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  • Writer's pictureRuth Mcbride

Living in history….

Day 75/138 2022/2023 Viking Neptune World Cruise

This morning about 8:45am we saw the pilot ship come aside us and the pilot, 3 Immigration officers and 3 civilians boarded the Neptune. We had quite a long journey up the dirty river delta before we would eventually be docking South of Saigon though, so this pilot was not getting on the ship one hour before docking, which has typically been the case.

The pilot boat leaving us around 8:45am after dropping off the team.

As we sailed up the delta we could see many colourful fishing boats. Some of the people on these boats were waving at us. Of course we waved back.

Fishing boats in Vietnam.

Further up the delta we started seeing lots of open boats with either rocks or some kind of aggregate on them. The boats were very low in the water and we wondered how some of them were staying afloat with such heavy loads.

Barges sailing down the river.

The river was being dredged in this photo and these barges were taking away the remnants from the dredging operation. I really liked the colourful red and white davits in this photo!

The channel we were in was very narrow and we were making some very extreme turns to stay between the channel buoys. Mike and Sharon were also out on their balcony as we were watching the pilot take the Neptune up the delta. We started seeing buses arriving in the distance at what looked like a container port. There was no cruise terminal, so why would buses be arriving at a container terminal, unless that was where we were heading? The terminal was on our port side at this point so we wondered if the ship would turn around? Sure enough our pilot started to make a very big turn so our starboard side would be at the port. Our cabin is on the port side and I do not think we have had a land view yet on any port we have been docked at to date.

If you look closely in front of the stacks of cargo containers you can see buses lining up at the port. We knew we must be docking here or why else would a bunch of buses be lining up on the shore?

We went to lunch at the World Cafe around 12:15pm as our included tour was supposed to be leaving at 2pm, and we wanted to have some food in our bellies before going out for the day.

After lunch as we were passing by the Star Theatre Richard saw there was little to no lineup to get our Vietnam Passenger Landing Card which we had to pick up before we exited the ship. He went to get our typed cards and I went to wait in the Living Room on Deck 1.

Around 1:50pm we decided to go to the Star Theatre but we had not yet heard the announcement from Cruise Director Bruce to say the ship had been cleared yet, so we waited and waited and more people kept arriving until finally around 2:15pm the announcement was made that we were cleared and the first groups could leave the theatre and proceed to one of 25 waiting buses.

The Star Theatre is pretty crowded and getting more crowded as we waited for the ship to be cleared. We were in the very back row of the theatre!

Our bus number 12 was finally called at 2:30pm. It was 32C outside and Mara, the head of Guest Services on the Neptune was helping with the excursions and she had borrowed a hat from a local since it was too hot on her head to work outside.


We were originally supposed to be docked at JSC Saigon HIEP PHUOC terminal which was a 1 hour drive (depending on traffic) away from Saigon. It turns out we are actually docked at Saigon Premier Container Terminal. (SPCT) which is only 39 minutes away from Saigon (again…. depending on traffic).

We boarded our bus and headed towards Saigon. Our guide Sunny said we could call Saigon by its old name or Ho Chi Minh City, it’s new name. On the drive into the large (10 million) resident city, we heard all about the history of Vietnam. We had watched the onboard lecturer Russell Lee’s lecture on the history of Vietnam this morning, so a lot of what Sunny was telling us we had just heard. Regardless, listening to Sunny made the time pass quickly.

Our first stop for a quick photo opportunity was the Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Convention Hall. It was the home and workplace of the president of the Republic of South Vietnam and was also the site of the fall of Saigon on April 30th 1975 when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.

The North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates of the Independence Palace In 1975.

And here we are at the very same gates today.

North and South Vietnam were unified in 1975 after this final act of war. I felt like I was living history when we stood on the grounds of the Independence Palace. So many years ago seeing those images of tanks rolling through the streets of Vietnam and here we are 48 years later looking from the outside into the palace grounds.

Our guide pointed out the tank monument on the grounds of the Independence Palace.

We didn’t quite catch the drift that our guide Sunny was trying to tell us, but after doing some research after we got back to the ship it made sense. There are replicas of the Tank 390 and Tank 843 which were the first tanks that crashed through the gates of Saigon’s presidential palace. From our Western perspective, I was at first shocked that anyone would preserve or set up a monument to the tanks that crashed through the presidential palace’s gates, but think about it…the North and the South of Vietnam reunified after the tanks crashed through the gates. The reason why the North and the South were even split in the first place was because of the Geneva Accords which happened in 1954 when a ‘temporary’ dividing line at the 17th parallel in Vietnam was put in place pending elections within 2 years to choose a president to reunite the country because the U.S. and France were worried about Ho Chi Minh, a communist who was ruling North Vietnam, would be elected to run all of Vietnam, effectively creating a large communist country which had allied itself with Russia and China. I know hindsight is always different than living something first hand, but knowing what we know now, the Geneva Accords really changed up the country of Vietnam.

