Seeking Thrills and Enlightenment in Saigon
10.01.2007 30 °C
Anica climbs up on a captured American tank during our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels
Before we get to Ho Chi Minh City, a few more words about the Orchid Hotel in Hue. This was simply the best hotel we've stayed in, mainly because of the staff there. We paid only $38 a night, including breakfast, and yes, the room was beautiful, but the level of service was astounding. More than that, though, the Orchid staff seem to really enjoy getting to know their guests. Anica wanted her picture taken with some of the people who work there, including the irrepressible "Chi." Then, on the morning we were checking out, Anica drew a picture and gave it to Chi. A few minutes later, Chi brought a wrapped present to our breakfast table, Inside was a little doll (that looked a little like Anica, but more like her cousin Lauren!). That's not something you could ever expect, but it was a lovely morning. Everyone (from the manager to the bellhops) came to say goodbye (and hug Anica) as we checked out.
We were on the way to Da Nang's airport for our flight to HCMC. No, not an overnight train! Jenn had succeeded in getting us a flight for about $130 for all three of us. One hour in the air versus 23 on the train - yay! Da Nang is about 150 km from Hue, and we arranged for a "private car," as they're called, since the drive is so scenic. Unlike the bus or train, for example, we got to take the mountain pass road into Da Nang instead of the tunnel. After winding slowly up the Marble Mountains, the road crests and is flanked by American pillboxes. We also got to see traditional fishing structures, and stretch our legs at a beach resort, where, despite the bad weather, we enjoyed watching huge waves rolling in. The whole drive reminded me of Highway 1 in California, south of San Francisco.
After a short hop flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or still Saigon, for short), we were greeted at the airport by the driver the hotel sent. He took our luggage and put a chihuahua in Anica's arms. As in, a real dog. Anica's favourite breed! She got to hold him for the whole ride, and he fell asleep in her lap. She was thrilled. Apparently, he belongs to someone at the hotel, and his name is "Bum" (maybe "baum," but it sure sounded like "bum" at first).
Anica is welcomed to Ho Chi Minh City by a chihuahua
For dinner, we headed for a popular spot nearby, and soon struck up a conversation with an Australian family, with a boy, 8, and girl, 11. Since everyone was enjoying talking, we stayed a couple of extra hours. One weird feature of the place was this little street kid who wandered in all the time trying to sell gum (meanwhile his mom's outside trying to sell gum on the street). He's so young, though, (5 at the most), that he hardly knows what he's being asked to do, and ends up playing in the restaurant. Before we left, he was jumping around on the pool table and rolling the balls. Even that seemed generally tolerated by the management. To us, it was funny and sad at the same time.
Today we got in a car to Danang Airport. When we got ther we were 3 hours before checkin (ghost town). finally checked and got on Pacific Air and got to Ho Chi Mna or Saigon Airport, got bags and found our driver, with a big sign and with the cutest chihuahua. Handed it over right away and was on my lap for the whole ride (slepping). Got to hotel and had dinner. good night.
Just in case Anica hasn't had enough "just for kids" fun, today we decided to go to an amusement park. Have you ever wondered what a Buddhist-themed Vietnamese amusement park looks like? Well, wonder no more. As far as our experience of theme parks goes, today's was a unique experience. Not for a minute could we forget where we were, not when every decoration and attraction displays a story from Vietnamese legend or Buddhist mythology. One underground river ride, for instance, took us through an endless series of high-quality diroramas that seemed to depict all of Vietnam's history from cavemen days to ancient dynasties. In general, it was amazing how the park was designed to combine midway thrill-rides with meditative introspection in garden surroundings. There's even several temples on-site. Crocodiles, too. They're displayed in a water-and-land habitat that we walked over on s-shaped catwalks. We also came across a building called "The Unicorn Palace," and while we had no idea what was inside, it sounded nice. But no. It was hell. As in, a series of alcoves showing people being tortured by supernatural creatures. There were no unicorns in sight. Only a plaque in Vietnamese-only for each scene, which I imagined said things like "...and here's how you'll be tortured for all eternity if you steal...," etc. I don't know about the Buddhist underworld, but with the scary visual and sound effects, Anica found this truly hellish. The waterpark was a much
bigger hit, and we didn't even notice it had started raining again until we towelled off and headed back to the hotel.
Just one part of the incredible waterpark at Suoi Tien theme park
I woke up in the morning and Mommy said come on, were going to a Amusmesment park. "yay!" So we went out got breakfast and tour booked. Got moneyy from ATM and got taxi. When we got there it was beatiful. We got tickets and went inside and the fun began. we walked to a Phoenix Palace and got in a boat (indoor) and saw a cave full of not real cavemans, animals an a phoenix and dragons. After we jumped on (fake) lilly pads, went to feris whell and road it. Saw unicorn palace which turned out to be hell. "lets get out" then went to see crocodiles and road a peddle roller coster and challenger thing that you can ride, a eltric go cart and playground. Non bouncy castle and a big hug water park, a dragon waterslide and more. had dinner. good night.
