Cruise Specialists hosts Steve and Wendy Bodenheimer are continuing to share their journey with us from aboard the 2016 Holland World Cruise. Previously they shared the experience of navigating the Panama Canal, sailing the Pacific in to French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and now they have entered Vietnam.
Heavy fog and a lot of over zealous government officials caused us to arrive late to our first port in Vietnam – Da Nang (but it was sort of beautiful to see!). Our tour into the city of Hue, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its architecture. During the drive, the guided pointed to interesting events and places, There are still remnants of US Army facilities all over and everywhere there are rice fields and people working in them. Interestingly, the Vietnamese refer to Vietnam War as the American War.
Our first stop, the Tu Duc Tomb, he was an emperor during the Nguyen dynasty and lived at this palatial retreat before it became the location of his tomb. From there we visited the Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist Shrine and the tallest religious monument in the country. We climbed the steep steps to the top for some great views and then headed to a peaceful open air restaurant for lunch. A combination of international and Vietnamese dishes made for an interesting buffet.
Then it was on to the Citadel, a huge walled city complete with moat and two meter thick stone walls. This giant complex, which originally had 160 buildings, was extensively damaged during World War II. Only 10 buildings remain intact.Our final stop was the Dong Ba Market, the largest in Hue. This was not so much a shopping stop as it was a cultural experience. Our guide advised us to stay close to him as it is easy to get lost here. It reminded us of the souks we had seen in places like Turkey with endless corridors, thousands of vendors, smells that were both enticing and repulsive, and an endless variety of merchandise. We spent about a half hour walking through and fortunately, we didn’t lose anyone.
The ship overnighted at this port, so bright and early the next morning we headed out for an eight hour tour, to the city of Hoi An, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The drive here was only an hour, and then we embarked on a leisurely walking tour. Central Hoi An is an enclosed enclave, protected from normal traffic. In fact, until 11:00 AM, no motorized scooters are allowed. The guide told us to enjoy the quiet while it lasted. At 5 minutes to 11:00AM, we got the town loud speaker warning that the gates would be opened. And when they were, scooters went zooming through in all directions. This is a beautiful and well-preserved small city. At first, it looks like a giant market as every street is lined with open front shops. The difference is, they are in historic buildings, sell generally high quality merchandise, and don’t try to entice you into the shops. People live in back of or above the shops, so it is a real neighborhood. We visited several historic buildings right in town like the Quan Kong Temple, the Phuc Thien Assembly Hall, and the famous Japanese Bridge which has its own temple inside. We also walked through one of the oldest houses and met the 90-plus year old 7th generation descendant of the original family that still lives there. Lunch was at a restaurant and cooking school right in town with some wonderful Vietnamese food. They just kept bringing different dishes to the tables, family style. Most of us didn’t know what it was, but we were willing to try and it was all great; exotic fare as Stir Fried Sponge Gourds with Mushrooms (sponge gourds are young loofahs as in the bath sponge), Deep Fried Fish Paste with Young Rice (the most yummy in our opinion) and Grilled Beef Wrapped Mustard Sprouts. They had a section in the restaurant marked “Weird and Wonderful”. These were things our Group probably would not have wanted (Steve and I would have) and were not offered but they were interesting to look at – like silk worm salad, pig’s ear salad, and jelly fish salad. The afternoon was at leisure to shop or stroll. A group of us non-shoppers found an outdoor café on the river to relax in the shade and take in the frantic passing parade.Our final stop of the day was My Khe Beach, also known as China Beach. This spot, immortalized by the American TV show, was a wartime R and R place for servicemen. Now it’s just a lovely beach for tourists and locals and a major photo stop for tour buses.
Another sea day took us to the port of Phu My, Vietnam. This is the gateway to Ho Chi Minh City otherwise known as Saigon. We had another long tour here as the city is 1.5 to 2 hours away from the port. This is the biggest city in Vietnam, the fastest growing and the youngest. There are several iconic places here that we walked through- the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Old Post Office (designed by Gustave Eiffel), and the Reunification Palace. The palace is a symbol of the fall of Saigon to the North and was once the home of South Vietnam’s President. It houses lots of historical pictures of events in those troubled times. One other great stop was to the roof garden at the Rex Hotel. Many of you will remember it as the gathering place for war correspondents and US officers during the war. We were also told about the War Remembrance Museum which tells the story of the war from the Vietnamese perspective.
We did not have a chance to go there which may be a good thing as we heard it is very graphic and disturbing. It was originally called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. One can also visit the Cu Chi tunnels- over 120 miles of underground passages that housed and protected the Viet Cong. This is history that was very real for many of our fellow passengers.The afternoon activity was a Traditional Water Puppet Show. The setup is like a small scale dolphin show with a stage and curtain over the water. The puppeteers are in the water behind the curtain with their puppets on long poles extending out into the pool. They make the puppets (in the form of dragons, fish, birds and a few people) dance, play and fight with each other. It’s synchronized swimming with puppets! Vietnam was a bit of a surprise. Building is everywhere in the cities, funded mainly by China and Japan. New highways are making travel around the country much faster. We were expecting some anti-American sentiments, but instead we found some strong anti-Chinese feelings. One of our guides described it as an economic and social invasion that he hated. American money is widely accepted and we found the people to be friendly and welcoming.
Don’t miss your chance to see the world with a Cruise Specialist host onboard on an upcoming World Cruise!