Saigon

Ho Chi Minh

This huge statue of Ho Chi Minh dominates its surroundings in the city that was renamed for him after the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. It is a spectacular setting with the People’s Committee Building as a backdrop. This beautiful building was originally the Hôtel de Ville de Saïgon and was built between 1902 and 1908. We found it interesting that the city is almost universally called Saigon despite the numerous memorials to Ho Chi Minh and the red flags (both the gold star and hammer and sickle versions) flying from every building. Indeed the bustling commercialism of Saigon is in stark contrast to the rhetoric of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. We thoroughly enjoyed our four days in Saigon amidst the heat, noise and manic traffic consisting mostly of small motorcycles whose riders take scant notice of red lights! It is a charming mix of beautiful colonial buildings, peaceful tree-lined courtyards, overcrowded sidewalks, food stalls and markets, temples and pagodas. And we ate the most delicious food.

Shrines

Although most Vietnamese people are not very religious (surveys indicate that only 20% identify with a particular faith), we were struck by the shrines we saw everywhere.  Most of them are well-maintained and many have burning candles and incense sticks, which are lit and tended to. We were wary about taking photos in case this was offensive but were assured that it was not. The little reading I’ve done on the subject reveals that many Vietnamese subscribe to Tam Giao, which is a fusion of Chinese (Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist) beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism. The state, of course, is Communist and we were granted our visitor’s visas by the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

Motorcycling in Vietnam

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Motorcycles are the only form of transport for many Vietnamese families. To see a whole family (mum, dad and anywhere from one to four children) on one bike is not at all unusual. There are thousands of motorbikes on the road at any one time and they outnumber other vehicles by about 10 to one.  And we were in Da Nang. I imagine that the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is far denser. Even less notice is taken of red lights than in Ipoh and motorcyclists don’t even seem to slow down at intersections. Somehow they all manage to miss each other most of the time (we did see one collision) aided by enthusiastic and consistent use of horns. The photo above is a good example of the way in which motorbikes are used in Vietnam. Each member of this family is doing something other than concentrating on the traffic – mum is searching for something in her handbag, son is brandishing a sword (perhaps in an effort to keep other motorcyclists at bay) and dad has removed the mask that protects him from the polluted air to take a long pull at his cigarette!

Hoi An

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This is the covered bridge first constructed in Hoi An in the 1590s by the Japanese to link with the Chinese area across the stream. Though much has been done to the bridge in the intervening years, apparently the original design is still evident. It certainly makes for an intriguing entry into the old town – the entrances are guarded by statues of a pair of monkeys at one end and a pair of dogs at the other. The old town is a delight to visit. Houses several centuries old still exist and the influence of all the various nations that traded in this significant port on the South China Sea (including Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, Indian, Thai, French) can be seen. It is wonderful that this atmospheric place has survived, particularly when you consider the the savage wars of the 20th century, and great that it is now safeguarded as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Tet

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Because Chinese New Year is a four-day weekend in Malaysia, we took the opportunity to fly to Da Nang in Vietnam, where they were celebrating Tết Nguyên Đán. This is the lunar new year celebration and the biggest festival of the year for the Vietnamese. Every street was festooned with flags and every doorway flanked by huge pots of yellow chrysanthemums. In the evening of the first day of the new year, we walked along the river where hundreds of people had gathered in family groups. They were taking photographs in front of banks of yellow flowers and the goat statues that lined the walkways. They had obviously dressed up for the occasion and many children were wearing traditional outfits, like the cute little boy in the pic below. There were street vendors selling food, ice creams and balloons (see pic above). It was a vibrant scene that we were pleased to be part of. Some of the children called out “Hello! Where’re you from?” so clearly we didn’t fit in at all!

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