Reporting from Saigon

by aengelson | September 2nd, 2010

Shopping for flip-flops and sunglasses at Ben Thanh Market, Saigon.

We had the day off on the Vietnamese National Holiday, so we decided to take a little getaway down to Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon. I hadn’t been yet during our one year living in Vietnam. Joanie and I did visit HCMC during our round-the-world trip back in 2000, and now it seems quite different. Click here or on the photos in this post for a Flickr gallery of more pictures.

Mostly, I noticed fewer bicycles and motorbikes, many more cars, and slower traffic. It has a different feel from Hanoi–more commercial, and really, almost more Western (although we’ve just spent most of our first day in the Dong Khoi area, which is a place of fancy hotels, shi-shi restaurants and shops selling everyday consumer goods like Gucci, Nike, and Prada).

Our first day, we wandered the city a bit, and visited the Ben Thanh Market, a covered emporium selling shoes, hair clippies, t-shirts and other things you won’t find at Gucci. Then lunch at a pho place, of course.

Then a visit to the old South Vietnam presidential palace, known officially as Independence Palace. I totally dig this place–it’s been kept just about exactly as it was in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the gates  and flew the big yellow star flag from the roof. Funky 1970s decor, a collection of animal heads and stuffed leopards, elaborate guest and meeting rooms–plus lots of rotary-dial telephones. It’s like a set from Austin Powers–complete with a mod “gambling room” and hipster bar, a cinema (where you can see the old projection room, too), and all sorts of old telexes, radios, and other James Bond villain-lair stuff. Reminded me of the old 1970s-ea Air Force One they have on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

I was curious to find the former president’s library. On the shelf I spotted Henry James, Alex Haley, Graham Greene (but not The Quiet American) and some Winston Churchill. I didn’t see any Machiavelli, but I didn’t look too closely.

At the former South Vietnamese presidential palace

The girls liked the basement, with its secret tunnels, and lots more rotary phones, battle maps, and gigantic vacuum-tube radio equipment. Too bad the place was the headquarters of some inept and corrupt regimes the US propped up during its fiasco of a war. One wonders if some day the Afghan palace or the Green Zone in Baghdad will be open to curious tourists…

After a tiring, hot day we went out for dinner at a Spanish Tapas restaurant, Pachara, (not exactly local cuisine, but it was near our hotel, and super delicious–even the girls liked it).

Next up: Cholon and Dam Sen amusement park!

One Response to “Reporting from Saigon”

  1. A little take on the pic of the heli-pad at the Presidential Palace.
    It’s right above former President Nguyen Van Thieu’s bedroom. There’s story about how Nguyen Cao Ky, who was the Premier at the time, liked to land his own helicopter there while the president was sleeping just to get him ticked off.
    That’s him attending the funeral of Vo Van Kiet, former PM of current VN, which was held in the reception hall. This is a guy who bragged during the war that he enjoyed flying bombing missions to the North.

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.


The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every state which has risen to eminence, have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It is because the children of the empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were.
I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows. We require an infusion of hemlock spruce or arbor-vitae in our tea. There is a difference between eating and drinking for strength and from mere gluttony.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”


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