Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Bangkok, Thailand

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Thailand, Vietnam

The feeling of dread was indescribable.  I really, REALLY didn’t want to leave the Renaissance – where everyone is in uniform and smiles at you and just wants to do whatever you want them to do.  Our room has bathrobes and cushy slippers.  The maid turns down the bed every night.  I really don’t care if I never see another country – I just want to stay here!!

We had breakfast in the Club Lounge (why do we have to leave?) where we turned in our “Customer Satisfaction Survey” with glowing marks.  Yesterday, there was a French couple who came up to the lounge for beers and were very unhappy that their beers were less than freezing cold.  One of the staff members offered to bring them some ice and they were positively mortified and scowled.  I thought, “These two need to stay in some backpacker hotels for a while to gain some perspective.”  This place is heaven.  Do I REALLY have to go?!?!?

Yes.

Our flight from Ho Chi Minh left at 11:30, so at 9:00 we caught a taxi to the airport and checked into the flight.  The plane was about 1/2 full so Jon and I had a row to ourselves for a flight that was about an hour long.

We got to Bangkok, waited for our bags, and caught a taxi to our hotel.

Reno Hotel

The Reno Hotel is in downtown Bangkok just near the Bangkok Skytrain, the Ma Boon Krong (MBK), and Siam Center.  The latter two which are MASSIVE malls.  There’s a Hard Rock Cafe nearby in addition to every fast food joint on the planet.

The hotel itself is very cute and clean.  It has that retro-art-deco-Miami look to it, despite the fact that there’s no beach nearby.  There IS a pool, however, and the rooms are sparse but clean.  And the air conditioning works like a champ which Jon loves.  It’s not the Renaissance, but it’ll do.

Quest for STA Travel

We are desperately trying to cancel our tickets to Bali.  We’re scheduled to go Nov 3-16, but Indonesia is hardly the paradise we want to be.  Actually, even if the US weren’t attacking Afghanistan right now I still think that we would try to get our of the trip.  Bali’s expensive, and we hear that the beaches in Thailand are just as nice but 20 times cheaper.  And we have a 30-day Visa here in Thailand so why not?

Anyway, neither China nor Vietnam had an STA Travel office which is who we booked the tickets through.  But Bangkok does have one.  So we took the Skytrain to the other side of town and walked a few blocks to STA Travel on the 14th floor of the Wall Street Building.  It took us 30 minutes to get there for what was a 90 second conversation.  They took one look at our tickets and said, “We can’t do it.  Your travel agent in New York has to do it.”  Great.  We pleaded with them to help us, and they suggested that we go directly to Garuda instead.  So they gave us directions and we were off.

Quest for Garuda Airlines

To get to Garuda Airlines, we had to leave the Wall Street Building, walk to Rami IV Road, play frogger to cross the street, and catch the #4 bus to Lumpini Towers.  Luckily, the bus was right there so we hopped right on and paid the conductor for two tickets.  Traffic was atrocious and the bus wasn’t air-conditioned so we were hot.  We were also the only non-locals on the bus but we don’t mind that by now.

After about 1/2 hour we finally got to the towers and took an elevator to the 27th floor.  We told the receptionist that we wanted to cancel our tickets so she took them and looked at them.  She said, “You want to cancel both tickets?  Both ways?  For both people?”  Yes, Yes, and Yes.  So she typed a few things, looked at her computer screen and said, “OK.  Your tickets have been cancelled!”

Wow.  That was easy.

But then I asked the big question, “So was our credit card credited?”.  And she looked at me blankly.  We prompted a little bit more and she told us that she had no idea what would happen with the money, that we had to discuss that with our travel agent.  So there’s the catch.

In the end, we had her re-instate the tickets and we would have to find a way to get in touch with Helen in New York to help us out.

Quest for a New Digital Camera

After the mess with the Bali tickets, we walked to a place which Grant told us had cheap electronics.  We REALLY miss the digital camera and would like to replace it with another one, so we wanted to see what we could find.  The walk was a bit long – about 30 minutes – but it was a pretty nice evening and we felt like seeing some of the city.  We finally arrived at Pantip Plaza, which is a monstrous convention-hall type of building with store after store of computer goods.  It’s not as nice as a mall, but not quite a warehouse either.  We started on floor one and walked around looking for cameras.  No luck.

So we tried the same thing on Floor 2, but this time split up and met at the “Up” escalators.  Still no luck.  The shops that did sell digital cameras sold only Sony, and we are boycotting their proprietary “memory stick” technology.  (Really – didn’t Sony learn ANYTHING from the Betamax ordeal in the 1980s?).  Anyway, we found the same things on floors 3 and 4: very few cameras, and if there were any then they were Sony with the memory stick.

After an hour and a half, we finally found a Canon for sale on Floor 5 in a store with 10 little dogs running around.  No, I’m not kidding.  But the Canon was MUCH more expensive then what we had paid for it so we had to say no.  Drained and tired, we left Pantip Plaza and caught a Tuk-Tuk back to the hotel.

Tuk-Tuk

A tuk-tuk is a small 3-wheel contraption much like the auto-rickshaws in India and Nepal but with more legroom.  The benefit of the tuk-tuk is that it can weave in and out of traffic better than taxis.  The bummer is that this doesn’t do a lot of good when traffic is at a dead standstill.  Which it was.

So we sat in the tuk-tuk breathing the fresh Bangkok air, which is full of vitamins and minerals, among other horrific things.  By the way, if anyone wants to debate Bush’s position on the Kyoto Agreement with me – bring it on.

When we finally got closer to our hotel, we paid the driver and hopped out to frogger across the street.  At the hotel, we ditched some stuff, grabbed my glasses and went to get a bite to eat.  Then we walked around Siam Center looking at all the upscale stores that we can’t shop at anymore because of The Budget.

Bridget Jones’ Diary

This movie theater puts Lincoln Square Cinemas to shame!  The movie theater has everything imaginable inside it!  In fact, it’s sort of a mall in and of itself.  We didn’t really didn’t need to get there as early as we did, seeing that we had reserved seats, but we wanted to check the place out.

The movie was scheduled to start at 8:00, but the theater was less than 1/2 full.  Since it was a Friday night, we assumed that it would be sold out.  We were right, but there was something everyone else knew that we didn’t: the first 1/2 hour is advertisements and the Thailand National Anthem (which we had to stand up for, incidentally).  This is the second time we’ve been burned on the late-movie-start thing (See July 10) and we’re not going to fall for it again.  Especially if we have reserved seats!!

Well, the movie was great but I’m a bit biased.  I love Colin Firth and am convinced that he IS Mr. Darcy, whether this is Helen Fielding’s Mr. Darcy or Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy.  Jon was less than impressed with the flick but was probably happier than he would have been if we’d seen “Cats and Dogs”.

After the movie, we went back to the Reno Hotel.  Here, we wrote up a fax for Helen at STA Travel, asking her to please cancel our Bali tickets.  Unfortunately, the fax lines at the hotel are down so they couldn’t send it.  Then we tried to fax it at one of the other hotels around the area.  Still nothing.  Something about the area and fax lines, I guess.

In the end, we ended up sending my Dad an email with text for him to send to Helen.  Knowing Dad, he’ll take care of it right away.

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Vietnam

Cu Chi Tunnels

Our ride to the Cu Chi Tunnels came to the hotel at 8:15, and we hopped in the car with two girls from Sweden.  The ride to Cu Chi was about 2 hours (30km) so we got to the tunnels just before 10:00.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are a bit legendary for their role in facilitating Viet Cong resistance during the Vietnam War.  Cu Chi is rich with sturdy red earth, and the VC guerrillas used this complicated network of tunnels to hide, store weapons, and basically live in them during the war.  It was quite an impressive thing to see.

Propaganda: The tour started with a video FULL of propaganda about the Cu Chi people and their “heroics” during the war. I’ll let Jon go into detail about that:

Jon:  We had been to the War Remnants museum in Saigon and seen the Hanoi Hilton and thought we had seen the worst of the anti-US propaganda.  We were so wrong.  The Cu Chi tunnel video started with the fact that the Vietnam War sort of started when the French left Vietnam and a great guy by the name of Ho Chi Minh wanted to join the north and south of Vietnam when, and I’ll quote directly so as not to misinterpret:  “…the ruthless American government wanted to intercede in a government thousands of miles from the USA.”  A few minutes later the narrator went on to say that “like crazy vulture devils the Americans fired into women, children, old people, homes, chickens, pots and pans…”  I can’t think of much military value contained in a set of pots and pans, but I still think that the video was more than a bit over the top.  Especially when one considers the fact that 25 years later both north and south Vietnam welcome western tourists (and their wallets) with open arms.  Just sort of proving the fact that Communism or Socialism or whatever you want to call it was a failed experiment.   

