We decided to spend only 1 full day in Saigon. If we had done a little more research prior to purchasing our tickets I think we would have flown into a different city – we want to do other things and our time is brief unfortunately. So on our first and only day in Saigon we had to see everything we wanted to see.
We began our morning quite early. For some odd reason, we went to bed at 2:30am and woke up around 5:30am. When we saw the time we attempted to return to sleep, but it was unobtainable. So we began our day in Saigon a little earlier than expected. We needed to change our dollars into dong – the local currency. The current exchange rate is a little over 20,000 dong to $1. It’s really disorienting looking at prices in the thousands! After a while it gets easier, but it’s still strange to hear someone say that your bundle of scarves is 450,000 dong. Although dollars are excepted, they are generally taken for larger purchases – tours, flights, etc. With our new currency we stopped at a coffee shop, Highland Coffee, for a refreshing Vietnamese iced coffee and croissant. After our walk we already had sweat rolling down our bodies; the humidity here is overwhelming. Our summers in Texas are absolutely nothing compared to the heat and humidity here. Plus in order to maintain proper dress code, I wore jeans and a tee (although most Western tourists still wear shorts and strappy shirts). I guess I should have ignored the advice in our guidebook…
After coffee we decided to visit Ben Thanh Market and look around for some gifts and lunch. The market is packed! In many places the aisles are so narrow that only one person can walk in between the stalls and many times your arms brush the merchandise. Everything you could possibly want to buy is at the market. Food stalls, fresh fruits and veggies, coffee beans, raw candies and seafood, textiles, and endless souvenirs. Some of the food smells are overwhelming; there are so many different odors mixing together in the humid air that it doesn’t always smell so delicious. We were pulled into one of the food stalls for lunch. I’m not quite sure what exactly we ordered, some sort of pho, soup with rice noodles and beef? I’m not convinced that the meat in that soup was beef… it looked more like a head cheese. We bought two bowls for 30,000 each ($1.50) and a couple of bottled waters. Customers at these food stalls just sit at the small counter connected to the stall where the food is prepared. There was a small fan blowing on us as we ate and re-hydrated.
After eating we ventured into the dense part of the market to find some gifts. The sellers are pretty aggressive. Each stall we walked by we were either spoken to – Hi, you like this? – or were even pulled by the arm by more audacious types. Bargaining is expected and each seller keeps a calculator to make communication simple – they type their price, you type yours. Now, I hate to bargain, and I am not good at it, so I didn’t. Zach did negotiate a lower price on his things, but walked away thinking he could have gotten it even lower. Next time we’ll both negotiate a little bit better. Satisfied with our purchases we decided to make our way to some of the main tourist sites in Saigon.
We stopped by Reunification Palace which was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government. Tanks eventually rolled through the iron fence to claim South Vietnam as theirs at the end of what is called here, The American War. We sat outside for a while and had some coconut milk to cool down. Unfortunately for us, the palace was closed for lunch hours – 11:30 to 1:30 – so we didn’t go inside. The palace looks exactly the same way it did in 1975 and apparently is rather eerie on the inside. Not willing to sit around, we made our way to Notre Dame, the cathedral that was built during the French occupation, which ended up also being closed until 3pm. So we made our way to The War Remnants Museum which was formerly called, Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes (ouch!). It was also still closed, but we ducked into a nearby cafe for some beers to wait until it was open.
I found the museum a bit tough to swallow. It’s incredibly one-sided. There is rarely mention of the role of South Vietnam. Clearly the museum’s theme is that America was the sole aggressor and committed mass genocide of its people. Now, I’m not going to say that the American cause was right or that America didn’t commit heinous crimes against innocent people, but you need the whole story to present a well-balanced account of what happened and that is not what this museum does. Walking through the museum I felt guilty and like everyone in the museum recognized that I was American. There are large exhibits on the effects of the different herbicides sprayed mostly in Central Vietnam, primarily Agent Orange. Photos accompany these exhibits showing the birth defects, both mental and physical, of those directly impacted. There were other exhibits on the torture suffered by both POWs in American and S. Vietnamese prisons and the senseless massacres of innocent women and children who weren’t fighting. It’s just difficult to go through all of the exhibits. I came away from the museum with mixed feelings – hatred, sorrow, and even guilt for what America had done combined with a strong defensiveness and desire for a more complete story. The museum’s main message is one of peace and forgiveness, which we have found in all of the Vietnamese people we have encountered so far, however, there are some holes in their re-telling of the war.
After the museum we walked back to our hotel to rest up, went out and had some dinner, and are now back at the hotel. Apparently the few hours of sleep we did get weren’t quite enough. Tomorrow we fly out of Saigon (to save us a day of train travel) to Da Nang in Central Vietnam where we will drive into Hoi An for the next few days.