Posted by: Richard Marshall | August 31, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City

Street scene, HCMC

Street scene, HCMC

I have been in Ho Chi Minh City for three days and before I start teaching (tomorrow) I thought I should write down my first impressions. The first thing that struck me about the place is that this city is hot and humid. Very hot and humid. I could hardly believe it when I stepped off the plane in the fuggy evening air, though I’m already getting used to even the mildest exertion (like taking a stroll in the park) resulting in being simply soaked in sweat. The other immediately noticeable feature of this city is how tremendously noisy it is. This is largely a result of the incredible number of motorbikes here, and their love of hooting. The traffic actually isn’t that bad – the roads are good and they are investing enormously in new ones – but walking along the side of a major highway, or taking a motorbike taxi down one, is to be enveloped in a maelstrom of noise.

Nevertheless, I am inclined to like HCMC. I haven’t seen all that much of it, but what I have seen is attractive. There’s quite a lot of French colonial architecture, and they’re building lots of new, glossy skyscrapers. Most of the city, though, seems to favour odd, tall and very narrow buildings. The hotel I’m staying in at the moment is five storeys high but only the width of my room. I’m staying in what’s called the “backpacker district”, and is indeed crawling with foreigners, but I think is also an old part of the town. I don’t really mind – I’ve already heard some people disparaging the place in favour of a more “authentic Vietnamese experience” – but for now I’m happy to have menus with English translations etc. In any case, it seems pretty authentic to me. The streets teem with people and motorbikes, and there are lots of little cafes and restaurants where the food is cheap, tasty and healthy. The really tourist trap places seem to be in the city centre, though even they aren’t that expensive (the most expensive meal I’ve had so far was in a sort of French bistro, called – and situated – au Parc, where I felt mildly hard done by to pay the equivalent of R45 for a meal).

On Friday and again today I began to do some of the touristy stuff around the city centre. I went to Notre Dame de Saigon, an attractive enough colonial church. Opposite it is the old post office, also in ornate colonial style, with some communist statues of soldiers in front for good measure. Above the windows of the Post Office are, rather peculiarly, inscribed the names of various heroes of the science (Pasteur, Watt, Ohm, Faraday) and the French nation (Louis XI, Descartes). Pasteur even has the honour of having one of the few remaining streets with French names. The Re-unification Palace is at the other end of a park from the cathedral, and has a pleasant garden.

Today I went to the War Remnants Museum. It is apparently originally/ officially called “The House for displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the puppet government of South Vietnam” and has a hall dedicated to that elusive creature, “historical truth”, so I felt a certain tinge of scepticism. Outside the front are odd bits of American military hardware. One forgets just how enormous tanks, guns, helicopters etc really are, and I was struck by the sheer immoderation of the Americans’ war effort – what on earth did they think they were doing with these things. In the entrance hall are photos of Vietnamese casualties, which are graphic and horrifying. There were lots of pictures of people born with appalling deformities as a result of Agent Orange. It was interesting to see the faces of the (mostly Western) visitors – the mood was pretty sombre to say the least. I found the images appalling. Next is the hall of historical truth. Although the museum is pretty much a propaganda institution, and very effective one at that, it is nevertheless pretty difficult to see any justice or wisdom in the US’s involvement in the country at the best of times, and impossible after being exposed to those images. And I would agree that the war here was indeed a struggle of incredible heroism and unimaginable sacrifice lasting  35 years against three (if you include Japan) major world powers. There were some images that, to my mind, seemed to be sympathetic to individual American soldiers, especially in exhibits of particular photographers. There was also a display dedicated to opposition to the war in the US and elsewhere. The museum also seemed eager to promote Vietnam’s bright future as well as its dark past, with posters boasting of the rapid economic growth of the past decade. In the last display, a reconstruction of a prison used basically as a concentration camp by the French and the Americans and where shocking torture and abuse was carried out, there were also pictures of the sunny resort island the place has now become – an interesting message. But the museum is intended to shock, and I felt emotionally drained when I finally left.

I haven’t said anything about the school, but this post is a bit long so I’ll write about that after my first lesson tomorrow. Here are a few photos, and I’m going to work on sorting out posting albums but that might take a while…

Ben Thanh - a big covered market in town.

Ben Thanh – a big covered market in town.

The War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum

Notre Dame de Saigon

Notre Dame de Saigon

The Post Office

The Post Office

Bui Vien - near my hotel.

Bui Vien – near my hotel.


  1. Looks beautiful- and so clean!

  2. Hi Rich, Great blog, it looks fascinating. How’s the teaching going? are they working you mercilessly? We are now the proud owners of a globe and a bookcase. I’ve already wasted an unfeasible amount of time spinning the globe & stopping it in random places. Think I might be getting itchy feet again.. Anyway the proposal for my post goes in this week so my fate will be revealed soon enough. Take care, & keep posting! Dan

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