S: Good Morning, Vietnam!
FC: Good Morning, Vietnam!
1: Travel is not about the destination - it is about the journey and the people you meet along the way. All you need is an open mind, an open heart and an open road. This book is dedicated to all the armchair travelers who followed us faithfully through Vietnam and Cambodia. We enjoyed having you along! January 12th to March 8th, 2013
2: January 12...And so begins the great adventure... | Got to Penticton with lots of time to spare. They were unable to check us in all the way through to Saigon. Some technical reason prevented them doing the last leg. Soooo, Shanghai was going to be an unexpected adventure awaiting us, having to pick up, our bags and clear customs then check in all over again. Flight to Vancouver was nice, beautiful clear skies and a smooth ride all the way. No glitches for flight two. It was a long flight...thirteen hours in the air and a pretty lousy selection of movies. It was kind of weird following the sun all the way. We arrived at 2 am our time---5 pm Shanghai time. Bit of anxiety as we tried to figure out what the heck we were supposed to do after getting off the plane. Needed an arrival card, departure card, foreigner line, transit line, yikes! And of course we didn't have a Chinese visa as we weren't planning to have to leave the secure area! It was confusing but we just followed the crowd and got through customs with no problems. Then we had to exit the secure area, find our baggage and get to a different terminal. Shanghai airport is huge...a good ten minute walk to the international terminal. Check in was easy, passport check and request for our "invitation" for Vietnam. We are doing Visa on Arrival which works something like this...someone in Vietnam applies on your behalf for permission for you to enter the country. Immigration issues a letter of invitation that is presented when you enter the country, along with two passport sized pictures and a fee, in US dollars..exact change only please...and a Visa is issued on the spot and stapled into your passport. (The other option is to get a Visa from the embassy in Canada, which takes longer, requires you to mail off your passport and costs twice as much!) We did find a spot for meal...middle of the night so I am not sure if we were eating breakfast, lunch or dinner! No English in the restaurant and of course we had no Chinese currency. MasterCard didn't work either but fortunately Visa came through. Have no idea how much dinner was! Couldn't get online to convert. Whatever...it hit the spot and would have to last us thought the rest of the five hour layover and another four hour flight into Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). We nearly froze to death in Shanghai waiting for our flight. Our gate was somewhere in the bowels of the building and it was cold and not helped by the fact that they kept opening the doors. I nodded off for a wee bit in the waiting area, my first zzzs since we had left. Met a young couple from Vernon and an older couple from Calgary who were also on their way to VN and Cambodia. Once the flight was called, we had to get on a bus and we drove forever across the airport, finally arriving at our China Eastern plane. Boarding was chaotic, the entire plane load of people cramming themselves up a huge set of stairs like a herd of cattle! Plus it was so cold that everyone was trying to get inside quickly.
3: Flying to HCM was beautiful. We both slept for an hour or two but while we were awake, it was so clear you could see many of the huge Chinese cities we passed over. I think we also passed over Japan and Korea. About fifteen minutes out we could see the strangest lights. They looked like giant rectangles and squares of light. As we got lower you could see the rectangles were made up of rows of individual lights. Curious to know what they were for. Arrival was relatively painless. Headed for the arrival visas sign, handed in our letters, passports and pictures, were given another form to complete, one picture back and then waited only a few minutes until our name was called, our payment taken and our passports, complete with visas, returned. Next would be our first test of my bookings...HCM taxis are notorious for scams and ripoffs so I just had our hotel arrange pickup. Sure enough, as we exited the airport, there was our guy, with a sign saying, Claudia Wood, Hong Han Hotel. Success!! We drove for about thirty minutes, and except for the constant horn honking at every intersection, it was like driving in any other city. As he approached each intersection he would honk...we think a warning to anyone who was planning to run the light on the cross street. Not as much traffic as I expected but of course it was two am on a Monday morning. Hotel is fine, nothing fancy but clean. Beds are a little hard but bearable. I had asked for a low level room as many hotels dont have elevators. Alas, our first night is on the fourth floor, a long hike up some very steep stairs. Good thing the guy carried our bags. Tomorrow we move to the second floor. It is relatively quiet... Couple of all night bars on the street in front but there doesn't seem to be a lot of rowdiness. By the time we finally climbed into bed, we had been on the road for about 28 hours, with little sleep. Hoping the fact that the lack of sleep en route and a short sleep our first night will help with jet lag. Although it was ten am our time, it felt like the middle of the night. Sleep would be short, only a couple of hours, before the city began to wake up and the noise of traffic and motorbike honking woke us. Monday begins our first day of exploring...half day tour booked ith the Saigon Hotspots, a group of university students who do free tours in exchange for being able to practise their English. More on that later. Internet sucks...oh brother! Slower than molasses...hope this will upload and hoping it is better on the lower floors. Breakfast is served on the balcony of the second floor...wonder what it will be?!! Doesn't matter, we are starving!
4: Not a great sleep last night, woke and slept, woke and slept but never really got into deep sleep. Oh well, tonight I will sleep for sure. And when we got up it actually did feel like morning so we aren't feeling like our clocks are totally out of whack. The horn honking started early but really got going around 6:30. Lots of traffic on the narrow little street below us. Breakfast was served on the balcony...eggs and a baguette, fresh fruit juice, coffee and cute little baby bananas. It was all great since were both starving. It was fun to sit and watch the people on the street below...wow, quite an interesting activity. There are several tiny restaurants serving Pho (noodle soup) and other yet to be identified delicacies. Lots of purchases going on. Also a ton of motorbikes going by carrying everything imaginable..saw a couple guys doing water deliveries (4 or 5 big bottles and several flats balanced on the bike), others with two or three big boxes of who knows what...families with both parents and a couple of kids...And they all honk! The noise is amazing. Today we had the pleasure of taking a tour with a university student from the Saigon Hotpots. She was delightful and her English was excellent. We had her booked for a half day to take us on a city tour. She picked us up in the lobby at nine and we ventured out into the madness. The traffic is amazing. There are about ten million people in HCM and five million motorbikes. They park them all over the sidewalks so the pedestrians have to walk on the street. There are some but not many traffic lights, crosswalks don't mean a thing and none of this is for the faint of heart! Our first lesson was learning how to cross the street without getting killed. Walk slow and don't stop...that's the rule...and the traffic just finds a way around you. Whatever you do, you can't stop! You will get an idea, maybe from the pictures, just how much traffic you are dodging or more likely is dodging you. At the really busy intersections near the big market, there are uniformed men there to help you across. They are very sweet, trained to pick out the tourists, I'm sure. Perhaps they can see the terror in their eyes! They blow their whistles and lead you out into the traffic. The whistle is mostly for show because it certainly doesn't stop the traffic. But it feels a little safer! Anyway, thanks to these guides and Anh our guide, who was very good at it, we didn't get killed our first day here. | January 14...First day of exploration...
5: Our first stop this morning was a money exchange where we converted a couple hundred bucks into Vietnamese dong. Two hundred dollars is about 400,000,000 VD. We felt like millionaires! We then walked to our first tourist site, Reunification Palace. Anh was great, with lots of good historical information. There are two tanks parked outside the palace. These were the two that invaded the palace on the day that South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese. One was a Chinese tank and the other was Russian, both communist allies during what they call the American War. The palace itself was built way back in the late 1800's, when Vietnam was under French rule. It was bombed and rebuilt twice. When last rebuilt, it lost its original, beautiful French architecture and today looks like a pretty typical 1970's building. It was home to the South Vietnamese president until his surrender to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Inside the building, many of the original rooms remain, complete with the furniture, paintings, statues and carpets. We visited several rooms, including the various rooms the president would use for meetings with international leaders, domestic leaders. Uncle Ho is prominent in most of the rooms. We also visited the private quarters, built in the centre of the building on the second floor. It was quite pleasant, an interior courtyard with a lovely water garden. Anh showed us the president's office where he had two exit doors, one being a secret passage to the basement where he would be safe during any bombing. Anh was a lovely guide, knowledgeable with a great presentation style. She would ask us what we noticed about the room and why we thought it was that way then would give us the explanation. I felt like I'd better be paying attention! We visited a couple of strategy rooms, one upstairs and one in the fortified basement. The walls were covered in maps showing the locations of the various troops. There was a small museum in the basement with photos of many of the tragedies of the war. A solemn reminder of what transpired. After leaving the palace, we walked to the French District where you can see the original French architectural style. Notre Dame Cathedral was gorgeous. We only saw it from the outside but it was pretty majestic. It is apparently a popular spot for wedding pictures...and sure enough there was a couple getting their pictures done. Across the street from NDC is the Post Office, another gorgeous building. We wandered inside and took a few pictures. It is still a functioning post office so we may go back to buy some stamps and send a couple postcards.
6: Next stop was The People's Committee, which is their city hall. You can't go inside and they don't really like you taking pictures of their government buildings. (We discovered that earlier when we passed by the law courts and Roy was directed to take his camera outside the fence, please!) But there is a beautiful garden in front of city hall and it's okay for the building to be in the background of the pictures you take of the gardens. Nearby is a huge shopping centre, looked like the real designer places...Gucci, Prada etc. Too rich for my blood. I'll be looking for the knock offs in the market! The Intercontinental and the Rex Hotels are in this area, beautiful old French architecture...if you saw The Quiet American, there is a scene shot right there. By now it was lunch time and Anh was thrilled that we wanted to go to eat real, traditional Vietnamese food. So we jumped in a cab and went to a locals' restaurant. Lunch was great. They have a set menu each day so everyone gets the same thing. It changes every day but you don't know what you'll get until you get it! Today we had a catfish soup, rice, two kinds of vegetables, one that was kind of a cross between broccoli and spinach, one that was kind of like cucumber and another that was almost like an apple pear. The latter was served with salt laced with chili powder. There was fish sauce and another unidentified but rather delicious sauce. We all had iced green tea and a fruit drink made from grapes and served over ice. I forgot to take a picture but the young ladies next to us let me take a picture of theirs, which was exactly the same. Wonderful lunch...total cost $15 for the three of us! I could get to like this. Anh dropped us back at our hotel after lunch and we bid her farewell with many many thanks and a small Canadian gift...notebook, pen and key chain with the Canadian maple leaf.
7: After a short rest in our room and a chance to cool down in the AC, we headed out bravely on our own to find the Ben Thanh Market. I say bravely because first, we weren't that sure where it was and second because we had to fight that nasty traffic without our protector. The market was a zoo, like Hong Kong but ten times as big and the sellers were ten times as pushy. You couldn't look at anything without them trying to talk you into it or dragging you by the arm into their little stall! Some of the aisles are so narrow, you can't get by the girls who are selling. You like shirt, Madame? No, what you looking for? You buy for grandchildren? Roy bought a couple of Adidas tech shirts, seven bucks each...pretty good since the original asking price was about twenty each! We were "attacked" by a trio of girls trying to sell us Columbia zip off pants....they started at $30 a pair and I think the last they offered to sell at was $7 a pair. Too bad we just bought some before we left! Anyway, the place was a zoo but we will probably go back again at some point. We managed to find our way back to our hotel without getting lost or run over and spent the rest of the afternoon cooling off in our AC room. It was about 25 or 30 today and muggy. Right now are sitting on the balcony. I am writing and Roy is editing he pictures. It is incredibly noisy but has cooled off a little and is quite pleasant. We are heading off to find something for dinner so I will leave you with this. I'll upload pictures when I return. Wifi seems to be better down on the lower floors. ...just returned from dinner. Tonight we went for Pho...noodle soup, mine chicken and Roy's beef. Noodles, onion, bean sprouts and mint in a nice broth...yummy! Two pho, two passion fruit juice and one Coke...120,000 dong...do the math...take off four zeros and divide by two gets you the approximate cost in US dollars...$6 for th two of us and we are stuffed.
8: January 15...A visit to Chinatown | We certainly got our sleep last night! We were out like lights by eight o'clock! I slept like a log for most of the night, waking for a bit a four but managing to go back to sleep until six. I think we are beyond any jet lag so I think we got off easy! Another spectacular day with the Saigon Hotpots. Today we were blessed with two delightful young ladies from the university. They picked us up at the hotel at nine and we headed out for Chinatown. Today was a day for taking the bus...not too expensive at twenty five cents or so each! The bus ride ended at the end of the line in Chinatown (Cholon). The traffic in Chinatown was nuts. Crossing the road was much harder than what we managed yesterday. Our guides were so sweet, making sure that one was on either side of us and getting us through the mayhem. Our first stop was Cho Binh Tay Market. This is the Chinese wholesale market where stores and restaurants come to buy in bulk, not for individuals like us to buy one-off items. The market was absolutely amazing...people rushing up and down the aisles with boxes stacked precariously in carts or more often on their backs. The noise was phenomenal...the workers shouting ayayay or hoo hoo hoo or some other universal language all of which could easily be interpreted....get out my way!!! The market is humongous with aisle after aisle of clothes, food, material, tablecloths, you name it. Huge piles, narrow aisles, incredible collection of just about anything you can imagine. All around the outside you could find fresh produce, eggs, and every imaginable kind of fish, seafood or meat. We enjoyed watching the little old Chinese ladies chasing escapee crabs or chopping up vegetables. Traffic around the outside was just gridlocked...it was even hard for foot traffic to navigate around the mass of trucks and motorcycles. So many people and so many vehicles in a tight space. Francis Xavier ( Cha Tam ) church was the next stop, a pleasant respite after the mayhem of the market. The church is a big yellow steepled building. It was an interesting mix of Western/ Catholic and Eastern. The church was open so we were able to walk in and take some pictures. Next door was a large elementary school from which was coming a lot of noise. Perhaps there is mayhem in their classrooms also!
9: January 16...Off to Phu Quoc | We had a leisurely morning today...ate a later breakfast, relaxed and enjoyed an extra cup of coffee on the balcony. Then we repacked our suitcases and went down to the lobby and checked out. With a couple of hours to kill we stored our bags and took a walk a around the neighbourhood, dropping in to meet the manager of the hotel we will stay in on our return next week. Found the most incredible bakery...Kay if you are reading, skip ahead please! We each bought something for lunch, kind of a pizza thing and a pastry for dessert. Roy's was really decadent looking; mine was a simple piece of banana cake, no frosting. We paid the exorbitant price of $3.40...for everything...took it back to the hotel, parked ourselves on the balcony and chowed down. Very tasty! With still some time to spare we went down to the lobby and ended up chatting with an expat that has been trying to retire to Saigon. We kept watching for the taxi but the hotel guy just kept laughing at us saying, relax it will come at noon. Sure enough at exactly noon a car pulled up...no taxi...no sign on the car, but rather, i think, just some buddy of his who does it to make a few extra bucks. OMG the ride to the airport was an experience. I'm still shaking my head. Imagine eight million of the worst drivers in the world all rushing to get somewhere at the same time. We were in and out of traffic, cutting so close to other cars, in out honk, in out honk honk. I can't believe there aren't more crash ups! We just kept looking at each other in disbelief and trying not to laugh. It was bizarre! Way worse than New York or California drivers! Sorry Steve:) Check in for our flight was a breeze, another sigh of relief that my online bookings weren't bogus. A short forty minute flight and we were back on the ground again, this time at the brand new Phu Quoc international airport. Our bags were off quickly and we were in a taxi and on our way. Ten minute drive and we arrived at the Beach Club resort. The island is quite mountainous and mostly covered in jungle so very green inland and white beaches all along the coast. Looking forward to exploring it further in the next few days. Check in was delayed as they were shuffling people around the rooms and bungalows. We are booked in a beach front bungalow for two nights and then move to a beach front room for the next two. The resort is RIGHT on the beach. The rooms are pretty basic, a little worn looking, no a/c but a good fan, basic bathroom...shower is right in the bathroom, no stall or enclosure, very Asian. Mosquito netting surrounds the beds as I guess there are bugs here (among other things, more on that later). While we waited for our bungalow, we made ourselves comfy on the beach loungers. But we only had to wait a short while and we were in, unpacked and ready for more adventure. Did I mention we are RIGHT on the beach? I mean literally. My front yard is beach sand. I could almost spit in the ocean from my front deck. very calm and peaceful here, no noise but the kitchen staff and the waves on the beach. The water is warm. Each room comes equipped with some flip flops and outside, there is a bucket and ladle to wash the sand off your feet before you go in.
10: The girls told the story of the Goddess of the Sea. A young girl sat at home sewing with her mother. Her brother and her father had gone to sea to trade their goods. The girl suddenly sensed that they were in trouble and her spirit left her body to go to their aid. She found the ship overturned in the seas. She grabbed her brother with her arms and used her mouth to hold on to her father. Alas, while she had her father grasped between her teeth, she heard her mother call. She opened her mouth to answer and her father slipped from her lips and drowned in the sea. Sadly she was only able to rescue her brother. It had been a most interesting morning in Chinatown but by now our feet were tired and our bellies full so it was time to head back. I sensed the girls were happy we declined one more market. Back on the bus and we were soon on our way back to District 1. I am sure glad the girls knew where they were going because we would have never found our way back to our hotel! Back at the hotel the girls asked if we would please sign their guest books. I was happy to oblige. We had an absolutely delightful day and they were such a treat to be with. What a great decision to book with the Hotpots! We gave them each a couple Canadian souvenirs and they seemed happy to receive them. Hugs all around and they were off, motorbikes bound for home. Roy and I relaxed for a few minutes, rested our feet then we were off and running again, this time to pick up our bus tickets for Phnom Penh next week. We had just enough time to walk to the Opera House to catch a cultural performance. It was a longer walk that I remembered from yesterday! The performance was good, a mix of gymnastics, traditional song and dance. It lasted about an hour and as we left, each guest received a DVD souvenir. And so began our trek home to the hotel...this would be the first time we had to do the dangerous road crossings IN THE DARK!! Yikes, it was downright scary! The little men in their green suits were nowhere to be seen so we were on our own. A couple of times I just tagged alongside a local and let them run interference for me. We managed to find our way back to our street with a stop at an ATM...another first for this trip...and yay my bank card worked and we now have cash again...and one final stop for dinner. The food here is generally pretty healthy..tonight we weren't quite so...pad thai, salad rolls, chicken ( fried) and green mango salad, which I have never had but have always wanted to try...it was all yummy! Sorry Esther, no pictures for you. Tonight, we've made it all the way to nine o'clock! I'll just upload some pictures then I'll be ready to sleep. Tomorrow we are on the move. We fly to Phu Quoc, an island paradise off the coast, near Cambodia but belonging to Vietnam.
12: We walked down a few more streets in Chinatown, heading for a famous pagoda, sorry the name escapes me...We managed to time it just as school was getting out for lunch. Felt like fish swimming upstream! It was very smoky inside the pagoda, despite the open air ceiling, due to the great amount of burning incense. Very calm and quiet inside with many statues and offerings and people praying for the souls of their lost ones. The girls were excellent sources of info as we wandered through, explaining what things were and sharing a few stories. We decided it was time for a break for lunch and left it in their hands to decide where. Off we headed, more crossing the roads and then down some traditional streets. We saw the mops street where all they sold were mops and a the hoses street where the only thing they sold was hoses. Can you imagine the need for a block of hose stores? Then we saw the silks and fabrics street with beautiful materials for making the traditional dresses. And then, of course we saw scissors street where you could buy tiny ones for your nails or giant ones for cutting heavy material and all sizes in between. Eventually we arrived at the street side restaurant and were ushered to our table. Menus arrived and the girls made some recommendations. We ended up with chicken and rice and some stir fried Morning Glory, which is kind of like hollow asparagus. It must be a multi-use veggie...yesterday it was used as a straw in our fruit drinks! The waiter brought glasses of iced green tea but the girls promptly sent it back saying they thought it was made from tap water so not safe to drink for us. No one drinks the water here. We've been buying bottled water but it is so cheap it is almost free...we also had some fruit juice with ice but they said the ice was probably okay...so far so good. Lunch was good, quite bland but still tasty when seasoned with the sauce they brought. We also had small bowls of soup which was very bland. I tossed in what was left of my sauce and it was okay. Lunch for four...$16. After lunch we headed for the Temple of the Goddess of the Sea. This one had a lot more character. There are beautiful porcelain scenes all along the roof lines, tiny figurines representing all kinds of people. Incense coils clutter the ceiling and pink prayer papers flutter in the breeze. Visitors come and make their wishes and write them on the papers then hand them on the walls. They can also buy incense coils, light them and then have them hung from the ceiling. There is no roof so the smoke from the incense can rise to the heavens and wishes will come true. Outside the temple, someone sold birds...you buy a bird and set it free. If it flies away, your wishes will be granted.
13: Since we'd had an early lunch we decided we should head into town and visit the night market for dinner. Market was just setting up when we got there so we wandered around Duong Dong town for a bit...down to the waterfront to watch the fishing boats go out then into the little town a short way. The town reminds me of Tijuana, kind of a little shanty town with booths set up to sell something every fifty feet. All kinds of street food, some of which was totally unrecognizable. OK, I'm a fairly adventurous eater but I do like to know what it is first. So not likely we will be sampling that. Back to the market where we negotiated for some cheap flip flops that were more comfy than the ones we in our room. Checked out the numerous seafood barbecue restaurants that lined the market. Sorry I didn't take my camera because the fresh seafood was amazing. Huge tiger prawns, a good eight to ten inches long, lobsters that must have been three or four pounds, mountains of shellfish and a dozen different kinds of fish. We ended up with prawns in tamarind sauce (very messy but very tasty), noodles with veggies and squid and a Vietnamese pancake...basically a huge crepe filled with stir fried veggies and seafood. All very yummy! Caught a cab back to the resort and we are now sitting outside listening to the waves and relaxing. Roy is on a lounge chair somewhere and I am sitting in the bar/restaurant because it's the only place to get wifi. Food is being delivered all around me and it looks pretty good so I expect we will eat here a few times. Looking out to the ocean, we can see dozens and dozens of fishing boats, all really well lit up with big lights, some white, some coloured. Apparently, the fish are attracted to the lights. It is really beautiful but I doubt we can catch it with the camera. And speaking of which, sorry but not many pictures today. Anyway, so far so good with the mozzies. None have shown up so I haven't dug out the bug spray yet. No malaria here but there is always a chance of a dengue fever carrying mosquito and no vaccination yet for that one. Tomorrow we are heading out on a boat to tour the archipelago at the south end of the island. It is a group tour so will not be as nice as having a private tour guide as we did in HCM. The boat stops at a couple of islands where you snorkel or fish...oh dear, here comes that bathing suit thing... So, about the critters...on our walk to the town, I happened to look up on a fence just in time to see a couple of rats the size of small dogs scurry over the top...GROSS, I HATE rats! Roy saw one in the market in HCM but fortunately I missed it. So, then we get home and I go into the bathroom and on my wall is the cutest PURPLE gecko. Tried to get my camera but he took one look at me and was back out the window...hope he isn't in there when I get up in the middle of the night! But I do hope he visits again when my camera is handy! Hmmm starting to notice the meals being served and they do look interesting...some kind of big hot pot at the next table. Guess they probably wouldn't appreciate my camera invading their dinner. Sorry again, Esther. Tomorrow...I promise. Most of you are just getting up and organized as I write. I do enjoy waking up to your emails! If I hurry this will be waiting when you get up today.
14: Well, here we sit, listening to the babble of the waves on the shore, Roy catching up on emails and me...also catching up on emails and putting together a blog of today's fun. And what fun it was! We booked a snorkeling and fishing trip to the islands for today. Group tours don't really thrill me but this one was actually quite good. There were the usual loud non-English speakers who couldn't shut up when the guide was talking and the usual twits that held up the bus but other than than it wasn't bad. Someone arrived to pick us up at 8:30, right on the button, saying, "Please to follow me"... Our resort is down a very bumpy shale road and we knew we were going by bus so assumed we were walking up to the main road to catch it. Hmmm...was that a motorcycle helmet in his hand? Oh yes, and there was his bike. Get on, says the young lad and so we did...three on a small motorcycle on a very bump road. Good thing we didn't have to go very far! Van arrived in a few minutes, nice new Mercedes sixteen seater; we were number 15 and 16. Everyone was given a jumbo bottle of water and we were soon on the road to the south end of the island. On the way it was interesting to see the development going on. Lots of big resorts going in. The plan is to turn this into a big destination resort. They now have an international airport and the buildings are in place for what will become an international port, which I assume means cruise ships. Good time to enjoy it now before it gets expensive! Scenery en route was green and lush. Not too many kilometers down the road we veered off the highway onto a red dirt road. I think, with the exception of the highway, all the roads here are like this. The dust is incredible; all the leaves on the trees are red. Some very interesting housing. The homes look like tar paper shacks on the outside, tin roofs, tarps on the roof, lots of thatched roofs...but the ones whose doors were open looked quite nice...porcelain tile floors, flat screen tvs...lots had satellite dishes...of course those were totally rusted out. We soon arrived in the town of An Thoi, at the very southern tip of the island. The town itself kind of looks like a little Mexican settlement...small cantina-looking places, lots of small stores selling tourist trinkets, shirts, hats etc. Then you go through a gate and it is like you've time traveled to the future. A huge new building (customs maybe), about five floors with big windows and totally unoccupied, waiting for the cruise ships to arrive. Past there we got to the tourist boat spot, several of them lined up and ready to go. As we were loading, the little Vietnamese women with their traveling food stalls started hawking...they are everywhere and everyone is trying to sell something. Once loaded, our tour guide explained our itinerary. We were headed first to the floating house, then to Finger Island, Shadow Island, Cold Cloud Island and Pineapple Island. The stop at the floating house was short. It was basically a hut with seafood to sell. The woman would fish out what you wanted from the pens, weigh it, take your money and then you could get back on the tour boat and the kitchen would cook it. Lunch was being served later so we didn't bother. The boats coming in and out of the two little floating fish stores just kept coming...get em in, get their money, get em out. | January 17...A day on the water
17: Next on the agenda was fishing...you can see the cute little fishing lines in the pictures. They came pre-baited and instructions were pretty simple...drop the line to the bottom and pull it up when you catch a fish. Surprisingly enough a lot of people caught them, all different kinds. Yours truly caught two; someone else caught none... Next on the agenda was an hour of snorkeling. Yes, my friends we went snorkeling. How much fun was that?!! Flippers, face mask and snorkel, all reasonably good equipment too. The boat anchored close to shore and we all got into the water, which was amazingly warm. We spent about 45 minutes or so swimming over the shallows. Wow, lots of coral and tons of little fish, beautifully coloured...yellow, bright blue, bright green, striped, mottled. It was amazing. If you didn't swim well, you could do it with a life jacket on. The water was so salty and buoyant that you didn't really need one. Once back on board, lunch began. What a spread! Yes, Esther there are pictures. First, you could try sea urchin if you wanted to pay the extra buck for it. We did. It wasn't bad. Then the included lunch began. We had grilled mackerel, some kind of sliced egg thing, vegetable soup, morning glory, rice, noodles with squid. For dessert they brought out sliced pineapple...so sweet...and green bananas. They have these cute little green bananas here that are really good, small, firm and sweet. All in all, I think it was a pretty healthy lunch. Soon the engine was started and we were on the move again. Next stop was our second snorkeling spot...yikes didn't anyone teach them you are supposed to wait an hour after your meal before swimming?? Back on with the gear and we were soon in the water again. A bit shorter swim but it was lovely. And we enjoyed it so much, I think we both still have grins on our faces. Back to the harbour we went. We'd have been satisfied that we'd got our $17 dollars worth at that point but the day was not yet over. We were soon in the van and on the move again. This time to Sao Beach for an hour of swimming if you wanted or just wandering about. What a beautiful beach! Gentle waves and miles of white sandy beaches. Tons of sun bathing chairs there...all for a price. We decided we'd go to the beach side bar instead for a couple of Diet Cokes and free seats. We ended up waiting on the bus for twenty minutes for a threesome who either didn't understand the instructions or didn't know how to tell time. Final stop was a short stint at a pearl farm. They opened an oyster, showed the pearl then sent everyone inside to shop. We had a quick look around and headed back to sit outside and wait for departure. No late comers this time; I think they got the message from the other passengers. Last on and first off, we were soon back at the Beach Club. This time we walked down our road. S now we are just relaxing in the beach lounges, watching the sun go down, listening to the waves and watching the fishing boats go by. An amazing dinner in the restaurant here was a perfect end to the day! We opted for the seafood hot pot. It was soooo good. They brought a cooker to the table and a ton of veggies, shrimp, squid, fish. The broth that it all cooked in was delicious. Took a couple of minutes to cook the stuff...there was so much we had to cook it in two shifts. Rice in the bowl first then the broth, veggies and seafood on top of that. By the time you were done there was a bowl of incredible soup, kind of sweet and sour and steaming hot. Yum. Someone asked about the time difference...we are 15 hours ahead of those of you on the west coast. So as I'm writing this at 8 pm you are probably not even awake.
18: January 18...Living on the edge | Woke up in the middle of the night to a big windstorm. Thought we were going to blow away. Sounded like really heavy rain but fortunately it was just wind. Went back to sleep eventually but it was still blowing when we got up. Breakfast at the restaurant, eggs and a huge fruit plate with bananas, pineapple, mango, dragon fruit, plus a little baguette. As we ate, we watched the local fishermen at work. Quite an interesting method...four guys on the boat and one poor guy a hundred yards behind the boat in the water. He's the diver. After the nets were out he would dive down, surface, make signals then dive down again. Sometimes he would slap the water to make a big splash and sometimes he would hold his arms apart up in the air like he was showing how big the fish were. When he finally made the right signal, the boat would reverse and they would haul in the nets. He'd get to go back on board and rest while the others hauled in the catch. Then they'd put the nets out and start all over. Saw a couple of boats fishing this way. The fish must have been close in today as they weren't far off shore. Saw another interesting method...boat with two thirty foot poles attached to nets sticking out the front. The boat would go forward as if trying to scoop up the catch. Had to stop watching because we needed to get on the move... Today we had to change from our nice little bungalow to a sea-view room... I was hoping the incoming people wouldn't show up so we could stay put but no such luck. It is just fine, though, basically the same room with a little smaller bathroom and about twenty feet further back from the ocean. So, no big deal. You'll probably think I'm nuts when you read the rest of this...and you are probably right. This morning we rented motorcycles from the resort. OMG I haven't ridden one for twenty five years and even then it was a dirt bike on back country trails! The guy asked if I'd ever ridden and I told him not for a long time. He laughed and said, let me help, took the bike over their little bridge and then turned it over to me. Crap - this was way out of my comfort zone! A near disaster but then I got the idea...take off with your feet out until you balance and THEN put your feet up. I managed to get up the rocky dirt road to the highway, yes highway...talk about being thrown into the deep end! We stopped and started a few times just so I could try it out a bit and I soon got the hang of it.
