Saturday, March 19, 2011


As we left Thailand, it was Super Bowl Monday on the ship. Yeah, I know they play the Super Bowl on Sunday, but not in Southeast Asia. For most Americans, this is the most important holiday of the year in that more people celebrate it than any other holiday than maybe Christmas. Certainly more than Labor Day, for example. We had our Super Bowl party at 7 A.M. The ship had a satellite feed, and the interesting thing was we got to miss all the commercials. Instead, during the breaks, we were subjected to an ESPN collage featuring soccer and basketball highlights. I would have rather seen the commercials.

But unlike the sports bar we frequented in Jordan 2 years ago, we didn't have to explain to the locals or the bartender what the Super Bowl is. The crew on the ship may have had difficulty locating Green Bay on a map, but at least they knew about the Super Bowl. As you know by now, the Cheeseheads prevailed, and the Brett Favre era has officially ended.


In the ancient Sanskrit language, Singapore means "lion city". The deal is that hundreds of years ago, a Borneo prince arrived there and saw a wild animal which he thought was a lion. Never mind that if he had never seen a lion, how would he know what it would look like. They didn't have TV or the Internet in those days. Lions are not indigenous to the area--but tigers are. Whatever the case, they build a statue of a lion in the Singapore harbor, and the tourists flock to see it.

Singapore is a tiny country, about the size of Chicago. the majority of the people are of Chinese descent, but it is a melting pot with many nationalities. We were told that 92% of the people own their homes. Singapore boasts the world's busiest seaport and has the second highest per capita income in the world (next to even tinier Monaco). The government can be described as a benevolent dictatorship. The citizens are prosperous and don't want to rock the boat, and it's a bad idea to criticize the prime minister. The death penalty is used liberally, and the people get the message. The crime rate is very low.

It is against the law to bring chewing gum into the country--punishable by a $1000 fine. Actually we DID smuggle some in our suitcase, and fortunately, we didn't get caught. The reasons for the law is that the government's policy is to keep the city clean, and scooping up gum from the sidewalk is expensive, and then there's the ick factor. If you spit out gum on the street the punishment may be caning. It's safe to say that the Wrigley Company will not be building a plant in Singapore anytime soon.

The city is warm and humid, even in early February. It is 81 miles North of the Equator, on islands off the Southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It rains quite a bit, but we had good weather in the few days we spent there. Because it's a small country, the land is used very efficiently. They use landfill to create new land. Then they expand upward in the form of high rise buildings. The Swissotel Stamford is 73 stories high and was once the tallest hotel in the world. Now it's No. 11, and the others are most likely in Asia also.

Singapore was founded as a trading post by the British in 1819 to counter the Dutch influence in nearby Java. The key man here was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), a man of many talents who was Governor-General of the nearby areas of Malaya. He was a botanist (several species named after him) and a historian (wrote History of Java). In the relatively short time he spent there, he set up far reaching progressive policies. For example he wrote a constitution, abolished gambling and slavery (brought in convicts). He set up local schools for the natives and decreed religious freedom for all. Maybe most important was he made peace with the local sultans.

There are many things named either Stamford or Raffles, but the best is the classic Raffles Hotel, built in 1887 by two Armenian brothers. It was renovated into a 5 star hotel in 1991. When we disembarked from the ship, we agreed to meet our friends later in the day at the famous Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel. The Long Bar is a relic from the British colonial period and is best known for inventing the Singapore Sling cocktail. This sweet and tasty drink is composed of gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine and pineapple juice, with soda water added for foam. Of course we had to try one, at 17 bucks a glass. The 8 of us sat around the table toasting the cruise with our pricey drinks. Actually the $17 was in Singapore dollars--converted to U.S., it's only about $13.

Our home away from home in Singapore was the Conrad Centennial Hotel. This is a 6-star top of the line in the Hilton Hotel chain, and their service during our stay was impeccable. What was peccable, however, was their failing to meet us at the dock. We had to hire a taxi to drive us to the hotel. The concierge expressed embarrassment, and for our entire stay, they treated us like the big shots that we are. The concierge showed us to our room and made sure everything worked properly. We slept in a tall bed--it seemed about 4 feet off the floor. You wouldn't want to fall out of bed. The pillows were big and soft. As in the Hilton in Shanghai, we were treated to a complimentary buffet breakfast with stuff like delicious red bean pau, several varieties of fish, rice, etc. as well as scrambled eggs, toast and cereal which Americans would normally eat. This hotel is more sedate than the brand new Marina Bay Sands, a Las Vegas style hotel, but more on that later. The Conrad is a first class hotel.

