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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March 24, 2013 - Day 1 in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our first full day in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City began with one of the strangest breakfast buffets we had yet seen. Our hotel's restaurant was interconnected with three others that spanned nearly a block. When we booked the hotel it was described as a new family owned boutique hotel that offered free foot massages in the lobby, personal care and a quaint but lovely breakfast. Apparently between the last review and our arrival the hotel had been sold to a conglomerate with 3 sister hotels behind it so they knocked out the first floor back walls and merged the four lobbies via a common dining area. Breakfast was like Grand Central with various buffet stations placed among several wings, offering every type of Asian meal we could have imagined. They made an attempt at a Western-style breakfast that wasn't very appetizing. So what do you do when in Asia? You eat like the Asians. I found that I liked it very much in spite of the fact that I have only a vague idea of what I was ingesting. Best not to think about it. Frank wasn't as keen on the idea, but he got by.

After breakfast we inquired at the front desk about tours to some of the iconic sights. We'd already missed those available for this day but were told to walk outside and find a cyclo driver to take us around. Frank found two cyclo drivers and after telling them which sights we wanted to see and haggling for a price that we had no idea how to set, we each got on board. 

They promised us a 5-hour tour and then took off telling us time and time again not to take out our iPhone or iPad to take photos because someone would drive by and snatch them from us. So because they made us so paranoid, we didn't get many photos. I did sneak my phone out to snap a local street barber – literally cutting hair right on the sidewalk, in a makeshift shop.

The first stop was some musty old market that looked like a clearinghouse for all of the others. The drivers kept urging us inside. We wandered around, tripping over people sitting in the aisles eating smelly food and staring at us until the moldy smell and cramped quarters sent us running for fresh air. Frank said to the driver, "We don't want markets, we want to go to the History Museum and the Jade Pagoda." The drivers smiled and said, "Yes, yes, we go!"

The next stop, however, was a Chinese temple. It was beautiful, although we had no idea what it represented. We enjoyed walking around and looking at all of the statues and adornments, but we were seriously Chinese-templed-out after having already seen so many in the previous year. 

So back outside, Frank insisted that they take us to the History Museum. The drivers smiled and nodded and said, "Yes, yes, but first we stop for lunch!" They took us to a locals' area that provided outdoor tables where two nubile young ladies were very attentive to us (mostly to Frank of course), heaping very tasty food, bottles of water and beers on the table. The guides ate and drank along with us (Frank's driver had several beers), and then we were presented the bill as they split to fetch the cyclos. Little stinkers.
Out on the curb, Frank was just about fed up trying to get these rascals to take us where we wanted to go. Clearly they had their own agenda and we decided that they were pleasant enough and we were enjoying ourselves all the same, so we just gave in.

We pulled up to the Fine Arts Museum. Suddenly, the drivers announced the end of the tour and asked us for a tip! We said, "Hang on, we don't know where we are! You can't just dump us like that." The one guy who spoke limited English pointed across a roadway to a roundabout and said, "You go that way to market". What!? We didn't want to go to the market; we wanted to be returned to our hotel. They stood firm. They had decided their time with us was finished and we were on our own.  We had had spent 3 hours with them, ¾ of which had been at the cafĂ©.

Will we ever learn not to get hoodwinked? Probably not.

We entered the museum determined to let it go. It is an exquisite building with some fine artifacts. We actually strolled it for quite some time, taking in the modern and historic art works. What got to me, however, was an exhibit of oil paintings and other canvas works that were completely focused on the American War and it's affects on the Vietnamese people. A few of them were very touching, but most were graphic and shocking. Because of the history of this war in our own country, it was quite disturbing to me, but necessary to see it from the other side. I'm posting one of those works here – I have no motive and no personal comment.
The Title of this picture was Agent Orange
When finished, we consulted our small street map and wandered our way back to the hotel. It wasn't too far after all, about a kilometer away.  On our return we freshened up and headed out for dinner.  

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