We made our way to Saigon by plane on an early flight after an early departure from our hotel in Hoi An flying from Danang. The weather was definitely warmer and incredibly humid in the capital city. You could tell it was far more cosmopolitan than the previous places that we had visited really and certainly not as quaint I felt. The room was wonderfully (and thankfully) air conditioned and a welcome relief from the sweat central heat of outside – with only such a short visit there was no chance my body was going to acclimatise in time!! It was quite a stark contrast to the previous temperatures that we had been in.
After about 10 mins in our rooms we were back downstairs for a walking tour and lunch out. I didn’t really feel the vibe of the city – it was quite hard to work out my bearings in general but with little more than 48 hours we did a pretty grand job of shoving everything in, well the major sights. There seemed to be even more bloomin mopeds on the streets and passing through the city from the airport was eye opening watching all of the mopeds at all of the traffic lights stops. Obviously being a much larger city there were bound to be more but it just felt as there were even more as the streets were wider than they were in say, Hanoi.
We headed out to wander the streets to see the sights and first off was to grab some lunch. The weather really was stifling and I was struggling a little, downing water like there was no tomorrow. Unsure of what to have to eat as I was always wary of ordering something that had the jolly old bell pepper lurking in it. I decided to go with another Cao Lau which I had chosen back in Hoi An and which was utterly delicious – Japanese style noodles seasoned with herbs, salad greens and bean sprouts, served with a slice or two of roast pork. I knew what it was & I couldn’t really go wrong with that choice. HOW WRONG COULD I BE??!!
Unfortunately my dish was a little dissimilar to the version that I had in Hoi An and most importantly atop of the dish was delicately placed a prawn in its shell still. This was not mentioned on the menu at all and Hung was excellent at explaining to the restaurant why I. Could not have the dish and how they simply couldnt just take it off the top and I eat the remainder of it. After much. Agitated discussion the dish was taken away and was being remade without the prawn on the top. I was incredibly suspicious of the second version and I was adamant that there was still prawn in it. Hung reassured me that the restaurant had promised that there was none in the replacement. I kind of had to take his word for it and so had a few mouthfuls before declaring that I really wasn’t that hungry after all and that it was probably because of the heat.
We walked past the People’s Committee Building which we, as tourists, were unable to enter. Its style was French colonial of course looking similar to a sort of Hotel de Ville as you would see in France. At one end of it is a huge statue of Uncle Ho and the other a ole Thor’s of construction where the proposed central city station will be for the new Metro station that is slowly being built/created in the city.
Other sites that we passed on our walk were the Opera House, which is near to the construction of the new metro system. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral which was a rose brick colour and built between 1877 and 1883. Its based in an area of the city known as the city’s government quarter. Being so close after New Year and so close to Tet, we did find that most of the places that we were keen to see the inside of were not actually open, I think I would have liked the opportunity to explore the city a little more I have to say. The impressive towers of the cathedral, Hung told us were around 40m high and the top bits are iron spires. Its still an operating Catholic Church. The Central Post Office we did get an opportunity to look inside of and it was fascinating – a HUGE portrait of Uncle Ho (obviously) took the main position and line of sight as you entered the building.
I’m not sure that I could honestly say that it was the highlight of the day, more the most poignant part of the day was the visit to the War Remnants Museum which we had already been advised in our trip notes was to give us a very different version of the Vietnam (American) War than that depicted by the Americans. It was a gruelling visit. But a very. Necessary one to fully appreciate the more recent history of the country. It was already sweltering and I was feeling incredibly feint walking around all of the halls of the artefacts that were on display as well as the mass of photos of the atrocities in the other areas of the country during the 60s. The after effects of the chemical warfare and the clarification../realisation that actually millions died in this country for, as far as I could tell, very little reason what so ever. The descendants of those that were hit or came into contact with the napalm and other chemicals that the Americans exposed millions of Vietnamese to are still disfigured and disabled to some degree. Seeing some of the images of those that were effected first hand were disturbing to say the least but yet one wanted to soak it all in to truly understand the utter atrocities that took place in this beautiful country.
I couldn’t do all of the rooms, too emotional and was starting to feel not just too hot but really quite unwell. I came outside and perched with a bottle of water out of the sun and watched an American dressed in American clothes, many apologies to any American readers, sort of all saluting to and in praise of the army who spent a good 10-15 mins setting up a camera to take a photo of himself all thumbs up happy smiley posing next to the American built F-5E just that was used to bombs he Presidential Palace in 1975 and sits in the courtyard area of the museum. I felt sick. I mean I did anyway but I couldn’t honestly believe what I was seeing. It was certainly NOT the act of compassion or understanding of the atrocities and frankly murder or millions of innocent civilians in this country. I was INCREDIBLY close to going up to him and saying how inappropriate his actions were, but if Im honest I thought I might actually have thrown up all over him my stomachs was starting to churn something chronic.
