Vietnam - Central and South
Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
The alarm beeped at 4:30 tearing us out of a deep sleep. We tried to leave the locked and gated hotel, but first had to use the Vietnamese phrasebook to argue with the night manager that we did not need to pay for the room as the travel agency should have already. Then we were finally on our way to the airport with Huong.
One benefit of traveling before the sun comes up is that the women working at the toll booths actually look human since they have not covered every inch of their skin with fabric and sunglasses to hide from the sun. During the day they look like they're from Tattooine.
The airport was much dingier than we remembered from arrival, complete with 4 inch long cockroach crawling along the floor. We approached the desk as it opened, resulting in us being the first through the line at the ticket counter, tax window and passport check. Being first has its rewards - we were through in less than ten minutes.
We arrived in Hue at 7:30am and no one was there to meet us. We waited until the airport was nearly empty, then we dug out the hotel name and found a taxi (not hard - they were all screaming at us to use their services). The taxi driver offered several times to "take you nice hotel very cheaper", but we were firm. Louisa did a nice bit of sleuthing, however, to figure out that the "Rose Hotel" of our itinerary was actually the Hoa Hong (Rose, in Vietnamese).
At the hotel they had no reservation for us. After wrangling with them for a few minutes, we convinced them to call the agency in Saigon. They didn't know who we were at first, but they promised to look into it and call us back. The hotel gave us a room, and we settled down for an exhausted nap.
We were woken by an apologetic call from the owner of the Saigon agency. He told us a driver and guide would be at our hotel in one hour for our promised city tour. We took advantage of the time to go out for breakfast.
Right down the road we stumbled upon the Cafe Carambole, where we found delicious eggs and fancy coffee. We returned to find Vy (or Hoai, pronounced "why", spelling unsure), a fiftyish woman with excellent English, waiting for us.
Our first stop was the tomb of King Khai Dinh. The buildings and sculpture were impressive, built on a spiritually auspicious hill. Inside, we were particularly impressed by the pottery shard mosaics on the walls, altar, and tomb. They colorfully and beautifully decorate the buildings with an additional element of the culture included in the designs on the pottery pieces used. We also had a beautiful view over lush green mountains.
Relatively close by we visited Tu Duc tomb. The location of the tombs were chosen through the consultation of a geomancer, something like feng shui. The buildings of Tu Duc's complex were in a state of disrepair reducing their appeal. Tu Duc oversaw the building of the complex during his lifetime and long reign. With the complex finished, he visited it often during his lifetime with his wives and 104 concubines.
The tomb had 3 major parts - the tomb itself, a garden for contemplation, and buildings for royal living and affairs of state. In this way, it functioned as a summer home while the King was alive, and a tome afterwards. We walked by idyllic pagodas on a lotus filled pond, to reach the open air tomb and altar. On the way back, we visited the restored royal theater and living quarters.
We drove back into town to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, a 7-story national symbol. While you can't go up inside, we walked around the active Buddhist monastery surrounding it. There, we found schoolchildren playing in a wooded area at the back of the grounds, and listened to their game. It was not so different from games we played as children - some things seem to be universal.
Our final stop was the ancient citadel of Hue. The citadel was built to protect the citizens, but primarily the royal family. A zig-zag moat and thick stone wall surround the 70 acre entire complex. Many of the buildings reminded us to those in the Forbidden City in Beijing which was built a few decades before this citadel.
Some buildings, such as the formal entrance gate which is now adorned with a huge poster of Ho Chi Minh, have been restored, others are in a state of disrepair while still others are piles of rubble having been bombed during the war. There are also shrines for each of the 11 kings of the last dynasty. Hue was a center battle field in the Tet Offensive.
Vy and the driver dropped us at a pho shop for an afternoon snack/lunch. We did our best to communicate with the friendly proprietress which means that we repeated 'pho ga' (chicken noodle soup) in response to anything she said. Somehow Tom deduced that she did not have any 'ga' so he ordered egg instead. It was delicious. while we were eating the pho, she served some spring rolls to her daughter, so we got out the phrase book and asked for an order. They were delicious as well. She smiled at our use of the phrase book, but had to sit down with delight when Tom recited that she had cooked him a delicious meal (our favorite use of the phrase book so far in Vietnam). We walked the few blocks back to the hotel, checked email from across the street and then relaxed for awhile after much-needed showers.
