I have found that there ain’ t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them – Mark Twain
It is April 15 and Gert is finally getting to finishing the blog entries for the past few days. He admits now being fully in ‘mumble mode’ and can’t imagine being any less stressed! He promises to get on with it though so that our readers won’t be left wondering if we were somehow implicated in the protests in Pattaya, Thailand. (We left 2 days before the ASEAN conference was cancelled there.)
On to the post at hand: This morning we docked in Phy My (pronounced Foo May). Phu My is the gateway to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon (depending on who you talk with). There is a tremendous amount of development happening in the port. There is little of interest at the port for a visitor (except for the obvious construction)
so visitors are encouraged to go into Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon which is a 2 hour drive by coach. That time covers 90 km so you can imagine the (lack) of speed we got up to.
Our guide for the day was Mr. Tho (pronounced Ti). The drive in our air conditioned motor coach was “death defying”. Goodness these people just drive like idiots or people with a death wish. The saving grace is that the speeds are slow, sporadic speed enforcement being the only attempt at control. There are thousands of scooters or mopeds and they come at you from all directions. As in most countries down here, one moped can carry 4 or more people (on 1 little bike!!). A two lane highway becomes 5 lanes in traffic (similar to what Toronto does in a snow storm – but much more fun :-)). The term ‘flexible’ was used a lot to describe the driving process.
We pass over the Ben Nghe Canal and Saigon River and enter Ho Chi Minh City and its 7,000,000 people. It’s easily Vietnam’s biggest city. The Chinese merchants controlled more than half of the South Vietnamese commerce and are still easily the wealthiest people in the country. It’s very interesting to see the contrast in living conditions between the well-off and the rest. Many people own little stores or stalls along the highway, these stores are also their homes – they sleep on mattresses on the floor or on hammocks.
A frequent sight is a used moped tire leaning against a post by the side of the road. This signals the location of a repair shop. The tools are not displayed in case the police catch sight, which results in confiscation. A considerable part of the economy here is underground. People can get assistance from the government, but they then have to officially declare themselves as poor. It is an indication of their character that few want this stigma, opting instead to eke out a living selling souvenirs, fixing mopeds, refurbishing car mirrors and tail lights etc.
Saigon was named for its location on a strategic bend in the Sai Gon river and was an important port in the powerful Cambodian Angkor Kingdom. There is essentially 1 major highway in and out of the city. It is jammed with commercial traffic and mopeds. Trucks are allowed in the city itself only between 1 and 4 PM daily as an attempt at congestion management. The traffic rules definitely seem a holdover from the French colonial days, organized chaos comes to mind. To cross the road on foot, you keep inching your way forward as traffic honks at you but also avoids hitting you. An excellent thrill and feeling of accomplishment when you reach the other side of even a 4 lane road :-). Stopping at red lights seems to be optional, if a moped driver feels the wait is too long they just start inching across the traffic. Amazingly this works, with only lots of horn beeping as a sign of disapproval.
We visited a fabulous botanical garden in the city core. Many acres it contains lots of trees including some over a hundred years old as well as a zoo. The zoo is being relocated toward the edge of the city next year.
Our tour was to see colonial sites and that is exactly what we did. The Notre Dame Cathedral, strangely closed most of the time (unlike the hundreds of temples that are always open), the Presidential Palace built by the French in the 1960’s (now the Unification Palace), the Post Office, old hotels etc. Given the number of wars fought here over the past 100 years it was amazing to see that many of the historical buildings still in excellent condition. We wandered around the old core for 30 minutes, taking in the Rex Hotel, Opera House and various other buildings.
The Unification Palace is a beautiful piece of architecture. Built in the modern 60’s style, it is spacious and still furnished with its original furniture. Outside are the 2 tanks that crashed through the gates in 1976. We had access to the meeting rooms (for greeting foreign dignitaries), living quarters for the family and also the war rooms in the bomb proof basement.
The City Museum (originally the Gai Long Palace or French Governors Mansion) provided displays of colonial times, including wood carving and shoe making. This site is often used for wedding photos as well. Outside are more items from the Vietnam War.
The last major stop was the Post Office.This was built by the French in the late 1800’s and is still in use today. Some of you will be receiving postcards that we mailed from there. It is amazingly busy with people sending parcels to far off destinations as well as more mundane mailings.
On our way back to the ship we stopped at a facility making lacquered items. These are not the quickie cheap souvenirs, instead some take days of work to finish. All the work is done by disabled people. Unfortunately Gert was so engrossed with the work that he didn’t take any photos except of the overall process 🙁
Our return trip to the ship took us along the same Highway 1 and then 51. The incoming excitement was surpassed by also dealing with a downpour and even more traffic. A testament to the driving skills overall is that we saw only 1 accident, in Toronto there would be many more in a day even with supposed better traffic management. The lack of aggression in South Asian drivers is probably the key to their survival 🙂
Vietnam is booming, a tremendous amount of free market activity is occurring since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and USSR. This is a the free market communism being practiced in China. This is slowly erasing the terrible times during the isolationist period from 1976 to the mid-80’s. The most obvious remnants are not visible, people whose families were subjected to ‘re-education’ are prevented from being party members (and thus members of the police, military or politics) until the 3rd generation after re-education.