Because our ship is large, we could not dock anywhere near Ho Chi Minh City. Even in Vung Tau, we lay at anchor about three miles away from shore and had to tender in. Then we faced a two - three hour drive into town. It was going to be a long day, but the only other choice was to stay on board. Vung Tau was a nowhere spot and it would be a shame to come so far and not see the city our country had fought so hard to defend.
The long ride toward Ho Chi Minh City was entertaining. We passed a few rubber plantations and rice fields, but primarily we saw a long documentary of Vietnamese life today narrated by our guide as we drove. We learned that the name Ho Chi Minh City, was chosen by the victorious north and no one who actually lives around here calls it that. So Saigon it is. We paid tolls every so often, but our road went through towns with stop lights and we shared our part of the road with countless small trucks. A significant sized right lane was saved for the motorcycles, which made much better time than we did.
We saw dressers being hauled by cycle, big baskets full of live ducks on cycle, families of four on cycle, etc. etc. Most folks complied with the helmet laws, which seemed like a great idea for the volume of cyclists. If all these folks get enough dong ($) to buy cars, grid lock will ensue, but today traffic moved easily. We definitely saw areas where we would not chose to live, but the area seemed busy with economic activity and people looked well dressed and well fed (as opposed to our overly well fed).
Viet Nam began as part of China and its language has that same sing song sound. However, when the French ruled here for two hundred years, they imposed the Arabic alphabet. Our guide illustrated the six different ways one may pronounce the syllable "ma" depending on how you inflect the vowel sound. The meanings varied greatly - horse, ghost, mother - and to illustrate how the vowel is to be pronounced, the Vietnamese hand little tails on the vowels or put umbrellas or carat signs over them. It left us with the impression that we could memorize some signs, but pronunciation was best left to another lifetime.
Saigon is a very low rise city. With the exception of a few nice hotels that were perhaps thirty stories high, almost all the other buildings were three - four stories at the most. When the French were here they constructed many buildings in their style,
which are common in the central area and appeared in good repair. Their influence was also evident in the boulevards, which left plenty of room for the motorcycles to congregate away from our bus. What really caught our eye was the multiplicity of electrical wires
festooning every pole. If one of them malfunctions, it must be a challenge to determine exactly which one is the culprit.
We went to the museum campus
which features all the usual museums every big city offers. A brief spin through the history of Viet Nam brought us to the water puppet show,
) a traditional entertainment. The video clip can illustrate this much better than words. Then we visited a lacquer factory
where multiple layers of paint are put on decorative items with lots of sanding between each layer. The end result is a shiny surface that can be decorated with inlaid mother of pearl. At this factory they were also using common egg shells as inlay. Again lovely stuff, great price, but wood is too heavy for the old suitcase. Bummer!
It gave us a start to drive past the US consulate
and see that platform made famous by photograph, where the last evacuation helicopter sat on the roof and desperate South Vietnamese lined up in the hopes of being rescued. The old presidential palace where Diem, the man we propped up as president for years resided, is now the Reunification Palace
and boasts two tanks on the front lawn.
After a great buffet lunch that offered mysterious foods and the familiar we had two hours to shop by ourselves. A downpour brought us inside the first doorway we could find. A grocery store sold umbrellas. Usually when we visit foreign countries we use the local currency, but for one or two days it just hasn't been worth it. We knew we could use dollars in the souvenir shops, but the grocery store took them as well. With 16,000 dong to the dollar our new umbrella cost 64,500. You do the math.
The main market area was a warren of little shops with an aisle one fat western person wide. Everyone wanted to make a deal and tugged on our arms. We explored maybe 10% of the place and it was already time to return to the ship. As always it would have been nice to spend a bit more time and see some of the other famous names that we saw on our black and white TV's every night. That's cruising.