From Nha Trang we sailed overnight to land in Phu My, the port of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon – and still popularly referred to by locals as Saigon but as HCMC in all government activity). The visit to Saigon was one of only a few organized tours we have taken, and we took this because Phu My is merely a city that a port, with nothing of interest there at all to see. More important, it is a 2-hour drive by bus from where we were docked at Phu My, into Saigon, and there is no bus service from the port to Saigon. Even further, the traffic to Saigon is so bad that although the distance of 90 Km could be done in about an hour in other places, on this road – due to road and traffic conditions themselves – the 90 Km takes at least twice the time to traverse. In addition, we were only scheduled to have 9 hours until we were due back on ship, and there was no way we could independently but reliably get to Saigon and back in time to make the “all aboard” deadline. And finally, the cost of this tour (including an English-speaking guide, two bottles of water and a couple of “Wet Ones”-type washcloths for cooling off), was actually less expensive than the ship’s offering to merely bus us into Saigon, drop us off, and meet us at a pick-up point 5 hours later for a return to the ship.
We had heard a lot about drivers and roads in Vietnam and particularly in and around Saigon. It is amazing to me that the main vehicular artery between Saigon and its port consists only of a two-lane road in each direction, parts of which may be closed for repairs and improvements, while the roads are jam-packed, nearly bumper-to-bumper, with the equivalent of 18-wheeler trucks carrying goods two and from the port. There are also hundreds of smaller trucks on the roads, to say nothing of the hundreds of cars and seemingly endless number of small motor scooters. (Regarding motor scooters, the Vietnamese prefer Japanese over Chinese because they recognize that Chinese quality is awful, but most end up buying Chinese over Japanese because of the price differential – US $5,000 for Japanese vs. US $500 for similar Chinese product. (The Chinese make a knock-off of the Japanese scooters that are way cheaper and no one can tell the difference between the “real” and the “fake”). Talk about trade imbalance and flooding the world with cheap, crappy goods….) Apparently the government of Vietnam does not consider the time lost by people waiting in traffic and therefore being less productive, to be sufficient reason to expand the highway at this time. The Vietnamese are a very resourceful people who are willing to work hard to succeed, and one can sense the frustration of both drivers and passengers whose time is wasted, waiting in traffic on what should be a major highway but feels more like a secondary arterial road.
The highway from Phu My to Saigon (and by the way, the name is actually two words SAI GON – and I don’t know what they mean; and so is HA NOI two words – and ditto) – the highway is lined with small businesses behind which are the living quarters of the family. Most of these small businesses seem to be first, restaurants or other places where food is prepared and served to the public; and second, scooter and scooter supply and repair stores (tires, exhaust pipes, etc. due to the proliferation of scooters throughout the country). It doesn’t appear that for these small businesses there is anything like zoning laws, as the store fronts are actually the front of the family home, while the actual family living quarters are behind the business (and if there is a 2nd floor, on the 2nd floor). Consequently houses located on the main thoroughfare cost a lot more than houses located one row back, because with houses located on the main roads, a family can also run a business from the property and support itself. This “front-row” land on Saigon’s outskirts can cost around US $1,000/sq. meter, while the price of raw land in downtown Saigon, if I remember correctly, is somewhere in the area of US $50,000/sq. meter.
A word about pagodas and entrances. Chinese pagodas are usually red (sometimes with green roofs); Vietnamese pagodas are yellow. Every Chinatown has multiple entrance gates, and these entrances look very ornate in design. Shinto (Japanese) temples also have similar entrance gates, but theirs are simple, smooth and clean in design.
The above notwithstanding, our first stop in Saigon was the Jade Emperor Pagoda (I don’t know why the name). It was not yellow but green as I recall, perhaps recalling an era of Chinese hegemony when it was first constructed. The pagoda was actually a Buddhist temple. Outside the pagoda was a pool of live large goldfish (like koi) and a pool filled with turtles. I thought that maybe these were on the monks’ dinner menus, but it turns out that both the fish and the turtle are signs in local (and Chinese?) culture for prosperity and long life, and that people bring the fish and turtles as offerings to the temple as they pray for prosperity and long life. Inside the temple shrine were several statues of the Buddha in different rooms, each apparently surrounded by protecting figures. The worshippers lit candles, burned incense sticks and prayed, and some of them placed offerings of fruits and other things on the altars in front of the statues.
Downtown Saigon has the largest number of French colonial buildings in the country, the Hotel de Ville (now the Ho Chi Minh City Regional Council Building) and the Main Post Office being two of the most recognizable. Inside the Post Office, at the far end of the main corridor on the wall, is a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh, who today is deeply revered in Vietnam. Wall-size illustrations on each of the side walls of the building are both maps; one is a map of Old Saigon and its Environs, the other a map of South Viet Nam and Cambodia (both maps are in French).
