April 6 and 7, 2017
Before I describe our two days in Ho Chi Minh City, I want to share my latest contribution to the Around the World quilt. It is the Komodo Dragon.
Also on the evening before we arrived here, we were invited to have dinner with the Captain – Luca Morvillo, who is from Sorrento Italy. I was seated to his left and what a lovely dinner conversation we had! Also at the table were the HR manager, Bernadette (Bernie) Ryan from Adelaide, Australia and the Chief Engineer – Nedyalko Tonchev from Bulgaria.
Luca has a young son and a one month old daughter. He became a Captain at age 32 and is now just 42 years old. Of course I had to get a selfie!
Because we are on such a small ship, we are able to sail the 28 miles up the Saigon River right into the center of the city. This is the very rich Mekong River Delta area which supplies the water and food for much of Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam. The Chinese have built several dams and there is a controversial one being built in Laos right now. This is an untested type of dam and the fear is that it will not allow fish to get through and that the water level here in the south will be greatly impacted. So far, this project is proceeding, but who knows in the future. Most of the small bridges in the villages get washed away every year and have to be rebuilt.
The trip on the river was so interesting. One of our lecturers, Peter Croyle, was on the deck all during the morning to point out some of the features. I was doing my morning deck walk and could see and hear the commentary. One interesting thing he pointed out is the building in the left foreground – with what looks like small windows. This is not an apartment building, but a nesting place for edible-nest swiftlets. The nests are made of mostly grasses using their solidified saliva. The nests are harvested for human consumption and are thought of as quite a delicacy. They have been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years, most often as bird’s nest soup.
Some of the barges were full of coal or topsoil, there were all manner of fishing vessels as well as ferries and cargo ships. The small size of our ship allows us to pass under the bridge. Other, bigger ships have to dock at the mouth of the river which makes it a long ride to the city. It was 93 degrees with 80% humidity today, and this is why there will only be 2 more days that the cruise ships come here – until September. Too hot and humid, and rainy.
Our guide for the first day excursion was “Near”. He made a lot of comments like “if you go too far you won’t be near near.” He told us a lot of history as well as some of his own ideas. For example, the people in the south still refer to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon. This city is 3 times bigger than Hanoi, it has 9.3 million people. But Hanoi is still the center of government. Saigon has 6 million motorbikes and 400,000 cars. Cars are very expensive here because of the tax- they don’t want people to have cars. A Camry costs $85,000 and a Lexus – $185,000 US. Here is just one example of the parking for the motorbikes. They park everywhere including on all of the sidewalks and they will definitely run you down – they rarely stop for pedestrians and come at you from all angles.
You see everything on these motorbikes – pigs headed for the market, stacks of eggs, plate glass and even mattresses. Most of the time I was not quick enough to snap the pictures. Families of 4 or even more ride on them and we were offered a ride for $2.
We took a half day tour of Saigon – we had been here twice before but didn’t see these sights then. Saigon began as a small fishing village 300 years ago and was rebuilt by the French in the mid 19th century. The city was called Cochinchina then and many of the French Colonial structures remain. First we went to the Reunification Palace, where on April 30, 1975 the Southern forces officially surrendered to the Revolutionary forces of the north when they breached the palace gates with their tanks. It was called the Presidential Palace before 1975 because it was the headquarters of the president of South Vietnam. Most of the exhibits are still in their pre 1975 state, including the telephones and switchboards in the “bunker”, the basement level war rooms. Near asked us who won the war – and he said that everyone lost that war. His father was an interpreter for the GIs – nearly 604,481 were here during the war years. He was sent to a “re-education” camp for 2 years after the war. Russia and China aided the north to protect Communism and the US and others wanted to prevent the expansion of Communism. It is surely a sad episode in history. After the North took over, Saigon’s name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City and all of the streets were also renamed.
We visited the Notre Dame Cathedral which was built by French colonists between 1877 and 1880 and was modeled after the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was constructed with stained glass windows imported from Chartres and bricks from Marseille.
The Central Post office, right across the street from the Cathedral, is also one of the oldest buildings here and was designed by the famous French architect, Gustav Eiffel. The interior has remained essentially untouched since its construction between 1886 and 1891.
We went to the Minh Phuong lacquerware factory where we saw the workmen doing the various steps in the process. I didn’t know that the laquerware was first used to prevent termites in the wood used in building – this lacquerware on walls can last thousands of years!
We visited the oldest pagoda in Saigon, the Giac Lam Pagoda which was built in 1744. This temple has a blend of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. There are ornate tombs and an elegant statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat, the Goddess of Mercy. There are walls of pictures in remembrance of those who have died.
We finished our afternoon with a visit to Chinatown and the Binh Hay market – one of the most colorful and exciting markets in the city. It was getting close to 6 PM and a lot of the stalls were shutting down, but check out this display of dried shrimp!
Here are some outside shots of the Union Square department store, the opera house, city hall with the statue of Ho Chi Minh outside and the site of the REX Hotel and the former US Embassy. And never let it be said that there is no Easter Bunny!
When we got back to the port, Near asked us what we were doing in the evening. We had a Vietnamese Cultural show scheduled and he mentioned that we “might” see him there. What a surprise we had when we saw that he was the narrator for the show – he gave me a big hug afterwards.
On our second day here, we had a quest – to go to the XQ store where we bought the silk embroidery picture last time we wer here. We also planned to have lunch in the city. The 9 AM shuttle bus was full when we got down to it, so we decided to walk. Very hot and humid and we were warned not to walk because the motorcyclists ride by and grab purses and backpacks. We walked anyway and were careful but didn’t encounter any of that. We did have some hairraising street crossings though. First we went to the Ben Thanh market where we bought some gifts and Norm got this t-shirt!
Then we went to XQ and spent a good bit of time deciding whether we wanted to buy something and which one. We did end up with a purchase which is now on the wall of our room on the ship along with other art pieces we have bought along the way. Pictures don’t do them justice so you will have to come visit to see them. Or maybe by the end of the cruise I will photograph the art filled room.
We had to come back in an hour to pick up the picture, so we went for a lunch at Pho 2000. This is a place that, as it turns out, Bill Clinton had pho when he was here. We had two bowls, one Tiger beer and one diet Coke and the bill was $10!
What a great two days here – lots of building since we were here in October 2015, and the economy is growing at about 6%/year. It is a capitalist society in terms of the economy but the rules are still communist and people don’t dare to break the rules. And, by the way, gun ownership is not allowed here.
As I write this, it is 4:05 PM and we are leaving Saigon. River traffic has stopped and a tug is easing the stern of the boat out from the pier!
Now on to Bangkok.