Mother’s Day in the Texas Hill Country During COVID-19

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bankersmith TX dancehall, complete with chickens

We started Mother’s Day with another wonderful morning at Emma’s Ranch in the Texas Hill Country.  I got up early and walked into the kitchen to spot deer just outside the window.  It just gave me a warm feeling inside.  After everyone was up, we spent time outside; with each outing Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Maggie’s dog) wanders just a bit farther from the barndamium.  We all shared in the breakfast-making duties.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Morning deer as seen through the kitchen window (and screen) at the J&J Crossing Ranch in the Texas Hill Country.

The shops open up at 11am on Sundays and we are heading back into Fredericksburg then.  Mass wasn’t an option today, since large group activities are still restricted due to the virus.  Odd since everyone walks around Fredericksburg with no mask on; capacities in the buildings are limited to 25%.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Original hospital for the German community in Fredericksburg, Texas. Now a restaurant and gift store.

There are less people walking around town today.  I suspect many made a day trip into Fredericksburg yesterday and today are at home enjoying Mother’s Day with their families.  The restaurants did have a lot of people celebrating with lunch/brunch.  We found a wonderful store with outdoor apparel and great walking shoes; I bought four pairs.  Sydney, the young saleswoman at Parts Unknown, was very helpful.  She is graduating from high school at the end of this month.  Her class is small enough that they will actually be able to hold a graduation ceremony, although the number of people she can invite is limited to two.  She is one of the lucky ones; most graduation ceremonies can’t take place this spring due to large group restrictions in place due to COVID-19.

Another favorite shop was the Rustic Star, a home accessories store.  They had wonderful woven baskets, very colorful.  They also had high end artificial floral items and great examples of the table arrangements you could make with them.  You can see them on their Facebook page.  I already have the trays they were using, so I got some of the flowers and greenery to make arrangements for my house.  It will be a fun project while my outside activities remain limited.  The Rustic Star was the only shop we went into that required masks-good for them.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. When not drinking the Texas wines, Maggie enjoyed a Lone Star, the National Beer of Texas and her grandfather’s favorite.

At some point, I put on a pair of my new walking shoes.  I didn’t buy that much in town, but we did a lot of looking and covered a lot of ground.  We ended our time in Fredericksburg back at the Grape Creek Tasting Room.  I passed on another tasting-Emma gets two free ones each day.  Emma and Maggie enjoyed another round and we bought some more wine to take home with us.  Maggie even joined their club.  She can get shipments in Washington, D.C. where she goes to school.  Not every state allows wine shipments.

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If Fred could wear a mask to protect against the spread of COVID-19, then so could Natasha.

Afterwards, I drove back to the ranch giving another wave to masked Fred.  Our hope was to stop for a late lunch at Alamo Springs and try one of their famous burgers.  Unfortunately it was 3:35 (most of the shops in town close at 3 pm on Sunday), and Alamo Springs had closed at 2 pm.  Bummer.  They had lots of outside tables.  Emma said this was new.  Don’t know if it is to accommodate larger crowds or in response to the spacing requirements that have come out of social distancing.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Dawn and dusk were the best times to spot deer on the J&J Crossing Ranch.

Back at the ranch, Emma and I decided to spend some time outside.  Even though today is warmer, the breeze at the higher elevation where the barndamium is located means it was cool and comfortable on the porch.  Eventually, we decided it was a good day for a nap.  It is Mother’s Day after all and Rocky would want me to enjoy a nap if I had the chance.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Interior of the Dancehall at Bankersmith TX

They woke me up in time to go to Bankersmith, TX for the drive-in movie.  As a child, I went to drive-in movies at a theater in my hometown of Victoria, Texas.  Usually priced by car, the five of us would pack into the station wagon with food and drinks my mom had prepared for us.  We lived modestly and even though there was a concession stand, it was more economical to bring your own snacks.  It was a double feature.  You put a speaker on your car window.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The backyard at Bankersmith TX

These theaters had two screens, so you parked in the direction of the movie you wanted to see.  My daddy loved Westerns, musicals and Disney movies, so that is usually what we saw.  More than once my brother was caught watching the movie playing from the other direction.  Didn’t matter that he couldn’t hear what was being said; it was the pictures he was interested in.  I’ll say no more.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The “drive-in” movie in Bankersmith TX.

The “drive-in” at Bankersmith was a homemade set-up.  A frame of  2x4s was covered in a sheet and secured atop a metal trailer.  Bingo, a screen.  None of this inflatable stuff.  You parked in their parking lot, packed as close together as possible.  If you had a hatch-back or pick-up, you backed in and sat in the back or the bed.  Since we were in a sedan, we had to get there early for a front row “seat”.  No worries-there is free music, games, a bar, and food to keep us happy until the movie begins.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The ice house at Bankersmith TX.

Bankersmith TX is right on Old Hwy 9, the first paved road between Comfort and Fredericksburg.  The J&J Crossing Ranch is also on Hwy 9, so we were very close.   The ice house (known as Bankersmith TX) is located in Bankersmith, Texas,  a ghost town near the border of Kendall and Gillespie Counties.  The town was founded 1913 when a rail stop was secured at this location.  The town was named for Temple Smith, the banker who financed the railroad.  (He was known locally as-yes, you got it- Banker Smith.)  In the early 1940s the railroad abandoned this section of the rail line.  The town reached its peak population of 50 in the 1920s when there was a store, dancehall, lumberyard, and a post office.

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Goat Yoga at Bankersmith. Photo curtesy of Bankersmith TX.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The dancehall at Bankersmith TX.

I love the logo for the ice house and dance hall, Bankersmith TX, population 0.  I need one of those t-shirts.  After securing our prime location for the drive-in movie (we had stopped in earlier in the day and asked about what time to arrive), we went into the field behind the ice house.   The movie starts at 8:20 and it was recommended to us that we arrive between 7 and 7:30.  Sundays are a lot less crowded than Fridays or Saturdays.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. This old bus at Bankersmith TX served the dual purpose of being a goat playground with an entrance on one side and the stage backdrop on the other side.

You can’t miss the yard entrance, it is right next to an old passenger bus which is part of the goat pen on one side.  (Yes, they do goat yoga.)  On the opposite side, the side panel of the bus becomes the the backdrop of the “stage” (simply a wooden platform).  People sat on picnic tables around the yard.  We assumed the interior of the ice house was closed, but we were wrong.  Inside is a large room with the bar along one wall.  The toilets are off of this room.  From the yard, you walk through a smaller room with a pool table in it to reach the bar.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The bar at Bankersmith TX opened to the outside on this raised platform. Musicians played on the platform to the left.

The other side of the bar is open to a raised outdoor platform and that is where we ordered our dinner and drinks.  Local musicians sat on the platform playing for tips.  There was corn hole on the lawn and a children’s playground set.  Since the county has had only one case of COVID-19 everyone acted as if things were normal.  You might even forget for a while…but then you realize how incredibly risky it was to let the children crawl all over the playground equipment.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our table in the yard at Bankersmith TX. Coming from an urban environment we are a little more COVID-19 cautious and chose the most isolated table. As you see, Maggie’s dog, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, was able to join us for the evening.

We had a great meal of pulled pork, fries, and Dr. Pepper.  Maggie opted for a Lone Star, the national beer of Texas.  Her grandfather “Pa” would have been so proud.  Longneck Lone Stars were his favorite beer-and he loved his beer!  Fitz (Maggie’s dog) was with us and was quite the hit with all the children.  He sat and took it all in, happy to not be left at home.

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There is a sequel headed our way, but we saw the original Top Gun at the “drive-in” movie parking lot at Bankersmith TX.

Afterwards, we sat in the car and enjoyed the film, Top Gun.  About now you are putting your aviator glasses on and bobbing you head to Danger Zone.  You can go up to the bar all night.  Regular menu service ends at 8 pm, but they have a special movie night menu with popcorn, candy, and drinks.  You can keep your tab open through the movie.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A chicken dinner, or rather dinner with the chickens.  I had a lot of fun taking pictures at Bankersmith TX, but this one of the chickens on the table was my favorite.

