Ho Chi Minh City (abbreviated to HCMC), more commonly known by its former name Saigon, is a colossus of a city. Nowhere in Asia will you find so many two-wheelers: the traffic is manic. Despite its size and lack of outstanding monuments, it is still a likeable city and easy to get around. There are pockets of older, historical buildings scattered here and there but the most memorable are the places related to the recent, painful history of the country. Visit to HCMC couldn’t be complete without spending a few sombre hours at the War Remnants Museum and a day tour to Cu Chi tunnels (Viet Cong’s enormous underground tunnel system).
COM CHAI- A VEGAN REVELATION
We started the first day in Ho Chi Minh City with an exciting discovery: there was a strong vegan dining scene in Vietnam! Com means rice in Vietnamese and an chay means vegetarian. Com chay are cheap eateries where rice is served with variety of vegetable and vegan meat (made of soy) dishes in a buffet style. Depending on the place, a plate of com chay (often accompanied with a bowl of a vegetable broth) costs 10-20k dong, averaging 15k dong. The meal typically comes with free green tea and water. Com chay places are very popular throughout Vietnam and they are always ran by (as well as cater for) devout Buddhists. It’s hard to find a com chay without images of Buddha or Goddess of Mercy covering the walls.
After the satisfying breakfast, we walked towards the city centre. Almost every time we tried to cross any larger street we felt like we were risking our life. Saigon’s streets were a never-ending and never-stopping stream of scooters and motorbikes, rarely interspersed with cars and buses.
Even for Sayak, who grew up among Kolkata’s chaotic traffic, Saigon’s streets posed a serious challenge. The only way to cross the street was to step straight into the traffic. The scooters were used to maneuver their way in between of the pedestrians so it all came down to conquering the fear and trust that the drivers didn’t really want to run you over.
We marvelled for a while how was it even possible that a group of scooters coming from a smaller street managed to pierce through the impenetrable wall of traffic and cross onto the other side of the major artery without anyone controlling the traffic.
This video is really something to be seen!
JADE EMPEROR PAGODA
The first attraction we visited on that day was a beautiful temple built by Chinese migrants in the early 20th century – Jade Emperor Pagoda (Ngọc Hoàng pagoda). The temple was squeezed among modern buildings and looked rather modest from the outside. In front of the temple stood a pond full of colourful carps and another one with turtles. The animals were fed by temple-goers with the purpose of gaining merit.
The usual smokey, joss-stick vibe welcomed us inside. The scary, giant wooden statues of the emperors assistants standing on either side of the main gate were amazing. This temple was interesting also because of a side hall dedicated to the goddess of fertility Kim Hua. We have spotted many couples and pregnant ladies praying in front of her altar. You can see my video from this visit here
We then wandered through the town, passing by some attractions which didn’t seem worth to get in, such as the Reunification Palace build at the end of the 19th century. The Turtle Pond marked on maps.me turned out to be a horrible metal construction. Personally, I didn’t see any turtles inside. Also Benh Tanh market near the tourist zone didn’t really appeal to us. We were hoping to walk all the way to the river but we simply didn’t have enough time since we wanted to see the War Remnants Museum.
Sayak had a quick lunch in a place where office workers dined. He had quite a generous portion of various meats with rice, served (as usual in Vietnam) with a bowl of broth and -to our surprise -with a complimentary banana. I couldn’t find any vegetarian place around so left eating for later. On the way back home, I found a street stall with vegan steamed buns stuffed with cabbage and topped it up with fried sweet potato chips. Yum!
WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM
Unfortunately, we got misled by the information in my Rough Guide that there was a lunch break at the museum: in fact the museum was open the whole day continuously. As we arrived there relatively late, we had just about enough time to see the museum properly: 4 hours.
The War Remnant Museum was definitely among the best ones I’d seen in the whole South East Asia albeit truly gut-wrenching. Each of the exhibition rooms focused on a different yet equally devastating aspect of the Vietnam war.
The first room one could see lots of top class photos of the military and civilian victims, as well as the learn the gruesome details of the infamous Son My massacre. By the time you left that floor, you would already have a clear picture of how needlessly cruel the American soldiers were.
As Vietnam is still a communist, one-party ruled state, the museum obviously wouldn’t say a word about how needlessly cruel Viet Cong side was. The propaganda and partiality was clearly visible in the presentation of facts but that didn’t make the museum any less reliable source of information.
It started getting really hard to bear at the Agent Orange section, showcasing the effects of the chemicals on the local population over generations. Until this day, children are born with terrible, unimaginable diseases and disabilities. In one room at that floor, the surviving Agent Orange victims were selling their handmade crafts. Seeing those people trying to make a living against the odds made me very emotional. The temporary exhibition downstairs showed how the US government recently started helping to clean up the soil contaminated with Agent Orange. Better late than never.
The last section was located outside the main building and it reconstructed the secret political prisons where the Americans used to train the Southern Vietnam forces in the art of torture. I experienced a bit of deja vu as some places and methods closely resembled those from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
VIETNAM’S HISTORY FROM THE SOUTHERNER PERSPECTIVE
That day we had an interesting discussion about Vietnam’s past and present with a very interesting Saigon- born lady. I was totally stunned with her interpretation of the Vietnam War. She didn’t really see anything wrong with the US invasion and in fact refused to call it as such. In her view, the South Vietnamese government was democratically elected and the US protection of that government was justified.
She told us that Saigon used to be a pearl of Indochina, one of the most prosperous cities of Asia, before the war and that now it was just a shadow of its former glory. She also said the suffering of the ‘boat people’- southerners who flew the country on any vessels they could find when the Americans withdrew- was terrible and that if the North really cared about the true unification, they’d have never allowed that to happen.
When we asked which ethnicity Vietnamese people hated the most she stated without hesitation it was the Chinese who occupied Vietnam for a millennium, not the Americans. This discussion was a fascinating epilogue to our visit to the War Remnants Museum.