19: Then we rode for miles and miles, back down to the south end of the island where we were yesterday. The nice blacktop quickly turned into the red shale roads. The dust was unbelievable. I think I will be cleaning it out of my eyes for days. We've got the hang of the honking...you honk when you are overtaking another motorcycle or bicycle or pedestrian...just so they know you are there. When a car or truck overtakes you they blast the horn, just so you REALLY know they are there. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the honk. The fun starts when a truck or bus overtakes the motorcycle that is overtaking you AND there is traffic coming the other way AND there is so much dust you can't see!! Fortunately, most of the way the traffic is almost non-existent on the red roads so it wasn't too bad most of the time. But let me add that the roads were full of rocks and potholes and also point out that it was blowing so hard my helmet felt like it was going to blow off! Cute helmets...basically a plastic hard hat that would provide virtually no protection in a wipe-out. Oh and I forgot to mention, what we were doing was totally illegal without a Vietnamese driver's license. (Good thing no one here seems to worry much about that...or any other driving law for that matter!) We had a signal between us. Roy would beep three times to mean he wanted to stop for pictures. We stopped a few times for pictures and a couple times in the small villages. The locals stare and wave and the kids all wave hello. A couple little guys even let me take some pictures. Not to be left out, a mother with her baby came out and signaled that she wanted me to take pictures of her baby too. So I did and showed her on the camera. She was thrilled. She will probably tell that little guy the story of the round eyed lady for years to come. Roy thought I was nuts, I'm sure! We stopped for pictures at a fish drying place. Acres of screens of tiny little fish drying. I believe they are anchovies, the basis for fish sauce, a staple here...served with almost every meal. Stinks really bad and is really salty but is also really good. Not allowed to take it on the airplanes, though. If a bottle spilled they would have to destroy the airplane because they would never get the smell out!
20: We eventually reached An Thoi, the town where we departed on our boat trip yesterday. But alas, we never found the pier or much else. We ended up in downtown amid a mob of people and yikes...TRAFFIC...kids all over, dogs, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks and tour buses. Quickly parked the bikes and set off on foot. I think we were the only white folk there. Everyone just kept staring at us. A few women signaled that we should buy...I'm sure there wasn't an English word spoken or understood among them. Most of the stuff was fruits and veggies and not of interest. The place was a zoo so we decided to hightail it out of there. We headed back the way we came. I thought I was being careful looking for the turn on the left but we both missed it and soon realized we were charting new territory. We recognized a couple of landmarks from the afternoon part of our trip yesterday so knew we were not totally lost. I neglected to tell you...road signs are almost non-existent here and what there is, is definitely not in English. And there really isn't such a thing as a road map. Best we could do was the tourist map. We finally came to a T in the road and a sign that said Duong Dong, which is the town near us. We kept down that road for a few miles but came to an intersection...hmm which way? I saw lady and figured she would at least understand "Duong Dong" and a point of my finger. A quick nod from her and we knew we were not lost. We soon started recognizing things and knew we were back on the right road.Soon we were back to the highway and almost home. One more challenge...a traffic circle...where I almost lost it because I still don't get turning very well...good thing there was no traffic! Then we were at the top of our lovely, narrow, rocky lane way...bushes on one side, creek on the other...and a taxi trying to overtake us. Up and over the bridge...yay for me...and parked. Thank goodness! Everything was cool for the biker queen. We ended up negotiating a half day rate for the bikes. having decided that doing that all over again on the north part of the island in the afternoon was just too much for this girl for one day. Ten bucks, including gas for two bikes...cheap...but maybe tomorrow we will take a tour, in a car, with a driver. Lunch at the restaurant...Vietnamese soup with seafood and rice...then we spent the rest the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the lounges. Read, napped, went for a swim...the water is beautifully warm. Dried off and changed and now I'm doing this and getting ready for more food! Hope the pictures upload this time. Complicated to do from my IPad plus Internet has been sketchy today, none this morning at all. Late note...we have been introduced to Vietnamese pancakes. Oh dear, not sure how WW friendly those are!
22: January 19...North Island tour | We hemmed and hawed last night about touring the north island. We decided motorbiking was not going to be the mode of travel and so looked at the package tours. Group tours were $25 and private were $90 plus another $20 for the guide...hmmm. We were kind of hoping to find another couple to split the price of a private tour but no luck. So we decided we could stand another group tour. The hotel booked it for us last night. Pickup was for 9 am. The roosters start about five am and they don't stop until six thirty or so. Sleeping in is not an option. Also really windy again this morning so noisy. I just realized I haven't said much about the weather...it's pretty much the same every day...starts out hazy and the haze burns off around nine or ten, then blue skies and sunshine until the sun sets around six fifteen. Temps have been high twenties to low thirties and not too muggy. The air is wonderful for one's skin...rough elbows are a thing of the past and my face feels like an ad for Pond's... Seems like we get a lesson in fishing here every morning.Today we watched the fishermen next door wheel in their nets from shore. Two guys in the water yard on the nets to bring them closer to shore while two others (one a young lady) used hands and feet to reel them in on a big drum. It took them about a half hour to get them in and pull out about two crates worth of little tiny fish and a few small crabs. One of them was then up to their motorcycle and, I assume, off to the market with the morning's catch. A short Skype with Jasper (and the rest of the family) and we were ready for our tour. Sure enough 9 am on the dot our tour guide was here. A very lucky day for us today...we were supposed to join a group of five others but they cancelled at the last minute so we ended up with a private tour, complete with a driver, an a/c car and an English speaking guide...the same tour that was supposed to be $110! Our young tour guide was wonderful with fairly good English. Once in awhile we would run into a word we couldn't recognize but most of the time we got the gist of what he was saying. When I asked if he learned English at school he told us no, it cost money to go to school and his family didn't have any. He said he learned from one guy from England and another from Australia. Every once in awhile you would hear a word with an Aussie accent. He was very sweet and full of enthusiasm. He got married two years ago and has five month old twin boys. His family lives with his parents. He said in Vietnam when a young couple gets married they must live with his parents for three years and then they are free to live somewhere else. The first stop on our tour was a pepper plantation. We walked among the plants and he told us how the pepper was grown and harvested. Some pepper was drying out in the sun, no doubt specifically for the tourists. Pepper is generally red when it is ripe. Black pepper is the cheapest. They just dry it in the sun. White pepper is the most expensive. When it is harvested, they peel off the outer layer and then dry the
23: white kernel inside. Then they soak it to bleach it out and dry it again. He showed us how it was done and then we got the opportunity to taste the white pepper. It was very, very hot! We bought some black pepper to bring home to share around and a small container of white for Roy, since he loves it. Then we were on the road again...on a double lane divided highway yet! The highway didn't last long and soon we were back to the bumpy red roads. There isn't a lot of traffic but the roads are very narrow through the park and going around curves was an experience. Lots of heavy blasting on the horn but never any slowing down! Not long to our next stop...the National Forest, where we walked through a jungle. We could have just as easily been walking through a West Coast rain forest, except for the different kinds of trees. Very quiet except for the wind in the trees. A few birds, one monkey that neither of us was able to see and one small gecko. Lots of interesting plants and vines. We walked about fifteen minutes in, then back out to the car. Another twenty minutes driving and we were at the north end of the island in a little village called Gahn Dau. The stop was short, enough time to take a few pictures of the numerous fishing boats in the harbour and to use the WC. Still no squatties...actual flushing toilets. Back in the car and we were off to Dai Beach where we had a two hour stop. Had we read the info a little better we'd have known to bring bathing suits. The beach was beautiful...white sand and clear water. When we got there it was quiet, not many people so we walked the beach and then relaxed in their lounge chairs on the beach. Tummies began to growl so we headed up to the restaurant area for some lunch. It was fabulous. We both had seafood hot pot, Roy's was Thai and mine Vietnamese sweet and sour. We are old pros at this now so as soon as the broth was boiling we put our food in...shrimps, squid, two kinds of fish and more veggies than you could count, most of which were totally foreign to us. Tomatoes and pineapple topped it off. A few minutes later, our lunch was ready. This hot pot was even better than the one at the resort. We also ordered spring rolls, totally unnecessary because there was a ton of food, but totally delicious. Took us almost an hour to eat so by the time we were done, the place was packed with tourists coming in off boats and in by the van load...time to hit the road again. But not before I got to experience my first squattie, which was not an overly unpleasant experience, but not one I want to repeat regularly. As we drove south along the coast, our guide pointed out a few more highlights...many high end resorts, beautiful beaches, huge developments going on in some places...but we didn't stop again until we were in Duong Dong town at the Fish Sauce Factory. If you have ever eaten fish sauce, you will know, the smell is atrocious. It is so bad that you are not allowed to take fish sauce back on the plane. I think they worry that one spill would render the plane uninhabitable forever!
24: One last stop for the local market. We parked and then walked across a wooden bridge, all the while dodging motorcycles and other pedestrians. The market is quite large but is mainly a market for locals with lots of fish, seafood, fruits and veggies. The place was packed and not another white face in the crowd. I bought a mango to take back to the hotel; it was fabulous. The guide kindly stopped so we could go to the ATM for some cash. Lots of hotels, this one included, do cash only. Most of the ATM machines are a pain. The max you can withdraw at one time is $100 worth of dong and costs $1 service fee plus whatever your bank charges. So if you want $300 you have to withdraw three times and pay the service fee three times to each bank. We found a bank in Saigon with no service fee and $400 max withdrawal so we will hit that one when we return from Cambodia. In Cambodia the currency is US dollars. We arrived back at the hotel, at three, as advertised in the tour brochure. They are prompt. Paid the tour fee and gave the guide a nice tip and now here we are relaxing again. Ho hum. Life is so tough. When I see how hard the Vietnamese work for so little it makes me feel a little guilty. I went for a swim while Roy napped in the lounge chair and caught up on emails and reading. Another nice sunset tonight.Had our laundry done today and it looks like they've returned it to the room. Nice to have clean clothes for the next leg of our journey.
26: January 20...On the move today | Today was our last day in paradise...but we didn't have to fly out until late afternoon so we decided to check out a few more spots in Duong Dong town before we left. Got everything packed up and ready to go then caught a taxi to the town. First stop was at a beautiful temple, Sung Hung Co Tu. We wandered around there for forty minutes or so. Managed to find a door open to go inside just as a monk walked by. We signaled could we enter and he nodded so we took off our shoes and went in. Beautiful statues and shrines adorned the place, along with photos of people I assume had passed on. In the back was a monk's living area with a bed...basically a hard board and a blanket on it. We roamed around outside the main temple and found more shrines and beautiful green spaces...very peaceful. From there we walked down through the night market, which was totally deserted. That is where we ate dinner the first night. Once through the market we came to the riverfront where we watched the fishermen ready their nets and boats go in and out of the harbour. We walked down to the end of the road where Dinh Cua temple is located. It is a combination of Buddhist temple and lighthouse that was built in 1937 as a dedication to Thien Hau, the Goddess of the Sea (we met her in Saigon), who provides protection for the fishermen and vessels that head out to open waters. Needed a potty break at this point and remembered seeing one near the night market. So, I wandered back, with considerable trepidation, wondering just how bad a public bathroom could be. Imagine my delight to discover this one was pristine! There was an attendant and sets of flip flops so you had to take off your shoes. The floors were spotless as were the rest of the facilities. I expected to be shelling out for this pit stop but when I came out, she just smiled and nodded and I was on my way, a new woman...Wow.
27: One more temple visit and then we decided to cross the bridge over to the market we had been to on our tour the day before. We got to the bridge and there was a huge traffic jam of people and motorcycles. They close the bridge several times a day to let the boats get in and out and when that happens traffic backs up...a lot. We arrived just as they were opening it again and decided maybe we would wait a few minutes before venturing across. When you see the picture you can see why! Once across we turned away from the market and just followed the road. We had obviously wandered into a residential area, a slum really, tiny hovels sitting in the mud. Okay, enough of that adventure, a quick reverse and we were back to the bridge. Back over the bridge and past dozens of little shops and stalls. I saw a hat I wanted and stood there but was basically ignored...wow didn't they want a sale...so we left? We eventually found Buddy's Ice Cream, which I had read about online. They have western food, coffee (our kind), tea, ice cream and all kinds of other goodies. Roy had Earl Grey and I opted for a mango smoothie...so good! I bought a couple of postcards and a hat...wasn't as nice as the other one but it would do for a buck and a half. We sat for twenty minutes just enjoying the calm. Back out on to the streets again we wandered back to the shop with the hat I had seen before and after standing there for a few minutes I finally caught a woman's attention and asked how much. 40000, she said...that's less than two dollars...no need to even bargain! So, now I have two new hats! It was nearing lunch so we decided we would just go back to the hotel, eat and relax before going to the airport...fried seafood noodles for me and a mango pancake with chocolate for Roy.
28: Off in our taxi to the airport, checked in and an uneventful flight back to Saigon. We arrived at rush hour, not that it isn't rush hour ALL the time, and our driver was waiting. Another private car ride...must be another friend of the hotel owner. When we got to the hotel, the young man who had been at our first Saigon hotel was working here, filling in for the sick owner. Hello, welcome back, he says. His sister was manning the other hotel on her own, I think for the first time. When we went in search of dinner we stopped to say hello to her and she rushed out with big hugs and hello, welcome back...something about the service here just astounds me. Can you see that happening at the Best Western?? Dinner was Indian for a change...it was good and even I enjoyed it. Spicy enough for me but I'm sure Roy would have eaten it hotter. Tomorrow we leave for Cambodia...six hours on a bus...a border crossing...should be another adventure!
29: After breakfast today we packed up and walked to the bus stop to catch our bus to Phnom Penh. We ended up leaving late due to some last minute arrivals. I think they are related to the family of latecomers on our tour on Phu Quoc! All aboard... a bottle of water and a snack box distributed to each of us and we we on the road. The steward (for lack of a better name) began instructions. Every time he did so he gave them in three languages, Vietnamese, Khmer and English. He spoke so fast we barely understood half of it. My window was badly cracked and stuck together with duct tape and smoke-coloured Mac-tack, making it impossible to see out the window. So the thought of six or seven hours in a bus without being able to see the scenery didn't make me very happy. I caught up on some postcards, wrote a few notes and read. For the last couple of hours they played a movie, The Killing Fields, and some music videos. We arrived at the Vietnam exit point in about three hours. By now we had filled out our Visa forms and handed in our passports and $25 fee. I was a bit annoyed...the passport fee is actually $20 and you can do everything yourself. But the bus company takes five extra to take care of everything for you. I was annoyed because he told me I didn't have a choice, which was a lie. Anyway, I'm over it...So we walked into the Vietnam side and waited until our name was called and we received our passport back. Then we had to give them back to the bus guy and get back on the bus to be driven a couple hundred meters to the Cambodian side. Once there, we each got our passport back and stood in line to be processed. They take your fingerprint scan...right hand slap, right thumb, left hand slap, left thumb. I think they must also take your picture. We were told to bring a picture but no one ever asked for it. When Roy went through he didn't get fingerprinted. I think they plan to not let him exit and will use that as an excuse to detain him when it is time to leave Cambodia! Anyway we now have more stuff stuck into our passports. While we were entering and exiting the buildings, there were all kinds of money changers with huge wads of cash offering to change VN dong into US funds. I bet they gave a GREAT exchange rate! Once through, we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant...kind of cafeteria style. You went up and ordered from what they had and sat down with your food. Then someone brought you a bill and someone else came to collect. I wasn't that hungry so I had a salad roll for fifty cents. Roy had one also and a bowl of noodles with curry sauce. Reasonably tasty. Cost was $2.75. I also bought a pineapple all nicely sliced and diced for a buck. It was a short stop and then we drove for a few minutes more to the ferry crossing. Ferry trip only took a couple minutes. We got off the bus for a bit but decided the air conditioning was nicer than the plus 35 muggy heat outside. Saw some very interesting street food offerings...big baskets of giant shrimp and OMG baskets of the most humongous beetles - deep fried! OK, I am a reasonably adventurous eater but I am not going there! | January 21...Travel day today
30: Once across the river we were about another two hours to the outskirts of Phnom Penh, then fought traffic for another half hour to the bus station. The disembarking was pandemonium, trying to get our bags from under the bus while fighting off tuktuk drivers vying for our business. Tuktuks are motorcycles with four-seat carts attached to them...tons of them here. We were supposed to be met by a driver hired by our hotel but knew there was a possibility he might not be there. We looked for our name and not finding it went with another driver who spoke pretty good English. We were told how much to pay by our hotel so were able to negotiate that price...two bucks. The ride was a riot...I felt like I was at the PNE or K Days on some thrill ride! Cars and other tuktuks coming in all directions; sometimes it seemed best just to close my eyes. Made it the hotel in one piece. The driver offered to be our driver for a full day for twenty bucks. We said not tomorrow but I wouldn't be surprised to see him show up anyway. Hotel is okay, room is a little spartan but clean, bed is reasonably comfy. The street we are on is full of bars so we thought it might be noisy. But it is quiet inside so far. The hotel owner is very sweet. We met him and his family. He has given us a map and recommendations of where to go and when. We are a couple of blocks from the riverside quay so we wandered down there once we got settled in. Tons of people wandering around, a big group doing aerobics or line dancing to loud music and lots of traffic. Crossing the street was a challenge. We found a little restaurant with Khmer and Western food. Tonight we opted for Western...ordered burgers. They were okay but I think we will eat like the natives from now on! Not too many pictures to upload since we were on the road most of the day. Internet is a bit sketchy here but hopefully I can get tonight's pictures done.
31: January 22...Busy day today | Wow, where to start today!! Maybe in the morning, since that is where we began our day... We went off for breakfast across the street. Decided on western for breakfast so ended up with eggs and toast and a fruit plate. The fruit here is so good, a nice way to start your day. We walked everywhere today. I think we must have done well over ten kilometers. My feet are tired and we are resting before going for dinner. We started at Wat Ounalom, the place we wandered into last night. We wandered first around the outsides of the buildings. They have over fifty buildings including residences, schools, meditation places. While we were around the back this little old man invited us into this tiny temple. We took off our shoes and entered this tiny little shrine with a statue of Buddha. He lit up two sticks of incense...he had some difficulty because I think he was almost totally blind...then indicated we should put them into the sand in a bowl in front of the statue. Anyway he went through a long blessing, sprinkling us with holy? water and speaking softly. I assume he was praying. Then he held out his hand which I mistakenly assumed was for a donation. He shook his head no and proceeded to take my hand lightly slap it with water on a couple of sticks. Roy got the same treatment. He signaled, I think that we should pray or make wishes to the statue, then nodded and we were done. I left him with a small donation for the temple. What an odd experience it was! We went back into the main temple and Roy took some pictures. Then we wandered outside, chatted with some of the young monks who were making rice for lunch. We noticed a market at the back, down some alley. It turned out to be quite big but mostly food. Some of the meats and fish out in the air with no refrigeration...the smells were somewhat unpleasant in places. We did find some hats and we each found one we liked...oh dear another hat for me...mine is a Gucci baseball cap that I think will look nice on the golf course. What do you think, my golfing friends? We made our way to our hotel and popped in to check out the dress code for the museum and Silver Pagoda. Our shorts and t-shirts were fine. Just the palace requires covered shoulders and knees. And it is not open so no problems. Then off we were to the National Museum. The museum was interesting, a couple dollars to get in plus if you wanted to take pictures an extra dollar for each camera. No pictures inside the museum, however, just in the courtyard garden. It took us about three quarters of the museum to realize that all kinds of people were taking pictures inside and no one was complaining so we became blatant scoff-laws and took some pictures anyway. The displays were interesting, mostly stuff they have found in the ruins of the temples in Angkor Wat. We will see the Angkor temples in a few days so I think that will be more interesting to see the stuff in its natural surroundings. There was a lovely garden in the middle if the museum, four square ponds with fish, surrounding a statue in the middle...lovely and green.
32: It was lunchtime when we finished at the museum so we headed off in search of the Daughters of Cambodia, a restaurant and craft store that trains former sex trade women, teaching them skills like sewing, crafts, cooking, waiting tables, cashiering. The food was excellent! We headed off towards the Silver Pagoda and Palace, however, many things close for two hours at lunch so we were too early to get in. There were a lot of groups of Cambodians mostly dressed in white shirts and black pants. We were told they were mourners come to pay their respects to the king's dead father who died last October. The palace will remain closed until next month when they finally have the funeral. We walked for miles, it seems, and eventually came to the embassy area. No sign of the Canadian embassy but we did see a couple others. We made it to the Independence Monument, which is in the middle of a huge traffic circle. We took some photos and headed back to the Palace. By the time we got there the gates were open so we paid our entry fee and went in to wander. The grounds were very nice with several big stupas containing the remains of one of their kings, his wife and daughter. The Silver Pagoda or Temple of the Green Buddha was beautiful. Had to remove hats and shoes before entering and no pictures. This time they meant it; there were guards at the doors. The temple is full Buddha statues of all sizes, made of silver and gold. In the middle there is a large emerald Buddha, sitting up high on a pedestal. Beautiful! Afterwards, we wandered over to where one would normally enter the palace grounds and were able to get glimpses of the gardens and a few buildings through the gates but not much else. I think at this point we had walked about a hundred miles! My feet were dead. So we though we would catch a tuktuk back to the hotel. Unfortunately the roads around the palace are closed so we ended up having to walk anyway. We went to the hotel for a very brief stop...and then we were off and running again. This time we headed to Central Market which is about eight or ten blocks up the street. It is very tiring walking. To start with, it is 36 degrees, so it is hot, and muggy. Then you are fighting traffic the whole way, dodging around parked cars and walking on the road because the sidewalks are covered in motorcycles or food vendors. And then, you have to get across the busy streets, dodging the motorcycles, cars and tuktuks. God help you if you stop paying attention!!
34: The market was overwhelming. Stall after stall after stall of clothes, shoes, shirts, jewellery, purses, sunglasses and watches. I think Roy tried on watches at every counter! He bought a couple of Lacoste golf shirts for four bucks each. I didn't buy anything. Maybe a Rolex watch next time we go. Lots of knockoffs and cheap if you bargain well. As if we hadn't done enough walking around...nope we needed some more exercise so went to the Sorya Market, near the Central Market, for some more shopping. It was nice though because it was a more modern mall with AIR CONDITIONING!! We enjoyed an ice cream and pop at their version of McDonald's. Back to the hotel for naps for some people and rested feet for others. Then dinner at Friends, another NGO organization, this one taking street youth off the street and training them. The food was outstanding. We had our first taste of Khmer food...chicken and mango with cashew nuts, shrimp wantons with sweet chili, Khmer style fish wrapped in banana leaf and sweet potato fries with mango spicy dip. It was very tasty. Our hotel owner is a wealth of info for places to see and restaurants to try. Tomorrow we are heading out early so we will run next door for steamed pork buns. They look amazing.Tomorrow we are off to Oudon, the ancient capital.
35: January 22...Off exploring today | We had an early start today. Up at six fifteen and off to the little restaurant next door for a quick non-Western breakfast. Couple of steamed pork buns...yummy soft buns with pork and egg inside...and coffee. Three dollars, please. If you ask for coffee white or with milk, they whiten it with sweetened condensed milk so no need to add any sugar! A small cup but very tasty. Quick trip across the street to the corner store for water then back to the lobby to wait for our guide/driver, Sam the Man. Sam arrived right on time in his very well air-conditioned Camry, and after introductions, we were off into rush hour traffic, hitting the road at 7:30. Our destination was Oudong, one of the ancient capitals of Cambodia. A very interesting drive once outside the city. Landscape became quite green with rice fields but we were never far from the little towns and settlements alongside the road. Driving is quite amazing...when behind someone slow they just put on their signal and wait until there is a small break in traffic...not enough room to pass...they just share the road three or four abreast. People pass you while you are passing someone else. And people pass on the inside all the time. No room? No problem...they just drive their motorcycle up on the sidewalk! Sam was a very interesting guide, sharing stories of his life. School is free for anyone in Cambodia so as a child he would walk 8k each day, each way to school. When he was thirteen, he ran away from home and joined a monastery, where he lived as a monk for twelve years. He worked at low paying jobs, when he wasn't doing his chores at the monastery, until he saved enough money to go to university. He would get up early, do his chores at the monastery, go to classes, come home, work some more taking care of the old monks, then after they all went to bed, he would do his studying. The next day it would start all over. He graduated from university with a degree in business and marketing then worked for one of the embassies. When he saved enough money to buy a car he started his guiding company. He now has a few employees who drive and guide but he does all the marketing. His parents wanted him to come home and work on the family farm, marry his cousin...No way, he said. He is now married to a girl of his choice. He has put his younger sister through university and was very proud that she has just secured a salaried teaching job. What a delightful young man and so polite opening doors and holding my hand on the steep stairs and pathways! We arrived in Oudong about nine and drove to the small ridge of hills called Phnom Oudong. These hills really stick out in the middle of a huge flat plain, a natural place for settlement. By around the seventh century there was a well-established city here. A stone temple was built here around the thirteenth century. In 1618 the capital was moved here and remained until 1866, when the French - who agreed to 'protect' Cambodia from the Siamese - convinced King Norodom to move the capital back to Phnom Penh. We could see the hills, with their crown of stupas, from some distance away. The stupas house the ashes of former kings, and many were built long after Oudong ceased to be the capital. The newest, and largest, of them was built by the current king to house a Buddhist relic from Phnom Penh. During the Pol Pot regime, these stupas were looted. Some have been restored. Our guide said a prayer for all of us asking for good health and safety for our trip. He also prayed for his mom. The room was filled with Buddhas, three thousand of them in various sizes and poses. Very impressive to see! Sam explained what each position of the Buddha's arms meant...offering, power, teaching. All very interesting to learn. We drove to a small parking area, where despite the fact that we were the only car, the driver paid a dollar for a little old man to direct his parking. Before we were out of the car the beggar children were on us, fanning us with dirty old pieces of cardboard, hoping they could lead us to the top for a few rials. Our guide told them to bugger off and eventually they disappeared.
36: Then we hiked up the four hundred stairs to the top! The view was great when we got there, well worth it. We could see for miles, over farmland, the Buddhist Centre and in the distance to one of the clothing factories...Nike sweatshop perhaps? Inside the temple, we paid a dollar for lotus flowers, candles and incense and went through a ritual of placing the flowers in vases, the candles on a low altar and the incense in the container of sand (as we did yesterday). Afterwards, he gave some money to the old man who was attending the place, who then gave blessings to us all. We asked about our little old man yesterday and he said yes, we were indeed blessed and that not that many people got to have the experience. There was something both days about eyebrows. I think, when you are praying or wishing, you are to focus between the Buddha's eyebrows, where there is often a red mark or jewel. It is a very interesting religion and some day I will read more about it!
37: We hiked back down the four hundred steps, past a few beggars and back to the begging children. We didn't give. You are encouraged not to because they should be in school so they can get an education and not perpetuate the life of begging. I felt bad because they were so cute and had nothing. At the base of the ridge is a new, large temple that also serves as a Buddhist study center. The main temple is humongous. I'm not sure our pictures will do it justice! Inside, the walls and ceiling were completely covered in paintings, over 125 of them, each depicting a moment in the Buddha's life. If I recall the story from our trip to Hong Kong, the Buddha was born to a very wealthy family and lived a very protected life. But one day he decided to go out, against his family's wishes, and see how the rest of the world lived. I believe that is what is depicted in the pictures. Beside the temple was a lake with a large golden Buddha at one end and a woman, who is the goddess of rain and water at the other...very beautiful. The centre houses residences, a school and several other monuments, one spectacular one was of Buddha teaching his students. The other impressive one was of him after death, a one hundred foot long Buddha in repose. On the way back to Phnom Penh we stopped in the silver making village. Not too many shops were open but Sam found us two and we purchased a few souvenirs...not dirt cheap but still reasonable. It was interesting to watch the silver makers at work, cutting, hammering and polishing. We got back around one, thanked and paid our guide and took our loot up to the room. Caught up on a couple of emails and then went next door again, this time for lunch. We were accosted by the usual number of tuktuk drivers as soon as we hit the lobby. What a life they must have. They hang around all day somewhere and hope they get a couple of fares. We booked our driver but said we were going for lunch first. He was happy to wait for his three dollar fare. Roy had smoked Khmer fish on rice and I had barbecued pork on rice...both good but mine was better :) The meals came with a small bowl of broth and we ordered two pops. Total was under five dollars and the pops were probably half of that! It is amazing how cheaply you can eat here... Interesting to note...we were the only white faces in there. Back to the hotel, into our tuktuk and we were off to the Russian Market. Only the foreigners call it that but I can't remember the real name so we will remain foreigners. When we got there our driver offered to wait. I said we might be two hours but he said he would wait and showed us where. I told him if he got another fare to take it and he nodded okay. The market was packed and like a sauna inside...low roof, kind of dark and very narrow aisles. Not as big as Central market. In the middle is the food section, restaurants and fish, meat and produce stalls. The sellers aren't all over you like they were in Saigon. Much less aggressive, pleasant to bargain with. Always need to put things in perspective...you are usually haggling over fifty cents! The prices are so cheap to start with, you almost feel like you are stealing. But we bought lots, came home with bags of stuff...our suitcases will be full and we aren't a quarter way through our trip! No sign of our driver but we are now pretty good at negotiating with them so we found another and were soon flying through the streets. What a great way to travel in this heat! Nice breeze in your face and comfy seats. Only problem is all the exhaust fumes...no wonder so many people wear masks!
39: Yay, our bus ride is over and we have arrived in Siem Reap...six hours in the bus with a quick stop for lunch. We hit rough roads about an hour out of Phnom Penh, that lasted for about ten kilometers. In the midst of it, we were worried it was going to be that way for the rest of the ride. But we soon hit pavement again and from then on it was semi-smooth sailing. Scenery was much better this time since we were in the front seats behind the driver and had a window we could actually see through! We retraced our steps from yesterday but once we cleared the city, we crossed over the bridge, I think over the Mekong...Miles and miles of farmland, much of it brown and lying fallow but dotted with the occasional oasis of bright green rice paddies and lakes of standing water. Interesting to watch farmers out in their fields, planting, standing in muddy water up to their thighs. There were lots of ponds of what looked like lily pads with bright pink flowers. You could see where the rainy-season waters had receded...instead of floating on water, the lilies had long stems reaching two or three feet out of the mud to where the waters used to be. The houses were mostly on high stilts...hard to believe the water could get that high, particularly since we couldn't even see a river nearby. But I guess when the rains come, they really come! Watching the road from the front seat was an adventure! Kept having to close my eyes while the bus was blowing by motorcycles, tuktuks and farm vehicles in spaces so small we would never even consider passing....horn blaring the entire time. We passed a few "buses"...basically motorcycle-pulled carts with two by fours nailed across for seats, some with a dozen or more passengers! Also amazing to see the number of people that can fit on a motorcycle..most we've seen is five...three adults and two kids...best one was four kids, the oldest, about eleven, driving! Helmets are optional in Cambodia... The bus was decent and equipped with wifi. We each got a snack box and a bottle of water. Overall much nicer than the previous bus ride. A tuktuk driver was waiting at the bus station when we arrived, my name in big bold letters. He introduced himself, his name pronounced, but likely not spelled "Tom", and we were soon on our way to the hotel...I somehow thought this city was smaller but it goes on for miles... Tons of hotels along the strip. Tourism is clearly a big industry. | January 24...Off to Siem Reap
40: What a nice place we have lucked out on, the MotherHome Guesthouse. We are tucked away in a quiet little street, a lane almost. When we arrived we were offered seats in the small but very nice lobby, and offered a cold drink of pineapple juice and a cool facecloth. They took our passports as we filled out registration then gave us some instructions, returned the passports and showed us to our room, up just one floor...nice because there are no elevators in these places. Our room is at the back, so very quiet. There is a nice little balcony with a couple of chairs at the end of the hall. The fresh smell of lemons is everywhere. A nice comfy bed, big tv with lots of English channels (Roy is happy to have the Golf Channel), a room safe, closet, fridge, bathtub, hair dryer, reading lamp, free bottled water, coffee and tea in the room and the ac on so it was cool for our arrival...All this and breakfast for $23/night! We think we are in heaven! Roy keeps asking if i am sure we are only paying that...now he has me wondering! Oh yes, and a nice chair for Roy to sit in. At 4:30 we went by tuktuk to buy our passes and see our first sunset in Angkor. Hundreds of people trekking up the hill to watch the sunset. Hawkers everywhere. We were glommed onto by a young girl selling guidebooks. To get rid of her I told her I would look later. The temples are pretty amazing, huge ruins basically but we only got a glimpse tonight...The climb up the hill took about ten minutes, a pretty easy hike...You could also pay $20 and have an elephant ride up if you wanted. There was a steady stream of people on the trail and at the top, there was a big lineup to climb up the final set of stairs. They were only letting a dozen or so go at a time as the stairs are very steep. At the top we had to vie for good spots from which to take photos then it took about a half hour before the sun actually set and we got some colour. I am sure between us we took a hundred pictures...afterwards we headed down the hill.
