A Weekend in Vietnam

If you checked out my previous post, you’ll have noticed I went to Vietnam this past weekend for my birthday. However, the Cu Chi Tunnel experience was only an hour out of one day, and I have much more to share about the time I spent there.

We arrived at our hotel in Saigon around 12pm Saturday afternoon and checked in. It took us a while to decide whether we wanted to book any of the tours the hotel had on offer, and what else we might be interested in doing. In the end we decided to book a tour that took us to other regions in Vietnam the next day, and check out the other locations in Saigon ourselves. The first thing we wanted to do was book tickets to the water puppet show we’d seen mentioned, and had discovered needed to be purchased in advance on the day. Google helped us find the exact location and address, but we still got turned around a lot because I got confused by numbers on buildings, and we ended up stopping at a side stall for some cheap soft drinks before finding the theatre. Tickets were already sold out for the first show, so we booked tickets for 8pm.

It was already nearly 3pm by the time we made it to the back of the Reunification Palace, and we were informed it closed at 4pm, so we decided to save that visit for another day, instead venturing on to the Ben Tanh Markets, which included a lot of different stalls selling a wide range of items, from fruit and vegetables, pig intestines and meat, to traditional and modern clothes, and other tourist collectibles, with a lot of focus on lacquer goods. Whilst there, I picked up a nice purple wig for less than US$10 – something that would generally fetch at least $US75 anywhere else I’ve seen similar wigs. In fact I was tempted to buy a few different colours since it would be much cheaper than dying my hair another colour every time it fades. Of course I wouldn’t be able to style it in the same way, though. I also picked up a traditional Vietnamese dress/pant combination – as I mentioned in my previous post, I think this outfit looks incredible. I hope that I’ll be able to wear it sometime. I’m thinking maybe in a stand up routine…

After that stop, we headed back toward the hotel, stopping only really to pick up and try some toasted banana from a street hawker, and marking on our map the restaurant we wanted to come back to for dinner, Pho24. It was only around 5pm or so by then, so not quite time for dinner yet. It was nice to have a short break at the hotel before heading out again, back to Pho24. There we tried some traditional Vietnamese food, which was very yummy, before heading back to the theatre.

The Vietnamese water puppet show, I have to say, is a must see if you ever visit Saigon. It’s not in English, but few words are actually spoken anyway. It’s incredible to listen to the traditional music tell a lot of the story acted out by puppets in water. I don’t even know how the puppeteers managed to control the puppets without scuba gear, to be honest. They didn’t have especially long arms when they revealed themselves at the end of the show. It was definitely cleverly done, and an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget. And at only 70,000dong (less than US$5) for 50 minute show, it is worth every dong. Doyle was so enthralled with it, he applauded throughout the show three times, and again at the end, without really being prompted to do so.

Having spent the majority of our dong, which we had changed from US dollars at the airport, by now, we attempted to withdraw more cash from ATMs, with no luck from Australian or Malaysian cards. Luckily most of what we needed to pay for for the rest of the trip could be charged to our hotel and paid for on credit.

The following day, Sunday, was our only full day in Vietnam, and my birthday. We woke up at 7:30am and managed to enjoy our included buffet breakfast (which, for me, was a mix of Western and Vietnamese breakfast) before meeting our tour guide, Tam, in the reception area just after 9am.

The tour was only meant to have two stops in country Vietnam, but since we had booked to leave so early, Tam took us to a lacquer factory to see some Vietnamese people working on art pieces made out of duck egg shells and mother of pearl, then covered with lacquer. It compared well with a similar stop our private tour in Phuket, Thailand at a jewellery factory, complete with shop section where they encourage you to buy something. Despite these items costing about 3 times as much as similar if not identical items in a mall or market in Saigon, I don’t have any problem with us paying that extra amount. Vietnam can do with the money – it appeared to be the poorest of all Asian countries I’ve been to, given that motorcycles were the primary transportation vehicles on the road, above cars, because cars are far too expensive for the Vietnamese people to buy. It really puts things into perspective, when you hear about some Westerners complaining they can only afford a small car. Big whoop. At least you can buy a car! Anyway…

We took so long choosing what to buy from the lacquer factory that we ended up being half an hour late to Tay Ninh to see a ceremony of the unique to Vietnam Cao Dai religion at the largest temple of its kind. We did, however, still manage to see inside before the end. Tam told us that since the Vietnamese government don’t allow the Caodaists to really publicise for new members, they allow tourists in during these ceremonies to help get the word out about their religion. She also told us that the religion takes bits and pieces from several other religions, and they consider it a third generation religion (an example she gave of first generation was Catholic, and second generation, Protestant). I believe she said they only started in 1920.

