April 2, 3 - Tuesday / Wednesday - A Big Blur
Our son-in-law, Brian, took us to the airport at 5:15 am. Flew to L.A. -- waited 3 hours. Flew to Seoul (12 hours) - then waited 4 hours. Flew to Bangkok (5 hours). Lost April 3rd somewhere over the international dateline, I think. Got to our hotel about 1 am.
April 4 - Thursday - Siem Reap, Angkor Wat
Messed around Bangkok - then had a short, easy one hour flight to Siem Reap. Life is good again. Arrived there about 4:00 in the afternoon. Hot, humid -- reminded us of the Amazon. Our driver, Sopak met us at the airport. Sweet guy in his late 20's. Wore a UC Berkeley baseball cap, but didn't have a clue what UC was all about.
Siem Reap is your basic Indochina Shantytown and our guesthouse (Chao Say) fits the town mood. The air conditioner worked (which we needed) and the hot water worked (which we didn't need). A couple of baby geckos greeted us from the edge of the bed. We quickly unpacked, then Sopak drove us about 6 miles out of town to one of the famous Angkor ruins to watch the sunset. Wonderful old temple up on a hill. For $15, an elephant would carry you to the top - Not us!! Loved the experience climbing the steep hill. Vendors were everywhere and almost everything was one dollar. The greenback is powerful here. Bought some T-shirts and postcards.
We got back to town and then walked through the streets. Found a wonderful rooftop bar where beer cost 75 cents each. This place is starting to grow on me. Had a wonderful dinner at the guesthouse--it has one of the best restaurants in town. Some kind of Khmer pepper sauce on our beef that was to die for and a wonderful chocolate mousse. Life is going to be ok.
April 5th - Friday - Siem Reap, Angkor Wat
Up at 5. Watched the little town wake up. Walked through the busy market across the street from our guesthouse. Had a lovely American breakfast there and then Sopak picked us up at 7:30 for a day at the ruins.
We visited a series of 7 different temples - each one an amazing sight. The first one, Bayon, featured these huge heads. The entire area is massive. Except for Angkor Wat, the locals had forgotten about most of the other temples during the civil wars and Khmer Rouge rule. Didn't rediscover them until around 1985. As a young boy, Sopak said he used to ride his bike through the jungle and didn't know what was hidden there.
We saw a lot of Japanese tour groups. Other than that, there were very few independent tourists and almost no Americans. Met a fun couple from Brazil, Ricardo and Adriana, traveling around the world. Had a great time knocking around the temples, taking pictures, and meeting the kids. The Cambodian kids love America and can recite all the capitols and all the basic facts. I gave several little toys away. They would squeal with delight - so appreciative.
We had a great lunch at a little stand and watched the owner shoe away the skinny cattle rummaging through the trash. Everything is so fun and so many happy, beautiful faces.
We saved Angkor Wat, THE BIG ONE, for our last temple of the day. The sunlight was perfect. Bill and I climbed to the top of all the structures.
At 4:00, Sopak took us home (notice I said home, not guesthouse - my Western ways and standards are disappearing, I suppose). We were filled with so many new visions. We took a shower, then I crashed. Had a terrible headache - classic case of dehydration. The old girlfriend stayed in the room to drink Gatorade and crash on the bed, but the old boyfriend was going strong. Bill went to our favorite watering hole, then bumped into Ricardo and Adriana and joined them for a wonderful dinner.
Bill and Nancy at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs
Angkor Bayon Temple
April 6 - Saturday - Siem Reap
Got up at 4:00 - breakfast at 5. Still feeling a little down. We decided to rent a motorcycle to have our own wheels. Nothing (not even the air-conditioned car) beats riding among the locals with the breeze in your hair. We went back through the jungle to visit Angkor Wat one last time. It was early and not many people there - so we had the temple to ourselves to study the incredible Bas-reliefs.
Left Angkor Wat and went to a wood / stone carving school established to help orphans. Beautiful work. Bought a couple little stone heads. Later stopped at another school where children make the famous shadow puppets out of leather. Everyone was so happy to show off their work.
Next stop was the Land Mine Museum (now called the War Museum), run by the Cambodian Defense Ministry. Lots of leftover tanks, helicopters from Russia, China and a few from the U.S. All of the American made stuff still worked, but the stuff made in Russian and China is broken. Our guide lost his parents (who were journalists) and his sister to Pol Pot and his leg to a land mine. He was wounded several times while serving as a government soldier fighting the Khmer Rouge guerillas. He had so many powerful stories - like when he accidentally killed his best friend. His gun discharged while crawling behind his friend. He showed us rifles -- M-16s, AK 47s -- and about a dozen different land mines. So many inventive ways to blow each other apart. It was a tough museum to get through. About 3500 Cambodians still get injured by land mines each year. We see so many people with limbs missing begging in the streets.
We had a nice lunch and then back HOME to rest. We have gotten attached to the owners' beautiful Cambodian wife, Sophia, and her two beautiful daughters (ages 2 and 5). Interesting place around the old home front. We see the owner, a big Belgium guy, Domique, smoking big cigars and going over the books after dinner. There's always some form of gambling going on in the lobby. Don't know what they’re doing, but it looks serious.
Back at the room in the afternoon, we watched CNN - a little terror here, a little terror there, but guess the world hasn't exploded yet. Poor Tony Blair stuck at the ranch in Crawford, Texas. Guess the world is still safe for democracy (and the market hasn't crashed yet), so we took a little snooze.
We rode the motorcycle over to the fanciest hotel in town -- Grand Hotel d'Angkor, part of the Raffles group. We were determined to have a beer at the Elephant Bar to see how the rich and famous live. Most elegant place - beautiful gardens, pools, tennis courts, but IT’S NOT CAMBODIA. We tried to order a beer, but when we discovered it was 4 bucks for a small Angkor, we walked out and motored back to our favorite watering spot. Decided to stay and have dinner. I had a wonderful noodle dish for $1.50 - Bill splurged -- $2 for a fried rice concoction. We’re happy campers.
Girls at Angkor
April 7 -Sunday - to Phnom Penh (PP)
Up for breakfast at 5 am. Met Virgal, a 6'2" Irish guy, who would become our traveling companion for an interesting day. He was chain smoking and having a coke for breakfast. Said he was a writer and worked for some Irish museum. He had plenty of stories to share. We left at 5:30 am for the boat dock to catch a boat to Phnom Penh. The road got worse and worse. Lots of wooden houses built up on stilts next to the river. Lots of people waking up, eating their breakfast, starting their day. At one point, the wooden bridge ahead collapsed and we were stuck behind many motorcycles and a few taxis and vans. With some encouragement, each vehicle made it's way across the muddy river (lucky for us it was dry season). Virgal was out there in their faces, having a smoke, trying to be calm, but imposing his “encouragement.” He used his height and French rather effectively to keep things moving. He became the Irish John Wayne. When French and height didn't work, he showed his real power - the American dollar. We finally got through the mud and broken bridge, but then had to take a small boat to meet our larger, fast boat for the real trip. The 3 of us loaded onto the small boat. Our boat driver wanted to wait for more passengers - but Irish John showed a wad of cash (a few American dollars wrapped around several riels - or their real, worthless money). That started the engine and we were off. We drove through an amazing floating village whose residents are Vietnamese refugees.. Houses, stores, schools all floating together, yet independent. To stop in at a neighbor's house, one must take a boat. The place would make a fascinating, sociological study.
Finally made it to the big boat. Only 5 passengers out of 75 made it to the boat in time to launch. We were happy to have our Irish John Wayne save the day. We were all feeling chipper when, as fate would have it, the boat ran into an old fishing net. The first mate donned a swimming suit and fixed the problem. That delayed us just enough so another crowded boat came and added some passengers to our load. But, it was a lovely trip. So much to see. It was about 180 kilometers down the river to PP. It looked so much like the Amazon. Wonderful little villages, lots of boats, lots of kids swimming in the water, lots of kids running to the banks of the river just to wave or throw us a fruit. Even though there were warnings against taking the boat to PP, wouldn’t have missed it for the world. (Statistics were on our side -- only 4 boats sank last year.)
Got to PP - big city. Liked our hotel. Domique (owner of the Chao Say Guesthouse in Siem Reap) made the arrangements for us. We headed to the National Museum and then to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club for a drink and dinner. Best dinner we’ve ever had. Bill and I went crazy. After dinner, took a motorcycle ride to the most famous Wat Phnom. We thought it was tacky - but we’ve been spoiled by the marvelous wats in Thailand.
Vietnamese Floating Village
on the Tonle Sap, Cambodia
Foreign Correspondence Club
April 8 - Monday. Phnom Penh
Up early, nice breakfast at a sidewalk French Cafe by the river.
First stop - The Royal Palace (where King Norodom Sihanouk lives). We had the best guide -- so sweet, so intelligent, and delightful. She said the cost of her services depended upon our kindness. (We were $5 kind.) We spent a couple of hours with her and learned so much about the palace, the country and the government.
