Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Goldring Travel's AMAWaterways' AmaLotus - Vietnam, Cambodia and The Mekong River Cruise- Part XIII (Our Last Days)

After returning to the ship from our rather disturbing visit to the Killing Fields and saying goodbye to our truly fantastic Cambodian guide, I thought it was time for a bit of fun and normalcy, so we went to The Stone Grill (the original “Hot Rocks” they now have on Silversea cruise ships) which stood as a curiously modern venue in the rather ramshackle city of Phnom Penh.  With all the meats and fish flown in and the service staff Japanese, it really changed the mood quickly…once we got past the persistent, but friendly, tuk-tuk drivers and their shocked faces that we could actually eat in such an expensive restaurant.
 
The next day was a river (sea?) day that past far too quickly.  The AmaLotus had typical events such as napkin folding, cooking demonstrations and ice cream party.  I, instead, made good use of the pool, which is not large enough to swim in, but is great for lounging in with your drink…and never crowded…while looking over the stern of the ship and expansive views of the Mekong River.
 
On this day we crossed into Vietnam.  It is strange that it takes hours to have the guests and crew cleared, especially since so many have been cleared previously (for example, we had a double entry visa and this was our reentry), but Vietnam is a Communist country and paperwork is the engine that slows the country down, but gives government jobs a purpose.  It did not affect our day as lounging as the river passed us or we passed down river really didn’t matter.
 
The next day we visited the small town of Tan Chau, Vietnam with our new Vietnamese guide.  Our guide was a real disappointment after our Cambodian guide and even our first Vietnamese guide.  He did what he had to and said what he had to, but no more.  He just did his job…though he was friendly enough.
 
It was a very interesting morning.  After hopping into a local tender we traveled up a rather large tributary past some farms and more developed areas.
 
 
Our first stop was a somewhat touristic floating fish farm (read:  local family that is paid to allow us to see their pen while displaying other items for purchase).  With my marine biology background I found it enlightening as it underscored why there are all the warnings about not eating farmed fish from Vietnam.   Thousands and thousands of tilapia are raised in pens which are closed in by bamboo fence on two sides and wire mess on the others, blocking much of the water flow resulting in rather filthy water…with family waste dropping into the river around them.  There are four bags of fish feed being displayed.  Knowing the economies of these families are so small, there is no way those four bags of feed would be present, no less open and on display, at any one time.   It was noted the feed is expensive so the fish are giving other food as well.  And while the content of fish food is already suspect, what the “other” food is probably would raise an eyebrow or two.

 
After that we traveled up a small tributary, past was seemed like a boat graveyard on the left but with most boats occupied by a family. 
 
 
On the right was farmland (corn and papaya more than rice).  It was here that I started to hear about the problems with erosion and why they need to shore up the riverbanks.  It was like they never put together that if they didn’t strip the riverbank of the native vegetation and the land of a buffer that would hold back the runoff there would be no erosion.  I thought of how environmental damage and poor education is running rampant here and what I shame it is.
 
Anyway, as we cruised along we eventually pulled onto the riverbank and up a short dirt path to a small village.  As we walked along the dirt path children came out to say hello while woman were sitting in their yards husking corn (used for feed). 
 

One boy had a colored ice that the other children pined for and one piece was knocked off to the ground.  He was so upset! 
 
 
A girl came up to my daughter (they were fascinated with her light skin and purple highlighted hair) and said she was 13; the same age as my daughter.  Being 13 they were both too shy to talk to each other.  
 
As we walked along the path an older man on a bicycle rigged up with a shaved ice contraption stood on the side of the road.  My wife came up with the idea of buying some of the kids ices, but I initially said it wouldn’t be a good idea.  However, as these very polite and charming kids continued to follow us, I asked the guide if it would be OK.  He said it would be fine and when he asked the kids who wanted ices it was like any group of kids anywhere in the world:  Chaos and shouts.  For about $5.00 we bought ices for the 16 or so children.


Irony:  The ice man was happy making his 25 cents on the occasional sale, but overwhelmed by 16 shouting and pushing kids let to shouts from him in Vietnamese of “Quiet!”.  We left the village before all the kids got their ices (as shaving a block of ice on a metal blade takes a good bit of time).  I just hope he didn’t run out of ice!
 
