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Ciaran and Ruth's Worldwide Adventures

Reunification Hall

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 8 January 2008 | Views [2188]

"Saigon, ...., I love the smell of a freshly made omlette in the morning." Sitting down for breakfast, you don't think there's likely to be an apocolypse any day now, not inside the hotel walls anyhow. And not up on the rooftop pool. Maybe outside. Maybe in the Saigon River which runs past the outside of the hotel. My god. Oh holy god it looks filthy. They do warn you about the Liffey back home, but even looking at the Saigon River you feel disease. How did the Americans think they could ever win a war in this country when they couldn't have known anything about the surprises in store for them in such natural features. Apparently the country is a lot nicer outside the cities. Maybe we're being unfair.

The press organ of the Vietnam Youth Federation was left outside our door after breakfast this morning. The paper, entitled Thanh Nien, reveals following a cursory glance, an unlikely symmetry in content with our own press, but perhaps fitting in this socialist republic, an asymmetry in perspective. For example, an article written with a bouncy, joyous tone in Thanh Nien spoke of Vietnam's rising to 91st in the world in some UN report on E-Government Readiness, while at the same time, the Breaking News section on Ireland.com contained a note of harsh criticism from the Irish opposition on our having fallen to 19th. Other articles in the paper were read with familiarity. Property prices and queues for unbuilt apartments are covered in detail. Apparently they're changing the law here to allow foreigners to buy property. Thus, locals are buying up everything they can with the expectation of selling it on to cash-rich westerners. They didn't say anything about stamp-duty.

The paper doesn't seem as upbeat as the Chinese communist papers. Typically Chinese news is 100% positive or 100% bland or a bit of both. Very little, if anything, is written in crticism of the government. Maybe it's a north-south thing, or some regional rivalry, but the Ho Chi Minh City press do seem to like having a go at their Hanoi cousins - 1000km to the north. An article headlined "More Diarrhea (sic) Outbreaks in Hanoi Despite Ministry Claims" didn't require much reading. Some Cambodian militants have kidnapped a few Vietnamese fishermen and got a bit of a roasting in a two inch article. Didn't make the front page though, which seemed to be written especially for us tourists - maybe in anticipation of our property investments. "Vietnam, Hidden Charm" it read. We'll see.

And to find this hidden charm we hit the streets, rather than just viewing them from the 21st floor. First stop was the Rex Hotel, the venue from which US war correspondents wrote articles for the New York Times, Washington Post and others during the decade long war. The rooftop bar may not have the friendliest staff, but it gives a fine view of the City Hall, the Opera House, the Caravelle Hotel (all spectacular remnants of the French period) as well as the much photographed statue of Ho Chi Minh cradling a baby (not necessarily his own...).

Not much of a stroll away is the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, strangely the location visited by wedded couples on their special day, unusually for photographs against the none-so-pretty gray facade. There were a few couples there today, arriving in taxis and decked out in the finest of western-style garb. Inside, a whole section on the ground floor details the various traditions for local weddings. The traditions differ among the Viet, Hoa, Khemer and Islam traditions, but surely the most interesting of rituals must belong to the Khemer, for whom it is, apparently, typical upon engagement for neighbours to reward the couple with "4 banana hands, 4 wine bottles, 4 tea packets, 4 betel packs, 2 legs of pigs (why not 4 one wonders), 2 chickens, 2 ducks and (presumably to fund the building of an ark) some money". Other artefacts of interest in the sparse museum collection are canoes, carts and stuffed animals used during war to transport weapons from liberation zones to revolution zones (not knowing the use of a stuffed animal in time of war, we guess that the beasts met the taxidermist post treaty - this was not explained). The rest of the museum was decorated with some disturbing photographs from the war, one of which was of a Buddhist monk who set himself alight to protest against the treatment of his co-religious by the Americans and their "puppet" government.

On our way to the Reunification Hall we passed the Notre Dame Catedral and picked up some post-cards in the Central Post Office - inside which a giant painting of Ho Chi Minh overlooks the selling of stamps. However, the real highlight was the Reunification Hall. A spectacular palace from the outside (see Ruth from it's balcony above), the inside is decked out according to the opulence enjoyed by South Vietnamese President Van Thieu and his predecessors before they made their sudden exit when the North Vietnamese made their entrace. They - unlike us - used tanks to remove the gate. We found an easier entrance, just to the left, where you can be admitted for about 50 cent - it mustn't have been open that day. Maybe the current decorators are exaggerating a bit to demonstrate the counter-socialist ideals of the south before its liberation, or maybe its accurate, but this place is like a cross between the Playboy Mansion and a Bond villain's secret lair. The cinema, game room, snooker tables and piano co-exist with the Map Rooms and underground bunkers decked out with those old Telecom Eireann phones (though I don't think they were the actual suppliers) and enormous radios. It really has the feel of a place Dr. Evil would occupy while plotting his takeover of the world. Probably for more than 1 million dong. That wouldn't even cover the bill in a decent hotel. Or gifts for an engaged couple - though we don't know the price of a good pair of ducks in those days.

Our sightseeing in the (invisible) sun and (ever-present) smog was interrupted only for tea and cakes - more than once. The last of which were enjoyed in the famous Givral Restaurant - where you get a mean apple tart and Champions League football. Back to the hotel then for a spash in the pool.

On a final note, an item on BBC World detailed the misfortune of some Asian student who was ripped off by an Irish third-level college. Sweating, as we anticipated Ciarán's employer's logo splashed on screen, we were delighted instead to hear about the bogus Irish International University. Ah the Irish, we're making news everywhere.

Tags: Sightseeing

 

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