Monday, January 09, 2012

The War in Saigon

[Monday, January 9th, 5:40 pm, Vietnam Time]

Last night was all about packing everything up. I thought I misplaced my new smart phone and went through everything in the room again and again, until I finally found it in the first place (and second place, and third place I looked). There's no light by the hall closet and I kept missing it as I felt around where I left it.

I learned last night one important reason why we were divided into four groups and were not intermingled. The Australians don't have a culture of tipping, so all their tips were included in their price. They only had to tip the cyclo or the tuk-tuk or the ox-cart driver. Since the Americans were tipping their guides and drivers and the Australians weren't the groups needed to be kept separate.

One way around this would be to make all the guide and driver tips inclusive; then they could allow each guest to choose which group he or she wanted (e.g., a group for slow walkers, or a group up for more adventurous activities). It would also means we wouldn't need to carry so many singles and five-dollar bills. We brought a lot but not nearly enough. In the future, I would advise anyone going on this trip to bring at least 100 single-dollar bills, and perhaps 30 five-dollar bills. If you plan on doing a lot of shopping, you might want to bring more.

For example, for all but one of the days so far, there's been a local guide. That guide gets $2-3 a day in tips. That means in 14 days of guided tours, we've paid out about $30 in tips just to the local guides. But when you add on top of that the daily drivers ($1-2) and special drivers, that's another $20. Then there's the tip to the cruise director (suggested: $28 per person) and the tip for the crew ($70 per person, though this can be put on the credit card). Not counting the crew tip, that's a total of $78 in cash tips before you even consider additional expenses, like taking a tuk-tuk to and from a restaurant, or any additional tips you might give.

Of course, you also need cash not only for tips for purchasing in the markets, which don't take credit cards.

I realize these expenses pale in comparison to the cost of the trip, but when you've only brought 40 singles with you and you suddenly realize you've got nowhere near enough, it becomes very annoying.

We all had to have our bags packed and by our cabin doors by 7 am. As has been my practice, I joined the early risers up on the sun deck around 6:30 am to watch the sun come up over the mangroves at My Pho. I went down around 7 to join dad for breakfast. We had to be out of our rooms by 7:15, but they didn't force the issue. After getting our stuff I gave the two receptionists, Kenny and Jem, an extra tip for their friendly and helpful service. At 8:15, we disembarked and got on our buses for the 1.5 hour drive to Saigon.

As we already have seen, South Vietnam is far more prosperous and fertile than either North Vietnam or Cambodia. We passed many lush rice paddies, broken up only by sugar cane, banana trees, or houses. Our first stop in Saigon was Thien Hau Temple, dedicated to the goddess of the seas. Inside there were three courtyards. In the middle (which is the one we first entered from the side), there was a large, elevated, rectangular metal box in which a fire blazed. People would burn prayers (?) inside.

The inner most couryard had tables spread out with roast pigs and other foods, which were set before a large shrine to the goddess of the seas. Around the top of the walls of this courtyard were elaborate Chinese carvings depicting scense from Chinese mythology. The food, our guide explained, is first presented to the goddess as an offering, and, now blessed, is taken home to be eaten.

As we were walking around, teenagers dressed in matching track suits began bringing in long paper dragons. The Chinese new year is in two weeks, so each of these eight dragons is carried by a different dance troupe, and they perform in front of individual homes to drive away bad spirits and bless the home for the new year. Before they do so, however, they need to be blessed themselves by the goddess, and this is why they were crowding into the temple.

When we came to the outermost courtyard in front, there were a group of troupe members pounding Chinese drums as part of the ceremony. Even dad, who doesn't usually like to visit houses of worship as a tourist, enjoyed himself.

I heard later from some in the "yellow" group, that Mr. Krohbuy loudly announced when they arrived at the temple that he didn't come to Vietnam to see Chinese things. I told them that ignorance is its own punishment.

Our next stop was the Reconciliation Palace. This was the original Presidential Palace of South Vietnam. We heard about the four presidents of South Vietnam, including the first Diem, who was assassinated with the support of the CIA (though that fact wasn't mentioned). We saw the conference room and the dining room, and the two tanks that were used to capture the building in 1975.

After that we visited the old French Post Office, which really looks like a nineteenth-century train station, and has some great old French-era wall maps of Cochin-China and Saigon.

As we drove around dad kept asking me if I could see a particular tall building. I kept saying that from where I sat, I could only see ground level. "You're not even trying!" he responded. I moved my seat to one six rows back where I could see.

Our last stop before lunch was at a laquerware factor, where we saw how they made this product. I decided to price out a platter for later, but I had no intention of buying anything there.

Lunch was at Indochine Restaurant and it was generally pretty good, but not really worth writing home about, so I won't.

Finally, we came to the Sofitel Hotel, which is a large, new hotel in the heart of Saigon. Our rooms were lovely and our luggage was already there waiting for us. Dad watched CNBC for a bit while I found a complimentary map of the city. We then headed downtown for a ride to the Ben Thanh Market.

This is Saigon's equivalent of the Central Market in Phnom Penh, but the could not be more different; it's like night and day. Our guide warned us that the sellers could be aggressive, but it was like nothing we had seen before. People didn't just call out to us; they grabbed our arms, several hit my chest or stomache, they held up clothing to our faces to block our way. It was rather uncomfortable.

After much tension and argument, we managed to find shirts that dad wanted to buy. After settling on five, he turned to me to negotiate. The shopseller typed $99 on a calculator. I laughed. She said "how much?" and handed me the calculator. I typed $35 and handed I back to here. She moaned and said "no, no." I pulled dad's arm to leave. She said "wait, wait," and typed $80. I typed $35 again. After much back and forth we settled on $45.

After that I made all the purchases. I bought some bamboo table mats at 1/6th the price I paid at the shop on the road to Ha Long Bay. I then found a laquerwood tray that I liked. In the factory shop they wanted $50-60 for this. "How much," I asked. "$25," she responded. I offered $15 and we settled at $16. In general, I assume if they agreed to the price I probably over paid.

By the way, Mr. Krohbuy joined us on the bus to the market and I got a sense of how annoying he must have been to the people in his group. He sat up in front and loudly commented on everything. For example, when the guide asked if we had picked up the complimentary maps from the hotel, he yelled, "yeah, from the hotel, not from the cruise." He would ask for street names and then mock the Vietnamese spelling and pronunciation. Thank God, it was only a 10 minute drive.

Dave and Janet have a book called 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and it lists two items for Saigon: the covered market with the hyper-aggressive sellers and the hotel bar on the roof of the Rex Hotel. This was the hotel where the U.S. military gave its regular five pm briefings to the press corp during the Vietnam War and it's supposed to be very, very nice. We have 7:30 pm reservations for drinks, but it isn't clear if we're eating there.

We agreed to join Dave and Janet, Kathy and Janice, and Jill for drinks. Dad was anxious about whether we're eating there or not, but I begged him just to play it by ear. "Which one?" he asked. "Yes," I responded. Part of the issue for the others is that the Rex Hotel may be too expensive for them for more than just drinks. I'm now going to go online and find some dining options near the Rex Hotel for tonight.

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