SoNotLost in HCMC

Day Three was my last full day in Ho Chi Minh City, so I knew I had to make the most out of it. I missed out on a lot of the sights because of the rains on Day One, but Day Three was bright and sunny. I was a little more familiar with the city (and my maps), so I had a little more confidence searching for the more touristy destinations in the city.

After another delicious buffet breakfast, I headed out in search of the War Remnants Museum. The place was clearly marked on the maps I had, but a lot of the smaller streets in the area weren’t clearly marked, not to mention I wasn’t sure where the entrance actually was. I ended up circling the area several times, nearly giving up when I followed a big sign with an arrow pointing to where it was then didn’t find it. Eventually, I found it, paid the 15,000 Vietnamese dong entrance fee, and entered the museum.

There are eight “permanent thematic exhibitions” inside the museum. Some were being housed in what looked like warehouses, but I believe it was just because the main museum building was under reconstruction. In any case, they were clearly marked, and armed with your brochure, one knew exactly where to go to next.

The first area was called “Historical Truths.” It gave a rundown of the facts and figures of the war, as well as a chronological timeline of the events that lead into the war, and of the war itself. It gave information on which countries participated in the war (including the Philippines) and how. There was a definite anti-American bias to how the events were presented, but it didn’t take away from the fact that the war was a long a painful thing. The section ended with a quote from former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, from his memoirs “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”: “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's quote

The second section was called “Requiem.” It was a collection of photographs taken by the 134 war reporters and photographers killed during the Vietnam War. Upon entering this section, you see the list of all those who died, representing 11 nationalities. It’s a sobering introduction. The pictures themselves are an inside look into the many aspects of the war. They take us from the effect the war had on ordinary people, to how the war was taking its toll on the soldiers fighting it.

the human side of war

The stories behind some of the pictures were fascinating, particularly the picture of the camera that had been shot at. Apparently, that camera saved one photographer’s life.

bullet-wounded camera

Others were not so lucky, however. The stories of their deaths were heartbreaking. Photos from some of their last reels were on display, showing us their last moments before they died. Some photographers simply went missing, with no indication of what had happened to them.

Missing

At the end of the exhibit was a rundown of the deceased photographers. It was truly a sad and sobering experience.

Outside were replicas and samples of aircraft, vehicles, and bombs used during the war. It was an impressive collection.

BLU-82 seismic bomb

From there, I went into the museum building itself to take a look at more missiles and landmines used during the war. There were pictures of the effects the war had on the country. There was a whole section on Agent Orange, a herbicide that the Americans used to defoliate the Vietnamese countryside, thereby reducing the jungle cover and preventing them from growing crops for food. The chemicals had horrible effects on humans, though, and the exhibit showed the wide range of health problems people developed as a result of Agent Orange. Even some American soldiers who had close proximity to the chemical experienced some problems as well.

Also in the building was a collection of children’s artworks called “War and Peace,” showing what children thought of war, as well as calling for peace. There were also other photographs and artworks depicting much of the same. Outside the building was a complex displaying the imprisonment system and detention camps used to detain war criminals and political prisoners during the war. It was quite disturbing seeing how the prisoners were treated, especially since there were mannequins demonstrating how the “tiger cages” were used.

The final exhibit at the museum showed “international support for the Vietnamese people in their Resistance War.” There were photos of protests and rallies around the world condemning the Vietnam War. There were stories of these demonstrations, including the American men who burned themselves in protest. There were actual posters and banners used during the demonstrations and rallies around the world. The centerpiece of that exhibit was a “peace column” that was donated by the Praying for World Peace Organization, inscribed with the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth.”

The museum was a sobering reminder of the horrors of war. It reinforced what I had felt at the Cu Chi Tunnels the previous day, that no matter which side is right or which side won the war, it’s still ugly for all those involved, whether directly or indirectly. War is ugly all around.

From there, I went to the Reunification Palace, formerly known as the Independence Palace. This used to be the presidential palace of the South Vietnam government, and the Vietnam War ended when a tank crashed through its gates. The building now serves as sort of a time capsule of how the building was used, with the original furniture and decor still stored in the rooms.

