Monday, October 31, 2011

Mekong Delta



The Mekong Delta is a two-hour drive from Saigon.  On arrival the 4 of us plus our guide, Vu, boarded a small boat to travel to an island in the middle of the river delta. It’s a place where people’s lives are lived out almost entirely on the river.


Above: making sticky rice alcohol


Above: making lacy rice wraps

We visited a small shop where they make coconut milk and coconut candy by hand; another where rice paper wraps are made from scratch by hand; another where coconut palm roof shingles are made, stitched together by hand; and another where lacy-looking rice wraps are cooked. 


We also saw the “floating market”.  We had always imagined this to be something much like the land-based markets, but on boats.  It turns out it’s really lots of boats spread out along the river.  Many boats are anchored, and they fly a “flag”  indicating what it is they’re selling.


Above: a pineapple seller


Others go along the river from boat to boat selling things like coffee or Pho. In theses cases, they leave the coffee or soup behind and return an hour later and pick up the dishes and money.


Our boat driver then transferred the 4 of us to a tiny sampan, rowed by an old woman, to tour the shallow, narrow canals of the island, lined by simple homes, gardens, jungle and water hyacinths used to capture fish and shrimp.  It looked like a scene out of the movie “Apocalypse Now” for those who recall that.



After returning to our original boat, we stopped at a simple home for lunch consisting of 4 courses, served by a woman and her mother, followed by live traditional Vietnamese music performed by the father, daughter and son. The small eating area was lined by hammocks, and each of us spent 15 minutes lying in a hammock, swinging in the slight breeze of the otherwise relentlessly hot day.


Above: the woman who served our lunch.


Above: the fish that served as the basis of our Vietnamese version of “fish tacos”, served in rice wraps, of course, not tortillas.



(We’ll try to post a video link later)

This was one of the highlights of the trip and well worth the time; we’d recommend it to anyone coming to Saigon.

Saigon: 10 Million People, 7 Million Motor Bikes


We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City -- which everyone in south  Vietnam still calls Saigon, except in official government documents -- after a short flight from Dalat. 


First stop was the Chinatown wholesale market. Nice thing about a wholesale market is no one tried to sell us anything!




We visited two pagodas where the predominant features are various alters and LOTS of incense. The spiral incense you see in the photos burns for a whole month.



Late in the afternoon we were taken on a Cyclo-tour for an hour, seeing the sights around the financial center of downtown Saigon.IMG_1965


Saigon feels very different from Hanoi – much bigger, more crowded, more prosperous, more modern.  There are more tall, very modern, new buildings here than in downtown Seattle. Many joint venture projects have poured money into this place recently. North Vietnam “felt” like a communist place, while Saigon feels like a turbo-charged capitalist environment.


We took this picture of Uncle Ho in front of the People’s Revolutionary Committee Building (aka: City Hall) both for its being a major sight, but also because we thought our blog reader tCL would like it.


In the evening we took a dinner cruise on the Saigon River, on a “dragon boat”. The city lights by night were spectacular.


We’re staying at the Majestic Hotel, built in 1923 and one of the places many American journalists stayed during the Vietnam War (which they refer to here as the Civil War).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Check-in/OK Mekong Delta

GPS location Date/Time:10/30/2011 22:46:11 PDT
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Check-in/OK Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City

Majestic Hotel on the Saigon River
GPS location Date/Time:10/30/2011 02:38:41 PDT
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Saturday, October 29, 2011


We flew from Hoi An to Dalat Friday, in the southern part of the Central Highlands of Vietnam.  It has temperate weather and is at higher elevation (4,900 feet) , a welcome contrast to the tropical climate elsewhere. The city of 205,000 is far more modern than other cities we’ve seen, deviates from the usual Vietnamese architecture to more French style with some wooden structures, and traffic is lighter here.

Dalat Ngoc Lan Hotel

Our Dalat guide Tuc picked us up at the airport, and after dropping our luggage at the hotel, we walked through the very lively market downtown, which operates all day and late into the evening.


Today we met Tuc at 8:30 a.m. and drove to Lang Bian Mountain (whose name is derived from a Romeo and Juliet-style story) where we took a 3-hour hike through pine forests to the top of the peak. The scenery was gorgeous and unlike anything else we’ve seen so far.  In the afternoon we took a boat ride on picturesque Tuyen Lam Lake to an isolated spot in the woods for a short elephant ride. 


