Category Archives: Southeast Asia

Laos 2010 and 2012

2010

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, located on a peninsula, lies between the Nam Khan (nam means river and water in Lao) and the Mekong River. It is a charming, but touristy town and is a Heritage site filled with monks dressed in orange robes, golden wats (temples), and French influenced buildings from when the city was colonized. In March, the time of our visit, the city is surrounded by a smokey haze from slash and burn agriculture. Farmers burn brush off their land so that they can then plant rice and other crops at the start of May.

Steve and I walked the city our first day in Luang Prabang doing the tourist thing (taking photographs of monks, markets, and many other sites). We had two and a half days before our planned trip to Nong Kiau via slow boat up the Nam Ou.

A few observations:
— There is the smell of burning flesh (lots of meat grilling) in Luang Prabang
— Monks don’t stick around their respective wats for life. They come from poor or troubled families, typically, and leave after a few years to get married and go into the world again
— Our neighbour at our guest house in Luang Prabang bought a hard-boiled egg as part of her lunch, one day. She discovered after her first bite that eggs have three ratings: 1, 2, and 3. Number 1 (or 3?) has a little chicken in it, is commonly eaten by locals, and is considered the best egg to consume.

Monks

Monks

I steal the following from my friend LP’s walkabout in SE Asia:

Laos opened for tourism in 1989 and Luang Prabang was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage city in 1995. Although it’s definitely a stop on the tourist circuit, it hasn’t been scrubbed up too much, but has wonderful French colonial architecture with a sort of tropical touch to it. True, there are some chic chic restaurants with a lot of garden and sidewalk seating on the main street. But the city is still organized as villages around temples and there are SO many temples (wats) and monks! One of the first things you notice is all the orange from the robes. Most of them are young novice monks who come from rural areas, as the wats provide free education. There’s definitely a different energy to a place where so many people are meditating and praying.

Hazy Sisavangvong Rd. - the main drag

Hazy Sisavangvong Rd. – the Main Drag

Food:  We ate at: the night market food stalls where we found cheap and tasty food. One can find anything from noodle dishes to bbq pork and just about anything else the Lao cook; the Tamarind Restaurant (we discovered this resto through PBS’ and Gourmet Magazine’s “Diary of a Foodie”); and Cafe Lao (a hole in the wall that makes terrific Vietnamese pho, Chinese bread sticks, and cafe Lao for breakfast around the corner from our guesthouse). We also drank MANY fruit shakes. The local Starbucks equivalent, Joma Bakery, while highly rated in the guidebooks, held no appeal for us. We also walked to the river for a delicious Lao-style hot-pot at an open air restaurant overlooking the Mekong river, sharing the a picnic table with others and drinking Beer Lao.

Cafe Lao

Cafe Lao

Beer Lao

Beer Lao

I have found that tourists who try to speak a word or two in the language of the country they visit are a real exception. It drives me crazy and gives tourists a bad name on tourism that more people do not attempt to do this. Both Steve and I have tried to learn basic vocabulary and phrases when we visit a place where English is not spoken. It is very easy to have conversations with almost anyone we have sat next to, done business with, etc., and is one of travelling’s pleasures. The people of Luang Prabang are lovely.

Cooking Lessons and the Morning  Market:  You want ant eggs? We got ’em. You want bee larvae, fresh and wriggling out of the honey comb? Got ya covered. Want a live, gasping fish in a half-inch of water, living out its last in a plastic bag? Nooooooo problem. Fresh lichen? Also not a problem. Steve and I went shopping at the local foods market with Madame Wandarra, our host and owner of the Vanvisa Guesthouse where we stayed. She showed us the ins and outs of buying local and in season vegetables at the morning wet market. That afternoon we cooked: ant egg soup; a dish called “soup” (really a cooked herb salad); stir fried wild morning glories and river spinach; kangaroo meat stir fried with lemon grass, garlic, chili peppers, mint, shallots, fish sauce, lime juice, and more!; sticky rice; coconut milk with apple meal and grass jelly. The kangaroo meat was brought home from Australia the previous week; Madame Wandarra was on vacation visiting a daughter who lives there.

Sukhothai, Market (Ant Eggs)

Ant Eggs

We took the slow boat up the Nam Ou toward Nong Kiau.  Because it was dry season the water was low with rocks jutting out and the captain navigated the river with great dexterity and knowledge of every rock position. At one point the men (not the dis-empowered women, sadly, myself included) got out to lift/push the boat past one particular dry spot. Shortly after, back on “the road” we hit a rock and the rudder broke. It was fixed by banging it with a stone (rock clearly beats steel).  Along the way children played in the water and waved and yelled to get our attention. This boat ride made it clear that people really live on the river. They fish, wash, swim, and travel in it. We entered Nong Kiau just before the sun went down.

