Thursday, April 30, 2009

Saigon to HCMC (5)

War Remnant Museum is both a famous place of interests in HCMC, and a place for history education by Vietnam government. The curious thing I found about it is, it’s purely for propagation of the war crimes done by (mostly) US army, yet among the visitors, a lot of them are from US. When I was watching at those old guys walking around and discussing with their families, I couldn’t help wondering if some of them were actually participating that war.
The museum is not quite big: several 1-storey or 2-storey small buildings surrounding a small yard. In the yard there are some F series airplanes, tanks, cannons, bombs, etc. Most of them were left over by US army when they retreated from Vietnam in 1972-1973, and captured by the North Vietnam army when they captured this capital of South Vietnam in 1975 (right today, Apr 30…).
Inside the buildings there are a lot of photos, illustrations, maps, etc. that show the war crime to Vietnam ppl done by US army. Some of them might cause you to feel uncomfortable.
One building is a replica of the “Tiger Cage” used by the Southern Vietnam government as prison for political prisoners. And some torturing and executing equipments are shown, like this guillotine:

(Ticket for the War Remnant Museum is VND15k, or US$1.)

The Reunification Palace is another must-visit in HCMC. Originally built by French as the governor’s house (named “Norodom Palace” for the namesake of royal family in Cambodia… Obviously French could not tell the diff between these two countries.), the old building was again, a French style piece of arts: Unfortunately this building was bombed and destroyed in an unsuccessful assassination against the then president of Southern Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. So the president ordered it to be re-built in a modern style. Although the president was assassinated one year afterwards (hence he never saw his new office building), his successors finished the job and renamed it as “Independence Palace” (some tour guide books still called it with this name, so don’t be confused).
After the war, the building was renamed again as “Reunification Palace” and used as a reception place to honorable guests to the city and exhibition. It is said that everything inside the building including furniture, carpets, curtains, etc., are at exactly the same place as the day that the North Vietnam army marched in 34 yrs ago. (The government of the HCMC is now located at the People’s Committee Hall building.)
To be frank, the building itself looks quite boring: But inside it is decorated in a quite splendid way, a style mixed of Chinese and Western cultures. (Actually Vietnam culture is normally categorized as Eastern Asian instead of South-Eastern Asian, due to the huge impact of Chinese culture upon it.)
The basement of the building is a huge bomb shelter, and designed so that the president and the cabinet can still give orders to the military force even under heavy air attack. But ironically, Saigon was never bombed by North Vietnam air force -- in fact, they surrendered even before that.
(The ticket to the Reunification Palace is also VND15k, no tour guide inside, so better get a package tour.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Saigon to HCMC (4)

Cu Chi Tunnel is a must-visit spot in HCMC. Built during the Vietnam War by Viet Cong (the communist gorillas of North Vietnam government that time), the whole tunnel system is more than 200km long and was continuously being built in around 20 yrs’ time. Now the part opened for tourism is only a small portion of the whole system, and divided into three major areas. The most famous and most frequently visited by foreigners is the Cu Chi Area. Here the original tunnel (about 100m long) was preserved so that tourists can try it by themselves, and some exhibition rooms are showing the weapons, traps, tools, etc. used by the Cong at that time. The entrance is about 1.5 to 2 hrs’ (depending on how jam is the traffic…) bus ride from District 1, and the entrance fee is VND80k per person. They don’t have an overall tour guide for the whole tunnel area, so better take a package tour from city.

This tunnel entrance is very famous – you can see photos about it in every travel agency office in HCMC: The entrance is just a 25cmX15cm hole on the ground, and if covered by leaves you could hardly recognize it. The hole is so small that only small-sized Vietnamese can get through. Actually this is the idea of the whole tunnel system: They were built such narrow by intention, so that the big US guys would be “stuck”. I tried the “walk in the tunnel”, which I quit after only 20 meters (No one in my package exceeded the 40m line…). Basically we were not “walking”, but “crouching”, for the inside is only less than 1 meter high. And such a position made my thighs stubborn for the next several days… And I guess when they built the tunnel, they never expected that so many ppl would get into it at the same time (there are more than 40 ppl in my package). The oxygen inside the tunnel almost ran out when everybody got in, and the ventilation was not quite good. So do take care of yourself when you are in.
The gorilla life is full of wisdom: Sandals made of old tires. Disguised landmines. A Trap.
And a piece of video showing how a trap works:
A genius door trap: Nails on the lower half, so that even short guys will get hit; the end part is connected to the main frame with chains, so that even if you catch the main frame in time, the end part will still hit you. And the “nailed ball” in the hand of the tour guide got a very evil name – “Shampoo”. A tank destroyed by landmines and captured by Cong. Clustered bomb dumped by US Air Force, which should have be forbidden after WWII.

