Ho Chi Minh City
This was the port to which Jan was most looking forward to and we were both excited as we docked, at around 7am in a dour industrial port with a single Red Flag fluttering on a dockside shed. A lone and welcoming immigration officer (I met him in the Grand Lobby before disembarkation began) boarded and he worked at great speed stamping our arrival cards as we left the ship, the other immigration procedures having been managed behind the scenes by Cunard.
We had booked our usual On Your Own transfer and after an interesting journey of about an hour and a half we were dropped at the Britex Tower, perfectly situated in the middle of the city and by the Saigon River. On the way we were well briefed by an impressive young Vietnamese man – with near perfect English despite never having left Vietnam – who offered us some helpful tips on making the best of our five hours in the City.
Different people like to do different things and some are anxious, when visiting places for just a day, to cram in as much as possible. By contrast, we often do very little, certainly not when measured by visiting museums, Temples or churches. We tend to take things fairly slowly and never feel that time spent drinking coffee or beer or having lunch is time badly spent. By contrast, and as we know from other passengers, many of the excursions try and cram in too much with a series of very brief visits and with lots of time spent getting on and off the coach and waiting for stragglers. Some of the itineraries – at least in our view – are repetitive. As one weary passenger told Jan as we returned from our day out, and he returned from a nine hour Best of Bangkok trip, he wished never to see another Temple.
Sometimes, venues, which are described in glowing terms in his lectures, fail to live up to expectations. In one of his most recent lectures, about Nha Trang in Vietnam, which we visit on Monday, the lecturer praised the Oceanographic Museum, to which there is an excursion, whereas Lonely Planet describe it as a poorly maintained museum with 60,000 or so jars of pickled marine specimens, stuffed birds and sea mammals… [Seals are] kept here in pitiful enclosures.
The Port Lectures are largely a lame marketing exercise. The lecturer sometimes protests, ” I don’t do a hard sell.” He may not, but he does a persistent sell and with the occasional implicit threat about the dangers of doing things independently: “If you travel independently and you’re late back the ship won’t wait. We shall sail without you.” There is a profound fear of missing the ship and being stranded (the internet is awash with filmed examples) and that means that some passengers are effectively bullied into taking excursions and don’t discover that doing things on their own is much easier than they might have anticipated and much more satisfying. This is particularly the case when Cunard’s shuttle service is so extraordinarily good. At every port, including those with perfectly adequate public transport links nearby, or lots of taxis available, Cunard have provided legions of free buses. Two thirds of our way through the cruise and having used the shuttles at, perhaps, twenty ports, we have never waited longer than four or five minutes to be able to board one.
In Ho Chi Minh City we first found our way up to the 20th floor of a very French Hotel at the top of Dong Khoi, the main shopping street. I had been delighted to find not one, but two English Papers: Saigon News and Vietnam Daily and we sat happily for some time enjoying them, the view and the coffee on the pleasant roof terrace looking down the Saigon River. We were, inevitably, amused by the subsequent bill of 242,000 Vietnamese Dong (about £7.00).
We then wandered up Dong Khoi, doing a little bit of shopping on the way at a couple of high end shops selling Jade and other Vietnamese souvenirs before finding the Post Office designed by Gustav Eiffel.
I bought, at his request, some stamps for David one of our table companions. He was worried that in the margins of one of the busy excursions, he wouldn’t get the opportunity. And here was a good example of the frustrations of excursions because when we arrived the building was surrounded by Cunard buses and the inside was full of glum looking passengers, either waiting for the bus to go or being frustrated at the lack of time to buy anything.
Outside the Post Office, young Vietnamese women sold beautiful greetings cards with delicate pop-up insides. We bought about ten while wincing at one or two passengers who were over doing things on the bartering front. Prosperous, spoiled westerners bullying young Vietnamese women and insisting that US$1 was far too much for a beautiful and unique creation.
We wandered on from the Post Office and looked at an other couple of sites before sheltering from the very hot day in a pleasant bar where I tried the local beer (which was excellent):
The Ben Thanh Market was an essential visit and we had a pleasant forty-five minutes there. It was lively albeit with much importuning as we threaded our way through the invariably repetitive stalls. But we had perhaps been spoiled by the weekend Market in Bangkok and we didn’t buy any of the T-shirts, Chop Sticks or other tat on offer. But we did spend some time next door at the Ben Thanh Street Food market where, for about £2.50 each, we had a meal of Chilli Fried chicken and steamed rice. As we ate, an excursion from another Cruise ship threaded its way through the tables where they gazed at, but didn’t stop to try, any of excellent food on offer.
We were picked up again at around three, tired after the heat and humidity but enthusiastic about a beautiful city in a fascinating country which, despite evident problems of corruption (which dominated the content of the two newspapers I bought) is enjoying fast growing prosperity. We shall visit again and for longer.