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Vietnam (Part 1)

20/06/2010

In May I spent a very busy two weeks in Vietnam, travelling with another company pilot who works at another base. Air Asia always having really reasonable prices meant a US$162 return airfare from Jakarta to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I’ll split this up into 2 parts because we actually crammed quite a bit into 2 weeks. So much so that I was excited to come back to work for a rest. Not that it worked out like that of course.

Vietnam quite simply is an amazing country, I didn’t realise just how enjoyable it would be. Obviously in the western world it is most famous because of the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese refer to as the American War). But Vietnam is, like most Southeast Asian countries on a massive growth streak and they have wholeheartedly opened their country to tourism. Indeed much more successfully than ‘democratic’ Indonesia.

Saigon

I arrived in Saigon in the evening and headed for the Visa on-arrival counter. Having already done the pre-approval online I thought it would be quite a straight-forward process. However, this was not to be and the whole situation was a bit confusing, handing over the passport and then having to fill in another form before waiting again to be called up to get the passport. Vietnam is after all a communist country with all the bureaucracy and process to be expected.

Having finally been stamped through immigration I went to get a taxi to head into town. First I needed to swap over some Indonesian Rupiah to Vietnamese Dong. However, the Southeast Asia inter-currency exchange rates are not very good at airports so I only changed IDR500,000 which should have got me double in Dong but instead it was 1 for 1. When I stepped outside to get a taxi I didn’t really check it out too much and ended up getting one who would not turn on the meter and said it was a set price which was VND250,000 (NZ$19.44) which isn’t really that bad for a 30 minute taxi ride but if the meter was running it would been a lot less.

I pretty much crashed once I got to the Hotel. It had been a long day having left Nabire in Papua at 6am and arriving at the hotel at 10pm. After a nice sleep-in and a quality cooked breakfast it was time to explore a bit of Saigon. My workmate would not be arriving until that evening so there was a whole day to kill. My main goal was to get a Vietnamese sim card for my phone. Being able to access mobile internet with my Nokia E71 enables me to use Google Maps which when coupled with the in-built GPS receiver is far better than any map.

Checking out the surroundings was a good opportunity to get a feel for what things are like in Vietnam. There are amazing contrasts between Southeast Asian countries and based on my travels so far in terms of ease of travel and overall affluence Singapore sits at one end and Indonesia at the other (discounting the obviously poorer Cambodia and Laos as I haven’t been there yet). From initial observations Vietnam was definitely tending somewhere slightly ahead of Indonesia if only because there wasn’t as much an overt wealth divide as you see in daily life in Indonesia.

Having just come out of Papua I wasn’t really too keen to get stuck into the local food so I headed for a cafe where I ordered a really good Caesar salad and coffee for less than VND100,000 (NZ$7.76); I can live with that. That night I had dinner a few doors down from the Hotel at the MZ Cafe. An entree, main, bottle of Corona and 2 glasses of wine came to a total bill of VND435,000 (NZ$32.59)! This was a pretty decent establishment too and the food was superb. The main was NZ beef, an eye fillet naturally.

Later that evening my travelling buddy arrived and we headed to the end of the block for a few drinks. Crossing the road was somewhat of a challenge (one I soon came to master) but we made it and parked up at a local restaurant on the side of the footpath with little plastic chairs and tables. San Miguel could be had for VND12,000 (NZ$0.90) a bottle, a veritable bargain at twice the price! After a few there we headed to the backpacker area where there is a large pub called the Go2 bar. It has a number of levels with a sort of Garden bar at the top where we headed to, the beers were outrageously priced at VND20,000 (NZ$1.50) but we coped.

A typical local restaurant in Saigon

The following day after a nice breakfast at Villa FB Cafe we set out for a full day of sightseeing. First we went to the Reunification Palace, the Presidential Palace of the former South Vietnam and the scene of the famous bulldozing down of the gate by a North Vietnamese tank in 1975 signifying an end to the War. It has been left as an absolute time-warp completely unchanged from its time as the seat of the South Vietnamese Government. Naturally there is a large propaganda display on show which details the historical events from the viewpoint of the communists.

Reunification Palace in Saigon

View from the roof-top of the Reunification Palace

After the Palace we went for what was to become the first of many numerous cafe stops of the trip and then it was on to the War Remnants Museum which funnily enough possessed an impressive collection of war remnants. To be fair to the communists, despite the slightly slanted narrative (and it’s hard to hold that against them given the atrocities suffered) they have done a good job when it comes to preserving the historical narrative of the country. I hate to be down on Indonesia all the time (it’s more out of a desire to see them do better) but they could learn so much from their Southeast Asian neighbours.

War Remnants Museum in Saigon

Later in the afternoon we walked to Ben Thanh market which is supposed to be quite good but I guess once you’ve been to a few tourist markets in Asia you’ve kind of seen them all so after a quick walk-through it was time to look for dinner. We settled on a place that I forget the name of but was kind of like Vietnamese fast food. I didn’t really enjoy it much although Vietnamese cuisine in general is pretty good.