Reunification Palace

As can be expected from a (former) presidential palace, the interior of the building was amazing. The rooms that were meant to be seen by visitors were suitably grandiose and decorated spectacularly. The Office of the President had some really pretty furniture and artwork. The library was filled with books from the era. There was some gorgeous Vietnamese artwork everywhere. There was even a theater and a game room, complete with an unfinished game of mahjong.

mahjong game (Reunification Palace)

From the top floor, you get a great view of the grounds, which are incredibly well-kept. The grass is picturesquely green, and the fountain is gorgeous. One also gets a great view of part of the city from the balcony.

balcony view (Reunification Palace)

Personally, though, amidst the pomp and circumstance of the upper floors (which are still being used for various functions every now and then), it is the basement that was most interesting to me. The building served as a presidential palace during a war, after all, and the basement definitely looked like it was busy during the Vietnam War. Behind a thick steel door was a lot of radio and communications equipment still being stored. Various rooms used as offices still had industrial strength desks, chairs, phones, and filing cabinets. There’s even a Combat Duty Bedroom for the president, which is as spare as his regular bedroom is opulent. And of course, there was a war room, with strategic maps of Vietnam and its neighbors.

war room (Reunification Palace)

By then, it was lunchtime, so I headed to the Ben Thanh Market for lunch. It was a great place for good, cheap, authentic Vietnamese food, and I ended up having a delicious roasted pork dish with rice. I’m not even going to try to remember the correct Vietnamese name, but just look how tasty that is!

lunch at Ben Thanh Market

After lunch, it was time to do more sight-seeing. I headed to the Notre Dame Cathedral, which unfortunately was closed when I was there.

Notre Dame Cathedral

The Cathedral is a gorgeous French colonial structure, built between 1877 and 1883 with bricks from Marseilles and stained glass windows from Chartres. The two towers were awe-inspiring.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Pigeons have even made a home out of the Cathedral’s exterior.

look closer for pigeons (Notre Dame Cathedral)

Just across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral is another French colonial building, the Ho Chi Minh City Post Office.

Post Office

The building was constructed between 1886 and 1891 and was designed by Gustave Eiffel, who also designed the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. It comes as no surprise that the building is absolutely stunning. It’s a large and stately building on the outside, with lots of little architectural and sculptural touches.

Post Office building detail

The interior is also awe-inspiring, with high ceilings, a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and an old map of Saigon. The whole building feels more like a train station than a post office.

Inside, you could buy greeting cards or postcards that you can send from the post office. (You could also purchase postcards from the many kids – and some adults – selling postcards outside the post office itself.) I couldn’t resist sending a postcard to myself and some of my friends.

After sending off my postcards, I took a closer look at the Opera House. There was some sort of event two days prior, so now was my chance to look at it up close. It was yet another example of gorgeous French colonial architecture, with the building built in 1897 by the French architect Ferret Eugene.

Opera House

There were lots of little sculptural details on the building; apparently, this decor was removed in 1943 then put back in 1998 (thank goodness). It’s definitely a picturesque building, with so much to look it. I wasn’t able to go in, though.

Opera House detailing

From there, I went straight to Dong Khoi, a street that is as luxurious as Pham Ngu Lao is budget-friendly. Big name shops and major hotels lined the street, and just like in Pham Ngu Lao, tourists and expats were relatively numerous. There were some interesting shops that, unfortunately, were out of my price range. It started to rain, so I went inside a Gloria Jeans branch on the street, rested my feet, and took pictures of myself with a handmade SoNotLost sign I made myself while waiting for the weather to clear up.

SoNotLost in HCMC

Once the weather cleared up, I headed back to my budget hotel, on foot. I prepared my things for checkout, which was early the next day. I did some last-minute shopping, bought my bus ticket for Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and spent my last night back at Go2 Bar on Bui Vien. For my last night, instead of drinking my usual Saigon Beer, I tried what was apparently the beer of choice in the region: Tiger Beer. It was GOOD. I think I had two; it was Happy Hour, and beer was buy-one-take-one.

Tiger Beer

I walked around the Pham Ngu Lao district one last time, had dinner (and more beer), and said my goodbyes to Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam.

Goodnight Saigon

Up next: Cambodia!

You can check out larger versions of these photos and more at Flickr.