Ho Chi Minh: The old Saygon than never ceases to amaze
By Arlindo Madeiros
Ho Chi Minh is the capital of the south and officially the economic capital of Vietnam. If you have been to Hanoi before coming here you will look astonished by the sudden difference, here you will find a metropolis of glass, steel and concrete that rises at the centre of this ever bustling city. In the last two decades entire new districts have been developed while others have been completely restructured in a way that if you had seen it in the 90's you would not even recognize them today.
And yet, just when you thought it's all gone, there is still plenty of the old Saygon, with the unmissable China Town and the smell of spices, its Pagodas, the busy trading at street level, the old people playing the Chinese Chess. This City is alive and kicking night and day. Food is served in the street stalls as in many other countries in the South East of Asia, drinks are served as well for both the beer fans or the cocktails aficionados.
From the Spectacular Notre Dame Cathedral, the musical drama house and old mail station to the workmanship deco structures of Donh Khoi Street, there are numerous sights from the French Colonial period.
The Markets of Ben Thhanh and increasingly neighborhood Binh Tay are extraordinary spots to get a feeling of the city. Ho Chi Minh City has an abundance of historical centers and exhibitions, while pagoda seekers could spend days in Chinatown alone.
The center of Ho Chi Minh City is, in all regards, the most fascinating and chronicled. Keep in mind, obviously, that 'authentic' or else, 'historical' here has a completely different meaning if compared let's say to Hanoi. In Ho Chi Minh City a century old building is not just old but rather, 'prehistoric', if you allow me the sarcasm, and too bad, undoubtedly uncommon.
All things considered, a walk down Dong Khoi Street, (in District 1), the old rue Catinat will still give one today an impression of life in a more exquisite and less hectic period. Much stays on a little and individual scale also, inside a 100-m range of pretty much anyplace on Dong Khoi or Thai Van Lung lanes there are many bistros, eateries and more upmarket boutiques. Nevertheless, the character of the road has changed with the opening of extravagance chain names and the Times Square advancement. A smidgen of Graham Greene history was lost in 2010 when the Givral Café in the Eden Center, as seen in The Quiet American, was shut as to give way to the construction of a new tower mega-structure on Lam Son Square.
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THINGS TO SEE IN HO CHI MINH CITY
Museum of Vietnamese History
This great pile is on the right of the entrance to the zoo. Divided into galleries, it traces, as the name
implies, the whole of Vietnamese history from the founding d of Dai Viet, the cradle of Vietnamese culture, to the war of reunification.Papier-mache models take you through the major battles between Chinese and Vietnamese, while side rooms display costumes and ethnic paraphernalia. A place to visit, even with its dreadful lighting and sometimes blatant lack of explanations which turn the visit a bit into a quiz.
The Souvenir Market
Dan Sinh Flea Market
On Dong Khoi Street (called Rue Catinat during the French occupation, then Tu Do Street during the American war) and other streets in this hotel area you will find among other things the engraved zippos made famous by the U.S. Marines, watches, North Vietnamese medals etc.These are mostly authentic reproductions priced from $6 to $45. A North Vietnamese bo doi soldier's helmet with star goes for $9. The Dan Sinh flea market with its military surplusis on Nguyen Cong Tu Street.
Xa Loi Pagoda
Ho Chi Minh City has close to 200 pagodas- far too many for most visitors to see. Many of the finest are in Cholon, although there is a selection closer to the main hotel area in central Ho Chi Minh City. The Xa Loi Pagoda is not far from the War Remnants Museum and is surrounded by food stalls. Built in 1956, the pagoda contains a multi-storeyed tower, which is particularly revered, as it houses a relic of the Buddha. The main sanctuary contains a large, bronze-gilded Buddha in an attitude of meditation. Around the walls are a series of silk paintings depicting the previous lives of the Buddha (with an explanation of each life to the right of the entrance into the sanctuary). The pagoda is historically, rather than artistically, important as it became a focus of dissent against the Diem regime.
There are increasingly more of these available with hotels and restaurants in major cities and resorts offer courses. Some operators offer tours that include half a day or one day of cooking for those who would like to see more than just the inside of a hotel kitchen. The variety is already quite broad. Check hotel flyers, the web or advertising local magazines.
Cycling and Mountain Biking
Being flat over great distances, cycling is a popular activity in Vietnam. Just be aware of "the traffic". It's recommended that any tour is planned off-road or on minor roads, not Highway 1. Many cyclists prefer to bring their own all-terrain or racing bikes but it's also possible to rent from tour organizers.
Le Duan Street
North of the cathedral is Le Duan Street, the former corridor of power with Ngo Dinh Diem's Palace at one end, the zoo at the other and the former embassies Reunification Hall is the compound of the French Consulate. A block away is the former US Embassy. After diplomatic ties were resumed in 1995 the Americans lost little time in demolishing the 1960s building which held so many bad memories. The US Consulate General now stands on this site. A memorial outside, on the corner of Mac Dinh Chi Street, records the attack by Viet Cong special forces is the Museum of Ho Chi Minh Campaign (Bao Tang Quan Doi), with a tank and warplane in the front compound. It contains an indifferent display of photographs and articles of war.
At the end of Le Duan Street are the Botanical Gardens which run alongside Nguyen Binh Khiem Street at the point where the Thi Nghe channel flows in the Saigon River. The gardens were established in 1864 by French botanist Jean- Batiste Louis Pierre; by the 1970s they had a collection of nearly 2000 species, and a particularly fine display of orchids. With the dislocations of the immediate postwar years, the gardens went into decline, a situation from which they are still tying to recover. In the south quarter of the gardens is a mediocre zoo with a rather modest collection of animals that form a backdrop to smartly dressed Vietnamese families posing for photographs.
