Friday, January 29, 2010

Impressions of Ho Chi Minh City

Today we visited Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. What a hustle-bustle place! I don’t really know where to start, so I’ll list some impressions.

Vietnam might be a Socialist Republic, but you would not know it from looking at the streets. Business is happening everywhere. There are small mom and pop shops, larger markets filled with individual shops and there are people selling sunglasses from a piece of plywood that is strapped to their back or their bicycle. The typical Vietnamese person is a small business man or woman and knows how to sell, sell, sell.

Another item that says Vietnam is not your typical Socialist Republic is the open practice of religion. Today was a moon day, so there were hundreds of Buddhists celebrating and praying with incense, music and offerings of flowers and food. We saw folks praying to Buddha without any fear of reprisals. The noise in the Jade Temple (the oldest in HCMC dating to 1698 I think) was loud as people played traditional instruments and drums and sang to Buddha.

The motor-scooter or motor-bike is the most common form of transportation. Thousands of motor-bikes scoot along the roads in all directions, seemingly not following any form of linear progression, yet they get to where they are going and with few accidents. Driving in Ho Chi Minh City is not for the faint of heart. You need to have a good horn, lots of brass, and a devil-may-care attitude as you are wending your way up or down a street.

Streets might have 4 designated lanes, but no one really follows them. If there is an opening where you can make faster progress on the street, you maneuver your way there and don’t worry about the next guy. I did not see any road rage. I did not see people arguing over who was right or wrong. I did see people drive through the traffic like sand flowing through an hourglass taking the path of least resistance to get to the other end.

The folks selling in the streets are thick as mosquitoes. As soon as you leave your car, there are folks lining up to sell you something. The common chant is “one dollar” and it seems that one dollar can buy fans, post cards, greeting cards, mirrors, t-shirts, toys, and the like. Five dollars will get you a pair of knock-off sunglasses or a “designer” watch. Knock-off purses with labels like Coach or Prada are everywhere with ridiculous prices too. We were told if you were going to buy bigger items it would be wise to have Vietnamese Dong at 18,000 to $1.00 in our pockets. The venders are persistent, not taking no thank you as an answer. The only way to stop the attack is to move forward through them hoping they won’t follow you. 
There is still a touch of French Indo-China on the streets. This is the old Post Office built at the turn of the last century. There is also Notre Dame, across the street.

The market reminded me of many 3rd world markets throughout the world. Stands with dresses and shirts next to stands with jewelry next to stands with plastic goods next to purse stalls next to shoes. When you think you’ve seen everything one aisle has to offer, start down another one and see most of the same stuff all over again with a different set of faces selling the goods. As you walk down the aisles you are trying to see everything that is being sold, yet you don’t want to catch the eye of any particular vender—if you do that, you will be pestered and poked and prodded to look at their shirts or purses or shoes. Shopping is an amazing dance.

Two days ago we were in DaNang. DaNang is on the water and fishing rules the economy. In HCMCity, we are about 2 hours inland from the water. Farming is king here with rice paddies, rubber plantations and fruit trees. We did not see any round boats, we did see cattle and water buffalo.

Our guide was a young woman named Nhue (pronounced New) who did not give us the traditional “guide” material. She tried to get to know us. She asked us our names and used them throughout the day. She told us stories of life in her hill village. She answered our questions and she did give us facts and figures about what building we were seeing and why it was important; but she gave us the human side of the tour…the side that told us what the people were doing on a day to day basis. Nhue was very interesting and I learned a lot more about the people of Vietnam from her than I did from our more traditional guide in DaNang earlier in the week.

It's always fun to look at dancing babies, and this little girl was a show stopper. She had everyone's attention.

Then there are the birds...these little guys are for sale by the Buddhist temple. I think if you buy one and set it free, wyou will have good luck. I know the bird would have good luck too.

