Saigon (actually Ho Chi Minh City) Vietnam

About this time last year we were in Vietnam and spent a few days in and around Saigon. I know the map says Ho Chi Minh City but it seemed as if that name hasn’t really caught-on with the locals. Most people that we spoke with still call it Saigon.

The city is a study in contrasts but than so is Vietnam as a whole. Saigon still feature mazes of streets thru neighborhoods packed with small merchants and thongs of people but there are also new upscale housing projects springing up everywhere along with a surprising number of skyscrapers filling in the skyline. A long time ago I remember a million bicycles filling this countries streets but they seem to have given way to mopeds and motorcycles. It wasn’t unusual to see two or more people riding a moped carrying cartons stacked six feet high. On more than one occasion we say a mother, father and two or three children all on the same moped.

We were also puzzled to see a majority of the women riding mopeds wearing long sleeves, gloves and facemasks. Later we were told it is to protect them from the Sun. It seems that pale skin is important to women in Vietnam and they work at protecting themselves from the tanning rays.

In the city center near the Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral, you can hire a shinny new rickshaw that now peddles tourists around the central attractions. The square next to the

Pedicabs, Siagon

cathedral is dotted with American fast food outlets in case you need a fix of Dunkin Donuts or Carl’s. The old South Vietnamese Presidential Palace is now renamed the Reunification Palace and even with the numerous reminders of the war most Vietnamese seem truly welcoming to visiting Americans (the official policy of the Vietnamese government is that America is now a valued ally and the people should be welcoming).

Vietnam is a bargain-hunters paradise and, at times, it is difficult to walk away from the bargains. One item that caught our attention in a number of places was the pop-up, laser-cut greeting cards. Vendors were all along Dong Khoi Street and these beautiful cards were being sold for the equivalent of a dollar or two each and we now wish we had bought more. Also the US dollar is widely accepted in Vietnam with the current exchange rate being about 23,000 Dong to the US dollar.

Dong Khoi is one of Saigon’s main shopping streets with many fashion clothing shops, galleries and furniture stores along with good hotels (Sheraton @ $150 a night) and really ood restaurants. Also on Dong Khoi is the famous Opera House, which often offers free operas. A block over is the notorious Rex Hotel with its rooftop bar that was a favorite hangout for war correspondents and military brass back in the day. They still have a great happy hour.

Ben Thanh Market

Ben Thanh Market. The cities central market and a must-visit it is Vietnam’s largest and most diverse shopping experience. In the early mornings locals are shopping for fresh meats and produce. Later fashion stalls take over for the rest of the day. Everything is there from silk outfits to bargain T-shirts. You can get printed T’s four as little as US$3 but we would recommend buying two or three sizes too big. I bought some large shirts that won’t fit over my head. The market is also famous for rows of coffee traders, selling an amazing selection of beans. Vietnam has become a major coffee producer with it being one of their major cash crops. Come nighttime a night market opens up alongside the main building, selling everything from clothing, to souvenirs until almost midnight.

The wisdom of Uncle Ho is everywhere
Lacquer painting showroom

 

 

Saigon is famous for Lacquer painting, known as sơn mài, made from the resin of the sơn tree. The art form was developed in Vietnam combining French styles with Oriental themes.

Boats tied along the Mekong River.

From Ho Chi Minh City you can also book a number of excursions and day tours. In the city is the Mariamman Hindu Temple, the Jade Emperor Pagoda and the War Remnants Museum. There are also a number of free guided walking tours sponsored by local schools to give students experience with English. Day tours include the technicoloured Cao Dai Temple, as well as trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta.

Planning a trip to Vietnam soon? We would recommend it but before you go you need a visa. While the government is friendly to Westerners that doesn’t mean they don’t need to know who you are and why you a visiting. Not too many years ago you needed an official guide to travel around the country but that has been mostly eliminated now. Getting a visa isn’t the easiest thing to do on your own we we would recommend a Visa Service to help . It might also be helpful to talk to a Tour Guide service to help you plan your visit.

Note To American Vietnam War Veterans: Before going back “in country” I had some real mixed emotions. I had experienced traveling in Europe in the early 60’s and witnessed some tense moments between Germans and people that had once been occupied. What would it be like in Vietnam? Don’t be concerned. I met more people that have bad feelings toward the current communist government than ex-American GI’s. We did run into one or two people that wanted to remind us of the war (mostly middle aged men with party affiliation) but usually we felt really welcome there.

