All of our Vietnamese guides called Ho Chi Minh City by its more familiar name, Saigon, so I will too. We left the ship after lunch for a half-day tour of Saigon. Our first afternoon in this city of 6 to 8 million, depending on which guide/guidebook you go by, can best be described by 2 words--sensory overload. The city is teeming with people on mopeds and bicycles. However, since motorcycles over 135 cc are not allowed, the traffic is not as noisy as you might expect. All 4 million of the mopeds seem to be on the roads everywhere we went. Watching the people on the mopeds -- sometimes even a Vietnam family of four or a parent and baby -- was fascinating. Unfortunately, traffic accidents are very common, and people die everyday due to motorbike accidents. Fortunately, the traffic is so heavy, no one is going more than about 25 mph.
Given the horrendous traffic, it was a about a 45-minute drive into Saigon, even during non-rush hour. We passed by several famous buildings, including the City Hall, and the Rex and Caravelle Hotels, which were journalist hang outs during the war. The streets of Saigon are wide and tree-lined, very reminiscent of something in Europe, if you can erase the ubiquitous motorbikes and pedicabs from the view. Our first stop was at the History Museum, which houses a large collection of sculpture, pottery, and other artifacts (even a Vietnamese mummy) from the major historical periods of Vietnam, covering over 4000 years. After quickly passing through some of the un-air conditioned rooms with our guide, we were settled in seats for the water puppet show, a Vietnamese tradition. Wooden puppets on rods (the rods were under the water) told various stories, none of which we could make out. The puppeteers were staying in waist deep water operating the puppets. It was a funny (at first) concept, but the 15-minute show was enough. Maybe something was lost in translation.
Next, we did a photo stop at Reunification Hall, which is also known as the Thong Nhat Conference Hall. Prior to 1975 (end of the American War), this impressive building was the Presidential Palace. This palace made the news at least twice during the war. The first time was in 1962 when 2 Vietnamese air force pilots bombed the palace in an assassination attempt on President Diem. They failed, but one of the jets is on the grounds of the palace and the pilot is revered as a hero. The building was partially destroyed and rebuilt. The palace also made the news on April 30, 1975, which is celebrated as the fall of the Saigon government. A North Vietnamese tank (also on display) crashed through the main gates of the palace, and the photo was seen world-wide.
We also had photo stops at the Notre Dame Cathedral (1877), which is across the street from the splendid Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel, before visiting a lacquerware factory, where they make gorgeous boxes, trays, etc. Like the embroidery workshop in Da Nang, it was interesting to watch and the pieces were a good price. We spent quite a while at the workshop, so the guides must get a good cut. Our next stop on the bus was at the 18th century Thien Hau Pagoda, which was almost hidden from the street. It was larger than the temple we went into in Hong Kong, but also had the huge burning spirals of burning incense, along with ornate decor.
Our last stop really challenged the senses--the Chinatown (Cholon) Market. I'm not sure why we all thought it was funny to have a Chinatown in Saigon, when many of us from elsewhere in the world also have a part of our city with the same name. This wholesale market was huge and mostly caters to buyers who come into the city and buy in large quantities for resale at small towns in the countryside. Thank heavens it didn't have the fish smell of the Da Nang market, at least in the part we were in, but it did have hundreds of varieties of spices, mushrooms, hats, and a little of everything. It was great fun to walk through the indoor market with the guide, since we could have gotten easily lost otherwise. We returned to the ship about 6:00 pm, just in time to get ready for dinner.
Dinner was yummy lamb chops, and mom and I went to the Vietnamese dancing/music show after our meal with a group of local talent. It was kind of long, and not nearly as good as the onboard troupe. The Crystal Symphony over-nighted in Ho Chi Minh City. The next day we were off for a "Memories of War" tour.
Our "Memories of War" tour was off the Crystal Symphony by 7:45 am and on the way to see a piece of history during our lifetimes--the American (Vietnam) war. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that everyone in Vietnam calls it the American War. Our guide was born in 1977, so he had no memories of the war, but his father worked as an American interpreter during the war, and his grandfather (who had 2 wives and 20 children) owned a chain of Esso gas stations in Saigon. Needless to say, since his family was on the losing side, they were blacklisted after the war, and his father spent time in a "brainwashing" camp. His grandfather's gas stations were taken over by the government, and his family lost everything. Only those who were on the winning side were rewarded with homes, businesses, and money. His father still hates the North Vietnamese, despite the fact that the country has been unified for over 30 years. Our guide Khoa married an English tourist (a young woman from the UK who was traveling the world and ended up on his tour bus) five years ago, and they have a two year old daughter named Rosie. When we asked how his family felt about his marrying an Englishwoman, Khoa said that his family liked her, and as long as she "wasn't from the north", were happy. (Sounds like how some good Southern USA families feel about those from the North!)
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