From the heavenly Chinese temples to the hell of the Vietnam war

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog

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The driver of Trudy's cyclo is laughing his head off while he's overtaking me.

We have to get up at 6.30 am, but after sleeping like a baby all night long this isn’t too much of a problem. We go to the restaurant on the first floor to find out that breakfast in the Vien Dong Hotel is served in the restaurant on the 10th floor, so up we go again. The buffet looks pretty good and we order a pho (this is a clear bouillon with noodles, some vegetables and two or three small pieces of beef) which is cooked on the spot. After that we try some of the fresh fruit and some bread with something sweet on it.

At eight everybody is downstairs in the lobby and Michel has also done his homework, because the cyclos are already waiting outside.

The inside garden at the Chùa Minh Húóng.
A cyclo is like a rickshaw with the driver behind the passenger (in Indonesia they call them Becaks). Michel has taken into account that every cyclo can hold only one passenger (a European passenger that is, the Vietnamese can easily share a cyclo). When all of us have met our driver (some speak a little English, the others say “Yes” to everything and smile), we throw ourselves cheerfully into the buzzing, humming and honking traffic of early morning Saigon (many locals still call it this, officially it’s just a part of the city that still bares this name).

On our way to Cholon we pass a colourful catholic church which stands on a fanciful location just on the side of the road.

Cholon lies in District 5 and is Saigon’s Chinatown, it is occupied mostly by the Hoa, Vietnamese of Chinese origin.

The entrance of the Chùa Quan Âm.
Our first stop is at the Chùa Minh Húóng, a temple, that as far as I can figure out, was built in the late 1800’s by descendants of the Ming dynasty. When we stop, the driver gets off, lifts the back wheel up as far as he can, so we can disembark graciously. Both the interior and the exterior are a spectacle of colours. Inside a small corner that looks like a little inside garden stands out from the rest, because of it’s tranquility. The rest of the temple is crowded with statues, altars, idols and people making sacrifices. After only ten minutes we have to leave again.

Next is the Quan Am Pagoda (Chùa Quan Âm), this temple is even more elaborately decorated and it is dedicated to Quan Âm, the goddess of Purity and Motherhood. This pagoda is thought to be one of the oldest in the city, it was founded in 1816. Here even more people are burning incense and, together with the smoke from the burning incense coils hanging from the ceiling, and the sunlight coming through a glass part of the roof, an amazing, almost divine, atmosphere is created.

Waiting for divine intervention...
It kind of feels like the ancestors are keeping an eye on us right now. We keep quiet and try not to disturb anyone when we are taking pictures.

Soon we are in the cyclos again, the drivers are making a race of it, overtaking one another over and over again, they are having as much fun as we are. In no time at all we arrive at Cho Binh Tay, the main market of Cholon. At first I think of it as not very interesting, but at second glance when we are past the building with trashy fabrics and cheap plastic toys, the market shows its real face. One lane with stalls cramped with sweets in every thinkable colour, a couple of lanes with stalls with heaps of fresh vegetables, a lane with food stalls with freshly cooked delicacies to everyone’s liking, and last but certainly not least one which is not meant for the fainthearted. Meat boys and girls!! Livers, kidneys, intestines, hearts, pigs feet, brains and everything else I have failed to mention, all ready for the taking.

Meat anyone???
When we think we have seen it all we take the exit at the back of the building, stumbling over the part of the market that didn’t fit inside the building. Lots of people are doing there shopping here and we delightfully loose ourselves in the wide array of sights, sounds and smells. Suddenly I spot a monk in a yellow robe, carrying nothing but a pot in which people can put the alms to feed him. When we are walking back to our transports again, on a street corner we see ladies selling a strange pink kind of fruit. Michel will tell us later on that this is dragon fruit, it is grown only in certain areas of the country and its taste is sweet and fresh. It makes a lovely desert.

We now race to a street with shops that sell all kinds of Chinese medicinal specialties, things we normally do not find at the local chemist’s, like dried frogs, dried sea horses, dried deer penisses and for people with a dry liver: snake wine.

This monk lives from what he is given.
The bottles vary in size from 15 to approx. 80 cm in height and in the largest one there’s a cobra of at least 1,5 metres long. We decide not to indulge in Chinese medicine and stick with the pills and powders we know.

There’s one more pagoda on our list, but it isn’t as beautiful as Chùa Quan Âm. Worth mentioning though is a man burning huge incense sticks, I haven’t got a clue what the reason for this is, but it sure is a remarkable sight.

Our last stop on the tour is a Chinese morgue. The very colourful hearses are standing at the ready in front of the building. Inside decoration is scarce except for paintings on the brick walls. On both sides of the corridor are open rooms where people can gather around the coffins of the deceased to say farewell.

Feeling a bit under the weather? Some snakewine a day keeps the doctor away...
There’s only one coffin present at the moment and no relatives are in sight.

Around eleven we are back at the hotel. This afternoon we want to go to the War Remnants Museum, but first Caroline, Trudy and I want to check out the local cuisine. On the terrace of a nearby restaurant we order Phó Bó (pho with beef) and we get huge bowls filled with noodles meat and vegetables that taste delicious. Salesmen are constantly addressing us, trying to sell their books, postcards and whatever else they are carrying around. Today they will not succeed.

