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Ho Chi Minh


Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam

Dec 31st, 2016 - Jan 2nd, 2017



I had decided to use the long weekend over New Year's for a short trip to Ho Chi Minh City. I left Hong Kong early in the morning on Saturday on a direct flight on Cathay Pacific which got me into Ho Chi Minh just before noon. Vietnam is one of those places were I really appreciated my German passport. Since the Vietnamese government removed the visa requirements for German citizens last year, I can now visit the country visa free for up to 15 days. This allowed me to go straight past the very long line at the ‘visa on arrival’ counter. The immigration line itself was short and moved very fast. The immigration officer asked me for how long I will be staying and then stamped my passport. I didn't even have to fill out any forms.

There were no taxis waiting outside, so I had to book a taxi at one of the little booths near the exit, which worked well. The taxi into the city was 220 Thousand Vietnamese Dong which is about 10 USD. Traffic was fairly crazy, but not as bad as I have seen it in some other cities (Delhi, Dhaka and Jakarta come to mind). I stayed at the very nice Le Meridien Saigon right by the river and within walking distance of most of the main sights in the city.


About Ho Chi Minh City:
Even though the city was officially renamed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh in 1976, most of the locals still refer to it as Saigon. It is a huge and sprawling city. The metropolitan area has a population of over 10 million, which represent around 11% of the total population  of Vietnam.

The city started out as a small Khmer fishing village and later became an important Khmer seaport. Starting in the early 17th century the area was slowly settled by Vietnamese people migrating from the North. Throughout the 17th century the Vietnamese settlers became the majority, and the city eventually became part of Vietnam and was renamed Saigon. In 1866 it became the capital of the French colony.

Following World War II the communist Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence here in 1945. Vietnam was partitioned into North and South Vietnam by the 1954 Geneva agreement, with North Vietnam controlled by the Viet Minh and the South becoming officially the Republic of Vietnam. The city served as the capital of the independent Republic of South Vietnam between 1955 and 1975. After the end of the Vietnam War and following the US troop withdrawal, it was taken over by the communists on April 30th 1975, a day which in the West is referred to as the "Fall of Saigon", while not surprisingly under Vietnam's socialist government it is known as the "Liberation of Saigon".

Today Ho Chi Minh is the capital and economic centre of Vietnam. It is the fastest growing region economically and accounts for over 20% of the country's GDP. The main sectors of the economy are mining, seafood processing, finance, tourism, construction, industry and trade, and much of it is driven by foreign investments.
After checking into the hotel, I went on an afternoon walk through the city. Not too far from my hotel I passed by the beautiful and very ornately decorated city hall which was built in 1902 to 1908. In the large park in front of the building is the Ho Chi Minh memorial.


Most of the major sights in the city are located around this area. Nearby is the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is an elegant brick building constructed in 1880 by the French. It was closed, so I could only see the outside.


Right next to the cathedral is another beautiful colonial building, the central post office, which is definitely worth seeing the inside of.


From here I walked over to the Independence Palace (also called the Reunification Palace), which was built between 1962 to '67 on the site of the former French Governor’s Residence. This was the residence of the South Vietnamese president before the reunification. The Vietnam War officially ended when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gate of the palace. A replica of the tank is now displayed in the gardens.


The palace is no longer used for official government purposes and is now just a museum. The building is surrounded by immaculately maintained gardens, which also display several US fighter jets and tanks. In the building itself you can view the official meeting and presentation rooms as well as the private chambers of the president. The palace is very nicely restored, and the interior has essentially been left untouched in its 1960s style.


On my way to the reunification palace I passed by this beautiful yellow colonial building, which I later found out was the supreme court building. (I only noticed the 'No photography' sign when I edited this picture.)


A few blocks from here is the Mariamman temple, the largest Hindu temple in the city.


On my way back to the hotel I also passed by the Ben Thanh market, which is a huge covered market and which seems to sell pretty much everything you can think of.


The architecture in parts of the city is similar to Hanoi with these up to five story high but very narrow town houses. And I also saw this man who found an innovative way to take a nap by the side of the street.



