Lonely Planet said a cab ride should cost USD$5 from the airport to downtown Saigon. Our cabby dropped us off and promptly demanded that we fork over USD$20. What!? Fortunately we had a friendly bellboy willing to mediate the dispute and the cabby ended up storming off with nothing. Unfortunately this wasn’t the last time we’d be hustled by a cabbie in Vietnam.
We checked in, got cleaned up, and snuck out of the hotel to avoid the cabby who was still waiting outside, angry that he hadn’t gotten paid. We went to a nearby restaurant for our first bowl of phở (USD$2) and plotted out our sightseeing for the rest of the day.
Our first stop in Saigon (officially named Ho Chi Minh City these days) was the Reunification Palace. This was where the South Vietnamese president lived and worked during the Vietnam War. On April 30th, 1975, it was the site of the “Fall of Saigon” when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through the metal gates and soldiers stormed the palace to end the war. The palace itself was not very remarkable. Many of the rooms were kept intact so you can see where receptions and meetings took place. The most impressive part of the site was a room in the basement that chronicled the history of the palace. Bombings, assassination attempts, and coups were described in words and graphic photos.
Next we visited the War Remnants Museum, a site operated by the Vietnamese government. The museum had other names in the past before improved diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam:
- The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government [of South Vietnam]
- Museum of American War Crimes
- War Crimes Museum
Even without the propagandist undertones the contents of this museum would still be very, very heavy. One exhibit showcased a collection of photographs taken during the war that were far more graphic than anything else I’ve seen published on the subject. Captions throughout focused on the USA’s involvement and accused the American government of genocide.
The next exhibit highlighted the effects of Agent Orange not just during the war but also for generations after. More graphic photos showed the birth defects caused by the chemical and several preserved deformed fetuses were on display. The museum was closing so I didn’t get to see the tiger cages where South Vietnam held political prisoners or the guillotine used to execute prisoners, but really I had seen enough. At this point I was acutely aware of being American and wondered if other visitors could sense the shame that was overwhelming me.
I think we were all ready for something a little bit lighter. We headed to the Don Thanh market and eventually ended up at a bar called “Acoustic” for a drink. Here we heard “Right Here Waiting for You” performed live for the second time in an hour! The locals in Saigon knew every single word and a couple of them hijacked the mic and began singing. My brother took a video of this spectacle – I’ll try to get a hold of it and post it on here. It’s pretty entertaining!
The next morning we explored Cholon (Saigon’s Chinatown) and visited the Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda before heading to the airport to catch our flight to Hanoi in Northern Vietnam.
See photos of Saigon and Hanoi here. Hanoi post coming soon!