After the video, we walked across the street to see some of the tunnels.  Our first event was to find a trapdoor hidden in a 5 foot area.  We couldn’t find it and our tour guide had to show us where it was.  These holes-in-the-ground were incredibly small and impossible to find!  We walked through the woods and the guide would point out trapdoors, traps, and trenches along the way.  They also had rigged some tripwires to fire some caps if we tripped over them!  The walk was pretty interesting.

There was also a firing range where we could buy bullets and fire them at some targets.  Jon bought a couple of bullets and fired an M-16 rifle.  He was very pleased with himself!  After the firing range, we were taken to a display of the “traps” set by the VC to capture and maim enemies.  Most of them involved holes in the group with wooden spikes that were rigged to gut or cripple the targets.  Not a pleasant thing to see at all.

The Tunnels: Then our guide asked us if we wanted to go through one of the tunnels.  The tunnel was 100 meters long and went through two levels.  We decided that we definitely wanted to, and the 5 of us climbed down the steps and went in.  The tunnels were unbelievable small and cramped, and a claustrophobic person would never have made it through.  It also seemed like they went on forever!  We had to squat-walk through most of them, bent over at the waist with knees bent.  But some of them we had to crawl through.  I was SO HAPPY to get to the exit, and we were all soaked from sweat and dirty from the walls of the tunnels.  Amazingly enough, the tunnels we were through were actually WIDENED for tourists.  The real tunnels are much, much smaller and narrower.

Let me just say that – between the traps and the tunnels – I can understand why so many Vietnam Vets came back to the US less than sane.

After an hour at the tunnels, we climbed back into the car and settled in for the long drive back to Saigon.  The A/C was going full blast, but the car was still warm because it was hot outside.  So I was glad when we were finally dropped off at the Renaissance.  I showered and worked on the journals, and Jon went to the gym for a run.

Jon Goes for a Run at the Renaissance Gym (special appearance by Jon:  run #12)

Three days of running in a row!  I can’t believe it myself, but I was determined to take full advantage of the gym while we had it.  The run was nice but even nicer was the sauna afterwards.  I’ve decided that if I ever had the means I would love to have a sauna of my own.  Hey, I know we live in New York and space is at a premium but it’s my fantasy so leave me alone!

We had dinner (our last one!) at the Club Lounge.  The staff here is so wonderful.  Why can’t we travel like this all the time?  Oh yeah, because it’s expensive.

Before bed, I went up to the Health Club to sit in the sauna before showering.  Very nice!

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Vietnam

I woke up unwell.  Something I ate clearly didn’t agree with me, and – as I lay there – I was convinced that I would be bed-ridden for the rest of our time in Saigon.  But by the time Jon woke up, I had stopped running to the bathroom and felt much better.  I even felt OK for some breakfast in the Club Lounge.

War Remnants Museum

At 9:45, we decided to go to the Reunification Palace which a number of people had recommended to us.  But it closed for lunch at 11:00, so we decided to catch two cyclos to get us there a bit faster.  They were pedaling so slowly that we changed our destination to the War Remnants Museum which was open until 11:45.  (These cyclos, by the way charge by the hour so it’s no wonder they were pedaling slowly.)

The War Remnants Museum is a popular place among western travelers to Saigon.  It chronicles the atrocities of the War – especially the “American War”.  We had been forewarned that it was full of propaganda, but as Lonely Planet says, “Despite the relative one-sidedness of the exhibits, there are few museums in the world which drive home so well the point that warfare is horribly brutal and that many of the victims are civilians.”  Indeed, the captions were very anti-American, but almost all the photos were taken by US photographers.

It was a pretty powerful exhibit.  The yard of the museum was filled with US military equipment, and the exhibits inside were mostly photographs with some displays of arms.  The photographs definitely showed a different aspect of the war (as long as we ignored the captions beneath the photos such as “American soldier smiling after shooting man.”)

The entire experience was an interesting contrast to US Strikes in Afghanistan. I can see why people questioned US presence in Vietnam.  However, there is no gray area to our attacks in Afghanistan.  None at all.

We stayed at the museum for about an hour and a half, and then took our cyclos back to the hotel.  The guys were pedaling even slower this time, and were trying to take the long way around to the hotel since we were close to the 2-hour time frame and they wanted to extend it to a 3 hour fee.  So we told them that I was very sick and might throw up soon.  (Which wasn’t true).  I didn’t know these guys could pedal that fast!  We made it back in record time.

Lunch

Lunch was at Restaurant 13, a place right around the corner from the Renaissance.  The food was good, and although the waitresses were less than thrilled to be working, the man who ran the place was very friendly.  He also had an American flag for a tie pin.

Reunification Palace

After lunch, we walked to the Reunification Palace.  The palace was built by prior rulers of Vietnam, and now is an important symbol for the communist government.  The palace was the called the Independence Palace when – on April 30, 1975 – Communist tanks crashed through the wrought-iron gate in an internationally televised take-over.  General Minh – who at the time had power – said to the VC Officer who’d come to arrest him, “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you.”  The VC officer replied, “There is no question of your transferring power.  You cannot give up what you do not have.”  This moment is very meaningful to the Vietnamese.

The architecture of the palace is distinctly from the sixties, and Lonely Planet says it “is an outstanding example of 1960s architecture”.  Of course, I would never choose to put the words “outstanding” and “1960s architecture” in the same sentence, but that’s just me.

We were given a guide who took us around the different floors.  It was myself and Jon and a guy from Melbourne who was a complete moron but I’ll save that for another journal entry.  Regardless, the tour was pretty interesting because the inside of the palace was kept exactly the way it was in April of 1975 – a testament to VC might.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t go to the third floor because the conference room was being used by the “First Annual Menopause Convention”.  I’m not kidding.  But no worries.  We figured it was in our best interest to avoid the third floor even if we had to miss the glory of the “Red Room”.

The coolest part of the tour was the basement, which was a network of tunnels and hallways.  This is where the War Room was and also where the President had his bomb shelter built.  In one of the war rooms was an amazing map of Vietnam, and other rooms had various 30-year-old computers and telecommunications equipment.  In the President’s War Room (a different War Room), we could take pictures of ourselves sitting at the President’s desk.  So Jon sat down and I sat on his lap – a Vietnamese Monica Lewinsky!

Sorry.  Bad joke.

Cyclo Trauma

After the palace, we walked over to the “backpacker area” to book a trip to the tunnels for tomorrow.  On our way there, we were trying to cross through a traffic circle (roundabout) when we had a little trauma.  Now, when one wants to cross a street in Vietnam, you must make up your mind and just cross – letting the cyclos, motorbikes, and bicycles find their way around you.  It’s much like a game of Frogger.  The Vietnamese do this instinctively (it’s a way of life here), and we’ve gotten used to it over the past 10 days.  Of course, it took a while and few false starts, but we eventually got the hang of it and can now cross heavy traffic with the best of them.

So we were in the middle of a traffic circle and needed to get across the 4 lanes of traffic to get to the other side.  We stepped out into the street and began to look for the break in the first lane.  I was standing to Jon’s left, and traffic was coming from the right.  Unfortunately, an ambulance came onto the street so our foray into traffic was a bit premature.  At this moment, a cyclo driver passed inches in front of us.  For whatever reason, the man put his hand on Jon’s chest and shoved him backwards.  Jon instinctively reached out with his left hand to push him back, but the cyclo driver shoved Jon’s arm back.  Right into my face.

I had been talking at the time (I have no idea what I was saying), and screamed out because Jon’s elbow in my face was the last thing I was expecting.  Also, I had bit down painfully on my lip and my nose felt a bit bashed up.  The cyclo driver continued on and disappeared into traffic.  Nothing was bleeding, but I felt a bit bruised up and kind of shaken.  So we continued across traffic and found the street we were looking for.

