SILVER SHADOW To Southeast Asia, Part Three

Peter Knego continues a voyage from Bangkok to Singapore aboard Silversea Cruises’ spacious, ultra-luxe SILVER SHADOW with an overnight stay in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) in Viet Nam.

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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Good Morning….

For the next three days, SILVER SHADOW would fly the red-with-yellow-star flag of Viet Nam on her radio mast. Shortly after sunrise, I was up on the balcony trying to wipe the condensation off my cameras so I could get some shots of our fascinating transit up the Saigon River.

Silhouette over SHADOW.

Viet Nam’s economy has taken off considerably in recent years and Saigon now boasts a modern skyline of glass towers in addition to its French Colonial and tenement style architecture. A new concrete suspension bridge spans the wide river, which resembles Shanghai’s Huangpu a decade or so ago with its crumbling warehouses, bustling, crane-lined banks lined with colorful container ships and mid-river anchorage with numerous other working vessels.

Viet Welcome.

Our berthing spot was marked by tour buses and pretty girls with balloons.

Ho Chi Minh girls with balloons.

As SILVER SHADOW’s officers and the local pilot maneuvered closer, the girls set their balloons free.

Gangway greeting.

Again, at the gangway, a cheerful welcome as we filed onto our coaches. We booked a very comprehensive, all-day tour that would include many of the highlights of Saigon.

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in Museum Of Vietnamese History.

Our first stop was the 1929-built Museum Of Vietnamese History, which has a major collection of local artifacts dating as far back as the Bronze Age.

Ancient battle.

In addition to ceramics, costumes and even a mummy, old maps and paintings told the story of ancient battles and the seemingly endless struggles Vietnam has endured over the millennia.

Water Puppet Show “stage”.

Towards the end of our visit, we gathered in a small amphitheater in one of the courtyards for a traditional water puppet show.

Water puppet finale.

A charmingly choreographed series of dragons, fish, fishermen and fishing boats did mock battle in their liquid element before it culminated in fireworks.

Seven puppeteers.

And then the young puppeteers emerged for a half-submerged bow.

Pedicab-ing in Sai Gon.

The next phase of our tour was like a snippet from “The Amazing Race” as we were led to pedicabs that would take us for an exhilarating ride through Saigon’s bustling streets. Whoosh!

Egg shells applied.

We were literally dropped off at the Minh Phuong Art Company, where we were shown the art of lacquering. In addition to the paint, other elements such as egg shells and mother of pearl can be applied to anything from trays and cups to chairs and tables.

Sai Gon Dame.

From there, it was back to the coach for a ride to the French-built part of town with the 19th century gothic Notre Dame Cathedral located across from the colonial-style Post Office.

Thien Hau Pagoda and Temple.

Incense for the goddess.

After lunch at local hotel, we rode into the grittier neighborhood to visit the Thien Hau Pagoda and Temple, dedicated to the Goddess Protector of Sailors and built in the late 18th Century.
Cholon hats.

In the massive local market, called “Cholon” we clutched our cameras and meandered through fascinating rows of suitcases, fruit stands, meat stalls, clothing, hats, shoes, pots, pans, toys and carpeting. It was a truly immersive experience I am sure none of us will soon forget.

Reunification Hall.

And then we were back in the colonial part of town for a visit to the famed Reunification Hall, formerly the Presidential Palace. Built in 1962, the building is a fascinating slice of MidCentury modern architecture that was broadcast to living rooms across the world when it was stormed by liberation tanks on April 30th, 1975.

Liberation tank.

Russian and Chinese-built tanks are now on display in the well-tended grounds.

Strategic map in Reunification basement.

In the basement, largely featured in the film, “Good Morning Vietnam”, we toured bunker halls of radio equipment and strategic maps that were left intact after the war.

Sai Gon City Hall.

Our last stop was the Rex Hotel, a gorgeous Art Deco structure where we took in the view from the roof over a potent coffee, then wandered down into the adjacent square for photos of the ornate City Hall.

Wet SHADOW.

On the way back to the ship, as a small deluge doused Saigon, we were far more enlightened and exhausted than when we set out on the full day “Highlights Plus” tour, a must for anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City for the first time.

Night SHADOW.

After an evening in the air-conditioned comfort of the SILVER SHADOW, we wandered ashore to take photos of our ship and the river.

Sai Gon River net surfers.

A large contingent of students from other Asian nations were soaking up the free wifi at the terminal, having arrived that afternoon aboard the Japanese cruise ship FUJI MARU.

SILVER structure.

We took a parting look at our handsome ship, illuminated in shoreside lights, then it was lights out in Cabin 601 as another long tour day lay ahead.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Mekong portal.
Cai be Mekong Delta portal.

Silversea has a fantastic policy of providing uncrowded shore excursions. If on a large bus that holds, say 60 guests, they limit the occupancy to between 20 or 30, whenever possible. Otherwise, as we experienced on our “Life in the Mekong Delta” tour, we were off in mini-vans with driver, guide and only four other guests. After a two hour ride through Saigon and the lush countryside brimming with rice, corn and cane fields, we arrived in the village of Cai be.