The evening concierge, an attractive young lady, walked us across the street to a giant shopping mall and the Sin Chocolate store. We bought her a chocolate rose, and she couldn't thank us enough. At the end of our stay, the staff arranged to have us driven to the airport at 6 A.M., complimentary.

Our hotel was walking distance from everything if we could have figured out the right directions. Walking around is dangerous for Americans because cars drive on the left side. We instinctively look the wrong way at street corners. Across from the main entrance is a second enormous shopping mall, the Suntec City Mall with 360 stores on 4 levels. We later found out that both shopping malls are the same--they are connected underground. A tunnel under the busy street has stores also. We crossed the street and found the booth for the double decked topless sightseeing buses that tour the entire city. We signed up for unlimited service, and over the next full day, we got to see pretty much the whole city, stopping at the main attractions and then catching the next bus on the schedule. The city is a model of efficiency, and the buses, like everything else, run on time.

We wandered around the 888,000 square feet of retail space at this multi-level shopping mall, plus 5 high rise office buildings as well as a convention center. Did I mention that everything is big in Asia! Our frustration level was high when we couldn't figure out how to exit to return to our hotel. We had to conserve steps because Dianne was still walking in a cast with a crutch, so I had to walk ahead and scout around and ask directions. The information booths and maps were hopeless and the people, though well meaning, had difficulty helping us. Most speak English though heavily accented. This was the second time on our trip that we got lost in a shopping mall (the other was Hong Kong), and asking directions doesn't always work. The problem was that although our hotel was across the street, we didn't know what direction we were heading, and one can literally walk for miles around the mall. If we could have found the the sightseeing bus booth, we would have been OK, but we couldn't find that either. Eventually, with the help of a young lady shop clerk, we found our way back.

We later learned that this mall was featured on the Amazing Race TV show on three occasions. If the contestants got lost also, it would not surprise me.

That evening, we decided to visit the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the new Las Vegas style casino that recently opened. Our friends from the cruise, Mike and Dorothy were staying there, and we decided to look for them. Although it is normally a 5 minute cab ride from our hotel, it took an hour to get there through the heavy traffic on an expressway over a bridge. While inching along on the bridge, we noticed that many people walk there over an elaborately decorated pedestrian bridge. We couldn't do that because of Dianne's difficulty walking.

The Marina Bay Sands was built by Sheldon Adelson, the same guy who built the Venetian and the Palazzo Hotels in Las Vegas, and he spared no expense in this one. The total cost of this complex was $5.7 billion, but that includes a convention center, another huge shopping mall that extends under the superhighway connection to the hotel, and of course, a casino which is the size of a Super Walmart.

This hotel is really over the top. On the 57th floor is a 3 story pool complex with palm trees growing. From a distance, it looks like they added it to the roof of the building as an afterthought. The pool area is very luxurious and they charge $20 to go inside.

I've read that the casino is the most profitable in the world. It would not work in Las Vegas, but in Singapore, it's basically the only game in town. They discourage Singapore natives from gambling there, so they check your passport when you enter. Singapore natives must pay $100 to enter. For tourists, it's free. The reason it wouldn't work in Vegas is that Vegas gamblers are more sophisticated, looking for games with a small house edge, like Video Poker and craps. Mike asked the manager where the crap tables were and was told "soon". He thought that "soon" was the Chinese word for dice. I saw thousands of slot machines, many of which were of the penny or two cent variety where you must play almost $2 on every pull, and the house has a big advantage. I asked the manager where to find Video Poker. He led me to two machines--two in the entire casino! We went to the $10 roulette table. In Las Vegas, you can bet $1 on each of ten numbers as long as you bet a total of $10. Not here. $10 on a single number. If you want red or black, it's $50. We didn't stay long in the casino. We didn't want to pay off Mr. Adelson's mortgage by ourselves.