 

 

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Graffiti Around the World

I am not sure why but my camera is drawn to record graffiti as we travel. Some of it is incredible street art while much is just a defacing of public and private property.

Historic fortifications, Vigo Spain
Housing project, Crete

I have developed some opinions about why some places are rank with graffiti while others are completely devoid of it. My first belief has to do with how attractive a place is along with a natural reluctance in most people to deface real beauty. The exception of course involves a subculture that sees destroying a places intrinsic value and even natural beauty as a form of expressing hatred for the very place where they live and even the people they live with.

My second conclusion involves regional and local authority. Some places are either overwhelmed by the task of trying to

Ho Chi Minh City

prevent or punish street vandals and do not think the vandalism rises to the level of a serious enough crime to warrant strong punishment. In these circumstances the result is usually a growing blight on the community where the locals just learn to accept the problem as part of life.

Stangeland, Norway

The counterpoint to that is a strong local government where punishment is quick and serious enough to cause potential “artists” to reconsider their chances of arrest, jail or worse.

Graffiti is not new but has been around for thousands of years. Examples of graffiti have been unearthed from ancient Pompeii and Rome. One of the most common forms has been for protest but more and more recently it seems to have no real purpose other than to desecrate.

There are places where graffiti has been channeled into a socially acceptable art form where artists are celebrated and whole communities get involved in decorating walls and fences.In addition to the above there are economies where tourism is a major source of income to the community and tolerance for graffiti has a serious economic impact.

Western Europe seems to be an increasing target for graffiti and many locations seem to be helpless to stop it. Unlike graffiti in many places in the world, the canvas in Europe has often become churches, historic sites and public buildings.

Quebec
Stangeland, Norway

Often modern graffiti is becoming less political protest and more an ethnic challenge. It is becoming more and more common in the West to see Arabic writing as a major element of graffiti from Greece to Norway to Quebec along with counter graffiti.

Vietnam

Interesting that there are places in the world that are virtually graffiti free. It is rare to see it in rural areas of America, or in cities in Australia and New Zealand. I can’t say I noticed any in Amsterdam which is a very permissive culture  nor in Singapore. In the case of Singapore it probably has to do with a very harsh criminal code and strict enforcement. Even the fine for not flushing a public toilet in Singapore is S$200.

Graffiti on graffiti…

Anyone else a collector of graffiti? Care to share your thinking on this? Love to see what you found and where. E-mail us at TheIntentonalTraveler@gmx.com

Vietnam

Above-The Japan Bridge, Hoi An.

Impressions of Vietnam

Our recent South China Sea cruise made four stops in Vietnam. Because we were back-to-back cruising,  Phu My, the port for Ho Cho Min City was duplicated. We took advantage of two ship’s tours and an independent trip into Saigon with bus service provided by the ship (separate fee). We really enjoyed our time spent ashore and found it both interesting and worthwhile. Shopping was inexpensive and easy because the U.S. dollar is the preferred currency. Almost everywhere we went, prices were quoted in dollars (about 22,000 Vietnamese Dong to 1 U.S. Dollar).


 

The wisdom of Uncle Ho is everywhere

The official position of the Vietnamese government is that they are friends with the United States and that the Vietnamese people should welcome Americans. We had extended contact with three different Vietnamese men during our time in Vietnam. The first expressed no political opinion and was friendly and seemed welcoming to us. The second taught history in secondary school, was a party member and seemed focused in his thinking on the war and all the problems America caused and is still causing. The third thought most of Vietnam’s post-war problems were caused by government corruption and the party and wished that American style capitalism was given more opportunity.

Telcom in Vietnam

Ho Chi Min City

Our first stop was listed as Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) but the ship docked at Phu My, an industrial area without anything within walking distance. There are some residential areas and a business strip between 5 to 10 miles from the port but nothing of specific interest.

Ho Chi Min City is an hour and a half drive from the port. The cruise ship offered tours and also just a round trip bus service into the city which ran about $60 per person. A number of passengers took local taxis into the city. They claimed that with four people it was cheaper than the bus but you had to negotiate your fare upfront. We arranged a tour  to the Mekong River Delta and went into Saigon on the second cruise.

