Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

 - Vietnam's Exciting City

Yours Truly in front of the Hotel de Villa in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is to Hanoi as NYC is to Washington DC, or as Shanghai is to Beijing. Hanoi may be the capitol of the country with its politics and regulators, but HCMC is the capitol of culture, nightlife, entertainment, food, business and young, diverse people.

The Four Traveler's with
the statue of Ho Chi Minh
Oddly, HCMC boasts his name, but Ho Chi Minh never set foot in HCMC. He spent many years traveling the world (including several years as a dishwasher in the USA) while he refined his ideas about Vietnamese independence and political organization, but he never visited the southern part of his own country or the city that now bears his name.

We arrived in HCMC during the last days of Tet and the city at night is decorated with lights. Actually, the whole Central City looks like New Year's Eve in Times Square, NYC. Interestingly, many of the various street light displays are sponsored by beer companies, including Budweiser, which sponsored one of the most elaborate displays.

Saigon Central Post Office engineered
by Gustavo Eiffel
Our first day in the south of the country was spent exploring Saigon (which is the name used by the locals in speech, but not in print).......a long walk down the main avenue, which is laid out much like Las Ramblas in Barcelona. A visit to Hotel de Villa, the main Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the Opera House.....all built over 100 years ago by the French in the French Colonial-style. In fact, the Central Post Office was designed and engineered by Gustavo Eiffel. We took a rest-stop at mid-morning on the top floor, open garden, at the Rex Hotel. This was the American Officers Club during the Vietnam War. A visit to some open-air markets for "knock-off watches" and other souvenirs, and then a visit to a serious place.......The American War Remnants Museum (which was formerly called The American War Crimes Museum).

I visited this place 20 years ago on my first trip to Vietnam, and the Museum is much improved physically, but still tells the same story about the brutality of war, which was the one constant in Vietnam from 1954 to 1979. The nation of Vietnam was forged by Ho Chi Minh in combat with the French, the Americans/South Vietnamese, the Chinese and the Khmer Rouge. Having succeeded in overcoming all of these obstacles, the government has built this museum to preserve, for future generations, these memories.

Inlaid Chest in the home of our lunch hosts on the banks of the Mekong River

The museum is part propaganda (i.e. Our enemies were of low character and brutal) and uplifting (i.e. Our people went to incredible lengths to secure their freedom). The accusations against America and the American soldier are more subtle than they were 20 years ago when the place was called The American War Crimes Museum. They no longer show a short film showing American soldiers throwing old women out of helicopters in order to get others in the village to tell the location of Viet Cong soldiers, but they surely show the inter-generational effects or Agent Orange, Carpet Bombing and use of napalm. Forgetting the propaganda, this place is a sobering experience.

Local Musicians on the Mekong River Delta

This museum forces you to think about American action out here. Too often criticism of American action here is blamed on the American soldier. I think this is a mistake. By and large, they did the job they were sent here to do......and, with a few exceptions, they did it admirably; over 55,000 lost their lives in carrying out this mission. The American public, in my opinion, did not treat the Vietnam veterans properly when they came home; blaming them for defeat and making them their outlet for frustration and anger. That anger and frustration should have been directed at our political leadership (i.e. President Johnson/Secretary McNamara and their phony Gulf of Tonkin "incident," and President Nixon/Secretary Kissinger and their "secret plan" to end the war that never materialized, or President Nixon's outburst to bomb Hanoi back into the Stone Age.)

The Four Traveler's with
the statue of Ho Chi Minh
The next day we're off to the countryside and the Mekong River Delta. The Mekong River starts in Tibet, runs through Myanmar (Burma), along the Thai/Laos border, through Cambodia, into Vietnam, finally emptying into the South China Sea. It is, and has been, a major artery for commerce throughout Southeast Asia. It is where the Americans first injected American fighting troops that grew to around a million soldiers at any one time (approximately 12 million overall). It is a great source of food....orchards, rice patties, fish.....for much of southern Vietnam.

Floating market on the Mekong
We got out on the Mekong River in a small boat, visiting a traditional community, visiting a floating market, and having lunch in a family home along the river. Out and away from city-life is the best way to hear and see the rhythms of a place....and the people of the Mekong have their own sights, smells and rhythms.

Some of you have asked how we plan for a trip like this....we don't; Madeline Ramer does all the planning. This is the fourth trip extraordinaire that Ilene and I have done with Bruce and Madeline.....China, India, Africa and now the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. She researches, reads and plans the trip for about a year before we go. Each trip has been memorable and fantastic.

Wonderful whole fish for lunch on the Mekong River

Two examples of her care to details. In Saigon, we stayed at The Reverie, a brand new hotel that was beyond anything I've ever seen. To describe the rare marbles and Marano glass fixtures would take a book by itself. Suffice it to say, this was the fanciest hotel I've ever seen.

The second memorable detail was arranging for tickets to an acrobatic performance by native Vietnamese at the Saigon Opera House; a performance a la Circus Soleil ....it was fascinating.

The Dunkin Donut Man, Saigon style

Before we left Saigon, Miss Ilene found the silk and leather shops....good quality goods at a reasonable price....and Ilene did her damage.

Now we are off to Siem Reap and the Temple Complex at Angkor Wat.

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