Holidays and Other Excursions

Tag: Central market

Ho Chi Minh City and Port

Day 19 Saturday 3 January 2015

This morning commences with a trip to what is now known as the “Re-Unification Palace” but was originally the Preseidential Palace from the time of construction in the early 1960’s until the end of South Vietnam in 1975.

For a period post 1975 some of the contents were sold and so some aspects of the private quarters are reconstructions.  The main presidential offices however are as they were at the time of the later Presidents whilst South Vietnam existed.  The President’s office and the main meeting rooms are as they were then – and how they were used to greet visitors – domestic and international.

In an interesting echo of our visit nearly three weeks ago to the Ho Chi Minh residence and adjacent bunker used during the war periods when bombs were being dropped on Hanoi, there is a similarly well defended area under the Re-unification Palace for the South Vietnamese President.  There is a direct route from the President’s office to the underground bunker – which has two levels and the level one metre underground has been opened to visitors.  There is a command room, a president’s room (and bedroom) and a security and communication rooms.  There was also a deeper level which was believed could not be reached by exploding bombs but this has not been opened up.

The photographs can be found here:

Looking at the building externally the architecture is clearly of that era and given the nature of the concrete I hope that it will be maintained for the future.  Therer are maps both in the security council room above ground and in the command bunker below showing the battle areas and reminding us of the Ho Chi Minh trails which led from north to south.  Peak US soldier deployment was 1969/70, at which point the army losses were so heavy and the US forces decided to adopt a new approach – described by one of the senior officers that they intended to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age”.

Our next visit is to the musem which is now called “War Remnants” which earlier had the name “War Crimes” and the thrust of the place really reflects the latter approach.  It lays out the story of US involvement – which started far sooner than I realised – in Vietnam from the late Forties through to 1975.

For those as ignorant as myself it turns out that the Americans were largely funding the activities of the French in seeking to restore colonial power after the declaration on independence as the Americans were at the time dependent on supplies of Tin and Tungsten from the area.  Once the French had failed at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva convention separated the country into two, ostensibly for a short period.  In that period those in charge in the South became heavily influenced by the Americans and so the planned elections and re-unification never happened.

The War Remnants Museum mainly exposes the illegal activities of the US forces, their brutality and of course the application of napalm and agent orange for the defoliation of the forested areas.  There are tributes to the reporters who covered the conflict and many of the telling photographs which made an impression then are visible.  This includes the famous print of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked girl running from a napalm attack.

There is an entire room dedicated to the after effects of the use of agent orange (dioxin) and the impact on subsequent generations, causing numerous deformities and other defects in those descended from people who suffered exposure.  Room is also given to the work undertaken post war by Vietnamese to recover and identify their lost compatriots.

When I was taught history I was told that the winners always write the history books and this museum is a perfect representation of that theory.  The guerilla war had already been lost by the French in 1953 and consequently the Americans were (in hindsight) on a hiding to nothing throughout the sixties and seventies (a theory made stronger by what we are told at the Cu Chi tunnels – see tomorrow).

By way of providing some balance the land mines laid by the Vietnamese in Laos to protect the northern part of the trail which are still there and are not identified is not mentioned and yet it is one of the highest concentrations of land mines in the world.

We have time for a brief visit to the Central Market and this is even more packed than some of the others we have visited.  Were I still working as this is one of those places that reckons they can make a suit in 24 hours I would have done so.  Looking at the fabrics the quality seemed good and it was one of those things that I simply wanted to try.  But now I might wear a suit once a month and probably the ones I have will last a lifetime.  After some hunting around the wife buys some hazelnut coffee, neither of us fancy the squirrel or weasel coffee.  And some further hunting produces a “Mont Blanc” bag with a zip along the top for me and a new baseball style “Vietnam” cap as the old one is filthy.  It will be interesting to see how long the real leather bag lasts.  The sales woman proved it was real leather by use of a lighter – so at least she has confidence in her products.  I doubt it is real “Mont Blanc” however.

In the evening we have a great time.  We board a boat of fun to go around the Saigon river and there is lots of good food being cooked and a real mix of entertainment.  The band playing are very competent and the singers perform well – upbeat and far more fun than the singers on Xmas Eve,  There are also dancers who not only do a local dance but also belly dancing and lead a conga around the ship!  A magician appears at our table – wearing a short sleeved shirt, so there is clearly nothing hidden up his sleeves – and he is able, under our noses to make pieces of string change length become interlocked, and then revert to single pieces and makes little balls vanish and re-appear.   Whilst all basic staples of the close up magician his misdirection and skill mean that there is not the faintest clue as to how it is all done.  And for some of the tricks it is the second time we have seen them this week.  Amazing skills.  We really feel that this evening was a great entertainment and it certainly put a smile on our faces.

