Friday, January 7, 2011

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Map picture

Return to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

Lisa and I first visited the former capital of South Vietnam around 7 years ago, so we were interested to see what if any changes had occurred during that time. In that respect we were not disappointed because the changes were pervasive and significant.

Let me back up to our arrival at the port city of Phu My. Phu My is located along the river into Saigon, but it is a two hour drive from the port into the city. Usually a small ship like ours would travel up the river right into the city, but for some reason Princess docked here instead. That is sad because it meant that just to go to and return from the city took a good 4 hours of our short day visit. Fortunately we had arranged to be met by a private car with an English speaking guide, which allowed us to tailor our tour to what we really wanted to focus on.

The drive into the city was just as bad as I remember it. We were travelling on a 4 lane “road,” which sounds all well and good, until I mention that the right two lanes are unpaved. Even the semi-paved left lanes occasionally and without warning give out to a rutted pot holed watery mess, so the driver must be ever vigilant. One big difference was readily apparent. One our last visit most people were travelling by bicycle, but now they have been replaced by motor scooters. Almost every family we were told owns at least two of them and sometimes more if they have older children. Generally the motor scooters stayed to the right and the cars and trucks to the left; however, that was just in theory. In practice, anything was fair game. If a scooter could dodge around across the lanes of cars, they did so with abandon. The cars were not any better on driver etiquette. I mention “lanes” as if they really meant something, and I guess all you can say about them is that they were “advisory” at best. In fact if a car in the far left lane could see an opening in the opposite direction traffic, he would shoot out and run as far up the line as he could and then rapidly cut back in to traffic narrowly missing a head on collision. As we approached the city itself, the roads improved and the traffic became even heavier.

I must say that our first look over the city of Ho Chi Minh, or what the local’s still call Saigon, was quite impressive. That is not to say that Vietnam enjoys anywhere need to prosperity of its neighbors in Asia, but it is to say that growth is clearly evident. All over the city new luxury hotels were open or under construction. I noted that everyone seemed to now have cell phones, which was quite different that previously. I asked our guide about that because when visited last time I remember that few people had phones, let alone a cell phone, and if you wished to make an international call you had to go to the Post Office and wait in a long line to use one of the government monitored phones. Our guide assured us that was no longer the case, and that anyone can now make an international call without interruption.

Our first stop was at the former Presidential Palace.

Ho Cho Minh, Vietnam

Unlike my last visit, the building is now open for tourist and in fact is one of the major attractions in the city. Constructed in the 1960’s it is a very beautiful building from the outside, but even more impressive on the inside. It is an open air structure which is quite large and airy. Standing near the front gates are the two North Vietnamese tanks that crashed the gates of the Palace in 1975 thus marking the end of what the locals call “the American War.” I remember watching video of that moment, and I guess I never really thought about what came afterward. I would have assumes that troops entered the compound and looted the building killing everyone in sight. To my surprise, that is not what happened. Not one person in the building was injured, and the building was not ransacked. Those present, including the President, were arrested and sent to “re-education” camps, as were all high ranking South Vietnamese officials. Today, those same people are free and melded into society or have moved away from the country. Anyway, because of the way the building was conquered, it is in perfect shape today. It is still owned by the government and is used from time to time for official functions, but mostly it is a museum. I think you will find the pictures very interesting. One point of note is that underneath the building is a concrete bunker where officials could take refuge if the building was bombed or destroyed. From this bunker they could have continued the war if circumstances permitted. In the office of the President, there was a small door on the side of the room, which gave entry to a circular stairway directly to the basement below. Also of interest was that an American helicopter was parked just outside the president’s office on the top of the building to allow for a rapid escape.

Our next stop was to visit the old Post Office built by the French in the 1880’s.

Ho Cho Minh, Vietnam

In fact its architect was the same person who built the Eiffel Tower. It is a beautiful old colonial building, and just as our guide promised, the “phone booths” of old, now held ATM machines rather than government monitored phones. One interesting story is worth sharing. Sitting quietly in a corner of this huge building was a very old man. He sat hunched over surrounded by books and forms and he looked across the open expanse with a gentle and infectious smile. The man had worked for the Post Office for many years until his retirement, and now he still comes back every day and sits in his little corner. He is an expert on postage and forms, and he helps people with their problems, for which they tip him. Not a bad retirement!

Leaving the Post Office, we walked across the street to the Cathedral.

Ho Cho Minh, Vietnam

The citizens of Vietnam mostly practice Taoism with a mixture of Buddhism; however, there is still population of Catholics. The Cathedral was impressive from the outside but the interior was rather plain. We moved onto the local market where our guide assumed we would want to shop for souvenirs and take pictures of the live fish for sale. We did look around briefly, but truthfully there was nothing of interest to buy and we had just been to several open markets, so at this point, Lisa and I were pretty frazzled from the long drive and the heat. Our guide found us a wonderful little French cafĂ© where we could get omelets and fries – doesn’t get much better, for us anyway.

After lunch we had planned on seeing the Fine Arts Museum, but alas all museums close from noon until 1:30, and we had to keep in mind the minimum two hour drive back to the ship, which was set to depart at 4:30. As an alternative to more shopping, our guide took us to a famous temple that is heavily used by the local people. It was a Pagoda which was a mixture of Taoism and Buddhism, and which was very interesting.

Ho Cho Minh, Vietnam

Then came our long drive back to the ship and the end of a long day. Our next day was “at sea,” followed by our arrival back to Singapore. This marked the end of our “first” cruise. Rather than make the trek into the city, we elected to remain onboard and await the arrival of our good friends from Kansas City, Michele and Cathy. When they were a little late arriving, I was so tired, that I lay down in my underwear to take a quick nap. Sometime while I was asleep, Lisa left our cabin in search of the group. The next thing I knew, I was abruptly awakened by all the lights in our bedroom coming on and finding two strange women in my bed, while Lisa was standing nearby shooting video. Talk about a “rude” awakening! When I got the sleep out of my eyes, the “strange” women turned out to be Michele and Cathy who were laughing their heads off, as I tried to quickly pull up the sheets to save what little dignity I had left. The only good news from this event is that the video did not work, and so I will not forever be haunted with these images on the internet.

Today the ship is cruising Northeast in the Gulf of Thailand towards Thailand. If we had returned northwest we would be in the center of a major storm system, but as it is, we are just on the edge. The skies are overcast and the winds and seas are relatively calm, but we are picking up large swells from the storm system which makes walking, or even sitting on the ship very difficult. Lisa and I both are experiencing a little motion sickness, which is unusual for us.

I hope everyone at home is well. I have posted out blog and the pictures are online, so please enjoy.

1 comment:

Lenny Cacchio said...

I must say I am truly enjoying this travelogue, Jimbo.