Every time I head to Vietnam, I never fail to break into a smile. The reasons are simple: It reminds me how the late comedian Robin Williams turned Vietnam into a catchphrase.
One of Genting Dream’s itineraries is the Hong Kong-Vietnam circuit. The first stop we made was Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s biggest city with about 8.4 million people.
The former Saigon is also unofficially known as the land of the “kapchai” because it has a motorbike population of 7.4 million at last count a year ago. Crossing the street, therefore, is a nightmare for visitors. You literally see a non-stop sea of motorbikes. Luckily, our tour bus for our optional shore excursion eliminated all pedestrian anxiety.
We started off at a lacquerware factory, where one can find all manner of lacquer handicraft, such as chopsticks, coasters and vanity boxes. Next, for photo ops, brief stops were made at the gates of the Presidential Palace and colonial-era architectures – the Saigon Central Post Office, the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and the opera house. At the Museum of National History, we were treated to a water puppet show.
After lunch, those who needed retail therapy got their fix at the Ben Thanh Market, but the Malaysian media settled for sipping street coffee on small stools.
The eight-hour tour was filled with laughter because the Vietnamese guide, whose name escapes me, would ambush us with jokes. For example: “What are the three rings of marriage? The engagement ring, the wedding ring … and the suffering.”
The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
For the next two days, the coastal cities of Nha Trang and Da Nang were selected for land excursions. Both have beautiful white sandy beaches and the atmosphere feels more laid-back.
In Nha Trang, we learnt about its Hindu past at the Po Magar Cham Towers. Built ages ago, the temple looks like those at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex. Then it was an embroidery workshop – the women there train for years to weave magic with needles.
A short ride later at a vantage point, a three-man band performed some evergreen songs unplugged with traditional instruments while a sand artist tried to attract traffic. On the platform outside, we indulged in the dying art of stone spotting (that one looks like the Batman, this one looks like Claudia Schiffer).
Da Nang was more appealing since we were allowed to sleep until brunch time. After docking at 2pm, we hit the local museum and shot pictures at the Dragon Bridge.
For no-obligation shopping, we were taken to a marble factory – with wonderful Laughing Buddha, Guan Yin and Virgin Mary statues placed side by side – and a nearby Hoi An silk factory, where we were encouraged to touch larvae and cocoons.
The quaint Hoi An is a Unesco World Heritage Site due to its rich history. For centuries, Japanese and Chinese merchants came and some settled in the seaside town. Over time, the Japanese packed their bags and left, but the nomadic Chinese tribe, the Hakka, stayed put.
We spent our last couple of twilight hours at the old shopping district, buying coffee powder and presents.
The Po Magar Cham Towers in Nha Trang are a testament to Hindu influence in the past.