The night bus from Hoi An to Saigon was a little more comfortable and spacious than the one from Hanoi to Hoi An had been. The front half of the bus had seats like any other tour bus and the back half was double wide berths for sleeping. Since we expected to be on board for 24 hours with only two one hour breaks, we were pleased to see this. We were delayed by a flat tire sometime during the night, however, and 24 hours stretched into 26 with only a few quick bathroom stops and one half hour break for a hot meal.
We finally arrived in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it’s officially known, at about 8:00 p.m. on New Years Eve. We hadn’t been concerned with reserving a room because we knew that there were many small hotels in the downtown area where the bus would drop us off and we’d been assured that since Vietnam celebrates the lunar New Year later in January or February, there wouldn’t be a problem. Arriving as late as we did, however, it soon became apparent that this was not the case. As we wandered from hotel to hotel hearing “Sorry, we’re full” time and again, we began to wonder what we’d do if we didn’t find a room! Fortunately, we came across a very helpful desk clerk at one of the hotels. Though his establishment was full, he called another hotel and confirmed that they had a room available. At $45 US/night, it was significantly more expensive than what we’d become accustomed to paying but we reminded ourselves that this was still pretty cheap for a hotel room and it was nicer than most we stayed in. It was also located within easy walking distance of the all things we wanted to see. I think perhaps the real reason we ended up there, though, was the fact that it came with a large fan. As we settled in, we discovered that water had soaked through one of our bags that had been in the luggage compartment of the bus and all of it’s contents were wet. The fan was an absolute blessing as we were able to hang things up and blow them dry!
Once we’d hung everything up to dry, we headed out to find some dinner and to take in some of the New Years festivities that we’d noticed happening in an open area nearby. After watching several performances, we decided to head back to our hotel but we had a little trouble finding it. The new year actually came in as we wandered around looking for it!
After seeing nothing but gray skies since arriving in Vietnam, we were delighted when January 1 broke hot and sunny! Since we were flying to Siem Reap in Cambodia the following day, we had only one day in Saigon but that was all we needed to see the things we most wanted to see. We started with a visit to the War Remnant’s Museum, a largely pictorial display of the atrocities of the Vietnam war. We found it to be very one-sided and anti-American. Though I don’t for one moment excuse the dreadful things that the Americans did in Vietnam, I found this disappointing. We couldn’t help but compare it with the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima that we visited on our first trip to Japan four years ago. It’s exhibits are just as graphic and disturbing but rather than laying blame, it focuses on the need to prevent future tragedies of this nature and is much more balanced.
After leaving the museum, we wandered through crowded Ben Thanh Market where one could buy almost anything. Though it was interesting to see, I was glad we’d already done all the shopping we wanted to do in Hanoi and Hoi An.
We ate lunch in a little bakery/cafe where we met and chatted with the proprietor, a very interesting man who escaped Vietnam as a young boy. Immediately after the war, when his father who had been a leading politician was imprisoned, his mother put her seven children on boats and sent them off hoping they’d find a better future. He grew up and was educated in Australia eventually becoming very wealthy there. He now divides his time between Australia and Vietnam where he and his associates have set up their business to provide jobs and training for disadvantaged people. They even provide meals and on site accommodation for some of their employees and hope to be able to expand this venture into a chain of similar shops.
After lunch, we enjoyed a very interesting tour of Independence Palace which was built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam’s presidential palace. It was toward this building that communist tanks rolled on the morning of April 30, 1975, the day that Saigon surrendered and it has been left exactly as it looked on that day.
With over five million people, Saigon is bigger than Hanoi but it seemed to be a little cleaner and the traffic was definitely more manageable. Streets were wider and there were more traffic lights and for the most part, people actually paid attention to them. Saigon is also more westernized with many North American and Australian chain stores to choose from. For example, there was a La Senza just down the street from our hotel and the first McDonald’s is due to open soon.