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  Ho Chi Minh City


Our one hour flight left shortly after 9:00 am from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City.

We were met at the airport by our new guide Duyen (pronounced like the letter "U" and "in" -- Uin") from Trails of Indochina. Because we had arrived early in the day, Duyen did not take us to the hotel right away but to the Presidential Palace ... now called Reunification Hall. We were dressed for air-conditioned airports, airlines and hotels. When we stepped out of the car the heat and humidity slapped us hard.

A troop of school children were at the entrance door before us, so Duyen talked with an official and we went through a side door.

April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese army tanks crashed through the iron gates of the Presidential Palace and the pictures of tank #390 flooded the world's television airways and newspapers.  Today the view from the balcony is peaceful.  
The architecture and decor of the palace are 1970's. The president and his family lived and entertained as well as worked within the building. Duyen took us through the formal rooms, passed a window overlooking a helicopter on the roof and then down to the basement where 1970's state-of-the-art communications are still displayed in the war rooms.
As we toured we kept crossing paths with the grade 3 or 4 students. Enthusiastic "hello"s greeted us each time (we responded "sin chao") and they welcomed having their pictures taken. At one point we stood on a small landing by a staircase waiting for the President's private elevator when the troop made its way passed us. We don't know how many little hands we shook plus the teacher's, or how many times we said "Hello. Nice to meet you" but we felt a little bit like a president and first lady. When finally the end of the line came the head teacher asked clearly with a smile, "Are you glad to meet me too?"
Next stop after the Presidential Palace was a square near the centre of Saigon. Bordering the square are numerous buildings including a HSBC glass tower completed in 2000; the Notre Dame Cathedral and the ornate Old Saigon Post Office Building. [Three days later some people claimed they saw the statue of Mary weeping (for the 4th time) and a traffic jam ensued as people flocked to the area.]
Mister Bung, our driver, took us to Chinatown and we stopped at a Chinese Temple.  Like crown moulding around the open courtyard, ornately carved happy people looked down from above.
Pink strips of paper lined parts of the side walls, most with Chinese labelling but Duyen was able to translate one written in Vietnamese which recognized the donation of rice, named the family and donation date.

Overhead, in an area before the alter, large spirals of incense hung down in cone shapes like simplistic Christmas trees. The lower end of the coil was lit and, as with other incense, left to slowly burn. These ones were being burnt with prayers for family members on trips.
"They can burn up to a month," Duyen told us.
The original city centre is still referred to as Saigon and the whole metropolitan area is called Ho Chi Minh City (often written "HOCHIMINH").
We checked into the Continental Hotel in Saigon, District One, across the street from the Opera House and next to Saigon's first five star hotel, The Hyatt, plus the Caravelle Hotel (holding Saigon's only casino, which is not available to Vietnamese ... the closest casino for them is across the border in Cambodia), and the Sheraton.
The Continental Hotel has a history that goes back to the French Occupation in the late 1800s. "The Quiet American" was penned in the hotel and later became a movie.
After getting settled in, we walked the streets on our own. More Westernized than Hanoi but still with the vibrancy of people in motion. We went to the roof top bar of the legendary Rex Hotel ... the watering hole of war correspondents during both the Indo-China War and American War. A man in a blue and white striped linen suit sat at the bar writing in a journal. Every so often, he would gaze up and out to this city with so much history; but he didn't appear to be in this time, but somewhere else with an old friend in his youth.

A stroll through the huge, busy and crowded main market let us drink in the local flavour of daily commerce of the people who live and shop here, as well as a smattering of tourists trying their hand at bartering.

A light dinner at the Continental and off to bed in preparation of another full and exciting day.


click here to continue to October 28 and to the Mekong Delta ... 


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