We saw the grand coronation room, the elephant loading platforms (no more elephants - Khmer Rough killed them all), the opulent palace (built in 1813), and a quaint little house - gift from the French. The French house was used during the building of the Suez Canal, then taken apart, shipped to Phnom Penh and re-constructed on the palace grounds.
Inside the French house were photos of many of Cambodia's kings and company. Our guide loves King Sihanouk, although he has no power now. She thought he was very handsome as a young man. We thought he looked like a pudgy mama's boy -- but what a life he's had. He was put into power by the French when he was only 18. At 25, he was monk for a year. For a while he served in the military. He also was a film director. At one time the king had 6 wives and 14 children, but the Khmer Rouge killed all but one of his wives and left him with only 2 daughters and 4 sons. He is now 80 and in the palace attended by a Chinese doctor. He certainly is a survivor -- politician, fighter, contended with the French, Japanese, Pol Pot, exiled, jailed and then became king again. Enough of the king - Long Live the King!!
Also on the grounds is the Silver Pagoda (built in 1892). The floor has over 5,000 silver tiles each weighing 1 kg each. There are still a lot of treasures remaining in the Pagoda. Our guide said that the Khmer Rouge left these treasures to show the outside world that all was still well. Our guide also said the Cambodian government is very corrupt. They receive a lot of funds to rebuild the elegant old city and palace, but pocket the money.
After filling our heads with so many facts, we took a tuk-tuk to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21). Before 1975, this place was a high school, but under the Khmer Rouge, it became a torture / interrogation chamber. Over 17,000 processed and only 7 survived. Unbelievable to see a school transformed into such a horror chamber. Saw the batteries for electric shock, chains, bars, but the hardest to take were the photos of the victims and the drawings of one of the survivors. The Khmer Rouge were so evil that they established ways to prevent the inmates from committing suicide. Wouldn't want to miss out on the torture. Very difficult place to take.
After processing all that terror, we went to the Post Office and then walked back to the hotel. We found a wonderful Indian place for lunch, the Far East Restaurant -- elegant place with a beautifully served lunch for only $2.80. (We were far away from the horrible sights of the morning.)
After lunch, we walked through the Central Market. Bought a few things, but it was very hot and we were besieged by so many beggars -- victims of land mines. We retreated once again to our hotel room to recover.
Dinner at another French Cafe down by the riverside. So much street theatre and so many little shoeshine boys, girls selling flowers. Phnom Penh has a long way to go to recover from all the recent wars. After dinner, we walked to the Hotel Le Royal (part of the famous Raffles group). It was dark on the streets and not many walkers -- in fact only 2 - us. (Walking is not bad, but crossing the street is impossible, but we're getting better at it.)
The Hotel Le Royal was in another world from what we had experienced. We had a drink at the Elephant Bar -- Bill a beer, me a gin and tonic (was missing my Sunday afternoon G&T girlfriends -- so I had one for you!) We listened to a wonderful American jazz singer (who also accompanied himself on the piano). Wonderful old tunes like "Cry Me a River." Then we walked back to the hotel. What a day!
Cambodian Royal Palace
Cambodian Royal Palace
April 9 - Tuesday - Phnom Penh to Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City)
After breakfast, checked e-mail and purchased tickets to fly to Saigon that afternoon.
Hired a driver to take us to the "Killing Fields." (As if we didn't have enough sadness and pain from the day before.) The fields were about 10 miles out of town -- rough roads. Before 1975, the "Killing Fields" were a peaceful orchard -- but now there are several mass graves labeled with the number of women, men, children found there. In the center of the field is a huge memorial tower (called a stupa here) - about 6 stories high with shelves of skulls. The visitors (when not besieged by poor begging children and land mine victims), walk around in a daze. Impossible to believe what happened here. Pol Pot wasn't satisfied killing just the people, his intent was to wipe out an incredible culture -- and he found people to follow him.
Was glad to leave and go to the airport. A 40-minute flight to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). The immigration officials in Vietnam mean BUSINESS. We had several shake their hand at us.
We booked a hotel and took a cab from the airport. Saigon is years ahead of Phnom Penh -- such a lively place. They have sidewalks and trees. War messes up the grounds pretty bad -- but Saigon has had more time to recover. Hope the once-elegant Phnom Penh will also recover.
We weren't pleased with our hotel -- just OK and was expensive - $14 a night -- so we hit the streets looking for another room. The cyclo drivers are relentless. They wanted to show us the city, take us to a room. We just wanted to be left alone. One followed us for 3 blocks. He said we shouldn't walk in this part of town. There are some VERY BAD BOYS that live here. We just ignored him. The bad boys would be easier to take than him!
We found a nice quiet street, a wonderful guesthouse and a cold beer. Life is looking up. Walked to dinner (no bad boys so far) -- had some so-so pizza and pasta (backpacker's staple). Got lost going back to the hotel. It was late and we walked through a maze of folks on the street selling all kinds of things. It was so crowded with people and bikes and motorbikes and vendors and goodies, we almost kicked some vegetables into the street to avoid the motorbikes. Finally agreed to take a cyclo back because the driver knew the way -- so we piled into his one seater. I was crouched down, hanging on for dear life. Lots of traffic -- but we made it. (Cyclos are great laxatives!).
April 10 - Wednesday - Saigon
Love our new room at the Ly Ly Guesthouse. Van the manager and cousin of the owner gave us a Vietnamese language lesson last night. She made us breakfast. The guesthouse (named after the owner's second daughter) is wonderful and only $10 plus 2 bucks for breakfast. We are very happy here. After breakfast, we spent the day touring Saigon.
First stop - War History Museum. Lots of tanks, planes, bombs, guns and other killing machines here. The hardware didn’t get to us - it was the rooms of photos - a special exhibit of photo-journalists' work from the “American” war. Many of the photos were the last photos they took. We saw the real victims of the war - farmers killed in their fields, young American boys, napalmed children, mothers trying desperately to escape with their children and on and on. The leaders of both sides were the real “evil-doers” here. Then we visited the torture devices - tiger cages, etc. Finally, a demonstration of traditional Vietnamese musical instruments by a lovely girl. What a relief.
Second stop - Ho Chi Minh City History Museum. Interesting place from pre-history to pure propaganda - lots of revolutions and strife in this old place. Also saw about a dozen brides being photographed with their betrothed. What's the deal with that?
Third stop - Lunch at Chu Bar - elegant place, wonderful lunch. That place had a lot of Fen Shui going on. Great Vibes and TASTY and of course, cheap.
Fourth stop - Reunification Palace. Huge rooms where leaders met, planned wars, entertained and in 1975, transferred power from one government to the Commies. Most of the rooms looked like scenes from the early James Bond movies.
Fifth stop - Jade Pagoda (got tired of walking - so hired 2 cyclos to take us). Gaudy, lots of Buddhas, Monsters guarding Buddha, and fertility goddesses to name a few. Very strange place. On our way to the next stop, we saw the American Embassy (where the evacuation took place on April 30, 1975). The old embassy was razed and all that's left to commemorate the event is a plaque.
Sixth stop - The elegant old Rex Hotel. Had a beer on the Rooftop Garden to get a bird's eye view of the city and parks (Uncle Ho hugging a little girl) and riverfront.
Afterwards, walked home, ignoring those cyclo pests. We did cross some amazing streets - traffic is impossible - thank goodness they can't afford cars - only motorcycles.
We were feeling adventurous and had dinner at an Indian restaurant that wasn't listed in our guidebooks. Not so good. In fact I think the Mutton Curry should have been named Mutt Curry.
The weary travelers returned to the Ly Ly Guesthouse and there was Van with a special dessert she had prepared -- 6 little rice-like pancakes covered in gooey syrup. Tasted pretty bad (not a good night for food, I guess). We said we wanted to finish the treat in the room so we could dispose of the evidence. What a sweet thing for her to do.
Ho Chi Minh City
Marker Where VC Pilot Bombed
April 11 - Thursday - Outside Saigon - Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels
After breakfast took a day-long tour. There were about 15 on the mini bus. We were the only Americans and about the only English speakers. Others were Danish, Italian, French, and Japanese. Our guide, Thong (AKA Slim Jim) said he'd only talk to us because nobody else was listening to him. It's something when you have the only language that counts and the only money that talks.
Needless to say, we bonded with Slim Jim. He was an English / History teacher. Retired - no pension. Teachers here get $30 a month and tour guides get $40 (but no holidays or weekends). He told us he has to work to put his son through school so his son will take care of him and his “better half.” His son (24) wants to be a captain of a boat (Merchant Marine) - but it'll be difficult for him to find a job because of Jim's anti-Communist activities during the war. Sins of the father are passed along and the Party does kept track of you. Jim loves America and loves Bush because Bush hates Commies. He shared a lot with us - can't talk politics with his friends because of fear of spies. He said the years from '75 - '86 were horrible. Long lines for a little rice. After the government returned the land to the people and allowed capitalism, things are beginning to change - but Slim Jim still holds little hope for the government.
