Category: All Things

Saigon tour

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006 | All Things, Travel

Got an early start my first full day in Vietnam. After deciding to forgo a group organized city tour, I took a traditional Vietnamese breakfast of rice noodles with fish sauce, spring rolls, and iced coffee at the hotel, and set out to explore on my own. First photo stop: view of the Saigon River, as seen from the rooftop bar of the Majestic Hotel, erected in 1925 and a fine example of Graham Greene-era glamour that once attracted guests like François Mitterrand and Catherine Deneuve:

Saigon River

Along my stroll on Dong Khoi Street, known in French colonial days as Rue Catinat and once considered the most refined and fashionable stretch of road in Saigon, I was inundated with offers for private city tours. I opted to take in the sights from the vantage point of the locals, i.e., from the back of a Honda Om motorcycle. Ho Chi Minh City is swarming with “xe om” motorbike taxis, which outnumber cars by at least a three to one margin. That combined with the distinct shortage of discernable traffic lanes, traffic signals and crosswalks often makes just crossing the street a dicey proposition.

The view from my guide Hong’s purple xe om:

Honda View

I’ll admit that the ride was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but after a few minutes, I grew accustomed to the traffic weaving and startling proximity to other vehicles, large and small. Not a helmet in sight, by the way.

The Hotel Continental, for decades a gathering place for foreign journalists and another stop on “The Quiet American” tour. On the right, situated perpedicularly on Lam Son Square, is the French colonial-style Opera House:

Hotel Continental

Inside the Reunification Palace, formerly known as the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace, or Independence Palace. One of the few pure examples of 1960s architecture in Ho Chi Minh City. A replica of the tank that crashed through the palace gates the day Saigon fell to the North is now parked outside.

Reunification Palace View

One of the many rooms I got to peek on the guided tour of the building. This one was used as a sitting room for visitors. Perhaps more interesting, though less visually striking, was the elaborate basement bomb shelter/bunker complete with map rooms, transmission rooms (outfitted with rotary phones and metal desks), and general purpose “war rooms”.

Palace Sitting Room

Presidential gifts. Yes, they’re real elephants’ feet:

Elephant Feet

In front of the War Remnants (formerly War Crimes) Museum. Exhibits inside within were rather graphic in their depictions of American atrocities during the Vietnam War:

Air Force

Notre Dame Cathedral:

Notre Dame

Midday showers brought my District 1 sightseeing to an end, so after a brief respite back at the hotel, I hopped a taxi (car, this time) to Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, about five kilometers west of the city center, but very different in feel. Chaotic jumbles of low-rise dilapidated buildings, narrow alleys and decidedly grittier streets, which may account for tourists appearing fewer and farther between.I asked to be dropped at Cholon’s famous Binh Tay Market. Inside the close aisles and jam-packed stalls was every variety of everyday goods, offering glimpses into modern Vietnamese life. And in the surrounding streets, stands and stands of dried goods, produce, meats, and seafood (many still squirming):






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Arrival: Saigon

Monday, June 19th, 2006 | All Things, Travel

No photos tonight… Just set foot in the hotel about half an hour ago and writing this from the lone computer station off the hotel Front Desk.

Almost missed my flight from HKG; I had forgotten what an inordinate amount of time it takes to pass through Immigration in Hong Kong, coming or going. After racing into the plane minutes before the doors closed, we proceed to sit on the runway. And sit… and sit. After about half an hour, during which the passengers sat in silent confusion/annoyance, the pilot came over the PA with an announcement of a “customer issue” causing the delay, which brought to mind the mysterious “sick passenger” announcement on the NYC subway. Whatever the “issue” was, it was resolved minutes later and we were off.

Uneventful flight… and upon arrival in SGN (half an hour late), I collected my luggage and stepped into the greeting hall where I was met with one of the most chaotic scenes I’ve ever encountered at an airport. Masses of people, some with signs, most shouting and gesturing. Within seconds, I was accosted by three rather aggressive taxi drivers, offering to assist with my luggage, asking about my destination. I tried to decline as politely as possible, secretly wishing I had made arrangements with the hotel for a meet and greet upon arrival, but two of the three continued to tail me as I exited the airport gates, searching for the taxi line. As I made my way to what appeared to be the end of the line (or rather, crowd), both drivers asked my destination. Considering my options, I announced it and asked the price, to which they responded simultaneously with “$12” and “$15”. The hotel had approximated the cost at $6-7, so uh… no, thanks. This seemed to set off an argument between the two (I’m guessing over how to more effectively engage in collusion), at which point I spied a fourth taxi driver — this one in an official SaigonTourist uniform. He offered to deliver me to my destination for $6. Done.

The driver spoke decent English and during the fifteen minute ride, we chatted briefly about Vietnamese history as he pointed out the attractions we passed along the way. At the hotel, I was greeted with smiles and a bottle of very cold water.


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Parting shots: Star Ferry and Kowloon Island

Monday, June 19th, 2006 | All Things, Travel

From my final afternoon in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Island as seen from the Star Ferry:

Star Ferry View

Star Ferry View

Billboard in Tsim Tsa Tsui, Kowloon:

Jackie Chan

Final look at the view from the Kowloon promenade.

Hong Kong


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