Backpacker District

We found a place to book a trip to the tunnels for tomorrow, and also found a place selling CDs.  So we hung out in the backpacker district for a while.  There were some bookstores selling photocopied Lonely Planets, and we wanted to stock up while we could, despite the added weight of the books.  So we found LPs for Thailand, Australia, and Singapore.

Then we began to walk back to the hotel but were caught in a sudden thunderstorm.  So we ducked into a nearby bar and ordered a beer to wait out the storm.  My nose was hurting considerably by this time, and I’d developed a painful headache.  We were kind of worried that my nose was broken, but we didn’t know what a broken nose looked like.  We figured that – if it were broken – it would be crooked or bleeding or something.  But it just hurt a lot.  It must have been quite a sight, though, because we were sitting in a bar tracing the outlines of each other’s noses to see if there was an obvious break.   There didn’t seem to be any problems, though.

The rain storm was a heavy one so we ordered another beer and waited for a while longer.  When it looked like it was letting up, we left and began the walk back to the hotel.  Unfortunately, it started to rain even harder so we were a bit wet by the time we got back.  But no worries because it was time for drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the Club Lounge.

Club Lounge

Jon decided to get in a quick run in the gym and I worked on the journal.

Jon Goes for a Run at the Renaissance Gym (special appearance by Jon:  run #11)

After the rainstorm I decided to get in a nice run at the gym before heading to dinner.  It’s just a treadmill but it counts for a run and I’m using the 2002 NY Marathon as my training goal–now we just need to be back in the States next November!

We met in the Club Lounge and had dinner and a few beers.  At 8:00 “Double Jeopardy” was on HBO and it was pouring outside so we settled in for a good movie.

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Vietnam

Today was a travel day, so there’s really nothing exciting to talk about.  We’d pre-arranged for a car to pick us up at the hotel in Hoi An to take us to the airport in Danang.  We checked into our flight and got our bags checked without any problems.  Exit Row seat – so that was nice.  But the guy who sat next to Jon kept rubbing his face with two fingers, and this went on for the entire flight.  Who knows?

In Saigon, we caught a taxi for the $4 ride to……

THE RIVERSIDE RENAISSANCE

Milking the last of Jon’s Marriott points, we’d arranged for three free days in absolute heaven and grandeur.  The Renaissance is right on the Saigon River and is absolutely beautiful. We didn’t bring Jon’s Marriott card, so the front desk needed proof that he was, in fact, a Gold Member before giving us access to the Renaissance Club.  But all worked out fine and we eventually got access, which means free drinks!!

We checked into one room, but it was clearly a smoking room so they switched us to another room.  We settled into room 1520 and unpacked our stuff for our stay.  We also had a whole lot of laundry to do and needed to get it done today so it would dry in time.  So for the next hour or two, I washed and Jon rinsed and we hung the clothes up around the room.  Now we’re staying in a luxurious hotel room that looks like a Chinese laundry mat.

After we finally had that done, we sat down on the bed to chill out for a bit.  We hadn’t had lunch, but we’d munched on Oreos and weren’t terribly hungry.  “The Astronaut’s Wife” was on HBO and we got caught up in the movie.  One of the hotel staff came to bring us some fruit so we had more stuff to munch on.  One of the pieces of fruit was a bizarre-looking pink and green fruit about the size of a large orange.  When we peeled it, the inside was white with black seeds and tasted like a melon.  We later found out that this is called “dragon fruit”.

When the movie was over, Jon went for a run in the hotel gym and I went for a swim in the roof-top pool.  The view from the pool was beautiful and it was a nice evening for a swim.  Jon came out to join me after his run and we goofed off in the pool for a while.

Jon Goes for a Run at the Renaissance Gym (special appearance by Jon:  run #10)

So I’ve decided that it’s the heat that is keeping me from getting out for a run, and we all know I’m not much of a morning person so I can’t get up early to beat the heat…So the best solution to the problem is to run on the treadmill at the gym!  I have to tell you that the Renaissance in Saigon is the newest and nicest hotel in town, and the gym is one of the best hotel gyms I’ve seen in all of my business travels.

That said, I got in a nice run and headed off to the pool to where Heidi was swimming laps.

The Club Lounge

A little after 5:00, we went to the 18th floor to the Club Lounge for drinks and hors d’oeuvres.  Aaaahhhh…. pampering!  The staff is all smiles, the drinks are all cold, and the snacks are all delicious.  The view from the 18th floor is lovely too!  While we acknowledge that this type of travel has the least amount of cultural exposure, it is SO NICE.  I could travel like this all the time.  We ended up staying there for a while, munching on the hors d’oeuvres.  By the time dinner rolled around, we weren’t hungry at all.

Vietnam: Hoi An

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Vietnam

This sucks.  Let’s go back to New York and get jobs instead.

We woke up at 4:30, put on swim suits, grabbed the day pack, hopped on Mrs. Thuy’s motorbike and sped off to the beach for sunrise.  Wow.  Incredible.

At 5:00 AM the beach was hardly deserted.  Many local Vietnamese were there to swim, exercise, and run along the beach.  And we saw the most interesting thing – many people were being buried in the sand!  There were quite a few grandmothers whose grandsons dug the hole, helped them into it, and then buried them beneath the sand.  We found out later that this is supposed to be good for your back and your circulation.  Who knew?

Sunrise was absolutely lovely, and the beach began to clear out around 6:00.  Our breakfast was french bread with peanut butter and jelly, and we ate it in the warm sun.  After a while we were almost the only people on the beach.  I turned to Jon and said, “This sucks.  Let’s go back to New York and get jobs instead”.

But our peace and quiet wouldn’t last forever.  We were approached by two girls – Anna and Mimi – selling necklaces.  Since we were the only tourists on the beach, they sat and chatted with us for a while and tried to talk us into buying their stuff.  While this was happening, Jon realized that we’d left the hotel without any money at all so he ran back to the motorbike and went back to the hotel.  Anna and Mimi decided to come back later when we had some money.

So I sat out on the sand and napped for a bit, watching the people set up their chairs and umbrellas.  Apparently, there are specific people who have specific chairs and umbrellas and consequently have their own “beach turf”.  This explains why – when we arrived at the beach yesterday – we were bombarded with people who wanted us to sit in their chairs.  They don’t make money off the chairs, but do off the drinks and food we order from them.  So I waited until our little man and precious old lady from yesterday came and set up their chairs.  Then I sat down, basically telling them that we’d be their customers for the day.  The old woman was ecstatic when she saw me, and came over and patted my stomach and said, “You eat breakfast?!?!”  I told her that we had, but that I wanted a bottle of water and maybe we would order lunch later.  I also told her that I waited for her especially and she smiled so big and her wrinkled face scrunched up beneath her conical hat.

Jon came back soon after and we settled in.  Then he decided to go for a run before it got too hot.  Of course, this was at 7:30 and it was already incredibly hot.  So when he finished his run we both went for a swim in the wonderful water.  There were a few other tourists who had shown up, but the six of us had the entire beach to ourselves and it was lovely.

Jon Goes for a Run Along the Beach in Hoi An (special appearance by Jon:  run #9)

Finally, I’m going for a run for the second time in three days!  After the tough run along the beach two days ago I’ve decided to run earlier in the day before it gets too hot.  Nothing truly noteworthy occurred along the run but it was scenic and it was a run…

We stayed until 11:00, which is when the heat really started to get to us as did our stomachs.  We ended up not ordering lunch from our little old lady because her food prices were expensive.  But we paid her for the drinks we’d ordered, smiled and waved good-bye.  Then we hopped on the motorbike and went back to the hotel, where we went for a dip in the pool, showered, and went to lunch at Ly Cafe 22 (again).

Around Hoi An

We went to Mrs Thuy’s to try on our stuff again and to make some re-adjustments.  Then we decided to drive around Hoi An to see some of the sights.  There’s not much to see in Hoi An except the beach and various tailor shops.  But there is a beautiful covered bridge called the “Japanese Bridge”.  It was built by the Japanese community in 1593 to link them with the Chinese quarters across the stream.  The roof was built to provide cover from rain and sun.  It was beautifully constructed, and definitely looked Japanese in style.

After taking pictures of the bridge, Jon and I drove around the riverbank.  But the sun was getting too strong, so we drove back to the hotel where we chilled out in the air conditioning.  Next thing I knew it was 5:00 and I had been asleep for 3 hours.

