Ho Chi Min City Day 2

Ho Chi Min City museum

I’d visited most of the museums mentioned in the gude books before, so in the morning I ventured out to one Liz and I had missed on the previous trip, the city museum. It is housed in the buiding originally constructed by the French for the governor of Cochinchina, and later became the albeit temporary residence of Diem. He built a series of underground

rooms to protect himself from any bombing, but it didn’t protect him from his own compatriots who dragged him from there during the 1962 coup. They smell of must and dark days: it is difficult to feel sorry for Diem ending the days of power even in these miserable rooms. He was not the kindest of US-supported politicians.

As with many museums, the gardens have planes and tanks dating from the Vietnam war scattered throughout. They are in better condition than some of the others, but do show the effects of 50 years hors entretien. The museum itself is small and curiously intimate, since the crowds don’t seem to want to go there. It tells the history of Saigon-Cholon through its Saigon incarnation to the name it now has. I found it quite fascinating, partly because I’d been studying Vietnam’s history, partly because the building itself is worth visiting in its own right, and partly because I chose not to visit one of its neighbours, the truly moving War Remnants Museum,  which tends to eclipse all others.

A small caveat: much of the information about the exhibits were not translated into English, including those from the French period, so it would be quite understandable if visitors left feeling slightly cheated, especially as the entrance plus photo fee comes to a healthy 35000vnd, nearly 1,50 euros. Happily I can read French, plus recognised much from my interest in the country’s history. I found it fascinating, but can understand why many would not.

The back of the museum was closed when I was there, presumably awaiting restoration. The gardens had that air of unmanicured nature  that comes from years of neglect. This being the tropics, it may only have been months, but there was a curious peace in its return.

The museum has become one of the backdrops for wedding photos, as has happened to many of the historically interesting places in the country. Well, I say it is the building, but it just might be the cars, of which there is a small collection within the building itself. Citroens are the vehicles of choice.

A walk in the park

I wandered back via the Reunification Palace, which was shut, it being lunchtime, and the garden behind where visiting American dignitories would jog or play tennis, and which is now a pleasant landscaped park where HCM residents go out and play.

The feeling I’d had  the day before regarding HCM city began to grow. My memory had been of the endless stream of motos suffocating both roads and pavements, and of dingy eating places where one would be lucky to escape food poisoning.  Now, it seemed a lot more pleasant, with an endless stream of fascinating buildings, parks, and, for the humble tourist, sites. For the first time in months – mine is a frenetic job, a freneticism which I carry with me on my holidays – I sat down, relaxed and began to enjoy the snapshots of everyday life playing out out in front of me.

There were the kids playing badminton, the retirees exercising on the nordic walking machines, the college students doing their 100 metre sprints, and, perhaps a trifle bizarrely, an American girl (at least, I assume she was, Americans tend to do these sorts of thing without the embarrassment the rest of the world feels) exercising with hula hoops. Perhaps as a reminder of Vietnam’s legacy, there was a one-legged man spinning round a pole, stopping, hurling the pole high in the air and repeating the exercise.

Just down from that, in complete contrast to the other street food placers which abound in HCM, I found this modern, sanitised equivalent. The food all looked fine, and the hygien seemed irreproachablr, but somehow the atmosphere was missing. In reaction I ate in a dingy open restaurant a few doors down which was teeming with the lunchtime brigade eating off plates that had seen better days.

HCM is a fascinating city, and an oddly liveable one, too. 

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