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Trip Report SOLO IN BANGKOK, LAOS AND VIETNAM 1/08 (ekscrunchy abridged trip report)

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Bangkok, Luang Prabang and Vietnam..a Solo Traveler’s 2008 Return to SE Asia


Before the details desert me, I will write a brief report of my January trip. Some background: I have quite a bit of travel experience in SE Asia prior to 1990, but this would be my first return to Bangkok in about 20 years and my first visit to Laos and to parts of Vietnam other than Saigon, where I spent two weeks in 2000.

I traveled solo; trans-Pacific flights were on KoreanAir from JFK to Bangkok and from Saigon to JFK. Both required a manageable layover in Seoul. Hotels were upmarket and the itinerary was:

5 nights Bangkok..Peninsula Hotel
5 days Luang Prabang..Residence Phou Vau
5 days Hanoi..Hilton Hanoi Opera
1 night Halong Bay cruise..Emeraude
1 night Hanoi..Hilton Hanoi Opera
3 nights Hoi An..Life Resort
2 nights Hue..La Residence
3 nights Saigon..1 night Saigon Sheraton; 2 nights Park Hyatt Saigon

The hotels and flights within Asia were booked by Gregg at Innovasian Travel, using Exotissimo as the ground operator.
I hired (a) private guide(s) for 1 ½ days in Bangkok and for 2 days in Luang Prabang. In Vietnam, I had guides for a few days as well. The guides in Vietnam were contracted through Exotissimo. In Bangkok, I used Tong for one day and her associate Charlie for another. Ta was my guide in Luang Prabang.

I like to spend hours wandering around aimlessly. Food is also a top priority. I am not bent on seeing every point of tourist interest and have the hope that I will be able to make future trips to the places that exert fascination or interest.

This report will be written in my usual m.o. which is to say, in fits and starts. Please feel free to ask any and all questions. Before I begin I want to thank posters here who were unstinting with their time and expertise. You know who you are!!!





BANGKOK

Arrived in the Bangkok airport about 11:30pm on a Saturday night (5 January) only to have quite a bit of trouble locating my transportation to the hotel. When I located the guide, she could not locate our car. Suffice to say that I was tired and mildly annoyed and, eventually, insisted that we take a taxi to the Peninsula. It was not until about 2:20am that I reached the hotel. Normally this would be a non-issue except that tomorrow was Sunday and I had to awaken early in order to reach the Chatuchak market by 9am at the latest!! I had a Deluxe room with a sweeping view of the River:


http://bangkok.peninsula.com/pbk/accommodation_02.html



Next morning after about 4 hours of sleep and after gorging on the splendiferous Peninsula buffet breakfast, I set out on the Penn boat and the Skytrain for the “JJ” market, arriving shortly after 9am.

The market was a joy, and far less hot, crowded and difficult to navigate than I had feared. I had a Nancy Chandler map but did not use it as I found it delightful just to wander around..you guessed it.. aimlessly. I spent about three hours in the market. My two “major” purchases were a silk ikat jacket for 480 Baht and a pair of wonderful leather sandals that cost about 20USD. I wish I had purchased another pair or two of the sandals as the workmanship is excellent and they have an artisanal look that reminds me of the sandals my Mom used to bring back from Capri in the 50s!! An excellent buy!

By 1am I was back at the hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and swimming laps in one of the hotel pools.

Dinner that evening was at Pen which proved to be a tantalizing introduction to Thai food. Fried Morning Glory with Minced Pork; Barbecued (grilled) River Prawns and Fresh Mango with Coconut Ice Cream. Superb. My only regret, here and throughout the trip, was that as a single diner I could not sample more dishes!
I was the only non-Asian in the restaurant and despite the fact that the hotel had reserved a table for me, the staff seemed quite surprised to find a single female foreigner in their midst. (This would remain true throughout the trip) The female manager could not have been more solicitous. Dinner cost: 780 ThaiBaht. Highly recommended. Five stars!

Pen…2068/4 Chan Road Chongnonsee, Yannawa, Bangkok
Open 11am-2pm and 5pm to 11pm.

After dinner, a taxi back to the hotel and to bed early in preparation for my tour with Tong the next day…more soon..




Monday morning found me at the Peninsula breakfast buffet which must rank up there with Asia’s most enticing. Every imaginable edible finds a place at the long tables and stations, from dim sum to mesclun salad; smoked salmon to coconut muffins and everything in between including heaps of tropical fruit. Mangoes, mangoes, mangoes, even though it was not high season for these. Custard apples, rose apples, dragon fruit, papaya, pineapple..etc etc. Washington state apples even made an appearance. No mangosteen, though. Luckily I had picked up a few of these the day before and stashed them in my room.

Tong picked me up after breakfast. As has been noted, she is a bundle of energy and quite a character. Unfortunately, she was not feeling well, the result of working punishing hours every day and she had a fever and horrid case of laryngitis. Even so, she managed to regale me with stories for the entire day. I should note here that the King’s sister has passed away recently and the effect that her passing had had on Tong and others I met was touching, as was the love that the Thais seem to hold for their King. Tong actually broke down crying when relating tales of the Princess and the royal family. Very moving.

En route to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market we passed fish farms and stalls selling dried fish and fish sauce strung along the highway. After q quick stop to have a look, we drove through a town with a market on the railroad tracks. This unremarkable town whose name I never did learn was the site of my first experience with the wondrous round coconut cakes cooked on a griddle which I believe are named Khanom Khrok. Here is a photo:


http://dishaday.blogspot.com/2007/01/snack-10-coconut-cakes.html


Then it was on to a Buddhist temple whose interior was a marvel of intricately carved teak depicting scenes in the life of the Buddha. This place is wondrous and should not be missed. Unfortunately, in taking off my shoes outside I seem to have stepped in or been bitten by something..more on this later.

The Floating Market was the next stop. Tong hired a boat for the two of us and we cruised along the canals, tasting various treats prepared by the floating vendors. The food was excellent..noodle soups, grilled pork and chicken bits on sticks, fried bananas, mango, pomelo and pineapple. As time passed the canals became clogged with boats packed with tourists. I would recommend arriving here as early as possible to avoid some of the larger tour groups that descend as the morning wears on.

More soon……….


From the Floating Market we drove to Tong’s “secret place,” which is a fishing village a short distance off the main highway. At a village dock we boarded an open motor boat, visited and fed the monkeys living in the mangroves, cruised the stilt houses in the bay where villagers sleep to guard the fish farms when the nets/traps are full, and arrived at the stilt house belonging to Tong’s friend, Reed, at lunchtime. Course by course a seafood feast was laid out before us: Seafood soup, smoked catfish salad, grilled prawns and a whole fried fin fish.
The meal, and the setting in the bamboo structure in the middle of the bay, was thrilling! Highly recommended!! There is a small room with bedding and a decent bathroom with flush toilet in the house. No electricity, though. In the right company I would love to return for an overnight visit. Or at the least, skip the floating market and arrive here earlier to have more time relaxing and even swimming in the bay. It was hard to tear ourselves away from these surroundings. After another monkey visit and cruise, we found ourselves on shore ready for the return to Bangkok.

Tong’s contact information (book well in advance):

www.tourwithtong.com

Tired from the day and laden with fresh fruit that had been sliced and packed by the vendors at the Floating Market, I returned to my room. By this time my foot was bothering me quite a bit, so I decided to have a light fruit dinner and spend the evening reading. Unfortunately as I tucked myself into the marvelous Peninsula bed, I discovered that my reading glasses were smashed! Never mind, the jet lag was having its way and I quickly fell asleep.

I will note here that while I loved the Peninsula Hotel, I found the location to be a bit of a drawback in terms of the immediate area not holding much in the way of eating. While it is easy to take their boat and board the Skytrain, there did not seem to be many choices for dinners within walking distance of the hotel. (There is a tempting grouping of indoor stalls on the main road toward the bridge, but this is a long walk form the hotel…) Just a small complaint, though. I could find no fault with the hotel itself.



I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling a little sorry for myself, because not only was I unable to read (horrendous for me) and therefore partially blind, but I was lame as well. The sole of my foot has sprouted little red bumps partially encircled by a darker red arc. It itched like crazy and putting weight on was uncomfortable. I wanted to investigate and take a stab at it; perhaps I could find a stinger, or a shard of glass. So I asked the reception person if they could scare up a tweezer.
The story came out and the reception person decided that I needed a nurse. Less than 10 minutes later, Miss Peninsula Nurse, all decked out in a white uniform with perky cap escorted me to my room and proceeded to open her black bag, revealing a scary assortment of large needles, a row of glass ampules and stacks of pills, gauzes ad goodness knows what else. After poking around on the sole of my foot for a good 15 minutes she declared that there was nothing stuck inside and decided that I had an infection. Antibiotics were prescribed, Betadyne was applied, and pain pills were given. All free, I might add. I did not believe there was any infection but I had visions of red lines running up my leg and blood poisoning setting in. I took the pills!

After that interlude, I hobbled down to the buffet. Nothing would keep me away from that spread! And soon after, I met my Tong replacement, Charlie, in the lobby and we set out by boat and taxi for the Grand Palace.

I will not go into detail about the Grand Palace and Wat Po; both are amazing places and essentials for any visitor to the city. Many of you suggested that having a guide would be unnecessary and after my visit, I came to agree. Charlie knows his facts and history but after awhile I became more interested just being in the moment and absorbing the grandeur before me than in hearing the details about the royal lineage and dates of the various kingly reigns. My interest lies more in the architecture and decoration of the structures; perhaps I should have concentrated on hiring a guide who focused on those subjects.

From Wat Po we tuk tuked to the alley where an extended family crafts the alms bowls carried by Thai monks. “Monk’s Bowl Alley” is a worthwhile detour. I particularly liked the large bowls with the exposed bras rivets but ultimately decided that I lacked the display space back home. The first price for a large bowl of this type (streel and brass) was about $40USD and I doubt if bargaining would yield a much lower price. (The simple black bowls are less expensive but not as attractive).

Another tuk tuk brought us to the bustling maze that is Bangkok’s Chinatown, where my first mission was to find a pair of reading glasses to replace my now one-armed pair. Charlie knows Chinatown well and he immediately led me to a side street lined with wholesalers selling cheap reading glasses by the dozens.
After much trying on and gazing in the mirrors, I found a nice pair for about 130TB; unfortunately I must have paid so much attention to the appearance of the glasses on my face and not enough to the magnification because when I got them back to the hotel I realized that somehow instead of buying +1.25 I had purchased -1.25. Very disappointing. (The next day I finally found a fairly cool red pair that actually allowed me to read)

We wandered--or rather Charlie wandered and I limped behind--through Chinatown for an hour or so. I had been looking for red coral since my visit to Beijing and I found some good-sized chunks in a jewelry/bead shop for 90 TB per strand.

And then it was time for my eagerly anticipated lunch at the famous Chote Chitr restaurant!!! Lunch will be served soon!!


My lunch at Chote Chitr was one of the two best meals I had in 25 days in Asia (the other as I Saigon). Stellar food!!! Guide Charlie and I shared three dishes:
Mee grob, the crispy fried noodles; banana flower salad; and a smokey eggplant salad that just might be the best eggplant dish I have ever eaten. The mix of salty, sour, sweet had a complexity of flavors that is truly astounding. There is no décor to speak of here and the proprietress can be less than welcoming. She actually yelled at me when I attempted to wash my hands in the sink in the bathroom!!! NO No No!! No hand washing in the bathroom sink. Hand washing in the kitchen area! The size of that kitchen area certainly puts to shame those of us who are continually fretting about lack of kitchen space in our own homes! The place was filled; there was one table of foreigners at the time of my visit. One of the wonders of Bangkok!!

After lunch I wanted to sample one more dish: The Pad Khee Mao that RW Apple rhapsodized in his now classic article on Bangkok eating. So we tuk tuked to Raan Jay Fai, the no frills eatery open to the street on two sides a short ride away from Chote Chitr. I had a look around and attempted a translated conversation with the owner, but they do not open for service until 3pm and it was too early. Alas! I never did make it back here and it is now #1 on my list for next time..


Unfortunately I just lost the entire report covering the next two days. Just gone at the strike of a key. So I will do my best to re-write:

I returned to the hotel after lunch and relaxed at the pool. My foot was bothering me and it was uncomfortable to walk. I now had a large red area filled with little bumps and encircled by a darker red line. So early to bed for this long-suffering traveler.

The next day I was off to the malls. After wandering around the Siam Paragon mall’s top floor and its upscale Thai boutiques, where I purchased a few gifts at Anita Silk and a silk ikat jacket at another shop (equivalent of $150US which I knew was too high; there was little bargaining in these shops) I walked through the Siam Discovery mall and made my way to MBK. Here a warren of small stalls occupies several floors. I found a pair of red reading glasses in one of these, for 199 TB. The wares at MBK did not hold my interest too long: Lots of tacky souveniers, equally tacky designer knock-offs (not my thing), electronics,
cheap clothing, etc.

