My first glimpse of Ho Chi Minh City is from a plane a few minutes before Virg and I land at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. The glimmering lights from the streets are akin to fireflies in folk dance formation, so unlike the chaotic order that I am accustomed to.
Due to misunderstanding with our local contact, we arrive at Blue Diamond Hotel along Benh Thanh Ward, District 1, at 230am. The first thing I notice in the room is the absence of windows, but it has a large closet, cable TV that shows English Premier League matches and a couple of Vietnamese-dubbed Filipino drama, huge bed, and enough number of outlets to charge our phones, camera and tablet. The bathroom does not disappoint as it has a bathtub and a hair dryer, so I immediately shower after unpacking. As soon as my head touches the comfortable pillow, I am out like a light.
|The lobby of Blue Diamond Hotel|
Ben Dinh Underground Tunnel Complex
Before the clock hits 8am, Mr. Q, our guide, and the driver arrive. Virg and I make ourselves comfortable at the back of the car as he points to us some interesting places on our way to the Ben Dinh Underground Tunnel Complex. Throughout the 90-minute ride, he talks about the history of Vietnam in the 1890’s until the communist takeover in the 1970’s. Some of the interesting things we pass on our way to the tunnels are a colorful procession and a vast rubber tree farm. As soon as we arrive at our destination, Mr. Q tells us to freshen up while he pays for our tickets. I realize the sheer quantity of the tourists in the area when we are queuing at the main entrance, but despite this, the process is orderly and fast.
The tour starts with a 15-minute video that mostly talks about life in the tunnels and heralds the creativity and grit for survival of the Vietnamese fighters, which are the recurring themes of the day. The grit for survival is further enhanced by the remnants of the war—some of which are the impossibly narrow trapdoors that provided entrance to the tunnels, they are covered with leaves so people can easily escape unnoticed.
|Two of the trapdoors used by the Vietcongs|
Furthermore, there are various booby traps scattered on the ground to injure or kill the unsuspecting enemies who dared set foot on Vietcong territory. The booby traps have names that are derived from daily activities of the local people, but something that sounds so innocent can be so deadly if it has metal spikes that can crush bones and split the midsection.
|Booby traps used to kill unsuspecting enemies
On the other side of the warfare spectrum are the various Vietnam War era weapons that include Carbine, M16 and AK-47 and bombs and tanks.
|Weapons used during the Vietnam-American War
Aside from the deadly weapons, there are several bunkers with life-size figures (like a tableau) that show how the fighters cooked, relaxed and made weapons and slippers from the bombs and tires that they had collected.
|Life-size figures showing daily activities during the war
Before we enter the tunnel, Virg and I decide to try our hand at shooting. The cheapest available bullets (10 bullets for VND 250,000) belong to the Carbine so we split the bullets, aim at nothing in particular and pull the trigger.
With the rush of adrenaline provided by not hitting anything, we enter the tunnel. Our guide is a skinny guy who leads the way using a flashlight.Virg follows him and I am at the end of our small procession. I feel a bit apprehensive as we half-sit, half-crawl through the first 20 meters while I adjust to the darkness and overbearing heat inside the tunnel. At the 20-meter mark, the guide asks us if we want to stop, we tell him to continue as I hear the people behind us exit the side door. The next 20 meters are similar to the first one and by this time my eyes have adjusted to the dimness, so we decide to continue without knowing that the next 20 meters involve a little bit of lifting one’s self, jumping and sliding.
|Inside the tunnel|
As per custom, the guide asks us if we want to continue after every 20 meters and our answer is always a resounding, “yes!”. We do not really care at that point that our pants are dirty and we have sweat through our clothes. Before we know it, we reach the 100-meter mark and the guide turns left and I am glad to feel the wind and sun against my face once again.
Mr. Q meets us at the entrance and he directs us to a hanging bamboo pole with running water. We wash our faces, hands and arms and try to make ourselves as presentable as possible. Then he points at the huge crater that was created by a B52 bomb.
|Bomb crater created by B52|
I think that one of the tanks will fit in the crater easily, and it dawns on me how hard it would have been for the Vietcongs to survive. The history lesson in the car earlier gains a new and more profound meaning now that I am surrounded by the mute witnesses of the war.