And if you are a military fan, there is a shooting area inside that you can buy some bullets and experience the M-16 guns.
The whole tunnel area is smoke-free. And do bring some mosquito-expeller with you. Dengue is still a fatal disease now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Saigon to HCMC (3)

To go to the ferry by Saigon River, I chose a less “popular” route: Still walk from Pham Ngu Lao to the Tran Nguyen Han Square, then go through Ham Nghi all the way down to the river. From there, walk northward by the river, till the Tran Hung Dao Square (again there is a statue of this guy Tran Hung Dao in the middle of the square). This routine is closer to the daily life of normal Vietnamese ppl in HCMC, so you can see how they do business in the workshops, chat with their neighbors to kill some time in the sauna-like afternoons in HCMC, etc.

Buildings by the streets of HCMC are normally very “thin”, just like Vietnamese ppl.

There are some boats in Saigon River, mainly for the “dinner cruise”, which starts from 7:30pm and ends at roughly 9:30pm. The price various from US$15 to US$35, depending on what kind of meal you want.
Tran Hung Dao is a general who led Vietnamese troops against Yuan Dynasty of China (the Mongolian Empire, founded by Genghis Khan).
And if you got to the ferry during the AM or PM rush hour, you will see a quite speculate scene: Thousands of scooters are crowded at the entrance of a “passage” to the ferry, waiting to be transported across the river. The passage reminds me the one in the movie Australia where Nicole Kidman drove the kettles onboard the ship…
Walking around in HCMC requires some athlete skills and guts also. There is barely no traffic light @ the crossings. Most of the time, you have to depend on the “understanding” between you and the drivers to get across the road.

Vietnamese spring roll is another must-try. The real Vietnamese ones are “raw”, meaning just use “rice paper” to wrap the chicken meat, seafood, veg and then go with some sauce (normally the Vietnamese “fish sauce”).
And here is the traditional way to enjoy Vietnamese coffee:
Above the big coffee cup, put a steel filter board, and then put a small steel cup on top of that. Coffee power is put inside the small steel cup, and hot water is poured in slowly. The coffee liquid will then drip down to the coffee cup at the bottom. “Black” tastes a bit burn flavor, so I prefer the “milky” version, which contains a piece of condensed milk in the coffee cup.

Again, although there are many delicious adventures in Vietnam, do try them in reliable restaurants.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Saigon to HCMC (2)

The international airport of HCMC is definitely larger than its current needs, and the new terminal 2 looks quite new and nice. But the management of the airport is rather lousy – only around 10 flights inbound and outbound per 6 hours, yet they need to change boarding gates and even ask the airplanes to hover in air waiting for the track!
Normally it shall take 30 min to travel between airport and District 1 by taxi, normally. Actually, you need to arrange for 1 hour for this trip, due to the heavy traffic jam. And there is no such thing like “Airport Expressway” – basically your cab will be overwhelmed by waves of scooters as soon as you turn out of the airport parking lot.

My hotel is good enough to let me check in at 9:30 am without any additional charge. But the so-called “tour desk” they put on their website is actually a “recommended tour agency”, named “Sinh CafĂ©”. Anyway this agency is quite big (they even have their own hotel and resort somewhere in Vietnam), and location is convenient (office @ Pham Ngu Lao is just one block away from my hotel), price also reasonable. They provide various tour packages from half-day HCMC city tour to 15-day Indo-China Peninsula Full Tour. You can even travel along the famous “Ho Chi Minh Path”, i.e. starting from Hanoi, entering Cambodia, and finally arriving HCMC, or vice versa. I picked a one-day tour which includes a half-day Cu Chi Tunnel tour and half-day HCMC city tour. The limo bus tour with tour guide only cost VND 170k (a.k.a. S$17 or US$11). If you got several companions, can try their private tour, which will provide you with a private tour guide and travel by vans or even cabs.

For myself, I chose two “focus areas” that would not be covered by the city tour for my own exploration: The People’s Committee Hall area and the ferry area.

From Pham Ngu Lao, walk towards north-east direction, you will see a big square with a statue in the middle. The main statue is of Tran Nguyen Han, but most travel books mistake it as “Tran Nguyen Hai”… He was recorded as the first Vietnamese that used pigeon as a communication tool in the war, so his statue is he riding on horseback with a pigeon in one hand.

