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13 January 2018 - Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), Vietnam
Our Malaysian tourist visa expired on 8 January, so 7 January - we flew to Vietnam for a Visa run/holiday. We’ve never been to Vietnam, but have heard many good stories from other people. In transit, I googled “what does Vietnam produce and export” and got: “Vietnam has emerged as an important electronics exporter, with electrical and electronic products overtaking coffee, textiles, and rice to become the country's top export item. Samsung is Vietnam's largest exporter and has helped the country achieve a trade surplus for the first time in many years.” Curious about the political system in Vietnam, I googled it and got: “To date, Vietnam is technically still a communist country having one-party rule, that is the Communist Party of Vietnam, under Marxist-Leninist governance. In fact, Vietnam is among five remaining communist countries today, together with China, Laos, Cuba and, to a large extent, North Korea.” To be honest, I didn’t encounter anyone who was pleased with their government, at least no English language speakers.
We booked a one-week stay in District 7, at the Boutique Garden Hotel.
This is a 3.5 star hotel, very economical and well situated in a 50% ethnically Korean area. We had a very nice room with a queen size bed and all the essentials, including A/C and fast Internet. On Monday, we took a spa day. Both of us had a haircuts, facial massages, foot massages, pedicures, and manicures - and Diane had her hair coloured/highlighted to boot.
I noticed a pineapple on the floor in the corner, and asked the manager about it. She said it was to make the place smell good, or at least not too bad (chemical smells in these salons can be a bit much). The owner told me that pineapples are economical and excellent for absorbing the bad, unhealthy fumes. We’ve noticed that lots of people use fresh pineapples for an air freshener. On the drive in from the airport, the driver had two fresh pineapples in the corners of his car. In the hair salon, they changed out two pineapples, every day. I’ve even seen a pineapple in the floor in the public toilets.
In the afternoon, we walked a few kilometres to the Crescent Mall, an apparently high end mall with few customers - or at least not many on a Monday afternoon. We didn’t buy anything, but I did notice both a Coleman Outdoor store, and a shop that specialized in selling pianos.
I’ve never seen a shopping mall with a store that sold pianos, much less Steinways!
There are an incredible number of scooters in this city. It is amazing to simply watch them move in waves, like schools of fish in the ocean! At least 50% of the riders are wearing masks, as well as some sort of sun and dirt protection. Most people have helmets on, but of course there are lots of families riding scooters and babies can’t wear a helmet - but they’re on the scooter nonetheless.
I rarely noticed a car with a dent in it, and most of the vehicles appeared to be in very good condition. There wasn’t much aggression shown by drivers, it was all quite fast and polite. Maybe it’s the street signs that keep them in check?
The downtown skyline is pretty impressive, and I have to declare that this is one of the cleaner cities we’ve been in, perhaps not as clean as Singapore - but not far behind.
One thing that did annoy me though was that when the traffic was really congested, the scooters started riding up on the sidewalk - in both directions. That is where WE were walking! Some drivers were patient, some honked their horn. There are not nearly as many traffic lights as you might think though, traffic is just constantly flowing.
There are some quiet spaces though, where there are no scooters in sight.
I told Diane that Vietnam was well known for its coffee and she was so delighted with the Hotel’s morning coffee that she asked the owner to get her a 2kg bag of their special blend, at a cost of $8CND per kg. The owner/Manager told us that it is their special blend, and includes a portion of “animal coffee”. So, what is “animal coffee”? Here is the explanation. Weasels are listed as carnivores but they are also into eating ripe coffee berries when the harvest season comes. Weasels apparently have a knack for finding the sweetest and ripest coffee berries to eat. They climb from tree to tree, looking for the best and perfectly ripened berries to “consume”. Weasels always choose the best coffee berries to eat, and leave behind the yellowish berries, unyielding berries, and over-ripe berries. Unlike rodents that eat the fruit’s flesh and trigger off its seeds, weasels just slightly chew the flesh and swallow the rest including the fruit’s seeds. This is beginning of the process in which weasel coffee is made. Following the French influence in the 1800s, coffee was introduced in Vietnam, but the source of coffee back then was very limited, so it was considered a luxury, only the French colonists along with Nguyen dynasty’s nobles had the right to drink it. Farmers, who were the ones making the coffee - had no chance to enjoy the fruits of their labour. They were forbidden from consuming coffee and in time realized that the only way for them to acquire coffee beans was to pick up Weasel poops - which was a block of coffee beans sticking together in the dirt. They then realized that this type of “poop coffee” was way more aromatic than the usual one that was served to the colonists, and also the coffee taste was smoother and less bitter. These farmers discovered another strange feature of their “weasel coffee beans” while grinding. The coffee beans were perfectly protected by a thin silk pellicle. The thin layers developed by the Weasel’s enzyme made the coffee unharmed but fermented by the surrounding environment. Also, the coffee bean’s bitterness is mostly eliminated in this process, and that is why digested coffee is easier and tastier to drink. When the digestive process ends, 5kg of coffee berries are attached to about 1.5kg of weasel poop. The beans are carefully washed and then dried for three days in the sun, just like regular coffee. Then, they're ready for roasting, bagging, and selling. To preserve the old good coffee as well as the Weasel species from urbanization, coffee planters gathered weasels in the wild and brought them onto their farms, feeding them perfectly ripe coffee berries along with many others fruits and meat or fish - for unique flavours.