From there we walked past a makeshift volleyball court with a well-worn out net and ball to a small paved road where we each hopped into a trishaw (a short of rickshaw at the back end of a bicycle) for a ride into a small town to see a rattan factory.  It was, plain and simple, a small sweatshop with young girls mindlessly and repeatedly placing reeds into a machine…without a smile or even acknowledgment of our existence and metal and wood bars flying around unprotected. 
 
 
While it was quite sad to me, others found it “charming”.  For my kids it was a valuable lesson and a bit of an eye-opener.  As troubling as it is, I am pleased the opportunity was made available to us.
 
From there we traveled further down the road to a silk-weaving factory.  With one loom working to show us how the process worked, I looked around and down a long string of quiet looms knowing the heat, noise and danger when they are operating have to be horrific.
 

 
 
And then it was into the mandatory souvenir shop.  I could not believe the mindless purchasing by some of the passengers.  Here we are in the middle of nowhere with a factory making large bolts of silk material and they are buying anything that says “silk” on it as if it was made there.  The shock on some faces when later on the ship it was explained that those same items are for sale in airports and shops all over the place and that obviously, they weren’t made there was incredible. 

 

It was then line of tourists on trishaws going through town, seeing everyday life on the way back to our tender, which not only was very interesting, but which made me pause and reflect on the logistics of putting just today (not to mention every day) together.  Let’s see:  In a remote part of Vietnam we’ll go to a floating fish farm, cruise up a small tributary past a boat graveyard to a small farm to walk through a rural village then hop on a trishaw to see a couple of workplaces and then tour the local town.  Not something you can do on your own.
 
After returning to the ship it was a slow cruise downriver to Sa Dec, the last stop, where we would anchor midstream.
 
On our last full day we took a boat ride into Sa Dec where we walked through the local market on the river.  This is where our Cambodian guide was truly missed.  Rather than stopping by each stall, explaining what was new, different or of cultural significance, our guide just walked ahead; making only a couple of perfunctory stops.  Regardless, I found the market very interesting with the largest variety of “food” we had yet seen.  It ranged from frogs, tadpoles and eels, to chickens (literally taken from the basket, killed, cleaned and quartered right in front of you), ducks, a huge variety of fish and dried fish, fruits, vegetables, many types of rice and more. 
 





Then it was to the home of an author for whom the AmaWaterways' Le Marguerite was named (not very interesting) and then, for those wanting to go back to the ship, an “out”. 

For the rest of us it was off to Xeo Quyt, a former Viet Cong secret base.  Again, while our guide did his job, I felt a bit cheated going through this site compared to our Cambodia guide, as he really did nothing to bring the site alive.  Regardless, the hiding places, bomb craters, bunkers and defense positions were quite interesting/creepy and the dense forest and small streams also gave you a sense of what it must have been like to hide, fight through or try to see into the jungle.  There was also an eerie reminder of the ubiquitous use of landmines as we passed a (former) landmine field.




 

One strange thing was seen when we were departing:  The site is quite popular for pre-wedding photos and two couples were doing just that.  It made me think, yet again, about the contrasts between the teachings of the “American War” on the one hand and the utter dependence on the U.S. Dollar on the other. 

 
The afternoon took as past a small floating market and then into another part of the town for supposed "day in the life" experience.  It was actually quite touristic with faux popped rice and coconut candy demonstrations.  The most fun was the photo opportunity of having your picture taken holding a large python.  Some really loved this tour.  Me, not so much.

That said, my daughter did have her shot at doing some things outside of her comfort zone including drinking a some snake wine (seven species of snakes, no less) and having that python wrap itself around her.
 
After returning to the ship and packing up, as our cruise is coming to an end, we had one last “briefing”.  Our luggage will be taken from just outside our cabin and placed into our rooms at the Sheraton Saigon Towers and since we fill out a provided hotel registration form, we will be able to go right to our rooms on arrival.   It was then a final enjoyable dinner and a farewell drink before heading off for bed as we must be up and out of our room by 7:30 a.m. and off the ship by 8:15 a.m.
 
