Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sai Gon(Vietnamese)

Like many cities in Vietnam, Saigon did not escape the wrath of war. Since the beginning, Saigon has had quite a traumatic history. There are many citations to the birth of Saigon and the origin of its name. In the 15th century, this area were swamps, marshes and thick forests. By the early 17th century, a small township was formed. According to one theory, Saigon or Sai Con has its root in a Khmer word Prei Kor (Kapok Tree Forest).

The name Saigon was used officially in 1698, when Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu sent Mr. Nguyen Huu Canh to this region to create various districts and to form a government for this southern outpost. Because of its strategic location for trade and commerce as well as military importance, Saigon continued to grow and became a bonafide city. By 1772, Mr. Nguyen Cuu Dam began to fill many of the canals to form streets.
In the mid 19th century, the French with the aid of the Spanish invaded this port city and destroyed the fort. This event was the precursor to the long struggle between the people of Vietnam and France leading to the historical defeat of the French in 1954. In the years after the defeat of the French, Vietnam was divided into two separate countries and Saigon became the hub of resettlement for many as people from north and central Vietnam immigrated south.
In the 60's and 70's, Saigon was bustling with commerce and business. It was the cultural center and the capital city of South Vietnam. Already heavily influenced by the French in terms of culture and style, the city had an air of a French provincial town with a Vietnamese twist. Saigon was dubbed the "Pearl of the Orient" by the foreign press. The city was alive with activities and cultural diversity that rivaled any Asian city at the time.
After the fall of South Vietnam to communism in 1975, the city and many of its inhabitants were in a state of chaos and turmoil. In 1976, the new government renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City and shut its door to the rest of the world. Although recognized world wide as Ho Chi Minh City, to the people of Vietnam, the city is still lovingly referred to as Saigon.
Street Scenes
With a population of over 5 millions people, Saigon is one of the densest urban area in the world. On many streets, it is common to see houses with the ground floor converted into a business front while several families share living areas on the upper levels.
Common mode of transportation just a few years ago, the ubiquitous "cyclos" are becoming rare since they have been banned from many streets. Replacing them are fleets of taxis and "Honda ôm" - Japanese motocycles that you just wave down and jump on the back to be transported anywhere in the town.
Unlike other cities in Vietnam, Saigon is very active at night. Music halls often play to sold-out local crowds and restaurants stay open late into the night. During the summer months, sidewalks are dotted with colorful fruit stalls.
Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh market has long been one of Saigon's most famous landmark. The market has been in existence since the French occupation. The original market was located on the shores of Ben Nghe river by old fort Gia Dinh. Its proximity to the fort and the river where merchants and soldiers would land was reason for its name (Ben meaning pier or port and Thanh meaning fort). In 1859, when the French invaded Saigon and overtook fort Gia Dinh, Ben Thanh Market was destroyed. It was rebuilt shortly thereafter and remained standing until it was moved to its present location in 1899.
Built on a landfill of what was once a swamp named Bo Ret (Marais Boresse), the new Ben Thanh Market is located in the center of the city. Under the French government, the area around Ben Thanh Market was called Cu Nhac circle (Rond point Cuniac), named after Mr. Cuniac, the person who proposed filling the swamp to create this area. The area was later renamed Cong truong Dien Hong.
Nha Tho Duc Ba - Cathedral of our Lady
Proposed to be one of France's most ambitious project in Indochina at the time, Rev. Colombert laid the cornerstone for the cathedral on October 7, 1877. Three years later, in 1880, the cathedral was opened to the public. These two dates are inscribed on a marble placard in the cathedral.The bricks used to build the structure were shipped from Marseilles. Artisans from Lorin Company (Chartres, France) were commissioned to create the stained glass windows. The cost of construction was a whopping 2.5 million francs. In 1962, the Vatican gave the cathedral the title Basilique.

Vinh Nghiem Temple
Located on Cong Ly boulevard (or Nam Ky Khoi Nghia), Vinh nghiem is south Vietnam's most majestic temple. Construction of the temple was completed in 1971 after the design was drawn by Mr. Nguyen Ba Lang and associates. The ground floor consists of the library, the auditorium, and offices. The temple is located in a large parcel of land. On the left of the upper court yard stands a tower or the seven-level Avalokitesvara Stupa. Next to the tower hangs a large bell given to the temple by the Japanese Buddhists Sangha.
Hoi Giao - Islam
A small number of Muslims exist in Vietnam, and are mainly found in South central Vietnam, the Mekong Delta, and by the Cambodian border. Islam was introduced to Vietnam in the 7th century via Arab traders and later blended with local customs and religion. Islam is now mostly practiced by the Cham population of Vietnam, although there is a strong Hindu influence in their practice. Today, there are several mosques in metropolitan Saigon.

