We had booked The Metropole ( confusingly and very definately pronounced 'Metrophone' by the taxi drivers) a slow but confident two step shuffle across a busy main road and a 5 minute obstacle dodge down a parked moto (called 'xe om' in Vietnam) and impromptu street cafe inhabitated footpath from Pham Ngu Lao, the backpackers area and we were pleasantly surprised. A modern, sparkly clean and recently renovated room awaited us on the 6th floor away from most of the traffic noise. The next morning breakfast (included in the wotif price) was the usual hotel all you can eat buffet of everything from pho to pastries, eggs and bacon, fruit and cereals.
Although we usually enjoy getting lost in a new city without the help of a guide I had stumbled across Saigon Hotpot an organisation that teams tourists up with a local university student who becomes your guide for a few hours in exchange for good conversation in English. Our guide, who turned out to be an already proficient English speaker having had years of tuition at school, spent the better half of the day with us.
We began at Notre Dame cathedral, a beautiful rose coloured basilica in the heart of District 1. Built, by the French, on the site of an abandoned Vietnamese pagoda this grand old centurian shows no signs of wilting despite being right in the midst of a busy intersection and on the list of most tourists must sees. We were absolutely enchanted the next evening, when we used it as a taxi landmark, to hear it fill with the crystal clear sounds of it's choir during 5 o'clock mass.
Inside the belly of the basilica sit rows of long butt worn wooden pews flanked on either side by grottos, housing statues of saints and the Virgin Mary, behind candle lit altars, their heads lit by soft neon halos.
Although the Vatican does not currently have 'diplomatic relations' with Vietnam, due to government imposed restrictions on Catholic life, things are slowly thawing and Vietnam is proported to have the fourth largest Catholic population in Asia.
The huge granite statue of Mary across the road in Paris Park is reported to have shed a tear down her right check in in 2005 stopping traffic. Despite an official statement denying the event released by the Catholic Church in Vietnam it was still the scene of chaos for days afterward and according to this article in The Union of Catholic Asian News she is still visited by the hopeful, years on.
Across the road is the Central Post Office, another of Saigons distinguished elders, built in the renaissance style favoured by the French at the time. She is still very much in use by locals and tourists alike. Outside, her three storey facade and huge clock remind me of the railway station in central Wellington, scene of many a teenage meet up. Inside she is confident with timeless beauty from her green wrought iron entrance gates to her long generous skylight, she is gracefully and elegantly impressive.
We were especially tickled by the rows of doors topped by world clocks that suggested the presence of operator (wo)maned crank wall phones inside and the beautiful hand painted antique wall maps in the alcoves above.
Many tourists to Saigon pay a visit to the War Remnants museum and this was our next stop. Opened in 1975 and under the operation of the Vietnamese government it does not mince words (it used to be called Saigon's Exhibition House of American War Crimes) and is not for the faint of heart.
Its walls of photographs depict the myriad of incredible horrors inflicted on the Vietnamese people by the American Armed Forces and their allies, including New Zealanders. New Zealands contribution was a very reluctant one, at first sending only civilian medical personel who were joined in 1964 for a year by 25 Army engineers involved in reconstruction projects such as roads and bridge building. Eventually the pressure applied by both America and Australia (using the ANZUS alliance) induced New Zealand to agree to provide a four-gun field artillery battery of 120 men. For the next 7 years Sir Keith Holyoake (NZs Prime Minister at the time) strived to keep New Zealands contribution, to a war we didnt really want to be involved in, to a minimum. While the war dragged horrifyingly on through Vietnam spilling over it's boarders into Cambodia and Laos leaving a devastating legacy still very much in evidence today, especially in the form of unexploded ordinance, scarring both people and land, many at home objected loudly.
The gallery upstairs serves as a memoriam to some of the international photographers who lost their lives while trying to show those back home the stark and brutal realities of the Vietnam War and also gives credit to international demonstrators with walls full of anti war posters and newspaper articles recording the global activities of the Anti War and Peace Movements.
For New Zealand this turbulent time marked a turning point in its foreign and security policies which would no longer be dictated simply by its governments global alliances and by the acceptance of unproven assumptions and generalisations made by its allies, something which has stood us in good stead in recent times. It would be nice to think that lessons were learned about the futility of war, as surely Vietnam must stand out as one of the most futile, and that the abhorrent use of torture and chemical warfare has no place in the world conflicted or otherwise but as Guantanamo and the latest outbreak in Palestine show almost anything still goes.
After lunch of Vietnamese treats at Quan An Ngon, an outdoor eatery similar to a Singapore Hawker Centre but in a picturesque garden right opposite the Reunification Palace, our final stop. The Reunification Palace was the scene of this infamous photo taken by photographer Neil Davis during the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The site has a long history.
The first palace built after the fall of Vietnam (Cochinchina) to the French was begun in 1868. It replaced a wooden palace, built 5 years earlier. Designed by the same architect who designed Hong Kong City Hall, the foundation stone contained French gold and silver coins adorned with Napoleon 3rd's head. It was a huge building covering an amazing 12 hectares which could, should the need arise, accommodate 800 people. Its construction was delayed so the French could fight the Prussians, finished 5 years after it was begun and officially named Norodom Palace after Cambodia's King Norodom (couldn't find out why?). Unofficially, though, it became known as the Governors Palace and was used as residence and office by all the Governor Generals of French Indochina until 1945. After the Japanese won Indochina off the French, in March 1945, Norodom Palace became the office of the Japanese colonial officials stationed in Vietnam, but not for long. By September the same year Japan had surrendered to the allied forces of World War II and the French again took up residence.
In 1954 the French surrendered Vietnam and the Palace was handed to the Prime Minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, who, not willing to wait two years for an election to unify the country, as was agreed during the French retreat, ordered a referendum, beat Bao Dai, the head of the Communist North and renamed the palace Independence Hall.
The current building was built after a wing of Independence Palace was destroyed by two aircraft bombers from the Norths Republican Army in 1962 and it was decided an entirely new building was required. Then, at the end of the Vietnam War, the tank in the black and white picture above was driven through the gates and in November 1975, after the 'negotiation convention' between Communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam was successful it was renamed the Reunification Hall, or Palace.
According to our guide the Palace is sometimes colloquially known as Dragons Palace because the twisted bits over the windows look like dragon scales. The guide books says it's because according to the principles of Feng Shui the positioning of the palace on the site is on the dragons head. There is a huge fountain between the buildings entrance and the road, which is a busy intersection, which is a Feng Shui cure stopping all the upsetting and frustrated Qi from the road from disappearing straight through the door.