A Day in the Kerala Backwaters

Our next port of call was Cochin in the state of Kerala. Rather than spend the day in another large city, we opted to visit a smaller “village” along the canals known as the Kerala Backwaters. With a population of 23,000, Vaikom is a little bigger than what we would call a village, but all things are relative. India is on pace to exceed the population of China in as little as seven years, so there are a lot of people everywhere. To give you an idea of how fast the population is growing, they add the population of Canada approximately every two years.

One of the highlights of Vaikom is the Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, the destroyer of evil. Shiva was tough to deal with, but his wife, Pārvatī, was a soft touch; so you always wanted to face Shiva on days when Pārvatī was also around.Shiva is busy destroying evil in the top picture, but looks almost angelic in the bottom picture with Pārvatī.One of the traditions is to be blessed by sitting on this scale while the priests add enough bananas to balance your weight.This nine month old girl was the first to be blessed on the scale.These people are in line to make an offering at the Temple and receive a free lunch in return.This is the outside wall of the main building of the Temple. The little metal dishes are to hold oil which is one of the most popular offerings. The idea is to pour oil in the holder and light it as your offering. It must be safe as the temple has survived since 1594. The Temple is notable as the site of the Vaikom Agitation which gained the right of people of the lower castes to walk on the roads around the Temple.These are some of the men in the Temple. The man in the lower picture has stripes of ashes on his body as a symbol of his devotion.We passed by this one room school house with the teacher and her class of three to six year olds. They enjoyed waving to us, but the oldest started to cry that he wanted to go home when some of our group wanted their picture taken with them. The school house was about as deep as it was wide.These housing extremes were within a one minute walk of each other.The black flag flying above the poster was to honor one of the village residents who had died recently. The poster had a picture of the man and the date of his cremation.We took a short tuktuk ride to the put in point for our canoe ride on the Kerala Backwaters. A short ride was fine as the speed seemed way too fast for conditions.Women were in the canal doing their laundry and washing the dishes. I don’t think I would want too eat or wear anything washed in that canal!Both ducks and children were enjoying the canal. We rode in wooden canoes with a driver who poles the canoes through the water. Most of the canoes held six passengers, but we were in a larger canoe with eleven passengers. Unfortunately, the water level was not very high and our more heavily loaded canoe soon was mired in the mud and could not get out. There was one man and four children there to help push the canoes through this low spot. While they were successful with the smaller canoes, they worked for twenty minutes on our larger canoe before finally concluding we needed to be rescued. After another ten minutes, a rescue canoe arrived and half of us transferred to it. We made good time for the rest of the trip.We saw a lot of people going about their daily life in the village. This pair was drying rice cakes in the sun. This was the fresh chicken section of Whole Foods. If you wanted a chicken, they opened the door and selected the chicken of the weight you desired. The price included the chicken counter manager wringing the neck of the chicken for you.Whole Foods had a meat counter as well. Since cows are sacred to the Hindus, the meat here is water buffalo.We visited a weaving workshop packed with hand looms. The weaver used her feet to move the warp yarns up and down, one hand to shoot the weft shuttle back and forth, and the other hand to set the weft yarn in place. When you had the right rhythm, the weaving was very fast. There is a weaving caste in India. If you are born into that caste, you are destined to be a weaver. Presumably, this girl is learning weaving from her mother to begin weaving herself in a few years.We also visited a coir factory where they made ropes and mats from the fiber of coconut husks. This factory is a cooperative run by the government.

We saw many other people at work making various crafts. Despite the heat, we both enjoyed a day out of the city. For some people, India stands for “I’ll Never Do It Again”. However, if you can get past the poverty (half the people exist on an income below $3 per day) and the pervasive litter, any other country you visit seems dull by comparison. After a sea day, we visit the Portuguese influenced state of Goa, India.

The Sights, Sounds, Smells, and Corruption

One goes into sensory overload as soon as you set foot on the streets of India. The sounds of horns honking and people talking are all around you. The colors of the clothes and temples are brilliant and dazzling. The aromas can range from the good of Indian spices to the ugly of rotting garbage or worse in a few steps. People are everywhere. You have to dodge them on their motor bikes. They have their hand out for food or money. They want to sell you something. It is truly hard to take it all in especially since you have to be so alert to where you are walking. Whether you are walking on a sidewalk, or more likely the side of a street, the path is full of things you don’t want to step on from holes to debris to something left behind by a passing cow. And did I mention that it is really important to avoid the motorbikes?