Today we took a day trip outside Ho Chi Minh City. We started early, with breakfast at Sinh Cafe, just around the corner from our hotel then waited for our bus in front of their travel agency. The bus was nice and clean and not quite full with a good mixture of travellers including three other Canadians.
It was a 3.5 hour ride to the Cao Dai Cathedral, northwest of Cu Chi. The Cathedral is the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion, a faith that was founded in 1926 as a fusion of several different religions - Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The Cathedral itself was built starting in 1936 and completed in 1955. It's very fancy, mixing several different architectural styles and motifs and really something else to behold. The service itself was not as interesting as we hoped though and Anica declared herself "disappointed".
Interior of The Cao Dai, including their signature "eye" symbol
After seeing the Cathedral and service, we went for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Almost everyone on the bus, with the exception of ourselves and one other couple, looked horrified at the choice - a streetside "local" cafe - but they soon followed and the food proved good, hot and cheap.
Another 1.5 hour drive and we reached the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels were originally built by anti-colonial Viet Minh during the late 1940s but during the "American War", the tunnels were expanded until 250km of tunnels crisscrossed Cu Chi and surrounding areas. The tunnels were comprised of several levels and many different kinds of rooms including shops, living quarters, meeting rooms, schools, etc. Farming was possible at night but sometimes the residents had to stay below for weeks. American efforts to empty the tunnels proved futile as the average soldier could not fit inside them and those that could - "tunnel rats" - faced various traps and bombs.
Rob descends into an original tunnel - very small, with hidden opening/covering
Today, there's a whole section of tunnel that's been widened to fit Western tourists but it's still a tight, damp, dark space and totally not for the claustrophobic. The dozens of millipedes surrounding the entrance don't help matters either :P
Rob declined the opportunity to try out a M16 or AK47 for a mere 15000 dong per bullet at the firing range. In fact, none of the Canadians took advantage. We're not sure if it's a cultural thing or what, but for Anica, who walked around with her hands over her ears, it was the least favourite part of the tour.
After the tunnels, we made our way back to HCMC and settled in at Cafe 333 for dinner before retiring for the night.
Today we went on a very long bus ride to a temple and saw people praying at exactly 12:00-12:30 pm (4 times a day). Had lunch and drove back to Cu Chi tunnels. Daddy went in one that had leaves over it so no U.S.A. army would discover. Tunnles very narrow and tiny. And we got wet shoes. When the guy with the flashlight in a army suite went to front [of the tunnel we were crawling through, we yelled] LIGHT! Me: "when are we getting out. i'd be very glad it it was soon" (Ha) Road back and had dinner at 333 cafe. Good Night.
A typical mixed bag of activities comprised our last full day in Saigon (I've given up on calling it Ho Chi Minh City), including sleeping in. We went to the War Remnants Museum, which didn't pull any punches in showing the horror and devastation of the post-1945 wars in Vietnam. They have an impressive photo collection, a room devoted to war crimes, and a re-created "Tiger Cage," a prison where political prisoners were kept and tortured. Anica took it all in, even the Agent Orange victim photos. She had a lot of questions. The museum also has recovered American equipment, such as a pair of F-37 bombers and a tank just like the one Anica climbed on yesterday in Cu Chi.
The musuem actually closed from noon to 1:30, which was annoying, because we were about halfway through seeing it. We spent the time in the big park nearby, where there was a nice playground and Anica found some playmates.
After the War Museum (Anica said she Canada's was easier to understand), we had a major change of pace and headed to the Parkson Plaza. This international department store is the closest thing Vietnam has to an indoor shopping mall, and we even played some arcade games on the top floor. Actually buying something (and all we wanted were socks!) was much trickier, just one of the small differences in culture that are often as surprising as the big ones.
Vietnam turned out to be much easier to travel in than we expected, and the people have been great. We'll leave tomorrow very glad we spent time here.
Tooday we walked to a park and saw scuptere park. After it we walked to war musem and saw drawn pictures (by kids). By time we had seen half of it, it was closing time till 1:30. We walked back to the park and played in a big, big playground. We went back to the war musem and saw the prizons, really big bad prisons. after a taxi to parkson and a lunch of Pho 24 noodles and Lotteria, we went to a bowling alley and arcade games. We played video games and had new zeland ice cream. We got a taxi back to the hotel and had dinner. Good night.