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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!

In the news…

• Four new shuttle buses dedicated to cruiser passengers in Port of Galveston
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• TUI Cruises to send new Mein Schiff 6 to U.S. and Canada in 2017


Today at 
portsandbows.com
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
www.ncl.com

A French Landmark Back In Saigon

Le Meridien-2

SAIGON — A sign of the times in Vietnam’s southernmost city is Le Meridien Saigon. A member of the Starwood chain and arguably this city’s most modern hotel, it officially opened this weekend, still something of a secret to taxi drivers who haven’t ferried enough guests there in the weeks leading up to the ceremonial opening.

Modernity aside, it has all the things that are right about being in Ho Chi Minh City, the more modern and politically correct name, starting with its location. 

It towers over the Saigon River, providing fascinating views of traffic ranging from tankers to speedboats that negotiate between the water hyacinth plants that rise and fall with the Le Meridien-6tide. Around the corner is a quirky little street called Ngo Van Nam, home to restaurants like Quan Bui, recommended to us and home of the best food we’ve had in five days here since leaving the AmaDara after cruising down the Mekong River.

The hotel is staffed by the happiest, warmest and ridiculously friendliest people — and Le Meridien-4there are many of them, at every turn trying to help you out — you could hope to encounter in Southeast Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. There’s never a door unopened, nor a question unanswered, nor a business issue without a solution.

The rooms have all the current computer-driven necessities and gadgets, like energy-saving keys to the lights and electronic blinds to allow you to over-sleep, if inclined. That’s necessary, given the size of the windows that allow natural light to pour into the spacious rooms.

There’s a plethora of good eating in Vietnam, and this hotel has the most extensive dinner buffet we’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever.

While its facade smacks of modern architecture, everything inside has a taste of the French heritage that for 100 years was so much a part of Saigon, from the artwork decorating the walls to the music played on the sound system filtering into lounges and restaurants. Surprisingly, perhaps, French can be heard from the staff, as a second or third language…Vietnamese and English being the other two.

When the French left here — or were driven out — half a century ago, it’s unlikely they’d ever have foreseen one day a hotel called Le Meridien would be such a part of the Le Meridien-7landscape…right down to the French pastries in a shop off the lobby. The service is so personal that guests are cautioned when leaving the hotel about what and where is safe and what and where isn’t, and when you take a taxi the people at the front door know what cab you’re in and where you’re going — they give you a card with the hotel address to make sure the drivers know where your “home” is.

It is, after all, still new to the cabbies.

In the news…

• More than 12,000 cruisers yesterday in Vancouver from three Alaska ships
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• Free safaris among Oceania perks for North Americans cruising to South Africa

Today at portsandbows.com: Carnival's immersive shore excursions


Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas
11 nights
October 23, 2015
Dubai, Goa, Cochin, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore
Inside: $424
Cost per day: $38
www.royalcaribbean.com

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…

• Three Celebrity ships drop Istanbul for balance of season over security concerns
• Engine-room fire delays Carnival Liberty's departure from St. Thomas

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
www.carnival.com

First River Cruise: Mekong Riches

Our first river cruise — on AmaWaterways’ luxurious new AmaDara — is history. So it’s the first chance for us to compare it to what we’ve always known: ocean cruises.

This is not an all-inclusive comparison, as our “inaugural” was in a remote, somewhat virgin part of the river cruise world, Cambodia and Vietnam. There’s only a handful of AmaDarapassenger ships cruising the Mekong River. In Europe, the river cruise mecca, you might see that many in half an hour.

Given that caveat, here are some observations for anybody thinking about cruising the Mekong…

* It’s the best way to see this part of the world if you’ve never been there, and we hadn’t. Faced with such a different culture, customs in a Communist country and languages unlike anything resembling English, it’s comforting to retreat to the comfort of the AmaDara until you get your feet wet.

* Choose the time of year carefully. Right now is still monsoon season, which can mean heavy rainfall for at least part of every day. High season starts in November, for six months.

* Seeing the Mekong Delta is an eye-opener as to how dependent both countries are on the river. It is a working river in every sense of the word, the lifeblood for millions of people.

• There are fewer selections of shore excursions — usually no more than a choice of two — and in this area rarely do you walk off the ship and into an excursion. Bus and boat rides can take minutes to an hour or more to reach the destination on land, just like they do from ocean ships.

• The guides are wonderful and the shore excursions interesting, to say the least. Because river cruising is more expensive, shore excursions are usually included and onMekongthis cruise delivered a wide-ranging sample of the people, the lives they live and the obstacles they’ve overcome.

* A river ship like this is both comforting and confining. Everything is close and, with fixed meals and one main restaurant and maximum 124 passengers, a family feeling develops. Anonymity, for those who like it, is out of the question.

* Service is better than on the ocean ships. For example, the cruise director knew everybody by name — EVERYBODY — by the second day and he was always there to respond to the smallest of queries.

* Food reflects the local cuisines (pho soup in the morning), but there’s always comfort food on the menu for the less adventuresome. In that sense, it’s like ocean ships but the food quality is kicked up a notch or three.

* While you can’t walk anywhere, you have to be able to walk. There’s no elevator on the ship, no wheelchair accessibility to the ship and while shore excursions aren’t demanding, they almost all require lengthy walks in humid conditions.

* Getting on and off the ship is so much simpler. You pick up your boarding pass and return it when you get back.

* While it’s sold as a cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the rides at both ends can be lengthy…and we really did have to wait for a chicken to cross the road.

* On river ships the rooms are bigger, more comfortable and close to everything — obviously.

* The landscape is so different, a refreshing change from watching the waves go by, and there are photo ops left and right, every day, all day.

As a first river cruise, “Riches of the Mekong” is going to be a tough act for us to follow.

In the news…

• Fur Carnival ships sailing to Bermuda from April through November next year
• Today first chance for booking immersive cruises on Crystal Esprit from 2016 to 2018

Today at portsandbows.com: Regent Seven Seas’ sweet suites


Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam
7 nights
October 19, 2015
Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Alicante, Motril, Gibraltar, Cartagena, Rome
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $85
www.hollandamerica.com

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