Leaving the parking lot at the end of the movie wasn’t too bad, but we did watch a few cars come pretty close to knocking over the projector in the hurry to get out.  The drive back to the ranch was tough on an unfamiliar road with no lights, but we made it.  We did a little packing before heading to bed.  Contractors are coming in the morning to work on the 60-day punch list, so we want to be gone before then.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Moulton, Texas

It was a foggy morning, but most had burned off by the time we left the ranch at 8:30 am.   In addition to the gas stop, lunch stop, and necessary stop, we are taking a detour by Moulton, Texas.  My daddy is buried there and we always stop by the cemetery when we pass through this part of Texas.  Both sets of his grandparents had farms in Moulton and he happily spent his summers there during his childhood.  We knew that he would want to return; I am sure he is at peace listening to the chicken and cows.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The outdoor pavilion at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Moulton, Texas was set up appropriately spaced for Mother’s Day Mass.

We stopped by and saw the new covered pavilion at St. Joseph’s.  It has been open less than three years.  I have been going to the church feasts since I was a child.  Rocky too has rarely missed the annual event.  He went for the first time when he was only nine months old.  The pavilion was still set up for yesterday’s Mother’s Day Mass, with chairs appropriately spaced apart.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Miniature donkey farm, Moulton, Texas

Driving out of Moulton we saw a miniature donkey farm and some of the residents hunting for shade near the fence line.  After that it was back to Houston and the reality of COVID-19.  Happy Mother’s Day.  Stay safe and healthy during these unprecedented times.

–Natasha

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bankersmith, Texas dancehall, complete with chickens

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Coming out of COVID-19: A Taste of the Texas Hill Country

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Spotted in the biergarten at the Pecan Grove Store, near Fredericksburg, Texas.

I haven’t been out of Houston since our ill-fated trip to Vietnam in March.  Here in our urban setting (Houston is the 4th largest city in the USA), we are still wearing masks, social distancing, and sanitizing like crazy.  It’s Mother’s Day weekend, so Emma invited me on a Girls Weekend to her new ranch in the Texas Hill Country.  There will be only three of us and only family- Emma (my sister), Maggie (her daughter, my niece), and me.

IMG_0027Somehow we managed to make a 4-hour car ride last 7 hours.  In addition to stops for gasoline, lunch, and a “necessary stop”, Maggie really wanted to go to Buc-ee’s, an iconic travel stop, known for their clean restrooms, wide array of snack and logo items and their ballcap-wearing beaver mascot.  They also have a plethora of suggestive billboards dotting the Texas highways.  I read a great article in Texas Monthly about how the chain got started which I recommend.  I was pleased to see that Buc-ee was also wearing his facemask.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen

We did a stop for groceries in Comfort, Texas (northwest of San Antonio) and then went to the ranch about 10 miles east, between Comfort and Fredericksburg, near the Old Tunnel State Park.  The park is centered around an old railway tunnel that is now home to millions of bats.  The Northern and Fredericksburg Railway ceased operations in 1942.  “The abandoned railroad tunnel that gives Old Tunnel its name is home to up to 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasilienses mexicana) and 3,000 cave myotis (Myotis velifer) bats from May through October. During those months, visitors come to watch the bats emerge from the tunnel nightly. Bat-viewing opportunities are available seven nights a week, and nightly educational presentations are given Thursday through Sunday.”  Texas Parks and Wildlife Official website.  The park is currently open on a reservations-only basis.

OLD-TUNNEL_web_1644Nearby is the Alamo Springs Cafe.  According to their website, the cafe is “[i]nconveniently located in the middle of nowhere between Fredericksburg and Comfort, TX, Alamo Springs Café serves serious food with a laid back atmosphere.  Cold beer. Live music. No frills.  Just the best food in Central Texas.”  Can they really make that claim?  Well they did snag the cover of Texas Monthly’s Best Burger Issue.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. With the barndamium in the distance, the J&J Crossing Ranch near Fredericksburg, Texas

Emma and her husband built their new barndamium at a high point on their property so we had a slow ride in on a rough road.  Totally worth it.  The new build is beautiful with a wood-paneled barn and and two-bedroom living quarters attached.  It really is so much more than the barndamium term implies and Emma has done a beautiful job even in her preliminary decorating.  Maggie and I stayed in twin beds in the Texas Room (guest room).  The old Spanish trail cut through their property and you can still see ruts made by the wheels of the stagecoaches that passed through.

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Joining us at the ranch was Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Maggie’s dog, whose beautiful coloring perfectly matched Emma’s new comforter.

There was time for happy hour on the patio, a beautiful sunset, dinner, and then a movie on the 75-inch tv screen.  Wow!  We even went back out to enjoy the weather before turning in.  Morning found us once again on the patio.  No noise pollution here; you can only hear the birds.  After breakfast, we got dressed and headed towards Fredericksburg.  Unfortunately the Polaris (off road vehicle) is broken and it is the only way to get around most of the property, so we are going to do some touring of the local area instead of exploring the ranch.  (I am ok with this because once the Polaris is fixed I can hopefully wrangle another visit to the ranch.)  Things are starting to open up in Texas as we have (hopefully) passed the peak of the virus here.  We set out, face masks at the ready.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Biergarten at the Pecan Grove Store, just outside Fredericksburg, Texas.

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Emma loves to take selfies. This one is at the biergarten outside the Pecan Grove Store near Fredericksburg, Texas.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. You can find Texas Historical Markers all across the state.  Texas is the only state in the Union that was an independent nation (The Republic of Texas) at one point in time. However, this particular sign is a humorous tribute to the authentic ones.

Before the Willow City Loop, we stopped for a dino burger lunch at the biergarten at the old Sinclair Gas Station at Pecan Grove.  We stood in the gravel lot on the 6-feet apart markers with the cyclists, locals, and highway patrolmen.  They had spaced picnic tables across the lawn leading down to Marschell Creek.  (Emma has been inside when COVID-19 wasn’t raging.)  The burger and fresh-cut fries were awesome! We enjoyed the ideal setting overlooking the creek.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. I remember green stamps and the stores from my youth. This sign is on the Pecan Grove Store, near Fredericksburg, Texas

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Pecan Grove Store near Fredericksburg, Texas. The original building on the property was a Sinclair gas station.

It is also fun to check out all the vintage signs from the Sinclair Gas Station that was originally at this location.  I remember this type of roadside store from my youth.  Before open container laws, my Daddy would stop at a place just like this and get a Lone Star beer for our drive out into the country.  The Pecan Grove Store was built in 1957 by Lawrence Segner who held the Segner homestead. The homestead dates from the 1800s and is just across Marschell Creek.  The first building on this property was the Sinclair service station.  The store and garage were added later.  Segner also “built a dance floor and band stand in the pecan grove where he had Saturday night dances. A local hub for years. He was a well known German sausage maker.”  Pecangrovestore.com

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Lining the fence posts with boots along the Willow City Loop, near Fredericksburg, Texas.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Willow City Loop, Texas.

After lunch, we drove to the nearby Willow City Loop.  This 13-mile ranch road is maintained by the county, but all the land is privately owned and you pass over cattle guards as you go from ranch to ranch.  My favorite was the ranch where the owner had lined all the fence posts with old cowboy boots.  The drive is particularly spectacular when the wildflowers are blooming.  We are a couple of weeks too late.  Emma said two weeks ago, the bluebonnets were almost finished but the lovely red and yellow wildflowers were in full bloom.  We just got a taste of the few that hung on.  Wildflower season in the Texas Hill Country is March through May.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Willow City Loop, Texas

The ride takes you through canyons and fields and is very popular, particularly with motorcycles.  To reach the Willow City Loop from Fredericksburg, take highway 16 North  towards Llano, Texas.  During the ride “the terrain changes from pastoral, gently rolling hills to a dramatic, rugged landscape of deep canyons, sky reaching jagged cliffs, meandering streams and phenomenal panoramic views.”  Fredericksburg Texas Online.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vintage building along the main street in Fredericksburg set against the big blue Texas sky.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Fredericksburg, Texas

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. There are lots of wineries in the area. But this is Texas-old German Texas-so you have to have a local brewery as well.

