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Day 17: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (11th cruise day)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Monday, December 28th, 2009

11th cruise day: Ho Chi Ming City / Saigon, Vietnam

After a fitful sleep, and dozing after the alarm went off, we got up by 7am and I decided I was stronger in the knees and could make it through the day. Laying in bed was not comfortable as all I could think about were the stomach pains, so I decided I would rather be distracted by the sights of Saigon.

And so our adventure began early in the morning with a 8am bus ride departure to Saigon. We had decided the day before to cancel the “shopping excursion” tour we had pre-booked and instead to book the shuttle tour which allowed us to do Saigon on our own, since we didn't want to spend an hour touring an overpriced toy lacquer factory. After speaking with people on the ship, we were comfortable we could navigate Saigon on our own. And so back to the bus ride -- the roads were paved highways, but the paved roads were full of potholes and loose pebbles and rocks, so the ride was pretty bumpy. Luckily the air conditioner worked well so we were comfortable and slept most of the whole way. We stopped once for a bathroom break at the half way point since the coach buses in Asia, although very comfortable with reclining seats, don't have restrooms on-board. At last we got to the outskirts of the city, and the traffic began. There were lots of buses and construction vehicles on the roads as construction was everywhere!! But unlike Hue, this construction was being done by bulldozers. We were amazed at how many bulldozers there were....really, the construction was everywhere on the outskirts of the city – and then even in the city itself as new tall skyscrapers are going up.

We were surprised to see an actual skyline of Saigon. We had set our impressions of Vietnam on the city of Hue, and we were unprepared at how huge and modern Saigon had become! We were expecting dusty roads and a lot of short, older buildings in the French architecture, but instead we pulled into a huge bustling city that had just as much activity as New York! There were new, gleaming skyscrapers that were mega-complexes of restaurants and high-end shops. Signs for new skyscrapers even taller were located at construction sites around the city. There was just as much traffic, but it was always moving – we never saw the standstill gridlock of New York. Our first impression was “wow – look at all the motorcycles!” Our tour guide on the bus told us there are 4 million registered motorcycles in the city alone. Luckily, these riders all rode helmets, but they still rode dangerously. We saw a family of three all packed together on one bike – dad and mom, with mom holding a baby covered in mesh netting! A lot of people wore face masks to keep the dust out of their mouths. The surprising thing about the traffic was that there were very few traffic lights or stop signs which made crossing the road impossible! Saigon traffic makes Jaywalking a must-have survival skill. Since we've spent lots of time in NYC, jaywalking wasn't a problem for us, but in the beginning, we tailed a few locals as they ran into the street amidst the on-coming motorcycles and small vans and we figured if the cars stop for them, they'll stop for us too! You literally had to walk into on-coming traffic or else you would be stuck on the corner forever! There were many large circles in the city which helped the traffic continue moving, but those were the most difficult ones to cross!

The shuttle bus dropped us off at a shopping mall directly across the intersection from the famous Rex Hotel. We got a map from the tour guide and planned out our route. It was very hot and humid, reaching 91 degrees. We walked two streets over to the famous Dong Khoi street (formerly known as the Rue Catinat or Tudor Street) and came face to face with the National Theater (very well maintained) and the Caravelle hotel. Dad had given me a photo taken in 1965 of him in front of the hotel and we set out to recreate the photo. However, our tour guide had told us that the hotel had been completely rebuilt, and so it was. It is now a huge complex, with a tall tower of rooms that probably went up 20 floors. Attached to the base of the hotel, off to the left of the lobby was a huge Gucci store. And across the street, diagonal from the National Theater was a flagship Louis Vitton store! Imagine that – Gucci and Louis Vitton in Saigon! We saw the original pavement in front of the hotel, and tried to imagine the old outline of the hotel. After picture taking, we retraced our steps and walked down Le Lui street, past the Rex Hotel to the Ben Thanh Central Market.

The Ben Thanh Market was the ultimate flea market. Out of all the market shopping we have done in Asia, this was by far the most jam-packed market. Stalls upon stalls were arranged in a giant square, with handfuls of rows running up and down the middle of the square. There were so many stalls that the aisles between them could barely accommodate two people walking side by side. You had to shove your way through and avoid the women carrying platters of food and soup back from the attached food market. It was much cooler on the outside ring of the market so we did most of our shopping at those stalls. But we did venture into the middle of the market for some of the jewelry and shoes. And so many shoes!!! We didn't know that shoes were a specialty production item in Vietnam but there were mounds and mounds of shoes at these stalls. Mainly many fancy flip-flops and dress shoes. Meredith bought a pair and said it was the most comfortable pair of flip flops she's ever owned. The best part of the market was that everything was inexpensive. Unlike China, where the prices start very high and you have to bargain them down by 50-75%, at this market, the starting price was so reasonable you felt guilty bargaining! And most of the shops were “fixed price” so they wouldn't bargain at all. However, that didn't stop Meredith, who wanted to bargain out of principle! We got some good deals, and thought the quality of the goods being sold in the markets was just as good as department store quality, unlike in China and Hong Kong where the markets sold only junk.

