Subject: Southern Vietnam
We left Halong Bay before sunrise for the long drive to Hanoi for what was supposed to be a 10:00 a.m. flight from Hanoi to Saigon. The trip was not as long as our guide anticipated so we arrived at the airport too early to even check in! We think our guide must have had a date, because she seemed quite anxious to get us into the airport and say goodbye! (Either that, or she had had quite enough of the four crazy American ladies.) When we were finally able to check in, we learned that the flight was going to be delayed for about two hours because of some rain in Ho Chi Minh City. They did let us pay our departure tax, and allow us through security to the cavernous waiting area. Finally, our guide was free. (We had to pay cash departure taxes in each airport. The guide books were not up to date on the amounts. It is a good idea to check when you arrive so you have the correct money when you leave.)

The two hour delay turned into about four hours of sitting in a very crowded waiting area. We had to wait so long that they brought the food that was supposed to be served on the plane into the terminal and fed us airline food while we waited. We used the time to exchange the articles about Vietnam and Cambodia that we had all brought, and to read each others' guide books. Somehow we all managed to have different guide books for our trip, and each one had a slightly different slant. I still think the one I had, Moon Travel Handbook to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had the most information about history and culture. It also did a pretty good job of suggesting restaurants and hotels across the price spectrum.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City quite late. Domestic arrival was not quite so bureaucratic as international, so we were able to gather our luggage quickly and find our guide and driver. Once again it was only the four of us to a good sized van. Our guide was another young lady, much more hip than the first, and her English was more fluent. She promptly informed us it was too late for a city tour, and she would take us to the hotel. On the ten minute ride to the Omni Saigon, she told us that no one in the south calls Ho Chi Minh City by that name, and everyone calls it Saigon. We did not have a problem with that since we were having trouble with Ho Chi Minh City.

The Omni is a beautiful hotel, and the staff there were among the most accomodating of any place we stayed. Unfortunately, it is far from downtown Saigon, and one certainly cannot walk from it to the center. If you want a large, modern hotel, the Delta Caravelle has recently been renovated and expanded. We ran into a man who was staying there who said the rooms were quite nice. It is in the heart of Saigon. According to the man we met, an executive producer of some PBS programs who was doing research, the press corps headquarters during the war was the bar at the top of the Caravelle. The Rex Hotel, nearby, was the officers' mess for the American army. It was a very strange feeling sitting in both bars and looking over the city. It was also a beautiful view and I recommend it, especially at sunset.

Saigon is much more cosmopolitan than Hanoi. There are more cars and less horn honking. The motor bikes and bicycles still outnumber the cars, however. We only saw cyclos in the areas where tourists visit, while in Hanoi it seemed to be a mode of transportation used by locals as well as tourists. Of course, Saigon suffered a lot of bombing during the American War so there has been a lot of newer building. Western influence is apparent in the architecture and in the attitude of the people. Saigon is also more expensive than Hanoi.

Our first dinner there was at the always recommended Lemongrass restaurant in downtown Saigon. The food was good, but it was expensive by Vietnamese standards and the patrons were all western tourists. The next day we found a restaurant where the food was equally as good, but less expensive and where Vietnamese ate. I cannot find the name of it, but it was on Dong Du street which is also right downtown. It was almost next door to an antique shop owned by Huang Van Cuong who was a UPI photographer at the end of the war when he was not yet twenty years old. He is mentioned in the Moon Travel guide book which told us he had been detained in a reeducation camp for many years after the war but had managed to hide some of his award winning photographs. He now sells those photographs along with the antiques. I had to stop to meet him. He is a very soft-spoken man and his photographs are powerful.

Early in the morning of our second day we drove to the Mekong Delta. I had the feeling that it was really a rush job. We arrived to the tourist boats early, so it was not crowded, and we did not encounter crowds any place we went, but we were back in Saigon by noon!

If you visit Saigon, skip the tour route and arrange your own trip. The Mekong Delta is vast, and we should have at least spent the entire day there, if not more. The city is easy to get around. If you stay downtown, you can walk to many of the places to see. You really need a few days, if you include the Mekong Delta in this visit.

We left Saigon for the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh--about an hour flight. Cambodia will be the next installment.

Lisa in Chicago