The return boat ride took us to a modern (built in 1993)pagoda where 60 monks and nuns live, followed by a 1.5 mile cable car ride high above the pine forest back to Dalat.


Our guide, Tuc, is a 26-year-old single man with sparkling eyes, a lively sense of humor, and a helpful, accommodating personality.  Of the 4 guides we’ve had so far, we’ve been quite impressed with 3 of them.


Two weird observations:  we’ve only seen ONE black person since we arrived in Asia 10 days ago, and this morning at breakfast in our hotel we noted we were the only “Anglo” people; all other guests were Asian. We’re told lots of wealthier folks from Hanoi and Saigon come up to Dalat for vacations to escape the heat of the cities.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Selling fish at the Dalat market.

The Dalat market

The view from our Dalat hotel.

Change of Plans?

We’re currently in Dalat, Vietnam having a wonderful time. It’s beautiful and cooler here, even less humid.

We’ve been tracking the international news regarding Bangkok, where we’re scheduled to arrive next week, and also note the U.S. State department now advises against traveling there.  Given the likelihood we would have no fun there, even if safety does not become an issue, we’re working to change our flights and hotel accommodations to skip Bangkok entirely, arriving and departing Hong Kong two days earlier than planned instead.

More on Dalat later.

Check-in/OK Da Lat Vietnam

We arrived last night and had an interesting evening in the market.  Photo's latter. Today we ride elephants!
GPS location Date/Time:10/28/2011 16:18:56 PDT
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Thursday, October 27, 2011

A few more observations


Almost all tourists here are European and Australian, and some Asians (Japanese, mostly). We have met or seen very few Americans. Still, English is the widely-spoken language, beyond Vietnamese of course.


We’ve been able to log onto Facebook here, unlike in northern Vietnam. No idea if north-south has anything to do with it.


You’ve no doubt heard in the news about flooding in this part of the world the last few months.  Hoi An, where we are now, is located on a river adjacent to the South China Sea. Yesterday at high tide some of the streets were flooded up to 8-10 inches, though it was easy to walk a block or two away from the river and avoid any problems.


The flooding in Bangkok where we’re due to arrive in a week has led us to inquire of our airlines and the tour company that arranged our drivers here whether we should change our plans, and if so, what our options are. Daughter Mackenzie has kept us supplied with updates from sources in the U.S.  So far the international airport in Bangkok is fine and expected to remain so. Our Bangkok hotel is located on one of the rivers that is flooded, and we’re unsure whether we may need to stay elsewhere.  Meanwhile, we’ll continue to monitor the situation but have not changed our plans.


Last night’s dinner supplied our first experience in being cheated by a local. We were brought (and charged for) some dishes we did not order; we thought they might be “side dishes” (not), and when our bill came it had two problems: prices for some items were higher than quoted on the menu, AND the final tally was 1.15 million dong instead of 830,000 dong – supposedly an innocent mathematical error, but taken with the other two problems, we believe was intentional.  Lesson learned: if food courses are brought that you didn’t order, send them away; check the bill carefully for accuracy on each item as well as correct total addition. 


It has rained HARD, though briefly, several times in the last few days – not like rain in Seattle which is usually light and lasts much of the day.


We don’t feel we have an honest grasp of how people here feel about Americans. In the north we were told Vietnamese people “don’t look back” as they’ve had such a difficult history for thousands of years, thus at some point or another almost everyone has been an “enemy”. They focus on looking to the future and re-building.  We’re unsure, however, everyone (except at the restaurant last night) remains friendly and polite toward us, always, although here in Hoi An there is more of a feeling that the tourist is a commodity than we’ve sensed elsewhere.

Hundreds of times since we’ve arrived, Cathryn, Lynn or David has blurted “Watch your head, Bob!”  He is extraordinarily tall by Vietnamese standards (6’ 0”), so doorways, ceilings and things like tarps tied over alleyways in the markets are often so low that even the rest of us have to duck our heads, whereas it’s just down-right hilarious to watch Bob duck and crouch his way through.


