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Ho Chi Minh City

Arrived yesterday in Ho Chi Minh City, which locals still call Saigon. It’s a sprawling tropical city of 14 million people. Sweltering, vibrant, prosperous, polluted, insanely crowded, boisterous, overwhelming. Surprisingly (to me anyway) it feels much happier than Japan.

We visited a Buddhist temple in Chinatown which was very different than our experience with temples in Japan. Much more gritty and urban, almost choked with incense. The exterior is densely ornamented, the interior even more so. The impression is not monastic asceticism but rather a cacophony of minor deities and characters and stories.

More than 80% of Vietnamese profess no religious belief, so this is more of a gathering place for expat Chinese, who are very thin on the street due to the coronavirus scare. Schools here have been closed for a week because of the virus. The Chinese border is closed, and the streets are reportedly much less crowded than usual. A large minority of the people we see are wearing masks. Our students who hold Chinese passports are not being allowed off the ship, even though we haven’t been in China and all of us share the same microbes.

The temple is dedicated to a minor deity whose special mission is to protect sailors and travelers at sea, so very appropriate for us! We made a small donation, placed incense, and sent off a prayer for safe crossings.

After that we visited a huge covered market. So many tiny stalls with cheap stuff for sale! Food, clothing, electronics, watches, trinkets. Prices are fluid. Start off by offering about 25% of the stated price and settle for about half. Vietnamese dong are about 23,000 to the US dollar – the quick conversion is you lop off four zeros and divide by two; 100,000 dong is a bit less than $5.  We bought a nice T-shirt for $4.

We walked through a beautiful park-like city center neighborhood at sunset past the Opera House, City Hall with a big statue of Ho Chi Minh, gorgeous fountains, lovely gardens, and amplified music. Old French architecture with wooden shutters and movie-set fans next to tiny storefronts jammed with 21st Century commodities and services, and towering glass skyscrapers that reflect the city around them.

Took the elevator up to the 49th floor of a tall building to watch the city light up from the Saigon Sky Deck – a touristy but beautiful glassed-in observation deck with 360-degree views of the enormous city stretching all around. Darkness falls very quickly in the tropics, and the lights were lovely.

We visited the historic 19th-Century Poste and adjacent cathedral, which are a mix of colonial architecture, 20th-Century Communist Party art, and 21st-Century kitsch. Lots of large rats scurried in the dark shadows between the pretty buildings.

Then a bunch of us went to an elegant dinner at one of the best fine-dining restaurants I’ve ever experienced. This is amazing foodie city! We had a prix-fixe menu with a series of exquisite small courses of shrimp, nutty cabbage and fruit, squid, smoky grilled green beans, chicken, fish in sumptuous sauce, bok choy, and a coconut dessert. With drinks, the bill came to more than 2,600,000 dong (a bit over $110) for the two of us.

We walked back to the ship through the buzzing city. We had to cross small rivers and canals via pedestrian bridges, and saw lots of families with small kids playing in parks. Guys were fishing all over the place. Young couples sat on benches or at plastic tables overlooking the water, where vendors selling street food from carts provided table service.  Everywhere we went we saw casually dressed locals hanging out enjoying the relative cool of late evening in the teeming city.

Crossing busy streets is an amazing process. Stoplights appear to be just suggestions, and crosswalks are merely “ornamental.” You just walk slowly across multiple lanes of traffic and the cars and motorbikes flow around you! No sudden moves. Don’t stop and don’t speed up. As my colleague Michael says, “you are the rock, and they are the water.”  I will post a video they showed us on the ship. Amazing.

We got back to the ship about 10:30, very tired. Slept like happy rocks!

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