Ink wash or water colour

Love this. So very Saigon.

This one is laquer

Our hostess with her oil painting

Our hostess for the day was the owner’s wife, a lady around our vintage. She spoke a little English and what she couldn’t manage our guide translated. She showed us around several galleries which included oils, ink wash, water colours, pastels, and lacquer work. Our hostess was a lovely lady who was delighted as a little girl if we admired one of her works. Apart from paintings the galleries are sort of like museums, with wood carvings and pottery to admire.

She demonstrated how lacquer works were made. Lacquer is collected from the Rhus succedanea tree, which grows in the cooler climate in the north of the country. The sap is collected from the tree in the same way as rubber trees, very early in the morning (3-4am) to prevent the sap from hardening.

The first step in creating a painting is to prepare the canvas by coating plywood with around fourteen layers of muslin laid over the painted-on lacquer. After it dries each coat is sanded before the next one is added. Our lady showed us a brush with short, stiff bristles – made from human hair – used to apply the lacquer.

Paintings are created by applying crushed egg shells, nacre, hessian, dyes, or silver or gold leaf to the lacquer. The work is sanded to finish. A painting can take months to complete.

Adding gold foil to lacquer

The morning finished with a cup of tea and a fruit platter in a shaded area by the river, with a view of Saigon in the distance. It’s obvious why a rich man or a developer would like to purchase this property.

On the river bank

On our way back to the hotel we chatted with our APT guide, asking him about his twin sons and his family life. That afternoon we’d be going to the airport for our domestic flight up the coast to Da Nang. From there we would be driving to the ancient city of Hoi An to experience some of Vietnam’s older history.

The sights of Saigon

It’s amazing what you can pack onto a little motorbike

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.

A typical street scene. Note very low stools. It’s the kind of place most people use for lunch

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.

Ladies in Vietnamese costume. It’s very common.

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.

Bookshops and shade

Harry Potter!

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.

Notre Dame de Saigon

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.

The post office

Heroes of the revolution outside the PO

Ho Chi Minh in front of what used to be the town hall

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.

Very sixties architecture – for a reason. Photo by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30078153

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.

The opera house

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.






Getting to Vietnam

View from the hotel – a mix of the old and the new

Our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia started in Vietnam’s largest, most Western-orientated city. Although it was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, to the locals it’s still Saigon. Our flight was uneventful – Brisbane to Singapore to Saigon. But getting through Immigration was… interesting.

To set the picture I should mention visas. Australians need visas to visit Vietnam and Cambodia and on this trip we needed a multiple entry visa for Vietnam because we would be crossing over to Cambodia for several days before crossing back into Vietnam in the middle of the Mekong River. It was made clear to us that an e-visa for Vietnam would not be acceptable because of that river crossing. The immigration people board the tour boat and don’t have access to reliable internet. Our travel person suggested a broker who would take our passports, get the appropriate visa and return them to us.

Yeah right. Neither of us fancied the idea of handing over our passports so we did some homework at the Australian government travel site and the Vietnamese embassy in Australia. Seems the Vietnamese government had got wise to the dodgy visa brokers and come up with a better (cheaper) approach. You apply for your visa online and send a scan of the information page on your passport and a passport sized photo. And you fill in the form, taking care those passport details are accurate. Within a couple of days they send you back an approval letter, you send money via a direct deposit to the embassy, and in a couple more days you get a shiny, official, printed visa with your picture. We’d had to argue the toss with the travel people that these were not e-visas and would be accepted for the Mekong River crossing. I can tell you in hindsight they worked as intended, so don’t get a Vietnam visa through a broker.

There are other visa traps for non-Australian travellers, too. People with UK passports don’t need a visa – for a stay of up to fifteen days. But if you exceed that fifteen days, yes, you do need a visa. A few members of our group fell foul of that one, requiring swift action from our group leader to get visas (at a price, of course) via the Phnom Penh embassy. So wherever you come from, do your visa homework and go via the Vietnamese embassy.

