40th Anniversary of Vietnamese Reunification


Across Vietnam last week, there was a sense of celebration in the air. The country was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Vietnamese reunification, which came about when the Communist North Vietnamese forces made the final push into what was then known as Saigon and crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace and truly ended the Vietnam War.

View from the rooftop terrace of the Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Officially the United States and its allies had left Vietnam several years earlier, but the bloody civil war continued long after they left.

Ending a war is always good, and the Vietnam conflict saw more bombs dropped than all other wars combined. On top of that there was napalm, Agent Orange, and other atrocities committed by both sides.

This came shortly after the war for independence with France, which followed the occupation of Vietnam by the Japanese military during World War II. We are talking about close to 40 years of ongoing fighting, so I would agree that it was something worthy of celebration.

My wife and I lived in Ho Chi Minh City (what Saigon officially became known as shortly after the reunification) a few years ago. While our time there was short, and the circumstances that led to our quick departure far from ideal, it was a very good experience for both of us. This was our first trip back after being away almost three years, and we were both curious to see what things had changed, and what had stayed the same since we had left.

We only had one week’s holiday, so we decided to begin and end our vacation in HCMC, but would travel up to the beach town of Mui Ne for several days in the middle. Because we left so quickly before, we did not have much time to venture out beyond the city we lived in, other than visiting friends of ours in the capital city of Hanoi in the north.

I had heard that the beaches in Vietnam were beautiful, but many of them were beginning to become too touristy. People told me that Mui Ne was pretty good, but there were a lot of Russians there (which, I assume, was a bad thing???) and it wasn’t as nice as some of the other beaches further away from the city. But we didn’t have much time, and decided that its relatively close location made it the best beach we could reach in the time we had.

One thing I have to explain to anyone who has never been to Vietnam is that food there is wonderful. This goes for Vietnamese food in general, which is usually quite light and fresh with lots vegetables and fruit, as well as chargrilled meats and rice noodles. But the variety of other types of food in HCMC is unbelievable, and for the most part, food is quite cheap.

We had a checklist of all of the restaurants we wanted to go back to in the four days we were back in the city, and I am happy to say that we hit them all. Most of them were Vietnamese restaurants, such as fast foodie places like Pho 24 (for Pho, the beef or chicken noodle soup specialty) and Wrap & Roll (which has various types of spring rolls, grilled meats, wraps, and other fairly healthy options).

Another favorite was a little hole in the wall crab restaurant called Thuy 94 Cu (which is located at 84 Dinh Tien Hoang in District 1) that our landlord had taken us to years before. We loved it so much that we would take people there over and over, often arriving and our friends saying, “oh yeah, we’ve been here before!”

The same thing happened this time when we took some of our Taiwanese friends there for dinner on our last night before returning to China. It is very good and very cheap. But unless you know where you are going, it isn’t the easiest place to find.

We also ate in other restaurants, such as our favorite Korean BBQ place close to where we lived in District 7 (Phu My Hung). I never learned the name of the place, because we just walked there over and over after being taken by friends once, but it is about a 5-10 minute walk from the Sky Garden Apartment Complex.

I was quite surprised to see that in the three years we have been away, it seems that Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, and Popeye’s Chicken have invaded the country much more effectively than the various foreign militaries during the different wars in past decades. I am a little bit embarrassed to admit that I ate the biscuits from Popeye’s more than once while we were there.

But being from the southern United States, a good biscuit is not easy to get outside of home, so I am willing to accept any taunting coming my way for this decision.

Once we arrived in Mui Ne, the food selection tended to go more towards the fresh seafood variety. You cannot throw a rock without hitting a roadside restaurant selling fresh seafood there. While it was not always cheap, it was almost always good.

Lounging poolside at the Sea Links City resort in Mui Ne.

We stayed in the Sea Links City Resort, and I would say that the worst food we had on the trip was from their hotel buffets (both breakfast and the one dinner we had there). The breakfast was included in the room rate, so that wasn’t a big deal. But the dinner buffet was not cheap, and we found the food in all of the surrounding restaurants to be much better (and cheaper).

