09.03.2014 - 09.03.2014
A pick-up at 7:00 a.m. for our tour of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) seemed early, but our room service breakfast arrived in good time, and we were ready when the ship was cleared for passengers to disembark. Our guide and driver met us with a Toyota van that was the perfect height for me to slip in and out, and we began the hour and a half trip to the city, appreciating the recently built highway that has shortened the travel time. Although this passed much of the same kind of strip commercial development that we had seen on the way into Bangkok, we also saw rice fields and water buffalo. Rice cultivation is done entirely by hand, and several places we saw people harvesting the crop.
Saigon is a city of nine million people and five million motorbikes, and even though it was Sunday, so people were not heading to work, the local traffic was much in evidence. We went first to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a small but complex place of worship where many people were placing long sticks of incense into the holders and otherwise performing acts of devotion.
Then we went to the War Remnants Museum. On its upper floor was an impressive display of pictures by a wide variety of photojournalists of what is known here as the American War. Below that were displays of the effects of Agent Orange and of war atrocities. Though the message was one-sided, it was none the less sobering. A number of planes and other war equipment stand on the grounds around the museum building.
Next Hugh, our guide, and I boarded cyclos, which are sort of reverse tricycles with two wheels and a passenger seat in front and one wheel and the cyclist in back. We made our way on a remarkable sightseeing tour among the motorbikes and larger vehicles of the city. I held my smaller camera in front of me and, without using the viewfinder, trusted its wide-angle lens as I took pictures of traffic and, much more, of the street vendors whom we passed. The photos worth saving will require straightening and cropping, but I should end up with a good set of pictures of Saigon's street life.
Our cyclo tour ended up near the Notre Dame Cathedral, which we saw from the outsider, and the remarkable Central Post Office, which we were able to visit. Our guide gave us the choice of Western or Vietnamese food for lunch, and we chose to go to a local noodle shop where we had very good soup with chicken and rice noodles.
We had heard much about Vietnamese coffee, and following lunch, our guide asked whether we would like to try some. We accepted the suggestion with enthusiasm, and he took us to a coffee shop and placed the order. The coffee for him and for our driver arrived ready to drink, but with ours, our driver showed us the process. Coffee is brewed into cups which already have condensed milk in them. Then the mix is stirred and poured into tall glass cups filled with ice. The result is a delicious beverage that was especially refreshing in the heat - for now we understood why our morning pick-up time was seven: it had allowed us to see some of the city at a more comfortable time of day.
The coffee shop was partly around a larger traffic circle from the Ben Thanh market building, and I said that, although I did not want to shop, I would like to look briefly at the busy local market. Boldly our guide led us across the streets that form the spokes of the traffic circle, and Hugh and I spent perhaps ten minutes in the crowded market, quickly replying "No" to one seller after another. We got the flavor of the market very quickly. Then we returned to our van, appreciating its air conditioning as we headed back to the port. Although our ship was not due to set sail until evening, we had enjoyed a sufficient view of Saigon - and had felt enough of its heat.