Thursday, March 31, 2016

This Is the Life!

With our wonderful guide, Thinh, who showed us Saigon
and was also our guide on the river cruise. Lucky us!
Welcome Aboard the R.V. Mekong Princess

Living on a yacht is an interesting lifestyle. Everything is compact, but very comfortable. Little amenities like bathtubs, television, gourmet kitchens are just not in the picture! Although I have adapted well and actually love living aboard, I do enjoy the luxury of a nice hotel from time to time!

So for a break from the boat – and a required exit from Australia every 90 days – we decided to vacation in South East Asia. As long as we were in nearby longitudes, it seemed like a smart thing to do. It was still a nine hour flight from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). And since we wanted to try a river cruise, the trip up the Mekong to Cambodia seemed to fill the bill.

On the ship's bridge. 
A number of the cruise boats were booked for the time we need, so after a little searching I found a company that doesn’t advertise all over the place: Haimark, LTD. And surprisingly, the office is in the USA. Although this company is a high-end cruise, the cost wasn't much more than the others and the plus was that it is a smaller boat so no mass exodus for excursions.

Keeping everything ship-shape.
The Mekong Princess is a beautiful river boat with only 12 suites so a maximum of 24 guests! The staff numbered 27! Talk about being pampered … And the boat was just launched six months ago so everything was new and beautiful. It was a floating 5-star hotel and I loved every minute of it! And being a new ship, it was beautiful and the amenities well worth the little extra. The staff was outstanding! I highly recommend this ship and company. 
We were even lucky enough to get a tour of the bridge to see how it looks from the Captain's view. He did not speak English so the Pursor translated for us. Look at the size of the lines for this one! I know I couldn't throw one of these to shore. And keeping the whole boat ship-shape is the task of the crew. As you can see, every detail is taken care of - even on the bridge.

We enjoyed the Captain's navigation skills. There was never a rough moment, not even when weighing anchor or docking. He also had to negotiate is way through hundreds of sampans while dodging numerous objects floating in the water.

This is the Captain's view of the river.

Meals were served in a beautiful dining room. Cocktails were available 24/7 in the Cocktail Lounge or on the Sun Deck – or in your room. The rooms were air-conditioned, which made the 87-95 degrees Fahrenheit days bearable. The warm breeze was wonderful on the Sun Deck lounge chairs. There was a library with Internet and computers as well as the Spa and Fitness rooms.

And our suite had a spa tub as well. We were on the top deck so I don’t know what it sounded like below, but I enjoyed the bubbles and water jets every day. Wonderful for me - especially after long hot days of sightseeing. Not to mention months of onboard and marina showers!

The orchids in the room were gorgeous. This one pictured was on the spa tub! And two spa treatments were part of the package so Dennis gave me his. Two massages! Heavenly!

Our fellow passengers were from Canada (2), Germany (8), New Zealand (2) and the USA (4 including us). There were no dress requirements for dinner, although most people showered and changed after the excursions; and life aboard was a comfortable casual style. I didn't need my long gown for this trip!

With open seating, we were able to sit with different people at different meals and really get to know everyone. As always, we enjoyed our conversations with people from other countries.
Take a look at the lovely accommodations:
The suite was beautiful with the French Colonial styling, king bed, television, comfortable chairs and a huge marble bathroom. The staff was constantly checking on everything to make sure all was well: fresh towels several times a day, appetizers delivered to the room at cocktail time and nightly turn-down with chocolates!



They cleaned our shoes whenever we returned from an excursion. Cleanliness and keeping everyone healthy was paramount as there are things on land, in the villages and in the water that are not compatible with most Westerners’ systems.

Hand sanitizer was offered frequently and required upon entering the Cocktail Lounge or the Dining Room. The staff worked very hard to keep us hydrated with bottled water – even for brushing teeth. We were not to use the tap water in the bathroom as it is purified river water. And maybe because they used so much of it in the galley and for baths and showers.

Breakfast buffet with eggs served to order. And, of course,
other Commonwealth and Asian breakfast items were part
 of the daily selections. Cappuccino, anyone? Yes, please!
The lovely dining room.
We had a Butler who took care of the suite and any needs. The house staff was Vietnamese and the dining staff was Cambodian so it was a nice cultural mix offering great service.

