Exploring Asia: Experiencing Ho Chi Minh City

The same month that U.S. President Bill Clinton “lifted” the U.S. trade embargo of Vietnam in February 1994, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, on a previously booked private, three-day tour by a Thai travel agency.

Fast forward 25 years ...

A few weeks ago, I sailed into the port at Ho Chi Minh City on the luxurious Seabourn Ovation, discovering a Southeast Asia city that had changed much and yet, in some ways, not at all.

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Vietnam's largest city melds the old and new. It's often frenetic, as motorcycles, scooters, buses and trucks zoom by, but just steps away are peaceful green parks and quiet lanes, too. 

The Soul of Saigon 

For touring ashore, I wanted a good overview -- and to see some of the sites I'd visited 25 years ago. So I booked Seabourn’s four-and-a-half-hour “Soul of Saigon” motorcoach tour, priced at $54 per person. 

After leaving the port, our motorcoach passed numerous waterfront restaurants, skyscrapers and new condominiums before we spotted the Majestic Hotel and Caravelle Hotel, which during the Vietnam War era gained fame as "watering holes" and meeting points for military personnel, journalists and spies alike.

Our first stop was Ben Thanh Market, patronized by locals in the early morning and evening with what I perceived as "mostly tourists" during the heart of the day.  

Friendly but persistent vendors, mostly women, continually called out, “Madam, please madam, take a look. I will give you a great buy. Best prices."

We walked aisles with everything from purses to tee-shirts, traditional Vietnamese clothes and souvenirs, as well as crafts, household goods and local foods and produce, too. 

Our group followed the guide in a single file through the market – but soon lost him. Then, the “safety in numbers” herd mentality took over. People in our group stayed together and followed each other, given that we didn't really know where we were going. 

With the market's seemingly endless maze of corridors, stalls and exits, and very limited time (30 or so minutes) in the market, we were vigilant (a bit paranoid to be frank) about the time and keeping track of where we were. 

Along with two fellow guests I knew from the ship, I made a circle, checked out the goods and soaked up the market aura, and finally, we were relieved to encounter our guide approaching us from the opposite direction with a small group of Seabourn guests in tow. 

Back on the motorcoach, I enjoyed the people watching as locals and tourists entered and exited the market. One motorbike with an unusual structure hauled humongous crates of bottled water, and it took three men to unload that cargo.

That leads me to say that if you have a motorbike in this city and a creative approach, you can haul most anything. During our day trip we saw a family of two parents and two kids riding on ONE motorbike, a tall load of crates of soft drinks on another and a hawker's food stand on the back of another. 

While waiting for the rest of the group to return to the motorcoah, I also had to chuckle when a highly persistent hawker approached the coach's front door stairs (but did not enter, as the bus driver gave her a wary look). She yelled to a woman seated across from me on the bus -- "Great buy, madam, $10 for tote bag."

Let's just say that verbal negotiations ensued. Soon, the guest  got up from her seat, went to the coach door and paid the hawker $10 for three bags, returning to her seat and looking very pleased with her bargain. I have to admit that I wished I had done the same.   

History & Puppetry

Then the coach headed to Ho Chi Minh’s History Museum, built in 1929 by the Societe des Etudes Indochinoises. This Sino-French museum with a lovely courtyard is home to artifacts from the Dong Son civilization of the Bronze Age (2,000 BC), the Funan era (first to sixth centuries AD) and the Cham, Khmer and modern eras.  

A humongous statue of Ho Chi Minh greeted us as we moved into the heart of the museum. Exhibits including collections of Buddhas, Cham statues, artifacts from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and other historic items were well presented. 

Mostly, though, I booked this tour to see the water puppetry that I loved on my last visit. Once staged as entertainment for Vietnam’s royal family, the "art" of water puppetry is today performed by modern puppeteers for regular folks -- both locals and travelers alike.

Performed in a large pool in the History Museum complex, the surface of the water is the stage while the audience watches from tiered seating on three sides of the pool. 

It’s fun to watch the puppets skim across the water, flip, dance and seemingly “come alive” in a tale. We didn't really know what we were watching, but it was fun -- as puppets representing farmers, fish and dragons were involved. 

A nice touch? After the performance, the puppeteers come out from behind a screen to acknowledge the crowd’s clapping and smiles. 

Pedicab & Notre Dame

From outside the History Museum courtyard, the Seabourn tour guide met the pedicab trishaws waiting for our group. We climbed into these -- a fixture in old Saigon during past decades, but mostly for tourists today. Today, the locals are much more apt to hop on a friend's scooter or hail a cab.