Pushing the boat

Pushing the boat

Fixing the rudder

Fixing the rudder with Steve’s help

Nong Kiau ( and Ban Saphong) consists of a VERY small market, boat landing, and a few businesses and restaurants. It lies on the Nam Ou and is surrounded by blue-green limestone mountains that are climbed by those so inclined (no pun intended!). Both villages are laid back, though. Most visitors tend to leave the village during the day so it was a perfect place to spend our time watching the river from our private balconies. A large bridge between the river banks links the two villages: locals and falang (foreigners/Westerners) spend much time crossing from one side to the other. Nong Kiau is a small town where children ride bicycles everywhere. Girls carry their parasols to keep the sun off of them (and keep themselves pale???). Many houses dry river “seaweed.”

Seaweed, Nong Kiaow

Photo credit: The above image is from Travelfish.org’s photo gallery.

We stayed two nights at the fancy Nong Kiau Riverside Resort (with an ant colony below our bungalow that showed up in the bathroom at night along with a giant, fat, 4 inch spider). The view of the mountain across the water was spectacular and the food at the restaurant provided two of our best meals in Laos. The third night we stayed in the cheap, rustic, but lovely Sunrise Guesthouse on the other side of the river – also with an excellent restaurant attached to it and where we ate breakfasts, lunches and one supper. At each stay we had the end bungalow and did not see our neighbours. They were the perfect places to lay low and chill (or sweat/boil, as the case may be).

Phonsavan

We had an uneventful 8 hour local bus ride from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan where we were the only falang – everyone else was a local and seemed fascinated that we chose to take this mode of transportation. Bathroom stops were off the road and in the bushes – men run to one side and the woman to the other. It was kind of nice. The road up and over the mountains was bumpy, VERY windy, and with razor backs. Along the way we passed villages with thatched huts right on the side of the road. There were deep drops down the mountain. At every turn I expected us to hit a vehicle that the driver could not see coming from the other direction. Plastic bags are given to the locals in case anyone needed to vomit (and they did). I took Gravol; Steve is made of stern stuff and was fine.

Unlike the other quaint villages and towns we had experienced, Phonsavan seemed derelict. Except for the history (and what a history  – war ravaged and still full of unexploded ordinances/UXOs – cluster bombs – by which people are maimed by the hundreds, yearly) and the enigmatic Plain of Jars, there is no reason to go there. The town centre, though has an interesting exhibition at the local Mines Advisory Group (MAG) which carries out critical work deactivating the UXOs and educating and farmers, children, and those involved in the scrap metal trade about the risks of UXOs and mines and how to recognize a potential dangerous item, what to do in an emergency, and more.

Phonsavan is in the Xieng Khouang Province and was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Lao during the 1960s-1970s. Lao was the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. The U.S. really did quite a number here which is nothing to be proud of.

Unfortunately, after a few short hours in Phonsavan our trip was aborted and we spent a hectic and whirlwind 45 hours travelling back to Boston — a week earlier than expected. After leaving Phonsavan to head home we made a quick stop-over in Nong Kai, Thailand, for a rabies shot. I had been bitten by a dog and all the guidebooks and the U.S embassy say to leave Laos if you need anything but very minor medical attention.

We tried the Phonsavan hospital first, despite the above advice, but they only had enough serum for a child; the hospital did not have the necessary immune globulin or antibiotics, either. We actually entered through the emergency room (as one does in North America) but quickly left to enter via the main entrance after we saw a family in a small room crying over a family member who had clearly just been hit by an exploded cluster bomb. My small bite no longer seemed emergency room worthy. Not in the least.

Phonsavan airstip - waiting for the first of many airplanes to take us back to Boston

Phonsavan airstip – waiting for the first of many airplanes to take us back to Boston

It was a shame to leave Lao early — the part of the trip we most looked forward to was this exploration around Phonsavan as well as a few days in Sam Nuea, the Hintang Archaeological Park , and Vieng Xai.

We had a fantastic time anyway, loved the people, the food, and the landscape. It is a very poor country — the poorest in the world – but the people are very, very sweet and do the most with what they have.

