There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 6 April 2012

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): Part 13 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 12: Hoi An & My Son
We arrived back in Ho Chi Minh City - still called ‘Saigon’ by its older residents – a fortnight after we had dropped by on our way north. We were again met by Trang and checked in to the same hotel in the De Tham area, just south of the city centre.

As in Hanoi, we drove from the airport among a darting shoal of motorbikes. Unlike Hanoi, though, the sky was clear and the air was hot. Hanoi has cool winters – and springs we discovered – and hot wet summers. Ho Chi Minh’s more southerly latitude means it is always pleasantly warm (or downright hot), although the summers are no drier. Ho Chi Minh is also a much more lively and cosmopolitan city; Trang described it as being New York to Hanoi’s Washington. We visited New York in February 2002; it was cold and expensive, two things Ho Chi Minh is not, but that does not entirely invalidate Trang’s comparison.

Ho Chi Minh City traffic
Mid-afternoon found us at the pavement café where two weeks before I had bought my genuine ray-bans. As in our previous visit, several tables were occupied by a group of middle aged Western men who, in our jet-lagged state, we had thought were creepy. Now we realised they were very creepy. Some had been there a while, judging by the row of empties, and others came and went, two or three with a local girl in tow, one with a young Vietnamese man. This, we realised was sex tourism and we were sitting right in the middle of it. The café had ‘normal’ clients as well, both Vietnamese and tourists, but we found it an increasingly uncomfortable place to be, so we drank up and left.

Later, we dined in a small restaurant a few doors down from our hotel. Reading through the immensely long bilingual menu I lighted upon ‘eel with coconut’. I had no idea what to expect, but this is what I received….
Eel curry, Ho Chi Minh City

My friend Brian has often eulogised the eel curries he enjoyed in Vietnamese restaurants when he lived in Hong Kong, and bemoaned his inability to find such curries in Vietnam itself. I had, it seemed, discovered one without actually looking for it – and it was magnificent; any dish based on eel and flavoured with coconut, ginger, lemon grass and turmeric makes me a happy bunny. Eating in China I have often been frustrated by the waste of so much excellent sauce; you cannot pick it up with chopsticks, their ceramic spoons are useless and it is bad manners to pour the sauce directly from the serving dish onto your rice (though I have done it). This eel curry came not only with rice but with something unknown in China, a fluffy, absorbent bun. Problem solved.

In the morning we drove north to the Cho Lon (literally ‘Big Market’) district. Most Southeast Asian cities have an area where the Chinese community gathers, and it always becomes a commercial and trading centre. Under the French Cho Lon was ruled by criminal gangs. The Americans also trod warily here and the Viet Cong found sanctuary in the narrow streets and alleys. In May 1968 five western correspondents were ambushed while driving though Cho Lon. Only one survived. Today ‘Big Market’ is much safer and outwardly benign. For all I know there may still a criminal underworld, but if so, they were not interested in us.

Binh Tay Market, Cho Lon
Ho Chi Minh City
Binh Tay is the oldest and largest of the district’s markets. They have more dried prawns - all classified by size and colour – than I ever thought existed….

Dried Prawns, Binh Tay Market, Cho Lon
Ho Chi Minh City
…and dried squid…..
Dried squid, Binh Tay Market, Cho Lon
Ho Chi Minh City

…and plenty of rice. We bought some ‘sticky’ rice, it is about to go in the bag in the photograph. One day we will work out exactly what to do with it. You can also buy shoes and cooking pots and pretty well anything else you like, but it was the food that interested us most and there were enough strange and wonderful things to keep us occupied for a while.

Buying sticky rice, Binh Tay Market
Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City
We drove south and around the Botanical Gardens to the History Museum, which has an extensive collection of artefacts from the Oc Eo culture. Archaeological investigations started in Oc Eo, a small coastal commune near the Cambodian border, in 1942 and ‘Oc Eo culture’ refers to the civilisation that produced the artefacts discovered there and subsequently at other sites in the Mekong Delta.  Early history in this region is still not well understood and Oc Eo may, or may not, have been part of the Funan Empire which thrived in Cambodia from the 1st to the 7th century AD. Like the Champa, the Oc Eo culture was Hindu, but what we saw suggested less of an Indian influence.