We walked over to the connected shopping mall, following the signs to the food court which turned out to be about a mile away, Dianne hobbling the entire way, cursing. All the restaurants were Asian food chains, and finally we split a tuna salad sandwich.

As you've probably figured out by now, Singapore is a city of shopping malls. And these are high end malls. A major trading port city, there's mucho bucks here. Touring the city, I saw about 20 Armani stores, not to mention Hermes and Burberry. This is an expensive city, and the malls reflect that. I'm sure the rents are not cheap, and the stores apparently do enough business to stay open and profitable.

Dominating the skyline at the harbor is the Singapore Flyer, the world's largest Ferris Wheel. It is more than 550 feet tall, and slightly larger than the London Eye. The thing with Asia is that if Europeans or Americans built something big, the Asians will build it bigger. The Flyer has 28 cars (seats), each of which can accommodate about 20 people. We had one to ourselves on a sunny but hazy morning. This wheel is so big that it takes 37 minutes to revolve. In the meantime, we had spectacular views of this vibrant city and the harbor. In the harbor, ships were lined up as far as the eye could see.

We took a sightseeing boat ride on the Singapore River to absorb the history of the city and to take in the older British colonial style buildings juxtaposed with ultra modern skyscrapers on both sides of the river. At the boat launch we had our choice of restaurants for lunch. We chose Hooters which is similar to Hooters in the U.S. except that all the waitresses are Asian. The food is the same as in the States. After days of Asian food, we were happy to eat American.

We caught the next bus for the Chinatown market. Virtually every city we've been to has a Chinatown, and Singapore is no exception. In fact the Chinese may be in the majority in Singapore. By the entrance is a huge Hindu Temple. We found that, as in Hong Kong, many of the merchants are Indian, especially in the many tailor shops. They'll make a men's or women's new suit or outfit in 3-4 hours. We weren't about the come back the next day, but if we were, we could have had some good deals. Although the New Year celebrations were over, the decorations were still intact, and the shops were promoting post New Year specials.

After an hour of shopping, we caught another bus to the 183 acre Botanic Gardens, another tribute to the naturalist Stamford Raffles. Because of the warm moist climate, year around, the vegetation is lush, to say the least. Orchids are common and very inexpensive in Singapore. The National Orchid Garden has 1000 species and another 2000 hybrid species of orchids. Dianne posed in front of the orchid named after the late British Princess Diana. It even has a 5 acre rainforest (formerly called a jungle) which predates the park.


The flight from Singapore to Chicago is not an easy one. We boarded a Japan Air flight to Tokyo--a 3300 mile flight in Business Class. The service was outstanding--but 6 1/2 hours is a long flight, and we would have another 12 hours or so after that. Tokyo is believed to be the world's largest city--about 30 million, and Narita airport is enormous. We had only a 2 hour layover, so we couldn't tour the city. Instead, I roamed around the duty free shops. I amused myself by calculating the prices of familiar items, converting from yen to dollars. For example
the large (1500 ml.) bottle of Louis XIII cognac was priced at 397,000 yen which is about $3100. You can do better at the Sam's Club back home. They keep that stuff under lock and key.

My parting impressions of the countries of Southeast Asia is that they are more advanced than the U.S. in many aspects. Not so much Vietnam and Thailand, but China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore are freewheeling business cultures. I was impressed with their high quality infrastructures. Their architecture and building projects eclipse those of U.S. cities. Certainly Chicago and New York are world class cities in this regard, but Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and even Saigon can hold their own in many cases.

Everywhere we went we found the level of service to be high. The people are friendly to tourists and to us as Americans.

We visited the 3 busiest seaports in the world. The shopping malls we visited are enormous and garish compared to those in the U.S. though the store brands are pretty much the same. Obviously the Asians have plenty of money to spend because the luxury brands are prominently advertised on street corners and in every mall. In the rural areas, there is still poverty and subsistence farming. In Singapore, however, there are no rural areas.

In contrast to Europe, I saw no evidence of labor union influence. Asia has done a good job eliminating inefficiencies. Human rights are probably not high on their list of priorities. The cities appear to run like clockwork. We went to every corner of cities--even the poorer areas, and by and large the people go about their daily business like we do. They talk freely to us, but they steer clear of politics or criticizing their leaders.

