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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Two Days on a Vietnamese Junk

We left Ha Noi after a couple of days for two days in Ha Long Bay. We started by boarding a mini bus for a four hour ride to the bay during which, we had the requisite stop at the craft shop. Once we got there we were shown to our 'Vietnamese Junk'. We booked this trip in Ha Noi so we were really nervous that we were going to get stuck with a really terrible boat but when we got on, everything looked ok.

Most of the rooms were on the first level, the restaurant was on the second level and there was a sundeck on top where you could lounge and look at all of the lovely karst formations. We lucked out and got one of the 'honeymoon' suites on the second floor which featured a large window overlooking the bay- it was lovely!

One of the first stops the boat made was at a floating fish market. The people there had caught fish out of the bay and we were offered the opportunity to buy any extra seafood that we wanted to go with our lunch. We weren't willing to eat anything that we had met personally so we passed. Some of the other passengers bought fish though and I must say that the execution was pretty brutal!
Next we stopped at a cave. This was kind of cool but very touristy. I thought that the ceiling was some kind of crazy rock formation but it just turned out to be covered in cement! Very disappointing.

We then parked the boat in one of the little coves for the night. Sean jumped into the seawater from the top of the boat along with some British guys. No way was I jumping in there- it was freezing!

We spent the evening on the boat eating, drinking and enjoying the scenery. It was really some of the most breathtaking scenery that I have ever seen. It was also really funny because all day we had these 'floating 7-11s' coming around trying to sell us snacks, batteries, etc. It was pretty amazing because we were pretty far away from any towns and these people would show up with a row boat full of stuff.
The next day we went to the only island in the bay that is inhabited. We hiked up to one of the peaks on the island for a pretty amazing view of the bay. By the time we got to the bottom I was exhausted-- fortunately, there was someone waiting at the bottom of the trail, in the middle of the forest, with a cooler full of ice cream to sell us. Of course, we bought two!
We spent the rest of the day hanging out on the beach and walking around the little town. We boarded the junk early the next morning and were in Ha Noi again by nightfall.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Introduction to Ha Noi

We ended up flying directly from Nha Trang to Ha Noi because the entire central coast of Vietnam was flooded thanks to a couple of back to back typhoons. It was really too bad because we'd heard that that area of the country is really beautiful... and also has some great shopping! Too bad...

We ran into a couple from Australia/Taiwan in Da Lat and have kind of been traveling with them ever since. Not on purpose exactly, we just happen to be traveling the same route that we are. It's kind of nice to have a couple of travel buddies for awhile and we all ended up on the same flight to Ha Noi. We all checked into the same hotel in Ha Noi and after walking around for awhile, we went to see the water puppet show.

This show was really cool- nothing lame like we expected. The stage was a small pond and the puppet masters all worked from behind a curtain. I guess they must have worn wetsuits because the curtained off area was still about four feet underwater. They controlled the puppets with long sticks so that that danced and moved along the water's surface. There were people, fish, water buffalo, dogs and all kinds of other puppets all interacting with one another. It was all accompanied with traditional music and song- although we couldn't understand anything that they were saying.

The next day we wanted to go visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum but he was in Moscow for a cleaning so we went to the ethnography museum instead. We were able to see the crafts produced by and the types of housing used by all the different ethnic groups in Vietnam. There are lots of different types of tribes so we ended up spending pretty much the entire day there.

That evening, we went shopping and I filled up the rest of the space that we available in our extra suitcase :) Sean is just loving this!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Dalat & Nhe Trang

We we rounded off our tour of Southern 'Nam with the two villages of Nhe Trang and Dalat.

Dalat is a mountain village that was built by the French as a sort of vacation spot for the French occupationalist soldiers. It definitely has a french appeal with little chateaus and french architectural buildings everywhere. We decided to book a city tour here and covered the sites in one day. We went to a world famous meditation temple overlooking a very picturesque valley. From there we went to the old King's mountain cottage, which again looked more like some kind a pad straight out of the 60s. It was built in the 1930s, and our guide reminded us that when it was built the Vietnamese people were starving in the street. Also interesting is that the royal family left in 1946 and none of them have return, choosing instead to live in Paris.

After lunch we went to a hill tribe village where we met the chief. He spoke to us in incomprehensible English, and shared his stash of village hooch. Sarah wouldn't drink it because we were sharing the same straw, but it tasted pretty good, like a sweet after dinner wine.