2012

Don Khong

Don Khong is a lovely and quiet island – the largest island in the Si Phan Don area. It is quiet and there are not too many tourists. It is also good place to learn how to ride a motorbike; once you leave the main drag in town (one dusty street long) the roads are open and sparsely populated with just a few small villages and temples around the island. All in all it is good place to walk, cycle, motor around, and rest and chill. Don Khong’s main agricultural growth is rice.

One day, while wandering on foot, I met some local people who were practicing music. I sat down to listen and they allowed me to take photos. It turns out they were to play for Laos during a boat festival in Cambodia. This is a yearly event toward the end of February – alternating between the two countries. The festival occurs along the Mekong.

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Dong Khong

Champasak and Tad Lo

I rode in my first sawngthaew (similar to pick-up truck with a top cover, benches on both sides and a third in the middle). I travelled from Don Khong with Steve (an Aussie) and Toru (from Japan) to spend a day and night in Champasak. We planned to cycle and see Wat Phou (pre-Angkor Wat). Two hours later we were at the ferry and crossed the Mekong to get to Champasak.

Champasak was clearly once a very lovely French colonial town where royalty once resided. The town is now run down but charming, nonetheless. Steve, Toru, and I took bikes (Toru’s chain came off every 10 minutes or so and my brakes did not work at all. Seriously.) and cycled the 8 km to Wat Phou.  We arrived at the VERY LARGE parking lot (which was clearly constructed to fit hundreds of cars). However, all that occupied it was a bus, 4 or 5 motorbikes, and our 3 bicycles!!

Champasak

Champasak

Champasak

Champasak

As I mentioned above, the main Wat Phou site predates the Angkor-period and was built in the 5th and 6th centuries; it was added onto in the 10th and 11th centuries. There is a ruined walkway that goes up the Phou Pasak mountain range. The site, so it is thought, was designed as a physical imitation of heaven and it was part of a larger city. The country is restoring this site which, while we were there, was not crowded. This provided us the opportunity to sit and contemplate the amazingly beautiful view of the valley.

What Phou - stairs toward the top

What Phou – stairs toward the top

Wat Phou - view from the top

Wat Phou – view from the top

What Phou - detail

What Phou – detail

The next morning, Steve, Toru, and I took another sawngthaew to Pakse (an hour’s drive). We treated Toru to breakfast at the market for his 25th birthday and then each went our separate ways. I grabbed a tuk tuk the 8 km to the “southern” bus station and made it there in time to take the local bus to Tad Lo. There were two seats available and I sat next to a young woman. Martina is from Norway (she is very beautiful– her dad is from Ethiopia and her mom is Norwegian) and we spent the next week or so travelling together). The aisle of the bus was filled with two sacks high of rice from the front to the back and to get to a seat you had to walk over these sacks. As we continued on our way we picked up more people and eventually the whole aisle was full with people one against the other sitting on the rice. Disembarking basically meant climbing over bodies.

Tad Lo is a fairly sleepy town filled with tourists; some passing by and others who stay for weeks or longer. Tad Lo is nestled in the Bolaven Plateau (famous for its coffee). In the centre of the village is a great waterfall where children jump 3 meters in the water to swim, play, and cool off. Others sit in the falls for hours with the water running over their bodies. With temperatures close to 40C the waterfalls are the best place to cool off. While I did exactly that, one day, there were young Thai tourists who took an interest in me and plopped themselves next to me in the water, one at a time, to have their photos taken with yours truly. Then there were three Lao girls who wanted to eat my mango that I left cooling in the water beside me; I let them eat it. They were surprised when I asked them, in Lao, if it was tasty. They were even more surprised when I asked them their names. After that they kept on giving me the thumbs up and giving me high-fives!!

Tad Lo -cooling off and washing in river

Tad Lo – Cooling Off and Washing in the River

In the hills outside of Tad Lo - coffee beans

In the Hills Outside of Tad Lo – Coffee Beans

Tad Lo - man picking coffee beans

Tad Lo – Man Picking Coffee Beans

One of our three days in Tad Lo we hiked on a day long trek with a guide. We stopped at a few local tribal villages, walked through a coffee plantation, and saw more waterfalls at the top of our mountain hike.

Mornings in Tad Lo –  5am: first the sound of the roosters, then cows, then the cicadas, then the children and geckos by 6… a lovely way to wake up. Around sundown, the cows (dozens and dozens of them) run into the field behind the hut Martina and I stayed in. They just run in, hang out, moo for 5 minutes, then run out.