I would have liked to find an area of the city where I could wander along streets lined with interesting small boutiques rather than huge shopping malls that did not differ too much from those in other countries. (Where would I find this..on Sukhumvit Road??)

After my less-than-interesting shopping foray, it was back to the Peninsula for some quality time around the pool. And because I did not want to face the boat/skytrain or even a taxi journey, I decided to stay put for my last dinner in Bangkok.

It was only by promising to vacate the table after 90 minutes that I was able to snag a seat at Thiptara, the hotel’s Thai restaurant.

I will post this now, as I am terrified of losing what I wrote, again…and promise to return soon with the account of dinner…




As I wrote above, the Peninsula’s Thai restaurant, Thiptara, enjoys a handsome setting with Thai style houses set into an open-air dining area on the river. There was live entertainment in the form of a woman in traditional dress playing music on a string instrument. The scene is romantic at night, especially at several tables along the river. (Make sure to request one of these if you do decide to dine here) I began with a caipirinha made with vodka which was excellent. The fried morning glory and prawn salad was good but the main course, soft shell crab which was fried and served in pieces, was disappointing. Overall I felt that the food was a diluted attempt at Thai food for non-spice-loving non-Thais and the prices were extremely high relative to the quality of the food.
My bill with the one alcoholic drink, one bottle of water (90 TB!!) and the two dishes totaled 1377 Baht, or a shocking $43 US dollars!

The next morning, after a brief stop at a photo place between the hotel and the bridge, I was on my way to the beautiful new airport and my 1:30pm flight to Luang Prabang. The guide, wanting to make amends for the mixup with the arrival transfers, presented me with a few small gifts and a bouquet of carnations. Those carnations, which I re-gifted to one of the female security screeners, were a huge hit with the entire group at security that day. Carnations, which we think of in the US as rather ordinary flowers, are evidently quite the showstopper in Bangkok which makes me laugh…perhaps orchids are too mundane!






I arrived in Luang Prabang after short flight on Bangkok Air and transferred to my home for the next 5 nights, the Residence Phou Vau. The pros and cons of staying at this hotel, located outside of the old city, have been discussed here and I will weigh in by saying that I was charmed by the Phou Vau and that the slightly inconvenient location was outweighed by the beauty and serenity of the place. My very large room with netted bedroom and private terrace was on the ground floor of the building facing Phou Si hill. The grounds are beautiful, especially when illuminated at night by lanterns strung in the trees and placed in niches carved into the low garden walls. The pool area is simply among the most beautiful I have ever seen. (Unfortunately the water was very very cold in January and few people dipped more than a toe into the pool during my time at the hotel). The hotel offers free transport into town on a scheduled timetable during the day but they were willing to take me at other times as well; the ride is about 10 minutes, maximum, to the main street of the old city. Guests can phone the hotel and asked to be picked up in town, arrange to be picked up at a set time, or take a tuk tuk for $1-$2 US or the equivalent in Laotian kip.



http://www.residencephouvao.com/web/plua/plua_a2a_home.jsp




Luang Prabang itself is magical. This is the SouthEast Asia that I remember from my travels 20 years ago. Tourists are very much in evidence (the majority seemed to be Thai) but they do not, as of yet, seem to overwhelm the town. I understand that the upscale AmanResorts is scheduled to take over a property here in the near future, and new hotels are sprouting both within the old city and in the expanding newer part of town, closer to the Phou Vau. But for the moment the place remains a jewel., although many of the return visitors that I met were dismayed at the changes that had taken place even in the past few years.


After unpacking a few things, I took the hotel’s 5:40pm jitney that lets guests off at the post office. (scheduled departures left at 40 minutes past the hour beginning in late afternoon). From there, I made my first of what would become many many promenades along the main street, stopping every few feet to admire a temple roofline, a display of fresh fruit, or an incongruous but common sighting of orange-robed teenage monks crowded around a computers in one of the dozens of internet cafes scattered around town. The displays of cheap CDs drew me into a sidewalk stall and I was set to purchase a pile, until I noticed the FREAK Sinatra label on one of these. Not more than a few minutes later, I made my first purchase, a box crafted of a stone-like material (explanations as to exactly what this substance is were wide ranging and very varied) embossed with raised dragonflies…$15US. I would buy a few more of these boxes in varying sizes before my departure. I also wandered into the LP branch of Vientiane’s Caruso shop, mentioned above, which sells extraordinarily handsome textiles and household items crafted of exotic (and endangered?) and beautfully veined hardwoods.


http://www.carusolao.com/









Moving right along on what must be the slowest-paced Asian trip report since my last one, my first dinner in Luang Prabang as at the much –lauded three Nagas Restaurant on the main street of the old city.


http://www.alilahotels.com/3nagas/dining.asp


I was very glad that I had booked a table (through the hotel, earlier that day) because the place was filled and quite a few people were turned away. Because I had not known to request a table inside, I was placed at one of the streetside tables which, to my mind, are less desirable because of the street noise from passing motorbikes. It was also a bit chilly after sunset. The restaurant provides outdoor tables with charcoal braziers to ward off insects but I did not find these to be necessary; I saw no few insects during my stay in LP.

After a vodka sour, I chose three courses from the menu:

Stuffed bamboo shoots (these would become one of my favorite local dishes)
Minced pork salad..very good
Pork with eggplant..good, if a tad bland

Along with sticky rice, the total for dinner with one drink was $18.40USD. The service is very friendly, if a little slow. The meal did not live up to the heights that I expected after having read quite a few reviews, so I decided to return a couple of days later to explore the menu in more detail.

I will probably risk opening myself up to criticism here, but in all honesty, I was rather disappointed with the food in Luang Prabang. While I had a few dishes which I considered memorable, overall I felt that the food at the tourist places (which is where I ate most of my meals) had been diluted for Westerners. I just did not experience knockout flavors and complexity. To expand on this as best I can, I guess I felt that I had scaled such heights with the meal at Chote Chitr that I was primed for more of the same level of excitement, even if this was another country and another cuisine. I had such high expectations for Laotian food in LP after having read so many glowing reports that I was bound to be slightly disappointed. Well, there you have it… I did have one transcendant meal in LP, which you will read bout soon.

After dinner it was a snap to find a tuk tuk back to the hotel. I have said this before, but it bears mentioning one more time. Illuminated by the candles and lanterns, the Phou Vau hotel and gardens are magical at night.

The dogs of Luang Prabang are up before sunrise, as I learned my first morning. A 5am rise would become the routine for me here, but I was so excited just to be in the city that I did not care much about the early wakeup barks. After a sumptuous breakfast in the dining area overlooking the pool (if you have never tried tamarind preserve, take my word for it..fantastic! Along with piles of sliced mangoes, croissants…I know I have said this above but I cannot stop myself from enthusing…sorry)

After breakfast it was time to meet Ta (Ta Keovongsy) who had been recommended to me by ElizabethS and who I had hired for two days:

across.asia.travel.laos@hotmail.com

Incidentally, Ta and Tong (Bangkok) refer clients to one another. I had high hopes for Ta and I was not disappointed. More soon..


The first stop for Ta and I was Wat Visun. with its famous watermelon stupa.

Next was probably the most glorious sight of this trip: the Golden City Monastery, Wat Xiang Thong, located near the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers at the end of the town.
Wat Xiang Thong is an enchanting mélange of buildings capped by sweeping graceful Lao roofs and embellished by glass mosaics, tiles, and black and red walls stenciled in gold leaf. I visited several times during the course of my stay here and it remains the most enduring memory of my time in LP. If you have time to visit one “sight” here, this is the one.

From there it was off to the boat dock and up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves. This pair of limestone caves, about an hour upriver from LP, house thousands of damaged and abandoned Buddha images of all sizes and postures. The steep climb up to both caverns is well worth the exertion. The light is dim in the upper-most cave and the flashlights on offer are not powerful, so you might consider brining your own torch. An enchanting and dazzling sight and another absolute must!

A cluster of thatch-roofed riverfront restaurants await across from the caves so we headed there for lunch. Note that there is a steep climb up the riverbank to access these places, and the small village stretching away from the river. The food was very good,,fish salad was the only dish I remember. Not dumbed down for tourists, it sparkled with herbs and was quite tasty. With your back to the river, it was the place on the right atop the bank. I doubt if the restaurants differ much from one another, though.

I decided to skip the “whiskey village” Ban Xang Hai, partly to pull away from the boats filled with other day trippers that would be heading here after lunch. So the next destination for Ta and I was the “paper making village” where many villagers craft paper made from both mulberry bark and elephant dung. The lovely handmade papers, some of it embedded with flowers and leaves, is sold by the sheet and also fashioned into albums, lanterns, and all sorts of other items. I paid $3US for an album; I wish I had bought a dozen of these.

From there it was back to the big city, where I wanted to visit the workshop and store of Thithpeng Manihphone neat Wat That (a few steps in from the main street; look for the sign). Maniphone is among the country’s most famous silversmiths; Laos has a long history of silverwork which was once commissioned by the Royal Court. The items are oriented more toward table and decorative items than towards jewelery, but interesting just the same.

From there it was back to the hotel to relax for the rest of the day…more soon…



The following day, Saturday, was a “free” day and one I spent just wandering around, paying a second visit to the Wat Xiang Thong, and visiting most of the interesting-looking shops lining the two parallel streets and their connecting side streets that comprise the core of the old city. As I mentioned above, Sandra Yuck’s Caruso is one of the most appealing high-end shops, located at the 3 Nagas end of town. On the riverfront street, an interesting pair of guys offer high quality antiques including a lot of Chinese Deco and Burmese lacquer. And there are innumerable shops piled with Lao textiles; Caruso has a very high quality on offer at very high prices ($600-plus US for one particularly beautiful length of woven silk.) Another shop to note is Ok Pop Tok; their site is worth looking at for an introduction:

www.ockpoptok.com

The shopping area is concentrated so you can easily wander around with no aim in sight. Prices for woven lengths of silk range from $20 US up into the many hundreds of dollars. Many shops take Visa/MC and all I visited will also accept euros and dollars.

A frequent stopping point for me was Naga Creations, a jewelery shop on the main street across from the ATM. The French owner, Fabrice, settled in LP with his Laotian partner about 5 years ago and is a font of information on the area and on the business of semi-precious stones. I brought the loose red coral I had purchased in Bangkok and Fabrice designed a necklace for me; in the course of checking back to see if it was finished, I ended up spending a few hours here absorbing interesting and cautionary tales of the trade in stones and the ongoing development of Luang Prabang. He has two shops a few feet apart which offer ready made necklaces, bracelets, rings, etc at what I consider to be fair prices. He will also design pieces from loose stones, bought here or brought from elsewhere.

I have to break this up or risk losing what I have written..back soon with lunch..







Tamarind Restaurant, on a small street parallel to Sisavang, was the site of my best meal in Luang Prabang. The restaurant, which also offers cooking classes, is owned by an Austraian/Lao couple whose love for the culture and cuisine just shines through. There are a few outdoor tables facing the grounds of Wat Nong, and one interior room, where various local food products: honeys, dried river weed, spices, stock tables and shelves. The only catch here is that they close at 6pm every night except Fridays, when a communal feast is held; but group feasts on other nights are a possibility; their site describes the food and gives details with prices:



http://www.tamarindlaos.com/index.html


Again, I was hampered by being a solo diner and therefore limited as to the amount of dishes I could sample. I ordered the Stuffed Lemongrass which was large bulbs of the herb stuffed with a mixture of chopped chicken, cucumber, lime leaves other spices. Absolutely wonderful! Accompanied by a fresh lime juice (with ice) lunch totaled 35,000 Kip. I wanted very much to return for dinner but the communal Friday feast had occurred the night before. I was also sorry that the owners were not in town; she was in Australia delivering a baby! A charming place with excellent local food, Tamarind should not be missed! Plan ahead and try to arrange a Pun Pa feast (see website for details). They also offer cooking classes.











After my late lunch I returned to the hotel where I had booked a massage in the Phou Vau spa, a lovely complex of small structures set in a garden. Very nice, beautiful peaceful setting.

The hotel tuk tuk drove me to my intended dinner address; the driver commented that this was not a place popular with tourists, which made me hopeful. I had read about the Malee Restaurant in Tim Parker-Bowles book, “The Year of Eating Dangerously,” (highly recommended) which has a long chapter on eating in Laos. But the place has apparently changed since then and a post on Chowhound was not encouraging.

But I was I the mood for some culinary adventure, so off I went, to a small outdoor place about a mile from the Phou Vau. Malee Restaurant specializes in Laotian grilled meats. I was the only tourist in the place and after they recovered from the surprise of seeing me, staff was very helpful. For 42000 Kip, about ($5USD), my dinner consisted of one large Beer Lao and the pork barbecue. A brazier was placed on the table and fired up. Platters of food arrived with the directions that I was to grill the meat on the grill part and enjoy it with the accompanying napa cabbage, bean thread noodles, watercress, fried eggplant, and other tidbits which I was to dip I the accompanying (delicious) sauce. A spicy papaya salad completed the dinner. The surroundings are fairly plain and staff has limited English, but I would recommend for the experience. After dinner, I walked back along Phou Vau Road, past many large new hotels that appeared to cater mostly toward Asian tourists, and up the hill to the Phou Vau.


