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December 12, 2015

After a leisurely morning, we flew from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Saigon, Vietnam, a 45 minute flight. It is the largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of South Vietnam. The city's name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City after the war but many people still call it Saigon. Vietnam is a country of 94 million people. 10 million live in Saigon in an area of only 900 square miles. Most people are on motor bikes or scooters but the number of cars is growing. Like in Cambodia, traffic flow is chaotic with motor bikes crisscrossing willy nilly between cars and buses. I don't know which would be scarier - driving a bike or a car! And crossing the street is a real adventure.

At the airport we were met by our new local guide, Harry, and driven to the center of downtown. Saigon was under French control from 1859 to 1954 so there are many old buildings with French style architecture. We stopped at the Notre Dame Cathedral built in 1891. Unfortunately we could not go inside as there was a wedding in progress.

Across the street was the beautiful post office which was designed by Gustave Eiffel. It is the only post office in the city which still gives a Saigon post mark. For $1 we sent ourselves a postcard.





After a brief stop at a local market for t-shirts and souvenirs, we were taken to our hotel - the Hotel Continental Saigon. This was the first hotel built in Saigon. It was built by the French in 1880 and has been refurbished in the former style. It has beautiful rooms with wood floors and high ceilings. Very elegant. After dinner we walked down the pedestrian street and watched all the locals milling about and having fun. 65% of the people in Vietnam are under the age of 30. Although Vietnam is a Buddhist country, the city was well decorated for Christmas.

December 13, 2015

We left at 7:30 am for a 2 hour drive to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is a unique architectural structure, a system of deeply underground tunnels having several floors, alleys and branches over 125 miles long. The South Vietnamese Communists or Viet Cong built this vast network of tunnels. This is where thousands of fighters and villagers hid and fought the allied forces during the Vietnam War. (By the way, the Vietnamese call it the American War.) The tunnels contained mess halls, meeting rooms, a hospital and ammunition stores which allowed the Viet Cong to control large areas near Saigon. We walked through the jungle and a guide showed us how the entries were hidden under piles of leaves. Some of the group descended into a tunnel from this trap door, crawled down the passage way and popped out of another door. It was too narrow and low for either Fred or I. But we did climb down into a few of the tunnels that have been opened to see a water well, a bunker and a hospital area. The passageways between the bunkers were narrow and you had to stoop low to get through. There were also models of the booby traps that were hidden in the jungle floor. When stepped on, the unlucky person fell onto some sharp bamboo sticks in a pit. This visit really brought home the extremely difficult conditions faced by our troops.

On the way back from the tunnels we stoppped at a local home to learn how to make rice paper. This is used as the outer wrap for spring rolls. The rice paste mixture is ladled onto a hot plate then quickly removed to bamboo racks to dry. It's a very tricky and hot job as some of our group who tried it found out.



Our lunch today was in town at a local Pho noodle restaurant. This is a traditional Vietnamese soup and we joined the local people for a tasty meal. Afterwards we visited the Vietnam History Museum which holds a collection of ceramics and sculptures for some ancient kingdoms.

In the evening we took an optional tour which included a visit to a local theater to watch a traditional water puppet show. It uses water for the stage and depicts humorous tales from Vietnamese folklore. While interesting, it seemed more suitable for children. Afterwards we hopped on cyclo-rickshaws for a ride through the city's narrow streets the way the locals do. It was Sunday evening and it seemed all of Saigon was out enjoying a ride through town. We got to see the chaotic traffic up close and personal.

We were dropped off at a local pub for before dinner drinks and appetizers. This included a local specialty - barbecued duck tongue! It must be an acquired taste. Before dinner at a local restaurant, we were given a tour of the kitchens to see how the food is prepared. Very interesting.

December 14, 2015

Today we visited the Mekong Delta region. This is in the southwest part of the country, a 2 hour drive from Saigon. It is the food basket of Vietnam. We drove past fields of rice and private farms with workers tending their crops. The small buildings in the photo are grave sites for the family members.

We stopped in the small village of Ben Tre and walked through their orchards with fruit trees such as bananas, mangoes, papaya and jack fruit. They are especially famous for their coconut plantations.




We visited a coconut candy workshop to learn about making the sweet keno dua the region is famous for. It is a labor intensive, multi-step process and no part of the coconut is wasted. The fruit's milk and flesh are boiled down to a sticky mass that is allowed to harden, then cut into small pieces and wrapped in edible rice paper.




The woman in the photo is harvesting and bundling pennywort which is good for detoxing the liver. She prepares about 1000 pounds and makes $7.




We then boarded sampans for a ride along one of the town's beautiful and peaceful canals. We were given the traditional conical hats that all the natives wear and found them to be surprisingly comfortable and airy. Too bad we didn't have room in our suitcase to bring one home.


We continued our walk through the village to the Mekong river and boarded a larger boat for a cruise down the river. We passed several fish farms that are raising catfish.

Our boat stopped at a riverside restaurant where we had our lunch. What an interesting meal! This is an elephant ear fish or giant gourami. It tasted a lot better than it looks.


The round globe is a sticky rice balloon. Fortunately our waitress served it for us as we had no idea how to get started. But it was very tasty.


This was a very interesting day to see how the people make their living from small home industries and how they live off the land - a self sufficient economy. It was also relaxing to cruise down the river - a great way to end our tour with OAT. In the evening we had our farewell dinner with the tour group and said our goodbyes. Tomorrow we set off on our own to visit Hanoi. We really enjoyed our time in Saigon. We learned so much about the history and culture of Vietnam. It is a Communist country whose people have been through so much war and oppression. Today they have more but still limited freedom. They are a hard working pople with an optimistic view of a better life in the future.


To view more photos from our trip to Saigon, please go to Saigon Photo Gallery. To read about the next place we visited, go to Hanoi Newsletter.

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