We woke up on Sunday morning and had just one more full day to explore the city, with our flight back to Chiang Mai leaving on Monday afternoon. Our day started with a city tour that we booked called “Back of the Bike Tours”. After a quick breakfast on the street, we walked back to our hotel where two young locals with mopeds were waiting for us! Already a few minutes ahead of the 8am scheduled pickup time, we each got on a bike and headed off to the start of the tour. We met one other tourist there, a lawyer from Germany who was in HCMC on business, and he had his driver as well, along with another driver whose main job was to take pictures of all of us. We all sat down at a small table and had smoothies as Jake, my driver, gave a very brief overview of the city.
HCMC is divided into districts, simply called “District 1” through “District 12” – the districts were named during the French occupation and have stuck since then. Our tour would take place mostly in districts 1, 3, and 5. District 1 is the busiest area of HCMC, with the most office and government buildings, and also a long stretch of hotels that are popular with tourists – it’s also where our hotel is located. District 3 is the market district, and District 5 is the Chinese district.
Our first stop of the day was Notre Dame. No, not the cathedral in Paris – but one very much like it! This Notre Dame was built between 1863 and 1880, entirely with materials that were imported from Paris! Having visited the Notre Dame cathedral of Paris, I can say firsthand that they bear a remarkable resemblance to each other – the main difference is that the cathedral in Paris is just a bit bigger. Inside the cathedral, mass was about to start. They offer services in French, Vietnamese, and English – this one was in English. We took a few minutes to walk around the outer perimeter of the cathedral, marveling at the beautiful stained glass windows. Near each set of windows was the statue of a saint, and hundreds of plaques that people had purchased years ago as way of giving thanks or honoring a particular saint.
Across the street from Notre Dame is the Saigon Central Post Office, constructed from 1886 to 1891. It’s still a functioning post office but mainly exists now as a tourist attraction, with many souvenirs to buy. Inside are two giant maps of Vietnam and SE Asia that were painted shortly after the building was finished in 1892. Along the ornaments in the ceiling are depictions of opium poppies, which were very important to the French during their colonization of Indochina – our guide told us that the French got the Vietnamese people hooked on opium to make it easier to rule over them.
Our next stop was at a Vietnamese market, far from most tourists. The market was covered by tarps, sheets, and umbrellas to help give patrons and merchants alike any respite from the hot Vietnamese sun. While the tarps were high enough for our guides to walk under, Julia and I had to duck to walk anywhere – this was a pretty good indicator that this market is used mainly by locals! Like many of the markets in Southeast Asia, there were more than just fruits, veggies, meat, and grain – this market was more like a department store!
Our next stop brought us to the Chinese district, to Quan Am Pagoda, the oldest Chinese assembly hall in HCMC. This is where many Chinese Buddhists come to worship, pray, and give alms. This particular assembly hall has a large statue of the Buddhist sea goddess, Mazu. Mazu is a popular deity to worship because there are many reasons to ask for her blessing – safe travels on the water, a good bounty for a fisherman, or for the sea to bring rain to a farmer. This particular temple was a stark contrast to those we’ve seen elsewhere – not only because of the style, which had beautiful wood carvings adorning the rooftop, but because most Buddhist temples we’ve seen were only a shrine to Buddha.
We left the assembly hall to go get some lunch – but our drivers didn’t make it easy. Instead of taking the main roads, we drove through some back alleys, sometimes barely squeezing between buildings. The back alleys gave yet another glimpse into the life of a local. At one point, a rooster darted in front of our path, but a man snuck up behind it and grabbed it with both hands around the neck to drag it back to safety! Though the safety wouldn’t last long, as Jake told me that the rooster would probably be in a cock fight very soon. After driving past some flower markets, we pulled up to a food stand on the side of the road, with a woman who we were told had been selling food there for over forty years. She was very friendly and definitely seemed to enjoy what she did – and the food was amazing. “Bún thịt nướng”, literally “rice noodles with grilled meat”, was by far my favorite food in Vietnam. The spices, fresh herbs, and dressing mixed with freshly cooked spring rolls and pieces of beef was a perfect combination. Luckily, lunch was paid for, so I got seconds – and thirds!
After lunch, it was time for our tour to end. We got dropped off back at our hotel, but we didn’t rest for long. We headed out immediately to the War Remnants Museum, a very highly regarded museum about the Vietnam War. Between all of the tourists from many different countries, as well as multiple busloads of children who seemed to be there on field trips, it took a while to even get in the museum, and it was very crowded (and hot) once we were inside.
The museum was three stories tall, and also had some exhibits outside. Following the recommended route, we walked up to the top floor’s “fact room” and started reading about the history of the war and how it all got started. From the very beginning, we could see that the museum was biased against the United States. Not that we could really blame them – the U.S. did horrible things to the entire region during the war – but things were written that were clearly meant to incite anger towards America, and most stories were one sided. Just little things, like adding adjectives to vilify the U.S., or saying “President Nixon brought the war to…” I’d like to think our museums back home aren’t so biased when presenting facts; at least in the future I don’t think I’ll take it for granted that museums are meant to convey facts.
