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If you fancy turning your next visa run into a few days break away from the island then why not go and discover Vietnam, a fascinating country that is only a couple of hours away by plane. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named Saigon, is a 75 minutes flight from Bangkok and well worth a visit.
Under the name of Saigon it was the capital of the French Colony of Cochin-china and later the independent state of South Vietnam. South Vietnam, as an anti-communist state, fought against the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during the Vietnam War with aid from the United States of America and countries including Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. Saigon was captured by the communists on April the 30th 1975, bringing an end to the war Vietnam was then turned into a communist state with the south overthrown. In 1976 Saigon merged with the surrounding Gia Dinh Province and was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after Ho Chi Minh.
The city is on the banks of the Saigon River and has a population of more than 9,000,000 people. The traffic in Ho Chi Minh city takes some getting used to as literally thousands of motorbikes weave in and out of the traffic, other vehicles and, madly enough, the pavements. Crossing the road initially seems like an impossible task but in fact if you take a deep breath and walk slowly into the oncoming traffic miraculously the bikes and cars will move around you allowing you to safely reach the other side. There is plenty to do in Ho Chi Minh City and plenty to see.
The central post office can be found on Nguyen Du. The building is a French structure built between 1886 and 1891 under architect Villedieu’s design and well worth a visit. Just behind the post office you will find the Notre Dame Cathedral that was built between 1871 and 1883 with red brick and neo-Romanesque style with two forty meter steeples either side. A statue of the Virgin Mary can be found in front of the Cathedral. In the attractive Toa Dan Park you will find Reunification Palace that was previously the residence of Ngo Dinh Nhiem, the president of the former south Vietnamese government in 1954. The building is now used for official functions. At the end of the Le Loi Street you will find the Opera House that was built by French architect Ferret Eugene. This magnificent building was used as a classic opera house to entertain French colonists. This three story building has seating for up to 1,800 people and remains an opera house to this day. Just behind the Opera house you will find the Lion Bar and Restaurant that brews its own German beer.
Lion beer is brewed by a German master brewer, who trained in Germany (Löwenbräu and Paulaner). It is made according to the Thuringian law “Statuta thaberna” of the year 1434. This law was adopted by Bavaria in 1516 and since then it is known as the “German purity law”. Due to this law, the only ingredients allowed to be used are water, hops and malt which the Lion bar import from Germany and brew in the house Kaspar-Schulz brewery (the oldest and most exclusive manufacturer of breweries from Bamberg-Germany). This process takes 7.5 – 8 hours. After this the cooled wort is stored in fermentation tanks for 7 days – ensuing the beer is stored for another 4 – 6 weeks for secondary fermentation. That way a refreshing and healthy beverage comes out, which still contains, in contrast to commercialized, mass – produced beer, all the healthy ingredients like Vitamin B. Demonstrably beer protects you from thrombosis – and cardiac and circulatory troubles. It is worth noting that beer is also called “liquid bread” in Germany.
Dong Khoi Street is the area where foreign correspondents congregated during the American – Vietnam War and is a great place to visit and do some shopping. Another great place to shop is the Ben Thanh Market that is bustling to say the least. You can get some great bargains here but watch out for over enthusiastic vendors who have a literally hands-on approach to getting your custom. If you are interested in the war history of Ho Chi Minh City then a visit to the War Remnants Museum is a must. It can be found on Vo Van Tan just north of the park. The Museum has lots of left over guns, munitions and aircraft to look at as well as a reproduction prison with some pretty harrowing tales of torture. The three story building houses photos and information on the war including the use of Agent Orange, a mixture of poisonous gasses that had a catastrophic effect on everybody with whom it came into contact. This part of the exhibition is not for the weak hearted.
Attractions beyond the city that are worth a visit include the Mekong Delta that is only 45km from the city and located in the region of southern Vietnam where the Mekong river approaches and empties into the sea through a network of tributaries. There are organized trips to this area where you can visit the deltas islands that are home to fruit farms, restaurants and handicraft centers. The Dai Nam tourist – cultural-historical zone, some 40km from the city, is located in Binh Duong province and covers an area of 450ha It is the biggest park and tourist destination in Vietnam boasting a mixture of modern and traditional architecture with international standards and contains man-made lakes, rivers and mountains. The Cu Chi tunnels are 30km away from Ho Chi Minh City and are well worth a visit. The 250 KM tunnel network was used for operations, surprise attacks and as a hide out by the North Vietnamese during the American war. Further afield some 340km from the city is the Chua Doc, a port town near the Cambodian border. The city’s 60,000 residents are an intriguing cultural mix of Chinese, Cham, Khmer and Vietnamese people; this is reflected in the town’s architecture.
There is plenty of accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City catering for just about every budget. Five star accommodation and restaurants as well as budget street side cafes, where you can buy beer and local delicacies for a few baht blend effortlessly together. The local currency, Vietnamese Dong is used as well as US dollars. Both currencies are readily accepted although US dollars are slightly easier to handle as one baht is currently worth 580 dong, making the average beer thirty thousand dong!
Do remember that to enter Vietnam you need a visa that you cannot get on arrival. Visas can be obtained in one day at the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok for around 2600 baht. You will need to take two photographs and of course your passport. Documents need to be dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon.