It is HCMC or Ho Chi Minh City now, but the Vietnamese still call it Saigon and call themselves Saigonese.
Saigon has been one of the places in my must-visit list and it was surprising that not too many people share that sentiment about this country made famous by a war. It took a year to gather friends who would be willing to go to an adventure, as most friends would rather spend on a trip of pleasure.
Saigon didn’t disappoint us, and even surprised us with sights and insights you do not find anywhere else.
About three hours from Saigon is the Tay Ninh Holy See, or Cao Dai Temple, the center of the Cao Dai Religion. This religion was established in Vietnam in 1926 and now counts two to three million followers scattered in Vietnam, Cambodia, France, and US.
The Temple has nine levels, representing the nine steps to heaven. Black, scaly dragons wrap the pink columns supporting the ceiling painted like a summer sky. These columns mark the beginning and end of each level, and served as the boundary for how far the tourists could go.
At the end of the hall is the altar which looks like a globe with an eye. Elders offered incense here. Tourists are not allowed to walk or even stand, much less shoot a picture, at the middle section of the hall, even outside worship hours.
Cu Chi Tunnel
The Cu Chi Tunnel was Vietnam’s secret weapon against the Americans. It was a 250- kilometer underground tunnel network that stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border. The Cu Chi tunnels served as hospitals, command centers, living areas, kitchen, and supplies storage during the Vietnam War.
The Cu Chi Tunnel is not for everyone. First of all, you enter the tunnel crouched and never get a chance to stand straight until you get out. There are lamps at ankle level; but they are few and far between, and their light is faint. Body heat and the earth’s heat combine to make it very warm inside, even though it was raining outside.
After 25 meters, tourists decide whether to take the exit or go on. The next exit, which also wraps up the tour, is at 100 meters.
The next 75 meters was not for the unfit. There was a four-foot drop. And then an ascent, where the ceiling is too low, you have to crawl to move on. Past that drop and climb are long stretches of darkness, and the next light you see is that of the exit, 100 meters from the entrance.
Our guide says that during the Vietnam War, there wasn’t a single light source in the tunnel. The Vietnamese soldiers brought oil lamps with them whenever they go inside. Gee, I worried about my own weight, and those soldiers had to carry an oil lamp and a rifle, and breathe the soot and endure more heat from the oil lamp.
The Tunnels must have been more punishing for the bigger-built Americans whose shoulders alone could easily span the original width of the Tunnels. Perhaps those who were too big for the Tunnels might have been better off. The labyrinthine Cu Chi Tunnels, is easily a booby trap for the unfamiliar.
The tour takes you through six buildings that house tanks, planes, bombs, photos, and other war memorabilia. Since it wasn’t too easy to understand what the guide was saying, my friend, Tonette Alegria and I decided to go around by ourselves and shoot photos as much as the time allowed.
Motorcycles by the millions
Friends and websites were not kidding with their warning on motorcycles. We saw for ourselves how motorcycles outnumbered all other forms of transportation in Saigon. It was a common sight to see motorcycles taking up two out of three lanes of the road.
According to our guide, there are four million motorcycles in Saigon, a city of eight million people. We also learned that there was no need for a license if the motorcycle is less than 50 cc.
Also called Independence Palace, the tour here was the quickest we did, and the least we enjoyed. Imagine going through dozens of rooms located in five floors, in only two hours. I wish we had more time to take in the rooms and let the sense of history sink in. There was a map room that detailed the contingencies from various countries, yes, including the Philippines. The telegraph room gave the feeling of time travel, in this era of mobile phones. Like our Malacañang, the cavernous reception rooms were nothing short of awesome displays of the finest furniture and art. The tank outside is a replica of the tank that crashed through its gates in 1975, marking the end of the Vietnam War, and paving the way for the reunification of North and South Vietnam. Every corner, every item has a share in the history of Vietnam, but there was just too little time.
Notre Dame Cathedral
The blue skies and feathery clouds made our last morning all the more beautiful, and they were a perfect backdrop for the century-old Notre Dame Cathedral. Like some of the old churches in Manila, part of its walls and floors hold marble slabs etched with names of the dearly departed. Devotees lighting up candles was a common sight, too.
But what I would probably remember most was, it was at the Notre Dame Cathedral where we got ‘lost.’ We were here when we felt the urge to try the local Jollibee. It took three cabs before we got a ride. The first two drivers didn’t know. The third cab driver did his best, even calling the office to ask for directions. One hour and so many turns later, we were still nowhere near the fast food restaurant. We decided to return to the hotel.” We found six outlets. Armed with that list, we showed it to the front desk to ask help in choosing the nearest one.
Before this trip, I never thought that a post office could be a tourist attraction. It could be that souvenirs are sold here in air conditioned comfort, at the same prices they are sold at the Binh Tay Market. But perhaps it is also the beautiful interior and exterior of the building.
“Are you an American?”
There was an American family in our group who were touring a friend from the US. The patriarch was a Vietnam vet who stayed after the war was over, and started a family in Saigon. After a few hours that we have been together in the tour, the more gregarious daughter asked, in quick succession: “Are you an American? Were you born in America?” They were surprised to learn that English is the medium of instruction in the Philippines.
Save for the US dollar, Americana was conspicuously missing in Vietnam. Very few understand English, and much fewer are able to speak it. There was no McDonald’s at all. Quick meals are available from ambulant vendors selling coconut juice, boiled peanuts, boiled egg, sliced fruits, ripe banana, and the like. Hot noodle soup is sold from what looks like the corner carinderia back home.
I also remember missing the sunset. It was summer; but for four days, daylight would fade to mark the end of the day and that was it. A far cry from the dramatic sunsets almost anywhere in the Philippines. Hmm, it is really time to go home.
Ho Chi Minh City guide
Saigon city tour - Full day