41: Waiting at the bottom was my little girl with the books; she managed to find me amongst the crowds. About a hundred other hawkers hovered with books, souvenirs and silk scarves. The book started at $18 and Roy eventually bought it for $10. I ended up with a silk scarf for two bucks that had started at five. I bought it to get ride of the little thing that was selling...omg they are tenacious...followed us right to our tuktuk! We are pretty sure these girls all work for some slave driver who sets them a quota and pays them only pennies for each thing they sell. We managed to find Tom among the tons of tuktuks...he was watching for us. He took us back to the hotel and after paying him, we headed inside. Someone was there to open the door and directed us to the check in desk where we were again given a refreshingly cold, lemony face cloth to wash away the dust from our ride. A short rest in our room then dinner in the hotel restaurant. We started with salad rolls, some of the best I've ever had then Roy opted for red curry and I had pork with Khmer spices. Both served with rice and both very good! We ordered a nice, healthy fruit plate for dessert. Some sweet little Chinese woman was having a birthday and the staff brought in a cake. The music started and a very dignified version of Happy Birthday began to play. People started singing along and clapping and she was so happy that she cut up her cake and gave each person a small piece. I'm sure every table had a different nationality but everyone was united under the universal birthday song! Good wifi here so picture uploaded fairly quickly... Tomorrow another great day of adventure awaits as we head into the ruins...
42: Today we had our first breakfast at the MotherHome Guesthouse. Wow, big buffet breakfast with lots of both Western and Khmer food...cereal, eggs, toast, croissants, hot noodles, rice dishes, noodle soups, fresh fruit, coffee, tea, juices...hard to decide what to eat so we sampled a whole bunch of things...skipped the congee and plain porridge. Today was our first full day in the temples. Chet, our guide for the next few days, arrived at eight and we were soon off to the ruins. Tons of traffic headed to the same place! The size of this place is just too hard to describe. We were gone from 8-4 and barely scratched the surface! Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Angkor Archaeological Park encompasses hundreds of thousand year old temple ruins of the Khmer people. These were built between the 9th and 12th Centuries...they are both old and enormous. The park encompasses the ancient capitals of the Khmer and once was home to over a million people. Now, only monks and monkeys are allowed to live here. We started our tour at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, a three kilometer-square walled and moated Royal city that was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. After Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian capital from the Cham invaders in 1181, he began a massive building campaign, constructing Angkor Thom as his new capital city. He began with existing structures and built an enclosed city around them. There are five entrances (gates) to the city, one for each cardinal point plus a victory gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with four giant faces. Inside, the city are numerous temples. Our guide was a great source of information and stories but after the first few temples, I couldn't begin to repeat much of what he told us...so I will try to give you a few highlights from the ones we visited and hope the pictures tell a better story. The first one is called Bayon Temple. The most impressive thing about this one is the faces. There are 54 towers and each tower has four faces one facing each cardinal direction. They are all smiling. The temple has three levels and we climbed to all of them. The next stop was Bauphon. In front of it is a long bridge, representing the road from earth to Nirvana. Our guide stayed at the bottom of this temple and gave us time to climb up and take pictures. The stairs on these temples are an adventure! They are only about six or eight inches wide and incredibly steep. Most have had handrails added or I'm sure people would fall and kill themselves. You had to make sure to give the person in front of you a head start or risk getting kicked in the chops. Anyway, it was hard work climbing up and down. I think we wore off our breakfast and then some. Next stop was the King's Palace. The remains of two large swimming pools sit beside the temple. These were used only by the king and his concubines, of which he had many. The palace and most of the other housing was built of teak wood but these were burned and destroyed in one of the many invasions. Only the sandstone walls and a few structures remain. | January 25...Day one at Angkor Archaeological Park
43: In front of the palace is the Terrace of the Elephants, an impressive 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants. This is where the King and Royal Family would sit to watch the sports and games. Across the field are twelve towers. During the games, they would string ropes between them and there would be tight rope walking. Beside the Terrace of the Elephants is the Terrace of the Leper King, who was the guardian of the underworld. We walked down and through the underworld where the walls are carved with demons and mythical underworld creatures, before heading back out to meet our driver again. Every surface of every temple is covered with carvings of dancers, soldiers, people at work farming, fishing... The detail is amazing...on one temple there is mile of bas-relief carving. It is hard to imagine the construction...from bringing the mammoth rocks from far away to getting them piled up on each other, it is mind boggling. And the work that must have gone into the carving is unbelievable. When they were first constructed, the statues and walls were adorned with gold and jewels. It must have been a sight! Of course it is all gone, stolen by invaders and looters over the years. Many of the heads of the figures are gone, not just a few spirited away by foreign countries for their own museums. Our driver was waiting when we were done and we left the Angkor Thom walled city and headed out for one more temple before lunch, Ta Prohm. This one will be familiar to anyone who saw Tomb Raider, which was filmed here. This temple has massive fig and silk-cotton trees growing out from the ruins. Flocks of noisy parrots squawk from the trees. The temples are fairly crowded with tourists, this one in particular. I would say 80-90% are Asian. Getting photographs is sometimes a challenge because a lot of these people seem to be totally oblivious to anything around them and don't notice or care if they step right in front of you as you are shooting a picture. Kind of annoying! We were dropped for lunch at a restaurant near the temples. Food was good but prices were higher than we have been seeing...something about a captive audience! We enjoyed it and once done rejoined our guide and driver for the last temple of the day. We drove for a bit and parked at the east gate to Angkor Wat...Angkor meaning city and Wat meaning temple. Lots of monkeys at the side of the road, quite tame and looking for handouts. Angkor Wat is breathtaking. It is a massive three-tiered structure with five lotus-like towers that rise about 65 meters from ground level. The pond in front is a favourite spot for pictures. The reflection of Angkor Wat in the pool is spectacular when the conditions are right. But it was breezy so the reflection just wasn't happening and by this time we were exhausted and happy to see we were heading back to meet our driver. It was very hot, probably at least thirty five and very muggy. The sweat just poured down my back and off my forehead. The driver kept a cooler of water ready for us and handed it out every time we got back into the tuktuk. I think we drank at least four bottles each plus a pop at lunch. It was nice to climb in the tuktuk and head out with the breeze in our faces...and nice to arrive at our hotel where we were greeted and given ice cold facecloths to wipe away the dust and heat. We have so many pictures, culling them is going to take ages. Dinner at the hotel again...too tired to head into the downtown area.
45: January 26...Day two at the temples...and more | I have so much information in my head, I think it is going to explode! After another nice breakfast, we were met by our guide and driver and were soon on the road to Angkor. We followed the same route, passed thought the ticket inspection check point but continued on beyond Angkor Thom to an outer ring of temples. Our first stop was at Preah Kanh. This temple was built by the King and dedicated to his father. The design is a series of concentric squares so we passed three walls before we got to the centre and then three more before we reached the other side. There are 72 sandstone garudas (half man half bird) standing guard on the outer walls. The place is filled with sacred symbolism and the beliefs that shaped the Khmer civilization...demons and defenders engage in a tug of war, nagas (serpent gods) which represent the road from earth to heaven adorn the walls at the sides of the pathway into the temple. In the centre of the temple is a stupa holding the ashes of the king. The temples we saw this morning are surrounded by a gigantic reservoir, built hundreds of years ago, to irrigate the rice paddies surrounding the temples. It is amazing how much water there is, even though it is in their dry season. There were three cute little kids playing in a boat and they called out to us, you have candies? You have bonbons? I told them no but I had stickers. They paddled back to shore, using little sticks for paddles. They seemed quite excited to have little Canada flags on their grubby little shirts. Their teeth must be in bad shape...many people were handing them candies by the handful all over the place. We saw a couple of kids that had bags full, like they had been out trick or treating. Our second stop today was an island temple called Neak Pean. A wooden bridge has been installed so you can get close to it but the temple is in need of restoration so you couldn't go into it. The temple is small and surrounded by four pools representing the four elements. Its foot print is a cross, like a Red Cross symbol. Outside the temple at one side is the head of a serpent and at the other side are coiled serpents like the caduceus symbol for medicine. People would come here for healing. The priests would examine them and decide which element they were missing...earth, fire, water or wind...and based on that they would be sent to the appropriate pool for healing. Amazing to think the concept of a hospital went back so many centuries!
46: Our third stop today was Ta Som, a relatively small temple. The most spectacular thing about this one was a huge tree swallowing one of the entrance gates. It was kind of a scaled down version of one of the temples we saw yesterday. The walls on the inside are covered in carvings of the king's concubines. Fourth stop was at East Mabon, constructed on an island in the middle of the now dry Eastern Baray (reservoir). The temple is dedicated to Shiva in honor of the king’s parents. This one was built using lava stone rather than sandstone. The lava stone is very rough and full of small holes making this temple and the next one look a little more primitive than the others we have seen. Because the lava stone was hard to carve, they covered it with a kind of stucco which was then carved. The last temple we visited was Ta Prom which translated means "body change". It was the biggest one we saw today. Many flights of very steep stairs to climb! This is where people who died were brought for cremation. There were five towers, four were crematoriums and one was a shrine housing Buddha. Outside on the wall above the crematoriums, monks would sit and chant continuously for hours and hours until the cremation was complete. Outside the crematoriums was a pool where the ashes would be washed to further purify them before spreading them in the fields or putting them in the river to be taken out to sea. Wow, that was a busy morning! Add to this, every time we left a temple we were swarmed by young girls and boys selling stuff. Two dollah, only two dollah madam. OMG they are so persistent. The one thing we did buy was a kind of nut our guide suggested that we ate later. Our guide bought some stone fruit, that he let us sample...very tasty. Time for a lunch break so we were taken to a small restaurant near the temples. For the first half hour we were the only ones there. The food was tasty and yes, Esther there is a picture! When the guides take you to a restaurant, they eat in a different area. I assume they eat for free in exchange for bringing customers. We covered more this morning than expected so our guide offered to take us to the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake this afternoon. We drove for about a half hour, back through Siem Reap and south to the river leading to the lake. We passed through several villages on the way. On one side of the road, the houses backed right on to the river. These houses are all built on stilts so that during the wet season high waters don't flood them. All garbage and household waste water goes directly into the river, which then flows into the lake. There are guys fishing in the river not far below the village...Hmm not that healthy to eat the fish I think. We got to the wharf and there were hundreds of boats, most with dozens of paying passengers. Our guide bought our tickets and led us to our smaller boat...a private tour! We cruised down the river passing many fishing and tourist boats, and a fish market where the locals bring their fish to sell. At the sides of the river there were guys in the water tossing out their nets. These people were too poor to own a boat. The river is absolutely filthy, lots of plastic floating and so muddy you couldn't see two inches down. The trees on the sides are interesting, every once in awhile there will be a plastic bag way up in the tree...an indication of just how high the waters get!
47: Cambodia's Lake Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. About a million people, mostly Vietnamese, live in so-called floating villages and virtually never leave the water. Tens of thousands of others live near the lake and build their houses on stilts. Once on the lake, you could see the floating village...thousands of floating homes. During the dry season (now) the water flows south towards Phnom Penh and into the Mekong, and the lake shrinks. In the rainy season the Mekong River swells, the waters rising as much as thirty feet...so much that it causes the water to reverse its direction and flow north, back into the lake, making it very fertile for fishing. When the waters rise, the size of the lake doubles and these floating homes would find themselves in the middle of the expanded lake. So, in order to anchor their homes, they have to move to shallower waters. To get an idea of the size of the lake, you cannot see the other side, let alone either end from where we were. In the midst of all these floating houses are floating grocery markets and floating schools and a crocodile farm! We stopped at the crocodile farm, where there were a bunch of crocodiles in a pit. Apparently crocodile farming is a big industry there. They breed them then sell the babies, mostly to China and Thailand. The ones we saw were definitely not babies! Back to the dock after this and back into our tuktuk. We made a brief stop to take some pictures in the stilt village and then headed into the downtown area of Siem Reap for one last stop at the Artisans of Ankor before going back to the hotel...It was a BUSY day! The Artisans of Angkor is an organization that takes young Cambodians and trains them in the traditional art forms of the country. They have workshops all over. The one we visited is a demonstration centre where you can see the trained and graduated students as they work on their pieces. We saw painting, lacquer work, stone and wood carving, and silver plating. They also have a silk farm and weaving centre sixteen kilometers out of town and a free shuttle that goes there...maybe another day. After the tour they send you into their shop where you can purchase the artwork. This is not a place for cheap trinkets! Some of the pieces were stunning but not something I want to lug around in my suitcase for six more weeks! Finally back to the hotel for a rest...but not for long! We took a tuktuk to the downtown area, walked through a couple of markets and then found a place to eat. The restaurant was called Father's and the food was excellent...tiny little place with a half dozen tables and very sweet waitresses. The Young Khmer women are very beautiful, more Indian looking than Asian. They are so polite and always smiling. Finished our dinner, found a no-charge ATM and a tuktuk and now we are tucked in for the night.
49: January 27...Our final day at the temples | Every night after I sign off I remember something I should have added. Today I started a list so I will add as I remember...with no particular order or importance. Last night when we went downtown, we started at the night market. The downtown area is very busy and touristy...lots of coloured lights strung everywhere. There are lights on the bridge that goes over the small river through town and lighted decorations in the river. Very pretty and I will try to get a picture next time we go at night. There is also a place called Pub Street, which is pretty much...well...a pub street...lots of bars and restaurants and tons of tourists. It is THE place to hang out. The street is closed off to motorized vehicles so the streets surrounding it are packed with them. We are going there again tomorrow evening when we go to our first cooking school. I keep forgetting the odd eating habit here..they do not use chopsticks here. They use a spoon and fork...an Indian influence...the fork shovels food onto the spoon and you eat off the spoon. Seldom do you get a knife. Occasionally you will get chopsticks also but I think this is for the benefit of other Asian travelers. The food here is tasty, nicely spiced but not too spicy. Some tends to have a slightly sweet flavour, likely due to their cooking with coconut milk. This is not a diet destination! Lots of fruit available. I love their mangoes and pineapple. They serve a lot of papaya also and almost every morning there is dragon fruit on the buffet. The number of tourists that visit Siem Reap is amazing...2.5 million last year, 4 million expected this year and 10 million expected in 2018. They have lots of hotels and restaurants but the roads and transportation are not ready for this volume of people. There is no train system and there are international airports only in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The roads are poor. Today we drove to temples about 60k away. We took the short cut road and it was under construction...oh my...there were places where the driver had to stop and figure out where he could drive the car to get by! No such thing as a flag person and the machinery drivers are oblivious to the cars and motorcycles! Scary at times. I think this country has been at war with someone since its beginnings. Every day with our guides we hear of another invasion or war...I can't begin to list them all...Siem Reap means Siam Defeated and refers to the final expulsion of Siam (Thailand). Driving out in the countryside we keep seeing these mounds of dirt, some three or four feet tall. They are made by termites and supposedly it is good luck if you have them on your property. It means the god of the land will be good to you. (Not so good to have them in your house, I think.) It is these termites that we see for sale in the markets along side beetles and cockroaches...the people here like them. There was a girl in our bus with a big bag of them she was munching on them like we would eat peanuts. We began our day with a very near tragedy. We were in a car today because of the long distance we had to travel. Our tuktuk driver was driving and we also had our guide. On the way out of town a motorcycle in front of us was passing a boy on his bicycle and she hit him. It threw him off his bicycle right in front of our car. The driver swerved and missed him by inches. No one stopped! The motorcycle driver just continued without a backward glance! No wonder so many people are killed in traffic accidents!
50: Our first stop today was Banteay Srey which loosely translates to ‘citadel of the women'. There is disagreement over whether it is called this because of the delicate beauty of the carvings or if it was actually built by women. Our guide said he liked the latter version. The story goes that the men of a village had to go off to war and while they were gone the women banded together for strength and built this temple for protection as well as worship. He said the intricacies of the carvings were due to their female patience. The temple is relatively small and the carvings are much deeper and the stone is a pink sandstone. Also, the temple is not very high, likely because they could not have lifted the huge stones to the heights of the other temples. It wasn't discovered until 1914. The second temple this morning was called Beng Melea. It is a beautiful sprawling temple that has fallen to ruins because of the trees that are growing out of it, around it and under it. The current plan is to not restore it but rather leave it in its current state of ruin. The temple is dedicated to the king's mother. The walls are adorned with carvings of Apsara dancers which are usually young women, concubines. But the Apsara dancers here are mature married women, likely a result of his being more respectful to his mother. There is a stone coffin in the centre, symbolic of his mother in death, however her body was never in it. We spent an hour or so here crawling around over the huge stones, down in the dark, basement-like galleries (where they would have displayed statues) and through the eight ponds, now dry but once filled with water and beautiful lotus flowers. With a little imagination you can just imagine the beauty here. Next stop was for lunch. We shared a curry and another Khmer dish and rice. Very tasty and I must have been hungry because I didn't remember to take a picture until it was too late. After lunch we wandered around the roadside stands. I bought some green bananas but they aren't quite ripe yet. We each ate one anyway and fed one to a monkey later. Our guide is just a fountain of information. At every temple he had more stories and legends...each panel of bas-relief was a story...all very interesting but most I can't remember. After lunch we drove for a ways to what is called the Rolous Group. There are two temples very close to each other here. The first one is called Preah Ko, which translated means 'holy cow'. It is dedicated to his family. A group of six towers stand in the middle, each dedicated to a family member...his grandfather and his father and himself (a slightly higher tower) are represented by the three front towers, his grandmother, mother and wife by three smaller towers at the back. The men's towers are adored with garugas and the women's with Apsara dancers. In front of the temple there are three statues of cows...hence the name...nope not HOLY COW!!
52: Our final temple for today, and likely for our visit, was Bakong. It is huge, almost as big as Angkor Wat. It measures 650 by 850 meters at the outer wall. We climbed a lot of stairs to get to the top. Interestingly the stairs here are much wider but also much taller. So climbing up and down was a good work out! This temple was built in the 12th century and is made of stone and brick. It was built as a state temple when this area was the original capital city. Many of the original carvings are in excellent shape. There is a very picturesque moat, still full of water, surrounding the temple. There are supposedly still crocodiles living in it. Outside the temple area was a two or three hundred year old pagoda...beautiful original paintings of the Buddha's life on the walls, ceiling and outside. Next door is an orphanage. Since this was the last temple and possibly my last chance to bargain with the temple urchins, I decided to buy some silk scarves to take home. I picked one girl to buy from but was attacked by two others who wanted me to buy from them too...OMG..I didn't think I'd get out alive! Roy was laughing at me as he was busy taking photos. I could have bought more from the others but my suitcase is getting full and we are only a quarter of the way through our journey. We made it back to the hotel and paid and said goodbye to our guide. He was excellent and we would not have enjoyed our visit or learned so much if we had tried to do this on our own. Well worth the $25 a day to hire him. We gave him a good tip and he was thrilled. He offered to share it with our driver, Tom, but I told him no, we would take care of Tom separately. He was so happy and asked if we would we write a review for TripAdvisor...We paid Tom as well. He was scrambling for change and I told him no, that we were very happy with his driving...His eyes were like saucers. They both bowed with their hands in prayer position in front of their chests, the Khmer way of saying thank you. A word on TripAdvisor...this is an online site where people write about their travel experiences. It is an incredible resource and one I used extensively for my planning. Good or bad reviews on there can make or break a place and we have seen many signs in restaurants and hotels saying "like us on TripAdvisor"...very powerful indeed! Tonight we went to a buffet dinner and Apsara dancing show. Food was mediocre but the dancing was interesting. Terrible forum for it...several hundred people in a huge room, most of them yapping at each other during the performance and the usual inconsiderate tourists rushing to the front to take pictures with total disregard for anyone behind them. Can you spell oblivious??
54: January 28...Silk worms and cooking school | Had a lazy start to our day today. With nothing really on our agenda it was nice to take our time over breakfast and morning coffee. Around ten thirty we headed downtown, back to the Artisans place to catch the shuttle to see the silk farm. When we got there they told us the next bus didn't leave until one thirty so we decided we would head back a couple of blocks to the market. We wandered through the first market, tested the prices to get an idea of how low you could go on a few things then headed over to the main market. We decided to split up and meet later so Roy headed off, no doubt to look at watches and boy things and I headed in the other direction to browse...Not really sure what I was looking for. Almost impossible to browse because as soon as you glance at anyone's shop they are on you...I met up with one young girl manning one of the shops. I wanted a tablecloth so I she dragged me into her shop. She started at about sixty or seventy dollars..I offered her twenty, the price I'd got to at the other market...In the process of our bargaining she was joined by two other girls so it made it a cozy time. They were so cute and always smiling. They finally agreed to twenty and then had big hugs for me, saying thank you, first sale is lucky. I seem to remember that from Hong Kong but I don't remember just why it is lucky. I was wandering off to find the bank machine and met a couple of young girls practising their reading in English. I stopped to chat with them...so sweet, all full of questions about where I lived...they asked if I would buy but I said I had to go to the bank. Then they asked if I could please come back and be their English teacher. I ended up back there later and chatted again before buying a pair of sunglasses...also lucky first sale...good to know because it is a great bargaining chip. Bought a couple other small things and eventually ended up with Roy, who has turned out to be a very good bargainer indeed. He is tough...watched him buy a hat that started at fifteen dollars and sold for three. Maybe that was a lucky first sale too! We eventually met up again and stopped just outside the market for lunch. We were stunned at the prices...fruit smoothies were fifty cents, pop, which is usually $1, and $1.50 for diet Coke, was fifty cents. We each had an order of fresh spring rolls, that were very good and a pop. Bill was five dollars. By now it was time to head back to the Artisans to catch the shuttle bus to the silk farm. Five us us took the tour, a Spaniard, us and a couple from Ontario.
56: Tour was very interesting. We learned how silk stuff was made from start to finish. First they put a ton of the worms on a big tray of mulberry leaves, the only leaf silkworms will eat. They eat for 24 days and then they are ready to spin their cocoons. They place the worms in little slots on a vertical tray and in five days the cocoon is done. They kill 80% of the worms; the other twenty are kept somewhere else and are allowed to turn into moths,, lay eggs and hatch more worms. The cocoons are then unraveled, each one making one continuous silk thread. The outside part is yellowish and that is used for the rougher raw silk. The inner part is whiter and makes the very fine silk thread. The unraveling of the cocoons was amazing to watch. It is all done by hand and a treadle. Once completely unraveled, the thread is then taken and dyed, some with natural dyes and some with chemicals. The dyes are set and then the thread is ready. In another area, the girls were making the patterns. It is hard to describe exactly how it works but it involves tying off sections of what resembles a woven plastic place-mat. This is done like tie dyeing...the tied off part stays white. This makes patterns on the thread so that when it is woven, in another room, the pattern shows up. Very complicated to understand and explain but the final product was beautiful. At the end there was a nice shop where you could spend a lot on beautiful silk items. Tonight we had so much fun! We went to cooking school at Le Tiger de Papier. The class started with a trip to the market where our leader bought a few things and showed us some of the stuff we would be using. Then we returned to the restaurant to begin cooking...It was amazing. There were three groups of five to seven people. Each person got to choose one appetizer and one main course. Then each group agreed on one dessert for everyone in the group. A couple of people in our group had the same thing but not many so there were about ten different dishes going on at the same time. Everyone was chopping different things and mixing different ingredients. I don't know how the woman kept track of what everyone was cooking and when each thing had to be cooked and who was to get what ingredients! Plus we were sharing a tiny kitchen with another group for the cooking. OMG it was chaotic! But she was very good and everyone ended up with the right dishes at the end. There was so much food...enough food for three or four times as many people. Roy chose fresh spring rolls. I made spicy shrimp salad...a tasty and healthy start and it would have been enough in itself. It went downhill in the healthy food department from there...they use a lot of coconut milk. For mains I had fish amok and Roy had chicken with ginger. We also learned how to make decorations...carrot flowers, banana leaf boats, banana leaf doilies. Roy was so efficient she kept giving him extra things to cut and chop. I ended up doing some too because the girls in our group were a little slow. For dessert we all had fried bananas...bananas fried in butter, honey and coconut milk...Not exactly diet food! After we made each thing, they covered it with Saran Wrap and set it aside. Then at the end everything went on the table complete with all our decorations. It was quite a sight! Now we are home...I am never eating again!
57: January 29...Lady day today | Not a lot to report today... Had a lazy morning with late breakfast, calls home, catching up on emails. Great to hear from so many of you! We are now over two weeks into our journey. We decided to walk downtown from our guest house, only a fifteen minute walk, if that. Very pleasant. There is a small river running through town and while the water is muddy looking, it is remarkably clear. Amazing how polluted it can get between here and Tonle Sap Lake where we took the boat ride. Pretty walk to town. We found a small mall, mostly western restaurants and a movie theatre with English language films. There are private rooms for watching movies privately...couldn't communicate very well with the girl there so we didn't really understand how it worked. There was a list of movies to choose from and you selected, paid for the room and watched it with your small group. Big screen tv and a small couch in a small room. There is a theatre as well...The Hobbit is playing...in English. We bought a few more things in the markets, got three lucky first sales this morning...good luck for the sales person, good luck for me. Not much here in the way of knock offs, mostly shirts and shorts, lots of silk stuff and cotton skirts and pants....sunglasses and watches. Took a tuktuk back to the hotel where we sat on the deck and read. Then we headed over to the sister hotel and spent the afternoon poolside...lunch and lounging...life is tough. Tomorrow morning we jump on the bus back to Phnom Penh. We should arrive there mid to late afternoon. Sorry, not much in the way of photos today or tomorrow...but you probably need a rest too!
58: Not much to report today. We spent most of it on a bus. But I discovered I can take not bad pictures through the window of a moving bus with my IPad...better than the ones with my camera! I also discovered video which I will try to upload. So today's report is mostly pictures from the bus trip... When we got here to the hotel in Phnom Penh, we were greeted with hugs and hand shakes and welcome homes from the staff and owner...can you just see that happening in North America? There is a big wedding going on across the street, lots of music and noise but they assure us they will shut down at nine and won't start in the morning before seven. We went for a walk around the hotel, mainly to find the bike tour company we are going with tomorrow. Turns out it is about a block away. So we wandered a little further afield... The activity around the palace is interesting to watch with the upcoming funeral of the King's father. We leave a couple of days before the actual funeral; I can imagine the mobs that will begin to gather. Out at the front people are laying individual flowers...thousands of them...at the base of his picture. And all around the grounds you can see the giant floral arrangements set up and hundreds of chairs covered in white satin. Quite beautiful. | January 30...Travel day today
59: Last night the wedding shut down early so we had peace and quiet by 8. They were supposed to start up again in the morning around 7:30...HAH! 5:30 sharp we were blasted out of dead sleep by very loud Khmer music...and it continued...going back to sleep was not an option. We both woke up today not feeling great...a bit of traveler's tummy and maybe a bit of dehydration. Unfortunately we had booked and paid for a bike trip today so off we went for breakfast of tea and toast... We got to the bike shop at 7:30, as we were told. Then we waited and waited. Seems like others were told different times. There were six of us and the last one didn't arrive until after 8. Poor guy felt bad...he was in a tuktuk headed there and got stopped in traffic. The area around the museum and palace is closed to traffic today so everyone is using the unblocked routes and traffic is insane. Eventually, he had to get off the tuktuk and on to a motorcycle, which was able to get through. We were lucky; the shop is about a two minute walk from our hotel. We got our helmets and had the bikes fitted and gave them a little try on the road in front. OMG...dodging the motorcycles and tuktuks was interesting....AND THIS WAS A QUIET ROAD!!! Six of us...Thomas from Switzerland, Uki from Japan, Sylvie and Christoff from France...our guide left us to become "new friends". The tour leader then had some instructions, plans for the day, etc. He apologized...traffic would be unusually heavy due to the upcoming funeral and all the blocked roads. Great! Eventually we headed out, down our street, across a couple of busy streets and then on to the main drag. OMG, it was crazy busy...just keep moving and don't look...but getting through log jams was very scary. Cars would come from the side streets and almost touch you. Don't make eye contact and they won't try to cut in. Make eye contact and you are done for! Everyone is aggressive with their driving but there is no road rage. They drive without any emotion. Just a whole lot of people trying to get to their destination as quickly as possible. | January 31...First day back in Phnom Penh
60: Everyone was going faster than us of course, so they were all trying to pass. It was unbelievable. I want to go back to that street with my IPad and take a video so you can see. We rode about 2k through the traffic and then...omg...a four lane traffic circle. By this time, we were pros though. I got very good at just going and convincing myself that no one REALLY wanted to hit me! I only got blocked in once when I had to get off and push my way through...cars and motorcycles on all four sides, all trying to get through me. I was very glad to finally see the ferry landing! Riding the ferry was fun. Cars, motor cycles, bicycles, and lots of people crammed on to the tiny ferry. What time is ferry time? When it gets there. What time does it arrive at the other side? A little while later. So far things had gone okay for our upset tummies but there was a big hill up from the ferry terminal (which we both rode). By time we reached the top we had exhausted ourselves. Both of us were feeling light headed and praying for a rest...and we'd only just begun. We rode through a bunch of back alleys, through a little village, mostly inhabited by Vietnamese. Traffic is almost non-existent, a nice change from the other side of the river! Everyone stares like we are from another planet. All of the little kids shout, "hello, hello" and wave like crazy. I was busy trying to make sure I didn't fall off my bike on the very rough roads, so called back but didn't wave much. Our first stop was a farmer's rice paddy, where the guide explained how the rice was grown. This crop was turning yellow, so almost ripe. The stop lasted about 2 minutes, only. Then we were off again for another three or four kilometers. Next stop was to see a farmer plowing with his cow. At this point I would have been more interested to see a dirty squattie! My tummy was rebelling and poor Roy was almost passing out. We didn't rest long and were soon dodging cows and dogs and small children again. But it wasn't long before we ended up at the weaving village...it was more a private family compound...Time enough to sit and rest this time...fresh fruit and cold water was nice. Then we had a tour of the place, which was pretty much a primitive version of what we saw in Siem Reap...silk worms, mulberry, cocoons, spinning and weaving. Everyone who works there is from the same family. At the end they have things to buy...I think very reasonable prices for what you could see was hand-done. I bought a genuine silk scarf for $8, still pretty reasonable for handmade compared to what they charged in Siem Reap at the Silk Farm. Roy was still feeling poorly so he sat the tour out. By now, I was feeling a lot better, thank goodness. Back on our bikes again, down some more paths through farmers' fields and we were on to ferry number two. This one crossed to another island where we stopped for a few minutes at the local temple. The monks were having lunch. Each day they go to the village and the villagers prepare food, which they donate to them. They only eat two meals a day...breakfast and lunch...maybe that's why there are no fat monks! In times past, the main goal of joining a monastery was to get an education. Now all Cambodian children can go to school (provided they can afford to buy the uniform) so not as many join the monasteries. Not that much to see at the pagoda; we didn't go inside. We were soon blazing our way through the village, this time on concrete roads. We passed a tiny school, beautiful fields of corn, rice, tomatoes and cucumbers. Lots of fruit trees, bananas, papaya, mango...very lush.