We intended to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant a block away, but it had no patrons while La Carambole was packed, so we returned to the same spot for an excellent dinner. The French proprietor has created a warm atmosphere complemented with quiet jazz music, and serves fabulous food. This was our best meal in Vietnam to date, and that's saying something. The lemon grass chicken was so good we ordered another round after we finished the first one.
After stuffing ourselves senseless, we dropped by an art gallery on our way back to the hotel. One piece intrigued us, but at $700, its size and thoughts of trying to get it home, we passed. We were still tired from our early start, so we slept well.
We drove out of Hue with Vy shortly after 8am. After an hour or so, we asked to stop at Lang Co beach for a few minutes. Since the weather was threatening, the place was nearly deserted. We went for a lovely 20min walk along the beach with crashing waves and lightning and thunder in distance. Quite relaxed, we got back in the car towards Danang.
We drove through the Hai Van pass, in the mountains that separated the ancient Cham empire from the Viets. The views here are supposed to be stunning, but low clouds and rain meant that the extensive road work was more entertaining.
We reached the Cham Museum in Danang with the rain pouring out of the skies. The museum is small, but interesting, and included items and pictures from the many ancient cities and temples left by the Cham empire.
We then had a bit of difficulty convincing Vy to go to a restaurant of our choice, and once we got there, it wasn't there any more. After another failed attempt, we ended up at the Kim Do, probably the most expensive (and least worth it) restaurant in Danang. Of course, outrageously expensive in Vietnam is still well under $10. On the way we saw a scooter accident, with a man sitting in the road bleeding from the nose.
Encouraged not to stop at the Marble Mountains in the heavy rain, we continued directly to Hoi An. We check into government-run Hoi An Hotel, which definitely has an institutional feel, then headed out in the rain to find the recommended shop Thu Thao.
The nest two hours passed quickly selecting styles and fabrics for clothes. The energetic girl helped us and frequently used her favorite phrase 'one more!' We discovered that the limitation on having clothes made is the fabric selection. This worked in strange ways. Tom found fabric for a suit that he didn't really plan on, but did not find fabric for trousers. Louisa wanted a sun dress, but could not find casual fabrics, but also found great fabric for suits. Basically, we went insane.
Tom ordered two shirts, one pair of trousers and a suit while Louisa ordered two suits, a fancy dress, one skirt and two shirts. All of these custom made clothes came at the outrageous price of $184. That is not a typo.
Also across from the market, we stopped in at a shoe stall where they agreed to make pair of sandals for Louisa for less than $4. Overall, a very successful outing.
We returned to the hotel to dry out. The rains continued at a monsoon level for the entire day and evening. We ventured out for an OK dinner at the Yellow River Restaurant. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by an internet cafe to take advantage of the $2/hour rate. Like in China, Vietnam regulates their internet, and has a government run firewall that prevents access some sites - we were surprised to find Geocities blocked. We were also able to send mail from the Palm, but not get mail - the IMAP4 port was blocked.
The streets were delightfully empty due to rain. No cyclos or other vendors bothered as as we strolled along, huddled together under our umbrella. Back in the Hoi An, Louisa read her usual 2 pages before falling asleep, while Tom stayed up late rereading Pastwatch on the Psion.
We got up for an institutional breakfast, then headed out into the rain to do errands. First stop was back at the Thu Thao, to try on our new clothes. Overall we were pleased, although many of them needed minor (and not-so-minor) alterations. We learned their new favorite word: "easy!", which they repeated every time we suggested a change. We had fun working with them - they are nice people - and left reasonably pleased so far.
We then embarked on a mission to change our flight from Bangkok, which took us from the hotel to the post office to the internet cafe and back again, but we finally did it.
Tom sang 'Singing in the Rain' as we strolled along the main street. Passing Vietnamese smiled as we hugged each other under our umbrella, but with Tom's singing one girl stopped riding her bike to listen, and giggle.
We had Cau Lau for lunch at Fai Foo restaurant, and it was not particularly tasty. We have enjoyed the variety of spring rolls, and banh tao and these were good.