Heading into traffic, our pedicab caravan buzzed by landmarks, parks and shops. After about 10-15 minutes or so, we arrived at Paris Square for viewing the Notre Dame Cathedral, with its two 131-foot towers, and the Central Post Office. 

Built between 1877 and 1883 by French colonists, the impressive cathedral is one of the few remaining enclaves of Catholicism in Vietnam. All the stone used to build the church was shipped from France.

One interesting factoid? A statue of the Virgin Mary also occupies the space in front of the church, and locals claim the statue shed tears in 2005. While that was denied by the region's Catholic leadership, visitors still flock here -- hoping to see a miracle.

A superb example of French colonial architecture, the nearby Central Post Office is still in use today. Built by Gustave Eiffel (who designed Paris' Eiffel Tower), it opened in 1891.   

Our guide offered to take photos of tour guests in front of the cathedral, and then we re-boarded the motorcoach, which set off for the Reunification Palace.

Reunification Palace

Indelibly etched in the collective American memory is the sight of a North Vietnamese tank breaking through the gate of South Vietnam’s former Presidential Palace on April 30, 1975. I viewed one of those tanks (although not the original, according to our guide) on the grounds near the perimeter fence.

After entering the building, we toured the reception and dining rooms of the president’s quarters, now a meeting or reception site for foreign leaders or business travelers.

Due to a knee issue, I remained on the first floor and simply savored the "people watching" while our tour group headed for the basement; there they viewed archaic American-made telecommunications equipment and strategic military maps on the walls. They also climbed stairs to other levels to see more of the palace. 

FYI, one man in our group saw me just before we all boarded the motorcoach and said, "You made the right decision. It was a lot of walking and I wasn't sure I'd make it."

Chinatown Temple

Our final stop on the “Soul of Saigon” tour was at Pass Cholon, also known as Chinatown. Our group proceeded for a half-hour visit to the 18th century Thien Hau Temple, with lovely ceramic friezes lining the roof of its inner courtyard.

Most notably, a  strong aroma of incense filled the air – originating from hanging spirals suspended from the temple’s ceiling. Tour goers also briefly visited the Minh Phuong lacquerware workshop.

Then it was time to head back to the ship. Overall, I would recommend this tour as a good overview for those with limited time who want to see a broad range of attractions within the city. 

Parting Thoughts

I am glad I went “back to Vietnam." Even 25 years from my last visit, the city seemed quite familiar. Many historic sites were just as I remembered them. Yet, the city was certainly more modern, with many high-rise office towers and condominiums.

Despite a building boom, real estate is still reasonably affordable in Ho Chi Minh City. Our guide explained that there are many Americans who now live in the city. A new two-bedroom, two-bath condominium might cost $175,000 to $200,000, far less than in other Asian cities. 

That said, he also explained that locals are buying these, and then turning around a few weeks or months later and selling them for $15,000 to $20,000 more – one way to make fast money. So Americans considering a move and property purchase definitely should consider it sooner rather than later. 

Twenty-five years ago, I observed many local residents using bicycles, but this time, there were few. Nearly everyone uses motorized scooters or motorcycles.

One neat thing was that on several main roadways, there were four lanes of car-truck traffic (two in either direction) and then a motorbike lane on the outside on both sides. Our guide noted that the segregated lanes had helped cut down on accidents.

I found the locals welcoming but a bit distant or even wary in some cases. Our guide explained that the South Vietnamese soldiers who are now in their 60s to 80s have a “not so good life” and that for many families, it will take a few more generations (several decades yet) for Vietnam War-era memories and the difficult post-war era during the late 1970s and 1980s to seem more distant. 

I definitely enjoyed my day ashore from Seabourn Ovation. Forever etched in the American mindset is the 1974 sight of a U.S. helicopter landing atop a building in Saigon with people on a ladder desperately waiting for evacuation as the North Vietnamese closed in on the city.

For many, the helicopter ride was a flight to freedom. For others who could not be evacuated, it signaled the start of a tough period under a new regime.  

Today, that cream-colored building remains. I never would have recognized it, though, had the guide not pointed it out as we stood on the sidewalk at Paris Square. Once he did, though, it was immediately recognizable to many on our tour.

It's no longer such a high point in the city. Today, a large, blue-tinged, modern skyscraper rises dramatically behind it. (See the two photos in our slide show above).

Together, the scene represented the old and new, past and present -- bridging the decades. For me, it was an unforgettable memory of my time this year in Ho Chi Minh City. 

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