Sai Gon

 

Boasting an electric, near palpable energy. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is Vietnam's largest metropolis and its undisputed capital of commerce. For the casual visitor, Saigon - as its still called by all but the city officials who live here - can seem a chaotic mess of traffic-clogged roads and urban bustle, with nary a green space in sight. Yet thousands of expats and Vietnamese immigrants couldn't imagine living anywhere else. They've long since fallen prey to the hidden charms of one of Southeast Asia's liveliest cities. If every town had a symbol, Saigon's would surely be the motorbike. More than three million of them fly along streets once swarming with bicycles. Cruising along boulevards and back alleys astride a xe om (motorbike taxi) is the quickest way to sensory overload - daily fare in this tropical town. Teeming markets, sidewalk cafĂ©’s, massage and acupuncture clinics, centuries-old pagodas, sleek skyscrapers and ramshackle wooden shops selling silk, spices, baskets and handmade furniture all jockey for attention amid the surreal urban collage. Saigon is a forward-looking city driving Vietnam's economic boom. Investment has led to new crop of lavish hotels and restaurants, with trendy nightclubs and nigh-end boutiques dotting tree-lined neighbourhoods. Yet the city hasn't forgotten its past. The ghosts live on in the churches, temples, former Gl hotels and government buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil. The Saigon experience is about so many things - magical conversations, memorable meals and inevitable frustration - yet it's unlikely to evoke apathy. Stick around this complicated city long enough and you may find yourself smitten by it.
Sai Gon Vietnam

HO CHI MINH CITY IN...
One Day
Start your morning with a steaming bowl of pho (rice-noodle soup), followed by a stroll among the shops and galleries lining Đ Dong Khoi. Make your way to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, then have lunch at nearby Quan An Ngon. the place to sample a wide variety of Vietnamese delicacies. Continue your journey into the past at the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. In the evening, catch the sunset and stunning views from the rooftop bar of the Sheraton Saigon, followed by an elegant meal at either Temple Club or Nam Phan. Have a nightcap at Qing a small cosy wine bar.
Two Days
Begin the day at the lively Ben Thanh Market, where you can grab a bite while loading up on wooden knick-knacks, sweets and conical hats. Then, grab a taxi 10 Cholon for a visit to the historic pagodas of HCMC's Chinatown. Have lunch, then pay a final pagoda visit to Giac Lam, HCMC's oldest and arguably most Impressive pagoda. As the afternoon wanes, treat yourself to a massage or spa treatment at L'Apothiquaire a welcome reward for tired gams. After detoxifying, start the fun all over again with a decadent meal at Tib or Lemon

Around Sai Gon

CU CHI TUNNELS

The town of Cu Chi is a district of greater HCMC and has a population of about 200,000 (it had about 80,000 residents during the American War). At first glance there is little evidence here to indicate the intense fighting, bombing and destruction that occurred in Cu Chi during the war. To see what went on, you have to dig deeper - underground. The tunnel network of Cu Chi became legendary during the 1960s for its role in facilitating Viet Cong (VC) control of a large rural area only 30km to 40km from HCMC. At its height the tunnel system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border; in the district of Cu Chi alone there were more than 250km of tunnels. The network, parts of which was several storeys deep, included innumerable trap doors, constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens. The tunnels made possible communication and coordination between the VC-controlled enclaves, isolated from each other by South Vietnamese and American land and air operations. They also allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks wherever the tunnels went -even within the perimeters of the US military base at Đong Du - and to disappear suddenly into hidden trapdoors without a trace. After ground operations against the tunnels claimed large numbers of US casualties and proved ineffective, the Americans resorted to massive firepower, eventually turning Cu Chi's 420 sq km into what the authors of The Tunnels of Cu Chi (Tom Mangold and John Penycate) have called 'the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare'. Cu Chi has become a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese school children and communist party cadres. Two sections from this remark able tunnel network (which are enlarged and upgraded versions of the real thing) are open to the public. One is near the village of Ben Dinh and the other is 15km beyond at Ben Duoc. Most tourists visiting the tunnels end up at Ben Dinh, the favourite of bus tours; those seeking more of a surreal, funhouse-atmosphere should head to Ben Duoc.

