Week before leaving -- (Jan 11-20)
Week 1 -- (Jan 23-Feb 1 Puerto Rico)
Week 2 -- (Feb 3-9 Salvador, Brazil)
Week 3 -- (Feb 10-16 On the way to South Africa)
Week 4 -- (Feb 19-24 Cape Town and African Safari)
Week 5,6 -- (Feb 25-March 8 Mauritius)
Week 7 -- (March 9-15 Chennai, India)

Week 8 -- (March 16-22 Penang, Malaysia and Singapore)
Week 9 -- (March 23-31 Ho Chi Minh City, VietNam)
Week 10 -- (April 1-6 Hong Kong, Guilin Shanghai, China)
Week 11 -- (April 7-13 Kobe, Japan)
Week 12 -- (April 14-20 On the way to Hawaii)
Week 13 -- (April 21-27 Honolulu, Hawaii)
Week 14 -- (April 28-May 8 Puntarenas, Costa Rica)

 

Week Nine -- Journeywoman's Semester At Sea...

 

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March 23, 2008 -- Farewell Penang, Malaysia

After my trip to 'ho-hum' Singapore I was delighted to just wander around Penang to get a better sense of the place. This is not a beautiful, modern city and that's what intrigued me about it. Penang is old, with lots of nooks and crannies, a temple here, a mosque there, folks in t-shirts, saris and salwar kameez all side by side. Life Long Learner Linda and I set out to explore early (Sunday) morning. It was so quiet and really, really hot when we left the ship. We made it our business to walk in the shade wherever possible. Our goal was to make it to at least the center of town without becoming dehydrated. Linda loves to take photos so she was the perfect partner for me. We pointed and clicked our way along, exploring shops, stopping to ask directions and just simply meandering. This to me is the ultimate in travel -- having a full day ahead of me to fill exactly as I want to, being in a place where the sights, sounds and smells are foreign enough to be interesting, trying to communicate with the people you meet, having enough time to find just the right angle for each photo you take and doing all these things without fear because the place feels relatively safe.

Our biggest stop was at the Mall in the center of town. In fact, I think the mall was actually called, 'Town Center'. There were six or seven floors all built around a circular center stage. Each floor was jam-packed with little shops, stalls and brand name shops each crammed with stuff. You could browse to your heart's content and we did. The top floor was great -- a Malaysian food court and large picture glass windows which provided a panoramic view of the city. Linda and I snapped pictures of everything and everyone -- old people, young people, sale signs, food signs and the food itself. We were not the only SAS people who ventured to the Mall. Everywhere we went there were kids from the ship. It felt as if we were at a shopping center at home where you keep bumping into neighbours.

We took a short taxi ride back to the ship. Already there were lines to board the tenders for the ride back to the Explorer. It was starting to rain a bit too so I was glad that the wait wasn't long. It wasn't a heavy rain but I think those clouds were responsible for the 'sweet' sunrise we had that evening. Farewell Penang. You were an unexpected super delight!


Streets were very quiet that early


Sunday morning newspaper


Grocery in the Chinese area


A beautiful mosque on the way


Multi-cultural sale signs at the Town Center


SAS students at the Mall's food court


View of Penang from the top floor of Mall

 


Farewell Penang

 

March 26 -- Good morning Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam

The weather wasn't great this morning but I was up bright and early anyway. After all, we were coming into Viet Nam, a country I knew only from second-hand sources (TV, radio and newspaper), a country that had been at war with my neighbour, the USA. As a Canadian I was curious about this place; there was so much more I wanted to find out about it. I wondered how all the Americans on board felt as our ship left the South China Sea and began making its way inland to Ho Chi Minh City. All I could think of were the dramatic scenes in the Viet Nam war film, 'Apocalypse Now' with helicopters swooping into the jungle, the passionate music of 'Flight of the Valkeries' on the sound track. However, what I saw was in stark contrast to what I had imagined. It was drizzling, the scenery was perfectly bland, and unremarkable buildings were scattered here and there along the shore line. Disappointing.