Louisa was not done shopping, so we went to a couple of other stores and found her a sundress and some pants, each of which would be done by the end of the day. Unbelievable!
The sundress was particularly good. We wished that we had more time or could work with them again - no alterations were needed. Amazing! When we picked up the pants, they were too large, but the man immediately began to make them smaller and they were ready 30 minutes later.
In the afternoon hours between we read in the dryness of the room, as the monsoon rains continued. We wanted to check email, but most of the stores did not have electricity. Fortunately one had a generator which lets us do some research.
We also stopped back for more fittings with our big order. Tom's suit jacket was perfect, and with the reworked pants he looked very handsome. Everything of Louisa's was good, except the skirt that they were copying from an ad in the latest Marie Clare. The energetic girl, who was not so energetic this time, called the female tailor in. The latter showed some resistance until we showed her the picture. At that a light went off in her head, obviously she had not been shown the picture before, just told a description. They said to come back in two hours, but we had no idea how they were going to pull this one off.
Since the rain had not stopped we decided against walking the extra two blocks to dine next to the river and stopped at BoBo Cafe instead. The food was excellent. So was the sentiment of the owners which is summed up in their sign 'Have good enjoy!' We were sad that we had not eaten here before, as we would have returned. Surprising how sometimes the smaller spots have great food. After dinner the rain had stopped so we walked down to at least see the river. All of the rain had the river very swollen. It was almost spilling over the banks onto the road and into the market, and it was moving fast.
We returned to the tailor shop to try on the skirt. We had to wait awhile for the tailor to bring the skirt over. It was clear that she was still working on it, which did not surprise us. She walked in with her hair askew and looking tired, the long, hard work day showed. She had in her hands what looked amazingly like the skirt in the picture. We deduced that she had started over completely, but had succeeded. It fit well, too. So, with great thanks we paid up and returned to the hotel laden with bags full of our new clothes.
The rain finally stopped! We had another institutional breakfast, and then headed to the market to pick up some fruit for our long train ride. We looked over the unfamiliar and colorful offerings at the various stalls, and settled on a couple of fat asian pears. That done, we took a quick picture of our friend at Thu Thao, and went back to finish packing.
We had to break out another bag to fit all of our new clothes - we are no longer traveling as light as we were. The car picked us up a little early, and we headed for Danang.
Since we were a few minutes early, and we were making good time, we asked the driver (using sign language) if we could stop at Marble Mountain for a half hour. He agreed, and we quickly ran up the steps to see the caves and pagodas. The heat was bad and the humidity worse - we were soaked with sweat, almost immediately.
Some of the caves are truly stunning, especially one with a large chamber and some "skylights" in the roof. We had fun climbing up a natural chimney to the top of the mountain for some photos. Then we hurried down, stopping only to glance at the beautiful pagoda on the way down. We could have spent another half hour there, but we saw most of it.
The driver dropped us off at the train station and we were on our own. Of course, there is no English anywhere in the station, but we managed to figure out where we belonged, and after a half-hour wait, boarded our train.
We found that we had been booked on an air-conditioned sleeper, with 4 bunks per cabin. We shared with an extremely old Vietnamese woman, and a man who seemed to speak a few words of English, but didn't talk much. We stowed our bags under the lower bunk, and settled down to read and journal the trip away.
Unfortunately, we had not had lunch, and we quickly went through our snacks and fruit. We were a bit hungry and cranky for a while, but then they served dinner on the train at 5pm. The bamboo shoots, mystery meat, and rice was plain but filling, and we were much happier afterwards.
The train pulled into Nha Trang just after 9:30pm. The throng of people offering hotels, taxi rides and tours of the city was overwhelming. We were thrilled to see our driver waiting for us at the gate. He took us the few short kilometers to the Vien Dong hotel, a rather nondescript, nothing-special hotel, but clean. We walked down the block to find dinner. A cafe agreed to reopen its kitchen to cook springs rolls and mixed vegetables. Content, we returned to the hotel and slept.
The alarm rang at 7, we donned our bathing suits and headed down for breakfast. The selection was slim so we went the Vietnamese track and ate Pho. After trying to communicate with the hotel staff who acted like they understood English, but clearly did not, we walked around the block to the dive shop.