We return to the city-center to have lunch at a nondescript place that Mr. Q recommends. We have pho bo, one with bo chin or well-done beef briskets, and the other is a combination of bo chin and bovien or beef meatballs, and kumquat juice and aloe vera juice. The vegetables/herbs include bean sprouts, coriander, chili peppers, onions and lime while the condiments include fish sauce and chili sauce or paste. I enjoy my pho bo because of the clean taste and the chili peppers provide enough kick while the kumquat juice is refreshing especially on a hot summer day. A lunch for four people costs only VND 215,000.
|Pho that packs a lot of flavor
|Refreshing kumquat, perfect complement for pho|
|Independence Palace and its grounds|
At 1pm, we enter the side gates of The Independence Palace. According to the leaflet that comes with the ticket, the Palace (which is also known as the Reunification Palace) was constructed on July 1, 1962 and was designed by Architect Ngo Viet Thu. It includes four main floors, two mezzanines, ground floor and a basement. After its inauguration on October 31, 1966, it became the residence and working place of Mr. Nguyen Van Thieu, the president of the Republic of Vietnam. Currently, aside from being a tourist attraction, it is also used as venue for government meetings, receptions and banquets for heads of states.
|The bamboo-inspired adornment that dominates the façade of the building|
The first thing that grabs my attention is the simplicity of the building, yet it exudes a certain aura of quiet elegance. The exterior has bamboo-influenced design that is not only decorative but also useful as it provides ample natural light flooding into the second floor.
Well-lit passageways inside Independence Palace
|The replica of the helicopter of Mr. Nguyen Van Thieu|
|The Map Room|
|The Conference Hall where a bust of Ho Chi Minh is given a special place|
|Close-up of the bust|
It is curious to note that the Banquet Room is done in yellow to make the women look more beautiful because it highlights their color. A huge lacquer painting by Ngo Viet Thu called National Landscape is displayed at the back of the room and shows scenery from North, Central and South Vietnam.
|The Banquet Hall where the First Lady of Vietnam received her guests|
|Lacquer painting by Ngo Viet Thu|
The chair of the president in the President’s reception room is elevated to signal the superiority of the Vietnamese president over the visiting delegates, but in the Vice-President’s reception room, the chairs have the same height to show that the leader is listening to the concerns of the visiting people.
|The President’s Reception Room where his seat is on a platform to
symbolize his dominance over visiting dignitaries
|The reception room for Vietnamese leaders.
The chairs are on the same level to show equality among them
The gambling room has a table set for a mahjong game, chess and a bar to quench the thirst of the players. The private quarters of the president and his family are not as ostentatious as one would expect, but they manifest a feeling of a hidden vacation spot rather than being inside a building due to the open space and presence of pond and trees.
Opposite the dining room of the family is the collection of the gifts the president received, which covers a wide gamut of artistry. It includes the head of dead animals, elephant feet, carved artwork and model boats.
|Presents received by the President|
One of my favorite features of the Palace is the dragon carpet that came from Hong Kong. As explained by Mr. Q, it came from one piece of material that was skillfully transformed into a meaningful gift and the phoenixes in the middle symbolize the women while the dragons in the outer circle are the men who protect the women. I hope I remember this one correctly.
|Dragon carpet given by Hong Kong to the Vietnamese president|
The Independence Palace is open from 730am-1100am and 1pm-4pm.
|Commanding view from the steps of Independence Palace|
Notre Dame Cathedral
|The facade of Notre Dame Cathedral|
A short drive from the Palace is the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was built by the French colonists in the late 19th century. It faces the Notre Dame Square where a tall statue of Virgin Mary stands in the center of a well-maintained garden, and it is perpendicular to the Central Post Office. It has beautiful bright red bricks and two bell towers. Under the scorching sun, the bricks seem to emanate radiant energy, and the facade looks magnificent. No wonder it is a favorite destination for couples who want to have romantic photos, but this afternoon the place is pretty empty except for the local officer and a couple of tourists. It is closed when we arrive so after snapping a couple of pictures, we leave for our next destination.
War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum has been one of the popular destinations in Ho Chi Minh City since its opening on September 4, 1975. It exhibits proofs of Vietnam War crimes and the grievous effects they had on people.