But India is also full of smiling people and numerous things you won’t see walking around Pawleys Island. Once you get past the poverty and the abundant litter, the joy of visiting India is the uniqueness of the overall experience. Our first stop in India was Chennai on Easter Sunday. Chennai is the sixth largest city in India and the ninth most densely populated city in the world. In 2015, Lonely Planet named it as one of the top ten cities in the world to visit. In 2018, I don’t think many of the passengers of the Sun would agree with that assessment.This is an admittedly terrible picture of the Ice House taken from the wrong side of a moving bus. The building was built in 1842 to store ice which was imported from the United States. The ice was cut in large blocks from frozen lakes and shipped by boat to India. Despite the long shipping time, only a third of the ice melted during shipment, The building is now used as a college dormitory.Chennai has the second longest beach in the world (Miami Beach is first) at nearly nine miles. It is also an exceptionally wide beach. The small buildings you see on the beach are the wheeled carts of vendors. Despite it being Sunday and very hot, there were few people on the beach.The Hindu temple we visited dates back to the seventh century CE. The Temple is dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva and features the gopuram, or entrance tower shown above. Can you imagine how long it would to take to paint that tower?There had been a festival at that temple several days before and they were still dismantling the floats and towers lining the streets.This is the temple tank or sacred tank adjacent to the temple. The steps leading down to the water make it similar to the step wells that are common in India. In some cases, washing in these sacred tanks is believed to cure disease.Our guide called these the Ferrari of India, but they are better known as tuktuks. These are even harder to avoid than the motorbikes and their horns are sounding constantly.This is a wanted poster of thieves working the area. Fortunately, we didn’t meet any of them.India is a sea of faces and many of them were as interested in photographing us as we were of photographing them.Many people make a chalk drawing in front of their house or business each morning. Most of them were simple ones with white chalk as seen at the top of the picture. We have seen much more elaborate color chalk pictures on previous trips to India.This is a fortune teller sitting on the sidewalk outside the temple. You pay your money and he lets the parrot out of the cage to sort through the stack of “fortunes”. The one the parrot chooses to hand to the man is your fortune which he will then read to you.These buildings are behind the railway station. The pile to the right below the wall is all broken glass.The streets are filled with vendors.There are slums scattered throughout the city and they are littered with trash.This is a small temple where you bring your new motorbike to be blessed. There were a lot of people there so the motorbike business must be pretty good.

When we returned to the ship that afternoon, there were a lot of Indian families walking around the ship. We presumed that they were relatives of crew members. However, we heard from a person who would know that the government officials were not going to let our ship dock unless Viking permitted their family members to tour the ship which is a clear violation of Viking’s policies. So corruption is still a part of the Indian government.This is our table at the Seder on Friday evening. About eighty people attended including many Christians who were invited to share the experience. The evening began with people reading from a 34 page Haggadah that had been prepared by one of the travelers. The menu was gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, beef brisket, and a Passover almond honey torte. Most people complained about the gefilte fish. However, I finished mine and normally I struggle to take one bite.

We have two sea days before reaching Cochin, India.