61: Next we road over a skinny bridge covered with metal plates. Couldn't get too close to the person in front of you because they kind of flipped up as you rode over them. We rode a few kilometers on the other side of the bridge and soon reached our last ferry. It was on the other side so we got to sit and have a water break at a little restaurant while we waited. We hopped on the ferry amidst all kinds of vehicles and lots of little kids headed off to school...afternoon session. I took some pictures of them. They were so cute. The little girls are just beautiful. They were all very shy at first but when I started handing Canadian maple leaf pencils, I soon had a crowd. They were all very gracious, hands in prayer position, head bowed and a thank you. One little guy ran to the other side and came back with a pencil sharpener...he certainly knew what to do. Off the ferry, walked up the hill and we were on the last leg. Rode down a quiet back street and stopped behind a beautiful temple. There was our van to take us back (not allowed to ride across the busy bridge). Loaded...and I mean loaded-up...the van and we were soon headed to the last stop...Lunch. But neither of us felt like eating still so we stayed in the van and went back to the bike shop. All in all, it was a fun and interesting trip. Just wish we had felt a little better. Got back to the hotel where I scrubbed the dirt off, had a nice cool shower. Roy crashed out but since I was feeling a little better, I headed down to the riverfront to the restaurant where we ate last night. I noticed then that they had tomato soup on the menu...just what my mommy used to feed us when we were sick and started to feel better. I had a bowl of rice with it and it was good...just what I needed. This place has WiFi so I am getting this done. WiFi at our hotel sucks. Tomorrow we are off to see the Killing Fields and the museum at the school that was turned into a prison of torture...maybe time for a visit to the market afterwards.
62: Today was the day they paraded the body of their dead king through the streets of Phnom Penh. The funeral is Monday. Around our hotel the streets were quiet, all blocked off to traffic. Pedestrian traffic only and any motor cycle or tuktuks inside the cordoned area were stuck. The western restaurant where we often have outdoor breakfast was closed, but the owner invited us inside to eat. He said he had been told... no outside eating, no Internet, no customers except the guests of the hotel, white lights only...lots of restrictions. We had to go past policemen and get permission to go there. After breakfast, we had to walk several blocks to get outside the cordoned area to catch a tuktuk. The streets were jammed with mourners, all dressed in white shirts and dark pants, each wearing a ribbon with a picture of the king. Thousands lined the streets of the parade route, five or ten deep, ready to wait three hours for the parade. For once, though, we didn't have to worry about crossing through traffic! We had three sites we wanted to visit today...The Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Wat Phnom. The first two stops were sobering; if you don't want to read of the atrocities, skip ahead...and be warned the pictures are disturbing. Our first task was to find a tuktuk to take us to all three places. The Killing Fields are about 17km out of town. We found a young tuktuk driver and negotiated a fee for the three stops and were soon on our way. Seventeen kilometers in a bumpy tuktuk amid the noise and the smells and the dust was quite the experience. The traffic was heavy, it still being the morning rush, although I think the rush goes on 24/7! We passed several big screen televisions set up on street corners where crowds had gather to watch the funeral parade. We arrived at the Killing Fields and paid our entry fee, which included an excellent audio tour. There are over 300 Killing Fields in Cambodia. This one is the largest and was the site of the most executions. If you have a weak stomach skip ahead... The story is heart-breaking and wandering through this place brought tears to my eyes. The Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, under the leadership of Pol Pot. His goal was to rid the country of all former government employees, all intellectuals, scientists, doctors, professionals, teachers...anyone who had anything to do with art, literature or learning. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of around 8 million. | February 1...A sobering experience
63: First Pol Pot cleared out the cities...over a three day period every city was evacuated to the countryside where individuals were to be reformed through hard labour. The Khmer Rouge wanted to reform Cambodian society, to turn it into a rural, classless society...no rich, no poor, with a totally agrarian economy. Over the next four years, individuals were arrested and brought to detention camps where they were tortured and forced to confess to non-existent sins against the nation. Once a confession was secured and signed, they were then driven to the Killing Fields where they were executed. At this particular site, over 20,000 men, women and children were killed. The site was discovered in the late seventies. It held more than 80 mass graves, one holding over 450 people. One of the saddest graves held the bodies of women, stripped, many of them likely raped, and their children, tossed in on top. The executions were brutal; bullets were expensive and not to be wasted. Execution tools were sharpened bamboo sticks, clubs, hoe handles, axes and knives. Babies were ripped from their mothers' hands and bludgeoned or slammed against the ground or the killing tree then tossed into the graves. This was to prevent their growing up and avenging their parents' deaths. Most of the bodies have been exhumed and the individuals identified. But still, during the rainy season, bits of clothing and bones still surface. You can actually see them on the paths under your feet. You can also see the depressions in the ground where the remains have been removed from the mass graves. In the centre of the grounds is a large glass stupa housing the recovered bones of the victims. There are seventeen tiers...clothing on the bottom, skulls on the next four tiers and then miscellaneous other bones on the upper tiers...a memorial to the thousands who died here. The perpetrators of this genocide were eventually arrested for their atrocities. In 1997 the Cambodian government asked for the UN's assistance in setting up a genocide tribunal. It took nine years to agree to the structure of the court. Pol Pot died of natural causes while under house arrest. In 2010, one of the other leaders was convicted by this tribunal and received a thirty-five year sentence. The rest are still being tried. The visit to this place was sobering to say the least...and soon we were off to another site equally tragic.
64: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was once a school filled with the noise of children at play. In 1975, after evacuating the city, Pol Pot turned the school into a security office, designed for the detention, interrogation and inhumane torture of individuals suspected of being enemies of the state. The new sounds that filled the air were screams and moans of pain and terror. The facility is haunting. One building has three tiers of ten by twelve rooms furnished with a bed (no mattress), shackles, torture tools and a can or plastic container for human waste. These were the "luxury suites" for VIPs and officials of the former government. The other buildings were subdivided into bricked cells measuring about one meter by two meters. Men from these cells were taken to larger rooms where they were tortured in order to get their confessions. The rooms are now filled with hundreds of portraits of the victims...absolutely haunting. Upstairs the beginnings of a museum, complete with photos of individuals and their pictures, is being set up. In 1979, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the records, photos, archives and prisoner confessions were collected here. The KR kept very accurate records of their prisoners and their supposed confessions and subsequent treatment. After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge and the abandonment of the facility, 14 bodies were found, the last to die here. Their tombs lie in the courtyard. On July 26, 2010, the former director of the S-21 prison camp was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment. His sentence was reduced to 19 years, as he had already spent 11 years in prison. But on February 2, 2012, his sentence was extended to life imprisonment. There is no death sentence in Cambodia. In the courtyard Chum Mey chats with people and sells his book. At 81, he is one of only seven who survived this camp and lived to testify against the tormentors. Only one other still lives. Because he was a mechanic and able to fix things, he managed to secure duties fixing the typewriters used to type up the confessions. This skill was of value to his tormentors and allowed him to survive. He sits in the courtyard, happy to chat about his experience or to be photographed. His books raise funds for the centre. That was a lot of darkness for one morning so fortunately we ended it with something a little more uplifting. Our final stop was Wat (temple) Phnom (hill)....temple on the hill...Legend relates that Daun Penh, a wealthy widow, found a large koki tree in the river. Inside the tree she found four bronze statues of the Buddha. Lady Penh constructed a small shrine on an artificial hill to protect the statues. Eventually this became a sacred site where people could make blessings and pray. A temple was built to house the relics and the city was named for it - Phnom Penh means "Penh's Hill." This temple is like an oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle. The noises of the city are somewhat muted amongst the huge green trees. A short climb to the top gives a great view and a peek inside another beautiful temple. The grounds are dotted with locals having picnics or just resting on the benches. We gave a few rial to a little beggar girl, no more than three or four, then watched as she ran down to her mother, who snatched the bill and added it to a big wad from her pocket. Talk about exploitation! The tuktuk driver dropped us a block from our hotel, as near as he could get with the barricades. A short rest, lunch, another visit to the market and we were back at the hotel, looking forward to a quiet evening and ready to pack up before the next leg of our journey. Tomorrow we head back into Vietnam, this time by boat down the Mekong.
66: February 2...Travel day today | I posted yesterday's blog before we went to dinner last night so I didn't give the full details of our last night in Cambodia. We wandered down to the riverfront for a late dinner. It was packed with people. We had to try a couple restaurants before we found a table. We discovered why shortly when we heard a huge bang...the sky lit up and we were treated to a beautiful display of fireworks. Nice of them to put that on for our last night in town! Today was a travel day. But since we weren't scheduled to leave until 11:30 we had lots of time for a leisurely breakfast and our last bit of market shopping...a Burberry and a Jimmy Choo are now safely tucked away in my suitcase. Over the next three days are taking a guided tour on the Mekong. So, everything is organized for us...transportation, accommodations, meals, tours. Should be interesting. Oh and back to quick mental calculations as we switch back from US dollars to Vietnamese Dong! Our driver picked us up at our hotel. We had to walk a couple of blocks to his tuktuk because that was as close as he could get. I think we are leaving town just in time. Our hotel owner said they expect over a million people to arrive in town for the funeral on Monday. Some of the bus companies who have stations in town must park ten kilometers away from their station. People will have to get there to catch their bus. Anyway, it was our last tuktuk ride! We checked in at the boat dock, showed our passports with our Visas to get back into Vietnam and were soon on our boat. Eight passengers in a boat for 18 so lots of room for our four-hour trip down the Mekong. Another couple from Canada, from Quebec, and their friends from France plus two other men, one Russian and the other, his 'friend', from who knows where, the Russian quite rude. This river is huge, I think the third longest in the world. It is miles across at Phnom Penh where we boarded. It was nice to cool off in the breeze for a change. Scenery wasn't all that exciting...a few villages and lots of boats, including a huge cruise boat. At the start, we were traveling in the middle of this large waterway so pictures of shore aren't that great. Ten minutes on a boat and I am asleep...Roy laughs at me but the motion does me in every time. Next thing I knew we were halfway through our trip. Our first stop was at the Cambodia border crossing which was a tiny little building at the top of the wharf. Departure passes were collected, passports stamped and we were off again, a short ride to the Vietnam border. There our passports were collected, dealt with and returned and we were now officially and legally back in Vietnam.
67: The Mekong enters the country through two channels, which the Vietnamese called the Upper River and Lower River. As it travels through the delta it divides again. By the time it empties into the China Sea, it has seven branches. There used to be two more but they have silted up over the years. The Vietnamese, mindful that the number nine is lucky, still call the river Nine Dragons. An estimated 2000 miles of channels and streams serve as the main streets and back roads to get around the delta. More than a fifth of Vietnam's 69 million people live here in the Delta. We turned down one of the seven dragons en route to Chau Doc. The channel is much narrower and dotted with tiny villages...tin houses, floating houses, thatched roof huts...and loads of fishing boats. Kids swim and play in the mud while parents mend nets and prepare for the next day's fishing. We arrived at about five, pretty much on time and our guide was there to meet us. A short car ride and we were at our hotel. Check in was already done by the tour company; all we had to do was turn in our passports and collect a key. From what we have seen of Chau Doc, it is kind of a dirty little town, I think only a place to stop over on the way to somewhere else, not a destination resort! Our room is nice though...big bed, nice bathroom with an actual shower stall, a balcony, little table and chairs..we will be comfy for our one night stay. Our guide recommended a restaurant nearby which we visited for dinner. Food was pretty good. Now we are back catching up on emails, posting pictures to Facebook and writing blogs. Roy took lots of pictures while I slept so I will try to upload some of his. Tomorrow we leave at 8 with our guide. Tomorrow night we will be at a home-stay and I doubt there will be Internet. So, you may not hear from me for a couple of days!
68: February 3...A very busy day | Not sure when this will get posted. Internet here isn't very good. Might have to do the pictures in a couple of days. What an interesting day we had today! We were picked up at our hotel and I have to take everything back that I said about Chau Doc being ugly and dirty. We went with our guide and about three blocks from our hotel, there is a beautiful waterfront. Too bad we didn't know about it last night... The entire country has begun preparations for Tet (New Year) which is next week. Apparently for Tet, one of the big things is flowers...tons of them and all beautiful yellows. Down at the waterfront there were hundreds and hundreds of giant marigolds and yellow mums all over the place. As well, there were kumquat trees and bonsai trees. It was quite lovely. We got on to a little boat with our guide and headed off up the river. Our first stop was a fish farm where we got to see how they raise fish that are then sold in the markets and exported. These floating homes/businesses are quite impressive...People who own them have done very well for themselves. There are pens under the water where they keep the fish until they are three or four kilos. They make fish food for them by cooking sweet potato, rice and fish. They mix it all up in a big mixer, cook it, turn it into mush then shoot it through a machine that makes little pellets. It was amazing to watch the feeding frenzy when you threw in some pellets! After there we motored up the river a little further to the Cham Village. We got off the boat then crossed a bunch of rickety bridges (very busy with tourists) and arrived in a little Muslim community. There were lots of trinkets for sale as well as some beautiful woven silk scarves. There was a women working a loom at the back. We wandered further along and came out on the street where cart after cart was selling fresh produce, fish and little cakes. Funny sign at the weaving spot said, "Do not buy cakes from the children. They may not be fresh and you might catch colic." Guess no one told the kids because they continue to sell them. Up the street was a beautiful mosque. Lots of Muslim women and girls in traditional garb all around the village. Made our way back to the boat and eventually back into Chau Doc where we wandered the waterfront for a few minutes. Then our car arrived and we were off with our guide and driver to Sam Mountain. What a ride it was up the mountain. We had to open the windows and turn off the air so the car wouldn't get overworked. At some points the grade was 30 percent and the road was very windy. Reminded us of a few roads in New Zealand.
69: Sam Mountain was a US Army base during the war. From the top of the mountain you can see the Cambodian border;it was the job of the soldiers to make sure the enemy didn't cross it. The land below at the time was covered in jungle and the VC would hide in the jungle. The border was protected with land mines that have supposedly since been removed. It was a spectacular view from the top. The land below is now covered with rice fields and is green, green, green. We stopped at a little restaurant at the top and tried our first drink of coconut milk/juice. It was okay but I don't think I would order it again. Our guide bought us a souvenir picture some guy was selling. He had a little mini printer that spit them out off his camera card. We headed down the hill and then south towards Can Tho, which would be our final destination. On the way we stopped at a crocodile farm for lunch. A guide gave us a tour and then we got a nice lunch...rice, soup, prawns and veggies, a chicken dish but no crocodile. Very nice meal, all part of our package. Back on the road and then another hour or so in the car and we arrived in Can Tho, which is the second largest city in south Vietnam. The car pulled over at the side of the road and we were greeted by a young man who is our local guide while we are at our home-stay. From there, we walked. A quick grab of a few things for our suitcase, stuffed into our packs and we were set. It would have been nice to know beforehand that our luggage wasn't coming with us! I am not impressed with our guide! Our home-stay is rustic, that is about all I can say! The grounds are beautiful, very lush with trees but...communal bathrooms and showers and the bedrooms are four bamboo walls, about seven feet tall with nothing above that height and a door that locks from the outside but only latches from the inside. A roof covers the entire complex of rooms. Our bed is very uncomfortable...a thin foam mattress with a sheet on it and a very small blanket. Very hard and lumpy. We do have electricity.
70: On the upside so far we have had an incredible time here. There is a young university student who is our local guide. He took us on a bike ride this afternoon after we arrived. The bikes, as you can imagine, are pretty basic...remember the one speeds we had as kids? Add hand brakes and you have them. Fortunately, with the exception of a few small bridges, this place is as flat as a pancake so the 20km ride was very pleasant, even in one gear. This student is such a sweet young man, so polite and excellent English. He is very knowledgeable about the culture and also asks us lots of questions. We have had a very enjoyable time with him. We rode along a cement walkway by the river and only had to cross an actual road once. Not too much traffic to contend with, jut the odd motorcycle overtaking you or coming at you...kind of scary at first. We made a few stops on our ride, once to see someone fishing in the river, once to see and smell lemon grass growing, at a nursery to see acres of yellow flowers and finally at an orchard, or as they call them here...a fruit farm. After wandering around and seeing all the beautiful fruit growing, we sat and had a big plate of fruit...fresh pomelo (my new favorite fruit), bananas, and mango. It was very pleasant to sit and eat and chat. No other tourists were around and because our student is staying here tonight and showing us around tomorrow, we had no set schedule. An easy ride back and we were soon ready to go to work in the kitchen. Our job was to make the spring rolls...some quality control might have been in order here...they all ended up different sizes! I had the job of cooking them, but was under close supervision by our student...aha, the student becomes the teacher! Dinner was amazing. In addition to the cooked spring rolls, we had a broth with pumpkin, rice, green beans and fried tofu, pork in a clay pot, fresh spring rolls and a steamed fish...more fresh fruit for dessert! Then, as if we hadn't already done enough today, our student took us to see the night market, about a ten minute walk away. I don't think they see many white faces...only locals shop there. The little kids just stared and stared at us like we were from another planet. Hello, hello...they love to say hello. So now were are back, in our cozy little room ensconced in our Pepto Bismal-coloured mosquito netting. This is the first place we have seen a mosquito but we didn't even put on any spray and they have not bothered us. Our guide assures us they are not dangerous here. The wifi is almost non-existent so I'm not even going to try to upload pictures...I will try tomorrow night when we get to Saigon. We are up at 5:30 tomorrow so we can go to the floating markets by six. Market starts early here! We go by boat but it isn't very far. Then we come back for breakfast and afterwards head back to the big city. I hope my back survives this bed.
72: Well that was about the worst night of our trip so far! The bed was so uncomfortable and the blanket would have been small on a single bed! The bathrooms were terrible. The women's had no doors on most of them and the sinks were filthy and stained. You couldn't have paid me to step into the showers! But at least the market this morning made up for it a bit...Up before dawn with our local guide and we saw the sun rise as our boat cruised into the market. What an amazing sight... A couple of hundred boats, all shapes and sizes, jammed together, some selling and some buying a dozen kinds of fruits or vegetables. Some hung a piece of the produce from a mast at the front of their boat so you could tell what they were selling. Lots of pineapples, watermelons, mangoes, papayas, bananas, cabbages, garlic, onions, something that looked like a turnip, and a bunch more I didn't recognize. The traffic was amazing. Boats would just nuzzle up and bump their way through. Amidst all this were ladies on boats selling coffee and pho. Crowding the scene even more were dozens of boats laden with camera-wielding tourists. We had a private boat but could have done with one much smaller! We spent about forty minutes or so dodging the other boats then returned to the little dock below our home stay. Breakfast was served...the usual egg, baguette, fruit...lovely little lady finger bananas...golden yellow inside and so sweet. Wish we could get them at home. After brekkie we said goodbye to Quang, our student guide who was heading off on another bike tour. We packed up and walked back to the road with our mostly-useless guide, to meet up with our driver. Overall, the home-stay was not a good idea. The whole tour might have been salvaged had we just stayed in a hotel. But a terrible sleep and annoyance at our guide who did nothing to earn his keep except dump us off on other guides that we had to pay extra for, just left me with a bad taste. Drive back to HCM was not very exciting...crossed the Japanese Vietnamese Friendship Bridge and one other big one. Traffic was the usual pass-whenever-you-feel-like-it except for one section, built by the US where we drove on a divided highway. Our guide was useless, no information offered about what we were seeing unless we asked and most of the time he slept or chatted in Vietnamese with the driver. We were ahead of schedule so didn't stop for lunch en route, rather we waited until we got to HCM. Ate at a little French Vietnamese place. Food was very good...appies, soup, fish, chicken, rice and fruit for dessert. Had very cute food decorations. Back to the hotel, checked in and put together a load of laundry. Walked to the market but only bought a couple of hats. The city park is absolutely filled with flowers...booth after booth of arranged flowers, potted mums as tall as me almost, roses, topi arises, bonsai...amazing how many there are! Traffic is still crazy! Almost forgot how to cross the road. The noise is unbelievable...nice to get back to the hotel and into a quiet room. Off to bed early tonight, catch up on my missed sleep... | February 4...Final day in the Mekong and back to Ho Chi Minh
74: February 5...Long day today | Spent a great day today with Jason Superstar...our private guide. This guy knew how to guide! He arrived right on time at 8 this morning with big hellos and hugs. We followed him to the car where the driver was waiting and soon we were off through the madness of Saigon in morning rush hour...not that it is any different from the rest of the day or night. We had three stops today: Kim Phuc village, Cao Dai Holy See & Black Lady mountain . It took us forever to get out of the city. We got to one corner and today was the day for them to change the street from two way to one way...what a mess. The traffic cops were fairly effective but the volume of traffic just made it a nightmare. It took us twenty minutes to get one block! Even after we had cleared the downtown area, it took forever to get out of the city. En route Jason gave us some background info on the village and the story behind Kim Phuc. He even had a computer loaded with a dvd about it called Kim's Story. Those of you old enough may remember a (1972) Pulitzer prize winning photograph on the front pages everywhere in the world. It was of a young Vietnamese girl running naked through the streets having escaped a napalm bombing by a US airplane. She had ripped off her flaming clothes and was badly burned on her back and arms with napalm. She was rescued by a foreign news correspondent who was filming the bombing. If you see the picture, you will recognize it, I am sure. The documentary journals her life; she eventually got off a plane in Gander, NFLD airport during a refueling stop and asked for political asylum. She became a Canadian citizen a year later. It was a touching movie and soppy me, I was in tears watching it. Good thing I had Kleenex! If you ever come across it, watch it. Jason pointed out the place, now a highway, where the shot was taken. We toured through the temple that had been the bomb's target. The temple is a Cau Dai temple. Cao Daism is a religion combining Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, and Taoism. It was started in Vietnam in the 1920's. Cau means "high" and Dai means "tower". The temples reflect this. They are all tall, painted red, blue and yellow, ornately decorated and very nicely maintained. This particular temple is not a very big one...that would be our next stop.
75: The area we went to next is the headquarters of the Cau Dai religion, their Holy See. The temple was incredible. It was huge and very beautifully and ornately painted. We took our shoes off and were allowed to walk inside. Usually you can sit upstairs and watch the service but apparently there are no services this week and none until after the Tet. I am going to see if I can find a picture online that I can download as it is very cool to see all the worshiping priests dressed in white down on their knees, filling this huge temple. We wandered the grounds, at least a part of them...the site is 10,000 hectares. There seems to be a lot of money in this town...it is obvious that a lot of donations go here. The temple is very well kept and the paint has all been redone recently. Next stop was lunch at Jason's favorite spot...we were going for barbecued chicken...Vietnamese style. I took a video...it is quite a thing to see! The chicken was fabulous, served with rice, greens and pickled turnip and carrots (not our kind of turnip). We let Jason have the rights to the chicken head. Back in the car and we were off to Black Lady Mountain. BLM is a favourite spot for local tourists and we were definitely the minority culture there. The story goes something like this. There was a beautiful black-skinned Cambodian lady. She was traveling through the mountains from Cambodia when she was accosted by a man who was going to rape her. Rather than be defiled, she threw herself off the cliff. That night a woman dreamed of her and of what had happened. When she awoke, she told the priests about her dream. They searched the mountain and eventually found the woman's body and built a shrine in her honour. Today the mountain is visited for its beautiful temples and a theme park. It cost us a buck or so to get in then another buck for the shuttle bus then six bucks to ride up the gondola. The ride took about fifteen minutes; we climbed to about 950 meters. You can also walk to the top...up huge sets of stairs...But it was about forty degrees out so we passed on that. The views were great and below us we could see a ride for getting down...Kind of a luge that went down a stainless steel path...looked like fun. They were getting ready for New Year's so the ride wasn't running. They were also test running a new gondola but I was happy to be on the old one just in case there were any glitches. At the top you get off and then climb several very steep sets of stairs to get even higher. We went inside several temples...should have worn flip flops, I took my shoes off so many times! In addition to the temples, there is a huge reclining Buddha. Walking up to that I got bitten by a big red ant that didn't want to share the railing. Youch!
76: There were a couple of shrines built right into the rocks. Met this sweet little old 81 year old nun in one of them. I left a small donation and she gave me a piece of fruit and some lucky money for my wallet, plus something else folded up that I haven't even looked at yet. She was very sweet. During the war, the mountain was a radio base. The Americans occupied the top of the mountain but the Viet Cong occupied the jungle below. There is a memorial to seventeen South Vietnamese soldiers that were killed in a raid. We caught the gondola back down and met our driver at the bottom. We had a three hour drive ahead of us so Jason put on a DVD for us. We watched The Quiet American, now my third time seeing it...but Roy's first. We also watched a short documentary of the Cu Chi tunnels...very interesting. We finally got back to the hotel at seven. A long but very interesting day. Went off for a quick bowl of Pho (noodle soup) then decided we would walk to the brand new Starbucks...first one in Vietnam. The thought of a grande decaf skim latte....mmmmm...but we got there and there was a line up a mile long, just to get in the door. So tonight I will just dream of my skinny latte. The streets were just jammed with vehicles and people. I have never seen such traffic. And you can't walk on the sidewalks...everyone parks their motorbikes there. So you dodge around the bikes on the sidewalks and walk on the road, trying to dodge the motorbikes and cars there. Then factor in the crowds walking with you and against you and the people that just stop dead for no particular reason! It is nice to be back in my quiet room.
77: February 6...Day to explore in Ho Chi Minh | Had a nice sleep in today! Read emails and went down for breakfast and stayed for an extra cup of coffee. We were headed off to see the War Remnants Museum and FITO, a museum of natural medicine that we had been told was interesting. We looked at the map and decided the War Remnants was within walking distance so off we went, armed with a map from the hotel and a business card from the FITO museum. We stopped first at the Saigon Cathedral, a beautiful church just up the street from us. Took some photos and then spent a half hour looking for a pharmacy someone told us was near there...we have heard that prescription medicine is very cheap here so wanted to check it out. No luck finding it so we continued on our way to the museum. It is interesting trying to follow a map that is not to scale and has only Vietnamese street names...plus every street sign has two names so matching them up was fun AND not all of the streets on the map were named. It seemed we were walking forever, pretty sure we were on the right street but totally unclear how far we had to go! Finally we saw an official looking wall and sure enough, inside it was the War Remnants Museum. We paid our entry...$1.50 for the two of us...and wandered through the outside displays of tanks, guns and airplanes. Up close, these things are big! Inside the building was very interesting. There were eight different display rooms, mostly photographs of the war and all of them denouncing the American involvement in the war. It was actually a little humorous to read the captions under the pictures...each one ended with something derogatory about the US aggressors and their terrible actions or the actions of the South Vietnamese "puppet". There were some very disturbing photos taken by international photojournalists that were there during the war, depicting the horrors that occurred. One of the displays was all about the damage done by Agent Orange. I couldn't spend much time in that room, too sad. All in all, a pretty one-sided depiction of the war but very well done and worth the time. The museum closes for lunch at noon and when it's noon, they really shoo you out...one word...GO! Roy met a couple from Vancouver and they were busy taking pictures as the woman working there was getting angrier and angrier. They were cutting into her lunch hour. Outside the museum a bunch of touts suddenly appeared, trying to sell souvenirs or get you into a cab or cyclo...felt like we were running the gauntlet getting through. We looked at the map and decided we could hoof it to the other museum. It was a ways, we thought but, we're in shape...lol. We walked and walked and walked...right off our hotel map and onto the tiny little map printed on the back of the business card. We finally stopped at a little restaurant for lunch. I don't think there was another westerner for miles! We recognized Pho on the menu, pointed and held up two fingers then went to the counter and pointed at green lemon ice tea and did the same. While we waited for our soup, we showed the card to see if they knew where the street was. The young man went away with it then came back and shook his head. So...we ate up and continued on, following the little business card map which by now was getting soggy and faded from being in my pocket...have I mentioned how muggy it is here? We could barely read the street names on the card but figured we were on the right track. We almost got there on our own but made one wrong turn. We finally stopped at a big restaurant and asked. No one spoke English and they kept calling people over to help.
78: By the end there were six or seven of them arguing about it...really quite funny to watch. Finally a young man seemed to know what he was talking about and indicated we should follow. We did and sure enough, literally half a block up the street we found the little tiny Vietnamese sign. We thanked him profusely and waved goodbye. The FITO museum feels so tiny when you walk in. We paid our fee and a young lady introduced herself and took us upstairs to watch a movie about the place. It is a museum dedicated to the history of natural medicine in Vietnam. The building has a very small footprint but goes up four or five floors. When the movie was over she took us up to the fourth floor and out to a beautiful garden area. The house was basically rebuilt to replicate the home of the father of Vietnamese natural medicine. It was dismantled from Hanoi and rebuilt in Saigon. It was beautiful inside, all brick and dark wood, nicely restored. The displays were quite amazing, a huge collection of medicine jars, teapots, wine pots, mortars and pestles and other equipment dating back to the 4th Century...very interesting and beautifully displayed. Our guide had us pose in traditional attire for pictures. After the tour, we were invited downstairs for mushroom tea...good for high blood pressure and something else...wasn't bad. They had a bunch of natural teas for sale but we decided we just didn't have room in our suitcases. I will remember...green tea, ginger and sugar...good for weight loss and digestion...There was no pressure to buy and a friendly goodbye when we left. First thing we did was look for a taxi, which eventually got us back to the hotel. He did an extra loop around the block that cost us about forty cents extra...but not worth crying about! We asked at the desk about the pharmacy, got directions and headed off. There were two to check out. We got the prices and they are definitely way cheaper but we didn't buy anything. Roy has gone off on his own to find an English book store...hope he doesn't get lost! I'm relaxing and finishing this up then going to read my book. Tomorrow is a do nothing day...but I'm sure we'll find something to keep us occupied!