The next morning Ta and I, along with phalanxes of tourists (mostly from Thailand and Europe) lined up along the main street in town about 6am to await the parade of monks who pass along the street at sunrise to receive alms, mainly in the form of balls of sticky rice prepared at home or, in the case of tourists, purchased at the market. This experience remains one of the most memorable of my trip. After much coaching from Ta regarding the proper posture, the proper way to wear the sash across my chest, and the proper motions with which to proffer the rice, I felt I was ready. This is not as easy as it looks for there are certain procedures to follow in order not to offend. After about 15 minutes of these repetitive motions, I surrendered my place to Ta and was able to take a series of photos without, hopefully, offending anyone.

After the long line of monks had passed, we walked to the market which was going in full swing. What a sight: Everything from live bats to writhing insects, to mountains fruit and hillocks of vegetables from the familiar to the exotic is for sale to cook, or to eat on the spot. I could not resist the round coconut/rice khanom, cooked on a black griddle. Unfortunately, these treats did a good job of resisting me and I had a few uncomfortable moments back at my hotel until they made their exit. This slight upset was the only one of my trip and was over in less than 15 minutes. I would urge tourists, however, to exercise caution when eating market and street foods, just in case.

Refreshed and ready after breakfast, Ta and I set off for the Royal Palace Museum, where the highlight is the Throne Hall, with its wall of rainbow-colored glass mosaics created in the mid-1950s to commemorate the 2500 anniversary of Buddha’s passing into Nirvana.

From the Museum, accompanied by Ta’s pretty wife and adorable young daughter, and our driver, we set off for the KouangSi waterfalls.


The drive to the Kouang Si waterfalls, about 32 km from LP, took us past beautiful forested hillsides, terraced paddies, and a couple of Hmong villages. We stopped to watch farmers up to their knees in mid who were plowing with the help of oxen. The falls themselves are a major day trip spot so my advice is to arrive early..well before lunch. There are a series of waterfalls that descend into clear aquamarine pools edged by tropical vegetation. Lovely, even if the water was far too cold to swim. Ta’s young daughter made a beeline for the large cages housing black bears rescued from poachers working for the Chinese medicine market, and a tiger who was orphaned when her mother was killed, also by poachers. Ta maintained, when I commented about the cages, that the tiger would not survive in the Laotian wild which is infested with poaching rings..
We wandered uphill along the trail, past the waterfalls, and back down again to the entrance area which is ringed by souvenier stalls and open air eateries specializing in grilled chicken and river fish. While waiting for our food to be prepared, I looked on in horror as a German backpacker argued and argued over the price of a bottle of water, saying that the vendor was charging a price higher than the one the backpacker had paid in town. He was arguing over 50 Kip, which is about 5 US cents. This really irked me and it was not the only time I would witness this type of behavior. When I commented to Ta, he told me that the guest houses have a real problem with people leaving in the middle of the night to avoid paying their bills.

Lunch was grilled chicken (a little tough) and grilled Mekong fish (wonderful) and a beef noodle soup. I am not a soda drinker, but the canned lemon soda from Thailand (named similar to “Manao”) was really good!

After lunch and a quick stop at one of the Hmong villages and another to peek at the Villa Santi Resort (lovely but too far from town) we arrived back in Luang Prabang. Ta insisted that no visit to the town was complete without a trek up Mt. Phousi to see the sunset. . Apparently every other tourist in town agrees, because the summit, reached by a series of steps that took me at least 20 minutes to climb, was mobbed. The view over the town, the rivers, and surrounding forested hills is truly lovely but I would advise making the trek at sunrise instead, in the hopes of encountering fewer of your fellow tourists.

After a short rest back at the hotel, I took the Phou Vau transport to the open air “Hmong” market consisting of lines of seated vendors presiding over an array of crafts items ranging from woven textiles to silk scarves to carved wooden bowls and silver jewelery.
I especially liked the red and black boxes carved from stone and embellished with dragonflies, flowers and other motifs.

From the market I wandered around some more, eventually making my way to the far end of town, where I had a reservation for an inside table at the 3 Nagas.


3Nagas, located across the street from the guest house of the same name, consists of one handsome room in a colonial building (see photo in article linked below) and a few less desirable sidewalk tables. My second dinner there began with the house cocktail, L’Elephant, a concoction of Blue Curacao and vodka which was better than the ingredients indicate. My first course, pumpkin and coconut cream soup, was a bit bland for my taste. The pumpkin was not pureed but served in pieces. My next course, lemongrass stuffed with minced pork spiked with herbs, was very good,( but not as good as the stuffed lemongrass at Tamarind). Grilled chicken served satay style on skewers was accompanied by a dipping sauce fragrant with lots of fresh dill. Not a good choice for me; I thought it was uninteresting.
I hope this does not sound as if I am hammering the food in Luang Prabang. While even the pickiest eater will find lots to eat, and I never encountered a bad meal, I think that truly great food must require more research than I had done, and more of an adventurous spirit when making menu choices. I also think that my expectations were unreasonably high due to glowing reports that I had read, in particular one published in the NY Times which gushed about the 3 Nagas.


http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/13/dining/13laos.html?_r=1&oref=slogin



The total cost of my dinner was US$18.00; the restaurant takes credit cards.


“Who knew that cocks crowed all night long?” So begins my diary entry for my last full day in Luang Prabang. For anyone who has not traveled in rural southeast Asia, be aware that morning( and sometimes nighttime) animal noises are invevitable! Bring earplugs if you think you will be disturbed by barking, crowing, chirping and the rest of the cacaphony!

After a quick peek at the goings on at the Golden Globe press conference (live from Hollywood!) I feasted on my “usual” array of treats from the breakfast buffet before tuk tuking into the center of town, where I spent the day wandering through shops and markets and assorted wats. Since I’ve returned I have had a few people question why I spent 5 nights in Luang Prabang. For me this was an ideal amount of time. I do not like rushing around clutching a list of sights but prefer to take my time attempting to get to know a place, as much as that is possible with just a few days.

So the day passed, with many breaks for fresh lime juice and for lunch, on the main street at Restaurant Tum Tum Cheng, which I chose because I reasoned that a restaurant with a cooking school (where Jamie Oliver had reportedly been a student, no less!!) might be a good bet, food-wise:



http://www.tumtumcheng.com/restaurants_1/index.html

Again, with no guidance perhaps I ordered poorly. Citronella Catfish from the Mekong was cut into thick chunks and served in a mild sauce spiked with lemongrass and onions. I thought the flavors were slightly muddy and had been toned down too much. The fish itself was good but the completed dish, like most I ate here, lacked the WOW factor.

The restaurant, adorned with local artwork, is lovely and more peaceful than some due to its location a bit past the activity along the more central stretch of Sisavong Road. The cooking school seems to be well respected; details are on the website linked above.

After returning back to the hotel, along with my new necklace of red coral chunks strung by Fabrice at Naga Creations, a couple of silk shawls, and a pair of adorable black silk shoulder purses decorated with multi-colored silk balls, I returned to the Phou Vau and relaxed at the idyllic pool area.

Full disclosure, at the risk of being condemned straightaway to the Fodor’s Hall of Shame (where reading material consists only of a few tattered copies of Rick Steves guidebooks and a bodice-ripping romance novel in Finnish):

I ordered room service. I ordered a club sandwich from room service. I ordered a club sandwich from room service on my last night in Luang Prabang, Laos.)

I do feel a little better now…be back soon for a massage at the Phou Vau spa and goodbye to Luang Prabang..






With the hope that this mysterious “Panda Board” will grant me a special dispensation merited by this quick response and continuation of the report in question…..


I followed my usual plan on my last day in Luang Prabang: Breakfast at the Phou Vau and quick trip in the hotel’s tuk tuk to the main part of town. More wandering around punctuated by shopping stops (I really do like those stone-like carved boxes!!) was followed by a return to the hotel for packing and pool time.
As I noted before, the pool was very cold in January but the setting is truly divine.

Exotissimo had talked me into leaving the hotel at 2:30pm for a 4:45pm flight. Aa I had expected, this proved to be much too early. The ride to the airport takes about 10 minutes and the Luang Prabang airport (there is a new one planned, or so I heard) is tiny and formalities are few. Needless to say, there is no duty-free shopping.

My flight to Hanoi on Lao Airways was excellent and we arrived in rainy and cool Hanoi right on time. I was very very excited to be back in Vietnam, where I had visited in 2000 when I spent a few weeks visiting a relative in Saigon. NOTE: there is duty-free shopping for liquor and cigarettes in the baggage retrieval area of Hanoi Airport. You need only show your boarding pass for the just-completed flight. So while waiting for my bags to appear on the carousel, I bought a liter of Absolut (peach, if anyone cares) vodka for $15.00USD (Absolut non-flavored is $13 USD..quite a bargain for those of us used to NYC prices!!)

My guide from Exotissimo was waiting at the exit gate and we immediately set forth through the now-dark streets of Hanoi bound for the Hanoi Hilton Opera Hotel. I had chosen this hotel for its location and for its heated swimming pool (which would not be used by anyone, including me, at any time during my stay!!)
The prices were much lower than those charged by the Sofitel Metropole which is located about 3 blocks away. The first thing that struck me on the drive were the gaggle of new housing developments fanning out from the city itself. We passed one of these, guarded by illuminated fountains and a triumphal gate topped by horses that looked as if it belonged in Las Vegas and, indeed, my guide told me that locals had dubbed it “Vegas.”

Much more interesting were the typical tall, narrow “tube” houses of Hanoi whose structure was determined by owners trying to minimize taxes, which were determined by linear measurement of road frontage (I am sure there is a better way to explain this but I don’t know it!!) So the houses are built very high to accommodate a shop on the ground floor and the expended family and, sometimes, renters, in the apartments above. Some of these houses were 6 and even 7 stories high and most have no elevator. Fascinating and very distinctive. I did not remember seeing this form in Saigon and would like to learn more about it.

Here is a photo (not mine):



http://layered.typepad.com/photos/hanoi/28_tube_house.html

I will be back very soon.

Note to Fodor’s Hall of Shame Housekeeping Staff: We have just received word that there will, in fact, be no new arrival today so please remove the cot from Cell #9.



Hanoi:

And the first nominee for the category of “Ugly Hotel Lamps with Perpetually Crooked Shades; SouthEast Asia Division” is;

Hotel Hilton Opera, Hanoi Vietnam

Despite the truly hideous room lamps, and the décor of generic chain business hotel accented by gaudy Chinese-style glitz, the Hilton Hanoi Opera proved to be an excellent base from which to explore Hanoi. The location, as I mentioned, is excellent and the staff were helpful overall with points deducted for lack of English skill on the concierge desk which resulted in a few annoying mixups for this faithful correspondent. (more on this later…) Although there were no luscious chocolates set atop pillows at bedtime, I did receive a little metal dragonfly in a different color every night! (Still figuring out what to do with these..)


After arriving at the hotel and checking into my room..spacious and comfortable with those unfortunate lamps and generic artwork on the walls, my thoughts turned to dinner. On this first night in the city I decided to choose a restaurant within easy walking distance so settled don the Club Opera which had been recommended here by Kathie and others. No luck..the place was booked solid on this Tuesday night in January. On the recommendation of the front desk person, I decided to try Nam Phuong, an upscale place housed in a converted French colonial building a few blocks from the hotel. To get there meant braving the frenetic streets of urban Vietnam which I remembered from my previous visit to Saigon. Although the restaurant was only a 5-minute walk from the Hilton, it was separated from the hotel by a number of avenues and streets which meant the terrifying “step into traffic and forge on without hesitating; they will swerve to avoid you” mantra. I also employed my trusty tactic of “sidle up to the first local you see and cleave onto his or her side for the crossing.” This works quite well and you often find yourself in conversation with a kindly local who has seen this kind of behavior before. Do not be shy here…just find a likely person at the intersection and move in lock step until you reach the other side of the street.

Nam Phoung turned out to be a good choice for an introductory dinner. After the host recovered from his shock to see one person, a woman no less, dining alone, he showed me to a table on the upstairs level which was packed with a mix of what appeared to be tourists and local business persons. The restaurant is attractive and service was good. Prices are high.

http://vietnamnews.vnagency.com.vn/showarticle.php?num=01RES210805


My dinner:

Mixture of vodka and fresh lime juice

Summer roll (I just had to try one on my first night)

Shrimp Pork and Banana Flower salad

Grilled Tiger Prawn (ONE large prawn; excellent!)

Coconut Ice Cream with great Vietnamese coffee from Buon Ma Thuot (central highlands center of coffee production)

Total: 420,000 VND ($26.00 US) (the prawns skewed the price high)

Overall, recommended for an upscale Vietnamese meal close to the Hilton and the Metropole; do not make a special trip.



The next day, Wednesday, was my first full day in Hanoi. Breakfast at the Hilton is a huge buffet with pho, fresh fruits, yogurts (I became especially fond of the caramel yogurt!!), eggs, and all the rest of the expected items. Special mention goes to the pan au chocolat; pastries and breads are uniformly excellent in Vietnam, thanks to the French influence.