A View and a Temple

Phuket, Thailand is known for its beaches and the tsunami that hit it in 2004. Our guide said first the water level dropped leaving small pools with fish flopping in them. The locals went out to to grab some fish for dinner and had no chance when the water came poring back in. We had a brief stop in Phuket, so there didn’t seem to be time for the beaches. Instead we took a tour that included one of the best view points for the sunset and a famous Buddhist temple.Promthep Cape is at the extreme southwest end of Phuket Island. Unfortunately, we were there in the morning so there was no hope of seeing the sunset.The Cape is named after Brahma, the Hindu God of creation. People have brought hundreds of elephant statues here of all materials and sizes as offerings to him. It is popular to drape the elephants in flower garlands.This lizard was busy taking in the view of the elephants.We visited Wat Chalong. Wat means temple in the Thai language. Typical of most temples, it consists of many buildings. You have to remove your shoes to go in the buildings and both men and women are supposed to have their shoulders and knees covered, though enforcement was pretty lax.You often see ribbons tied around the trunks of trees in the temples.Firecrackers were set off repeatedly in this kiln. There seemed to be an employee whose job was to set off a string of dozens of firecrackers in the kiln and then sweep up any litter that came out on the sidewalk. I do not remember fireworks in previous temples we have visited.People prayed and burned incense in front of religious statues.This tall Pagoda dominated the site. It had three levels and was filled with numerous gold statues on the first two levels.The top level featured a sliver of a bone of Buddha in the top bulb of this container. The sliver was too small for me to see. The floor in front of the glass doors on the right is covered with offerings slipped through the crack between the doors.The window on the top level of the pagoda has a commanding view of the Temple complex. The white building in the upper right of the picture caught my attention.It appears to be a marble temple in the final stages of construction. It will be quite a contrast to the normally colorful Thai Buddhist temples.

We have two days at sea before reaching India. Viking announced their 2020 world cruise last night. It is 245 days (not a typo) from London to London. You can also buy it in two segments. The Los Angeles to London section essentially duplicates our present trip. The London to Los Angeles section is mostly new – but not to worry. We think one World Cruise is sufficient. I plan to do a future blog on what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of the different ways we have traveled. It will be a good project for the six days we have at sea after Oman.

George Town Versus Georgetown

We live about twenty minutes from Georgetown, SC. It is the third oldest city in the state and the smallest port in the state. It is filled with colonial homes and was once the center of rice production in the US when it probably shipped rice to George Town, Malaysia, which we visited today. George Town is the second largest city in Malaysia, was the first British settlement in Southeast Asia, and is the largest port in Malaysia for cruise ships. If George Town grows any rice, they exceed the present day production in Georgetown. George Town has a similar history to Singapore having been founded by the British East India Company. It has a Chinatown and a Little India and is also home to the Peranakans. The old town is a UNESCO Site that is famous for its street art and its blend of British Colonial and Asian architecture.These are some examples of the street art in George Town. The top one is the most famous and is found on many souvenirs. The bike is a real one with part of the right handle bar buried into the wall.Trishaws are a popular way to get around town. They are powered by a person pedaling the bike in the rear. They all have umbrellas to protect you from the blazing sun and usually have flowers and other decorations.The city is filled with churches, mosques, and temples – both Buddhist and Hindu.This shop had a large selection of flower ropes or garlands to decorate the temples or to keep for good luck.There were a lot of shop houses that were very reminiscent of the Peranakan houses we saw in Singapore.The Promenade by the Sea had a line of gates with decorations hanging from the top cross members.A number of British Colonial buildings were scattered through the old town.We had lunch in a restaurant recommended by our guide and located in Little India. We were thinking Chinese since we will be in India in a few days, but did not regret our choice for a moment. We had tandoori chicken with naan bread and several dipping sauces. The chicken was delicious!!! One problem was that we only had a fork and spoon to eat with, so it was a little challenging to cut the chicken. Susan took this picture because it is so rare to see me eating chicken with my fingers. I think she also secretly likes the cooling scarf look!

I wish I had some pictures from Georgetown for comparison, but no such luck. Our next stop is Phuket, Thailand tomorrow.

A Rainy Day in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur, or KL, is the capital of Malaysia. While it can’t compare with Singapore, Hong Kong, or Shanghai, it is yet another modern Asia city with dozens of construction cranes. Despite the fact they have two monsoon seasons and today was not in either one, it was a rainy and gloomy day. Fortunately, we were just taking a bus tour that only required us to hop out once in a while to take pictures.The National Memorial is a tribute to those who died in the cause of peace and freedom.The red Viking umbrellas added a bright note to the otherwise gloomy day.The national mosque has a blue umbrella like structure on top instead of the traditional dome.The old railroad station was notable for its colonial architecture.Independence Square where the Malaysian flag was raised for the first time was formerly a cricket field. The square is surrounded by historic buildings.The Petronas Twin Towers are the most famous buildings in KL. They were once the tallest buildings in the world, but are now just the tallest twin towers in the world.