Oc Eo artefacts, Ho Chi Minh City History Museum
The museum takes a more cursory look at later history, the most impressive exhibit being the French cannons by the entrance.

French Canons, Ho Chi Minh History Museum
A short hop back towards Cho Lon took us to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a Taoist Temple built by the Cantonese community in 1909 and generally considered, despite its modest entrance, to be Ho Chi Minh’s most exuberant temple.

The Jade Emperor Pagoda,
Ho Chi Minh City

Once past the pond full of terrapins and inside the main hall we came face to face with the magnificently moustached Jade Emperor sitting behind a cloud of incense smoke and a screen of sunbeams artfully angled across the front of the altar.

The Jade Emperor

The Jade Emperor holds the keys to heaven and he has two supporters, one with a lamp to light the path of the virtuous, the other with an axe to prod sinners into hell. A series of carved wooden panels describe the judgement that will befall us all, we particularly liked the one in which the irredeemable are cast into hell.

Sending sinners to Hell
Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City
Left of the main hall is a statue of Kim Hua, to whom prayers concerned with fertility should be addressed. ‘It really works,’ Trang told us with a smile. After several miscarriages his wife had come here to pray to Kim Hua and they have since been blessed with two daughters.

Saigon Notre Dame Basilica is in the city centre. Originally called ‘Saigon Chief Cathedral’, it was consecrated in 1880, though the bell towers were not added for another fifteen years. Built entirely of materials imported from France it seems rather plain for the country’s premier Catholic church. The Italian marble Statue of the Virgin Mary was installed in 1959 after which it became Notre Dame Cathedral. It was ‘promoted’ to basilica in 1962. The statue is reputed to shed tears at times of stress, and there was a reputed outbreak of statuesque weeping in 2005. The Catholic hierarchy investigated and came to the remarkably rational decision that the statue was dry eyed. That did not stop huge crowds thronging the square.

Saigon Notre Dame Basilica
 Across the road from the cathedral is this rather splendid building. Designed by Gustave Eiffel and completed in 1891 it looks like a railway station from the outside….

Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City
…. and also from the inside. It is actually the central post office.

Inside Ho Chi Minh City Central Post Office
To find lunch Trang led us on a fifteen minute march across the city centre. He was clearly intent on going somewhere, but had not told us where. We passed a few likely looking restaurants and several outlets of well-known fast food chains; every time we approached one we held our breath in the fear that he might think that was what we wanted.

We were underrating Trang. Ngon is a Saigon institution. It is a huge restaurant housed in a colonial mansion with tables in the hall, the ground floor rooms, the atrium and the courtyard and they were all packed. Office workers, students, suburban ladies on shopping expeditions, everybody, it seemed, headed for Ngon at lunch time.

Trang had, we discovered, phoned ahead and made a booking and a waiter led us confidently through the throng to what seemed to be the only spare seats in the building. Ngon specialises in local dishes and, as we looked through another vast menu, Trang ordered, using some of our suggestions and some ideas of his own. The three of us shared tapioca noodles filled with prawns, herbs and rice, fried spring roles with mint and noodles, chicken curry and pork with something resembling paté. And then there was desert, banana fritters for Lynne and sweet glutinous rice balls swimming in a ginger and coconut milk sauce for me. I do not usually get excited about sweets, but they can occasionally be sublime, and this was such an occasion. I have difficulty grasping the idea that, for the locals, such delights are ordinary everyday food.

As we ate we questioned Trang about his early life. He had, he said, been plucked from school to join the army in 1982 and after training in mine disposal had been sent to Cambodia. After some years of border skirmishing the Vietnamese had launched a full scale invasion of Cambodia on Christmas Day 1978 to put an end to the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. By the 8th of January the Khmer Rouge had been defeated and a more sympathetic government installed in Phnom Penh. However, guerrilla resistance continued and Vietnamese forces did not finally leave until 1989. Trang was clearly unwilling to go into details about his time in Cambodia and we felt it was unreasonable to press him.

According to one view, the city centre is marked by the Notre Dame Basilica, while another claims it is Ben Thanh Market at the end of the park by our hotel. The Reunification Palace is a short step from Ngon and half way between the two, so I might modestly suggest a compromise.