Breakfast was as usual and then we hung out in the lounge waiting to disembark.  Our 1.5 hour drive to Saigon (as the South prefers it is called) or Ho Chi Min City (as the North prefers) was highlighted by a very nice and informative guide (our fourth on this trip)…but then it went a bit downhill as I got the sense that our morning tour was intended to string out our time in Saigon until check-ins could be completed.  We spent way too much time at the former Presidential Palace (an exterior view and walk around would have been more than sufficient. 
 
 
It was then off to the recently renamed War Remnants Museum.  I found it both informative and troubling.  It is always good to see and understand the other side’s perception of things – which this museum does well – but it also was a significant propaganda machine focusing blame on the United States for just about everything; even the French colonialism and the following war for Vietnam’s independence.  Similarly, there is virtually no mention of the South Vietnamese struggle to remain independent, but rather coloring them merely as “puppets” who had no choice but to follow the Americans.   
 
 
 
This was an excellent experience for me and a very valuable teaching moment for my children; which they really did appreciate from both the horrors of war and the difficulty in hearing the supposed other side.
 
After driving through Chinatown and visiting the Thien Hau Pagoda (again interesting, but we were there far too long) it was off to a lacquer “factory” for a lesson on how to make mother of pearl and duck egg inlays and then…drumroll please:  The Showroom with walls and walls of examples all for sale.  Just as when I was in Egypt and wanted to avoid the papyrus factory, I wanted the same thing here.  And just like in Egypt I am lugging home two pieces that I know I have overpaid for.  (Note:  This is not noted in the written itinerary, you are surprised by it and you are trapped.  Not good.  But that said my wife is happy.)
 
Then, after a quick stop at a church and the Post Office we, finally…and I mean finally…got to the Sheraton at almost 2:00 p.m.  It was a quick drop off of our carryons and purchases in the room and then lunch.  The included lunch was excellent with one of the nicest and most varied buffets I have ever seen, with Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Western foods offered…and most all very well prepared.
 
After a bit of a rest, and after struggling to find a nice restaurant for a light dinner (after our bigger than expected lunch), the concierge recommended a restaurant that was literally around the corner.  And, of course, I was concerned it was a tourist trap despite his assurance it was not.  Xu was really, really good with an innovative and beautifully presented menu with small bites and full dishes.  Set menus are also offered, but we decided on ala carte.  I won’t bother you with the menu other than to say that I finally tried durian (the stinky fruit that is considered a delicacy in Southeast Asia).  It wasn’t a memorable moment either way.
 
After dinner was over, so we thought, one of the waitresses came out with a bucket she said contained liquid nitrogen with tiny chocolate waffles inside.  She explained you move it from hand to hand and then pop it into your mouth and breathe out through your nose.  With smoke coming out of everyone’s noses it was a great laugh and a fun way to end our only night in Saigon.
 
The next morning, after a bit of a sleep in, we had our included breakfast at the Sheraton (again a fantastic buffet) and then walked to the Central Market where bargains are supposed to be everywhere.  (Note:  AmaWaterways offered a quick trip there after lunch yesterday, but we were tired and didn’t want to limit ourselves to 45 minutes of shopping.)  It was, honestly, a bit of disappointment.  There are plenty of knock-off shirts, but they are all the same.  Not much was of interest and other than shoes and clothing there really wasn’t much else.  (My kids made me promise I would not investigate the food market, but what I saw was fine, but not exciting.)  It was then trying to find bargains in the local shops and department stores with none to be found.  (Things are expensive in New Jersey.)  
 
After a light lunch and a beer, most of our group went to a spa near the hotel for some very inexpensive spa treatments (yes, those are a bargain) and my son and I headed off to the Dan Sinh Market which specializes in military relics (most of which are clearly reproductions) and are almost entirely limited to American issue (which is a bit disturbing and, thus, nothing we would buy).  But most of the market is for hardware and industrial equipment…lots of it.  It was well worth the $1.00 taxi fare and an hour or so of our time.
 
With a final dinner and some last minute packing it now time to go home.  We are fulfilled, far more educated, far more appreciative of what we have and so very glad we have had our 16 days with AmaWaterways and the AmaLotus.
 
To be sure it has been a trip of a lifetime.
 
Next up:  Reflections.