The good news, as I see it, is that the U.S. and China are major trading partners, and for that reason I believe they recognize that war is out of the question. Wars are fought over national interests, and trade is too important to jeopardize. My observation is that in the Asian Tigers, trade and business are the highest priority--human rights is lower on the scale. I suppose that from their viewpoint, if everyone is doing well and prospering, human rights will take care of itself.



Sunday, March 13, 2011


We continued our odyssey through Southeast Asia, crossing the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Our ship docked at the port of Laem Chebang where, across the street is an enormous truck factory with thousands of Japanese trucks and cars parked in the lots. Even the Japanese farm out their manufacturing jobs--in this case, to Thailand.

Thailand, a country of 65 million people, used to be called Siam--until 1949. The Siamese were best known for twins and cats. Siam is a name derived from the Indian Sanskrit language. Apparently they decided to change the name of the country to intellectually distance it from foreign powers. Thailand is said to mean "land of the free" to express pride that it was never colonized by Western powers. That is true, although the French did try. To remain independent, Thailand's 19th Century rulers adroitly exploited the rivalry between the British and French in neighboring Burma and Indo-China.

As in the other countries of Southeast Asia, the principal religion is Buddhism, and there are numerous temples decked out in the unique Thai style. Incidentally, the Thai word wat mean temple as in the Cambodian Angkor Wat. Our guide explained the Buddhist religion with one word--karma. It means what goes around comes around. Buddhist are taught not to kill, steal, lie or commit adultery. That part sounds like some of the Ten Commandments.

Another common Thai word is bang which means "city" or "town". Thus, the biggest bang for the buck is "Bangkok", but we also have Laem Chebang, and many other cities with bang in them.

The country is ruled by the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej (don't ask me to pronounce it) who is now 84 years old. He has reigned since 1946 and is revered as a god. Criticizing him can land one in jail. His pictures are all over the place, but they were taken 30 years ago.

Close to our port is the large city of Pattaya, which is known as the sin city of Thailand. There is no gambling there (except maybe with your life), but much prostitution. The age of consent there is about 9. It is reputed that men from all over Asia and even American go there if they are into girls, guys, kids, transgender, you name it. The word was spread by American GI's who went there for R & R during the Vietnam War. Today it is illegal (in the U.S.) for Americans to travel there for such immoral purposes. Other than the aforementioned nightlife, Pattaya has museums, parks and looks like any other modern city.


Whatever the case, we chose not to travel there. We went the other direction, about 100 miles to Bangkok, the nation's capital and largest city. Bangkok is a city of 9 million straddling the Chao Phraya River. It it filled with waterways and canals and is often referred to as the Venice of the East. The 10-12 lane superhighway to Bangkok was well maintained. As in Vietnam and other countries we visited, it was a toll road. Along the way, we saw coconut and tapioca plantations. As we entered Bangkok, we passed the modern Suvarnabhumi ("golden land") Airport which has a monorail train connecting into downtown. The airport has a Chicago connection--it was designed by architect Helmut Jahn. The monorail was built by the Germans and Chinese.

Bangkok has some very beautiful attractions. The largest and most beautiful is the Grand Palace which is a combination of a historical Disneyland and the House on the Rock. This is a place where God would live if He had the money. The "wow" factor is evident at every turn where one sees a new pagoda or a brightly painted temple in the unique Thai architecture. The Grand Palace is the official residence of the kings of Thailand since the 1700's. The King doesn't live there now, but they still use it for official functions.

In building it, they started small, and every time they accumulated some money, they built another structure, and these structures are awe inspiring. The most spectacular is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) which we removed our shoes and visited. It was completed in 1785 as the King's personal place of worship.

In Bangkok's Chinatown we explored Wat Traimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha. As you've probably determined from my previous articles, the Buddhists spare no expense in religious extravagance, and I mean that in a positive way. Because Dianne was still wearing a cast on her foot, we were shown to a private elevator and whisked to the 4th floor to see the famous statue.

