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 gets lonely at times. Our Vietnamese tour guide provided excellent commentary on the sites we toured, including some taboo subjects.
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. A large percentage of Saigon’s population (including our guide) will be going to the Mekong Delta, the area of Vietnam where many of them were born.
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 the places I’ve visited in Northern and Southern India so we talked about Rajasthan, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Mt. Abu, Cochin, and Kerala. The Aussies wanted to talk about Halong Bay since they were headed there after Saigon. I advised them to take some sweaters and expect an abrupt drop in temperature.
Our tour began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:30 p.m. with a lunch break at a family owned restaurant. We began at the somber War Remnants Museum where our guide instructed us to remain silent inside. I was deeply saddened at the 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 proper depiction of what actually happened. It’s not a good idea to 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 very 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.
Our second and brighter stop was Thiên Hậu Temple followed by Chinatown, Binh Tay Market, and an incredible lacquer workshop where we watched talented Vietnamese artists design works of art. After lunch we visited Independence Palace and later Notre Dame Cathedral and the beautiful Saigon Central Post Office which are across the street from each other. Although I saw Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday I never tire of looking at that 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. She is not specifically a deity of Taoism or of Buddhism, though she is brought into connection with figures and themes from both. To access Thiên Hậu Temple on Nguyen Trai Street you enter an iron gate and cross 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 at the end. 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 and open the view to beautiful porcelain dioramas depicting scenes from a 19th century Chinese city. Many people in the temple were burning incense and saying prayers and it was an extremely peaceful atmosphere.
China Town Chợ Lớn is a Chinese-influenced section of Saigon’s District 5. It’s on the west bank of the Saigon River and the largest Chinatown in Vietnam. The Vietnamese 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 and the home to other deities including the Laughing Buddha (Buddha of the Future), Di Da (Buddha of the Past), and Thinh Ca (Historical Buddha).
“In 1778, the Hoa (Chinese minority of Vietnam) living in Bien Hoa took refuge in what is now Chợ Lớn because they were retaliated against by the Tây Sơn forces for their support of Vietnam’s ruling Nguyễn Lords. In 1782, they were again massacred by the Tây Sơn and had to rebuild. They built high embankments against the flows of the Saigon River and called their new settlement Tai-Ngon (meaning “embankment” in Cantonese). By the 1930s their settlement expanded to Saigon’s city limits of and on April 27, 1931 the two cities merged to form Saigon-Cholon. In 1956, ” Chợ Lớn” was dropped from the name and the city became known as Saigon.”
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 existed in Chợ Lớn on Nguyen Trai Street in District 5 but it was destroyed in a fire so “The New Market” was built to replace it. Although The Old Market was used extensively before the fire, local people rarely mention the lost market today. The elderly or those who lived nearby long enough to remember the fire are the only residents who discuss The Old Market today.
Binh Tay Market is on Thap Muoi Street on the edge of District 6. Despite many wars Binh Tay Market is a major business hub not only for the local Vietnamese and Chinese, but also for the Vietnamese farmers trading daily goods coming from all parts of South Vietnam. It’s a wholesale market although tourists can buy small quantities of food and other goods. I found a great pair of travel sandals for $4.
Independence Palace Historical Relic – formerly known as Independence Palace – is built on the site of the former Norodom Palace and is a landmark in Saigon. “Designed by Vietnamese architect Ngô, Viết Thụ it was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.”
Saigon’s Central Post Office was built in the early 20th century when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Its exquisite neoclassical Gothic architecture was designed by the famous French architect Gustave Eiffel. Today, the beautiful building is a prime tourist attraction. It has fascinating wall maps in both French and English.