After our quick stop at the Palace, it was almost just around the corner on the bus to the Notre Dame Cathedral which was covered in scaffolding because the roof was falling in. The church was closed to the public and will not be open until 2027 so we could not go in. Twice in a week we have not been able to go inside a church. Hmm? Is someone trying to tell us something?

NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL BASILICA OF SAIGON today under the scaffolding.

An image from google of Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. Established by French colonist the cathedral was constructed between 1863 and 1880. The two bell towers reach a height of 190 feet. All of the building materials were imported from France and the red bricks on the outer wall were from Toulouse, France. The statue in the photo was reported to have shed tears in October 2005, attracting thousands of people and forcing authorities to stop traffic around the cathedral. The top clergy of the Catholic Church in Vietnam could not confirm that the Virgin Mary statue had shed tears, but people continued to flock to the statue for days after the incident.

The statue of the Virgin Mary today.

Beside the Cathedral was the beautiful Saigon Central Post Office which was built when Vietnam was a part of French Indochina in the late 19th century. It has Gothic, Renaissance and French Influences and was constructed between 1886 and 1891. It was constructed by Alfred Foulhoux, but is often erroneously credited as being the work of Gustav Eiffel. Yes. That guy who also built the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Even our guide got this wrong today and told us Eiffel had designed the Post Office building.

The post office was gorgeous inside. Two very special painted maps that were created just after the post office was built are still gracing the walls of this beautiful building. The first is a map of Cambodia titled ’Lignes telegraphiques du Sud Vietnam et Cambodge 1892 (Telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892)

Telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892.

The second map of greater Saigon entitled ‘Saigon et ses environs 1982 (Saigon and its surroundings 1891).

Ceiling of the Saigon Central Post Office with a portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging at the end of the building. I loved the contrast in the gold and green colours and the intricate mixture of different architectural styles.

Gorgeous! I love the repetition of the symmetry. I was shooting higher up to try and avoid people in my photos, because the place was pretty crowded.

There were so many Viking groups out on tours today that were all converging on many of the same sights. Just as we were finishing up at the Post Office, Margaret came along and offered to take our photo in front of this iconic building.

Mugging for the camera in front of the Saigon Central Post Office.

While I had gone inside the Post Office for photos, Richard was chatting with a person we had met from Australia on our cruise. He mentioned to Richard that we should really take a photo of another important building close by to the post office.

Does anyone recognize that yellow building in the photo?

Located at 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon, ‘Operation Frequent Wind’, the helicopter evacuation of U.S. personnel and at-risk Vietnamese started on April 29th The American radio station began regular play of Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, AND gave a weather report saying it was 105F outside, which was the signal for American personnel to move immediately to the 13 helicopter evacuation points positioned around Saigon. The building where this final evacuation occurred was NOT the U.S. embassy building but it was at the Pittman Apartments where many CIA agents resided.

When the photographer Hubert van Es, working for UPI captured the iconic photo of U.S. government employees evacuating the city by helicopter he submitted the photo and the address where the evacuation was taking place, but the office for UPI in Tokyo changed the heading and said that the last helicopter actually left Saigon from the U.S. embassy, which was incorrect.

Van Es was working on the top floor of an office in the Peninsula Hotel in downtown Saigon, just 4 blocks from where the CIA Chief of Station lived at the time. Van Es was in the darkroom when someone yelled “Van Es, get out here, there’s a chopper on that roof!” He grabbed his camera and his longest lens and dashed to the balcony. Van Es clearly stated that the helicopter was taking evacuees off the roof of the CIA building but the editors took it for granted it was the U.S. Embassy roof. U.S. personnel had already determined that the weight of a bigger Chinook helicopter would not be able to land on the rooftops of buildings in Saigon, so they had to use the Huey helicopter instead.

Wow! I remember seeing the play ’Miss Saigon‘ in May of 1993 at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto where the ‘buzz’ was all about that iconic scene where there was a real helicopter on stage as Saigon falls and the last Americans are evacuated off the roof of a building which I now know was actually not the Embassy building. How neat to be re-living history today by being able to actually see the building as close as we were to it today.

After viewing this area all too briefly we got back on the bus to the Minh Phuong fine art and handicrafts business which practises the art of ‘Son Mai’ or traditional Vietnamese lacquer painting. We had the opportunity to watch the craftsman who were painstakingly placing crushed duck egg shells on the piece of art.

You can see the duck egg shells in the blue basket on the table. The artisan is adding the shells one at a time to the artwork. A finished piece is on the right side of the table.

We had the chance to buy something from the gift shop but I did not see anything that appealed to me and I know we have a few more days of exploring in Saigon, so did not want to buy at the first place we visited.