Tad Lo - cows running amuck

Tad Lo – cows running amuck

Martina and I took a 9.5 hour bus ride to Thakhek and slept in a dingy guesthouse right by the bus station since we arrived there at 12:30am.  The following day we conducted some business and then hopped on another bus to Ban Nahin so that we could go to the Kong Lor Cave, 16km from that town.

Thakek bus station

Thakek bus station

We bumped into some friendly people who recommended their guesthouse in Ban Nahin which was perfect for us. The next day we went to the Kong Lor Cave. The main cavern reaches up to 90 meters wide and 100 meters high in places and the boat stopped along the way so that we could observe stalactites and other limestone formations as well as bats. In places the water is so shallow that we had to disembark while the two boatmen pushed the the boat to where they could put the motor back on and continue. The whole trip took about 3 hours and surprisingly there were not many boats with tourists – although there were many with men carrying many sacks of tobacco in and out of the cave. When we returned to the entry point they were loading a large truck with the tobacco.

Toward Kong Lor Cave

Toward Kong Lor Cave

Ban Nahin market

Ban Nahin market

Vientiane:

Martina and I took the bus from Ban Nahin to  the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Patrick (a New Zealander who teaches math at a private English high school in), picked us up at the bus station since we were couchsurfing with him. He took us  to a bar along the Mekong to watch the sun set then went to his favourite hang-out, Sticky Fingers (owned by two Australian women), for supper and more drinks. He ordered the Tom Yum martini for us which was fantastic!! I begged for the recipe and, being the stubborn person I am, continued asking all night. The co-owner, Marny, finally cracked and told one of the bartenders to give me the list of ingredients, only! He proceeded to give me the whole recipe and when she found out…..!!!!! Anyway, I have it and promised never to give it a to soul!!

The next morning Martina and I separated and Patrick dropped me off at Le Bananeton, a French bakery, where I ate two croissants, drank cafe au lait, and a freshly squeezed lemon juice. It was a sweet change from noodle soup which I had been eating regularly since the beginning of my 2012 Asia trip in January. I returned daily while in Vientiane.

When Steve and I were in Vientiane in 2010 the city was in the process of tearing the riverfront down (i.e., the land along the Mekong). There is now a walkway/promenade and park where the locals run, stroll, and exercise. The “old” riverfront drinking spots and cheap sidewalk restos disappeared and that, apparently, was part of what made the city quaint. Today, along the river, there is a greater wealth of hotels, bars, and restaurants. But it is still a slow-paced, lazy, “city” that is easily enjoyed.

During my stay in Vientiane I went to the wat Haw Phra Kaew  which now houses a museum and a small shop. I also visited the lovely Wat Sisaket that is the only wat not to have been destroyed during the Thai invasion in the early 1800s. It is the oldest surviving monastery and was built in 1818 in the Siamese style which could be why it was saved from the destruction. This wat was constructed with niches in the walls that are home to over 6000 Buddhas and was restored in the mid-1930s. That same afternoon I walked to the Thong Khan Kham Market.

Vientiane

Vientiane

Vientiane

Vientiane

Vientiane - Wat Sisaket

Vientiane – Wat Sisaket

On my final day in Vientiane I walked to the COPE centre. Like at MAG in Phonsvan, there was a display about the UXO problem in Lao PDR and the work undertaken by COPE and the PMRC to provide disability services for people affected by UXOs. Aside from that I meandered in and out of the streets, drank fresh lime, mango, and watermelon juices to cool off in the heat. That night I travelled by night train to Bangkok (please see my posting on Thailand).

Muang Sing

After a few weeks in Thailand I returned to the northeast of Laos as my entry way to China. I took advantage of my return and had a lay over in what was once a lazy village called Muang Sing. The Chinese have moved in and paved many of the dirt roads and started new construction in the village. They have their feet firmly planted in Muang SIng with a very obvious presence. Chinese tractors and trucks transport goods and are seen throughout the village. There are two border crossings between Laos and China; one crossing is for independent travellers between Boten and Mengla and the other is for Chinese and Lao people and used for local border trading only. Muang SIng is no longer the quaint, quiet place I was told it had been and that the guidebooks claim it is. And, unfortunately, there is garbage strewn everywhere.

