Thursday, 23 April 2009

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City was to be our final stop in Vietnam before we made our way to Cambodia and while I was really looking forward to hitting Cambodia I was pretty sad that this was going to be our last stop on our whistle stop tour of 'Nam.

Ho Chi Minh city was unlike anywhere else we visited in Vietnam, it was hot, busy, noisy, dirty and sweaty. It's the economic capital of Vietnam and therefore is extremely built up and far more westernised than any of the other cities and towns that I visited here, for example this was the only city in Vietnam that I saw a Starbucks coffee shop. It still didn't have a Mc Donald's though which seems to be non existent in Vietnam, although there is probably one somewhere. I think the only place I can compare Ho Chi Minh to so far has to be Bangkok. While it is no where near the size and intensity of Bangkok it definitely has a similar south east Asian urban jungle feel to it with a slightly schizophrenic mix of eastern and western values and traditions all merging into one.

One of the nicest things for me about getting to Ho Chi Minh City was the fact were were back on the backpacker/hostel trail again. Other than Hanoi our entire journey down through Vietnam had been spent in hotels where there is very little social interaction with other travelers as you have private rooms, private bathrooms and no real communal area. This meant there was instantly more of a buzz about the place as for the first time in several weeks we were surrounded by other people from all over the world, it was great. By some excellent twist of fate most of my room was made of people who wanted/worked in film and TV. Obviously there was myself and Tommy with our BA's in Film Production, there was Liz a girl from Amsterdam about to start a documentary course and then Jason, from Italy, a sound assistant who had just finished filming Angels and Demons and had also worked on a few Wes Anderson films. Was quality and just general good luck, we all hit it off and ventured out into the city to get some food.

On our first day in the city I headed to the Ho Chi Minh city art gallery. I don't think that was its actual name but it was basically a gallery containing works of art from artists all over Vietnam, most of the the pieces of art there were to do with the war as well as a few artifacts left over form the war. I don't mind going round art galleries and as a trip to an art gallery was something I was yet to do on this trip I was up for going (It was Liz's idea). It is just I am not really much of a fan of your classical art of standard portraits and landscapes and just find them fairly boring. While I have no real clue about art I know what I like when I see it and portraits and landscapes I do not. While I probably sound like some sort of horrendous uneducated Philistine I tend to think that there are a lot of great painters out there so tend to look a your standard painting with great deal of apathy and almost a "nice painting seen it before attitude".

We wasted nearly a whole day here trying sort out our Thai visas. We didn't know how long we were going to be in Thailand for the 2nd time round but thought we would probably be there longer than the 15 day visa you get form entering the country by land. However we didn't really have the money to enter the country by air to get the 30 day visa which would definitely cover all the time we would want to spend in Thailand. We had heard that the Thai embassy was giving out free 60 days visas in advance as a way of the boosting the economy after all the problems they had with the airport take over in late December, so we decided this wa the best option in terms of covering our time in Thailand. The thing is we didn't do any research into how you had to go about getting the visa so wasted half a day sorting it all out.

When we first got there it turned out that they needed proof for some reason that we were going to Cambodia as that was the country we were going to be entering Thailand from (?!). No idea why they needed to know that, so after paying for the taxi there we then had to get another taxi to find a place where we could buy our bus tickets to Cambodia from. Once we had done this went back to the Embassy only to then find out we need 2 passport photos which none of us had. Another taxi ride later we were back at a place next to our hostel which took passport photos and got them taken there. While everywhere else we had ever been has been has been able to process the photos instantly this places wanted us to wait an hour before we could pick them up. MISSION, So we decided to grab a coffee and have a chill out for an hour after all the running about we had done while we waited for our photos to be developed. We eventually got our photos done and once again headed back to the embassy to finally complete the visa process, 5 hours after we had started a fairly straight forward process.

The night life in Ho Chi Minh city was pretty good and we were staying right in the heart of it. I wasn't really in a clubbing mood while I was there so spent most of our time in the numerous bars that were on offer around our hostel. Once the bars started to close we ended up spending a huge amount of time in an American pool hall over the other side of the park just near where we were staying. This was a right laugh and the 4 of us rocked up to the surprise of all the Vietnamese pool players and spent the next few hours shooting pool. There were a lot of drunk Vietnamese there which gave them the confidence to come up to us and start asking questions about who we were and where we were from. It was an interesting night and another little insight into the life of the Vietnamese by night.

We went back there again the next night but unfortunately on the way there things took a turn for the worse when Jason ended up getting pick pocketed by some little Vietnamese weasel. Jason (foolishly in my opinion) had all is stuff in a bum bag around his waste. This is asking for trouble as while you would think it was safer than in a pocket, all your stuff is displayed right around your waist showing any potential thief where all your valuables are. This little man came from no where and started asking Jason if he wanted a massage, showing him a leaflet on Jason's left. While this distracted Jason the thief unzipped the bumbag on Jason's right and went off with his camera. By the time Jason realised the guy had vanished on the back of his mates motorbike. It was an awful few minutes as Jason came to terms with what had just happened. The worst things about it all though was that Jason had only brought the camera that morning. Gutted. Obviously not wanting this to ruin all our nights I persuaded Jason that the best thing he could do now is have a nice relaxing game of pool and try forget about the muggy bastard that just stole his camera, he agreed.

Possibly the best thing I did whilst I was in Ho Chi Minh was visit the War Remnants Museum. It was made up of 5 or 6 different buildings all housing different types of displayss and themes. For example the first was all about the start and end of the war and the difference between the 2 sides in terms of money spent and lives lost amongst other things. There was also a building dedicated to the war photography of the war. This was quality and some of the pictures on display were unreal, like the body of a suspected Veit Cong fighter being thrown out of a American helicopter. The worst building was building number 3 which had all the pictures and memorabilia of all the awful things the American's did to the Vietnamese civilians during the war. The worst thing was the pictures of all the "Agent Orange" victims, the chemical weapon that America repeatedly used on the Vietnamese. It was just picture after picture of horrible mutations. The worst bit was 2 real deformed babies that were in famalgahide in a display case. You just came out of there hating America. I can't imagine what it must be like for an American to go round the museum. It just highlighted throughout history how America just seems to be able to do whatever the fuck it wants and get away with it, I just don't understand it. One thing worth mentioning is that until 1993 the War Remnants Museum was called "The American War crimes museum" a name which I think is a lot more fitting. In the short 2 hours I spent there I think my perception of America was changed forever and made me think even more about the ridiculous situation that went on and is still going on in Iraq.

I think to some extent Ho Chi Minh was one of the highlights of my time in Vietnam trip partly because it was just a big city with plenty gong on but also due to things I got up there. It was my last stop in Vietnam and while I was sad to be leaving I couldn't wait for Cambodia as from what I have read and heard so far the place sounds mental.

So that's one more country down, on to country number 4!







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