Ben Thanh Market in Saigon

Back to our plastic-chaired local for a couple of drinks we then headed back to the Go2 bar and after that thought it might be worthwhile checking out Apocalypse Now, a favoured bar of the GI’s during the American War. Unfortunately that was quite a disappointment, so after a drink there it was back to the Hotel to get some rest before the next day’s sightseeing.

This was our last full day in Saigon before heading to Hanoi the following day. We took a walk towards the mighty Saigon River and of course ended up stopping at a couple of cafe’s along the river but decided not to hop on one of the hydrofoils. Instead we continued on to the Saigon Zoo and well, what an experience that was. I actually felt kind of guilty being there because it was pretty atrocious. For the entry price of VND8,000 (NZ$0.60) there was a incredible range of animals on display. But it was clear this entry price did not cover the cost of keeping these animals in good condition. It was I imagine what going to a zoo in the western world in the 1920’s must have been like (in fact Saigon Zoo is one of the oldest in the world, opening in 1865, clearly little changing since then). Within the same grounds is the Vietnamese History Museum so we meandered over there to check out some of the ancient history of Vietnam. By now it was well past lunch time and a cafe stop was beckoning so with the use of Google Maps I found a place that was well reviewed – V Cafe. Like everywhere we had been so far it had fantastic coffee and was of course very cheap.

Definite Hotel potential near the Saigon River

A sad swaying Elephant, imprisoned at the Saigon Zoo

Hanoi

Our Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi departed at the very respectable time of 12:15 so we had plenty of time to get our fill of bacon and eggs at the Hotel before getting a taxi to the airport. The 2 hour flight to Hanoi was aboard a Boeing 777 and was reasonably full. The in-flight meal was pork with rice. Even by now I was starting to wonder if eating this much pork was a good idea, it was. Once we landed in Hanoi we promptly got a taxi (a reputable company) and the standard charge was VND250,000 (NZ$19.44) which given how far the airport is from the city seems entirely reasonable. Hanoi is very obviously a much older city than Saigon and that is clearly evident in the central city where the roads are windy and very narrow. Initially I didn’t really warm to the city and its inhabitants who seem much ruder than their southern counterparts but Hanoi is on balance quite nice. Like Saigon there is development happening everywhere, infrastructure upgrades, building renovation and construction – it’s all happening. But the depth of history is very apparent and the French colonialist influence can be seen everywhere.

The old quarter is really the centre of action in Hanoi. The backpacker area in the centre of the old quarter is home to a lot of bars with the ubiquitous plastic seating at the main crossroads where four bar’s sit at each corner. There are a number of nice restaurants around and during our time in Hanoi Gecko’s became a favourite for its cheap 500ml Tigers and delicious, well-priced food – ostrich and salmon were thoroughly enjoyed.

Sitting at one of the roadside bars in the Old Quarter

The first full day was a packed day of sight-seeing. First we went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh is of course the revered father or Vietnam. There are pictures of him everywhere and is idolised in true communist fashion. The Mausoleum was not open when we were there because his body was overseas getting some work done, as you do. However, the Mausoluem is within the present-day Presidential complex and once entering the area proper you can see the quite grand French-colonial Presidential Palace and the restored house of Ho Chi Minh himself, who apparently eschewed the trappings of the Palace for a more modest existence. There is also a Ho Chi Minh Museum nearby but by this stage we were all Ho Chi Minh’d out. As we exited the complex the Pepsi signage does make you contemplate the relevancy of the communist doctrine in modern-day Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi

The Presidential Palace in Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh's House in the grounds of the Presidential Palace

Blatant Capitalism in the Communist's Backyard

The next mission was to find Hun Tiep Lake where there is supposedly the visible wreckage of a B-52 bomber that crashed in the area during the American War. Google Maps was of course very helpful in this respect and we began wandering through the 2m wide streets of this densely-packed residential area. Eventually we came to it but over time it has sunk quite a bit and there is really only a section of fuselage visible. It was interesting nonetheless given it was very much off the normal tourist path.

Hanoi Suburbia so to speak, on the hunt for the B-52

The wreckage of a B-52 that crashed during the American War

With the requisite cafe stops littered in between we headed towards the Army Museum only to find that it was closed on this particular day. Next door was a Highland Coffee so we had a late lunch there directly across the road from the Lenin Statue.

Lenin Statue in Hanoi

Not too far away from there was the Hanoi Hilton, the former prison camp of American enemy-combatants. Former US Presidential Candidate Senator John McCain is one of the more famous former residents. As is clearly the theme it has been preserved and made into a museum. It was on its own quite interesting; originally built by the French to imprison political prisoners who did not agree with French colonisation.

Hoo Loa Prison aka. Hanoi Hilton

To be continued…

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