Off to Saigon

Saigon scooter traffic

After a month of planning and anticipation we left Toronto for Vietnam with a long layover in Beijing. The Beijing approach was remarkable: extraordinarily dense development, lots of wind turbines, the Great Wall snaking along the countryside, and the city peeking out from a heavy layer of smog.

Not surprisingly, Beijing Capital Airport is vastly larger than I remember from our first visit in 1982. We landed at Terminal 3 but our connecting flight was in Terminal 2, about five km away, and to get there we first needed our free transit visas. This was problematical as our boarding passes were not easily accessible — we expected to get them at the airline desk for the next leg — and we were in a catch 22. Eventually, after being fingerprinted and photographed like everyone else, we were able to show sufficient documentation and got our visas so we could begin the trek to Terminal 2. It was a long walk through a few security checkpoints and we eventually arrived at the “Automated People Mover” for a train trip to the other end of Terminal 3. Here we caught the free shuttle bus to Terminal 2. We still had a dreaded ten hour layover but there was time to eat and get a few hours sleep at an airport hotel. We made the flight with time to spare but suggest you don’t ever expect transiting in Beijing to be a fast process. Even if it’s an off-peak time as it was for us, be sure to leave at least a few hours. It’s a process!

It was a long trip and we were happy to arrive at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. It was an easy experience after Beijing and was no problem to exchange money and get a cheap Vietnamese SIM card. There wasn’t much choice but to take a taxi from the airport to our C$37 AirBnB and, though Vietnamese cab drivers have a reputation as scammers, we had no problems. He dropped us off at a tiny, narrow pedestrian alley and pointed. It was before seven in the morning and we were a bit anxious as we headed off. Something didn’t seem right but we banged on the metal gate of the address we had written down. Eventually a woman poked her head out, soon followed by her son. To make a long story short, it was the wrong address. The host had put a fake address in his listing, emailing us the correct address shortly before we arrived and we hadn’t noticed the difference. The young guy we woke up was very gracious and went out of his way to get us headed in the right direction. We walked a few blocks through more narrow alleys and eventually arrived at the correct address. It was a relief. The concierge hooked us up with GRAB, Vietnam’s ride-sharing service which has replaced Uber in that part of the world. We used it often in Vietnam; it was flawless, fast and cheap.

After settling in and taking a nap we headed for the War Remnants Museum, formerly called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes and located in the former United States Information Agency building. Lots of remarkable exhibits from planes, bombs and the effects of agent orange to French wire prison cages and a guillotine. There was a temporary show, sponsored by the State of Kentucky and dedicated to the 89 photojournalists known to have lost their lives or gone missing covering Vietnam’s wars. Lots of unpleasant things but important to see. I have the impression that Vietnamese have largely moved on but we encountered several American veterans for whom the war seems to linger.

It was a short walk from there to the former CIA headquarters, a massive building made famous by a photo of people on its roof climbing up a ladder to the last American helicopter flight to leave Vietnam in 1975. The building is graffiti-covered and looks unoccupied. If walls could talk…

Day 2 we were off to South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace, now a museum called Independence Palace. On the way we stopped for a snack of fresh snails at one of a great many streetside stalls and visited a lovely market. Independence Palace has quite a history, having often been attacked and bombed over the years, but the final assault came in 1975 when Tank 390 crashed through its front gates. The Palace is a spectacular, modern, open building preserved much as it was with minor additions of a Ho Chi Minh statue and hammer & sickle flag.

Dinner at the lovely Quan An Ngon restaurant across from Independence Palace and spent the evening walking the streets of Saigon, from the Xmas bedecked Saigon Centre to an enormous pedestrian mall and the French colonial Ho Chi Minh City Hall or Saigon City Hall or Hôtel de Ville de Saïgon or Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee head office. Take your pick.

Next day was our one day tour to the Mekong Delta. Interesting place and nice to see but one day was not enough and we’d splurge on a two or three day tour if we had it to do over. That was it for our too-brief visit to Saigon. The bus to Cambodia awaited us in the morning.

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