Next stop is Singapore. We will travel from developing country to developed country; from 18th century to 21st century in two short days. I have a feeling that Vietnam would like to become a Singapore. It has a long way to go. If you want to see ‘old’ Vietnam, go now, because it’s right on the edge of evaporating away.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Another day at sea

We’ve done only one other back to back cruise where we went to the same places. The first time was a cruise around Hawaii on the Pride of America. It was great fun but about day 10 of the 14 day cruise, we were ready to return home. We are now in day 4 of a 16 day cruise; or day 20 of 32, and we’re still looking forward to what is coming up next. Of course, what is coming up next is Hong Kong and that’s just a fascinating place. We have 2 more days to explore this world class city and we won’t even begin to run out of things to do. From there we’ll stop in Vietnam where we have 2 new shore excursions planned there.

We have wonderful table-mates on this leg of the cruise. Claudia and John from Minnesota, and Dave and Kay from Colorado, and their son Carl, who is living in Bangkok right now. We also have 2 great waiters, Larry and Romeo. Since food is a big deal on a ship, it's great to eat with such a neat set of folks.

Yesterday we were in Keelung, Taiwan…and we had great plans to explore the port city, as we explored Taipei a few days ago. After a rocky night, we sailed into Keelung under a rainstorm. Exploring without an umbrella in the rain is not my idea of fun, so we did something few cruisers do…we stayed on the boat. Ocean Princess is not a huge boat, less than 1000 people, pax and crew, so when most of the pax went ashore; we had what seemed like a yacht to ourselves. What a treat that is! I went to the spa and splurged on a full body massage, facial, and all that entails. After 2 hours of pure pleasure I was ready to meet whatever the day had to offer. The pax started to return about 3 PM and our yacht became a ship again. It had to happen. (BTW, pax is short for passenger in ship parlance.)

I’ve been remiss in sending out birthday greetings. Please accept my apologies Teresa, Debra, George and Aunt Dorothy. Happy Birthday to you!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Yesterday we docked in Shanghai. I was expecting a big city, what I saw was a huge city. Lots of tall buildings; lots of people; lots of hustle and bustle; lots of construction cranes; and lots of road construction too. While the skyscrapers might not be as densely packed as Hong Kong skyscrapers, it looks like Shanghai is trying to catch up quickly.

We were met by our friend, Alan, who lives in Santa Rosa and does a lot of business in Shanghai. He greeted us at 9 AM at the cruise terminal and for the next several hours we were treated to the best tour of the city ever! We went to the second tallest building in the world and took the high speed elevator to the 100th floor where we walked across the glass walkway and looked down on the city. You are way up there. We then descended to street level and walked to the Bund and marveled at the old colonial architecture. The old Bank of Hong Kong building was spectacular—oozing with old-world marble columns and mosaics and charm—in the old days, you knew you were someplace special when you walked into that bank.
From there we went a smaller shopping piazza, then to his development, into a hypermarket (that was incredible) and finally to the planning museum where we saw models and pictures of old and new Shanghai. It was a wonderful day. There’s a lot more to see, but the ship called us back to reality.

We had a 4:30 all aboard, and we made it back on time. But, right as we entered the ship, we heard an announcement...the pilot was running late and would not board the ship until 11 PM. So, if Alan looked at the cruise port, and saw our ship and wondered why we were still there when we rushed like the devil to get back at 4:30. That’s why…no pilot to bring us out of the river and back to the ocean.

Thank you Alan for a wonderful day in Shanghai, we had a wonderful time! I’d like to on the record that we’d like to share the Tetons and Yellowstone with you like you shared Shanghai with us. 

We now repeat the last journey in reverse. Tomorrow we are in Okinawa, where I think we’ll use the wifi at Starbucks once again.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


We are in Okinawa today. We have not done any sightseeing yet, as there has been a problem with my online class. I tried to troubleshoot the problem, only to find out that I'm  not having a problem with the course's hard to troubleshoot something that is working. Anyway, we are in a Starbucks that is so American I feel like I'm in my backyard. The music is American; the decor is American, and I'm looking at a westerner who has a hot pink mohawk...which could be American too. So much for a cross-cultural experience.

