Tag-Archive for » Ho Chi Minh City «

Viator Guide A Memorable Man


His name is Kim. Just Kim. We are introduced on the banks of the Saigon River in Vietnam. We are on a Viator excursion and he is our guide. He is polite, informative and the antithesis of a rah-rah guide who tries to impress with his clever dialogue so that at the end of the day he’ll get a bigger tip.

For Kim — and his eight customers — the end of the day was nine hours later.

It began with an hour-long ride up (down?) the river, to the Cu Chi Tunnels for a fascinating look at the underground network and weaponry the Viet Cong used in winning the Vietnam War, 40 years ago. Throughout the two hours or so we spent at what is now a huge tourist attraction, Kim’s knowledge and opinions made the tour better than expected.

The day also included a first-ever (and possibly last) visit to a cricket farm, which included a snack that was optional from the farm’s owners, and a lunch (long after we’d digested the little creatures) at an authentic Vietnamese restaurant. Not that you’d expect to find anything but authentic Vietnamese restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, but this was so good we’ve been seeking the North American version ever since returning home.

Our day was nine hours and Kim’s has to be at least two more. When he told us he would become a father in a few months, our tip included a contribution for the daughter-to-be’s Kim Nguyenpiggy bank — he said it would be her first deposit. As we parted, we exchanged email addresses, something we often do when meeting somebody so likeable and personable. We discovered there was more to him than Kim — Kim Nguyen Dinh — and we resolved to stay in touch.

Fast forward…

Our first email went unanswered for almost two weeks. These things happen. Sometimes they’re never answered. When Kim responded, he was apologetic. His father had been suffering from liver cancer for almost a year (long before we met him) and the prognosis was not good. His next email brought the inevitable news. In December, another email announcing the arrival of Cecilia, or Gia Kha Han in Vietnamese.

For his family, it completed the cycle of life.

When you exchange emails with strangers from a land far away, it’s not always like this. But when it is like this, you learn that we’re really not that different, are we?

In the news…

• Launching in May, Harmony of the Seas to feature Dreamworks characters

Today at portsandbows.comFood spectacles for Princess crowd

Holland America Veendam
7 nights
March 13, 2016
Tampa (return): Key West, Banana Coast, Santo Tomas de Castilla, Costa Maya
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71

Friday File: A Market In Vietnam

In a country such as Vietnam, markets are far more than tourist attractions; they are the lifeblood of its people, who depend on catches of the day and main courses that North Americans regard as delicacies for their survival. For locals, every day is market day, sometimes without closures. Fellow cruisers on AmaWaterways’ new river ship AmaDara had an opportunity to visit this Cai De market, not far from Ho Chi Minh City, and to photograph its contents and its people…

1-dozens of rice varieties

Southeast Asia seems to have as many types of rice as it has dialects.

2-a family affair

Markets are family affairs for vendors, and the youngest learn that early.

3-yep...those are rats

To the question “Are those what I think they are?” the answer is “Yes — rats.”

4-winning smile

A friendly wave and winning smile, trademarks of the Vietnamese people.

5-the dollar store of the market

The dollar store of Cai De’s market, on the shores of the Mekong River.

6-Live chickens

Yes, those are chickens and they’re alive only until winding up on a plate.

7-Vietnamese hats

Beneath the conical hat’s perfect cone is a woman happy at work in the market.

8-even games of chance...

This was a surprise but maybe shouldn’t have been — games of chance sold here.

9-If there was an award for best sox..

If Cai De had an award for coolest socks, chances are this would be a winner.

In the news…

• Explorer of the Seas rocked with tornado-like winds off Australian coast
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Today at portsandbows.com: Azamara unveils itineraries three years early

Holland America Noordam
7 nights
May 1, 2016
Vancouver (return): Inside Passage, Tracy Arm, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, Inside Passage
Inside: $699
Cost per day: $99

Scooting Around Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh-1

Going on cruises has led us to do things in life that are out of character. One was during an Alaska cruise with Princess…being afraid of heights and then taking a helicopter onto North America’s tallest mountain, Denali.

Ho Chi Minh-2The most recent was after a river cruise with AmaWaterways…taking a scooter rider with two complete strangers on a street corner in Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon has been called since 1976.

Actually, they were two scooter rides. One on the “back seat” of one Huynh brother scooter; one in the same place behind the other brother.

We’d just walked out of The Independence Palace, formerly the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government before it fell and North Vietnamese tanks rolled onto the palace grounds on April 30, 1975. The Hunyh brothers were waiting for us…or anybody else daring enough to go touring with them.

For whatever reason, we agreed to go. For whatever reason, we (obviously) made it back safe and sound.

There’s always been a tendency in our household to shy away from street vendors who want to take you “somewhere.” Not only did we throw that theory out the window, we didn’t even know where “somewhere” was, only that they were going to show us Saigon, as it’s still known to people of our vintage, both in and out of Vietnam.

These were two of the 9 or 10 million people (it depends who you ask) in Ho Chi Minh City, taking us on two of the 7 million scooters. One of us thought it was safer than trying to cross the street, and that seemed like sound rationale to the other.

Off we went with the brothers Hunyh.

What became a 90-minute trip to see the city through the eyes of locals, the first stop was the post office. That’s right, the post office. Either locals are proud of its French Ho Chi Minh-PO2architecture or they think it’s something tourists want to see, but the post offices in our world are places we go to mail things. Period. Nonetheless, this one was beautiful, and adorned with a huge picture of the country’s patriarch, Ho Chi Minh.

We had a glimpse of the cathedral down the street that was not open, and running commentary (make that riding commentary) about a variety of sights along the way and the life of the two brothers: Both are married, one for the second time and one for 24 years to a woman who “I love forever.”

