Saigon, Have I Seen You Before?

Saigon by bloompy
Saigon, a photo by bloompy on Flickr.

I just landed at the Tan Son Nhat Airport (Saigon Airport), an airport built by the US Army that used to witness the comings and goings of the US military aircrafts during the Vietnam War. The airport bore a quaint reminder of what Jakarta airport was like in the 70s (quick, quick, if you do not know how the Jakarta airport looked like in the 70s, come to Saigon now!). Lines at the immigration was long, but there were more than ten staff members working to process the entrants. The immigration workers had dour faces and worked very slowly, doing what Indonesian immigration used to do a lot: stamping, stapling, stamping, stapling, stamping, stamping, stamping. Then more stamping, stamping, looking at the photo in my passport, then at my face, then stamping, and stamping again. Finally, another round of stapling and stamping, and then returning the passport to me. *Whew* I looked inside, there was only 1 stamp. What the hell?

There was another baggage scanning done during customs check, and observing very briefly, about 10% of the people were sent to the red lane for a more thorough check. A small kiosk of foreign exchange services stared me in the face so I took the opportunity to get my first Vietnamese Dong (VND): I have tried earlier to acquire VND in Japan and in Hong Kong, but none carried VND. The Hong Kong foreign exchange kiosk staff informed me that not a lot of people travelled there, so the exchange did not carry any VND. Back to the Saigon Airport foreign exchange kiosk: to my surprise, the bills given to me were spanking new. Certain bills, similar to the Indonesian Rupiahs, seemed to be made of Tyvek-like ingredients, making it untearable and longer-lasting.

It was drizzling outside when I finally breathed in the Saigon air, seasoned only with a hint of humidity as I chose to visit the country at the end of the rainy season. The hotel limo picked me up and drove me to my hotel (see review here), about 8 km away in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I want to remind you that Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City are two names for the same city. Before 1975 the city was Saigon, but after that year, it was renamed the Ho Chi Minh City. According to guidebooks and learning from locals, the name Saigon is still much prefered here in South Vietnam.

As I was driven through the city, I felt a familiar scene welcoming me: low rise buildings and multitudes of store fronts, street vendors jamming the sidewalk and road traffic running amok, all serenaded with a cacophony of car horns and bike bells. Such encounters I have had in other Southeast Asian big cities. I could be in Bangkok or Surabaya, and probably would not know the difference unless I see local writings and hear people talking. All of these nations have been colonized at one point or another by a Western power: Indonesia (the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Japanese); Singapore and Malaysia (the British Empire); Vietnam (the French), and the Philippines (the Spaniards). Some came out strong and prosperous, some remained probably more or less the same, and some, like Vietnam, is still catching up with time.

I was delivered to District 1, so named probably because of its importance: most of the city’s prominent buildings and formal government offices were located in this area, such as: the Reunification Palace (pictured above), the Opera House, the Main Post Office building, and the People’s Committee Building (formerly Hotel de Ville), to name a few. For the rest of the late evening I stayed indoor, having woken up very early today to make the trip from Japan to Saigon by way of Hong Kong. I ordered Pho from room service, all the while telling myself not to expect much from any hotel food. I was surprised to find the dish very tasty, as tasty as the best Pho outside of Vietnam in Little Saigon (Westminster, Southern California).

*sigh*…gone is my first day in Saigon…

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