Spas are everywhere in Vietnam – at least everywhere in tourist areas.  All hotels have one, every block has one, and prices are cheap except inside the expensive hotels.  Last night we decided to tiptoe a small distance into the world of Asian spas and made appointments for all four of us to have pedicures.  Bob and David were first-timers, and Cathryn and Lynn have had pedicures only rarely.


We arrived at Palmarosa Spa to find 4 very young-looking and attractive young women ready to take care of our feet. For 45 minutes they worked on us, and at the end, our bill came to $25 for all 4 of us, including polish for Cathryn and Lynn. It was relaxing and fun.

Hoi An


No, that’s not a typo of “Hanoi”, but another city entirely, Hoi An, about 400 miles south of Hanoi, and 15 miles south of Danang, on the body of water generally referred to as the South China Sea, but here they call it the Eastern Sea. 


Hoi An is the place where  people come in Vietnam to purchase custom-made suits, dresses, jackets and such, made of fine wool, silk or linen.  None of the 4 of us plans to do so, but still it’s interesting to see. And there are lively markets, restaurants, galleries and shops here.  The pressure on tourists to buy, buy, buy is much greater than anything we experienced in northern Vietnam, similar to Moroccan souks.


We wandered the town mid-day today, and thanks to some reading of a guide book by Lynn, found the best restaurant we’ve enjoyed yet in Vietnam (note to Mackenzie: we’ll send you an address and map).  Ba-le Well is a small place on an alley, with a few tables and chairs IN the alley, and a fixed-price, fixed-menu. We didn’t know that fact, but immediately after our Tiger beers (our favorite in Vietnam) were delivered, plates of leafy greens and slices of cucumber, grilled satay pork, long slivers of carrots and shredded cabbage, peanut sauce, grilled chicken, rice pancakes and rice wraps were delivered.


The two delightful sisters who own this place saw the amused uncertainty on our faces and immediately came over to begin assembling our wraps for us, even dipping them in the sauce and feeding us our first bite. We previously learned how to say “One-Two-Three-Cheers” in Vietnamese just before taking our first swallow of beer, and as we began that routine, the two sisters joined in and laughed enthusiastically, perhaps AT us, but certainly WITH us.

The food was outstanding, the sisters came to visit us at the table frequently throughout the meal, and in the end brought us our final bill for 520,000 dong, or $24 U.S. for 4 lunches, 6 beers and one cup of coffee! If we were staying in Hoi An beyond tomorrow, we would certainly eat here again.


We left the Hanoi airport Tuesday night and flew to Hue, south of the  old DMZ, so our first exposure to southern Vietnamese people, scenery and culture.  Our new guide deposited us at a lovely hotel on the river and picked us up again the next morning for a tour of historical sites. 


To be perfectly honest, we found Hue mostly boring. We learned lots of Sino-Vietnamese history, but it was presented in a repetitive,  snail’s pace style that left us cross-eyed with exhaustion in the heat and humidity, and wondering why anyone goes to see “ancient” tombs and monuments that are actually only knockoffs of the Forbidden City in Beijing less than 200 years old.  We’ll post a few photos, but if you’re coming to Vietnam, we recommend you skip Hue.


A dynasty of “emperors” who were puppets of the French colonial administration built The Citadel, an extravagant tomb in the early 1800s with huge taxes (30%) on farmers.


Hue was more of a commentary on human nature and the seemingly permanent presence of kleptocracy in human society.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A few more random observations

Still no bugs. Leave DEET at home unless your itinerary is wildly different than ours.

The average domestic lot is 4 meters by 25 meters, so homes are very narrow, tall and deep. At least in northern Vietnam.

We have not been able to log onto Facebook anywhere in Vietnam yet. We hypothesize the communist government blocks social media somehow?

We learned the difference in the meaning of "salary" versus "income". For example a government official who issues motorcycle licenses is paid a salary by the government. But he also earns "income" when applicants pay a $50 "fee" when they want to obtain a license without passing the test. Otherwise called a bribe.

Official government-issued I.D. Card with photo includes "ethnicity" (such as H'Mong tribe) and "religion" which 90 percent of citizens report as "none", a hangover from the days of official prohibition against any religion. People are very class-conscious about tribal identity and willingly share their stereotypes.

Sent from my iPad

Gardens and typical suburban housing