Friday, January 25, 2013

Day 8 - Ho Chi Mihn City (Saigon) Continued

Yesterday we very much enjoyed our shopping escapade with our guide, Rose in Saigon. Rose did a superb job and we were also grateful for her help with escorting us across the street despite a zillion fast approaching motorbikes. We especially appreciated being able to explore Saigon on our own and at our own pace.

Today the sun is shining and it looks to be another great day. The view very similar outside to what is shown in the postcard below.

Postcard of View from Nikko Hotel

Our tour with Smile today will focus primarily on Saigon's historical sites. We have never done a private tour before organized through a Cruise Critic roll call. It will be interesting to see what it is like.

We have an early start and a hotel pickup at 8:20 am. We both slept very well and are rearing to go and see the sites. Mother enjoyed watching the Australian TV channel while I took a quick shower.

We went down to the lobby for breakfast and I was looking forward to the Japanese specialties. The breakfast area is called The Brasserie and is the same area where they had the extravagant seafood buffet last night.

The room is bright an airy with large windows. There was a lot of choice on the buffet but it was not as appealing as those at other hotels on this trip.. There was some very strange looking fish (almost scary) but they did have other items to our liking including noddle, rice, seaweed and daikon. I also had a small serving of curry rice. The curry rice was not something I would usually eat for breakfast but it was delicious! It is similar to having pizza in the morning.

My breakfast

Yummy Curry Rice

There was a family sitting near us with 3 small children. The father was in charge of getting the food and juice for the kids. There were two woman at the table and we assumed one was the mother but you couldn't tell which one as they both seemed to ignore the kids. The kids were between 4 to 7 years old and very well behaved. It was hard to tell which country they were from as they were speaking 3 different languages, including English. They said they were touring Saigon so perhaps we will see them later.

We finished our meal and noticed an area off to the side where they display wedding information. I would not normally think Saigon was a big draw for Japanese weddings. There is a a large Japanese investment in Vietnam so perhaps it is more popular than one would assume.

Wedding display

Wedding reception options

We returned to our room and I decided to go to the Business Center to change a setting on my Blogger account and to check email. Surprisingly the regular computer was so much slower than the wifi in the room.  It was driving me nuts!  I only wanted to spend 5 minutes here and then go checkout. I finally accomplished what I needed to do when my mother suddenly appeared in the entry. I thought I was seeing things at first as she was yelling at me and said " We need to leave now! Everyone is waiting for us on the bus!"  She seemed pretty frantic and it was now 8:11 am.  I reminded her that our pickup time was at 8:20 am.  She said the Smile guide called the room from the lobby and said they had arrived. However, he was 10 minutes early!

I immediately went downstairs to checkout as the guide hovered annoyingly behind me. He was almost cloying. There was another guest in front of me but the guide seemed to think if I rushed to the counter somehow it would be faster. I didn't understand the rush but I also did not want the people on the bus to sit there waiting. I checked out and boarded the bus at 8:25 am. This was 5 minutes later than what was requested from the guide yesterday. A few of the people on the bus were not happy we were late. I apologized to the 8 people on our tour and explained that we were told to be ready at 8:20 am and that Mr. Khoa unexpectedly showed up at the hotel 10 minutes early.

Cholon (Chinatown)

We were now on our way to Chinatown, known as Cholon (which means Big Market) for the start of our Smile tour. From the photo below it looks like we have a motorcycle escort.

Driving to Chinatown
Cholon is home to Vietnam's largest Chinese community. In the 1800's Chinese merchants settled here and created a vibrant trading area. Business in the area was also generated by gambling, opium dens and restaurants. By the 1950's the Cholon was dangerous but also glamorous and a familiar haunt for foreigners. Today it is a busy working area and residential district.

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda

Our first stop in Cholon was supposed to be the Bin Tay Market but instead we went straight to the Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda at 184 Hong Bang Street.

