Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh

First off, let's cover one thing: Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. As the tour guide told me first thing on my tour, it's either. In fact, the airport code is still Saigon. There is a District (neighborhood) that is considered Saigon, but the whole city is named after the dear leader, Ho Chi Minh.

I booked a tour through Urban Adventures, which does small group tours (12 max). Mine had 3 people, including me.
We started out by visiting the War Remnants Museum. Previously this was called the museum of American Atrocities. Some of the exhibits still showed this.

As an American, it's hard to reconcile my patriotism and beliefs with how the Americans acted during the Vietnam War. Clearly using biochemical agents such as Napalm and Agent Orange was a basic moral lapse on our part, but with the Viet Cong using guerrilla tactics did the means justify the ends. No. No they didn't. Because there was no ends we were fighting for. There was not final game plan. It's a difficult bit in American History, and a lesson we haven't learned from, as evidenced by our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the civilians who are caught in the crossfire are the ones who lose out. Fortunately, Vietnam has recovered greatly from almost 50 years of war, but there is still animosity amongst the older generation.
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Also, I found it fascinating that the Vietnamese saw the Americans as invaders and colonists, but when Vietnam occupied Cambodia for 10 years after overthrowing the Khmer Rouge, they see themselves as liberators (the Cambodians see them somewhat as liberators, with the initial wave, but then staying past that they are seen as occupiers).

It was a difficult morning as I mulled over these things, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to confront these issues head on, first thing.
 We then went to the Notre Dame cathedral. Prior to communist rule, many Vietnamese converted to Catholicism and this cathedral was built to reflect that. It is still an operating cathedral and has mass several times a day.
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Across the street from the cathedral is the General Post Office, which was built during French rule.
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Those are actually phone booths where you can make international calls.
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These used to be phone booths, but are now used for ATM's (which seemed like the perfect trade).
We then headed to Chinatown and visited a temple there. It was busy with people praying and heavy with incense.
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Prayer slips on the walls.
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Every time someone put money in a box, this man would ring the gong three times.
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We then went to a market, which was underwhelming. Probably because I wasn't going to buy anything.
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Lunch was delicious pho at Pho 2000, which is where former President Clinton went to get pho while visiting Vietnam. For some reason I didn't get pictures of this. Weird.
Finally, we went to the presidential palace.
Originally, the french Governor's mansion was built on this spot, but was replaced by the palace of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). It is a clear example of 60's architecture mixed with Vietnamese sensibilities. Open hallways, Feng Shui, symmetrical design of the building. Overall, it was fascinating to see. Although built to host foreign dignitaries, it was also home to the presidential family, with a rooftop area for parties.
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The Soviet and Chinese tanks that rolled into the presidential palace.
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The chair where the president sat to meet with dignitaries.
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The vice president's meeting area.
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These are meant to look like bamboo.
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After the presidential palace we headed back to our respective hotels to nap. Seriously.
What was amazing about our small group of tourists is that we all ended up being members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (you know, the Mormons). They were from New Zealand and, when I said I was from Utah, they guessed I might be Mormon too (it's a 70% possibility, although only about 40% if you're from Salt Lake).
I had done some research beforehand and found a Young Single Adult activity at the local church branch, so we all attended together.
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The LDS church in Vietnam is growing rapidly, despite the governments ban on proselytizing and not allowing missionaries to wear name tags outside of the church building. It was a great night, we met lots of amazing people and it further ingrained in me the belief that we are all part of one bigger family.
The last morning in Ho Chi Minh, I decided to do a half day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels before I got on the overnight train to Danang.
It was a morning filled with anti-american propaganda. Literally, we watched an anti-American propaganda film to start out the tour. The Cu Chi area was heavily bombed by American forces, to try and cut off the supply train from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong forces in the south.
The tunnels were built to house guerrilla forces.
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It was disconcerting to be faced with traps used to kill American forces.
Also, it was odd to have a shooting range where you could fire guns from the Vietnam war. I didn't participate in that portion of the program. Instead, I shared a bench with a Brit and ate an ice cream cone.
After the tour, I went back to the hotel, took a shower and a nap and got ready to board a train for the next portion of the journey.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Super Awesome South East Asia Adventure-Goodbye Cambodia, Hello Vietnam!

