Our first impression when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) was of chaos. The traffic is insane. I mean, we'd been warned, but it was just so much more than I expected. There are motorbikes EVERYWHERE, usually with more than one person on them, sometimes with entire families of five piled onto one bike, and carrying everything imaginable (I can't even say "everything but the kitchen sink," because we literally saw someone on the back of a bike clutching a kitchen sink). None of the traffic appears to be following any logical rules- it's just GO GO GO and try not to crash into anyone or anything. At first we watched it all from the relative safety of the backseat of our taxi, but eventually we had to get out and try to brave the streets as pedestrians. In Singapore, crossing the street is a very orderly affair- you walk when there's a green man (like a "WALK" light) and if there's a red man, you stay put. You only cross at crosswalks. In HCMC, you just plunge out into the traffic at any random point along the street, and you keep walking at a steady pace until you reach the other side. You just kind of have to trust that no one's going to plow into you, and if you walk straight ahead at an even pace, probably no one will. But if you freak out halfway through and slow down or stop, you confuse all the people who have been counting on you being predictable, and they might swerve unnervingly close to you. It's insane.
Anyway, that was the beginning of it. We made it to the place our guesthouse was supposed to be, but were surprised that we didn't see it. Turns out it was hidden down an alley somewhere. It was kind of strange- the Guesthouse California, like many of the establishments in HCMC, was totally nondescript on the outside but was actually pretty nice on the inside, especially if you dig mid-70's decorations (Snow White & the Seven Dwarves figurines? Got it covered!) So we checked in and the lady behind the counter suggested that we give her our passports "to keep them safe." Bryan and I expressed some discomfort- I'm not really in the habit of handing over my passport to just anyone, but we'd read a lot about pickpocketers in HCMC, and the woman wanted to keep our passports in the guesthouse safe, so we released our iron grip on our travel docs and handed them over.
After dropping our bags, we were definitely ready to get some lunch, so we headed out into the cacophony of the streets. It's interesting trying to get around because there are sidewalks everywhere, but they're almost always used by businesses. Motorcycles park there, repair shops do repairs right on the sidewalks, and restaurants and food stalls have seating all the way out to the street- so mostly you have to weave back and forth between the crowded sidewalks and the crazy streets. Eventually we found the Lonely Planet-recommended vegetarian restaurant Dingh Y, and tried it out. We must have had no idea what to order because we got served some pretty bland food, but the dishes of the other diners looked great. It was no big loss since the food was so cheap it was almost free, and we headed back out into the city before eating much. Still a little hungry, we were lured in by an ice cream and coffee shop called Pojson's. The ice cream was AWESOME and the little place had a cool, somewhat morbid ambiance- fun paintings of cartoon mummies, black cats, and witches along with coffin-shaped bookcases. While Bryan and I ate our sundaes, we watched the city through the front window. We were continually amazed at the haphazard arrangement of the electrical wires running all over the place. There were SO MANY of them, and they were so disorganized. We watched, on the edge of our seats, as a repairman climbed a pole and began fiddling with a mass of wires. It was so nerve-wracking! But before long, he was safely back on the ground, folding up his ladder and hopping onto the back of a motorbike (of course).
After ice cream, we headed in the direction of the Independence Palace (a.k.a. the Reunification Palace). We planned to walk through Tao Đàn Park Address:on the way there in order to avoid some of the traffic, and we were happy to find the entrance pretty quickly. The park was peaceful and pleasant to walk through, with a couple of religious structures and statues inside of it. In front of this building was a little manmade pond and two huge dragon topiary sculptures.
I love this water lily's iridescent color. Further into the park we found a quaint little sculpture garden. There were tons of well-done sculptures, so here is a small sampling.A little ways past the sculptures was another pond that was full of tadpoles and little frogs!! The tadpoles were all in the transitional phases for turning into frogs, and those that were already frogs were still very tiny with fragile limbs. Again, I have no idea what kind of frogs they are, but they sure are cute! Also near the pond was a stealthy frilly-tailed gecko. It was fun to see a gecko that's different from the ones we usually see in S'pore.I was giddy when I spotted this vivid blue lizard in a tree! He was so colorful! I'm not sure exactly what kind of lizard he is either- apparently I need a more comprehensive field guide to the wildlife of southeast Asia- the one I have (Wild Animals of Singapore) only covers Singapore. But I do know that he was cool. Bryan and I saw three of the males, whose heads got brighter and brighter in color as we approached them. We also saw one of the males chasing after a dully-colored female. (In the comments, Ivan tentatively ID'd this as a male Indochinese forest lizard, and after a little research, I agree! Yay! Now we know what it is!)After finally tearing ourselves away from the park, we made it to the impressive Independence Palace. The Independence Palace was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese president during the Vietnam War (which, interestingly, is referred to as the American War in Vietnam). Most notably, the palace was the site of the handover of power on April 30, 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the palace gates. Tanks still remain on the front lawn of the palace, along with an airplane similar to the one that bombed the palace on April 8, 1975.Flying high above the palace was the Vietnam flag, whipping in the wind. The flag has a five-pointed yellow star, with the five points standing for five groups: intellectuals, workers, traders, soldiers, and peasants. The yellow color stands for the color of the skin of the Vietnamese people (I swear, I couldn't make this stuff up), and the red background is for the blood of the people, and also represents revolution. It was common to see a flag for the Communist party of Vietnam (red background with a yellow hammer and sickle) flying alongside the national flag.We went inside the palace and roamed through the rooms, which have been preserved as they were in the '70s. There were official rooms, like the meeting room and the conference hall, along with fun rooms like the movie theater and the first lady's entertaining room. My favorite was the gambling room, which looked like it was decorated entirely in 1970's IKEA. There was a bust of Ho Chi Minh in the conference hall. It was one of many representations we saw of him along the way- all over Saigon and beyond were busts, statues, and paintings of him- by the time we left I felt like I knew the guy.In the basement of the palace were the president's war quarters and a backup radio station (pictured below) in case the main radio station were to lose power. Deeper down was also an escape tunnel that was not open to the public.The palace had a small exhibit of war photos and artifacts, but I'll hold off on that stuff- the majority of the war artifacts are housed at the far more comprehensive War Remnants Museum, which we visited on the second day of our trip.
After the palace, Bryan and I set out in search of food again. We got dinner at a place called Margherita, which had great vegetarian options (vegetarian shepherd's pie was DELICIOUS!) and good meaty options for Bryan too. Margherita is in District 1, in an area that caters to tourists, with lots of tour companies and restaurants with things like pizza and Mexican food on the menu alongside more traditional things like pho and spring rolls.
After yummy dinner we walked to a bar called Allez Boo, where we sat on a third-story porch and watched the traffic, shrieking periodically at close calls, or at actual scrapes- a car backed into a motorbike as we looked on, but no one was hurt and nothing was damaged, so the drivers didn't even really stop, they just reabsorbed into the bustling mass of traffic. It was seriously more intense than any suspense movie I've seen. We just kicked back with our local beers- Saigon, BGI, 333, and Biere Larue- and watched it all happen (click here for a video of the intense traffic). At some point a cat hopped up on a chair next to me, and I began absentmindedly petting it, forgetting for awhile that cats in restaurants aren't really something I'm used to.
So our first day in Vietnam was a success! We got to sleep early in preparation for another big day. In fact, we went to bed SO early that we were laying there having trouble sleeping because there were kids playing loudly in the alley by our room. I grumbled a little about kids running around so late at night...and then realized that it was not even 10 PM. Hahaha.