The meals were fabulous and caused some grief with our waistlines. There was a suggested Chef’s menu and a Spa menu each dinner as well as ala carte choices and wine of your choice.

At breakfast and lunch, the bountiful buffet served many local flavors, fresh fruits and pastries and a number of traditional choices.

Many selections at the buffet for breakfast and lunch.
Dinner was a served meal.
Our cruise director and local guides kept us organized and on time for the many planned tours to sights, villages, etc. All were friendly and knowledgeable.

Since the Mekong Princess is a small boat, we were able to go into some exclusive area where the bigger ships cannot go. In the Mekong Delta we visited places off the beaten path and rode in sampans, tri-shaws (three-wheeled trucks), horse carts, cyclos, tuk tuks, two-seater canoes, etc. Quite an experience. I refused to ride a motorcycle.

The various places we visited will be highlight in future posts.

The cocktail lounge was air conditioned so many moved
into it after too much sun on the tours or Sundeck.

The Sundeck was a great place to cruise and snooze!

The lounge chairs became hot property.
Sunset on the Mekong River

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

We Didn’t Stand a Chance!

A model of one section of the vast tunnel complex
Our guided tour began with a morning trip to Cu Chi Tunnels, a vast underground network that hid thousands of Viet Cong guerrillas and Vietnamese villagers during the Vietnam War. It is no wonder our troops didn’t know what hit them! Our soldiers fought during the day, while the Vietnamese hid in the tunnels and attacked at night. During the day, they looked like ordinary citizens. I was in awe of the sophisticated system they had.

The Cu Chi Tunnels open to the public are located about 70 kilometers northwest of Saigon near the village off Ben Suc. The tunnels were part of an underground network that zigzagged from the southern tip of the Ho Chi Minh trail near the Cambodian border to the Saigon River. We had a chance to experience the morning rush hour on our way to the tunnels. We saw everything being carried on motorcycles: holiday trees, refrigerators, furniture, whole families, long poles, etc.

Tiny entrances were hidden in the jungle
some distance from the actual living areas.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are an amazing work of man even though they became our nemeses. The Vietnamese spent decades digging through the clay to create the tunnels using simple hand tools. Over 50 kilometers were dug by the Vietminh fighting the French between the years 1948-1954.

Then from 1960-1965, the Vietcong added three levels four times as big, bringing the total up to over 200 kilometers. Up to 16,000 guerrillas could live in a tunnel complex at any one time.

The tunnels were like a village with people living there for years. There were weddings, births and everyday activities carried out in the tunnels. Below ground was a complete system of kitchens with vents for the smoke to escape directed far away from the actual kitchen and exiting through secret vents. Fires were used only when it was foggy, like most mornings in the swampy area. The deepest layers are 10 meters (30+ feet) underground.

Examples of booby traps show how lethal they were!
They had meeting rooms, dining halls, basic clinics, operating rooms, and even bamboo beds in sleeping areas. The entrances and exits were camouflaged and well away from the areas of activity below. In addition, there were storage chambers for weapons and rice, drinking wells and ventilation shafts. Once of the most gruesome sights were the booby traps at false entrances. Any soldier who fell into one of those would have been badly injured. They were killed when found anyway!
Question: what did they do with the dirt they removed? Most of it was carried to the river and dumped. Or it was buried under houses, but never left piled up near the entrances. They did make fake termite mounds that held the vents and used some of the dirt. The tunnels were extremely strong. Even after 50,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the area, the tunnels are still there today!

I found the place quite amazing as well as disturbing. We entered several areas including a “workshop” where they recycled shell casings into weapons.  

An air vent for the kitchen smoke to escape hidden in a
fake termite hill far from the kitchen.

There was a sewing room where they made clothing for the soldiers. The Vietcong wore clothes that were worn by ordinary citizens of South Vietnam so you could not tell them apart. Who was the real enemy?

A dining hall

Junction: where a tunnel went to a lower level
Actual trap apparatus from the war

First you step on it, then it hits you in the head with spikes.