This is the world's largest solid gold (actually 83% gold) Buddha, 15 feet tall and weighing in at 5 1/2 tons. With gold selling for $1400 or so an ounce, the U.S. could balance the budget with this thing. This statue was cast during the 13th Century and was covered with plaster and lacquer, probably to discourage looters. The authorities didn't known what they had until 1955 when they decided to move it to its present location on the 4th floor at Wat Traimir. While moving it, the ropes broke, and some of the plaster chipped off, revealing the gold underneath. The Buddhists enforce a dress code, and everyone must remove their shoes and hats to go into the temple. Shorts are not allowed. If a tourist shows up wearing them, they are given baggy, gaudily printed pajama pants to wear inside and look ridiculous. Some members of our group did look awfully silly wearing them.

We boarded a boat for a ride down the river and canals among the colorful small boats and water taxis. Merchants load their goods on small boats and sell them to the inhabitants living along the river in their quaint houses.

In the markets we could find good bargains in jewelry and carved elephants. The outdoor grills and food stands smelled good, but we weren't sure if our stomachs could handle it. On the traffic congested streets, tuk-tuks are the favored mode of transportation. These are small taxis, about the size of golf carts, weaving in and out of traffic. They are named for the sound of the small engines. We were told to steer clear of con-men, which is good advice in any major city.


On our second day in Thailand, we visited Ko Samui, a trendy island filled with resorts and beaches, not to mention coconut and rubber plantations. We tendered to shore because the

port city, the famous Nathon, doesn't have the facilities to handle large ships. Our ship was anchored a mile or two offshore. We signed up for the tour to see the Namuang Safari Park, a cultural theme park, we we could get up close and personal with the elephants.

The entertainment at the safari park included watching the trained monkey (on a leash) climb the coconut palm tree and throw down the coconuts. The locals gather up the coconuts and use one gadget to split the coconuts in half and another to scoop out the meat into a bowl. They then pour water into it and mash it into a gooey paste and make delicious coconut milk.

The other attraction is the elephant rides. We climbed onto a platform so we could step off onto the animal's back into a chair seating two. Dianne was still wearing a cast on her ankle and carrying a crutch, but she was able (with great difficulty) to balance on the fidgety elephant to climb on. The driver sat directly on the elephant's head. The elephant started walking up and down the trails through the jungle for probably a mile or so. The trails are very narrow and flanked by rocky outcroppings. The 9 foot tall elephant sways from side to side, and you'd better hang on tight, because if you fall, you're dead, literally. The drop off down to the river is very steep and rocky. this was scary! Fortunately for us, the elephant completed the trail without incident, and we gratefully climbed off.

After the elephant ride, they presented a circus type show in which the elephants climbed onto platforms and stood up and performed other tricks like spinning hula hoops. They talked an unfortunate tourist volunteer into lying down while the elephant put his foot on the tourist's back. The elephants are well trained, and no tourists were trampled that day. We got some good photos when they brought the elephants over so we could pet them while they ran their trunks over us.

Indian elephants are significantly smaller than their African cousins, but they still weigh a few tons. They eat over 500 pounds of food a day, including bananas, leaves, papayas and even peanuts. They also drink a lot of water. They leave deposits along the trail, the size of softballs.

Before we left, we saw on the news that Thailand and Cambodia were fighting s shooting war on the frontier, but we saw no evidence of it on our trip. We haven't heard any more about it, and don't know who won, but we didn't have a dog in that fight.

NEXT: Singapore, the Alpha Asian Tiger




Wednesday, March 2, 2011


After 40 years or so, I finally got my opportunity to travel to Vietnam, but the U.S. Government was not paying my way. Visiting Vietnam is a culture shock for me. We didn't know how they would react to Americans, but as it turns out, about 75% of the 86 million population was born since 1975, so they by and large have no memory of Americans and the war. We found the Vietnamese to be friendly to us as Americans. Incidentally, they refer to the wars of the 1950's and '60's as the "French War" and the "American War".

Before you think my mind is in the gutter, consider that dong is the Vietnamese word for money, and the exchange rate is about 15,000 to the dollar. Thus, we became instant millionaires upon our arrival in Vietnam. Several people in our tour exchanged dollars for the colorful dong notes, but the street vendors also accept dollars.