I have some follow up information on Singapore. We visited the Gardens by the Bay on our own. In talking with a fellow guest today who visited these gardens on a guided tour, I learned that they change the plants every two months. Thus, the blooming cherry trees will be replaced with something else once their blooms are gone. Many of the plants are evergreen, so I presume they are never changed. The next big planting change will feature daffodils.

One thing I forgot to talk about is what a growing island state has to do to grow. The only way to grow is to build taller buildings or to create more space by reclaiming land from the sea. Over 20% of present Singapore is on reclaimed land. But where does an island get the dirt they need? They used to import it from China; but the Chinese recognize that Singapore is a worthy competitor, so they now refuse to sell any more dirt to them. They now have to buy their dirt from Cambodia and Viet Nam. For sure Cambodia needs the money, so they will probably continue the dirt trade.

The Island City State

If I say “island city state”, I can only be talking about Singapore. The other two city states in the world are the Vatican and Monaco, neither of which are islands. Singapore was established in 1819 by Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the British East India Company. The city still follows much of his original concept. After the collapse of the company, Singapore became a British crown colony. In 1963 it gained independence and joined with several other former British colonies to form Malaysia. It separated from Malaysia two years later over philosophical differences and became an independent city state.

Singapore is a clean, modern, beautiful and safe city. Much of this is achieved through a very high level of regulation. Chewing gum is prohibited. Any form of littering results in a heavy fine. Spitting in public will also get you fined. If you rob someone with a knife, you will get many years in jail and some number of lashes with a cane. If you shoot someone (I am not clear if you have to hit them with the bullet or not, but you definitely don’t have to kill them), it is an automatic death penalty. Possession of illegal drugs is also an automatic capital offense. As a result of the heavy penalties and rigorous enforcement, Singapore people are rule followers.The Marina Bay Sands Hotel is one of the iconic structures in Singapore. It is the same “Sands” as Las Vegas. Hotel rooms go for $400 per night and it averages 90% occupancy. The cantilevered top contains the hotels infinity pool and an observation deck open to the public. The unusual building to the left is a museum and there is a small Luis Vuitton shop in the small building over the water in the center of the picture.The other icon of Singapore is the Merlion, a fountain with the body of a mermaid and the head of a lion.The Singapore financial district has many modern high rise buildings. All parts of the city are laced with green areas.Adjacent to the financial district are the old colonial buildings.

We visited two gardens. One was the Botanical Gardens. The climate in Singapore (tropical, hot, and humid) is perfect for growing orchids.The orchids came in all sizes and colors. The bottom picture is the Golden Arches of Singapore, where the arches are covered with yellow orchids.They also have a collection of VIP orchids. When a dignitary visits Singapore, they find out their favorite color and ask them to pick their favorite unnamed orchid in that color. That orchid is then named after them. The above orchid is named after the Obamas.

The second park was the Garden by the Bay where plants that would not normally grow in Singapore are artistically presented in two modern, climate controlled greenhouses.You can see the two greenhouses behind the futuristic tree towers.The flower garden greenhouse was filled with flowers, trees, and greenery from all over the world. I don’t know if we were just lucky that the cherry trees were blooming or they do something so that the cherry trees are always blooming.The Gardens featured everything from unusual cactus to baobab trees, to miniature scenes from Japanese Gardens, to wood sculptures. I believe the eagle head sculpture is a tree stump with its natural roots and the stump carved into an eagle head. There were other similar sculptures.This gives you another view of the tree towers. There are plants growing up the trunks and I believe they will eventually fill in the canopy. There are not enough superlatives to describe these gardens and the pictures only hint at the beauty. Some sea day, I may try to put something more comprehensive together.

