Our first taste of Vietnam was the five-hour trip up the Saigon River. Lining the river were concrete two- or three-story buildings with rows of holes in them. We knew immediately what they were; homes for the swallows whose nests are prized for bird's nest soup. The wide river has a brownish tinge to it from all the silt flowing into the it. We passed villages, lots of sea palms and mangrove swamps. Our horn blew to let the barges and smaller vessels know that we were coming through. This is a very busy river with lots of container ships, and became even busier the closer we got to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as we used to know it. Now containers cluttered the shore ready for loading. Beyond this the skyline was dotted with high rise apartments.
Driving out of the port we were overwhelmed with all the traffic, especially scooters. There are four million of them for a population of nine million. They darted here and there, especially on roundabouts and rules of the road seemed like they were only rough guidelines. Scooters would have three and four people on them, mothers holding on to babies or they would be loaded down with shopping. If you looked up you could see great clumps of electrical wires hung from poles or hanging down the sides of buildings. There were little shops selling everything, with apartments above. Fruit and food stalls selling everything from loaves of French bread to crispy roasted ducks lined the pavements. It was all colorfully chaotic.
We passed the Reuinification Palace, home of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This was also the site where the tank belonging to the Vietnamese Peoples Army breached the gates, signifying the fall of Saigon and the end of the war.
Our first stop was outside the Notre Dame Cathedral built entirely of red brick imported from France in the 1800s. Looking across the busy road we could see the building from which US helicopters plucked refugees during the final hours of the fall of Saigon in 1975. You may have seen the famous picture of this scene.
We crossed the busy street with scooters darting around us to visit the Central Post Office. It is built in French colonial style and designed by Gustafson Eiffel. I don't think he would like its current garish colour scheme. Inside it is quite lovely with high vaulted ceilings. It still functions as a post office and probably looks much the same as it did when it was built.
The War Remnants Museum featured exhibitions of weaponry and vehicles used by US and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War. The museum features many thought provoking photos, especially in the agent orange room, documenting the war. It brought back memories of following the war night after night on the news. Thinking back, this was not the US's finest hour.
Leaving the group we made our way through the endless hustle and bustle to Ho Chi Minh Square, which is flanked by several old French Colonial buildings. We stopped in the Rex Hotel, built in 1927, and famous for hosting the American Military Command's daily conferences during the Vietnam War.
Once again revitalized we found our way to the colonial Opera House. It was time for a drink. Across the road from the Opera House was Hotel Continental, built in 1880 to provide the French traveller with proper French style luxury. It was the place where Graham Greene conceived his novel, The Quiet American. Today, I can attest to the fact that they make a very fine margarita.
We continued walking in the general direction of the ship. All the time we were careful crossing the teeming roads. The zebra crossings were all faded out and no one on a scooter seemed to take them very seriously. By now it was dark and all the decorations and lights for the New Year were lit making everything quite beautiful.
As we crossed one not very busy street a motor scooter came from nowhere heading straight for us. But it was no accident. Suddenly I felt a tug on my neck as the scooter's passenger tried to wrench my purse away. But it has a good strap, which I always loop across my body, I had my hand on it and Seamus grabbed at it reflexively, so it went nowhere. It was over in a second and we were left grateful, as this little lesson in big city awareness could have been a disaster -- our landing cards, money, smartphone and a credit card were all in there!
We continued our walk down to the river and were happy to be back on the ship with no further adventures.