Saigon, Vietnam-Fast-Changing City Of Contrasts

By John Saboe | Travel Ideas

Dec 08

I was checking out Pham Ngu Lao and Bo Vien known as the backpacker center. I normally like exploring and photographing less touristy areas of a city but it never hurts to be familiar with places where you’re more likely to meet up with fellow travelers and exchange stories, suggestions and tips.

I was on my way to Ben Thanh Market, another lively and well-known part of the city. Actually most of Ho Chi Minh City is lively. In fact pretty much all of it is. The constant buzz from the hundreds of thousands of motorbikes that race the streets fuels what looks like to the uninitiated, pure chaos. But for the most part, it seems to work.

There’s lots of ways of getting around Ho Chi Minh City, or as many of the locals still call it, Saigon.

It’s not for everyone, but when it wasn’t raining I found myself hopping on the back of a motorbike taxi ordered using an app. Safe, convenient, and courteous drivers only interested in getting you safely to your destination with fair pricing.

The original Ben Thanh market area was established in the 16th century by local street vendors and eventually was organized by the French into a more formal setting in the mid 1800’s.

The current location was established in 1912 with a renovation completed in 1985.

Even though the market closes at 6pm every night it’s still a great gathering spot with lots of people hanging out, eating and socializing. A night market opens up just outside Ben Thanh right after the indoor market closes.

Ben Thanh Market is a great place to see what people eat, and shop for in Saigon, but be aware these prices are set high for naive tourists and hard bargaining. Personally I love looking at stuff here, the giant stacks of clothes, souvenirs and massive containers heaped with dried fruit and nuts, candies, and coffee and tea sellers around everycorner.

The displays are amazing and enticing, but I tend to shop in non-touristy neighborhoods where they’re not accustomed to foreigners and it’s easier to bargain.

Because most people that work here speak pretty good English communication is easier. If you’re pressed for time and want to shop at Ben Thanh Market, look at everything with disinterest, and bargain hard.

The food and drinks at the stalls are tasty and the prices are pretty fair for a high traffic area.

Ho Chi Minh City is divided into 24 districts, but there’s really only 7 that you are likely to find yourself in. This is District 1-which is Saigon proper. It’s where you’ll find most of the major sites.

From Ben Thanh Market there’s lots of places to see within a 15 minute walk, like the Opera House, The Old City Hall, major shopping malls, historic hotels with rooftop bars, and more.

It’s also where the War Remnants Museum is located. This is one of the most visited museums in Saigon with an estimated 500,000 guests per year, mostly foreigners.

Although some may find this a one-sided exhibit it does show in very real displays the atrocities of war.

On the grounds there are various leftover U.S. military aircraft and equipment including tanks, bulldozers, and howitzers. As well as a large format black and white photograph of a mangrove appearing to have been destroyed by the use of chemicals.

In another building on the grounds a display includes the infamous “tiger cages” used by the South Vietnamese to contain VC soldiers.

Inside, the two floors, formerly the United States Information Agency Building, are various displays of weapons and bombs used during the Vietnam War.. There are also exhibits relating to the first Indochina War with French Colonists. And a poignant display of all of the international press photographers that were killed during the war.

Although some will find many of the exhibits biased, the overall tone of this museum has softened over time. Once called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, later the name changed to Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression and then once diplomatic relations with the U.S. were reestablished in 1995, the name changed again to The War Remnants Museum.

On the other side of town a visit to The Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the most atmospheric temple experiences in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s considered one of the five most important shrines of the area.

Taoism was introduced to Vietnam by the Chinese during their thousand year-old occupation along with Buddhism and Confuciunism. By stats Vietnam is considered one of the least religious countries in the world. However those numbers could be deceiving as many Vietnamese will claim they are non-religious to be a member of the Communist party but in fact do visit temples and worship ancestors.

Turtles are a sign of longevity. They are a symbol you will see frequently in temples throughout Vietnam. The Jade Emperor Temple has a pond full of live turtles, some with auspicious sayings painted on their shells. Feeding the turtles is considered part of a merit making visit to the temple.

The new Chinese name of the temple translates to Lucky Sea Temple or Tortoise Pagoda. It is clearly a mixed denominational temple of Buddhism and Taoism. U.S. President Barack Obama paid a visit to the temple May 22nd, 2016 during his state visit to Vietnam.

As you enter the main sanctuary Buddhist and Taoist deities surround you with two giant generals to the right and left.

The combination of incense smoke and laser beams of light entering through the ceiling further enhances the power all of the deities seem to wield, especially the Jade Emperor himself.

In another room through a corridor the Chief of Hell awaits you. On the walls there’s wood-carved depictions of the various punishments that evil doers will receive in The Ten Regions of Hell.

The City God is also found in this room with many worshippers paying him a visit. His hat reads, “at one glance, money is given”.

The final room, some refer to as the “women lounge” is where 12 female figures sit that represent the good and bad of human nature. The bad displayed in this figure drinking alcohol from a jug. The Goddess of fertility Kim Hua, presides overall. Childless couples visit here frequently to pray for offspring.

Ho Chi Minh City is a megalopolis of contrasts, new and old, traditional culture and modern shopping, pleasant sites, friendly faces and reminders of the dark days of despair and war. In my opinion it’s one of the most vibrant, exciting, and rapidly changing cities in Asia and I can’t wait to share more.


About the Author

I am a broadcaster, photographer, writer and videographer with a passion for travel throughout Asia. I love making connections and engaging with people. I am spiritual and seek adventure wherever I go.

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