“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson
Waking up in a new city or a new country rarely fails to thrill me. Streets undiscovered, sights unseen, and experiences untried. After seeing glimpses of Ho Chi Minh City [also known as Saigon] at night, I couldn’t wait to see it during the day. It’s a vast city, very modern and historic at the same time. Skyscrapers sit next to French colonial homes. Motorbikes fly by and bicycles leisurely ride past. In a city that could be a contradiction, I saw fusion. And it was through a free walking tour of the city that I was really able to immerse myself in the heart of this bustling city.
Tiger Tours offers regular free walking tours [and many other tours!] of District 1, the central district of Saigon. We met our tour guides early to avoid the impending rain, and I was glad we did. We beat most other tour groups to popular locations, and more importantly, we beat the heat. Even though I grew up in Florida, and have lived in Indonesia for a year and a half, the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia surprises me. But this morning, it was still crisp and cool as we began walking the streets of Saigon.
We started at the historic Saigon Opera House, and began walking towards some of the most iconic sites of Ho Chi Minh City, like the beautiful City Hall building. As we walked, our tour guides shared history of the city and insights into culture. We passed by the War Remnants Museum, and my heart struggled with my own country’s history with the nation in which I stood. We saw the incredible French architecture influence on the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. Each of these buildings is a work of art. Usually a post office does not warrant a stop on a city tour, but Saigon’s Central Post Office certainly does! Dramatic arches, ornate tiles, and a still functioning post office! My favorite part of this stop was meeting a man who has been working as a letter writer [in English, French & Vietnamese!] since before the War. I could only imagine how his life has changed. He showed us pictures of riding his bike to work everyday and commented he doesn’t stay as busy anymore because of Google Translate. To me, he is a treasure just like the building in which he works.
We continued our leisurely paced stroll through the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is modeled after it’s French namesake. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular spot for photographing couples! Nearby the post office & cathedral, we found bookshop road. Be still my heart. If there’s anything I love more than traveling, it’s reading. I could have spent hours wandering through each shop, sipping Vietnamese coffee and smelling the scent of new books. But, we had a tour to finish.
We walked over to Turtle Lake, a spot of green and nature in the midst of the concrete city. Apparently, turtles at one time lived in this lake, but they certainly do not now. But there is a unique bridge structure we could climb, and see the city swirling around us. It was a calm moment to take a breath and breathe in this new place.
We finished our tour, appropriately, at the Reunification Palace, which celebrates North & South Vietnam reunifying in 1976 as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This country has such a tragic history, but a bright future. My own country played a significant role in it’s past, and if President Obama’s visit might infer, hopefully a positive role in it’s future. It was only day two, and I already loved this country.
I was so glad we did the free walking tour with Tiger Tours. The guides brought more insight and understanding than if we were to wander to each of these places ourselves. I had a few things on my list I wanted to see in our limited time in Saigon, and this tour hit them all and more! And a great feature of the tour was that one of the guides was photographing us and the sites along the way! We received all 60+ of the photos just a few days after the tour. Genius. What a fantastic experience we’ve had in Vietnam so far.