A visit to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam is an encounter with exotic food, temples, French colonial architecture and memories of war. Vietnam has been a significant station for us on a long journey in East Asia, from Thailand to South Korea. We arrived in Vietnam via the land border with Cambodia, after a fascinating visit to this country. And we began a one-month trip in Vietnam, from the south to the north, more than fifteen hundred kilometers.
About two hours after the border crossing, we reached Saigon, the second largest city in Vietnam. The sight that stood out as we reached the outskirts of the city in the afternoon was the overcrowding of the city of five million people traveling on three million scooters alongside bicycles and dances. Due to the heavy air pollution in the city, white cloth masks were worn on the roads, a fashion common throughout Vietnam, especially in the streets of busy and polluted cities.
After having settled in one of the small hotels in the city center, in the tourist district, one of the 12 boroughs in the city, we were impressed by the tourist infrastructure that developed in this area: restaurants with the finest Vietnamese food alongside Indian and Italian restaurants, souvenir shops, clothing shops and shops selling the best discs in one dollar.
The next day we visited the French Quarter of HCMC one of the remains of the French colonial era in Vietnam. In the middle of the 19th century the French invaded Vietnam and turned it into a French colony that included the vast area of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, an area known as Indo-China.
We wandered through the French Quarter on wide avenues where today luxury hotels and shops and modern buildings stand alongside impressive colonial buildings and green parks. Among the buildings in the French Quarter stands the red Notre Dame church. This impressive church was built between 1877 and 1833 from stones brought especially from France and its two tall towers at a height of 40 meters constitute one of the hallmarks of the city.
In the French Quarter we sat in one of the cafes, where we drank Vietnamese coffee, a strong cup of coffee with a sweet milk concentrate at its bottom, and a glass of water was always served. In the baked goods we ate baguettes, and just like in Paris we saw the coffee-shop people, most of them men, sitting on chairs facing the street. Against the background of the heat and the high humidity of the city, we occasionally enjoyed our thirst in coconut water sold in the streets of the city in makeshift stalls or by young vendors carrying coconuts with a basket and two baskets on their shoulders, a typical sight throughout Vietnam.
One of the main sites in the French and modern quarters is the "reunion" palace, home to the government of South Vietnam. The French ruled Vietnam until 1954, but during this year, in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in North Vietnam, the French were defeated by Communist Vietcong forces led by Ho Chi Minh. Following the defeat of France, a conference was held in Geneva, Switzerland, which led to at least the temporary division of Vietnam into two states: The Communist North under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam under the auspices of the Americans. The conference determined that two years later, in 1956, after democratic elections, the two parts of Vietnam would be united. The capital of North Vietnam was Hanoi and the capital of South Vietnam was Saigon.
Saigon was in the sixties and seventies a vibrant capital city, cultural life, trade and flourishing business that made it the "pearl of the East". The end of the city's heyday began when the South Vietnamese leader of 1955, No Din Dame, refused to hold democratic elections in South Vietnam as required by the Geneva Accord. Against this background, and because of its cruelty and corrupt rule, a popular resistance movement, the Viet Cong, or its official name, the National Liberation Front, which aided Communist North Vietnam, was established in 1960.
The South Vietnamese government has worked hard against the Viet Cong but has not succeeded in suppressing it and has required increased American aid. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the days of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, American military advisers were sent to South Vietnam. In January 1961 they numbered 800, and by the end of 1963 they numbered 16,700. To protect the "military advisers" were brought to Vietnam additional military forces who soon began to fight in Viet Cong themselves. US foreign policy in the 1950s and 1960s was based on the "domino theory" that the fall of one state into the hands of the Communists would ignite a chain of revolutions in neighboring countries, and the US administration determined that the fall of South Vietnam The Communist North.
The place from which South Vietnam conducted its war in North Vietnam was a large palace at the end of a wide avenue on the edge of the French Quarter. The capture of the palace by the forces of North Vietnam on April 30, 1975 symbolized the fall of Saigon city and the surrender of South Vietnam and since then was named after the palace "Palace reunion".
We entered the palace, a large and modern building built in 1962 in place of a palace built in the same site in 1868 for the governor of India and China. This structure is now used as a memorial to the unification of Vietnam under Communist rule. We toured the palace as part of a guided tour showing the history of the place from the official perspective of Communist Vietnam. We toured the three-story palace, which included banquet halls, meeting rooms, study rooms and a library, the residential areas where a suicide pilot plunged into the shelter during the war, and we reached a shelter through a network of hideouts that led to the command room during the war and the media center. From a balcony near the helipad on the roof, we observed several tanks of the northern forces that remained near the iron gates of the palace to this day.
After the conquest of the city, the Communists changed the name of the city to Ho Chi Minh City after the leader of North Vietnam and the palace, which became a memorial museum for the reunification of Vietnam, has since been called the "reunion palace".
Despite its official name, many still call the city of Saigon, which since its fall into the hands of the Communists has faded and has been glorified. The turning point in the city's history began in the late 1980s, when economic-political reforms aimed at rebuilding the country after the long years of war opened Vietnam to Western tourism and a wave of foreign investment began to flow into the country and the city, which enjoyed rapid industrial and tourist development.
One of the busiest sites in the city we visited was Ben Thanh Market, one of the city's main markets. This covered market is housed in a structure dating back to 1899 and includes a maze of clothing stands, the best electronics counterfeits, replica books, delicate Vietnamese paintings that reflect the traditional way of life and the country's landscape, vegetables and fruits, among them familiar fruits like pineapple, lychee and bananas. Fruits such as the sweet pink dragon fruite, the yellow-frosted Jack Fruitt with the sweet taste as opposed to Dorian – the great yellow fruit that is considered the delicacy of the gods for the Vietnamese and other Eastern peoples but whose strong smell and strong taste may deter the western smile. In the liquor stands alongside cool soups of tropical fruit, we also sampled avocado and artichoke, and found booths with snakes and scorpions that were considered to strengthen men's strength and heal various diseases in the eyes of local traditional medicine.
After a few fascinating days in Ho Chi Minh City, we took a few days of sightseeing around the city, the Ku Chi Tunnels, the Khao Dai Temple and the Mekong delta.
By Maayan Hess Ashkenazi