Muang Sing

Muang Sing

Muang Sing - the outskirts

Muang Sing – the outskirts

Nonetheless, I spent a few days in the area. I took a tour with a British woman, Brenda, to tribal (Akha, Tai Dam, Yao, Tai Lo) villages. The women in these villages are persistent and try to sell their wares to tourists. Brenda and I considered cycling and walking but decided to give the local economy some business. We did, however, explore the area by bicycle the second day starting with the morning market opposite the bus station and then explored the quieter roads away from the main drag as well as visited a woman who makes noodles for the locals.

Muang Sing - Akha village

Muang Sing – Akha village

Muang Sing - Akha village

Muang Sing – Akha village

Muang Sing - Akha village

Muang Sing – Akha village

Muang Sing - Yao village

Muang Sing – Yao village

Muang Sing - Yao village

Muang Sing – Yao village

Vietnam 2009 and 2012

2009

I made my first visit to Vietnam in April 2009 when my friend LP generously invited me to join her on any part of her three-month trip to Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam. I was able to take two weeks off and join her toward the end of her trip, into which we packed in as much as humanly possible.

The flight to Vietnam was long. I was lucky to travel in daylight from Boston all the way to the Incheon Airport, just outside of Seoul. It was a cloudless sky throughout the whole leg and as we flew over countries and continents I identified Ottawa, the Hudson Bay, the Arctic, Russia, and China.

Hanoi

I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, late at night but the next day, typical of Tamar Granovsky, my travel mode was “on” so I was able to hit the ground running. LP and I started the day with bun bo xao (beef noodle salad) and Vietnamese cafe sua da (iced drip coffee with condensed milk). We then went for more cafe sua da at a cafe on the fourth floor of a building that overlooks the Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi as well as the circle of traffic and thousands of motor bikes.

Hanoi

Hanoi, Cafe by Hoan Kiem Lake

Hanoi traffic! Firstly, the noise is non-stop with vehicles honking; this is a sign that one motorist gives to the other to say that s/he is passing you, another motorist. How does a pedestrian cross the street? One walks across lanes of traffic where there are no lines (or rules), and as I said, seemingly thousands of motorbikes. Traffic lights appear to be a suggestion to help move traffic around in an orderly fashion – or so it seems. So… LP and I would grab each others’ arm or hand and together cross the street. The trick: first make eye contact with the closest or fastest motorist, keep moving,  and NEVER change your pace. The fact is they do not want to kill pedestrians. Just follow these rules and do not stop until you get to the other side of the street. Here are two videos  that demonstrate Vietnamese street traffic (take note of the pedestrians crossing in the first one. I crossed each of the intersections in these two cities multiple times.):

Hanoi Street Traffic and Ho Chi Minh City, Central Artery Street Traffic

Hanoi

Hanoi

Hanoi

Hanoi

We plodded through the Old Quarter (I had map in hand to orient myself yet relied heavily on LP’s experience of several days already spent acclimatizing herself to the city), rested and people-watched at cafes, and planned our trips to Sapa and Halong Bay.

At the end of the day, prior to supper of  grilled cha ca at the “famous” Cha Ca La Vong restaurant, we went for bia hoy (daily fresh kegged beer).  We sat on a roadside corner curb in small plastic chairs watching the rush hour traffic go by. A Japanese man, around 65, sat next to us and ordered dried fish smoked over a fire and then cut it up and put it in a small bowl with a hot dipping sauce. This gentleman insisted that we try it and as we ate he told us his story: he had left Japan forever, has been living in India for three years, and was in the middle of travelling southeast Asia for a few months. From his point of view Japan had become too expensive, years ago, with no job prospects for young people. He moved away from Japan twenty years earlier when he retired from his government job.

Breakfast in Hanoi

Breakfast in Hanoi

The second day we ate breakfast at the same little restaurant as the day before and ordered what seemed to be their specialty, bun bo xao – just as we had the prior morning.  Again we meandered the centre of Hanoi and this time snacked at a cafe along Hoan Kiam Lake where I discovered the world of Vietnamese shakes which began my love affair with both watermelon and mango shakes throughout my two weeks. That afternoon we had tickets for the water puppet theater. We ate dinner at the 69 Restaurant, recommended highly (at the time) by the Lonely Planet bible. This restaurant is situated in a century-old house in the Old Quarter and has a relaxing ambience.