Dinner and Mrs Thuy’s

Back to Mrs. Thuy’s for our final fittings, but Jon changed his mind about the length of his pants so one more adjustment was needed.  So we sat and chatted with Mrs Thuy for a while and thanked her profusely for the use of her motorbike (which, by the way, was a gift from her husband who went all the way to Danang to buy it for her!).  We looked at her photo album of her family and then said our good-byes.  We went to Ly Cafe 22 for our last dinner in Hoi An and also because their wantons are SO GOOD.  But the place was packed and the guy told us to come back in an hour.

To pass the time, we went to Treat’s for happy hour and ran into Sue again.  She gave us the low-down on what to do in Saigon and we chatted about Vietnam for a while.  Then Sue had to leave to meet someone for dinner, and Jon and I headed back to Ly Cafe 22 for a scrumptious dinner.  And then we walked back to the hotel, packed, and went to sleep.

Vietnam: Hoi An

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Vietnam

I woke up at 8:00 this morning, but Jon slept in which wasn’t difficult because our room had no windows so it was almost pitch dark.  So I spent the extra time getting caught up on the journals.  At 10:00, we packed up our stuff and checked out of the hotel, and we waited for the Vinh Hung II to send around their luggage/people mover to pick us up.  I got in and Jon followed on Mrs. Thuy’s motorbike.

Vinh Hung II

We checked into the Vinh Hung II, which is only about a year old and had a swimming pool.  Jon did a great job negotiating a price with them yesterday, and for $15/night we got a room on the street-side first floor, which makes no difference to us after the noisiness of Hanoi.  He also got the price down by agreeing to a “no breakfast” deal which also makes no difference to us.  For these past few months, Jon and has developed strange aversion to eggs and all I really need is some bread for breakfast.  So the money saving continues!  The one thing we will not budge on, however, is air conditioning.  It’s a life-saving feature in this heat and we’d rather go without a meal than a cool room!

Mrs. Thuy’s Shop

We went to Mrs Thuy’s to do some shopping, which really means that we went with ideas for clothing designs and colors.  Hoi An is a place full of tailor shops and – as Lonely Planet says – “you can replace your entire wardrobe for nothing”.  So we knew we would go to Mrs Thuy’s and have her tailors make some stuff for us.  The question was what.

So we went in and said hello to everyone and sat down to talk with “Little Thuy” – the girl who was to help us.  We were given cold towels and water, and Little Thuy brought out a huge pile of catalogues from Next, Bloomingdales, Vogue, and other places.  We flipped through and found a few styles that we liked.  I knew I wanted a little linen dress, a long skirt to replace the red one from Nepal, a little black skirt, a blue tank top, and a new pair of sandals which they also make.  So – after finding the styles Little Thuy and I set about finding fabrics in the many rooms of material there.  (Jon, by the way, sat reading his book during this time).  After choosing fabrics, Little Thuy got a multitude of measurements from me, including a trace out of my foot and measurements around my foot for the shoes.

Then, everything was priced based on the material and the size of the pattern.  So after finding out the price – which was much more than we wanted to spend – Jon and I set about eliminating things that really weren’t necessary.  It was a shame, because if I were here on a regular vacation I really WOULD replace significant parts of my wardrobe.  But since we’re to continue traveling I really only want to replace the worn things in my backpack.  So I got rid of the long skirt (the red Nepal skirt will have to last longer, although Jon thinks I should just throw it out), and I also crossed off a dark blue silk dress that was a splurge for me.  In addition to this, I knocked off the lining for some of the other items.  All in all, I got a custom-made dress, skirt, shirt, and pair of sandals for the incredibly low price of $50!

Mrs Thuy had shown up by this time and – looking at the things I was buying – decided that the little black skirt HAD to have lining so she threw that in as a gift.  She also gave us a “Friend-of-Grant’s” Discount of 10% so the incredibly low price was now $45.  (We hope to see Grant again in Thailand, at which time we will ply him with drinks as a thank-you).  Very happy, we prepared to leave and they told us to come back at 6:00 for fittings.

Thu Thuy Tailor Fashion

60 Le Loi Street

Hoi An, Vietnam

Tel: 84.510.861699

Fax: 84.510.863842

Email: tthuy.ha@dng.vnn.vn

Lunch at Ly Cafe 22

We went to Ly Cafe 22 again for a late lunch because Mrs. Ly is a particular friend of Mrs Thuy and we were so thrilled with Mrs. Thuy that we wanted to spread the good feeling.  (and also because Cafe 22 was delicious so it was hardly an inconvenience.)  We ordered the Cao Loa and the fried wantons and loved every bite of it.

Back to the Beach

After lunch, we went back to the room to chill out for a while, and then decided to head to the beach.  So we put on our bathing suits, lathered on the sunscreen, and hopped on Mrs. Thuy’s motorbike and sped off to the beach.  I can’t describe the wonderful feeling of cruising through Vietnam on the back of the motorbike.  The wonderful scents, the sun, the sights…. I was ridiculously sentimentally happy and this was just a silly bike ride.

On the way there, we passed Sue – the Intrepid Tour leader – on her bicycle also on the way to the beach.  After we parked the motorbike we waited for her and walked to the beach, where the three of us got chairs and sat in the setting sun.  The deal with the chairs, by the way, is an interesting operation.  Chairs are free, but the people that “own” the chairs expect us order drinks and food from them.  At the very least, we should order one drink per person.  But the nice thing about the chairs we chose this time was that the “owner” kept running off the touts selling chips, nuts, and cigarettes because they were potentially eating into his revenue.  Last night, we were overwhelmed with touts every few minutes selling stuff, so the peace and quiet he offered us was very nice.

Too Young for Love

But some adorable girls were allowed to get through selling pineapples.  They refused to accept the statement that we didn’t want any, and insisted on getting our names and the one said, “You want pineapple, you buy from me. L – E – E = Lee!”.  Sue, who leads many trips through Vietnam, was enthralled by these girls and teased them mercilessly about their pineapples saying, “Are yours the juiciest?  The most ripe?  The yellowist?  Because I won’t buy any other ones!”.  So Lee and her friend Chung ended up staying with us for a while, laughing and talking to us.

Lee and Chung have obviously been selling things on the beach for a while, because Lee later remembered Sue from a similar visit a year and a half ago.  They even remembered the names of the people Sue was with!  Incredible.   After a while, two of their friends showed up and we all laughed at their antics.  These girls are just like American teenagers (they are 14), but with Vietnamese accents.  Chung told us that she can’t date until she’s 18 because “good Vietnamese girls don’t!”, but I teased her that she had a boy in school that she liked.  To which she replied, “No way Jose!  I’m too young for love!!”.  But her friends nudged her and teased her about some boy that she liked.  Then we got the low-down on Lee, who apparently is the object of affection of a 10-year old boy.  “He’s a little boy!”, she says, “Not a man!”.  It was such a riot, and Sue has a definite affection for these little kids so it was easy to put up with their occasional urges: “So, you buy our pineapples now!”

After the sun had set, we took our stuff and went back to the hotel where we had a quick dip in the pool.  We would have hung out there for a while longer, but Jon looked up and said, “Do you see all those mosquitoes in the air?”  Sure enough, they were everywhere.  So we hopped out of the water and made a bee-line for our room where we showered and got ready for dinner.

Mrs Thuy’s Part II

Before dinner, I went for my fittings at Mrs. Thuy’s.  The linen dress is beautiful, but needed some adjustment up top, as did the blue tank top.  The black skirt was a little small but no worries.  With a few swift markings from Mrs. Thuy’s chalk everything was marked and sent back to the tailors.  My shoes fit wonderfully, which is a wonderful thing since I have such HUGE feet!  They are little slip-on sandals with black brocade silk material on top and they cost me all of $3.  So great!

Treat’s Happy Hour

We went around the corner to a bar called “Treat’s” for happy hour, where Sue told us she’d be.  Gin and Tonics were 2/$1 and beer was $.50 per bottle.  So Jon, Sue and I hung out for a while until Sue’s Intrepid Group showed up.  After a while, Jon and I went back to one of the pool tables to play a game or two.  But it was very hot in the back room and we were getting hungry.  So we said goodbye to Sue and the gang and went to grab some food.