After the loop, we went back into Fredericksburg.  I wanted to check out the vintage buildings.  Emma is a member of one of the local wineries and she gets a free tasting when she stops in the local tasting room.  Wine was a priority for Maggie; she just finished exams for her second year of law school.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Practicing social distancing while enjoying the wines at the Grape Creek Tasting Room in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Fredericksburg had lots of wonderful shops.  We might check those out tomorrow.  Today, Maggie’s priority was wine tasting.  As we walked down the main street, we were shocked at how few people were wearing masks.  It was crowded, but only a handful of people were wearing them.  We stopped into Grape Creek Vineyards’ tasting room and the three of us shared two tastings (6 choice per tasting).  We bought several bottles of wine to enjoy at the ranch and to take home.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Emma and Maggie at tasting stop #2 in Fredericksburg, Texas.

We did some window shopping, but the next stop was the Fat Ass Tasting Room.  Maggie likes her sweet wines and she had a ball with these sightly cheaper, and definitely less sophisticated selections.  She also tried the frozen sangria.  I offered to drive to our next stop, so I passed on these selections.  I tend to like the dry varieties anyway.  The labels were great and this would be a fun wine to gift.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Heath’s new tasting room dedicated to sparkling wines outside Fredericksburg, Texas.

Grape Creek Vineyards is affiliated with Heath Vineyards in California.  They have recently opened another new tasting room at the winery outside Fredericksburg.  This sister operation is dedicated to sparkling wines, a favorite of mine.  In fact, Boris and I recently enjoyed time at wineries in the Champagne region of France.  Since we had already had our tasting in town, we were not eligible for a free tasting at the Grape Creek Winery-we’ll enjoy dinner there later in the evening.  We decided to try the Heath Sparkling.  This time Maggie and I were doing the tasting.

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Maggie and Natasha during the Heath Sparkling Wine tasting at Grape Creek Vineyards, Fredericksburg, Texas

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Enjoying our “pour” on the patio of Heath Sparking Wines overlooking the vineyards near Fredericksburg.

The four varieties are served with a food paring (very small).  If you decide to take home some bottles, your tasting fee is credited on your purchases.  There is a personal guide to your tasting and video presentations on the process of creating the Heath sparkling wines.  The building is very sleek and modern.  I am rather picky when it comes to sparkling wines, and I didn’t care of anything they served. Emma decided to join because the perks offered would be nice for her to share with her ranch guests.  Since she joined the three of us were able to enjoy a complimentary “pour” on their patio overlooking the vineyards.  Very nice.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The open air patio at Stout’s Trattoria at Grape Creek Vineyards outside Fredericksburg, Texas

We shut the place down.  We were literally the last people (besides staff) to leave the building.  We just crossed the parking lot to enjoy our dinner at Stout’s Trattoria, the on-property restaurant.  Although we didn’t partake, you are also able to tour and taste at the Grape Creek winery.  Of course, there is also a store for your purchasing pleasure.  Maggie, recognizing how much she had drank that day, immediately asked for some bread to soak up the alcohol.  Bread never tasted so good.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the patio at Grape Creek Vineyards, Fredericksburg, Texas, holding it together after a day of wine tastings.

You can sit inside, on a covered patio, or on the open-air patio.  The sun had lowered so we were able to enjoy the open patio without too much heat.  All the spaces overlook the vineyards.  The food was very good.  Nothing too fancy, but very tasty.  We particularly liked the Hill Country Pizza.

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Fred, masked, along the Old San Antonio Road between Fredericksburg and Comfort, Texas.

After that, it was back to the ranch.  On the way, I asked Emma to stop so I could get a picture of Fred, a masked bull (ok, not real), who overlooks the highway.  First Buc-ee with a mask and now Fred.  I am on a roll.  Back at the ranch, we enjoyed the sunset on the porch.  There was movie time, but we crashed pretty early (no surprise given the day’s main activity.)  Looking forward to another day in the hill country and celebrating Mother’s Day.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Sunset from the porch of the J&J Crossing Ranch in the Texas Hill Country.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Spotted in the biergarten at the Pecan Grove Store, near Fredericksburg, Texas.

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Headed home from Vietnam during COVID-19

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Nha Rong or Dragon House was established by the French in 1862 as a house of trade at its own harbor. It is now the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Vietnam

Today we are trying to get home to Houston Texas from Vietnam as worldwide panic has set in over COVID-19.  Boris was convinced that he would sleep through the night knowing we had flights in the morning.  It didn’t work for me.  I kept thinking about all the things that could happen.  For the third night in a row, I didn’t get more than 3-4 hours of sleep.  I got up several times just to make sure that the flights were still going as scheduled.  Finally at 6 am on Sunday morning I hung it up and just got dressed for breakfast.

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Boris and Natasha aboard the Saigon Princess. Note the changing lights of the Times Square building on the left and the Vincom Landmark 81 tower on the right.

We went down at 6:30 am and briefly saw our travel companions who were having breakfast and trying to make arrangements to have a room to change in when they got back from the tunnels and before they went to the airport.  After breakfast, I packed.  Later in the morning I went down to check out the pool because I really didn’t want to leave the hotel.  Boris went shopping and came back with a model junk.  The Park Hyatt Saigon has a beautiful pool, full sun and shaded seating areas and a great pool menu.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beautiful art work in the Music Salon of the Park Hyatt Saigon.

I went back for a shower and we were going to have lunch by the pool, but it was too hot by then to sit outside fully dressed.  We ended up eating off the bistro menu in the music salon off the lobby.  Once Boris was finished he went to the lobby and found out the driver was already there a half hour early.  So then Boris wanted to leave and I had to rush through the lunch, pay the bill, close out the hotel tab, and change my shoes.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon’s Central Post Office.

The cruise line had arranged a driver and an English-speaking Uniworld representative to take us to the airport.  The cruise director saw us off at the front door of the Park Hyatt Saigon.  He handed me another mask, saying they wouldn’t let me move through the airport or fly without it.  He also told us to be prepared to be quarantined up to 14 days when we landed in Houston.  Check-in at the airport was easy.  Since we are Star Alliance Gold and EVA Air is a member of Star Alliance, we had the benefit of no line at check-in.  The representative was efficient but not friendly.  At that point the plane was still scheduled to take off on time.  I saw a bunch of people watching security inspect the checked bags.  Made me wonder if we would see ours again.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Detail on Saigon’s Central Post Office of French construction.

We had found out that Vietnam had cancelled all e-visas.  We were ok since we were already in the country but when we went through passport control I wondered what would happen if the flight got cancelled.  Would they let us back in?  Next was airport security.  It was set up with what looked like 20+ lanes, but they were only operating two due to the reduced traffic.  I tried to ask a question but none of the security agents would acknowledge or talk to you so I just had to guess what they wanted me to do.  We made it through with minimal delay.  I wasn’t exactly comfortable though.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. New years decoration in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

There was a lounge area so we went to wait there.  We could see our plane at the gate next to the Rose Lounge.  There were lots of food and drink choices, but I just couldn’t eat or drink anything.  At some point, Boris observed that I had been so calm through this whole ordeal.  I told him the truth; I was worried every step of the way but I knew he was nervous and our family back home was nervous and I just needed to keep the facade of calm for their sake.  He told me to keep it up.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris outside the Park Hyatt Saigon.