But we weren’t in the country yet. We were queued up with about a couple of thousand other people, shuffling our way along those conga lines you always find at airports. The goal at the end of the conga line was to pick which of the twenty or so lines to the immigration officials checking passports one at a time was moving the fastest. We were there in that vast, crowded shed for near on an hour and a half. But our visas were fine.

Later, we discovered our fellow travellers, who didn’t arrive a day early as we had, were hustled through the formalities by APT staff in a few minutes. How about that?

Our luggage, along with everyone else’s, had long since been moved off the conveyor belts. We grabbed our bags and waltzed through customs. The only thing they seemed to be interested in was carrying too much cash. It’s easy to do in Vietnam. One million Vietnamese dong is around AU$62.40.

We met our APT contact who would take us to our hotel and provide us with some starting information. He was a nice lad who’d been in Australia for a year on a working visa. Being able to speak English is an invaluable asset which opens doors to people without professional skills. This lad was an example. He’ll probably be a tour guide in a year or two.

Saigon had been the capital of South Vietnam’s pro-Western regime after it ousted the French in 1954 and it was that government which asked for American help against Ho Chi Minh’s Soviet-backed army. The Americans left in 1975, leaving the South Vietnamese to their fate when the communists took over.

We found in our journeys that there is still a gulf between the north and the south. In 1975 anyone who had worked for the South’s government was a target, whatever their role. They were sent to re-education camps to learn the error of their ways while they worked in the paddy fields. Our tour guide, Long, was himself one of the original boat people in the eighties, those who paid money to escape Vietnam in fishing boats, hoping to make it to Hong Kong or Indonesia or Australia. We all know some who did make it but many drowned or were caught up by pirates. Long told us about his girlfriend who was raped and murdered at the camp where he was interred in Indonesia. He himself was sent back to Vietnam when the rules were changed and he was declared an economic immigrant. He endured six months of re-education, but by then conditions were not as severe. Even so, these days, although he is permitted to travel within South-East Asia, he said the Vietnamese government would not allow him to travel to the US, Europe, or Australia. Another local guide told us about her uncle, a pilot in the South’s air force. He escaped from re-education and made it to the US, but several of his brothers disappeared when trying to leave in fishing boats.

As it happens, we had an interesting encounter in the business lounge at Saigon airport on our way home. We’d noticed a tall man carrying a cold weather coat in the queue ahead of us as we went through immigration. We ended up sitting next to him in the lounge and he asked to borrow one of my USB ports to charge his phone. After a bit of chat he told us he lived in New York and had escaped from Vietnam, aged two months, just as the communists took over. He showed us pictures on his phone of his grandmother and her family and another of family members, including his cleric uncle, outside Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral. His family had been part of the final South Vietnamese government and they’d had the influence to enlist American help to get them out. What would have happened if they hadn’t escaped? He referred to Cambodia’s Killing Fields, where Pol Pot divested himself of his political opponents. More about that later.

The trip to the hotel, located in the centre of the city, was an eye-opener. Pete and I have been around a few places in our time, seen some crazy driving. But this was special. One of the papers we were given about Saigon’s places to go included a long paragraph on ‘Crossing the Street’.

Instructions from APT

This was entirely necessary because there don’t appear to be any hard and fast road rules beyond ‘sort of keep right and if you’re a car, stop at red lights if you can’t sneak through.’ The motor ways are a little more controlled but the city streets are clogged with traffic, most of it low capacity motor bikes. Saigon has thirteen million people and something like eight million motor bikes. Motor bikes don’t obey any rules. If they can’t make a way in the road they use the footpath – which is interesting because the footpaths are often used as paid-for bike parking in between the street sellers hawking noodles, fruit, coconut water, etcetera


You’re right, there’s not much room for pedestrians.

Not everyone has a motorcycle

The Park Hyatt is a five-star hotel so the room was great and the prices for anything extra were five star as well. Still, sometimes it’s easier to pay $$$$ than mess about finding a cheaper alternative.

Next time we’ll take a walk on the wild side and show you a bit of Saigon. In the meantime, we spent an evening in one of the hotel bars drinking expensive drinks (even at half price) watching the traffic in the road outside. Please note the car doing a U turn and look out for the pedestrian crossing the road.