Bao Tang Lich Su - Historical Museum
Located in Saigon's Botanical garden and Zoo, the museum opened its doors to the public in January 1, 1929. Originally, the museum was named Blanchard de la Brosse. In 1956, the museum was renamed Bao Tang Quoc Gia - National Museum. And finally, in 1979, the government renamed it Bao Tang Lich Su - Historical Museum.
The museum houses many historical artifacts including three wooden stakes from the battle between Ngo Quyen and the Han invaders, granite tablets with intricate carvings, and uniforms of mandarins and kings of yesteryears. A statue of the Buddha with 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms is also part of the museum's collections. According to the curator, many of the artifacts dated back to the 6th and 7th ce
Den Ngoc Hoang - Emperor of Jade Temple
Located in Dakao, first district, the temple was built by Cantonese Buddhists who settled in Saigon in the 19th century. The architectural style is heavily influenced by the Chinese of southern China.
The Taoist deity (Emperor of Jade) is enshrined here along with his 4 guardians (Tu Dai Kim Cuong). The major attractions to the shrine are the elaborate carvings of the various deities as well as its unique architectural style of the interior. This temple is also home to the Hall of Ten Hells where there are carvings of various scenes of the various levels of hell.
Dinh Doc Lap - Independence Palace
Dinh Doc Lap or Independence Palace was completed in 1966 after three years of construction. The plans were drawn by Mr. Ngo Viet Thu, winner of the architectural excellence prize in Rome. The palace was built on the original site of the French governor's headquarters in the 19th century.
President Diem commissioned Mr. Thu to design the new palace and supervised its construction. Unfortunately, the president was assassinated shortly after construction started. The Palace became the home of then President of South Vietnam Nguyen Van Thieu until the fall of Saigon in 1975. It is now called the Reunification Hall with all the original furnishings still kept intact.
About the pictures
View from top of Rex hotel in center of Saigon. Probably the most famous among a cluster of older hotels in this area. It is very popular with local crowd on weekend. This area is however abound with pickpockets, hustlers and professional beggars preying on unsuspecting affluent tourists.
Front view of the city hall, which can also be seen in the previous picture. This is one of many buildings in this area that has a definite French architectural influence.
Central post office in the first district, another immense relic from the past, surrounded by street vendors. Packaged to be on the run, they are often chased by police since by law, they are not allowed to operate.
This is Le Quy Don high-school, formely named Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the distant past. Streets in the first district are often lined up with huge trees.
A very typical street in Saigon, where the ground level is converted into a business front and families live on the other floors.
Snapshot of a cyclo and a taxi at the back entrance of New World Hotel, a massive and recently built structure. There are now several thousands taxis, all metered and spanky new, charging an average of $2 a ride.
As a city in a tropical zone, Saigon markets have a large variety of fruits, most abundant during the rainy season from June to October. Among the more exotic fruits are mangosteen, rambutan, jack-fruit, sapodilla, longan, etc ... which grow only in South-East Asia.
Front view of Ben-Thanh market, a conglomerate of small shops that occupy a whole city block. Big American firms' marketing do not spare anybody and Saigon is no exception. Motorola sells pagers and cellular phones and Compaq is hawking their line of PCs. PC world magazine produces a vietnamese edition here so everybody is pretty well aware of the web explosion world wide. But it will be a long while before the web can establish itself in Vietnam (see report of a trip to VN to install computer network).
Like other round-points in Saigon, this one requires extreme care from the driver to maneuver their vehicle in a maze of cars, motorcycles and bicycles converging from several directions.
Here is another thing that one sees less and less in Vietnam, woman in the "ao dai". These days, the only ones that are still wearing the traditional dress are high-school students and office workers in state-owned companies such as banks, post offices, airlines.
View of Vinh Nghiem pagoda, one of several modern pagodas in Saigon, typified by the large dimensions and the multi-level structure.
View of Central Mosque.
I always wonder why the museum is put in a zoo but there is definitely nothing about them worth writing home about.
If you plan to buy miniature statue of Buddha as a souvernir, be prepared to get flagged by airport customs scanner, who will verify to see if it is smuggled antique.
I looked up Lonely Planet Guide and went to 73 Mai Thi Luu on a "honda ôm". There is a temple there but not this one. Wrong address!
With the exception of Chua Tay Phuong in the North, no other temple in Vietnam has as many beautiful statues as this one.
This place has seen some tumulteous years, it was even bombed once in the 60's. Not far from here is the old US Embassy, made famous world wide during the 1975 evacuation.
View from the balcony of the palace, looking down Thong Nhat boulevard. One can see the 2 towers of the Duc Ba Cathedral sticking out in th

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