The resort itself is quite nice, and well worth the cost (which wasn’t much more than $100 USD per night for a regular room with a king sized bed and breakfast). There were large villas that could be rented too, but I am not sure what the price would be for them.

The hotel rooms all had lovely views of the ocean, and large balconies to sit out on to enjoy the views (or chat with friends in the evenings over a few drinks). There was also a golf course for those who enjoy that. While the resort isn’t located directly on the beach, it is a short golf cart ride away, and the resort has regular shuttles going back and forth from the beach to the pool area at the hotel.

View from the hotel balcony of the Sea Links City resort in Mui Ne.

The pool area was very nice, with four inter-locking pools that get progressively deeper, and a couple of small water slides for the kids. It is all very family friendly, and because of the national holiday taking place, there were plenty of families present. While the vast majority of families seemed to be Vietnamese, we did see several Korean and Russian families staying there as well.

The surrounding area had plenty of options for food and drinks, including a German Brauhaus that brewed its own beer, which was quite good. And it still served plenty of fresh seafood as well, in case you only wanted the German beer instead of the German food.

A short taxi ride away brought you to even more restaurants, hotels, and shops selling all manner of knick-knacks for tourists. Here you saw and heard all different nationalities eating, drinking, and shopping.

Was it touristy? Yes, of course. But it wasn’t overly touristy, in my opinion. There were still plenty of “local” restaurants and other things of that sort for those looking for a more “authentic” experience.

After spending four sun-drenched days in this beach resort, it was time to return to the big city for our last night in ‘Nam. We had booked a private driver to take us back and forth from HCMC, which was much faster and more comfortable than taking the bus or train.

But in Vietnam, no mode of transportation goes very quickly, and while the distance is not great, it still took us four hours to get to Mui Ne and three and a half hours coming back. Each way cost us around $100 USD because of the holiday. Otherwise it would have been a little bit cheaper.

I chose the hotel we would stay in HCMC, and being a history lover, I wanted to enjoy a bit of Old Saigon. There are several historic hotels still in operation in the downtown area of District 1, including the Rex Hotel, the Caravelle, the Continental, and the Majestic, which is the one I chose.

Entryway of the Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Majestic opened its doors in 1925, and the hotel celebrates its historical significance everywhere you look. Why, the wifi password in the lobby is even “majestic1925.” It is a beautiful, old hotel, with lots of stained glass windows, marble floors, dark wood, and pretty much anything else you would expect.

It is located on the river that runs through the middle of the city, and if you choose a river view room you can watch the boats go up and down all day and night. They have pictures on the walls showing how the exterior of the hotel has changed over the years, and you can see that a lot of work has gone into its restoration in the past few years.

While this hotel was a little bit more expensive than the one we stayed in Mui Ne, but it still wasn’t much more than $130 USD per night for a room with a king sized bed and breakfast included.

The breakfast here is served on the rooftop deck, where you can watch both the traffic on the street below and the river across the street. There was also a decent variety of food, and the quality was quite good. The location of the hotel is extremely convenient to many of the sights in District 1, as you can walk to all of them fairly quickly.

Breakfast on the rooftop terrace at the Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

There were two major changes to District 1 from when we left a few years before. The first one is the major construction going on to build a sky-train public transport system.

If you have ever been stuck in the maddening sea of motorbikes that clog every road in the city, you can see the attraction to taking a clean, fast train above all of the hustle and bustle below to get where you want to go. I am not sure when the train system will be completed, but it seemed to still be in the fairly early stages from what we could see.

The other major change was also construction related, and we were able to see both the before and after versions. On one side of the Majestic Hotel is a road named Nguyen Hue. It runs from the river up by the Rex Hotel, and is a major street right in the middle of the city.

When we lived there before, there were medians with flowers and other things in the middle of the road, but there were still little roads cutting across at intersections so motorbikes and cars could get across without having to go all the way around.

