Sunday, December 6, 2009

Saigon(西貢), South Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) (Vietnamese: Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) is the largest city in Vietnam. Located at Mekong delta.

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It was known as Prey Nokor before being annexed by the Vietnamese in the 17th century. Prey Nokor was a City in Cambodia. Prey Nokor was the most important commercial seaport to the Khmers.Increasing waves of Vietnamese settlers, which the Cambodian kingdom could not impede because it was weakened by war with Thailand, slowly Vietnamized the area.

Before the French colonization, the official Vietnamese name of Saigon was Gia Định (Chữ Nôm: 嘉定). In 1862, the French discarded this official name and adopted the name "Saigon", which had always been the popular name, although it was still written as 嘉定 on sinitic maps until at least 1891.

A frequently heard, and reasonable, explanation is that Sài is a Chinese loanword (Chinese: 柴, pronounced chái in Mandarin) meaning “firewood, lops, twigs; palisade”, while Gòn is a another Chinese loanword (Chinese: 棍, pronounced gùn in Mandarin) meaning “stick, pole, bole”, and whose meaning evolved into “cotton” in Vietnamese (bông gòn, literally “cotton stick”, i.e., “cotton plant”, then shortened to gòn).

Some people say that this name originated from the many cotton plants that the Khmer people had planted around Prey Nokor, and which can still be seen at Cây Mai temple and surrounding areas.

Another explanation is that the etymological meaning “twigs” (sài) and “boles” (gòn) refers to the dense and tall forest that once existed around the city, a forest to which the Khmer name, Prey Nokor, already referred.

In Chinese, the city is referred to as 西貢(xīgòng in Mandarin).

Under the name Saigon, it was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina and later of the independent state of South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. In 1976, Saigon merged with the surrounding province of Gia Định and was officially renamed Hồ Chí Minh City (although the name Sài Gòn—formally known as District 1—is still commonly used.)

The city center is situated on the banks of the Saigon River, 60 kilometers (37 mi) from the South China Sea and 1,760 kilometers (1,094 miles) south of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. If you arrive at the airport, there is a local bus, number 152 that will take you into town. The cost was 3,000 dong plus an extra 2,000 dong for luggage. You are able to get off the bus right at De Tham street in the popular Pham Ngu Lao area for budget traveler. Otherwise you can take a taxi US$6-7. Avoid taking any illegal taxi or following a taxi touts ,it is formally warned by Ministry of Transport of Vietnam Northern Airport Corporation, a warning notice will be given to you upon arrival at the airport. A company called Sasco has the airport taxi concession, and their cars are the first you will see by the curb. Their less expensive rivals, such as Vinasun and Mai Linh, can be found waiting in abundance 500 meters away, further out into the parking lot. Whichever taxi you choose, make sure the driver uses the meter.

As of spring 2009, the airport instituted a taxi queuing system, on your left side far end of the terminal. Blindly queuing may cost you, so therefore look for the taxi wardens usually standing around the queue line (Mai Linh wardens are in green shirt green tie, Vinasun warden are in dark green shirt maroon tie), and they will radio the taxi for you. Major taxi companies are fairly honest, but if you want to avoid all stress, you could simply buy a "taxi coupon" at one of the counters after the custom declaration & x-ray at international airport terminal, next to the exchange counter.

Today is 6-12-2009, 3rd days in HCMC or Saigon....

4-12-2009 Saigon, Vietnam
Arrive at Saigon from Hue

We arrived at HCMC on 4-12-2009, from Hue by air.

Our guesthouse, Ngoc Thao Guest House is located at 241/4 Pham Ngu Lao.St, District 1, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. I booked the guesthouse online through The guesthouse is actually a residential unit with renovation to build it higher to 4th floor. Breakfast is provided,which consist of pancakes, french bread, noodles. It is operated by a family, the boss is a young man by the name of Mr Thou. The room is clean but if you are staying at 4th floor, there is no lift to take you there. It is not suitable for old people who cannot climb staircase. The room charge is US$8-11 per person. The middle room has no window. My sister in law complain of strange smell in the room, but our room was not affected. The owner said it is smell from the Saigon River or canal. The pick up charge from the airport however is excessively charged at US$29 one way, where normal taxi charged US$6-7 one way. You have to ask for any extra service from operator, do not expect them to provide service upfront. The operator is family unit, it is like a home stay. One lesson I learn is that do not book online, photo from the net may be misleading, and it is cheaper to come and make your own choice, it is cheaper. However if you are heavy traveler with many luggage, book in advance and do not choose guesthouse or 1 star hotel, you need at least 3 star hotel. Make sure it include free pick up service from airport, and free breakfast, and have lift.....