We boarded the plane to Taipei; it was packed.  Everyone was wearing a mask.  We texted Rocky to let him know our status.  We took off and landed early in Taipei.  At least I was no longer in a communist country.  We had a two-hour layover this time.  We reversed our process from the early morning hours on Thursday.  Same security check as last time, but there were a lot fewer people at the security check-point this time.  We passed by the lounge to find the gate.  It wasn’t opening until 1 hour before the flight, so we ended up sitting in the waiting area for the Los Angeles flight.  Lots of nervous Americans.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

When our gate area opened we went to that waiting area.  I ended up in line next to an American couple who started talking about scuba diving so I asked them if they were there for a dive trip in an effort to distract myself from how nervous I was about getting home.  They told me that they had planned to dive, but they were forced to go home because of the cancelled visas and an incident that had happened at their hotel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The tour operator had come to their room and told them to throw everything into their bags and be downstairs in 5 minutes.  They were told not to go to the desk and check out.  When they got outside, everyone from the tour was there and they were quickly loaded into vehicles and took back roads to get out of the city.  Apparently one of the quests at the hotel had tested positive for COVID-19 and the police were on the were way to pick him up and quarantine everyone in the hotel.  They told me that they had not had contact with the individual, but I backed up anyway.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Indépendance Palace, more commonly known as the Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Fortunately they were not seated next to me on the plane.  The middle seat on my row was open, but I didn’t have the whole row.  This flight was much more crowded than when we came in.  I think it was people like us who wanted to get out while they still could.  We texted Rocky again to let him know our status.  Once we were underway, my only concern was whether I would be quarantined in the US.  My situation was no where near as serious, but I was reminded of the takeoff scene in the movie ARGO.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon Cathedral.

Well I made it to Houston.  Now to see what would happen regarding a medical inspection.  There were no medical forms to fill out on the plane.  I wasn’t sick and wasn’t running a fever, but Boris gave me two aspirin anyway just to be safe.  We had told Rocky not to come to the airport until after passport control because we didn’t know how long the process would last or if we would be quarantined.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Holiday decorations in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I headed to passport control.  I have global entry.  I got my sheet but there were no questions to answer; the machine just took my picture.  It looked like the global entry checkpoint was closed even though the machines were operating, but then I found the opening around the corner-probably just a staffing issue.  It was just before 11 pm.  When I got to the desk, all he asked was if I had anything to declare.  I told him I wasn’t there long enough to buy anything (the truth).  That was it.  No temperature check.  No questions about what countries I had visited.  No medical questions.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Patterned tile floor in the Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I went downstairs and collected my luggage.  All of our items made it to Houston.  There was still customs, but they didn’t even stop us.  I didn’t see them stop anyone.  In all my travels, that was the fastest I had ever cleared immigration.  I found it kind of scary that we weren’t doing more as a country to prevent the introduction of the virus through returning US citizens who had been abroad or visitors.  I have been told that it is completely different if you are coming in from Europe.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City skyline outside the Saigon Opera House.

We contacted Rocky and he came out to pick us up.  While we waited inside next to a man whose daughter was coming in on our flight (she made it), I was really thirsty but I was afraid to cough in case someone would turn me in.  No one was wearing a mask.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Vietnam.

Some family members refuse to see me, but I won’t mention Emma by name.  I am practicing social distancing and have self-quarantined although I have gone to Costco and the grocery store for food and supplies.  There is widespread panic here.  Everything is closed.  But I am home.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon River at Night.

Two days after we left Vietnam they closed the border.

–Natasha

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Nha Rong or Dragon House was established by the French in 1862 as a house of trade at its own harbor. It is now the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Vietnam

 

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The Saigon River at Night

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City at night as seen from the Saigon River, Vietnam.

Our last night in Saigon, we are taking a dinner cruise on the new riverboat, the Saigon Princess.  Since Cambodia has closed its borders and river traffic along the Mekong has been shut down, Uniworld was forced to cancel our cruise.  Boris and I had already decided to head home while we were still able to.  I tip my hat to Uniworld; those of us that had made it to Ho Chi Minh City were treated to the planned activities in the city even though we had been told that the cruise line will refund our fare with no deductions.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

There are only four of the cruise participants left in the city.  By the check-in day the count had gone from 61 to 16.  This morning we started with 6 and by midday we were down to 4.  Boris and I will miss the trip to the Cu Chi tunnels tomorrow because we need to leave for the airport before they will arrive back.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City’s district two is across the Saigon River from the city’s historical areas. District Two is where the new growth is. Vietnam

The 140-mile (225 kilometer) Saigon River cuts through Ho Chi Minh City.  We had traveled through several districts of the city, primarily one and three and I wondered where two was.  During the cruise I learned that District Two is actually on the other side of the river and is the new trendy place to be-that is where the current growth is.  Lots of cranes and construction sites dot the landscape.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. At the Saigon Cathedral.

There is also a underwater tunnel, the Thu Thiem Tunnel, more commonly referred to as the Saigon River Tunnel, which connects the existing urban area in District 1 with Thu Thiem, the new urban area in District 2.  It opened in November of 2011.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Nha Rong or Dragon House was established by the French in 1862 as a house of trade at its own harbor. It is now the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Vietnam

The city has always been popular for trade with the Saigon River providing the route.  The river contributed to the city of Saigon becoming known as the Pearl of the Far East.  Our cruise port is just past the Nha Rong Harbor and the beautiful Dragon House (now the Ho Chi Minh Museum).  The Dragon House was established by the French in 1862 as a house of trade.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. One of the dining rooms aboard the Saigon Princess, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Our guide took us to the boat as the sun set.  We were ushered aboard and into a dining room that could have seated all the participants of our cruise.  We were the only 4 guests in the room.  There were more people than that serving us.  We were offered a welcome beverage, a passionfruit juice.  Wonderful.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris tried a local beer aboard the Saigon Princess. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

We have a three course set menu, although we did have our choice of main course-duck or black sea bass.  My favorite was the first course, a heart of palm cream soup with truffle oil.  Two specialty drinks were included with our dinner.  Boris tried a local beer.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. I spotted a golf driving range next to the Golden River Apartment Complex on the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Our cruise took us from the Saigon Port in District 4 to the Saigon Bridge near the Vinhomes Central Park and back.   As we enjoyed our dinner, we could see the lights and the street level sites along the river through the windows.  Just before they served the dessert course, our guide came back and let us know we had just turned around at the Saigon Bridge and that it was a good time to come up and see the lighted buildings.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vinhomes Central Park Complex, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

We were near the Vinhomes Central Park.  The apartments in this area are all owned by the same family.  The company name is Vinhomes which is a Vietnamese corporation and the largest real-estate developer in Vietnam.  Apartments in this complex cost over $400,000 (American dollars) for a one-bedroom and over $700,000 for a two-bedroom.  Our guide told us the rumor is the family made all its money through money laundering.  It is considered a “posh high-rise residential location”.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vincom Lanmark 81, the tallest building in Vietnam.

Vinhomes Central Park is dominated by the Vincom Landmark 81.  The skyscraper is “the tallest building in Vietnam, the tallest completed building in Southeast Asia since July 2018 and the 17th tallest building in the world.”  It is 81 stories tall.  The tower has an observatory, apartments, hotel rooms, conference facilities, retail spaces, restaurants and bars and parking.  I was drawn to its size and the mix on lighting styles on the exterior.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh’s District Two.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Passing under the Thu Thiem Bridge on the Saigon River. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Heading South on the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I stayed on the sky deck until I realized we were going to hang in this area for a while.  I quickly went down and had dessert and then returned to the observation deck before we went under the Thu Thiem Bridge.  Everyone came back up with me.  Our guide commented that usually they had 50-60 people on the deck for this cruise.  We were able to move back and forth easily to take pictures because there were so few of us.  There were also dining tables set up on this deck and a band playing live music and encouraging people to dance.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Other riverboats on the Saigon River were decorated to be reminiscent of a Junk, a Chinese sailing vessel. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Other riverboats on the Saigon River were decorated to be reminiscent of a Junk, a Chinese sailing vessel. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Other riverboats on the Saigon River were decorated to be reminiscent of a Junk, a Chinese sailing vessel. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

There were other dinner boats on the river.  Many had touches to remind people of the junk, a Chinese sailing vessel.  This style of sailing ship was developed during the Song dynasty that ruled China from 960 to 1279.  The boat are unique for the “junk rig, also known as the Chinese lugsail or sampan rig…[it] is a type of sail rig in which rigid members, called battens, span the full width of the sail and extend the sail forward of the mast.”  Wikipedia.  These batten replicas were lit on the various dinner cruise ships; some of them even changed color as they traveled down the Saigon River.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Saigon River at night. The lights on this building changed color every few minutes.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Saigon River at night.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Saigon River at night.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Saigon River at night. The color change on the Times Square building happens from the bottom up.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Saigon River at night.

