Details of the Three Kingdoms of Southeast Asia Trip, Part I

Ho Chi Minh City

Located in the former South Vietnam, this former capital of the former South Vietnam has eclectic types of architecture, varying from old Buddhist (Jade Emperor Pagoda), to French Colonial (the Municipal Theater, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the General Post Office) to very modern (Bitexco Financial Tower).

When we arrive on 23 October at Tan Sonh Nhut International Airport, we will be transferred to the New World Saigon Hotel on Le Lai Street near the intersection of Cach Mang Thang 8 Street in District 1. This location, opposite 23 September Park (sometimes called 23/9 Park), is very centrally located. The park is long and narrow as it occupies the former site of the 19th century Saigon Railway Station (which was moved in 1975, with the takeover by the North Vietnamese forces). Not too far is the Ben Thanh Market at the northeast end of the park. After our long series of flights, this is a good place to unwind, talk to other park goers, but watch out for pickpockets! Sometimes, we will see dancing and singing here. At night, young lovers head for the less traveled parts of this green space. Those who were with me in China in 2001 will remember the dancing, Tai Chi, yoga, and soccer that went on in the city parks.

Short History of Ho Chi Minh City

The area around Saigon has been settled for over 2000 years, but became a Khmer port in 1698. At that time, the Nguyen rulers established Vietnamese administrative structures. From there, the Vietnamese conquered the Mekong Delta from Khmer control. Chinese settlers escaping the control of the Qing had arrived earlier and were eventually forced  to Cholon (currently Ho Chi Minh City’s District 5 and District 6). They established trade with China, Japan, Singapore, and Malacca. It was the Chinese who gave the name Tai Ngon (embankment in Chinese) to the area, but by the 19th century, maps labeled it Sai Gon.

Saigon was captured by the French in 1859 and they named it the capital of Cochin China. They rebuilt the city along the banks of the Saigon River with a palace, administrative buildings and a cathedral. They also dug canals from the river to the town center to transport goods. In the early 20th century, the wooden shops and homes were replaced with brick shophouses.

In 1880, the Hotel Continental was built. In 1966, I traveled from our ship in NewPort to the American Embassy and then about a mile to another hotel (Caravelle) that was near the Saigon River and our ship and went to the 10th floor to look out over the city, particularly interesting at night as I could see artillery rounds exploding in the distance as I drank beer with international newsmen.

I have attached an aerial photograph to show you the many turns of the Saigon River. Flying into the city in a helicopter in 1966 or coming up the river from Vung Tau on the coast, I was amazed at the rapid transition from intense farming to the urban structures. Saigon from the air in 1955 The inner city population is currently around 5 million. It still is the commercial capital of Vietnam.

On 23 October, there is no set schedule and we will be on our own. Of course, you may want to sleep in after the long flights. I would like to visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda some time, although it is not within walking distance. A possible short walk from our hotel is the Saigon Opera House (Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theater). It is a great example of French Colonial architecture.

On 24 October, we are scheduled for a city tour and will see the following:

  • Cu Chi Tunnels in the morning. We will leave our hotel and travel about 70 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City. This complex is a 155-mile network of underground tunnels that the Viet Cong laboriously dug in the 1940s to fight the French and later used against the American forces. It contained living facilities, a hospital, a weapons factory, and a command center. Remember that in the period from 1940-75, because of diet restrictions as well as DNA, the Vietnamese were shorter than we were, so the entrance might be a bit restrictive, but fear not: there is plenty of room in the main passageways and the entrance, even though we see pictures like this. Cu Chi Tunnel We will have a guide with a name that you will never forget!
  • Nôtre Dame Cathedral
  • Post Office (this was designed by Gustave Eiffel). Saigon Post Office
  • Reunification Palace
    • called Independence Palace in some guidebooks
    • base of operations for General Ngo Dinh Diem until his untimely death in 1963
    • see the NVA tank that crashed through the gate in 1975
  • Binh Tay Market. Easy to spot from a distance Binh Tay Market
    • First established in the 1870s, but rebuilt in 1928 as “New Market”
    • Biggest wholesale market in Ho Chi Minh City
    • Not too far from our hotel