Faifoo’s

We went to a restaurant called Faifoo’s for dinner and sat in the doorway where there was a slight breeze.  While we were waiting for our dinner, a little boy came to sell some whistles to another table in the restaurant.  We saw him play a little joke on the girl by pointing to her shirt and – when she looked down – tapped her on the nose with his pointing hand.  Even though it’s a joke we all know, we thought it was funny to see him do it to a tourist.  He left the restaurant but came back to our table 10 minutes later.  While he was trying to talk Jon into a monkey whistle, I pointed to his shirt and said, “What’s that?”.  He looked me right in the eye said, “No!  I know that one!”.  After we all laughed, he proceeded to show us a few more little jokes he’d learned.

In one of them, he had Jon make “scissors” with the first two fingers on each of his hands.  Then he had Jon join the two “scissors” together by linking his fingers.  After this was done, the little boy grabbed Jon’s fingers with one hand and tickled Jon with the other so that Jon couldn’t defend himself because his own fingers were all entwined.  It was such a riot!

After dinner, we went back to Mrs Thuy’s because Jon decided he wanted some linen pants.  While he was getting fitted, I logged in to check email.

Vietnam: Hoi An

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Vietnam

We realized this morning that we were missing some money out of our money belts.  It wasn’t an earth-shattering amount of money, and we were trying to figure out if we had misplaced the cash (which – knowing us – was highly unlikely).  But on further reflection, we realized that we knew what had happened, who had taken it, and that it was really our own fault.

We never EVER let the money belts leave our persons.  Either they’re on us, or they’re hidden and locked in the backpack with a karabiner.  But while we were traveling in China, many of our fellow travelers elected to leave theirs in the safe-deposit boxes at the front desk.  We never did this but the idea started to grow on us.  When we arrived in Hanoi, a sign in the Intrepid Office suggested that all travelers do this because there are quite a few drive-by-backpack-thefts.  So we gave our money belts to the front desk, which they put into a cardboard folder, taped up, and Jon signed his name over the tape.  And we felt much better walking around without all of our valuables.

The last night we were in Hanoi, we had gone to the ATM to withdraw a lot of Vietnamese Dong to pay the hotel bill and our airplane tickets.  So we went to the Victory Hotel and counted out 7 million Dong (about $480), of which 5 million was going to go to the hotel.  The nice man at the front desk double-counted it, and – for every million – folded a 50,000 Dong note around it to keep the piles separate (this is important to later on).  So we had seven one-million-Dong piles, each with a note folded over it.  But we realized that the exchange rate would be better if we charged the expense, so that’s what we did.  We put 3 million of the Dong (3 piles of one million each) into my money belt, and the rest into Jon’s.

Then – and this was our mistake – we put the money belts back into the folder, taped it, signed it, and gave it to the front desk.  Now this “tape-and-sign” thing is hardly high security, and we didn’t even glance at it the next morning when we went to collect the folder and leave to go to the airport.  So it could easily have been opened and taped shut again.  As long as it was taped, we assumed that we’d done the taping.  And this is exactly what happened.

When we went into my money belt this morning, we found that one of the 3 piles of million dong had dwindled down to one 50,000 note with another 50,000 note folded over it.  The man at the desk knew we had a lot of cash in there and he new we were leaving right away the next morning.  He went into my money belt and left enough to make it look like three piles were still there.  So – if by chance I HAD looked at it on the way out of the hotel – it would have passed inspection.  But it didn’t matter because I didn’t look and we were in Huê before we knew what had happened.

All in all, one million Dong is about $70.00.  Not a crushing amount but it is one day’s budget for us.  As Jon rightly put it: “It’s a small price to pay for a stupid lesson”.  We will never be without those money belts ever again.

Now on to the rest of the day, which was actually quite enjoyable!

Trip to Hoi An

Today we left Huê and caught a bus to go to Hoi An.  We’d arranged for the 8:00 bus through Mr. Tahn, and were told that it would pick us up at our hotel at 8:00.  But last night a woman called our hotel’s front desk and said we should be ready at 7:30 AM.  So we woke up at 6:00, packed, had breakfast, and were ready to go when someone knocked on our door and said our ride was here.

You Want Us To Do What?!?!?

We went down expecting a bus, but instead found two small 20-something girls on motorbikes who looked at us with our huge backpacks and burst out laughing.  You have to picture this to get the full effect: we have these monstrously large backpacks with 20 kilos of weight (about 40 pounds), plus our two day packs on our fronts which are filled with Jon’s camera, snacks, water bottles, glasses, and other “must haves”.  So we thought it was pretty funny too – the fact that these two slight girls were going to cart us and our heavy bags around in one lift.  But there really was no other way.  Our hotel’s street was much too narrow for the big coach bus, so we had to go to the bus stop by motorbike.  What the heck?

So Jon got on a bike with one girl, and I got on the bike with the other and we all laughed at our antics.  Then the girls put on the gas and Jon and I held on for dear life.  The weight of my backpack almost toppled me off the bike once or twice, but after a few minutes I found a center of gravity that worked.  It really didn’t matter because the bus stop was only 10 blocks away.  But turning corners was a riot and my new friend and I both laughed, “WOOOOAAAAA!” each time we went around a corner.  We must have been quite a sight, and the trip was actually a lot of fun because our drivers were very cheerful and in good spirits for 7:30 in the morning.  A few minutes later, we arrived at the bus stop/cafe, where we took off our bags and sat in the cafe waiting for the bus to arrive.

The Bus Trip

The bus was a large A/C coach bus filled with westerners around our age.  (i.e. budget travelers!).  Most of the seats were taken, but Jon and I got a seat in the front on the wheel well which is a drag for our long legs but oh well.  This bus wasn’t the 4- hour ‘Express Bus’ but rather the 6-hour ‘Sightseeing Bus’ which made a few stops along the way.

First, we stopped at a beautiful beach for 1/2 hour, where Jon and I both had a Sprite and some bread, and then went for a quick walk on the beach before piling back into the bus to leave.

After the beach, our bus climbed and climbed and climbed up some mountains with some stunning views of the ocean and cliffs.  After a while, we stopped on an overpass with a beautiful view of the ocean and a valley below.  This was the Hai Van Pass (Sea Cloud Pass) in the Tuong Son Mountain Range just north of Danang.  There were some old bunker ruins, both from an old French Fort and later used by the South Vietnamese and the Americans.  We stayed there about 10 minutes – just long enough to snap some pictures and leave.

Our third stop was at the Marble Mountains at China Beach.  China Beach is the place where the American GIs would go for R&R.  By this time it was 1:00 and we’d been on the road for 5 hours.  Jon and I were starving so we stopped into one of the local restaurants for lunch instead of going to the beach.  (Which, we later found out from our fellow travelers, was “just like any other beach”.)  The food at this little place was good, and we were happier being fed rather than sightseeing.

Vinh Hung Hotel

45 minutes later, we arrived in Hoi An at a hotel outside of town.  There, a few minibuses were waiting to take us into city center, but not before taking us to some of their “choice” hotels to try to get us to stay there.  (hello – commission!!!)  But the 6 of us in the minivan stood strong and kept telling the driver that we didn’t want to get out and see his hotels, but to take us to city center.  Finally, he dropped us off at the Vinh Hung Hotel II, which is one of places Jon and I had wanted to stay, and it has a pool!  Unfortunately, they had no rooms but the Vinh Hung Hotel I had one double room left.  So the Vinh Hung II put us onto a motorbike with a people-carrier on back and we went the short distance to the Vinh Hung I.  The only room they had was on the first floor in an internal room, but Jon and I were so tired of looking that we took it.

Hoi An and Mrs Thuy

Hoi An is a very small town 4 km away from the beach.  Most of the city center (which is only about 5 streets) is closed off from traffic other than motorbikes and bicycles.  Our hotel is right in the city center, but Jon and I wanted to find a nicer room.  So we went to find #60 Le Loi, which is where Grant told us to look up Mrs. Thuy to help us with “anything we needed”.

Mrs Thuy’s shop is a tailor shop with a small street-front store.  When we asked for Mrs Thuy, they led us into the back into a HUGE courtyard with many other parts of the shop, gorgeous wooden furniture, Internet facilities, and a little cafe.  Clearly, Mrs Thuy is the Donald Trump of Hoi An.  She has 100 tailors and many gorgeous girls manning the shops.