I had asked Jake earlier in the day what Vietnamese people thought of Americans. He told me that in South Vietnam (who the Americans were allied with during the Vietnam War), nobody really has any qualms with us. But, in the North, there are definitely people that would treat you differently if they knew you were American. The South, especially young people, is also uneasy about the communist government and would prefer a true democracy – but would always look around before saying so out loud. Our guides could have gotten in serious trouble by telling us they didn’t like how the same four people controlled the government and simply switched positions when an “election” came up.
After reading a bit about the history and viewing some artifacts of the war, we moved to the second floor – which was easily the most disturbing experience I’ve ever had at a museum (don’t worry, there won’t be any graphic photos in this blog post). Giant photos plastered every wall of various horrible wartime occurrences. It started out as photos of soldiers (from both sides) caring for the wounded or transporting the dead. Soon, we were reading stories of civilians being mistaken (or “mistaken”) for the enemy and being brutally massacred and having their village burned to the ground – complete with firsthand accounts from the photographers that captured their last living moments. It honestly made me sick to my stomach, and ashamed of my country – and that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Moving along to the other side of the second floor, we were bombarded with pictures of victims of agent orange. This aerial herbicide was sprayed relentlessly all over the country, and caused not only mutations to the living, but birth defects that still impact Southeast Asia today. Victims have a wide range of deformities, from being born without eyes, without kneecaps, with severe mental retardation, and a whole host of other terrible maladies. Perhaps most infamously, conjoined twins were quite common as well. However, there was a silver lining for this exhibit. Towards the end, there were very uplifting pictures of victims that had overcome their deformities to live normal lives, and encouraging pledges of aid by many organizations and countries, including the U.S.
We walked down to the first floor, which was mostly an entrance hall, but did have many reactions from countries not directly involved in the war. Everyone was against U.S. involvement – definitely not our shining moment.
We walked outside and looked at the various wartime vehicles they had on display. These were all intact, left behind by the U.S. when leaving Vietnam. It was amazing to think that they were used not too far from where we were, not too long ago…
The last part of the museum was a replica of a concentration camp building that was used by the South Vietnam puppet government to house North Vietnamese POWs. Just when we were starting to feel a little better after a snack at the cafe, we read dozens of different methods of torture used at the various camps. If you’ve ever read Unbroken, it’s along those lines. Horrible stuff; it’s hard to believe that anyone is capable of dishing out (or withstanding) such pain.
Having had our fill of this museum to last a lifetime (though make no mistake, I would highly recommend anyone traveling to HCMC to visit this museum), we headed out and looked for something fun to do. We had heard that Bui Vien (“Beer Street”) was a great place for souvenirs, cheap drinks, and people watching, so we headed there. After getting some beer and relaxing for a bit, we stopped at a massage parlor to get some foot massages. For only about five dollars each, we got an entire hour of massage all over our lower legs, capped off with a short neck/back massage. (*Note from Julia: These ladies even clipped and groomed Broc’s scary toenails!) Cheap massages can be found all over Southeast Asia, but we haven’t been taking advantage as much as we could be! We walked to a restaurant that had a second story patio, and got some dinner and drinks while we watched the crowd walk and drive by below us. A very relaxing way to end a day that was quite draining, both mentally and physically.
On our last day in Vietnam, we decided to go to a water park. We had been sweating in the merciless heat all week and just wanted to cool off a bit. After getting breakfast at a delicious French-Vietnamese bakery, we took a cab twenty minutes away to Dam Sen Water Park. We got there not too long after it opened, and since it was a Monday, there was hardly anyone else there – we didn’t have to wait in line for more than a minute all day!
The very first thing we did was go down a steep slide similar to the “Speed Slides” at Wild Waves in Federal Way. They had three set up next to each other that we could see had some twists and turns on the way down, so we both went at the same time. Both of our slides started out uncovered, but then became covered – which meant that we couldn’t see anything at all. As I hit a sudden decline in the slide, I found myself wondering if the safety standards in Vietnam are comparable to that back home. Going quite fast now, my body was thrown left and right without warning, afraid to breathe for fear of being plunged underwater and breathing in water, and afraid to open my eyes and knock out my contact lens. Then, all of a sudden, I saw light, and just like that I was under water. Wish shaky legs, I got out and looked at Julia, who obviously had a very similar experience as I did. We didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then started yelling like crazy at how fun it was! In hindsight, we definitely started our day with the most intense attraction at the park, and it took us by surprise.
The rest of our time there was spent going down much tamer slides (sometimes in tandem), riding in inner tubes on a lazy river, splashing around in a wave pool, and just relaxing in the sun. It may not have been an “authentic” Vietnamese experience, but it was just what we needed that day, especially since HCMC was so hot-even more hot and humid than Chiang Mai. We got a quick lunch at the park (complete with cheap beer!), and before we knew it, it was time to head back to Chiang Mai. It was a great trip full of lots of amazing experiences – we were so lucky that Julia’s work brought us here!