Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Day 7 - Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Becky, your comment about a relaxing sea day topped off with great food sums it up perfectly and I could not have said it any better! The food in Qsine was very creative and the best we have had on the ship. We are going back for a second time before the end of the cruise. 

After a relaxing sea day we are excited to be spending the next two days in Saigon, Vietnam (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City). Once the ship is cleared we will attempt to disembark after 7:00 am. We joined a small group from our Cruise Critic Roll Call for our transport to Saigon and a tour of the city on the second day.

As sunrises go, today's was pretty spectacular as we approached Phu My.

Sunrise in Phu My, Vietnam
It was very beautiful coming into the port. It was also quite peaceful as you could only hear some birds in the distance.

We went to breakfast early and then we would go get our passports. The bagels on the ship are like a rock.

We went back to our room to watch the rest of the docking process. Today the weather will be sunny with a high of 91 degrees Fahrenheit.

Very peaceful on the river near Phu My

There were a lot of boats in the area and I think they were looking at us just as much as we were watching them.

Lots of trees and dense foliage

Some interesting boats

Once the ship was cleared we went to the Rendezvous lounge to collect our passports. Due to the ordeal for retrieving the passports for Bangkok we had rather low expectations. However, I am happy to report that it was very easy! They had the passports in small boxes organized by deck number and they just pulled them out and handed them over. We received our passports around 7:15 am. There were lots of smiling faces!

Lots of smiles while collecting the passports
We were amazed that is was so simple and that there was no chaos. The crew were very happy too. Apparently a pilot boat picked up the Vietnamese authorities at 3:00 am! Although a hardship for the authorities it certainly worked.

Below is a photo of the visa which takes up an entire page in my passport.

My Vietnam Visa

We walked down the gangway early and assembled on the pier looking for others in our small private tour provided by Smile. The guide was there to greet us with a sign with the group name on it. There are 10 people in the group and mostly everyone soon arrived. The original meeting time was 7:00 am after the ship had been cleared but this had been pushed back to 8:00 am. I forgot about the time change and had not read a reminder email sent on December 4th. A lot of the people started to get anxious when the last two people with the name on the group sign had not arrived. It was hot standing on the pier so the guide took everyone else to the bus. Because I had met them and knew what they looked like, I stood there holding the sign. An hour had gone by from the time we had disembarked and and we wondered what could be holding up the last two people.

I was just about to go back on the ship to search for them as we spotted the last two for our group exit the ship onto the gangway. We found out that although it appeared that most people had an easy time getting their passports returned this was not true for everyone. This couple not only had to wait for their passports but they also had to insist one of the guest relations staff get on his radio to figure out what had happened to them. He just told them to wait. He finally did call and eventually someone came with their passports. Apparently the Captain was there too and his passport was not ready either!

I have to give this couple credit as they did not complain or lament later about what they had just endured. We  were all on the bus now and we started on our way out of the port. The bus is a small tour bus and holds 24 people. There is not a lot of leg room but we were comfortable. Mr. Khoa is our guide and he said it would be about 2 hours to Saigon (it was actually much shorter than that). He offered us bottled water which was not cold but there was a cooler next to him which was empty. This was just to deposit the empty bottles and did not hold ice!

Along the road to Saigon
Mr. Khoa provided some commentary about Vietnam and Saigon along the way but he was not a broken record which I think we were all thankful for. Many of the Vietnamese houses are very narrow because land is at a premium. Usually people live upstairs and then the ground floor is a business or shop.

The drive was mostly uninteresting except we got to see a plethora of different motorcyclists and their colorful outfits on the way to Saigon. This mother and daughter below were interestingly attired.

Mother and child on the way to Saigon

As we got closer we could see some of the buildings near Saigon.

Getting very close to Saigon

We arrived in Saigon but my mother and I were soon dismayed that instead of driving directly to the Sheraton Hotel which is the dropoff point, the bus detoured to a lacquer factory for a tour and shopping. As this was not something we wanted to do, Mr. Khoa helped us get a taxi and we departed immediately for our hotel. Thi, who runs Smile provided a detailed itinerary and the lacquer factory was not on it.

