Monday, January 07, 2008

City Tour - Part Snore

This is not a pretty city. There are interesting parts, some well manicured small parks, and a few visual surprises, but very few. Today, we had a city tour planned so we would not miss something spectacular without realizing it, though our guidebook held no promises. We were to meet at the agency in the next alley at 7:50 am. We ran to a restaurant, told them we had a tour in twenty minutes and if they could not produce two omelets in five minutes, we were just having coffee. Miracles do happen and our perfect omelets with a French baguette heated perfectly were sitting in front of our faces with four minutes.

Arriving three minutes late at the tour office, we had to wait an additional twenty minutes for our tour van to pick us up. Being the first, we had to pick up three more couples and then we were off. The first amazing fact that we deciphered from our tour guide whose English was less than spectacular was that the population of Ho Chi Minh City is ten million. Holy population explosion, this city’s population is the same as the total population of Hungary. One cities population is the same as a whole country. If that were not enough to blow us away, the next statistic did it for sure. There are six million motorcycles in the city, because at one time the only type available was Honda for $7,000 a pop, but now you can get a Chinese made one for $300.00 new or $200.00 used. They need a special and different license to drive a motorcycle than a car and they are eligible from the age of seventeen years old. As of January 1st, they have to wear helmets or be fined. This was one of the highlights of the tour, which does not fare well for the day. He told us that clients in the past have asked him if Vietnam has a large Muslim population since so many motorcyclists wear face masks. The masks are for the pollution, not a religious zealousness. The overwhelming majority of the country is Buddhist.

As pleasant as our tour guide was with his five year degree in Tourism and Travel, he admitted that languages did not make up much of the curriculum. With his burly accent mutilating the English language, it was a verbal-auditory puzzle for the rest of the day. One of our fellow travelers was a Vietnamese who escaped to the U.S with his family, when he was a baby. He was able to aid us with the really tough comments when asking our guide to repeat himself for the tenth time would be just downright rude.

Our first stop was one I could have skipped altogether. It was the memorial for the Vietnam War. There are six buildings. By the mid point of the first one, I was in tears. I was part of the draft, I was part of protesting, I remember the exact spot I was at when the Kent State shootings were announced. There is no way I could go through these buildings that held devastating pictures, scenes of torture, remembrances of all kinds that would make Hell look like an amusement park. The only building I made it through successfully was the one with the protest posters and photos from around the world trying to get the U.S. to leave Vietnam. There were many photos I remember seeing in LOOK, TIME, and NEWSWEEK. I was disheartened and had to wait out the time for the rest of the group to regroup.

Perfectly timed, the next stop was a Buddhist temple that dates back to the 1700s. A monk was performing a funeral service, what timing after the memorial. The grounds were being maintained by a number of monks who were busy at work repainting memorials of prior temple leaders, cutting the topiaries, and cleaning. This also happens to be a monastery.

When we stopped at the Chinese market, it looked innocent enough from the outside. Our guide told us how it is sectioned off to set us on our shopping adventure. We had no thoughts of dropping any money here, so he took us around himself. With aisles barely maneuverable, we passed the candy and dried fruit section, the shoes, the material, and off the rack clothes. All of the while, people are pushing and shoving to get by with either an urgent need to be some place else or with trays of food from the restaurant area going to the sales people on the floor. Even our guide admitted it is too hectic and swarming with people for him to come here other than with tours. He said it is like this seven days a week. Merchandise is piled so high and there are no obvious lines of demarcation from one vendor and the other, it is impossible to know how they can keep track or do inventory. Yet, all of the workers are unloading yet more cartons with more commodities and noting all of it, while counting stock on hand.

The tour included a light lunch back at the tour office. Strangely, the tour office is in the next alley from our hotel. They served rice, spring rolls, and a green vegetable, but for those of us who would not eat shrimp, were served tofu. They also brought out a soup that was so flavorless, none of us could determine what stock it once had.

A continuation of the day included the Imperial building, used by the President of Vietnam during the war. It has ninety-six rooms, but thankfully, we did not have to view all of them. It is still used today for some government functions and can also be rented for weddings and birthday parties. From here we went to the Catholic Cathedral renamed Notre Dame, but we arrived early. It closes for lunch so we walked across the street to the post office to kill time. The post office is the size of a generous train station. All services you could want are provided from posting your mail to buying souvenirs, making international phone calls, or buying a vending machine drink.

Being called a cathedral one would expect some pomp and flash, but this was a plain church with small grottoes dedicated to different saints. Strangely, the statues had halogen lights around them with electric halos. Our last stop was a lacquer making factory where we were able to see products go from raw wood through all of the processes needed to make it a finished product. The best part of this was that it was a workshop for the handicapped, so seeing a dozen wheelchairs parked to the side while people applied tiny bits of eggshells onto painted wood was a bright light.

This had ended our tour of Ho Chi Minh City. We hope you have enjoyed yourselves and if you have please remember the driver and I wish you a wonderful New Year. Ugh! I need a nap.

My Internet luck ran out. We went to the WiFi café, but they had an Internet blackout and could not get it fixed in the forty-five minutes we waited.

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