Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog› entry 8 of 20 › view all entries
The bus trip from Dalat was pleasant and uneventful, past farms, then down through the hills heavy with vegetation, through coffee plantations and finally the industrial suburbs and traffic of Saigon. Our arrival at Mme Cuc's 127 Hotel was more eventful. The hotel rep met us from the bus to take us there - on her motorbike. Hil hardly blinked as she was told to get on the pillion, put her luggage on her knees and put on an ill-fitting helmet. She did, and they set off down the crowded street the 500m to the hotel - somewhat to Mike's consternation. The driver returned, Mike travelled in the same way, to find Hil happily drinking coffee at Mme Cuc's. The last time either of us had been on a motorbike was about 1965 we reckoned.
The Saigon weather is hot and sultry. It matches the city - a real noisy, busy, thrusting, slightly edgy place, that shows up the capital, Hanoi, as a provincial town. The streets burst with motorbikes, there are truly smart shops, then smart shops, ordinary shops, shopping plazas, then street markets, street food stalls, hawkers and hustlers. Mme Cuc's is in the backpacker area, crowded with hotels, restaurants, bars, hairdressers, massage parlours, and travel agents, and a great cake shop. People watching is an inevitable pastime. Mme Cuc's is wonderful. It seems to be run entirely by women, always friendly and cheery even after a 14hour shift. For US$20, you also get breakfast and a simple evening meal, though we normally eat out. You have to leave your shoes in the foyer and pad to your room barefoot (well, Mike wears his white socks...)
We walked to the Reunification Palace, the old southern presidential palace, and scene of the official surrender of the South in 1975. It's a 60's building with some wonderful 60's "contemporary" touches. From the rooftop dance floor (!) you can see down to the American Embassy (now the Consulate) where the helicopters famously evacuated the last US citizens in 1975. Queues now snake round it, presumably for US visas. We wandered the streets of Cholon, the Chinese quarter, with its active pagodas, full of worshippers waving incense sticks and burning paper money for luck, and passed traditional herb shops. Back to Saigon to the wider boulevards and the old Hotel de Ville, very French, now the City's Peoples' Committe Building. High rise is appearing all over, and there are several very upmarket shopping plazas. Many central steets are now decorated gaudily for Tet, Vietnamese New Year, on February 14th this year. And public buildings celebrate 80 years of the Vietnamese Communist Party with red flags and pictures of Ho. On the ornate French built Opera House, a large picture of Ho appears to show him walking in the clouds. In front there's a display of historic photos of the Communist Party eg "People in Cu Chi's Committee rose up to exterminate local lackey Council." Incongruously, the whole area is dominated by the highrise Sheraton Hotel with its Louis Vuiton and Gucci shops.
We took a day trip to the Mekong Delta region and enjoyed the bustling waterways and floating markets. We went out to the Cao Dai Temple, a native Vietnamese religion, a synthesis of eastern and western philosophies, for Sunday Mass, and marvelled at the flamboyant Holy See and its regimented worshippers. We stopped at the Cu Chi tunnels, just to get some idea of how the Vietcong penetrated so near Saigon so successfully in the 60s. Although now sanitised for tourists, it did give a glimpse of the horrors endured by both sides in the area. And we wandered more around Saigon. What a great, amazing city, and a marvellous end to our Vietnamese trip. What will Cambodia hold?
PS We've been multi-millionaires in Vietnam. There's about 29,000 Dong to the pound. The ATMs will only let you take 2,000,000 Dong at one time - about 67 pounds. It's the Riel in Cambodia - about 6,000 to one pound. Presumably, we'll lose our millionaire status there.