Since writing last, we have been to Taipei. Like so many of our other stops on this trip, it's been 20+ years since our last visit. And, like Hong Kong, the skyline has become more populated with tall buildings. There is the 3rd tallest building to see, called Taipei 101 (can you guess how many stories it has?). While there we went to the beautiful Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial, the National Memorial, and the National Museum. The Museum is tops with centuries of Chinese arts and crafts ranging from calligraphy to scrolls, jade/ivory/wood carving, bronze work, and so much more. When the Nationalists left the mainland they took their artifacts with them. It's a good thing they did too, as they would have been destroyed during Mao's Cultural Revolution which set out to destroy anything old. What a shame!

Our next stop is Shanghai where we are going to meet a friend from Santa Rosa, CA. He is working in Shanghai and is going to give us a tour of the city. We are excited about seeing him again, and seeing his city.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Vietnam and Hong Kong: Night and Day

We are in Hong Kong for the next 2 days. What a city! Like New York, it never sleeps! There is something happening here all the time. This is my 12th visit to the city. I like Hong Kong. Generally, I do not like cities, but Hong Kong is different. I’m pleased that we’ll get another chance to visit on this cruise as it’s a special place.

There is something to see everywhere you look. From boats of every kind on the water to a mountainous landscape decorated with really tall skyscrapers, and then there are the people! Our guide said there were 7 people living in each square meter of land…that’s really high population density (however, Singapore is even higher!).

This morning we took the tram to Victoria Peak, we rode a sampan to Aberdeen to see the boat people, we shopped in Stanley Market, and we even went to a high end jewelry store to look at lavender jade that is way above my pay grade. The merchants are not aggressive unlike so many of the other places we’ve visited on this trip. They know you will buy something somewhere, so why push. It works for me.
We have not been to HK for over 20 years. It has grown more tall buildings since our last visit and I believe it is cleaner; but the aura is the same.

The little shops that line the streets look the same (and the merchandise looks the same). The exchange rate is the same too, 7.7 HK$ = 1 US$. Tonight we’ll see the laser show that lights up the city at 8 PM (which is different). Tomorrow we’ll explore more too. It’s fun to be back.

Two days ago we were in DaNang, Vietnam, which is the so different from HK, it’s like night and day (hence my title for this entry). Vietnam is developing. Hong Kong is developed. Vietnam is 3rd world, Hong Kong is first world. The Vietnamese are learning how to be more like Hong Kong, but they have a long way to go. Hong Kong is smooth; Vietnam is rough around the edges. The venders are in your face, the goods are forgettable, and the cities are dirty. The old buildings are tired as if no one has taken care of them for centuries.

We saw the Imperial City of Hue and the ancient Citadel which is a copy of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The ancient beauty can only be seen through a filter of grime and age. The countryside is very pretty, with lots of tiny rice fields, hard working farmers, tiny homes, and water buffalo. The homes in the countryside are narrow and tall. There are trees everywhere else. I knew that the US used a defoliant in Vietnam, and after seeing the dense forests, I know why. We did not see any propaganda against the US, but we heard that it does exist.  

Both places are interesting and filled with lots of history and excitement. Given that, I’d rather spend my time in Hong Kong.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Singapore yesterday--tomorrow Vietnam

Yesterday we toured Singapore! What a place. Tomorrow we land in Vietnam for the first time…we make a second landing, in DaNang, a couple of days later. This is our first time in Vietnam and I’m not sure about my feelings about being here. The memories of the Vietnam War, while not fresh, are still vivid in my mind. We will visit the country, and I’ll have to deal with my feelings along the way.

In the meantime, we are enjoying shipboard life. I played “cut-throat” trivia today. I made the mistake of laughing while folks were concentrating…that’s a definite no-no when it comes to trivia. While I did not win, I did have fun trying to guess what the correct answer would be. Sometimes our team put far more thought in the process than needed…so when the questioner asked what had a greater population, Bombay or Tokyo,we answered Tokyo, since Bombay is now called Mumbai and therefore Bombay does not exist and it has zero population. Turns out our questioner had not heard about this name change and even though our logic was correct, we had the wrong answer! The rule is simple…don’t over-think a trivia question.  