Blue Divers quickly geared us up then sent the fully-loaded minivan to the boat. While we waited, a small boy approached selling books, well xeroxed copies of books. We had seen other travelers reading them around Vietnam. The boy had the Lonely Planet Cambodia book as well as The Killing Fields, both of which we had been searching for in book swaps. After some hefty bargaining, we bought both for $5. Then we boarded the returned minivan, headed for the boat via some other hotels to pick up the other divers.
We were the only certified divers, the others were on their 'discovery dive.' The boat was a standard tourist boat, only slightly modified for diving. We cruised out of the harbor for an hour towards Hon Mun, weathering some medium swells along the way. Finally, to Tom's relief, we anchored in the calm lee of the island, and prepared to dive.
We wore 3mil wetsuits, Tom had 4kg, Lou 3kg, with steel tanks. Visibility was pretty good, 10-12m, some surge and light current. Highlights included a big octopus in the open - we must have surprised it - as well as huge anemones that looked exactly like shag bathmats. We swam through fish-filled caves of coral boulders called Madonna Caves. Alng the way we saw brownish boxfish, cornetfish, lots of pincushion starfish, shrimp, and tiny blue fish such an electric color you would swear they are glowing. The plant life was fair, but we did admire the soft baobab-like growths. There were moorish idols with incredibly long tailing top fins, a small moray, and lots of spiny urchins, some black and white, with electric blue centers.
After the dive we were served a fresh-cooked lunch of fried pork, chicken with beans, and rice. We gobbled it down, and chatted with Sarah, our dive master for a while.
An hour or so later, it was time for our second dive. We drove along the island a little way, and then jumped in to swim back underwater.
Hon Mun (Mun Island)
Tom was down to 3kg, and the weight was better. The visibility started out bad at 3m, but got better to 10m as we went behind the island.
The plant life was much better here. We loved the tiny "christmas trees" - red and blue worms that retract into tiny coral holes when approached, and the spanish dancer eggs. There were lots of anemones, amazingly colorful, nearly all with clownfish, and big table coral with tiny fish swimming all through. We swam over delicate feather coral, and saw some nudibranch mating. On the bottom we saw ungainly sea cucumbers, crown of thorns starfish, and several blue seastars. Swimming around we saw reddish zebra dwarf lionfish, lizardfish (goby), another octopus, a stonefish, and a twoline threadfin bream.
Once out, we rinsed with a little fresh water, and began the cruise back into the harbor. This time we were with the swells, making the rocking even worse. We made it to shore with no problems, and loaded back in the minivan for the dive shop.
At the dive shop we found that they only take cash, so we needed to make a quick trip to a bank. They told us there was one around the corner, so we started walking. After asking directions several times, we were told the only bank was in the center of town. We took a little while to walk there, but eventually found it and got our money. Then we took cyclos back - Tom to the shop, to pay them, Louisa to the hotel, for a shower. We then both relaxed for a few minutes, enjoying the sensation of being clean.
Wearing some of our new clothes from Hoi An we walked to a bar on the beach where we relaxed in the afternoon sea breeze with a beer and spring rolls. As dusk fell, we walked along the beach to the Nha Trang Sailing Club. We sank into two of their comfortable chairs on the patio for cocktails. We shifted to the restaurant side of the patio and enjoyed excellent Vietnamese food beside the ocean. The Nha Trang Sailing Club comes highly recommended from us.
We hired two cyclos for the ride back to the hotel. After watching one minute of the ridiculous local dancers in their performance at the hotel, we walked across the street to an internet cafe for an hour. The computers were in a back room of what appeared to be a popular bar for the Vietnamese young crowd. The tables were filled and the two large screens showed American music videos. Rather a strange internet cafe, but good connection. Then it was time for bed.
Our plane from Nha Trang to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, but we'll use Saigon since it's easier to type) was at the reasonable hour of 10am, so we got up at 8 and had a leisurely breakfast. Our driver met us to take us a whole 1km to the airport, and we waited for the flight.
The flight was unusual in that there were actually 2 flights leaving at the same time for the same destination - one a prop plane, the other a jet. Fortunately, we were on the jet, and an uneventful hour later, we were in Saigon.