Our first stop was the Cao Dai temple. Strangest place I've ever seen. The temple is in Tay Ninh - a gated city. Cao Dai is a combination of Buddhism, Confucianism, Native Vietnamese Spiritualism, Christianity, Islam and even a little Victor Hugo thrown in. Weird temple, weird people, weird hats - We observed the 12 noon service. They do their thing every 6 hours. Everyone has these robes (some different colors) and they crawl and bow and chant stuff to the sounds of a strange orchestra located in the upper balcony. I loved it. Snapped a whole roll of film, much to Bill's chagrin.
After lunch, toured the famous Cu Chi tunnels. Our visit started with a film (made in 1967) that was so much propaganda. “See the peaceful people in Cu Chi - with their happy children having picnics. See the children going to school and having fun. But America didn’t want the people to be happy so they came thousands of miles to bomb the people of Cu Chi .. but the brave Cu Chi people outsmarted the Americans and built tunnels, etc.” Our poor guide Slim Jim had to introduce the film as a “documentary.” Interesting.
After the film, we went to the tunnels. In spite of the horror that once was there, the place was set up to be a lot of fun. The staff was dressed as Viet Cong. As we walked through the area, fake land mines would explode. At the first tunnel they asked for a volunteer. I gladly accepted. It was easy getting into the tunnel, but I got stuck trying to get out. About 6 guys had to pull me out. Slim Jim said “Too Heavy!” Bill loved that.
Jim showed us the awful booby traps used on the Americans. The tiger cage was especially awful. A U.S. soldier parachutes onto a door disguised as the ground and is hinged flat to the ground. The door swings open and the soldier is impaled on metal spears in the hole below. The people took their knowledge of making traps for animals and adjusted them for Westerners. Some pretty gross stuff.
Lots of entertainment at the Cu Chi tunnels. For a buck you could shoot the war rifles (M-16s and AK47s) at a target. We saved our buck for a yummy ice cream.
The most interesting part of the experience was actually crawling in a 100 meter tunnel. They expanded the width and height of these tunnels for western tourists - twice the size and still you felt so cramped. So many other interesting things to do at the tunnels - but that’s enough.
Saw a couple of motorcycle accidents on the way back to Saigon. The rain came down like crazy. Loved watching the water buffalo and people working in their rice fields.
Back to town, dinner at Kim's café (around the block from our place) and then a chat with Van about her family before we hit the sack.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cao Dai Temple
April 12 - Friday - Mekong Delta
Left at 7:45 am for a 2-day trip to the Mekong Delta. Meet some nice folks on the trip - Sybille, a German surgeon from the Black Forest, and a British family traveling with their son who is teaching English in Vietnam. And the sweetest guide - Tan - 29, comes from a big family in the Mekong Delta. He had to come to Saigon to make some money. He's not married and misses his family so much - He calls them 3 times a week. He just WORKS and WORKS. He did manage to save enough for a motorbike. Chinese-made Hondas cost $400. Tan pointed out all the different types of motorcycles to Bill. The boys bonded over the engine power.
Back to our adventure. Took a mini bus to the boat launch. Then when we arrived at the Rung Tram Forest (used by the Viet Cong Army - Xeo Quyt Base) we boarded small dugout boats (3 to a boat) and took a beautiful trip through the now peaceful canals. Women dressed in black pajamas like Viet Cong, seated at the front, paddled our boats. But so many smiles, stopping to pick the flowers for us. We saw some amazing birds. One looked like a huge gray stork. We also saw several military huts constructed by the Viet Cong. They expected the Americans to return after 1975. Now it's a peaceful place for tourists.
After lunch, we toured the Mekong Delta. So many little kids running to the edge of the water just to wave. Tan said they were calling us Russians because only Russians use to visit and they haven’t gotten word that the Russians have been replaced with people from all over the world.
I had brought along several little balls. We tossed them to the kids along the Delta. They were so thrilled. And Bill was thrilled to get rid of them - the balls were so heavy and took up a lot of suitcase space.
We sat on the roof of the boat for most of the afternoon. (There are not many rules you have to follow here. I can't imagine a company in American letting you climb up on the tin roof of their boat.) We saw so many amazing scenes - kids coming home from school, fishermen, rice farmers, etc. The Mekong Delta produces 65% of all Vietnam's rice. Vietnam is 2nd in rice exports behind China.
We arrived at Can Tho about 6:30 pm. Checked into our hotel - not bad if you like Turkish prisons - but what does one expect from a trip for 2 days, hotel included, all for $15?
Washed and walked down to the river with Tan and Sybille. Bill and Sybille and I had a very good fish dinner. Tan said it was too touristy for him. He went to a place that served rat - but these were good rats - caught in the rice fields, so they were only grain-fed.
Walked back to the hotel. Saw an especially bad statue of Ho Chi Minh on the way.
April 13 - Saturday - Mekong Delta back to Saigon
Up early for breakfast at the Turkish Prison - not a bad place after all. Eggs were a little runny, but breakfast was OK. Left for the boat at 7:30 to go to the floating market. Large boats carried fruits and vegetables from other parts of Vietnam. The locals in smaller boats would buy from the larger boats and sell locally-grown produce. To advertise what goods they carried, each boat used a pole with their goods tied to the top.
on the Mekong
We then toured around the Delta area. Stopped at a noodle factory - saw how rice noodles are made. Then we saw a rice husking operation. Learned about polished rice, long grain rice, etc.
Got back on the boat for more touring. Stopped again to walk among the locals - next lunch. One of the young Japanese girls twisted her ankle along the trail - it looked pretty bad, poor thing.
There are so many fresh fruits and vegetables here. We're eating healthier than we would back in the U.S. After lunch, another market. They're starting to look alike.
Back on the bus to head back to Saigon. (Had to take one ferry ride to cross the river.) Got back to our hotel in Saigon at 7. Van had fresh, chilled pineapple waiting for us. Such a sweet person. She said she didn't want us to go. I took her picture - but first she had to straighten her hair.
Had a yummy dinner at the Bohdi Tree (recommended in our book). Great Indian food - then to bed.
Kids on the Mekong River
Mekong River Foot Bridge
April 14 - Sunday - Saigon to Dalat (7 hour bus ride)
Up early - paid our bill ($32 for 3 nights plus breakfast) and said good-bye to Van.
Boarded the bus for Dalat at 7:30. The bus was packed - but the roads were good so we were able to read and watch the scenery change from the flat Saigon / Delta area to foothills, then to mountains and the temperature dropped as well. Love the countryside with the tall pine trees and beautiful mountains.
Arrived in Dalat. Found a nice hotel (Ngoc Lan) overlooking the lake and the mini-Eiffel tower that stands proudly in Dalat. The people are so friendly and helpful and nobody is bugging us to ride in their taxi or motorcycle and the weather is wonderful (like our old San Diego).
We had a terrific dinner. Shared our table with an older gentleman we met on the bus. He's British and volunteering in Phnom Penh to help them organize their education system. We learned a lot from our conversation with him (and best of all, had the best cream caramel ever - for only 35 cents.)
April 15 - Monday - Dalat
Planned to tour the town after breakfast, but Fate had something different in mind. One tour book recommended a hike in the mountains outside of Dalat with a real Viet Cong Guerrilla Colonel. We found his tour agency and the next thing we knew we were off to the mountains with the VC Colonel himself and three of his little soldiers in an old Russian Jeep. The Colonel may have been a real fighter in his day -- but now all he's a sweet gentle little man with a twinkle in his eye. He's 61 and his passion is not fighting, but building the best and biggest adventure tourist business and taking photos along the way. The Jeep itself was a real adventure. The mountain roads turned into some really narrow jungle paths. The driver kept gunning the engine to coax the jeep along. We finally made it to a most interesting base camp designed and developed by the Colonel himself. There were wonderful huts and tree houses to spend the night. The best part was the fully outfitted bathrooms -- tiled, hot water, showers that were once caves inside of the mountain where the VC hid out from the American bombers. Clever Colonel.
We visited a minority tribe (ethnic people) village perched on the side of the mountain. Their crops were gorgeous -- corn, coffee, beans, etc. At one of the homes, a man hurried to wipe up a little spilled tea on the table because company (that's us) was coming. The village chief also dropped by to see what was going on.
After our visit to the village, the Colonel had fresh papaya ready for us before we began our mountain trek (up Elephant Mountain). The Colonel stayed behind while we took off with his 3 young soldiers -- Dinh, Toan and Fong. The path went straight up the mountain -- no switch backs here. It was hot and I thought I'd never make it. But it wasn't long until we were dipping down into the steamy jungle path. Our guides only lost the trail once. It wasn't used much. Dinh, the leader, whistled and sang Vietnamese songs to us. Fong was the sweetest of the guides, always helping me along the treacherous parts of the path. I bonded with him. He told me his grandfather was killed by an American. Peace is much better than war. We crossed the mountain (only about a 3-mile hike) and climbed down into a beautiful lake area, also developed by the Colonel. We laid in hammocks on a floating village until we were served our lunch -- the best meal -- vegetables, steak and fries. Tasty, but too much -- couldn't possibly eat it all. A 30-minute elephant ride followed the lunch -- I loved it. Bill's not so keen on elephant rides, but he was a good sport. The last activity was the ethnic dancers -- 8 beautiful kids played interesting instruments and sang and danced for us. The Colonel orchestrated it all -- and we were the only guests on the trek.