North to this square is the largest and oldest market of HCMC, Ben Thanh Market, built by French in 19th century. It’s quite big inside, and also quite hot. Can savor it by buying some souvenirs. Not worthy spending too much time bargaining if you do not do wholesale.
From the square continue walking towards north-east, there are several paths leading to the People’s Committee Hall area.
The Hall itself is a logo of HCMC, built in European style. (In case you don’t understand, the “People’s Committee” is like the parliament plus mayor’s office, for there is no mayor here. Simply speaking, this is the City Hall of HCMC.)
Right opposite the Hall is a small park with the statue of Ho Chi Minh himself. (Actually his portraits and statues are everywhere in this city with his namesake.)
Beside the park is the famous Rex Hotel, which was the headquarter of foreign journalists during the Vietnam War. Although still a 5-star hotel today, it was rated as “old, out-of-date” on Internet. In case you wanna have some “historical” experience, the standard room price is starting from S$200 per night, quite OK actually.

At the other side of the park, the Opera House is only one block away. Again built by French, it is still in use today.

After a two-hour walking and photo-taking, I picked a local restaurant named “Pho 2000” (@ the Tran Nguyen Han square) for lunch. In Vietnamese “pho” means “rice noodle”, and the beef rice noodle soup is one of the most famous Vietnamese dishes. The biggest chain restaurant in HCMC is “Pho 24”, meaning selling pho 24-hourly. M & K are not popular in Vietnam, only several branches in HCMC.
In general Vietnamese food is quite healthy: less oil, less deep fry, and healthier sauce. My lunch consisting of a big bowl of beef rice noodle soup and ice coffee (local coffee is a must-try!) only cost me VND55k, quite reasonable in a hot travel spot.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Saigon to HCMC (1)

This city is more famous to western ppl as “Saigon”, but to most Asian young generations, it is “Ho Chi Minh City”. And particularly to the travelers, esp. back-packers, it has a Y-Gen nickname as “HCMC”.
It just took about 2 hours to fly to HCMC from Singapore, and you could find more than 4 airlines (include budget airlines) running daily flights between these two major cities in Southeastern Asia. Without much trouble, you can experience a totally different country with distinguish history, culture and nice food. So it’s reasonable that it became a popular “getaway” destination for ppl in Singapore these yrs. The cost is also quite reasonable: With so many airlines competing in the game, even the so-called “Best of World” SQ only asks for around S$400 for a return ticket with full service and meals. Budget airlines have tickets’ price as low as around S$300, but take the flight schedule, punctuality and other quality factors into consideration, not really worthy…
There are many hotels in HCMC, including 11 5-star ones. Better stay in District 1 (“Quan 1” in Vietnamese), for its short distance and convenience to most places of interests in the city. Pham Ngu Lao Street is the latest “heaven of backpackers”, where you can find A LOT OF budget hotels, travel agencies, money changers, souvenir stores and restaurants. Recommend the Liberty Hotels ( They have three 3-star hotels in this area, high-quality rooms (with air-con, satellite TV, full set of toiletries and in-room devices), good service, and price is about S$100 per night per room. They even put a board in the lobby which lists the names of all guests checked-in every day!

Another thing they gave me really good impression: When I just got off the taxi, I was standing across the road and shocked by the soaring scooters (There were hundreds of them! In total this city has more than 6 millions!). The bell boy came to me immediately, took my luggage and literally “took” me across the deadly torrent of scooters.
Traffic in HCMC is as notorious as Bangkok. Due to the huge number of scooters and barely-not-there traffic lights, jam is eternal. If you are walking, you have to get both techniques and guts to get across. And if you are taking taxi from/to the airport, prepare 1 hour for the 20-km ride. But the taxi fare is quite cheap, compared to Singapore: Single trip between airport and Quan 1 is about 100k Dongs (about S$10), and traveling around within Quan 1 should not cost you more than 30k Dongs. Bare in mind that you should always take a taxi with meters (those got “taxi” lights above them). And if you are skillful and brave enough, can rent a scooter to enjoy normal ppl’s everyday life in HCMC. Those “scooter-taxi” and “tuk-tuk” are not even recommended by the HCMC authorities. And if you are hanging around by yourselves, take a good city map, a pair of comfort shoes and an umbrella for both heavy sunshine and possible sudden rains. Most taxi drivers don’t speak or understand English, so write down the name and address of your hotel in Vietnamese is quite useful.
Vietnamese food is quite famous, but the hygiene condition of those hawkers is definitely questionable, esp. when the temperature is always beyond 30 Celsius. Rules to keep you away from some embarrassing diseases:
1. Don’t eat salad/raw food/cut fruit/etc. outside reliable hotels and restaurants.
2. Don’t drink tap water (actually I doubt if you can drink it given the heavy chemical smell…). 3. Use water kettle in hotel room to make some boiled water and take it with you is a both economic and healthy choice.
3. Don’t let them put ice cubes in your drink, asking for original can/bottles from the fridge instead. Those ice cubes are most likely made from tap water directly…

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Graduation of Zac? -- 17 Again

I’m not a fan of HSM. The reasons that I went for this 17 Again are: first, I just got time and mood for a movie; second, someone said this was a “boy-to-man” move for Zac Efron. It was said that the young generation of male actors like Zac and Robert Pattinson are ready to take over the vacancies left behind by those “good fathers” like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Is it?

