Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City

The motorcycles are unbelievable. There appear to be at least a million of them and traffic lanes mean nothing to any of the drivers. People had warned us about the huge number of motorcycles but you really must see it to believe it. Our flight arrived a bit late but we were at the visa desk by 4:45 and presented our travel authorization letter, the photos and the visa application forms which we had downloaded and completed before leaving the marina. This saved time and put us ahead of all the other passengers who had to fill in all the forms. So we were cleared in, visited an ATM for local currency and in a taxi before the other passengers walked out of the airport terminal. Of course, the timing of our arrival put us into major rush hour traffic and we got to experience the thrill of riding through crowded streets with motorcycles passing with only millimeters of empty space to spare. They reminded us of schools of small fish as they turned en mass in what appeared to be an intuitive manner. How they avoid thousands of accidents daily in this city is beyond my comprehension. The photo at left is of a traffic circle. No order whatsoever.

Took well over an hour to reach our hotel.....where we learned that our room had already been given to someone else for the night. The hotel clerk arranged a discounted upgraded room at another hotel a few steps down the street for one night, but she insisted we see the room that we would have for the rest of our stay in Saigon if we would agree to return the next day. you screwed up and gave away for one night the deluxe grade room we reserved months ago....but you are making it up by putting us in the largest, nicest room in the hotel for the same price. We can live with that. Sure, we will return tomorrow.

After getting all checked into our temporary one-night hotel, we headed off for a Vietnamese dinner at the nearby Com Xanh restaurant. The courtyard dinner setting was lovely and the band was adequate. Our spring roll appetiser was wonderful. And then we waited....and waited....and waited for the main course. We had finally decided we would ask for the check and then stop for pizza on the walk back to the hotel when the server brought us a serving plate of something we did not recognize. We had ordered a grilled fish dish but this was some kind of meat. Upon our inquiry, the server explained this was an appetiser of cold thinly-sliced pork and something else. This wasn't what we ordered but there was definitely a language barrier that wasn't going to be breached. So we shared the cold pork and decided we will try again another night for the fish dish.

Then we went for a long walk and strolled straight into one of the red-light districts. That answered that question. Saigon was famous for the prostitution back during the war days and the oldest profession is still thriving in Saigon today. Very pretty girls lining the doorways of the various bar-houses. We back-tracked out of that area and headed back to the hotel. The photo at right is the view from our hotel room. Not the most picturesque view we've enjoyed.

The next morning we transferred our luggage back to our original hotel and hailed a taxi to visit the War Remnants Museum. I am torn as to how to describe this "museum." The atrocities of that era should not be forgotten and the victims deserve to be remembered, but this museum is total propaganda because it only displays the atrocities and victims of one side of the war. There are no photos or descriptions of the horrific acts committed by the Viet Cong. All the bad things that happened are attributed to the USA. This one-sided display is to be expected because history is always written by the victors. Bill and I each had to keep reminding ourselves of that fact. What bothered me were the visitors from European countries (all much younger than us) who looked like they believed what they were reading and seeing.

The photo at left are "tiger cages" which were used by the South Vietnamese Diem regime to contain captured Viet Cong. The smaller one would hold 2 or 3 men laying down. The larger one would hold 4 to 6 men forced into sitting positions with heads bent forward. These cages were constructed of twisted barbed wire and very small. The Vietnamese are small, thin people; but it is still difficult to imagine 2-3 men in the smaller cage or 4-6 men in the larger cage. Of course, the plaque stated that these cages by used under direction of the US military forces. There were many photos and x-rays of bodies showing large nails driven into skulls and ankles of captured Viet Cong. Of course the plaques stated this torture was all done under the direction of the US military forces.

Bill thought the guillotine on display was the height of irony. The French brought this guillotine to Vietnam to use to force the Vietnamese to be in French control. The French left it here when they withdrew in 1954. Then the South Vietnamese used the guillotine to decapitate the Viet Cong....called the Vietnam patriots on the plaque in the museum. My only problem with this plaque is that it seems to imply that the USA used the guillotine. It is my understanding that the USA did not use this guillotine on anybody; the South Vietnamese of the Diem regime used the guillotine on other South Vietnamese who supported the communists of Ho Chi Minh.

One hour of this war museum was all we could take.

Next we walked to see the old United States Embassy building. Shows how uninformed we are. A local man gave us directions and we did find a building that looked very much like the old US Embassy building, but it wasn't because we later learned that the Embassy was torn down. We have no idea what is housed in the building we found that is so similar in exterior appearance to the old embassy building. The new US Consulate is located where the old embassy was. After sitting empty for 20 years the US decided that the building was too far gone to be usable when the US decided to renew diplomatic ties with Vietnam. So the old building was torn down and a new building now sits in the same location. Like most Americans our age, Bill and I each have images permanently etched into our memories of the evacuation and the helicopters on the roof.

We sat in the park in front of the Independence Palace for awhile and watched the people and traffic. A guy walked up selling cold drinks; I opened the small bottle of water before he told Bill the price. This vendor wanted 50,000 dong for a small bottle of water! Heck, Bill paid only 22,000 per Heineken beer at the nice restaurant last night. Bill told the vendor that he was crazy if he thought we would pay 50,000 for a small water. Bill gave him 30,000 and thought that was way over-paying. But I pointed out that, hey, he did deliver it ice-cold to us in the park so maybe he was entitled to overcharge.

We walked quite a bit just looking at the city sights. Found an upscale mall with cold air-conditioning and stopped there for lunch -- mainly to cool off. When we returned to the hotel we booked a tour of the Mekong Delta for the next day.

Saigon appears to have a vibrant economy. Capitalism is doing quite well here. I wish someone could explain exactly how this Communist government works -- who is really in charge and how he/they remain in power, etc. I know that the Vietnamese government is adamently against any efforts for democracy. Several Vietnamese men were imprisoned a couple of months ago simply on the charges that they had each made 3 trips to Thailand and the Vietnamese government fears these men are fomenting democracy. So they were thrown into a prison with no trials. Anyway, wish I understood more details of exactly how capitalism and communism is blending here in Vietnam.

During our taxi drive from the airport we saw 2 Bentleys, several Porsches and dozens of Mercedes. Leaving the restaurant last night we saw a Porsche Panamera S (which is way larger than my old Porsche 928S). Some people here have a lot of money. I would love to know if it is just corrupt government officials or if business is really that good.

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