From there we took the day bus to Nhe Trang, which took 6 hours to cover 200 kilometers. Also on this trip and in Dalat we met an Australian guy and his Taiwanese girlfriend--Cameron and Sherry. Cameron had been living in Taiwan for 2 1/2 years and was pretty fluent in Chinese, both reading and speaking, a fact that Sarah and I found fascinating--it's a pretty difficult language for westerners, the tones make it tricky.

The highlight of Nhe Trang was the mud bath and spa. We spent the day first soaking in some kind of mineral mud then bathing in natural spring water--it was very relaxing.

The next day we went on a four island cruise which was completely forgettable except when the ship guys sang us all songs. They sang a song for each nationality that was present on the boat. They didn't know an American song so they decided on one from the Beatles. They said "England and USA are same same". Also, on the one beach we went to we saw this extremely drunk English guy have a fight with a beach chair--the chair won. We caught up with the guy later and it looked like he had been canned across the back, he was also unable to walk straight, but the Vietnamese guides seemed to be taking care of him.

We flew from Nhe Trang to Hanoi due to typhoons and typhoon activity on the central coast. Cameron and Sherry were on our plane which was pretty cool and we ended up traveling with them for about two weeks altogether. We also found out that while in Nhe Trang, Cameron had been robbed. Someone took about USD$500 from out of his bag in his hotel room. He filed a police report, but the police seemed more interested in pinning the whole thing on Sherry and this made her very upset! They were very happy to get on the plane to Ha Noi.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Mekong Delta

We couldn't visit Vietnam without taking a trip down the Mekong so we headed South from Saigon. We booked a tour and ended up seeing several people from our Cu Chi tunnels tour which was kind of fun. It took about two hours to drive the 75km from Saigon to the delta- fantastic roads! It was ok though because our guide was really entertaining. He told us all kinds of stories including one that was a bit disturbing...

When he was about 8 year old, the stream that ran in front of his house turned red. He walked upstream to investigate and found a dead American soldier laying in the water which was red with blood. He reached inside the soldier's pocket and took his lighter which had been engraved with hateful phrases about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. He still has the lighter today.
Once we arrived at the Mekong, we boarded a small boat which took across the wide part of the river and into some of the canals that snake off into the delta. From there we made two stops. The first was at a village that makes coconut candy. They showed us how they crack open the coconuts and then grind up the meat. They then boiled it down into a thick paste. This is pounded and cooled into little strips of chewy candy. It was delicious and of course we bought some!

Next we rode bicycles down little paths through the jungle, passing through a couple of villages along the way. We ended in a village that raised honey bees. We had a delicious green tea with honey. They also had a huge boa constrictor for some reason so of course Sean wrapped him around his shoulders.

The next stop was lunch, which was supposed to be included but instead they handed us a bunch of menus with really high prices. Some people ordered entrees but others (us included) kept asking about the free lunch. Turns out they were keeping that hidden until after we ordered! Scams, scams everywhere! One guy had ordered a snake which he said was pretty good. When they brought it out they mentioned that it was 170 grams. Why would they mention that? Well, when it came time to pay they said the already high price on the menu was for 150 grams so he had to pay more!

After lunch we got into these little canoes and paddled downstream where a feast of fruit was laid out. We ate all we could while listening to traditional Vietnamese music.

We boarded our boat again and headed back to the river bank. After another two hours in the van, we were back in the hectic center of Saigon. Fantastic day- and all for $8 each!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Cu Chi Tunnels

Our second day in Saigon we spent on a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. These were a series of 250 miles of under ground tunnels built by the vietcong during the war. Absolutely amazing, they had kitchens, wells, traps, air holes, all in these hand dug tunnels. They were also so small. They did this on purpose, of course, because they are much smaller than us. They had a sample hidden entrance set us and I couldn't fit inside, not past my shoulders. A Swiss guy tried it and got in, but the park ranger started yelling at him so he got out. Seems a poisonous snake got into the tunnel the day before and they weren't sure if he had come out yet.

Before the tour they showed us a film about the tunnels and the war in general. They showed the villagers working in the rice fields during the day, then planting mines and traps for the Americans during the course of their field work, "just doing his part for independence." Showed women with AK-47s fighting along side the men. We would start bombing and they would run and hide in the tunnels, setting traps that they made for our patrols. I don't know... it was really hard to stomach being the bad guys.