The Colonel joked about VC in the mountains. Once he jumped out to shoot a photo of me and I returned the "fire." Shooting with cameras is much better than guns.
We finished our adventure by boat and then the Russian Jeep. We all had tea back at the office in Dalat and laughed about our day. They asked for pointers on their English brochure (and they did need some help).
We went back to our hotel, had a beer. I went to the Internet Café to do the trip report. Later we had a little noodle soup -- still full from the Colonel's feast.
Viet Cong Guerrilla Colonel
April 16 - Tuesday - Dalat
Rented a motorcycle ($3 / day) to tour Dalat. Fun day --
First stop - Hang Nga Guesthouse -- Locals call it the Crazy House. It's the only hotel (motel) that we've seen that conducts tours. The architecture is like something out of Alice in Wonderland. A wonderful counter-cultural gem. It was designed by the daughter of the president (Ho Chi Minh's successor). She studied architecture in Moscow and because of her connections, the place remains. So many clever rooms -- Termite Room, Eagle Room, Tea room in a Giraffe. Nothing was at right angles. We loved it.
Second Stop -- Lan Ty Ni Pagoda. We were on a mission to find the mad monk. He sells paintings to tourists to earn money to travel around the world to visit all the "suckers" who bought his paintings. He's got about $30,000 so far. He wasn't at the Pagoda -- so maybe he's on his trip. Everyone in town knows about him -- and either adore or resent him. Sorry we missed him.
Third Stop -- Bao Dai's (last king of Vietnam) summer palace. Built in 1933 -- art deco. Every visitor had to wear booties over our shoes to visit. We had an English-speaking guide and learned a lot about Bao Dai. He had 5 children then broke his queen's heart by marrying his concubine while the Queen was off shopping in Paris. All 5 children are still alive and employed and living in Paris.
After lunch -- Fourth stop -- back to the mountains to visit two waterfalls -- Datanla Falls -- beautiful and Prenn Falls -- once beautiful -- but now so gaudy. Too bad it was ruined.
Fifth stop -- Governor General's Residence -- another art deco place built in 1933 -- just peaked in because it was closed for repair.
Sixth stop -- Flower gardens. Beautiful grounds -- lots of professional photographers taking pictures (and then, of course, me taking lots of pictures).
Took our last ride around the beautiful lake and then turned in the motorcycle. Loved our day of freedom.
We walked around town looking for trashy souvenirs, for which Dalat is noted -- but much too trashy even for us. Walked through the market and then had another great dinner at our favorite place in town. Will never again taste cream caramel like that again -- and to think only 35 cents. We're spoiled rotten now.
Dalat Crazy House
April 17 - Wednesday - Dalat to Nha Thrang (6 hour bus ride)
Picked up early at the hotel for the Sinh Café bus ride. The scenery was beautiful. Stopped at a temple way up on a hill. The temperatures are hot again -- miss the cool temperatures of Dalat.
Got to Nha Thrang about 2 pm. Got a decent hotel room for $9 and then crossed the street to go for a walk on the beach. Beautiful beach on the South China Sea and so many islands just offshore. Wished we had planned to stay an extra day here for some snorkeling -- Oh well. We had a beer on the beach and admired the beauty and shoed away a constant stream of peddlers -- chewing gum, chips, fruits, books, maps, shrimp (biggest shrimp I ever saw). I finally gave into the woman who gave me a massage for $3. She promised 30 minutes -- but ended up working me over for almost an hour. She was so kind. I loved being pampered, listening to the waves hit the shore and watching the sun go down.
Went back to the hotel to find Bill and seek out dinner. Had another beer at a beautiful beachfront place and bought a painting from a clever guy who claimed his father was the painter. We paid $7 later to learn that these paintings are peddled all over town for a couple of bucks. Great actor that scoundrel! For 5 bucks we could have a huge dinner for two plus drinks. Oh well, had a great dinner anyway and then to bed.
April 18 - Thursday - Nha Thrang to Hoi An (14 hour bus ride from hell touted as an 11 hour ride)
The bus left at 6:45, half full -- so we had room to spread out. At first we watched the beautiful scenery -- down the mountains and along the coastline. Also saw lots of people harvesting their rice. Then the roads turned bad and our driver turned mad (more about that later).
A little 3-year old Vietnamese girl--Quing Anh--traveling with her mother befriended Bill. He taught her some English words and she taught him how to count to 11 in Vietnamese. She was adorable. Her mom slept a lot of the trip while Bill played grandpa. I read my book "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" -- great book about a Vietnamese girl who survived the war and is now living in San Diego. I was fascinated.
As the roads and traffic became more and more unbearable, our driver became more and more aggressive. We were sure he'd kill someone (or all of us) in the process. Bill and I tried to think of the best position for us to survive a head on collision. The passengers were very mellow. Only a couple of them rolled out of their seats when the driver slammed on his brakes.
Finally at 8:30ish that night, we arrived at our destination -- Hoi An. There was mass confusion on the bus. A representative of the bus company jumps on the bus and orders everyone to get into a mini bus. He claimed he would help them find a place to stay. We read about that scam. They take you to so-so places way out of town and then you're stuck. Luckily, we had booked a nice place in town before we arrived, so they ordered a tuk-tuk for us. It wasn't easy getting our luggage sorted out -- but we were glad to be in control of our own destiny again. (Our poor weary, fellow travelers. . . wonder where they ended up that night.)
Our hotel is the best yet, but we did splurge - $20 for room and breakfast. We showered, tried to forget about the day and then found a good Indian restaurant. We were badgered by adorable little kids selling postcards and whistles. We just wanted to drink our Tiger beer in peace.
Bill on Bus
with Quing Ahn
April 19 - Friday - Hoi An
Our wonderful peaceful hotel turned out to be not so wonderful. At 4 in the morning, construction crews began hammering, pounding, pouring concrete at a hotel under construction right next to our room. Lucky for us, they don't have high powered equipment or drills here - but still annoying.
After a nice breakfast at the hotel, we took care of business - washing, booking tours, etc - then set out to see what Hoi An had to offer.
We love this quaint little place - people are very friendly, no crowds. The place is frozen in time - from the days of the wealthy Chinese merchants trading from vessels from all over the world. Then the silt built up and left this dear little town somewhere in the 1700s.
The place is noted for its tailors - a shop on every corner. We spent the morning going from shop to shop getting measured, and picking out fabric. Then we spent our afternoon going back to claim our finished goods. Everything is so cheap and made to fit! (e.g., silk blouse - $9, black silk pants $10, pants with zip off legs - $9, cotton shirt - $4 and on and on. . . ) They have clever ways of getting you into their shops. Vietnamese women befriend you on the streets and follow you until you visit their mother's/sister's/friend's/shop. We made a lot of friends and got to know a lot of family. One woman at the shop where Bill got his pants showed me her address book loaded with relatives' names all scattered over the U.S. She wanted to know about the places her family now lives. She treated that little worn address book with such care - her connection to the family she once knew.
One little 18 year old girl, Hoa, was the weirdest Vietnamese we'd ever met. She was so clever and funny with the English language. She also said I had a voice like a bird - very beautiful. (A lot of Vietnamese have commented on my voice.) She took us to her sister’s shop and we ordered a blouse. More about Hoa later.
We roamed all the streets in the charming little town - market, covered Japanese bridge, pagodas, Chinese Assembly Hall, and the old Merchant’s house. The sixth generation is now living in the house. The guide said Vietnamese architects all consult with Fen Shi experts in Beijing to establish the exact location of the place they are building - it must have a lot of good energy flowing through it.
One of our stops featured the traditional music and dance of Vietnam. Beautiful people, interesting music. One weird dancer performed part of an opera. He leaped around, hopped on one foot and made growling sounds like an animal. That was a bit weird. The program ended when the group sang “Should old acquaintances be forgot …” Sweet and touching - left us with a nice feeling.
Tired from sightseeing and dress / pants making, we stopped for a beer at a place down by the river. A sweet friendly little boy tried to sell us something or collect coins. We asked him what he thought of Americans. He pretended to hold a machine gun and made the sound of a gun. We're not far from Mi Lai. There are not many Americans in the city - a lot of Aussies. Think I'll be an Aussie.
We had dinner at the Fai Foo - ordered all the local specialties - a little too greasy for our tastes. Back to the room to read, journal and prepare for the construction crew's early wake up call.
April 20 - Saturday - Hoi An - Day trip to My Son
Up early again - the construction crew had returned.
Had breakfast - “Stumbled eggs” was one of the choices on the menu. We thought about ordering stumbled eggs just to see what they were like. Later, the waitress asked me if she had spelled it correctly. Then I got it - I wrote out “Scrambled” eggs.
We met a great Norwegian couple at our hotel - Vigdis and Rune. They also took the tour with us to My Son. Vigdis is a nurse, an artist and travels everywhere (studied the Mayan culture). Rune loves to drive fast cars - He owns a taxi company. We spent a lot of time with them - fun and adventurous and love to have a good time.