The tunnels of Cu Chi were built over a period of 25 years that began sometime in the late 1940s. They were the improvised response 01 a poorly equipped peasant army to its enemy's high-tech ordnance, helicopters, artillery, bombers and chemical weapons. The Viet Minh built the first dugouts and tunnels in the hard, red earth of Cu Chi (ideal for their construction) during the war against the French. The excavations were used mostly for communication between villages and to evade French army sweeps of the area. When the VC's National Liberation Liberation front (NLF) insurgency began in earnest around 1960, the old Viet Minh tunnels were repaired and new extensions were excavated. Within a few years the tunnel system assumed enormous strategic importance, and most of Cu Chi district and the nearby area came under firm VC control. In addition Cu Chi was used as a base for infiltrating intelligence agents and sabotage teams into Saigon. The stunning attacks in the South Vietnamese capital during the 1968 Tet Offensive were planned and launched from Cu Chi. In early 1963 the Diem government implemented the botched Strategic Hamlets Program, under which fortified encampments, surrounded by many rows of sharp bamboo spikes, were built to house people who had been 'relocated' from communist-controlled areas. The first strategic hamlet was in Ben Cat district, next to Cu Chi. Not only was the program me carried out with incredible incompetence, alienating the peasantry, but the VC launched a major effort to defeat it. The VC were able to tunnel into the hamlets and control them from within. By the end of 1963 the first showpiece hamlet had been overrun. The series of setbacks and defeats suffered by the South Vietnamese forces in the Cu Chi area rendered a complete VC victory by the end of 1965 a distinct possibility. In the early months of that year, the guerrillas boldly held a victory parade in the middle of Cu Chi town. VC strength in and around Cu Chi was one of the reasons the Johnson administration decided to involve US troops in the war. To deal with the threat posed by VC control of an area so near the South Vietnamese capital, one of the USA's first actions was to establish a large base camp in Cu Chi district unknowingly, they built it right on top of an existing tunnel network. It took months for the 25th Division to figure out why they kept getting shot at in their tents at night, The US and Australian troops tried a variety of methods to 'pacify' the area around Cu Chi, which came to be known as the Iron Triangle. They launched large-scale ground operations involving tens of thousands of troops but failed to locate the tunnels. To deny the VC cover and supplies, rice paddies were defoliated, huge swathes of jungle bulldozed, and villages evacuated and razed. The Americans also sprayed chemical defoliants on the area aerially and a few months later ignited the tinder-dry vegetation with gasoline and napalm. But the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air in such a way as to create cloudbursts that extinguished the fires. The VC remained safe and sound in their tunnels. Unable to win this battle with chemicals, the US army began sending men down into the tunnels. These 'tunnel rats', who were often involved in underground fire fights, sustained appallingly high casualty rates. When the Americans began using German shepherd dogs, trained to use their keen sense of smell to locate trapdoors and guerrillas, the VC began washing with American soap, which gave off a scent the canines identified as friendly. Captured US uniforms were put out to confuse the dogs further. Most importantly, the dogs were not able to spot booby traps. So many dogs were killed or maimed that their horrified handlers then refused to send them into the tunnels. The USA declared Cu Chi a free-strike zone: little authorization was needed to shoot at anything in the area, random artillery was fired into the area at night, and pilots were told to drop unused bombs and napalm there before returning to base. But the VC stayed put. Finally, in the late 1960s, American B-52s carpet-bombed the whole area, destroying most of the tunnels along with everything else around. The gesture was militarily useless by then because the USA was already on its way out of the war. The tunnels had served their purpose. The VC guerrillas serving in the tunnels lived in extremely difficult conditions and suffered horrific casualties. Only about 6000 of the 16,000 cadres who fought in the tunnels survived the war. Thousands of civilians in the area were killed. Their tenacity was extraordinary considering the bombings, the pressures of living underground for weeks or months at a time and the deaths of countless friends and comrades. The villages of Cu Chi have since been presented with numerous honorific awards. decorations and citations by the government, and many have been declared 'heroic villages' Since 1975 new hamlets have been established and the population of the area has more than doubled; however, chemical defoliants remain in the soil and water, and crop yields are still poor. The Tunnels of Cu Chi, by Tom Man gold and John Penycate, is a wonderful work documenting the story of the tunnels and the people involved on both sides.

