Saigon is one of those cities you know is going to be fun. Home to 9 million, it’s the oldest city in Vietnam, much older than the young upstart Hanoi, the locals will tell you. The city is huge, but the first thing that strikes you is the volume of motorbikes on the road, my rough estimate is around a 1:250 car to motorbike ratio. The second thing that strikes you (or hopefully not) is the motorbikes themselves. There are very few traffic lights in Saigon, but the city streets are built in a New York-style grid system, with crossroads and roundabouts everywhere. Crossing the road is an art to be mastered, and certainly not for the faint hearted. Pick your spot and start walking at a steady pace, do not at any time stop for a vehicle or change pace, just let the traffic wind its way around you. It works, but as Jeremy Clarkson would put it, it’s squeaky bum time.
We arrived in town late in the afternoon and spent that evening organising our time and booking various tours. Excursions from HCMC are dirt cheap – we booked a half day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels for $5 each and a whole day in the Mekong Delta, including lunch, for $10. Admittedly you are with a whole coach full of people which is sometimes slightly too large a group but it’s still great value for money.
The Cu Chi tunnels is about an hour’s drive outside of HCMC and the site of intense fighting during the Vietnam war. The network of underground tunnels was built by the Viet Cong (South Vietnam communist guerrillas) in the decade before the war but was used in battles against the Americans. First stop on the tour was an ‘educational video’, not one of the most objective accounts of history I have ever seen, describing the Americans as ‘crazed capitalist devil dogs’. We were not the only ones stifling giggles as we watched, it’s no laughing matter I know, but like I said, a tad biased to say the least.
Next we were guided through the forest and taught all about the tunnel network – how they were built, what they were used for, how the Viet Cong concealed their existence, what traps and weapons they used – before being taken into a 100m stretch of the tunnels themselves. They have widened the tunnels to enable tourists to fit down them (us Westerners are somewhat fatter and taller than most Vietnamese) but they are still very hot and pretty claustrophobic when you have people in front of you and behind you.
By lunchtime the tour was complete and it was back to the city for an afternoon of sightseeing and more Vietnam propaganda. First stop was the War Remnants museum, a national project to document the Vietnam War and all the atrocities that came with it. We are quick to realize that we are not being treated to an objective account of the war which is a shame as they have a fantastic collection or photographs and articles from the troubles. My advice is to go and look, but not to spend much time on the commentary that partners the displays.
Next we get lost, have a terrible cup of tea, find ourselves on the map again and spend the next two hours looking round the Reunification Palace. When the first Communist tanks rolled through these gates, American diplomats and families fled from helicopters on the roof, and North and South Vietnam became one again. To commemorate this, the building once home to the war command and President’s office has been left as it was in 1975. Thus, within, you will find some rather incredible 70’s kitsch styling plastered all over this astonishingly symmetrical building. The bar room and rooftop dancefloor are just awesome, think Starsky and Hutch vs Casablanca. But the highlight for me was the lower levels containing the old communicating equipment, cinema and war bunkers. I sneaked a photo of myself in the command chair whilst nobody was looking, although my serious face actually makes me look a little constipated.
We stop off at a great restaurant call Ngon, which turns out to be quite flash. The Vietnamese elite seat themselves around us, us in our flip-flops and grimy t-shirts. We didn’t have a clue how the menu worked, but managed to get a few dishes which were not only superb but also dirt cheap. Saigon’s KaoSan road equivalent, Bui Vien, sells food twice the price to foreigners and half the quality. Our meal came to around £4, so we decided to book a table for Chinese New Year.
The next day, it’s back on the tour bus, this time for a trip around the Mekong Delta. First stop is a temple with two enormous Buddha statues which are pretty impressive looking and provide a great opportunity to add to our growing collection of Buddha photos. Next, we hop on a boat and head up the river, stopping after about an hour for some lunch on Tortoise Island, slap bang in the middle of the Mekong Delta. The rest of the afternoon is spent sailing between various other islands where we get a taste of Vietnamese village life, including a coconut candy workshop, some traditional music and singing (watch the video to get a taster!!) and a cruise through the backwaters, being punted by a lady so old she looked like she might best be in a museum.
By mid-afternoon it was time to head back into town to see in the New Year with those that were left in Saigon as many families had already headed back to their home towns, as is tradition in Vietnam. We got some advice from the hotel staff as to where we should head, and were told our best bet was to make our way towards the riverfront. So we take a slow stroll through the streets towards the Mekong, and what was a few hours earlier a ghost town changes, as the streets start to fill as families and friends join our path towards the river.
As we get nearer to our destination, we find streets lined with fresh flower displays, water features and statues. It seems like whoever is left in this city has the same plans as us, so we grab a few beers, squeeze down towards the river and take a spot on the pavement with the locals (much to their amusement). At the stroke of midnight the city put on an enormous fireworks display, HUGE! There were seven displays at the same time all over the city and it lasted for about 10 minutes, putting the Southfields Nov 5th Extravaganza to shame.
I bought Leah a Hello Kitty balloon as it seemed the thing to do and we made our way on foot back to our hotel, the streets still alive with thousands of motorbikes. The balloon by the way was robbed by a small street urchin, who grabbed the balloon and refused to let go. Thinking it would not look good for a man for be wrestling a balloon from small child’s grasp we let the little sod have it. Hopefully she kept it and didn’t just sell it on.
News Year’s day and the city is dead, and many shops and restaurants are closed. That evening we head back to Ngon for an utterly disastrous meal. Having thought we’d mastered the menu first time round we are greeted with an entirely different one, order two plates which we are told will be enough but are clearly not sufficient for us fat Westerners, are told they don’t have one of the dishes we want, try to order an alternative, then wait a seemingly endless amount of time for it to arrive before we finally give up, stop at the supermarket for snacks and head home to watch a film on the laptop. Massive Vietnamese restaurant fail. Cambodia ahead of us – the last country on the first leg of our adventure.