It was day eighteen of my South East Asian Adventure and this afternoon we were leaving Ho Chi Minh City and heading to the coastal resort of Nha Trang. Before this though, we had the opportunity to explore Ho Chi Minh with a morning of sightseeing.
Our first stop was to Independence Palace. It became known globally in 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its main gate and ended the Vietnam/American War. Its history goes back further than this however, as it was built on the site of the colonial-era Norodom Palace, which dated back to 1868 and was occupied by the French governor-general.
After the French left, Norodom Palace became home to the South Vietnamese President, Ngo Dinh Diem. He was a very unpopular president though, and the palace was bombed in a failed assassination attempt in 1962. Diem ordered a new palace to be built in its place and Independence Palace was consequently completed by 1966. However, the South Vietnamese President never got to see it , as his troops succeeded in killing him on their second attempt, in 1963.
Independence Palace is now a very popular sight for tourists and was renamed Reunification Hall in 1975 once negotiations were finalised between the communist North Vietnam and the anti-communist South Vietnam, and the war was ended.
Our next stop was to Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. Built between 1863 and 1880, the cathedral’s French Colonial architecture is beautiful to admire, but also serves as a reminder of France’s reign over much of South East Asia in the 1800s.
We then visited the Central Post Office. Situated next to the Notre-Dame, the CPO is another preserved remnant of French colonial times, which allowed us to imagine life in Vietnam during the Indochinese Empire. The famous civil engineer and designer of the Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel, is said to have designed the first version of the Central Post Office, but it was rebuilt by French architects Villedieu and Foulhoux in 1886.
The CPO is still a functioning post office and many of us used this opportunity to buy postcards and send them to relatives, so that we could experience the inner workings of this piece of living history. Our local guide, Luanne, also told us about a retired employee who still comes to volunteer and offer stories of the past, as he used to help service men translate love letters during the war. Though we didn’t see him on our visit, this provides tourists with another fascinating part of history.
The arched ceiling and windows, wooden shutters and giant wall maps of early Saigon greeted us as we entered the Central Post Office, and Hồ Chí Minh, the city’s namesake, stared down at us, sitting proudly in his portrait on the back wall.
Ho Chi Minh City was previously called Saigon, which was said to refer to the kapok trees, or bông gòn, that are common around the area. The city dates back to 1698, when it was first established by the Vietnamese and became detached from Cambodia, who were not strong enough to intervene.
Saigon’s name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, after Reunification Day. This was to honour the late Hồ Chí Minh, who was a key figure in the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam/American War.
Before our final stop in Ho Chi Minh City, we were given some time to wander around the main streets. We admired more of the French colonial architecture and came across many impressive sights.
Right in the heart of the city, we found a small pedestrianised street dedicated to book shops and cafés. It had such a serene atmosphere and if I was on my own or we had more time here, I would have happily spent hours in this quaint street, cosied up with a book and sipping a coffee.
It was now time to rush back to our meeting place, and venture to our last stop in Ho Chi Minh City. This was set to be a more sombre experience, as we were visiting the War Remnants Museum.
Established in 1975, the museum contains exhibits relating to both the First Indochina War and the Vietnam/American War (though it is known globally as the Vietnam War, in Vietnam itself they naturally refer to it as the American War).
Upon opening, the museum was named the rather hostile, “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”, but this was later changed following the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the United States.
As our flight to Nha Trang loomed, we had just a couple of hours to explore the museum’s three floors. I was fascinated by the country’s history and saddened to see the graphic images and items which highlighted the many brutal ramifications of the Vietnam/American War on the local people; specifically the effects of Agent Orange. This is a herbicide mixture that the U.S. military used during the war, which contained a dangerous chemical contaminant called dioxin.
Agent Orange was utilised primarily for strategic deforestation, so that the military could destroy forest cover and food resources that were being used by Vietnamese communist guerrilla troops. However, they sprayed over four and a half million acres of land and an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese people were killed by the toxic effects of the herbicide, with dioxin still being found in Vietnamese citizens’ blood samples taken in the 21st century. To this day the Vietnamese only drink bottled water because of the presence of carcinogenic material from Agent Orange in their tap water.
Naturally the War Remnants Museum is biased towards the victors of the war, the communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Nonetheless, it was eye-opening and harrowing, and I also believe that it’s important to learn about the other side of the war, as much of the mass media and film industry etc. takes a more American stance.
It was now time to head to the airport for a speedy fifty five minute flight to Nha Trang. We arrived as the sun was setting over the stunning coastal resort city, and we couldn’t wait to spend a few days here for a short break from sightseeing and some fun in the sun!
Upon arrival, we offloaded our heavy backpacks at the hotel and had a quick chance to change before we met for dinner at The Sailing Club. Located on the beach, this bar and restaurant had delicious food which we could eat, with our toes in the sand and a cocktail in hand!
After dinner, we were even treated to an incredible fire show, with some members of the group being chosen as volunteers for the rather terrifying looking tricks. The evening ended with some more drinking and dancing as everybody embraced the laidback atmosphere of Nha Trang.
The following morning, as some of us nursed sore heads, it was time for some hair of the dog, as we were spending the first half of the day on a boozy boat cruise.
On the cruise, we ate delicious food, played cards, sunbathed, listened to music and enjoyed some snorkelling and swimming in the crystal blue waters. The organiser of the boat cruise, Funky Monkey (I have my suspicions that this wasn’t his real name…) sang us a Vietnamese song and then made us sing songs associated with each of our respective countries. We thought he would ask the Brits amongst us to sing God Save The Queen, but instead he opted for a different British classic, Wonderwall by Oasis!
After the boat cruise ended and some members of the group felt a mix of seasick and drunk, it was time to unwind further with a trip to some naturally occurring mud baths and hot pools. We bathed in the relaxing mud, feeling as though we were being cleansed, and then washed it off in the many hot springs and pools. This was a really enjoyable experience as we got to know our new group better and embraced the last part of our day of fun in the sun!
Tomorrow morning we would be departing Nha Trang and heading to Hội An. Known as one of Vietnam’s highlights for its incredible food scene, unique architecture and easy-going atmosphere, I couldn’t wait to explore. Watch this space for the next blog post all about Vietnam’s idyllic City of Lights!