REUNIFICATION PALACE
Striking modern architecture and the eerie feeling you gel as you walk through its deserted halls make Reunification Palace one of the most fascinating sights in HCMC. The building, once the symbol of the South Vietnamese government, is preserved almost as it was on that day in April 1975 when the Republic of Vietnam, which hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and 58,183 Americans had died trying to save, ceased to exist. Some recent additions include a statue of Ho Chi Minh and a viewing room where you can watch a video about Vietnamese history in a variety of languages. The national anthem is played at the end of the tape and you are expected to stand up - it would be rude not to.
It was towards this building - then known as Independence Palace or the Presidential Palace - that the first communist tanks to arrive in Saigon charged on the morning of 30 April 1975. After crashing through the wrought-iron gates - in a dramatic scene recorded by photojournalists and shown around the world - a soldier ran into the building and up the stairs to unfurl a VC flag from the 4th-floor balcony. In an ornate 2nd-floor reception chamber. Genera! Minh, who had become head of state only 43 hours before, waited with his improvised cabinet. "I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you', Minh said to the VC officer who entered the room. 'There is no question of your transferring power', replied the officer. 'You cannot give up what you do not have." In 1868 a residence was built on this site for the French governor-general of Cochinchina and gradually it expanded to become Norodom Palace. When the French departed, the palace became home for South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. So hated was Diem that his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. The president ordered a new residence to be built on the same site, this time with a sizeable bomb shelter in the basement. Work was completed in 1966, but Diem did not get to see his dream house because he was murdered by his own troops in 1963. The new building was named Independence Palace and was home to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu until his hasty departure in 1975. Norodom Palace, designed by Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu, is an outstanding example of 1960s architecture. It has an airy and open atmosphere and its spacious chambers are tastefully decorated with the finest modern Vietnamese art and crafts. In its grandeur, the building feels worthy of a head of state. The ground-floor room with the boat-shaped table was often used for conferences. Upstairs in the Presidential Receiving Room (Phu Dau Rong, or Dragon's Head Room) - the one with the red chairs in it - the South Vietnamese president received foreign delegations. He sat behind the desk; the chairs with dragons carved into the arms were used by his assistants. The chair facing the desk was reserved for foreign ambassadors. The room with gold-coloured chairs and curtains was used by the vice president. You can sit in the former president's chair and have your photo taken. In the back of the structure are the president's living quarters. Check out the model boats, horse tails and severed elephants' feet. The 3rd floor has a card-playing room with a bar and a movie-screening chamber. This floor also boasts a terrace with a heliport - there is still a derelict helicopter parked here. The 4th floor has a dance hall and casino. Perhaps most interesting of all is the basement with its network of tunnels, telecommunications centre and war room (with the best map of Vietnam you'll ever see pasted on the wall). Reunification Palace is not open to visitors when official receptions or meetings are taking place. English and French-speaking guides are on duty during opening hours.


WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM


Once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum (Bao Tang Chung Tich Chien Tranh) is now the most popular museum in HCMC with Western tourists. Many of the atrocities documented here were well publicised in the West, but rarely do Westerners have the opportunity to hear the victims of US military action tell their own stories. US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons are on display outside. Many photographs illustrating US atroci -tics are from US sources, including photos of the infamous My Lai Massacre. There is a model of the notorious tiger cages used by the South Vietnamese military to house Viet Cong (VC) prisoners on Con Son Island and a guillotine used by the French on Viet Minh 'troublemakers'. There are also pictures of deformed babies, their defects attributed to the USA's widespread use of chemical herbicides. In a final gallery, there's a collection of posters and photographs showing support for the antiwar movement. There are few museums in the world that drive home so well the point that war is horribly brutal and that many of its victims are civilians. Even those who supported the war would have a difficult time not being horrified by the photos of children mangled by US bombing and napalming. There are also scenes of torture - it takes a strong stomach to look at these. You'll also have the rare chance to see some of the experimental weapons used in the war, which were at one time military secrets, such as the flechette (an artillery shell filled with thousands of tiny darts). The War Remnants Museum is in the former US Information Service building, at the intersection with Đ Le Quy Don. Explanations arc in Vietnamese, English and Chinese. Though a bit incongruous with the museum's theme, water-puppet theatre is staged in a tent on the museum grounds


