Monday, May 25, 2009

Tell-A-Tale (Part 37): A Weekend In Uncle Ho’s City.

We talked to an old Thai couple over lunch, before heading to the Củ Chi Tunnels, Greater Ho Chi Minh City. You can’t really compare this city to Bangkok, the old man said. Give it some time. It is afterall, still a very young place, ya. Those words weren’t really processed as I chomped the stir-fried pork dishes and fried rice presented in front of me. And we continued talking about our respective itineraries for the days to come.

At the final hour before the plane landed at Changi, I picked up the guidebook again. This time, a thorough read on the authors’ interpretation of Vietnam’s history instead of checking the list of recommended pho spots that I'd given a miss. I began to understand the man’s words that day. In fact, it has brought a strange sense of intimacy, knowing the relation I have with the city. We were both children of the eighties.

Development, not any different between us, is a result of experiences. We grow through the trials and tribulations that confront us on a daily basis. But to compare my twenty over odd years to the rebuilding of the city formerly known as Saigon, it would be negligibly microscopic. The city, torn by wars and colonisations, was reformed through the Đổi mới economic policy in the eighties. It liberalised free-trade enterprising and had since achieved healthy, progressive growth, thanks to the influx of foreign investments and booming local, private businesses. Check the labels attached to your sportswear and electronic goods; you’ll probably see the made in Vietnam print.

After lunch and a ninety minutes bumpy bus ride, we reached the entrance to the tunnels. The tour guide, Typhoon (who resembled Bobby Chinn, in my opinion), briefed us on the impressive construction with pride. The two hundred kilometres underground network of high complexity was an important part of Viet Cong’s success in withdrawing America from the tragic war that sacrificed an unimaginable number of civilians and soldiers. The video presentation, recorded in the sixties, may come to a shock for many; with troops preparing for war with happy faces and the presentation of awards to honour the heroes who killed the highest number of enemies. In a broader sense, it was a symbol of patriotism among comrades, just like in other wars involving other nations. And Vietnam had definitely shown its love for motherland valiantly through its resistance towards the few colonies.

We were at the Ben Duoc underground tunnel complex, the headquarters of the Saigon – Gia Dinh Regional Party and had travelled about a hundred metres in the tunnels of almost complete darkness. Claustrophobia was the least of our worries, I can tell you that. A truly remarkable experience and made me wonder if it is darkness that we must endure before we can ever see the bright sky again. Haven’t we learnt enough from the dark history of our neighbouring countries to understand that we should make more sensible and peaceful judgements? We live in knowledgeable times, people. Embrace it.

I realise that I had randomized my itinerary which actually began with a visit to the Cao Đài Great Temple, four kilometres east of Tay Ninh. A colourful sanctuary which housed a religion that combines the elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam, embodied with local Vietnamese beliefs. The ultimate goal of a Cao Đài devotee is to be released from the cycles of reincarnation through the good deeds preached by the religion. Perhaps the most symbolic representation of Cao Đàism, the left eye acts as a guide and the reason for the choice of the left side is the closeness of it to the heart, as compared to the right eye. The list of saints recognized by the religion includes Victor Hugo and Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

We stayed on for the afternoon ceremony, which was filled with songs and prayers. This is a happy religion, said Typhoon. I guess in the world of religions, skepticism is an unavoidable curse and it is only through understanding and respect that we can live harmoniously as one. The new discovery, to me, was definitely an interesting one.

The full day tour of the Cao Đài temple and the Củ Chi Tunnels (excluding entrance fee) cost us a mere US$8.

Back in the city of Ho Chi Minh, it only took us a few hours to complete some of the nearby tourist attractions on foot. The Notre Dame Cathedral, the Reunification Palace, the main post office and my favourite, the Ben Tanh Market which is basically a roofed bazaar for everything tourist and local.