Within an hour the weather began clearing. As we moved into our docking berth we received a very sweet surprise. Ten Vietnamese women in traditional dress stood in a line on the dock holding a huge red sign that said, 'Semester At Sea. Welcome to VietNam.' Our students stood at the rails waving to them and they took off their hats and waved back at us. Hmmm... Interesting way to welcome a ship full of Americans who once were your sworn enemy. This was their first act of welcome and during our five-day stay we saw this Vietnamese openness and friendliness over and over again.

I must say that it took just one day of being here and I was completely seduced by the country and the people. Ironically I couldn't make any advance plans to explore because I had to arrange for my Chinese visa and Ho Chi Minh City was where I was supposed to get it done. I expected to make my application on day one and get it over with but the port agent switched my visit to day two. Bummer! Instead I joined a few other women waiting for the shuttle bus that was scheduled to take us into town.

In principal this shuttle bus arrangement was an excellent idea. The plan was to have three in operation at all times but parking in town and local traffic made the service erratic. Did we have options other than the bus? We were anchored in a dirty, industrial area, a good way out of the city. Taxis weren't allowed into the port area for picking up passengers; only motorcycle drivers could pick up passengers and that was not a form of transportation the ship wanted to encourage. Too dangerous. The motorcycle drivers seemed to threaten the taxi drivers if they tried to pick up a fare. This happened right in front of the port police who turned a blind eye. I suspected 'pay off stuff' was going on in their transportation hierarchy but I wasn't sure what the deal was. That meant I stood in the blazing sun with everybody else waiting for a bus. Sometimes I copied the Vietnamese women and used my umbrella to provide shade and prayed for the bus to come quickly. That part wasn't fun

As I walked the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, I snapped pictures of street life at random. Only after I reviewed my photos did I realize how many of them were of women and how large a part females play in the city's sidewalk economy. The females I saw were working so hard and their bargaining skills were formidable. They all smiled a lot and were adept at cajoling you out of your last U.S. dollar or Vietnamese dong. I'm amazed that such slim women were so strong. The baskets many of them carried through the streets were piled high with fruits and vegetables yet these ladies seemed to handle the task with grace.

I saw few beggars in the center of town but those that I noticed were women. I gave each some money and was dying to take their photos but I asked first (after they put their money away). I didn't want to take advantage of their misery. I'm pleased they gave me their permission because I believe that we all need images like that as a constant reminder that not everybody is as lucky as we are.


Welcome to Viet Nam


Uninspired landscape


Docked in industrial port


River traffic


Shuttle buses were not always on time


Ready to talk you out of your last dollar


Service with a smile


Begging for money


It was over 90F but she wore sweaters

 

March 28 -- Crossing Streets in Ho Chi Mihn City

Today was another lovely day spent exploring the city and shopping. However in Viet Nam an explicit shopping report would make no sense without an equally explicit traffic report. So let me explain about the crazy Vietnamese traffic and emphasize what effect that traffic had on my nervous system and therefore my shopping skills. Like any other major city there are plenty of cars, trucks, bikes and buses on the road in Ho Chi Mihn City. Now add to that a gazillion motorscooters with one, two or three passengers (some carrying parcels or babies) zipping in and out of the normal car, truck, bike and bus traffic. I know that there is a code about crossing streets safely but unless you grow up in Viet Nam you will never decipher that code. Rules seem to be random, stoplights seem to be random and whether you will get splattered on the pavement is random as well. What we were told is that ... 'when it feels right you step out into the traffic and you keep walking'. Then they added, 'Try not to step out in front of a bus that can't stop easily but don't worry the scooter drivers will try at all costs not to hit you. The most important thing to remember is that once you get on to the road you can't stop half way; you must keep moving because that's what the drivers expect and they guide themselves accordingly'.

