For the past four days, Eric and I have been in Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City) and its general vicinity. We arrived on Thursday afternoon and after dumping our bags at the hotel, we journeyed out to see some of the sites. Initial impressions of Saigon centered on the heat and smells - both were barely bearable. It was extremely hot and muggy, which I imagine only intensified the smells from the markets. The streets had the stagnant water with god knows what in it type smell (occasionally present in Bangkok, but everywhere here in Saigon). In fact, Saigon is definitely more similar to Bangkok than the other cities we have been to in Vietnam. It is very much a big city and has a more standard "grid"-like street structure vs. the twisty quaint streets in Hanoi. Of course, the touts are ever present and in addition to the motorbikes, cyclos (essentially rickshaws driven my old men) are everywhere.
In fact, almost as soon as we arrived, Eric and I started to make plans to leave (more below). Before we did, we decided to see the requisite sites and started at Reunification Palace. This was essentially the White House of Southern Vietnam during the war - some of you may remember pictures of tanks crashing through the gates when the communists captured Saigon on April 30, 1975. In order to commemorate this occasion, the palace has actually been kept exactly how it was on that day. It's actually kind of cool to walk around and see how the rooms were designed and set up - it looks like everyone jumped out of their chairs and just took off. The 70's design (color choices, furniture, etc.) is actually kind of funny - it kind of looks like what might happen if the set designers on the Brady Bunch were given the keys to the White House.
After the Palace, we headed over to the War Remnants Museum. According to my trusty guide book it used to be known as the "Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes," but for some reason they decided that wasn't very PC and might offend people. Regardless of the name, the museum was very disturbing. The exhibits are very graphic and difficult to view - they show pictures of deformed babies caused by Agent Orange and document many other U.S.-led atrocities and massacres. They also had a remade prison with "tiger cages" and showed all the different ways prisoners were tortured by the South Vietnamese military. As always the claim of "bias" can be made, but regardless the details of the War were horrible to see and regardless of who is responsible it really hit home the tragedy ... for all involved.
After that we were emotionally exhausted and pretty tired of museums, temples, palaces, and everything else. We called it a day and went back to the hotel to plan our escape out of Saigon. There may be charm here somewhere, but it was not rubbing off on us. We decided to head about 3 hours up the coast to a beach called Mui Ne. We left early the next morning and arrived around noontime. While it wasn't the nicest beach I have ever been to, it was definitely what the doctored ordered. We rented a small cabana just off the beach and did absolutely nothing. For the next day and a half we basically vegged out, read and relaxed. It was great!
We returned to Saigon last night and this morning we went to a all you can eat, all you can drink brunch at the Caravelle Hotel. Total cost was $23 per person and they were nice enough to itemize how much we drank so I know that we consumed over $100 of alcohol ... and keep in mind we are in Vietnam! (Although to be fair, prices were pretty high because we were at a nice hotel, so we didn't get completely sloshed.) The food and drinks were great and we had a fun day just hanging out and talking about our adventures (and the impending end of our trip.) I left with that "I've been drinking since 11 AM" heaviness in my head and went to the hotel for a nap.
Tomorrow we are doing a day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels (the underground tunnel system used by the Viet Cong during the War) and then that's it. Back to Bangkok on Tuesday and the States on Wednesday! As much fun as I've been having, I am definitely looking forward to coming home!