We were then taken to a nearby restaurant, where we were served mostly Vietnamese food, but also French bread and Chinese style fried rice. There was too much for us to finish it all, but I’d have to say the spring rolls were my favourite part.

Our final stop on the tour was to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, which I wrote about in my previous post. Although the driving was longer than the actual stops we made, I enjoyed looking out at the scenery during the drive. It was nice to see that the Vietnamese cultural differences were still apparent, and I was a typical tourist wanting to take photos of the ladies riding bicycles in their special Vietnamese cone shaped hats and Vietnamese style clothing. It was also interesting to see just how much they could fit on the top of a cyclo (cycle-rickshaw) or even bicycles. On our bus trip to our hotel, I even saw someone carrying two thick, double bed size mattresses on top of his cyclo! Apart from the people, I was intrigued by the architecture – a lot of 3-4 story, narrow-front houses but reached backward a long way, and often bunched together. I enjoyed seeing the temples, and noting the rubber tree farms.

Upon arriving back to our hotel in Saigon, Jeremy had organised a birthday cake to be sent to our room, and my birthday was acknowledged by the hotel with a basket of flowers. It was a great way to end the day. Though it wasn’t technically over, since I also went to a nearby mall after that, while Jeremy looked after a sleeping Doyle.

We didn’t really have much time on our final day to do everything we wanted, so we just picked out what we wanted to do the most. After a similar buffet breakfast in the morning, we set off out to the Reunification Palace, where it was only 15,000dong (less than US$1) to enter. The building, as we learned in the basement inside, was once built by the French, who began occupying South Vietnam in the late 1800s. This building was later given to a Vietnamese leader in the 1950s, when the UN stepped in to resolve some conflicts. Then it was bombed in the early 1960s, and rebuilt as the Presidential Palace for South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. Obviously it was renamed the Reunification Palace after North Vietnam won the war. There were several floors to explore in the palace, reaching up as high as the roof, where you can see an old army helicopter, then the 4 or 5 levels in between that and the basement. Most of the large rooms seemed to be dining rooms of some description, but there was even a theatre room inside!

There was only one room inside that included documents and information about the building and the Vietnam war, but that was interesting in itself. I noted that in that room, and in the documentary we watched in Cu Chi, there was a lot of anti-American sentiments, despite the fact the US was not the only country sending troops to support the South Vietnamese people. I think the photograph in that room that saddened me the most was one of dead Vietnamese villagers, including a nude toddler, labelled as having been killed by Americans. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forget that photograph.

After the Reunification Palace, we headed back to the hotel to eat as much more of my birthday cake as we could stomach for morning tea, and then checked out of the hotel, leaving our bags for a couple of hours while we went off to explore a couple of other sights listed in tours we could have gone on – the Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Central Post Office. We didn’t think we had enough time to go to one of the nearby museums after that, so we stopped for a drink at a nearby Vietnamese café. Having had an incredible hot chocolate at a Vietnamese restaurant in Malaysia, I decided to have a similar hot chocolate at this café. It was hot chocolate mixed with peppermint grenadine, honey and whipped cream, named “Titanic,” and absolutely divine.

Since we didn’t have time to visit any of the museums or temples in Saigon, I have decided that I will definitely have to return one day. And most likely buy more things from the Ben Tanh markets.

The best end to the holiday was seeing and helping Doyle learn to read a few words, and draw a lot of faces with legs. He can now definitely identify “Doyle,” “Mummy” and “Daddy,” without having to sound out the letters, and is getting good at sounding out letters to the words he doesn’t know. It was also a joy to hear him spell “dog” without reading the letters on his magna-doodle.

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