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dangoestolaos: part 1: saigon

March 14, 2012

I’ve had these pictures for months, and aside from putting them online, I haven’t really shared them with anyone, so this is long overdue. In January, a month after our classes actually ended, Theo and I gave our finals and were finished for the semester. We had a large vacation ahead of us, and what better way to spend a vacation then by traveling? We chose Laos as our destination and loosely planned our trip.

Album is here, and there’s more after the break:

The large majority of Laos, including the capital, is located north of Vietnam, so we would need to fly at least one way. And it’s much cheaper to take a bus than it is to fly, so we booked a bus to Saigon where we’d catch our airplane to Vientiane.  We actually got a pretty good bus deal:  we were able to board a “sleeper” bus, where the rows of seats are replaced by rows of inclining rest “beds”, designed to let passengers sleep on the ~6 hour ride. And since it was a sleeper bus, we left  Da Lat at midnight.

We arrived in Saigon in the early morning, and with little to do, we walked around the city’s main district for a bit and see some sites before catching our plane. Saigon is at a much lower elevation than Da Lat, and you can definitely feel the temperature difference! The difference also comes out in the foliage: there are many more tropical trees in Saigon compared to Da Lat’s famous pine forests. (As for the city’s name, it’s officially Ho Chi Min City, but many Vietnamese still call it Saigon.)

The main district in Saigon is very pretty, with a large wooded like area with a few parks. The sheer amount of foliage also helps provide some relief from the summer heat. You also get to see some of the infamous traffic!

One of the famous landmarks in this district is the War Remnants Museum. The museum explores the impact of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, and it’s not shy about pulling punches. I’ve putting the most family-friendly stuff here in the blog post, there is some more intense stuff in the album, and there’s stuff, like an exhibit showing the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese populace, that I couldn’t even stand to take pictures of.

Outside the building there are various US tanks, artillery units, airplanes, and helicopters on display.

A Vietnamese child stands in a mangrove forest that has been destroyed by chemical warfare. This image is mounted on the side wall of the museum.

Another exhibit to the side of the main museum replicates the US-run prisoner camps in the Côn Đảo archipelago.

These barbed wire “tiger cages”, about 3/4ths of a meter high, were used for storing 2-3 prisoners at a time.

The first exhibit inside the museum displays war-era pro-Vietnam propaganda from all around the world.

An image from one of many anti-war demonstrations held on the National Mall.

This Hungarian propaganda poster shows a Vietnamese peasant woman taking up arms, a common image in these times.

Another exhibit shows then-and-now pictures of devastated Vietnam locations and their recovery.

Feeling far more somber from our trip to the museum, we hit the streets again. These flowers helped brighten the mood.

Saigon traffic is infamous for being the worst in Vietnam. Imagine the amount of commuters you see in an American city, except they’re all on motorbikes. There are motorbikes EVERYWHERE here. Sometimes crossing the street involves wading through a sea of moving motorbikes. You have to be careful with your baggage, drive-by bag snatching is a common practice in Saigon.

A park and gazeebo.

This main district in Saigon has much larger and nicer sidewalks than I’ve seen anywhere else in the country. Vietnamese drivers take advantage of this by using sidewalks as unofficial lanes, especially for turns and on otherwise one-way streets (note the direction of traffic in the background).

We walked past the Reunification Palace, AKA the former Saigon Government Presidential Palace. This palace was the site of the end of the Vietnam War, as North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates.

The guardhouses at the palace gates are now used as art museums.

The heat in the city makes walking water-and-coconut-juice sales a viable job especially in a tourist area. This friendly vendor noticed my camera and insisted we get his picture.

This guy, however, may find his inventory melting away…

It was getting around lunchtime, and we walked past the market (which sold both beautiful handmade works and vast amounts of bootlegged American products) on our way to the tourist district for lunch. While we had the traditional Vietnamese phở for breakfast, for lunch we were able to take advantage of Saigon’s international pedigree and enjoy both Indian food and Baskin-Robbins (not necessarily in that order). After lunch, we made our way to the airport and took a short hop from Saigon to a layover in Phnnm Penh, then off to Laos!

NEXT TIME: Vientiane, the Capital that doesn’t feel like one.

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