79: February 7...Last day in Ho Chi Minh | A do-nothing day today turned into quite a full one after all. A lavish breakfast of eggs and a baguette (which seems to be the favourite thing to serve in hotels here..Not one to complain but...I am getting tired of eggs. I would love a yogurt and granola and some North American coffee, just for a break! ) then we checked online for things to do in Saigon. We have just about exhausted the top ten or fifteen places to see but managed to find a museum that looked interesting. It turned out that the museum is inside the grounds that house the Botanical Gardens and a zoo...wow, now we had three things to do! Plus we wanted to go see the Street of Flowers as we had heard someone talking about it. So we chatted with the front desk who told us where everything was and decided to get a cab. He was so sweet...escorted out of our alley to the main drag, flagged a cab and told the guy where to take us. Understand that the biggest rip-offs here take place in cabs...they kind of have you at a disadvantage, not to mention as a captive audience. There are two companies that are reputable, but even those drivers sometimes take the long way to get there. Yesterday it was a long square block...we could see our destination and said turn but he indicated he needed to go around the block...not sure why since it wasn't one way. Anyway, our cab driver got us to the zoo and maybe he took a few extra blocks to get there...who knows. Cabs are cheap and the extra distance is quarter or fifty cents. Tipping isn't necessary but we always have been rounding it off. Getting taken on the scenic route only cuts into the tip. At least this morning we knew he knew where to take us! We arrived safely and found the museum but like many of the buildings here it was closed for lunch...11 to 1:30...Gee, I never got lunch hours like that when I worked! It was 11 so we lots of time to kill. We wandered around the zoo and visited with all the animals...just about every kind you can imagine and a few more. Seems a shame for them to all be in captivity but I guess that's what zoos are for. They had a great reptile display with many huge snakes...one snake cage also contained a little bunny and another a guinea pig...lunch?...we didn't hang around to find out! We filled two hours and decided to get some lunch. On the way, we discovered a lovely garden and wandered about for a bit. They are getting all spruced up for Tet here, too, and everything looks so beautiful. The garden was full of bonsai, orchids, and several species of yellow flowers. A very Zen place to be after the noise and chaos of Saigon traffic.
80: We found the little restaurant but it appeared that they closed at 1. They were still serving something but were unable to figure out what so we gambled and ordered two! When it arrived, guess what? EGG AND A BAGUETTE!!! Oh brother. Oh well it filled a hole and the museum was calling. This museum is the Museum Of Vietnam History. It is housed in a beautiful old building built around a courtyard. In the courtyard is a small restaurant, I think. I saw a sign and saw a woman getting something ready. She had two metal colanders filled with meat that she was marinating...out in the sun. It is a wonder that people don't die of food poisoning here with the lack of refrigeration and the seeming disregard for any kind of food safety. We try to be a little more conscious of what we eat and where it was prepared than the locals. We never have ice in our drinks and if they serve water in a restaurant, we always make sure it is bottled water. Our guides always tell us they can drink the water but we can't. Usually we drink pop or a bottle of water. Diet Coke is always more expensive than Coke...apparently it doesn't keep as long and they have to toss it if it expires so they have to build that into their costs. I digress...the museum was interesting...no more Vietnam War stuff. (Just the many, many wars that were fought since about the 8th century.) Seems they having been fighting off invaders since day one! Lots of beautiful old ceramics and pottery, some weapons, coins, tools...even a mummy! The signs had English on most of them so you could get the gist of the displays. No pictures allowed, unfortunately, although I did sneak a couple...couldn't get the mummy as the guard was too close and my luck the flash would go off! We flagged a cab in front of the museum and asked for the Opera House...blank look...Cathedral?...a shake of his head...he handed me a paper and pen...i wrote Opera House but I think he was looking for an address. I finally I got out my hotel map and showed him the intersection I wanted to go to and the names of the two streets in Vietnamese. He nodded and we were off. Turned out we could have walked. It wasn't very far. Of course we got there and he started to go past the place but we both said, STOP. So he did and we got out. This time, I think it was just confusion, not a rip-off. We walked over to the Street of Flowers...oh my, what a sight. I know the pictures won't do it justice but imagine a big boulevard between two streets running for about four blocks or so, filled with flowers and floral displays. It was incredible. It was all roped off so you couldn't walk through. I think it opens tonight at seven. It was packed with people and traffic. Motorcycles would just stop and the drivers would get off take a few photos and get back into traffic. Walkers dodged the traffic or the traffic dodged them, I guess. Crazy busy. We walked back to the hotel and I only bought two t-shirts on the way. I've GOT to STOP! I saw ones I liked yesterday and today managed to get both of them for five bucks...how could I not buy them? Relaxing at the hotel now, enjoying the A/C and thinking about packing...tomorrow we fly to Nha Trang.
82: February 8...On the move | Travel day today, beginning with a harried ride to the airport through the usual mad traffic. Somehow we ended up with business class tickets for this flight...I seem to remember the price wasn't that different and them being sold out of regular poor man tickets. How fortunate for us! It meant no waiting in the big check in lines...business had its own kiosk. And to make things even better, it included entry to the business lounge. Since it was lunchtime, we took advantage of the free buffet lunch and snacks. We felt like royalty in seats 1A and C and Roy is already asking how much it would be to upgrade our flight home! Hahaha, like that might happen. The flight was a short one and we were soon dipping down over the most beautiful white sandy beaches and blue water. The airport is about 30k from Nha Trang and our driver was there to pick us...everything was going according to plan. The drive in was pleasant, windows open, breeze blowing in...but we were in this little tiny car and the driver was having some trouble negotiating the curves...good thing there was little traffic and it was a two lane divided road for most of the way. He managed to get lost in town, but in his defence this hotel is kind of hidden away, down an alley that runs off an alley that runs off a back street, none of which have names! He had to stop for directions and back track but eventually we did find it. As we arrived, the owner Danny, was arriving on his motorcycle. He introduced himself and took our passports for photocopies. He looked at the car we got out of, gave a quiet rebuke to the girl at the desk then apologized...it is Tet and the regular drivers aren't available. No big deal, we paid a set rate and got here in one piece. Hardly anyone on the streets on the way here. It is a small city and lots of places are closed for Tet. In Vietnam, everyone goes home for the New Year so there is a mass exodus from the cities. OMG this hotel is amazing! It has an elevator, for goodness sake. Our room is beautiful, big comfy king bed, flat screen tv, room safe, desk, comfy chairs, a bathtub and shower, even a shower curtain...and soft pillows...I really am in heaven. The room is spotless, beautiful porcelain tile floors, modern paint colours and sliding glass doors that stretch the entire width of the room. There is balcony with a table and chairs. We look out over some green grass courts, team handball, Roy thinks. Oh and did I mention, it costs a whopping eighteen dollars and fifteen cents a night! Our next few days will be quiet as I think everything will be closed after tomorrow. I'm hoping we can do see stuff tomorrow then spend a couple of days relaxing at the beach.
83: We had a rest and settled in then went for a walk before dinner. We are about two blocks from the beach. The beach has a big walkway and it was nice to walk without motorcycles dodging around us. We walked to the downtown business district then turned back, making a detour through the night market, which was just opening. Nothing but trinkets and trash at that one but it looked like there were some places to eat that might be worth checking out. This is a seaside resort town, very modern looking. Lots of big resorts on our drive in and some big hotels on the waterfront. Most of the people are tourists and interestingly, a huge number of them are Russian. The signs are all in Vietnamese and Russian and I think we heard more Russian than Vietnamese. There are restaurants on the beach where you can use their beach loungers or their pool if you eat there. There are also little kiosks where you can rent beach loungers for the day for a couple of bucks. We will do that another day. Stopped at a little restaurant called Seabreeze for dinner, near our hotel. I had scallops in sweet and sour sauce with rice. Very nice, spicy and lots of veggies and fresh pineapple in it. Roy had a whole sea bass in ginger and lemon grass. It looked interesting and he said it was tasty but it looked like a pain in the butt to eat. We managed to find our way back to the hotel with only one wrong turn...we should have left breadcrumbs! Sorry, not many pictures today...I promise more tomorrow:)
84: February 9...Day one in Nha Trang | No restaurant at this hotel but they do have coffee in the lobby so my loving husband went down and got some for us this morning. It was nice to have coffee in bed and catch up on emails and not be rushing off somewhere. Thanks for the emails, btw. As much as you enjoy this blog with your morning coffee, I enjoy your comments and your emails with mine! We arranged with Dave to go to my mom's this morning and through the wonders of modern technology, had a chat with her and Kas. It was great to chat with them and catch them up. Amazingly, they weren't too blown away seeing and hearing us on FaceTime. I suspect Dave may have explained it before he called us. Fun to see little Jazy in the background... walking! Afterwards, we headed off to search out some breakfast. Found a nice little spot for a second cup of coffee and anything but fried eggs! I had a nice warm croissant and a banana pancake with honey. OK, I admit it was eggs...but more like a crepe filled with warm bananas and dotted with a tiny bit of honey. Very filling so I only ate half; Roy helped me out after he finished his fried eggs! One of the local postcard sellers (very low on the pecking order, slightly above beggars) came in each time a new customer sat down. Funny, the restaurant owners don't shoo them away, just basically ignore them. This one eventually came in and ordered breakfast with his earnings. We decided to do our tourist stuff today; there were a few spots we wanted to see...the local market, Po Nagar Cham towers and Long Son Pagoda. We decided that we could handle the walk, I think about five kilometers, to the towers. On the way, our first stop was Dam Market, the main market in Nha Trang. It was huge, a circular site with an outer ring outside and a series of concentric rings inside ending with second level in the middle. We got stuck on the outer ring and finally had to cut through a very narrow alley to get inside. Unfortunately that involved cutting through the food section...always a sensory explosion of smells and sights you really could live without experiencing more than once. The fruits and veggies always look great...oranges, pomelos, bananas, watermelons, mangoes. But then you hit the meat department...not quite like a trip to BuyLo! The sellers are chopping and slicing and dicing barehanded and all this meat, fish and chicken is out in the open, lots of flies and the smell of market days long gone by, all in the middle of a huge din of clangs, bangs and loud voices. Have to watch where you walk because the floors look slick, having been fairly recently hosed down. The outer rings are jammed with sellers and you spend the whole time dodging buyers, most of whom have arrived or are departing on their motorcycles. They don't bother parking; they just drive to the stalls so look out!
85: We finally made it to the inner circle of the market. Our goal today was a couple of beach towels. We will need them tomorrow and Monday. We bargained and walked away at couple of places and then met up with a young teenage girl who was such fun to bargain with, all done with laughter and smiles and big groans of "oh no, madam, just a few more dollars"...In the end I got my price but I felt like giving her a couple extra dollars just because she was so much fun. Towels secured, Roy's goal was an Uncle H T-shirt. He found some he liked and while he was bargaining hard, I was getting chatted up next door by a very nice woman. She was just as interested in practising her English as in selling me something, once she figured out I wasn't buying. She offered me her chair and she asked all about my trip and I asked about her Tet. The market will close now for three days so sellers are trying to get in the last of their sales. We finally found an exit from inside the market and lo and behold, it came out where we had originally entered the outer ring...good radar! So, following our little tourist map we headed north towards the bridge. We could soon see the towers across the river so knew we were headed in the right direction. We found the bridge and began our trek across, stopping to take photos of the fishing boats in the river. They are almost all painted the same colours...blue and red. By now it was quite hot and we were dying of thirst. We found a little store, basically the front of someone's house, and bought two bottles of water for fifty cents. The woman was able to ask where we were from, basically by pointing to herself and saying Vietnam...I managed to figure it out...but when I said Canada, I don't think she recognized it. She offered us a spot to sit...they all have these little red or blue plastic kiddie chairs in front of their food stalls and stores. Another half kilometer or so and we reached the gates of the towers...the ticket booth was closed and for a moment I was worried we weren't getting in but I guess because of Tet, there was no admission charge. We hiked up the stairs to the top where there are some reddish brown carved towers like the temples we saw in Cambodia. These towers were built by the Cham people somewhere around 781. In the early days, Vietnam was actually three countries. Vietnam comprised only the south part of the country. The North was Chinese and the Central was Champa, a Hindu Buddhist nation. Vietnam took over Champa in the late 1700's. These towers are religious remnants of the Champa nation. The outsides of the towers are decorated with Hindu and Buddhist statues. Inside each tower is a shrine, complete with Buddhas, burning incense and candles. We wandered around there for a bit then headed back to the bottom. We could see our next destination on a big hill off in the distance...it looked a long way so we caught a cab.
86: At the bottom of the hill is Long San, a large pagoda that you can visit, once you take off your hat and shoes. The inside is decorated with golden statues and a shrine. The info about this place warns of lots of beggars, many of them the orphans being cared for by the nuns and monks who live there, and youngsters offering to watch your shoes or guide you up to the giant Buddha on the top of the hill. We saw very few...just a couple of old women at the top and a few kids running around that never came near. I dragged Roy's butt up the 152 steps...not nearly as far as the one in Hong Kong! At the top there is a GIANT Buddha, beautiful white statute about 75 feet tall...no wonder we could see it from the Cham towers! Also a good view of the city up top, which is bigger than I thought...quite modern...Mediterranean looking with lots of white and pastel buildings. Well worth the hike up just for the view. We decided we could make it the rest of the way back to our hotel on foot so set off in that direction. Stopped briefly outside a beautiful old church with a nice cobblestone courtyard, had a quick rest and soon found our street. By now it was well past lunchtime so the next order of business was food. We decided to go to the Texas BBQ, just down the street, run by a good ol' boy from Texas. The thought of a pulled pork sandwich had some appeal. But alas, the pork sandwiches are made from the ribs and the ribs were still cooking so there was only enough meat from last night's ribs for one sandwich. Guess who got that? I settled for a couple of hard tacos and a salad...OMG I have been craving a salad. Didn't like the dressing but as my tacos disintegrated I let them fall into the salad and it became a taco salad with no dressing but tasty all the same! The owner wandered through, saying hello to everyone and bid us a "y'all have a good day" when we left. We spent the afternoon resting, napping, reading and just relaxing. Not sure if that will get us through to the midnight fireworks. Tomorrow we tackle the beach. It's a hard job but someone has to do it!
87: I hope everyone is enjoying their morning coffee when you read this...hope it is a small cup because this will be short! Had a nice breakfast of French toast and bacon today with a big cup of coffee. Took our time, went back to the hotel and got ready to go relax at the beach. Weather is kind of cloudy today and quite windy. I think I actually saw three raindrops this morning but I'm not quite sure so I'm not letting it spoil our rain-free record. By the time we got to the beach it was noon and the place was packed. We walked for ages before we could find vacant beach chairs. We finally found two with no umbrella and the guy wanted ten bucks, double what he quoted us yesterday. I guess the thought we looked desperate. We headed back the other way and eventually found a spot with lots available. So we picked out two under an umbrella. The girl was there pretty quick and sold us two tickets for two bucks each. (I assume the tickets were so we could come and go.) We settled in with our IPad books, water and our new beach towels. It is a beautiful beach but much good for swimming...The wind was up and the waves were big. You could watch grown men being dumped on their butt when the waves broke over them. The para-sailing looked amazing...they were having a ball. Our section of the beach was defined by a row of flags across the beach halfway to the water. We had a couple of security guards keeping an eye on things, making sure no riffraff snuck in. Every time a pack of kids would get near he would chase them off then walk by, and with sign language tell us that they were there to steal. He would grin and bow, indicating he had done us a great favour. He was particularly attentive when Roy went to get us lunch...kind of felt like my private body guard. There were some sellers on the beach but not as many as I expected, possibly because it is New Year's Day. A few women selling sunglasses and snacks and one selling seafood. But it looked like she had been packing it around all day and there was definitely no ice in her bucket so we didn't even venture there. Every time one of them would get near that imaginary line between the flags the guard would head down and shoo them away. I felt like we were in some private resort... Across the bay you can see a long cable car that stretches to the Vinpearl, a big theme park, resort and golf course. Didn't seem worth fifty bucks to go. We spent the afternoon under the umbrella with the wind keeping us warm but not hot. My skin never saw the sun so no sunburns to tend tonight. Rest of the day was totally uneventful but relaxing...sorry pictures are poor and not many of them...will try to do better tomorrow. | February 10...Lazy day at the beach
88: February 11...Cycling outside Nha Trang | No lying about today! We were up, had coffee and off to have breakfast before nine. Nice breakfast, mango pancake for Roy and a BLT for me. We had directions for a bike rental shop...sort of. Somehow we forgot the map but figured we could find it anyway...wrong. We walked for ages and then wandered in circles for a few more ages then decided we would go back to the hotel, get better directions and our map...by now we had been wandering for about ninety minutes. I think we had already walked five or six kilometers, not counting the circles. Please note: we were never actually lost! About three blocks from our hotel...we discovered a bicycle rental shop that we must have walked right past...more than an hour earlier! Turns out it was the one we were looking for. Oh brother, I really didn't need that extra 8k walk! There were two bikes left so we took them for $2 each, along with a map to get us out of the city. Same bikes as last time...one gear, hand brakes, no helmets...Kind of hard getting directions when you don't speak the language. I kept pointing on the map away from the city...he kept pointing at the tourist spots....finally he understood and drew on the map for us. He pointed left and we assumed he meant at the next corner and took off. Of course we'd managed to turn left too early and had to get off the bikes a few times to figure out where we were. We eventually managed to get where we needed to go, and we did it with a little less traffic, so our error actually paid off! Soon, however, we had to bite the bullet and get on the main drag...there's only one way out of town! It is a real experience riding a bike in this traffic, I must say. The motorbikes and cars drive around you and you just try to stay right and keep moving! BUT you also have to watch for oncoming motorbikes that are going the wrong way, on your side, right at you...stay right of the traffic going with you and left of those coming at you. All well and good until you have to go around a stopped bus or a taxi pulling a U-turn. And then there is the traffic coming out of the side streets at you! Just have to keep remembering two things...they don't want to hit you and don't make eye contact. The best part...the traffic circles...those are bad enough when you are driving...as a pedestrian they are worrisome, on a bicycle they are downright scary! I confess, crossing the traffic circles, I got off and became a pedestrian a couple times. But otherwise, I negotiated them. All in all drivers are pretty good at sharing the road and once you get the hang of it, it is kind of exhilarating! Soon there was a little less traffic but we were really not out in the country. We decided we would have to get off on side roads if we wanted rural so we experimented with a few. Eventually we found a nice paved road and followed it for miles through rice fields and little groupings of houses. There were quite a few motorcycles so we knew we were headed somewhere, just not exactly where. We passed a lot of people sitting on their decks. Everyone was excited to see us and even the adults were calling out to us, saying hello, hi and Happy New Year! We stopped to take some pictures and woman and her eight kids came out, a little cautious until I took their picture. I showed it to the two that were brave enough to come close. They laughed when they saw it!
89: Just when we were wondering if we would have to come all the way back on this road to get home, we came to a little village. On the corner was a tiny little restaurant, basically a couple tiny tables and little kiddie chairs and two huge pots of soup! Perfect. No English spoken but we managed to communicate that we each wanted a bowl. She loaded up the bowls with meat and noodles and greens and ladled broth over, gave us a bowl of sprouts and mint and we were good to go. She showed us two 20000VD bills, pointed one at each of us. Translated - $1 each for soup. We bought couple of pops at the attached store for another dollar and that was lunch! As we were sitting there, a couple of Vietnamese men drove up on a motorcycle and sat themselves down right opposite us. One guy began chatting us up...in accented but reasonably good English. Turns out he is from Surrey, of all places, works at the Surrey Golf Course. He is here visiting family for Tet. Small world. Had a very nice visit. He asked how long we were staying and when we told him we leave tomorrow, he said, too bad, he could show us more of his home town. He bought an extra bowl of what looked like pate and insisted we share it. He said it was made from fish but it certainly didn't taste like fish. It was really good, though, whatever it was. We confirmed with him that the road beside us would take us back to Nha Trang (yay we didn't have to go all the way back where we'd come from). So we hopped on our bikes and started off. About twenty feet later, I discovered I had a flat tire! Great, we were in the middle of nowhere and had no idea how far back to the main highway. So we started walking and pretty soon a young guy and his girlfriend on a motorbike stopped. What's wrong? Flat tire. He thinks for a minute then says, Papa, you follow, Mama stay. So I stayed and Roy followed. I watched them go off into the distance wondering if it was the last I'd see of Roy. Moments later, the guy is back without his girlfriend and says get on. He takes the bike in his left hand and pulls it along while he is driving his motorcycle, me on the back. Down the road we stopped by Roy and the girlfriend gets on in front of him, while I'm on the back and the bike is beside and says to Roy...papa you follow...and we were off! We drove about a kilometer and we were back at the highway. He stops and says, Mama, Papa wait, my darling wait. Then he takes the bike and rides off, leaving Roy and I and his "darling" who speaks NO English. We waited and waited, wondering if we'd be paying the $80 the rental place said we would pay if we lost the bike. Figured he would have to come back for the little lady, though. Ten minutes later he was back with my bike, tire fixed! Showed us he found a big twig sticking out. I assume he got it patched at one of the many, many motorcycle shops. Of course then he proceeded to charge me a fortune for the tire fix...not sure if he was ripping us off or the guy that fixed it was...oh well, I would have given him the extra money anyway for his kindness. We would have still been walking otherwise! And as he bid farewell with such a great smile and many Happy New Years and good luck and good health...me and my darling go eat...how could I even consider we'd been taken advantage of?
90: Rest of the trip back was uneventful. By now we are pros riding in the traffic. No one came close to running us over and we managed to not get lost. Turned out to be a very fun adventure and I will never worry about driving across the bridge in traffic in Osoyoos ever again! Ten minutes later he was back with my bike, tire fixed! Showed us he found a big twig sticking out. I assume he got it patched at one of the many, many motorcycle shops. Of course then he proceeded to charge me a fortune for the tire fix...not sure if he was ripping us off or the guy that fixed it was...oh well, I would have given him the extra money anyway for his kindness. We would have still been walking otherwise! And as he bid farewell with such a great smile and many Happy New Years and good luck and good health...me and my darling go eat...how could I even consider we'd been taken advantage of? Rest of the trip back was uneventful. By now we are pros riding in the traffic. No one came close to running us over and we managed to not get lost. Turned out to be a very fun adventure and I will never worry about driving across the bridge in traffic in Osoyoos ever again!
91: February 12...Travel day | Spent most of the day traveling today. Requested a cab for 10:30 and he was twenty minutes early. No problem...we were already checked out and ready to go. Paid our piddling bill of $110...four nights, coffee every morning and two $15 cab rides...amazing. The cabby drove like a mad fiend to the airport and we were there in record time. Nice man, spoke a little English but not much. We managed to glean that his mother lives in Toronto and owns a sushi restaurant. He owns his taxi; she sent him the money for it. His father was a driver for the Americans during the war. We didn't ask what happened after the US pulled out. The NV were not kind to US sympathizers after the war. He keeps a book in which he writes English that he learns...this he showed to us as he was flying down the highway! Quite an experience. The drive to the airport is quite pretty once out of the city. Lots of jungle covered mountains on one side and beautiful ocean and white sand on the other. The airport is out on this long peninsula where there is a big network of roads running from the highway towards the beaches. Signs advertise big resorts and have development maps but I think these are great plans yet to happen. From the air you could see all these blacktop roads leading down to the beaches but no buildings except for one that was not finished...another area hoping to become an international tourist destination, I assume. It certainly has the potential. Beautiful beaches and several golf courses already built just outside Nha Trang and it looks like plans for more on the way to the airport. Flight was short and uneventful, no clouds so nice views the whole way. We landed in Danang, about thirty kilometers north of Hoi An, which is where we are staying. Danang looks to be a fairly modern city, high rises, a big sports stadium. Some interesting mountains nearby that we are going to after we leave Hoi An. Our driver was there to meet us...we hadn't received confirmation from our guest house so were not sure if we would have to do some cab negotiations at the airport. But there he was, my name in big print. The drive was uneventful...The road went by lots of big resorts, a Greg Norman golf course and lots of new villas and condos. Twenty minutes later we were at our guest house, The Sleepy Gecko. Owner was there to greet us, showed us our room and filled us in with a little info.
92: We are on an island, right on the river directly across from the Old Town area of Hoi An. Our room overlooks the river; we were upgraded to the family room...two queen beds, big room, nice bathroom. There is a nice lounge overlooking the river with big comfy chairs. There is a bar and restaurant here and it is about a ten minute walk to Old Town. OR, should we choose, we can stand on the riverbank and wave and some little old woman will come by in a boat and row us to the other side. We settled into our room and decided we would go for a short walk to explore the other side of the river. Hoi An is very small, at least the downtown/Old Town section is. You could walk most of the streets in a couple of hours. There is a big market, which was mostly closed this afternoon, and tons of shops, mostly selling the same stuff we've seen all over Vietnam. Tons of tailors...show them clothing or a picture and they will custom tailor it your size, overnight or in a couple of days. Fortunately, I don't need any "work" clothes! Also shoemakers...same story! Down the street from our hotel, there is a leather maker...handmade leather purses...$50...and a couple doors down, there is a book store...paperbacks and E Books...E Books are $2 each for up to 12 books and $1 each if you buy 15...Roy asks the guy about copyright...hello, he says, this is Vietnam! Lots of stuff is still closed for Tet but will reopen tomorrow. We checked out a few shops. Roy was pricing North Face jackets...asking price is $35 unlined, $55 or $60 lined...probably sell for much less. But we have decided to wait to shop in Hanoi when we can put a second suitcase into action. Let's hope the shopping is as good there! We also stopped in an art gallery and saw some lovely paintings...might go back tomorrow since we won't get those particular paintings in Hanoi. We are now back at the Sleepy Gecko, listening to and watching the boats on the river...lots of tourists doing the sunset cruise. The town is starting to light up, looks pretty. They have this practice in Hoi An. On the fifteenth of every lunar month, they shut off the electricity and everything is lit by lanterns...very cool, too bad it's not while we are here. Wish I could figure out how to bring lanterns home...they are so beautiful! There is even a lantern making workshop. Tonight we will eat at the guest house....western perhaps. Tomorrow we are off exploring...
93: February 13...Wandering the Ancient City of Hoi An | Had a nice breakfast at the guest house this morning...bacon and eggs and a toasted baguette and hash browns...that's a first for us. No point in ordering our eggs sunny side up or easy over...you get whatever comes out of the pan! Today was a day for a little historical exploring through the old buildings and museums. You buy a pass and that gets you into five places of your choice. There are four museums, five old family houses, a bunch of assembly halls, plus a traditional arts and crafts centre and a music performance. There is also the Japanese bridge but if you don't go into the little pagoda attached to it you don't have to turn in a ticket. First stop was down the lane to the local e-book pirate...fifteen books and fifteen dollars later we were ready to explore. It took us awhile to find a ticket place this morning...of course we saw lots of them later when we weren't looking. On the way to find a place, we passed lots of street sellers and as I was looking at some shoes, I was attacked by this woman who literally dragged me down several alleys and into her "shop". I thought she was selling shoes until she started saying I make you ten years younger! OMG I knew I was in trouble... Roy was laughing so hard he was NO help! She sat me down and proceeded to arm herself with her weapon of destruction...then proceeded to remove every hair on my face! She had one of those thread things and literally ripped each hair out by the root...she kept saying, waxing bad, this no come back! Crap, it hurt...LOL. The woman was so funny, every time I would yell ouch, she would slap my shoulder and laugh and say no pain, no gain. I managed to get her to stop before she started to attack my eyebrows! Meanwhile someone else was feeling my legs...OMG it is a good thing I shaved them this morning or I would still be there! I paid up and told her she was funny...she says, you funny too, and gives me a big hug. So...off for some historical stuff. Of course by now it was almost noon and things were closing for lunch so we had to kill some time. We walked to the Japanese Bridge, which was constructed sometime in the early 1600s. Because it was close to the China Sea, Hoi An was an important trading port up until the 17th century. Spice traders would retire to an upstairs eatery to enjoy local cao lau noodles (famous Hoi An dish) while their wares were unloaded from ships below. The Japanese traders were the dominate force at the time and the bridge remains a symbol of their impact in the region. The bridge was originally constructed to connect the Japanese community with the Chinese quarter - separated by a small stream of water - a symbolic gesture of peace. The builder of the bridge still remains anonymous.
94: Around the end of the 18th Century, the river silted up and ships could no longer navigate it. Nng became the new center of trade in central Vietnam while Hi An became a forgotten backwater. The result was that Hi An remained almost untouched by the changes to Vietnam over the next 200 years. In 1999, the old town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. We crossed over the bridge and discovered many more shops...please send help we can't control ourselves. Those North Face jackets we were going to buy in Hanoi...well we now each have one. Knock-offs, of course but they look good and cost only $25. How could we not buy them? We will be carrying them on the plane because they certainly aren't going to fit into our suitcases! Today we also discovered lanterns...which fortunately fold up...but still take up a lot of room. I want a couple of these, at least! And we also found several art galleries...please... send help! By now we had burned up an entire morning and had yet to step foot inside a historical spot! And It was lunch time and we had to try the local dishes...cao lau noodles and banh vac, which means white rose. Both were good, fortunately small portions because we had to have dessert. Check out the picture and tell me that you could resist when it was staring at you all through lunch! We did finally spend some time in the historical spots. We saw a couple of old, old houses, a couple of museums, an assembly hall. All interesting and small so they didn't take long to see...except the assembly hall which was huge and filled with locals paying respect to their deceased relatives. Apparently they invite the spirits to visit over Tet and today is the day they send them back. The locals were all purchasing incense and lucky papers to burn. The place was filled with smoke and crowded but despite that, it was beautiful and had nice garden areas outside the temple spots. A tour bus was just arriving so we decided to make our exit. Somehow we ended up with two tickets left but decided they could be used another day. Time to sit and rest and for a cup of green tea by the river. Lots of boats there all with touts trying to get you to go on a sunset cruise. We needed to go arrange bikes for tomorrow so decided we would cruise another night. We chatted up a couple from Australia and while we were there a street vendor came in and sold us bags of peanuts, ginger and dried ginger bananas...she kept giving us samples...very tasty and happy hour prices...three bags for $5.
95: We had a bit of a rest at the hotel, and a visit with the owner. He is originally from Great Britain via Singapore, Australia and Cambodia. He married a Vietnamese woman (who is the owner on paper because foreigners can't own anything here). Personable character and quite a good photographer. Turns out he knows someone who has a boat and we have booked for tomorrow evening...private just for us...Captain Dan...sounds like a colourful character, should be interesting. I managed to load all my pictures before dinner so I would just have some writing to do when we returned from dinner. That done we headed out here somewhere. The well is 200 years old and said to be the only place you can get the right water to make Cau Lao, the noodle dish we had for lunch. The restaurant is a hoot...basically they have set up tables in a back alley...literally. Motorcycles occasionally drive between the tables. I was befriended by a hoard of little kids from the next table who were fascinated by having their picture taken. They kept coming back for more pictures so they could look at them and laugh. We finally had to shoo them away when our dinner came! Dinner is a set menu and you don't find out what it is until it is in front of you. Tonight we had some kind of spring roll...the waitress brought out a big plate of greens, several bowls of sauces, a plate of what looked like kimchee, a platter with two kinds of meat on skewers and a plate of hot spring rolls, plus a plate of rice paper wrappers. She rolled one for each of us and then we were on our own. There was so much food. I have no idea what we ate but it was soooo good. Then they brought more cooked spring rolls and more skewers and finally four great hunks of the best pineapple I have ever eaten. In the middle of dinner it started to drizzle...there was a tarp over the alley but it was dripping down the side into our sauces and splashing all over the table. The waitress came over and dragged us closer to the centre of the alley, which was fun when the motorcycles went by! We paid our bill ($12 for the two of us with a couple of diet cokes) and headed out. The waitress said, you come back. We said we would...she said TOMORROW...We will see...so much food so little time...