We made it back to our rooms to freshen up etc before all heading out to supper – mainly tot he delicious sounding restaurant around the corner that Hung had suggested and booked for us all. Whilst ‘freshening up’ the idea of ANYTHING passing my lips at this stage bar itsy bitsy teeny weeny sips of water made me nauseous and I had spent quite a while not more than a step away from the bathroom. There was absoloulty NO WAY that there was no prawn in the second version of the lunchtime dish. This was typical of a shell fish reaction – GET OUT OF MY BODY by ANY means possible and via any entrance or exit point. Im present sure that I do not need to go into much detail. I binned the idea of going out for the meal and went through a FREEZING cold stage where i was literally shivering in my room, had ALL the clothes I had with me on pretty much in the bed, air-con off & I COULD NOT get warm. It was 33 degrees outside and yet I felt like I was in the arctic. I decided to have a bath, that might relax me if not warm me up. I sat in it as it filled up so that my body could get used to the heat, my body was BRIGHT pink front he heat of the water yet STILL I was shivering. Safe to say that I was NOT in a good way. I was really quite concerned and had decided that if it didn’t subside by the morning I really would have o go to hospital to get checked out as this was not actually funny. What with he head cold as well for the majority of the holiday I just felt like a massive bundle of feebleness.
I put out an emergency call for Imodium for the following morning as I was really looking forward to the day ahead but it was ALL on little boats out on the Mekong River and I honestly had no idea what to do if it continued into tomorrow as I couldn’t possibly make the trip out.
At some point I must have got to sleep, how Ive not idea and why, in hindsight, I didn’t just go and stand in the corridor outside my room which had no air on in it I have no idea! That surely would have warmed me up?!
A route via a stop in Kuala Lumper in Malaysia was how I finally made my way to my latest overseas adventure. Identified one of the group in the seat behind me on the second leg and we were met at the airport having made our way through both immigration and collected our luggage successfully without too much hassle. I’m sure when I checked I needed to get a visa to enter Vietnam & so had the extra sheet of paper which clearly wasn’t at all necessary after all but had sent my new travel buddy into a small panic as he had no paperwork re a visa. Ah well, better to be safe than sorry I say!
Arrived at the Anise Hotel about 2.30pm desperate to sleep but also, not wanting to knowing how badly I’d then sleep in the evening. I showered & managed about a 20 min power nap before venturing out to try familiarising myself with the locality of the hotel & what amenities we had close by. Having failed to have changed any money into dollars prior to my trip I was on the hunt for an ATM. I found two and was rather panicked that neither would accept my card. I was moneyless in a foreign country & felt very very vulnerable. I realised that despite all my prior research to the trip we in the guide book we were actually MUCH closer than I had initially anticipated to the Old Quarter. I was grateful to Mike (off of the Cambodia trip last year) for the introduction of maps.me which I recommend strongly as you can drop pins on where you are at a particular point in time and name them what you want etc. (helpful hint – download the map that you need on wifi and then you can use it off line as it works on GPS.)
Our initial meeting of the tour to tell us a little about Vietnam & to meet the others that would become companions for the rest of the trip, was held on the top floor of the hotel where the restaurant was – the 11th floor and only one away from my room. I’d say the views out were stunning but, as it was dark I’d have to wait until morning to find out. Already one of the ladies was clearly sticking out as one that would irritate not only me but the majority of the group in the fullness of time. Not listening to what our guide (Hung) was saying EVER & then asking him to repeat it as she didn’t hear. The temptation to point out to her & her friend the obvious was clearly going to come out of my mouth at some point this holiday without my being able to do ANYTHING about it.
Supper was a set menu in a delicious restaurant very close to the hotel called 5 Spice. Negotiating the puddles, pedestrians & potholes in themselves was quite some feat but add in the scooters factor and oh dear god – NIGHTMARE! I was catered for so that despite the set menu I was able to eat as the meals were tweaked accordingly, I was very impressed, and there was beer. Much needed beer.
Our first walking tour was in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which was good as it was nailing it down with rain as we first walked out. Negotiating the traffic for every direction and of every form is something of an art form. In the UK we have pedestrian crossings painted on the ground and only on a few occasions do cars ignore them. Here THAT is the norm but it’s scooters, 15 years ago it would have been bicycles and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more cars on the roads here in 20 or so years. Hung told us that the average car price for nothing fancy was $25,000. In my book that’s A LOT when the average wage is around $150-200 a month. But there would be no room for them all anyway were they to start becoming more affordable. With the rain beating down they were all wearing ponchos that have a see through rectangle at the front that covers the handlebars and lights and so on. Clever. Here was one lady using the same that I spotted on a bicycle.
