December 28th, 2010 – by: Jollyjetsetter
Ho Chi Minh City's Town Hall, in all its architectural splendour.
The locals still refer to Ho Chi Minh City by its former name Saigon, yet whatever your preference, this urban agglomeration in southern Vietnam, the country's largest, is possibly the final word in Vietnamese city life, which to a certain extent, would make Hanoi seem like a village, were it not for the elements which keep the capital city buzzing. The choice of hotel for the stay in HCMC was the centrally-located Tan My Dinh hotel, which scored maximum points for its location alone, not to mention the commanding views from the restaurant, and the well-fitted rooms. The first HCMC landmark in the immediate vicinity is the famous Ben Tanh market, which is the priciest of all HCMC's indoor markets, and is perhaps more of a walk-around-and-experience place than a bargain basement for shoppers.
Tasteful colours of Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Dinh church.
Since this was the week separating Christmas Day from New Year's day, the city's colourful array of festive illuminations coated the area around the Opera House in a warm and alluring glow, and the prominent buildings in the area, namely the Town Hall, the Notre Dame cathedral (remnant of the French colonial era), and various modern shopping complexes of note give the city its sense of splendour and dynamism. A must-see on the HCMC tourist trail is the premises of Independence Palace, and if you're lucky enough to catch an English guided tour, you will also learn about the significance of each of the complex's rooms. Various military vehicles are also located on the premises, but not to the extent of those found within the grounds of HCMC's War Remnants museum, which is a symbolic but chilling reminder of the darker period of the Vietnam war.
View of Vung Tau town, as seen from the top of the Giant Jesus statue.
HCMC is full of quirks and points of visual interest and historical significance, and one senses that getting around it all would require far more than the limited time frame that this tourist was operating in. The more rough-and-ready edge to HCMC is well represented by the Cholon area, or Chinatown, to be more precise. Here, the impressive-looking Binh Tay market has a wide array of goods all under one roof, if only the shopper is well prepared to both bargain and squeeze themselves through the narrow passageways which separate one market trader from another. Since my chance to visit Halong Bay fell by the wayside, I was determined this time around not to squander the opportunity to see an area outside of HCMC, and catching the hydrofoil to the southern seaside town of Vung Tau
was a perfect plan for a chance to see another slice of Vietnamese life.
Binh Tay market, Chinatown's primary shopping spot.
Upon arrival in Vung Tau, it soon became apparent that some form of transport would be required to make it achievable in the allotted timeframe, so picking up a rental bicycle was easily the way forward, and the lack of gradients and almost deserted streets made it so simple to get around. Stopping off at various pagodas for photo opportunities was an unplanned but essential part of the deal, and then scaling the numerous steps to get to the peak of the giant Jesus Statue was a claim-to-fame decision and a suitable substitute for this traveller who has still yet to make it to Rio De Janeiro. Biking on further past the Imperial Shopping Plaza, and stopping off at a unique topiary garden was held together by various stop-offs at street cafes which were perfect places for watching the world go by and enjoying a drink in the process.
A guided tour of a unique temple complex was yet another unplanned and unforeseen, but richly rewarding travel experience, and soon I was back at the port complex and awaiting the return hydrofoil to the zany traffic of HCMC, and the bright lights of the big city. All in all, HCMC delivered in as much as, regardless of how much of the urban terrain might not have appealed, there was always a pristine architectural gem for every rundown piece of shabbiness which characterized the city to a degree anyway. The city is a hotch-potch of colourful and vibrant pieces of true Asian exoticism, and however much the city tests the visitor's patience, it has to be said that once it truly gets under your skin, you'll be glad you chose to let the full flavour of the city's effects seep in.