Cu Chi Tunnels:
I started the year 2017 with a 6:00 am wake up call, because I was picked up at 7:00 am for my guided tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I had booked a speed boat tour on viator.com. There were six other people on the tour. We drove for about 20 minutes to the pier, where we boarded a speed boat that would take us up the Saigon River through beautiful countryside and passed small villages and towns for just over an hour. The river was quite busy with large container ships, most of which were carrying sand and most of them were so overloaded, that they barely reached above the waterline.


The Cu Chi tunnels are located about 70 kilometers to the North of the city. They form a huge system of very narrow tunnels dug out over the course of 25 years. There are up to three levels with the lowest one more than 10 meters deep. The whole tunnel system is more than 250 kilometers long. A large area of the tunnels has been preserved as a war memorial park and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam.

The tunnels were used by the Vietcong as living quarters, hiding places and communication and supply routes. They served as the base of operations during several military campaigns including the Tet offensive in 1968. Soldiers usually spent the days inside the tunnels and only came out at night. Life inside the tunnels was very difficult due to a lack of oxygen, food, water and light as well as an abundance of ants and poisonous centipedes.

US troops rarely ventured into the tunnels, which were often booby trapped with explosives and other nasty traps, many examples of which were on display here. Instead the US army tried to eliminate the tunnels through heavy carpet bombing, the remnants in the form of large bomb craters are visible here throughout the forest. But even that did not prove very effective, due to the design of the tunnels with several levels. At one place we were able to crawl through a short section of the tunnels, which even though had been widened and increased in height for the tourists, it was still very narrow and I felt a bit claustrophobic.


And then I did something I had not expected to do here, and that was to shoot a gun for the first time in my life. There was a shooting range, where you could choose among at least 10 different types of assault rifles or machine guns and buy ten bullets for about USD 25. It was fun, but it turns out I would have made a pretty useless Vietcong fighter, since I could neither hit a target with an AK-47 nor fit through the tunnel entrances as demonstrated here:


On the way back to the city we stopped at a cricket farm, where we learned how crickets are farmed. The crickets are raised in these large containers, which are lined with plastic sheets that are too slippery for the them to escape. It takes 30 days for a cricket to grow from egg into full size, and a kilogram of crickets goes for about USD 12.


And then we of course got to try some deep-fried crickets in garlic. They came on a plate, and can either be eaten like peanuts, or can be wrapped in rice paper with raw vegetables. I had quite a few and there were not bad at all. They did have a distinct but not very strong taste, which is difficult to describe, somewhere between a peanut and a shrimp.


Since we didn’t fill up on crickets, the tour ended with a very nice lunch in a local Vietnamese restaurant, and I was dropped off back at my hotel just after 2:00 pm. I spent the rest of the day exploring the modern parts of the city, as I went to the Bitexco Tower, a 262 meter tall building, which used to be the tallest building in Vietnam, but has recently been superseded by a building in Hanoi. I wanted to visit the observation deck on the 49th floor, but when I asked the information desk in the mall, they kindly informed me that there is also a bar on the 52nd floor, which I could visit for free as long as I bought a drink there. The bar was on the same floor as the helipad and had amazing views over the whole sprawling city and the Saigon river.



Since I didn’t have to leave for my flight back to Hong Kong until the late afternoon the next day, I had time in the morning to visit the War Remnants Museum. There are many US planes, helicopters and tanks as well as large weaponry displayed in the court yard in front of the museum.


The museum itself was quite interesting with a not entirely unbiased view of the war. It was largely focused on all the evils committed by the US army, including many very graphic pictures of victims of US torture, war crimes, napalm and agent orange. When the museum was opened in 1975 it was called the "Exhibition House of US and Puppet Regime Crime". The first exhibition room was called "Historical Truths". Any mention of North Vietnamese fighters only focused on their heroic struggles, with no mention of any atrocities committed by the Vietcong.

On my way back to the hotel I passed by the beautiful Saigon Opera House, which was built in 1897 and was used as the assembly of the South Vietnam lower house between 1956 and 1975. It was fully restored in 1995 and today is used as the city's main theater and opera house once again.



I had a really great time in Ho Chi Minh, which is a fascinating and lively city well worth a visit for a few days.



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