She is also the sweetest woman on the face of the earth.  When she heard that Grant sent us, she insisted on sitting down, feeding us fruit, and hearing all about us.  Long story short: she gave us some tips on what to do in Hoi An, told us what we should do about getting into the Vinh Hung II (which she couldn’t believe was full) and how to bargain for the price, and then gave us a motorbike to tool around in.  When we asked her how much the motorbike would cost, she said “Why you ask me how much it cost?  You friend of Grant.  Motorbike is my gift to you!”  So tomorrow, Jon and I will be coming back to do some shopping at Mrs. Thuy’s!

We zipped around on the motorbike trying to get into Vinh Hung Hotel II, which is truly full tonight but they’ll take us tomorrow night; and trying to make amends with Vinh Hung Hotel I, which was not happy about us moving rooms.  But all’s well that ends well, and Jon and I put on our bathing suits, hopped on the motorbike and headed to the beach.

The Beach

Jon caught on to the motorbike pretty quickly and provided the girls at Mrs. Thuy’s endless amusement when he was trying to learn the gears.  He’s adopted the “Hey-Get-Out-Of-My-Way” horn very well!

The 4km drive to the beach was lovely and very peaceful, and we arrived at the beach at around 4:30 – just when it was clearing out.  I sat and enjoyed sunset the while Jon went for a run up the coast.  After an hour and a half, we hopped back onto the motorbike and road back into town where we showered for dinner.

Jon Goes for a Run Along the Beach in Hoi An (special appearance by Jon:  run #7)

This time it’s been over a week since the last time I went for a run.  I’ve got to work on this!  Before driving out to the beach I changed into some running clothes and once Heidi had staked out her spot in the sun, I headed north for a little run.  I had completely forgotten how hard it is to run on the beach, even right along the water’s edge where the sand is the hardest packed.  So I trudged on, determined to figure out some way to run a second time this week!

Ly Cafe 22

Mrs Thuy recommended Ly Cafe 22 which is owned by a friend of hers, so we went there for dinner.  Jon had the Cao Lau, which is doughy flat noodles mixed with croutons, bean sprouts, greens, and pork slices.  This is a local specialty, and Hoi An is the only place that true Cao Lau can be made because – apparently – the water must come from the Ba Le Well which is only here and dates from the Cham times (2nd to 10th centuries).  I had the fried wantons (Ms. Ly’s forte) and a pineapple shake.  After dinner, we went to Treat’s for a drink but we both felt like sleeping instead so we went back to our dark little room and crashed.

Vietnam: Huê

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Vietnam

Mr Tahn and Dao picked us up at the hotel at 8:30 on motorbikes which is how anyone gets anywhere in Vietnam.  I rode on the back of Mr Tahn’s bike and Jon on the back of Doa’s.  Today was very overcast, but we had a fabulous time.

Riding on the back of a motorbike is no easy task.  You can’t hold onto the driver, because we didn’t know these guys at all (and besides, no one else hangs on like that).  There are “oh shit” bars on the back of each motorbike so this is what we held onto until we got comfortable and could ride without holding onto anything.  We did have to resort to the “oh shit” bars whenever they sped up or took an especially sharp turn.  By the way, there are no such things as helmets here in Vietnam.

Market

First we stopped by a small market with all sorts of vegetables, fish, and other stuff.  It wasn’t as big as the market we went to last night, but I think that’s what made it more special.  We didn’t spend too long there, but hopped back onto our motorbikes and sped off through the different streets of Huê.  There were a lot of people out, and most everyone yelled, “Hello!” or at least smiled when they saw us.

Royal Arena

We drove for about 20 minutes through dirt roads and villages until we pulled up to an old stone structure.  We walked in and it quickly became apparent that we were in the middle of a small arena.  Mr Tahn said that this was built in the 1850s for tiger and elephant fights by the then-Emperor of Vietnam.  The Vietnamese are superstitious about this sort of thing, and tigers are bad luck while elephants are good luck.  So the fights were rigged in that the tigers were de-clawed before facing the elephant, and this way the elephant always won the fight which the people of course loved.

The arena was very overgrown, and Mr Tahn says that no one ever comes here except for his tours.  So this is why there was no admission charge and the grass looked like no one had ever stepped on it.

Lookout Hill

We drove through many, many more backroads and fields before we reached a massive cemetery.  We drove through the gate and up the hill to see a beautiful view of the Perfume River and various Mountains.  On the river there were many fishermen in little Vietnamese boats and some wooden barges driving up and down the river.  Mr Tahn said that the other side of the river was Laos, and that this hill was used by the South Vietnamese in 1969 during the war.  Sure enough, there were some concrete bunkers mixed in with all the gravestones.  Regardless, the view was spectacular and we got some great shots.

We drove again through the back-roads and through villages, many of which had old ruins of beautiful stone pillars and temples.  But we didn’t stop at any of these.  They were all crumbling and overgrown with weeds, and the only thing to see was the mosaic designs on the stone.  Instead, we drove toward a monastery to hear the monks pray.

On the way there, we passed many stalls with beautiful incense sticks displayed out front.  The sticks were of different colors and were fanned out to catch the eye, which they did.  Mr Tahn pulled over to one of the stalls where we could have a drink, look at the different incense sticks, and watch the little girl roll the incense sticks in some sticky cinnamon spice.  It was very cool, and we allowed ourselves be talked into buying some sticks of incense for the monastery.

But when we got to the monastery, we found that the monks weren’t supposed to pray until 12:00 and we were there at 10:30.  So we went to Tu Duc’s Tomb instead.

Tu Duc’s Tomb

Huê is famous for its tombs.  Many of the Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) built their exquisite mausoleums here.  Emperor Tu Duc reigned from 1848-1883, had 104 wives, and countless concubines.  He designed this tomb, and it was built between 1864-1867 through a bit of forced labor.  It has different buildings, temples, pavilions, tombs, and a large lake, and is surrounded by a large octagonal wall.   After it was constructed, he often came here with his wives and concubines to hunt, sail, or just sit with his women and compose poetry.  (Something Jon often does when the moment strikes him).

We walked around the grounds for quite a while, admiring the mosaics and the beautiful area.  It drizzled for just a bit, but we barely noticed.  At 11:30, we left to find Mr Tahn and Dao and to go to the monastery.

Monastery

The monastery wasn’t very large, but we didn’t come for sightseeing.  By the time we got there and took our shoes off, the monks began chanting after their lunch.  They stood up from their tables and walked across to the prayer hall – chanting the entire time.  It was pouring rain, and Jon and I were happy just sitting on the stoop watching them walk and chant.  They each wore saffron robes, and one or two looked at us and smiled.  But all in all it was a pretty solemn event.  Jon and I thought we were lucky to be the only people here watching this, but when we looked through the prayer hall we saw some Westerners on the other side from where we came in.

Prayer lasted 10 minutes and then they all got up and left.  This was convenient, because it had stopped raining by this time.  Jon and I had lit only three incense sticks, so I handed the rest (about 20 of them) to a monk who was closing the door on his way out.

Lunch

We were starving by this time, so they took us to Ong Tao Restaurant.  The restaurant didn’t have much ambiance, but the food was good.  I ordered shrimp and garlic, which was served with five whole jumbo shrimp which were looking at me even though they were dead – but we yummy once we peeled them!  Jon ordered the “dipped shrimp” which we didn’t know what it was until they brought it.  When it was served, it  came with a little kerosene stove on which sat a bowl of vegetable broth.  We poured the raw, peeled, shrimp into the broth and waited for the few minutes it took to cook.  Then we took the shrimp out and wrapped them in rice paper along with some vegetables.  It was very, very good!

Mr Tahn’s House

After lunch, Mr Tahn took us to his new house which he had built about six months ago.  It’s not so much a house, as it is a dormitory for students going to the university nearby.  He has eight rooms laid out motel-style, and his room is separate in the center of the little compound.  There are 20 students staying here, and three of them were in his room when we arrived.  None of them spoke English, and Mr Tahn told us that he built this in order to invest in the university housing market.  Many of the students who come here live in houses with 80+ students.

Wow.  And I thought the Red House with 14 of us (my third year) was crazy!

