Saturday, March 12, 2016

Cruising Asia: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Knowing that the industrial port of Phu My was a two-hour dive to Ho Chi Minh City - more commonly known as Saigon - Bob and I had arranged in advance to join a bus tour of the city on Tuesday, February 9, 2016.  Along the drive it was apparent that the country is still struggling to emerge from a war-torn nation to a modern thriving economy. The tour bus was very roomy and comfortable and evidence of the priority given to the tourist dollar.

The Jade Emperor Pagoda is a popular Taoist Temple in the heart of Saigon.  Because of the Tet Holiday, It was extremely crowded and we were pushed quickly through the temple without really seeing much.  Taoism is a Chinese religion/philosophy which is about living in harmony with "the way" and not devoted to worship of deity.  It espouses "Yin and Yang": opposite but complimentary forces that are part of a necessary oneness; as well as "Wu-Wei; action without action".  I found the temple to be very dark, uninviting and confusing.  For some reason, birds and turtles are often purchased and donated to the temple as part of their worship.  I was glad to leave this place.

We joined the hoards of Vietnamese on holiday at Thao Cam Vien Park.  This huge central park is half botanical gardens and half zoo.

Lunch was devoured at a quaint Vietnamese restaurant where our guide told us they make the very best famous noodle soups in Saigon.  Bob ordered the Pho Bo, which is a beef noodle soup and I ordered Pho Ga, the chicken noodle soup.  The soups were amazingly delicious - much better than what we had ordered in Nha Trang.  There is something about adding that squirt of fresh lime that makes the flavor of the broth delectable!

As we drove toward the Reunification Hall, we saw lovely flower decorations hung across many of the streets and dragon dances taking place along the sidewalks in celebration of Tet. Formerly called Independence Palace, the Reunification Hall was the home of The Republic of South Vietnam's president.  The Vietnam War ended when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops ran through the gates of the palace in the tank pictured below and captured Saigon, April 30th of 1975.  The two flags which now wave along many of the streets of Vietnam and atop the Reunification Hall are the yellow-starred flag of North Vietnam, which was adopted as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's flag in 1976; and the hammer and sickle flag of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

We made a quick stop at a lacquer facility to see how they create their traditional lacquer "paintings" and artwork.  A picture is carved out of a black board and then filled with with mother of pearl or with tiny pieces of a variety of colors of crushed eggshells.  After the picture is formed. ten or more layers of lacquer are painted on top and and finely polished to bring out the desired colors.

Bob and I learned more about the Vietnam War at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.  While filled with anti-American sentiment, it was a stark look at the horrible affects of the war. Use of "Agent Orange" for herbicidal warfare was graphically portrayed as causing all kinds of health and birth defects.  It's use was requested by the south to clear the forests and hiding places of the insurgents. The war was very controversial among Americans, with little support or appreciation given to those who fought to free the republic south from communist rule.  It was heart-wrenching to have a discussion with an American Vietnam war veteran, who was visiting Saigon for the first time since his return from the war.  He recalled being boo-ed and shamed for his service and he still suffers from the physical and emotional toll the war had upon him.  I was in 8th grade when the war ended, and am sorry to say that all I remember about the war was that it was shamefully left unfinished.

The Saigon Central Post Office in Saigon is said to have been built by Gustave Eiffel in 1886.  It is a beautiful building and was full of souvenir shops.  It is next to the Notre Dam Cathedral in a lovely part of the city.

We went to the city center where we saw street food, Tet street decorations, the Opera House, a couple of famous hotels, the new Bitexco Tower and City Hall.


The central plaza was the place to be for Tet, which was beautifully decorated with flower displays.  The women were adorned in their traditional dresses and were found posing for pictures among the bouquets of flowers.  It was a colorful sight and festive way to welcome the year of the monkey.

My favorite part of our tour to Saigon was appropriately the grand finale for the day.  We were treated to a "Water Puppet Show", a uniquely Vietnamese cultural performance.  It is said that this form of entertainment originated in the rice fields, where workers often found ways to provide comic relief from their chores.  The stage is a pool of water, and the puppeteers stand behind the backdrop where they maneuver wooden puppets on log sticks that extend beneath the water.

 What a magical ending to our highlights of Saigon!

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