After breakfast, I took a taxi ($1.50US) to the Old City (this is within about a 20 minute walk of the hotel but the hotel front desk person had told me it was too far to walk (“better you take taxi, madam!!”)

I spent the morning dipping in and out of the galleries and shops that line Hang Gai Street. At Tropical, a fashion forward shop at #65 Hang Gai, I found two beautiful silk cut velvet scarves for $19US each; prices here, and in many upscale boutiques, were fixed. It did not take me long to realize that prices in Vietnam were no longer the bargains I had encountered in 2000. Nevertheless, these scarves would cost a lot more at home. (We have all heard that line before!) I wanted to investigate the custom-made clothing possibilities and spent some time looking in shops that offered tailoring, but I was not impressed by the quality of the fabrics at most places. At the recommendation of two women I met who had visited the city several times, I checked out Hadong Silk at #102 Hang Gai. This place had by far the best quality fabrics on offer. Unlike many of the other clothing shops, the ready-made items (mostly small sizes) were well constructed and somewhat stylish. Custom tailoring takes a minimum of four days here. I decided that I did not want to waste time in Hanoi and would wait for Hoi Ann to attempt custom tailored clothing.

I was a little disappointed by the crafts that I saw in most of the Old City shops. Instead of the beautifully crafted items I had seen 8 years ago, many of the bamboo and lacquer wares had a mass-produced look. The few shops that offered higher quality designs often asked correspondingly high prices. I spent lots of time wandering through the many galleries in the area including Mai Gallery, 183 Hang Bong Street, and Apricot Gallery at #40B Hang Bong Street. In some of the other, less-upscale galleries, the same images are reproduced over and over again. (It was not until a few days later that I would discover the most interesting art space, that of Suzanne Lecht)

I bought a lacquer painting of a lotus flower at #63 Hang Bong (one of the less slick gallery spaces) and had it shipped home. It arrived about 6 weeks later, as promised. The shipping cost (through the Hanoi Post Office, was about $60US) Next time I would have a frame made in Vietnam and have it sent home with the art; prices for high-quality custom frames are very low compared to the US.


As I was wandering back to the hotel about 2pm, I spotted Bobby Chinn’s restaurant and, against my better judgement, stopped in for a snack. Service was friendly and I would bet that the place looks quite pretty at night but it is pretty gloomy during daylight. Fellow diners were all tourists. From the Pan Asian menu I chose Pad Thai (yes, in Hanoi) An unusual complimentary grilled chicken and chocolate taco-like treat (very tasty) arrived first. The pad Thai was, as I suspected, pretty standard stuff. With an iced fresh lime juice, lunch totaled $10USD (prices are given in dollars).

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering Trang Tien Street which stretches between the Lake and the Opera House. Life Photo Gallery on Trang Tien Street sells wonderful photos off rural scenes including portraits of minority people, for very reasonable prices.

I peeked into the Metropole Hotel which was as lovely as expected but most areas are off-limits to non-guests. The streets around the Metropole are home to the most aggressive street salespeople I encountered on the trip. These men and women (all claim to be students) are very pesty in peddling their bootleg English-language books which include Lonely Planet guides and books about the country. They will point to the price printed on the (fake) cover and begin their pitch with that number. I did, eventually, buy a couple of books about Vietnam (I recommend Shadows and Wind by Robert Templer) during my stay in Hanoi, but it is tricky, because the books are encased in plastic and there is no way of knowing if any pages are missing, as often happens.

Dinner that night was one of the best food experiences of my trip. I taxied to the Hanoi branch of Quan An Ngon, the famous Saigon eatery that blends the line between restaurant and street food. An overseas Vietnamese had the idea to bring together the “best” street cooks for dozens of dishes in the Vietnamese lexicon and allow them to work their magic under one roof, so to speak. The Hanoi branch features Northern food while the sweeter and more heated Saigon dishes predominate in the branch in that city. Quan an Ngon was my kind of place. Seating is on low wooden benches at shared tables and I was fortunate enough to be seated with a lovely young Hanoi couple (both financial analysts) who assisted the waiter in explaining many of the dishes (there is a printed menu but it is best to wander around watching the cooks in the outdoor courtyard before making your selections). Three dishes (including Ban Xeo the hallmark crispy pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork) plus fresh watermelon juice and a dessert of Che Chuoi (a combination of tapioca, banana and coconut) totaled 89,000 VND.


The next day, my second full day in Hanoi, I had booked a day of guided city touring and so, after breakfast, I drove off with Guide Hung and the driver. We paid a brief visit to most of the main “sights” in Hanoi, The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (eerily thrilling and surprisingly moving) and Residence; the Temple of Literature; and the wonderful Fine Arts Museum (and a stop at the Craft Link Gallery) filled the morning.

Lunch was an uninspiring set meal at Wild Rice (this was included in the price of the day tour)..this is an truly lovely looking restaurant in a converted villa; tour groups predominated during lunch.

In the afternoon we drove to the Ethnography Museum which I recommend highly. You do not need a guide here, or at any of the sights in Hanoi; for me having a guide became more a matter of convenience and a means to chat with a local about daily life than anything else. I did have to put my foot down a few times when Mr. Hung got carried away with reciting dates and dry historical facts. Much more interesting than facts I could have retrieved from a guidebook were the discussions about real estate in Hanoi, local food, and other subjects not on the “approved” tour sheet. By the way, he is a freelance guide who can be contacted either through Exotissimo or by private e-mail:

Lai_Manh_Hung@yahoo.com


The Hoa Lo Prison, built by the French in 1896 to house Vietnamese political prisoners, known today as Patriots, and later famous as the Hanoi Hilton where captured soldiers during the “American War” were contained, was our first after-lunch stop. Another eerily compelling sight, the small portion of the original prison that remains is a must for any visitor to Hanoi. Especially Americans. I don’t want to wade into politics here, but these exhibits really bring home the damage done to the country by the US. Which makes it even more surprising that the Vietnamese appear to have forgiven these horrors and appear, to me at least, to be very welcoming of Americans today.

Next stop on the whirlwind tour was not on the official agenda but is not to be missed: The seething Dong Xuan Market.
Fabulous and thrilling to any food lover. Absolute contained, scripted, chaos.

And finally, the obligatory Cyclo tour of the Old City, an activity that was included in my day tour and about which I had misgivings. The Old Quarter of Hanoi is to be savored and wandered through again and again; you get only the barest taste on a brief hour-long drive by. But I knew I would have time to return again and again to this labyrinth of narrow streets, lined with glorious examples of Colonial villas and those tall, narrow indigenous tube houses.

To be continued with the water puppet show and another excellent meal at Quon An Ngon.

To my surprise, the show at the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre proved to be a delightful experience. (The truth is that I did not expect much but the show was included as part of my “day tour”). I was seated in the front row thanks, I am certain to the folks at Exotissimo. (I did not request this seat but I was very glad to occupy it because the view was superb and I had no heads in front of me). There is live orchestra and the musicians wear beautiful traditional garb. Even without the puppets this would have been worthwhile! The puppet show lasts about an hour and the lineup of vignettes recount ancient legends, scenes of rural life, and the founding of Hanoi. The puppetters stand in the water and maneuver the brightly painted puppet figures by means of long wands. Really something to experience!

After the show my guide and driver were waiting for me. This of course was unnecessary as the theatre is within walking distance from my hotel. Had I thought of it, I would have let them go home before the show!

They dropped me back at the Hilton and within a few minutes, I was in a taxi, bound once again for Quon An Ngon.

My second dinner at the restaurant was as good as the first the night before. For 140,000 Dong, this is what I ate:

Summer roll
Chili beef
Platter of lightly cooked, very large oysters
Watermelon juice
Banana and coconut milk “che” dessert

I knew I would be paying a visit to the Saigon branch of this restaurant once I reached that southern city…




I had debated endlessly about whether or not to take a side trip from Hanoi. The usual choices are the Perfume Pagoda and the Tam Coc/Hoa Lu combination. I chose the latter and, after hearing what my guide had to say about the Perfume Pagoda, I was very glad that I had decided to give it a miss.

We left about 8am for the drive to Tam Coc. I recommend leaving at that time at the latest. Although fog is apparently usual in the early morning, the earlier you arrive, the more chance that you will miss the onslaught of tour buses arriving from Hanoi. The drive along Highway One, takes about 2.5 hours (double check this as my recollection may be slightly off).

If you are envisioning a glimpse of the “real” rural Vietnam on this drive, forget it. Highway One is, at the present time (another route is under construction further west) the main north-south artery and it is well trafficked by trucks, buses, motorcycles, and even bicycles as it cuts through the rice fields of the fertile Red River Delta and past the usual highway detritus: roadside eateries, motorcycle repair shops, and stores selling everything from funerary objects to mattresses. Over and over we passed signs touting the local delicacy: Thit cho, or dog meat, which is said to warm the body and increase virility and is best eaten only at certain times in the lunar month (I am not sure if our trip coincided with optimal eating conditions, but in any case I decided to pass on this local fare).

We arrived in Tam Coc close to 11am and my guide suggested that we partake of the (included in the price of the day trip) set lunch at a restaurant near the docks. Wanting to avoid the tourist crush, I opted instead to take the boat trip before lunch. I recommend doing the same.
Although it was a dreary and grey day, we were one of the only boats on the water. We boarded a small boat and set off on a 2-hour-long journey, past limestone outcroppings and through three low-ceilinged caves (Tam Coc means “Theree Grottoes”) on the placid waterway lined by rice paddies. The karst mountains are truly spectacular, but I did see this topography a few days alter in Halong Bay, so I would not say that this is an absolutely essential side trip and I would consider it only for those who will have ample time in Hanoi as I did.

I had read horror stories about the aggressiveness of the rowers, who set out with stacks of embroidery piled beside them as they row and at some pre-determined point, begin their sales pitch. I found it all quite low key and, although nothing caught my eye (I have little use for hand-embroidered napkins or table runners), the prices were certainly reasonable at first asking and I suspect that many of the items would make pleasing gifts for people who would appreciate this kind of item.
At the turning-around point a clutch of boats await piled high with things that tourists might want: bottled water, bananas, assorted salty snacks, etc. Again, the sales pitch is pretty low key.

The sun never did come out that morning but the ride was very pleasant and if you are not bound for Halong Bay, and have never seen this type of karst scenery, I would say that there are many less inviting ways to pass half a day. After the ride, I tipped the rower an amount suggested by my guide and we set off on a walk of abouot a block to the designated eating place. The set multi-course lunch of Vietnamese fare, of which I recall very little, was good enough to quell any hunger but not memorable.

After lunch we drove the back roads through a few small villages, to the ancient capital of Hoa Lu, which enjoys a splendid setting ringed by karst outcroppings. I enjoyed Ho Lu very very much. Time and nature have draped the 17th Century temples with carpets of blackened moss giving the site an exotic and romantic air heightened by the budding fruit trees that shade the site. The area is fairly compact and I estimate that our visit took no more than an hour. Highly recommended!

After returning to the hotel in the late afternoon, I took a small rest and set off again for the Club Opera across from the Metropole Hotel, where I had a dinner reservation. By now I was feeling more confident about navigating the many streets separating my hotel from the restaurant and I had honed my technique of sidling up to a local for the crossing.

The Opera Club is a pretty restaurant across the street from the Metropole Hotel. Clientele were Asian and European tourists with a smattering of Americans. That night, which would be the first of two very good dinners I had at the restaurant, I began with an excellent salad of grilled squid and green mango (US$6.25) which, like many dishes on the menu, was reminiscent more of the cuisine of the south than of the Hanoi area. The salad was followed by a dish of stir-fried watercress with garlic ($3.50) and one large and very tasty grilled tiger prawn (US$11.50). With a glass of fresh lime juice (a beverage to which I was quickly becoming addicted), the bill totaled US$25.03 or 400,000VND including 10% tax. This price, of course, is extremely expensive for Vietnam and I suspect that the food here, and in most of the restaurants I visited, has been diluted somewhat for tourist tastes. But sampling truly local fare often means dining in less comfortable surroundings such as the small streetside and sidewalk eateries. So I usually chose convenience and comfort rather than authenticity. (Quan an Ngon is the best compromise for diners wanting local fare in fairly comfortable conditions).

