The temperature is in the mid-thirties again. The heat radiates off the pavemants and buildings. The sun beats down from a cloudless sky. This is just the sort of day for some sightseeing in Saigon, wandering through streets heavy with traffic. Lesser mortals attempt this in organised tours with air-conditioned buses. Not us. We walk. First up, we make our way to the City Hall at the top of the broad tree-lined Nguyen Hue Boulevard. Situated in front of the City Hall, there is a statue of Uncle Ho Chi Minh offering advice to a child. There is an outdoor exhibition of photographs on display nearby. These are entries in an international competition, though they are mostly of Vietnamese scenes. Monica casts a professional eye over them before we move on.
Next up, is Cong Xa Pari, Paris Square, with a couple of noteworthy buildings: the General Post Office built by the French in the 1880s and by the look of it, pretty much unchanged ever since. It even has those old-fashioned telephone booths you can see in 1950's American movies. There are French murals everywhere, the vestiges of empire. But reassuringly, the most prominent mural has been replaced with a giant picture of Uncle Ho. Opposite the GPO is the twin-towered Notre Dame Cathedral, a nineteenth Century Gothic construction. In front of it, on a grassy square, is a statue of the Virgin Mary holding an orb. This is the vantage point from which most tourists take their photographs.
The plan was to visit the old Presidential Palace (renamed Reunification Hall), and the War Remnants Museum, but it turns out they take long lunches here. Both close from 11.00 to 13.30. If we'd been on one of those air-conditioned tours, or I had read my guidebook, I'd have known that. We head instead to the Cho Ben Thanh covered market, where Monica is a model of restraint photographing but not buying ..... much. It is midday now and the heat is overwhelming. Monica is showing signs of incipient sunstroke so we rest in a nearby park. As we sit on a bench a street trader offers her a manicure. That's the thing about Vietnam. Everyone is an entrepreneur. You have scissors and a mirror: you're a barber. You have cooking utinsels and stove: you're a restauranteur. Got shoe polish and a brush: you're a shoeshine. Got a scooter or motorbike: you're a taxi. This is the country that the Americans wanted to rescue from Communism.
We eat lunch in a garden restaurant called Quan Nuong, specialising in barbeques - I should have remembered this when I order. Monica goes for the pak choy and grilled aubergine. I select the roasted vegetables and five-spice chicken. The waitress turns up with the chicken, yellow with spices, and appears to want to mess about with it with her chop sticks. It looks fine to me. No, I say, that's ok. I'll take it as it is. The girl is horrified. It is raw. The chicken is cooked at the table on a hot plate heated by a concealed burner. Monica is in hysterics - not an unusual state.
The Presidential Palace was completed in 1966. This new building replaced the old French palace, which was bombed in 1962 by a couple of renegade South Vietnamese pilots in an attempt to assassinate President Diem. The pilots then flew to the North to join the Communists. One of them is still alive: Nguyen Thanh Trung, a hero of the Liberation Army. He is Vice President of Vietnam Airlines. The palace is a South Vietnamese Versailles. It is a beautiful four-story building, all concrete and glass. We are conducted around the various rooms by an austere young woman who tells us the history of the place. This is where the South Vietnamese presidents lived and worked during the war with the Viet Cong. It is expensive and extravagent. There are meeting rooms like throne rooms, a cinema, a games room (for gambling), a dance hall, reception rooms (one each for the President and his wife), a helicopter pad on the roof - used for escape. And so on. Contrast all this luxury with the simple two-roomed hut Ho Chi Minh insisted on living in and you can see why the North Vietnammese won. It was the Bourbons all over again. In the basement, there is a bunker on two floors, a place to retreat to if another attempt was made to bomb the palace. There was a lift from the President's office direct to this bunker. Once bitten twice shy. In the President's office the original phones are still there - one a hot-line to his US counterpart. The line may be inoperable now. In the Gardens of the palace there is a replica of an iconic North Vietnamese tank. In 1975 this tank burst through the gates of the palace and signalled the end of the Vietnamese war.
Our final stop is the War Remnants Museum. This is both a sad and horrific place which offers vivid testimony to the massive cruelty of the wars conducted by the French and (especially) the Americans. The courtyard is stacked with enemy planes, and tanks, and field guns, captured or abandoned in their retreat. Inside there are exhibits of weapons, pictures of the war and its aftermath, and of demonstrations against the war. The sheer scale of the American attempts to crush the Vietnamese is shown. General LeMay's famous quote is symptomatic of their approach. His response to North Vietnam was to demand that "they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age". The Americans dropped four times as many bombs on Vietnam than they did in WWII, killing over two million civilians. They engaged in chemical warfare, spraying twenty millon litres of Agent Orange on the country to defoliate the forests where the Viet Cong hid. Malformed children are still being born as a result of this poison. And for all this Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize, and as Tom Lehrer said, political satire became obsolete.