Day 61 Mar 5 (Saigon - also known as Ho Chi Minh City)

I had intended to send this on March 4 but spent 20 minutes trying to no avail. Hopefully I will be more successful today. The system was not totally down but I never got my password and user ID in to AOL. After that I tried to log off and was unable to do that too!!! I spoke with the computer guru and he said they didn't have a good signal and that in the future if the system is operating that slowly they advise us not to sign on. Thanks a lot! What a neanderthal way to run a computer system. How about limiting the number of people who can log on to the system so it can handle the volume better? How about getting more lines for more bandwith? Yada yada. Sorry. Couldn't help ranting a bit.

So, today was a long bus ride to Saigon Our guide told us that the South Vietnamese still call it that. They are also not too fond of North Vietnamese people. That war ended in 1975 but the wounds have left some scars. All in all though I was surprised at how normal everything seems to be. If this is a communist country it would be hard to prove it by what I saw. There is a lot of capitalism here as there was in Da Nang. We experienced even more here. More on that in a bit.

We reported for our bus pass at 8:15. The number I got today was #9. Better than 12 but still a bit of a wait. Since we didn't have to rig a gangplank for junks there was no delay in starting to board buses. Number 9 came up in about a half hour or so. Not too bad compared to Da Nang. Our guide's name was Nghia (pronounced like the word "near" without the "r" more or less). He gave us a lesson in the complexities of Vietnamese. Apparently they have many markings which determine the inflection and pronounciation of vowels. This means the same letters can be pronounced many different ways. He said the word "ma" has six different meanings depending on the markings and each is said differently. He recited them but I was hard pressed to hear the difference between a few of them.

Also, there are apparently more than 30 different distinct ethnic groups in Vietnam who each have their own language. Nghia said that if the people from these regions (each lives in a separate area or did historically) don't speak Vietnamese that most of the people from other areas cannot understand them. And I thought English was hard for people to learn. Pheew!!

My tour was entitled The Best of Ho Chi Minh City and went pretty well. We boarded at the pier where we docked which was about 60 miles from Saigon. It is in Phu My which isn't much more than a docking facility. It's appeal is that it is closer to Saigon than Vung Tau which used to be the port city. That is another 45 minutes or so from Saigon. We had been told that the ride to Saigon would be a good hour and a half. I was puzzled until I discovered that the speed limits for vehicles in Vietnam are very low. The bus was limited to 50 kmph on the major highways. Less in town. (50 kmph is about 34 mph). The drive was interesting and we had a stop for the "happy place" about halfway. This was at a shopping center with a "Big C" (yeah, you know that is sort of like a Big Kmart right?). The happy place is the place where you can sing or dance. OK, this is Vietnamese code for restroom, peeing and pooping. All together now... C U T E !

The fun began at the happy place. (heh, heh) Well, actually in the parking lot. This is where we first encountered the vendors. Apparently, according to our guide, they have the cruise ship schedule for the year and know the places that the tour buses stop both for singing and dancing and for visiting attractions. We were to see these same vendors many times today. They are, as I said earlier, persistent. And trust me, if you take out your wallet and buy something they react like sharks in bloody water. I definitely know how bait feels now. But, they are respectful and polite even while being persistent, insistent and creative. I have more souvenirs from Vietnam than from any other place I think. Fortunately, the prices are great.

So, back to the tour. The drive in and out gave a nice overview of what the country is like. My impression is that overall they are doing well but there are pockets of sad looking houses and areas that show poor people. If mopeds were cars this would be a rich country. Small steps I guess. They seem to be improving all over. There is a lot of construction and commerce. One unique thing I noticed was that many places along the way had lots of hammocks and lounge chairs under a shade roof. I asked what these were for and Nghia said that on weekends people from Saigon travel toward the beaches and these places are about halfway. People will stop to rest and buy a drink and then have the privilege of using the chair or hammock to take a nap or rest. Hmmm. Perhaps a new business for the USA? Nah, we're in too much of a hurry most of the time to rest aren't we? Oh, on the drive we also saw rice paddies. I don't think I saw any in Da Nang.

Our first stop in Saigon was the Historical Museum. Included here was a water puppet show. This show is apparently an old custom which was used to entertain royalty in the past. It was unique. The theater had a pool of opaque water in front of the structure and the controls for the puppets (dragons, ducks, phoenix, turtle, little men, a cat!, etc.) were under the water. The puppeteers were behind the screen portion of the puppet theater. There was music and some commentary (it was in English but heavily accented and hard to understand) but the show was easy to follow. I have video tape of most of it. Part of the tape shows my leg (I was trying to take a photograph with my digital camera and forgot where I was pointing the video camera. It's not easy being a tourist you know.).

The historical museum was not really exciting. I liked the Cham in Da Nang better. We did have Nghia to explain some things for us but we went through pretty quickly and just hit the highlights. This museum covered the entire history of the country. That is something the Cham didn't do.

The next stop was the Reunification Palace. This was at one time (in the early 60's) the Presidential Palace. The end of the "revolution" was marked by a tank driving through one of the walls of this palace in '75 (I think). Since then it has been a museum. They have kept the old radio gear from the US and some strategy maps in the basement. The upper floors have enough furniture in them to get an idea of the grandeur that was here before the "freeing of the south" by the North Vietnamese Army.

We had lunch in the huge dining hall of a 5-star hotel in downtown Saigon. It was very nice. They had no trouble accommodating quite a few buses from the Amsterdam at the same time. I think we all ate there. The bus numbers went to 10 at least. 40 passengers per bus. Not bad for a third world town. Actually Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam. Hanoi, in the north, is the capitol. I ate something but I'm not sure what. I keep trying the unusual. What a trip this has been so far for my stomach. Some of what I put on my plate was not all that good but there is always plenty of rice in Southeast Asia.

After lunch we went to Chinatown and the Thien Han Temple. Very impressive. Colorful and lots of burning incense sticks and spirals overhead (they are said to last a week). I first noticed the spirals as a piece of smoking ash from one fell at my feet while I was walking around and looking at other things. Not a whole lot of warning signs for minor dangers like that when you get out of the US. I guess if you are going to wander around a temple you should look out for falling ash.

After the temple we rode around town for photo ops at the Railroad Station (French Architecture from the 19th century), Notredame Cathedral, Hotel de Ville (French for town hall) and the Rex Hotel (where the press stayed during the conflict).

Then back to the ship. Some of the vendors followed us all the way to the security gates and waved goodbye. I think the country is making a strong effort to increase tourism. It is working as far as I've seen. Pass the word. Vietnam is interesting, full of unusual history and it is user friendly (if you don't mind the vendor gauntlet from time to time). They actually have a law against the vendors but it is not enforced (hmmm...) until the last bus is about to leave. Creative enforcement. In this case I think the experience we had would not have been as interesting without the vendors.

After returning to the ship we had dinner, went to the show - comedian Jack Mayberry who played Ross Perot on the tonight show in skits years ago. He was pretty good. Most of the audience was pretty tired from the days trips but he got us laughing pretty well. Some of his jokes came from the internet though. Or maybe someone heard his act and that is how the jokes got to the internet.

Have to set the clocks FORWARD tonight! Time zones out in this part of the world look like a jig-saw puzzle. I'm sure there is a story there....

Well, I need to wrap this up. (I'm writing it on Thursday evening after 10 PM but I learned since beginning it that the internet hook-up on the ship is not functioning yet. I will be able to use an internet cafe in Singapore to send stuff but need to get it ready and transfer it to my flash drive.

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