Loc, our guide, met us at the airport and drove us directly to Can Tho (pronounced "Can Tuh"). The drive was a bit crazy, since all the roads seem to be under construction, and the traffic is no less heavy than Hanoi. On the way, we passed through many small villages, one of which had been destroyed by a "great wind" (tornado) the day before. We were sobered by the flattened houses, but cheered by the fact that many new frames were already going up, just 24 hours later.
In Can Tho, we checked in to the Quoc Te hotel. Our first room came with a colony of ants in the bathroom and on the desk, so we changed rooms. The new room only had a small family around the bathroom's sink. Louisa tried to explain to the reception desk our issue with both rooms, which received smiles. Just to clarify their understanding... an hour later when we returned from walking around Cantho, the reception desk assured us that the air conditioning is working fine now.
Our short walk took us to a local shop for a snack, then along some streets and through the market. On the way, we saw a barbershop. Tom needed a trim, so we decided to brave it. After explaining in sign language what we wanted, and being quoted a price of 50 cents, Tom sat down in the chair. Tom managed to stop the guy before he shaved the entire top of his head, and convinced him to just trim it. A few minutes later we continued walking, with Tom a few pounds lighter. We decided that haircuts for less than a dollar are worth exactly what you pay for them.
We had tried to call Peggy, a friend of Louisa's living in Can Tho, when we arrived, but she wasn't in. She called us from the lobby later in the afternoon, and we agreed to meet for dinner. An hour later, we went down to meet her and a friend Dan, also visiting from the States.
We walked over to the nearby Ninh Kieu hotel for dinner on the river. Peggy ordered for us in Vietnamese, and we got a table full of terrific food. We chattered away, drinking beer with huge blocks of ice, and generally enjoying ourselves.
After dinner we walked a few blocks to a restaurant where Peggy knows the owners. The owners graciously served us some ice cream before all of us - Peggy's friend, Becky and the staff of the restaurant included - ran through the rain to our hotel which has a happening dance club - directly above our hotel room, so we were in for the long haul.
The disco was virtually empty, except for 6 or 8 ladies of the evening with one Asian man. They provided great entertainment on the dance floor. Two of the Vietnamese men in our group were excellent dancers, knowing everything from the rumba to the tango. They rotated around the group asking all of the women to dance. The music was provided by a live band that performed a variety of songs.
At midnight, we called it a night and went down one floor to our room. The music was audible, but the place was closing down so we guessed it would only last for a few more songs.
Louisa jumped in the bed and felt something odd. She looked beside her and saw a few hundred ants crawling on the sheets with her. With a shriek and a jump she was out of the bed. We could hardly believe our eyes. With all of the places that we have been, nothing has come close to an ant-infested bed.
We were too exhausted to try to change hotel rooms again. We stripped the bed and threw the sheets on the floor, sprayed Deet all around the bed frame, and slept in our sleep sacks. We were unmolested, but both of us woke several times with phantom ants crawling on our bodies. Needless to say, we were pretty unhappy.
The alarm went off at 6am, and we groggily dragged ourselves from our sleep sacks. We packed our bags and took them downstairs - we would not stay another night in this hotel. Breakfast was lame, too.
We explained to Loc that we wanted a different hotel, and he was reasonably understanding. We put our bags in the car, and walked to the pier for our boat trip to the floating markets.
We were happy to see that the boat was a small one, just big enough for us and the older woman who drove us. We set off up the river towards the floating markets. Life along the rivers cruised on around us.
As we approached the Cai Rang floating market, we pulled up to the cement piling of a bridge. The woman swung the propeller onto the boat. One of the two blades was broken off. She pounded at the propeller and succeeded in getting it off the end of the shaft, but she could not get the new propeller screwed on. As she gave up and guided us towards a grouping of boats for assistance, Tom succeeded in getting the propeller on. The woman, Loc and the group of Vietnamese boaters had a good laugh over Tom's success.
We motored through the market, squeezing between boats engaged in lively commerce. A cafe boat pulled up along ours offering sodas and tea. We declined, and continued to watch the boats loaded with every conceivable fruit and vegetable.
We continued on up the Mekong for another half hour to the Phong Dien floating market. Here we saw bigger boats, and larger loads. Loc explained that most villagers bring their produce here to sell to wholesalers, with most of it ending up in the cities.