We are meeting a private guide I hired through Viator to do our own private tour today. Tomorrow we will tour Saigon with the group from our bus.

Saigon Nikko Hotel

The traffic was not bad at all compared to Bangkok but perhaps being a Saturday that had something to do with it. We arrived at the Saigon Nikko Hotel about 10 minutes later. The Nikko is located further from the center of town and it is only a year old. It is still in District 1 but is close to District 10 and Chinatown.

Nikko Hotel postcard
I decided to book this particular hotel because it is Japanese and therefore offers Japanese food and they also have Toto washlet toilets. The Toto fascination may be lost on most people but I was really looking forward to it.

Nikko Lobby
When we arrived at the hotel we were able to check in immediately even though it was only around 10:00 am. Our Viator guide "Rose" (real name Huang) was in the lobby and introduced herself. We went upstairs to leave our bags. Our room is 1810 and the is very soothing with neutral colors.

Our room Saigon Nikko

We have very nice view of the city. The hotel is also connected to a mall called Now Zone which is next door.

View from our room

Another view from the room

The bathroom is spacious and has a large tub and a frosted glass panel to get light from the room. There is also a separate shower. 
Nice Bath
The Toto toilet is great but no comparison to the one we had at the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai. One of the major differences is this one does not raise the seat to greet you and you have to use the handle to flush it. It is still nice and probably much better than what the average Vietnamese family has at home.

Toto Washlet

Toto Controls 
After about 10 minutes in the room we went back down to meet Rose and start our shopping tour of Saigon. Before we departed I became an instant millionaire buy converting some US dollars to Vietnamese Dong. I exchanged $50 USD at a rate of 20,800 VND to the dollar. This resulted in 1,040,000 VND Dong! I did not want to get too much because many places will accept US dollars.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

Saigon is a very western city and due to the Vietnam War is more Americanized than the North. The population of approximately 6 million people are spread over 12 main districts. The city center is situated on the banks of the Saigon River and is 37 miles from the South China Sea.

Vietnam has been making excellent economic advances in the last 8 years. Even with a current banking crisis the country's GDP grew to US $124 billion in 2012. By comparison the GDP in 2004 was only US $38.9 billion. The economy is forecast to grow 5.1% in 2013.

Billionaire Nhat Vuong is only 44 years old and one of Vietnam's great success stories. He attended university in the Ukraine and parlayed his expertise as a dehydrated noodle king into real estate and commercial development when he returned to Vietnam in 2001. He is chairman of Vingroup Joint Stock Company  and is credited with adding to the infrastructure of both Saigon and Hanoi. This includes apartment buildings, shopping centers and hotels.

Vietnam is culturally East Asian and it is only due to geography that it is considered part of Southeast Asia. The majority of Vietnamese are followers of Confucius, they use chopsticks and adhere to Mahayana Buddhism instead of Theravada. Several universities, including Harvard list Vietnam under its East Asia studies program.

Below is a map showing Vietnam and its borders with its neighbors.

Map of Southeast Asia
Vietnam is only slightly larger than New Mexico. It is 1,650 km long and only 50 km wide at it narrowest point.  It borders China, Laos and Cambodia.

As I knew a little bit about Vietnam and Saigon I was looking forward to spending time with a local. Rose and I corresponded by email about the places we were interesting in seeing and came up with a final list.

We are not on a mission to drop a wad of cash. The shopping expedition is planned with fun in mind and seeing the vibrant areas of Saigon.We exited the hotel and Rose told us it would be a 10 minute walk to our first stop. It was more like 20 and my mother was already starting to buckle. Rose was very good at crossing the busy streets with all the motorbikes. We walked on either side of her and she held our hands like kindergartners as we gingerly made our way across the street.

Rose helped us cross the street

This was actually very good training and I was glad we did not take a taxi. I really enjoyed walking however my mother did not share this sentiment.

We saw one of the mobile food carts go by. We also spotted a stand with ladies lifestyle magazines.

