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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.