Our ship sailed into the seaport Chan May, north of Danang and about 60 miles South of Hue. Hue sounds colorful, but it is in fact pronounced "way". Actually, the city IS quite colorful, but after about 20 straight days of rain, the colors were hard to find. The highway trip to Hue was an adventure. Highway 1, a toll road is the main highway in Vietnam but is not well maintained. There are many potholes and loose gravel. The default position is driving on the center line of the road, but our bus found itself often driving on the wrong side or even the shoulder of the 2 lane highway to avoid the potholes and to pass slower moving vehicles. Drivers pass on curves and even when traffic is approaching, swerving at the last moment--playing "chicken" at 40 mph. Everyone on the road uses his horn liberally--Get outa my way or I'll run you over! I'm sure they have a lot of accidents, and we weren't told how they handle them or whether people carry insurance.

According to the World Health Organization, the traffic related death rate is among the highest in the world. In 2009, Vietnam reported 11,500 traffic related deaths, but experts contend the actual death rate is double that. (the U.S. has about 38,000 annual traffic related deaths) The government has raised the traffic fines significantly in an effort to reduce the accident rates.

Most of the people drive small motor scooters, and it amazes me that a family of 4 can fit on one, but they do. We're not talking Harleys here. The law requires adults to wear helmets, and they do so, but their little kids go without helmets. Fortunately for them, the scooters don't go very fast, or the death rate would be even higher.

In the countryside, rice paddies and coffee plantations stretch on for miles. In the U.S. we've seen the 1960's images of Vietnamese people wearing conical shaped hats, driving water buffalo, and these stereotype images have not changed, even today. Many people going to and from the market balance two loads on a long pole across the shoulder. Signs along the road extol the popular beers, Huda and Festival. Many businesses have the word ngoc in their names.
That word can mean either "precious Jewel" or "idiot", depending on inflection when you say it. The Vietnamese language uses Western letters with vowels over them, as opposed to Chinese style characters.

Although Vietnam is obviously a Third World country, the people are becoming more prosperous. Behind their shacks, we often see fairly new substantial brick or stucco two story houses. Roadside pagodas are everywhere.


Hue, a city of 340,000, was the Vietnamese capital from 1802 to 1945. We visited the old imperial capital of Hue where the emperor used to live. the capital, on the bank of the Perfume River, is a large walled Citadel which we toured. Inside was a "Forbidden City" where the emperor lived. It was "forbidden" in the sense that ordinary citizens were not allowed to enter. We also visited the verdant grounds and mausoleum of the emperor Tu Duc. He had 100 concubines and no kids. Apparently he was impotent because of smallpox. When he died in 1883, the concubines were buried with him. It's not clear whether they knew that going in, and emperor probably didn't carry life insurance to support them after his death.

In his 36 year reign, Tu Duc was known for his Confucianism and his opposition to foreigners and innovation. He was the last independent emperor although the country at that time was actually a vassal of China. During his reign, he and the Chinese got into a war with the French and managed to lose. The French haven't won a lot of wars since then, but they controlled Vietnam and Indo-China until 1954 except during the Japanese occupation in World War II.

The original emperor of the Nguyen (pronounced "won") Dynasty unified Vietnam in 1802. He had 150 kids and presumably big child support payments. Not surprisingly, with all those kids, Nguyen is the most common name in Vietnam, and it's also in the top 50 or so in Los Angeles.

Most of the people are Buddhists, and there are about 300 pagodas in Hue, and we visited or passed by most of them. Many tourists took the sightseeing rides on the Dragon Boats which plied the Perfume river. We elected not to do so.

We had a fine buffet lunch at the Green Hotel, which reminds me of the Purple Hotel, but it's painted green. By Vietnamese standards, this is a nice hotel. At lunch they served us a delicious meal of seafood soup, calamari, BBQ pork, beef, chicken, duck and vegetables. Contrary to Western belief, dog and cat were not on the menu.


Although the official name is Ho Chi Minh city, almost nobody calls it that. Saigon is a huge city of 3.5 million, and we visited many of the interesting and important sights. We found the streets and infrastructure to be better maintained than in the rural areas. The French influence in this former capital of South Vietnam is strong, especially in the colonial architecture. Like other major Asian cities, the tall buildings are encased in smog.

Saigon was in a festive mood, as it was New Year's Day, the Year of the Cat. Everywhere else in Asia, it is the Year of the Rabbit. It was not clear why Vietnam is different.

