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Hello, Saigon!

Muslim Friendly Indochina Blog Contest Winner Noor Sham a.k.a. Ceklong treks through memory lane in Ho Chi Minh City with her family.

Images: AirAsia

For the last couple of years, AirAsia has been the airline of our choice. When planning our family holiday, we would check out AirAsia destinations first. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, seemed like a good choice since no one in the family has been there.

     Now that the twins are a little older, they are quite good at hiding their excitement about the trip. We had lunch on the flight–the new improved menu is commendable and we finished our pre-booked meal in a few minutes.

     It was still drizzling as we stepped out of Tan Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As soon as our taxi hit the road, we found the streets full of motorcycles. I have never seen so many motorcycles in any other cities. Most riders had large flapping plastic raincoats that covered the front of the motorcycle and the back piece was placed over any goods (if any).

     Catina Hotel was a small 4-star hotel sharing the street with stores such as Gucci, Omega, Esprit, Louis Vuitton, Milano and Gloria Jeans. Most stores in the area put up Christmas decorations–lit-up trees and baubles hanging from the ceiling. There were many stores selling beautiful paintings in various styles. A few stores sold lovely lacquer wares and clothing items.  There were many motorcycles crowding the street parallel to Dong Khoi. I couldn’t tell if there was some kind of celebration or procession, but it was apparent that the people were out on the streets for something. Some adults donned Santa’s red and white hats while little children put on Santa’s full costume, minus the white beard, of course.

District 1 is the heart beat of Ho Chi Minh City and the area surrounding Dong Khoi street is the happening part of town. Some of the more affluent hotels in this area are the Sheraton, Continental, Caravelle and the Rex. There are a few more like the Oscar Saigon and the Grand Hotel. The western influence in this country is clearly visible in its architecture, if not in the culture. The Notre Dame Church and National Theatre are examples of reminiscence of this past era.

Food and getting around

Our hotel was close to the mosque and also several halal restaurants namely the Halal@Saigon, D’Nyonya Delights, Bombay Restaurant (Indian) and Pasha Restaurant (Turkish).

     Our favourite was the Turkish restaurant, Pasha. The mixed grill and sliced roasted lamb were full of flavour and the meat was extremely tender. The Halal@Saigon Restaurant was a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. The small place was crowded and thus service was rather slow, but the food was quite good and reasonably priced. The crunchy stir-fried flower was a new dining experience for us.

     At D’Nyonya Delights, familiar dishes like fried koay teow was available. The Bombay Restaurant served typical Indian food such as curry, biryani and masala. All the mentioned restaurants were on the same street (Dong Du Street in District 1) and they served decent halal food. It’s a matter of preference and taste that we went to Pasha Restaurant and Halal@Saigon more than once.

     Taxi fares may be paid in VND or USD, but be prepared to be grossly overcharged even if it’s metered. To be on the safe side, agree on the fare first before boarding the vehicle.

Mekong Delta: Down memory lane

The tour guide, Mr. Long arrived as agreed, at 8 am. Further along the street, another family of three from Tasmania joined the tour. The streets of Saigon depicted a familiar Asian setting with sidewalk food stalls and varieties of merchandise by the roadside.

     We reached the highway after nearly half an hour going through the outskirts of the city. The highway was only a year old with a speed limit of 100 km/h. The scenery was a very familiar one–rice fields on both sides with patches of sugar cane plants and banana trees. Just before 9.30am, we made a 20-minute stop at a lovely, clean and well-kept rest area. It was landscaped with a tropical village setting, planted with coconut trees, frangipani plants and also present were two huge ducks posing for tourists.

     The boat trip started from a jetty in My Tho. There were many blue boats of varying sizes eagerly waiting for tourists. The Mekong River, some 4800km long is very wide with murky water and muddy banks. The river stretches across five countries, namely China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally Vietnam, where it meets the sea. Our boat travelled upstream.

     Our first stop was Unicorn Island where tea was served with honey (from the nectar of longan flowers) and calamansi or limau kasturi. Tidbits consisting of banana crisps, peanut brittle and crystallized ginger were also served and duly consumed. On a nearby table, bottles of several sizes containing snakes, geckos and scorpions were displayed. The liquid in which these creepy crawlies were preserved is taken as an aphrodisiac for men. The boys got the chance to snap photos with a python wrapped around their necks. I must admit that I am not very fond of reptiles even though they often turn up at our doorstep at home.