From the river we could also see the other boats and some of the waterfront and sadly the pictures cannot do that justice but the buildings which have been developed in recent years certainly give the City a status and whilst perhaps not quite as clean as Hanoi, it is certainly a very modern city.

Phnom Penh

Day 13 Sunday 28 December 2014

This time we have not moved overnight and we are still resting at the pier side – underneath which we can see immense amounts of rubbish – somewhat typical of this untidy city which we are formally touring this morning as we are with the main party.

We are taken first to the Royal Palace where the current elected King lives.  It takes some understanding but the king is elected by a Royal Council and it is not a hereditary position as in the UK.  Although apparently there are two important families which are considered.  The current king is 61 and lives a life much like a Buddhist monk – simply and maintaining the ten key buddhist attributes.  He has no children and is not married.

Today’s photographs can be found at

He lives to one side of the Palace area but we are shown to the Throne Room where the gold throne is occupied only once during each reign when the King is crowned.  The Room is also used for official receptions and for greeting foreign dignitaries and in front of the Throne is an ordinary chair used for non-crowning events.  It is a magnificent room but we are not permitted any internal photos; there are some external pictures on the Flickr page.

We wander through the rest of the palace site seeing some of the remaining assets, including some paintings in a gallery which were partly damaged during the period of Khmer Rouge control in the late seventies.  During much of this time Phnom Penh was an abandoned city – indeed all the cities were emptied and under Pol Pot no-one was allowed to do anything other than live and work on the land.

On the other side of the grounds is the Silver Pagoda which has a solid silver floor.  Most of the floor is covered by carpets and internally we see a gold buddha with (I think) 246 jewels mounted on it.  Also within the Pagoda are numerous gold buddhas which have been given to the Kings – an amazing collection.  There are also other precious items.  External photos only again.

The trip heads to the Museum of Fine Art – which we enter but decide to rest rather than study.  We gather there are some exceptional items of Khmer Art within, but the weather has turned warm (well for us – about 30 deg C – which means it is winter here!), so need a small break and would have liked a cup of coffee but could not find a coffee shop at all.

Our final calling place this morning is the Central Market; the building is of French construction a little over 100 years old and is stuffed to the gills with traders.  In the central domed area jewellers, watch and sunglass sellers.  The most amazing selection of Rolex, Patek Phillipe and Breitling I think I have evere seen.  No Jaeger Le Coultre so the wife did not get the Reverso she wants.

Elsewhere in the emporium are just about anything you could want.  We both look at handbags and I am tempted by a Mont Blanc bag.  We also wander through the food area and the clothing but give the electronics a miss.  There is a picture of one of the many flower stalls.  Beautiful.

The morning completed we return to the cruise vessel.

After lunch we have a second more chilling excursion this time to S-21 which was once a school but in the time of Pol Pot became a detention and torture centre and from here many were despatched to Choeung Ek (see previous post).

There remain two of the famed seven who were initially believed to have survived the camp, subequent research later put the total at over 100, although an absolute number will never be established.  The belief of the regime and its troops is that they never arrested an innocent individual and therefore if they were there, then the individual must be guilty.

Again I felt that recording the cells and means of confinement (which were brutal and inevitably painful) photographically would show a lack of respect – but I did take one picture of the way the interrogators addressed the victims as recorded by a large board at the site.  I do not believe the terror or pain can even be imagined by those of us who have never experienced it.

In the evening we have a wonderful presentation by Mr Jean-Michel Philippi who by day is currently Professor of Linguistics and the Royal University of Phnom Penh but is a very engaging speaker on Cambodian history from 1953 to 1993, although the time he has does not allow much of the latter part of that period to be covered in great detail.  Should I manage it some observations on this talk will appear in my “Musings” elsewhere.  He does however have his blog at and if this matches the quality of his talk it would be worth reading.

He had two brief films showing Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot era.  As the vehicles drive through the streets, they are eerily empty and a huge contrast to the sites seen earlier in the day.  A quite unbelievable demonstration that the cities had been emptied.

Thinking back to my own University days I can only wish that all lecturers were so engaging.