Mr. Saigon

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

April 22 – 24, 2008

Ho ho ho! Portrait of Ho Chi Minh at Saigon Central Post Office

The city had already been called Ho Chi Minh, but just like the locals, I still called it Saigon. The name was shorter and rolled off the mouth more easily. It helped that it was one syllable less and without that extra consonant no one knew how to pronounce. Surely, the musical Miss Saigon, with its stereotyped scantily-clad singing showgirls, further cemented its recall quality. But in another sense, Uncle Ho did embody this culturally eclectic city. I recently found out that Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese statesman this city was named after, had lived around the world. And many of the places he lived in had left their imprint on Ho Chi Minh, the city.

French

Basilica’s Backside: Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica

Uncle Ho had lived in France, and a big swathe of Saigon has a decidedly French feel to it. Wide tree-lined avenues led to the crowning glory of French colonial architecture in the city: the magnificent Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. It was constructed using materials imported from France, and it was evident just looking at the brick-red Gothic gorgeousness that loomed above the street. Even its backside could hold its own. The circular lines and cylindrical forms of the apse were easier on the eyes. An aside: In front of the cathedral was a statue of the Virgin Mary, which reportedly had shed tears. I didn’t bother to check as it was punishingly hot that day.

Post It…Is! Saigon Central Post Office

A skip and a hop from the cathedral was the Saigon Central Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same guy who did the Eiffel Tower. The impressive interior let in natural light. The central dome and cartographic murals framed by arches on each side of the hall lent an antiquated aura. At the end of the hall was a huge painting of Ho Chi Minh himself with a Confucian look: salt-and-pepper mustache and cascading, overgrown goatee. A perpendicular hall from the nave housed some souvenir shops from where I peeked out for an angular view of the Notre-Dame from the stall windows.

Cartographic Murals at Saigon Central Post Office

 Chinese

3-D: 3 Deities at the Emperor Jade Pagoda

Uncle Ho also spent considerable time in China. The Chinese influence on Saigon was best seen in the numerous pagodas around the city. Said to be the most beautiful of the lot was the Emperor Jade Pagoda, aka Tortoise Pagoda. It looked nondescript from the outside, however. We had doubts it was the right place when the taxi stopped by its gate. We entered nonetheless and a pond containing the eponymous amphibians gave it away. These tortoises were believed to bring good luck. In Vietnamese, the pagoda was called Chua Phuoc Hai, which was more explicitly announced by a sign at the entrance. It was a functional place of worship where many locals could be seen burning incense and praying.

Chinese Carving at the Emperor Jade Pagoda in Saigon

Though smallish, three different religions shared its rooms and anterooms. The wood and marble carvings depicted their religious diversity: Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu. It was the yin-and-yang of eastern religions. They co-existed side-by-side under one roof, in harmonious deification, without a thread of contradiction nor a threat of an Armageddon (if only the three religions fighting it out in Jerusalem through the ages could be this accommodating with one another!). The Jade Emperor Buddha, the Goddess of Fertility, and the King of Hell were all housed in one roof. Spooky, actually. The carved depictions of the ten levels of hell, in accordance to Chinese belief, were truly masterful. There were also unmistakably Hindu figures with their multiple arms flailing about in mudra mode. None of the images had been cordoned off, as in any real pagoda, so you could definitely “touch your Buddha”, or Shiva if you were Hindu.

American

Tank Boy at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon

Uncle Ho was familiar with Uncle Sam. He lived in Harlem, New York in his youth where he worked as a waiter. I wondered if he remembered that by the time he led his country against the US in a protracted war. The painful memories of this period in Vietnamese history were unabashedly displayed in the sobering War Remnants Museum. (Trivia: There was a Jollibee outlet, a Filipino burger chain, en route to the museum.) Hundreds of mostly B&W photographs showing harrowing scenes of carnage and assorted atrocities during the Vietnam War in the 70s were displayed in numerous galleries. The unrelenting theme was the civilian casualties of war: A man’s head blown off at close range; a mother fleeing with her children on a river (Qui Nhon by Kyoichi Sawada). Of course, there was the famous photo by Nick Ut of Kim Phuc as a naked young girl wailing as she was running from a napalm attack.

Kim Phuc Escaping Napalm Attack (photo by Nick Ut)

Qui Nhon (photo by Kyoichi Sawada)

The US military used a substance called Agent Orange, a herbicide, to defoliate Vietnam’s thick rainforest cover used by Viet Congs. The chemicals did not only eliminate foliage, they also melted the faces of local people. These images could easily melt the hardest of hearts. Many Americans were among the visitors. The kaleidoscope of arresting images probably put the “guilt” to their trip, but may hopefully get the average Joe involved in their country’s foreign policies. Outside, a life-size seismic bomb and several tanks and helicopters were also exhibited for photo-obsessed guilt trippers.

The Reunification Palace

The Reunification Palace (Dinh Doc Lap) was the former seat of the now-defunct South Vietnam government. It had an instantly recognizable 1960s architecture: low and sprawling structure made of gray and white concrete. Since the fall of Saigon in the mid-70s, it had become a museum and conference venue. Tourists mixed with convention attendees. One of the banquet halls, called Phong Dai Yen, showcased a painting by the architect of the building. Interestingly, on the roof of the building sat a helicopter. The same model was used by the then-president for a quick getaway from the communists. There were also tunnels under the building constructed for the same reason. Without a guide, it was easy to get lost in its labyrinthine hallways. I just followed the steady stream of the crowds.