We also took a tour which explored the Peranakan culture of Singapore. When wealthy Chinese traders visited Singapore, a shift in the prevailing winds would often strand them there for up to six months. They would often marry Malay women and their descendants were known as Peranakans. We saw an exhibit of their unique handcrafts, sampled their typical foods, and walked the streets to see their architecture.They mostly lived in colorful shop houses with a shop on the ground floor and living quarters on the top floor.Singapore is about 75% Chinese, 13% Malaysian, and 9% Indian. This means respectively Buddhist temples, mosques, and Hindu temples can be found in the city. Prayer services were just ending at this Hindu temple. Hindus treat their gods just as people would like to be treated. At the end of the service, the priests are taking away the food that was given to the god that morning and pulling the curtain so the god can rest for the afternoon.Singapore has both a Chinatown and an Indiatown. These houses in Chinatown are reminiscent of those in the Peranakan area. About eighty percent of the residents live in public housing. By law the residents of any public housing must match the ethnic population of the city, thus they have legislated integration. If you live in a Chinese designated apartment, you can only sell it to a Chinese person. Our guide said that the different cultures are accepting and tolerant of the other diverse cultures in the city.

We would love to spend a week or two in Singapore. English is their first language, but they must also learn another language in school. This would make it easy to explore Singapore on our own. Our next stop is Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A Bololo

In our recent tour of Colombia, our guide taught us the word “bololo” (sp.?) meaning something that turns into a real mess. Our second day in Bangkok turned into a bololo for many of the passengers. Our ship is too big to dock inside the city, so we are docked in an industrial port more than 2.5 hours away from the city by bus. Our port is filled with Toyotas, Nissans, and other cars ready to export. On the second day, most people were scheduled to take the included tour into Bangkok to visit the Royal Palace, the official home of the King of Siam since 1782. About five days ago, we got a letter that the Palace was going to be closed for an event the morning when we were supposed to visit and that it was expected to be overcrowded in the afternoon.

As a result, they offered us the option of transferring to one of two new included tours. Since we had been to the Palace previously, we elected to tour the flower market and cruise on the river flowing through Bangkok. We had done this previously also, but we had pleasant memories of the boat ride through the numerous small canals that lace the city. The tour lasted over eight hours and in that time we spent 30 minutes in the flower/vegetable market, twenty minutes in a boat that only covered a short distance of the main river, 30 minutes in the world’s largest gem store (where we didn’t want to be), and 60 minutes at lunch in a Ramada Inn. The rest of the time was in the bus and that time was just not worth the less than an hour of actual sightseeing. We were wishing we had stayed with the Palace.

However, when we got back and compared notes with friends, they were the ones with the true bololo. The Palace was indeed overcrowded and it deteriorated into a true mob scene of pushing, shoving, and elbowing to get into the room to see the primary sight: the Emerald Buddha. Our passengers were describing near panic attacks and fear of being trampled. Many decided it just wasn’t worth it, but it was harder getting out than moving with the flow. You often hear of the “ugly American”, and sad to say we have seen some of that in our fellow passengers. But I think today the “ugly Chinese” are more prevalent. After hearing all the horror stories, we were glad we had made the change. After the trauma of getting in to see the Emerald Buddha, most people were shocked to learn it was only 26 inches tall!

The day before we had visited yet another Big Buddha in Pattaya. Most Buddhas in Thailand are gold color.The steps leading up to the Buddha had the requisite dragon railing.We had learned in the Sanctuary of Truth how important the day of the week you are born is in determining your persona. They had a display that I used to confirm my belief that I was born on a Tuesday which makes me a hard worker. I’ll take that. Here I am with the Tuesday Buddha – but it sure doesn’t look like he is working very hard. I think I look particularly dashing in my cooling scarf, and you really need one of those if you are going to work hard in Thailand.

The most popular flower in the market was yellow marigolds. There was bag after bag of yellow marigold petals and strands of flowers. The strands are often placed around the neck of Buddha statues.The skewers of chicken feet on the bottom left of this street vendor’s grill looked particularly appealing. We saw several temples from the river. The bottom temple, Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn, is covered with porcelain tiles and sea shells.Fortunately, this is as close as we got to the Royal Palace. After a beach day in Thailand and a day at sea, our next stop is Singapore.

The Most Amazing Religious Building I Have Ever Seen!