One treat in Singapore was a beautiful koi pond.

Other than having too many opportunities to eat, this is a wonderful cruise. For me, a typical day on the Ocean Princess starts with a walk on the top deck track—11 laps make a mile (or 16 makes a nautical mile). I’ve been trying to walk 2+ miles a day, so I can keep up with all the food. I’ve also started walking down stairs. My rule of thumb is “ride up, walk down.” If you don’t exercise, you will gain at least 10 lbs per cruise. We are on a ship too often to gain that weight.   

I have a message for WeedWoman…I’m not wearing the travel sweater. It’s just too hot. I fear however, that I’ll be needing it (and more) when we get to Shanghai. This morning it was -1 in Shanghai! I did not bring a heavy coat. I wonder how cold it will be when we land there in 12 days.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Riding an Elephant

Another first happened yesterday, we rode an elephant. The ride was part of a bigger shore excursion that showed us the little towns and beaches on the island of Ko Samui, Thailand.

Thailand is definitely a tropical land: Red dirt, wild greenery, wilting heat, and humidity, and lots of industrious people. The streets are filled with motorcycles and scooters; it’s a place where you never feel dry. But I digress, back to the elephant ride.

Yesterday we took one of the ship-sponsored shore excursions that included a 4x4 Safari across the island to see elephants, monkeys and oxen, followed by an elephant ride and an ox-cart ride. That sounded perfect.

The 4x4 safari took us all over the 56 kilometers of coastline on KoSamui. We saw a waterfalls (the largest on the island) and a rubber plantation. Finally, we headed off the main road to a dirt track that brought us to the elephant compound. We were greeted by 2 “baby” elephants, a 6 year old and a 9 year old. They were cute, for lack of a better word. Elephants have a natural smile, so it’s hard not to like looking at them. The two babies performed some tricks, but their best trick was eating baskets of bananas without chewing. Next we were shown the older elephants that we would ride.

We walked up a flight of stairs, and saw a “loading ramp” for lack of a better word, and waited for our elephant to get in place…then we stepped on her saddle, and climbed into the 2 passenger “chair.” The mahout tied a “seat belt” across the chair and urged ToMei forward. She was a bit stubborn at first, halting every few feet. He nudged her behind her great mottled ears and finally she decided to move. The ride was not smooth, and it was way up in the air. Riding an elephant is like riding in the top deck of a double-decker bus. As ToMei walked we swayed. Going up a little grade was relatively easy, but coming down that same grade meant we had to hold on a bit tighter. It was an absolute treat.

A few facts about elephants: there are 6000 elephants in Thailand. Only females are trained as the males become unmanageable as they reach maturity. The elephants in Thailand are Asian elephants, meaning they have smaller ears than the elephants in Africa. Elephants live up to 90 years, and training starts when they are 6 months old. They start working when they are about 10 and work for the next 50 years. The older they get, the more mottled their skin becomes. Lastly, their hide is about 2-3 inches thick. They usually have one mahout who works with them their entire life…man and elephant are friends forever.

After the elephant ride, we saw the monkeys. Did you know that monkeys are color blind? I did not know that. The monkeys are used to pick coconuts, so they are trained to feel and pick only ripe coconuts. A well trained monkey can pick over 500 coconuts a day, which is far more than a person can do.

The last treat was a ride in an ox-cart. Like the elephant ride, it was not smooth. Wooden wheels do not have a lot of flexibility.

It was a fun day.  Next stop is Singapore.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Narita Minute--redux

the 2 of us

Nan, in her IU shirt

You gotta love a 6 year old boy!

The lovely Karen
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It's been 20 years since our last visit to Bangkok. The city has grown upward and outward. Lots more multi-lane highways, lots more skyscrapers, fewer tuk-tuks and more air conditioned taxis. I guess that's called progress. I find it interesting to look at the juxtaposition of modern and ancient...and you see that on the Chao Phraya River which flows through the city. Here you see the skyscapers and the old style boats--working together. I wonder how long that will last? I particularly like looking at barges plying the river as they are pulled by tiny traditional style boats.