The next morning, Saturday, was a free day in Hanoi. After breakfast I asked the concierge to phone Suzanne Lecht’s Gallery, Art Vietnam, which had been recommended as one of the best places to view contemporary Vietnamese artists. I had heard that the gallery had moved and wanted to check the address. The concierge assured me I had the correct address and so I set off in a taxi, only to arrive and find that the gallery had, indeed, moved to another location. The new address was posted on the door. Finding a taxi was not easy, however, and I succeeded only after bystanders took pity on this lost-looking tourist and phoned a radio cab for me. (I would advise those with cell phones to arm themselves with the number of Hanoi Taxi, one of the better-respected companies, before setting out to explore; I, of course, had no cell phone!)
After a ride of about 15 minutes, we arrived at the new location in the northern sector of the city: 7, Nguyen Khac Nhu:

http://www.artvietnamgallery.com/index.php


Gallery Director Suzanne Lecht has been living in Hanoi for more than 15 years and appears to be on the cutting edge of the country’s art scene. She stages frequent exhibitions and, in fact, there was to be an opening that night to which I was invited. In contrast to the staff at the galleries I had visited in the Old City, the workers here seemed much more focused o introducing visitors to the represented artists and their work and less interested solely in making a sale. Prices ranged from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000. I was quite taken with two pieces but found them to priced out of my range. I highly recommend this gallery to anyone with an interest in contemporary Asian art and to serious collectors. I spent about two hours there and the staff phoned a taxi for me when I was ready to leave. (This was also the case at the restaurants I ate in; I was told many times by locals that it is “better” to use a radio cab than to hail one on the street).

The taxi dropped me off near the Cathedral, where I embarked on a few hours of shopping. In general and with a few exceptions, I was disappointed with the wares on offer; prices had risen considerably since my first visit in 2000 and quality appeared to have diminished. Especially for silk and for lacquerware. Nevertheless, there were a few interesting shops, including:

Art and Souvenirs Shop at 45 Ly Quoc Su across from the Cathedral, a jumbled and dusty trove of artifacts where I browsed but did not buy.

A small shop around the corner, however, yielded a pair of white cotton pillowcases hand-embroidered in lilac-colored thread ($18US). (I found hand-embroidered linens to be an excellent buy in Vietnam, so take measurements with you if you plan to buy tablecloths and the like).

After a bit more browsing, I walked to the southeastern edge of Hoan Kiem Lake where an outpost of the venerable Pho24 chain squeezes into a small shopfront at #26 Ba Trieu. Pho24 is a good name to keep in mind in both Hanoi and Saigon if you want serviceable pho (Vietnamese noodle soup, usually made with beef) in various permutations served in air-conditioned and clean surroundings. Prices are much higher than they would be on the street, but still low by US or European standards. Also, the restaurant is open non-stop from early morning until about 11pm, while most more formal restaurants close during the mid-afternoons and many street places do not remain open throughout the day. Orders are placed by checking a printed list, which contains English translations.

The next morning, Saturday, was a free day in Hanoi. After breakfast I asked the concierge to phone Suzanne Lecht’s Gallery, Art Vietnam, which had been recommended as one of the best places to view contemporary Vietnamese artists. I had heard that the gallery had moved and wanted to check the address. The concierge assured me I had the correct address and so I set off in a taxi, only to arrive and find that the gallery had, indeed, moved to another location. The new address was posted on the door. Finding a taxi was not easy, however, and I succeeded only after bystanders took pity on this lost-looking tourist and phoned a radio cab for me. (I would advise those with cell phones to arm themselves with the number of Hanoi Taxi, one of the better-respected companies, before setting out to explore; I, of course, had no cell phone!)
After a ride of about 15 minutes, we arrived at the new location in the northern sector of the city: 7, Nguyen Khac Nhu:

http://www.artvietnamgallery.com/index.php


Gallery Director Suzanne Lecht has been living in Hanoi for more than 15 years and appears to be on the cutting edge of the country’s art scene. She stages frequent exhibitions and, in fact, there was to be an opening that night to which I was invited. In contrast to the staff at the galleries I had visited in the Old City, the workers here seemed much more focused o introducing visitors to the represented artists and their work and less interested solely in making a sale. Prices ranged from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000. I was quite taken with two pieces but found them to priced out of my range. I highly recommend this gallery to anyone with an interest in contemporary Asian art and to serious collectors. I spent about two hours there and the staff phoned a taxi for me when I was ready to leave. (This was also the case at the restaurants I ate in; I was told many times by locals that it is “better” to use a radio cab than to hail one on the street).

The taxi dropped me off near the Cathedral, where I embarked on a few hours of shopping. In general and with a few exceptions, I was disappointed with the wares on offer; prices had risen considerably since my first visit in 2000 and quality appeared to have diminished. Especially for silk and for lacquerware. Nevertheless, there were a few interesting shops, including:

Art and Souvenirs Shop at 45 Ly Quoc Su across from the Cathedral, a jumbled and dusty trove of artifacts where I browsed but did not buy.

A Small shop around the corner, however, yielded a pair of white cotton pillowcases hand-embroidered in lilac-colored thread ($18US). (I found hand-embroidered linens to be an excellent buy in Vietnam, so take measurements with you if you plan to buy tablecloths and the like).

I walked back towards the Hilton, stopping at a few galleries along Trang Tien Street, and then headed south to the Hanoi branch of a shop that I had discovered and liked very much on my first trip to Saigon eight years ago. Nguyen Freres is owned by a Vietnamese-American with excellent taste in clothing and home décor items. (5, Hai Bai Trung; another location in Hanoi and one in Saigon). The atmospheric shop, accented with Chinese and Vietnamese antiques and textiles, is a trove of well=priced new and vintage wares including textiles, ready-made clothing, ceramics, furniture, and fashion accessories. I was particularly happy to find two reversible pleated silk jackets with Mandarin collars and covered buttons for $22US each, and a host of scarves, beaded purses and other small gifts. Unlike many other shops, there was no pressure to buy.

For dinner that night I had reserved a table again at Club Opera. My meal the night before had been very good and the restaurant is convenient to the Hilton and enjoys an attractive setting inside a colonial villa (like many of Hanoi’s better eateries).

Tonight’s dinner was equally tasty, consisting of:

Pomelo and shrimp salad with dried squid…excellent
Roasted beef with honey..very good
Dry noodles with crabmeat..very good

Service is slow but congenial. With a cocktail of vodka and fresh watermelon juice, the bill totaled $24.US.




The next morning, Guide Hung and the driver picked me up at the Hilton at 8am and we set off on the roads to Halong Bay, where I was booked for an overnight cruise on the Emeraude:

http://www.emeraude-cruises.com/halong.html


The drive took us past landscapes that were similar to those we passed en route to Tam Coc a few days before. Boarding was not scheduled until noon and I had wondered why we had departed the hotel at 8am since the drive does not take 4 hours. This mystery was solved about an hour after departure, when we pulled into the first of many rest stops. The “rest” part of the equation is merely a formality; these “stops” are actually shopping opportunities and the drill became familiar after the first one, which came about 9am:
Large concrete, hangar-like structure, crammed to the brim with every known and some unimaginable variety of Vietnamese kitsch ranging from diminutive beaded purses to limestone dragons four times my height. Next to the large aka expensive “artworks” are bulletin boards placarded with photos of smiling couples posing besides their purchases with copies of the shipping labels attached.
See Mr. and Mrs. Manual Chang of Jakarta with their humongous new pink marble dolphin fountain!!! Here is Prof. Remington Purdy with his rosewood library desk…bound for his study at LaSalle University!! These rest stops cum gift shops bear interesting names. I wish I had copied them in my notebook, but “Heavenly Peace and Disabled Environment of Vietnamese People” captures the idea.

The first time I fell for the “would you like to stop and use the rest room” ploy. The second time it was ok, too. But by the third, I began to voice my annoyance, only to have Hung explain that the guides are allotted free meals and snacks at these stops and to deprive them of such would be most unsporting of me, particularly since these were the weeks before Tet and every “rest” stop meant another gift for the guide and driver. I began to joke about the pileup of guide gifts in the back of the van (mostly boxes of tea and cookies and, curiously, even a bottle of Chilean merlot!)

One way to avoid this series of stops might be to leave your hotel at 9am instead of 8, but just make sure that this ploy does not result in a high speed chase from one emporium to the other before your arrival in Halong City.

At 11:45, with the van groaning under the weight of all the gifts, we pulled up to the Emeraude arrival lounge and I completed the check in formalities and surrendered my overnight bag……..


After few formalities, we boarded a small boat out to the mooring place in the Bay. This quick ride affords a view of Halong City, which is divided into the old town (we did not see) and the new area where the Emeraude office is and where the beach is rimmed with concrete high rises and tourism is the raison d’etre. It was here that I got my first look at my fellow cruisers: The majority were European (French and German) couples and there were a smattering of elderly Japanese, a honeymooning Australian couple, and a pair of lovely women from San Francisco in their 30s. (They had booked with Aurora Travel and were very pleased with the service) There was also a group of a half dozen extroverted Thai women laden down with bags of fruit and stacks of snack boxes. These women would be my next door neighbors. More about them later!

The weather was foggy and damp and would remain so throughout the cruise. But even before boarding the ship we caught a glimpse of the karst mountains for which the Bay is famous. Spectacular scenery and I can only imagine how truly incredible it would look in sunshine. But as it was, I could not complain too much, for it was never cold on board and it did not pour so the decks were never off limits for picture taking or strolling. Unfortunately, however, I was not able to do any swimming or other water activities, although one brave couple did venture out on a kayak later that afternoon.


After boarding, I was shown to my cabin (#220), a double towards the front of the boat (Bow?). There were two single beds and a separate bathroom area with shower. I found it attractive and the beds were quite comfortable. I also took a peek at the much larger luxury suite in the bow..that would be the way to go if you need lots of space and, in fact, the suite was offered to us for an upgrade fee since it was not being occupied. (I cannot remember the exact charge but there were no takers; I might have accepted had I been with another person).



Lunch was next on the agenda.

Before I delve into the details, I will make one suggestion: While food and soft drinks and coffee are included in the package price, alcohol is not. If you plan to imbibe, you might want to investigate bringing your own stash to avoid the high prices charged onboard. You could not, of course, BYOB in the dining room, but I wished I had had at least a bottle of wine in my cabin!

Lunch is served buffet style in the wood paneled brass trimmed dining room. (Unlike the other Halong Bay tourist craft, Emeraude is not a junk but a reproduction of an early 20th Century paddle steamer that plied these waters in the French colonial era. ) The food was quite good, with a mix of Vietnamese fare (spring rolls, summer rolls) and seafood (chafing dishes piled with cracked crab, shrimp, clams), along with a couple of more mundane offerings. (My favorite dish would be the steamed clams served for dinner that night). During lunch I was seated next to the Thai women who, coincidentally, were my cabin neighbors. After dessert, these ladies beat a hasty retreat to their quarters and were scarcely seen outside mealtimes for the duration of the cruise. I would later learn what kept them busy in their cabin!

After lunch the ship cruised to the “Surprise Cave,” a well-touristed cavern which required a fairly strenuous walk up sets of steps to the entrance.



The access to the Surprise Cave is, as mentioned above, entails a steep walk up several sets of steps clinging to the cliff face overlooking the Bay. If you do this walk in warm weather, make sure to take a hat and bottled water. The Vietcong used these huge caverns, reportedly discovered by the French in 1901, as hiding places during the American War. Tourists follow a path that winds and climbs through intersecting chambers which are, unfortunately, illuminated by rather luridly colored lights courtesy of the Chinese, or so the story goes.. The cave is apparently a stop on every tourist itinerary and judging from the activity in January, it must be quite crowded during high season. Most of the tourists were peering at the various formations trying to convince themselves “yes, yes…now that you mention it, it does look like an elephant with its trunk raised standing under a palm tree…..” Indeed..I can see it now!!!

Nonetheless, the Surprise Cave is pretty spectacular and certainly worth the hour or so that a visit comprises. Once you exit, you will have plenty of opportunity to buy “Halong Bay pearls” from the various stalls outside the entrance and at the docks. (You will see these in Halong City, and in Hanoi as well; I did not price them).

Visit to the cave complete, we boarded the Emeraude and continued our cruise. In the late afternoon the ship dropped anchor and we were given a chance to kayak or swim but the less-than-ideal weather was not conducive to these activities. I would have loved to be able to swim in the Bay!

I have already mentioned the high price of alcohol on board. If you forget to bring your own supply, there is an alternative to the bar prices: Plenty of local vendors approach the ship in rowboats piled high with everything that the locals imagine the tourists must want. The chief draw appeared to be beer and snacks.

Late afternoon found me, and most of my fellow cruisers (sans the Thai ladies) seated in the wicker armchairs surrounding the bar on the upper deck. There are worse places to pass a few hours!! Before dinner, we were treated to a demonstration on making Goi Cuon, summer rolls. (The main thing to remember is not to put too much stuffing inside the rice paper!)

Before too long, it was dinner time. Before entering the dining room, I gave some thought to the evening’s entertainment possibilities. According to the printed schedule, “Indochine” would be screened on the deck after dinner, but I had just rented this film (highly recommended!) from Netflix. And so, deciding to loll in the lap of luxury, I made an appointment for a manicure and pedicure in my stateroom, at 9:30 that evening.

Plans made, I proceeded to dinner….


Dinner on the Emeraude is served buffet style, again with a mix of Vietnamese and western dishes including seafood in various guises. I liked the steamed clams very much. I was seated next to the Thai women; I had not seen this group after lunch and, in fact, they ate dinner quickly and disappeared. After coffee and dessert, I returned to my cabin which was next to that occupied by two of the Thai women and had obviously been designated as the hangout for the group for the duration of the cruise. The door was open and there was lots of laughter. “I hope they do not keep this up too late,” I thought to myself.