Street Food Cart

A display of ladies magazines
We came across a very nice Baptist Church called Nam Duc Tin. I am not sure when it was founded but the exterior is beautiful.

Nam Duc Tin Baptist Church
We reached our first stop which is a store called Gaya. They sold clothing and also housewares but it was just okay and we soon departed by taxi to the next spot. We passed the Ben Thanh market which we will visit tomorrow with the rest of the group from our private tour.

Ben Thanh Market

It was about a five minute ride to Saigon Craft which sells very nice bowls and other housewares made in Vietnam. I purchased two rice bowls and a red lacquer one that can hold food. Mother purchased a serving piece made of buffalo horn.

We continued on our sightseeing and shopping tour to Vincon Center. There is a newer mall and and older one with the same name. We first went to the new one and then walked to the old one. They are very close together. We passed the Rex Hotel along the way.

Rex Hotel
We were now near Dong Khoi which is Saigon's most fashionable shopping street. In the photo below the Vincon Center is on the left and the Opera House directly ahead.

We continued past the Hotel Continental which was featured prominently in the writing of Graham Greene in "The Quiet American".

Historic Continental Hotel
We finally reached the Vincon Center high rise and went inside. This is one of the shopping malls from the Vingroup and billionaire Mr. Vuong.

Vincon Center
We were impressed with how nice it was inside. I wanted to see a store called Runway and Rose kindly found it on the directory. We road the escalator upstairs and had a nice view.

Inside Vincon Center

Runway was just at the end of the hall. Architecturally it is a beautiful store. There are curved walls and a huge metal cube hiding the dressing rooms. The clothes and household items were interesting but nothing screamed at me that I needed to take it home.

The store is very open and easy to navigate.

Huang "Rose" and mother checking out the items for sale
The clothing was mostly women's but there was also Men's located near silver cube.

Runway dressing area

We exited the store and headed downstairs where they were holding a practice run for some new hires.

I love their shoes!

As we left the mall it was almost 1:00 pm and we were getting hungry for lunch.  We passed the Parkson shopping mall on the way to our lunch destination.

Parkson Shopping Mall

We considered several options via email with Rose. I ultimately decided to go to the Temple Club for its 1930's colonial charm, excellent A/C and highly regarded Vietnamese fare.

Temple Club upstairs

The Temple Club was created by a Frenchman and is a relic of a bygone era. It is located in an old restored villa. You enter from below and walk up to the second floor.

Rose must be camera shy
It was somewhat busy for lunch and the best tables near the windows were taken. I did try to make a reservation on their website but that didn't work too well.

Temple Club and 1930's Colonial Charm
We looked at the menu which was quite extensive. They had a good selection of wines and also non-alcoholic beverages. I ordered a soft drink with lime, my mother ordered a Caipirnha and Rose had a local drink. The menu is in Vietnamese, Japanese and English which may represent their clientele. The other dinners appeared to be Japanese and Korean. Perhaps they should also add Korean to the menu.

Part of the Temple Club Men

We decided to order a few items to share. Once we had decided on the dishes we let Rose do the honors of ordering.

We started with the Spring Roll which were very crispy and delicious! The sauce was also excellent.

Yummy Spring Roll
The next dish was soft fried noodle. I probably would not have picked this one but Rose seemed interested in ordering it. It was actually very good.

During the meal Rose told us about her life and family. Her grandfather left Saigon in 1975 with the departing Americans after the war. He lived in the United States for the remainder of his life. Her mother left Saigon 8 years ago on a visa to care for Roses's dying grandfather. Her mother decided not to return to Vietnam and she has not seen her in all that time.

Rose works for a shipping company called Green Power. Later in the day she pointed out the modern building it is in. She is interested in getting a visa to the US but her mother told her it is very difficult to live there and that she is better off in Saigon. We felt a little sad hearing this. Rose also has a younger brother who lives nearby so at least she still has some family here.