We’ve encountered many locals who despised the renaming of their city in 1975, honouring Ho Chi Minh (deceased Communist leader of North Vietnam). After the war was over and North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam (and the USA withdrew their troops), they moved the capital from Saigon to Hanoi in the North and renamed Saigon to Ho Chi Minh city - but thousands of businesses still have the word Saigon in the name, and many people told us “call it Saigon”. There are over 8.5 million people living in the city, and it comprises 24 districts. Our hotel was in district 7, and comprised nearly 50% Korean, 10% Vietnamese, 10% European, 10% Japanese, and 20% other nationalities. There are a lot of immigrants living amongst the 95 million people of Vietnam, and most of them seem to be in Saigon.
On Tuesday, we did a package Mekong Delta River Tour. The Mekong Delta is the southernmost region of Vietnam and it is often referred to as the rice bowl of Vietnam as it produces three harvests per year. The fertile Mekong Delta is also famous for its tropical fruits and flowers. Our bus stopped at a roadside gas station and I took a photo of the gas prices. That’s $1.01 per litre for “low test”. Not too bad.
Our tours consisted of several boat trips, in different boats on the water and between the islands. We were on three different boats, starting with the biggest one to the first island. This is a stern view of one of our boats. Notice the concrete block / anchor.
The captain and crew consisted of a husband and wife with one child. It appeared that the wife was the line handler while the husband was the Captain.
We had lunch at a restaurant on one of the islands.
The main dish was Elephant Fish, an I have a close up of that dish.
We were also treated to a special tasting of honey tea.
Diane tried on a “Coolie” hat, but didn’t buy one. None of the ones we could find had any liner of any sort - and they don’t pack well in our bag(s). You can’t beat the sun protection offered though.
Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables were on offer, none of which were of any interest to us because we’re staying in a hotel.
We passed by quite a few caged roosters. Although “cock fighting” is illegal in Vietnam, it still happens a lot. People are quite interested in watching roosters kill each other.
That also might lend some explanation as to the fascination with “snake wine”. These bottles of wine have baby cobras and even scorpions in there, to give that extra flavour. We did not taste the snake wine.
We did learn though how they make coconut sweets, and then double wrap those delicious little fresh candies (no preservatives).
I have to say though that the tours through the small waterways and mangrove areas was interesting. We did spot a large snake but I couldn’t get my camera out in time to take a photo.
On Wednesday, we decided to follow our own tour, and took a GRAB taxi way out to District 11 to see an ancient pagoda - which was unfortunately closed. While walking on an uncrowded sidewalk at 1030 in the morning, with Diane to my right - a very quick local Vietnamese hoodlum on a scooter, managed to drive right between us (on the sidewalk), reach over and snatch my iPhone 6 right out of my hands! I chased him for about 10 seconds but he disappeared into the crowds very quickly. That changed what was going to happen for the remainder of the day. We managed to buy a new one for half the price of what I paid less than six months ago, but then the rest of the afternoon was invested in setting it up. I managed the “find my iPhone” app and was able to setup an automatic ERASE the next time my stolen phone accessed the Internet, but who knows how that will happen. I think that I was let down by Apple, because I believe they should offer a registry for stolen phones. They will eventually provide the O/S download to rebuild this phone, and when the serial number matches up with a reported stolen device - they should DENY the rebuild. It would also deter thieves from stealing Apple products. Oh well, nobody was injured. I hope the thief will have great difficulty in setting up this phone. As he snatched it from my hands, it didn’t even have a Vietnamese SIM card in it, but rather a Malaysian one so it wasn’t even connected to the network. I was using Google Maps in offline mode for navigation from one temple to the next. The six digit security code is very secure. It isn’t going to be easy for him.
