Saigon: Arrival Day 1
We departed from SFO on EVA at 12:05 am. Feb 24, 2009, on an inspection trip. It was my first flight on EVA, and I have to say it was quite comfy. Check in was easy and friendly, and the flight departed pretty much on time. EVA uses and extended range 777 for this flight, which is a fully modern aircraft with seat back entertainment systems, relatively decent leg room, etc. The service was very good. The only complaint was the food, which was not good, even for airline food. Flying time to Taipei is a numbing 14 plus hours. Taipei Airport is a very easy airport to navigate, and the vendors take US dollars.
The flight to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) in Vietnam was on the same aircraft. The food catered in Taipei was a bit better but still not great.
Arrival in Saigon was pretty straightforward. Immigration and customs was much like any other country. We were met by our guide on clearing customs. Saigon Airport is quite close to town. The drive to the hotel was only about 30 minutes. We stayed at the Sheraton. As is common in Asia, Sheraton is a bit more upscale than it is here. The Saigon Sheraton is very well located on Dong Thai Street. The central tourist area of the city is quite compact; so much of what we were to see was in easy walking distance. Check in was smooth and easy. The rooms were fairly typical for a hotel of this category. The hotel is only five years old, so everything is new and functional. It is a bit generic for such and exotic location. (During our stay there, we saw vehicles for Tauck and Trails of Indochina, our preferred suppliers.) The desk of the hotel changes money at market rate; very convenient.
Saigon! We were there for a whole 44 hours, so it is kind of hard to sum it up. The impressions are of a busy, bustling city (I believe they said population of 8 million?) with motor scooters everywhere. Crossing the street is an adventure. The core area has a lot of left over French architecture in various states of repair. Among the visual impressions is a wildly chaotic wiring system that has literally hundreds of phone lines and power lines hanging in apparent chaos from poles only fifteen or twenty feet off of the ground.
The first afternoon we toured the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, the Ben Thahn Market, the Post Office and the Cathedral. Yes, all that after flying for a VERY long time.
The Reunification Palace was once the Presidential Palace for South Vietnam. It was made famous by the film of North Vietnamese tanks smashing through the gates in 1975. It has been quite well preserved. Kind of an odd place; the architecture is right out of the late sixties/early seventies. Our guide Kiet gave an excellent talk on the last days of the South Vietnamese government. We saw the living quarters, meeting rooms, kitchens, bunkers, escape tunnels, etc. Interesting from a historical perspective, but hardly spectacular. We then went to the War Remnants Museum. This has a fair amount of military hardware packed into a small courtyard (tanks, artillery, a couple of aircraft) and several rooms full of photos. These photos are NOT for the faint of heart. Most of the people of Vietnam seem to be well beyond the war. But it is not forgotten. The museum has pictures of victims of Agent Orange and stories of the My Lai massacre, among other things. It is a very visual reminder of the sufferings of war. It would be a good idea to have a chat with clients heading to Saigon to be prepared for this.
We stopped at the Ben Thanh market (walking distance from the Sheraton), which is a fairly typical Asian market; lots of stuff for tourists, but some local stuff. Did you know that Vietnam is the world’s largest exporter of cashews? I didn’t. The bus then dropped us at the Post Office, which is a short walk to the hotel. The Saigon Post office is often listed as a must see for tourists. It was built (apparently) by the Eiffel people and dates to about the same vintage. It is, I think, somewhat overhyped. Nice building, but not the highlight of the trip. Same can be said for the Notre Dame Cathedral across the street. Historically interesting (built at some enormous cost with all material imported from France) but Notre Dame de Paris it is not. We than walked back to the hotel (dodging scooters all the way). Dinner was at a very nice open-air barbecue restaurant near the hotel. We had an incredible dinner of table grilled meats and fish. Vietnamese food in Vietnam! So much more complex and subtle in flavors than Vietnamese food in America; it was wonderful.
I did a couple of walks on the next couple of mornings; I walked down to the Saigon River and around the center of town. The City Hall is actually quite picturesque. I like Saigon, but it is more about the atmosphere and energy of the city than any particular sites to see. If we did indeed see the most important sites in town (which everything I have read says we did), well, they were a bit underwhelming. I think I would put Saigon in the middle of a SE Asia itinerary, not book much in the way of touring and let people use it as a day to recharge and refresh. It does look like there is pretty good shopping. I would definitely recommend staying in the central area around the Sheraton.