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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.