Capturing Saigon

Yes, I do know that the official name is Ho Chi Minh City and I mean no disrespect by calling it by its former colonial name. It’s just that naming this post “Capturing Saigon” has so much meaning for those of a certain age who still vividly remember what was in actually, the fall of Saigon. But when you’re visting there, that term is never used. Instead, the emphasis in on the liberation of South Vietnam and how the victorious forces of North Vietnam finally threw out the last of the colonial oppressors.

Vietnam was part of French Indochina for a century and was imbued with that European culture long before the American presence made itself known in the decades following the French departure in 1955. Partitioned into two sections, Saigon served as the capital of South Vietnam and Hanoi holding that title for North Vietnam. Between those years, allied forces, led by the United States and fueled by the theme that we were saving the South Vietnamese from the evils of communism, attempted with little success to quell the invasion from the north. Led by none other than Ho Chi Minh himself, the Chinese and Soviet supported guerrilla forces managed, with stunning determination and ingenuity, to  bring America to her knees and send us scurrying to evacuate. It was a stunning and humiliating loss for the United States, and the beginning of what has become the huge success story of a combined Vietnam.

The goal of my visit to the country was not to do an historical review, nor was it to bang the drum of wartime rhetoric. I lived through it, as did so many men and women in my age group. Over 58,000 Americans died in this effort, with losses among the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and others in staggering and even larger numbers. It was an emotional visit for me. But I have to say that what they have accomplished is impressive by any measure. Although painful to admit, I believe they are better off for their bitter and acrimonious victory.

My first impression of Saigon was of traffic, horns, crowds and energy. The largest city in Vietnam, it is currently home to over 9 million people. It would be no understatement to say that the city is bursting at the seams, yet is filled with optimism and excitement at their fast-growing economy and national pride.

I stayed at the venerable (for lack of a better term) Rex Hotel. It is located in District 1 and is among the oldest grand hotels in the city. In the 1960’s, it housed many of the American military’s top brass during the early part of the war. Throughout the war, the nightly military briefings, designed and calculated to show that our forces were getting closer to liberating the country from the communists, were held at the hotel. And following the war, the hotel was used as the location for the press conference announcing the reunification of Vietnam in 1976.  Check out more history of the hotel here: Facts – The Rex Hotel Saigon.

The hotel is known for their rooftop bar, site of clandestine meetings filled with political intrigue for decades, as well as their “Vertical Garden”, the largest in Asia.

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The government, although holding no fond memories of either the French or American “occupation” of their country, have chosen to maintain several of the more beautiful buildings for public use and access. Others from that era have not been kept up, due to allocation of resources or probably more realistically, lack of interest. Here are a few of the buildings that are most visited dating from the French colonization 1887 – 1954. Click your cursor over each photo for a caption, if available:

As mentioned earlier, Saigon is bustling. In addition to the plethora of cars, trucks, busses, vans, cyclos (more on that later) and commercial vehicles of all kinds, there are motor bikes. Billions and billions of them, or so it seemed. Honestly, the number of them on the streets…and sidewalks….is staggering. Trying to cross a street in the city is beyond a leap of faith, it is a doom-filled foray into a labyrinth of unyielding drivers who consider your effort to get to the other side an intrusion. Crosswalks? Sure, they exist. Effective? Not on you life. It would be funny if it wasn’t so terrifying. Amazingly, it usually works. Cars and bikes and motorbikes all whizz around you as you carefully but assertively enter the avenue. Yes, it is unnerving. Yes, some of the drivers are total biatches who get a thrill out of watching the tourist frantically darting to avoid getting hit. It’s a national pastime for some, but that’s the nature of the traffic beast in HCMC. Here’s a peak:

The Mekong Delta is Vietnam’s most productive agricultural and fishing region. It sits just southwest of Saigon and is the terminus for the Mekong River with a wide and rambling string of tributaries, many interconnecting and forming a waterway for every imaginable human and commercial cargo. I took a tour that left by boat on the Saigon River, working it’s way down to the heart of South Vietnam’s “biological treasure trove”. Sadly, the Saigon River itself set a bad first impression for the rest of the trip. It has become one of Asia’s most littered and polluted waterways. As with many major rivers in Asia, the priority is on development and growth. The multiple point sources for discharge and pollution and the potential for ecological disaster are rarely discussed – most certainly not by the tour companies. I have captioned these shots, so be sure to catch them via your cursor over each for further details.