Soft Fried noddle with seafood

I thought we had ordered an eggplant dish with purple rice but apparently we did not. The final dish was a BBQ port dish which my mother requested but I did not like at all and would rather forget hence the omission of a photo. While we were finishing lunch, Rose received a call on her cell from our Smile guide. He told her that tomorrow he would pick us up at our hotel instead of the Bin Tay market in Chinatown. He said the pickup time would be 8:20 am. Originally we were to meet the group at the Bin Tay market in Chinatown between 8:30 am and 8:45 am.

We enjoyed the lunch and the wonderful surroundings. The restaurant has a full bar and a nice ambiance. It is reportedly a popular dinner destination.

Bar Area
Since we were eating late by the time we were done most of the diners had departed.

Beautiful arched windows

The total for lunch including drinks was 786,000 VND or $38 USD.

Bill presented in USD and Dong

As per our advance planning, we left the Temple Club and went directly downstairs to Fanny for dessert.


The Fanny ice cream brand was created in 1994 by Jean-Marc Bruno who lives in Vietnam. The ice cream is produced with traditional french methods. There are at least 30 flavors and some of them are quite unusual and not your run of the mill chocolate, vanilla or strawberry, They use no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and the product is gluten free.

Fanny Ice Cream

According to the Fanny website they import food dry stuff from France, India, Madagascar and Japan. The milk products are imported from the US, New Zealand and Europe. The chocolate is reportedly from Belgium.

We love ice cream and were eagerly looking forward to trying some. The flavors were all very tempting and it was a challenge to decide on just one. We ended up having a couple of different flavors.

Fanny Ice Cream
The setting is basic but really nice and we ordered and then they brought the items to the table.

Fanny interior
Our desserts look very pretty. Mother and I both had mocha ice cream. I was wondering what the avocado one tasted like though. The ice cream consistency was very light and was similar to gelato but better!

Mother's ice cream on the left, Rose's in the middle and mine on the right
I think Rose enjoyed it too. I don't remember the total cost but it was very reasonable.

We left Fanny and walked down the street to our next stop on Dong Khoi. We passed a HTC store which I was really surprised to see. This is the company that makes the mobile phone I have which will not shut down, it just restarts and I have to keep it in airplane mode to conserve the battery.

HTC Store in Saigon
I was thinking about stopping her but decided that may void the warranty with T-Mobile if they do anything drastic.

Khai Silk

The next shop we entered was Khai Silk. It was my favorite store of the day if not the entire trip so far. The items for sale were very nice and the store itself was gorgeous! I knew I was going to buy something but it was hard deciding on what. The store had beautiful wooden floors on 3 levels so it took some time to see everything.

Khai Silk

The top level had items at a reduced price. I saw a silver scarf that I thought my mother would like. I handed it to one of the salespeople and asked her to show it to my mother who was on the ground floor.

When I went back downstairs my mother said it was perfect and she was surprised the salesperson knew what she would like! I considered so many items but ended up only buying 2 scarves. Perhaps if there was more time and I did not feel like I was rushing I would have bought a few other items.

We took a short walk up the street to see one more store called L'Ursine. It is a popular hangout and similar in look to the Anthropologie stores in the US. It is housed in 1890's building that was once the glamorous Hotel du Saigon. They sell locally designed clothing and accessories. They also have a popular cafe which serves food. I liked the creativeness of the store but there was nothing here for me to buy.

This photo shows some of the cupcakes the store is well known for.

Yummy cupcakes on the right
After leaving L'Ursine we went to one more store called Ai Doi. It was an emporium of various Vietnamese products. I think we were starting to get tired so we decided it was now time to return to the hotel. Rose seemed a little disappointed since we had a couple more places on the list but we were pooped!

The three of us got in a taxi and we proceeded back to the Nikko. We passed some interesting sites along the way.

Another interesting shopping mall

The photo below shows Vietnam's tallest building, the Saigon Financial center which towers over the other buildings and can be seen across the city. 
Central roundabout
There was no rush hour since it was a Saturday and were soon back at the hotel. We had Rose come up to room with us so we could pay her and also to let her use our bathroom. We gave her a nice tip too and thanked her for a great day and for helping us dodge all the motorbikes. She said she lives near Chinatown and that the Nikko is not far from her home.