There was quite a bit of down time between the finish of dinner and my scheduled spa appointment, but it was too noisy to read in my room, so I found myself a spot near the bar on the upper deck and downed a couple of vodka drinks and watched the scenery, which was pretty spectacular even in the gloomy weather. If you were to ask me if it is worth it to take this trip in the winter, I would be hesitant to give an answer. I was glad that I took the cruise. BUT, I also had what I considered to be plenty of time in Hanoi. With only a limited time (less than 3 full days) in Hanoi, I think the time might be better spent in the city during the winter season when the Halong Bay weather conditions are less than optimal.

When the time of my spa appointment came close, I returned to the room and, at the appointed hour, answered the knock at the door. Two women were standing outside and one pushed the other forward into the room. Between them, they spoke about 3 words of English but who needs to converse when you are going to be coddled with a manicure/pedicure and all the trimmings. Well, to make a long story short, I decided on the spot to amend my treatments to pedicure only when I took a look at the “equipment:” A raggedy cardboard box, some crumpled toilet paper, a couple of unlabeled bottles containing murky liquids, and a few crusty bottles of sparkly polish. And assorted instruments that looked less than pristine. What followed was actually kind of funny. I do not think that either of these girls had even done any kind of nail treatment before.. All kinds of dabbing took place before the instruments came out. NO, I did not want my nails or cuticles cut! I did not want blue sparkly polish on my toenails, either! I just wanted these girls to leave but they seemed so eager I did not want to hurt their feelings! So I let one of them slap three coats of the least offensive polish on my nails where it would remain for all of about 2 days before chipping). And that was the story of my night of pampering aboard the Emeraude.

And now the Thai ladies: By 1Opm, I had exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the cruise and was ready for bed. But the noise next door was as loud as ever, so I knocked on the door that had been left ajar. It opened to reveal…..nothing more exciting than a card game in progress!
These women had been glued to their cabin all day and most of the night so far playing cards!!! And they would continue their games until well past 3am, only to continued the next morning before breakfast!!! But they were apologetic about disturbing me and did manage to lower their voices enough to let me sleep… The cabin and the bed were comfortable and I slept very well…)

Next morning I missed the sunrise tai chi class on the deck but enjoyed the breakfast and some photo taking (we passed a few fishing villages) before settling the bill and readying my bags for the 9:30am launch trip back to shore. My guide and driver were waiting (impatiently, I am sure, for the next round of gift getting and free food) and we set off on the drive back to Hanoi. The Halong Bay area is famous for pineapples and we stopped at a roadside stand where I bought a bag of the tiniest, sweetest pineapple I had ever tasted, before joining the main highway and heading for the first “rest stop.”

The drill with the rest stops was the same on the ride back as it had the previous day. To categorically refuse to stop would have meant the loss of Tet gifts for my guide and driver, so I agreed to the stops if the time was kept to a minimum. Interestingly enough, there are rest stops targeted to different ethnic groups. We would not receive a warm welcome if, for example, I had to urgently use the facilities and pulled into one of the Korean rest areas. I suppose that the arrangements on where to stop are made ahead of time with the tour companies. According to my guide, commissions are paid only for items costing upwards of a hundred dollars. (Those marble dragons, for example).

Since I had decided to join the game, I did some looking around at one of the “Sincerity Humanity” rest stop, and ended up purchasing a pair of celadon-colored ceramic tobacco pipes edged with black metal and accompanied by little smoking straws. These cost about $5US each and they look terrific on my mantel!

Eventually we reached Hanoi and I was dropped off at the Hilton where I received a warm welcome from the staff and shown to a room on the top floor, facing the Opera House (the more desirable view).

That afternoon, I decided to treat myself to the pedicure that I had cancelled last night on the ship. The afternoon was dreary and drizzly, so I made an appointment at the Xaxi Nail Spa on the ground floor of the Hilton; the spa functions as the hotel’s in-house facility so I anticipated a plush treatment! The second-floor surroundings place it in the luxury class as compared to others I had seen in Hanoi, and there were several sterilization machines on the premises, too. I had a relaxing pedicure, cosseted in the comfy reclining chair, and after I paid the modest tab, my eye wandered over to those fancy instrument sterilizers. It was then that I noticed that not one of these was plugged in! I opened one to discover row upon row of polish bottles! But they certainly would allay any fears a nervous prospective client might have.. as long as one does not investigate too closely!

For dinner that night, I chose a restaurant that I had read about on the Hanoi section of the food website, SavourAsia:

http://www.savourasia.com/content/blogcategory/5/17/

My hotel reserved a table for me and at the appointed hour, I set off by taxi, bound for #4 Ha Hoi Street in the Hoan Kiem district, not far from the hotel.

I will digress here to mention that on many evenings, when I showed up at various restaurants in Vietnam (and in China on a previous trip) I would be greeted with puzzlement. “One person???”
“One person, only??” “Single lady??” And, on occasion, “Where mister??” (In Saigon there would be restaurants that would not even accept reservations for one single diner.) So I was not surprised when the hostess at Ha Hoi appeared to be in a mild state of shock when I entered the restaurant and stated that I had a reservation made through the Hilton Hotel. There was much scurrying around and many whispered conversations which, I imagine, took the form of “There is a western tourist. She says she is alone. She has no group!! What do we do with her??” The restaurant appeared to have several dining rooms, either filled with foreign tour groups or, in one case, with local diners. Where to put the lone lady?

I was first offered a small table in a rear corner of the group dining room where all of the other westerners were seated. But I declined that table, fearing that I would be shown some kind variation of the set menus that I had had at other places on days when I was with my guide. What to do? A solution was reached and I was led upstairs by two lovely ladies clad in the traditional ao dais that enhance the beauty of every Vietnamese woman.

I was quite surprised when a door was opened to reveal an elegant mirrored dining room appointed with antiques and lavish floral arrangements, and a long table set for at least 20 diners. But I tried to maintain my cool and took a seat at the head of the table, where I was shown the two menus..the group one and the regular one.

Suffice to say that I enjoyed a very good, if a tad lonely, dinner, waited on by my private serving staff of at least 5 young men and women, two of whom waited in the rear of the room throughout the meal.

This is what I ate:

Lime juice 20,000 VND
Noodles with beef 45,000VND
Grilled king prawns 110,000VND

The total came to 175,000 VND or $11USD. I left a small tip and made my way down the stairs and out the door, only to be followed by one of the ladies who presented me with the tip money. When I asked them to call a taxi, we began to chat a bit as best we could and I ended up spending a good half hour there exchanging a few words with these very friendly young wait staff.

So if you are looking for an upscale dinner in handsome surroundings, I would recommend Ha Hoi, at #4 Ha Hoi Street. Note that a private room is not guaranteed, and that the restaurant is located on a narrow lane that taxis cannot navigate.

The next morning, after breakfast, my guide retreived me from the Hilton and I was driven to the Hanoi airport for the flight to Danang.
More soon…






Anticipating much schlepping of luggage due to the accumulation of large purchases a la my trip to China in 2007, I had booked at business class ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi to Danang. The supplement was not large but, as it turned out, this had been an unnecessary precaution because I had not purchased all this much by this point in the trip. The business ticket allows entrance into a dedicated lounge, which offers free drinks and fruit, along with spotty internet service on a bank of computers.

After arrival at Danang, I was picked up by my new guide/driver combo and whisked south through flat countryside dotted with much construction activity, to the Life Resort in Hoi An, which was to be my home for three nights. The preceeding night had been full moon and with it, the entire town of Hoi An is strung with lanterns, cars are banished, and general festivities ensure. I was sorry to have missed this by only one day due to my own oversight.
No matter: It was upon arrival in Danang that I glimpsed by first ray of Vietnamese sunshine of the trip! Hallelullah!

I was allotted Room 310, a superior garden view room, which looks as it does in the photos below:


http://www.life-resorts.com/index.php?nav1=resort&nav2=hoian&nav3=living


There are no elevators, so people with mobility issues should take note. The rooms, as shown in the photos, is attractive; there is a shower in a small sunken tub and a tv. As reported in reviews of the hotel the mattresses are very firm but the staff, apparently used to complaints from guests, will supply a pillow-top-type topper which enhanced the comfort level substantially. The staff is very friendly and eager to help.

Wanting to take full advantage of the sunshine, I headed straight to the pool area. Surrounded by trellises dripping with what looked like morning glory vines in full flower, the pool area is truly beautiful. The pool is large enough for laps and very shallow. The water, however, was very cold. I am not sure exactly what is going on with pools in SE Asia these days, because I had that problem at every pool I swam in. Note to hotel managers: A valuable way to trim energy costs is to forego chilling the pool water! You will make at least one guest very happy in the process. This goes for you, too, over at the Phou Vau in Luang Prabang. Sheraton Saigon: We have already had words about this! I got a few laps in before the sun, alas, slipped behind huge gray clouds, never to be seen again for the duration of my stay in central Vietnam.


Never mind, I had some shopping, wandering, and serious eating to do in Hoi An, and so I got dressed, trying to ignore the rapid deterioration of the climate conditions, and set off for the large new outpost of the much-discussed Yali Tailors, a few short blocks from the Life Resort. I had read much about tailoring in Hoi An and, thinking myself rather fussy when it comes to fabric, sewing, and fit, I decided to forego shopping for bargains and head straight for the place that, by all accounts, is the best in town. Judging from the styles on display in the bargain tailor shops which occupy what seems like every other storefront in the town, I was sure that I was making the correct choice. Or at least, avoiding the incorrect choices.


Just outside the Life Resort is a small kiosk with soft drinks and another which operates as a base for a lovely woman who will wash your laundry for far less than the hotel prices. A short walk away, Yali Tailors occupies two floors of a modern commercial building. (There is another, older location elsewhere in town) The workshops are on the ground floor; try to catch a glimpse even if this is discouraged.

The second floor showrooms boast rack after rack of ready made clothing and shelf upon shelf of fabric bolts. It can be a bit overwhelming and I had to remind myself to keep focused. I strongly recommend that you bring items and have them copied, rather than attempt to have clothing made from scratch. I was not overly impressed by the styling of the ready-made items, but that just boils down to personal taste. The fabrics run the gamut from good-quality silks to cheap-looking synthetics. They have both Thai and Vietnamese silks, in various permutations…charmeuse, brocades, raw silk, faux shantung, etc Remember that you do not have to limit yourself to clothing..I am sure that the tailors below would be adept at pillows and other home furnishings items. Do not leave anything to chance, no matter what you choose. Be specific about buttons, stitching, pockets, seams, collars, etc. Make sure to leave time for a minimum of two fittings. In addition to the clothing I had made, I had them do some hemming of pajama bottoms and shortening of shirt sleeves. All in all, I would say that I was quite pleased with the results, especially the items that I had copied. These were 2 copies of a loose, vaguely kimono-style jacket from Eileen Fisher that I had brought from home. I had them made in both scarlet and brown Vietnamese silk (Chinoiserie design in the same color as the silk). Less successful was a long, mandarin-collared coat in burgundy raw silk copied from a newspaper photo. The way the fabric drapes on this one is a little problematic (I should have had a lining made, perhaps) I also ordered a mandarin-collared short-sleeved silk shirt from a model in the store. The total for these items, plus the small alterations on my own clothes, was $165US. As I mentioned, it is instructive to visit the workshop downstairs which appears to run around the clock. My salesgirl (foreign languages are spoken in a limited way by most of the staff) was very excited to be able to take a 5-day Tet holiday. The salesgirls get two days off per month and one full week each year. Some of them have college educations.

I will be happy to go into further detail about the tailoring situation in Hoi An, so please ask!

After dropping off my clothing to be copies, and choosing the designs to be made, I turned my thoughts to dinner and set off, walking west along one of two parallel main streets, bound for the Café des Amis, on the opposite side of Hoi An.


The Café des Amis in Hoi An had been recommended on another site and in a mainstream guidebook, and it was with high hopes that I set out on that first evening in town. The walk from the Life Resort took me through the large food market that occupies the center of Hoi An. Most of the food stalls are inside or on the perimeter and surrounding those are lines of open-air handcraft/trinket booths. A few of the offerings were similar to items I had seen in China, on sale for higher first-asking prices. But there is plenty of interesting, low-cost shopping here. Among the more interesting items are small cannisters carved from cinnamon bark, which cost about one US dollar each. Make sure to check prices among the vendors before you plunge in!

Café des Amis occupies two stories of an old house facing the river. I recommend sitting on the second floor terrace, overlooking the activity on the palm-lined pier below, where boats packed with local merchants, and their bikes and motorcycles, were setting off at the end of the day. (You should reserve the terrace ahead of time as there are only a couple of tables here). There are also ambulatory food vendors in this area which would be worth taking a look at if you are interested in local fare.

The restaurant offers a set menu which changes daily. The meal began with “White Rose” rice flour dumplings (a local specialty) stuffed with clams and topped with friend shallots—excellent

The second course was a bland congee-type soup containing egg, crab, scallions, and a scattering of small dried beans or lentils.


