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Southeast Asia Travel Day Eight: We had breakfast early and then had to check out of the hotel before our tour this morning. We almost didn’t book this Vespa tour… so very glad we did! It made up for the shortcomings in yesterday’s tour and then some. If we had only gone on yesterday’s and not today’s, I’d have said I didn’t really see much in Saigon. Luckily, choosing to ride all through Ho Chi Minh City on a motorbike was the best thing we could have done. The experience itself was pretty thrilling. Add to that, all the sights we visited and we really got an opportunity to see and feel the vibe of the city.
The tour was with Vespa Adventures and there were 10 in our group plus our guide, Yu. We each had a driver—all we had to do was enjoy the ride and not fall off. My driver was Gai and she was definitely skilled at manipulating the bike through some pretty tight situations. I have video I’ll try to post later. It’s too difficult to just describe how crazy the traffic is; combining all the motorbikes and cars is intense for an outsider.
We started out at what is known as a bird park. Residents bring their birds (in cages) to socialize and learn how to sing and fly from other birds. I thought this was pretty unique and certainly something you don’t see in the states. There’s a little outdoor café there and people sell treats for the birds like grasshoppers and crickets.
Next we visited the monument for Thich Quang Duc. He was the Buddhist Monk who burned himself to death at a busy intersection in Saigon. He did this to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government on June 11, 1963. This was a pretty powerful moment. Our guide Yu, turned us around from the monument and showed us the exact spot where it happened. One person can make a difference. The photo of this tragic event was seen around the world; for the first time bringing worldwide attention to what was happening here.
We visited three more beautiful temples, each as different as they were alike. We did have to remove our shoes at one of them, as is the custom, showing our respect.
At a pharmacy, we were able to watch natural medicines being assembled for a variety of ailments. Many are delivered to customers and then brewed into teas by the person in search of a cure.
Pho 24 was our stop for lunch. I can now say I’ve had authentic Vietnamese Pho soup. Pho soup is basically a fresh clear broth with noodles, meat and seasoning. I prefer Pho Ga (chicken). It is both delicious and filling.
After talking with our guide, we made a little change in our tour and she took us through a fish and flower markets. In the flower market we also went down a maze of alleys and were able to see some of the small rooms and apartments people call home. I’d guess most of these tight alleys couldn’t be more than three feet wide.
We were supposed to go through the highway tunnels out to a spot for a great view of the skyline, which we did—as it started to pour. We pulled over long enough to put on rain ponchos and then continued but didn’t stop at the spot due to the rain. It was a typical tropical downpour and didn’t last long.
Our last stop was near what was the U. S. Embassy during the Vietnam War. From that spot we could see where the last helicopter lifted people to safety from the roof of the Embassy. It was another powerful moment personalizing history to childhood memories.
The Vespa Tour made the trip to Ho Chi Minh City complete. It’s a must do for anyone wanting to get a great, short introduction to the city.
All Aboard. In the afternoon we were driven to the port and finally boarded the Ponant ship, Le Soleal for the actual Broadway On The High Seas 5 cruise. We had the always annoying (but mandatory) safety drill (this one was especially bad) followed by dinner.
The first concert of our cruise was given by two-time Tony Award Winner, Christine Ebersole. It was magical. The perfect start to many wonderful performances we’d be blessed with on this year’s BOTHS5 cruise.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Seven: We were fortunate to be staying at the beautiful Intercontinental Asiana Saigon. We got a good night’s sleep and enjoyed a breakfast at leisure to start the day. This morning everyone boarded buses for an all day tour of Ho Chi Minh City. The older population and those in northern Vietnam still refer to it as Saigon.
Our first stop was at Notre Dame Cathedral. While an overwhelming majority of the population is Buddhist (over 90%), the Catholic cathedral is still a popular location for wedding photos because of the beauty of the building as a backdrop.
Near the cathedral is the historic Saigon Central Post Office. We met an 85-year-old man that goes there daily to help anyone that needs assistance translating letters. He offers his time as a free service from the goodness of his heart.
Next, we visited the Reunification Palace. Formerly known as Independence Palace, this was the location of the final assault during the Vietnam War; where a tank crashed through the gates at 11:30 AM April 30, 1975.
This spot was of personal significance to me– linking history to my childhood memories of a war I was well aware of; but didn’t understand, while I was growing up.
Following lunch in a large garden restaurant, we visited a small temple, tucked peacefully into the chaos of the city.
I have to say I was a little disappointed in the tour. Even though we visited a variety of locations, I didn’t feel like I’d gotten any real feel for the city. You can’t absorb everything in such a short time but it’s nice when you can get enough of a taste to feel the essence of the city and its people.
Michael and I were both amused by the way electric service was maintained. Need power? Just run another cable… and another and another. Throughout the city you see large bunches of tangled wire stretching from pole to pole.
After a break back at the hotel, we were bussed out to Binh Quoi Village for the big welcome dinner. Everyone (200 plus) on the Broadway On the High Seas 5 cruise were together for the first time, celebrating the kick off of the actual cruise. The ‘village’ is a beautiful park and pavilion decorated with Chinese lanterns and colored lights. We were greeted with drinks and appetizers as we strolled down a path past a wide variety of artisans demonstrating their crafts, a clever puppet show and Chinese dragons leading the way to the center of the village.
As part of the entertainment, we were treated to two numbers from the musical Miss Saigon as teasers for what we’d see on board. Liz Callaway, the original Ellen (Chris’ wife) in the Broadway production; was joined by Lindsay Mendez on the wonderful duet, I Still Believe. Then Norm Lewis who played John on Broadway, energized the audience with his dazzling performance of the anthem, Bui Doi.
Local talent filled the rest of the evening; a pleasant backdrop as people mingled and relaxed under the stars.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Six: Our last morning in Cambodia, breakfast then off to the airport. We were sad to say goodbye to our guide, Jun. He’s a great guy and a terrific guide. One of the best I’ve ever encountered. Jun didn’t just point things out and spout memorized facts. He was genuinely passionate about it. Jun and Peaches from Trails of Indochina really made everything about our three days in Siem Riep perfect.
There was a little drama when we got to the airport. First they were shifting our group from one counter to another and we had to deal with some awfully cranky ticket agents. I think I jinxed us by posting that we had no delays with our previous flights. Our flight from Siem Riep, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam ended up being delayed about two hours.
When it was finally time to board, Michael went through and I got pulled to the side. One of our friends, Mary, was laughing— “What did you do?” Then she and her husband George got pulled too. The laughing stopped. The gate agents moved us from the front of the plane to the back, a row in front of each other.
Once onboard, the woman next to me wanted to switch because her friend was in front of her. It worked out great because then I got to sit with Mary and George. Michael was still at the front of the plane and we were about 30 rows behind. The good news is that we were able to board and exit at the back of the plane and didn’t have to wait for the usual crowded aisles.
When it came time for the safety video, the screen above our heads decided to throw a fit. It kept lowering and raising, opening and closing, over and over. This got Mary and I laughing, though George, who isn’t crazy about flying—was not amused.
The bus ride from the airport was insane. Traffic, amplified by the ridiculous number of motorbikes, made traffic in New York City or Chicago look like driving in a small town. Michael compared it to the swarm that develops when you step on an anthill. It was pretty intense.
Instead of getting to the hotel after 4 PM, we didn’t get in until after 7 PM. We were pretty tired. After checking in, Michael and I just went up to the lounge on the 19th floor, checked out the view and had a snack. We had a full day tour the next day. I think I fell asleep as soon as I hit the sheets.