Ho Chi Minh (previously Saigon) has a population of around 8 million (mostly riding mopeds) which is similar to London. The roads are even more crazy than Hanoi and have been made worse since the tax on car imports was reduced from 100%! This should be alleviated soon as they are constructing an underground train system, one line of which is already complete. The whole city has an exciting buzz about it and feels on the verge of a transition to the modern world.
We were so fortunate on our first night here to meet with a mutual friend of two friends of ours - both unconnected, but discovered through social media.
Justin and his fiancé Katia, met us for dinner and gave us the low down on places to go and areas to avoid, and was an amazing host in this vibrant city, which is a true juxtaposition between old and new. (I've always wanted to use that phrase!)
The following morning we started at Ben Thanh market, where you could buy everything from toys, fruit, sweets and coffee to having a suit hand made.
In the heat we didn't have the energy for long here, so wandered over to the Museum of Fine Art, which was in a beautiful old French colonial building.
Sophia always loves studying art and Jake enjoyed the war scenes.
It was smoking hot in the city with humidity at 85% so we retired to cafe l'usine, one of Justin's recommendations, for coffee and lunch in revitalising air conditioning.
Having cooled down, we decided to brave the War remnants museum, knowing it would be harrowing, but feeling that it was a must-see and we had read that it had a children's play room.
The children enjoyed looking around the courtyard full of tanks, fighter jets and a chineok which was a showcase of American vehicles captured during the war, but on the whole the museum was trying to promote peace.
There were tear jerking images of this horrendous war, lasting 20 years and fought in hideous conditions by both sides and the results of agent Orange are still evident on the streets on Ho Chi Minh.
We left in a sombre mood, but the children were in high spirits, having dressed up in traditional costumes and played with toys for an hour.
We talked them through the basics, but the war rooms were full of images and facts too harrowing and unbelievable for their young minds.
That evening we planned on sundowners at a rooftop bar, not bargaining on horizontal rain and thunderstorms that would drive us into the nightclub downstairs! Justin caught some unbelievable images of the storm from up there, while the staff tried desperately to get us off the roof!
Sophia and Jake didn't mind, loving the holograms and disco lights that were warming up for the later that night.
We finished off the evening with dinner at The Secret Garden (so Secret even Justin got lost on the way) which was on the 5th floor of a building with a nondescript entrance down a back alleyway! It was twinkly-light, Chinese-lantern, rooftop haven, with delectable Vietnamese food washed down with cans of cold beer.
Sunday was an early start, with a 7am pick up from our apartment to meet a speedboat that would take us to the Cu-Chi tunnels, an hours boat ride north of the city.
Our guide talked us through much of the history on the way, adding interesting facts like how all the boats have 'eyes' 👀 to warn off crocodiles in the river!
On entering the tunnel complex, the jungle scenery felt familiar from the many Vietnam films that have been made, and the rain added to the atmosphere. The tunnels were only 20cm wide in places, designed for short, slim Vietnamese soldiers (and Sophia) and impossible for Americans to enter.
On a very basic level, the USSR, China and other communist allies, helped the communist north spread south, while the Americans, Australians, South Korea and Thailand aided the revolutionary south.
After 20 years of war under conditions there are no words for, the Americans withdrew, Ho Chi Minh and his communist government took Saigon in 1975 and it was re-named Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), evidence of which is common in the form of the communist hammer and sickle on flags throughout the region.
Ho Chi Minh is worshipped throughout Vietnam, and from what we could understand, his values were truly for the common good and he was a man of the people. The army were in effect peasants and farmers, making weapons from recycled bomb shells and bullets, sandals from tyres and the hideous booby traps made from bamboo. These various wooden traps were designed to maim rather than kill, so that the GI was able to call for medical help and they could attack them as well.
Our tour ended with a propaganda video of the Viet Com hailed as hero's for killing Americans.
Despite Hollywood's portrayal of the Viet Cong as almost sub-human, it was very interesting to see the other side of the story with the V-C proving to be very resourceful untrained soldiers, largely from the rural farmland communities. Fighting out of 240km of tiny tunnels just outside Saigon conditions must have been horrific. An enormous loss of life on both sides.
After lunch, our journey back to the city was reflective and we were glad to get back and finally dry out. A luxury those soldiers rarely got to experience.
On our last morning we visited the Independance Palace, a concrete building completed in 1965 after the French style colonial version was bombed in a coup in 1962. This just after the palace was handed to the Vietnamese by the French after they were defeated and Vietnam won Independance.
The controversial yet impressive style was designed by architect Ngo Viet, who was the first and only Vietnamese citizen to win the Grand Prix de Rome for architecture. It was all very retro!
In 1975 , tanks of the liberation forces came through the gates of the Palace and marked the end of the Sai Gon government.
There were models of these tanks in the Palace grounds.
Vietnam has finally been relatively peaceful since this day, and the country is desperately trying to move forward and attract visitors from around the world. As a tourist you have to be careful and look after yourself and your valuables, but the majority of the people we came across were unbelievably helpful, welcoming and couldn't have done more for us.
I was keen to visit a Pagoda, and we found one in the Palace grounds.
Buddhism is the religion of 85% of Vietnamese and our guide on the boat was telling us that each household light insence sticks every evening for their God, which could be of medicine, of peace, of love etc. and worship and give thanks to their ancestors. This makes a lot of sense to me!
We stayed at Oakwood apartments in District 3, which was the ideal family oasis, with a pool, sauna, steamroom and gym and cafe. Beware the Vietnamese coffee is very strong and sweet!