97: February 14...Cycling day and a sunset cruise | Up bright and early today. Quick breakfast and we were off to rent our bicycles and meet our students. Bicycle rental lady was open and lit up when she saw us. We paid her the three bucks and she gave us two bikes and a lock...no ID, no deposit...have a nice day! Riding across our little bridge - yikes. It is very narrow and I was sticking to the right side as well as I could. Lots of motorbikes and bicycles and wouldn't you know it, a truck had to pass through us all. Fortunately it isn't a long bridge and we were soon over it and negotiating a left turn onto the street where we were to meet our tour guides. Managed to find them, nice young man and a nice girl. Had introductions and then waited for a third girl to show up. Just Roy and I in the tour. A few minutes later she arrived on a motorcycle...so three of them on two bikes, no big deal. We rode back down through the market area, which was very congested. Mostly people walking and some motorbikes...hard to navigate so ended up walking parts of it. We arrived at the ferry landing just as the ferry was loading up. They put our bikes on and we climbed aboard. Similar to the ferries we used in Cambodia...foot traffic, bicycles and motorbikes. The ferry ride was about fifteen minutes and before we knew it we were getting off on the island, in Kim Bong Carpentry Village, where our tour was to take place . We had five stops to make...a shipbuilding yard, a woodcarver, a family pagoda, a rice noodle maker and a souvenir shop. First stop was the shipbuilder's. Scale down what you are picturing. This is someone's back yard. They build one boat at a time and they are not very big. The one we saw was about thirty feet long and built almost completely of wood, only some nails on the top boards, everything else was wood plugs. The students took turns telling us how the timber got there and the process of how the boat was made. Very labour intensive...interesting to see. Next stop was the souvenir shop, where supposedly the items on sale were local...hmm I don't think so. We have seen them in all the tourist shops. But some of the stuff was very nice and we may rent bikes and go there again. The woodcarver was closed but we were able to look at some of the carvings outside the shop and through the slats we could see some of his stuff.
98: Next stop was the family temple...a private worship spot for the entire clan of that family...not sure of the name. There was a huge family tree showing the lineage. The temple was nice and the students told us all about the gods and the five elements...ha...we'd paid attention in our other tours and actually knew answers to some of the questions! While we were there we picked up a Norwegian man who was riding his bicycle around. The students asked him if he wanted to join us. So now we were six. Next stop was the noodle maker. This is just a family that makes noodles, not a factory. They showed us how they mix the rice and water to make the batter. It used to be done by hand but is now done by machine. In the next room, the guy was cooking the rice paper. I got to try ladling it on to the griddle...ladle, cook, ladle, cook, ladle, cook...three layers. Then you have to flip it off with a big chopstick. I did pretty well for a beginner but I could never keep their pace! After my apprenticeship, we saw how the noodles used to be cut by hand, and now by a machine. We got to taste them with some soy sauce. Very tasty! We continued our cycle through the rice paddies and along the river. It was peaceful and quiet. Along the river we stopped by the boats and I got to climb on a bamboo bridge...basically a bunch of bamboo poles, one to walk on and one to hold on to plus a few side pieces. The students took lots of pictures on their IPhones. We took a picture for our Norseman as his camera memory was full. I will email it to him tonight. We made our way back towards the ferry and by now the carver was open so we went in and looked at some of his stuff. He had one carving that took an entire year to make. It has 1000 dragons carved on it, very beautiful. We looked at his other stuff too and you could easily tell the real carvings from the tourist junk. Didn't buy anything as I didn't want it bouncing around in my bicycle basket. We got on our ferry and were back in Hoi An by noon. We offered to take the students for lunch but they said just coffee and would we fill out an evaluation form? It was great fun to spend the morning with them. They were so full of enthusiasm and full of questions about us and our country. I've almost run out of Canadian souvenir stuff; I should have brought more! But I did have three toonies and they were thrilled to get them. We bid the students farewell and decided since we had the bikes for the day that we would take a ride to Cua Dai Beach, which is about 6 or 7 kilometers from Hoi An. Oh brother...no map AGAIN! So we knew the general direction and decided if we never found it, too bad; it would just be a nice bike ride! We ended up getting there but not by the prescribed route. But instead of being on busy streets, we were on country roads with far less traffic so it was very pleasant. Of course we had no idea where we were going until we found a main drag, which turned out to be the direct route from Hoi An that we would have taken had we followed a map! The beach was a disappointment...just a big beach packed with locals. We didn't stay.
99: We decided we liked our route better than the busy main drag so we went the same way back. Managed to find our way and stopped for lunch at a little restaurant on a lake where two big groups of locals were having lunch. Very noisy! Ate our lunch and got back on the road, managing to retrace our steps perfectly. It was a nice ride through rice paddies and open spaces...Even ran into a few water buffalo along the way! Got back into town and returned our bikes...my little lady said...tomorrow too? They always want you to come back! I told her no, tomorrow we go to cooking school. She gave me a big hug and we were off to our hotel. Spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing before our sunset cruise. Captain Dan arrived at 4:30. Our hotel owner had asked around the hotel to see if anyone else wanted to go but no takers. Then the idiot asked a couple of kids (I think his) if they wanted to go and we ended up on a babysitting excursion! Roy was not impressed. They kept hopping around in the boat and getting in the way of pictures...or wanting to be in them! We finally told them to go sit farther back. The cruise was interesting. We saw lots of fishing boats of varying sizes. There was one that you could pay a buck and try tossing the nets. I tossed and Roy took pictures! I wasn't much good at it. Think I should stick with noodle making. We got to see these amazing fishing nets. They are mounted on great huge poles and attached to a winch that is up in a hut. Our guide said the guy lives in his hut above the water in the middle of the river. He uses his hands and feet to winch the ropes in which raises the nets. Then he goes in his little boat and knocks all the fish down from the sides of the net into the middle. Somewhere there is a spot where he gets the fish out of the net and into his boat. Then he goes back to the hut, releases the winch and the nets sink down into the river again. He just repeats the process over and over, getting a small basket of fish each time. Fascinating to watch these guys. They are all over the river. Wasn't any sunset to photograph tonight. It was cloudy again today with a teeny bit of rain this morning. It felt nice when we were riding...and not enough to get us wet! Went for dinner when we returned to a restaurant called Streets. It's another NGO keeping kids off the streets by training them. Food was good. Then we went back to the dessert showcase for a Valentine dessert. Happy Valentines Day everyone!
100: February 15...Quiet day | Today was the first set of plans that went astray...we were supposed to get picked up at 8:45 this morning for a cooking school...they never did show up. We gave them a half hour then I emailed and said thanks a bunch...and decided to try somewhere else. Today we used the "water taxi" for the first time. A lady in a rowboat spends the entire day paddling back and forth. For a dollar she took us across to the market side...another new experience! When we got there we hunted out the Hai Cafe, where they run the Redbridge cooking schools. We found it and tried to book for tomorrow morning but alas, they were full. We settled on a shorter version tonight, paid our money and went off wandering through the streets. Today we ventured further afoot, out of the Old Town, and into a whole new area with more shops. Checked out a couple optometrists to see how much to replace the lenses in my old glasses. Think I will wait for Hanoi to do that, though, as I will have more time in the event there is a problem. We wandered into a lovely garden outside a pagoda. Roy went inside and chatted with Buddha while I waited outside. I couldn't bring myself to take off my shoes again. The garden was beautiful, tons of bright flowers and a few white marble statues...a very pleasant oasis in the midst of the noise. Roy says the inside was very quiet, full of monks...a zen moment for him. Roy had a nice cup of green tea and I had a soda with lime at one of the many restaurants, just so we could rest and decide what colour lanterns to buy. We decided to buy lanterns here... they are so lovely and so cheap. Wish I could bring ten home! Still not quite certain how I am going to manage them on the plane but we won't be able to get them in Hanoi so it's now or never! They do fold down to a tube shape but still... We have so much crammed into our suitcases...can't wait to get to Hanoi so we can just buy another bag and start filling it! We headed back to the waterfront and flagged down our little lady to row us back to The Sleepy Gecko and spent the afternoon just relaxing on the deck overlooking the river with a book. Beautiful day today, blue skies and fluffy white clouds...gentle breeze and not too hot. The deck is upstairs and in the shade so it is very comfy. Nice to just sit and watch the traffic on the river. Got an email full of apologies from the cooking school, offering a free school this afternoon or tomorrow. Too bad I'd already booked and paid for the other. Caught the water taxi again and headed for our cooking class. Had a new oarsman this time and had to renegotiate the price...
101: Cooking school was mostly demonstration. Only four of us in the class, us and a couple from Australia. Had a very pleasant time with them. We got to chop and grind and we got to roll spring rolls. Roy got to cook the spring rolls and I got to barbecue the beef for the salad. Not very hands on, mostly she just showed us on a small volume, so we would know how, then the food disappeared and a larger volume of it appeared later when it was time to eat. First we made fish in banana leaf which went off to be barbecued. Then we did the fried spring rolls. They brought in a little hot plate and cooked over that. I went to the other side of the restaurant to cook the beef and when I returned the salad was ready except for the dressing. She made that and tossed the salad and we were ready to eat. We also got two more things...white rose and deep fried wantons with some kind of fruit and veggie salsa-like stuff on them - Vietnamese bruschetta! The white rose is interesting...there is one family in Hoi An that makes it. No one else has the recipe; they all buy it from this family. Most every restaurant has it on their menu! The final dish was the fish but we waited ages and ages for it to come. I think maybe they spoiled ours and had to go catch a new one! We had lots of time to trade travel stories with the Aussies so the wait wasn't too bad. The fish was served with rice and a plate of morning glory...haven't had that in ages! Fruit for dessert, said goodbye to our new friends and then we walked home! Tomorrow we are renting bikes again and heading off to do some exploring. No more shopping! I got my lanterns and I bought two small bags of fresh ground cinnamon...smells so good...and that is it...for sure this time!!
102: February 16...Cycling outside Hoi An | It was drizzling when we got up today and it continued through breakfast. So we hung around the hotel and waited for it to stop. Around ten thirty we went off to rent bicycles...this time we rented from the shop next door to the last shop. Fortunately my lady didn't see us...I felt like such a traitor. But Roy thought the bikes looked better. Today we remembered the map! Ha! Fat lot of good that did us...maps with no street names are not much use. How do you measure the four kilometers to the next turn? We rode miles farther than we planned but it was a nice ride and we managed to end up where we wanted to go. Got a few more sprinkles for about ten minutes, just enough to cool us off. Saw the Tra Que Herb Village (big herb and veggie gardens) and rode around the little island they occupy. Very green and lush...amazing how much they produce off not much land. We finally found our wallowing water buffalo...been on the look out for ages and there they were...papa, mama and baby in up to their necks in mud and dirty water! Had to stop for photos. We crossed back over the highway and headed down to An Bang Beach. As you get close to the beach, women come at you from all sides wanting to park your bike. We just rode past, right down to the beach to have a look. While we were standing there, the little gal from the restaurant said we could park for free if we wanted to come in for a drink. Mango shakes and an order of spring rolls. There was a big bike tour group there, the same company we used in Phnom Penh. Had a nice chat with the tour guide. While we were eating, the Australian couple from last night's cooking class rode up so we had a visit with them too. We headed off again, this time down toward Cua Dai Beach. Since we saw it the day before we took a short cut past it and decided to retrace our steps from yesterday. But this time we took a bit different route and ended up doing an extra four or five kilometers...altogether, I'm sure we did at least thirty kilometers today. My butt is sore...what I wouldn't have given for my bike shorts and a gel seat! Got back to the hotel around three or so and spent the rest of the afternoon lazing about. Went for dinner at Ganesh, a local Indian restaurant and I think the same chain as the one we ate at in Nha Trang. Food was very good.
104: February 17...Hoi An to Hue | We saw so many beautiful places today. Unfortunately, the pictures aren't great. Roy's battery died at the first stop and my camera doesn't take great shots, particularly in dark places. Our driver and guide showed up an hour early this morning. We were just coming down for breakfast and they were already there. But no problem. They just waited for us, loaded the luggage and had coffee. We ended up leaving a half hour ahead of schedule. We drove from Hoi An to Danang, which is Vietnam's fourth largest city. It is a very modern looking city and quite spread out. It has about a million people. Our first stop was the marble statue making place. Not terribly interesting, just people trying to sell you something. What do you think our neighbours would say to a twenty foot Buddha in our front yard? Might get even more golf balls in our front yard as guys tried to aim at it! It seems every tour we go on they have to take you somewhere to buy something. They never ask if you are interested in going there, they just take you. I assume they get a kickback from the stores for bringing you there. Next stop was the Marble Mountains. These were really interesting. The guide gave us a choice of seeing the cave and pagoda at the bottom (30 minutes) or the caves and pagodas at the top. He told us it would take two hours to do the one at the top and I think was disappointed we chose that one! We opted to pay the three bucks for an elevator up, rather than hiking, knowing there were still lots of steps once we got there. At the top were several caves with Buddhas and other statues in them. Some had little openings at the top where you could see blue sky. Others were quite dark. We found it really interesting and started to get quite annoyed because the guide was rushing through it. As it was, what was supposedly a two hour visit was done in barely an hour. Not nearly enough time to really look around. We could have spent another hour up there. One of the temples had a service going on in it. We could hear the chanting but he had his set route and wanted to go somewhere else and come back there. We asked if the service would still be going on later and he said maybe not so we said then we'll go now. I don't think he was impressed but sure enough when we came back later it was deserted and we would have missed it.
105: We hiked up lots of stairs to different spots. Mostly we got to go up on our own so we were able to decide how much time to spend for pictures and looking. We took our time on those spots. The view from the top was pretty spectacular but I'm sure the pictures don't do it justice. We hiked down the mountain to the parking lot and met our driver and we were off again, this time to the Cham Museum. We passed China Beach, nicknamed that by the Americans during the war. Miles and miles of beautiful white sand beach. I think this was an R&R spot during the war and there was a television show called China Beach that was set here. The museum was interesting, but most of it was a down scaled version of the temples we saw in Angkor Wat and Po Nagar in Nha Trang. We enjoyed looking at the statues...kind of a reminder of our time in Angkor. Again, the guide seemed to want to rush us through so again, we deliberately took our time and went into the rooms he was avoiding and looked at everything! We weren't in the museum twenty minutes and we were off again. Wow talk about being rushed through things! The next part of our tour took us through Danang and north on Highway 1, up through the Hai Van Pass. This is the highest pass in Vietnam. We stopped at the top to see the view but it was a bit hazy so pictures are poor. The view was spectacular, though. On one side you could see across to Danang and on the other you could see Lang Co Beach, which was our destination for lunch. At the top of the pass were a couple of old cement buildings, one left over from the war and one from the late 1800s.The drive down the other side was pretty; you could see the beautiful white sand beaches below. We arrived at Lang Co beach for lunch. The food was pretty good, a set meal with soup, fish, chicken, veggies, rice and a half orange for dessert. After we were done, we walked down on the beach for a few minutes. It was a very beautiful beach, privately owned by several resorts. There wasn't a soul on the beach. Our guide said it was too cold to swim. It was very windy but it was thirty degrees and I could have spent some time just wading in the waves. But alas, our guide seemed to be in a hurry... The rest of the drive was uneventful. We were in Hue by three. Our hotel is down a narrow alley so they called ahead and had the hotel porter meet us at the street and take our luggage. We were invited to sit in the lobby where they had set out cold sweet lemon juice and a plate of cut up mango. The girls at reception all introduced themselves and were most welcoming. While we ate and drank, someone took our luggage up to the room.
106: We were them shown up to our room...it is so sweet...the room is small but has a nice bathroom with a tub and shower, two windows with a peekaboo view of the Perfume River, a nice queen bed with four pillows...and rose petals all over the bed! Also a fridge and a computer! There is a plate of fresh fruit and there are bottles of water plus a kettle, tea and coffee. We are all set! We relaxed for a bit then went exploring. We walked a couple of blocks to the bridge over the Perfume River. ..It is a fairly large river. On the other side we found a market...Roy was not thrilled that we had to walk thought he food section but at least it was only fruits and veggies, no smelly fish and meat. We found the soft goods upstairs but it was so crowded and the aisles were so narrow that it was claustrophobic after a very short while. We managed to find an exit to the main drag so went out, wandered there for a bit then headed back to the hotel. When we got there, they asked if we would like some tea or lemon juice but we declined and said maybe after dinner. We headed off to a restaurant that the receptionist recommended for local food. We found the restaurant, no problem...a little hole in the wall but they were barbecuing chickens and they looked good. We went in and sat down and they brought us menus...no prices...hmm...well how much could it possibly be? We ordered barbecued chicken and an order of green beans. It was the fastest service we have seen! The chicken was a little greasy but tasty...not as good as our guide took us to outside of Saigon but not bad. The beans were very good...I was craving veggies and could have eaten two orders myself! We had a nice cup of green tea in the lobby and some candied ginger. they keep a big bowl of ginger and other candy in the lobby.Tomorrow we are going on a city tour that should be interesting.
108: Wow, I hardly know where to start this entry. We did so much today and learned so many things that my mind is on overload. I think I took 150 pictures and Roy took even more. First of all we started the day with free breakfast in the hotel. OMG it was a feast. They have big platters of fresh fruit, coffee, tea and toast. Then you order whatever and however much you want off the menu. Then they keep asking, "Wouldn't you like something else, it is all included?" I ordered some mango juice and two minutes later it was there. I heard her in the kitchen using a blender to purée the mango...how is that for fresh? OMG it was soooo good. We booked a tour with Mandarin Cafe tours and the salesgirl arrived at the hotel to meet us and introduce us to our guide. He showed up a few minutes later and took us out to meet the driver. Then we were off driving through Hue which has a population of only 400,000 people. It is a beautiful city with lots of green spaces along the river. Today's busy schedule included: three tombs, the Citadel and Forbidden City, a national pagoda, incense making place, conical hat making place and a boat ride on the Perfume River. The tombs were all very different in their architecture and their atmosphere but they had similar themes. Each was built by an emperor as he began thinking about his next life. There were thirteen emperors before the last one turned over his rule to Uncle Ho. They were all Buddhists and believed in reincarnation and each built a place to be buried. Two kings whose tombs we visited saw the beginning of the construction but not the end. Only one actually saw the completion. He used it as a summer palace until his death. All of the tombs were designed in keeping with Feng Shui. Their location includes a river running north to south and mountains for protection. The complexes all have statues of Mandarins, horses and elephants guarding the entrances. (Mandarin as in civil servant, not Chinese mandarin.) On the left are the high ranking military mandarins, on the right the lower ranking civil mandarins. Within each of those groups, the more important ones are at the front (with shoes) and the lesser ones are at the rear (with no shoes). You can see in the picture. | February 18...A full day of culture and history
109: Beyond the guards, is a gate with three entrances. The centre gates are all closed; this was the emperor's entrance. The gates on either side were for the mandarins, military left, civil right. Inside the gate of each tomb is a tombstone with an epitaph. In two cases these were written by the sons who became the next emperors. In the case of the emperor who had no sons, he wrote his own story of what he had done for the country during his lifetime. It was written as a long poem. On either side are huge obelisks, yin and yang. There is a second set of entrances that lead to the inner areas, where the Royal family lived and worshiped. In each there is a large altar for the emperor and behind it a somewhat smaller one for the empress. Beyond that, only the emperors went. This is where they were buried. Our first stop was the Minh Mang Tomb. Minh Mang ruled 1820-40. The tomb was built between 1840-43. It was very impressive, a complex of about forty structures, mostly wooden and painted, beautiful gardens and grounds and living accommodations for his wife, 500 concubines and 142 children. The design has a Chinese influence. This was the largest one we saw covering about 25 hectares. It was laid out symmetrically with big lakes on either side. A huge garden, not open to the public, lies behind a locked gate. The emperor's body was brought into the complex then taken underground through a series of tunnels to its final resting spot underground. Many items of value were supposedly buried with him. No one know how extensive the tunnels are or how deep they go. Our second stop was the Khai Dinh tomb. Although the overall layout is similar to the first temple, but this one had a totally different flavour. It is concrete and the way the concrete has aged makes it stunning. We had to climb up 127 steps from the street level to see it. The tomb had elements of eastern art mixed with western designs. Western culture had begun to seep into Vietnam at this time and the architecture here reflects it. The walls have beautiful mosaics and the inner area where the emperor is buried is stunning with a gold painted throne. He is buried thirty feet under this. This emperor only ruled for nine years. He was only 41 when he died of a heart attack. At the back of this tomb there is a bit of a museum with a number of items that were gifts to the emperor from the French king. This tomb took 11 years to complete and like the previously mentioned emperor, this emperor never saw its completion. The third tomb we visited was the Tu Doc tomb. This one was similar in layout to the first tomb but much less symmetrical and much more creative and artistic, a reflection of the emperor himself, who was a writer and poet. The layout contains the same elements but they are spread out and have additions like a tea house and a boat launch. Each evening the servants would get in the boat and put tea leaves inside each of the lotus blossoms. In the morning, they would remove the now lotus-flavoured tea leaves and collect the water from on top of the lotus leaves to make the emperor's morning tea...oh to be the pampered emperor in a feudal system!
110: This emperor was a very sad man. He had smallpox and as a result was never able to father any children. He struggled with rebellion and French encroachment for thirty-odd years. He is the longest-reigning Nguyen Emperor on record. He actually saw his tomb completed so during his reign, it was used as a summer home and retreat. Afterwards he was not actually buried here. Afraid the French would dig up his grave and steal his riches, he was buried elsewhere in secret by prisoners with death sentences who never lived to divulge the location. Only a very small number of the royal family knew his burial site and none ever told. To this day his burial site has not been discovered. Okay, that is about all I can remember from the tombs! Between the last two tombs we stopped to see how incense was made and how conical hats were made. A short but interesting stop. I got to make a couple incense sticks...not very good ones...and we bought a few things. After the third tomb we went to the Mandarin Cafe for lunch. We met Mr Cu, a photographer of some acclaim who gave us each a souvenir postcard of his paintings. The food was very tasty and very reasonable. After lunch we headed off to see the Citadel and Forbidden Purple City. The complex has high stone walls surrounding the numerous palaces and temples behind them. It was the center of Vietnamese governance and politics during the Nguyen Emperors' rule. It covers about 520 hectares and measures about several kilometers on each side. There were so many buildings that they all began to melt into each other in my head! There was the main palace for the emperor and then there were palaces for the empress, the emperor's mother, the princes, the princesses. There was a hospital built for his mother and office buildings for the trades and crafts people. There was a theatre and a library and several temples. There were ten gates, all for different people...the emperor had two, a public and private one, then there were gates for the mandarins plus one for women and one for men, ones for soldiers. Each gate has a two story watch tower. The actual main palace and a couple others were destroyed, first by the French and then again during the Tet offensive. Still, what remains is impressive. One last stop...the Thien Mu (Heavenly Mother) Pagoda. This is a national pagoda. It comprises a tower, a temple, living quarters for 80 monks, gardens and several structures housing bells, tombstones and other statues. On display is the old Austin car that made the front page of the NY Times. In protest against Diem, the President of South Vietnam, who was a Catholic and denied Buddhist followings, a monk bought the car, parked it on the street, took some gasoline out, covered himself in it and lit himself on fire. His entire body was destroyed, except his heart, which did not burn and remains on display in a pagoda in Saigon. Once done at the Pagoda, we boarded a dragon boat for a cruise on the Perfume River back to a spot near our hotel. It took about 45 minutes. It was a very full day and now my head hurts from remembering all this stuff! Tomorrow we are on our own for a free and easy day.
112: February 19...Free and easy day | Here we are, our second to last day in Hue almost over, one day to go and then we are on the last leg of our adventure. We spent a quiet day today with no real agenda. It was kind of nice as yesterday was overwhelming and we go for a tour again tomorrow. I keep forgetting to tell you a funny thing about our hotel. First, this place has unbelievable customer service. They go so far out of their way to please you, it is amazing. But I have to tell you about our elevator. It is the smallest elevator in existence. It holds Roy and I but could not hold us and our luggage. Now I know why they took our luggage up to the room for us! Roy can stand sideways and his shoulders fit with maybe two inches on either side. A large man would have to stand the other way. If we stand side by side facing the front, our shoulders touch each other and also almost touch the two sides. I measured it today with my hands... 22 inches deep and 48 inches across. We laugh every time we get in. We're still trying to figure out how to take a picture of it! I took pictures of the little alley where the hotel is located when we arrived but I forgot to post them. Also there are some market pictures so I have included them here since we didn't take many shots today. (I could always add fifty more from yesterday...we took so many.) Today was a free and easy day, nothing on the agenda...we had to find an ATM, check out a pharmacy and find a store with NorthFace hats. We walked a long way down our side of the river to the second bridge, over to the other side and back up that side. On the way we checked out a few side streets. You don't have to go very far to get out of the tourist areas. Lots of shops and restaurants and they all want you to come in. We found a bookstore that had English books...about a dozen of them. Roy bought a history book and I bought some local artwork. I bought three pictures that were ten dollars each. I think that is the most I have spent on anything since we left other than hotels and tours. Everything is so inexpensive; we won't want to come home and pay western prices! It was nice to buy stuff with set prices for a change. After awhile you get tired of the bargaining. We hit the outskirts of the market before lunch. Roy was trying on sunglasses. But the prices here are a lot more than anywhere else. The sunglasses we paid a few dollars for elsewhere were over double that, even after bargaining hard. So, we will wait and take our chances in Hanoi. We had fast food for lunch, McDonalds Vietnamese style. Do you know there are no McDonalds in Vietnam? I had a shrimp burger and it was actually quite good. After lunch we wandered around some shops on our side of the river but I think our hearts were just not in it. So we headed back to the hotel, had a nice cold glass of lemonade and came up to our room to cool off in the ac. Pretty slow day after yesterday!
114: Today we set off at 8 am...lots of driving en route to the DMZ...demilitarized zone. Our driver picked us up at the hotel but we had to drive an hour and a half to pick up the guide in Dong Ha town.This time we had a woman guide and she was very good, really knowledgeable and also personable. Her English was excellent. Sometimes I think guides forget that they are working for you. They get into their set routine and don't like to change anything. I think if I have hired them, I should get some say. This one was good. We went at our pace, never felt rushed. Our destination today was the DNZ, the demilitarized zone. This area was set up in 1954 after the French were driven out of the country. The DMZ is a strip of land about ten kilometers wide and 100 kilometers across the country from the ocean to the Laos border. The 17th parallel was the original dividing line but because there was nothing to mark it, they moved the line to the Ben Hai River a few kilometers south. The Geneva Agreement set out the rules...the North would become the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under the rule of H Chi Minh. The south would be the State of Vietnam under Bao Dai, later to become the Republic of Vietnam. The DMZ was the neutral territory that divided them; neither government's troops were allowed here. Eventually, towards the end of the Vietnam war, the North Vietnamese took control and the border moved another thirty kilometers south. OK enough with the history lesson! Our first stop today was at Doc Mieu base, a few kilometers south of the DMZ. Nothing left there from the war but part of a rusted out tank. When the Americans left Vietnam, they made sure to destroy everything that was being left behind. The remains were dismantled and salvaged. Across the street we visited a huge cemetery with about a thousand graves. There are three thousand cemeteries in Vietnam, some with as many as five thousand graves. Many of the soldiers who died were never identified. There are hundreds of individual tombstones marked "Chua Biet Ten"...unknown soldier. Our next stop was the Ben Hai River. We saw it from both sides. On the south side is a large watch tower and a huge memorial statue. Across the Hien Luong Bridge is a flag tower and an old bunker. On both sides are many huge loudspeakers. Each side would use them to broadcast their propaganda. We walked from the south to the north across this bridge and visited a museum on the north side. | February 20...Visiting the DMZ
115: Our next stop was at the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the most interesting stop of the day by far. These are located on the northern side of the DMZ along the coast of the South China Sea. During the Vietnam war, the village of Vinh Moc found itself positioned in one of the most heavily bombed areas of North Vietnam. In order to escape this bombings, the villagers constructed underground tunnels where they could hide during the raids. The tunnels were built in three levels and took thirteen months to complete. First they built a level 12 meters underground but the US tried to bomb them using penetrating bombs that could go that deep. So then they constructed another level at 15 meters. But the US modified their bombs to go deeper so finally the villagers went down to a third level, 23 meters below the surface. Here 62 families, about 300 people, lived for five years. They had a big piece of artillery that was used to sound the alarm for a pending attack, sending everyone scurrying underground. They used two of the deep bomb craters as ventilation. As well, they were ventilated by the air that came in from the entrances from the beach that were hidden by dense jungle. The living conditions were primitive to say the least. Tiny rooms, maybe six by six and only big enough to squat in, housed entire families. Candles were used sparingly so they spent most of the time in the dark. There was a toilet area, basically a large basket they filled with sand that was removed when it was safe. There was also a wash area, with drainage to the beach area. Amazingly 17 babies of these villagers were born in a makeshift nursery/maternity ward. As well another 40 or so babies from surrounding villages made their entry in the maternity room. It was absolutely fascinating to wander through these tunnels. There is electricity now so you can see but the lights are small Christmas bulbs so it isn't very bright. I was able to walk most of the way upright. Roy had to duck almost the entire time. We visited right down to the third level...dark, narrow and very damp. We came up at an entrance quite a ways from where we entered from the beach. There are almost three kilometers of tunnels. After the tunnels, we made a quick stop at some beach...just another beach, I think. Looked like it was set up for a lot of tourists but it was empty. I guess they come in late April. We stopped back in Dong Ha town for lunch, nice bowls of noodle soup, mine Pho Ba and Roy's Banh Bo, which is a Hoi An specialty and much spicier. Lunch was good and, of course, dirt cheap.
