SAIGON, VIETNAM. We booked a flight to Saigon without knowing what to expect other than what can be read in the blogs and other travel articles. Even those photographs of the city have their own limitations as they can only give you a glimpse and a limited perspective of the place. If we had only based our decision from these lot, we may have not gone to Saigon for the Christmas holiday season. For one, Saigon does not look appealing at all in photos as compared to its neighbouring cities and towns like Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi; the city is not photogenic which leads me to my second observation that the lack of tourism advertisements of the city may well be behind it. I know a lot of people who associate Vietnam with Halong Bay as if it is the only key destination there. But how can we blame them really when all they had ever seen and heard about is Halong Bay when there is a mention of Vietnam? Even I had found myself caught up on that trap!
Setting foot in the city made me change my notion of Saigon. I was stoked beyond belief after I saw what it can offer. I am in between feelings of regret and gratitude the whole time I was there; regret for experiencing it just only now and gratitude for being able to see its beauty! If only more people knew how beautiful Saigon is, I bet this quaint city would have graced upon everyone's bucketlist now.
It was a breezy, cold morning when we traversed towards the Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace. This landmark both served as the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. More than its fair share of mark in Vietnam's history is its evident magnificence and beauty. Almost every meter along the palace's hallway reveals a room that is elegant, well-designed and unique. I found myself looking forward to taking a peek at each!
I could not help but be amazed on how the designer breathed personality to each rooms. Practicality wise, the rooms are still being used whenever there are democratic and high-profile gatherings, events or meetings that will take place.
Here is the entertainment room of the palace. There is a mahjong table on the left side, a bar at the back and a round sofa at the center for those long, engaging talks about the state.
And a red-accentuated theatre for those mini-plays and film showing.
The palace too had a rough existence. It held memories of how hard Vietnam fought for the peace that they are experiencing now and it was also then that I knew that they had only obtained it recently. The two, red circles in the middle are proof of the cat life of the palace. These are where the bombs were dropped decades ago. Luckily, no one has been hurt and no significant damage happened.
Just a short walk away from the Reunification Palace is the Notre Dame Basilica. A French-inspired architecture, all the original building materials were sourced out all the way from France. But because of the war, many of the tiles have already been manufactured in Saigon to replace those that were damaged.
Just across the street is the Saigon Central Post Office.
The city has a very European vibe to it. The cleanliness, the French architecture and the slow-paced life may well be the factors that help achieve this kind of vibe! I just love how they could sit anywhere they like or anywhere there is a free space and eat and bond there with their friends however long they please. I have long been wishing to do this in Manila and I hope we would be able to do this anytime soon!
We visited this little factory prior going to the Cu Chi tunnels called Handicapped Handicrafts. A factory that manufactures and creates beautiful paintings made with eggshells and mother of pearl, it differs from the rest as it provides livelihood for a lot of "Agent Orange" victims. The workers may be physically challenged but their talents and attention to details are incomparable.
See the work and intricacy that they have to put in their work just to produce one slab of this beautiful eggshell painting? It is phenomenal.
For the paintings made of mother of pearl, they would have to draw and cut the drawings one by one before assembling it on the canvas. This is pure hard work and talent. Below are just some of the final works they have done:
After appreciating art, we headed down to the Cu Chi tunnels to see the hiding grounds of the Vietnamese, particularly the Viet Cong's, during the war. The Cu Chi tunnel is an immense network of underground tunnels and are part of of a larger network of tunnels that lie under the country.
This is an example of one of the many passageways concealed in the underground of Cu Chi. Looking at the narrow passageway made me ponder on the fact that you really can do anything if you are desperate.
This is one of the worst booby traps scattered around the area. The tour guide was demonstrating how each of the booby trap works and merely looking at those and imagining what had happened to those people who were unfortunate enough to come across these traps made me cringe and shiver.
I tried going down to go through the underground tunnel but I just could not seem to do it. The small spaces, dark halls and stagnant and hot air inside made me back out in a beat. My being claustrophobic did not alleviate the fear either!
It was saddening that a lot of lives had been wasted in there. You can just feel it emanating from the grounds, the whoosh of the wind and the rustle of the leaves. We just have to be grateful that all of those are in the past now.
To counter the depressing aura that we have felt in the Cu Chi tunnels, we asked our tour guide to drop us off at Lang Viet Restaurant located in Pham Ngoc Thach, District 3. Lang Viet prides itself in the wide variety of spices that they use to deepen and give color to their dishes but more than just the flavors, Lang Viet also lets us have a taste of their culture through their in-house water-puppet shows.
Full of humor and synchronicity, the loudest applause was given to these men who were behind maneuvering the water-puppets. It really takes a lot of skill and practice to perfect this seemingly simple act.
With all the landmark and historical places we have gone to, the water-puppet show is a really nice way to cap off the day. What more can you ask for other than a hearty laugh shared with your family at the end of a busy and exhausting day? This assurance that everyone is having a wicked time is already enough reason to wake up the next morning, dismiss the muscle pains and walk towards those place where you have not gone to just yet.
Coming up is the Day 2 of our Saigon trip!