Once past the market, we turned into a small canal off the main Mekong. We passed a rice noodle factory with a huge load of tourists in it, so Loc asked some locals where we might find another one.
Just a few hundred meters down the canal was another one, so we hopped out of the boat and walked down the path to a small tin-roof room where they cook the rice batter into half-meter "pancakes" which are laid on bamboo mesh to dry. The most interesting part for us was the fact that the workers appear to live at the "factory" - there were beds and hammocks all around, and they were cooking lunch on the same stove they make the rice noodles on. The place was none too clean - Tom stepped in a puddle of motor oil dripping from the noodle cutting machine, and coated his foot and sandal - uck!
We then embarked on a long trip through narrow canals, seeing real life in the Mekong Delta. We saw many bamboo huts with thatched roofs, and people washing clothes and themselves in the canal. We were surprised, however, to find many beautiful concrete houses, as well, indicating that the standard of living here his definitely higher than many other parts of the country. Loc attributed this to the fertility of the valley, and the value of cash crops like fruits.
In places the villagers cross the canal on "monkey bridges" (a direct translation from the Vietnamese word), rickety constructions of lashed-together logs. As we got further into the delta, the canal got narrower, and in one place was choked with weeds - we barely got through.
We stopped for a break at a small restaurant that catered to tourists, and had a nice plate of fruit. We enjoyed the rambutan (red with spiky skin, sweet white fruit in the middle), pineapple, and longan berries. The dragon fruit we didn't like as much, so we ate some of the monkey bananas (mini bananas) instead.
On the way back our early morning caught up with us, and we nodded off a bit. We really enjoyed the canals, however, and felt like we got a good view of how people really live in the Delta.
Back in Can Tho, we went to the Hoa Binh hotel, which was fine - no ants, anyway. We showered to wash off the grime, then had lunch in the hotel - we were too tired to walk anywhere. We then napped hard for an hour or so.
Peggy called, so we went to visit her place on a moto-cyclo. This is basically a motorcycle modified to tow a two-wheel trailer, somewhat like a chariot with one horse. Quite possibly the most dangerous mode of transport we've ever seen - it goes as fast as a car, with no protection at all. We survived, however, and were dropped off at the University, where Peggy lives.
We spent a very enjoyable afternoon with her and her friends Dan, Huyen, and Becky. We hung out in her place, walked around the campus, and met her dean, who was playing tennis. We also met her Vietnamese teacher, who seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to speak English - her second language is really Russian.
We walked to dinner at a local restaurant, which was packed. When they saw us coming, then ran across the street and got a folding table and some chairs for us, and set it up on the sidewalk. Peggy ordered for all of us, beef with mint and rice paper, and a seafood dish. We devoured it all - it was great - and chatted on in to the night.
Finally, our early morning caught up with us, and we made our excuses. We grabbed a taxi back to the hotel, and crashed hard.
After breakfast, we wrote a few postcards in the lobby hotel. Loc arrived and we loaded up the car. Peggy arrived with two of her students to see us off. We chatted with the three of them while Loc figured out the hotel bill. Their command of English demonstrates that Peggy must teach her students well. Tom talked to the students, who had just graduated, about their jobs, the political situation and the Vietnamese perception of Americans while Peggy gave Louisa directions to a shoe store in Saigon.. Then we said our good-byes and were off.
We wandered the deck of the ferry during the short ride and attracted a lot of attention. Loc did not want us to get too far away from him, so perhaps it is not very safe, but we enjoyed seeing the other passengers, their loads, and the river.
A short drive later and we arrived in Vinh Long. Loc encouraged us to wander through the market, and we obliged, although we felt as if we had seen plenty. Immediately we were taken with a different feel. Many vendors offered tiny baby ducklings, which were cute. The rest of the market was active with local trade. The colorful fruits and vegetables filled many stands. The fish market was particularly interesting with its live fish, frogs and snakes.
We loaded onto our boat and were greeted with Western size deck chairs. For the first time in Indochina the boat seats were not wooden kindergarten, but fabulously comfortable. The Mekong river ran rapidly due to the recent rains and high water. The boat driver turned us across the current and we headed for the island. Once in the canals, the waves and current calmed.