As soon as I step inside the gates, I see the collection of US bombs, planes and armored tanks strategically placed on the ground. It reminds of the scene earlier in Ben Dinh.
|Collection of war remnants located near the gate of War Museum|
The lobby houses a photo exhibit of the atrocities of the war, and tables that sell books that cover a wide array of subjects, notepads, bookmarks and posters of Hollywood films (from Little Miss Sunshine to Star Wars) and TV shows. I flip through the posters and find only one available poster of The Walking Dead and Rick Grimes looks more like a zombie than a human being (with magnificent beard and don’t-screw-with-me stare) in it, but generally, the posters are nice and not expensive.
The rooms in the upper levels have names that aptly describe their respective contents like Requiem and its graphic photos showing the harrowing events, the Imprisonment conditions during the war and the inhumane treatment of the prisoners and the Aggressive War Crimes. There is a room solely dedicated for more American high-powered weapon, and another called DOVE, a children education room.
High-powered weapons used during the Vietnam-American War
|Samples of lacquerware at the entrance of the factory|
We visit Phuongnam Lacquerware. They do not allow visitors to take photos of the process, but a woman is assigned to explain the steps to us as she brings Virg and I from one table (blank frame and application of the design) to the next (grounding of egg shells, application of lacquer) until the final product is finished.
She ushers us into a room full of jewelry, décor and furniture with lacquerware. I cannot afford anything in this room, so I proceed to a bigger room where they sell frames, chopsticks, ornate jewelry boxes, plates and bowls, among other things. The frames adorn the walls from floor to ceiling but they are not grouped according to size or design, so it is hard to buy a set of frames that kinda complement each other. The designs vary but most of them are very feminine. The small frames cost $12 each while the jewelry boxes cost $15 while some of the merchandise cost thousands of dollars!
We decide to go back to the hotel and leave the lacquerware that we bought. Then, we walk three blocks and arrive at Phuong Giang, a store that sells fabric, Vietnamese silk and ao dai, the Vietnamese national costume. The ground floor displays ready-made suits and ao dai and fabric for custom-made ao dai. The staff are friendly and efficient. Thram shows me a folio with photos of ao dai in different styles, material and color. After a several minutes of discussion, she asks me to select the type and color of the material for my chosen ao dai. There is a dizzying collection of fabric from embroidered cotton to rich silk. Then, she takes her time to get my measurements properly as it is important for the ao dai to fit a woman’s body perfectly. She promises to have the ao dai ready within 24 hours. I pay $75 using my credit card.
|After barely 24 hours, the aodai tailor-made for me was done.With Thram, the girl who took my measurements the day before|
Benh Thanh Market
A couple of blocks from Phuong Giang is the Benh Thanh Market, considered the go-to place for souvenirs, handicraft, textile, authentic Vietnamese food, fruits and preserved food and coffee and tea. Earlier, Mr. Q tells us that we can buy anything at a good price except watches, shades and lacquerware. Since I have no plans of buying any of those, I feel a rush of excitement when I enter the market. My jaw drops when I see the aisles of products available—colorful toys, fans with intricate designs, oriental wallets and bags, sacks of candied fruits and spices. I use my haggling skills to lower the price of the mirrors and cute fridge magnets; however, some sellers are adamant that their prices are fixed. At the end of the shopping trip, Virg and I have bought house decors, keychains and coffee.
|The bustling Ben Thanh Market at night|
Just across the Benh Thanh Market is Pho 2000, which is on the second floor of Coffee Bean. It served US President Bill Clinton a bowl of pho when he visited Vietnam in 2000. If I did not see the photos of Mr. Clinton with my own eyes, I would not have believed it! The restaurant is very modest and its interiors badly needed renovation. The place is not crowded when we arrive so we are able to choose the table next to the window to watch the sky turn bloody red and the motorists in the Benh Thanh traffic circle. We order pho ga (pho with chicken), crisp spring rolls and guyabano shake. I like the spring rolls more than the pho, maybe because they are fried and I like anything fried. The dinner, including the wet towels, costs VND 220,000.
|Photo of President Clinton taken at Pho 2000|