116: After lunch they drove us out this beautiful valley towards the mountains near the Laos border. Lots of mountains around us and a few historical spots...the Rockpile...where the US had a base to watch the surrounding area. You could see a flag on the top; clearly this spot was only accessible by helicopter! On the way we drove through a very fertile but hilly valley inhabited by one of the 54 minority tribes in Vietnam. These people came from Laos originally. They built their houses on stilts, not for fear of flooding but for protection from animals. They farm the surrounding mountainsides and fish the river. We drove several kilometers more and came to the Dakron Bridge. During the war this bridge was bombed and rebuilt several times. A new one was built by the Cubans in 1975 but it rusted out and had to be replaced with the current one. This area was once part of the network of trails that made up the H Chi Minh trails. The road leads to the famous Hamburger Hill. We walked across the bridge then jumped back in the car for our drive home. Dropped the guide back in Dong Ha and drove an hour and forty minutes back to Hue where the driver dropped us at our hotel. Time for me to write this and Roy to nap and then off for dinner at Nina's where the food was fabulous. We had some kind of tiny rice pancake with shrimp, croutons and onions on them. Then we shared a special curry that was very tasty and crispy noodles with pork that was the best dish I have tasted since getting to Vietnam. I didn't actually lick the plate but I could have...lol. Tomorrow we fly to Hanoi. On to another new adventure.
118: February 21...Travel day to Hanoi | On the move today so we were up at the crack of dawn. Our driver was coming at seven. Breakfast isn't usually served until seven but the staff got up early for us and when we got down to the lobby at 6:30, coffee was ready. They took our order and we had one more lovely breakfast...Toast, cream cheese and jam, lots of fresh fruit...today was mango, pineapple, watermelon and mangosteens...and yogurt.They make the best yogurt here. You almost have to drink it because it isn't thick. It tastes like some kind of rich custard. This is the first yogurt we've tried...we've been missing out! Our driver arrived...same one as from Hoi An to Hue. It took us about a half hour to get to the airport. Check in was uneventful...they didn't charge me for overweight luggage and didn't say a word about the number of things I was carrying on...pack-sack, bag of lanterns, conical hat, and a "purse" that is really another carry-on but a small one. I was calling it a purse if they asked! I bought it last night in the market. I forgot to mention we went to the night market down by the bridge last night after dinner. It was all lit up with Christmas lights and I think is really designed for local young people. Lots of crafts for kids to make and mostly toys and kids jewelery, t-shirts. I found a little set of three small zippered cosmetic bags. At a buck, I didn't even bother to bargain. Then I also saw this bag. I'd seen them in Hoi An for six or seven dollars. Here it was $1.50! Prices were so low it was almost embarrassing! We arrived in Hanoi at 9:30 but waited ages for our luggage. We were picked up by the husband of my new good friend Cham, who I met online when I was booking tours for Hanoi. She has a travel/tour company and gave me excellent prices on our upcoming tours to Sapa and Halong Bay. We have become good friends across the oceans. She is so sweet to provide Tien as our driver. Tomorrow we are invited to their home for dinner. Tien dropped us at our hotel, the Rising Dragon Villa. Our room is very nice, a step up from our budget hotels. Big room with beautiful hardwood or bamboo floors, nice floor to ceiling windows and doors to a little balcony. Big comfy bed and a big bathroom with a tub and shower...with sliding glass doors!! We have a safe and an actual closet, plus free bottled water and a fruit plate. The staff are very nice and provided us with a map and directions to a few restaurants and the markets. We rested awhile in our room and got a call from Dave. When he went to check our house today, he could smell gas, big time. We had him call Fortis, who came out on an emergency visit, no charge as part of their safety program. Seems our electronic igniter has gone so the gas wasn't lighting. The gas is now off and a plumber is coming to fix it tomorrow. Sure glad the place didn't blow up!
119: That taken care of, we headed out to explore. We are staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi where, I keep reading, getting lost is just part of the experience. We went off to find lunch, had some nice Pho at a place down the street then decided we would check out one of the markets. It was a bit of a disappointment, mostly clothes but it looked like a Sally Ann...clothes were all wrinkled like they had been folded away in boxes for ages. We didn't see anything we were even remotely interested in. So we then decided we would see if we could find Cham's office...we managed to do so without getting lost! We visited for a short while then left with a big bag of fresh pineapple and mango...very good!! We went back to the hotel to put the fruit away then headed out again to see if we could find the other market. We got there okay and wandered around for awhile. But we think it was closing because everyone was packing up their wares. Those that were open didn't seem too keen on selling stuff. What a change from the markets in the other places where they were dragging you into their stores and ALL trying to get you to buy. I think we are going to have to do some research on shopping here in Hanoi. We didn't see the usual stuff here...knock-off brand name golf shirts, jackets, purses...I am pretty sure they are here somewhere... maybe the shopping is in the street shops, not the markets. Perhaps I will have to discuss it tomorrow with someone in the know. We ate at the Rising Dragon (another one, not ours...there are several). It was reasonably close and got good recommendations on TripAdvisor. We had the pomelo salad and it was so good. Pomelo, greens, shrimps and a dressing of fish sauce, sugar and chiles (I think). Roy had cashew chicken and rice and I had a noodle dish, Bun Bo Nam Bo, that was really good. We came back to the hotel (still haven't got lost, touch wood) and had fresh fruit for dessert. Tomorrow we are scheduled for a tour with students, but I haven't heard back from them yet so I hope they find us! It is cold here, well maybe not cold, but it is a lot cooler at fifteen or so, and it was drizzling when we were out. What's with that?!! For the first time on this trip we zipped the pant legs onto our shorts and we wore our new jackets! Hope it is nicer tomorrow. Thanks again for all the comments on the blog...keep them coming; it gives us a bit of a taste of home. Sorry not much in the way of pictures today! I will try to do better tomorrow :)
120: February 21...Tour day with the Hanoi Kids | Today we spent the day with two delightful students from the Hanoi Kids. This is another university group that takes tourists on tours so they can practise their English and learn about other cultures. These girls were just a treat to be with. Our first stop was a cab ride away at the Temple of Literature. The Temple of Literature was built in honor of Confucius in 1070 by King Ly Thanh Tong. It was the first university in Vietnam. Initially it was only for the royal family but it was opened up to other outstanding students because the new emperor wanted education to be available for a broader population. The students would have to pass three sets of exams to get in, first the regional, then the national and finally the palace exams. Only the top students got in. The exams took two days and students might have to walk a thousand kilometers to write them. Once accepted, they studied literature, poetry, classics...no science or mathematics. The university functioned for 700 years and it is said that standards were so high only a few students were able to pass the exams and get full marks. The temple originally consisted of five courtyards, lined up one after the other. Now there are only four as one of them was destroyed by the French bombings.The entire perimeter is surrounded by brick walls. At the front are two large gardens with small pools located on both sides. These gardens were used by the students to relax and forget the rush of the city outside the walls. In the the centre, small one-story buildings that housed the former dormitories surround a square lake. This part of the complex is called the constellation of literature and is where the names of the students who passed the exams can be found engraved on stone boards. The boards are mounted on tortoises, a symbol of longevity. They are supposed to bring good luck if you rub the head. Students would come here to rub the heads before their exams. You can see the shiny spots where they have been rubbed but now they have been cordoned off for conservation purposes.
121: Inside there is a statue of a crane standing on the back of a tortoise. Legend has it that the earth was covered in water and the crane had to fly and fly with nowhere to land. So the tortoise let the crane land on his back to rest. Many years later, the water was dried up where the tortoise lived so the crane carried the tortoise to a place where there was water. The message is one of cooperation and working together! The next part of the complex is the main hall, where statues of Confucius and his disciples lie. This is one of the only places in Vietnam where the temple is not dedicated to Buddha. Behind the main hall, was formerly the university. It was destroyed by French bombs in 1947. We walked outside the Temple of Literature where you can find old artisans who make pictures of the Chinese characters. You can request one that says, happiness or prosperity or whatever and they will paint the characters, along with your name. Most of the artists are older but they are supposedly training young artists so the art will not be lost. After we were done looking we caught another taxi, this time to Hoa Lo Prison. Ha L was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War when it was sarcastically known to American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton". It was originally a pottery village but the French moved all the villagers out and built the prison to house political prisoners. It was demolished during the 1990s, though part of it remains as a museum. The Hanoi Hilton was one site used by the North Vietnamese Army to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Funny, when you watch the short videos there, they tell of how well the prisoners were treated and how much freedom and relaxation they enjoyed. A little propaganda me thinks! From the prison, we walked to through some of the streets of the old Quarter, where our hotel is. It is near Hoan Kiem lake and has the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then had merchants and households that specialized in a particular trade. Merchants on Silver Street sold only silver. Merchants on Silk Street sold only silk. Some of this has lasted through the ages but many of the streets sell a variety of things now.
122: We stopped briefly at Hoan Kiem Lake, this lovely park area in the middle of the city. Hoam Kiem means "sword returned". There is a legend that a leader of the country had a weak army unable to fight off the Chinese. He visited this lake and a giant golden turtle gave him a magical sword. With this sword, the army became strong, defeated the Chinese and drove them out of the country. Then one day the leader was out on the lake and the giant turtle arose from the deeps, stole the sword back and dove down, the sword never to be seen again. The leader acknowledged that it had gone back to the great turtle god and named the lake Hoan Kiem, "sword returned". We walked over the red bridge that goes to the Jade Pagoda but did not go into the temple. Instead, we headed off for some lunch. The girls took us to Newday restaurant. We left it up to them to order local food. We ended up with rice, spring rolls, seafood and tofu soup, frog (it was very good, spicy), avocado and bacon salad, a pork dish and water spinach...all delicious! After lunch we visited the Ancient House, very much like the one in Hoi An...beautiful dark wood timbers, a central courtyard, living quarters at the back. Mostly it was filled with souvenirs for salw but it was still interesting to see. Afterwards, we walked through the French Quarter...beautiful old French Provincial buildings. We stopped at the medical university briefly and looked inside then walked past the Opera house and a couple of very nice hotels built in French provincial style. Reminded us of a similar area in Saigon. From there we went to St Joseph's Cathedral. There had just been a funeral but it was over so we were able to go inside. Very beautiful building, incredible stained glass and high arched ceilings. Around the church is a huge three dimensional mural depicting many Biblical stories. The girls were interested to hear about Christian beliefs and stories. At this point, we returned to our hotel. It had been a long day and we walked a long way. We bid the girls farewell and sent them off with a couple of Canadian souvenirs. Tonight we went to dinner at Cham and Tien's home. Cham made a lot of food! But oh, it was so good...clams, spring rolls, pork wrapped in a leaf, rice, mushrooms we don't get and a green veggie in a broth, like spinach or morning glory but a different taste. I ate too much but it was so good, it was hard to stop. We had a very interesting visit with them and their son, who is four and speaks no English. He kept us entertained and had us playing Angry Birds on the IPad...I wasn't very good but he gave me big smiles and a high five when I had a good shot! We walked back to our hotel, only a few blocks. Tomorrow we go off on another tour with two more students...we will have to check out of our hotel, do our tour then come back and hang around the lobby until 7:45 when we get picked up to go on the train. I'm not sure if I will be able to post a blog before we leave so you may have to wait for a couple of days!!
124: February 23...Another day with the students | Another great day with the students today! We took a cab to the Ho Chi Minh Complex, about seven or eight kilometers away. There were lineups to get in but they weren't long. Seems anyone from Vietnam who comes to Hanoi goes here. They love their Uncle Ho. The first stop was the mausoleum, where the actual body of Ho Chi Minh is on display. The security is unbelievable. No bags, no cameras (except I could keep mine in my pocket). The girls were allowed to keep their purses because they are locals but foreigners have to turn everything in before heading for the lineup. I could take pictures of the outside but once I was close I had to tuck my camera back in my pocket. The line moved fairly quickly and we were soon inside the building. It is very quiet and solemn and a mix of locals and foreigners. Ho Chi Minh's body lies in a glass case but looks pretty well preserved! It was interesting to see but even more interesting to watch the people as they paraded by. The mausoleum is huge and built from materials from all parts of the country. Once outside, we collected Roy's camera then headed off to see the rest of the complex. We walked past his palace, bright yellow, where he was supposed to live. Then we walked past where he actually lived. HCM did not want to live in the palace so he spent most of his life traveling around or living in the electrician's house. The gardens around the palace are beautiful, nice lakes with fish and trees from all over the country that were brought in so the whole country was represented. There is a small pagoda, called One Pillar Pagoda. We took pictures but didn't wait in line to go into it. There is also a museum in the complex which we visited. It is beautifully designed and laid out. The displays are very artistic, many of them symbolic and thought provoking trying to figure out the relationship between the art and the message. Whoever designed this gets top marks for creativity! Once done, it was time to leave the complex so we wandered back to get the rest of Roy's belongings. We ran across the street to a golf store, just out of curiosity. Checked out the price of golf balls! Yikes, VERY expensive! We headed off in a cab for lunch but the student who was trying to get us to the restaurant made a mistake and got the driver going in circles. The poor girl was almost in tears. Finally they just got him to stop and we walked several blocks to a different restaurant. It was no big deal, the cab cost an extra buck or two.
125: Lunch was okay. We had Pho and they had fried rice, I'm sure they ordered the cheapest thing on the menu. Today wasn't a sharing day; we just each had our own. The prices were higher than usual but it still cost very little. After lunch we went to the West Lake area. There is pagoda there so we walked out to it. Around it are several stupas where the remains of important monks are buried. There is one tower that is nine levels...this monk must have been REALLY important! Our final stop was a cab ride away to the Women's Museum. Five floors featuring different aspects of the lives of Vietnamese women. The first floor was all about the ethnic minorities and had displays of their traditional clothes. Very colourful! Another floor displayed photos of women who had contributed through their efforts in the wars and to politics. One floor had displays of a religion that was based on the Mother Goddess...I didn't really understand it too well, I'm afraid! There were some colourful dioramas and displays and it was quite interesting. But we were tired, I think, so didn't really have the energy we should have had. We finished off the museum and walked a couple kilometers back to our hotel where we said goodbye to the girls. We had a few hours to kill so we walked some more, looking at the shops around our hotel. We stopped and ate a restaurant then came back to the hotel. I'm going to post this blog but the pictures won't get up until tomorrow because we are leaving momentarily and I know there won't be WiFi on the train! Please excuse all typos...in a bit of a rush!
127: February 24...Short wait in Lao Cai then Bac Ha Market and off to Sapa | So... last night we experienced the night train. We were so lucky that Tien drove us to the train station AND got us to our compartment. We would have never found it on our own, climbing over train tracks in the dark! We shared our compartment with two of their other clients, young ladies from Singapore. I decided to take a sleeping pill, which was a brilliant idea. I fell asleep shortly after we left, around nine and slept fairly well until 2:30 or so. Had to get up and find the WC but went back to bed and drifted in and out until someone knocked on the door at about five. I think I remember the train stopping once somewhere in the middle of the night and I remember bouncing around like crazy at a couple of points but other than that, it was pretty good. Everyone got off the train when we got to Lao Cai. There were guides greeting people and signs with names on them. We found our name and the woman holding it pointed and said go there. So we waited and waited and finally she came over and said follow me. So we did, in the dark, until we got to a restaurant. She pointed and said sit there then disappeared. A waiter came over and said we could order our breakfast, it was included, one drink, one breakfast item. He said the tour bus would come around 8:45. We ordered coffee and decided to delay breakfast for a bit since we had several hours to kill before our tour to Bac Ha market. We read our emails and then ordered breakfast and another cup of coffee. Once done we wandered around town, finding the market and not much else. It was so early even most of the market was not yet open. The minibus arrived shortly before nine then it was chaos. There were two women in traditional attire we assumed were the guides, a couple other buses with guides and no one with a list of passengers. One guide was explaining stuff at the back of the bus but we really couldn't hear. We asked and she said, oh you are not my group and turned away. OK...so then some other girl came along and said we were waiting for two others and her friend who wants to become a guide. Then they got in, closed the doors and off we drove. Then they passed along a piece of paper and said, put your name and birthday. Not another word was said by this girl, who I assumed was our guide...except once while we were driving. She pointed out the window and said, "that is China" then went back to chatting to with the other two girls. I asked Roy if maybe we should confirm we were on the right bus! I will try to describe the scene...Roy and I were sitting in the first row of seats behind the driver. Two of the girls were sitting together in the front seat and one was sitting beside Roy but she was leaning into the front seat with her chin other other girls' seat...they spent the next hour and forty five minutes laughing and giggling and speaking very loudly in their language, totally oblivious to the passengers. People were looking at each other thinking WTH? Roy, my wonderfully patient husband was almost ready to reach across, open the sliding door and toss all three of them out!
128: The drive was amazing. The road is very windy and travels way up into the mountains. The usual crazy-wrong-side-of-the-road driving and corners on two wheels. It was along way down to the gorge below! It was a bit hazy today so no great shots of the scenery but we are hoping tomorrow we will get some. I couldn't believe how far we climbed. The hills around are terraced but it is early in the season so not the beautiful greens we have seen in pictures. We pulled into Bac Ha and as we passed the market, our guide said, "there's the market" then pointed out the window and said, "we will meet at that restaurant at 1:30. You will have until then to explore the market." The restaurant was a blur in the window and no one saw where she was talking about. As we pulled into the bus parking area someone made a comment about the totally useless information about the restaurant that was out of sight before she finished telling us to meet there (okay, it might have been me) so she said never mind we will meet here. And then she was gone! The other guide stayed with her group; we saw them together in the market...but not ours; without a single word of instruction, she was GONE with her friend, not to be seen again until we got back to the bus! Not a problem, we could easily find our way back to the market and we didn't need a guide. It is a very interesting market. Ethnic minority groups from the surrounding hills come to Bac Ha on Sundays to sell their wares and buy from others. They dress in the most colourful traditional clothing...very bright and intricate. Of course if you wanted a picture, they wanted money. So you kind of had to sneak pictures when you could. The market has food and traditional looking souvenirs but also has a whole section where people buy and sell animals...a big dog section...pets, I hope... cows, horses, water buffaloes. I bought a few things (no room for any water buffalo) and while I was bargaining, I was hoping Roy would take pictures. But he kept missing the boat so I had to keep buying things...lol. Hopefully a few shots turned out. Bargaining was fun but they are relentless and as soon as you open negotiations with one of them five more are there trying to sell you the same item. I'm bringing home four bags, a scarf and a table runner...I did actually want most of this...but okay maybe I didn't need four bags! We had lunch at one of the restaurants in the market. Food was good, once they finally got Roy's order right. We made our way back to the bus for 1:30, waited for the stragglers and soon were headed back. Roy and I spread out on our seats so the guide had to go sit in the back. We didn't want to have to listen to the three of them again over the next three hours! We stopped for ten minutes at a little village. Interesting to see their way of life, dirt houses, rock ovens, dirt floors, very primitive. But there is also a big flat screen television in the living room! Too funny.
129: We got back on the bus and headed back to Lao Cai. Once in Lao Cai the bus stopped at the side of the road and the guide said, get out, we go to see China...interesting form she had! Seeing land across the river that was China was not all that exciting. We were tired and wanted more to see our hotel bed! Back on the bus again, to the restaurant from this morning to recover our bags then an hour drive to Sapa. The scenery again was beautiful as we climbed up into the clouds. By the time we got to Sapa it was foggy...and then the fun began. The bus stopped at the top of a hill on the main drag and our guide points to us and another woman and says get out. I will take you to your hotel...okay...so we get our bags, thinking maybe the street is too narrow for the bus?? But no, as we walk there are other buses so about three blocks into our walk, I ask, why are we walking? She says, oh the bus driver has to get back to Lao Cai. He is in too much of a hurry to drive you! Are you kidding me? We look at this other woman traveling with us and we all roll our eyes...but the story gets better...next block the girl stops and says to the other woman...your hotel is up there on the right and to us...your hotel is another hundred and twenty yards down the hill. Then she turns on her heel and she is gone! Good thing because I thought Roy was going to slug her. Keep in mind, it is foggy and we can barely see fifty feet in front of us and we've been on the go since five this morning. So we walk and walk and the woman finds her hotel and we say goodbye and she makes a rather sarcastic comment about the service. We continue on and on and then we ask someone to make sure we aren't lost. We finally find it but by now we have walked well over a kilometer and my bag is heavy and we are both steaming mad! But we get to the hotel and are greeted with warmth and welcomes it is like reaching a port in a storm! And we are VERY relieved to find our tours tomorrow and the next day are NOT with the girls we had today. Our room is lovely and we have a beautiful big deck that I bet has a spectacular view once the fog lifts! Nice bathroom, an electric blanket because yes, it is cold, and a heater. Dinner was part of our package and was served at seven up on the fourth floor. It was cold so the restaurant manager got us a heater. He was so nice and attentive. Dinner was chicken with mushrooms, green beans from his mother's garden, rice and spring rolls...yet another kind! It was all delicious! We had it with green tea and warmed up from the inside out. We are now tucked in bed (yes, it is barely eight thirty), with the heater cranked up and the electric blanket on high...Roy's side works, mine doesn't. I expect we might be asleep fairly early tonight and snuggled up for warmth.! (I tried to sleep in the minibus but every time we took a corner on two wheels I almost slid off the seat! We still chuckling about our experiences today, shaking our heads at our guide...oh well, another new experience...and you have to maintain a sense of humour. Tomorrow we go with a local guide and only six people. I am sure it will be wonderful.
130: February 25...Keep on trekking | We had so much fun today! When I got up I had a quick look off our balcony but we are still socked in. The sky gets a little bright but we can't see the view below; that is buried in the clouds. Went for breakfast at 7:30 and enjoyed some great coffee while we waited for our food. We met in the lobby at 9:30 and the hotel guy showed us where we were going on a map. Then we got introduced to our guide. Apparently here in Sapa the guides are all young women...This one was about four foot ten and ninety eight pounds soaking wet! But she turned out to be fantastic. We were supposed to be six people, then it was nine and then eleven so they split us into two and I think we were the lucky ones. She was just a hoot, kept us entertained all day with her sassy talk and smart mouth. The first part of our trek was easy...downhill on a dirt road. But we soon turned off onto a track that very soon got very steep and VERY muddy, which made it VERY slippery. In addition to our guide we were followed by seven or eight Hmong ladies. We all referred to them as our Sherpas. I was wondering what they were doing besides following us to sell stuff or expect tips for following along. I soon discovered their purpose! We were so glad they were there. Every time I got to a muddy, slippery spot my personal Sherpa (and sometimes two Sherpas) would grab my hand and keep me safe from sliding off the hillside. She knew exactly when it was going to be slippery and that hand shot out right on time! Well, all except once when I managed to hit slippery mud with both feet at the same time. I went down on my butt but nothing was hurt. Bit of a muddy butt but it quickly dried. The Sherpas all wore coloured gum boots and while we stayed on the drier spots, they would slog through water and mud. Amazing women and at the end all they wanted was for you to buy something from them. Our little leader, "A" was her name...no not a typo, pronounced Ahhh...was a lot of fun. Her English was excellent to the point that she understood the subtleties and nuances of sarcasm and humour. She joked around, teasing everyone...no one was exempt. When I told her we had sons, she said, why not girls. I told her it wasn't me, it was Roy. So she told Roy he should make some girls. Roy said he couldn't make girls, he could only make girls happy. She found that hysterically funny.
131: She made me a heart out of ferns and not to be outdone, my Sherpa wove me a horse out of grass. I walked a lot of the trek arm in arm with A, at least on the flat parts. She told me lots about her life. She is twenty and has a three year old boy, who was being packed on someone else's back. She said the girls can get married when they are fourteen. When they marry, they go to live in the husband's family's house for at least a year. The daughters-in-law are slaves to the rest of the family, she said. Now she and her husband have their own place in Sapa. She learned some English in school. They learn to speak it but reading and writing and computers are not considered important so they don't learn to read or write it. But most of it she has learned from tourists. She started out selling trinkets to tourists and practising her English. Then one day she went on the streets and offered to do a tour on her own. She said she didn't charge very much money, it was more practise her English. She started to do it regularly, got good at it then got a job with the hotel doing tours like this. She is young and smart, energetic and cheeky as hell, but in a nice, joking way. She wants to have another baby soon...this time a girl. We hiked way up in the rice paddies and the view was amazing. Unfortunately it was still hazy so you might not see what we could see quite as well. The terraces are not planted right now so they are muddy, wet and dirty looking but the view is still spectacular. Way, way down below we could see a beautiful river and waterfall and a few houses. And way up we could see the road to Sapa and to Lao Cai. We had a short rest on the hillside and I stripped off a couple of layers. My little personal Sherpa carried all my stuff in a basket on her back. We hiked for ages, and finally climbed up to a dirt road a couple of hours later. We followed it to a small village called Lao Chai. This is the village of the Black Hmong minority tribe, the tribe of our Sherpas, and where we were stopping for lunch. We got to our restaurant and at this point our little Sherpas went into their sales act. Rather than tipping your Sherpa, you can buy something from them. Supposedly they made the stuff but on close inspection, it looks pretty evenly stitched. Doesn't matter, buying from them was all part of the fun experience. They left us here to go to their homes in this village. I got big hugs from my two and went in for lunch. Lunch took well over an hour. I'm not sure why but we seemed to be last served. We had lots of time to get to know our travel mates. One man was from England, traveling on his own. the couple was Scottish but live in Australia. (Cham if you are reading, we discovered they are your clients too.) They told us all about their cruise in Halong Bay and how wonderful it was. We are going there in a few days and going on the same cruise ship. Finally lunch arrived. We all had the same thing...easier for the kitchen...noodles and chicken and veggies. It was simple but it hit the spot. It was all part of the tour so we just paid for drinks. After lunch we headed off down the dirt road (easy trekking). I had earlier told A that Roy wanted to try sugar cane so after lunch she stopped and bought a bunch so everyone could try. It was good...chew it and suck out the juice then toss the ropy part. Sweet but tasty.
132: We continued through the village (600 people live here) past a few souvenir shops and then down a nice dirt road (no more mud) to the Ta Van village where the Dzay minority tribe lives and where our tour leader was from. I picked up a "friend" en route. I think she was from the Red Dzao tribe...so many different ones, all wearing colourful outfits that differ slightly. She followed me the whole way, hoping to sell me something. She kept telling me I was her friend and I kept saying I am not buying anything. She either didn't believe me or didn't understand me. I hated to say no but I was shopped out! I have so many souvenirs! At the end of our trek she just kept bringing out more stuff and I kept shaking my head no. I felt bad but not that bad. A minibus came to pick us up. We had done about thirteen kilometers so we'd earned a ride home. We dropped off our tour mates at their hotel and got to ours a minute later. We tipped our guide...she really made the day enjoyable. She gave me a big hug. We may see her again tomorrow. We ate dinner at the hotel again. The staff here is so nice, go out of their way to be helpful. They got Roy a hose so he could spray off his shoes, clean off the mud. The manager said, don't worry they aren't too dirty for the hotel...just leave them outside your room and my mother will clean them. Took Roy five minutes and he was done. They have convinced us that another short trek to the Cat Cat village is the best option for tomorrow. We could have gone in a car somewhere but it was further up into the clouds so likely no view. So, I'm wearing my dirty shorts and shoes and we will trek in the morning and shop in the afternoon...we bought two more NorthFace jackets today for Dave and Jasper. We were happy to discover prices are way better here than in Hanoi...pretty much the same as Hoi An. Anyway, today was wonderful so I expect tomorrow will be also! Can you believe we will be home in 11 days?? Whatever will you do for morning entertainment with your coffee! Good to hear your comments and I love to get your emails. Brings us a bit of home!
133: February 26...Another fantastic day | Today we decided to do another trek...just six kilometers so easy compared to yesterday...hahaha...NOT. We started at the hotel with the same guide as yesterday. It was foggy again today and although we were on a road, not in muddy fields, it was still slippery on the stones. We hiked down and down and as we got out of the clouds, the roads got drier and less slippery. But it was steep and all I kept thinking was OMG we have to come back up again! The trek was two kilometers down...we reached Cat Cat Village, a tiny village with a few shops and lots of ladies selling crafts. They use the indigo plant here to dye their material and all of their hands are blue from using it. We went down about a million stairs and into the village. We got to go inside a typical house to see life on the inside. From the ceiling hung hundreds and hundreds of drying cobs of corn. Below there was a machine used for grinding the corn. They then take it to the animal kitchen to mix it for the pigs. There is a second kitchen for cooking for the family. There were three bedrooms in this house and twelve people...five adults and seven children. The older children were in school but the front porch had four little ones under four, all with snotty noses and all eating candy, no doubt given by well meaning tourists...don't they think? A told us that here wealth is not measured in money. If a family has enough rice to last for a year they are rich. If not, they are poor. These people have so little by our standards but they don't ask for much at all, just enough rice to last the year. Outside each house was a machine for grinding the rice into a powder. Water runs down a bamboo pipe into a ladle/bowl on a pole. When the ladle fills, that end tips down and the other end goes up, which makes the wheel go round to grind the rice. We continued down more steps and down another path. By now the sun was starting to come out and I was glad I'd worn my shorts. We went down one last flight of stairs, steep and about a hundred of them and at the bottom was a little theatre where we watched a short performance of traditional dance. Afterwards we went outside to take pictures by a beautiful waterfall. And then we began the trek back up...and up....and up...and up...it was four kilometres up on the return trip. It was a different route going home and it was steep and uphill the whole way. You might be able to see how much we climbed by the pictures...look for the absolute bottom of the valley and a river and that is where we were! On the way back, it was amazing to see the view.
134: By now the sun was out and the fog and clouds were gone and finally we got to see the mountains...OMG it was spectacular...almost made you forget the climb. We stopped for a rest a few times; one of the women in the group was really struggling. I actually didn't find it too bad and was able to keep up with our little guide who again walked arm in arm with me, half of the time almost running! We got back to the hotel and Roy and I were both soaked. The hotel let us keep our room beyond check out so we had nice showers, changed and stepped out on our lovely big balcony. Finally we could enjoy the view! Lunch was served two floors up but we decided to check out first...of course then it was three flights back up for lunch...my legs were screaming! Lunch was good, too much food as usual, but very tasty. There is another big balcony off the restaurant so we enjoyed the view up there too. I am so glad the fog lifted...it would have been tragic to miss the view of the valley and the mountains. We feel like we are in a little alpine village somewhere, and it is so different when the sun shines. After lunch we walked around town, into every NorthFace store, looking for just the right pants! Then one more jacket and we were finally done. Got back to the hotel at 3:30 and repacked all the extra stuff then sat and relaxed while we waited for the bus to take us to the night train. I am posting this now and hope I can get some pictures up before we leave. My batteries died early on today so I'm using Roy's pictures.
135: February 27...Pretty quiet day today | We arrived on the night train shortly before five this morning. Tien picked us up and drove us around Hanoi. The roads are actually fairly quiet at that time of day. We stopped at the wholesale flower market for twenty minutes or so then Tien took us back to their place for tea. They offered to let us rest in their extra room but we had him call the hotel to see if we could get our room early. Turns out we could for an extra ten dollars...well worth the price. Tien rode out suitcases over on his motorcycle and we walked. When we got there our room was ready but we decided to have some breakfast first. We also got our laundry together so the hotel could send it out. We slept for an hour or so then lazed about the rest of the morning. We have a nice big room again, back at the Rising Dragon Villa, complete with balcony and a beautiful shower. It was nice to get into the shower after we woke up. Around 1:30 we decided some lunch might be in order so we got on TripAdvisor and checked out nearby restaurants. Found a good review for one with western food so off we went. It was called Fry. The burgers were good...the fries were even better. They have a bunch of flavours...we opted for the butter and garlic ones...I think we should bring this idea home! Wandered around the Old Quarter for a few hours. The shopping here just isn't the same as in Saigon. Tried, almost unsuccessfully, to find some golf shirts today. (I hear the course is opening this weekend!) We finally found one place that had just a few. In Saigon, the markets were full of them...every other store was selling Polo or La Costa or some other big name brand. We will go back to the market again after we get back from Halong Bay...maybe we just missed that area.