The pedestrian crossings were not as intimidating as some had put it. Perhaps the years in Kuala Lumpur had prepared me for the traffic here. Typhoon, in one of his tell-a-tales, told us the secret to a safe crossing. Look into their eyes and don’t run. Was his advice pragmatic enough? Well, yes. Almost. I’ll say common sense helps too.

We stayed at Dong Khoi. The more posh district, some said. When you have just a weekend in a new city, accessibility is your priority. Of course, if I am here again, it will be exploring the backpackers district of Pham Ngu Lao and perhaps, complete the Ho Chi Minh experience with a visit to the Mekong Delta.

Walking around the city, we noticed quite a number of construction sites in the midst of those famed old buildings with a French accent. Come lunchtime, one will notice the high number of workers, regardless of status and uniform, having a cup of coffee or a bowl of noodles on the five foot ways or some local cafes. As the evening draws near, restaurants and food stalls are bustling with groups of diners, savouring delicacies that are both local and international after a day at work. And that’s good news for the communist-capitalist city because at the end of the day, prosperity is a simple measurement of the wellness of the people, above everything else.

The final hour on the plane, the guidebook and the recollection of images of the streets had put the words of the man I talked to over lunch into perspective. Given time, I’m sure the new Saigon will emerge as one of the top cities in the region.

An inspirational one, at that.


Sugar Bean said...

Really nice photos! Looks into their eyes and don't run? Hmm... not really convinced with this. But anyway, crossing in the UK is so much easier. Love zebra crossing! Haha!

evan 이벤젤린 said...

i love your pictures, nic! they all look so vibrant & colorful :D and that guy peeking from the manhole looks real amusing :p

i want my trung nyugen coffee! nx time if u ever hv a craving for that, ask me along to liang court! hehe

Selba said...

Seriously... I miss Vietnam!!! I think so far, the best trip in my life is in Vietnam. Nice people, delicious food, interesting tourist attractions but yes during the trip at a museum in Ho Chi Minh city, it really gave me a goose bump and teary eyes to see the documentations on what had happened during the war.

Yay! You visited Cao Dai temple! You even had the chance to see their ceremony, that's so great! Too bad, I didn't get the chance. Cao Dai temple becomes my turning point of my religion view. It changed ever since. A spiritual journey for me, I guess...

Beautiful pictures taken, as always, Nic ;)

"Joe" who is constantly craving said...

brilliant spot for inspirational photo snapping.. ohh looks like uncle ho should b my nxt destination holiday..

CUMI & CIKI said...

lublee hairy! u went alone meh? no ppl shots ar :P

UnkaLeong said...

Did you try going down the hatch the guy was holding up r?

PureGlutton said...

Love the temple pics - so colorful & vibrant! Great motivation to visit Vietnam... but i'm not sure about the road-crossing advice though, hehe! Look into their eyes & "walk slowly" (my interpretation of "don't run"!) - that will be quite suicidal, LOL!

550ml jar of faith said...

Can't help but wonder about the typical process of outliving oppressive histories, whether they be a dark childhood memory from the 80s or genocide and dictatorship. Inhabitants like Typhoon suggest that Vietnam's optimism is creating new history... I too suspect they'll catch up and outshine its more docile neighbours in the next decade.

thenomadGourmand said...

vietnam..hope to be able to experience it personally this year..after urs n J2kfm posts!

ladyironchef said...

haha the made in vietnam label. this is so cool, going there on a weekend, who says you can only go to genting, or cruise over the weekends? heh

Lyrical Lemongrass said...

The Cao Đài temple looks amazing. You must have had a religious awakening there. I missed it on my last trip.

Oh, I echo Ciki's question. :-P

mimid3vils said...

No food ar? hehe :P

J2Kfm said...

wait, was that eye super-imposed? or for real?

cz from the pic, it looked kinda out of place.

but thanks for the lengthy information on HCM. its grim history aside, vietnam's really a bustling one.

backStreetGluttons said...

You have almost qualified to be a Asian Class highflyer cum nature gourmet no 3...just one more to go !

