Saturday, 7 April 2012

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam, April 2012

A busy and vibrant city, the sound of motorbikes, the constant 'Sir! Would you like ...', 'Sir, bike you', and streets crowded with active people, make this a place to visit and remember.

For those older folk, such as myself, Ho Chi Minh/Saigon evokes images of the 'Vietnam War', which saw Indochina invaded by the west. In this war three million people were killed, and the region devastated. It has taken the Vietnamese people a generation to rebuild their country, but they are on the way and doing an excellent job. 

motorbike taxi guys.

Your humble narrator and a local tour lady
(V ladies do not normally dress like this)
This war had its origins in the anti-colonial independence movements that began in the early 20th century. These were suppressed for several decades, but emerged again, stronger, after WW2. First the French were confronted, and, in 1954, following their ignominious defeat at Dien Bien Phu, they withdrew. Then the USA military, and its allies, intervened, and the killing continued. It took another two decades for the people of Vietnam to fight off the new invaders. In 1975 the US was also forced to withdraw, and the new history of Vietnam began. 

This history was at first based around communism, state planning, but in reality, this quickly gave way to an emerging capitalism. Ironically, it is the officially communist countries of the world, or at least of SEA, that have a more dynamic capitalism than the comparatively sedate western countries.

Baguettes on sale !
HCMC has had a long history. A millennium ago it was a small town ruled by the Khmer Empire, but following the collapse of Cambodia (and, paradoxically, Vietnam ruled Cambodia on and off for several centuries), it became a Vietnamese city. In the 19th century the French came to rule the region, and gave the city the name 'Saigon'. Over this time the city has had its successes and failures, but now it is the leading city in Vietnam. In 2012 the city has an estimated population of over seven million. This is 7% of the Viethamese population, making HCMC by far the largest city of Vietnam. It also generated 20% of the countries GDP.

The city sprawls westwards from the Saigon River. Along the foreshore is to be found the central and older area of the city. Here are the surviving French colonial era buildings. Also the more expensive hotels, restaurants, and the towering new office and residential skyscrapers. Inter-mixed are KFCs, and the rest of the global franchises, plus shops and department stores of all types. There are still women selling food on the street, and a few beggars, but now the streets are clean and busy with cars, not bicycles. Capitalism is progressing well. 

Central bus station, to the east of the
backpacker spot.

For the more affulent tourist, the hotels in this area are where you will hang your hat. For the backpacker/cheapsake vagabounds of this world the backpacker area of district 1 is your destination. This is a long stretch along and around Pham Ngu Lao Road, starting 1km back from the River, but still in the central area of the city. Here is where the long distance buses will drop you off, and where motorbike drivers will ask $2 to convey you 100m to your hotel (but take you the long way). In this area are a bevy of cheaper accommodation ($5 dorms to rooms $15-$30 a night), restaurants and street food, tourist agencies that can book and do anything (visas, travel, tours, advice), street vendors, motorbike drivers who will constantly ask you if you want a 'massage' or even a ride somewhere, plus, lots of people. There is a busy backpacker scene here. People from every western country, plus Chinese, Japanese, and any one else affluent enough to afford a holiday. Many of the backpacker places include a breakfast with your room. Expect to share your morning repast with people from a dozen countries. Don't worry, English is the shared language. This is a fun place, more relaxed, I venture to state, than the comparable 'Khao San Rd' of central Bangkok. 

Pham Ngu Lao Road.
Cheap accomm, cheap food, fun times

Backpacker accomm.
The traffic. HCM/Vietnam is renowned for its busy traffic, and deservedly so, however, it is not as dangerous or as bad as is generally perceived (everyone embellishes). There are lots of motorbikes in the city. One driver told me HCMC had nine million people, and six million bikes, and the roads are busy. But... the locals drive slowly, 30-40kms, also, they drive safely and are aware of pedestrians.

When desirous of crossing a street, look around, gauge the traffic, and walk out in a traffic lull. Motorbikes will veer around you.

This does not mean that you should run out into the oncoming traffic, but it does mean that people will avoid you if walk across a city street.  Just don't make sudden changes in direction, this will cause confusion, and confusion leads to problems.
Looking down backpacker street.

The name, the city is known by two names: Saigon and Ho Chi Minh. Since 1975, legally, the name is HCMC, but it is also still called by locals 'Saigon', however, in talking to residents it seems that HCMC is widely used by the locally born younger set, while it is the older city residents and people from elsewhere in the country, who prefer the older name.

Ho Chi Minh City Museum

Fountain and small park leading to
the HCM Opera House
There are a bevy of interesting museums in the city, with cheap entry (Thailand take note). A fee of 50c-75c is the standard. Several of the museums concentrate on the War and on Ho Chi Minh, but there are also art and culture museums. There are the usual range of tourist diversions: river boat rides, tours around the city, visits to the war sites, and so forth. HCMC lacks the magnificent splendour of central Bangkok with its Grand Palace area, but there is enough to keep you busy for a few days to a week. 

Museum interior, the struggle for independence
A few cultural highlights. The currency used is the 'dong', indeed. Approximately 20,000 plus dong to the dollar. As with Cambodia, both the local currency and the US dollar are in circulation, though less so than in Cambo. The French influence is visible. Baguettes are part of most peoples breakfast routine, good bread, found not so much in Thailand, is readily found. Some folk, both old and young have learnt French. 
City Court House

I would recommend a visit to Vietnam, certainly Ho Chi Minh. An interesting place. I venture to suggest that with time it will become a more popular destination. 

Interior of Court House

Interior of Court House

Uncle Ho

Numerous public displays of allegance
to the memory of Ho, amidst the
bevy of KFCs and banks

Uncle Ho

Statue of Uncle Ho
outside the HCM City Town Hall

Lots of food options in the city
Boulevard to the Town Hall

Artwork in front of Post Office

Reunification Palace.
Formerly the south Viet presidential palace,
now museum.

Central Post Office

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