We then got on the bus and almost took our lives in our hands trying to do a 3 point turn in the middle of what seemed like 12 lanes of traffic.

We were going to visit the Chua PHUOC Hai Taoist, Jade emperor temple next and had to walk from the bus to the temple. There was no way I could have crossed the street by myself with motorcycles coming at us in both directions and no crosswalk. Sunny our guide says there are 5 million motorcycles in Saigon and 10 million people. Yikes!

The temple area was very crowded. I did not feel like taking my shoes off to enter the temple as I was barefoot and I was more interested in snapping some photos outside the temple area of everyday people and statues at the temple.

Scenes from the temple. I really enjoyed not going into the temple to be able to ‘just be’ in the moment watching the lives of everyday people at the temple, and smelling the fragrant incense burning all around me.

I had left Richard in the bus to try and find a bank machine while I went to the temple, because now we need Vietnamese Dong currency while we are in Saigon. He was not able to cross the 12 lanes of traffic safely where he could see a Bank machine but as he was walking safely on this side of the sidewalk, with his Canada hat on, one of the shopkeepers yelled out at him “Are you from Canada?” Richard replied “Yes”. It turns out the guy was from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada and he had come back to Saigon to run a shop. Small world!

Our last stop of the day on our long included tour, was to visit the Saigon Opera House otherwise known as the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City as well as the Saigon City Hall, to see the statue of Ho Chi Minh.

Saigon Opera House constructed in 1898 and opened in 1900, with a seating capacity of 500, it was built by French Architect Eugene Ferret in the architectural style called ‘flamboyant’ or late Gothic architecture.

My favorite shot of the Saigon Opera House.

We did not stay very long at the Opera House as we were not able to go inside to view it. Our guide walked us from the Opera House across 3 lanes of traffic to the Saigon City Hall .

The Saigon City Hall or the ‘People’s Committee Building’ was constructed between 1902 and 1908 designed again by a French architect named Paul Gardes who was working for the colonial government of Indochina and the building bears a close resemblance to City Hall in Paris. There is a central clock tower flanked by turret like roofs on each side. Following reunification in 1975, Saigon City became the headquarters of the Ho Chi Minh People’s Committee and a statue of Ho Chi Minh was installed in the public area in front of the building.

Saigon City Hall. I am glad we got to see this building at night as the sky was a stunning colour of purple at blue hour!

Ho Chi Minh statue in front of the Saigon City Hall.

By now it was getting dark outside and I was able to get some great shots of the traffic Light trails with my Fuji XT-4 camera, just hand holding the camera. When I owned a Canon I had to set my camera on a tripod to get the same effects. The Fuji has built in image stabilization and I am able to get amazing shots without using my tripod!

Light trail photography in Saigon. Those streaks of red and white lights are from motorcycle lights going by an my camera captures the light, but not the people or the motorcycles. Photographers like messing around with light and it was fun to be able to try this out today since its been years since I had the chance to do some light trail photography!

We left Saigon about 6:15pm and did not get back to the ship until 7:35pm. The traffic was horrible, but at least we are docked closer to Saigon than we were supposed to be docked. We immediately went to the World Cafe for dinner when we got back to the Neptune. The World Cafe was pretty busy with everyone who had just got back from all of their tours and there was a lot of energy in the Cafe as people talked about what they had done and seen today in Ho Chi Minh City.

Tomorrow we are seeing Saigon by Pedal Cab, which is an optional tour. I think it should be an interesting tour and I will be wearing a mask as we zip through Saigon traffic!

I’m so impressed with Ho Chi MInh City/Saigon. The architecture is gorgeous and world class and what we saw today only whet my appetite for more discovery tomorrow by pedal cab and the next day on foot with our private guide. Who knew? I’ve heard from others that have been here that Vietnam is somewhere we would want to come back to, to spend more time exploring the history, sights, sounds and food. Today was history overload and I loved it. The lectures, our guide and my research really helped me to understand what the war that was always on the tv news when I was a child, was all about and now I also understand a bit better about my Uncle Joe’s role in the war. Thank you for your service Uncle Joe and RIP…..

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Allan Yoshimura
Allan Yoshimura
Mar 08, 2023

I can understand your not going into a temple so that you could soak up the environs. I recall standing on a corner in Saigon amazed at how cars and trucks and motor cycles got through intersections in one piece. People also cross the streets. Our guide to us by and told us to keep a steady pace. Don't stop and don't hurry. There is an unspoken order. Vehicles expect you to keep moving. Don't interrupt the order! Amazingly we were still alive on the other side of the street. No traffic lights required!

Mar 08, 2023
Replying to

We were there in October and you are so right about crossing the streets. You must keep moving and the bikes will go around you. You are in trouble if you hesitate or stop.

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