The mini bus to My Son was packed and the roads were bad. My Son is the Vietnam's mini version of Cambodia's Angkor Watt - that is, what's left of it. The first temples were built in the 3rd century, but American bombs wiped out a lot of the towers. There were big craters and a lot of bullet holes in what was left of the temples. It looked like a pretty incredible place at one time - but war and theft took care of that. It was very hot and steamy in the jungle valley surrounded by mountains for protection. We couldn't roam too far from the temples - LAND MINES!!
After our visit, we walked over a suspended bridge, took a jeep ride, and walked down the path to catch the boat back to Hoi An. On the path, an 11-year old girl befriended Bill. They talked and she sang songs to him in Vietnamese and English. Everyone sings around here - even the jeep driver. We waved “good-bye” from the boat. We gave her a little plastic frog. She was so thrilled (and Bill was so charmed).
The boat trip back was long and slow. The river is very low. A lot of other boats were stuck in the sandbars. We had a strange meal on the boat - seaweed and gooey rice. We stopped at a boat-building village - men and boys working everywhere on a big boat - all by hand. (Everything in Vietnam is done by hand.) It takes 2 months to make a huge boat and costs $7,000. Not a lot of regulations to encumber them.
We got back on the boat and then docked at Hoi An’s beautiful little harbor. We had 3 large Tiger beers with our new Norwegian pals and then back to the hotel to clean up for dinner. We picked a bad place for dinner. Rune and I ordered the duck. It was boiled with the rubbery skin still attached. Oh well, another Tiger Beer will help us forget. Long, fun, interesting day.
Kids Near Mi Lai
April 21 - Sunday - Hoi An - Beach Day
After breakfast, we rented bikes to go to the beach. The minute we hit the beach, we were befriended by the vendors - mostly young school girls who have to work to pay for their school. (300,000 dong / $20 a month - a lot of money for them.)
Immediately we bonded with Hong Kong and Lela (both about 15). They wanted to sell us junky jewelry - but they said it was “very lucky jewelry.” We decided that we would buy 50,000 dongs worth of stuff from each girl. They must have expected a lot more. They went into their teenage drama act - long, sad faces. Several other older vendors joined in the fun. I said we'd buy things from people who were happy when we purchased their goods. We made the beach rental chair saleslady happy, the old peanut seller and Tiger Balm seller all happy. Finally I told our teenage friends we were sorry we couldn’t make them happy so take your lucky jewelry elsewhere - that changed their attitude and cheered them up enough to accept 50,000 dong each for 4 little pieces of “lucky” jewelry.
We left the crowd of vendors and went for a walk. The beach was beautiful and the waves were powerful. We spotted our Norwegian pals and chatted a bit - then had a good lunch.
After lunch we were stopped by our fruit salesgirls. When we met them early, we brushed them off with “Maybe later”. And now it was later and we had to buy some fruit to support their education. First we bought a Jack fruit (also called Dragon fruit) from Le Mango because she only had mangos in her basket (but could manage to come up with Jack fruit upon customer request). It was a strange red fruit, when cut open looks like Gouda cheese with poppy seeds mixed in - tastes OK. Then there was Lee Pineapple - a darling little orphan girl with a big floppy hat. She had a lot of different fruit in her basket, so we had to change her name to Lee Fruit Salad.
After we had all the trinkets, fruit, food, etc. that we could bear, we went back to claim our beach chairs - but they were rented to someone else. Guess it was time to move on down the road. We jumped on our bikes to explore the surrounding villages. Everyone was so busy, harvesting the rice, working in the garden, or carrying impossible loads. These folks are small, but STRONG!!! Everyone yelled out “HELLO, HELLO.” Don't get too many Westerners in these here parts.
We returned our bikes, showered, and walked into town. Found wonderful, quaint little shops just beyond the Japanese covered bridge. Bought a painting and some pottery. We are so charmed by this place.
Then we walked down to the riverfront for dinner at the Café des Amis run by Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim is a very interesting guy - half Chinese and half Vietnamese. He studied to become a chef in Paris in 1945 and then was the chef for the high-ranking officials in the South Vietnamese army. He also served as the “taster” to detect poison before the generals ate the meal. Mr. Kim is an artist, a musician and a Chef Extraordinaire. His paintings and sculptures were on display. The sounds of some French opera made up the background ambience. We loved the meal. The flavors were wonderful and there was Mr. Kim making sure we used just the right sauces. The place was packed with happy folks like us - and the happiest was Mr. Kim - the “main man in Hoi An.”
Full happy campers, we found our Norwegian pals on the way back to our hotel - more talk and laughs. No time to catch up on the journal.
Hoi An Beach
Round Boats, Hoi An
Bill and Mr. Kim
"The Man in Hoi An"
April 22 - Monday - Hoi An - Marble Mountain Day
Up early to enjoy our “stumbled” eggs. We rented bikes again. The bikes are pretty bad - one speed, iffy brakes and wobbling all over. All we needed was a destination. Then a guy told us about a country road to Marble Mountain - about a 30 mile round trip - so we were off.
First stop along the way was a school. I spotted about 35 little uniformed girls outside the school, quiet and in formation, ready to enter the door. I grabbed my bag of pencils and began handing them out. The girls were thrilled with the small gift and laughed and squealed until the teacher came out to chill the excitement of the “free pencils.” School is serious business here. I took a photo and waved good-bye. Nice way to start the day.
Next stop was a beautiful secluded beach - all we could see was fishing boats offshore. Walked a little, shared a coke and got back on the road to Marble Mountain.
The further down the road, the more “HELLO, HELLO's” we got. Didn't know we were so popular. All the kids wanted in return was a big HELLO back. Easy to accommodate them.
Finally made it to Marble Mountain. There were hundreds of little shops selling marble trinkets and the sounds of sanders and drills shaping huge hunks of marble. Of course, we had an instant gang of women pals all anxious to show us where to park the bikes, which entrance to take to the mountain and so forth.
We really enjoyed exploring Marble Mountain. I read where the American soldiers thought they had conquered the mountain, but the Viet Cong lived in the caves just inches below the Americans - the kings of the mountain. Imagine the two enemy groups sleeping, eating, planning strategies all within a wall of each other.
Marble Mountain has a lot of wonderful “Apocalypse Now” type caves - eerie Buddha's with sunlight filtering down through the incense smoke. We loved climbing inside these corridors and then scrambling to the top to see the wonderful vistas from the temples. If you go there, beware of one little old lady selling incense sticks. I was a sucker - bought some incense and snapped several pictures of her. My final tab came to $3 - I could buy a silk blouse for that!!
After exploring the place, we climbed down the mountain and sure enough, there were all our new friends waiting to show us their shops, their mother's shops, etc. We were hungry so they took us to someone's sister's restaurant. Boy was it good!! Since we were full and happy, naturally we had to make a few marble purchases on the way out of town (and we don't even care much for marble). Oh well.
Back on the road to the hotel - 15 miles to go and a head wind. Then my chain broke leaving us stranded in the country. In no time, kids start to gather, then a young mother. The crowds were building - so I begin taking pictures to document the adventure. Bill found a piece of tossed-out wire along the road. The woman picked up a couple of rocks to pound the chain pieces back together and then took the wire from Bill and wound it neatly around the chain segments. Bill said to me, “I think it’s going to work.” Then an older guy stops to inspect her work. He immediately took off her wire and ordered the woman to do something which we didn't understand because everybody only spoke Vietnamese. We were shocked. Why did he do that? Just like a man, we said. But in no time, the woman returned with some stronger wire and pliers and they go to work making a more secure fix. By that time there were about 20 kids around - nobody can speak English. Then one little boy yelled out “Americano.” I was a little nervous until I saw him flash a big smile. We thanked them for their help and tried to give them a little money (to us; a lot to them), but the young mother absolutely refused and handed us some extra wire, just in case. What an amazing experience! Didn't know we'd find such wonderful, giving people anywhere in the world.
Their work got us safely back to the hotel. We showered and took off for our evening in the town. As we were leaving the key with the receptionist at the hotel, the darling little gal at the desk handed me a present. We had chatted a little and had gotten to know her. Since this was our last night, she wanted to give me this present. It was a purse all wrapped up. I was so touched.
On our way into town, we saw Hoa, our wonderful wacky Vietnamese friend who took us to her sister's tailor shop. She stopped us and said she had a present for us. She said she had to go home and help her mother make soup for the family and then would return with this present. She said, “It's not much, because we are a poor family.” We told her we'd be at Mr. Kim's for dinner until 7:30. What’s up with this place - presents for the tourists? Must be some kind of twightlight zone.
We got to Mr. Kim's. He was just returning with fresh fruits and flowers from the market. He promptly put on some American music (to honor us) and started bringing out the courses (you never know what he's going to serve). We were the only customers at Mr. Kim's that night. The night before the place was hopping. Mr. Kim was starting to look depressed. Bill and I were yelling at people (i.e., Westerners) in the street to eat here for dinner. Then I told Mr. Kim it must the American music they don't like - Quick, change the music. We were finished at 7:00 - but Bill insisted we wait for Hoa. Vietnamese always keep their word (except for cab and cyclo drivers). At 7:20 Hoa shows up with a simple box of crackers. I wanted to cry - nobody had ever given me crackers before - what a sweet, strange little gift from a sweet, strange little gal. We said our thank you's and good-bye's and she took off.
