I discovered I wasn’t far away from the action with several attractions being within an hour’s walk away. In accordance with my travel bucket list, I was keen to hire a motorbike, but there was nowhere near the hotel that rented them. I decided I would head into the town centre on foot and try my luck there. However, I was a little concerned about security at the hotel and was a bit worried about leaving a rental outside.
I saved a few locations on Google Maps including the War Remnants Museum, Cu Chi Tunnels and Saigon Square including a couple of places for potential bike rental. I figured that would be a good start for my first day in Vietnam.
I was keen to do some tours, but I do like to seek places out for myself first, and in anticipation of doing some motorcycling I saved an offline map on my Tablet, which I thought would come in handy later. Downtown Hồ Chí Minh is quite small, probably not much more than two miles squared. It is quite common to be stopped by men on motorbikes asking if I needed a taxi, but I just waved them on and shook my head. They are not official, or regulated, and most of the bikes look like leftovers from the war. The city itself is modern though, to me, it looked like it had been built in the 90s and hasn’t been upgraded since. Following the war, that ended in 1975, major redevelopment took place in the late1970s.
The War occurred in Vietnam from November 1, 1955, to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. US and South Vietnamese forces relied on air superiority and overwhelming firepower to conduct search and destroy operations involving ground forces, artillery and airstrikes. In the course of the war, the US conducted a large-scale strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam.
Hồ Chí Minh was a Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader who was prime minister (1945–55) and president (1945–69) of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). He was a key figure in the foundation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, as well as the People’s Army during the Vietnam War. He is highly regarded in Vietnam, obviously, since they renamed (Saigon) a city after him and his portrait is on all the banknotes. However, the name provokes strong anti-communist feeling in a substantial number of Vietnamese, especially those living abroad and many continue to refer to the city as Sài Gòn, in rejection of the new Communist-imposed name.
Hồ Chí Minh stepped down from power in 1965 due to health problems but remained a highly visible figurehead and inspiration for those Vietnamese fighting for his cause—a united, communist Vietnam—until his death. After the war, Saigon, the former capital was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City. With the outcome of the Vietnam War still in question, Hồ Chí Minh died in 1969 from heart failure at his home in Hanoi, aged 79. His embalmed body is currently on display in a mausoleum in Ba Đình Square in Hanoi despite his will stating that he wanted to be cremated.
It took a couple of days to get my head around the currency. It’s about 32,000 dong to the pound and notes can build up fast, so it’s wise to try to spend the lower denominations as and when, and within two days my wallet was filled with a massive wedge. I don’t think breaking change for a 500,000 note is a problem in most places, but I usually saved those for places I knew could handle it, like Pizza Hut, and tried to unload the smaller notes when eating from street sellers etc.
Due to the New Year celebrations, most of the city was closed and traffic seemed light compared to what I thought it would be like. Certainly not like the ‘chocking standstill traffic’ I’d read about, but I was sure once the things got back to normal I was in for a surprise. I figured I should get my arse into gear and hire a motorbike whilst the city was in ‘downtime’.
It was a 30 minute walk in the hot sun to get into the centre of town, and I figured a good place to start was the War Remnants Museum. It cost 15,000 dong (46p) for the entrance fee. It was definitely worth the visit but it was very overcrowded and too hot to stand there reading all of the information on the walls, so I cruised through at a reasonable pace.
Outside in the courtyard, there were various war vehicles that were left behind after the Americans left. Unfortunately, again, there were people everywhere and I was getting a little frustrated trying to take photos without people in my shot. I couldn’t believe how many people could see that I was trying to take a photo but would just walk in front of me anyway, not even acknowledging they had done it. Most photos I did get normally contained signs saying ‘No climbing’ or ‘Do not touch’ which kind of kills the magic a little anyway and makes them less likely I would put them on Instagram.
There was a guillotine which I was rather impressed with. It was my first one, and although a rather archaic device, there was something rather historic and authentic about it, which I always find exciting … obviously not for the poor sods that met their end this way! There was also a mock-up prisoner in a cell and a few recovered torture devices on display. In the main building was an abundance of photos and paintings with descriptions. There was an exhibit of photographs and newspaper articles on protests from around the world condemning US involvement in the War. I tried to find if the UK had protested but I couldn’t find any evidence …
After the museum, I headed to Saigon Square but Google Maps must have given me bad directions because I couldn’t see anything. All I saw was an abandoned street that looked like a Soviet compound after a nuclear meltdown. Not impressed, I trudged along in the heat of the day until I stumbled upon the main concentration of tourist hotspots, which I later discovered was Saigon Square … there seems to be more than one! From a distance, I could see Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office where I managed to buy and send some postcards. The Post Office was rather quaint and looked like an old train station with a huge arched ceiling; however, I didn’t know what it was until I got inside the building. Although the Vietnamese use the Roman alphabet, there is very little English throughout the whole town which makes visiting restaurants, and other buildings, slightly off-putting. It seems that most places aren’t that welcoming, which I would say is mostly a language thing. In Pattaya, Thailand, you can’t walk 30 seconds without someone calling you into a shop, restaurant, massage, taxi etc.
More photos of Vietnam coming soon on Instagram.