If you didn't bleed to death from injuries on the way in,
there was little chance to get out without more injuries.
Vietcong in native attire
Sandals with dual straps.
One clue was the sandals as the straps were different on their shoes. That left suntan marks that gave them away. The Vietcong were very clever as they made sandals that made footprints in the direction opposite of what one was walking! And they had both types of straps so you could look like someone from either side.

Like I said: we didn’t stand a chance! Vietnam has been involved in wars for decades and decades.
"The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry for the future, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly." - Gautama Buddha

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sights and Sounds of Saigon

Sliding doors between the bath and main room
so I could watch TV while enjoying a soak!
The InterContinental Asian was a wonderful place to call home for a few days. Of course, I loved the spa bathtub! Cruisers need a few luxuries once in a while. Since our bed on the boat is very comfortable, a hotel bed is nothing special. However, lying in bed with down pillows while checking the Internet for the latest news was a real treat.

Then there was a fabulous breakfast buffet in the courtyard below! Now I am loving this vacation and we haven't even made it to the river cruise yet. With the hotel located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City District 1, it was easy to come and go to get out of the 90 degree plus heat for a few hours several times a day.

We spent the first day exploring on our own and checking out the holiday lights at night. And it was nice to see some real television news on CNN and the BBC to see what is happening around the world. But the real fun is the world outside of the hotel. We would meet our guide early on the second day.

We took advantage of watching the traffic at night in the holiday lights. What chaos! I don't know how they all miss each other as they just turn in front of one another and dodge pedestrians. We were not brave enough to cross the street at night; daytime was scary enough.

As it turned out, we were the only ones who signed up for the pre-cruise package. Soooo... We had a guide and a driver all to ourselves for a day of sight seeing. And as it turned out, the same guide, Thinh (or as he called himself: Skinny Thin), was our guide on the ship as well! Lucky us!

One of the hundreds of Buddha figures we saw.
Since we told Thinh that we had enjoyed a meal at Pho Hoa, he decided we should visit another famous pho restaurant. This one is known for its colorful noodles that are made with a special fruit (or was it a vegetable) from the region. It is the only place that makes it and since I lost the photos from this day, I can’t recall the name of the restaurant or the special plant used. Delta Alpha Mike November!
After a lunch with our guide, Thinh, we were off to see the French Colonial architecture of the city, a museum, the Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel.
Unfortunately there was a Mass at the Cathedral and we couldn’t walk around inside. Our visit with the guide was too short to join the Mass. We usually like to sit in a pew for a while and have a quiet moment, light candles, etc., but we were on a schedule this time so it didn’t work out that way.
Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon


Central Post Office

Our next stop was the Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel in traditional French Colonia styling. It seems that everyone has their own little market set up outside the post office - and everywhere on the streets! You could buy all kinds of things from individuals sitting on the curb or from their bicycles or motorcycles. They sell goods and foods that they make.

Traditional apricot tree in the Post Office
as a Tete holiday decoration. The yellow   
flower is symbolic of the King.
The yellow apricot flower is the traditional symbol for good luck and health. The yellow color shows respect to the King. While there was a king, he was the only person who was allowed to wear the yellow.

Interior of the post office
Then it was off to the famous Benh Thanh Market. Like many other markets we have seen around the world, it was a smaller version of the bazaars of Istanbul. There was everything available and too much of it. Stall after stall. Since I am not a shopper, I just like to visit to take in the atmosphere and then get out of there quickly. I don’t like haggling over prices and being followed by pushy sales people. A quick walk through was enough for me. Thank you very much! The prices are ridiculously cheap so I should have done some Christmas shopping!

Since it was the New Year holiday, the city was decorated with the traditional apricot blossoms. The streets were lit up at night like Christmas in the USA. And we saw the most beautiful orchids everywhere. The flowering apricot tree is the traditional holiday tree of Vietnam and it is seen everywhere. The larger ones are very expensive yet even the poorest people have one. We saw a number of them being transported on the back of motorcycles just like we throw Christmas trees on top of the car and drive home.
Now you can enjoy a walk through the market with these photos.
Red Dragon Fruit
It is now time for me to pack the bags and head to The Mekong Princess tomorrow. I have enjoyed the lovely bathtub in the InterContinental. I think I will have one on the river cruise as well. A long soak is a real treat for a world cruiser!