One of our stops on the way to the delta was in a small village. While there, we visited the market where freshly slaughtered meat and poultry was available alongside the freshest of vegetables, fruit, rice and other locally grown and hand-made commodities.

We visited an unusual temple that was associated with Caodaism, a religious sect once numbering in the millions, that mixes elements of Buddhism, Christianity and among other things, the writings of Victor Hugo. Read more about it here: Cao Dai Religious Sect. A service was being held while we visited. A devote Caodaist is required to attend a daily 45 minute service, much of which entails standing and kneeling with head to the ground repeatedly while chanting. It was mesmerizing to watch and we all felt honored to have been able to film them during their holy service:

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Along the route we encountered additional sugar cane harvesting and visited two homes, one for a very Mekong feast of roast river fish. One homeowner was an 86 year old with a face to remember who showed off her Burmese Python “pet” that her family has raised since birth. Her sons helped raise the snake onto the shoulders of some of my fellow tour mates for a photo op. I think I did well just capturing the ones I took…from a safe distance.

One of my favorite building in Saigon is open to the public as a museum of sorts. Although in disrepair due to the government’s benign neglect, the late 19th century building is a stunning example of a former French government building and later home of the French Governor of Indochina. It gives a glimpse into a time the Vietnamese would rather forget, but speaks to a time when European nations inhabited, developed and controlled much of Asia and Africa. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, much of the exhibitions in the building celebrate the defeat of the French and the overall liberation of the country from foreign influence. Coupled with a celebration of their communist heritage, this theme runs through much of what tourists see throughout the city. This building is now referred to as the Ho Chi Minh Museum, originally the Gia Long Palace.

Many people, including myself, ask about the location of The former American Embassy, famous for those shots of people climbing up ladders to reach helicopters to safety. When the U.S. and Vietnam renewed relations in the 1990’s, the embassy compound was returned intact to the American government. Because it had deteriorated in the 20 years since the end of the war, it was deemed too expensive to renovate. In addition, the new country’s capital had been moved to Hanoi, leaving the building an unnecessary burden to maintain. The U.S. government decided to tear it and done and put a park dedicated to the people of Vietnam in its place. One of the most important historical buildings from the war era still stands as a monument to national pride. Norodom Palace, built in 1966 to replace a former presidential residence, served as the home of the President of South Vietnam until the country’s defeat in 1975. It was renamed “Independance Palace”, also referred to as “Reunification Palace”. Whatever you call it, it’s a mid-century modern, rather commercial looking building with a grand, albeit somewhat kitschy interior. Check out more on it here – Independence Palace

Saigon seemed to exude a personality, culture and vibrancy that was at times intoxicating and often exhausting. At every turn there seemed to be an opportunity to capture more of their world, life and energy. I’d be surprised if you’re not intrigued by these evocative shots:

Cyclo’s are bicycles with a purpose. They were designed to transport people and things and were the prime source for both until just a few years ago when taxis and buses became more prevalent and affordable for the masses. I took a ride through China Town in one and it was great fun. read more about them here: Facts – Cyclos.

With Buddhism’s influence on much of Asia, along with the addition following for Hinduism, Christianity, Taoism, there is much iconography to capture all over the continent. I found some of the more interesting and unusual while in Saigon. To check out more info on the subject, check out this link: Religious Iconography.

Markets and shopping are everywhere in Asia and Saigon was no exception. Whether you buy from a street vendor setting up a spot along the roadway or alley, or visit one of the huge covered markets so packed with people and stalls that movement is restricted, you know that commerce is endemic to this culture. The choice and variety are overwhelming, but the opportunity to snag a simple or lasting treasure is always close at hand.

As must be clear by now, I admit that I fell in love with Vietnam. The people, the energy, the beauty are all around you and envelop you with a history and spirit that is unique to Asia. Ho Chi Minh (read more here: Facts – Ho Chi Minh ) may be a hero for uniting the country and driving out the foreign forces and influence, but the special qualities of Saigon and indeed the country of Vietnam predate him by centuries.

I leave you with a few last photographic impressions of what has been one of the highlights of my extended stay in this ever-fascinating part of the world. Don’t hesitate to make a visit on your own someday soon!