Our last full day in Vietnam was spent on a full-day city course (a definitely must for first-timers to any city!). We were picked up near our hotel at 8AM in the morning again (gee, these Vietnamese people really like to start the day early) and were bundled into a waiting van where some 10 other tourists were sitting, waiting for the tour to begin. Our tour guide was nice, but he had a horrible habit of drifting his sentences away into nothing, so you couldn’t hear the last half of all his sentences (“And this is the Chinese temple for Goddess…….*mumble mumble*”). Still, I had enough information from my pre-trip research to understand what was going on.
Our first stop was at the old Chinese temple at the centre of the city. It was over 200 years old, and was built when Chinese merchants settled in Vietnam after the country was conquered by the Chinese. All the parts of the temple were directly shipped from China, and the details in the ornate carvings depicted intricate scenes of everyday life, such as merchants haggling and funeral processions and such. The temple was dedicated to the Sky Goddess Ho (though I had to remind myself not to laugh every time the tour guide said her name), and devotees would burn wishes attached to coils of incense, as they believed that when the incense was finished burning, the wish would be carried up into the sky along with the smoke.
Our next stop was a rather depressing stay at the War Remnants Museum. It was a state-funded and state-operated museum dedicated to “exposing the truths of the Vietnam War”. Although it was rather jingoistic and took the chance to portray the US government in a negative light every chance it had, it was a very educational stay, especially where the exhibits showed the consequences of the use of Agent Orange. Definitely not for the faint-hearted though. On every wall of the exhibition rooms, there were photographs of children born with defects as a result of the chemicals used, of children with huge gaping wounds and burns from bombs and napalms, and even two pickled remains of stillborn babies born to mother exposed to Agent Orange. *shudder*
We then proceeded to go to the Reunification Palace. This was where the end of the Vietnam War happened when the two tanks came crashing in through the gates. All the rooms were preserved exactly as they were at the end of the war, and although some of the rooms were still being used today for state meetings and such, most of the rooms still had the antique feel of being stuck in the mid-70’s. There was even a model helicopter on the roof, similar to the one that took Saigon’s President and his family to safety when the tanks came crashing in.
The most fascinating part of the building was the underground bunker. A labyrinth of metal hallways, all the rooms were left exactly as they were during the war. There were posters marking the number of troops in certain areas, number of casualties, a room full of old typewriters, and even some escape routes hidden behind secret doors that were never used. Kind of spooky, but in a good way.
We then went to the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Built by French missionaries, the signature red façade was built with bricks that were brought straight from Marseille! In front of the cathedral, there was a small round area of grass with the statue of the Virgin Mary in the centre of it. There was tons of people, just sitting, feeding the pigeons, or in the case of one woman, having a photo shoot (well, it WAS a nice day out).
After some time had passed, we were allowed into the cathedral itself. The sudden rush of tourists all flocking in simultaneously created a very claustrophobic wave, but that didn’t deter me from admiring the internal architecture. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to the Vatican and have seen grander cathedrals, but honestly, the inside was not awe-inspiring or anything like that. However, the stained-glass windows were really pretty, especially in contrast with the rest of the dark and rather gloomy inside.
That concluded the day-tour. We were dropped off at our hotel again, and after a quick dinner, we took the cab to go to the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in HCMC.
The night view of the observation deck on the 49th floor was fantastic! We had a 360 degree view of all of Saigon, and with the night lights on, the view was beautiful. There were also these snazzy computer screens located strategically around the observation deck that you could use to look up more information on specific buildings or sites. Our visit to the tower coincided with Earth Hour, which meant that all the lights were turned off, which didn’t matter too much; in fact, it made the view even better as there weren’t any inside lights interfering with the night lights outside.
So that concludes my Vietnam trip! The next day, after a quick breakfast, we went back to the very hot and inefficient airport and flew back to Malaysia. Whew! 🙂