“Yooh! Buy something.” is what the hawkers in their weird ninja masks shout at tourists, tapping them on the arm in case they fail to get the message.
The entrepreneurial activity is all-pervading:
“This one costs 5,000 dong, that one is 15,000” grinned a cheeky little street urchin hawking maps.
“Why the different price?” a visitor asked. Both maps were the same size, one showing Vietnam, the other Indochina.
“Easy. One country 5,000 dong, so three countries 15,000 dong. You want me sell you book on maths too, mister?”
According to Fodor's, Saigon is easy to fall in love with. If you are drawn to abusive relationships then this might just be the case, but otherwise it’s a complete fallacy. One of the world’s most densely populated cities, Saigon delivers such an immediate assault on the senses that many travellers are prompted to an immediate retreat to laidback Laos.
This is a bit of a shame, as Saigon has, if not much to offer, then at least more than most visitors ever see, due to them writing the place off and fleeing. Saigon takes time to get used to, thanks to its rapacious commercialism and to the ferocious traffic that forces you to learn a new way of crossing a road – recruit a guinea pig to go first and then follow them, in prayer. A typical Saigon driver’s attitude is best encapsulated as “why use the brake when you have a horn?”
Hardly anyone calls the place by its official name Hoh Chi Minh. Just as Paris will always be Paris, not ‘Charles de Gaulle City’, Saigon looks set to retain its original name.
The attempted replacement, which smacks of the totalitarianism that herded post-war residents into re-education camps, comes from the North Vietnamese hero with the personality cult. Billboards displaying the face of Ho Chi Minh pervade the city and much of the nation. One can only wonder whether the spirit of the communist HCM, as it gazes down from his posters all around, is as impressed with capitalistic modern Vietnam as modern Vietnam professes to be impressed by him.
The number one top tourist attraction near Saigon is the Cu Chi tunnel complex, used by North Vietnamese guerrillas as a shelter and base. Complete with gruesome booby traps and man-snares, Cu Chi commands more attention than all of Saigon’s other draws combined. It’s a bit like defining London in terms of the dungeons of the Tower. 24,000 Vietnamese died in these tunnels, most of them buried alive after being bombed, in the words of the US Air Force General responsible, ‘back to the stone age’. The Americans far from had it all their own way in this most ghastly form of warfare: the mind can scarcely imagine the terror of the GI’s as they searched the tunnels, expecting at any moment to be impaled on the spikes of a booby trap. The tunnels have now been widened to accommodate Western frames, but in the past they were often deliberately narrow, so that only Vietnamese could pass, not the larger-framed GI’s, who would be trapped in killing chambers and eliminated in a variety of gruesome ways. This morbid fascination with the long-ago war shows no sign of abating, which is a bit of a shame for Saigon’s sake, as the city dubiously dubbed ‘the soul of Vietnam’ has a number of, if not spectacular, then at least worthwhile sights.
Consider, for instance, Notre Dame Cathedral, the one near Saigon Post Office that is, which was built from Marseilles brick and Chartres stained-glass windows. Reunification Palace, where the south surrendered to the north, is equally impressive, in a football stadium kind of way.
The splendidly named Jade Emperor Pagoda, which is an active place of worship, has a touch of class too, serving as a stage for an array of statues of a-list Vietnamese figures. Watch out for fertility goddess Kim Hua, marooned in an anteroom. The main stars are the King of Hell and, naturally, the Jade Emperor, aka the ‘god of the heavens’. This Emperor, who devoted his life to vanquishing evil, needs to raise his game, judging by the nation’s dark past, which is exposed in gory detail at the War Remnants Museum.
It’s best to have a hotel booked before you arrive, as finding one with the ‘help’ of a Saigon taxi driver will likely be a somewhat less than enjoyable experience. He will quite likely pretend that he doesn’t understand words like ‘Sheraton’ and take you on a tour of some of the seediest dives on the planet, where windowless rooms are advertised by the hour as well as by the night. Grey linen, living carpets and smoke-scented curtains compete for your disgust with toilets that are in cubicles so small that you will be forced to sit sideways. The problem is that your driver picks these ‘hotels’ as they are situated in urban wastelands with no escape other than the back of his taxi, thus ensuring that he is in a strong position when negotiating the fee for your escape. But even after you have agreed to his exorbitant fee you won’t have actually escaped, as your driver will then take you to another hovel for a repeat performance. If you have been hijacked by a taxi, one escape is to bail out at some traffic lights. Pick a fairly busy and populated intersection and pay your driver before leaving.
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