And yes, I have seen Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The Pattaya Sanctuary of Truth is located in Pattaya, Thailand. It is constructed entirely of wood. No nails are used in its construction except for “temporary” nails they are a little slow in removing. It is nearly 350 feet high and covers more than 0.8 acres. Construction was started in 1981 by a Thai businessman. The work is being carried on today by his son and it is expected to be completed in 2050. Thus, the building is privately owned and contains religious images associated with both the Buddhist and Hindu religions.

According to its web site (with some grammatical enhancements):

The building was constructed according to ancient Thai ingenuity and every square inch of the building is covered with carved wooden sculptures. The purpose of these sculptures is to use art and culture as the reflection of the Ancient Vision of Earth, Ancient Knowledge, and Eastern Philosophy. Within this complex, visitors will understand Ancient Life, Human Responsibility, Basic Thought, Cycle of living, Life’s Relationship with the Universe and the Common Goal of Life toward Utopia.

That is pretty deep! In my words, the purpose of the sanctuary is to show the relationships between humankind and the world that will result in a better life for all. But whatever the goal and whether it accomplishes the goal, it is an amazing building. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.The picture is the king of Thailand.You will note that there is some grey weathered wood and some brown, newer looking wood in the structure. The wood used is teak, redwood, and ironwood; so I wouldn’t expect it to rot. However, on the way into the grounds we passed piles of discarded old wood and piles of new logs.There was a workshop where people were creating carvings with a hammer and chisel and turning large columns with a lathe. There are few sections of the temple that seemed unfinished so I am not sure whether they are replacements for damaged sections or new pieces for unfinished sections. If the wood is going to rot and need replacement after twenty five years, construction is going to be a never ending job.

I submit this is the most amazing religious building I have ever seen. The religious eliminates Petra and the Taj Mahal from the comparison.

An Impoverished Area of an Impoverished Country

Talk about instability! In my lifetime, Cambodia has had twelve different official names. Today it is Kingdom of Cambodia. It is a poor country ranked 141st in wealth (right behind Bangladesh) on the IMF list. Despite that, it has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia and we did see a lot of construction cranes. According to our guide, the cranes are due to Chinese investment in the country. It is a young population with 70% being under 35. Much of the countries problems can be traced to the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70’s when two to three million people were killed, people were forced from the cities to the fields, and everything western or religious was targeted for destruction. In particular, educated people (wearing eyeglasses was an indicator of being educated), teachers, and doctors were sought out and killed.

We visited the port city and beach town of Sihanoukville. The economy seemed to be based on tourism, fishing, and the port – though there was one modern looking factory outside of town. These colorful fishing boats go out in the evening and bring their fresh catch to the market the next day. In the morning when we we were there they were packaging fish for shipment and preparing fish for sale.The children of the area seemed excited to see us with everyone waving or giving us the “number one” sign.The handrails of all the Buddhist temples in Cambodia are what the guide called dragons but they looked more like cobras to me.The temples had stupas of various colors and designs that were used as graves. This is the unusual flower of the shala or sal tree. The tree is important to Buddhists as the Buddha is said to have been born while his mother grasped the branch of a sal tree. Thus, in Cambodia, holding the branch of a sal tree is thought to result in an easy birth.

The area is a popular beach resort for Cambodians. Other than a few floating pieces of styrofoam, the water looked pretty good. Susan took the opportunity to dip her feet in the water.in the afternoon we visited a school with an adjacent Temple before going to Ream National Park. The children from the school were interested in seeing us as well as the monk pressure washing the temple. The school just got electricity two years ago and that was only in the principal’s office.We took an hour long boat ride through the park on a large estuary. There were only a few homes on the river banks.It was tight quarters on the boat and my neck was loaded down with binoculars, my beloved cooling scarf, my water bottle holder, my whisperer to hear the guide, and my camera. It was a lot to ask of one neck so everything had to be put on in the correct order to be functional.Our destination was this long pier leading to what our guide called a village. In reality it was the houses of three families at least two of which were related.One family was this 93 year old man and his 78 year old wife. A lot of young children were running around, so there must have been children and grand children of theirs who also lived in the area.The family had seven water buffaloes.The woman was cooking supper on this open wood fire on the floor of her home.