There’s a rule for actors (and actresses actually) in Hollywood: If you rose as a teenager star, you would be somehow “lousy” for several yrs before you could get ppl to accept your acting as an adult. Many of them (actually most of them) would not make it, and just “disappeared”, or, at least, got their super-star charm faded. Some examples, Michael J. Fox from Back to the Future (OK, he got a proper reason for his disease, but even before that, he did not show any potential to be a leading figure in Hollywood’s serious movies), Mark Hamill from Star Wars IV, V & VI, etc. If you can break this curse and accomplish the task of “boy-to-man”, congrats, you will be big in this world for at least another 10 yrs.

It’s a bit early to judge if Zac has made it. After all, in this 17 Again, he appeared as a teenager. But we did see some quite promising points in him, esp. when Mike (the role of Zac) was talking as a 40-year-old father in the body of a 17-year-old boy. Sometimes, if you just close your eyes, you would confuse him with Matthew Perry (as the older Mike).

The beginning of the movie is quite bad: a routine high school basketball team and cheer leaders’ dancing in the court is nothing new to Zac, neither to the audience; the part that Mike literally “gave up” basketball when he got the news that his GF was pregnant, is too dramatic. But when the story goes on to the mid-life crisis of Mike, Matthew Perry showed some nice scenes which reminded me the happy hours we spend with Friends. The chemistry between Zac and Leslie Mann (as Mike’s GF and later wife Scarlet, the adult version) was praised by many critics, but to me that was just another proof of what a heartthrob Zac is.

And there is another teenager boy in this movie that is worth watching for, Sterling Knight, as the teenager son of Mike, Alex. Pity he got a face too similar to Alexander Ludwig (The Seeker: The Dark is Rising & Race to Witch Mountain) and Evan Ellingson (CSI: Miami). And he definitely needs some sports activities to get the “six pack” as Zac’s.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Face the Reality – Shinjuku Incident

This is not a typical “Jackie Chan Movie”, but a typical “Derek Yee Movie”. If you have paid attention to Hong Kong movies in the “drama” category before, you should definitely know this name. Yee’s products vary from romantic, gangster to political stuff, but the focus is always the inner side of human beings, esp. from Asians’ (or actually I should say, Chinese) points of view.

The story about the struggling and tragedy of illegal immigrants in Japan is quite similar to the masterpiece of Japanese director Iwai Shunji (most famous of Love Letter in Asia), Swallowtail Butterfly (Also named Yentown). Compared to the Japanese counterpart, Yee is definitely a lucky guy – After more than one decade, China has risen to a more comparable position to Japan in the economy area, hence he can claim at the end of the movie that “all has passed”. And that also gave Yee the freedom to tell story in a much longer timeline – from early 1990’s to the late, which covered a whole era of great changes happened to those illegal immigrants.

Although Yee did it quite well in the big story and the portrait of several key roles like the leader Tie-tou (lit. “Iron Head” in Chinese, played by Jackie Chan), his little buddy Jie (played by Daniel Wu), Japan yakuza kingpin Eguchi (played by Kato Masaya) and the Japan cop Kitano (played by Takenaka Naohito), some “secondary” stories were not told in a decent way. For example, about how Tie-tou’s teenager lover, Xiuxiu, finally became the wife of Eguchi, was told by another gangster kingpin in a way of complain; and the fact that Tie-tou once killed a Chinese cop when smuggling the border was only shown in between the scenes that he was having sex with a prostitute. This is probably due to that the movie had been edited for several times in order to pass the screening standard of countries like China and Singapore (but in the end it did not get the screen permit in mainland China), but still, a good director like Yee should have done it better.

It was considered by Jackie Chan himself to be a “turn point” in his career, meaning that he will turn to non-action movies as he getting older. Well, I can see that he is a good actor from this movie, but not good enough to make ppl totally forget his kongfu fighting skills. If he really wants to be the next Clint Eastwood, he still has a long journey to go.

Daniel Wu’s role, Jie, was repeatedly compared to the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. But I feel that he is more like a younger version of Jacky Cheung in a Hong Kong gangster movie yrs ago, Brothers. And his Hong Kong accent really cannot make us believe that he is playing a young guy from Northeast China.

Almost among all my friends it was considered that the two main Japanese roles, Eguchi and Kitano, were more “shiny” than their Chinese colleagues. It’s not quite surprising to me, esp for Takenaka Naohito, who is considered as “Woody Allen of Japan”.

In a nutshell, if you think that Slumdog Millionaire was brave to describe the life in hell in Bombay, you must admire Derek Yee for much more bravely telling the even bloodier truth in Shinjuku.