Thanh Toan Covered Bridge

We got back onto our motorbikes and sped through the back-roads again.  This time, we drove about 20 minutes out into the countryside.  We crossed through some fields and over some very, very bumpy dirt roads that looked (and felt) like they hadn’t been used in years.  But this was probably one of the best parts of the trip.  Everywhere we looked there were hills, fields, buffalo, and an occasional farmer who waved at us.

We finally arrived at our destination: a beautiful Vietnamese covered bridge.  It wasn’t very large, but it was covered in gorgeous designs and mosaics.  The interesting thing about all the mosaics we’ve seen is that the “tiles” are really pieces of broken bowls and plates.  Many of them are the white plates with blue ink designs on them, but many of the tiles have other colorful designs on them too.  The pieces are put into concrete or plaster in a design of some kind, and the effect is beautiful.  This bridge also had pieces of brown and green glass and I was really inspired to try this when we get home.  (If I still remember about it).

The bridge is in a little village filled with chickens and ducks, and a little girl who followed Jon around practicing how to say “HELLO!”.  Other than that, the only other people here were those that were napping in the shady bridge.  It was a lovely setting.

Conical Hats

Back onto the motorbikes for our last visit.  To get to this place, we had to drive down a narrow path next to a railroad and I wondered what would happen if a train happened on us.  But we were only on it for about 5 minutes when we pulled into a little quad where people were making different things.  One of the houses had people making paper horses and colorful trees.  These are used for funeral ceremonies to help the deceased into the next world.

Another house had 3 ladies making conical hats.  These are the hats that you picture when you think of rice fields and Asia.  And the people here really do wear them!  They’re everywhere.  The hats are made from palm leaves positioned over a flat wooden cone structure and the leaves are sewn on.  Huê is also famous for “shadow hats”.  In these hats the women sew some paper cut-outs which – when held up to the sun – show silhouetted pictures.  The women can make two hats per day, and it was incredible to see the amount of work that went into them.

The women were laughing at us, but we didn’t mind.  We liked sitting there watching them make these hats, and we enjoyed entertaining them.  It was a nice way to spend 15 minutes or so.  They insisted that I take off my hat so they could see my hair – which they laughed at – but then we took of Jon’s hat so they could see his hair – and they laughed even harder.  We stayed with them for a little while, until one of them decided to ask me for my earrings, watch, and bracelet.  By then, the moment of peace was gone and we decided it was time to go.

DInner at Stop and Go Cafe

We chilled out in the room for a bit and then caught a cyclo to the Stop and Go Cafe on the other end of this little town.  The Stop and Go is owned by Mr. Do – a silver-haired Vietnamese artist who can only be described as “bohemian”.  He was thrilled to have us and plied us with questions about where we were from, where we’d been, etc. etc.   Dinner was delicious, too.  We ordered the Nem Lui, which is a make-your-own spring roll type of thing with skewers of grilled meet and peanut sauce.  It lived up to its reputation!  We also ordered a beef and potato curry which was yum.  Mr Do introduced us to his friend Bill who used to work for the US Army and had even been to the US for training and is now a tour operator in Huê.  He was an incredibly cheerful fellow with a great big smile, and he kept referring to Mr Do as a “tree monkey” because Mr Do had spent time in South Vietnam’s special forces.

So we were at the Stop and Go for quite a while, talking with Bill and Mr Do and playing the Do’s dog, Lulu.  Six beers later, we decided it was time to go.

DMZ Bar

We took our cyclo to DMZ bar to see if we could meet up with the Intrepid tour group.  There were only 2 other people in the bar, so we each had a beer and started to play pool on the only pool table there.  Jon and I are incredibly bad at pool, so we try to practice whenever we get a chance and this was the perfect opportunity!  (No one was around to witness our pathetic pool skills.)  We were doing all right when the lights suddenly went out on the entire street.

I wandered outside to get some fresh air, and some little girls came up to me and said “Parlez-vous Francais?”  I told them that I spoke only a little and they proceeded to chat with me in French.  Well, it wasn’t really a chat.  It was really them trying to get me to buy them Cokes: “Duex Cocas Madame?”  So I told them that my husband had all the money.  They asked where he was and I said in the bar.  Of course, they wanted me to get him and I told them that he wouldn’t like that very much.  By this time, the owner of the bar had distributed some kerosene lamps and I went back inside.  So now I can say that I’ve fended off the touts in French.

Jon and I played by kerosene lamp for a while, and at one point the owner came over to bring us a bigger lamp.  (he thought more light might help our game – was he ever wrong).  Some locals came in and it was pretty clear that they were waiting for the pool table, but Jon and I hadn’t sunk any balls in quite some time.  So we cheerfully handed over our cue sticks and let them have at it.  Then we finished our beers, found our cyclo driver, and went back to the hotel to pack.

Vietnam: Huê

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Vietnam

Today was our flight to Huê at 12:15.  We have heard that Vietnam Airlines is a bit of a stickler about luggage over 20kgs, and they charge $2.00 per additional kilo.  So we took all the heavy “little” things out of our backpacks and stuffed them into our day packs to carry on the plane.  These heavy “little” things included our bathroom kits, flashlights, jeans, peanut butter, Gatorade, and 400g of Tide.  We also carried on our sleeping bags.  So our day packs were heavier than our backpacks for once.  When we checked them, we were both at 17.5kgs – a vast improvement!

Huê

Hue is a fairly small town situated on Perfume River on the east side of Vietnam.  From the airport, we caught a share-taxi ride into town, which dropped us off at our hotel the Hoang Ngoc.  The rooms were fairly basic, but the air-conditioning works and for $12 a night we really can’t complain.  The staff was very nice, and they did everything they could to get us a room with a nice and cool A/C.  To the point of switching our room once and also bringing us a fan.

After getting settled in the hotel, we went off to find Mr Tahn on Le Loi street, whom Grant recommended to us.  Le Loi is apparently the Main Street which every town in Vietnam has.  So we walked down about 1 km to find #3 Le Loi and to set up a motorbike tour for tomorrow and a bus ride to Hoi An the next day.

Citadel

After chatting with Mr Tahn for a bit, we caught a cyclo ride to the Citadel.  This is an expansive property that once housed the Forbidden Purple City.  They wouldn’t let me through the gate in my tank top, but pointed me toward the “borrow shirt” area where I was given an pretty blue brocade number to wear. Which, incidentally, I took off as soon as we got past the guards.

Most of the Forbidden City had been destroyed over the years, and the place is very, very rundown and overgrown.  But it was still interesting to walk through despite the fact that few of the buildings remain.  It was actually quite nice: the sun was setting, there were relatively few tourists, and the place was getting ready to close.  So we had the entire “city” pretty much to ourselves.  We stayed for about 45 minutes and then left.

Market

Thung, our cyclo driver, insisted on waiting for us outside the Citadel to take us to the market, which was fine because we had some time to kill tonight.  On the way to the market, he took us through some of Hue’s back-roads.  Everyone here is very, very nice and little kids yell out “Hello!” because they just want to hear the Hello back.  Many get a kick out of it when we say “Sin Chao” (Hello in Vietnamese).  And most of the little girls laughed pleasantly when they saw me – I had a flower in my hair over my right ear and I gather that’s not something they see every day here.  I suppose that surprises me, seeing that this is such a tropical place.

The market was one big garage sale.  They had everything from fruit, to fish, to clothes, to shoes, to cigarettes.  Jon and I weren’t interested in any of it so we made a quick tour of the stalls and then left to find Thung who was of course waiting for us outside.

Lac Thahn Restaurant

We had Thung drop us off at Lac Thahn restaurant – a place on the North bank across the bridge from our hotel.  Here, Jon paid Thung a nice fee for his little tour and we told him that we were going to walk back and that he needn’t wait for us.  Lac Thahn is owned by a man named Lac who is deaf and mute but has a sparkling personality.  His sign language is more understandable than most Americans’ English!

The little restaurant only had four tables, and two of them were taken up by an Intrepid tour led by Sue, a leader we met at the Victory Hotel the other night.  Ironically, this is the same tour group that we almost joined because it wasn’t full and Intrepid was giving a discount to “Impulse Adventurers” like us.  But we decided we’d had enough of the tour thing and wanted to be on our own.  So this was a bit odd that we found ourselves in the same place as they were.  After chatting with Sue for a bit we realized that we’re also going to be in Hoi An at the same time as they are.  Sort of awkward, but we’ll try to avoid them so they don’t feel like we’ve mooched their tour.

