Touring the Presidential Palace, Participating in a Lion-Dragon Ceremony, a Water puppet Show and a Cyclo Ride through Ho-Chi-Minh City were just some of the activities in store for us.
After breakfast at our hotel we set out to tour the grounds and interior of the Presidential Palace (aka The Reunification Center), the former office of the residence of South Vietnam’s president during the Vietnam War. The communist Vietnamese won its independence in 1975, right after the tank crashed through the palace gates, symbolizing the “Fall of Saigon.” The tank still graces its front lawn. Even though the city is officially called Ho-Chi-Minh City, many people still call it by its cooler name Saigon.
After the Palace, we visited a day in the life of local residents in a poor section of the city. One couple with their son welcomed us into to their cramped flat to see how they live, knowing that comparatively speaking we all had a much higher standard of living in the US. Two symbols that stood out throughout the neighborhoods we visited: The red flag and five pointed yellow star is the National flag of Vietnam and symbolizes the history of Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle and later becoming a communist state. The red refers to the “red blood,” of resistance fighters and “yellow skin.” The hammer and the sickle is the symbol of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
We visited a Chinese temple in Cho Lon, Saigon where people were lighting incense sticks and offering to the gods and their ancestors. One of our group heard what appeared to be a drum beating and Lin, our general tour guide for the trip said lets go across the street to see the Unicorn/Lion/Dragon dance. Boy, was that a great call. This Vietnamese traditional custom is usually performed on major festivals and major occasions, especially on Tet (Lunar New Year). The belief is that the dance dispels evil spirits, and brings about good luck for the rest of the year. There was a young dance and musician group performing. Apparently, a local English-speaking business owner sponsored the event and by the coaxing of our guide allowed us to participate with him, his family and the neighborhood. The young performers are paid for their participation.
After a nap, we resumed our activities by attending a traditional "Vietnamese Water Puppet Show" that dates back to the 11th century in the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. When the rice fields would flood, villagers would entertain each other. I was equally entertained by two young girls directly in front of me who were enjoying the show with their parents. Able to suspend reality, you could see by their actions this felt very real for them.
After the show, we rode a rickshaw (called Cyclo) that have essentially been banned (except for tourists) due to traffic jams cramping the city residents. One person was assigned to each cyclo driver. My driver was called Thien and he began by taking a photo of me. I even managed a selfie along the way that he participated in. It is totally mesmerizing to see the motor scooters buzz around the streets just inches apart from one another. There are about 13 million people and a mind boggling 8 million motorbikes.
Without question, this was a real highlight for the group. We caravanned around town on the way to happy hour at a local beer club followed by another delightful dinner before calling it a night. The Orange Drink I'm holding up that I had for lunch is called a detox beverage: Fresh orange juice, carrot and ginger.