ABOARD AMADARA-Landing in Saigon
I wake up to find AmaDara against the bulkhead at the industrial port of My Tho. River vessels stop here because to reach the port of Saigon they must take to the open ocean, much too dangerous in a flat-bottomed ship.
Bill paid, passport in hand, luggage out, breakfast eaten, cabin key cards back to reception, all of the details of disembarkation handled, it is time to leave AmaDara for an optional two-night extension in Saigon.
Motor coaches await, room to spread out in ours, so I settle back to absorb the scenery along the 70-kilometer route to Ho Chi Minh City.
Riding to Saigon
Again, our Vietnamese guide fills in the time with information that will be handy to have now and in the future. We will take Vietnam’s first freeway, a toll road, that takes a half-hour to reach, a half-hour to travel and a half-hour to exit.
According to him, our destination’s official name is Saigon; Ho Chi Minh City is its political name. As it turns out, only two people I encounter there will call it anything but Saigon.
We also learn
• Vietnamese is a one- and two-syllable language; very few can pronounce words of more than that.
• Oy-choy-oy! (phonetic spelling), pronounced like and meaning OMG, is a very useful phrase for shoppers quoted a high price.
• After hundreds of years of war and foreign control, several things have been left behind: from the French, architecture and baguettes, from the Americans, babies and Western-style toilets.
• Vietnamese first came up with carrying heavy things balanced at the ends of a bamboo pole placed across the shoulders.
Saigon at Last
As we enter the center of Saigon, we are given an option, stay on the bus and go to the hotel or get off for a short walk. All but two get off the bus.
The now elegant Rex Hotel, headquarters for UPI press service and site on the fifth floor rooftop bar of the daily “five o’clock follies” during the war, provides our “happy house” stop.
In a very short distance we visit Ho Chi Minh’s statue at one end of a lovely promenade and the city’s historic yellow post office, see the classic Opera House, the infamous Continental Hotel which has housed famous spies as well as novelists, City Hall and Notre Dame Cathedral.
The bus takes us the rest of the way to the Sofitel Saigon Plaza, our hotel. After a brief stop in the room and lunch at the mind-boggling and delicious buffet-style array of Western and Asian dishes offered at stations in the Sofitel’s Mezz restaurant, we are off on the rest of our Saigon City tour.
The Presidential Palace is mid-century modern in style and presidential in décor. I am afraid our group was not appropriately awed.
Warnings are given about the propaganda-heavy War Remnants Museum and it is painful to see American aircraft, guns and uniforms displayed as spoils of war by the victors. One room is given over to photographs taken by both sides of the battles that leave you in awe of the photographers who covered that gruesome struggle.
I can’t stomach pictures of the victims of and birth defects from Agent Orange, but the infamous Tiger Cages used by South Vietnam aren’t much better. Especially when a friend observes a modishly attired and coiffed young Vietnamese boy posing in front of one and taking a selfie stick photo of himself. Crikey, must history repeat itself yet again?
Relief of a sort comes from our first encounter with Ben Thanh Market. Its narrow aisles, crowds, food smells and heat were a challenge, though.
My friend and fellow travel writer Karin Leperi and I found true relief at the Sofitel’s Boudoir Lounge. Still full from lunch, we nibble on bar nuts and end the day with drinks.