Just as we were leaving Mr. Ki's, a large group of tourists (about 20) were in the street. Bill yells out, “Eat here, it’s wonderful.” The leader of the group says, “OK, we’ll eat there.” Mr. Kim perks right up and his crew goes into action arranging tables, bringing drinks, all to the loud sounds of a French Opera playing on Mr. Kim’s stereo.
It was truly a magical day and a magical place. We'll always remember Hoi An. So sad to be leaving.
Fixing the Bike
Near Marble Mountain
April 23 - Tuesday - Hoi An to Hue
Had an early breakfast (what else is new?). Said our good-bye's to the hotel staff and caught the bus to Hue (6 hour drive).
Interesting drive - we passed through Danang - a big, busy city. Glad we decided not to stay there. Then on through some high mountain passes and breath-taking views of the coastline. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful resort right on the ocean.
As usual, we witnessed several close calls on the way. Some kids on bikes veered right into the pathway of the bus, but the driver had quick reflexes and was not eager to mow anyone down. There were several buses packed with Vietnamese and lots of interesting stuff tied on top - bikes, motorcycles, office furniture, chickens, slaughtered pigs to name a few. We were right behind one of those buses when we observed a dog crawling among the stuff. Then the inevitable happened--the dog fell down onto the road. Leaving a pile of dog poop behind, he managed to scramble to the side of the road. Our bus driver thought it was funny. Bill and I were shocked. (Later we learned it's bad luck for a dog to cross your path.) Such strange ways with dogs. Some are wonderful pets, others are raised to eat. In fact, eating dog meat on certain lunar days makes you smarter and a better person. I'd like to think that the little dog who fell from the bus was on his way to market and luckily escaped.
We arrived in Hue about 2 pm. Checked into an OK hotel near the train station. We showered and walked to Ho Chi Minh's (HCM) museum. We also saw HCM's high school. He was expelled for organizing rebellions. We walked along the Perfume River and then found a nice garden restaurant to have a beer. With our Tiger beer, they also served some hard boiled birds' eggs - maybe sparrow or pigeon. They tasted OK - but not accustomed to eating little speckled eggs with my beer. Then we walked down into the “Backpacker’s area” and found a wonderful little Indian Restaurant. Going to really miss this food.
Commuters in Hue
April 24 - Wednesday - Hue - overnight train to Hanoi
After breakfast, we battled the taxi and cyclo drivers outside the hotel. “NO WE WANT TO WALK!!!” One must be firm. We crossed the bridge and went to the Citadel. We got another darling English speaking Vietnamese guide to take us through the Forbidden Purple City / Imperial City. We learned so much from her. The place was built in 1802 and fashioned like Beijing's Forbidden City (only on a smaller scale). Much was destroyed during the TET Offensive in 1968 and again in 1975 during “the liberation of Hue.” Only 20 of the original 148 buildings were left standing. There is much reconstruction work going on now - a lot funded by Poland, of all places. So much history associated with this place - Bo Dai (last king of Vietnam) handed over the empire here in 1945 to Ho Chi Minh. We visited the palace room, ancestral altars and got a little insight into the 9 kings who ruled from Hue. We saw the 9 dynastic urns (some with bullet holes left from “the American war” as they call it here).
Next we visited the Museum of Royal Fine Arts - an old Chinese building with ancient canons in the front garden.
The cylco drivers finally broke our down our resistance and we agreed to rent two drivers for two hours to take us to see the remaining sights in Hue. They took us through some lovely areas with ancient bombed out pagodas and then to the famous Thien Mu Pagoda way up on a hill. A monk from here burned himself in Saigon to protest the war, causing an international uproar. Why is everything so colored with the war?
We returned to the hotel to gather our luggage and have some lunch. We hung around until it was time to go to the train station for our overnight train ride to Hanoi.
Bill was so tired of being hassled and screwed around by the cyclo drivers that he told a group of drivers if you want to take our luggage to the train station, I'll pay 5,000 dong (35 cents), that's all. Then we started to push the luggage ourselves. In no time, a cyclo agreed to 35 cents. It's just the principle - and a little way to say I have some control left.
At the train station, Bill talked to a cute little Scottish gal traveling with her Italian boyfriend. There is a big group of French tourists who are carrying lots of goodies to eat. (The train fare includes dinner and breakfast - I'm perplexed, but discover the wisdom of their ways later on the train.)
The train is on time and we get settled into our berths - 4 beds, very comfy. A quiet little Vietnamese woman joined us, leaving one of the beds free. She doesn't know any English and we don't know Vietnamese, so we smiled at each other and then she goes about reading what looks like a movie or beauty magazine. In no time we are joined by another Vietnamese man who comes by for a visit. He knew a little English and so we opened our guide books to the language section and had a little Vietnamese / English lesson - Quite fun.
The porter delivered our dinner. If you think airplane food is bad, try train food. (Those clever French knew what they were doing.) The only recognizable thing was the rice. The rest looked like boiled body parts and slimy things. Later, you could supplement your dinner with a spring roll or a deep fried whole bodied bird. It looked like pigeons had been thrown into a vat of sizzling grease. You could see their little beaks clamped shut and the terror in their eye ball sockets. No thank you. Then I remembered Hoa's gift of crackers from Hoi An. I opened the box only to find 2 little hankies with a note -- “The plain one is for the husband and the striped one for the wife. I am sorry that is all I have to offer, Hoa.” That Hoa - another surprise from her. Oh well, we could use the hankies for washcloths or mini towels on the train.
After dinner, our little berth filled with more visiting Vietnamese travelers from the passenger section. Our berth became “the place” to gather. One of the guys spoke some English. They were fun-loving teenage guys. I took some pictures, smiled a lot while Bill tried to get some information on hotels in Hanoi. I was glad when the porter came by to break up the party and send the guys back to their passenger car. I just settled in, reading my book, when the cute little Scottish girl finds us and wants to sleep in the extra bed because she hates the conditions in the passenger car. She and Bill talked for about an hour while I plug my ears and try to read my book.
The train stopped and a sweet little “party line” couple came into our berth. The porter escorted the quiet Vietnamese girl and the chatty Scottish girl out to make way for our new room mates. They very quietly went about settling in for the night - Peace at last. Lights out at 9 - I slept so well with my new comrades - Bill, not so well. Such an interesting evening.
Farmers Near Hue
April 25 - Thursday - Hanoi
The quiet little couple got up early, neatly folded their sheets and blankets and then sat quietly with their hands folded watching the scenery go by. I hung out in my upper berth, reading and writing - very pleasant.
Nobody delivered breakfast to us on the train - but after last night's meal, I didn't complain. We arrived in Hanoi at 8:30 am, right on time. Grabbed a cab, decided to try a special promotion hotel (or in our language - BIG DISCOUNT). We didn't like the place and there was someone else waiting for the “bait and switch” to show us another place. Finally, we had it and Bill says to the cab driver “I want to go to the Classic Street Hotel, nowhere else and that's it.” The cab driver got the point. 30 minutes after arriving in Hanoi, we were finally settled into the Classic Street Hotel - a lovely place recommended by some travelers we met in the Mekong Delta. You must take charge of your destiny in this place. Bill negotiated a lower rate at the hotel, nobody got a commission, but the cab driver did OK. For $25 a night, we have a sweet, quiet, sunny room with a view, a nice bed and bathroom and a big breakfast plus a wonderful staff to make you feel at home.'
'We had a little breakfast and then went to our room. Bill did the wash and I read the guide book. (He doesn't like the way I do laundry.) Then we took a walk in the Old Quarter (our new lively neighborhood). We first walked to the Ngoc Son Pagoda on one of the many lakes in Hanoi. Hanoi is a beautiful city - lots of parks and lakes and tree-lined streets. We're very impressed. We crossed a beautiful little red bridge to get to the Pagoda and then took a few photos. It's a nice Pagoda as far as Pagodas go. They're all starting to look alike.
After a good lunch at the Whole Earth - tuna fish and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, we just explored the streets in the Old Quarter. There are 36 streets named after the original trade guilds set up here eons ago. The structure has pretty much remained intact - there’s the silk block (where we bought Brian a silk shirt), the shoe block (where we bought some knockoff Nike sandals), the sun glasses block (where I bought some new knockoff sun glasses), the baby block (where we bought Zi some stuff), the burial street (where didn’t buy any headstones, thank goodness), and the list goes on - blacksmiths, ghost money (whatever that is), t-shirts, plumbing supplies, etc.
It started to rain, so we came back to our hotel to get umbrellas. The rain was light and cooled down the place a little and kept the motorbike traffic away. It was nice. A number of the streets instantly became the umbrella / raincoat street, just in the nick of time.
Later that afternoon, we walked back to the lake and found the best place in town to have a beer - it would become our “happy hour” spot overlooking the lake. We saw a lovely rainbow.
