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"A Brief Exploration into the Soul of Ho Chi Minh City"

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)



Vietnam Rose. Cruelty of the vietcongs. Rage of Rambo. These are hazy notions that pervaded in my consciousness as a consequence of the bombardments of propaganda materials by the foreign news and the movies during the 1970's. The logic that the american-controlled media ( e.g. Newsweek, Time and Readers' Digest) fed into our brains was simple: the americans had to send troops to Vietnam to protect the democratic government of then President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam from the clutches of the cruelty of communist vietcongs of North Vietnam. Further, the americans argued that they have to provide a balance of power in the strategic south east asia region since the russians and chinese were openly supporting the North Vietnam government during the Vietnam War. If it were that simple, I thought then that cruel vietnam war was justifiable.

I was still in my second year college in the University of the Philippines at Los Banos when the North Vietnamese forces liberated Saigon in April 30, 1975. The fall of Saigon left a big black eye for what seemed to be an invincible american military force, it shocked the entire humanity how such a dominant world power lost a major war. The fear of the vietcongs from among those loyal to the americans and the government of Nguyen Van Thieu sent thousands to become refugees popularly known as the vietnamese boat people. They fled Vietnam on board small boats, oftentimes attacked by pirates in the high seas, robbed and their women raped, got hit by tropical storms until they were able to reach friendly shores particularly in the Philippines. Refugee camps funded with international humanitarian agencies monies were established in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan and in Bataan province.

On the lighter side, Filipino soldiers who volunteered in Vietnam during the war were heard of being infected with vietnam rose – a slang term for a venereal disease from vietnamese whores in Saigon. A few years later, hollywood movies dealing on the cruel vietnam war were aplenty- the most notable was the Sylvester Stallone Rambo series.

This is were I am coming from. Since 1975, I read and heard for myself and had made my own mind set of what is Vietnam. When I went to Hanoi (actually the present capital of Vietnam) in 1998 as the Philippine Department of Agriculture representative to a food security conference, very briefly I had a glimpse of what is Vietnam. Way back then, it left me an impression of a developing city where everything is very orderly even as the number of motorbikes and scooters were already noticeable in the streets. Hanoi was a small city such that within few minutes drive we were already in a vast ricefield. But, I told myself, Hanoi is North Vietnam. Saigon would be a different world!

Having visited the more developed neighboring Asean cities (Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok and Hongkong) I told myself, this year's vacation with my wife would be a different one: an exploration into the soul of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Thanks to Cebu Pacific and my Credit Card, I was able to book on-line through the internet for a promo fare six months earlier. In the same manner, I was able to book on-line two weeks before our scheduled flight a hotel room for us. Since the arrival time of the Cebu Pacific plane in Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City is at 30 minutes past midnight, I decided to book for a hostel for our stay after our arrival at the airport until the check in time at the regular hotel at 1:00 pm. The idea being was that if I booked for the regular hotel and we arrived at 12:30 in the morning, it would already be counted one day stay. So I booked for a less expensive hostel in order not to pay for a one day room in the more expensive regular hotel for only about 9 hours stay after our airport arrival. I also made arrangement with the hostel for a taxi to pick us up at the airport upon our arrival asit was already very late in the evening. The fee for the taxi that fetched us was US $ 15 and I paid the hostel US$ 17 per day although we stayed only for 9 hours. On the other hand, the rate of the Ha Hien Hotel where we stayed for the rest of our stay in Vietnam which is located in District 1 was P 1,400.00 per day.

As a developing urban city, HCM does not have malls but have wet markets, does not have an Metro Rail Transport (MRT) and LRT systems but have plenty of motorcycles, does not have many expensive and fancy restaurants but have clean food stores serving Phoa (vietnamese noodles), does not have much high rise buildings but have a concrete american-designed buildings.

My wife who is a heavy coffee drinker learned the hard way that in HCM, (except perhaps in the Gloria Jean where I saw a branch in District 1), coffee is often served with ice in glass and not in coffee mug or cup. We were inside the Ben Thanh market when she had the urged to drink coffee. When we ordered for it, we have to act it out that we want to have a hot coffee and not ice coffee!

Moving to more substantive issues, after we finally settled in our hotel room at 1:00 pm, my wife wanted to take an afternoon nap, but I insisted that we have to take advantage of the cool cloudy afternoon and we walked from our hotel on Ly Tu Trong Street to the Independence Palace which is just about a kilometer away. Walking leisurely on Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street towards the Independence Palace, we passed by small shops selling flowers and massage parlors with massage attendants wearing white short dresses openly sitted nay displayed in front of the massage parlor.

After a while, we met a vendor selling coconut (buko) juice. I was taken by a surprise when he suddenly talked to me in broken english advising me not to openly display my cell phone as there are lots of cell phone snatchers riding in tandem on motorbikes. But, I told myself, how can I keep my cell phone inside my pocket when I am using it as my camera! Quickly, the vendor was already rubbing my elbow with a nicely peeled cold coconut which he opened, placed a straw and offered it to us. I thought it was for free, but he told the two coconuts was 40,000 dong! I suddenly remembered the Zest-O racket of our vendors in our Manila buses! (Note: In Manila, one time, inside a bus, my daughter experienced being given a tetra pack of Zest O orange drink from a vendor without ordering and being asked to pay for it much higher than its normal cost!)

Independence Palace was the Presidential Palace during the time of South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu. We had a lady tourist guide who was speak english well. We moved around the Independence Palace with a group of tourists composed of europeans, americans, and indians with our english-speaking tour guide who explained to us that the palace was the official residence of then President Van Thieu and his family, Presidential Office where he held office, met foreign dignitaries, held social functions. The palace has several elegant conference rooms, a moviehouse, spacious function rooms, living rooms and a roof deck with a helipad. It has several basements war rooms, Presidential bedroom and radio rooms which provided President Thieu direct access to the American President during the Vietnam war. At present, it is now a tourist destination which gives the tourists the impression of how strong and mighty the Presidency of then President Thieu, which to everyone's surprise bowed to the north vietnamese forces withdrawing without being bombarded.

Posted by E. Sandalo 01:33 Archived in Vietnam Tagged lodging

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