Friday, January 25, 2008

Traveling in Vietnam; First Trip, 2007

In January 2007 I made my first trip to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Most of my time was spent teaching, but I got an introduction to the country that made me look forward to more.

I hadn’t booked anything before I arrived, so I had to scramble for a half-day city tour. With the help of a travel agency I found one at a Sinh Café location. It really is a combination café and tour service. It is Vietnamese owned and shows evidence of the need to further develop the tourist infrastructure. The tour was about 3 hours long. We went to the War Museum, which every American should see once and probably will not want to see again. Then we visited the Presidential Palace, now a museum, but without a great deal to see. This is a view of Saigon from the palace. Finally we stopped at the National Cathedral. A wedding was in progress, so we couldn’t go inside; instead we walked across the street to the post office. That wasn’t much to see for 3 hours and there was no driving tour of the city to highlight major areas to which tourists might want to return.

That said, the tour guide spoke reasonable English and was friendly and willing to answer questions. I met an American woman traveling with a Vietnamese-born friend who has lived in the US for several years. Our reactions to the war museum were interesting. I introduced myself because I needed an American to talk to. We were both disturbed by what we saw, even though we had seen and heard virtually all of it during the war itself. Seeing it again in the context of the Iraq caused feelings of anger and frustration. The woman born in Vietnam told us we should “just move on,” which seems to be a common feeling, at least in the southern part of Vietnam. I wish I could, but if we had learned the lessons of that war, we wouldn’t be in Iraq now.

I was immediately captivated by Saigon itself. The French Colonial architecture and the general aura of charming deterioration reminded both Americans of New Orleans—before the flood. It was also my first introduction to Vietnamese hospitality. The two ladies invited me to join them (Vietnamese husband now included) for dinner at an outdoor restaurant that evening. The food was as good as the hospitality and we could see it being prepared. It was a great experience and one I wouldn’t have on my own, because I don’t think people who don’t know the food and/or language would be able to handle it. We parted at the end of the evening, the three of them to a Mekong Delta tour of several days run by the same tour group, which they reported later was enjoyable.

Before I went to work, I had a day on my own. It was fun, but the many short streets are hard to navigate and my map was in Vietnamese. It’s really hard to find things like a map in English once you are there. Extensive research on the web before you go and an up-to-date guidebook are highly recommended.

With those experiences in mind, and a desire to see more of Saigon and the surrounding area, I allowed more time and prepared for some tourism this year. I booked two activities through Viator, a large multinational travel company. That was a breeze. I also booked a three-day cruise on the Mekong River through a local company with headquarters in Hanoi and an office in Saigon. I already knew that I wasn’t going to be able to use a credit card to pay for it. They recommended Western Union, which seemed reasonable to me. I went to the Western Union web site, gave my information, the necessary information about Tuan Lihn Travel, credit card number, and selected Vietnam from the pull-down menu. Having done everything right, I watched the site implode in my face. It not only refused my transfer, the refusal blocked my credit card. Ugh!

In the end, I had to take cash and visit a local Western Union office in order to make the transfer. Maybe the travel company should have told me that; certainly Western Union should not have included Vietnam on the menu of countries where you can use your credit card to transfer money. It appears that they do not make any kind of transfer into Vietnam that can link to a credit card or bank account number. Stating that on the website would have saved me annoyance. It’s a sign of the lack of trust in the Vietnamese financial system that I’ll describe further in the marketing section of my travelogue.

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