Another problem in Vietnam is communication, they may said they know English, but actually only limited tourism style conversation, most probably they do not understand what you want. There are always frequent mis-communication and misunderstanding, over charges, and even short charge for what you paid, and give you below par tour for money you paid. You need to be smart, and alert all the time. Do not pay the rent earlier, it is always when you check out, otherwise the service provided will be different,they will be less friendly. The currency conversion is another problem, it is 3 ways conversion if you are not American ; your home currency, American dollars, and Vietnamese dong. See the complication. If you are not good in maths, sorry lah.... and always check your bills, especially you book online, they may provide you different room from what you booked, remember the deposit you have paid as you may overlooked.....

In Vietnam, they do not provide you free water in hotel; even your tour package do not include water when lunch or dinner is provided,you need to buy your own beverage. So remember water is not provided.....

I personally select guest house at Pham Ngu Lao street in District 1, instead of star rated hotel. The place of "Western Quarter" is backpacking traveler's heaven. The place is the soul of old Saigon city, and it is close to most tourist attraction. After checked in at Guest House, the first lesson to learn is to cross the street of HCMC. It is easy for us as we have learn some tactic in Hanoi. But the traffic of HCMC is more heavy than Hanoi. There are more cars and heavy vehicles. The crossing over the round about is more do not believe? let us see the upload from youtube, the crossing of the round about in front of Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City.

Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, District 1, Vietnam

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Our guest house is located at one of the alleys at Pham Ngo Lao. The small alleys at HCMC are the heart of local community, to know the life of HCMC , you need to explore the alleys which was inside the main street. The living units are very compact, but unlike Hanoi, the path in the alleys is open, where the street hawkers can sell their goods at the alley path. Hanoi's alleys are closed and private path, there are no street hawkers inside,they normally do their business at the main street in front of their alley. In HCMC, the alleys are open and a public place, within the alley there are many hawkers, small shops, salon, restaurant, sundry shops,guest house; it is more like a busy lane.

To walk through these alleys are living lesson to know how people lived in HCMC.....

There was a Asian Food Exhibition at Pham Ngo Lao, it is just across the entrance of the alley. Since we missed our Malaysian food so much, we look for Malaysian booth, but unfortunately it was closed. The other alternative is the Singapore booth, the Singaporean food is similar to Malaysian food, the only difference the Malaysian booth is classified under Halal food(Muslim can eat, food without pork)section. Singapore booth are having a good time and Vietnamese seems to like their food. We ordered the Indian Mee Goreng(Indian fried noodle), we really missed the Malaysian food after more than a week in Vietnam. I wonder why Malaysian booth is not open for business, another bad promotion planning?

The location of the exhibition is actually a stretch of garden, start from Tran Nguyen Han round about to Nguyen Trai , lying between Le Lai and Pham Ngo Lao. It is the green belt for Saigon city. During the morning and evening, the local people are doing their morning exercise, dancing, family gathering at the place.

At night we walked around Pham Ngo Lao,Bui Vien and nearby areas, there are many restaurant, bar, hotel, art gallery; the night in Saigon is very vibrant and colorful. It has returned to its past glory of Vietnam War era.

The whole city of Saigon is dynamic and active; day or night. The benefit of open Vietnam still a communist country? you believe?....not the people, they are more capitalist than you. If you don't believe, count your American dollars in your pocket and see how fast it move out of your pocket .......

5-12-2009 Ho Chi Minh City(or Saigon), Vietnam
Mekong Delta One Day Tour

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Yesterday 5-12-2009, we were in the Mekong Delta. A 1 day boat trip along the Mekong River to a typical Vietnamese fishing village. We buy the tour through our guest house for US$15, a tour by Mekong Delta Adventures. It is strange we are the only Asian in the tour. The trip include the travel the route from Saigon(HCMC), Cai Be and Vinh Long. That was 3 hours drive along the only Highway in HCMC to Vinh Long.

