The City Formerly Known as Saigon

On our first full day in Ho Chi Minh City, I had scheduled a full-day guided tour of the city. Unfortunately the tour company never showed up. At about 9:15am we gave up waiting for them and took off to explore the city on our own (later, they told me a credit card authorization issue had caused the glitch.) Our first stop was the War Museum and I’ve told you how that affected me.

Michael in front of "Reunification Palace"

Michael in front of “Reunification Palace”

From the War Museum, we headed for the Reunification Palace, the renamed “Presidential Palace”, former residence of Diem and the presidents of South Vietnam who succeeded him after his assasination in 1963. It was getting pretty hot walking around in the sun and, when we arrived, we learned it had just closed for lunch and wouldn’t reopen until 2pm.

From the entrance to the palace, we walked across the street to a nice, shaded park bench and, there, we had our first positive experience. A family with children walked by us and we could tell they were kind of interested in speaking to us. I waved “hello” to the youngest child and this led the parents to coax her to say “hello” and shake our hands, something she really didn’t want to do. Eventually, she overcame her fear of us and she, and her older brother, posed with us on the bench while the parents took photos. Michael and I both enjoyed this little encounter.

How Things Have Changed!

Shortly after arriving in Cam Rahn Bay in December 1968, my friends and I were sent to the Signal Corps headquarters in Saigon, where we received an orientation before being assigned to one of several different locations within Vietnam. (I was assigned to Pleiku but my friends went to other locations.) While I was in Saigon, I took the photo below. As you can see the Saigon that I saw then….

Saigon, December 1968

Saigon, December 1968

bears little resemblance to the Ho Chi Minh City of today…

Of course, this 1968 photo suggests I may have changed a bit also…

John in Saigon, December 1968

John in Saigon, December 1968

One of the most interesting things about modern Ho Chi Minh City is the traffic. There must be nearly as many motorcycles in the city as there are people. While there are pedestrian crosswalk markings at most intersections, “walk/wait” signals are rare. You learn that you must have a very different mindset to cross the street here. If you wait for an “opening” you will be there all day: there is just too much traffic. What you must do is simply walk right out into the flow of traffic. Yes, that’s right, you slowly and carefully walk out into the traffic and let the motorcycles and cars avoid you. This is not natural for us: we tend to think that vehicles have the right-of-way and we must wait for an opening to cross. In Vietnam, you must trust that the vehicles will see where you are and avoid you. And, it works! However, you need to just relax and move across at a slow, predictable pace. If you try to avoid the traffic, your progress will be unpredictable to the drivers and then you’re in trouble. Once you get the hang of it, it’s really quite exhilarating: kind of like scuba diving in a school of fish – you don’t need to worry about the fish running into you, they will go around. I didn’t quite feel confident enough about my “crossing skills” to take my own video so I found this one on YouTube and it illustrates the point nicely…

We only had two full days in Ho Chi Minh City and the second day we scheduled a full-day visit to the Mekong River area about 2 hours south of the city. Unfortunately, Michael wasn’t feeling well and stayed in the hotel room. I had a pretty good time even though I worried about him a bit. Here are some photos from the day…

Mekong River Ferries

Mekong River Ferries

Short cruise on a quiet stream near Upper Mekong River

Short cruise on a quiet stream near Upper Mekong River

On a small ferry...

On a small ferry…

Snake (cobra) wine (none for me, thanks)

Snake (cobra) wine (none for me, thanks)

Burmese Python

Burmese Python

"Elephant Ear" Fish for Lunch (scales can be eaten)

“Elephant Ear” Fish for Lunch (scales can be eaten)

Gravestones of Ancestors in Family Rice Fields

Gravestones of Ancestors in Family Rice Fields

The next day, we took a taxi to the airport where Michael headed back home and I took a flight to Pleiku. I was sorry to see Michael go and also a bit jealous. I’m getting a bit tired of all this travel and I’m looking forward to getting home again. I’ll tell you about my trip to Pleiku in the next post…

Retired software engineer from New Jersey, USA, happily married to Grace for 30 years, proud father of Michael for 29 years, I am enjoying traveling and teaching English as a second language in my retirement.

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12 comments on “The City Formerly Known as Saigon
  1. Fran says:

    I CANNOT imagine having enough courage to try crossing a street…..(tho I do drive in NYC, which some people think has some of the same characteristics!)

    But I’ve also keep thinking about your last posts, and how there are two questions that I’ve often wondered about: 1) how do the Vietnamese now regard the US and our history in Vietnam? 2) and how do people who fought in Vietnam regard the war? I’m sure there are a range of views on both of these, but thanks so much for sharing yours.

    BTW, Ed spent his sophomore year at Kings Point “at sea.” This included a visit to Argentina while Peron was in power, and a visit to French Indo-chine. He and his buddies were all excited about getting combat pay in the latter, until French soldiers mounted artillery on the bow and stern of their merchant ship….

    • Thanks, Fran. Ed’s experience sounds familiar: I guess we just don’t perceive pending danger very well until something makes it real… Yes, I have the same question about how the people of Vietnam perceive the US now. Of course, I’m not much closer to a definitive answer than you are as I don’t speak Vietnamese and the people who speak English here are probably (on average) not the ones who might harbor real resentment towards us. My guess is that there is a minority of the population which do and they are more likely to be older people and people in the north, who suffered through our bombing raids. I think young people of the world are not quite as ready to accept their parents views about the world as they once were – the world has become too small – the internet too big – for narrow views of the world to be propagated through the generations. In China, there were some older teachers who I felt didn’t quite trust/like me – younger teachers and the children always seemed delighted to meet an American.

  2. Sam says:

    I imagine that people plan their daily routes so as to cross the main street as few times as necessary.

  3. Barb says:

    John, I remember very well crossing traffic in Saigon and your comparison to swimming in a school of fish is perfect! Those ferries look like they are on mud flats rather than on a river. I was also thinking how pampered I am when I recoiled at the idea of eating that fish because it’s whole and looking at me.

    I’ve been sending your blogs to my friend, Karen, and she’s been enjoying them very much. We agree that you’re an excellent writer. Love to you.

    • Thanks, Barb… yes, you’re right that those ferries are sitting on mud at low tide. The fish was pretty tasty although the scales were a bit too chewy for me. I remember Karen, tell her I said hello and that she is very welcome to post comments here (or just continue ‘lurking’ as she wishes :-).

  4. Cathy says:

    I agree with Barb… Don’ think that fish would look very appetizing on my table, either! 😉 B4N

  5. Cathy says:

    He’s looking at me… What a rude thing for you to say!! Haha 🙂 B4N

  6. Cathy says:

    I know what you mean!

  7. Cathy says:

    Bet you’re enjoying the COOLER weather in Hong Kong. You might even have to look for an umbrella!? ;-). B4N

    • It’s cool and rainy, same as Hanoi was for last 4 days. I know I complained about the heat before but now I’d like a little sun. Or at least I hope the clouds rise a bit so I can see the buildings and hills of HK. Forecast is more rain. Oh well, I’m still lucky to be here!