Next to arrive was a stir fry which I thought rather pallid: long beans, peppers, carrots, cabbage, and leafy greens spiked with squid and pineapple and served with a prawn cracker.

The main course was a steak of a white fish topped with shredded carrots and a few celery-type vegetables. Fair.

The total for my dinner was 160,000VND, or about $9USD. This appears to be a very popular place, as all tables were filled by 7:30pm. I would not put it on my “must” list, however, for Hoi An dining.

The next day after a lovely buffet breakfast in the open-air dining room of the hotel, I set off for my first fitting at Yaly. Before I set off, however, I made an attempt to use the lone hotel computer but found it in use. More on this later.

Fitting finished, I set off for an exploration of Hoi An. I can only imagine how lovely this town must be in the sunshine. There is little vehicle traffic on the narrow streets (many motos, however) lined with low-rise tile-roofed structures, many of which reflect the influence of Japanese and Chinese traders who thronged the town when it was Vietnam’s most important port. No glass-and-concrete monstrosities mar the overall feeling of the old town today and the overall aspect is quite charming. The sight of the ao dai-clad schoolgirls bicycling past pastel painted houses hemming the narrow side lanes will remain with me for a long time. I only wish the weather had been better!

I bought a ticket which allowed entry to several sights in the Old Town. Of those I visited, I most enjoyed the Tran Family Home and chapel, the former home of the local ambassador to China. Unfortunately, the attraction is somewhat marred by the persistent sales pitches of the on-site guides, which lead you through the displays and straight to the room that now houses a souvenir shop. Lots of blue-and-white ceramics are on offer, along with interesting “marble” items that, I was assured, had not been dyed. (Interesting hue, that fluorescent green marble! Kind of psychedelic!)

For lunch I headed to the Morning Glory restaurant, which had been the recommendation of Mr. Loc, my local guide, who assured me that I would find excellent local fare. He was right! I liked the Morning Glory very much. The owners have a real interest in introducing tourists to Hoi An’s
much-lauded cuisine and this shines through both in their menu and in the cooking itself. I was not hungry enough for a large lunch, but after sampling their version of White Rose dumplings, far superior to those I had the night before at Café des Amis, I made a reservation for a table on the terrace for later that evening. White Rose dumplings, 30,000; fresh lime juice, 20,000. Service was friendly and seating is both indoors and on the ground-floor terrace.

After lunch, another fitting at Yali, another attempt to use the hotel computer, a rest at the hotel, and I set off, bound once more for the Morning Glory….


6pm found me at my “usual” terrace table at the Morning Glory restaurant, located at the far end of the old town. (opposite end from the hotel). Dinner that night consisted of: Vietnamese “pancake” (ban Xeo) of pork, shrimp, herbs, and bean sprouts stuffed into a crispy rice flour crepe. Excellent! A good name to remember if you are faced with an unfamiliar menu. My main course was slightly less successful: Pork ribs braised in a caramel sauce (nuoc mau) made with sugar and fish sauce.
With fresh lime juice, coffee, and Caramel ice cream, the bill was 180,000VND. Here is their website; note that Morning Glory offers cooking lessons:


http://www.hoianhospitality.com/morning.html


Back at the hotel, another try at the lone computer, which was once again being used by an American tourist. Evidently, the lettering on the sign asking guests to limit their computer time to 20 minutes needs to be larger.


I awakened the next morning to pounding rain. Although I liked Hoi An very much, I can only imagine how pleasant the town would be in better weather! Plastic rain ponchos are much in evidence today; they are sold by ambulatory vendors on bikes, and at many shops. Despite the rain, my notes make mention that there are smiles everywhere; the locals are very friendly and despite what I have read about Vietnam in general, there are no aggressive vendors.

Once again, I headed to Yaly after breakfast for the final fitting of my clothing. It was just too wet to wander far, so I had lunch near the hotel at the Dao Tien, at 21, Phan Boi Chau across from the Hoi An Hotel, where I discovered a bank of computers with internet access. (Note that the internet here can be problematic in rainy weather.)

Lunch: Cau Lau (thick noodles with pork—specialty of Hoi An)
Spring rolls
Shot of Absolut mixed with a glass of mixed citrus juices (the rain was getting me down!)

The restaurant purports to support the disadvantaged. The food was fair.
In general and with a few exceptions, I just was not overwhelmed by the Vietnamese food I had sampled on this trip. I felt that the fare in the Western places was often underseasoned and tailored to foreign tastes, while eating true local dishes often meant sitting on the sidewalk in tiny plastic chairs and struggling with the language. But I knew from experience that the food in Saigon was excellent, and I was hoping that Hue, reputedly a gastronomic center, would bring added culinary delight.

Upon my return to the Life Resort, I found the same man seated at the computer. Without going into details, I will say that I waited a half hour before asking him if he was almost finished. And with that, I was treated to a tirade about how big his business was and did I realize that he had 13 (count ‘em, 13) employees and that he would be finished with the computer when he was good and ready! Deciding not to risk a confrontation, I walked past the desk en route to my room, only to hear ANOTHER tourist ranting and raving about how the hotel advertised internet access and yet the connection kept being interrupted! On and on and on he went! And on and on the front desk staff kept repeating that the rain had broken some of the connections. Right then and there I said a small prayer of thanks that I was alone and not on a tour with these two obnoxious people. (I did finally get to use the hotel computer that evening when the man’s wife dragged him away to dinner).

Later that afternoon, after a session with the internet at the Hoi An Hotel, I picked up my clothes from Yaly (discussed above) and returned for the last time to the hotel. My last meal in Hoi an: A club sandwich from room service.

The next morning after breakfast, I checked out of the Life Resort and, in the rain, set off in the private car for the Hai Van pass and Hue.

The drive took us past China Beach, which looked lovely even in the gloomy weather, and the large base used by the US Army during the War. Our first prolonged stop that morning was at Danang’s Cham Museum. Of Indo-Malay descent, the Cham occupied the central coastal region from about the second century B.C. Although their kingdom was absorbed into Vietnam in the 15th Century, they remain a distinct ethnic minority, with a written language related to Sanskrit. The Cham Museum in Danang is a delight. Housed in, and on the grounds, of an ochre-colored French Colonial building dating from the 1930s, the sandstone sculptures and temple fragments comprise the richest collection of Cham artwork in the world. There are Shivas, Ganeshas, Nagas, and absolutely charming smiling lions, among other works. You do not need a guide here, I found it thrilling to just wander around on my own (although I was accompanied by my guide, all the same). Maps details the former and current areas of Cham settlement and centers of population. Excellent!

Our visit occupied about an hour and after that we were northward bound, towards the Hai Van pass, which, as the highest point between Hoi An and Hue, served as a natural defense during various conflicts. The road zig zags upwards and we passed several concrete bunkers that had been used by the French and the Americans. There are observation posts along the road and the view over the rice paddies down to the sea is awesome, even in misty weather. The road climbs and climbs, and then after about an hour, reaches the crest and suddenly begins to descend. We were now once again in northern Vietnam. The coastal village of Lang Co, on a peninsula between a lagoon and the sea, was picturesque and, in good weather, might make an interesting lunch stop. There are some lovely beaches along this route, too.

After about 3 hours, we reached the outskirts of Hue, where the ground was once again littered with bunkers and military installations. My first glimpse of Hue was encouraging: Most of the buildings are low-rise and there appeared to be lovely promenades along the river banks. My home for the next two nights was the La Residence, an Art Deco masterwork that had been restored and re-opened as a hotel only recently. I am sorry that the hotel’s website does not do the place justice:

http://www.la-residence-hue.com/index.php?id=2&lang=


If you have the slightest bit of interest in 20th Century architecture, plan to pay a visit when you are in Hue. That said, the standard room that I was given was non-descript and had no view. I chose to upgrade to a river-view room, which I found more pleasing, even though the river, with the Citadel behind it, is off in the near distance. But the public places, and the grounds, are so wonderful that it was difficult to quibble.

After checking in and saying goodbye to my guide and driver (they would pick me up the next day for touring) my first order of business was to find lunch and I was determined to sample top-notch examples of the cuisine which is always mentioned as among the best in Vietnam. I had a few names, and with those in hand, I approached the front desk.



Hang Me, at #45 Vo Thi Sau, was the name at the top of my list of good eating places in Hue, and it was the name I spoke to the front desk person at La Residence that afternoon. I wanted to know if I could walk there, or if I would need a taxi. My mention of this place, however, brought a look approaching horror to the man’s face. He appeared flustered, and then told me that the restaurant was closed. But this was only about 1:30pm..did eating places in Hue really close that early? He disappeared, returning in a moment with a colleague in tow. Yes, it turned out that the restaurant was open but it was not a good choice for me. Why not? Well, it serves only “pastry.” “Pastry?” I told them, no matter, I would like to try it out and asked them to get me a taxi. More confusion..wait, wait….”I think that today is the vacation day.” By this time I was more determined than ever to make it to the restaurant with the unusual name. They dutifully called me a taxi and I set off, to be deposited minutes later at a tiny, open-air nook with a few tables and cooking equipment in the rear. More confusion when I entered. I checked the address out front. Yes, this was, indeed, #45 Vo Thi Sau.
The owner and waitress quickly recovered from their chock of seeing a lone western female at their door, and ushered me to one of the metal tables.

I will say here that in Vietnam, there seems to be a sharp divide between locally patronized restaurants and those oriented toward group tourists. Attempts to dine at the former were always received with some surprise, followed by warmth and friendliness. Hang Me proved no different. The place is more street stall than actual restaurant. Open to the narrow lane in front and outfitted with metal tables and plastic chairs, the place does have English translation on its brief menu. One look at this document and I understood the mention of “pastry.” The specialty here is rice flour crepes, in several forms and stuffed with a variety of meat and vegetable ingredients. For 55,000VND (US$3.28) I sampled the entire menu. Rice flour crepes stuffed with shrimp and herbs, rice four dumplings stuffed with pork and chives, and an array of other “small plates.” All very tasty. Recommended.

A taxi ride back to the hotel (walking would have been lovely in better weather), some time at the free computer in the lobby, and it was time for dinner. The restaurant at La Residence had been recommended to me by several fellow guests and so I booked a table there for that evening. <<<



The restaurant at La Residence, like the rest of the hotel, is a masterwork of Art Deco. The food, while not a masterwork and while very toned down for foreign palates, was good enough; I had two appetizers which I cannot recall, and a lime juice. 

After dinner, lured by the strains of the Anniversary Waltz, I found myself in the lobby watching the earnest Filppino band do a great job of covering all the "old standards." They even did some Barry M. numbers!! Since I was the only person paying remote attention to the music (the lobby was filled with other guests—many Americans and many French, mostly on group tours), the band invited me to sit down and chat. Having noticed these Filippino bands everyplace from Sumatra to Hong Kong, I had always wondered how they found their way to these far away spots. It seems that there are agencies in Manila and other cities that place them on contracts which usually run about 6 months; here in Hue they were put up in the staff quarters of the hotel but in other cities they stay in hostels and have a very modest allowance for food and daily necessities. 

Well, now that I have probably told you more then you wanted to know about this subject, I will move upstairs to bed. Tomorrow promises to be a heavy day of touring, beginning with a ride on the Perfume River.



My guide collected me at 8am and we drove to the dock and set off on a private boat along the Perfume River, bound for the Imperial Tombs. The day was dreary and the ride, at the beginning, was interesting. The river is wide so you do not get close up views of the activity along the banks, but we did pass many barges ferrying sand for construction back to Hue.
Also lining the river are a scattering of French colonial buildings in varying shades of decay. The scene is atmospheric, but the ride is long—over an hour. Next time, unless the weather is glorious, I would drive to the tombs. I had read warnings of vendors harassing captive tourists to buy textiles while on the boat. I was presented with a stack of items, but a couple of firm “no’s” ended the discussion.

We stopped at the tomb of Emperor Ming Mang, which was truly a wondrous site with its assemblage of stone structures and sculptures, gardens and lake, draped with a decorative veil of moss. The peach blossoms were about to bloom and the entire scene was quite stupendous. Highly recommended!

Outside the tomb, you can watch incense being crafted in a rainbow of colors at several shops. Excellent photo opportunities here!

After Minh Mang’s tomb, the next stop on the schedule was the tomb of Khai Dinh. And here your faithful correspondent totally “missed the boat.” Not realizing that this was the jewel of the Imperial Tombs (she left her trusty guidebook back at the hotel and had not done her reading the night before, preferring, instead, to cavort with the Filippino band members), she elected to skip the tomb and return to Hue for lunch!!!
This ranks among the dumbest mistakes of the trip and will be reason enough to return to Hue, hopefully in the sunshine.

On the drive back to Hue (the driver collected us, saving me from another long boat ride), we stopped at the Hue Pilgrimage Village Resort to have a look. Although you would have to weigh the pros and cons of being out of town vs the beautiful surroundings, this hotel has a beautiful pool area and looked thoroughly inviting:

http://www.pilgrimagevillage.com/


Restaurants in Hue seem to be oriented toward group tourists, with menus offering toned down versions of local fare along with bland pan-Vietnamese classics. Pursuing my quest for the “real” thing, I chose to eat at a no-frills local eatery that had been recommended on a food website, a recommendation that was enthusiastically seconded by my guide.

