On the the 19th of September, after having delivered my paintings at the Cultural Center of the Philippines for a show with my watercolor group, the International Watercolor Society of the Philippines, I joined my wife at the University so that we can travel to the airport together. At past ten o clock in the evening, we took off for Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon. The place being one hour delayed with the Philippines, we arrived at around two in the morning. We were met by our very accommodating, hospitable, very knowledgeable and pleasant host/tour guide Trinh Nguyen. He spoke English well, having worked for Vietnam airlines for several years
Eager to please his guests, he went out of his way to accompany me to museums after we have left the ladies to their number one preoccupation when on tour - shopping!
Our hotel, ,the Cititel Ben Thanh, is located at the center of the city and is ideal for anything you would want to do. Every place we went to was just a few minutes away, as a matter of fact, could have been walking distance away from the beautiful spots we went to, except for the Mekong River which is an hour and half away. The hotel, in spite of its three star rating, is clean, spacious and serves relatively good breakfast. The sumptuous buffet is more than comforting that could make one survive the day without having to eat lunch in its regular time.
The morning started with us venturing the nearby market which is about a two minute walk away. There we were welcomed by the sounds and sites of Ho Chi Minh, its trade, food and motorcycles, a very popular way of traversing the city,, and should we have gone to other place, probably the vehicle of choice of most thorough the entire country.
For lunch, although I was still full, I sampled the food stalls at the market and had authentic Pho and spring rolls. One thing one should remember when visiting Vietnam is that their money is deflated and one meal would cost you hundred thousands of Dong! It is a relief that their money is smaller in size and the denomination is by the hundreds of thousands. I could not imagine having it otherwise. How thick my wallet should be is unfathomable. The market, while it was not really immaculately clean, was surprisingly not smelly and one could eat knowing that it would be safe. No service water is being served, though. One has to buy everything. Many of the vendors spoke Tagalog phrases and some of them would accept pesos!!!!
The tour began after lunch, which gave us ample time to relax after a tiring travel from airport to airport. We were given a good travel bus all to ourselves meaning it had plenty of room and travelling for hours, if we had to, could have not posed a problem. It had spacious leg room and the aircon was very good,
The first place we visited was the Independence Palace - palace with lots of history. Designed by Ngô Viết Thụ, it is also known as Reunification Palace. Formerly known as the Norodom Palace, it was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the war or pre-communist era of Vietnam. It was the last bastion of the US troops where, I presume, the play Ms. Saigon, had Kim seen giving her child to her US paramore riding a helicopter.
A tour of the city will never be complete without seeing the war memorabilia. After the tour of the palace, we had a late lunch at a restaurant called Bun Bo Ganh, a big restaurant that serves Vietname tse cuisine and just a stone's throw away from the War Remnant Museum which houses everything about the recently concluded war in 1975. Here one finds the power and might of the US fighting a war that was not only very costly as it saw the death of hundreds of thousands of both US and Vietnamese only to be considered a big mistake later on.
Last stop was the Saigon Central where the women did what they do best - shopping! Before that though, we were taken to a shop where we had a taste of coffee ala Vietnam which, I think is composed of Arabica and a local brew. It was pleasantly nice which any coffee connoisseur would have appreciated.
Since I had no knack for shopping and that the wife was with me, I decided to venture on my own. Nguyen was kind enough to take me to a gallery, a shop that sold paintings. The gallery was divided into two. The front being a collection of Vietnamese painters doing copies of original European modern art like Klimt, Van Gogh and variations of the same. The other half, the one at the farthest end are original paintings. He was also supposed to take me to a place where they did lacquer on wood, a famous painting technique, but it was already closed. Nguyen, instead, as kind as he is, took me to pub for a drink of a very much needed thirst quenching juice which he paid for. After that venture, we went to a mall in front of Saigon Square while we waited for the ladies who I think were busy dispensing their millions.
That night, after arriving at the hotel, my wife and I decided we shall just stay at the room, skip dinner and sleep while the rest went to the market to experience the night market, which actually is no different except for the time of day.