Sapa and Surroundings

After an uneventful overnight train to Lao Cai and then a bus ride to Sapa we booked ourselves into the Family Guest House for a reasonable $8US. We then went to the local wet market for a pho and coffee breakfast, met up with a few Hmong women, and walked to the village of Cat Cat (3km south of Sapa). As we walked down the road the women told us that Cat Cat was created for tourists by the Vietnamese government about ten years earlier and, in order to enter, visitors must pay a nominal fee which goes to the government (not the villagers). So, to make money the village women put up stands to show off their handicrafts. The Hmong women, however, are not allowed to take their baskets into Cat Cat to sell their goods. Cat Cat and Sapa are surrounded by rice terraces and the walk through Cat Cat is via stone paths that wind around the village and up the mountain to the road leading back to Sapa.

Cat Cat

Cat Cat

Cat Cat

Cat Cat

The town of Sapa is situated in Northern Vietnam, is high in the mountains, and has an altitude over of 1600 meters. It is not a beautiful town but there are markets, opportunities for trekking, visiting local minority villages, and as I mentioned above is spectacularly landscaped with rice terraces. Among the many local tribal minorities are Red and Black Hmong, Dzao, Red Dao, Day, and Tay people.

When we returned to Sapa the women we walked with suggested that we go to the market for lunch. LP and I obliged and bought them their food: chicken pieces with bones and bowl of rice, with added hot water/broth. It was clear that all the Black Hmong women at the market were eating the same thing so we deduced that they eat this meal daily.

Sapa wet market

Sapa wet market

Sapa

Sapa

Sapa

Sapa

The Hmong women want sell their handicrafts to tourists. After lunch LP and I were surrounded by one, then two, then what seemed like dozens of women pressuring us to buy from them. The problem of course is that if you buy something from one woman the others appear jealous and urge you further (without relief) to buy from them, too. In fact, there were two women who attempted to sell me goods at lunch, unsuccessfully, and then followed me around town until I finally became outright rude and turned around and walked the other way — away from them. This was certainly not polite and I am embarrassed to admit to having done such a thing – but it worked. They were utterly taken aback and probably quite insulted (the latter was not my aim). And this is after I learned some Hmong phrases and words to help me out with communication in Sapa. Clearly that did not endear me to them or make them less relentless but I just couldn’t think of anything else to do.

But not everyone is like these two women. LP and I met two Black Hmong women who were genuinely curious about us. Hue and Zhoun, who were close friends with each other, walked with us through town asking questions about our lives. They offered us a homestay  (which we initially accepted but then had to forego because on our second day in Sapa they had a fight which we knew would have complicated a homestay). Here are two photos of me; the first is with Hue and the second is with Zhoun:

                 

That afternoon and the next day we explored Sapa and environs and left in the evening back to Hanoi.

Halong Bay

Our trip back to Hanoi and then Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay was quick and efficient. We took a night train to Hanoi, a taxi to the bus station where we ate the worse bowl of pho EVER, and then took several buses and a ferry (each connection went like clockwork) to Cat Ba. We spent the day eating and relaxing before embarking on the obligatory Halong Bay tour. What else sends you to Cat Ba?

Cat Ba

Cat Ba

Cat Ba

Cat Ba

Four others joined us for our overnight boat tour: a German woman and her Eritrean friend living in Germany/Bulgaria as well as a French father and daughter who LP and I thought, by the way they were acting, were lovers until they actually told us otherwise!!!

This boat tour taught me an important lesson that was later confirmed: in Asia never assume the transportation you booked will be the same transportation for the whole trip or that it will be as efficient as my first few experiences, at the beginning of this trip in Vietnam. It is best to assume that there will be technical difficulties and if you are LUCKY you will be pointed to other transportation. On this particular trip we barely made it out of Cat Ba when the captain discovered that the rudder wasn’t working. We waited an hour for another boat without beds. We learned that a third boat would meet us later in the day with beds – although not quite enough for all of us. Somehow we arranged ourselves and made it work.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Via the tour we visited a fish farm, kayaked through limestone caves, swam, and went to a different and more tremendous limestone cave that was like being in Disneyland or a sci-fi movie set, all a-lit with colourful lamps.  We also stopped at Monkey Island, on our return to Cat Ba, for a little (what else?) monkey viewing and a walk to the top of a karst.

Hue and Hoi An

The evening we returned to Hanoi LP and I took an overnight  “double-decker” bus with reclining seats and a toilet, to the middle of the country – seated in the lap of luxury! We were on our way to Hoi An, and were fortunate to have to change buses in Hue which gave us a half-day of sightseeing, there. We started our morning with coffee and pain au chocolat at La Boulangerie Francaise, a business that teaches disadvantaged youth to become pastry chefs.

