Saigon will not make our list of top ten favourite cities. For a start, it is very noisy and congested – makes London seem like a quiet backwater! As in Hanoi, motor bikes comprise 90% of the traffic, but in Saigon there are even more of them. On busy main roads, there can be ten streams heading in each direction, and crossing roads on foot is a nightmare.
You have to forget everything you have learned from childhood: look right, left, right again, and only cross when the road is clear. If you did that in Saigon, you would still be waiting, because the road is never clear. (Zebra crossings without lights are completely ignored; at zebra crossings with lights, some traffic streams may stop.) There is only one possible technique. You take a deep breath and walk straight out into the road, with scores of motor bikes hurtling towards you, and pray that they will swerve to avoid you. It sounds scary, and in practice it is absolutely terrifying, but it does work – at least, we survived to write this blog.
The other problem is that Saigon is much bigger than Hanoi, and places of interest are further apart. We walked miles (and crossed many roads!) in order to visit Chinatown, the Reunification Palace and the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Chinatown wasn’t that interesting – there were a couple of temples, which were similar to others we’ve seen in Vietnam. The Jade Emperor Pagoda contained a number of interesting and even scary statues, as well as a pond full of terrapins who mill around, feeding on the bread thrown in by devotees.
The Reunification Palace used to be the residence of the President of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese tanks that burst through the gates in 1976 are still sitting on the lawn. We had a tour of the palace, and saw the bomb shelters in the basement and the president’s helicopter on the roof – shades of Miss Saigon.
Cao Dai and Cu Chi
We did a day tour out of town to the northwest. Our first stop was at the main temple of the Cao Dai religion, a huge ornate confection like Mormon Temple meets Disneyworld. Inside is also elaborate; there are pink pillars entwined with green dragons, and giant eyes of God everywhere. We were disappointed because there was a service in progress when we arrived later than scheduled, and we were whisked away again before we were able to get a proper look inside. We were not even allowed to take decent photos of the front of the temple, as adherents prevent you walking past the front when a service is in progress.
The other stop was at the Cu Chi tunnels, a kind of theme park based on the Viet Cong resistance to the Americans. We were marched through the jungle to see B52 bomb craters and displays of homemade weapons manufacture. The centrepiece is a set of tunnels you can crawl through to experience what it was like hiding underground. Even though they had been specially widened to accommodate large Europeans, we declined to participate.
The Mekong delta
We left Saigon on 15th November, and took a 3-day tour of the Mekong Delta, ending up across the border in Cambodia. The tour involved a number of excursions, using a variety of means of transport: buses, motor boats, rowing boats and even horse-drawn carts. It was a fascinating trip – we saw all the life along different branches of the Mekong, including all kinds of boats, stilt villages, floating markets, and ordinary people going about their business on the water. We also visited a fish farm, some orchards and a few small factories.
On the second day we visited a pagoda on Sam Mountain, which rises above the flat lands of the delta close to the Cambodian border. The pagoda was interestingly laid out, including a dark cave leading to a mirror hall filled with buddhas!
Finally, on the third day, we went with nine other tourists and a guide in a ‘slow’ boat to the border crossing. The journey took nearly three hours, and it was pleasant and relaxing to cruise along in the sun, taking photos and waving to people on the river banks.
Across the border a minibus waited to take us to Phnom Penh. After travelling through Vietnam for more than three weeks, we had another new country to explore!