(written by him)
By way of introduction, Saigon comprises the city centre area of this large province within south Vietnam while Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the name given to the surrounding suburbs of the same province which border Saigon. The locals make a firm distinction between the two (Man United or Man City?). In Saigon, every aspect of life is here and on display.
Life is lived on the streets in Saigon. It's hard to believe there could be anyone indoors as we squeeze among the bustling markets, scooter hang outs and street vendors. We have only spent 4 days here and of course we are still getting to know Saigon but the reveal of the city's personality is definitely on its street corners. The volume of people is astounding.
Everywhere you look someone is doing something you have never seen done quite the same. Men cool down by rolling up their tops and exposing their bellies, female scooter drivers wear flowery face masks and skirts to protect their clothes as the navigate through the dangerous polluting traffic while some of the poorer teenagers still skulk about in bare feet.
A stream of scooters endlessly roar past on every road and in every direction. They carry anyone and anything you can think of: office workers, whole families, boxes of chickens, blaring stereo speakers etc. Trying to cross the road always provides a jolt of adrenaline, drivers and riders do not stop in Saigon, they swerve... sometimes! More than anything else the scooter must be the unofficial symbol of Saigon. They are everywhere! Beep Beep...
(Below) I caught this xe om motorcycle taxi driver just as he caught me.
(Above) Outside the central post office in Saigon, these school girls on a day tour just spotted me as they posed for someone else.
We have divided our time in Saigon between typical sightseeing and simply rambling around the streets experiencing the unique atmosphere. From the time we now wake at 5:30 am to the time we fall asleep the street is alive with the sounds of scooter horns, shouting street vendors, and later in the evening music floating from lively bars. There is also a cockerel residing somewhere in our hotel but we did not manage to catch a glimpse of him. Of the rambling, the pleasure is in seeing, smelling, hearing and interacting with a completely alien way of life.
A litre of bottled water typically sells for 6,000 dong which is about €0.30. A pint of draught Saigon beer is about 9,000 Dong which is less than €0.50. In the mid 1980's Vietnam was one of the 5 poorest countries in the world. It is a communist country and it has taken a long time for Vietnam to make economic progress.
(Right) This unknown gentleman was begging outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon. I gave him some money and asked him if I could take a photo.
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(Left) Meet Mr Ngo, the last public writer of Saigon's Central Post Office. He has worked as a polyglot letter writer in the post office since he was 17 years old. He has connected countless people around the world. Customers who require his services simply dictate their letter while he writes it for them.
(Above) Son, our Cu Chi tunnel guide, delighted to show-off some of the deadly traps used by his ancestors to fight foreign forces.
The tour itself takes about 2 hours. You are sat to watch a short video of the tunnels origins during the war with the French in the 1940's to their continued use in the war against the USA. The tunnels were an amazing feat of engineering comprising three levels, with the lowest level going as deep as 12m below ground. The system spans an area of some 250km. There are booby-trap demonstrations, examples of the various tunnel features including ventilation mounds, underground kitchens and hospitals, B52 bomb craters and a taste of Vietnam war rations, tapioca root dipped in sugar with palm leaf tea.
Visitors also get to crawl a tunnel some 400m to experience the space and conditions. To see the traps and think of the tunnels as they were when actually in use, pitch black, tiny, with snakes and scorpions nesting inside brings home how tough and scared the combatants on both sides must have been. The tour also offers the opportunity to fire machine guns (at a price). The tour is worth the half day excursion but the guide will make or break the day for you.