Of course, the marvel of this cruise is the opportunity to see the city’s buildings lit up, sometimes in color, sometimes changing color, and sometimes in multiple colors.  It really was a dinner show, even without the music and dancing.  One of my favorite buildings continually changed color-teal, blue, pink, purple, gold, etc.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Saigon River at night. In the distance you can see the Bitexco Financial Building. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Bitexco Financial Building as seen from the Saigon River at night. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Bitexco Financial Building with its 52th floor helipad as seen from the Saigon River at night. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

We had excellent views of the Bitexco Financial Building with its 52th floor helipad that we had seen on our hop-on/hop-off bus tour yesterday.  For a short period of time it was the tallest building in the city.  It has a popular observation deck.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Saigon River at night. In the distance is the Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Ho Chi Minh City Hall by day.

We passed by the main street that leads to the city hall and the statute of Ho Chi Minh.  The new years decorations on this street are modeled after the lotus flower.  The popular lotus flower fountain on the street was recently replaced.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. At the dock at the Saigon Port.

We docked and there was just time to grab a quick picture.  Our berth was next to an interesting ship where the end of the boat looked like a fish’s mouth.  It was back to the hotel after that.  We said goodbye to the guide and the other couple.  They are going to the Cu Chi tunnels tomorrow, but there isn’t time for us to go before we leave for the airport.  We will meet our cruise director midday tomorrow for our transfer to the airport.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our dinner cruise ship, the Saigon Princess, a new vessel. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Boris and Natasha aboard the Saigon Princess. Note the changing lights of the Times Square building on the left and the Vincom Landmark 81 tower on the right.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City at night as seen from the Saigon River, Vietnam.

 

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Reality hits us in Saigon

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris on the patio of the Reunification Palace looking out on the fountain and gates where the communist tank rammed through.  Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

No sleep again last night.  We were just too anxious about what was happening with our trip.  We went down to breakfast at 6:30 am when they opened.  We had been up for hours.  Even though our meeting was not until 8:30, at 7:40 Boris went to see if the Cruise Director was there yet.  I stayed in the room.  He was back pretty quick.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Upper floor state room in the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The River ports had been closed and the Cambodian government had cancelled all visas. There would be no cruise.  Our city tour was rescheduled to the afternoon so we could use the morning to make travel arrangements.  Our tour group which had started at 61 and was down to 16 yesterday, was now at only 6 people.  We would have the benefits of the city tour and dinner cruise today.  Boris had also talked to the concierge; if the travel agent couldn’t help us they could assist with airline reservations.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Looking across to the upper floor patio in the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Boris immediately called the travel agent.  The flights we wanted were still available but we weren’t sure if we needed to just buy new tickets or if we could apply the flights originating in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Boris was almost hysterical as he talked to her on the phone.  Yep, I’m the calm one.  It looked like we were going to have to pay about $1,000 each on top of the original ticket to get home.  Whatever it takes was our attitude.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the courtyard of the Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I started letting a few people know that it looked like we were coming home and how that needed to be handled.  We weren’t sure if they would quarantine us or if the flights might even be cancelled before we left the next day.  Finally we got an email and a call from the travel agent.  We were ticketed to leave at 3:55 pm the next day (Sunday) and the change fee/difference was only going to be $94 each.  Whew.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. We enjoyed a nice lunch before our afternoon tour. Check out this egg roll selection at Square One in the Park Hyatt Saigon

After lunch in the hotel at the Square One Restaurant, we went down at 1:30 for the tour in better spirits.  Now our tour group was down to only 4 people.  We were given a mask and met the Uniworld employee who would serve as our guide.  The other couple had just arrived the day before from Los Angeles.  They were originally from Cuba.  Our first stop was the Independence Palace commonly referred to as the Reunification Palace.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This is the former Presidential Palace Saigon. And according to Boris, one of the ugliest buildings he has ever seen.

This building was originally the Presidential Palace.  It was “built on the site of the former Norodom Palace…[It] was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates.”

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Saigon, April 30, 1975

Once inside the gates, our guide gave us the briefing that is usually given on-board the ship.  He told us a bit about the political history of Vietnam.  He spoke of the success of reunification.  The other couple had a difficult time with the discussion having lived through the communist takeover of Cuba.  As they put it, not all experiments with communism are successful.  Our guide was educated under the Communist system, but his father had served in the South Vietnamese army during the war and had endured the re-education camps.  At the camps the soldiers were tortured and often left starving.  They endured disease and were forced to perform hard labor.

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Norodum Palace or Palais du Gouverneur General a Saigon circa 1975

He went farther back in history to an earlier building on this site that had served as the home to the Governor of French Indochina.  The countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were collectively known as French Indochina.   That structure was known as the Norodom Palace or Governor’s Palace.  Construction was complete in 1871.  It was briefly the headquarters of the Japanese colonial officials in 1945 before it was returned to the French that same year.  In 1954, France withdrew from Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cabinet Room in the Presidential Palace (now the Reunification Palace) where the South Vietnamese President met with his ministers.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ground floor dining room of the Reunification Palace, Ho Chin Minh City, Vietnam.

After the guide’s general briefing, we walked up to the Palace and toured the interior.  I agree with Boris that it is not an attractive building.  The building was constructed between 1962-1966.  It definitely looks of that era.  However, you can see that it was built to take advantage of cross ventilation and any breeze.  In the front are the public rooms, including the Cabinet Room, Conference Room, and State Dining Room.  The Conference Room is the only one that is still used.  Funerals for some political leaders take place here.  The rest of the building is preserved for visitors only.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Conference Room of the Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Hallway of the Reunification Palace, obviously designed to enhance cross ventilation and catch any breeze.

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Photo Jean Janssen. Definitely a product of its time, the Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

After we toured the lower floor, we went upstairs to view the smaller state rooms in the front of the building.  These rooms were more ornate and attractive and there was a wonderful view of the front fountain from the porch on this floor.  The interior grew on me.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Upper floor hallway in the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Upper floor state room in the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Upper floor patio overlooking the palace gates at the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

My favorite upper floor room was the Ambassadors Chamber were newly-appointed ambassadors presented their credentials to the President.  The last such event to take place in the Palace was the presentation of the Japanese Ambassador on April 18, 1975.  The room is decorated in Japanese-style lacquer.  The panels behind the desk depict the defeat of the Ming which occurred under King Le Loi.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Upper floor Ambassadors Chamber in the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

From the upper floor you were able to access the private apartment for the President and his family.  There was a nice courtyard, but the rooms were rather small.  The guide’s father told him that during the war no one knew exactly where the President was.  He might have been at the Palace or he might not have been.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Upper floor courtyard in the Presidential apartments in the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Finally, we went down to the lower level bunkers.  Here there was a narrow hallway that passed through a series of rooms with old radio and office equipment, mostly American-made.  There was also an even lower level for the soldiers.  On that lowest level we accessed the gift shop and the outside lawn.  We passed by the tanks commemorating the ramming of the Palace gates on April 30, 1975, effectively ending the Vietnam War.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Map in the bunker of the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Equipment in the bunker of the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On equipment in the bunker of the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Passage down to an even lower level in the bunker of the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Tanks on the grounds of the Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum.  I had heard this was the most popular museum in the city for visitors.  Before we arrived, I asked the guide what the purpose of the museum was.  He hesitated and then said, “propaganda aimed at the younger generations”.  Wikipedia’s listing of the history of the museum’s name is enlightening.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

“Operated by the Vietnamese government, an earlier version of this museum opened on September 4, 1975, as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes… The exhibition was not the first of its kind for the North Vietnamese side, but rather followed a tradition of such exhibitions exposing war crimes, first those of the French and then those of the Americans, who had operated in the country as early as 1954.”