The journey to the Mekong took three hours each way. The long bus ride gave us an opportunity to see rice farming in the countryside, old and new buildings in Ho Chi Min City as we drove through, and thousands of motor scooters carrying local people everywhere. The motor boat ride on the river was interesting followed by a small boat ride down the canals and then lunch at the Mekong River Rest Stop. The highlight of lunch was the delicious local elephant ear fish. Our tour guide was friendly and spent much of the trip talking about the Vietnamese people, their lives and their hopes for the future.

Our recommendation, unless you have a specific reason to visit the Mekong like we did, would be to take a city tour of Saigon or just take advantage of transportation into the city and do your own walking tour. There are a lot of great shopping bargains in the city and many things to see.  Some of the highlights include the old Presidential Palace (now Reunification Palace), the Catholic Cathedral, and the old Post office. A short walk  from the city center are the Opera House, The Rex Hotel (the roof bar was a gathering place for journalists and military during the war) and Dong Khoi Street with many souvenir shops, good restaurants and fashion boutiques.

Da Nang

Da Nang is a major city with a lot to see and features the Dragon Bridge which is actually a recent addition. Near by is China Beach which is now a modern seaside resort but during the war it was a “rest and relaxation” area for the military. Just south of Da Nang is the city of Hoi An which is well worth a visit. Hoi An is also becoming a beach resort with lots of new properties being developed but it is the old town (Ancient Town) that should get attention because of the history, architecture, shops and restaurants. We stocked up there on tee shirts ($3 and $5) and had a great lunch at Brothers Cafe. If you are cruising you should be able to find a tour that covers all these highlights.

Nah Trang

This is also a developing area that is a seaside resort particularly popular with Russian tourists. There is a cable car that crosses the bay, an amusement park, a water park and some good beaches. On our stop we had to tender-in and merchants had set up tables full of souvenirs along the dock.  The town itself was small with with a few shops and cafes but you could get a taxi tour at a reasonable price or take one of the ship’s tours.

We recently discovered another retired couple that recently visited Vietnam with some good information posted in April 2017. Check out Adventurous Retirees web site.

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Cruising the South China Sea

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A First Visit to Southeast Asia

We spent all of February cruising with Celebrity’s Constellation in the South China Sea on back-to-back itineraries. We visited twelve ports with only one repeat (Ho Chi Min City). If you are going to fly twelve thousand miles you probably should make the most of the trip. We flew into Singapore and with the return for the second cruise and the extra day in port at the end we had five days to explore the city and all we could say was wow! The ship also spent two days in the port for Bangkok and we spent that night in a Bangkok hotel and booked a private tour (more about that at another time ;-).

Beyond the usual reasons for cruising there was an additional advantage on this trip. If you are not into a diet of noodles with dried fish flakes or hot curries, the ship gives you the opportunity to return to a Western style menu. The ship also takes care of visas and immigration ahead of each port.

Besides our time in Singapore our trip included four stops in Vietnam, Hong Kong, two stops in the Philippines which included Manila, two stops in Borneo, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Brunei and two stops in Thailand. We had an opportunity to see a lot as well as try a number of cuisines. Many of the destinations were studies in extreme contrasts but it was also obvious that things are greatly improving economically. It is also interesting to switch from Muslim to Buddhist to Western cultures as we went from one port to the next. On board there were a number of excellent in-depth lectures on the history and culture of the various countries which provided a good perspective on the ways the region developed.

Over the last number of years we have found cruising gives us an opportunity to sample a number of places and than we decide where we want to come back to for extended stays. Southeast Asia is no exception to this and we certainly have a few we will add to our return list.


Phone Service: We were traveling on this trip with an iPhone 5 on Verizon service ($80 for 250 international minutes)and with a Blu 5.5 phone with a prepaid international plan from One Sim Card service. Vietnam and Brunei were not part of the Verizon international service so we switched use to OneSimCard. Phone calls with Verizon worked well everywhere else but there were problems getting text messages out on a few days. The only reliable data that we found on the Verizon service was in Singapore (didn’t attempt in Hong Kong) most other places indicated “Data Service Failed”. The One Sim Card service worked as expected except in Vietnam. There we connected with the recommended service provider (Viettel) but instead of text messages costing the expected 25¢ they were charged at a couple of dollars. One Sim Card did send a text message warning of high costs on this service recommending we switch networks, even though Viettel was their recommended provider.


In the near future look for posts covering each of these countries with pointers on must do things, food, transportation and hotels.

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