The first of the Mekong River islands was beautiful. The vegetation appeared to be more tropical. All of the islands in this area are dedicated to agriculture and the trees were bursting with fruit. On the first island, Anh Binh (we think) we stopped for fresh fruit. The orchard had many hammocks and tables under the fruit trees in which to relax while eating their succulent fruit. We ate rambutans, jack fruit and longan berries. They also raise Elephant Fish. Louisa enjoyed provocating one in an aquarium. It would try to bite the glass when she rubbed her finger along the glass in front of the fish.
We had another splashy crossing of an arm of the Mekong then meandered through the canals of another island. After exiting this system of canals and crossing yet another arm of the Mekong, we entered the waterways that run beside the town of Cai Be.
Loc first took us to a family's home/factory where they make rice treats, such as rice krispy bars. We watched the entire process starting with the popping of the rice in a large iron wok. The rice makes a loud cackling sound, similar to making popcorn. The efficient, yet manual, process and their primitive yet effective tools impressed us. They burn the rice husks for fuel, which come off the rice kernels when they are popped in the hot sand in the large wok. Inside the house (very close to the living quarters, with no wall) there is another fire fueled with rice husks on which another iron pot is heated with sugar cane. Once the sugar cane reaches the appropriate consistency, they take the pot off of the fire and toss in the rice. Two men use wooden spatulas to mix the concoction and coat the rice with the sugar. At times they add cashews, peanuts and other items for other varieties of candy. In the final step the men scoop the sugar-coated mixture onto a large table then smooth it using rollers into one giant bar. Then they cut the giant bar into the size that they sell. They let us taste most varieties and we purchased some of the rice and peanut ones which were quite good.
We quickly motored through the Cai Be floating market with fruit-filled boats. The red rambutan fruits made the boats quite colorful. We also saw 1000s of pineapples in the various crafts. Many of the boats were moored to buildings along the shore as it was approaching lunch time and most of the selling was done.
We had lunch at a river side restaurant and watched the boats cruise past, which we enjoyed. Then we loaded in the ancient Nissan Sentra for the 2 hour drive to Saigon.
We checked into the Huong Sen hotel in the heart of District 1. The location on D Dong Khoi street was perfect. We walked around the neighborhood, looking at silk shoes for Louisa and being offered cyclo rides every 10 feet.
We ducked into the Cafe Latin tapas bar which was supposed to have the best wine selection in Saigon. Let's just say that we ordered cocktails.
We returned to the Vietnam House restaurant across the street from our hotel. It has great atmosphere, but we had terrible service. After one hour we finally received our food, which ended up being mediocre. We finally complained to the manager, and he returned 15% of our check, but we still didn't have a very good experience.
Then we returned to the hotel with a stop at the Baskin Robbins in the lobby - mint chip, Tom's favorite!
Loc and Mr. Paul swept us into the car before 8am to go to the Cu Chi tunnels. Bad traffic slowed our trip and we arrived close to 9:30. The government has all tourists watch an ancient video about the strength of character of the Viet Cong who dug and lived in the tunnels and the terrible actions of the Americans.
A great English speaking guide with another American couple gave an overview, using the primitive diagrams in the museum. Then we walked some of the 244km of tunnels. There is a working display of the devilish traps the VC used in and around the tunnels to would GIs. Most of them appear similar to animal traps maiming a leg of the victim, but some were body size pits with sharpened bamboo spikes to greet the victim.
We saw a large tourist group ahead of us looking into a tunnel opening, but they covered it before we reached the spot. It was not distinguishable. We stared and stared at the spot, but could not determine where the tunnel opening was situated. Loc cleared away some leaves and sticks to reveal a small wood rectangle. It didn't look big enough for a child, much less a full-grown man, but Loc assured us that most Vietnamese could squeeze through.
Finally it was time to enter the tunnels themselves. We started with a 100m section, that had been slightly expanded for tourists. We could hardly fit through the low spots, but Loc assured us that this was bigger than the original. We crawled, duckwalked, and slid through the sometimes muddy tunnels, getting filthy. We passed up and down through three levels, and through tiny rooms, marveling that people could live like this.