From Vinh Long jetty, we took a motorboat for our ride to the Delta, the first boat ride and seeing all the houses on stilts.

Vĩnh Long(永隆; literally "eternal prosperity") a town on the Co Chien River, part of the Mekong Delta. It is the capital of the Vĩnh Long Province. Vinh Long is just off Highway 1, 66km from My Tho, 33km from Can Tho( about 2 hours)in the adjacent Hau Giang Province, and 136km from HCMC(3 hours). The floating market town of Cai Be is on the other side of the An Binh island and is the frequent destination for tourist boats from Vinh Long. Frequent buses go between Vinh Long and HCMC (three hours, 50, 000 dong), which leave HCMC from Cholon bus station in District 5, and from Mien Tay bus station. You can also get to Vinh Long by bus from Can Tho (25,000 dong), My Tho, Tra Vinh, Chau Doc and other points on the Mekong Delta. Vinh Long’s bus station is conveniently located in the middle of town.

We are at Cai Be for the floating market for retailers, no,it is not the actual Cai Be floating market,the floating market start about 5AM,we are too late for the floating market. Markets in South Vietnam usually start before way sunrise and tend to be very active until at least 0900hrs. To visit Cai Be floating market, it is better to visit from Cai Be,instead of taking tourist boats in Vinh Long(which is normally booked from tour company). You will spend less and saves more than one hour transport time.

Note: Cai Rang Floating Market, about 6km from Can Tho City , is the most famous and biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta . From the early morning, the waterway becomes a maze of hundreds of boats packed with fruits, vegetables, plants, foods, etc... Sellers hang a sample of what they have from the top of a long pole so that buyers can see from a distance what they are selling. From Saigon , it takes 4 to 5 hours to reach Can Tho. Cai Rang floating market is situated about 6km from Can Tho by road or a 20 km loop by boat.

Mekong Delta have an another active floating market which is for wholesale, it is international with goods from Thailand. Along the rivers there are local residents living along the river bank and even boat people who may not have landed in their life. Mekong Delta is a vibrant area for rice cultivation, fruit orchards and fishing. On the way we visited coconut candy factory and rice paper factory......

The boat stopped in front of the church near the Cai Be local market. I try to visit the church but it was stopped by a small barking dog. The church is at the river bank.

A bicycle ride to the village restaurant at the orchard. My daughter enjoyed the cycling at the village road, along the road are the fruit orchards, especially the Longan fruits.

We have lunch at a local orchard home.

After lunch, it is the short walk to jetty at one of the canal, and another traditional rowing boat ride along the narrow shady canal. The boat rowing is by a boatman or woman, while the tourists sitting at the boat wearing typical Vietnamese hat. He/she will row the small boat along the canal, until the boat reach the jetty below the bridge at Cai Be, the motorboat is waiting for us at the jetty. On the way we saw mangrove swamp and its habitat ,fruit trees, local villages etc.

The boat arrived at Vinh Long city for the land market, walking along the market road. There is no visit to the market. The bus then took us back to Saigon. On the way along the highway, we stopped at garden. The trip was to include My Tho, but I do not know did the tour go to My Tho, we only stopped at a Garden restaurant. As Vietnam tour trips are subject to frequent changes. We just have no way to complain as the clause include the subjective clause - subject to change? However the tour guide, a girl with the name of Huyen was good, she spoke good American English. She also provide very interesting information to us.

But the fact is did we visit the Cai Be floating market, or just a trip of boat ride at Mekong Delta? ......

While we are visiting Vinh Long city, we are not aware that there is a protest for the start of the demolition of convent of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres,which is to make way for a public square(earlier plan was to built a hotel), despite the diocese and the congregation having lodged protests against the initiative. Bishop Nguyen Van Tan says that September 7, 1977 was “a day of disaster” for the diocese of Vinh Long. On that day, “the local authorities mobilized its armed force to blockade and raid on Holy Cross College.., St. Paul Monastery, and the Major Seminary”, and arrested all those who were in charge of the premises. Bishop Thomas was among the detainees. Since then, the government has kept the properties with land area 10,235 m2, using them for various purposes. Now they start to demolish the church property (source:, article dated 3-11-2009)

The night at Saigon, just opposite the Ben Thanh Market and the street around it, there was great celebration by the people, especially the young. Vietnam just won their match with Malaysia. The young people, especially the motorbikes are moving around the city, the area with the most crowd was the Ben Thanh Market. They carry their national flags, the star with red background, moving around the town, with the shout and the sound, the whole city is in festive mood. I never seen the out pour of the patriotic like Vietnam people. Vietnamese love football, the locals said whenever Vietnam win any football match, there will be celebration. There was no policemen around. The party just go on.....