“In 1990, the name was changed to Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, dropping both “U.S.” and “Puppet.”  In 1995, following the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States and end of the US embargo a year before, the references to “war crimes” and “aggression” were dropped from the museum’s title as well; it became the War Remnants Museum.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

On display is military weaponry and equipment ceased from or abandoned by the Americans.  The 3-story museum is primarily a display of photographs and enlarged quoted language condemning the war.  It is completely one-sided.  There is no information regarding the Viet Cong’s aggression and torture.  “The Việt Cộng, also known as the National Liberation Front, was a mass political organization in South Vietnam and Cambodia with its own army that fought against the United States and South Vietnamese governments during the Vietnam War.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I had seen most of the photographs before.  Perhaps if you are of a younger generation or haven’t studied history, you might be educated by this museum.  However, its one-sided focus diminishes its credibility in my eyes.  I have noted that it is no longer on many of the recommended visit lists it previously appeared on.  I don’t recommend the museum.  Look to a more balanced source for an understanding of the Vietnam War.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The next stop on our city tour was the Jade Emperor Pagoda.  Our guide told us about the history of the Chinese groups that settled in Vietnam primarily when there was a change in the dynastic ruler in China.  Their gods are generally worshiped at separate temples.  This one is dedicated to the Ruler of the Universe, the supreme Taoist god-the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The King of Heaven in the Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

After passing through the outer courtyard with the burning incense and the catfish pond, you go inside and walk through a series of rooms.  The main sanctuary is dedicated to the Jade Emperor.  The figures are characters from both Buddhist and Taoist lore and are made from reinforced paper mâché.  The temple was built in 1909.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Hall of the Ten Hells in the Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The tradition includes the 10 levels of hell.  The Hall of Ten Hells features these regions in carved wood panels, each level getting progressively more torturous.  The faithful believe in reincarnation and that your present behavior dictates what position you will come back in in the next life.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  Kim Hoa Thanh Mau in the Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  The Kim Hoa Thanh Mau Room in the Jade Emperor Pagoda features 12 statutes of women who represent different human characteristics and a year in the 12-year Chinese astrological calendar in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Our guide told us that the most popular shrine is actually a small room featuring the God of All Women, Kim Hoa Thanh Mau.  Women come to pray that they will conceive a child.  On the feast day, there are lines around the block to enter the temple.  On the side walls “the ceramic figures of 12 women, overrun with children and wearing colourful clothes, sit in two rows of six. Each of the women exemplifies a human characteristic, either good or bad (as in the case of the woman drinking alcohol from a jug). Each figure represents a year in the 12-year Chinese astrological calendar.” From the Lonely Planet Guide.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. I found this figure of Minnie Mouse just outside the room featuring the Chief of all Women in the Jade Emperor Pagoda, amusing. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The final stop on our city tour was the central post office that Boris and I had visited the previous day.  Boris had asked the guide about the location of the famous photographs showing people trying to leave the country at the fall of Saigon in April of 1975.  The location was identified as the American Embassy or CIA Headquarters in South Vietnam. From the Post Office, we had a view of building.  I was very young at the time, but I remember the image and the coverage.

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Saigon April 1975

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Saigon April 1975

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The same location, Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 2020.

We took a look back inside the Central Post Office.  Our guide told us more about the carved wooden phone booths.  Back before cell phones, citizens would line up and take a number to make a collect oversees call.  When their number was called they would go to a designated phone booth and hope someone on the other end of the call would answer and accept the charges.  The large space was usually full of hopeful callers.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Phone booths in the Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Selfie I took yesterday in the Central Post Office, numbered phone booths in the background, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

We headed back to the hotel.  Tonight will be our last in the city.  They are picking us up at 6:30 pm to go to the Saigon Princess, a new riverboat, for a dinner cruise on the Saigon River.  Until then…Natasha.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris on the patio of the Reunification Palace looking out on the fountain and gates where the communist tank rammed through.  Ho Chin Minh City, Vietnam

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Saga in Saigon

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This is the former Presidential Palace Saigon. And according to Boris, one of the ugliest buildings he has ever seen.

The real saga of our visit to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) Vietnam began early the next morning.  With the time change, it was hard to sleep normal hours and Boris woke up at 1:30 am to find a message from our son that the cruise line had called us at our home in Houston, Texas.  We were asked to call Uniworld.  We were on hold a terribly long time (no surprise) only to have them tell us that everything was fine with our cruise, but that they were cancelling most of their European based River Cruises-which is most of their itineraries.  Our trip was still slated to go forward.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In case you forgot, just a reminder that you were in a Communist country. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Boris also found information that European travelers were not going to be permitted into the United States.  We also found out that Americans were being advised not to travel outside the country.  That message came a day late for us.  Needless to say, we couldn’t get back to sleep.  At 6 am I got up and took a shower and by 7 am we were downstairs for breakfast.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. New Years decorations near the Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Even after breakfast it was so early that things really hadn’t opened up.  We walked around a little and then decided to take the hop-on/hop-off bus.  I can’t say I recommend it.  Everything we went to was really within walking distance.  If you don’t want to walk or its just too hot for you, you might consider the bus, but the information provided on the audio feed was extremely limited and jumbled at times.  I think they might have combined several routes and the GPS wasn’t sure which audio it should connect at times.  It was good for taking pictures and getting a bird’s eye view.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. City Hall with a statute of Ho Chi Minh in front.

Get good directions to the pick up point.  The concierge at the Park Hyatt Saigon airdropped me a photo.  The signs are small and a set among a hundred other signs.  We got on near the city hall which has a small sign you can only see from inside the covered bus stop.  It was some good people watching as we waited for the 8:47 am pick up.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Reunification Palace with New Years decorations in front, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

After the City Hall, we passed the Reunification Palace that we had seen from a distance yesterday.  Boris said it was one of the ugliest buildings he had ever seen.  We will be touring the inside tomorrow with the cruise line.  In each section of the city we saw New Years decorations still in place.  I wondered if they were still up since city workers were dealing with other issues with virus.  If you look closely you can see that each are sponsored.  Apparently as long as they pay the sponsor fee, the decorations stay up.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen At the Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

After the Vietnam War (called the American War in the northern part of the country), the north and south were united under communism as the one-party political system and a socialist economy.  After 10 years of extreme hardship and isolation, the reformists took control and put in place free-market elements encouraging some private ownership.  Vietnam looked for foreign investment and a place on the world stage.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  It is commonly referred to as Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon.

The next stop on the tour was the Post Office and Cathedral.  The Cathedral is under renovation and only open for mass.   The congregation was started by the French colonists and the Cathedral built between 1863 and 1880.   It sits at a major intersection.  Looking down the street from the Cathedral through the parkland, you can see the Reunification Palace.  This is the start and stop point for the hop on/hop off route and we found out the bus would be sitting here for the next 30 minutes.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Saigon Post Office of French Construction.