When I heard this advice my first impulse was to skip going into the city completely. Maybe I could just stay in my cabin and read? I wasn't interested in being Vietnamese roadkill except I couldn't bear to miss their spectacular shopping opportunities. This city probably has the best bargains ever, better than India and better than China. Normally Vietnamese water buffalos could not drag me across those streets but the t-shirts, DVDs, lacquer bowls, shoes, jewelry, scarves, purses, backpacks, and 'fake-everything' beckoned. I was almost ready to suffer in order to get to the other side.

Since I hate intense pain I took the least dangerous path. I looked for a local man that seemed conservative, a person that wouldn't put his life in danger and stepped out into the melee in tandem with him. I made sure that he was on the side closest to the oncoming traffic and prayed as I walked beside him. Lo and behold my first attempt was successful. I got to the other side without direct contact with a scooter. Now I could shop a complete block without anxiety. I scoured every inch of commercial space putting off the need to cross the next street. Finally, it was inevitable. This time I chose a female vendor carrying a lot of sweet potatoes in her baskets. I thought she would make a great shield. No one wants to purposely hit a local woman sending her veggies flying here, there, and everywhere. I chose well again and I was on block two. For block three I met up with SAS students who agreed to walk me across the street. Except this time when I saw cars coming straight for me I stopped and held my arm up (like a traffic police) demanding that the traffic halt. I was frozen in place, a deer caught in their Vietnamese headlights. The only thing that saved me from being flattened was the student who yelled, 'Evelyn, don't stop, keep walking.' For days afterwards on the ship they teased me relentlessly, imitating my traffic cop stance.

With time comes experience; it was on the next corner that I struck 'beat the traffic' gold. I found out that there are lovely policemen in bright green uniforms who are completely at your service. It is their job to walk scaredy-cat tourists across streets in order that these foreigners feel relaxed enough to keep spending their U.S. dollars. All you need to do is smile and wave to them. Faster than you can say, 'I'm a shopper' they are at your side and getting you wherever you want to be. Then I discovered Vietnamese cabs. For one or two dollars they will drop you off anywhere you want to go within the city center. By day three I had a stash of $1.00 bills in my pocket, spent them gladly and moved with ease from one shopping area to the other.

I visited the local covered market with its warren of mini stalls and absolutely no moving air to speak of. I bargained and learned to offer 30% of what I actually was willing to spend on any one item. I thought I was so clever when I bought three t-shirts for $10.00. Back on the ship the students told me that $2.00 per shirt was the going price. I sharpened my skills and went to another shopping area: blouses were $8.00, scarves were $2.00 and I had two linen shirts tailored from scratch for $16.00. I was on a roll now. Into my shopping bag went smocked dresses for little girls, dragon t-shirts for little boys, pyjamas, christmas decorations, dvds, pens, and a partridge in a pear tree. Oh my goodness it was fun... and best part of all ... I never had to cross one scary street all by myself.


Bikes...


Bikes...


More bikes


Taxis are so very reasonable


Stuff...


Stuff...


And More Stuff


Back to the ship laden with stuff.

 

End of Week Nine

 

 

Week before leaving -- (Jan 11-20)
Week 1 -- (Jan 23-Feb 1 Puerto Rico)
Week 2 -- (Feb 3-9 Salvador, Brazil)
Week 3 -- (Feb 10-16 On the way to South Africa)
Week 4 -- (Feb 19-24 Cape Town and African Safari)
Week 5,6 -- (Feb 25-March 8 Mauritius)
Week 7 -- (March 9-15 Chennai, India)

Week 8 -- (March 16-22 Penang, Malaysia and Singapore)
Week 9 -- (March 23-31 Ho Chi Minh City, VietNam)
Week 10 -- (April 1-6 Hong Kong, Guilin Shanghai, China)
Week 11 -- (April 7-13 Kobe, Japan)
Week 12 -- (April 14-20 On the way to Hawaii)
Week 13 -- (April 21-27 Honolulu, Hawaii)
Week 14 -- (April 28-May 8 Puntarenas, Costa Rica)

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