Vietnam may not seem like the first choice for a birdwatching holiday, (indeed, many visitors comment that there are few birds species around) but for those in the know it has become one of the top birding destinations of the region in recent years. Tram Chim National Park is the place to go to in this region.
Cát Tiên National Park
Two hours drive out of Ho Chi Minh City, a hundred or so kilome-
res to the north, is Cat Tien bamboo forest, a nature reserve harbouring numerous animal species, among them 10 or more Javan rhinoceros. These days you can go mountain-biking, kayaking or trekking here and meet ethnic minorities.
This National park is very important in Vietnam and among other things in 2001 it was recognized by UNESCO / NIAB as a World Biosphere Reserve (by convention the biosphere reserves are terrestrial, coastal or marine ecosystem areas, or a combination of them, the whose joint form the worldwide network of biosphere reserves: they constitute a model of how man should live with nature).
To visit it, however, you must always book, because access is allowed only to a limited daily quota of people and the ticket includes crossing the Dong Nai River and a guide for trekking.
For those of you who want an unforgettable experience stay all day, you can spend the night at the Forest Floor Lodge. That will allow you to plunge into this green oasis, between trekking and birdwatching and the inevitable morning exploration by boat, which really gives you the opportunity to fully experience this wonderful ecosystem of the rainforest.
Exuberant vegetation, bamboo forests, very tall trees, you will be amazed by what your eyes will experience, especially if you come from a busy mega city and have never had a chance to spend a full day in the wild without almost no contact with that reality.
Just waiting for the sunset, sitting on the platform of the lodge is an experience that makes you breathe freedom and endless beauty: beautiful watching the rapids and listening to the break of the water against the rocks, watch the various species of birds "come back to the nest". An ecosystem rich in birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibian insects, fish and millions of butterflies! A show that only Nature can give, you.
Then in the morning, the next day, wake up early, when all around is still dark, getting in the boat along the river, feeling the breath of Nature and its awakening, while a light mist begins to rise along the water and you seem to live a Dream!
The colors start to change with the dawn that is advancing: The birds awaken with their calls and "sing": here is the Siamese Fireback, the cuckoos, the white herons in flocks, "colors that fly", while the dawn and sun color the river that starts to shine! Truly an Incredible experience!
Is the longer river in South East Asia. The Mekong is of overwhelming importance strategically, economically and geopolitically to the six countries along its banks and moulds the lives of tens of millions of people. From its source 4,875 metres up on Tibet's Mt Tanggula, the Mekong descends the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau to embark on its 4,350 km journey down to and through South-East Asia.
A resurgence of dengue fever is currently ringing alarm bells in the World Health Organization. Vietnam has been particularly badly hit, with thousands of cases reported and numerous hospitalizations as well as cases of death. Another thing you can get from being bitten by a mosquito, this time one that operates by day. There is no preventive medicine, so cover up and use repellent. Dengue fever has you bedridden for a week and produces dizziness, loss of appetite, cold sweats, backache and total loss of energy. Though there is no other treatment than to wait for it to go away in its own sweet time, it is best to consult a doctor as dengue fever can at times, (in extreme cases), be fatal, especially in the very young and very old.
North Vietnamese Water Puppets
Originally from the north and nearly a thousand years old, water plays (mua roi nuoc) are associated with the harvest festival. The Sung Thien Linh stele, found in Nam Ha province and now kept in the Doi Pagoda in Duy Tien district, gives an account of a performance in honour of King Ly Nhan Ton in 1121 The plays, based on history, religion, legend and battles, were performed in springtime. The actors are puppets about 50 cm tall made of light wood, waterproof and brightly painted, Worked by one or more puppeteers hidden behind a backdrop of a village painted on a bamboo curtain, the puppets move about on a tank of water almost a metre deep.
Golf in Vietnam can be traced back to the 1930s when the emperor Bao Dai laid a course in Dalat. After a period of dormancy, golf in Vietnam has mushroomed over the past few years. There are now many international standard courses all over the country and green fees are reasonable. There are very good courses around HCMC and Mui Ne.
This is the heart of Ho Chi Minh City's Chinese community. Cholon is an area of commerce and trade; not global but nevertheless international. In typical Chinese style it is dominated by small and medium-size businesses and this shows in the buildings shop fronts, (look for the Chinese characters) on signs over the door. Cholon is home to a great many temples and pagodas. As one would expect from a Chinese trading district, there is plenty of fabric for sale in the markets to the southwest of the city centre. To the casual visitor appears to be that Cholon or Chinatown is inhabited predominantly by Vietnamese of Chinese origin. Despite a flow of Chinese out of the country post-1975, there is still a large population of Chinese Vietnamese living here.
Cu Chi Tunnels
A network of more than 100 km long underground tunnels dug-out which was being used during the Vietnam-USA war. Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Củ Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. military in Saigon. The Viet Cong had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were in the unique position of locally being able to control where and when battles would take place. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Củ Chi allowed North Vietnamese fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of South Vietnam in 1975.
Đầm Sen Amusement Park
An international standard water theme park near Ho Chi Minh City which provides active outdoor recreation with a variety of water slides and activity pools for people at all ages.
The Cham culture
One of the most fascinating ethnic minority groups in the country. The Cham culture can be discovered in local traditional craft villages, the Poklong Garai Tower, the Kalan Tower, and by witnessing the mysterious dances of Cham girls. You can visit nearby Suoi Vang (Yellow Stream), Thac Tien (Fairy Waterfall), Ca Na Beach and especially Nam Cuong Dune, where winds blow red and yellow sand, mixing them continuously into beautiful, natural slopes and valleys.