Mekong River cruising.

We filed aboard a wooden boat for a ride into the floating marketplace, along a network of canals criss-crossed by boats of all shapes and size. The region is fed by the convergence of nine rivers, which is why the locals call it the Nine Dragon Delta.

Along the Mekong.

The craft sputtered along, listing to port or starboard, depending on which side had the most interesting scenery as we hopped between seats.

Floating mini-bar.

Our guide was not kidding when he said we were going to stop at the floating mini-bar for a drink. As we approached, one woman carved at a pineapple and others chopped open fresh coconuts and passed them down to us.

Coconut water on the Mekong.

In the searing heat and humidity, the cool coconut water was a welcome refreshment.

Mekong ahead.

For the next forty or so minutes, we gurgled along the canals, the literal back yard to homes and various markets. At one point, a 19th Century bell tower, left over from the French attempt to “Catholicize” the region, formed the backdrop for a colorful line of adobe facades and ramshackle tin huts.

Mekong astern.

Life on the floating market continued at a calmly chaotic pace, unfazed by the intrusion of boats filled with onlookers.

Mekong shopping avenue.

We made a short stop at a local candy factory where we were shown how delicious caramels are made.

Caramelizing coconut milk.

After processing the coconuts, their milk is boiled with sugar until if forms a gooey caramel that can be flavored with peanuts, chocolate and other ingredients or left “as is”.

Sugary outpouring.

The caramel is poured onto a sheet where is is sliced lengthwise, then chopped into tile-shaped bits.

Coconut candy makers.

The “tiles” are then hand-wrapped in rice paper and packaged for sale.

Snake juice.

The Vietnamese fully admit they will eat just about anything from rats to, yes, cats and dogs. Many have learned to survive some of the toughest conditions imaginable when being squeamish about food was not an option. Many also believe that certain animals and animal parts are therapeutic or spiritually empowering. Hence, the practice of pickling poisonous snakes in rum or whiskey.

Concentric coils.

Unfortunately, a lot of tourists fancy buying these novelty items, which increases the demand to supply them. Sometimes it involves capturing and killing endangered animals.

Rice caking.

I was happy when we moved on to witness how rice cakes are fashioned. Some are made into spring rolls and others…

Someone left my cake out…

…flavored with nuts and spices and left out to dry for a day before being consumed as savory snacks.

Rice popping.

I also loved the “rice popping” done in a giant pan with grains of rice and hot sand. Once popped, the sand is filtered out and then the rice husks are further sifted off to fuel the stoves. And finally, the charcoal from the rice husks is used as fertilizer.

Candy samples.

We had a chance to sip some jasmine tea and sample some of the candies, including tapioca, banana chips, coconut, ginger and various caramels.

Cobra/scorpion cocktail.

For those whom just a cobra is not enough, there is an “always available” cobra-with-scorpion-in-mouth in a handy take-home size, primed for a USDA inspection…

Mekong colonial home.

After filing back aboard our little sampan, we headed across the canal to a beautiful colonial home and farm.

Colonial porch.

The well-preserved house dated from the early 20th Century and has a front garden with floral, potted topiaries.

Backyard shrine.

We stopped for more tea and a sampling of local melon, then walked around the back of the farm before heading once more to the boat, which took us to a restaurant for local lunch.

Downpour drive.

On the return drive, there was much to reflect upon as our guide shared anecdotes about local life and how things are quickly evolving in Vietnam in the aftermath of one of the saddest chapters in modern history.

Sai Gone.

An absolutely fascinating two-day visit to Saigon ended just as it began, with us now bidding farewell from the Deck 10 perch outside of the Observation Lounge. SILVER SHADOW backed into the river, then pivoted her bow downstream under one final cloudburst.

Grill fare.

Peckish, I ordered a chicken burger from the grill and watched from the shelter of the pool area as we sailed down the Saigon River.

Laundry room.

With the heat and humidity and eight more days of travel to go, it was time to do some laundry in one of SILVER SHADOW’s convenient “no charge” laundry rooms. Aside from trying to figure out how the German machines worked, it was a seamless process.

Hot Rocks Grill caesar salad.

We had a reservation for 8:00 in the “no charge” Hot Rocks Grill, which entails the transformation of the Pool Deck into an al fresco dining venue where guests can literally grill their entrée under the stars. There is a choice of salads and a wide range of side dishes to accompany the main course.

Grilled salmon.

I went with a salmon steak, which was one of the best I’ve had in recent memory.

Diva Deborah Rosengaus.

Later, in the Athenian Lounge, the Artists of Silversea were at their most powerful with a rousing performance of “High C’s”, a “best of” opera show with a bit of everything from Bizet to Puccini and even a Beatles tune or two.

End Of SILVER SHADOW To Southeast Asia Trek, Part Three

Much More To Come

Very Special thanks: Brad Ball, Martin Cox, Gina Finocchiario

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego
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