     The area was more like an orchard, planted with fruit trees such as longan, mangosteen, water apples (jambu air), pomelo and dragon fruit cactus. We walked on to another shed to sample local fruits like ciku, banana, longan and pineapples. A group of four entertained us with folk music and songs. Another hut further along the route made coconut candies plus a few other types of fruit candies.

     Dr. (Mrs) Pidmore, the twins and I got into a dingy boat (sampan) while the rest of the men went in another. A lady in the front and a man at the back of the sampan rowed the boat along the narrow river lined with nipah or sea coconut palms. It was low tide and the river was congested with similar sampans making their way back and forth ferrying tourists. Small mudskippers were spotted along the riverbanks.

     The sampan ride brought back poignant memories of my childhood–the occasional little adventure I had with my neighbours Kak Nah and Kak Pah on the river in front of mum’s house. It was sure a long way to venture to re-live one’s younger days, but it was good for the two boys who had never been on an actual sampan.

     The next stop was Phoenix Island for lunch. This was the place people come to purchase fighting cocks, which were displayed outside the houses. A short ride on a pony cart took us to our lunch venue. A number of sheds occupied the ground which was surrounded by streams and fruit trees. We ordered two Elephant’s Ear Fishes (Ikan Kalui), one deep fried and the other steamed. The deep fried fish came “standing” on a dish, an unusual way to serve, I must say. A local girl served the dishes by placing basil and a few other herbs on a piece of very thin rice paper. Bits of the cooked fish and rice noodles were placed on top of the herbs and then the rice paper was rolled like a spring roll. This was dipped in a mild chilly sauce. The fish eaten on its own was rather bland, but the herbs certainly brought out all its flavour. Ikan Kalui has no commercial value at home and we’ve never eaten it before, but it was either the fish or non-halal chicken (a definite no-no) or turtles, snakes and eels, among other dishes offered on the menu.

     On the return journey, we visited a lacquer ware factory. A product that goes through some very tedious process–embedding with eggshell or mother of pearl, followed by several stages of varnishing and polishing. It takes 4 months to produce a shiny and smooth lacquer ware item.

     Later in the evening we concluded that the throngs of people who came out to fill the streets were merely there to admire the Christmas lights and decorations. It gave the whole area a lively atmosphere. We eventually got the knack of crossing the road amidst the masses of motorcycles. The trick was to step out when the traffic was lighter and walk slowly rather than making a dash across the road. The drivers who move at slow pace would make their way around the pedestrians.

Ben Tanh Market

This market was similar to any bazaar we have been to. Items of clothing, souvenirs, handicraft items such as lacquer ware, embroidered items, leather goods and costume jewelries were available at fairly cheap prices.

     The only problem was haggling for a price that commiserates the quality of the goods, which of course I’m not very good at. The fact the Vietnamese Dong comes in huge denomination (VND62 000 is equivalent to RM10) and called for some calculation during conversion did not make shopping any more enjoyable. US dollars are widely accepted everywhere, even by street peddlers. The moment we stopped on the sidewalk, street peddlers selling sunglasses, toys, fruits and other goods swarmed us. The peddlers would reduce their prices as they followed us along.

     None of us enjoy shopping at bazaars, but every time we travel, a visit to the local market is always on the itinerary. The most we would buy are some cheap souvenirs but the variety of goods available at the bazaars tells us about the life of the locals; their source of income, their arts and culture, and much more.

Cu Chi Tunnels: Remnants of a battlefield

On the way to Cu Chi, our guide Nuxt briefed us on the history of his country. The Liberation of Saigon or the Fall of Saigon (depending on one’s political ideology) that took place in April 1975 centered very much on the guerrilla or Vietcong activities here in Cu Chi.

     The Cu Chi Tunnels are a labyrinth of underground tunnels estimated to extend some 250km from Saigon reaching to the Cambodian border. The tunnels were dug using only hoes and bamboo baskets without the use of any mechanical equipment.

