Cruising to Saigon, where people still are careful

Sixth in a series from the ruins and rivers of Southeast Asia

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

For our last day on the Mekong River, the Avalon Angkor was docked in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which was abuzz with people at work, at play and, in between, riding their motorbikes.

Lots of locals still call it Saigon, this city of 10 million people and nearly as many motorbikes, which, said a guide, are primarily from China, because the bikes are cheap, though they have a reputation for a short life span.

What do the Vietnamese do with the Chinese bikes when they wear out in a few years? I asked.

“We try to fix things up and then ship them to another country,” said a local guide. Uh huh, Communism at full glory.

Travelers say that the more carefree atmosphere of Saigon contrasts strikingly with more serious attitudes in Hanoi, far to the north in what used to be North Vietnam.

Still, in Saigon, I saw my first Communist Hammer & Sickle in years. It is displayed in a meeting room in the old palace, home of the president in the days of South Vietnam, known now as Reunification Palace. It is not a palace anymore, said our guide, “showing off what no longer is a place of power.”

Playing, successfully, in heavy city traffic

I loved the power that I felt when crossing the busy city Saigon streets. If only the rest of the world paid so much attention to pedestrians.

Our Avalon Angkor leader, Phiem, taught me how to cross safely and comfortably, following local protocol:

With purpose, move slowly forward when crossing a busy street, raising your hand in the air and waving it so that you can be seen. DO NOT STOP. Even on the most crowded streets, I could walk across, as long as the drivers could see me and work around me. Traffic lights were few, but the massive flow of bikes, occasional cars, and pedestrians was smooth.

I was having so much fun that I crossed more streets than necessary.

Freedoms and politics in Saigon

Our tour group stopped for a picture in front of a statue to Uncle Ho, also known as Ho Chi Minh

Our tour group stopped for a picture in front of a statue to Uncle Ho, also known as Ho Chi Minh

“How do you like the Communist government?” I asked the tour guide, who again responded with honesty.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “But I am happy.

“I can’t compare my country with yours, but I can compare mine to what it was 20 years ago. We had no television then to outside Vietnam. Today we have cable TV and the BBC. Today we tell jokes, and we lead tour groups into churches.

“Today we are happy with our government. I will not say anything about politics. Today I can talk, but I am careful.”

Crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels

One of many entrances to the Cu Chi tunnels of Vietnam

One of many entrances to the Cu Chi tunnels of Vietnam

One of the lasting images from the Vietnam War, which took the lives of more than 2 million people from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, was the system of Cu Chi tunnels, in which groups of Vietnamese people lived, hid, moved supplies and weapons.

The underground tunnels, which were dug out using simple tools starting in 1946 to hide from the French, eventually became the enemy of Americans. Cu Chi was a network of 120 miles, used by the Viet Cong in their fight against the South Vietnamese and U.S. troops.

Today, the tunnels are a tourist attraction — my tour group crawled through some of the tight passageways — as well as an opportunity to meet a former member of the Viet Cong.

Phanh, once a member of the Viet Cong, explains how people and supplies moved in the Cu Chi tunnels

Phanh, once a member of the Viet Cong, explains how people and supplies moved in the Cu Chi tunnels

Phanh, a Viet Cong veteran, now serves as a tour guide and lecturer. He stood by a map, explaining the use of the tunnels and his time inside them –six years starting at age 17.

He has probably given the same short speech for many years:

“I joined the Viet Cong because I loved my country,” said Phanh. “No one won that war. We all lost. We all died. I wish no more war anywhere. I hope we all meet not on a battlefield but at the beer table.”

Next and last from Southeast Asia: Leaving Vietnam with memories of 1968

David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column appears monthly  in U.S. newspapers and on other Internet sites. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.

Photos by David Molyneaux, TheTravelMavens.com

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