Sai Gon (I mean Ho Chi Minh City!)


Not having any luck with Vietnam Airlines. When I showed up to get my ride to Hue airport for a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, the nice folks at Binh Minh Sunrise Hotel let me know that my driver had called.

There was a 1.5 hour delay on my flight to HCMC, so I was to cool my heels for a while. My plan had been to get to HCMC around mid-afternoon on Thursday, March 8th, so I could have a good look around and be well-prepared for my two lads to show up the next day. Alas, though obviously the problem wasn't fatal, I ended up arriving in the evening. After checking in, there was little time for anything other than getting dinner, and a brief trip around the neighbourhood for a bit of a boo.

One thing that surprised the bejeezus out of me: my first impression of Sai Gon the city (most of its inhabitants still think of it as, and call it, Sai Gon) was of its cleanliness. Most of the places I'd been in Asia so far were fairly lax in, ahem, public cleanliness, so the state of the neighbourhoods in HCMC really impressed me. Of course, the possibility existed that I was just being driven through the nicer neighbourhoods, so I kept a sharp eye out. Over the course of my five days there I saw nothing to change my judgement. HCMC is, by Asian standards, extraordinarily clean. Who'd'a thunk it?

There was also, not surprisingly, a lot a lot of traffic, about 90 per cent of it motorcycles. Like in Ha Noi, the motorcycles drive very closely together, albeit in the Vietnamese style, fairly slowly. After my experiences in Ha Noi, I was glad to give motorcycle riding a miss for a while.

Which didn't keep me from hopping on a motorcycle taxi the next morning to meet Andrew and Duncan's plane from Toronto/Hong Kong. As far as I'm concerned, motorcycle taxis are the best way to travel around an Asian city, and, in Viet Nam, as I've observed before, the motorcycle taxis are often the most conscientious, careful drivers on the road.

My plan for my two lads was simple: keep them awake till bedtime that night. By the time they'd arrived, they would have been on planes (and in the Hong Kong airport) for about 18 hours, and, unless they'd managed a good deal of sleep on their flights, they'd be pretty lagged, possibly anxious to nap. No way, I said.

At HCMC's Tan Son Nhut airport, people waiting for arrivals wait outside the terminal, though fortunately the second floor of the terminal is overhead, so one's not exposed too much to the weather. I arrived while there were several planes due to arrive before my boys' plane got there, so was able to watch a lot of arrivals. My overall impression: there were a lot of Viet Kieu returning home (Viet Kieu: overseas Vietnamese, similar to the expression "overseas Chinese" for Chinese who have left China and live abroad).

How could I tell? It's easy. They don't look Vietnamese, they look North American. They have North American clothes, North American hair (lots of highlights!), North American make-up, North American fat, etc. Young Viet Kieu men don't look like young Vietnamese men, they look like young North American men. They're often big, in a way most Vietnamese men aren't. Plus, quite a few of them stroll out of the terminal laden with boxes full of stuff they're bringing home. (I say "laden," but of course their boxes are on carts, they're not carrying anything.)

I didn't get any such impression of the arrivals in Ha Noi (though when I return I'll have another look). This also would fit, since my understanding is that most who fled Viet Nam in the past fled the south.

In any case, after about an hour of standing there Andrew and Duncan emerged, looking pretty tired, and off we went to my hotel, the Dong Phuong (English: Orient Hotel, don't know that it's a translation), on De Tham street in District 1 of downtown HCMC. Indeed, they'd had little sleep, they said, in the previous 40 hours, so Plan A was very much in effect.

Duncan, ever the gamer, took control of the tourist map, and let us through the city. He likes to do that sort of thing. First we visited Ben Thanh market, a wonderful indoor market in the centre of downtown HCMC, with much cool stuff for sale, including, we noticed, some taxidermed (?) bats in frames. Since my Margaret finds bats to be as repulsive as animals can possibly be, we agreed they'd make nifty presents.

Then, off to Independence Palace, the re-named residence of the pre-1975 President of "South" Viet Nam. It's interesting, if a bit eerie. Many will recall the photos of the tanks breaking through the gates of this building on April 30, 1975—Reunification Day, the day "North" Viet Nam and "South" Viet Nam were melded back together, never mind the determination of the Western powers to make permanent the bifurcation of that beleaguered country. Anyway, Independence Palace has been kept largely in the state it was on that day, so it's like visiting someone's palace when they're away for a while. (Note as well that the Palace wasn't looted, as is common when governments are overthrown under Western auspices, viz. Iraq, Libya, etc.)

