Today was a long but fantastic sightseeing day in Saigon – an exciting and beautiful city! I toured Saigon with a group of about 20 tourists – Russian, French, British, Vietnamese, Australian, and Indian. I was the only American. It was a wonderful diverse group of well-traveled people, and I was happy to spend the day with them since being a solo traveler is lonely at times. Our Vietnamese tour guide provided excellent commentary on the sites we toured, including some taboo subjects.
TET or Lunar New Year 2012
He said in a few days there would be much less traffic in Saigon, because everyone is heading home to be with their families for TET. During TET, a large percentage of Saigon population (including our guide) travels to the Mekong Delta, the area of Vietnam where many of them were born, to visit their families.
I especially enjoyed talking to a Vietnamese family of four – mother, father, son, and daughter. They were bright and friendly and spoke very clear English. I also spent time talking to a British tourist whose wife was Chinese. He lives half the year in China and half in London. A fun Indian traveler from Delhi knew places I’ve visited in Northern and Southern India, so we enjoyed talking about Rajasthan, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Mt. Abu, Cochin, and Kerala. After Saigon, the Aussies were headed north, so they wanted to talk about Halong Bay. I advised them to be prepared for an abrupt drop in temperature.
Our tour began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:30 p.m. We had a fantastic lunch break at a family-owned restaurant. The tour began at the War Remnants Museum where our guide instructed us to remain silent inside. I was deeply saddened at the somber images displayed – Americans were depicted in the most horrific and brutal way imaginable.
After touring the museum we stopped at a café for tea and coffee, and the Vietnamese family sat next to me. It was as if they sensed my horror, and they said that what we had just seen was exaggerated and not necessarily a complete or accurate depiction of what happened during the war. I won’t go into further detail in this blog.
Our guide later echoed a similar sentiment. He emphasized the incredible progress made toward peace in the past 30 years. Some of the photos I took at the War Remnants Museum are in this blog. The photos (especially victims of Agent Orange) are disturbing and made a huge impact – as did tours of the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng S-21 Concentration Camp Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Thiên Hậu Temple, Chinatown, Binh Tay Market
Our second and brighter stop was Thiên Hậu Temple, followed by Chinatown, Binh Tay Market, and an incredible lacquer workshop where we watched Vietnamese artists design works of art. After lunch we visited Independence Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, and beautiful Saigon Central Post Office. Although I saw Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday, I never tire of looking at the magnificent structure.
Thiên Hậu Temple
Thiên Hậu is a deity of the traditional Chinese religion revered in the southern maritime provinces of China and overseas Chinese communities of Fujian, Guangzhou, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Thiên Hậu is not specifically a deity of Taoism or of Buddhism, but she is brought into connection with figures and themes from both. Thiên Hậu Temple is accessed by entering an iron gate on Nguyen Trai Street and passing through an open courtyard.
“The interior roof is decorated with delicately fashioned porcelain figurines expressing themes from Chinese religion and legends. Lanterns and wooden models of Chinese theaters hang over the entrance.”
As you enter the temple, there’s a partly covered courtyard with an altar to Thiên Hậu. The altar has three statues of the goddess with bronze faces and multi-colored clothes and crowns. The exposed portions of the courtyard contain incense burners. The view inside includes beautiful porcelain dioramas depicting scenes from a nineteenth century Chinese city. The atmosphere is peaceful with incense burning and prayers.
ChinaTown Chợ Lớn
ChinaTown Chợ Lớn is a Chinese-influenced section of Saigon District 5. It’s on the west bank of the Saigon River and the largest Chinatown in Vietnam. In Vietnamese, the name Chợ Lớn means “big” (lớn) “market” (chợ). Binh Tay Market is its central market and Quan Am Pagoda is a famous Chinese temple in Chợ Lớn. Quan Am Pagoda means the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple. Dedicated to the deity Quan Am, the pagoda is the oldest in Saigon. It’s home to other deities including the Laughing Buddha (Buddha of the Future), Di Da (Buddha of the Past), and Thích Ca (Historical Buddha).
“In 1778, the Hoa (Chinese minority of Vietnam) living in Bien Hoa took refuge in what is now Chợ Lớn to escape retaliation by the Tây Sơn forces for supporting Vietnam’s ruling Nguyễn Lords. In 1782, they were again massacred by the Tây Sơn and had to rebuild. They built their new settlement high on embankments to protect it from the flow of the Saigon River and called it Tai-Ngon – “embankment” in Cantonese. During the 1930s, the settlement expanded to Saigon city limits. On April 27, 1931, the two cities merged forming Saigon-Cholon. In 1956, Chợ Lớn was dropped, and the city became known as Saigon.
Binh Tay Market
Binh Tay Market is the Central Market of Chợ Lớn in District 5. Local Vietnamese-Chinese refer to it as “The New Market of Chợ Lớn”. The Chinese, other than those living in Vietnam, know it as Dī’àn, or literally, “embankment”.
The Old Market was in Chợ Lớn on Nguyen Trai Street in District 5, but it was destroyed in a fire. “The New Market” was built to replace it. Although The Old Market was used extensively before the fire, today local people rarely mention the lost market. The elderly or those who lived nearby long enough to remember the fire are the only residents who discuss The Old Market.
Binh Tay Market is on Thap Muoi Street on the edge of District 6. Despite many wars Binh Tay Market is still a major business hub, not only for the local Vietnamese and Chinese, but also for Vietnamese farmers trading daily goods coming from all parts of South Vietnam. Although it’s a wholesale market, tourists buy small quantities of food and other goods. I found a great pair of sandals for $4.
Independence Palace Historical Relic
Independence Palace Historical Relic is built on the site of the former Norodom Palace and is a landmark in Saigon. “Designed by Vietnamese architect Ngô Viết Thụ. During the Vietnam War, it was the home of the President of South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm, and where the War ended during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.”
Central Post Office
Saigon’s Central Post Office was built in the early twentieth century when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Its exquisite neoclassical Gothic architecture was designed by well-known French architect Gustave Eiffel. It has fascinating wall maps in both French and English. Today, the beautiful building is a prime tourist attraction.