Vietnam and Cambodia: Arrival & Saigon


Feb. 24-March 5, 2009

The trip began with flights on EVA Airlines from SFO and LAX that met in Taipei where our leaders awaited us. EVA was a nice change from our usual domestic flights. We had polite service, clean bathrooms and those wonderful seatback TVs. It helped pass the 14 hours to Asia. From there, groups split into their various itineraries. Our little band of 10 flew to Saigon and transferred to our hotel, the Sheraton Saigon. This was a great hotel, prime location, excellent service, and well-appointed.

Our afternoon tour hit the highlights of the city. We stopped at Reunification Hall and viewed the table where the leaders of the former North and South Vietnam leaders came together and reunited the country. We saw several reception rooms, the simple ones for the local people and the opulent ones for the foreign dignitaries. Upstairs we wandered around the residence of the king with its exquisite central garden. Downstairs in the basement we threaded our way through the tunnels and war rooms left as they were in the 70's at the end of the War.

From there we went to the War Museum and its unsettling photos and commentaries on this sad period of Vietnamese and United States history. Most of these I remembered from my youth which emphasized to me just how much this war affected my coming of age in America. I wonder how my thinking would be now if I had not grown up with the anti War movements of the late 60's. Seeing these images again made me realize how much the War influenced the person I am today. I was sadly shocked by just how familiar they all were to me.

To lighten the mood, our next stops were of a less somber nature. First was the post office. Designed by Gustave Eiffel of the Paris tower fame, it has the look of a European Art Deco train station...except for the oversized portrait of Ho Chi Minh. Across the street, again from the era of French domination, was Notre Dame Cathedral. Although it appeared to be made of brick, it is actually made from tiles brought all the way from Marseille. Leaving the French influence behind, we proceeded to a local market and lost ourselves in the narrow aisles and stalls.

That evening we had our first taste of authentic Vietnamese cuisine. It was the beginning of a week-long indulgence of Southeast Asian food. We went to a place where we could eat outdoors and the food was grilled on the table. The whole effect was magical and in our state of jet lag and exhaustion, we were happy to float through dinner. Following the event, we walked back to the hotel and a few of us got detoured to the bar at the top of the Caravelle Hotel. A watering hole for the foreign journalists during the War, we enjoyed wonderful views over the city from this airy patio.

On our second day in Vietnam, we took a journey south on the Mekong River to the Mekong Delta. This was a great experience, first because it was so different from the city and second because we were able to visit local families and enjoy their hospitality. We meandered through the orchards and gardens before enjoying tea and fresh fruit while we were entertained by musicians and singers. We changed boats to a smaller craft and traveled into the narrow canals of the Delta. We stopped to see the production of coconut candy before lunch. The meal was fabulous. We had already realized that all of our meals on the trip would be fabulous and this was no exception. I loved the fish serviced standing up on the platter. After lunch, we wandered among the bottles of snake wine (wine infused with cobras) and did a photo op with a real live boa constrictor. I let some of my colleague test the waters on that one before I stepped up to the plate. It was really OK, just a little heavier than expected. But what a great shot it was!!

On our return to town, we stopped at the Cholon market in the Chinese area of Saigon. Here was witnessed even more congestion than we had elsewhere. The scooters and bicycles numbered into the thousands and the poor traffic cop with his whistle did nothing to get their attention. We capped off the day with a tour of the hotel and a wonderful dinner buffet. We followed up with drinks at the open air bar on the roof.