Good Bye Saigon, Hello Ho Chi Minh City

Temple of Sea Goddess in Chinatown, Saigon.Photo by Robert Stephen.

Temple of Sea Goddess in Chinatown, Saigon.
Photo by Robert Stephen.

(HO CHI Minh City, VIETNAM) – Old habits die hard. For those of you raised on a steady diet of Vietnam War footage from the 1960s and 70s you’ll be very familiar with Saigon, the capital of the then South Vietnam.

I am in Ho Chi Minh City and can’t stop thinking that I am in a city that no longer exists.

Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. South Vietnam and North Vietnam also disappeared, being replaced by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

While the French were driven out of Vietnam in 1954, only to be replaced by the Americans who left in 1972, the French influence exists in terms of historical French colonial architecture and to some extent food. Witness the prevalence of the baguette.

American influences? It would appear the omnipresent rampant commercialism that pervades Vietnam, the widespread use of the US dollar, and the speaking of English could be attributed to Americans.

It’s not an easy fix to determine the population of HCMC, but I’ll go with what my guide told me which is 12 million people inhabiting 24 districts. That is very similar to the French use of arrondisements in Paris.

In general terms, this is a hustle and bustle city particularly with a chaotic traffic situation caused by vast fleets of scooters, which seemingly have no regard for traffic rules and signals unless a policeman is directing traffic. In fact, it is so bad I was originally thinking of titling this article, Prisoner of War in Ho Chi Minh City because one often feels imprisoned in their movement by the armadas of motor scooters.

There is some talk of construction of a metro beginning in 2020 and that motorbikes will be banned by 2031. With some 800,000 cars and 8 million scooters, life as a pedestrian tourist is difficult and precarious in this 360 year-old city.

In addition to the Reunification Place and the War Remnants Museum you may wish to consider a few other stops.

Market in Chinatown, Saigon.Photo by Robert Stephen.

Market in Chinatown, Saigon.
Photo by Robert Stephen.

Chinatown is the home of a very crowded wholesale market selling just about any edible item you could ever imagine. Its packed with both edibles and humans.

There are mounds of dried fish, huge bags of dried shrimp, dried sea cucumbers, and even sea urchins. Merchandise seems to be spilling out everywhere, so don’t expect a hygienic, well organized and well lit Canadian marketplace.

As the rules of the road are chaos, so too are the rules of the Chinese Market.

Market in Chinatown, Saigon.Photo by Robert Stephen.

Market in Chinatown, Saigon.
Photo by Robert Stephen.

There are 500,000 or so third generation Chinese in HCMC. Don’t miss the Goddess of the Ocean Temple constructed in 1769.

For those willing to gain a perspective on the importance of traditional medicine in Asian societies a visit to the Fito Museum is mandatory. You’ll be greeted with a sample of hot mushroom tea, purportedly good for digestion.

You may purchase teas that are good for arthritis, vomiting due to cold weather, healthy lungs, fever, colds due to wind burn, regulation of blood pressure, heart regularity, memory impairment, nervous breakdown, gall stones, hypochondriac pain, optic diseases and, yes, erectile dysfunction.

Temple at Fito Museum, Saigon.Photo by Robert Stephen.

Temple at Fito Museum, Saigon.
Photo by Robert Stephen.

Traditional medicine is so venerated that it is a stream that is specialized in Vietnamese medical schools. Western medicine is the other stream. Traditional medicine takes a more preventative role while Western medicine is seen as more effective once a serious disease has struck, such as cancer.

At the Fito you can gain an appreciation for the development of traditional medicine. You can also see the traditional tools used in the preparation of these medicines such as crushers, fermenting pots, scales, bottles, and prescription pads. There are also some 3,000 plant species in Vietnam used in the preparation of traditional medicines.

Vials from Fito Museum, Saigon.Photo by Robert Stephen.

Vials from Fito Museum, Saigon.
Photo by Robert Stephen.

It is a bit difficult to focus on museums with such a buzzing and vibrant street culture, but if you enjoy art visit the HCMC Fine Arts Museum. You can see ancient, contemporary, and modern art.

For a Westerner, you might wish to think of the museum as delightfully confusing.

It was an interesting attempt to follow the influences of French Impressionism, and then modern attempts to work with the traditional Vietnamese lacquer, followed by a healthy dose of revolutionary art. The museum’s architecture is about as fascinating as its collection of art.

The buildings were built in the early years of the 20th century with a combination of French and Chinese styles, which are typical of Indochina architecture. It’s all a fun combination of traditional, colonial, bourgeoisie art, and revolutionary propaganda all mixed up.

I also recommend a visit to the HCMC Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Saigon Post Office; not because I had time to visit them, but was told they were a must.

Anatomy diagram from Fito Museum, Saigon.Photo by Robert Stephen.

Anatomy diagram from Fito Museum, Saigon.
Photo by Robert Stephen.

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About the Author

Robert Stephen (CSW)
Robert K Stephen writes about food and drink, travel, and lifestyle issues. He is one of the few non-national writers to be certified as a wine specialist by the Society of Wine Educators, in Washington, DC. Robert was the first associate member of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada. He also holds a Mindfulness Certification from the University of Leiden. Be it Spanish cured meat, dried fruit, BBQ, or recycled bamboo place mats, Robert endeavours to escape the mundane, which is why he loves The Square. His motto is, "Have Story, Will Write."Email Robert Stephen

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