136: It didn't take too long for the constant noise and chaotic traffic to take its toll. I was happy to get back to the hotel and the quiet of our room. Not much in the way of pictures today, just a few from the flower market and our walk around the Old Quarter. Tomorrow we leave first thing for Halong Bay. Not sure if they have wifi on board so if you don't see a blog tomorrow, that is why. Hope everyone is well...we will be seeing you in just over a week! Hard to believe we have been gone almost seven weeks. I keep forgetting to mention...if you have made comments on the blog I have tried to respond to them. If you are interested, you can check back. Good to hear from some new faces the past few days!
137: February 28...Day one in Halong Bay | Bus picked us up at 8:15 this morning for our trip to Halong Bay. After two stops for other passengers we headed out of Hanoi. It took us well over a half hour to clear the city then we were into miles and miles of rice paddies in varying stages of planting. We made one stop about ninety minutes later at a huge arts and crafts place. Some beautiful stuff but overpriced. Many things we have seen in Hanoi and other places for about half of their prices. Nice to look around though and no pressure to buy. Small coffee shop and place to buy snacks, all at inflated tourist prices. We arrived in Halong Bay about noon but had to wait a bit for the rest of the passengers who were on a different bus. There are seventeen of us on our boat, a family of four, four other couples, a trio of twenty-somethings and us. OMG Halong Bay is a sea version of Hanoi. The parking lot was jammed with buses and the harbour must have had a couple hundred boats...and they are all going the same places! Smaller boats are at the wharves where passengers are loaded and carried off to the actual cruise ships. Around one, we finally boarded our small boat and headed out to the big one. First on the agenda, an orientation, then keys were distributed and we went to check in to our rooms... The boat is very nice, lots of beautiful dark wood walls and floors. The top deck has loungers and some seats for viewing. The main level has a nice dining room with a bar and enough tables and chairs to seat us all. Our room is lovely...big enough for a queen bed, a hanging locker and bedside tables and a decent sized bathroom with modern fixtures. The shower is one of those nice rain shower ones...only drawback is there is a clear window about shoulder to waist high...nice view out..but also in...lol. Lunch was served...oh my, a seven course meal...soup, papaya salad, a stuffed crab back, deep fried fish, rice, morning glory, oranges for dessert. We sat with the twenty somethings from France and Austria. One of them lived in Vancouver for a year. Food and conversation were great. As we ate we cruised out towards and through the most incredible rock formations. I believe they are called karsts. These tall islands rise straight up out of the sea. Reminds me of our tour through Milford Sound in New Zealand...but bigger and it isn't pouring rain. But the weather isn't great here either...kind of gray with the odd bit of drizzle. It is supposed to rain tomorrow. Oh well, at least it is not cold.
138: We cruised for about an hour through stunning scenery. There are dozens and dozens of boats, all headed to the same place. We arrived at our fist destination...Amazing Cave. The boat anchored and and our smaller boat took us ashore. Our guide was very good and shared a lot of legends and stories about Halong Bay and about the cave. Ha means down and Long means dragon so Halong Bay means Descending Dragon Bay. Legend has it...we are very near the Chinese border where Vietnam battled off and on with China for a thousand years. The gods looked down on Vietnam and their weak and losing army and sent a dragon and a thousand strong warriors to help them. The army fought off the Chinese and reclaimed their land. By then the dragon was tired so he and the warriors lay down to rest. But they were so tired they never got up again. Instead, they turned to stone...the dragon becoming a large island and the warriors becoming the thousand or so small islands. This cave was discovered in the early 1900s by a Frenchman. He named it Amazing Cave because, well...because it is AMAZING. We both think it is the most incredible thing we have ever seen. It was named a UNESCO site on three different occasions and with financial assistance from UNESCO, the cave has been made tourist friendly. You can see one of the openings about halfway up the steep hillside. Stairs, at least a hundred of them, lead up to the cave. It was quite a hike but fortunately our guide gave us rest breaks while she talked about it. Then inside the cave, more stairs and a cobblestone pathway leads down into and through it. Strategically placed coloured lights add to the grandeur. When you enter, the sight stops you dead in your tracks. It is GIGANTIC, full of huge stalactites and stalagmites and a sandstone ceiling with a texture that looks like a moonscape. Many of the rock formations look as though they have been carved, with faces and animals appearing in them. The cave was in three "rooms". The first room was impressive; the second was stunning and the third was so incredible I find it hard to describe. It was awe-inspiring, that's all I can say! In this case, pictures will definitely not do it justice.
139: We spent over an hour in the cave and probably could have spent more. The guide was great, using her laser light to point out the faces...ET and Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet, the lion, frog, turtle and so on. We finally climbed up and out back into daylight. Wow. The pathway is one way and took us out to a boardwalk that led to our boat. On the boardwalk we encountered the crazy monkey who has been known to steal IPhones and cameras. Unfortunately we weren't told this until after the thing tried to attack me! I got between him and his banana peel and he didn't much like that! He screeched and leapt back and forth across the railings in the walkway coming far too close to my face for comfort! I screeched back at him, out of sheer panic! We managed to get by and on to the boat and THEN were told...oh yeah, that is the crazy monkey! A little warning might have been nice! There were a few locals hawking fruits and drinks. One lady was laughing hard...I think she gets this entertainment quite often. Back to the boat for a cool fruit drink and a rest before a quick cooking demo...spring rolls again. If we can't make spring rolls by the end of our trip we are REALLY slow learners! Dinner was at seven...a nine course meal...but fortunately mostly healthy stuff and not huge portions of anything. Food was very good. After dinner there was supposed to be an opportunity to fish for squid. But we went down to participate and all we saw was one of the crew, who didn't speak any English, fishing for himself. We didn't hang around so I don't know if anyone ever got to fish. Instead, we headed off to our cabin, read for a bit and fell asleep before ten. Tomorrow we go off on a day cruiser while the boat takes back the people who are staying only one night and brings back a new bunch who will come back with us tomorrow or go off on a day cruiser and stay another night like us. It is like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle the way they coordinate it.
141: March 1...Day two in Halong Bay | Woke up to gray skies and drizzle and wondered if we would end up spending the day inside our day boat reading. But after breakfast the drizzle was turned to a mist and we packed our bag for our day trip. The rest of the guests were heading back. The day boat showed up around eight and we were the first ones aboard. We picked up two more couples and a single from another boat not far away. Our itinerary kept changing...we heard one itinerary last night then a different one when we got on board and then it changed again due to the weather. It was quite foggy in spots and where it wasn't, the clouds were covering the tops of the islands...kind of mystical looking. Our first stop was Lan Ha Bay for some kayaking. One couple from France didn't understand the directions on their main boat so didn't bring a change of clothes so they just stayed on board. The rest of us climbed into the kayaks (which was not easy from our high deck!) and were soon headed off. It was barely drizzling at this point and it was warm so it was quite pleasant. Kayaking was fun...Roy and I didn't fight at all over who was paddling out of synch! Roy had my camera, not wanting to take his in the rain and in the kayak. So I paddled while he took pictures then he paddled while I took well-deserved rests. The pictures aren't great but the people we were with said they would email me some. We paddled through a couple of very cool caves and around a big bay. We were lucky to be the first and only ones there for most of our trip. It was very peaceful and serene, a few birds in the trees but otherwise not a sound. As we were heading back to our boat, several other big boats arrived and the bay soon had a couple dozen kayaks. We got back to the boat and managed to climb out of the kayaks and back on board without falling in. The crew was very good, keeping the kayaks balanced while we got in and out. Because it was foggy and socked in, they cancelled our trip to the other beaches, saying it would be too dangerous and difficult to see. So we killed an hour visiting with the other guests, sharing who had been where and what they had seen and who was going where next. Very nice group...young lady from Australia, man from Australia and his Thai lady friend, and a couple from France who were delighted that we could speak a few words of French. Their English was actually quite good but I think they found it difficult to understand the Vietnamese accented English of their guide. After the hour was up, they began to bring out lunch. The chef was an artiste! The food decoration was art and the food was good...another seven course meal! OMG I can hardly wait to get back to eating normal...I miss my Greek yogurt and my Skinny Cows!
142: After lunch we cruised by a floating fishing village. By now it was very foggy so it was not great for photos. We continued on for ages through the fog wondering if we were perhaps lost at sea. You couldn't see anything. Then the peaks of the islands started to show and the captain altered his course a bit and steered us into the bay where the Pearl Farm was. It was actually quite interesting to go through the farm and watch them seeding the oysters to make cultured pearls. There was a shop to buy pearls so we had a quick look and headed back on the boat. As we sat and waited for the others, the sun finally broke through and we finally got a glimpse of how magnificent the scenery is. We got back to the boat and had it pretty much to ourselves for an hour before the other guests arrived back from their first day. As we sat relaxing in our cabin with the windows open a head suddenly appeared in our window and a little voice said...you buy something Mister? They never stop! Dinner was another marathon nine course meal, all tasty! Tomorrow we are scheduled for a beach visit with a hike to a pagoda on the top of one of the the islands. Hopefully it will be nice as the views are supposed to be spectacular.
143: March 2...Last day in Halong Bay and travel back to Hanoi | We woke up to more grey skies today. We ate breakfast and afterwards when the others left we returned to our room to contemplate our plans. The island with the beach and hike to the pagoda at the top was lost in the mist so we figured the view wouldn't be that great. We decided would just relax on the boat until it was time to check out of our rooms. It was wonderful to just laze about reading and relaxing. We had to be out of our rooms at 9:30 so went up to the top deck and found a spot on the loungers.and enjoyed the scenery until lunch was served. By late morning the rest of the group was back and we began our cruise back to Halong Bay. Lunch was excellent again - another seven course marathon...the last one! We ate it while anchored in Halong Bay. After lunch was done they told us that there were two groups. One had to get back to Hanoi so they were on the first shuttle then our mini bus group was on the second one. The first one left and returned ten minutes later for us. We got ashore and there was the first group, waiting to get on the same bus as us. OK it's Vietnam so anything goes and sometimes some things just don't make any sense...So we all got on the bus and it was hot and stuffy...ac was not working. So we opened windows and suffered through. Then all of a sudden we pulled off the road and the guide said we were getting a new bus...ok...so the group that had to get to Hanoi fast got off and then they told Roy and I to get off. So we did and climbed into a smaller but much cooler mini bus. But the rest of the group had to continue on in the non-cooled bus. No explanation but it was sure a lot nicer! We stopped halfway to Hanoi next door to the place we stopped on the way down. Half an hour later we were on our way to Hanoi again. Arrived without incident and checked into the hotel. They tried to put us in a dark and dingy back room. So I went down to the desk and asked to be moved. They tried to tell me that we booked a lesser room, that we only got an upgrade before because they were nice to us. But I knew that Cham had already arranged an upgrade so I told them so and told them that we would have to go elsewhere then. They quickly changed their story and we are now in a very nice room on the 9th floor with a big window and the nicest bathroom and shower we have seen. This one is a step above what we had before, with flowers, rose petals on the bed and even a computer in the room. I think we got the penthouse! It will be lovely for our last six nights! I'm probably not putting up any pictures for today. I still have some kayaking ones to come and when they arrive, I will put them here since we didn't take many today. Besides, you have two other entries to wade through and I don't want anyone getting a caffeine overdose this morning!
144: March 3...Day at the Museum of Ethnology | Today we visited the Museum of Ethnology. This museum is both a research centre and a public museum. It exhibits the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam. The largest group, the Viets, make up about 86% of the ninety million people in Vietnam; the smallest group has only about 650. The museum was two floors of exhibits plus a big outdoor area. Inside are displays about each of the minority groups...maps of where they live, their farming, traditional arts and crafts, music and dance as well as models of their houses and samples of their traditional clothing. There were also pictures and dioramas showing their everyday lives. Outside the museum are houses of several ethnic groups. The museum has acquired houses from several groups and has reconstructed them on the grounds. There are nine or ten different houses as well as a couple of funeral houses and tombs. You could go inside of them and see what was typical for each. It was interesting to see that many of the groups are matriarchal based...the woman's side of the family was added the the parental house...ie the eldest daughter and her new husband would continue to live in the house after their wedding and then their eldest daughter and her husband and so on. In one of these they just continue to add on to the house for each generation so after several generations the great grandmother, the grandmother, the mother, the daughter (and their spouses) all lived in one very long house. Some of these might be as long as 200 meters! Other groups were patriarchal and it would be the eldest son and his new wife who would move in. Some of the houses were on stilts so we had to climb up and down narrow stairs built into a pole to see them. In the afternoon, there was a water puppet show. This is an ancient art form dating back to the 11th century. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play. The puppets are made out of wood and then lacquered with bright colours. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool with the puppeteers hidden behind a screen. The puppets are on some kind of rod and the puppeteers make them move in, on and under the water in front of the screen. Everything was performed in Vietnamese so we didn't understand the words but it was pretty easy to figure out the short plot lines. It was very well done and we really enjoyed it. Quite a crowd gathered to watch...it was Sunday afternoon so lots of families were there. The museum was good but I wish someone would make a suggestion to them....in each house there were three or four people watching over the house. Why don't they dress them in the traditional clothing of the appropriate tribe and have them provide some information to the people who tour there? Just my two cents worth but it would really make the place stand out more! We caught a cab home and spent the rest of the afternoon taking it easy. We were invited to dinner at Cham and Tien's. It was another veritable feast...clams, crabs, pork rolled in lettuce wraps, rice, spring rolls...delicious! Tomorrow we have nothing on the agenda. We plan to do one more tour if the weather cooperates, maybe on Tuesday or Wednesday.
146: March 4...Shopping and wandering around Hanoi | Nothing on the agenda today...sorry the next few days will not be filled with our past excitement and adventure! So if you aren't into listening to my shopping escapades, you may as well stop reading! Today we got up, lazed about, went down for brekkie then lazed about some more. We finally headed out around ten thirty, headed for the market. I was looking for one particular thing, a set of stacking dolls for Jazy and didn't really think I would find it. But lo and behold, it was in the first stall we encountered and in then in another a couple stalls away from the first! I decided to wait until the way out so I didn't have to carry it around. Roy and I split up and I had almost an hour on my own to shop. I got the first lucky sale at a spot where I found wooden jewellery-type boxes. Found just the right size and negotiated a good deal! Lucky for you, lucky for me...I apologized to the Brit who was trying to buy something as well...sorry pal but I got the first sale while you were dickering over a quarter! Then I got a set of lacquered plates for a good price...I was on a roll! I went back to where we had come into the market to negotiate a good price for the dolls, found a couple things more I wanted so got them all discounted. I found these cute little puzzle boxes shaped like animals that I thought Jasper might like. Unfortunately when we got back to the hotel, I discovered I had lost a piece...now I have to go back and buy another :( After dropping our stuff off at the hotel we asked directions to the street where we would find optometrists...it was a fair hike and there weren't any where the girl at reception had said. But we did find some down the street a little farther. I ordered a pair of lenses to go into my old frames. They will be ready in three days...hope they aren't late! We leave the following morning. Found some more things we liked; they have these nice bamboo bowls I would like to take home. But we had run out of cash...had just enough to buy lunch. We needed a particular bank. Had to walk all the way back to the hotel before finding one even though we see them all over when we aren't looking for them! So tomorrow I will go back and buy my bowls. Sorry not much in the way of pictures today. Maybe I should take pictures of all my goodies!
147: March 5...Life in the Old Quarter | Today was a day for lots of walking and more retail therapy! We decided to walk the Old Quarter for a few hours. Roy wanted to take some city life shots and I wanted to finish off my souvenir shopping. I think we hit almost all 36 streets! Hanoi is a big city...about seven million people, slightly smaller than Saigon's nine million... but it has a whole different feel. I think I would describe Saigon as more commercial and more western, with more hi rises and western looking office buildings. Hanoi is the government and cultural centre and seems to have kept its old Asian character. There is a French Quarter with beautiful old French colonial buildings, and there are a few newer western looking high rises going up but overall, it seems less western. In Hanoi, there are more tree-lined streets and the buildings seem older and more historical looking. Life seems slower in Hanoi. People seem more reserved and not quite as friendly on the street. Children barely glance at you in Hanoi, while in Saigon they stared and waved and called out. I read somewhere that there are 300 lakes in and around Hanoi; two of them are near us. They are crowded with people walking or sitting on the many park benches. Although we haven't got up early enough to see, I understand that prior to seven am they are packed with individuals doing Tai Chi, running or exercising. Although the traffic isn't quite as bad here, the streets are much narrower so the cars and motorcycles really jam them up. Crossing the road is still an adventure and sometimes you just get tired of it. You can't be gawking at shops or buildings. The noise is still unbelievable, constant honking and beeping. The only quiet we get is inside our hotel room and sometimes inside restaurants. It is a little easier to walk around here, but not much. Motorcycles still line the sidewalks but they don't usually clog them up the way they did in Saigon. Usually they leave a narrow zone next to the building free. Some of the time you can even actually walk on the sidewalk. Occasionally there is a wide sidewalk that is great to walk on, except that a few motorcyclists think this gives them an extra lane to drive in. And in other places, shop owners fill the empty space with chairs and tables or their goods. So you still end up walking in the street, trying to make sure you don't get whacked when you try to get around the cars that park haphazardly at the side of the road.
148: The shopping is so different. In Saigon, the best deals were in the markets; we bought almost nothing from the shops. Here, the market doesn't have nearly the variety but the shops (and there are tons of them) and street vendors have turned out to be great places to shop. Bargaining still happens most places but occasionally a shop will have set prices, that they might discount five or ten percent if you are lucky...kind of a nice change! It is good to go in these now and again. You can price goods so you know what to pay elsewhere or you can just pay what they ask. I think this is probably pretty close to what you could negotiate elsewhere anyway. Prices are higher here than in Saigon. Glad we bought so much there, even though we had to pack it around the countryside. Some of the streets sell only one product. We joke and say we are on Brass Street or Baby Street or Tin Street. There is a street that sells nothing but candy and another that sells only Chinese medicine stuff and another that sells Chinese lanterns and red papers and decorations. Some streets have a hodgepodge of stores...a collection of optometrists then a section of souvenirs or ladies clothes. Today we found shoe street and several others we had not encountered before! The Old Quarter is incredibly colourful and full of incredible smells! Today I bought my bamboo bowls and a few pieces of lacquer ware. While I negotiated, Roy was out taking pictures, trying to capture life on the streets. We wandered for a couple hours, mostly without a map, just enjoying the sights and smells and sounds. I think there are more street food places here but so far we haven't been too adventurous with that. Very few would pass the Food Safe exam! We dropped our goodies back at the hotel then went for a late lunch at Fry. It is this tiny little burger place where it is an adventure watching the young man put your burger together. Then we walked a few more streets in the Old Quarter before going back to the hotel for a couple hours...I even had a nap! I can't remember the last time I did that! I think we are slowing down, getting ready for the return to our slow quiet life in Osoyoos! Tomorrow we are going on one last tour. Thursday will be quiet and Friday we will be on our way home. Hard to believe it has been almost eight weeks!
150: March 6...Day trip to Hoa Lu - our last tour | Today we got an early start...breakfast was over and done by 7:45 as our ride was coming some time between 8:00 and 8:30. We weren't sure what was picking us up, just that it was a group tour. Turns out we were only a group of seven so it was a nice small group. We rode off in a small minibus. There were two Russian men on board when we got in and we set off to pick up three people from France. This was the second attempt to pick them up! Fortunately they were there this time and we soon hit the road. It was a three hour drive to our final destination. We made a stop halfway at another arts and crafts centre. This one was a smaller version of the one on the way to Halong Bay, again with inflated tourist prices. Our first real stop was in Hua Lu where we visited two temples. It was quite crowded with local school kids all over the place. These temples were built by the third king of Vietnam to honour the first two kings of Vietnam. Hua Lu was the first capital of Vietnam, established in 968 after the defeat of the Chinese invaders. It was the capital for 42 years. It was set up in Hua Lu because of the surrounding limestone karst mountains that provide natural protection. The first temple we saw honoured the first king. Usually in a king's temple, the front areas are where people pray to honour the king who is buried there. Then behind the king's altar there is usually is a place where the queen is buried. But in this temple that is not the case... This king and queen had an interesting story. The king ruled for only twelve years before he was assassinated. One of his mandarins decided he would make a better ruler so he poisoned the king. After the king died, they were afraid that looters would dig up the body and steal the riches buried with the king. So seven mandarins were charged with the task of choosing a burial spot. After the king was buried, they each killed themselves so the secret would die with them. After the king died, the queen attempted to rule the country. Unfortunately, way back then, as we can all well imagine, women were considered inferior beings and she was unable to maintain respect and power. She realized that a new king would be necessary. So, she married again. Her new husband became the new king and she maintained her status as queen. Eventually she was buried behind the second king in the second temple here. The temple was pretty much like many of the temples we have seen in our travels. This one has been destroyed and rebuilt many times but there are some parts that are original. The front has three gates, the middle one for the king and the others for the mandarins. In this temple, the middle gate is not closed like they were in Hue, so people could walk through it.
151: The gardens were nice; big ponds were on each side and nice trees and gardens surrounded it. There was one special tree from which special chopsticks are made. The chopsticks made from this wood will change from brown to black if the food has been poisoned! Too bad the first king didn't own a pair! The second temple was smaller but otherwise much the same. The main difference was that there was a queen buried in this one. Both temples were built by the third king of Vietnam, to show honour and respect for the first two. We made our way back to the bus and drove on to Tam Coq. When we arrived we went to a restaurant for lunch. It was a buffet with a big variety of hot food and fruits for dessert. Across the road from the restaurant was the boat dock. We headed over after we ate. OMG you should have seen the boats...hundreds of them! There was a long line of them snaking up and down the narrow river. We loaded on the boats, two foreigners per boat...we had two paddlers, a husband and wife team. Halfway through we met up with another boat and the woman switched places with a younger woman, her daughter. We thought it odd at the time but it eventually came clear. It was a pleasant ride, beautiful rice paddies on either side, a few goats and some workers in the fields. There were a bunch of boats with photographers trying to take your picture so they could sell it to you at the end. We just kept turning our heads away to avoid their cameras! We floated for about 45 minutes through three caves. Then at the turnaround point we were met with several boats of women selling stuff and encouraging us to buy drinks for our rowers. After saying no a dozen times, we finally escaped! The paddle back was fine until the sales pitch started...first a picture of the family...all six or seven of them sitting around a table embroidering something. Then the big bags opened and out came the tablecloths, the T-shirts, the bags and wallets...in fact some of it was hand done but the bags were the same as the one I bought in Hue at the market and the wallets were like the machine done ones in Sapa. I bought a hand embroidered T-shirt and a couple of bags...I'd been kicking myself for not buying more in Hue. She was so happy to sell stuff, she grinned all the way back. I was only out another ten bucks! There are 1500 of these boats in this river! The story she tells, and we aren't sure if it is true, is that she and her husband own one boat and her parents own the other boat. It cost them $400 for each boat. They lined up in the morning and waited in line for a turn to take passengers. She only gets one turn and she only gets to come every ten days. Not so sure about the math for this; they put a LOT of people through on this river but our travel agent in Hanoi confirmed it was true.
152: At the end, she made sure we tipped her father and was very clear how much it should be because he worked very hard, you know! After the boat ride, we had a short bicycle ride through the village and around the rice fields. Time for some pictures and then we were back in the town and back on the bus for our long ride home. I have to say as much as we enjoyed the tour, this place was the absolute worst for tipping and selling...every time you turned around it was something else. First the photos, then the women selling pop and snacks, then the rower's handicrafts, then the tip for the rower, then of course something for the guide...it never stopped! Oh well, our trip is almost over and none of it broke the bank and all in all, it was a fun day...just too bad there were so many tourists! We had a nice dinner out tonight...back at the Rising Dragon (another one, not our Rising Dragon hotel). We splurged on dinner tonight, had the pomelo salad again and two nice main courses...still barely cost us $25! Now were are tucked in our hotel thinking that we have absolutely nothing planned for tomorrow...hmmm maybe this is the last blog!
154: March 7...Last day, last entry | Today we didn't do much but wander around the Old Quarter, some last minute shopping and a ride on a cyclo. We figured we had done pretty much every possible mode of transport...planes, trains, cars, big tour buses, mini buses, public buses, taxis, motorcycles, tuktuks, bicycles, row boats, motorboats, cruise ships, kayaks...but so far no cyclos. So we decided to go for it. Somewhere here you will find a picture of a cyclo so you can see what they look like. It is basically a two seat buggy pushed by a bicycle. We checked with our hotel at what the going rate should be, negotiated with a driver and set out for an hour's trip around the Old Quarter streets. You kind of need blinders because the guy just cycles through the busy intersections and cars and motor bikes are coming at you from all sides! Roy took some pictures and I just watched, which was kind of nice for a change. When you walk, you can't gawk or you might get run over! Anyway since that was it for excitement, I decided to just finish the last of my blogs with some thoughts about our trip. They aren't in any order so please forgive my ramblings... In the south, you never get used to how muggy it is. You just sweat and sweat and everything is damp all the time and you suffer through...but you never get totally used to it. Stop lights are only a suggestion. Pedestrians have no rights; mostly they are just an inconvenience. Sidewalks are not meant for pedestrians...they are parking lots for motorcycles and seating for restaurants and places to sell things. When there is room for pedestrians, they become short cuts for motorbikes. rossing the street is an adventure and just when you think you have successfully made it across the street someone on a motorcycle comes up the street the wrong way and nearly wipes you out. No one really wants to run you over. Motorcycles will come close enough to almost singe you with their exhaust pipes but they will avoid you somehow. Sometimes when you cross the street you just have to put your head down and go and trust that they won't hit you. The people in the south are kind and friendly and outgoing. They will go out of their way to help you, once they can figure out what it is that you need. The people in the north are much more reserved. They seem to want to just ignore you. When you see them on the street most of them don't look happy. Of course there are exceptions...like our new friends Cham and Tien who have treated us royally. Asian children are very beautiful, particularly the little girls. They have the most gorgeous eyes.
155: In Cambodia we heard that chambermaids in the hotels make about $100 a month and work 12 -16 hours a day, 365 days a year. If they are really lucky and have kind boss, they might get a day off for New Years but only if no one is leaving that day and no rooms need to be done. I can't imagine it being much better in Vietnam. The other staff in the hotels, bell hops, reception, restaurant staff make more but not that much more. We always left something in the tip boxes. No never really means no until you walk away and they don't follow. Most of the time they will call you back...and you will get it for your last price. First sale of the morning is lucky so you can get a good price. Half the fun is bargaining so don't take it too seriously and remember your price and theirs is usually a dollar or less apart. So do it all with a smile and a good sense of humour and you will have more fun and better success. There are bugs here...the cockroaches are big...I mean really big! There are also rats and they are big too! Fortunately we haven't seen many of either! Most of these were in the south or in Cambodia where it is warmer. We saw none in the north. Despite all the warnings on TravelAdvisor about safety and thieves and scams, we have never felt unsafe, even walking the streets at night. I think you are more likely to be in a traffic accident than be robbed or scammed. There is a LOT of unfinished construction here. There was a university we passed on Tuesday...a really big one with huge dorms and academic buildings. But it is way out of Hanoi in the countryside and they neglected to consider that students who want to get a university education want it in the big city. Their millions of dollars might have been better spent with scholarships and bursaries so more students could attend in the city. We have also seen lots of places where resorts or hotels or condos were started but never finished. Someone convinced someone it was a good idea and tourists would flock there. They didn't and the resorts sit empty or they ran out of money and never got finished so the tourists never came. Construction is interesting here. With the exception of the really big high rises, everything is made of brick then covered with a layer of concrete stucco then painted. We have been watching them reno an apartment across the street. It is all manual labour...one night we saw them drop off a load of bricks. By morning those bricks were all up on the fourth floor. By days end, they were walls and by the next day, the walls were covered in concrete and painted and they had moved to the next floor. This morning we watched them hump about fifty bags of sand up to the fifth floor, along with whatever else they use for the mortar. They were half done by seven am. No one wears hard hats or any kind of safety equipment. We have seen them on steep pitched roofs four or five floors up, in their bare feet, redoing the roof.
156: People here are very proud and hard working. They are prepared to do anything to make a dollar. And they work hard at it. Sometimes, it felt like I was taking advantage of people with their low prices. In Hanoi we have never seen a beggar. Some in other cities, but not here. They all find some kind of gainful work...they drive a cyclo or find something to sell, be it cheap trinkets or fruits or whatever, they will do it. We watched a documentary on the women who sell fruits and other foods from the hanging baskets they carry across their shoulders. Many of them leave their families in the countryside and come to the city for days and weeks on end to sell their products so simply to feed their families. Bargaining is an experience. Today a woman followed us trying to sell Roy a shirt. She started at ten dollars and dogged us for three blocks. We tried to lose her but every time we came out of a shop, she was there and the price went down. Roy finally bought one for $2.50 just to get rid of her. She pushed and tried to sell two but he didn't really even want the first one. All that work and she made very little on the deal! Sometimes bargaining is fun, though. Earlier today we decided to buy these cute little NorthFace day packs. We priced them at a couple of places to get an idea. We found them for $6.50 set price, which matched what we negotiated with another woman earlier. We went back to buy from her because she had worked hard to bargain a good price with us. But she didn't have the colours we wanted so we ended up next door negotiating all over. We went back and forth and got close. I opened my mouth to give her my last price for two when Roy spoke a number ten thousand ($1) more at the same time. She picked up on that very quickly and said...he say...so I slapped Roy playfully and pretended to scold him...we all had a good laugh and we bought two for 250,000 dong...big deal, about $12 and change for two! It was the first sale of the day so lucky for her, lucky for me and the exercise left everyone with smiles on their faces. She remembered us later when we passed her shop and wished us a good trip.
157: Sometimes when we are sitting around, we play "what was your favourite...city or dinner or tour or guide or hotel or, or, or..." But it is just too hard to decide. There have been so many experiences and they have all been so different and so wonderful in different ways that we can never pick just one. I guess that is a sign that we have had a good trip! Tonight we had a last visit with our new friends, Cham, Tien and Minh who have helped make this trip so memorable with their kindness and hard work. We will miss them and think of them often. But now, we are looking forward to getting home and seeing familiar faces and things. As much as we have loved this journey, we miss Osoyoos and our family and friends and want to hurry home. Thank you all for traveling with us. I hope you have enjoyed the trip, even a fraction of what we have. We have picked up passengers on this blog from all over the world this time...those of you from home or the lower mainland or Edmonton may not realize it but you have fellow passengers from Florida and Singapore and at least two places in England and Hanoi and even some readers that I don't know about from other unknown places! If you want to play along, it might be fun to post your name and where you live. It would be a great record for me to know just who has been traveling with us!! It will be hard to top this one, I think!