It was very hot in HCMC, so we headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner with the irrepressible Nell Hotke, who we'd been put in contact with by my old friend Robyn Osemlak. Nell's from Toronto, a retired TDSB teacher, and is in HCMC on a two-year contract to teach English at a private school there. We met at Nha Hang Ngon, a restaurant on Pasteur street, and had a terrific meal with terrific company. Nell said she was enjoying the company of fellow Torontonians, a rare treat for her.

By the end of the meal (around 7pm), Andrew was close to asleep, so we headed back to De Tham street to put him to bed. Duncan wasn't able to do the same, though he didn't look much better, as he'd an assignment left over from high school that he had to e-mail in before 3am. Poor guy. So I left him with my computer, while Nell and I had a walk through the neighbourhood—Pham Ngu Lau, the centre for backpackers in HCMC, who knew?—she showing me the most interesting shops, one of which I pointed out to Andrew later as a good place to shop for his girlfriend back home, and he agreed.

Later, I headed alone over to the Allez Boo!, a watering hole that largely caters to foreigners, conveniently located across the street from Dong Phuong. By the time I got back, Duncan and Andrew were both asleep and unwake-able (including using the phone from reception), so hotel staff had to open the door for me. Slightly embarrassing, but what good are we if we don't provide anything for the hotel staff to gossip about.

(The lads' lag continued for another three days. They'd collapse into bed at 8:30 or 9pm, immediately asleep for the duration. As that made our hotel room pretty boring, the Allez Boo! saved me. It's right at the corner of Pham Ngu Lau and De Tham, both very busy tourist streets. Buses, motorcycles, backpackers, madness. A couple beers there and the entertainment is fabulous. And if that fails you, there's English soccer on the TVs.

On one night, I ran into a couple of Californian hispanic travellers, madly dashing here and there in Southeast Asia in the two weeks they had to spend, Bangkok one day, Ho Chi Minh City the next. I thought that a pretty mad way to see anything, so it was perhaps fitting that he was slightly mad. A statistician for the US Government in Afghanistan, I asked him how things were going. The look on his face told me I already knew.)

I had two priorities for things to see other than HCMC museums and art galleries: the Cu Chi tunnels, where the National Liberation Front and its armed wing, often referred to (even by Vietnamese) as the Viet Cong, had their never-located or overrun headquarters all through the American War; and Ap Bac, the site of a small but very important battle in 1963 where the VC surprised the shit out of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam—"South" Viet Nam) and their American advisors by "standing and fighting" instead of their usual quick, hit-and-run attacks adopted in the face of the ARVN's superior US-provided firepower. They shot down five helicopters, destroyed several M113 troop carriers, and killed more than 300 ARVN, while only losing 39 themselves, then effected their escape. It didn't hurt that the ARVN commanders, against the advice of their American advisors, conducted themselves completely ineptly. (This was a common criticism of "South" Vietnamese leadership during the period of the Ngo Dinh Diem dictatorship and after—officers became generals by demonstrating loyalty to Diem, not prowess in battle.)

Cu Chi was easy. There are somewhere near 40,000 travel agents in the Pham Ngu Lau area, and every one of them has a tour to the tunnels, which come complete with entertainment value for the foreigners, such as a firing range where you can buy and shoot real bullets.

But when I first started talking to the gals at VietSea travel, and told them I wanted to see Ap Bac, I got blank stares. None of them seemed to know of it. But I described it, and where it was, and what it meant to the success of the resistance as a whole, and they recovered quickly. Hanh, who ended up as my agent, put together a tour that included:

  • a car and driver to take us there,
  • an English-speaking guide, and
  • a local guide who could talk to us about the museum, the battle, and its heroes.

Thereafter, we would travel to the Mekong Delta, where the tour would morph into a more traditional foreigner-pleasing trip in boats with food and entertainment.

The cost was in the neighbourhood of USD$200, which, given the people and travel involved, I thought pretty reasonable. So I bit.

But first we went on a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels and the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh province, about 10km from the border with Cambodia. We ended up in a party of 11 people, 8 of whom were Filipinos who were travelling together. They were friendly as all get out, and we had lots of fun with them. (It always helps with Filipinos that I'm a big fan of Manny Pacquiao, a very famous Filipino boxer, possibly the best boxer the world has ever seen, even if you don't like boxing, and now a member of the Senate of the Philippines.)

The trip to Ap Bac was terrific, more than I could have hoped for. When we got there, after quite a drive, we met Mr. Chinh, who was there to give us the lowdown on what happened there in 1963. And he'd been there, so presumably he had a lot of knowledge about it. Even though I knew quite a bit about the battle already, it was too cool to be able to talk to someone who was there. He took us around the grounds, showed us the monuments to the three martyrs (men who'd taken out a tank, but who'd lost their lives in the process—see HCMC photo gallery), took us around the museum, and posed for photos with us. He still looks tough, wiry, even though we had a foot or so on him. One can imagine how tough he was as a younger man.