After we finished our beers, we went to the water puppet theatre (a must do in Hanoi). There are two classes of seats - 40,000 dong (almost $3) for the front section and 20,000 dong for the back section. Westerns filled the front section and locals were packed in the back. (They've got to resent us at times.) The show was interesting. Strange music and puppets doing goofy things in the water. Glad it only lasted an hour. Us westerners are used to more excitement at the theatre.
We went back to the Whole Earth for dinner. Everything so good and fresh and cheap. Then back to the room to plan for our next day in this wonderful city.
Bridge to Loc Son Pagoda
April 26 - Friday - Hanoi
After an early breakfast, we walked south along Hoan Kiem Lake. Saw a lot of beautiful gardens with a lot of old people all out exercising. Several were playing badminton (a very popular sport here).
We caught a cab to go the Ho Chi Minh's (HCM) museum (cost 15,000 dong - $1). There was a lot to do in that area. We visited the one pillar pagoda - built on, guess what - one pillar. We tried to go to the HCM museum - but it was closed to us. They were having some special event, probably for party folks. We'd be back.
We visited HCM houses in the area. We hired Hoang, another wonderful, friendly, beautiful Vietnamese guide. (How can a country have this many sweet, adorable girls?) Hoang always referred to HCM as Uncle Ho - such love and reverence for Uncle Ho. We learned a lot. First we saw the fancy French mansion that Uncle Ho refused to live in while his country was so poor. From 1954 - 58, Ho built and lived in a modest 3 room house (bedroom, dining room and study) right on the grounds next to the lake where he often fished. The bedroom at first had no furniture. The officials thought Ho should sleep on a bed, so Ho purchased a basic bed from the local market. Over Ho's desk were pictures of Marx and Lenin. Ho was a very simple man, but very smart. He spoke 8 languages and was well read. He traveled around the world for over 30 years, working on ships. During this time he spent a year working on the docks in New York City. He also loved to garden and planted several of the trees in the area himself. He would walk down “Mango Alley” to the big fancy French mansion every morning to go to work.
In 1958, Ho decided to build an even more modest house - like the stilt house he grew up in as a child - so he designed another house and lived there from 1958 until his death in 1969. Downstairs was an open air conference room with a surrounding ledge designed for the children to come and sit. He loved children, although he never married. Hoang told us he was too busy to remember his lonely feelings. Upstairs in the stilt house was a simple bedroom and study. Next to the house was the bomb shelter he used when the U.S. bombs got too close. He had a U.S. shell hung up to use as a bell to warn people to come to the shelter. Weird to see, but so interesting. I must learn a lot more about this character, Uncle Ho.
Next we visited the Temple of Literature - built in 1076. It was the first university in Vietnam - taught Confucius’ way of thinking. There were a lot of statues of turtles with tablets on their backs (saw the same thing in China). Here the Mandarins studied and took their exams. The King would quiz them and conduct discussions with the students. There were a lot of young artists sketching the beautiful structures of the Temple of Literature.
We got a cab to take us back to the Old Quarter. It only cost a buck in the morning - but later, with a new cab driver, the price had quadrupled. You don’t mess with Bill. He paid the correct amount and that sleazy cab driver didn’t even challenge him.
We had only 55 minutes to do the Revolutionary Museum. That's a lot of oppression to cover - from all of the “foreign invaders” - Chinese, Japanese, French, and of course U.S. (with the “Puppet Soldiers” of south Vietnam). Some of the pictures and displays are starting to look alike. We made it through the oppression and then the victories and the Happy Life rooms - industry, economic growth, etc. All is well. The propaganda is wonderfully presented with lots of color and smiles.
We ignored the cab and cyclo drives and tried to find a lunch spot on our own. Got lost and started to feel tired and grumpy until we found the Au Lac Cafe - a lovely, peaceful garden spot tucked away in the hub-bub of the city. I was feeling homesick so I order hamburger and fries and a beer; Bill had “Singapore Noodles” and a beer. It was a big splurge for us -- $7 for both of us. We’re really spoiled. By the way, the hamburger was huge and tasted great!
We walked back to our hotel - did a little shopping on the way. Rested in our room a little, then ventured out to our favorite beer place on the lake. It was especially beautiful with a full moon overhead. Man, this is the life.
After our beer, we had Indian food at the Tandoor - delicious. Checked e-mail - nothing. We packed for our 3-day trip to Ha Long Bay and then to bed.
The Best Beer
Place in Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh
Stilt House, Hanoi
April 27 - Saturday - Ha Long Bay
After breakfast we caught the mini bus for our Ha Long Bay adventure - only 15 people - all young enough to be our kids or grandkids. Thuy, another cute Vietnamese guide, age 24, told us about the ways of her people on the bus. She was adorable - big smile, sparkling personality. Other passengers were: 3 Irish airline stewardess on leave, traveling together for 6 months (they were laid off after 9/11); another Irish couple; an American Chinese couple from the Bay area (Dan's a doctor; Ann's an environmental engineer); a Canadian couple from Vancouver; 2 American buddies (Chris and Kip); an Australian couple working in Saigon and of course, us old farts. The group was terrific - very mellow and sweet (except for our type A personalities).
Our first stop on the way was a shop that Bill called the “Center for Preservation of Child Labor” because so many little girls were doing this beautiful embroidery work.
The next stop was lunch at Ha Long City. We were seated with the Irish girls. They just picked at their rice while Bill and I gobble down mass quantities of shrimp, calamari, and other wonderful stuff. I thought they must think we were full-on pigs - but later we learned that we were all suffering from diarrhea for the last 3 weeks. Poor things - but lucky us!!
We walked around the city after lunch, then boarded our boat. We drew keys for the cabins we’d be staying in. We got the one next to the noisy engine room. This time, poor, unlucky us.
Then we cruised through Ha Long Bay - the most gorgeous place in the world (and I have plenty of pictures to prove it). Huge limestone structures jut up from the water. It was so peaceful and beautiful. Then we stopped to see what Thuy called the “Amazing Cave”, discovered by the French. It was used as a military hideout during the “American” war. The North Vietnamese soldiers had to drink the water from the limestone pools and then got sick. It was a huge cave with amazing formations. Thuy pointed out dragons, happy Buddhas, elephants, dogs and the big “finger” that really looked like something else (about the only one I could spot right away). After exploring the cave, we got back on our boat and cruised to an isolated swimming spot. It was so much fun - people jumping off the decks and splashing. We worked up a great appetite for a great dinner prepared and served right on the boat.
After dinner, more swimming in the moonlight. It was almost a full moon and so lovely and magical. As you moved in the water, you stirred up the phosphorus algae which glowed like a million fire flies in the water. Ann and I stayed out swimming around the boat late in the evening. The rest of the gang was talking and laughing on the top decks. Finally I came in and talked to “the kids” as they passed a bottle of whiskey around. Not for us old farts. To bed at 10 in our noisy cabin - but it was rather nice being sleepless in Ha Long Bay.
Thuy, Ha Long Bay
April 28 - Sunday - Ha Long Bay to Cat Ba Island
We had breakfast on the boat - Cereal and yogurt and fruit and coffee. What a delightful change.
Then we cruised to Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba means woman because during the Chinese dynasty all unwed mothers were sent to Cat Ba to have their babies and could never leave the island after that - so their descendents stayed and populated the place.
We got settled into our hotel - 6th floor view of the water. Great view - but the room was a little lacking - lousy air-conditioner and no top sheets. Oh well, can't have everything.
Got back on the boat and cruised to another part of the island - no cars, just a few motorbikes. We walked to a little village - lots of kids running around, playing, jumping rope, etc. I had forgotten that kids did that sort of thing - what happened to their electronic toys and video games? We stopped at a little restaurant to have a snack to give us energy for the hike up the steep mountain. They served white bread (like Wonder bead) and bananas. Strange.
Unfortunately, I lagged behind taking photos of the rice paddies and Thuy was worried about the old gal, so she stayed back and followed me every step. Again, the path was straight up the mountain. Lots of scrambling on all fours. (Don't these folks know about switch backs?) The pace with Thuy was a little slow, but I enjoyed her company and conversation about eating dog on certain holidays to make you a better person, about breaking up with her boyfriend because he wants to leave Vietnam to find new opportunities, about her handsome young brother that all the girls love, etc. We talked about how thin all the Vietnamese were. I told Thuy that in my country I really wasn’t considered fat - but here I'm really fat. She said, “No, you're the same size as my mother, only your bottom is bigger.” Thanks a lot Thuy.
The view at the top was well worth the 2-hour trek in the heat. On one side you could see the bay with the amazing limestone structures and on the other side, you could see the village and the rice paddies. We all had our pictures taken on a wall overlooking the bay that was once a radar station during the war. On the way down, the “kids” kept saying to us, “My parents couldn't have done this hike. You're in great shape, etc.” They were so sweet.
We came back through the little village and had lunch where we had stopped earlier for bread and bananas. It was good. Then I dozed off in the hammock while the others chatted.
