HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM. Following our hectic but very fun and learning-filled first day in Ho Chi Minh city, we made it a point to maximize even more our second day (December 24) there and surpass what we had seen and experienced the day prior. Since we were not able to catch the War Remnants Museum's opening time the previous day, we started our day with a spoonful of Vietnam's history.
The War Remnants Museum is a war museum that contains paraphernalia related to the American phase of the Vietnam war. The museum is actually quite controversial because of the grotesque graphics that would instantly make you feel for the Vietnamese and hate the "intruders". A few say that the visit is kind of inspiring while most of the museum-goers, who are mostly British and Americans, say that the collective was just a proof of its one-sidedness and is actually just there to serve a propaganda. I agree to both but more than siding with either the perspective of the Vietnamese or that of the visitors who see the museum as just a propaganda, I had been overwhelmed with sadness instead. For one, I do not believe that there is something good to get out of a war which in turn made me feel empathetic for those individuals who have to go through such horrendous thing. The visit had been an eye-opener for me and I just have to say that you better come prepared for what is in store for you there.
To counter the heavy atmosphere inside the museum, we chose to let go of the heaviness and roam around the city after the visit. Comparing what we had seen and read during our tour inside the museum, it is obvious that Ho Chi Minh City had come a long way to reach its current state. I ultimately applaud them for standing up and fighting for what is rightfully theirs. With this, visitors and their locals are now free to roam around and enjoy the beauty of their own country. So good for the humanity!
We did not have any initial plan where to go to so we just went to where our feet lead us. Since we were planning to go to Cambodia the next day, we went first to a ticketing center along Pham Ngu Lao St. to secure our bus tickets. It had been an easy breezy transaction so we walked towards the park nearby after we obtained our tickets. The walk in the park was very refreshing. This is something that I wish I am able to do back in Manila but could not so I made sure to maximize and take full advantage of the leisurely walk. Approaching a busy roundabout where the streets of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao and Le Lai intersect, we came face to face with a monument magnificently erected at the center, amidst the fast cars and traffic. The monument features a man riding on a horse and releasing a pigeon at the same time. The man is known to be Tran Nguyen Han and is a popular Vietnamese national hero because of his major contribution during the Liberation of Vietnam from the Ming Dynasty of China. Across the chaotic roundabout from the statue is the largest marketplace in Ho Chi Minh which is Ben Thanh market. More than a thousand stalls occupy the said market and you could practically buy anything here. Looking for some Vietnamese snacks, iconic conical hats (which they call non la) and some embroidered bags to take home? I am positive that you could find it here and not to mention at a cheaper price compared to the other shops you will outside the market! As for us, we bought some lovely embroidered bags! Since we are not that into shopping, we only spent a short amount of time inside and headed back to the sun.
We walked and walked along Le Loi until we reached the vicinity where the City Hall is located. The city hall was magnificent. It looked so grandiose especially when you stand and ogle at it from a distance. More than their way of life, you can definitely catch that French influence that extends even to their architecture.
Being keen has its perks. While roaming around the War Remnants Museum my brother saw some discounted vouchers lying on a table at the War Remnants Museum. The vouchers apply for this local show in the Saigon Opera House which turned out to be perfect timing as we wanted to do something different while we wait for Christmas Eve to arrive. We went towards the Saigon Opera House which stands adjacent to the City Hall and fell in line to get tickets to the AO Show knowing absolutely nothing about it other than we have discounted vouchers here with us that we could use to enjoy the show. As our turn arrived, we endlessly probed the girl behind the counter to tell us more about the show. We just wanted to be sure that we would like what we will watch. When she told us that the show is actually some kind of a Vietnamese Cirque du Soleil, it was at that moment that we decided we should watch it later in the evening. We booked for the 8 PM show and headed back to our hotel afterwards to freshen up and dress for the show and the Christmas Eve.
Prior watching the AO show, we made a quick stop at this restaurant that serves the alleged yummiest yet cheapest steak in Ho Chi Minh, near the Reunification Palace, called Nam Son which deserves a separate post as the steak lived up to our expectations. To relieve our tummy from what we ate, we decided to walk from there to the Saigon Opera House. It was a long walk but the vivacity of the city made it more bearable. You could feel that the Vietnamese really do celebrate Christmas in the most grandiose way possible. Herds of people populate the streets, the Christmas lights and decorations were in full blow and kids are usually dressed up in the popular red and white Santa attire. It was sort of chaotic but it is that kind of chaotic that I appreciate. The city was just full of life and everyone was really anticipating.
We arrived at the Saigon Opera House 30 minutes before the scheduled show which gave us ample time to take pictures outside and inside the lovely Opera House. While my parents, grandmother and brothers take pictures inside the Opera House, I chose to stay in the balcony to people-watch and drink the complimentary tea they had prepared for the show-goers.
Long before I knew it, the double doors through the theater finally opened up signalling that we can then enter and choose our seats. The Saigon Opera House was fitted with red seats and Neoclassical detailings which gave it a very sophisticated ambiance. Anyway, "sophisticated" is something that I could openly use to describe the city as that's really my impression of it. As the red curtain and the stage lights opened, I saw myself engrossed beyond my expectations. The show is nothing short of amazing. To be more accurate it was delightful and amusing. The show only lasted a little over an hour but it felt shorter as I enjoyed every moment of it. With just a few bamboo poles, baskets and the skills of the dancers, the show was able to captivate my senses longer than an overrated Hollywood movie would. I think the air of mystery also helped in setting the tone of the show. I do not know what to expect so seeing somebody flying around the stage in one minute and watching BMX bikes jumping over the performers with ease the next minute made it more exciting.
We left the Opera House amazed and dumbfounded but we did not know that we were in for more surprises when we stepped outside the establishment. We could not believe it when we saw the number of people outside the Saigon Opera House at 10 PM. It was completely crazy out there and this crazily big crowd extends to Tran Nguyen Han's monument ahead and the Notre Dame Cathedral to the right from where we were standing! I just loved how alive the city was on Christmas Eve. I am not a night person but the sight exhilarated and made me happy.
I love the Christmas holidays. I like it better than summer and the New Year. the Christmas spirit just invigorates me; it gives me a different kind of feeling. I love it when I hear jingles or carols being sung and played on the radio, when Christmas lights populate the streets, the thrill of finding out who your secret Santa is, the gift wrapping sessions, the gold, green and red colors dominating my view, the Christmas trees being brought out from its box and being put up, the tree-decorating we have as a family, the cold mornings and nights and many many more. But as I grew older, it seems that the Christmas holidays become shorter by the year and the anticipation is becoming lesser. It does not feel like anything close to what it was before. The same level of excitement was not there anymore. Maybe because the spirit is then being clouded by real-life problems and concerns or maybe because Christmas in the Philippines is now becoming more Westernized and reserved.
Experiencing Christmas in Ho Chi Minh brought back the good feeling and fond memories I had of the season. It was again, fun, exciting and invigorating. It was again happy and light and carefree like it used to be and I am just glad that the feeling is there again, waving at me. If somebody would ask me where they should go to spend their Christmas at, there would be no doubt in my mind that Ho Chi Minh will come first to my mind. I tell you, you would love the city as much as I did.