Good Morning, Vietnam!
Sapphire Princess docked in Phu My, Vietnam on Liberation Day (April 30, 2016), exactly 41 years after the “Fall of Saigon” to the communists. Phu My is about 50 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, which was established by a Vietnamese emperor in 1698.
As soon as you step into Ho Chi Minh City, you’re greeted with a symphony of honking horns, cries of street hawkers, vehicles zooming in every direction, and a sea of friendly faces. Equally quaint and exotic, this bustling city is where old meets new, where magnificent French colonial villas juxtapose markets full of genuine fake handbags, Oriental clothing, crafts, and souvenirs.
Our first stop was to witness the art of lacquerware making at Minh Phuong Lacquer Factory. After a brief demonstration of the lacquering process, we shopped for lacquerware pieces, which were available from small boxes to large pieces of furniture. I chose a small, hand painted bowl with a lid for my bookshelf at home. It depicts two Asian rice farmers wearing their instantly recognizable conical-shaped hats. I purchased one of the hats to protect myself from the sun.
The best places to shop are bustling Dong Khoi Street, with its artisan stores and cafes, and Ben Thanh Market, a historic symbol of Saigon, full of souvenirs and tempting cuisine. The market is located in Cholon, the largest community of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. I meandered through Ben Thanh’s narrow aisles crowded with friendly, albeit a bit aggressive, vendors selling local handicrafts, textiles, ao dai (the Vietnamese national costume), and delicious fruits and vegetables. I bought the most amazing reversible silk kimono robe in striking red on one side and royal blue on the other. It’s embroidered with a dragon on the back and Oriental symbols on the sleeves.
Unlike most Vietnamese cities, Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t have an ancient or mythical past but its history is just as fascinating and dramatic. Conquered by France in 1859, the outpost, renamed Saigon, became the French Inodchina capital and a popular travel destination. Although France’s occupation would last less than 100 years, the influence is obvious with its wide, tree-lined boulevards, sprawling parks and classical European structures, such as the Opera House. It quickly becomes apparent that the city is worthy of its nickname, “Paris of the Orient.”
District 3 of the city has the most prevalent examples of French influence. Home to two sparkling gems that showcase the city’s colonial heritage: Notre Dame Cathedral, completed in 1880, is the largest church ever built in the French empire and boasts two 190-foot tall bell towers. Visible across from the cathedral is the stunning, bright yellow Main Post Office, the largest of its kind in Vietnam. Built between 1886 and 1891 by renowned architect Gustave Eiffel, its neoclassical design features an interior reminiscent of a European railway station complete with arched windows and vaulted ceilings. The former wooden phone booths are now home to ATM’s.
Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the bustling metropolis was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to honor North Vietnam’s revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh and today, this city on the Saigon River is once again a vibrant and dynamic vacation destination. Indeed, there are many spectacular hotels, the most famous being The Rex, and all the luxury brands are well-represented, including Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Hermes, Gucci, and Versace, among many, many others. There’s also Starbucks, which made for a nice respite from the heat with free wi-fi and a caffeine boost to charge our systems for more bargaining and treasure hunting. Be sure to indulge in one of the plentiful spas. I got a 90 minute Thai massage for $18 US.
Ho Chi Minh City serves up a bountiful harvest of beauty. Not only is she a mesmerizing place to visit but also serves as a portal to a world of wonder with breathtaking destinations like Mekeng Delta and Cu Chi. We had a full day to explore Saigon before our next port—Chan May—from where we embarked on a full-day tour to Da Nanag and Hoi An.
Da Nang dates back to 192 AD, but was “discovered” by Marco Polo in 1285. Da Nang is one of Vietnam’s five independent municipalities, and is Vietnam’s fourth largest city with a population approaching one million.
The port lecturer informed us that the city of Hoi An was her favorite. We quickly changed our excursion to include this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ancient temples, historic tea houses and original architecture provide this charismatic river town with a distinct Chinese atmosphere that has been remarkably preserved for centuries since the river turned to silt and trading stopped the development in its tracks.
The town was larger than I expected, but so charming and bustling with street hawkers, a market, and, of course, mopeds. The highlight of town is the Japanese covered bridge. I ordered some custom made clothing, and the tailor’s sister raced me back to join my tour group on the back of her scooter. What a joy ride!
Next was lunch at the fabulous Nam Long authentic Vietnamese restaurant. The back of the restaurant was on a river, with Oriental lanterns hanging from the trees, and the gardens were other worldly with flowers, ponds, bridges, and statuary. Most importantly, the food was scrumptious—especially the Vietnamese noodle dish, with pork and peanuts, lime and a chili pepper slice.
We also had the good fortune to visit Marble Mountain, consisting of five striking limestone and marble hills marking the site of pagodas and caves. The mountains are named after the elements—Earth (Tho Son), fire (Hoa Son), metal (Kim Son), water (Thuy Son) and wood (Moc Son). At the base are gardens and a stone carving village where sculptors create beautiful artwork from the local stone. We also made a phot stop at Marble Beach, formerly China Beach, made famous by the war and ensuing American television shows.
On the way back to the ship, we visited the Museum of Cham Sculpture. The Cham people, the original people to inhabit the region, left many relics, traditions and local practices behind. The Cham Museum boasts a collection of over 100 sculptures.
If Vietnam is not on your bucket list, it should be. Maybe some day I will return and stay at one of the beautiful beach resorts and buy some of the impressive marble statues created by the talented artisans. Overall, Vietnam is a warm country both in terms of temperature and people. As the signs say on the way out of town, “Hen Gap Lai” (See you again)!