On our way home from the park, we passed the entrance to the new factory on the outskirts of town. Van after van was literally packed with workers going back home after the end of their shift. This gives you an idea how packed the vans were.In town, the sidewalks were packed with vendors and the streets seemed to be total chaos as people did their shopping for the evening meal. Notice the two children riding the motorbike with their father in the bottom right of the picture. The poverty and litter were reminiscent of past trips to India. We will be interested to see how India compares this trip.

Today we arrive in Bangkok for an overnight stay.


Is Vietnam a Communist country? That depends on who you ask. Our tour guide said yes while another tour guide told her group no repeatedly. According to Wikipedia, it is one of four remaining “one party socialist states officially espousing Communism” (Cuba, China, and Laos are the others). The Economist described its leadership as “ardently capitalist communists”. As they say in Cuba, “It’s complicated”. As far as religion, it is 73% non religious, 12% Buddhist, and 8% Christian. Based on the religious statues, churches, and temples we saw in our first tour to the fishing village of Vung Tau, you would think it was a very religious country.One of the tallest statues of Jesus in the world looks out over the sea. There are over a thousand steps to reach the base of the statue, so this is the best view we had.Our next stop was a Buddhist Temple spread over a small hill. Most temples consist of several buildings with various shrines and places to make offerings and burn incense. In the bottom picture the monk is striking the bell four times. It did not seem to be on the hour or quarter hour, so I am unsure of the purpose. Maybe he just wanted his picture taken.The hill provided a view of the fishing boats in the harbor below.The main statue of Gautama Buddha sitting on a lotus leaf is at the top of the hill. We had a young guide who probably had never been to the sites visited on the tour. She never found this statue so we were just lucky that we spotted it through the trees and made a quick detour.Our next stop was the Whale Temple where fishermen come to prey for their safety. The temple contains several bins of whale bones you can touch for good luck. This alter looks more like it belongs in a penny arcade. Everything that looks like a row of lights in the picture is in fact a row of flashing lights.

Our second day we went to Ho Chi Minh City as it is officially known. All the people call it Saigon in their conversations and the papers call it HCMC. It has a population of ten million people and an estimated seven million motorbikes every day.We were lucky to be there on a Sunday when traffic was not so bad. There are few traffic lights, so the guidance in crossing the street is to look for a small opening and walk at a steady pace so the motorbikes can swerve around you. If you stop or change pace, it only makes it harder for the motorbikes to avoid you. Alternately, cross with a local.it is common to see parents and a child riding on the motorbikes. I have seen as many as both parents and two children riding on the same motorbike, and it would not surprise me to see more on a bike.You see small markets on the street, in small storefronts and in larger markets with numerous stalls. The top picture is a sidewalk vendor in Vung Tau who is selling food to the bike riders on their way home to dinner. The bottom two pictures are a shoe store and a food stall making dishes from snails in the Saigon market.Our first stop in Saigon was a temple in Chinatown dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. Despite the open courtyard in the bottom picture, the aroma of the incense was overwhelming.The Saigon Cathedral is being repaired from damage suffered in a recent cyclone.The Saigon post office is a landmark in the city. While it is a functioning post office, sight seeing and souvenir stands dominated.What appeared to be high schoolers were dressed up to have their picture taken in front of the post office.The dilapidated building was made famous during the fall of South Viet Nam by the picture of a helicopter on top of the building evacuating the last of the Americans in Saigon. The head of the CIA in Saigon lived on the top floor. It is scheduled to be torn down next year.The Reunification Palace or Independence Palace was the home and office of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It is also the site of the end of the war when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the front gate. It is a museum today with a helicopter on its roof and a tank in the front yard.The rooms in the palace are relatively modest. This is the reception room where the president would host European and American dignitaries. It was the nicest room in the palace.The two dining rooms we saw had both a round table with a lazy Susan for Chinese visitors and a rectangular table for American/European visitors.

The central area of Saigon appears as we remember it when we visited ten years ago. However, the outskirts of Saigon have prospered with many new high rise apartment buildings and cranes reminiscent of what we saw in China. Our guide attributed much of their new found success to Bill Clinton opening up trade between the US and Vietnam.

After a day at sea, we will visit Cambodia on Tuesday.

The Travel Blog of Susan and Bruce