I had very low expectations for Saigon. Several people expressed to me their mild dislike or strong indifference for Saigon. My personal expectation was of a more chaotic and bigger Hanoi.
Saigon turned out to be nothing like Hanoi. Maybe that was a big city withdraw, but our first impression was “Wow! This is a great city!” Great it may not be, but big and rather modern it is.
Our hotel is in the ritziest part of the city, district 1, with vestiges of French colonial architecture. Several hotels around here are just beautiful: no buts or excuses. The opera house, the old post office, the Notre Dame cathedral, and several other French administrative buildings are also just lovely! Upon arrival, we walked on the main shopping street of the district. All the main fashion houses are represented here. I must say, it’s totally surreal to see Chanel and Bottega Veneta side by side with Communist propaganda posters and red flags adorned with a hummer and sickle. There were also several upscale shops by local Vietnamese designers (Mai Lam being the best of the bunch)- interesting to look at if not marketable outside Vietnam.
At 6 PM we were picked up at our hotel for a vespa tour of the nighttime Saigon by Vietnam Vespa Adventures That tour was one of the most exciting and memorable experiences of my life!
We were fitted with helmets, seated on vespas behind young Vietnamese drivers, and sent off into the streets of this crazy city. We became a small organism in the living body of roaring motorbikes. We were ones of the smaller organisms, consisting of two elements each. Many bikes comprised 3 or 4, and one had 5 live beings: two adults and three children, including one sleeping toddler.
We were flying in a cloud of exhaust fumes and black smoke, zigzagging between pedestrians, buses, and other bikes, and that was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time!
Nighttime Saigon sparkled with lights, the grand buildings and monuments were illuminated, and hordes of young people roamed the streets and lounged in the cafes.
Our first stop was in a coffee shop where I had a mug of ice-cold Vietnamese beer. Now, that my blood was laced with alcohol and adrenalin was rushing through my body, the fear was gone and the second leg of the ride became pure fun.
The second stop was at a seafood restaurant, a local joint on a street lined with seafood eateries. We joined the locals on plastic chairs and sampled the most incredible seafood dishes I ever had!
The third leg took us through a crowded narrow street to another local joint where we sampled the famous stuffed pancakes cooked by several women on an open fire in 15 tin pans.
The next stop was a retro night club where we sat on low couches and sipped drinks while listening to a throaty cabaret singer crooning Vietnamese songs accompanied by piano and violin.
The antithesis to that dreamy throwback to the 1930’s, was our last stop at a crowded rock-n-roll nightclub. We were almost turned away as the place was overcrowded because of some popular group jamming there that night, but were finally admitted through the back door and thrown into a sweaty mass of young Vietnamese kids standing around a stage and listening to a band. We stole some attention from the rock-n-rollers: people were eying us discretely as being oddball foreigners who were of their grandparents’ age on top of that.
The whole thing was totally awesome and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough!
The second day in Saigon, we came down from our high to a new low.
We had a tour of underground tunnels built and used by the Viet Cong fighting against the southern army and the American soldiers during the war. They were built with incredible ingenuity, tenacity, and the knowhow of survival! We climbed in one of the tunnels slightly enlarged for the tourists and after a few minutes, i was getting short of breath and slightly hyperventilating, not to mention the fact that the only way to get through was by crawling. I don’t know how they could survive in these tunnels for days, I would be dead in several hours!
Especially upsetting were the traps set up for the US soldiers. There were several types, but the common idea was that a soldier was impaled on a row of poisoned metal spikes alive, but not for long.
Next, we visited the (very boring and Soviet-style) presidential palace and The War Remnants Museum, which presented a one-sided view of the war and the crimes committed by the Americans. Our guide, a young and educated son of a former VC fighter, is utterly proAmerican and anti-VC. His father confided to him of the crimes the VC committed against their own people: those who refused to join them in their fight against South Vietnam and the US that supported them.
If you want to know my humble opinion, the US government should not have gotten involved and should have let the two Vietnams fight their own battles. If anything, the crime most of all was committed against our own people, the american boys who were sent to the hellhole of the wartime Vietnam; most of them against their will.