The streets were decked out in bright reds and yellows. Yellow flowers were set out on every street. People, especially children in dragon costumes paraded about with small marching bands. Streets were blocked off for the partying. 3-3-3 Beer was flowing from every tap. At night they exploded fireworks. At least they weren't shooting at us--as in Hue, the people appear to like Americans.

Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office.

Both were built by the French in the 19th Century. the Central Post Office was designed by the great architect, Gustave Eiffel in 1886. You may recall his famous towers in Paris and Las Vegas, as well as the Statue of Liberty. The Notre Dame Cathedral across the street was completed in 1880 and was intended to display the greatness of French civilization. It is a Gothic style with 2 bell towers which were added in 1895. The post office resembles a European railroad station and is a prime tourist attraction. People lined up to purchase stamps for collecting or to send postcards overseas.


It's amazing to me that virtually every city in the world that we've visited has a Chinatown, so why should Saigon be any different. We went into a smoky Buddhist temple and watched the worshippers burning handfuls of incense sticks and praying on their knees in observance of the New Year.

National History Museum

This museum was conceived by the leaders of Vietnam to tell the history of the country in their words. Prominently displayed is the huge statue of the revered Ho Chi Minh. Ho ho, Ho! We were told that their wars of the 1950's and '60's were really about reunification of the country. The fact that the new leaders were Communist and they had to "re-educate" the South Vietnamese after 1975 was incidental to the story. In any event, in recent years, the Vietnamese leadership has begun adopting policies similar to those in China encouraging business and trade--we call it capitalism although they don't.

We were entertained by a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show which is considered a must see on the tourist circuit; although kids probably appreciated it more than did the adults.

Presidential Palace

This imposing mansion was formerly the home of the presidents of South Vietnam. In 1975, the name of the palace was changed to the Reunification Palace to commemorate the reunification of the country. Outside on the lawn is a replica of Tank No. 843 which burst through the gate at that time to end the American War. This palace is a time warp from the 1960's with phones, radios and office equipment from that era. The tour guide led us through the War Room in the basement where the American War policies were conducted.

Majestic Hotel

The historic Majestic Hotel, now a 5-star hotel, was built in 1925 on the waterfront by the Saigon River. This 6-story structure in French Colonial and classical French Riviera styles has a rich history. Back in the 1960's, this hotel was the headquarters for the international press corps and espionage agents from several countries. The hotel was taken over by the government in 1975, and the name was changed, and used as army barracks. However, in recent years, the hotel was renovated to its old glory and the original name restored. We had a wonderful buffet lunch and were entertained by a troupe in traditional dress singing Vietnamese songs. The lobby and dining room are decked out with bright colored murals depicting life in the Colonial period.

Old City Hall

We visited the square next to the famous Rex Hotel and across from the old City Hall, now called the Peoples Committee Hall, the headquarters of the Communist Party. The inside of the building is not open to the public. The lushly landscaped square in front is a favored spot for taking photos in front of the Statue of Bac Ho, apparently another name for--guess who--Ho Chi Minh.

Driving out of Saigon on the main street--there are no expressways--we saw ubiquitous "Ga ran Kentucky" signs on the KFC restaurants. Upscale stores like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel were represented; 7-11's were on every other block, but I didn't see a McDonalds.

The government of Vietnam has become more enlightened over the past 30 years, going the way of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The authorities are encouraging small business and new ventures are appearing everywhere. Vietnam is still 20 years behind the PRC, but they're catching up. Vietnamese are entrepreneurial as we've seen with their immigrants in the U.S. We saw many factories near the port, manufacturing goods for export to the West. Keep in mind that Vietnam is a Communist country, and we saw many reminders of that on billboards, but there were no restrictions on our travel. Our guide told us that the people are free to travel abroad.

Vietnam is socially conservative. Arranged marriages are common, especially in the rural areas. Pre-marital sex is frowned upon. The government distributes condoms--or was it condominiums? In any event, a young man on a date probably needs both. Babies born out of wedlock are often abandoned. There are many TV channels, but no sex channel.

Vietnam appears to be prospering, at least in the cities, as the government is loosening its restrictions on commerce. It is no longer emboldened to strict Communist ideologies, although I have no information on its human rights policies. There is only one political party and criticism of the government would probably land a dissenter in prison. In the future, Vietnam will be an economic power to be reckoned with.