We walked back to the boat and then cruised off to a deserted beach for another swim. I floated on my back and could see the top of the limestone structures all around me while the birds were soaring overhead. I did find some gorgeous shells on the beach. Nice stop. Back to the boat for Tiger beers.
We got back to Cat Ba City and our hotel, cleaned up and had dinner at 7. There were a lot of Vietnamese tourists in town on holiday. Many gaudy lights and lots of vendors roamed the streets. People were lined up to get their pictures taken. (Vietnamese don't have cameras.) They were also lined up to weigh themselves on a talking scale. (They don't have scales AND they don't need them! All so trim and thin.) End of another very nice day.
Bill and Nancy
Cat Ba Island
April 29 - Monday - Cat Ba Island to Hanoi
Bad breakfast at the hotel - bread, coffee and rotten bananas. The Irish girls were hung over from too much partying the night before.
We caught the boat and cruised to a fishing village and several oyster (pearl) farms. We stopped for one last swim in Ha Long Bay. Then it was on to Ha Long City for our last lunch together. The lunch made up for the sorry breakfast - beautiful place, delicious food.
After lunch, back on our bus to Hanoi. Arrived around 5 pm. Bill did the wash, then we walked to the lake to our favorite beer spot right on the water. We walked through “our neighborhood” - the Old Quarter and tried a new restaurant - Little Hanoi. Cheap and good. Bill even got a T-shirt from there (only $1.25). <
After dinner, I stopped at an Internet Café to send out another report. It was getting late when I finished. I tried to find the hotel, but everything was locked up and nothing looked the same. Only me and those sharks, the cyclo drivers, pestering me for a ride. “What's the name of your hotel?” NO THANK YOU. I kept going down one street and then back again - finally I saw Bill and the night manager at the hotel lifting up a garage door exposing the hotel lobby. Didn't even know the hotel had a garage door to shut down like that at night. Bill was worried and woke the manager to let him out and just in the nick of time. Safe and sound and away from those awful cyclo drivers!
April 30 - Tuesday - Reunification Day - Big Day in Hanoi
After breakfast, we took a cab to the Ho Chi Minh (HCM) Mausoleum. The line was so long. We checked our backpacks and camera. The tour books say that foreigners get to go to the head of the line. Weird, but true. The guard let us in the line. Everyone in line is quiet and respectful. As we approached the entrance, a guard (they're everywhere) yelled “Madame, Madame, your glasses”. I had forgotten to remove my sunglasses. It was like the Soup Nazi - only these were the HCM Nazis.
The bowels of the Mausoleum are elegant - all marble and the air-conditioner is on full blast. They take good care of their Uncle Ho. We marched into the room to view Uncle Ho. He looked like he's just asleep in his olive drab coat -- his beard neatly laid out and his fingernails well manicured. They send him to Russia each year for refurbishing. It is the strangest thing. Poor Ho would be turning over in his Mausoleum if he only knew what they've done to him. He was a simple man and his will stated that he wanted to be cremated. It was eerie seeing him and the reverence the people still feel towards a body.
After the Mausoleum, we visited another weird thing - HCM Museum. You don't learn anything about his life - just marvel at the strange displays - like an old Edsel car crashed through one of the walls (to symbolize the downfall of American industry?). Another display was a huge loop-sided table and chairs with giant fruit - the banana must have been 6 feet long - while the backdrop displays scenes of industry, pollution and death. They also displayed Ho's books and office items on large sections that were supposed to be parts of the brain. The best thing the museum offered was the sayings and writings from HCM. They were beautiful poetic statements. I must learn more about the guy.
Next stop was the Army Museum that traced the struggle of Vietnam with all the foreign invaders - China, Japan, France, and then, of course, U.S. There were a lot of tanks and planes and pieces of shot-down American planes all piled up by a tree. There were rifles, grenades, traps (one with part of an American shoe still left in it - upsetting), and other tools of war. The displays referred to the South Vietnamese army as “Puppet Soldiers.” There were photos of lots of North Vietnam victories and heroes, some showing how many enemy they had killed. I think we did get a lot more stares on that day at that place. That war still angers us.
Next stop, on a cyclo (yes, we broke down and hired a cyclo) was the Hoa Lo prison (AKA Hanoi Hilton), where American soldiers and pilots were “detained.” They have a photo of prisoner John McCain on the wall. The prison was first used by the French in the 30’s when the Vietnamese were starting their independence movement. We saw a lot of torture items - your typical horror stuff -- but the section where the Americans were “detained” displayed a nice bed and photos of the Americans cooking dinner together and having tea with reporters with lots of goodies stacked on the table - YEAH RIGHT. The prison was very interesting.
After the prison, we headed to the lake in search of food and of course, we were successful. Had a nice lunch. Then we walked back to the Old Quarter to do our last minute shopping. Bought way too much. Can't believe that Bill lost his desire to bargain. “It's only another 25 cents,” he'd say. This is a guy who bargains for water and even the exchange rate (and wins). What's happening to my man? Back to the Little Hanoi for another wonderful dinner. Then we walked around the lake. Lots of families in town to celebrate April 30 and May 1st. We stopped one last time at our favorite place on the lake to share an ice cream sundae. Back to the street where Bill paid 10,000 dong (66 cents) to weigh himself on one of those street scales. Then at 8 pm, we watch a street program on a big stage along with the local crowds. The first 3 acts were great - dancers, acrobats and contortionists. Then out came the comedian and everyone left, including us. Really rough crossing the streets that night.
May 1 - Wednesday - Hanoi to Bangkok
After breakfast, we took a nice walk in the French Quarter - walked for a couple of hours and then I went to an Internet café to get out another report. I was typing in my report when the second rain of our trip occurred. The rain just poured out of the sky. In a few minutes, the water was almost to the curbside, ready to flood the little shops, but stopped in time. (Hate to be here during the monsoon.) I saved my file often and enjoyed the pouring rain.Bill met me later and we had lunch at the Whole Earth. Said “Good-bye” to a sweet guy we met there (Quy) who is studying to become an English teacher. Needs to make 500 on his exams. He gave us a picture of himself so we won't forget him.At 2:30, the cab driver picked us up to go to the airport. She is the first female cab driver we've seen. I liked her style - a little more calm. At the airport, we saw our Canadian friends from the Ha Long Bay trip and shared one last beer. Had a nice time. Flight was on time. Food so-so. Arrived in Bangkok. Immigration lines are long. Unfortunately the people in my line resembled Osama Bin Laden. I observed that it takes much longer to process those guys. We arranged for a hotel at the airport - one that's close to both the airport and the train station. We want to go to see Ayutthaya, the ancient capitol of Thailand before our flight home tomorrow night. A cab from the hotel came to deliver us to the hotel. I remembered how the Thai people loved their king from our last visit, so I asked “Not” our cab driver “How’s the king?” Not replied, “I love my king. The noble peace prize is not good enough for my king.” What a sweet guy. I can’t remember feeling that way about any of my Presidents.
We knew we're back in civilization. Everyone had a car and there was gridlock - even at 9 pm. The alleged resort, Max One, had a few little cottages around a dirty old goldfish pond. I find it amusing. No hot water - but who needs it? Really warm here in Bangkok.
May 2 - Thursday - Bangkok to Ayutthaya then home to San Diego
Up early - “Not” made our breakfast - white toast, egg, coffee and a hotdog. Then he drove us to the train station to catch a train to Ayutthaya. “Not” told us the boss instructed him to charge 200 bhat for the ride - 150 for the boss and 50 for Not, but Not said, “I want you to have a good time in Thailand, so I’m only going to charge you the 150 for the boss.” Of course we’d paid Not’s part, too. What a sweet, sweet guy. There were traffic jams on the way to the train station, but we made it in time for the 8:03 train. Ayutthaya was the old ancient capitol. It was established in 1350, surrounded by a river. There were canals (like Venice) and main tree lined streets within the city as well. It was an incredible place and lasted for 417 years until the Burmese came and destroyed it. Those Burmese are still at it.Got to Ayutthaya at 9 and then hired Tony to take us to all the important sights in his funny little 3-wheeled Mazda tuk-tuk. Great fun - for 3 hours we saw 4 major temple ruins, the national museum and the national palace with the Giant Golden Buddha.” We also saw the 42-meter reclining Buddha. I feel in love with Thailand all over again. It was only a year and half ago and I had forgotten about these incredible ruins and monuments and sweet people (except for the boss at Max One). We had a huge buffet lunch at a nice hotel (with air-conditioning). Ate like pigs, then caught the 1:30 train back to our alleged “resort.”
Tried to rest - but no luck. Lots of visions of Thailand were dancing in my head - so I headed on down to the local Internet Café to file my last report, among about a dozen teens playing, loud, shoot-up ‘em video games - drove me crazy .. but ..
Our plane leaves at 1:20 am tomorrow morning. What a trip it's been.
We'll be home just in time to celebrate Zi's first birthday. We think about her and our family and friends often.
See you soon back in the good ole U.S. of A. It is indeed the best country ever - one where a couple of old farts like us can have the chance to explore the rest of the world. I'm rambling now. Time to sign off. See ya back in the states.
Temple in Ayuttaya
Another Temple in Ayuttaya