The historic Old Quarter was a maze of packed streets that were an explosion on the senses with the noise of the scooters to the smog from their engines. The sidewalks are crammed with parked scooters and the small shops were stuffed full of a plethora of goods which often spilled out and onto the side walk, then you have the shopkeepers making their simple meals on the pavements too – some selling food and some just creating for themselves. You have the street sellers passing with fruits freshly picked and presented in bamboo baskets and sellers on scooters with a record player shouting out what they were selling as they slowly made their ways down the streets. Food hygiene leaves A LOT to be desired and although Hung kept telling us the food would be ok but the issue with the hygiene would be more to do with how they washed the plates and so on rather than perhaps the food itself. We had heard their staple breakfast was a duck embryo boiled and still in the shell of the egg. None of us were keen to try, a step to far in my book. None the less Hung got one for himself and we all stood round in the rain as he showed us how it was prepared and how it was eaten from a street seller. My stomach churned and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!
We continued through the streets taking in the sights and sounds, dodging the scooters from all angles. We passed what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city originally dating from the 11th century but the current building dates from the 18th century. Bach Ma was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To honour a white horse that led him to this very site where he chose to construct his city walls that now has evolved into this fascinating city.
Despite there, of course, being a number of other areas to the city I enjoyed spending the short amount of time that we had in this city just familiarising myself with the organised chaos of the Old Quarter. It felt all a bit too much on first view but once you got used to the different pace & way of life, I really rather liked it.
North Face jackets were on every street corner, blatant knock offs – some looked good & some looked & felt frankly shocking. None the less I wasn’t about to buy one for the sake of it. I don’t need one back at home & I had a perfectly decent pac-a-mac with me (nothing remotely like Mr Flatman’s almost famous black bin bag coat I hasten to add).
Popping out of the Old Quarter by the Hoan Kiem Lake we met our bus which would be swooping us up and ferrying us away from the hustle and bustle of the street and the peace of a bus – all kitted our with WiFi – too as we headed off through the busy traffic to the complex where we would see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and other sites on the complex. It was all rather surreal as you were literally allowed nothing as you walked around – everything had to be handed in and you were walked like working ants from the ticket office to the Mausoleum itself and encouraged just to keep walking around the frail body of Uncle Ho. I’m JUST not sure if it was/is him lying there or not?! He’s of course been embalmed (in Russia apparently where he returns for a month every year for ‘maintenance’) and lies in a sarcophagus surrounded by guards who are members of the National Army who were all wearing the ceremonial dress of white (this included white wellie boots which made me think of fish mongers or butchers) and we all thought that honestly they looked a little ridiculous – not that I was about to tell them that! It looked like they were cheap as sh*te sets from a fancy dress store rather than OFFICIAL uniform. I was pulled along at one point – still not quite sure why. A member of the group was asked to take her glasses off – they were those dark ones that turn into dark glasses and they had ‘gone dark’ and another was pointed at as we shuffled past as he had his hands in his pockets. The whole area was an open expanse and traffic free and you could tell that there has been a soviet influence in the design as there is plenty of opportunity for parades in front of the Mausoleum. What makes me so angry about it all with the pomp & ceremony is that it’s clearly been stated on a number of occasions that actually Uncle Ho was not in favour at all – his dying wish was that his ashes be scattered in a number of locations the length of the country. We also saw the stilt house where he actually lived in the gardens, he chose this over the Presidential Palace whenever he was in the city. It’s been preserved just as he left it and sits on a pond FULL of koi carp. The actual Presidential Palace is still used today and so visitors are unable to go inside of it but it’s a bright sort of orangey yellow colour and immediately reminded me of the building up on the hill as you drive out of the centre of Bristol on the M32. Apparently all of the presidential palaces are this colour throughout the country.
Our first stop of the day was to the Royal Palace which is where the current King is usually in residence. The flag was up as it is when the Queen is in residence back in the UK but I think I’ve heard on 3 different occasions that the King left for his seaside residence for new year on the train yesterday. Here we needed to be appropriately dressed, no short shorts and no shoulders showing – no need for long sleeves as I’d packed for as t-shirts will do thankfully. I’d kind of imagined the necessity of covering all skin as much as possible not just the bare minimum. I guess that as it’s so hot in the height of their summer visitors would be wearing very little as even though it’s their winter it’s still a tad sticky.
Sadly, despite being pretty warm the sky was overcast so the photos don’t perhaps look as spectacular as they could. It’s an impressive complex within the gated walls and thankfully the large majority of it has survived the Khmer Regime of the late 70s. During that period the King was kept under house arrest, not allowed out for any visits to his people as he is known for.