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda
The pagoda was constructed in 1902 by Saigon's Fujian Chinese community. It is considered one of the most beautifully decorated pagodas in the city. The pagoda is well known for its collection of ceramic figurines, carvings and lanterns. It is dedicated to Quan Cong, one of Chinatown's early founders. Many Vietnamese visit this pagoda before embarking on a journey for good luck.

Prayer Altar

Prayer flags with people's names
Center of the pagoda

Despite the abundance of incense coils the smell was very pleasant and not overpowering. 

Incense Coils

Ceramic Figurines. 
We spent about 10 minutes at the pagoda and then walked back to our bus.

The "Smile" Bus

I expected the next stop would be the Bin Tay Market since it was listed on the itinerary we received from Thi who runs Smile. However, our guide, Mr. Khoa said we were now going to the Reunification Palace. I was sitting right in the front of the bus and asked why were not going to the market. He said it was dirty and that we would not like it so we would not go there. I was persistent so the guide, asked the others on the bus if they wanted to stop and the majority agreed. I was happy he was flexible but also felt I should of not had to rely on the whim of the guide nor the others on the bus in order to stop. The call yesterday at lunch from Mr. Khoa now makes perfect sense as he asked us not to meet at the market but instead at our hotel since he had no intention of going there at all. He was beginning to get on my nerves and it was still early!

Bin Tay Market

It was about a five minute drive to the market. This market is the wholesale market and has 2,300 stalls ranging from clothing to ceramics to wet noodles and live chickens.  The exterior is early 20th century Chinese-French architecture. The merchandise is organized by type. All bags are one area, shoes in another and clothing in yet area. It is said that Bin Tay is more authentic and cheaper (it is wholesale) than other markets in Saigon.

Bin Tay Market
It did not look dirty and we would have enjoyed spending more time here. We only spent about a total of 7 - 10 minutes inside.

Inside the market
There is a central courtyard that was interesting too.There is a shrine flanked by water sprouting dragons honoring Bin Tay's founder, Chinese immigrant Quach Dam.

Courtyard at Bin Tay Market
We departed the Bin Tay Market and made what seemed like a mad dash to the Reunification Palace. The palace is located across town so it was about a 20 minute ride. We traveled down some interesting streets along the way. .

There were lots of people about on a Sunday.

We passed these neo-classical French buildings.

French Colonial Architecture

Apparently you can transport just about anything on a motorcycle. Note the mobile Christmas tree below!

Christmas in Saigon

We arrived at the Palace as were told that we had to be there early in order not lose our spot. Our visit here is timed and we needed to arrive by 9:30 am. We waited near the entrance while the guide purchased the tickets.

Reunification Palace

The Reunification Palace is symbolic of the fall of Saigon when the North Vietnamese charged though its gates at 11:30 am on April 30, 1975. The Reunification Palace is built on the site of the former French Governor General's home, called the Norodom Palace. The palace suffered damage during the war and was demolished to make way for this new building. This 65,000 sq foot modern building was completed in 1966.

Reunification Palace
The white rounded column embellishment on the exterior was conceived as a thicket of bamboo that is two stories high. The palms swaying in the background and the people casually standing on the balcony make it look more like a relaxing hotel.

The building is more architecturally interesting on the outside. 
The interior was a grand amalgam of empty nicely decorated rooms. Our guide, Mr. Khoa asked us to follow him as we walked briskly by one room after another. He did not provide much if any commentary and we were basically left to figure it out on our own.

Conference Room

In this room around 10 - 12 large beautiful brass chandeliers dangled from the ceiling. Most were not on but every other one was lit. They must go through a lot of light bulbs! One is missing in this one.

The palace was very crowded and there were lots of tours including this group below.

I love scouts too!
We walked by some more rooms which appeared very elegant.

It looks hardly used 
Viewed from the other side

This gold lacquer room was for receiving guests. The rooms were easy to view through the glass windows. It almost felt we were in a Show House.

