An Eight hour tour

An Eight hour tour

As any good developing country should, Vietnam has created a large tourist infrastructure to insure that tourists (especially Americans and Western Europeans) leave with much less money than they came with.  Thus far thinkCHUA and I have happily parted with our money for a one-day city tour.  This is always an easy way to get acquainted with a city and have an English speaking guide to answer your questions, like what’s that? and why does every entrepreneur in this city think I want to buy a pair of sunglasses?  I’m also not going to argue with you on the price of an air conditioned bus when it’s 85 degrees and 90% humidity.

Our tour began as most tours in any country where you don’t speak the language do, in confusion.  Where should I be and when?  What tour did we sign up for again?  Because when you pronounce them in Vietnamese I have no idea which one is which.  The second seemingly universal rule of tours is that they never start on time only confusing you even more about if you are in the right place or not.  After waiting for about 15 minutes our guide came to pick us up a sharply dressed young man that spoke excellent English, albeit in the same sing-song voice as Vietnamese.

We boarded the small tour bus and much to our pleasure the tour was only 4 other people, which meant even more question asking time for me and after two days in Ho Chi Minh City I had a lot of questions.  The first stop was the War Remnants Museum, which is a two floor museum dedicated to the history and pictures of the Vietnam War, known here as the American War.  The exhibits were powerful and informing, especially considering I found that I knew very little about the war that consumed my parents generation.

The next stop was a small Buddhist temple, Thien Hau temple.  Upon entering we learned that temples have a large step to force the individual entering to look down and reflect before proceeding to prayer.

The large step before entering the Thien Hau Temple.

After we had reflected at the temple we boarded the bus and headed to China Town.  En route I picked the guides brain about the crazy motorcycle traffic.  I learned that several accidents happen each year, which I had suspected, and therefore in 2008 a few motorcycle laws were put in place by the government.  First, you have to wear a helmet while driving or riding, no more than two on a bike at a time- but kids don’t count and you cannot exceed 30 km. an hour.  I know that I have seen all three of these laws being broken, sometimes all at the same time, but they have caused the  number of accidents to drop from 40 a year to only 33 after the laws.

Our guide also explained the dynamics of motorcycles and women, No Honda no girlfriend he said.  Apparently Japanese motorcycles (Honda) are more expensive than the Chinese motorcycles, so many people own a cheap Chinese bike to go to work and then a Honda for taking out their girlfriends at night.  These rules of attraction make sense to me as thinkCHUA was a Honda owner when we first met.

Once we arrived in China Town it was clear that it’s almost New Year’s with lots of red and gold decorations everywhere.  The main attraction in China Town is Binh Tay market, which is a huge indoor market selling everything you could ever need and want along with lots of things that fall into neither of those categories.  We spent 45 minutes strolling the market and fighting the crowds.  There were entire sections dedicated to fabric, shoes, watches, kitchen utensils, dried fruit and of course clothes- mostly American knock-offs.

Did I mention the entire section dedicated to just hats?

After China Town we headed back to the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, District 1.  We were served a traditional Vietnamese lunch of rice and vegetables.

The tour lunch, simple and filling.

With our stomach’s full we headed back onto the bus and headed to the lacquer workshop.  Anytime you are offered a “factory tour” or ” behind-the-scenes-look at a workshop” on a tour it’s code for we’re taking you shopping for something you never even knew you wanted and you’re still not sure.  It seems the majority of the tour group always ends up buying something though, hmmm… This particular workshop was set up by the government to give people with disabilities (mostly as an after affect of Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War) a place to work and the funds to sustain themselves.  It was amazing to watch their steady hands as the worked on creating mother of pearl inlay designs on tables, bowls, etc.

A woman affected by Agent Orange that now uses a wheelchair and works at the laquer workshop outside Ho Chi Minh City.

We made it through the workshop tour without purchasing anything, but it seemed as though the rest of our tour made up for it so we didn’t have to feel bad about not supporting the hard workers.  Back on the bus we headed to the Reunification Palace, which was the equivalent of the White House for the South Vietnamese Presidents during the Vietnam War.  I say Presidents because there were 4, the first served 7 years before being assassinated in China Town, the second served 7 years before being driven out of power, the third served 7 days and the fourth only made it 42 hours before the war ended.  It was a beautiful building, blending the best of 1950’s and 60’s architecture with a whole underground portion for the protection of the President and the communications of the American military supporting the the South Vietnamese government.

Reunification Palace

A quick stop at the Jade Emperor Pagoda before our last stop on the tour.  The small pagoda was dedicated to Buddha and had a large courtyard with a coy fish pond and a big turtle pond.  I learned that it is common to bring fish and turtles to the pagoda to be released into the Buddha’s care as an offering.  This was new to me and so I had not bought a fish or turtle with me, but luckily there was a very nice man at the entrance selling fish just for this purpose.

Fish for sale to be offered up to the Buddha, those are some lucky fish.

Don’t worry we’re almost done with the tour, I was getting very tired by this time too.  Our last stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral, located across the street from the General Post Office.  The cathedral is left as a reminder of the French influence in Vietnam.  Our guide felt that it was larger than the real deal in Paris and we assured him it was much smaller.  The post office struck me as an odd stop, but it is a beautiful building.  The Post Office also had two large souvenir shops, justifying the stop because of course Westerners just want to spend money when they are on vacation, or so it seems.

The Notre Dame Cathedral, not quite as impressive as the real thing.

The interior of the General Post Office

My favorite thing about tours are the small unexpected observations you make along the way.  As we were heading back to our hotel we noticed three Vietnamese men perched on the telephone wires make a quick fix.  No ladder needed, no harnesses and of course directly over busy rush hour traffic, good thing their professionals.

A quick telephone wire fix, no ladder needed

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» dad :
Dec 31, 2010

Happy New Year!!….rainy all day yesterday and cold today…..Nick is off to Chicago for nye….friends are coming over here, hope to mah jong, with our new set…….am probably biased, but i find your writing and story telling quite good….it makes me smile, i need that……must be hard to not buy any stuff….as you know with condo closet, we buy a few things, but would miss our statues of buddah and terra cotta warrior as travel momento’s……i/we enjoy traveling vicariously… you both dearly….be safe crossing the street…dad

» Donna Seline :
Jan 1, 2011

Hey kids! Just wanted to wish ya a really cool New Years! I’m off to Fort Snelling State Park for our New Years Eve Candlelight Walk. We’re being threatened with a sleet and snowstorm tonight and tomorrow, so am hoping our good “in” with Mom Nature stays with us for a few hours more! As for gear, just in case I threw in my sleeping bag and air mattress!!! :-) Am enjoying your trip immensely!!! Talk to you next year!


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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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