Near the end they had a wider entrance leading down into the tunnels for tourists. Is was so claustrophobic in there. I had to duck walk with my chest down at my knees and my back still scraped the ceiling, and we only went 20 yards, those guys lived down there for weeks at a time.

At the end of the tour they had a shooting range where you could shoot an AK-47 or M-16. We decided to pass, but the shooting in the background during the tour did add to the experience. When someone was really going at it our guide would hold up his hands and yell, "Don't shoot, I'm not an American." Our guide was also really lame because he spent the night before drinking until 4 am. When we would reach an area he would tell us to just listen to the guy in front of us. We finally yelled at him so he went back and covered a few spots that we had missed and then actually started doing his job.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Day in Saigon

We began our time in Vietnam with a visit to the war museum where we learned just how much the US sucked while we had troops in Vietnam. The museum went remarkably easy on the US invaders though you could still tell how much pain we caused the people here. Nearly all of the photos were from US and other non-Vietnamese journalists as were the articles. They did a great job of remaining pretty impartial.

Then we went to the section that detailed the results of using Agent Orange and other types of chemical warfare. It was disturbing and I truly cannot believe that our country did that. But we did.
Seriously, the whole time we were thinking, "what in the hell were we doing here?" It was really heart wrenching, pictures of hospitals and schools that were bombed, children and infants, dead, scarred, disfigured from Napalm, agent orange, other types of bombs, like a nail bomb that explodes thousands of nails everywhere, which were dropped in schools...what the hell???

From there we went to Independence Palace. This was the presidential palace during the war; also it was where the American Generals fought the war. The original was bombed by the French in the 1950s and this one was built in 1962. It hasn't been touched since the fall of Saigon in 1975. It is straight out of the 60s. I kept waiting for Austin Powers to jump out from behind a couch, "goovy baby, yeah!" They even had a rumpus room!
At the end of the tour we watched a film about the palace and the war. One of the guys being interviewed was a Vietcong spy during the war and actually infiltrated the south Vietnamese president's inner circle and was a ranking advisor. He was found out in 1969 and sent to life in prison. He said that after he was sentenced the president told him, that he was sad to see him go and he still trusted the spy more that the Americans.

The video also kept referring to the 'American Imperialist Invaders'. It was really interesting to hear about the war from the Vietnamese perspective and see some of their footage. The people here really love Ho Chi Minh (the pro-communism president during the war) and even renamed Saigon after him once the war was over.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

From Cambodia to Vietnam

We spent one very depressing day in Phnom Penh on our way from Siem Reap to Vietnam. We visited the killing fields and the prison used by the Khmer Rouge to torture and kill anyone who opposed them. It was very much like visiting the concentration camps. Terrible but we are glad that we went and learned a little more about what went on here during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The next morning we got on a bus headed for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (formerly Saigon). It takes forever to go even a short distance here because the roads are in such poor condition. Also, the drivers here are insane so they're always cutting each other off and swerving in and out of traffic- I think this slows things down more than speeds them up. Anyway, we spent the next 7-8 hours on the bus. We did get to see some beautiful scenery though.

The countryside looked pretty much the same after crossing the boarder into Vietnam except that most people that we saw really were wearing conical hats! Just like you see in the movies!

We got off of the bus and quickly settled into a hotel. Then we set off in search of pho- the national dish. It's a brothy noodle soup that you can get with beef, chicken or just veggies. They also give you a plate of sprouts, lime, onion, etc. that you can add to your soup along with a variety of sauces. The Vietnamese eat this all day long and we can see why- it's delicious! We've already eaten it at least a dozen times.
Tomorrow, we're up for another depressing day as we're visiting the war museum...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Mother of All Wats

Well we made the pilgrimage and saw it. The largest temple complex in the world. What's that Notre Dame Cathedral, Vatican City, you say? They got nothing on Angkor Wat. In Khmer it means Great Temple and boy is it. We spent three days seeing it and probably only saw about 40% of the temples...for some reason Sarah didn't want to see the ones with mines around them...go figure.

We saw the main one which is Angkor Wat, the actual temple built and added onto between 800 and 1200 AD. The whole temple complex is staggering in its size as well as its intricately carved stone works.