We got off to tour the Post Office.  In contrast to most of the other buildings we visited, you could walk right in with no temperature check.  Like the Cathedral which is right across the street, this building is also of French construction.  “In 1862, the southern third of the country became the French colony of Cochinchina.  By 1884, the entire country had come under French rule…The French administration imposed significant political and cultural changes on Vietnamese society.  A Western-style system of modern education was developed, and Catholicism was propagated widely.”  The French maintained control until WWII.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon Central Post Office of French Construction. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The building looked a lot like a train station, particularly inside.  It still serves the function of a post office, but there are also lots of vendors inside catering to the many tourists who visit.  The original tile floors are still visible and in pristine condition.  There are beautiful carved wood benches and phone booths and wonderful historic maps adorn the walls.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The patterned tile floors of the Saigon Central Post Office of French construction. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A painted map, craved wood phone booths, benches, and beautiful tile floors in the Saigon Central Post Office of French construction. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

According to Culture Trip, “[t]here are two painted maps inside the office – Lignes télégraphiques du Sud Vietnamet du Cambodge 1892 (Telegraphic lines of southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892) depicts the postal route from southern Vietnam to Cambodia, and on the right side of the building is Saigon et ses environs, 1892 (Saigon and its surroundings), a local map.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Communist/socialist symbols next to the “capitalist symbol” of McDonald’s. A bit of irony next to the Saigon Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Next door is a McDonald’s with the same paint color as the post office.  They have been referred to as the “American Embassy” in other countries.  Oddly it is next to a statute glorifying a communist soldier and socialist propaganda.  I found the juxtaposition with the communist/socialist symbols ironic.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Headed toward the city zoo, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Entrance to the Saigon Zoo. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. One of the city’s oldest schools. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

We headed out again toward the city zoo and further around the city passing some one of the city’s oldest schools, the War Remnants Museum (that we will visit tomorrow) and the Ben Thanh Market with an extensive indoor market and a famous outdoor night market.  The market building is one of the oldest buildings in the city and a major tourist attraction.  We really wanted to get off at the market, but thought that was pushing it health wise with COVID-19.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vietnam did an exceptional job of public education around COVID-19. Here is a billboard in Ho Chi Minh City.

To give credit where credit is due, one of the reasons we felt safe making this trip was Vietnam’s efforts in dealing with the virus.  The Vietnamese were singled out on American television for their swift action and public education.  It was clear they took protection against the spread of the virus seriously.  In addition to the wearing of masks and temperature taking, there were public advisories seen throughout the city.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bitexco Financial Tower with the 52th floor helipad in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Near the Saigon River, we passed the Bitexco Financial Tower, briefly the tallest building in the country after its construction in 2010.  The tower has a circular helipad on the 52 floor near the top of the building.  The architect took inspiration from the lotus flower in creating the design.  The bus makes a stop if you want to go up to the building’s observation deck.  Further down we passed the statute of a dynastic leader that the audio never identified.  Tran Hung Dao was actually a famous military leader who successfully lead Vietnamese troops against Kublai Khan.  We will be back in this area tomorrow night for a dinner cruise along the Saigon River.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Statue of Trần Hưng Đạo aka Grand Prince Hưng Đạo. He “was an imperial prince, statesman and military commander of Đại Việt military forces during the Trần Dynasty. Trần commanded the Đại Việt armies that repelled two out of three major Mongol invasions in the 13th century. His multiple victories over the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan are considered among the greatest military feats in Vietnamese history.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Near the waterfront of the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

We found ourselves back at the City Hall, having completed the route and got off the bus.  Boris wanted to stop into a nearby store.  Again, I am not sure I would recommend the bus.  The audio didn’t always identify (properly if at all) what we were passing and the commentary was extremely limited.  Pretty good view, but wear a hat.  Even in the morning it is very hot in the direct sun.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon Opera House, officially known as the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theater.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Tonight we are going to the AO show with an opportunity to see the inside of the Saigon Opera House.

We passed by the front of the Saigon Opera House (aka the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theater).  We will be back here tonight to see the AO show; the Bamboo Circle has been called a Vietnamese version of Cirque du Soleil.  It was time for a lunch and nap for Boris and I.  We check in for the cruise this afternoon.  No cruise activities today other than meeting with our cruise director.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. More of the lovely carpet at the Park Hyatt Saigon. Note the charming birds.

Checking the internet was a bad idea.  More warnings and dire emails from our families.  Then came the phone call from the cruise director letting us know that he was sending written material to our room regarding cruise activities for the next two days.  We had some selections to make, including dinner for our Saigon River cruise.  He said we didn’t have to come down because the number of cruisers had dwindled.  The ship takes a maximum of 68 passengers and there were 61 scheduled to cruise, but as of that day there were only 16 who were going on the cruise.  Many of the European cruisers had visa problems and could not get into the country.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Your welcome fruit may look a little different depending on where you are in the world. Dragon fruit at the Park Hyatt Saigon.

Then the blow.  There was a chance the cruise would not go forward.  Since it was the afternoon in Saigon, that meant it was the early morning hours in the US.  The cruise director couldn’t reach the “powers that be” to let them know about the problems on the river he was hearing from the ship captain.  There were possible closures.  Boris and I thought it might not be a bad idea to at least get the ball rolling on return travel arrangements so we emailed the travel agent who helped with the EVA Air flights to see what our return options were from Ho Chi Minh City knowing he wouldn’t get the email for several hours.  It was Friday in Saigon.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon Opera House.

Late afternoon we went down for the scheduled meeting.  The Cruise Director told us that it was possible that they would close the Mekong River to contain the spread of the virus.  Some European visitors on a Viking ship on the river had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.  They were worried about the spread of the disease and the crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia.  When pressed, he told us not to change our travel plans yet, but to look into our options for returning home in the next two days.  His prediction-cancellation.  He thought there was an 80% chance the cruise would not go forward.  We were scheduled to meet again at 8:30 the next morning.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon Opera House.

We checked to see if there were still EVA flights leaving Saigon and going to the US.  Beyond that we were in a hold pattern.  We decided we would enjoy our evening at the theater.  There was a more extensive medical screening going into he Opera House and they gave you a mask if you weren’t wearing one.  If you had a ticket you were invited to go in for a briefing.  They took you up to the mezzanine (actually where our seats were; the Park Hyatt concierge had took us these were the best seats for sound and viewing) and told you a little about the theater.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon Opera House.

The Opera House was built in 1897 during the French Colonial period.  It is shaped like the Opéra Garnier in Paris. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the Vietnamese people were allowed to enter the theater.  After 1956, it was used as the lower house of the South Vietnamese Assembly.   Originally the opera house sat 800, but a renovation in 1995 reduced seating to 468, introducing wider, more comfortable seats.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The wider, cushier seats in the Saigon Opera House.

Afterwards  you were invited for a welcome drink before the show started.  There we met some people that had just gotten off a cruise on the Mekong.  They had been denied entry into several ports and had to fly a quarantine flag even though no one on board was sick.  They ended up being taken off the boat early and had felt lucky as there was some talk of parking them in the middle of the river for two weeks.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Detail on the facade of the Saigon Opera House. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The show itself began early, 6 pm, and lasted an hour and 15 minutes.  Through the creative use of bamboo-baskets, sticks, and fans, the acrobats told the story of the development of the Vietnamese culture past to present.  The show featured live music performed on traditional and modern instruments.  It was unique, entertaining, educational, and at times humorous.  Definitely worth a visit.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon Opera House.

We emerged to a darkened city highlighting the Opera House at its best. There was creative lighting on the facade, the fountains were on and colorfully lit, and the surrounding area was lit up and coming to life.

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Fabulous Paul Bocuse a la Truffle soup at Le Corto Wine Dining, Saigon

We stayed with a French theme and went to Le Corto Wine Dining for dinner.  From the restaurant’s web site, “[t]he name of the restaurant, Le Corto, derives from the name of a world famous comic named Corto Maltese, published in 1967 by the Italian author Hugo Pratt. Corto, the main character, is an intelligent sailor, a free spirit with heart full of kindness and tolerance who loves travel and making friends during his journey. Our restaurant logo is pet of captain Corto, a mysterious black cat.”  It was the second time this year that Maltese had been referenced in our travels.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of the Park Hyatt Saigon at night.

Boris recognized the graphic of the character as soon as well walked in. He had wonderful conversations with the French sommelier.  We started with some champagne and both had the soup course.  I had the signature truffle soup and Boris the traditional onion soup.  Magnificent!  I followed that with a wonderful main course with beef and Boris had veal.  Equally Fabulous.  They also offer a fixed price menu, but we were not hungry enough for that many courses.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Park Hyatt Saigon.