Next stop was the Viet Cong Museum, also closed, but with enough artifacts on the grounds to take it interesting. One of the Hunyhs insisted we climb onto a Viet Cong tank, Ho Chi Minh-VCan act which we suspect would not have been met with much of an endorsement had the still-Communist government’s officials been around.

The last stop was a famous pagoda — the brothers are Buddhists — that was a particularly busy place this day because it had something to do with fertility, so most of the occupants were women who wanted to make sure the stars were aligned and the gods were Ho Chi Minh-Pagoda-2smiling. We stayed there longer than expected (nothing to do with fertility), watching people light incense and pray while getting an elaborate explanation of everything in and outside the temple, including a 70-year-old turtle in a cage that would have infuriated Ho Chi Minh-4animal rights people in North America.

Since we were paying them by the hour, we could only surmise why the last stop took so long. The price was 300,000 dong per hour (Vietnamese currency), per person, which isn’t nearly as much as it looks. For an hour and a half, that was almost a million dong.

Or $45.

All things considered, it was money well spent. The brothers Huynh were delightful, polite and trustworthy. We’d probably have paid that just for the scooter ride — or to get across the street without being run over!

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Today at 
Scenic going deep into Southeast Asia

Norwegian Spirit
14 nights
April 23, 2016
Port Canaveral (return): St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Funchal, Barcelona
Inside: $829
Cost per day: $59

Vietnam: Cruising’s Next Hotspot?

Maybe it’s because we were just in Vietnam, cruising down the Mekong River on the AmaDara. Maybe it’s because every time somebody asks us what Vietnam was like, we can’t say enough nice things. Maybe it’s because more cruise ships — new ones from Carnival and Norwegian and Princess, all announced in a 24-hour period — are going to be visiting Vietnam from their Asian homeports.

Maybe it’s the food, which is as tasty as you’ll find anywhere. Maybe it’s because when the DSCN2011preliminary Trans-Pacific Partnership was announced last week, the partners are Australia and the United States and Canada and Singapore and Chile…and Vietnam.

Maybe it’s all of that.

For tourism, Vietnam is the next Cuba.

Yes, it’s a Communist country. Yes, it was war-torn and hated all those years ago. Yes, it comes with uncertainty bred by a lack of knowledge. All of those things crossed our minds before we flew to Cambodia, which is not Communist but also comes with the other psychological baggage…and which is also warm and welcoming.

We loved them both. The people are warm and friendly. The people are happy and prospering, at least by the standards they have known for too long. They want a better life and with at least some access to the World Wide Web, they’re seeing things they’ve never seen. They see that tourism is an enormous asset.

The U.S. has recognized this Vietnam since 1996. With the emigration of many cruise ships to the Asian market, cruise analysts also have recognized the attraction of taking their customers to Vietnam. The river cruisers probably started it, and the AmaWaterways ship that took us to within an hour of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is not a refurbished, aged relic of the past…it is new.

Cuba wants to welcome the world, and it’s hot. Vietnam is going to be.

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Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Norwegian Jade
7 nights
January 9, 2016
Houston (return): Cozumel, Belize, Roatan
Inside: $479
Cost per day: $68

Traffic Chaos Training In Asia

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — A colleague who left this busy little city widely known for Angkor Wat the day before we arrived sent us this message about the traffic:

“I always feel,” said journalist Will McGough, “like I'm a few seconds away from seeing the biggest accident of my life.”

Will is right.

Controlled chaos. This being our first visit to Southeast Asia, to board the AmaDara on the new AmaWaterways ship’s maiden voyage south on the Mekong River, we had no real Streets of Siem Reapreference point. Maybe all Asian cities are like this, with mostly two-wheeled vehicles going every direction, but Siem Reap seems unique.

Or more unique.

There are few cars, for a city of 175,000. There’s a zillion scooters, or so it seems, many of them called tuk-tuks — a scooter or motorbike pulling the carriage in which you ride. Traffic lights are also rare; in fact we don’t remember seeing one, and it’s understandable. Nobody would pay attention to them anyway.

The biggest accident of Will’s life never happened. Not for him. Not for us. In four days here, nary a crash. And then, on to Saigon…

To use a baseball analogy, Siem Reap was like spring training. Perhaps because of the sheer size of the South Vietnam hub that’s also known as Ho Chi Minh City. It has a Saigon-traffic-1population of nine million people…and seven million scooters. No kidding. That was a matter-of-fact statement made by two people we encountered.

If the biggest accident of Will’s life was imminent in Siem Reap, the biggest accident in history was imminent in Saigon. Pictures, even videos, don’t really do it justice. There are more traffic lights in Saigon and people actually stop at them. Sort of. There are even crosswalks for pedestrians, but they’re mostly for decorative purposes.

Saigon-traffic-3And there are always people willing to tell you how to cross the street and live to talk about it:

“Walk at the same pace. Don’t run. Don’t stop, even if you think somebody’s going to hit you. Make eye contact with the driver of any vehicle(s) you think might be of danger. You will get to the other side if you follow these instructions.”

If you watch locals do this, it’s clear that it works. The confident, calm look on their faces tells you they’re not worried. Why should you be?

So we weren’t. One fine day in Saigon, during rush hour (aka, even more chaotic), we walked across a main thoroughfare three times. One of us even felt comfortable doing it, despite the fingernail marks dug into his hand.

And yes, we lived to talk — or write — about it.

In the news…

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Today at portsandbows.com: Sunwing connecting Canadian cruisers with Cuba

Carnival Liberty
7 nights
December 13, 2015
San Juan (return): St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Maarten
Inside: $419
Cost per day: $59

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