Today is the last day of our stay in Vietnam as our flight will be at 6pm tonight. And today is our search for a Vietnamese woman who is wearing Ao Dai - a traditional formal and symbolic dress in Vietnam. Why I feel like searching for a Vietnamese in Ao Dao on our last in Ho Chi Minh City? Well, ever since we have arrive here, we have been seeing numerous times these Vietnamese girls wearing tight-fitting silk tunic of different colors worn over pantaloons. You may see a woman wearing Ao Dai suddenly passed across you while walking down the streets or riding a bicycle or a scooter while strolling around Saigon. I have been fascinated of what is the concept behind wearing this formal dress in public. Later I realize that Ao dai symbolizes Vietnam in a way of an attitude that amidst the progress of the country towards modernization and embraces development they never forget their culture and traditional concepts by wearing Ao Dai. It also symbolizes Vietnamese' femininity as girls wearing it looks classy and prim. I think it has been a tourist’s trademark that without a photo with a Vietnamese in Ao Dai you're Vietnam experience is not complete. That's why we were searching for a Vietnamese in Ao Dai. But we were not just searching for an ordinary Vietnamese in Ao Dai, we we are searching for someone that is a perfect epitome of a Vietnamese femininity. And so we begin our search...
In the morning after we ate our free breakfast from the hotel, we planned to tour the city of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City named after their revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh). We started our Saigon downtown tour by visiting again 23/9 Park and Ben Thanh Market in the morning. We take a look again at the shops of Ben Thanh Market. We are looking for souvenirs this time. Then we walked towards the central disctrict of Ho Chi Minh City. I realized that by just walking around the city and have a little help with the city map with me, you can reach the nearby places of interest that you want to visit in Ho Chi Minh City.
I got a glimpsed of Ho Chi Minh's City Hall. And at its front, I saw the famous landmark of Ho Chi Minh City which I frequently sees in travel magazines - Ho Chi Minh's Statue. It was located at a central park in front of the city hall. Colorful flowers and trimmed shrub trees adorned around the park where the statue is located. While, other tourists also flocks the place for photo souvenirs. Ho Chi Minh City Hall or Hôtel de Ville de Saigon was built in 1902-1908 in a French colonial style for the then city of Saigon. It was renamed after 1975 as Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee. Illuminated at night, the building is not opened to the public or for tourists. All that you can do is admire the buildings' French colonial style architecture. Or take a souvenir shot of it in any angle you want. Though, it wasn't opened for public visiting, picture taking is not prohibited in the surroundings of the building. That day, Vietnam's red and single colored yellow star flag flutters the whole outside facade of the city hall.
Around the city hall, there were many blocks of establishments like boutiques, shops, restaurants, hotels and other business offices. We tried to visit some of them as we were looking for a great but cheap souvenir items that we could bring home. Then, we went to Dong Khoi Street that leads us to Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica - a cathedral that is said to be one of the oldest Catholic churches in Vietnam. Located in the downtown of Ho Chi Mihn City, it was established by French colonist and has two bell towers. The cathedral is noted for its Roman style mixed with Gothic elements architecture. It is said that the cathedral's all original building materials were imported from France. On the opposite side of Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica is the Saigon Central Post Office which was built by Gustave Eiffel (the same architect who also built the Eiffel Tower in Paris). The building was constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the early 20th century. It has a Gothic architectural style. The building is one of the tourist attraction in downtown Saigon. After touring and strolling we returned to Ho Chi Minh's statue to explore the other nearby flower parks and take more souvenir photos.
From the map, one can easily locate the tourist places in Ho Chi Minh City as these places were just nearby that you can reach it through walking. The other nearby visiting places that we have not visited were the Reunification Palace (home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon), Ho Chi Minh City Museum (one historical site in the city) and Municipal Cultural Park (a large expanse of greenery behind Reunification Palace). From one district to another, no one can see the scars of war nor any clue that the war exist in the city. There might be hints of turmoil of the past but the peaceful and harmonious scenery that is living now in the city is covering all the scars of the past. Vietnam is really different now.
As I marvel through the city sights of the downtown, my mind was still in search mode of the Vietnamese girl in Ao Dai. A Vietnamese girl in Ao Dai is clad a rich or pastel color of the dress while wearing the Nón lá (their famous conical leaf hat) is my ideal shot. I saw a woman of age wearing a black one but she was quick walking out of our way for a souvenir shot. It is said that the colors of Ao Dai indicates the wearer's age and status. Young girls wear pure white, fully-lined outfits symbolizing their purity. Older but unmarried girls move into soft pastel shades. Only married women wear “Ao Dai” in strong, rich colors, usually over white or black pants. Along the Le Loi Street, when we passed through a restaurant, we saw an attendant girl wearing a beautiful blue Ao Dai. We insist to have a photo with her and she gladly participated. We thought we have found already the perfect Vietnamese girl in Ao Dai. But as we headed on walking along, we saw two Vietnamese girls wearing green and gold-colored patterned Ao Dai. I thought that a photo with them will be another great souvenir shot. So, we took photos with them too. The two girls were giggling in laughs as we invite them for a photo shot. I think they were thinking that tourist like us think of them as celebrities because of taking photos with them. They happily participated in a souvenir photo. Still in fascination, I thought our search for the Vietnamese girl in Ao Dai is over but in every street corners, I can see all of them. Walking, shopping or riding a bicycle. The conclusion of my search is not only finding the perfect girl in Ao Dai for a souvenir shot but to a realization that it symbolizes the perfect epitome and beauty of Vietnamese femininity and an attitude that the Vietnamese people prides and does not forget their cultural ways of life.
Before we retire to our hotel, we did shopping for souvenirs. Our girl-in-Ao Dai fascination continued in buying a doll wearing a golden Ao Dai. We also bought miniature Ao Dai figures in key chains and magnets where the word "Vietnam" is engraved on it. All perfect souvenirs of Ao Dai fascination and Vietnam experience. I have notice that souvenirs of same quality were cheaper in street side shops of the down town than in Ben Thanh Market. After a grand exploration of Ho Chi Mihn's downtown, we arrive at Liberty Hotel passed 10 am. We organize our things and packed-up our clothes to leave at 12pm. As we leave the hotel we took souvenir photos with the hotel attendants of the hotel because they were also wearing beautiful green Ao Dai. We bid goodbye to them and says, "kam ang" (Thank you) for their friendly service. Then, we took an airport bus which gave us a scenic tour in Ho Chi Minh City. I saw the Municipal Cultural Park and the back of Reunification Palace. I was also lucky to see the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, a pagoda built in Vietnamese traditional architecture style where one of the sets of TV series Vietnam Rose took place.
We arrive at 1 pm in Tan Soh Nhat International Airport. Too early for a check-in, the counters were still closed, so we rest for a while. I also took the opportunity to wander around the shops and duty-free around the airport. I have also noticed that check-in agents at the airport, women staff also wears Ao Dai. After check-in at 5pm, we boarded our flight PR596 at 7:10pm and we’re ready to leave Vietnam. The scars of war won't be seen in Vietnam today. The city seemed to have move on into the changing life of today. Vietnam is a promising country to development. The country is progressing and developing. The city glitters as if it has never been in a darkest historic war. And the people who were affected by the turbulent past of the war continues to live... moving on, to continue living life... they are like stray roses flocking in the streets of Vietnam that adds color to its history as each of them brings a story of their culture, war, healing and love. I am satisfied that I have found the answer behind the beguiling metaphor "Vietnam Rose" only by traveling here. Relieving my Vietnam experience, those were the thoughts that were circling in my mind as the plane ascends to the sky... Two and a half hours later we will ascend to Manila.