The Silver Pagoda was another beauty, again photos of the interior were banned sadly. Not silver in appearance from the outside however, so named because of the remarkable floor which is laid in silver tiles each weighing 1kg in weight and there are 5000 of them! Covered in carpet in the main and visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entrance there are parts of the carpet peeled back for you so see the beautiful floor. The building was rebuilt in 1962 as the first building here was from wood in 1892. The contents are simply stunning despite being massively depleted in number since the regime when a large percentage of the contents were stolen or destroyed. The main highlight is the Emerald Green Buddha thought to be made of Baccarat crystal which sits a top a guided pedestal. Also, which was rather impressive, was the life sized gold Buddha which is decorated with 2086 diamonds, the largest of which is in the crown and is a whopping 25 carats. It was created in the palace workshops here and weighs approximately 90kg. The steps leading to this treasure-trove is made of Italian Marble, and although still early in the day a nice cooling sensation on the feet!
Being the official residence of King Sihamoni there are only a few buildings actually open to the public. The Throne Hall being the main one is tipped by a 59 Meter high tower which was inspired by the Bayon at Angkor an tod was inaugurated by the king in 1919. It’s used for coronations and ceremonies such as the presentation of credentials to diplomats. Whilst the building was kept in tact as I mentioned by the Khmer Rouge the contents of some of the buildings that were on display were destroyed. You weren’t allowed to take photos of the room itself. It was long and had a splendid full length carpet in the same style of the mosiac on the floor surrounding the room. The throne as you can imagine was incredibly ornate and golden and the ceilings were adorned with paintings of a Cambodian story similar to an English one (at this moment I can’t remember what it was). To the right of the Throne Room was a separate house that is still used for meetings today that was also where the King would once alight the elephants – his chosen mode of transport for centuries for when he went out to the countryside to visit his people, however clearly modern modes of transport are more viable in this day and age!
The Silver Pagoda complex itself is surrounded by a mural depicting the classic Indian epic of Reamker (as it’s known in Cambodia). Created in around 1900 there are many parts of it that were destroyed or defaced during the Khmer Rouge regime. There are also several stupas within the complex which are shrines, ashes of the deceased are kept inside them one housing the previous King in a stupa dedicated to his 4 year old daughter.
Just before the exit was the Elephant Room which had a whole load of the seats that the various kings and dignitaries would have sat in over the years on top of the elephants. Some were more ornate than others as you would expect. Quite strange in a city so full of mopeds to think that elephants were once the choice of transport for the royalty.
From here we headed to the National Museum of Cambodia which we could have actually walked to from the hotel if needed as it was just round the corner, I’d stumbled across it the previous evening on a stroll having had a tactical nap and shower after the flight over. It’s a terracotta coloured building built in the early 20th century with a beautiful courtyard garden. The sculptures from across the centuries are in chronological order and we had our own guide that showed us round with our own commentary. It seemed that the majority of the pieces had come from Angkor Wat and surrounding temples which kind of made you wonder of the was actually anything of any significance left at the sites! Many Buddha, Vishnu, Shiva, Laksmi statues, enough to make you feel some what lackadaisical about them come the end of the tour. I’m sure that they will feel more beautiful and relevant when we see any at the temples themselves later on in the week. The religion in Cambodia is a real mid of Hindu and Buddhism as far as I can work out, quite confusing initially to be seeing Vishnu statues in a country I thought was Buddhist bit according to our guide they celebrate all gods. Buddha is seen usually in 4 different forms, teaching, meditating, and I can’t remember the other two (will fill in later!) and we saw enough of each in the museum to sink a ship!! It was getting ridiculously hot by this stage but we still had one more thing to visit before our lunch stop Wat Phnom which we got back on the bus to head out to.
Wat Phnom is the only ‘hill’ in the city standing at 27m high on top of which is a Buddhist temple and multiple shrines at which there were many of the locals laying gifts to Buddha and to other gods as it is new year this evening. Lions and naga (a mythical serpent) adorn the eastern staircase which was how we accessed the temple. Many of the locals come here to wish for good luck and if it comes true then return to bestow gifts to the gods such as lotus flowers, fruit, suckling pig (this might have been an exception to the rule tho!) they also set free birds to take away their bad luck (they often return to the cages as they are trained to so the guide book tells me). It was ridiculously busy and there were numerous beggars and so on trying to sell us things with signs in English about how they are trying to make a living. On the one hand one wanted to buy abut the cautious soul in me avoided like the plague, mindful of tourist scams and the fact that is then be surrounded by others trying to sell me similar things.
Lunch was on route to our afternoon cultural activity that I was mentally preparing myself for. I tried the fish amok as recommended by H to try as it was delicious. Made with quite a meaty white fish it’s a very flagrant mild current with a lot of lemongrass. I rather liked it – for a fish dish!