At the beginning of our trip this entire area was closed off behind blue sheet metal fences. Behind the fences you could hear construction taking place constantly, as it seemed the government wanted it to be completed in time for the anniversary party which would take place on April 30th.

Overnight we saw barren areas become beautiful oases with flowers and palm trees. We saw men working on various fountains being built. We saw, from the artist renditions put up on the sheet metal fences, that this area would become a pedestrian area. We hoped construction would actually meet the deadline, and the area would be open when we returned from Mui Ne.

Thankfully that is almost what happened. On our last afternoon we walked over and saw hundreds of people standing around watching the fountains spring to life out of the ground. Many of them are the kind you see around the world that allow for children (and adults for that matter) to run through them to cool down on a hot summer day, which is pretty much every day in HCMC.

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Because the various signs and medians that had previously been placed throughout the area before had been removed, you had a clear view all the way from the river to the government building at the other end of the road. It was quite nice, but I have to admit that I do miss some of the things that had been taken away.

There was a roundabout up by the Rex Hotel which was always full of flowers and was now gone. There was a really pretty little park area also at that end of the street where a statue of Ho Chi Minh used to sit. In it, he was sitting down with a couple of children, and it was actually quite nice.

Now, it seems, that statue will be replaced with another one of only Uncle Ho standing and waving to everyone on the street. I say it seems this will be the case, because that statue was still covered up and I could only go by the artist’s rendering still hanging on some walls along the road.

New pedestrian street in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

I also spoke to a couple of friends on that last night who complained about the new pedestrian area because they could no longer drive their motorbikes straight across, but now had to drive all the way around and take a major detour to get somewhere which was a very short distance, as the crow flies.

Since I never drove a motorbike during my time in Vietnam, I really had no sympathy for them. I quite liked an area where motorbikes were not allowed! I guess there will always be some good and bad that comes with “progress,” and from the little bit we saw in our return, I will take the good over the bad for now.

Stained glass windows at the Majestic Hotel.

My final memory from the trip is the most fascinating one for me. We decided to exchange a little bit of money to pay for dinner and went from our room to the elevator. Unfortunately, the elevator said it was out of service, which brought the inevitable grumbling from my wife about staying in an “old hotel.”

Luckily we were only on the first floor (which is the second floor for my American friends) and it was a short walk down the stairs to get to the lobby. As we walked towards the front doors one of the hotel staff asked us to please stand to the side. I then noticed a red carpet had been rolled out along the floor and I saw that there was a photographer taking photos of someone coming in through the front door. I said to my wife, “someone must be getting married,” as this type of thing is quite common in Asia.

To our surprise, two older Vietnamese gentlemen wearing suits walked in with another two or three people following close behind. They walked past us and up to the elevator, which was opened for them to get into.

I asked the guy who had asked us to step aside, “Who is that?” He replied, “The president.” My wife said, “The president of the hotel?” He said, “No, the president of Vietnam.”

It took a second to register, but then both of us looked quickly to our right to see the group get into the elevator and go upstairs. It was the most amazing thing I think I have ever seen.

The President of Vietnam’s cars outside of the Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

There was absolutely no security around. The president of Vietnam, and a couple of other people, had driven up to the hotel in a black Mercedes and a black Toyota and parked on the side of the street.

They had gotten out of their cars and walked right into the hotel like any other person would (well, except for the red carpet and the photographer), and walked within a few feet of us as if he did this sort of thing every Saturday night.

I guess he might do this sort of thing every Saturday night, but I could not imagine President Obama of the US or President Xi from China (my wife’s and my nations’ leaders) doing something like that!

I later confirmed from other hotel staff that the president does, in fact, visit the hotel a couple of times a year. He was visiting this time for the 40th anniversary events taking place across the city, which made sense.

I don’t know if he actually stayed in the hotel, or if he was just visiting a function. But it is still something I can tick off my bucket list…being just a few steps away from the president of a country.

So if this is something you wish to tick off your list too, I recommend a trip to Saigon in your future!

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