Ho Chi Minh City (or is it Saigon?)

It’s supposed to be HCMC but none of the locals actually use it and prefer Saigon. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of North Vietnam and it wouldn’t surprise me if the persistent use of the name ‘Saigon’ is part of the North-South divide that still clearly exists in Vietnam. Our guide from Cat Tien National Park, Dao, blames it on French colonial ‘divide and conquer’ tactics, obviously the American war wouldn’t have helped either!! Who knows? It’s clearly very different down here compared to the North, the people are far less relaxed and the pace of life and streets seem more akin to China than Hanoi.

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Saigon is huge. I think it has 8 million inhabitants, most have migrated here from the countryside since the war ended in 1975. Virtually all of the buildings on the outskirts have sprouted up since then. It’s thriving and industrialising with break-neck rapidity. Just like China again!

Since our rather less than optimal first morning here we’ve enjoyed it much more. Our temporary home is a tiny and shabby room above the Gon cafe on one of the main backpacker streets. Tiny and shabby it may be but, blimey, not sure if the air is drugged but we sleep so well in there. In truth it’s quiet and the bed is comfortable. The great thing about the Gon cafe is the food is the cheapest and nicest around and the internet is really fast. This place makes the most excellent STRONG (‘oh yeah!’ She says rebounding from the walls) coffee milkshakes. Gon cafe rules!

We’ve really used Saigon as a base to travel out from and so have spent most of our spare time here milling about eating,drinking and sitting at computers. We made a point of visiting the War remnants museum though. Before we entered the museum we wern’t really thinking too much about what we might discover there. Even though we’d seen a fair few people with deformities (usually the legs, feet, arms and hands) from the evil Agent Orange, Vietnam has bounced back and got on with life. Most of you will already know so apologies in advance: Agent orange is the dioxin used to destroy the vegetation cover of the Viet Cong. It was sprayed in huge quantities by the US Air force. It was strange to walk around Cat Tien National Park where the outskirts were less than 30 years old after being totally destroyed in the war. It would make an interesting ecological study to see how much residue from Agent Orange still exists there and how it has affected the recovery of the plant life……..Yawn, OK, I’ll stop it.

Anyway, recovering from the tangent I’ll tell you about the museum. I went in mentally unprepared and so had a tough time of it yet again. The museum is small and dedicates most of it’s space to photo journalism from the American war. This photo journalism helped to fuel protests which eventually resulted in the withdrawal of US troops. One room was dedicated to the work of photographers that died during the war, about 20 of them in all. Looking at some of the appalling images it’s hard not to think ‘what the hell were you doing? Stop exploiting these people for photographs and get stuck in helping!’ This was particularly the case for a photo of a mother desperately fleeing across a surging river, struggling to keep hold of her children. However, as John rightly points out, the photographs raised awareness and saved many lives in the long run. We’ll never know what the actual circumstances were with these photographers as they’re all long dead. The room was a nice tribute to them and they certainly didn’t die in vain.

The second photographic exhibition was much more graphic. Appalling agent orange symptoms usually suffered by children born just after the war to exposed parents. Children who are now about the same age as John and I. There were also some indescribably horrendous images of US brutality to Men, Women and Children. How could they?

The same sick feeling appeared again, just like Hiroshima. Although this time it was different. Hiroshima was utterly horrendous cruelty but it was cruelty inflicted from afar where the perpetraitors couldn’t see the damage they’d done. This was pretty hands on, committed by seemingly ordinary folk in some kind of crazed state. The Vietnam war is so recent though, it’s scary. I wonder what was going on in Iraq. I would like to believe times of changed, I really want to believe that.

Humans are evil and nasty and beautiful and wonderful. We are strange creatures. OK, I’m feeling confused as usual. Maybe I should get another coffee shake!

Right, I’m going to write about our fun trip to the Mekong Delta now. The delta area is huge and takes up the majority of Vietnam South of Saigon. We spent most of our time on boats, as you’d imagine. Six different boats in all. We went to floating markets, through water coconut groves and to a coconut candy factory. Plenty of photo opportunities for John and good clean fun. I got to hold a rather rotund python (who knows what they were feeding it on, hopefully not coconut candy!). Really really love snakes so I was grinning from ear to ear. Yippee. Lots of local culture too, not as interested in that though (I’m so naughty, I ought to be!) They started singing songs though, urgh! I was trying, very unsuccessfully, to take photographs of bees.

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Another thing we saw was a hen with a couple of chicks and four adopted ducklings. How cute, so sweet to see! It might be because someone had steamed duck for tea but I’ll pretend I’ve not thought of that! One really sad thing we saw was a gibbon on it’s own in a small bare cage. I’ve never seen an animal look so sad (maybe except Josh the dog when he knows you’re going out and leaving him). John was really upset, the gibbon just looked at you and liked holding your hand. After seeing the really giddy happy gibbons and their aerial acrobatics at the Cuc Phuong sanctuary it was quite a contrast.

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One subject of amusement though was our guide ‘Dong’, that’s the name of the currency here. It’s like being called, Euro, dollar or stirling. Interesting……. He likes to make insinuations about things. He said that too much local rice wine made everybody go to bed early, nobody knows what they do in bed but they all end up with 14 children. He also told us the story of the coconut religion. Apparently a coconut monk ate nothing but coconut and drank only coconut milk. He liked to sleep with 9 naked virgins too apparently. He proved his goodness buy not making any of them pregnant. Very impressive, I hope he wasn’t making condoms out of coconut husks though…….ouch! And last but not least our guide annouced the f*ck music we were going to listen to. Ooh! is this going to be reggae……… Ha no. He repeated it about 5 times. ‘F-O-L-K, f*ck music NO! F-O-L-K, f*ck music.’ Everyone laughs and Dong grins like a Cheshire cat.

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Vietnam is great.

Love to all, hope you’re still awake.

Viv xxx

4 thoughts on “Ho Chi Minh City (or is it Saigon?)”

  1. That’s a lovely description of the place, Viv. And very touching too.
    Love and hugs, Dad xxx

  2. I love reading this blog. Keep up the good work. Really want to go to Vietnam now as the way you describe it sounds ace, another place to add to the list but won’t be for a while as got my flight home booked today, hurray! Any karaoke in Vietnam?

  3. Definitely no karaoke as in a ‘karaoke bar’ in Vietnam you are more likely to find the same activity going on inside as you would a ‘massage parlour’ back home, there certainly ain’t a lot of singing going on!

    Vietnam was ace, we really enjoyed it there. It was somewhere I have wanted to visit for a number of years now and it certainly didn’t dissapoint. It was nice easy travelling which was just what we were up for after China and with plenty to see and do we certainly weren’t bored. It’s somewhere I’d definitely return to again and explore a little more deeply.

    We arrived in Laos yesterday, expect a round up from Vietnam in the not too distant future…

  4. We love the Hen and ducklings; Viv’s colourful and moving prose,full of pathos; not QUITE so sure about Monty Pylon’s Flying Japanese Toys, but the flying gannet was superb. Can’t wait for next blog;

    lots of love to you both and anyone who appreciates you as much as we do!

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