This is a typical view of the non-tourist area that we were walking in. There are lots and lots of overhead wires, and local shops. Many people waved and said hello to us.
We relieved the stress of the day by getting 90 minute massages, later in the afternoon. In Vietnam, a service like a massage, hair cut, facial, manicure, pedicure etc costs only about 1/4 of what Canadian prices are. This is more like a spa-holiday.
On Thursday morning, we took a GRAB taxi out to the Ben Thanh market.
I bought two “Underarmour” T-shirts, Columbia hats made in Vietnam. Of course, we also bought a new case and protective screen for our new iPhone!
Thursday afternoon we visited the Củ Chi Tunnels. The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connected underground tunnels located about 70km from the city centre. These tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.
These stairs were not in place during the war, but have been added to make it easier for tourists. I have to admit that I went down to the bottom, but the ceiling was so low, that I decided to head right back up and not go any further. It was just too low, and too tight for me.
Diane is quite a bit more limber than me, but even she had difficulty squirming into this tunnel entrance.
We had a demonstration of the various kinds of booby traps that were made, much like animal traps - but intended not to kill the victim soldiers, but only to maim them. The traps were then covered by soldiers with the intent of killing other soldiers who came to the rescue.
We learned that commodities were in such short supply, that the Viet Cong made their own sandals from worn out rubber truck tires, much like this one.
Next was the mandatory Communist “propaganda” film about the Vietnam war, and how the North Vietnamese chased out both the French and the American Forces, and “liberated” the South - forming the happy country that is officially known today as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. We watched about 8 minutes of the film and then moved on. History is always told, or re-told - by the victors.
At the end of the tour, there was an opportunity to live fire assault rifles, and both Diane and I had a go at the AK-47 and the M-16. The weapons were essentially bolted in place, so it was very safe, but it was using real bullets at real targets.
It was a late return, and we got to see how the city lights up with the month-long Vietnamese New Year celebrations.
On Friday, our trips and activities were starting to wind down. Again we took a GRAB car from our hotel in District 7 downtown to District 1. A GRAB car, by the way, cost about $4 for the 5km trip, whereas a regular taxi was about $11. The only challenge with either GRAB or UBER is that you have to utilize an app on your smart phone. We stopped at the Jade Emperor Pagoda, the oldest temple in the city - but it was a bit of a disappointment.
Later in the morning, we had a lazy walkabout downtown, and then after lunch and visiting the market again, we headed back to our “home” in Zone 7.
We walked by the Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the city’s tourist spots.
We also walked by about 200 metres of nice posters advertising the People’s uprising against the Capitalist threat, and subsequent defeat of French and American Forces. This particular poster says “The US Embassy, the den of the US-puppet government in Saigon was burned by the Liberation Army during the General offensive and uprising in the Spring of 1968”. History belongs to the victors……..
In this photo, I’m posing in front of Ho Chi Minh’s statue, near the Peoples Committee building, or is it City Hall? These Communists are always changing the names!
We’ve seen hundreds of people transporting interesting things on scooters, starting of course with “other people”, like children. However, we’ve also seen dogs, water bottles, propane bottles, building materials, 24 cases of canned beer. If you can think of it, they’ll carry it on a scooter. Here is a rare photo of a parked scooter and I noticed the baby seat.
On Saturday, we took a leisurely walk around our neighbourhood. In all my life, I’ve never seen a Western Union Storefront but I’ve seen lots in this city. Maybe its because I haven’t lived in the big cities much. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw a Western Union storefront until Galapagos. Why is that? I googled this question and discovered that although the country of Vietnam had a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $202.6 billion US dollars in 2016 - Western Union “remittances” were a little more than $13 billion US dollars. GDP is a monetary measure of the market value of all final goods and services produced in a period of time. These remittances are money flowing back into the country, mostly from family members working in the US and sending money back home to their families. Over the past 20 years this flow of overseas funds has increased by 100-fold. Isn’t that interesting?
We went back to the “Spa” - Diane had another facial treatment, and I had an hour long foot massage. Oh, we are going to miss this country.
We took a final walk around our neighbourhood and realized that in District 7, we were right next to the “Sky Garden”. This is a very quiet, mostly expat neighbourhood with lots of small shops and no traffic - just pedestrians.
Tomorrow morning, we’ll be flying back to Malaysia.