We also freshened up for our night out.The Nikko takes the display of the toiletries very seriously!

Nikko toiletries
It was now about 4:30 pm and we were happy to rest in the room and I used the wifi. It was so easy to use that you did not even have to sign in or use a password.

A little before 6:00 pm we went downstairs to get a taxi to take us to the Golden Water Puppet Theater. The Mai Linh taxi came and took us the short distance to the theater.

Puppet Show ticket
I had our hotel purchase the tickets for us in advance as they often sell out. The performance is sung in Vietnamese and the actors stand behind a partition in knee deep water and manipulate the puppets. The puppets are large and more like marionettes.  The water puppets are originally a North Vietnamese creation but the show in Saigon has become very popular.

When we arrived it was confusing where to go but I asked a policeman and it was just down a little alley.

Near the theater
Front of the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater

We showed our tickets and were shown to our seats which were C 9 &10 and located in the third row on the left side of the theater facing the stage. There were a lot of people and the greeters where having some trouble finding everyone an available seat.

She looks puzzled where to put these people
The theater looks like it holds about 400 people.

The seats behind us

The theater was eventually completely full. The show depicts stories of Vietnamese heritage over 11 centuries. Amazing that they can cover all of that in just 45 minutes! There are 17 different acts which are each only a few minutes long. The singers and musicians sit on the side of the stage. There is a water tank in the center.

Singers and musicians ans on both sides of the stage

The show began and it was surprising how loud it was! It would be hard to fall asleep.

This part is called on a Buffalo with a Flute

Lots of people were taking photos and the majority of the audience was Asian.

This one may be raising the Festival Flag
Might be returning to the native land

I am pretty sure this one is the Dragon Dance

A close up of the puppets

The show was interesting but I don't think I would lose sleep over missing it. I am glad I went though. The applause was very loud and the audience seemed to very much enjoy the show.

The actors accepting applause

We took a taxi back to the hotel but it was not Mai Linh but another company. There were no Mai Linh taxis so we took this one which was a mistake. We are obviously easy prey coming from the theater. I noticed the taxi meter already said 175,000 dong before we even approached the hotel. The driver tried to have us get out before the hotel but we insisted he take us to the entrance and we encountered no resistance.

When we got to the door I motioned to the doorman to come over. I explained that the meter said 200,000 dong for the short ride from the theater. The previous ride to get there was only 30,000. The doorman spoke to the driver and he accepted the 30,000 dong. Crisis averted!

The hotel was very pretty at night with the Christmas decorations. We walked through the lobby to get to one of the restaurants.

Lobby with nice tree
I had read online about their seafood buffet so we went to have a look. It was huge and quite popular but also a bit overwhelming.

Seafood Buffet

We decided to go back to the lobby and check out the Japanese restaurant called Fuji.

Fuji Restaurant
We took a quick look at the menu and were seated at a table in the rear. I ordered sake and my mother had the plum wine which came in a tumbler and more closely resembled scotch. We placed our order and the food arrived in about 15 minutes.

My mother had duck and I had Tekkaju. It came with miso soup. It was very good and fresh but a little fatty. I prefer my tuna to be more lean.

It was a good size portion and I was soon full. We skipped dessert.

When we were done with dinner we noticed the entrance to the Now Zone mall was just next door. We decided to take a quick look

Now Zone Mall
The mall looked quite nice but we didn't explore more than a small section of the first floor. There are 7 floors of shops and restaurants.

We went back up to our room and I did some photo editing and used the wifi. Mother watched a little TV and was soon drifting off to sleep.

Turn down gift
Tomorrow we have a full day of touring Saigon with our Smile group and then we will return to the ship.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the scenery sailing up the river into this harbor. And I agree that those toilets are quite fascinating. The first one I encountered didn't have diagrams. So, pushing any button brought an unexpected surprise.

    Pictures don't lie...the Vietnamese people have no rhyme or reason when it comes to sense of style. Who says plaids, florals & stripes don't go together?