The only difference between Mr. Chinh and what you might imagine a revolutionary would be like? He took about eight calls on his cell-phone while we conducted our tour.

We then proceeded to My Tho, one of the fishing and shipping centres of the delta, where our day took on a more traditional touristy tone. We:

  • Rode in a tourist boat across one of the nine channels of the Mekong River. (How great was it to be on the Mekong? See below.)

  • Toured a factory that turns coconuts into coconut candy.

  • Tasted snake wine (a rice liquor with preserved snakes soaking in it—really couldn't taste snake, just liquor) and banana wine (ditto: liquor, not wine, but tastier).

  • Were presented with an opportunity to buy souvenirs.

  • Took a smaller boat up a small channel offshoot of the Mekong to a restaurant that had a spectacular menu, including "elephant ears" fish (which we had), astonishingly giant prawns (which we didn't), squirrel (ditto), and other exotic fare. (The restaurant is called Vuon Du Lich Sinh Thai, and it's in Tan Phu, Tien Giang province, and I couldn't even begin to tell anyone how to get there, except to sign up for a tour of the Mekong Delta.)

  • Hopped on a Vietnamese, one-speed, one-brake bicycle to ride through the town. (Tan Phu? Forgot to ask.) Best part? The laughter of 10-year-old Vietnamese kids at my lack of skill on their bicycles.

  • Took a smaller boat to a place where we were given plates of fruit and treated to a group singing Vietnamese folk songs.

  • Were presented with another opportunity to buy souvenirs.

  • Took an even smaller boat, this one with paddlers in front and back, no engine, back to the main Mekong channel, where we got on our original boat and crossed the river again to the My Tho docks.

  • Were given fresh coconut to drink from (surprisingly, though I've never much cared for straight coconut milk before, I quite liked it.)

  • Were given one last opportunity to buy souvenirs, then the car took us back to our hotel.

A terrific day, both parts, though of course I preferred the Ap Bac part.

A word about modern young men. Both my lads are completely content, once they're in a car going from Point A to Point B, to put in their earpods and crank up their Ipods/Iphones, spending the entire ride apparently oblivious. I myself spend every car ride closely observing the countryside and the people in it. Even when I try to sleep I find I can't. Occasionally I'd like to have a conversation with the lads, but it often turns out there's no point.

After two days of morning-to-night touring, we decided to spend the next day doing very little, just resting up a little bit in preparation for the next leg of their Vietnam sojourn. With Nell's tutelage, we'd decided we'd go to Hoi An (as opposed to Nha Trang), because it had all the touristy stuff /strong>and it would serve as a base from which to visit the My Lai museum/memorial, about 100km south of Hoi An.

My major task for the day was to find and visit a Viettel outlet, where I could deal with the eventual cutting-off of my Vietnamese Blackberry data plan. I'd originally set up my Vietnamese SIM card in Ha Noi, at a mobility store staffed with too-cool-to-be-working young people, none of whom spoke English. Naturally, I walked out of the store not quite knowing what I'd paid for, but have been learning ever since. For example, I finally figured out how to "recharge" my talking-minutes with the cards you can buy out of people's hats in hole-in-the-wall storefronts.

But my text messages have been warning me for some time now that I'm about to run out of data room, and I know I'd better fix it. But I also figure that since the subject matter of data plans is very, very complicated, even if seller and buyer speak the same language, I'd better find a large Viettel outlet in which to take care of it, hopefully where there's a staffperson who speaks English. Trouble is, as Andrew's observed, you can find a Viettel outlet in every small burg we pass through, but you can't find one in HCMC to save your life. And, indeed, even though we'd been walking our buns off since we got to the big city, we'd yet to pass by a Viettel.

So I enlisted the help of the hotel staff, who kindly did something with their computers which told them where the HCMC Viettels were, and, conveniently enough, there was one close by (but in a direction I hadn't yet walked). So I headed outside, braving the (motorcycle) taxi drivers, all of whom perk up at the site of a foreigner, absolutely convinced they're going to need a ride, and the sunglasses / books/ trinket sellers, and headed to Viettel. It was at 51 Pham Ngu Lau, but when I got to where 51 would be, it was gone, demolished along with a lot of other addresses on that block.

Oh well. Fortunately, though my phone keeps telling me it's about to run out of data, it also keeps telling me that it's going to extend it for another week. So the crisis regularly passes. At time of writing, the crisis is ratcheting up again, and I'd better get it fixed soon. Otherwise I'll lose touch with the latest Rob Ford outrages.

Not that that would be all bad.


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