Next was Angkor Thom, which means Great City (yeah not creative with the names). This was where the Capital city, King's palace and plazas and that sort of things were. We then went to three of the larger temples in the area.

Some interesting sights within the temples:

In Angkor Thom there is a temple called Bayon and all the surrounding towers are covered with carved faces of the King all with this little smile like he knows something you don't know. The King was Jayavarman VII, and he was the guy who built the most during this period.

In the same area there is also a plaza dedicated to a King who they think suffered from Leprosy.

The French began restoring one of the largest of the temples in the city in the 60s, which involved taking it completely apart so that they could fix some of the broken pieces, etc. Then the civil war broke out and the Khmer Rouge reigned. Another one of the brilliant moves on the Khmer Rouge's part, was to destroy the plans for the temple- so now no one really knows how to put this building back together. They're figuring out the world's largest jigsaw puzzle then by looking at the one wall that hadn't been taken apart. By looking at that wall and studying other surrounding buildings, they've been able to work out how to put this thing back together again...for the most part.

There are also several areas that have been overtaken by the surrounding jungle. The trees have taken root on the walls of the temples and are pretty impressive themselves.

While we were in Siem Reap, Sarah got pretty sick. The hotel we were staying in everyone was really nice and helpful. They made us never ending tea and took great care of us. Of course, we were eating all of our meals in their restaurant, which I'm sure they didn't mid at all.
Also, we hired a Tuk Tuk driver to take us to all the temples for each day and the guy only charged us $10 a day (his price) and took us all over, and he was really nice as well. They Cambodian people were fantastic!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Happy Pizza, Anyone?

Well, Sean almost got drugged in Cambodia.

We were staying in the 'tourist ghetto' in Phnom Penh so there were lots of hotels, restaurants and touts around. There were all these guys asking us if we wanted to buy pot, opium, heroin and just about anything else you could think of. Of course, we said no and went into a restaurant.

So, Sean orders a pizza and the waiter asks if he wants the happy pizza. We spent awhile trying to figure out what that was and eventually Sean just decides that whatever it is, he'll try it. Well, just about then, I remembered that another place that we had been in offered happy shakes. What are the chances that two places are going to serve something called happy? That's when I figured out that the happy part of the pizza wasn't going to be oregano! Sean quickly changed his order. Good thing too because we later heard about some tourists having unpleasant experiences with drugs in Cambodia.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The French Man in Cambodia

We flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as soon as we got our bags this French guy came up to us. He told us that he was American and was really happy to hook up with other Americans even though he had this very strong French accent. Whatever. He was really paranoid about being in Cambodia and wanted to share a cab with us to the touristy part of the city. We didn't really care so we said ok. He said that he had done some research on the best part of the city to stay in and we hadn't so we went where he wanted to go. On the way there, he mentioned something about doing searches for the red light district and prostitutes to find his hotel... we thought he was joking. He wasn't.

We went to the hotel that he suggested first. We walked into the 'lobby' which was really a bar full of half clothed girls. Fortunately, there was only one room so we figured that we'd let him have it and leave. But noooo! He didn't want to split up. We looked at several other hotel/brothels before insisting that we go over to the part of town that we wanted to go to in the first place.

We ended up on the lake and there were plenty of little guesthouses and restaurants all around- plenty to choose from. Jean Michel (yup, really his name) was all freaked out because some of the streets were a little dark. I pointed out that there were lots of families with their young children hanging out and eating and they all looked very relaxed. I figured that if it was safe enough for the locals to have their kids there, then it was fine. He said he didn't want families, he wanted women! We told him he could go back to the other side of town! What a perv!

Sarah is being nice about this guy. He was sickening. The girls in these brothels looked about 16 years old, and he was hitting on them and asking if they were going to be the lucky ones spending the night with him.

We spent the next afternoon checking out the city. We visited the Royal Palace and the National Museum. They both housed some pretty impressive artifacts but the real treasure here is the people. Everyone is amazingly nice and helpful. Cambodia went through some very tragic and bloody times in the late 1970's at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. A lot of people were killed and tortured but they've really managed to overcome it. This is one of the friendliest countries that we've ever been in despite also being one of the poorest. We are really enjoying ourselves here and would recommend it to any of you.