After a good time in the market, we decided to walk outside to get some air. We had been guzzling water in the market as it was so hot and sticky. We only had a total of 4 hours in Saigon before we had to head back on the long bus ride, so we couldn't see much but decided to walk the streets (and run across the intersections!) We found some more little items in the side stores and found it easy to bargain there. It was so hot and I wasn't feeling well so we ended our day by going in to the Rex Hotel and walking around (but you couldn't get up to the roof where the war correspondents would gather) and in the department store where the bus would pick us up – both were air conditioned. The Rex Hotel was beautiful inside, which wasn't surprising as it was a 5-star hotel. According to our tour guide, there are only 5-star hotels in all of Saigon. The department store had a marketplace inside of it, and they were selling old military cigarette lighters that had the location of the place and the year (ie. 1968-1969) but we didn't recognize any of the bases that were inscribed on there.

We were sad that we didn't feel better and have more time in Saigon, but we got the general feeling of it. Dong Khoi street, which was the main street in the 1960s, was still one of the main attractions of Saigon, but we didn't spend time walking up and down it as it was now filled with all International and American high-end brand stores, like Gucci. The streets were all decorated for the holidays. There were huge arches placed at the start of the busiest streets, sparkling Happy New Year type of signs. Santa Clauses adorned store windows and you could tell the city was in a festive mode. There were tons of tourists abound. Besides all the cruise passengers, we saw many small parties of tourists from Europe who were walking up and down the busy streets with guidebooks. Who knew that Saigon was a hot spot tourist destination? Everyone spoke very good English and Saigon is winning so far out of the cities we've visited on this trip for most accessible locals!

If it weren't for all the communist flags waving about, and some billboards with pictures of soldiers hailing the President, we would have thought we were in a large European city (it doesn't have much of an American feel to it because of all the motorcycles). Almost every building, and every street block had the two red and yellow flags of the star and the sickle/hammer. Coming in to the city, the bus passed by the American Consulate and then stopped in front because of traffic. Hunter and several other bus passengers took out their cameras to take a photo and the guards outside of the consulate were watching the bus windows closely and made wild gestures to us that no picture-taking was allowed. We couldn't believe that the guards would be watching tour bus windows to stop harmless photos!

The main streets had lane dividers that were filled with beautiful palm trees, which reminded Hunter of Savannah – sort of a dirty, built-up city with streets adorned with palm trees. The other thing that caught our eye were the massive coils of cable wire that were strung from each telephone tower. Rows and rows of wire were strung together, forming giant nests of wire. We hope one of the wires doesn't short or else it would be a mess trying to get in and repair one of those! We are guessing the roads and infrastructure are still too bad for all the wiring to be run underground and so it's just hanging there in the air.

At 2:15pm we met up with the other Princess passengers and boarded the bus and navigated traffic out of the city. We had some near-collisions with buses in the adjoining lane, but made it back to the ship unscathed and with 5 minutes to spare. Our tour guide was very nice and tried to teach the bus passengers some Vietnamese phrases and a Happy Family song, which was kind of weird. The tour guide was only 24 years old but had a much older face. However, his body looked like that of an 11 year-old. He was the skinniest man we have ever seen. In both Hue and Saigon, all of the locals are on the short side and painfully thin, like they look malnourished. It must be their genetic disposition and diet, but everyone looks so frail. And despite the presence of the high end fashion boutiques, we could not say that they were well dressed. In all other Asia cities – especially Shanghai and Hong Kong – the locals were dressed to the nines, wearing expensive clothes and fashionable shoes. But here in Vietnam, the clothes were cheap button-down cotton shirts and tiny tight-fitting pants, or loose cotton sheathes on the old beggars.

We got back to the ship by 4:25pm and everyone was supposed to be on deck by 4:30pm. At 5pm, the Captain announced to the ship that all paperwork was completed for our departure but that one of the Princess tours was stuck in traffic and wasn't yet here. It wasn't until 5:30pm that the small tourist van dropped off the last 5 passengers! It turned out to be the group that sits next to us during dinner.

We skipped the sit-down dinner again because the food was too fancy again and I didn't feel like eating, and it was a good thing, because we heard that one passenger got sick in the dining room from motion sickness and it was a mess. Hunter got some sandwiches and snacks at the buffet as soon as we got onboard at 4:30pm and then ate a cheeseburger from the Grill once we realized it was open until 6pm. I ordered a room service sandwich around 7pm and he got one around 8:30pm, at which point I was fast asleep. I was so drained from the day and had a lot of stomach pains, I just crashed! Hunter stayed up until midnight, watching tv with the volume low and typing on his netbook. I slept right through it all.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 28, 2009 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia, Vietnam and Cruise

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At the time I am writing this bio (Jan 2010), I, Meredith, am a 28-year old woman living in Virginia Beach, VA with my husband of almost 6 years, who works in New York 4 days a week. We are both avid travelers and beach lovers and I enjoy writing and reading. I am also a fastidious recorder of...

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