Some ladies attending a conference at the palace were wearing the traditional ao dai (Vietnam’s national costume for women), a tight yet lightly flowing silk dress that covered the Viet woman from neck to toe. It was elegantly feminine as it hugged the female form almost lovingly. Despite all the foreign influences in their culture, the Vietnamese had taken it all in stride and became as graceful as their ao dai.

Flanked by Vietnamese Women in Ao Dai

Ao Dai in Vietnamese Painting

Ho Chi Minh may have much in common with this elegant city than one might think. The French, the Chinese, and the Americans all had left lasting influences on Ho Chi Minh, both the man and the city. I may not have met Miss Saigon, but I felt I had gotten to know Mr. Saigon – Ho Chi Minh.

The Road to Reunification (Palace)

24 thoughts on “Mr. Saigon

  1. Hi there Sir,

    Me and my friends will be going to Saigon this October. It would be nice if I we can converse on the e-mail so I can ask for tips and advice from you for our trip. Please e-mail me. Thank you very much in advance Sir.

    RC

    • Thanks for dropping in, RC. Well, I can’t claim to be an expert about Saigon. It’s been more than 2 years since I was there. But sure, I’d like to be of help in whatever small way I can. What would you wanna know?

    • That photo has achieved global acclaim, and it’s one of the most famous images in the last century, I think.

      Thanks for dropping in, Jessica!

  2. I love the way you use kinship terms to refer to places. The poster boy had indeed introduced a fun way to learn about a place. A modern history/geography teacher by any chance?

    Came over from Blogplicity. Glad to have dropped in.

    Cheerio.

    Joy always,
    Susan

    • Thanks for posting, Susan! Near miss – yeah I do teach, but I could only wish it’s history and geography classes!

      Glad to know you had fun reading the entry and learning about the place. Windfall in psychological income for me! :)

      Joy always (wow I love that!),

      Poster Boy *wink*

  3. Your post offered a wealth of history that a great deal was unknown to myself. The photos are depicting of your content, especially escaping the Napalm attack. They gripped my heart leaving me wanting to reach in to help them. This is a powerful post!

    • I get to understand a place more deeply when I learn something about its history. That’s just how my mind works and makes sense of my travels. Glad you appreciate it too, Mary.

  4. Great article! I too prefer the name Saigon. I find it amazing that I still find such memories stirred up from the past by your pictures of the Kim Phuc Escaping Napalm Attack … I will never forget some things…

    • Horrific scenes of the inhumanity of man never diminish their wallop. I remember seeing this photo when I was kid in the 70s and it also gripped me. I was just a child, but I understood its gravity.

      Thanks for reading, Ed.

  5. AJ,

    Excellent article. Bravo for discussing the worldly and cosmopolitan aspects of Ho Chi Minh. So often he is depicted with a decidedly negative bias.

    It is curious that the city carries so many reminders of it’s former colonizers. The presence of so much Chinese, French, and American architecture again belies the negative image making that followed America’s failed policies. Rather than purge all remnants of their former foes in a nationalistic frenzy, the Vietnamese have embraced the transculturation that occurred.

    As a historian, soon to teach history and geography, I really loved this post. Thank you!

    • Before this visit, my image of Saigon was the Hollywood depiction of a war-torn city with smoke still rising from the ashes! I was wide-eyed when I saw a cosmopolitan city that was not only alive but well. You’re right on the money, Paul. Instead of purging these foreign influences, the Vietnamese truly embraced and preserved them as significant aspects of their history.

      Thanks for the pat on the back, Paul. You have my dream job! History and geography have always piqued my interest.

  6. I grew up watching “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” and countless Vietnam War movies and TV series, it has etched in my mind that Vietnam is equals to decades of war. I know it has since changed for the better and I’m looking forward to experiencing and knowing the current Vietnam on my trip there this November.

    I initially planned to just use Saigon as a stop over enroute to Siem Riep but I now decided to just explore Ho Chi Minh and stay there during my trip and let Cambodia be on a separate trip in the future.

    • Marky, you will be blown away – and I don’t mean by a grenade! :D Saigon is the size of our provincial cities, only more progressive and respectful to their historical heritage.

      I think it’s always a good decision to explore one place at a time, not the tuhog trip I did. Although I got to see 3 countries in one go, I regretted not staying in any long enough.

  7. AJ, I still love Vietnam. I had been to a couple of Pagodas but avoided where usually tourists go. I am never a touristy person of sort however I enjoyed watching other tourists go there. I went to attend my first mass for 2012 in the Notre Dame Cathedral and imagine it, in my shorts?!? haha.

    I envy you because you were able to get a photo at the back of the Notre Dame. My motobike driver brought me to one secluded little Notre Dame too and forgot what its name. It has the same design and color, very much the same, only smaller in comparison.

    I hope I can see you on the road AJ and lets travel together.

    • What sacrilege – attending mass in your shorts…in Notre Dame Cathedral no less! Haha joke. Cool though – memorable first mass of 2012!

      Oh, Doc Wends, I am the touristy kind. I do go for DIYs and the unbeaten track, but I have no qualms doing the tourist track and trap too, given the limited time I have on the road.

      I sure hope to bump into you somewhere in the world. Doc. It’s a small world after all. :)

    • Idol, there were more gory photos at the War Museum. One captured the shooting of a man, his brains exploding with the bullet’s impact. Truly horrific!

      On a lighter note, I do love the gigantic trees in Saigon. They’re all over the city, shading it from the harsh sun.

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