Saigon, Cholon

(Click on photos for a larger picture...)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 (10 am Vietnam time)

It was a long haul, but we finally got here about 10 am Saigon time after almost 24 hours in airports or airplanes. We were pretty shot, but toughed it out and saw some things in the downtown area. The weather is hot and humid, same as way back when.

Our first view of things at the Saigon airport was interesting. A Soviet helicopter of some sort was flying along next to us for a bit as we taxied to the terminal.

Then we came to the old concrete revetments used during the war to shelter our aircraft from incoming mortars and rockets. The revetments look about the same, but now there were some of our old Huey helicopters in them. They looked brand new, and our guide told us the government is selling the stuff we left there to any and all buyers. That's the wing of our aircraft in the foreground. My seat wasn't the best for taking photos out the window.

We were picked up by our guide and driver, and headed to the Rex Hotel to get settled. The Saigon traffic is way worse than when I was here last in 2001. Here's a shot out the front window. Note the guy on the motorcycle with a huge load of coiled steel bar. (He doesn't hold a candle to some things I saw last time. One woman had about 50 live ducks on her bicycle, and another guy was carrying a double bed spring on a motorcycle.)

We walked around Saigon a bit in the afternoon, and ate lunch at a small restaurant between Nguyen Hue boulevard (the main drag downtown), and Dong Koi, which used to be Tu Do street. We stopped to look at the old French colonial post office and Notre Dame cathedral. We noticed some banners left over from the May Day celebration as well as some celebrating the 55th anniversary of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.


We then headed back to the hotel and met Pat Stone on the rooftop bar at the Rex. Pat was in the 25th Division and lives here about six months of the year with his wife and her family. 

This photo was taken from the rooftop restaurant at the Rex and the main street on the left is Nguyen Hue Boulevard. Note all the high rise buildings and the red star flag on the shopping mall. The tall building in the background is Citibank.

Then it was off to a wonderful dinner at the Rex, where we were treated to traditional style Vietnamese food and music.

This musician is playing various percussion instruments.

This man is a master with several instruments, including a single-stringed instrument, flute and drums. Here he is playing a wooden stringed instrument with a gourd sound box.

Thursday, May 7, 2009 -- Saigon/Cholon tour

This morning we subjected ourselves to one of the best breakfast buffets I have ever seen. There were probably 50 feet of Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, French and American goodies. I am probably going to have to hire a truck to haul me home from the airport.

Today our tour began with a visit to the Ngoc Hoang Temple. It was amazing to see all the carvings and statues. The woman at the left is making an incense offering.

This wood carving adorns one of the temple doors. 

Thane checks out a carving from another area in the temple.

Thi, our guide, explains to Thane and Larry the significance of an area in the temple dedicated to midwives. Many childless women who want to conceive present an offering here.

Prayer candles.

An example of the unbelievable snarl of power, phone, cable, Internet, and whatever kind of wires along many of the streets. An article in an English-language newspaper condemned the "parasitic" use of poles by anyone who wanted to string a wire. A problem during removal of some of the parasitic wiring caused an Internet outage for a large part of Saigon one day. That was almost worse for people than a power outage.

This is the palace formerly occupied by South Vietnamese President Thieu. The People's Army accepted the surrender of the country in this building on April 30, 1975.

It is now called the Reunification Palace, and the interior is mostly the way it was at the time of the surrender. Today is the 55th anniversary of the surrender at Dien Bien Phu, so there were a few posters around.

One of the interesting items on display is a Russian-built tank of the same model as the one that crashed through the gates in 1975. It has been painted with the "843" number of the tank that actually broke down the gate. That tank is on display in Hanoi. Thane took this photo of Larry and me.

I don't know why, but the first thought that comes to my mind here is "Larry, Curly, Ho and Mo." This statue of Ho Chi Minh is at the front of a large meeting room in the former Presidential Palace. It is the only room in the palace that is regularly used. The rest of the palace is maintained as a museum, and pretty much the way it looked when Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Even though there was a meeting going on in the room, our guide marched us up to the front for a photo.


This is President Thieu's office in the command center bunker below the palace. It was an eerie feeling to look at maps of South Vietnam with the advances of the North Vietnamese forces shown in red just a day or two before the fall. President Larry tried the chair on for size.

The radio room in the underground bunker had many examples of American equipment, including a PRC-25 radio similar to the ones Thane and I used in the rice paddies 40 years ago.

While touring the palace, we had the opportunity to talk with four wonderful young women who are university students. Two are interested in history, another wanted to be a librarian, and the fourth hoped to be a museum curator. They wanted to know what it was like to come back to Vietnam so many years after we fought. We talked for some time with them, and told them that it is both pleasant and painful to revisit the places where we sometimes fought so many years ago. They were amazed to learn that their photo was going to be on the Internet. Although many Vietnamese are small in stature, these women are smaller than usual because they were born and grew up at a time when the country was wracked by famine.

After leaving the palace, we had lunch at a wonderful restaurant (only five courses this time). Then we drove to Cholon, which is Saigon's huge Chinese district, with more than 3 million inhabitants. We got there shortly after a serious monsoon rainstorm, and many of the streets were flooded.


Our guide said he had never seen this much water in the streets since he started working as a guide in 1991. Many motorbikes were stopped because their ignition was flooded. Many of the shops were flooded as well.


In spite of the flooding, we were able to visit the Catholic church in Cholon where President Diem and his brother were taken into custody by coup plotters in 1963.


Thane reads a plaque on the pew where Diem and his brother were praying when arrested by the coup plotters.

The brothers were taken in an armored personnel carrier (APC) to the headquarters of the coup plotters, and were dead when they arrived. The first story from the coup plotters was that the brothers had committed suicide. It turned out their hands were bound and they were shot in the back.


I am a history buff, and I wanted to find the place where the Air America helicopter was evacuating people from downtown Saigon before the city fell in April 1975. Thanks to Thi's help, we found it and I took a photo. I had to take a slightly different angle because there is a new building in the way. And in the block right in front of this building, there's a new skyscraper going up. The rods on the right are rebar for the new construction. The original photo is here.