25 October is a visit to the Mekong Delta. This extensive relatively flat area is the estuary of the mighty Mekong that rises in the Tibetan Plateau and travels over 2700 miles through China’s Yunnan Province. Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and finally empties into the South China Sea. This has been a traditional major trade route between western China and Southeast Asia. Those of you who were with me on the Thailand trip may remember that we crossed from Thailand one morning into Myanmar and in the afternoon, took a short trip downriver to land in Laos for a short visit. We saw a small Chinese freighter that day working its way downstream, probably heading for the South China Sea.

Downriver from Phnom Penh in Cambodia, the river splits and another large river is formed, called the Bassac, which then runs relatively parallel to the Mekong all the way to the sea. Map of Mekong Delta

LST551 bow doorsIn 1966, my Navy ship, USS Chesterfield County (LST-551) would stop at Vung Tau, pick up a Delta pilot (who spoke only Vietnamese and passable French) and we would “cross the bar” (enter the Mekong Delta) at Ap An Thuan, go past My Tho, Vinh Long, Sa Dec, and just downriver from Chau Doc would traverse a narrow canal to the Bassac. Then down that river past Long Xuyen to Binh Thuy just five kilometers upriver from Can Tho. Here we would offload our cargo supporting a Vietnamese Special Forces camp and a small Navy facility. We would pick up retrograde cargo and make the two-day trip back to Vung Tau and do this many times in what we called “The Mekong Milk Run.”  We usually loaded our supplies from Japan or from Saigon. (An extremely well-written fictional description of our ship is Dick Wall’s second of three novels, Mekong Covenant, available on Amazon. See for details)

On 26 October, we go to the airport and fly to Siem Reap in Cambodia. We check into our second hotel: The Royal Angkor Resor for three nights. The hotel ad says this is “the authentic Khmer Experience.”  This is adjacent to Angkor and the next day we begin our day at Angkor Thom. Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, Prasat Bayon bayonwas intended to represent Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. [so how many “centers of the universe” have we seen in the past? In Beijing, in Cusco, in Greece’s Olympia, maybe Grand Rapids as Beer City USA?]

So although the Bayon was built as a Buddhist temple, it was converted to a Hindu temple when the king reverted the official Khmer religion to Hinduism; the Buddhist images were either destroyed or converted into Hindu images. There are almost 200 faces here.

Continuing our trip into 27 October, after Bayon, we will go to the nearby Angkor Wat which is about 6 kilometers north of Siem Reap. Here, we will visit probably the most famous Buddhist temple complex in Southeast Asia. I am going to refer you to the following URL for a map of the area, but we probably will be given one when we get there. There is not time to see every temple, so our guide will be selective and pick some that are particularly significant. This area was developed at the height of the Khmer Empire (9th-13th centuries).

In the evening of 27 October, we will be treated to a dinner and Apsara show. An apsara is a female spirit of the clouds and waters in both Hindu and Buddhist culture. You will see dancing girls របាំទេពអប្សរា reminding you of the figures on the temple walls of Angkor Wat. Apsara Dancers

On 28 October, we see three Hindu temples, one of which is Banteay Srei banteay-srei As with all the temples we will visit, wear respectful clothing. The pink sandstone is fantastically carved and this temple has been called “jewel of Angkor.”

Our visit to a monastery later in the day to be blessed in a special ceremony is followed by a short trip to the Buddhist temple, Ta Prohm. Unlike most of the other temples we will have visited, this one is in the condition in which it has been found – an eerie experience, reminding me of some of the overgrown temples in central Thailand and Maya complexes in northern Guatemala. When the Khmer Empire fell in the 15th century, this temple was abandoned and neglected. We will be walking on wooden walkways and platform to not disturb the building.

Then back to our hotel to pack and have a great dinner.

To continue the detailed description of our trip, go to the Laos-Hanoi page of this website.