Back at the hotel, we had a reply from the travel agent who had found two options to get us home.  We tentatively chose one that got us to Houston with only one stop, basically the reverse of what we did to get here.  If I am quarantined I want that to be at home, or at least my hometown.  Since it will be after hours and the weekend in Houston when we are ready to finalize our plans, the agent gave us the 24-hour telephone number.  He can not help us by email.  We’ll know at 8:30 am.  When Boris got off the phone, we were of the same mind.  We are going home either way.  We are not afraid of contracting the virus, just of not being able to get home.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Lobby Foyer and Concierge desk, Park Hyatt Saigon.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

 

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Safely in Saigon

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Near the Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.

With the world on high alert with the Coronavirus, most travelers are staying home.  Even local activities-like the World’s Largest Rodeo held annually in Houston-have been cancelled.  With a major financial investment already made and a bucket list trip planned, Boris and I waited to see if our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with sailing on the Mekong River would be cancelled.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City post office of French design.

There were plenty of warnings about cruises and the rampant spread of the virus.  The news came from ocean cruises with only one instance on a river cruise-that was in Egypt.  When we arrived, we heard that there were also reported cases on a Mekong River cruise through Viking.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Ho Chi Minh National Theater, formerly known as the Saigon Opera House. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

With that much risk at stake, we were confident that the cruise line would cancel if there was a problem.  There were plenty of issues with our flights in the weeks leading up to our trip.  Our itinerary changed three times due to flight cancellations.  It wasn’t instances of the virus on board, but rather the airlines’ decision not to make flights with so few passengers.  They were up front about the fact it was a financial decision.  After the second change, United just threw up their hands and said they couldn’t book us an alternative.  They refunded our money and we were on our own.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. New Years decorations were still up all over Ho Chi Minh City.

Boris found us flights on EVA Air, a Taiwanese airline that is fortunately part of Star Alliance.  We’ll get priority boarding, an extra checked bag, and hopefully miles.  As the panic over Coronavirus raged, the date of our trip grew closer.  The cruise line said we were a go.  Vietnam had been praised for their swift action and public education so we felt safe going there.  We weren’t in a risk group, so we headed to the airport on a Tuesday night for our early Wednesday morning red eye flight.  It was the only time I have had a boarding pass that listed 00:00 as the boarding time.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. City Hall, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The international terminal (for non-United flights) in Houston was very quiet, as was the departure lounge.  The check-in was wonderful and they even let us do a little bit of contents shifting to meet the weight requirements right at the counter.  Not knowing what check-in and security would be like-actually quite easy as it turned out-we had arrived rather early.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Phone booths in the Saigon Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Our flight left on time.  There were so few people on the plane that we each had a whole row of three seats across to ourselves for the 16 and a half hour flight to Taipei.  Service and food were good.  The flight attendants were efficient, if not particularly friendly.  They all wore masks.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Park Hyatt Saigon

For whatever reason, we arrived in Taipei a half hour late.  We also had a long taxi to the terminal.  We had only an hour and 10 minute layover scheduled so that time was being eaten up quickly.  A young woman who needed to be first off the plane had 25 minutes less than we did.  I asked in Houston and was told there was no passport control.  There wasn’t, but there was a security checkpoint so that ate up time too.  We saw the same young woman, tears running down her face, going through the process.  I felt for her.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beautiful art work in the Park Hyatt Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

We went straight to the plane after security where boarding was almost complete.  Fortunately, we made the flight to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  There was a passport check at the gate.  Almost everyone was wearing a mask.  Fortunately, I had gotten one for each of us from a medical care worker before we left.  There were none available for purchase at home.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Side view of the Saigon Opera House. Note all the motor bikes. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

On board the plane, we had to complete a medical form.  When we arrived there was a long, very slow-moving line toward immigration.  Here they were checking the medical forms and conducting a personal interview.   Although there were several lines, the process took a long time.  They did not take our temperature, but asked a lot of questions about countries we might have passed through, specifically asking about Italy.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Welcome to Saigon. Outside waiting for our driver at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  The Tan Son Nhat Airport is the busiest in Vietnam, receiving about 40 million visitors each year.

We got a stamped clearance form and then went on to passport control where they reviewed our e-visa to Vietnam, our passport, our clearance form, and our boarding passes.  The official was very thorough and not at all friendly.  We both made it and then collected our luggage and went outside to find our driver.  We had arranged transport through the hotel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Two-story Music Salon off the main foyer of the Park Hyatt Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

There was almost no wait and the driver has us on our way to the Park Hyatt Saigon, about 30 minutes from the airport.  He was very nice and when Steve asked him about the war his reply was that he “remembered everything.”  He was actually younger than both of us, but looked older.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The city’s Cathedral was under renovation during our visit to Saigon. Our driver told us that over 60 % of the citizens are Buddhists, but that about 25% of the population was Catholic. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Our driver pointed out how close we were to many of the city’s major attractions and the river.  The roadways were not as crowded as I expected and unlike some major Asian cities I have been to, the drivers followed the traffic signals (well except from some of the motor bikes that liked to drive on the wrong side of the road).  Our driver told us that the roads were clearer than usual due to the virus.  Many people had gone out to the countryside or were staying at home.  The schools’ winter holiday had been extended; the children had already been out for two months.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Travel around Ho Chi Minh City. Notice the second sign by the light letting you know the light will be green for 29 more seconds.

According to our driver, in this city of 12 million people (we heard estimates of anywhere from 10 to just under 14 million), there are one million cars and 8 million motorbikes.  The motorbikes were everywhere.  Our driver had a 15-year old daughter.  When she graduates in two years she can get her license; he said she would get a motorbike then.  We saw a few tour buses, a hop-on/hop-off bus, some city buses and taxis near our hotel.  We were warned against the rickshaw transit (cyclo).  Apparently some of the drivers can be less than honest and it is hard for them to keep up with the faster moving traffic.  I read that there is also a motorcycle taxi (Xe Om), but I didn’t see any.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. One of my favorite things about the Park Hyatt Saigon was the beautiful carpets, many featuring birds. This lovely example is from the carpet in our room.

The Park Hyatt Saigon is a beautiful hotel.  It has an elegant tropical feel.  The two-story lobby and music salon were striking.  Even with our late morning arrival, a room was available and they took us straight up for an in-room check-in.  We had a lovely room with a view of the pool and out over the city.  There were so many wonderful touches in the hotel.  I particularly liked the carpets, especially the ones on our floor with beautiful birds worked into the weave.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View from our table onto the tropical outdoor patio at the Park Hyatt Saigon Opera Restaurant. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

After our luggage arrived, I took a long-awaited shower and then we went down to the Opera Restaurant on the ground floor for lunch.  This is also where the breakfast is served.  We had a nice table in the patio room.  I surprised with the Italian menu.  The food was good, but not what I expected.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Hoa Tuc Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I wish I could say that we headed straight out to tour, but we were both exhausted after over 24 hours of travel, so the afternoon was spent napping.  We got up later and explored the hotel and surrounding area a bit.  Nearby was a wonderful courtyard next to the city’s old opium refinery.  There were several bars and restaurants and we ate at Hoa Tuc.  Hoa Tuc opened in 2008 as Saigon’s first contemporary Vietnamese restaurant.  They expanded to include a cooking school in 2009.  In spite of temperatures in the 90s during the day, the evening cooled down.  It wasn’t humid either, so we enjoyed dinner on the outdoor patio with a ceiling inspired by the Paris metro.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vietnamese pancake at Hoa Tuc Restaurant, Saigon. The recommended way to eat the pancake is wrapped in the “salad” and dipped in fish sauce.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Patio at the Hoa Tuc Restaurant Saigon. the Roof was inspired by the Paris Metro.

Of course the first step was to have our temperature taken.  At almost every restaurant, theater, tourist attraction, or store we went into, your temperature was taken before you could enter.   We started with some of their special appetizers, a selection of egg rolls and the Vietnamese pancake with prawns.  Fabulous.  The main course was a little harder to eat.  I had traditional caramelized prawns and Boris had a beef stew.  It was worth the effort.  We were full and just too tired for dessert so we walked back to the hotel in hopes of a full night of sleep.  We planned to explore the city in the morning before it gets too hot.  Welcome to Vietnam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Entrance to the Park Hyatt Saigon.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Near the Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.

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