Perhaps for the same nostalgic reasons that Mumbai’s locals prefer to call their city Bombay, Ho Chi Minh City, as it was renamed in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, is, we quickly discovered, still fondly referred to as Saigon by the locals.
We don’t care what it’s called – we loved it. Although I’m not sure if we loved Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) or whether we just loved the fact that it’s a city in Vietnam.
We had slipped away to the southern Vietnamese city from Bangkok for a few days on assignment for a magazine. It was our first time in Vietnam, a country we’ve been dying to get to since we developed an obsession with Vietnamese food when we lived in Balmain, Sydney, years ago and used to eat almost weekly at a restaurant called… well, Saigon.
Had we have been on holidays, we would have set our own assignment: to spend four days eating our way through Saigon. However, we were working, and our mission was to uncover all that was stylish and new in the city for the story.
But first we felt we needed to get some sense on the ground of the history of a city we already felt we knew so much about, from school history classes, popular culture, especially music and movies, and from popular history. My parents had come of age, met in Sydney, fell in love, married, and gave birth to me during the period they always referred to as “the Vietnam era, our era”. That’s how much a part the Vietnam War was of culture and everyday life in Australia in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s.
So we started by seeing the handful of historical sights Saigon has to offer in its compact city centre: the striking red brick Notre Dame Cathedral, dating to 1877, with its iron-tipped spires; the Saigon Central Post Office, built from 1886 to 1891 by Gustave Eiffel, which looks like a French train station, with Ho Chin Minh watching over the room (his portrait hangs above the clock at the far end); the elegant City Hall, erected in 1908 and modelled on Paris’ Hôtel de Ville (town hall); and the splendid Opera House, built in 1897 by French architect Eugene Ferret. All are architectural gems, spectacularly illuminated at night.
But it was the War Remnants Museum, established in 1975, that made the history we’d learnt at school, seen in the movies, and heard in songs from the era, seem so real. It’s a sobering exhibition and at times a gut-wrenching experience. Ironically, what was made all the more real to me, by graphic photos shot by some of the world’s finest war photographers and harrowing witness testimonies, didn’t appear so to a couple of young travellers at the museum.
I was astonished to overhear a conversation between two 20-ish American backpackers: “So, this is all propaganda?” one asked her friend, “Is any of it, like, true?” “Yeah, I think so…” the friend responded, “I’ve seen this in the movies.”
We were standing in front of a gruesome photo display of semi-naked women and children, murdered during the Mỹ Lai massacre – scenes I couldn’t imagine even the most skilful Hollywood special effects artists so realistically recreating. Whether the Vietnam War was part of your history or not, the museum should be the first stop for every visitor to Saigon.
The main sights covered, and with a bit more of a sense of the place, we hit the streets to soak up the atmosphere and scout for the story. Saigon’s street life is endlessly fascinating too and fortunately it’s mostly about the food… but I’m going too quickly. I’m going to save the food for another post…