Once again we are parked in the middle of nowhere or maybe it’s a concrete factory. Just dirt and cement port side except for our tour buses and the Lion show performers. Its sunny and blazing hot after the past week of cold and cool in China. The closest town is 20 miles away and Ho Chi Minh is 2.25 hours. We passed another docked cruise ship a while back as we came down the inlet. Maybe they got the better spot. At least, immigration was easy this time. We just had to pick up our stamped landing card and keep it with us. If we don’t hand the landing card back in as we leave, Vietnam immigration will assess a fine.
We elected the more local tour of Vung Tau, only 45 minutes away for the first day since we didn’t arrive until 11 AM. Vung Tau is a beach town out on the peninsula. The largest Jesus statue in Asia is our first stop. The country is 70% Buddhist and 15% Catholic. Pass lots of churches and temples on the 35 miles into town. Mel got a picture of Jesus from the ship as we sailed by this morning, so we elect not to climb the 1,000 stairs to the top. Next is a reclining Buddha temple in a residential neighborhood. Small
A mile down the coast road was the next stop, a French Villa where the King of Vietnam lived out his last years there after abdicating the throne. The wood and tile work were intricate. Lots of porcelain on display. Last stop was at the beach for beer and chips. A good way to end any tour.
Day 2 is Ho Chi Minh City with Smiley our guide. He was a good guide and we were happy to be part of his family for the day. Smiley’s family lost their property and wealth after the American (Vietnam as we call it) War ended and the communists took over. He is very outspoken about the cronyism and corruption in the Hanoi government. There is no rule of law in Hanoi, its all in who you know. In Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Hanoi imposes lots of laws, but at least you can work hard and get ahead on your own to some extent. Smiley explains that informants are everywhere. The way housing is set up enforces the informant mentality. 3 or more families share a kitchen space, so if any one of them seems to have more food, meat, things… the other families will notice and inform. Hard to keep any secrets.
On the two-hour ride into Ho Chi Minh City, we pass several waterways and miles of rice paddies. Many of the rice paddies have water lilies, ducks and fish. The rice paddy is a multi-functional environment in Vietnam. It is easy to see how you could get lost as you slogged through the water and foliage.
First stop is the Reunification Palace, formerly the South Vietnam Presidential residence. Our guide requests we not ask him any sensitive political questions while walking around the memorial and to keep eye out if someone looks to be following our group. Tanks are on display on the grounds of the palace. Smiley explains that US tanks and helicopters are frequently on display to recognize the victory of North Vietnam over America. The Palace still contains much of the furnishings from the President’s war days. Interesting was the “War Room” where the walls still have the US and South Vietnam Military logistic maps on the walls and a bank of rotary dial phones in pastel colors – white, pink blue… red. The place is packed with Vietnamese tourists. A showplace for “We won the War” IMHO. Smiley talked a lot about Ho Chi Minh being held as the political figurehead but had no power, kept under house arrest to make sure he was available for political propaganda and had NO sons that might be a successor. Lots of fake news about Ho Chi Minh was Smiley’s opinion.
The main Post Office building, built by the French is a quick stop. Beautiful murals inside. Still functions as a post office, but much of the interior was souvenir shops. Onto the Binh Tay Market where you can find anything for sale in the individual stalls. The prices are fixed at the government controlled stalls which are staffed by people in blue shirts. Mel and I wander more into the interior of the market and find a T-shirt for the quilt. Of course I spot a scarf and T-shirt that I have to have. Mel ruins my bargaining technique when I am telling the woman, we don’t have that much money, she says “Yes I have enough” and pulls the money out of her wallet. Afterward we agree that we need to coordinate our bargaining activities BEFORE we go shopping. I also pick up some miniature Apple Danish at the French bakery across the street which we bring back and share with Nora and Patty.
Lunch is at Chopsticks, a converted French mansion. The wood work was extensive. Lunch includes Hot N Sour fish soup (yum), pork belly, chicken, jasmine rice, green veggie and a fried banana with coconut milk for dessert. Mel, Susan and Linda tried the dishes, while I chowed down. Crossing the street and walking down the alley to and from the business is half the adventure. The rule is, look for a little break and then keep walking at a steady pace across the street so the scooters can flow around you. Takes a little nerve, but it worked. Of course, looking for a local and join him at the hip works too.
In Chinatown, we go to the Hau Pagoda which honors Buddha and the sea goddess. Very, very smoky as part of the worship is to burn incense and paper replicas of money, clothes, utensils as offering to your ancestors. The ancestors get your offerings and help bring blessings to you. You can also purchase a prayer paper which contains your personal requests, to hang for a month in the temple. The Sea Goddess has been in several temples from Shanghai, Thailand and now Vietnam.
Last stop as a lacquer factory. Lots of steps to create the final product and looks like a messy job. We did resist buying any lacquer. Also feel better about bargaining at the market earlier. They have the same scarfs for twice what we paid. Mel feels better too.
Other tours include the Cu Chi tunnels and Mekong Delta. Ho Chi Minh and Vung Tau are vibrant hustle and bustling cities. May be its because we are from LA, but the traffic is not that bad to us. What is challenging is that everything is traffic circles with few stop lights so being a pedestrian crossing the street is a risky business.
Between the tours we had and all the Vietnam lectures on the ship, Mel and I are ready for war to be over no matter if you call it Vietnam War or American War.