After lunch we take a taxi to the War Remnants Museum. Actually we wanted to go with the same cyclos as this morning, but the men don’t show up, so we have to take the motorized alternative.

This is not a float, but a hearse in front of the morgue.
This sets us back 14,000 VND, which is about €1.

The entrance fee for the museum is 15,000 VND each and photography is included in that price. We follow the numbers that are shielded out and first enter some halls that contain pictures of  battles, bombings, forests before and after defoliation with Agent Orange and of course weaponry. In the courtyard are tanks, a fighter plane, a helicopter, grenade launchers and several huge bombs. Every single item captured from the Americans or hauled from the battlefields when fighting was over.

In another hall we see the terrible consequences of the use of Agent Orange. Some deformed embryos on aqua fortis and lots of pictures of people that are born well after the war, missing limbs because of damage to the genetic material of their parents.

This man is lighting huge incense sticks, I wonder what he is making up for?..
Also on display are pictures of the horrific effects of Napalm on the human body, the burns never fully heal.

One picture that really draws my attention is that of an American soldier holding up the torso of a Vietnamese man, who has been blown in half by a bombshell, while the legs are in a pile on the floor.

Another display is about the torture techniques the Vietnamese used against their own people, against the ones that opposed the government that is. Tying up and water torture were one, the infamous Tiger cage was another. A cell of 10 by 9 by 5 feet in which up to fifteen people were held captive in the hot season. They had to take turns to sit next to the door where a tiny hatch provided some fresh air.

Some pictures are not for the fainthearted.
In the cold season only two people, chained to steel rods by the ankles, were put in the same cell. In this way they couldn’t keep each other warm. When it came to food, every day the inmates would get half a mug of water and some old rice and spoiled fish. Some people were in the Tiger cage for so long (10 years) that when they were released, they were paralyzed.

From the Tiger cage we go to the Guillotine, brought here by the French and used to kill those who had committed crimes against the government.

The last two halls show the demonstrations from all over the world against the Vietnam war and pictures of “Vietnam Today”.

Our hearts are heavy with the crimes against humanity we’ve just seen, but the ride on the Xe Oms (scooters with driver) to the Phươc Hai Tư clears our minds a bit.

The infamous Tigercage (don't worry, it's a statue).
Although it is a bit more expensive than a taxi, it is also a lot more fun. The Temple of the Jade Emperor consists of a courtyard with two ponds and behind that a main building. One of the ponds is the habitat of mainly fish, the other one is teeming with turtles. This is not surprising since turtles are for sale at the entrance and, it is said that, if you write your name on your freshly bought turtle’s back and release it in the pond, this will bring you good fortune.

Inside the temple are some large wooden statues and some altars, but the whole is illuminated with tube lights, killing the atmosphere and making it all feel very cold and uninviting.

From here on we walk, now starting our search for the Hard Rock Cafe and a bar called Apocalypse Now.

These kids drove the Xe Oms we hired to go to the Temple of the Jade Emperor.
Our walk takes us to the zoo (this is my fault, I misread the map) and past the Notre Dame and the general post office on Paris Square (this is on purpose, since Caroline hasn’t seen this yet). The two bars are supposed to be in a street near the Rex Hotel, but upon further inquiry both establishments seem to have been closed for quite some time now. However, if we’re interested, the man does know a shop where we can buy unofficial Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts. Let’s not.

We take a taxi back to the hotel and go for dinner in De Tham Street. The food is all right, but the meat is not as tender as I would’ve liked.

We feel like a massage now, but since there are no decent looking parlours in the neighbourhood, we go back to our room for a shower and a good night sleep.

The pond with the lucky turtles.
Caroline does get her massage in the beauty parlour of the Vien Dong Hotel, but since they can handle only one massage client at a time (and it takes an hour) we decide to wait for another opportunity.

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The driver of Trudys cyclo is lau…
The driver of Trudy's cyclo is la…
The inside garden at the Chùa Min…
The inside garden at the Chùa Mi…
The entrance of the Chùa Quan Âm.
The entrance of the Chùa Quan Âm.
Waiting for divine intervention...
Waiting for divine intervention...
Meat anyone???
Meat anyone???
This monk lives from what he is gi…
This monk lives from what he is g…
Feeling a bit under the weather?
…
Feeling a bit under the weather? …
This is not a float, but a hearse …
This is not a float, but a hearse…
This man is lighting huge incense …
This man is lighting huge incense…
Some pictures are not for the fain…
Some pictures are not for the fai…
The infamous Tigercage (dont worr…
The infamous Tigercage (don't wor…
These kids drove the Xe Oms we hir…
These kids drove the Xe Oms we hi…
The pond with the lucky turtles.
The pond with the lucky turtles.
Who needs lorries when youve got …
Who needs lorries when you've got…
Cho Binh Tay as seen from the othe…
Cho Binh Tay as seen from the oth…
The M107, a.k.a. The King of the B…
The M107, a.k.a. The King of the …
The statues are nice, but the tube…
The statues are nice, but the tub…