Gold Lacquer Room

Banquet Room
From the side we had a nice view of all the foliage surrounding the Palace and the Saigon Financial Tower. 

For those who don't like or don't do stairs this was not a favorite stop. Although the stairs were not wide they were easy to navigate though.

We did not go up these

We walked out to the garden for a look. These tykes were ones that were sitting next to us at breakfast. They are very cute. I think their sister keeps the boys in line.

Children who we first saw during our breakfast at the hotel

We took a look at a few more rooms and then walked down to the lower level.

Walking around the Palace

The basement holds a War Room with photos of the Vietnam War and the French occupation. There were several maps and diagrams too.

Mr. Khoa pointing something out
We were too far away to understand what Mr. Khoa was pointing to. Some of the other items in the room were memorable and interesting to read about. I didn't feel that I was learning that much about the war.

Vietnam War

U.S economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew during the 1960's in an attempt to bolster the South Vietnam government. The war dragged on and ultimately U.S. forces were withdrawn following a cease fire agreement in 1973. Two years later North Vietnamese forces overran the South.

The Communist victory in South Vietnam in 1975 concluded three decades of United States intervention in Vietnam. The war was enormously costly to both sides. Vietnam suffered physical destruction and and untold numbers of civilian and military casualties. The war cost the United States 58,000 lives and $150 billion in expenses to sustain the war.

"Command Center"

1970's style phones
I especially liked the pink phones.

Norodom Palace

This building where the current Reunification Palace now stands, housed the French Governor General and was not completed until 1873. The Palace was named Norodom Palace after then King Norodom or Cambodia (1834 - 1904). From 1887 to 1945 all Governors Generale of Indochina used the Palace as their residence and office.

The photo below shows Norodom Palace. . There is no love lost on the French with the description of being "swallowed by them". Perhaps it is a poor translation.

Norodom Palace
There were a lot of war photos but I only read the captions for a few of them.

This one is after an important battle

Mr. Khoa told us it was now time to head back to the bus. We had to advise him that part of the group was missing. He then went to go find them.

Leaving the Reunification Palace

With everyone now accounted for we headed back to the bus. Our next stop on our tour was the Notre Dame Cathedral and the famous Post Office. It was not a long drive to get there. We passed one of the conical street lights on the way.

Street Light
French Occupation

The conquest of Vietnam by France began in 1858 and was completed by 1884. It became part of French Indochina in 1887. Independence was declared after World War II but the French continued to rule until 1954 when they were defeated by the Communist forces under Ho Chi Minh who took control of the North.

We arrived in the area with the Opera House directly ahead.The church and post office are close by.

Opera House

The Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office are representative of the French colonial influence in Vietnam. These buildings are across the street from one another.

Notre Dame Cathedral

The cathedral opened in 1880. It was originally constructed from wood and subsequently destroyed by termites. When it was rebuilt it required high end building materials. Every single original piece of glass, cement, and tile was shipped from France. The red stone comes from Marseilles. Any new repairs are done with local materials.

Notre Dame Cathedral

We were told that we could not go inside because they were holding Mass.

After taking a quick look at the cathedral we walked across the street to the Saigon Central Post Office.

Saigon Central Post Office

The Post Office was designed and constructed by famed architect Gustave Eiffel when Vietnam was under French rule. It is one of the oldest buildings in Saigon and was built from 1886 - 1891.

Lots of tourists at the Post Office
It is customary for many new brides to congregate in front of the Post Office for photos. We saw at least three of them.

Brides in front of the Central Post Office
It is one of the busiest post offices in the country. It has typical colonial French features and its high curved ceilings fascinates visitors.

Inside Central Post Office
A not so good photo of the old phone booths in the building

This one is a little better below. 

The painted map was created in 1892 around the same the building opened. It depicts a map of Greater Saigon.

My camera battery unfortunately died during the post office visit so I used my mobile phone instead the rest of the day. Below is a photo from my phone using the distortion feature. Probably not such a good idea!