Xiu Long Bao said...

Oh, the wires n' the bikes pic is up :p

The bumpy ride is definitely the highlight of the trip. Someone can still sleep soundly throughout the whole journey. How amazing...

~Christine~Leng said...

Great insights of this beautiful city! Food's next I suppose? :) slurp...

Life for Beginners said...

Ah, you sure got to see a more spiritual side of Vietnam than I did. Mayhaps it's due to one's choice of companion/companionship? ;)

P.S. Very the gorgeous photos lah. Methinks it's time for a HairyBerry coffee table book, no? :)

Nic (KHKL) said...

sugar bean, haha, surprisingly, it does work! i guess the pedestrians there have accustomed to the pace la..hehe

evan 이벤젤린, thanks!! glad you like 'em pics. :D sure, sure, will letcha know when i wanna go there for coffee! btw, i've been there already last sunday. excellent stuff! but they dont come with the filter though. :(

selba, awwwww, i'm so glad that the post has brought back some good old memories for you! i like the temple of Cao Dai because it's interesting to know that there is a religion can co-exists. and that's something that we can all learn a thing or two from. :D

joe, yes yes! u should visit this place! i think it is relatively more affordable than other ASEAN countries and man, the seafood's good! the temple is great for photography!

cumi & ciki, thanks dear! of course i din go alone la. went with xlb. check out her blog for another review as well. :D aiyah, ppl shots wont go with the theme of this post la..hehe

unkaleong, haha, no leh. cos it was really really tiny. i think that was part of the strategy cos Asians are prone to have more petite bodies. but the tunnel experience was interesting.

pureglutton, oooh, do check out airasia for good offers! that'll be the most motivating reason to go to ho chi minh city! ;D actually, the advice did work la. i guess there's already a certain chemistry between the pedestrians and the bikers.

550ml jar of faith, i agree with your insight. reading the book about the city, i can feel that the people are living in the best time of their lives right now. there's enough food and shelter, as long as one works hard. and the strive and optimism will only push them even further. we are sure to witness exponential progress, should the economy crisis recover.

Nic (KHKL) said...

thenomadgourmand, haha, mine is definitely not as intensive as j2kfm's. his posts are great for info! oh, do check out SC (food-4-tot)'s blog too for all the great food in ho chi minh city!

ladyironchef, haha, yeah, especially with 3 highly competitive budget airlines in singapore, the sky's the limit! i was lucky to get free tixs..hehehe...plan for a trip now! ;D

lyrical lemongrass, well, not so much of a religious awakening but it was a hopeful moment seeing that there is a religion where beliefs co-exists. the possibilities are endless and most of the time, it's the understanding part that we have to break through. haha, check my reply to ciki's question.

mimi, next post, next post! :D sure got one..hehe

j2kfm, superimposed, me thinks. cos it was really, really huge. yeah, in fact, i think the whole experience was rather ethereal. definitely worth a visit. yeah, i hafta agree on the bustle. prosperity is just a matter of time. their louis vuitton shop is quite huge too! woohoo!

backstreetgluttons, *shy shy*...haha! one more to go! but can i be in the team of gluttons first? can the team accept a one more to go? i want, i want! :D

xiu long bao, it goes well with the theme mah..hehehe...haha, i was tired la. but i dunno whether i snored or not...did i? hehehe

christine, thanks for the compliment! ;D glad u liked the post. do visit it when u get back to kl! ;D as for food...jeng jeng jeng post!! :D

kenny, well, the spiritual side of Vietnam is definitely interesting. too bad i din hv time to explore the Buddhist/Hindu temples and mosques.haha, u'll be surprised to know that it was me who wanted to to go the temple! haha!

wahhhhhhhhhhhhh, thanks so much for the compliment, bro. until then, i still have lotsa to learn. but it'll be fun! ;D

babe_kl said...

the pics are beautiful, nic!

Nic (KHKL) said...

babe_kl, thanks! ;D glad u like 'em! :D