JADE EMPEROR PAGODA
Built in 1909 by the Cantonese (Quang Dong) Congregation, the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Phuoc Hai Tu or Chua Ngoc Hoang) is truly a gem among Chinese temples. It is one of the most spectacularly colourful pagodas in HCMC, filled with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes. The pungent smoke of burning joss sticks fills the air, obscuring the exquisite woodcarvings decorated with gilded Chinese characters. The roof is covered with elaborate tile work. The statues, which represent characters from both the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, are made of reinforced papier-mache. The pagoda is dedicated to the Emperor of Jade, the supreme Taoist god. Inside the main building are two especially fierce and menacing figures. On the right (as you face the altar) is a 4m-high statue of the general who defeated the Green Dragon (depicted underfoot). On the left is the general who defeated the White Tiger, which is also being stepped on. The Taoist Jade Emperor (or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang), draped in luxurious robes, presides over the main sanctuary. He is flanked by his guardians, the Four Big Diamonds (Tu Dai Kim Cuong), so named because they are said to be as hard as diamonds. Out the door on the left-hand side of the Jade Emperor's chamber is another room. The semi-enclosed area to the right (as you enter) is presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell; to the left is his red horse. Other figures here represent the gods who dispense punishments for evil acts and rewards for good deeds. The room also contains the famous Hall of the Ten Hells - carved wooden panels illustrating the varied torments awaiting evil people in each of the Ten Regions of Hell. On the other side of the wall is a fascinating little room in which the ceramic figures of 12 women, overrun with children and wearing colourful clothes, sit in two rows of six. Each of the women exemplifies a human characteristic, either good or bad (as in the case of the woman drinking alcohol from a jug). Each fig ure represents one year in the 12-year Chinese calendar. Presiding over the room is Kim Hoa Thanh Mau, the Chief of All Women. The Jade Emperor Pagoda is in a part of the city known as Da Kao. To get here, go to 20 Đ Dien Bien Phu and walk half a block to the northwest.

NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL
Built between lS77and 1883, Notre Dame Cathedral is set in the heart of HCMC's government quarter. The cathedral faces Đ Dong Khoi. It is neo-Romanesque with two 40m-high square towers tipped with iron spires, which dominate the city's skyline. In front of the cathedral (in the centre of the square bounded by the main post office) is a statue of the Virgin Mary. If the front gates are locked, try the door on the s de of the building that faces Reunification Palace. Unusually, this cathedral has no stained-glass windows: the glass was a casualty of fighting during WWII. A number of foreign travellers worship here and the priests arc allowed to add a short sermon in French or English to their longer presentations in Vietnamese. The 9.30am Sunday mass might be the best one for tourists to attend.

PEOPLE'S COMMITTEE BUILDING
HCMC's gingerbread Hotel deVille, one of the city's most prominent landmarks, is now somewhat incongruously the home of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee. Built between 1901 and 1908, the Hotel de Ville is situated at the northwestern end of ĐL Nguyen Hue, facing the river. The former hotel is notable for its gardens, ornate facade and elegant interior lit with crystal chandeliers. It's easily the most photographed building in Vietnam. At night, the exterior is usually covered with thousands of geckos feasting on insects. Unfortunately, you'll have to content yourself with admiring the exterior only. The building is not open to the public and requests by tourists to visit the interior are rudely rebuffed.


MUNICIPAL THEATRE
A grand colonial building with a sweeping staircase, the Municipal Theatre is hard to miss at the intersection of Đ Dong Khoi and ĐL Le Loi.

THIEN HAU PAGODA
Built by the Cantonese Congregation in the early 19th century, this large pagoda (Ba Mieu, Pho Mieu or Chua Ba) is dedicated to Thien Hau and always has a mix of worshippers and visitors, mingling beneath large coils of incense suspended overhead. Thien Hau (also known as Tuc Goi La Ba) can travel over the oceans on a mat and ride the clouds to wherever she pleases. Her mobility allows her to save people in trouble on the high seas. The Goddess is very popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which might explain why this pagoda is included on so many tour-group agendas. Though there are guardians to each side of the entrance, it it said that the real protectors of the pagoda arc the two land turtles that live here. There are intricate ceramic friezes above the roof line of the interior courtyard. Near the huge braziers are two miniature wooden structures in which a small figure of Thien Hau is paraded around the nearby streets on the 23rd day of the third lunar month. On the main dais are three figures of Thien Hau, one behind the other, all flanked by two servants or guardians. To the left of the dais is a bed for Thien Hau. To the right is a scale-model boat and on the far right is the Goddess Long Mau, Protector of Mothers and Newborns.

 

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Source: lonely planet

 

 

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