Hue lies on the banks of the Song Huong (Perfume) River.  Most of the historic sites are within the Citadel, built in 1804 by Emperor Gia Long (Nguyen Anh). He established Hue as the new capital and and began the Nguyen dynasty that united Vietnam for the first time in two centuries. The Nguyen dynasty ruled until 1945.

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

We spent most of the time in the Imperial Enclosure (within the citadel). After exploring this area we separated for a few hours each moving at her own pace around the city for photo ops, etc. The city seemed fairly empty (especially compared to the other places I had been to thus far). There were school children bicycling the streets in their uniforms and I was even knocked over by one boy while I was walking on the sidewalk.

Hue

Hue

We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon and found relatively fancy lodging (compared to the $8US lodging in Sapa and in Cat Ba) near Hoi An’s Old Quarter – Vinh Hung 2 Hotel.

Hoi An is a beautiful town; the historic section’s architecture is magnificent. Bougainvillea is everywhere and was in bloom and storefronts and the streets are alit with silk lanterns. The architecture is a mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, as well as European styles; and I wandered that area a few times but also made sure that I explored the rest of Hoi An where it was clear that older homes are razed and rebuilt. I explored some newer sections of Hoi An, on my own,  before I met LP for lunch in the old part of town (the streets are closed to cars and thus fairly quiet despite tourists).

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

We ate lunch at Morning Glory Restaurant where we had: cau lau ; banh bao  and banh vac:  “white rose” rice flour dumplings; goi xoai xanh, green mango salad with shrimp and herbs; Vietnamese creme caramel ; and a banana shake with lime juice. Although the food we ate could be easily found in the markets and on the street this restaurant was a true find; we returned a second time for more of Morning Glory Restaurant’s subtle and delicious meals.

LP and I spent the next days apart and together. I explored markets and more of the new part of town, together we went to historic sites and we investigated the nearby country-side. And of course we ate and ate the excellent food to be had in Hoi An.

After a quick two weeks I parted ways with LP in Hoi An and took the bus to Danang which got me to the Hanoi airport and home. This was my first trip to Asia and the beginning of my love-affair with Southeast Asia which has made me fiercely determined to return.

2012

My return trip to SE Asia started with surviving the 25 hour travel to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMH) from Boston. The smell and sounds of Hanoi came right back to me the moment I stepped out of the airport. There is a smell of burned meat and the sound of motos and cars honking everywhere. I felt at home. The first thing I did when I arrived was wander the neighbourhood where I was staying and survived crossing the streets. My hotel, in District 1 at the Hotel Luan Vu is situated on a quiet lane (and therefore the hotel was quiet). District 1 is in the very centre of HCMH, is home to backpackers and is also both the central business and entertainment area. Many of the streets are narrow as are the houses whose architecture is a mix of colonial French and newer high rise buildings.  I got right into things and drank a bia 333 (beer 333) before heading off to bed. 

So began my 3.5 month adventure to Southeast Asia and China.

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Since I was in travel mode, I woke up early and, not tired, went to the local market to eat a bowl of pho bo and drink cafe sua da (two in fact, one for me and one for Steve, as per my promise to him). The first day included a massage and booking a tour ticket of the Mekong Delta that would lead me to Cambodia via boat.

While taking care of business that first day I discovered that cashing traveller’s cheques in 2012 was not as easy as it had been when I travelled in S.E. Asia 2009 and 2010. I had to go to multiple banks before one finally let me cash the cheques. Clearly it will only get harder over the years.

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Day two started off slowly. I walked around District 3  which is considered a part of the city centre. I took many photos as I strolled the streets then met Hanh who I was introduced to online through Couchsurfing. We had lunch together at Nam Loi  – a place I stumbled upon the night before and a restaurant that happened to be the place she took me to that day. After lunch we went to a smoke-filled coffee house for (what else?) cafe sua da. We talked about work and the role/expectations of men compared to women in Vietnam. We also discussed the fact that the country is communist and yet capitalism is creeping in, in a regimented way.

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Ho Chi Minh CIty

I continued my walk through District 3 and was stopped by 5 men drinking beer and eating in an empty lot. They invited me to join them, which i did. The bia 333 hit the spot given the heat. We tried to communicate with each other as best as we could and luckily I had my glossary of words and cheat sheet of phrases. Clinking glasses and cans to a happy new year continued for an hour. One man, whose wife joined us 15 minutes later, kept on telling me that I’m #1. I could only agree! Our conversation was very simple:  we exchanged names and ages. I learned that they had just finished their first day at work after time off because of Tet, the Vietnamese New year. As I got up to leave, after thanking them and saying goodbye, they told me I must be very careful with my camera and purse; it is not uncommon, it seems, to have purses snatched.