The second day in Phnom Penh was a less heavy affair. I am physically incapable of sleeping in it seems. I headed off to the Royal Palace, which was about a block away from my guest house (best. location. ever.)

I hired a tour guide who was very informative. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take pictures of the coolest things, which was the emerald buddha. She told me it was made of emeralds, but it looked more like jade. It was amazing. The floor of the pagoda was silver tiles.

This is a very lucky flower (and it smells wonderful), it's collected by the monks to make tea.

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The Silver Pagoda. The locals actually call it the Emerald Pagoda, because it houses the emerald buddha.

The Victory Gate, where the king enters.

After, I went to Daughters of Cambodia, a non-profit organization that
helps victims of the sexual slave trade get out. This is, without a doubt, the best
eggs benedict I have ever had in my life.

Interesting fact, during the Khmer Rouge time, the royal family closed the gates of the royal palace and stayed there for the three years.

I also found out that the current king, who is 62 years old, is unmarried. Although he did spend a year at a buddhist monastery, which is the tradition for monarchs.

After Phnom Penh, I went to Sihanoukville, which was supposedly a beach town on the coast of Cambodia. I was unimpressed. So much so, that I didn't write anything down about it. I also took only these pictures.

Maybe it was the weather, it rained the whole time.

To help make up for my disappointment in Cambodian beaches, I headed to Phu Quoc island, which is off the coast of Cambodia, but belongs to Vietnam. It was quite a trek to get there. Starting at 7:30 am with a minibus from Sihanoukville to Kampot. In Kampot, I was unceremoniously deposited on the side of the road (with a nice couple from Spain) to wait for another minibus that took us from Kampot to the border crossing. After getting ripped off at the border ($1 on each side for a "health check") we waited on the Vietnam side for another minibus to take us to the ferry terminal in Ha Tien. It was a little hairy when it's 12:45, the fairy left at 1:30 and it was a 15 minute drive to get there, but we made it.

The ferry was packed with locals and took an hour and a half. Not the worst ride in the world though.

Especially when it brings you here.

Guys, I'm at a beachside resort (private beach) that cost $20 a night. I could have paid $10 for a room without air conditioning, but I'm not a heathen.

The view of the garden from the porch

I do love a nice sunbathe. In the shade. Slathered with sunscreen.
Still got burned, the joys of white skin.

I spent yesterday sunbathing, getting a massage (which started at $5 and ended up at $12.50 after then just started slathering fresh aloe on me), and then watching a movie when the afternoon thunderstorm started. It's exactly what I wanted to do on my beach stay.

This morning I flew to Ho Chi Minh City. It was only slightly more expensive to fly, but it took about 1/7th the time. The flight I got went to Rach Gia, a town on the southern coast, then we got off the plan for about half an hour, and then got back on and finished the journey. About 4/5ths of the plane went the whole way through, about 10 new passengers got on. It was weird to make a stop because both flights were only about 20 minutes long.

The airport on Phu Quoc had a Burger King. Who could resist this breakfast of champions.
I should have, my body is clearly not used to all that greasiness.

This kid had the funniest haircut, I couldn't get a good picture though.
He was what you might refer to as "a holy terror". And he sat in front of me on the flights.

"What we think is being a forest" What the heck does that mean?
So much delicious pho.

I tried to go to a movie, but it didn't work out, so I hung out, took a nap, and had some dang delicious pho for dinner. Did I mention it was only $2.50? It's probably half as much for the locals, but that's still perfect pricing for me.

Tomorrow I booked a tour of the city and (hopefully) I'll be able to do a church activity in the evening, we'll see how it works out.