by Lisa Spiller
Saigon, Vietnam was a surprising adventure. We were impressed by the preservation of the French architecture, modern high-rises and luxury brand storefronts. We explored the museum of Vietnamese Herbal Medicine and learned about herbal remedies for regaining Chi, fighting cancer, and detoxing the liver. I bought a load of these herbal teas.
We saluted the rooftop where the final helicopter lifted the last of our American Troops following the Vietnam war and intently listened as our guide explained current socialism politics under communist rule.
New Year’s Eve in Saigon was exciting: The Opera House was showing a Cirque performance and rooftop bars were hosting New Year’s Eve parties where multi-generational Vietnamese families filled the tables. We decided to stick to the main pedestrian boulevard at the base of the historic Rex Hotel where loud Asian pop music and Cyndi Lauper oldies blared from the official New Year’s Eve DJ booth. In Vietnam, 79% of the population is under 45, which quickly became apparent as a moving sea of young people wearing lighted bunny ears and swallowing fire sticks spilled into the pedestrian streets at night and made us feel old and crowded.
While we felt quite safe walking the boulevards and waterfront promenade in Saigon, the scooter traffic is fearfully amazing. There are 7.6 million scooters in the city and at any given time, the streets are a rushing river of fast-moving scooters carrying men, women, babies and dogs. There are no streetlights or crosswalks, so crossing a street on foot is intimidating. We trailed on the heels of a pack of teenagers who knew how to do it Ho Chi Minh style – wave their hand in the air and just start walking across with a smile. Scooters slowed just enough to allow us to slither past as we held our breath and brushed up against handlebars and tires.
The Saigon skyline transformed at night into something exotic and lovely. LED lights in rainbow colors flickered on building facades, French paddlewheel riverboats glowing with Christmas lights, and party yachts decorated with disco balls motored in slow circles on the Saigon river.
Our ship held a fancy New Year’s Eve dance party on the open deck and we watched spectacular Saigon fireworks light up the skyline and river.
New Year’s Day, we joined a guided adventure up the Mekong Delta to experience village life outside of the city. Along the way, we saw acres of rice fields and farmers in coolie hats working the land. Dozens of stilted wooden houses leaned over the river and villagers in a canoe paddled out to meet us with coconuts, a straw and a smile.
We walked the dirt roads of Cai Be, waved at locals riding their bikes, gaped at caged roosters and stray dogs, and learned ancient milling techniques to turn coconut jelly into taffy candy and rice into rice wine. At Cai Be – Hoa Khanh, we were served an impressive family-style lunch featuring fried Elephant Fish, a delicacy, which was carved tableside and rolled into rice paper.
Kuala Lumpur surprised us with the density of high rises, modern highways, European cars, international banks and luxury brand hotels. Like Bangkok, the cruise port is about 90 minutes from the city proper. We took an elevator up to the Sky Deck of the world’s 7th tallest tower, the KL Tower, for a view of the city from the top down and visited the Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest twin towers. The highlight was the Batu Caves, one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. Here, an imposing 140-foot-tall gold Hindu statue guarded 272 brightly painted stairs. We climbed the stairs to the temple caves with hundreds of resident monkeys who playfully hopscotched around us, snatched treasures from our backpacks and posed for our cameras.
Penang, Malaysia has a British Colonial heritage, is known for outstanding cafes, food markets and restaurants, and is best explored by Trishaw, a tricycle with a passenger seat in front. We wheeled through the charming and gritty neighborhoods of Chinatown, Little India and the Chew Jetty where houses were built on over water stilts by 19thcentury Chinese immigrants, we stopped for local tea and sticky buns in an outdoor café and we shopped for souvenirs in Little India.
In Cambodia, our guide UK was a schoolteacher by profession and a passionate advocate of Cambodia tourism. He was married with children, articulate in the English language and engaging. Cambodia, as one would anticipate, is a very poor country and even the temples were crumbling. The highlight was a visit to a Cambodian elementary school. We were invited into the classroom of young, giggling children who were excited to be the center of our attention. They were as fascinated by us as we were enchanted by them. On teacher’s cue, they stood and performed their national anthem for us and with the help of their teacher as translator and support of their parents, answered questions about their education and family life. It was an authentic moment in time that stole my heart.
Following our school visit, we were treated to Cambodia’s finest seaside resort where I had broth soup spiced with red chilis, shrimp, calamari, red bell pepper, scallions and cilantro. I’d go back to Cambodia for this soup and an anthem sung by a child.
Our finale was our return to Singapore and a day at Marina Bay Sands Hotel, where we spent the day at the rooftop infinity pool overlooking the city. As dusk fell, we watched the Gardens by the Bay light show from our balcony and the Marina Bay laser light show from the Observation Deck. Both light shows are a must-do in the evening, and from the unique vantage point offered by the Marina Bay Sands, it was the perfect climactic finish to our exotic holiday.