Portrait of Uncle Ho in the colonial post office
After two days in Hoi An we got on the soft sleeper train from Danang to Saigon which was definitely a “learning experience” in that I learned not to take trains in Vietnam. The soft sleeper was a tiny cramped compartment which we shared with two Parisian old ladies, the mattresses only a bit thicker and the same width as a Chinese hard sleeper, the sheets dirty, the whole compartment generally filthy. The train was only going like 20 mph and running on a single track, often stopping to let other trains pass. The result was a 17 hour journey and you couldn’t see much out the window as it was covered in metal grating. The Parisians were happy to escape at the beach destination Mui Ne. Except for Mui Ne with its sand dunes the environment was generally quite tropical, with little towns here and there. But I wasn’t too bored, I slept on and off, lulled by the mechanical gallop of the train which reminded me of a Russian symphony.
We finally arrived in Saigon where we stayed at the Intercontinental, finally there for two nights instead of our usual one. Here it was 90 degrees and yet people had their winter coats on. We wandered around the area, District 1. Immediately I was struck by the skyscrapers, large Parisian buildings wrapping around corners, scores of international restaurants esp. Japanese and the relative order to the traffic – here the motorbikes were matched by cars and stuck to the side of the lanes. And people were not wearing conical hats! Street food was there as usual but in less density than Hanoi, though we did enjoy an amazing banh mi with chargrilled chicken and bun bo hue, a fiery noodle soup with fried tofu and sausage, which we ate at a stall in a lot on a cornet. At night we went to a few bars, most of them pretty dead even though it was Thursday at 10, and found drinks costing $7.50! After Hoi An that seemed outrageous.
Chicken banh mi
Bun bo hue
War-era art in the Museum of Fine Arts Saigon
The next day we explored Saigon, visiting the Museum of Fine Arts and the Presidential Palace. The Museum had all sorts of artifacts but I was most interested by the Revolution-era art. Propagandist yes but I enjoyed the honoring of peasants, workers and women. I remember a bronze statue of a wrinkled old lady – not your usual majestic or cerebral subject for a statue, but someone who deserves more honor and dignity. The Museum was housed in an old colonial building which was very French and lovely, though I think most recently owned by a rich Chinese.
Beautiful ’60s architecture at the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace however was a pretty nice modern building, erected in 1966 with lots of open spaces, flat in shape but with generous cross ventilation. Here we saw various meeting rooms of the South Vietnamese government, the president’s living quarters and game room, the underground bunker. There’s a Huey helicopter on the roof next to the spot where the palace had been bombed and a tank in the courtyard. I didn’t do too much “war stuff” in Vietnam but got some interesting glimpses in Saigon.
On Saturday we would get on a plane to Siem Reap!