Anyway, the food at Lac Thahn was delicious.  We had some shrimp pancake concoction that we wrapped up in a lettuce fajita much like Korean food.  The big entertainment in the restaurant was the beer bottle openers, which were nothing more than a slab of wood with a nut and bolt screwed onto it.  Using the bolt and the wood, Lac could pop a beer bottle open with amazing ease.  He could also spin the wood around his fingers like a gunslinger, putting the wood into make-believe “holsters” and then blowing on their tips as the cowboys do.  He had all four tables laughing hysterically, and he never spoke a word.  He gave all of us a commemorative bottle opener to take home, signed by him.  Ours has the date “9/4/2001” on it which – as Jon says – makes for an even better story later on.

Karate Class

We left Lac Thahn’s and walked across the bridge and across the Perfume River to our hotel.  A few doors before we reached the hotel was a Karate class of teenagers.  It was an open-air classroom, so Jon and I stood outside and watched them for a while.  These kids are tough and they definitely know their Karate – both the girls and the boys!  We watched the different rounds, the referee, and the scoring until we ourselves had collected quite a crowd outside.  I left after about 10 minutes, but could still hear their Karate shouts from our hotel window.  Jon – who stayed to watch – said that a tall boy stood up and did really well because the reach of his arms and legs were so much longer than anyone else’s.  This made me think of my 6’6″ brother who has been taking Karate classes for a while.  I’ll bet he has the same advantage!

Vietnam: Hanoi

Posted Posted in Round The World Trip, Vietnam

Ethnology Museum

At 10:00, we arranged for a car through the hotel to go to the Ethnology Museum on the very outskirts of town.  Interestingly enough, the museum isn’t even listed in Lonely Planet but it was spectacular.  It was a large, new museum which exhibited the different ethnicities and customs of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups – many of which are disappearing in this quickly modernizing country.  The museum was an open-air museum, meaning all the doors and windows were open, and it was interesting because the hot and muggy atmosphere made us feel more connected to the different ethnic groups.

Each ethnic group had a different area of the museum.  One part had an authentic “Black Tay” house, in which the Tay people do weaving and cotton and silk designs.  Other parts of the museum had video monitors to demonstrate the different ways of making things (such as conical hats), different ceremonies (Tay Shaman Ceremony) or rituals (Bahnar Buffalo Sacrifice).  It was one of the most engaging museums we’ve been to yet.

In the “back yard” of the museum were some life-sizes houses of the different ethnic groups.  One house, for example, was entirely on stilts.  Another structure was a “funeral house” which is built to house the body of a deceased family member until all the funeral ceremonies are completed 75 days later.  While we were walking around, I stopped to take a picture of one of the houses and felt something tickling my foot.  I glanced down, saw that it was a little ant, and decided not to let it distract me from my photo.  That’s when it decided to bite off my toe.  OK – that was an exaggeration but this thing really did pack a wallop!  The welt that immediately formed was bigger than the ant itself.  It reminded us of the scene in “Platoon” where Charlie Sheen wakes up in the jungle with bugs crawling all over him and his face covered in welts.  I’m convinced it’s the exact same ant.

So between this and the hornet sting – which is still the biggest, ugliest thing I’ve ever seen – I’m not having much luck with nature lately.

When we left the museum, it began to pour so we hopped in the car just in time.  When it rains here, the number of motorbikes doesn’t diminish.  It seems that a required accessory to any motorbike is the big plastic poncho.  Somehow, everyone on the road had one although we don’t know where they came from.  Maybe there’s storage beneath the seats.  At any rate, Jon and I will feel right at home with our big blue ponchos!

KOTO’s For Lunch – Know One, Teach One

We went to KOTO’s for lunch, which is the place we tried to find last night for dinner but it was closed.  KOTO’s was founded in 1999 by a former Intrepid Travel Leader named Jimmy.  He wanted to devise a  way to get the boys selling postcards off the street and into a more marketable job.  So he began this restaurant.  KOTO’s stands for “Know One, Teach One” which is the main principal of the restaurant.  Each boy or girl that comes here hones his or her skills in the hospitality industry.  When their learning is done, they must then teach other students.  This last concept isn’t what’s so ambitious about the place.  Rather, it’s the fact that Jimmy is bringing in kids off the street and teaching them something that will help them for the rest of their lives.  Bill Clinton, when he visited Vietnam last year, stopped by KOTOs for a few photo ops.

The menu in KOTOs is brought in a little postcard folder, and each part of the menu is its own postcard.  The pictures on the postcards are pictures of the boys and girls who work there.  What a fabulous idea!  The irony (for those who missed it) is that these postcards are exactly what the boys and girls used to sell to make money.  Now they wait tables during lunch, and take English and other lessons in the evening.  This is why the restaurant isn’t open for dinner.

Jon ordered the eggplant in a clay pot, and I had the chicken ravioli special.  One of the instructors came by later to ask how I liked the ravioli, because it was “one of the new things the kids have been learning”.  I told her that it was delicious – which it was.  In fact, Jon thinks it was the best ravioli he’s had.  EVER.

We would have liked to linger over lunch a bit, but the place was much too hot and we were dying to get outside in the fresh air again.  So Jon asked for the bill and our friendly waitress brought it over.  It was 15,000 Dong ($1.00) less than we thought it would be, and on closer inspection we saw that the waitress had charged me for the risotto instead of the ravioli.  So we called her over and told her that we’d been undercharged.  She was incredibly surprised at our honesty, and apologized profusely.

Curio Shopping

We went back to hotel to relax in the A/C for a bit because it was incredibly hot and humid after the afternoon’s rain.  Then we set out in the now-sunny weather for Huong Dong, which is a street of curios and stuff.  Jon bought some lovely chopsticks and we looked at the different plates and pictures for sale.  We didn’t find much else that was worth carting around in our backpacks so we wandered to ANZ Bank for the ATM.

The Pineapple Woman

Many women here sell fruit and other items which they cart all over town.  The fruit (or whatever they’re selling) are stored in two large baskets hung from either end of a bamboo pole, which the woman has balanced on one of her shoulders.  The baskets are supported by long twine ropes, and both baskets hang almost to the ground, so the effect looks like the women are walking around with a rudimentary scale system.  When they walk, the bamboo bends with the weight of the baskets.  Most of them have fruit in their baskets, but some are carting around small convenience stores!  These women are everywhere, and Jon was dying for a photo of one of them but no one would let him take one.  He finally decided that – when he saw a woman approaching – he would have me suddenly stop and pose so he could sneak a photo over my shoulder.  But this never worked very well because they’re onto this scam.

But we tried it again on the way to ANZ, and this time the woman as very cheerful and insisted that I put the pole and baskets of pineapple on my shoulder.  So she put her conical hat on my head and helped put the goods over my shoulder and posed for a picture with me.  OH MY GOD this thing was so heavy!!!   Our backpacks are at least 40 pounds each, and this was much heavier.  And it was 3:00 in the afternoon, which means that the baskets were much more full of pineapples this morning. So I was delighted when she took the pole off my shoulder, and I squeezed her shoulder and we both laughed as she mimicked how strong she was.  We bought two of her little pineapples from her, which probably didn’t do much to lessen the load but it did pay for the pictures.  Jon also got a picture of just her with the bamboo and baskets which I think will be a better picture.

The Evening

Afterwards, we went back to the hotel to settle up the bill and pay for the plane tickets we bought.  We also went to the Intrepid office to swap books.  Sue – the Intrepid Leader who’s in town now – was very nice to let us in and gave us free reign of their book shelves.  Then Jon and I had dinner at a little restaurant called Pepperoni’s Pizza Place in the Old Town part of Hanoi (near where we were shopping today).  The woman who was the hostess there had lived in Australia for a few years and had an interesting Vietnamese/Australian accent.  After dinner, we went to a nearby Internet Cafe and stayed for two hours which cost an unbelievable 24,000 Dong (about $1.75).  So inexpensive!  I also bought a cute little sun hat for 20,000 Dong ($1.25).  This place is great!

It was raining when we left the Internet Cafe, but we walked back anyway and the rain felt kind of nice.  So – of course – we were soaking wet by the time we got back but we didn’t care.  We showered and went to bed.