In 1871 the French built a colonial mansion to house the governor-general of Cochinchina. After independence it became the presidential palace of Ngo Dinh Diem, but was so badly damaged in an assassination attempt in 1962 that it was subsequently demolished. The Independence Palace that replaced it is a characterless, even ugly building, but one that had a part to play in 20th century history.

The Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City
The war ended on the 19th of April 1975 when this tank crashed through the gates….

The tank that ended the war

....and the north Vietnamese took the building unopposed and raised their flag. They renamed it The Reunification Hall, but the ‘Hall’ has become a ‘Palace’ again, largely because it sounds better to tourists.

Below is one of the best known photographs of the fall of Saigon. It was taken by Dutch photographer Hubert van Es (and stolen by me from Wikipedia).

Fighting to leave Saigon
Hubert van Es
Taken the day before the tank crashed through the gates, the helicopter is often wrongly described as taking off from the roof of the American Embassy. The helipad was actually on the top of the CIA offices and unlike the embassy, which has been demolished, it is still there – though the building is no longer used by the CIA. It can be seen in this photograph taken from outside the cathedral; overlooked by newer, higher buildings it now looks remarkably small and insignificant.

The helipad on the former CIA building
The War Remnants Museum is a short walk from The Reunification Palace. As we passed a plane the Americans left behind and approached the entrance, Trang asked if we would mind if he did not come in with us. He had, he said, seen enough of the horrors of war in Cambodia.

American leftovers, War Remnant Museum
Ho Chi Minh City

Leaving him sitting on the concrete steps we made our way into the three storey, glass box of a museum. It is, mainly, a photographic exhibition, and it is not a great advertisement for the human race. It documents with an unflinching eye the very worst that human beings can do to each other. Humans can blow other humans into small but gruesomely recognisable fragments, gun down their children, shower them with napalm, tie them up and ‘interrogate’ them or burn down their houses, the possibilities are limitless.

Lynne questioned the ethics of the photographers – how can they just take photographs and not try to intervene? It is a fair question and one every photographer must have had to deal with. In defence of the photographers I feel there is little one person armed only with a camera can do to influence events as they unfold; their function is to shine a light into the dark places where evil hides. It is a chilling thought that people behave better when the eyes of the world are upon them. What we do not see in photographs is worse than what we do see. 

The great villains of the piece are, of course, the Americans. You need occasionally to remind yourself that not all Americans committed atrocities, and – though the Vietnamese authorities would not admit it – not all atrocities were carried out by Americans. The museum only exists because of one of America’s great virtues: it is a transparent society and for every American wrongdoer there are several more whose morality demands they expose that wrongdoing. Having applied that necessary corrective, it remains true that during those years – and despite the peace movement, which is also fully documented - it was America’s dark side that won out.

Some of the most harrowing photographs are of deformed children born after their parents were exposed to Agent Orange, the defoliant that was sprayed over vast tracts of countryside in an attempt to deny cover to the Viet Cong. They are, I suppose, collateral damage – a chilling phrase popularised in this war – as are the similar children born to the American servicemen who did the spraying. The museum notes this fact with sorrow and, here at least, strikes a reconciliatory note.

We left the museum sadder but, I hope, a little wiser. We could quite understand why Trang stayed outside, I would not want to go there again, but I am glad I went once.

We returned to our hotel to freshen up. Across the road from the hotel was a strip of parkland 100m wide and several times longer. Directly opposite were badminton courts, which seemed to be in constant use, and a square for public exercises, the exerciser's music quite loud enough to reach our windows at sixth floor level.

The park at dusk, Ho Chi Minh City
After a light(ish) dinner in a nearby café, we strolled across the park, attracted by the garish neon outside St Philip’s Church. It was Good Friday and we found several dozen people, the overspill from the evening mass, standing or sitting outside. We lingered to listen to the service.

Good Friday Mass, St Philip's
Ho Chi Minh City
Just over the road a hat sale was generating more excitement than seemed reasonable. Three days later we passed by again and observed the same excitement. We have no idea what was going on.

Hat sale, Ho Chi Minh City
The next day we set off with Trang for the Mekong Delta.

Back to Part 12: Hoi An & My Son

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