The 25th Asean Games which was held at Vientiane, Laos from December 9th to 18th. The football match between Vietnam with Malaysia on 5-12-2009 was won by Vietnam. The score was Vietnam 3, Malaysia 1. Vietnam maintained their course for a place in the semi-finals of the men’s football event when they beat Malaysia 3-1 in a crucial tie of Group A that was played at the Main Stadium, Vientiane, Laos.


Updates on 18-12-2009 : The final result of Sea Games Football Final Match between Vietnam and Malaysia on 17-12-2009. Malaysia beat Vietnam 1-0. Ironically it is Vietnam's own goal.... I wonder what will be the sentiment of the crowd at Saigon....

6-12-2009 Saigon, Vietnam
City Tour

Today, we are going to HCMC city tour. It will include the Cathedral, post office,....................

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First visit early in the morning is the largest central market in Saigon, the Ben Thanh Market. Ben Thanh Narket or Cho Ben Thanh's main entrance is located at Le Loi(the main street in District 1) , just opposite Tran Nguyen Han round about. On both side of the market building are two side gates, the left is located at Phan Chu Trinh, and the right is Phan Boi Chau. The two side streets are the location for the night market. In the day time shops are opened, but at night shops are closed, Ben Thanh Market is also closed, and the place is converted into vibrant night market.

This market has been around since the French occupation, albeit in different locations: It has occupied its present spot since 1899. Crab, scorpion wine, food, local cakes and candy, Calvin Klein knockoffs, pickled vegetables, ducks, silk, watches, shoes, frogs, flip-flops, curry powder, and rice are only a fraction of what's on offer in the market. The prices are far less than at the more touristy shops on Dong Khoi Street, and other market and shopping areas in Vietnam. It is surprise that some shops even offered fixed price for their goods. From Hanoi to Hue, Danang and other parts of Vietnam, the prices are not fixed, they practiced differential pricing. You need to bargain to cut down some time more than 70% for a reasonable price. They even practiced discriminating pricing, the price for foreigners is much higher than the locals. So, Saigon is better place for shopping. If you are good in negotiation, don't be afraid to haggle—it's expected. But for security of your money, please keep an eye out for pickpockets, while deeply involved in the exciting game of bargaining. Your attention may be away from your pockets....

Ben Thanh Market or Cho Ben Thanh, is the landmark in Saigon, whenever we are lost in the city, we will look for Ben Thanh Market, and it always work. The place is full of activities from morning to night.

In the afternoon we start our city tour. Visit the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Revolution Museum, Reunification Palace, the Central Post Office.

Our first visit is the Notre Dame Cathedral(Nhà thờ Đức Bà). Again we used Ben Thanh Market or Cho Ben Thanh as our landmark. Starting from there, we walked into Le Loi Street, which is the main shopping street in Saigon. From Le Loi, we turned left into Pasteur Street, on the way visiting few art gallery. From Pasteur, we saw the HSBC building, walking toward it to Le Thanh Ton Street. The City Hall or Hôtel de Ville de Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Head office (Ủy ban nhân dân Thành phố)is located here. It was built in 1902-1908 in a French colonial style for the then city of Saigon. Opposite the City Hall is the Nguyen Hue Street, Ho Chi Minh Square. There is a statute of Uncle Ho Chi Minh, Father of Vietnam, in the square. From the square, going through Dong Khoi Street, passing the intersection of Ly Tu trong Street, the Cathedral is can be seen in front of us.

Notre Dame Cathedral was constructed between 1863 and 1880 by the French. It has two bell towers, reaching a height of 58 meters. The materials used in its construction were imported from France. It is located within a square, within Cong Xa Paris,on the north is Le Duan Street and at the south is Nguyen Du Street.