Ho Chi Minh City, Drinking with the Locals

Ho Chi Minh City, Drinking with the Locals

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Ho Chi Minh CIty

After showering back at the guesthouse, I went for a supper of salads, pork, and pigskin rolls as well as pig’s ear spring rolls. I also ate spicy ground beef wrapped in betel leaves at Hoang Yen buffet at the Zen mall.

The following day I went to a cooking lesson given by the Saigon Cooking Class. We began with a tour of the Ben Thanh market — the 2nd largest market in Asia – where we were introduced to various produce including about 10 different types of mint. We were informed that if we eat at a stall the first item listed on the board is usually the specialty of the stall (a very good tip!) and the dish to order since it will be the freshest. Ben Thanh Market caters to restaurants, wealthier Vietnamese, and tourists. Apparently it has the freshest meat, fish, vegetables, etc. After the tour and ingredient buying we proceeded to the school which is part of the Hoa Tuc resto. The cooking menu:

  • Fried Saigon spring roll with pork, carrot, mushroom and glass noodles. Traditional Nuoc Mam dipping sauce – Chảgiò Saigon
  • Fresh lotus stems salad with prawns, pork and Vietnamese herbs
  • with prawn cracker and a chili flower. Sweet and sour dressing – Gỏi Ngó sen
  • Sticky rice fritter stuffed with pork and carrot with soya sauce – Xôi nhân thịt chiên
  • Char-grilled beef wrapped in Betel leaves with lemongrass served with fresh rice noodles, rice paper and fresh leaves – Bò La Lot
  • Dessert

In the afternoon I visited the War Remnants Museum. It was a profound experience. The museum documents the “American War” – which it clearly was. The first floor covers all of the support against the war and includes, quite heavily, American resistance to the war, too. The second and third floors displayed photographs (including a large collection from the war correspondents), written histories of the war, statistics, and information about the use of the  herbicide agent orange dioxins – used as a defoliant. Today, two generations later, there are still birth defects linked to it. It was not an uncommon to see a person who had clearly been physically damaged by the war. The museum also has displays about the torture that went on during this time period –  including the torture of  women and children.  Finally, as an offering of hope, there is a display of photos of places throughout Vietnam that were destroyed by this war, and corresponding photographs of these places today. There has been an incredible amount of growth in this country which is inspiring. All in all, however, it is a very sad part of American history and kudos to the Vietnamese who welcome the Americans so openly, today.

Ho Chi Minh CIty, wet market

Ho Chi Minh CIty, Wet Market

Overall impressions: HCMC is a bustling city with people and motorbikes everywhere. I have never seen so many parking lots (xen gui) for the motorbikes (and many people hang out in them when they are not driving on the street). Men hang out drinking beer and coffee and playing games while women work (seemingly, more than men and confirmed by Hanh. LP and I noticed this when we were in Vietnam together in 2009). In fact, it seems that more women than men work in the public sector although it is the men who work as guards. Also, although there are propaganda posters they are not as evident as in other places I’ve been to in Vietnam. I do like this city but it has not gotten under my skin the way Hanoi, Hue, and Hoi An did.

The Mekong Delta

I spent two days of a three-day tour in the Mekong Delta before leaving Vietnam to Cambodia. As many as fifteen million people live in the Mekong Delta and most use the canals, rivulets, and rivers to survive, in one form or another. The delta, is the rice bowl of the country and yields enough rice to feed all of Vietnam and still have a surplus. Coconut palms and fruit orchards also are in abundance. We visited a coconut candy “factory” the size of the upper floor of my house (and I live in a modest-sized house), where everything is made by hand; spent time at a fruit orchard where a man-made pond was built from a bombed crater; and then spent the first night in My Tho. The following day we were taken to a brick factory and spent the night in Can Tho so that we could visit the floating market the next day. Three of us were then left in Chau Doc which was our gateway to Cambodia.

Mekong Delta, making coconut candy

Mekong Delta, Making Coconut Candy

Mekong Delta, drying fish

Mekong Delta, Drying Fish

Mekong Delta, floating market

Mekong Delta, Floating Market

The next time I am in Vietnam, if I do not go to Hanoi, I’d like to spend a few weeks, at the very least exploring the delta by bicycle.