Are you dizzy?

Our group departed the Post Office for the rather drab History Museum. I completely forgot we were going there.

History Museum

The building was constructed in 1929 and is a fusion of Asian-French design.

This building covers thousands of years of Vietnamese history. It is surrounded by lush gardens.

History Museum
Once we arrived we were told to wander around the museum. This stop was much longer than necessary. We had 45 minutes and it seemed to drag on forever! I sort of warmed up to it though. I love history and probably would have majored it if not for the one I had chosen.

There was a selection of Cham sculpture and the museum reportedly houses the best collection of ancient ceramics in Vietnam. There was also a slightly creepy display of an embalmed body which dates back to 1869.

There was a statue of Ho Chi Mihn near the entrance.

Items were spread out in different wings of the building. There was not much explanation though.

These ceramics are apparently quite old.

There was a model of a palace in a Lucite box. The description read "Model of Ngo Mon", ivory and wood encrusted with mother-of-pearl.

The historical photos on the wall showVietnamese struggles over the years. .

This wing is dedicated to ethnic minorities of the South. It includes photos, costumes and household items. I had no idea how many ethnic minorities existed in the country. It is quite amazing for such a small country.

Ethnic minorities of Vietnam

Of course you cannot have a museum without a shop. This one had a couple. The items below were in one of the little stores. We did not make any purchases.

Museum shop

We finished our tour in about 20 minutes! We then spent the remainder of time standing in the doorway waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. We viewed the very interesting building across the way. There were lots of people out today.

With our group assembled, we returned to the bus and drove the final stop of the day, the Ben Thanh market before returning to the port.

We passed some the same familiar roundabout with the market on the other side.

The Ben Thanh Market

Ben Thanh Market, huge is an understatement!

As viewed from the side. We were dropped off at the market and told to meet again at door #4 (there are 16 doors). Those that wanted to have lunch were invited to join Mr. Khoa at Pho 2000 which was directly across the street.

Pho 2000 was the designated lunch spot on our itinerary. This is where President Bill Clinton ate during his visit in 2000.

Pho 2000 directly in front and the market across the street to the right

From what I could tell most people decided to go elsewhere. Some went shopping in the market and others like us walked back toward the Sheraton Hotel and the center of town. We had a little over 2 hours, so plenty of time.

We walked up the street to the Rex Hotel. It was a nice walk and we did have to cross the street a couple of times but our training with Rose yesterday paid off!

Rex Hotel

When we arrived at the Rex we went up the 5th floor which is on the roof. However, it was much too hot to sit there and eat. We retreated to the ground floor.

Lobby restaurant
We took a look at the menu for the restaurant in the lobby and decided to eat there. We started with drinks. I had the Saigon Express which consisted of Bacardi light rum, cherry brandy, triple sec, grapefruit juice and orange juice. Yes, I ordered it for the vitamin C!

We then had an appetizer of spring rolls. They were great and I liked the abundance of lettuce to roll them in for dipping.

Wonderful spring rolls!

Our main dishes arrived shortly thereafter. I had Pho with chicken and my mother had a giant prawn. She loved it and said it had roe and tasted like a lobster!

Pho with chicken
I don't know if my Rex Pho was better or the same as Pho 2000. It was very good though. My mother raved about the prawn for days afterward! It doesn't look that appetizing to me but she thought it was fantastic.

King Prawn
In the lobby across from the restaurant was a very nice store called Saga. They sold items from Vietnam and India. We each made some purchases. I bought a brass carved bowl and we both purchased some velvet embroidered seat cushions.

After our relaxing lunch we walked to the former city hall known as Hotel de Ville.

Hotel de Ville

Hotel de Ville is the former City Hall of Saigon and was built between 1902 and 1908.  It is now The People's Committee Hall.

People's Committee Hall

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975 the building has served as headquarters for Ho Chi Minh city's People's Committee. A statue of uncle Ho sits out front.