We walked past some larger rooms with the roofs raised to show tourists, and past a VC kitchen with a complex system for venting smoke far away. We then entered another, smaller tunnel. This one was only 50m, but had not been enlarged as much, and was much smaller. We wiggled our way through, and emerged with much appreciation for the dedication (or insanity) of the VC fighters.
It was after 11 when we raced along the road toward Tay Ninh for the noon mass at the Cao Dai temple. We arrived a few minutes late, but were welcome to go in to the balcony and observe. The church is vast and colorful. Even though it is a basic, large rectangular room the colorful columns adorned with dragons turn the room into an impressive church. The Caodaist attendees sat on their knees on the tile floor. The women sit on the left and the men on the right. They sit in perfectly straight lines and rows. Most wear white robes, but as they advance through the religion's ranks they move up a level in the church, and may receive a colorful sash, robe or hat to wear to indicate their rank. Music played almost constantly, from a small band and choir in the balcony, although there was occasional chanting and bell ringing.
Caodaism is an interesting amalgam of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. They don't leave anyone out. There are approximately 3 million followers of this relatively recent religion.
We were pretty hungry by this time, so we went to a tourist restaurant near the temple for a reasonable Vietnamese meal. Afterwards, we strolled through the huge local market in Tay Ninh. We didn't buy anything, but we were impressed with the range and variety of products available, from rugs to kitchen appliances.
A couple of hours later we arrived back in Saigon, and showered off the grime and mud. We relaxed for a bit, then ventured forth for dinner. We opted for western food at Brodard cafe down the block. Hamburgers tasted great, although they weren't quite up to American standards. We went to the internet cafe around the corner for an hour, then turned in.
After breakfast we headed out into HCMC to see its attractions. First we toured the Reunification Palace. The original royal palace was built by the French, but it was destroyed in fighting and rebuilt in the mid '60s. It epitomizes the 60's architecture and decor. In fact, the palace could be touted as a museum for kitschy sixties buffs.
The map rooms on the main floor and in the basement were impressive. The basement contained a bomb shelter and an entire command central with radios, telex machines, innumerable telephones and other electronic goods for a complete communication center. Supposedly, tunnels run from the palace into the city for escape routes. The heliport was bombed by a South Vietnamese pilot at the fall of the Saigon, trying to get the president in his quarters, but he was already gone.
We checked out the cheap and attractive teak furniture that was for sale on the lawn in front of the palace, but didn't buy any. We hopped back in the car and headed for the War Remnants Museum.
The War Remnants Museum epitomizes the revisionist history of the communist government. First, we were treated to a few planes, tanks and bombs on the grounds, each described in terms of the damage done to Vietnamese by Americans.
Inside the buildings graphic photographs by international wartime journalists were displayed. The images were gruesome and gripping. The museum creators infused rampant anti-American remarks in almost every caption. Some of these were so absurd that they detracted from the message the Communist government was trying to send. The exhibit of the photographs by photographers killed in action was particularly interesting.
We were near district 3 so we headed out to find Tom's friend Thuan's boyhood home. Loc and the driver had shown the address to anyone they could and had a sense of where it should be. We drove up and after walking around a few wrong corners, we found the correct alley. As we took pictures of Thuan's home an older woman appeared at the door. Loc talked with her, and found out she is Thuan's aunt! She invited us in, and we made awkward conversation with Loc interpreting. We took a picture with us and the family, then said our good-byes. We were delighted that we had found the place, and met the family!
On the way back to the hotel we checked out the post office (a nice colonial building) and the cathedral (looks nice from the outside, it was closed at the time). We then went to lunch at TuDo, right next to our hotel, where we had mediocre food.
We had the afternoon free, so we decided to go for a run. The whole afternoon was cloudy, but it only rained for 20 minutes. Guess which 20 minutes we decided to run for? Yep, there were lots of grins and chuckles at the two soaked foreigners running the sidewalk obstacle course in the rain. As we ran inside of the hotel the rain stopped.
After showers we walked along the streets tempting our palettes with the numerous restaurants. Pizza sounded good, which it was at Annie's Pizza across from the hotel. We finished off the night with another internet cafe, in search of the right setup to use the palm. We did not succeed, but did make some travel arrangements. On the way to bed, we stopped in at Baskin Robbins for our third consecutive night. So convenient to have it in the lobby!
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on