Saigon, as the locals refer to the city outsiders call Ho Chi Minh, is full of surprises.
I had always thought the city would be a maze of narrow, dingy laneways where the sun did not shine. I could not have been more wrong. With the highest building in Saigon standing a mere 49 floors high, we were greeted by wide sprawling boulevards which allowed the sun to shine through. With wide footpaths, well-manicured gardens and beautiful parks, Saigon is a perfect city to explore on foot.
Having experienced Hanoi a few years prior, I was fully prepared for the life-threatening danger that crossing the road posed. Wrong again. Unbelievably, for a city of ten million people, with five million motorcycles, the traffic was relatively orderly and, provided you had your wits about you, it was possible to walk as opposed to run to get to the other side.
An unwelcome surprise, however, was the humidity. It was hot. And steamy. But not in a good way. In a clothes-sticking-to-your-skin hot and steamy way. Despite this we made the most of our five hours in Saigon. Mainly so I could present to you your mission, if you choose to accept it: five in five. Five top sights in five hours.
First things first, fortify yourself for the task ahead by beginning with a heart-starter at one of the three main hotels frequented by US personnel in the Vietnam War. Whether it’s coffee or something stronger, pick your poison and choose between the Rex Hotel, Caravelle or Continental, all within a block of each other.
Secondly, stumble across the road to view the Opera House before continuing down Dong Khoi. Three short blocks later you will find yourself standing in front of the late nineteenth-century Notre Dame Cathedral. In front of the cathedral, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in a small park surrounded by sunflowers.
Continue to your third sight by strolling, wits about you, across the road to the General Post Office. Unchanged since its completion in the 1880s, the GPO is a beautiful classic colonial building. Don’t just admire the outside though; a look inside will uncover two huge map-murals as well as some old-fashioned telephone boxes, some now ATMs and some with old-fashioned hand phones.
A further two blocks on is sight four, the Reunification Palace. Once the home of South Vietnam’s president, this modern palace was the location of the dramatic seizure of Saigon in 1975. Sneak in a lunch opposite the Palace at Ngon, a restaurant in a renovated colonial building, serving regional specialities at very reasonable prices.
A further five minutes walk brings you to your fifth and final stop, the War Remnants Museum. Not for the faint hearted, this museum houses a distressing collection of the horrors of modern warfare and reveals the mayhem of war.
A sobering finish to our five hours, we left Saigon marvelling at how, despite their harrowing history, the Vietnamese are such a happy culture, full of smiles. Yet another surprise from Saigon.