Again, after a hefty breakfast, true to his word and on time, I met our guide who promised to take me to the Museum of Fine Arts, a ten minute walk from the hotel and is a colossal building which was formerly owned by a very wealthy Chinese who owned several houses just as big as this one. It is now owned by the government and has been transformed into a museum for the arts. The collection is not as huge as our present National Museum but comparatively has the same modern art based on western art, and almost the same as their Filipino contemporaries who painted from the 50's till the 70's.
After the tour of the Museum of Fine Arts, we were on the road again and went to the building that truly reminds everyone that there was a time when the country, together with Cambodia and Laos, was still under the colony of France. Named as French Indochina, it would be impossible to totally eradicate everything that is French for after all, they occupied the country for almost a century. What is more French than the Notre Dame Cathedral? Built during the latter part of the 1800's the cathedral has been built with nothing but French materials shipped into the city. It boasts of two bell towers each measuring 57.6 m high with six bronze bells with the total weight of 28.85 metric tonnes. Unfortunately, we were only able to see the facade for the entire church is being renovated. Across the street was the Post Office, another remnant of French architecture.
After the brief tour of the city, we were on the bus again, this time for about an nour and a half ride going to the Mekong River. The first stop was for lunch where we were taken to the Mekong Rest Stop Restaurant, an array of restaurants that could sit probably hundreds of guests very much similar, for a lack of better comparison, to our dampa but more spacious. As always, we were served authentic Vietnamese food and they were all delectable.
Remembering Kuya Pancho
When the delicious lunch was over, we hopped once more to the bus for a fifteen minute ride going to what to me was the highlight of the trip, the Mekong River. Somehow, I have a connection with the river as I experienced death in the family for the first time with that name etched in my memory. You see, one of my cousins, the first sea farer in the family which we Filipinos call seamen, met a tragedy in this river. It was towards the ending of the Vietnam war when Kuya Pancho came there. The story was that he wore that ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hat known as a nón lá, probably as a protection from the heat when they ran into an American PT Boat. Thinking that they were commies, the PT boat ran them over. The story was that all of my cousin's companions jumped on one side while he was by his lonesome at the other. We never heard from him ever since.
The ride by the river is a very comfortable boat that had several sofas, a table, several hammocks and beds. One just have to ride and be at ease knowing that it is going to be safe.
We were told that there are about four main islands by the Mekong River. We managed, given the short time spent in the area, to go around two of them. Even had the wonderful experience of another boat ride traversing one of the river's tributaries and getting to know the river and partly its people - boat men, who give tourists a two kilometer ride from point A to point B where the main river is met once again.
After the Mekong River, we had to go back to Ho Chi Minh and head for the airport as we had to fly back to Manila, supposedly at 10 pm. As usual, the flight did not take place as scheduled as the plane was delayed and we had to leave Vietnam at around two in the morning.
I know that with only two days, we barely scratched the surface of what really Vietnam has to offer. But in those two days, I have formed an opinion of the intricacies of Vietnamese culture. Just like the Philippines that has been a colony of three different world powers, Spanish for three centuries, USA for fifty and the Japanese for three war torn years, Vietnam has seen colonizers from the French, Chinese and the USA. I:t will not be a surprise to see different cultural diversities among the people and yet, I have not seen it during those two days. What I saw were a people engaged in trade, industriously working for a living.
As my observation of Vietnamese writing is complicated with each vowel having the most number of diacritical marks, the system of government is just as baffling to me. My idea of communism has always been what the US has been telling me. That communism has always been about each according to his need and not each according to his ability as probably envisioned by Marx and Lenin. A system which I believe centered more on the needs of the lowly so that they can cope and survive while the other is based on the premise that one can soar given his abilities. have always believed that communism is about economics forgetting it is, more than anything else is about the reins of power. It is about the annihilation of the ruling class, the aristocracy by the peasants so that they could lead the state without having to contend with land owners and perhaps, monarchy. a However, this is no longer true. Vietnam, just like China, has turned into a free market, a capitalistic system if you will. Only the form of government is socialist with only one party running the affairs of government, It would not be far fetched that soon, the ruling class and those who knew how to play their cards right, fortunate enough to gain wealth, shall be the next aristocrats and the poor shall be poorer once again.
What is remarkable to me is that Vietnam, which has just survived the ravages of war, has steadily risen up and would probably be ahead of the Philippines if we do not clean up our act. That is even more tragic than I can ever imagine.