Saigon: The city has two faces

HO CHI MINH CITY, Viet Nam (MindaNews/3 February) — The towering buildings, bars, tour agencies, and hostels lined up like sentries can give visitors the impression that Ho Chi Minh (formerly known as Saigon), is a place ahead of every other city in Vietnam.

The fast-paced life in Viet Nam’s financial district, where most of the businesses in the country thrive, is reflective of the towering architectures like the tallest Bitexco building, and franchises of international brands such as Starbucks, Domino Pizza, Dairy Queen, and more recently, McDonald’s.

But this side of the world is not what it seems.

However modern the city appears, it still remains a symbol of unity among people who were once divided by the US during its war of aggression.

Beyond the bright lights and vibrant energy that blanket the city center at night lie forces that bring Saigon’s history back to life. These are best experienced in the iconic landmarks and museums nearby
that walk tourists down a rather rough memory lane.

Museums, museums

The Reunification Palace (in Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street), for instance, gives visitors a glimpse of then South Vietnam’s presidential palace in the 60s. The five floors of the palace feature the president’s office, bedroom, recreation room, conference halls, and banquet chambers in their exquisite (a tad bit, though) glory.

The palace’s basement has an eerie atmosphere: it is full of communication paraphernalia like phones, radios, and office equipment. These are said to be arranged exactly the way it was back when the
Northern forces took over.

And as if reliving Saigon’s history is not enough in the Reunification Palace, visitors can also check out the War Remnants Museum in Vo Van Tan Street.

It is home to various exhibits and installations that tell stories about the US military, Agent Orange, and life during the Vietnam-American War.

Tanks and jets can be seen in the open area of the museum outside.

Cruelty in the war is also vividly depicted in a makeshift of the “tiger cages;” these are accompanied by lists of torture tactics that were used in prisons back then. They lend a spooky feeling of the gruesome experiences of political prisoners in the hands of the South Vietnamese government.

Photos of war journalists and deformed fetuses that are a result of Agent Orange (a chemical used in an herbicidal warfare program) are also on exhibit on the third floor.

The tunnels in Cu Chi District (of the same name) showcase the ingenuity of the Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. The network of small passages served as their underground homes, medical
hubs, and communication and weapon routes. According to our tour guide, the design of the tunnels could withstand several attacks by the Viet Cong’s enemies: it has defense mechanisms against water, bombs, and poisonous gases. The tunnels are also embedded with traps for the clueless enemy who attempts to enter.

An interesting breather for visitor would be the newly opened museum dedicated solely for the traditional Vietnamese dress. We sincerely regret to have not visited Bao Tang Ao Dai Museum; it is located in 206/19/30 Long Thuan Street, Long Phuoc ward, District 9.

A brochure promises visitors that they can see the history and influences of the dress; modern renditions and collections of various designs are to be the delight of anyone interested in style and Vietnamese clothing history.

After a long day of exploring the heritage of South Vietnam, travelers can be whisked back to the present by heading back to the busy street of Bui Vien for some drinks, music and shopping.

Night life

As streetlights incorrigibly chase the fading sunset, Pham Ngu Lao in District 1 continues to welcome all backpackers who enter the city by bus. More and more international bus lines hit their brakes at the side of Zen Plaza as the night creeps in.

Famous for backpackers, the district is always packed with foreigners seated on arrays of Vietnam-style small chairs. They are lined up at both sides of the street in front of closed shops as if spectators of an open theater. The actors are the passers-by either strolling or in motorbikes, and food vendors on bicycles.

The Bui Vien Street is alive with a mixture of tourists and locals who mingle over glasses of Bia Hoi (Vietnamese draft beer) and Muc Chien (dried squid). Blasting music from various western bars add to the din of the street.

But the entire city turned into a spectacular theater last January 30, the eve of Tet (Lunar New Year). Bright lights shaped like flowers in pink with green leaves hovered the Le Loi Avenue stretching to the City Opera House. Its adjacent Nguyen Hue Street had been completely closed, giving space to floral exhibitions. It was led by effigies of running horses in freeze and a big clock behind them.

Some flowers were formed into words like the huge letters traced in bright lights on the facade of a posh hotel, saying, “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” (translated as Happy New Year). A fireworks display of at least ten minutes near the Saigon River signaled the start of the year of the horse.

The city of 10 million people has six million motorbikes, said a tour guide. But only 20 percent of the total number of motorbikes in Saigon was present during our visit. The rest of them had gone to the provinces to celebrate the festival with their families, said a Sudanese businessman, Mr Hassabo Alwahaido.

The relatively low number of people and motorbikes on the streets made it easy for us to rent a bicycle to go around the city without worrying about being run over.

The persisting soundtrack of buzzing motorbikes as they swarm like giant ants in a pack had been overcome by loud music from a kid show in Sen Hong Theater and a concert at the city park as a part of the festival.

Some families who still hold traditional values decorated their houses with various plants and prepared feast to be partaken by close members of the family. Others prefer to go out and party with their friends.

And, some even only hung out in one place and play video games while drinking.

“This is how we celebrate Tet,” Sean Nguyen said; he was with his friends in a video game shop playing Tekken when Jesse met up with him. There were bowls of Vietnamese candies and drinks on the floor, next to a PlayStation 3 console.

Mr Falah Alazmi from Kuwait told Lorie that this year’s festival was a lot bigger and more fun. He has been in and out of the city for business prospects on Agar wood, whose oil is used to produce perfume for Arabic and Indian people.

And no trip to Sai Ngon is ever complete without experiencing theft before your eyes and sometimes literally on you. On their way back to the dormitel after a long night of drinks and chats with new-found friends, Lorie and Jesse were caught off-guard by Vietnamese guys riding in tandem. Their motorbike drove passed Lorie almost hitting her. Jesse thought they were just being drunk.

Relieved that they were not hit nor injured by the motorbike, Lorie and Jesse leisurely walked to their dormitel; their destination was less than a minute away. Surprisingly, the same motorbike riders drove passed Lorie from a corner and this time snatched Lorie’s stringed purse. The swift snatching caused her a minor cut.

Aggression after all still permeates in the street; robberies are just another day in this city. (Lorie Ann Cascaro and Jesse Pizarro Boga/MindaNews)

(Lorie and Jesse are both fellows of FK Norway’s exchange program in Asia; they’re currently backpacking from the South of Vietnam to the North. Follow their adventures in Instagram @jesiramoun and in Twitter @kalowrie)

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