Opposite Notre Dame Cathedral is the Central Post Office(Bưu điện thành phố), was constructed between 1886 and 1891, designed by Gustave Eiffel who also designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The architectural design of this Central Post Office represents the French colonial style and it’s the biggest post office in Vietnam.

We saw many newly wedded couples taking wedding photo near the Cathedral and the Post office. The Church is still closed we waited until it opened, the church interior is magnificent, with 12 stations of Jesus's walk around the church building. There are some worshipers praying at the church, one old Vietnamese woman was seen praying at one of the station for long time. The service has not started, but the Vietnamese chanting has started, waiting for the worshipers to come, the bell also start ringing....... we left the church before the service started. It will be wonderful experience to attend the Vietnamese service in the church.

From the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Reunification Palace((Dinh Thống Nhất), is nearby. Walking along Nguyen Du Street, a relaxing walk as along the street is a park planted with trees. Reunification Palace is located at Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Stret. You need to pay for the entrance, as the palace seems big, and the time is late, we did not go in.

Walking along Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Stret, you will reach Ho Chi Minh City Museum at the junction of Ly Tu Trong. This is also a former palace for the President of South Vietnam. It is not a big museum, with only a two floor exhibition on history of Saigon city. But entrance fee is cheap , 15,000 Vietnamese dong(about Malaysian ringgit 3 dollar or less than US$1). Again, we saw many newly wedded taking photo there. The most interesting part of the museum is its hiding place, the secret tunnel which will lead to the back of the museum. A escape route for the President in case of emergency.

From the City Museum, we continue the walk along Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Stret toward Le Loi Street. Along the way we discovered a Hindu temple, Subramanium Temple at located at 98, Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. The decorations of the deities and joss sticks used are similar to those in Chinese temples. The devotees offer flowers and fruits and burn joss sticks, both straight and spiral shaped. Surprisingly the people offered prayer inside the temple is not Indian, but Vietnamese. May be they are Cham people.... There are two other Hindu Temples , namely Mariamman Hindu Temple, at three blocks west of Ben Thanh Market, at 45 D Truong Dinh, and another temple, Sri Thendayyutthapani Temple at 66 Ton That Thiep, Quan 1 (District 1), Ho Chi Minh City.

While finishing our city tour by walking around, finally we reached our landmark,Ben Thanh Market or Cho Ben Thanh. We discovered a street hawker stall selling " koay kak" at the corner of Phan Boi Chau(right street of Ben Thanh Market). Koay kak is a typical Teochew food. I do not know the Vietnamese name. The Vietnamese version is better taste than the Penang version. Saigon used to have many Teochew Chinese before the Vietnam War, many have left during the war, but you can still find them in China town.

At night, we visited the night market located near Ben Thanh Market. It open at 5p.m. when Ben Thanh Market closed. We have a late dinner at Phan Chu Trinh food stall, and continue shopping at the night market. The food , especially seafood is expensive on Asian standard, it is merely to cater for the richer foreign travelers, not budget travelers.

The celebration for winning the football match at Asean Games still continued, with greater scale. The traffic was seriously jammed with motorbikes, the red national flags were waving by people, larger crowd compared to last night's crowd, as today is Sunday, which is weekend. The massive crowd of the bikers are moving round the Tran Nguyen Han round about, Le Lai and Pham Ngo Lao, causing traffic jam. There is no traffic police, the crowd of motorbikes consist of the young man and woman, some with family of 3 riding on the bike which include children holding a small national flag, waving in the air. I have never seen this in Malaysia, the crowd seems to be excited, with shout and gong beating, but seems orderly. But the locals said the real action start after mid night when some crowd turn wild, police will then chased the motorbikes which some time escaped into the alleys.(Note: In Saigon on a Sunday night, the young people ride motorcycles in a street party called " di choi". It's basically a party on wheels, where everyone just rides through the downtown streets until the wee hours).

The whole city is celebrating, locals as well as the tourists......they are mad at football.

If you want to see the excitement of the football celebration, there is a youtube download taken duirng the AFF Cup in Dec 2008. You can feel how hot is the mood....

We did not join in the celebration, as tomorrow we will be leaving Saigon or HCMC. We need a good night rest.

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