Friday 24 August 2012

Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City and the Reunification Palace

11th-15th July 2012

The original plan was to get a train from Nha Trang to Saigon, but due to them being completely booked up, we arrived in Saigon via aeroplane from Nha Trang. That was us trying to get a ticket 7 days in advance! From the airport we caught a taxi into town and as per, the driver tried to screw us out of a few extra dollars. Business as usual!

As you probably already know, Ho Chi Minh City is the city’s official name but most people still call it Saigon. So the title of this post is a scam too and you fell for it – two things for the price of three! Now you know how I feel.

Our hotel was right in the middle of the ‘Backpacker District’ which consists of the streets and alleys around Pham Ngu Lao street. This meant loads of good places for food and cheap beer.

Drinking cheap beer on Bui Vien street, Saigon
Saigon alleys
View from our hotel
It’s about time I mentioned the Vietnamese Pho too.

Pho is a noodle soup made with a beef stock, rice noodles, to which are added thinly sliced onions, beansprouts, a few chillies to taste, a dash of pepper, slices of beef, chicken or tofu and a then a huge handful of fresh leaves and herbs including mint, Thai basil, rice paddy herb, thorny coriander and others (see here for a Vietnamese herb primer.) The result is healthy, filling and, when it’s good, absolutely delicious. It is truly a flavour explosion! The best we had in Saigon was at Quan Pho Quyn on Pham Ngo Lao street. This is one dish I’m really going to miss when we leave Vietnam.

A delicious bowl of Pho for breakfast
Although we had been warned about the traffic in Saigon, to be honest it was no worse than Hanoi and because the streets are generally wider, in some ways it was better. Traffic signals seemed to be more widely obeyed too, which meant sights like this at every junction.

3... 2... 1... Wait for it...
Elsewhere in the city, there’s the War Museum (closed when we passed by), a nice park or two, Notre Dame (not the Paris one) and the Reunification Palace.

Notre Dame
A hedge dragon
Where did I park my Chinook?
Reunification Palace
The pick of the lot was the Reunification palace. The former home and headquarters of the South Vietnamese president during the war, it has been maintained pretty much how it was which means the decor is marvellously retro.

Banqueting hall
Board room (with shark pool underneath, I think)
Drawing room
Zen roof garden
Library (there really was a secret door!)
Piano and billards
Retro bar
Rebels at the gates? Time for a swift exit.
View from the roof
It was already a bit like the headquarters of an evil dictator from a spy movie. And then we got to the basement.

Underneath the palace is a reinforced bunker where the president and his staff would go to direct operations during the war. I’m sure this place was used for the set of an early Bond movie. A lot of the old equipment is still there including Bakelite telephones, huge bits of radio equipment and lots of unidentified things with knobs on.

"Destroy this"
Yellow phone: the President, green phone: the wife
I'd love to hear this plugged into a guitar amp: "Turn the excitation up to 11!"
"I'm So Ronery"
The President's bed
The President's chair: "Get me the Kremlin!"
When I took this photo, the corridor was empty...
Pretty impressive parking
If the pink phone rings, whatever you do, don't answer it...
It was like playing a real-life version of Impossible Mission* on the Commodore 64. I loved that game. I swear, had an electricity-spitting robot come around the corner right then, I would have tried to somersault over it and started searching the furniture for snoozes.


So that was Saigon – pretty cool place which I’d be more than happy to go back to. Next up, a tale of two tours – the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta. Stay tuned…

* or more recently for any kids reading: Goldeneye on the N64 – what? it's how old? 15 years?

Current location: Siem Reap until 30th August
Next stop: Bangkok!

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