Strikingly beautiful building with Chairman Ho in front
The yellowish tinge and ornate features of the building are said to be more striking at night. The building is very beautiful.

We then walked across the street to try to get a better view of the Opera House.

Opera House
We also passed Vincon Center again.

I wanted to walk to the Caravelle Hotel to have a look but decided to cross the street to the Hotel Continental instead to see the interior.

Caravelle Hotel with the Sheraton in front

The Hotel Continental was noticeably more quiet than the Rex. The hotel interior is more in tune with its historic past.

Hotel Continental
We enjoyed visiting the hotel for its colonial charm and historical significance. 

They had a little shop selling these cut bears with conical hats. I wish I had bought one!

One of the most interesting areas of the hotel was a shop called Mai Lam. The owner, Mai Lam is an artist who was born in southern Vietnam and had a "privileged and carefree life". When the war began her peaceful life was shattered. A brother and a sister were both killed and she along with her remaining family fled Vietnam for Australia in 1976. She became an award winning chef for the Perth Hilton. She then opened a chain of flower stores but that was not enough for her artistic talents. She started to design clothes for friends and never looked back. She returned to Vietnam with her husband and in 2006 opened the shop in the Hotel Continental. 

The store specializes in art, fashion, accessories, and fragrances. US army paraphernalia is a trademark of her label. She embellishes them with applique and semi-precious stones. Unfortunately I was told that I could not take any photos. I crossed the street and took this one from the other side. 

We took a taxi back to the market and still had time to see some of the merchandise. My mother purchased some lavender jade beads which are probably quartz but they were very pretty and only $80 for two strands.

The same stall also sold regular green "jade".

Green "Jade"
We took a look at some of the other merchandise too. They had some nice wooden boats for sale.

There was a lot of clothing too.

Ben Thanh Market items
There was also a good display of coffee and tea. Not many people know that Vietnam is a major exporter of coffee. The coffee is reportedly very good. They are also well known for "weasel" coffee. Don't ask!

Vietnamese Coffee
It was finally time to say good bye to Saigon and head back to the ship. Our group assembled on time and we boarded the bus for the ride back to Phu My.

Motorcycles only allowed on the right
We also passed close by to the Saigon Financial Center.

Saigon Financial Center
Mr. Khoa pointed out the river.

Saigon River

Since it is a Sunday there was not a lot of traffic. We easily made our way along the highway to Phu My. We were soon in the countryside.


You can tell we are getting close now

It only took 80 minutes to get back. During the drive Mr. Khoa decided to work his magic on me and ask me tons of questions. He provided information on his single status and then asked my Chinese zodiac, where I live, what I do for work, what I do in my spare time, etc. It was a odd version of speed dating. I guess he wore me down because though I was less than thrilled with the Smile tour in general and his efforts in particular, I still tipped him $20 USD. I think I just wanted to escape!

I was half heartily happy to be back to the Millennium but was hoping the cruise would get better on the ship. We boarded and went to our room and watched as we pulled away from the port.

Leaving Phu My

It was soon time for dinner and we returned to Blu where we have not been for several days since our dinner in Qsine and our overnight in Saigon.

Nothing looked too appealing so I ordered a  Caesar salad to start. The croutons were a little soggy.

For my main course I had what they called risotto with a beef tip. I tasted as awful as it looked. What is with all the sauce? I thought the food in Blu was supposed to be healthy and light?

Risotto and beef with my apologies to the Italians
We also added a side dish to share. It had very little taste.

Tart side dish

I was afraid the meal was going to get worse, however unlikely so skipped dessert.

We went to the last 30 minutes of the show in the theater. It was a comedian named Joel Osborn from Australia. He did a bad impression of Tom Cruise which in my poor state after dinner seemed kind of funny! I don't remember too much of the rest of the show but it was just sort of average. We went back to our room and looked forward to a full sea day tomorrow as we sail toward Danang.

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