     The works were carried out at night to avoid detection. There are three levels of tunnel network which comprises specially constructed living quarters, meeting rooms, store facilities, field hospitals, workshops and kitchens. Each room is connected to another by a short tunnel. The entrance to the tunnel allows only a small man and is always camouflaged. Several anthills were spotted but they were actually ventilation holes. Smoke from the kitchen had an outlet pipe which opened several metres away from the actual cooking area. Cooking was done in the mornings so that any lingering smoke would appear like mist.

     The forest during the war days was filled with innumerable traps, all ensuring the enemy would be severely injured or suffer a slow, painful death. The tunnels had been enlarged to make them passable for larger-sized tourists, and yet even then we had to stoop. Living there for long periods with little food and fresh air gives me the shivers. On the ground, there were trenches that were now filled with dry leaves.

     A few craters left by bombs dropped from F-52 warplanes were scattered throughout the forest. Some of these had been filled up with earth when the tunnels were dug. Although the area is closed to Saigon River, the guerrillas dug wells for their water supply because the river was poisoned during the war.

     Towards the end of the tour, we sampled some boiled tapioca which was the staple food for the guerrillas then. Later the boys also had the opportunity to deliver some bullets from M-16 rifles.

The War Remnants Museum

The exterior ground of the museum was occupied by military aircrafts, weapons and tanks which were employed during the Vietnam War. The ground floor of the museum exhibited many photographs, titled “Historical Truths” which clearly demonstrated the atrocities of the war inflicted on the Vietnamese. Some two million civilians and one million soldiers were killed during the war that lasted from the early 60’s until 1975. Innocent women and children were inhumanly treated or killed by the Americans without any mercy. They also took the chance to test their chemical weapons such as Napalm and Agent Orange leaving their devastating effects for many years after the war had ended. Vietnam was not only a battlefield, its ground also provided a good base for large scale field trials.

     On the second floor, tributes to the brave photographers who sacrificed their lives during filming were presented in an exhibition appropriately titled “Requiem”. Aerial photographs taken from the US military aircrafts showed the vast extent of the massive destruction on the vegetation during the American’s defoliation exercises. And, more human sufferings were depicted in numerous photos taken by dedicated photographers from several countries.

     In another room, the exhibits emphasized on the effects of chemical weapons on the later generation of the war victims–deformed fetuses, abnormal circumstances of children without limbs, deformed torsos, etc. The American soldiers also experienced the detrimental effects of the chemical weapons. They were the ones who had come into contact with the materials during handling.

     The Americans finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, and Saigon was eventually liberated in April 1975. Both the Americans and the Vietnamese people paid a very heavy price, not to mention the pain and sufferings, which had been afflicted on many innocent people. Thirty-five years on and Vietnam is still rebuilding its country with its people slowly working and striving hard towards a better future.

     The museum may be mediocre compared to the Louvre or other museums we had visited, but the mostly black and white images definitely moved me beyond words. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; it certainly did. It’s an understatement that I feel lucky to be living in Malaysia. Our forefathers, in spite of the Japanese Occupation, and us included are truly blessed in comparison.

Kuala Lumpur (KUL) – Ho Chi Minh City (SGN)
4 x DAILY

 

Flight No

From

To

Depart

Arrive

AK0880

KUL

SGN

09:15

10:10

AK0866

KUL

SGN

12:00

12:55

AK0882

KUL

SGN

14:55

15:50

AK0884

KUL

SGN

19:40

20:40

* Departure and arrival times are according to local time zones.

Other information:-

Halal@Saigon by Endah Mardiyani

1) Halal@Saigon Restaurant

    31 Dong Du St, District 1

    Opens 10am-10pm, daily.

2) Pasha Restaurant

    25 Dong Du St, District 1

    Opens 9am-3am, daily.

3) Bombay Restaurant

    35 Dong Du St, District 1

4) Restaurant D’Nyonya Penang

    58 Dong Du St, District 1

    Opens Mon-Fri: 9.30am-10.30pm,

    Sat-Sun: 9.30am-11.30pm.

5) War Remnants Museum

     28 Vo Van Tan St, District 3

     Opens Mon-Sun: 7.30am-12noon, 1.30pm-5.00m.

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  • Anonymous

    Nice place

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mohd-Sufian/1184357121 Mohd Sufian

    nice tips, especially to look for halal food