Notre Dame Catholic Church
Lots of Brides and Grooms take their shots in front of the Post Office.
One of the most unusual attractions I have ever seen, and it was indeed delightful, was a Water Puppet Show, our next stop in Saigon. We are told that this is the only water puppet show in the world. Imagine a puppet show conducted on a lake-like bed of water in a theatre. Imagine the puppets diving in and out of the water in tandem and in synchronized fashion. There were fire-breathing (really!) dragons emerging from the water to fight one another; a fox that attacked a bunch of swimming ducks in a pond, then escapes and climbs a tree to get out of the reach of the duck’s owner. To give you an idea of how remarkable this show was, think of 4 puppet that are made to dive into the water at the same time, from different corners of the “lake”, then emerge together at the same time, each puppet standing on the shoulders of the puppet below it, and you can see only the puppets’ clothes, not the sticks of the puppeteers. The puppets, it appears, are not controlled from above, as are ordinary puppets, but from below (and beneath) the water, as the puppeteers, who appeared at the end of the show, stepped out from behind a black screen that was at water level. A 25-minute show that was simply amazing!
Lunch was at a famous restaurant called Pho 2000.. Famous because President Clinton ate there in 2000…
We had Pho.. Vegan Pho and it was fantastic.. the bowl on the left is a seafood Pho that a friend of ours had.
Spring Rolls and our group chowing down.
The last site we visited in Saigon, before going to a shopping venue, was the War Remnants Museum (formerly named the War Crimes Museum but apparently changed under coercion from forces outside Vietnam). It is said that “history is written by the victors”, and this museum certainly illustrates that saying well. The Vietnam War from the Vietnamese point of view is what this 3-story museum is all about. Much like with my earlier visit to Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb Museum, I felt that a visit to this museum was something of a pilgrimage – or at least something with an important moral dimension for me, as I was one of those exempted from serving in the US Armed Forces and going to Vietnam because of my rabbinical school studies. Knowing something of the background of events leading up to the entry of the US into Vietnam conflict, and after seeing the human toll, both on Americans and Vietnamese that resulted from America’s role in the conflict, one cannot but be left with the question: “What the hell were we doing there?” The answer, “To prevent the spread of Communism” now, today, nearly 40 years after the end of that war, seems almost hollow. Vietnam, a Communist country today, has begun its entry into the Free Market economy, and its people seem happy as their standards of living are rising as a result. Government jobs are reserved for members of the Communist Party, but from the people I was able to talk with, not a lot of people regret not having government jobs; quite the contrary, capitalism seems to be emerging and doing fine in Vietnam, with even brighter prospects for the future. In this Asian country, too, I could feel a palpable vibrancy, although I also felt in her citizens a sense of hard work, almost a struggle out of desperation, to improve their lots in life. This is definitely a country I would like to see more of up close……except that the humidity would probably paralyze me. Still, I would like to return here for another, more intensive visit, just as I would like to return to Shanghai and Hong Kong.
For me (Nina) I couldn’t stand the museum and I walked out. The propaganda was just too much for me. I felt sick to my stomach from it, knowing how our troops were treated both overseas and at home once they got home.. The museum was full of the atrocities that the American soldiers did to innocent people.. But nothing about what they did to our soldiers.. What a terrible part of our history.
Our last stop in Saigon was at the Ben Thanh Market, a market that takes up an entire city block under roof. It is divided into sections, such as the Wet Market (foods: fruits vegetables, meats, poultry, etc), the Spice Market, the Clothing Market, the Tschotschkeh (Souvenir) Market, etc. It is said of the market that “If it’s in Vietnam, you’ll find it at Ben Thanh”. The vendors here in all areas of the market are very aggressive in trying to sell their wares; bargaining is the rule of the day. For example, you see a knock-off handbag, ask “How much?”, the vendor answers, “$85 American,” you offer $10, you go back and forth, vendor says, “Last price, $30”, you pull out a $20 bill, stuff it in his hand and say, “My last price” – and sometimes you walk away with a handbag, other times you just walk away empty-handed. I’m not a big shopper, but the game is amusing if not done for too long; Nina picks out items and then turns me loose on the vendors…ah, such is life…..
Following our excursion to the Ben Thanh Market we all got back on our bus and headed back out for a 2-hour fight/ride in Saigon rush-hour traffic and back to our home away from home, the MS Amsterdam, still docked in Phu My.
Some additional pix that I (Nina) thought you would like, please see the other post..
Singapore is next!