The Vietnamese name translates as “Hue Noodle House,” and the location that I jotted down is: 11, Ly Thuong Kiet. There is no English sign out front. This is a typical Vietnamese eatery: Open to the street on one side, with metal tables and plastic chairs. A glass-fronted display case showcases various cuts of meat that diners can choose to have added to their Bun Bo Hue, the soupy rice noodle dish that is emblematic of the city. While was waiting for my Bun Bo to be cooked, a mini van pulled up outside and about a dozen Vietnamese of all ages poured out, clutching plastic bags and thermoses. These were south Vietnamese from Saigon, on a bus excursion to the former capital city. To save money, they brought with them tea and preserved meat and vegetables; they would purchase the noodle soup at the restaurant and would be provided, in turn, with hot water for their tea.

My Bun Bo Hue cost the equivalent of a couple of dollars and was tasty and filling. Here is a recipe and more information on the dish:

http://bac-lieu.blogspot.com/2008/04/bun-bo-hue-recipe.html


After lunch, I spent an hour or so wandering through the main market (interesting; far less frenzied than the main markets in Hanoi and Saigon).
The next and last sightseeing spot was the Imperial City, that was home to the emperor and his household and served as the country’s administrative center during the time (1802-1945) that Hue was the Vietnamese capital. The vast complex of buildings is now mostly in ruins, the result of bombardment by the French and Americans in the last century.

By late afternoon, I was back at the hotel, where I would remain until my departure for Saigon the next morning. The drizzly, grey weather definitely put a damper on my usual enthusiasm for exploration!

That night’s dinner: Cheeseburger and French fries, delivered by room service!



The next morning, I was at the airport early for my 9:15am Vietnam Air flight to Saigon. Hue airport is a pleasant enough place and my business class ticket allowed me entry into the lounge, where I had my fill of sliced mango and good coffee. The flight was short and it was with tremendous delight that I spotted the first rays of sun breaking through the haze as we neared Tan Son Nhat airport. I don’t remember ever being so happy to see the sun as I was that morning! I had three nights and almost four full days planned in Saigon and my plan was to soak up some sun, swim lots of laps, and wander around the it I had last visited in 2000, when I spent almost two weeks at the apartment of a relative who was living here at the time.

I arrived at the Sheraton, dropped my things off, and headed immediately to the pool. Without delving too much into the minutae of the situation, suffice to say that I was not happy when I saw the pool area and heard the tremendous banging and clanging coming from the jackhammers and other heavy machinery that were hard at work in the area where I had hoped to relax. The Sheraton pool area is partly enclosed by the hotel’s towers and therefore, remains shaded for much of the day.

I want to emphasize here that the Sheraton would probably be fine for most visitors. The location, just of Dong Khoi, is excellent and the rooms are decent enough but starting to show wear and tear. Again, I will be happy to discuss in detail if anyone is interested; I wrote a review on TA.
But, although I had pre-paid my booking, I was determined to find something nicer. And so I spent the next few hours checking out the nearby Park Hyatt (glorious pool area in a garden setting), searching for a decent rate on the internet across from the Sheraton, speaking on the phone with Exotissimo, and on and on. The result: The Hyatt was full on that night (the city was booked up for the upcoming Tet holidays; many overseas Vietnamese had returned to the city, and many weddings were scheduled at the big hotels) but I could move the next day; I would be able to get a refund for the unused nights at the Sheraton, but would have to pay a supplement, as the Hyatt is more expensive. Exotissimo was able to get mea rate at the Hyatt that was about half of the one posted on the Hyatt website.


http://tinyurl.com/999c8y


http://www.saigon.park.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp


In the interest of moving things along here, as the one-year anniversary of my return looms, I will just report on a few of the highlights of my stay in Saigon, rather than write a day-be-day account of my visit.

I ended up moving to the wonderful Park Hyatt on Monday, my first full day in the city. As I mentioned above, this hotel is glorious. Even if you do not stay here, step inside to admire the Vietnamese lacquer paintings that adorn the public areas. My room was large and handsome. The Sheraton uses generic landscape scenes to decorate the guest rooms; at the Hyatt, atmospheric black and white photos of old Saigon in gold-leafed wood frames adorned the walls. No plastic lamps here; bedside reading is done under brass, swing-arm lamps with silk shades.

I spent much of that first day lounging around the pool and wandering the streets near the hotel. This area, Dong Khoi and its side streets and lanes, are stuffed with tourist-oriented shops and businesses. In general and with many exceptions, the quality of the arts and crafts on sale seemed sadly diminished in comparison to those I had seen on my first visit to the city 8 years before. Or maybe I remembered the piles of lacquer and bamboo that crammed my shelves at home! Nevertheless, there are lots of shopping opportunities here; to find the more exciting stuff, you really need to have addresses in mind; I would recommend the Luxe Guide to Saigon; I did not use this book, but that series has been fairly reliable for me in other Asian cities.


An example of one of the better “design” shops, which I did not have the time/energy to investigate:


http://www.gayavietnam.com/home/home.html



For a good overview of what you can find in many city shops, pay a visit to Nguyen Freres, at #2 Dong Khoi near the river.


Here is the website of a typical shop in the Dong Khoi area, with pics of some of the products you will see all over the place:

http://www.saigoncrafts.com/index.htm



Tet was approaching when I was in Saigon and the city was decked out with holiday decorations. Giant red silk lanterns hung from the trees along Dong Khoi, and Le Loi, a main intersecting artery, was dressed with pale blue silk streamers and adornments. The city was jam-packed with returning overseas Vietnamese and I loved just wandering and watching the families dressed in their festive clothing. The energy of this city just cannot be described. I found the people here more open and friendly to outsiders than those in Hanoi. I love this city, although on the surface, it may just seem like any other sprawling Asian capital, with skyscrapers beginning to sprout amidst the low-rise white structures, many with glorious Colonial architectural detailing. Traffic is of course, horrific, and even when you stroll on the sidewalk, you have to watch out: The cyclists come at you from every direction. Ride on the street, ride on the sidewalk, weave from street to sidewalk,jump the curb—it is like living inside some kind of obstacle video game! Just ask for help when you need to cross the street, as I described in the Hanoi section above.

Since I knew that the city was jammed, I asked my hotel to reserve a table for me at Quan An Ngon and I set out in taxi from the hotel about 6pm.


I’ve written above about how much I liked Quan An Ngon in Hanoi. And since I like the food in the south better than that in the north, I had high hopes for the Saigon original. Stepping out of the taxi, I joined a throng clamoring for tables; there were so many people that the crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk. A total scene! It seemed as if every overseas Vietnamese was back in Saigon for Tet, and most of them were aiming to be fed here on that night!

Since the hotel had booked a table for me, and because the host probably felt some sympathy for the out of place solo female diner, I was immediately whisked to a prime table on the terrace of the villa that forms the core of the restaurant. (Giant fans spew cold mist at the diners seated inside the villa part of the restaurant.) And it was at this table that I proceeded to have one of the best meals of my trip:


Crab with tamarind sauce—probably the best crab preparation I have ever eaten! The thought of that sweet/sour sauce stays with me to this day.
Served with rice to soak up the sauce. The waiter helpfully cracked the crab for me; service was excellent, despite the hordes.

Fried morning glory, served with an orange-colored sauce—incredibly delicious.

Fresh lemonade

As great as the food was, the parade of diners decked out in their festive clothes—I don’t remember ever seeing such an assemblage of adorable little kids—with the younger ones sprouting the Mickey and Shrek ears that seemed to be all the rage that season—was a sight I will never forget. I repeatedly interrupted my dinner to snap photos of my very willing subjects!

The total was 179,000 VND, for one of the best meals of my trip. I was only sorry, once again, not to have been able to sample more dishes.


The outside of the restaurant, and some of the offerings:

http://www.refinery29.com/editorial/img/eat_quan_an_ngon.jpg



After dinner, I met up with a couple of guys on a men’s tour who I had encountered in Hue. We settled in for after dinner drinks at the old Continental Hotel, next to the Hyatt, on the corner of Dong Khoi near the Opera House. The glassed in bar area offered a marvelous view of the passing scene. This being the eve of Tet, there were weddings taking place in many of the big hotels. So after drinks we wandered into the crowd admiring the bride and groom and the wedding party pose for photos inside the Continental lobby. When I look at my notes from that night, I see lots of exclamation marks: “unforgettable scene,” “fabulous,”
Etc. There was an outdoor photo exhibit along the center of Le Loi; huge color photos of Vietnamese scenes were set up along the median in the center of the street and many local families were milling around. More Shrek ears and many illuminated devil ears on the little kids. I was totally charmed!

The next morning I gorged on the Hyatt’s gargantuan breakfast buffet. I would rate this up there with the Bangkok Peninsula and the Shanghai Royal Meridien for vastness and quality of foods on offer. Omelette stations, congee stands, croissants, crullers, pan-fried noodles, hot and cold cereals, tropical fruits, dried fruits, yogurts in several flavors—this was not the Olive Garden salad bar! Unfortunately, as much as I tried to limit myself, this meal knocked out any hunger I would have for the remainder of the day, which was kind of a shame, as I planned to head for the Ben Thanh market for some sampling of local foods later that morning.

I spent the rest of the morning at the hotel pool, trying to work off some of the calories consumed at the breakfast table. The Hyatt pool sits amidst lawns and tropical plants—a lovely oasis from the city outside. If you can give up the beach, this would be a terrific spot for a relaxing luxury vacation, with the delights of Saigon just outside!

Late in the morning I set out in a taxi for Le Cong Kieu. A couple of dozen tiny antique shops line this narrow street, which stretches for a couple of blocks near the Ben Thanh market. A few of these had yielded treasure on my first visit to Saigon when I had purchased, among other things, a vase that had been rescued from a shipwreck off the coast and which now sits in a place of honor on my shelf. (I paid $20 for this back in 2000 and carried it home swathed in bubble wrap).

http://tinyurl.com/bo3lkl


Shopping here is not for the faint of heart! Although a few shopkeepers speak some English, no prices are marked, nothing is labeled. Many of the items are modern reproductions and not the antique treasures that they purport to be. Unfortunately, prices appear to have risen enormously since my last visit. (On that visit, I had been accompanied by my cousin whose fluency in the language undoubtedly gave us an edge in bargaining). None of this, however, dissuaded me from plunging in, and I spent a couple of hours wandering around and examining everything from golden Thai buddhas and Annamese porcelain, to inlaid rosewood desks and old German radios.

http://english.vietnamnet.vn/travel/2008/03/772412/



In one of the shops along Le Cong Kieu, I spotted a pair brass heads mounted on black bases. The heads depicted Vietnamese women of the north and the south (the shop girl told me that there had been a third head, of a woman from central Vietnam, that sold to a Singapore collector earlier that week.) I loved these sculptures, but I was somewhat surprised at the high price that was quoted. ($150US for each head.) Even laborious bargaining, interrupted by cups of tea and and by my leaving the store, and then returning to inquire again, failed to reduce the price more than a couple of dollars. (Dollars seem to be the preferred currency here; many shops do take Visa but cash is king and usually nets a better final cost.) Although I had taken what I considered a lot of cash, I was trying to make my remaining dollars last; this was the last full day of the trip and I had to remember to save for the taxi ride from JFK.

And so I left the store, and headed for the Ben Thanh market, hoping to score a few last souvenirs. But first, I had to negotiate the vast and hectic traffic circle in front of the market! No small feat, and one I accomplished only with the help of a bemused and patient local pedestrian. This photo does not accurately portray the frenzy. By the way, the hallmark clocktower building has been replicated in various Vietnamese shopping centers from Falls Church to Las Vegas:

http://www.virtourist.com/asia/vietnam/saigon/02.htm





Ben Thanh is one of the city’s large food markets (the market in Cholon is larger and far less touristy, or at least it was when I visited 8 years ago) and I spent a pleasant hour or so wandering the food aisles (my large Hyatt breakfast had eliminated any possibility of sampling the offerings) and investigating the stalls of tourist arts and crafts. Quality, of course, paled in comparison with the brass ladies of Le Cong Kieu! In comparing a few items with those I had purchased earlier on the trip, I noticed that prices here were not much less than those in the fixed-price tourist emporiums on the road to Halong Bay. Bargaining might have granted reductions but, in general, vendors here are not giving anything away these days! Nevertheless, a visit to Ben Thanh is essential on any trip to Saigon. (Semi-Interesting side note: When I spent two weeks at my cousin’s apartment, he would shop here for tropical fruits (dragon fruit, papaya, pineapple, banana) and other staples; the vendors will deliver the purchases to your apartment by motorbike.)

As for my next stop, as you might well imagine, the ladies of Le Cong Kieu beckoned. After another round of bargaining, interspersed with conversation and a round of picture-taking with the lovely shop assistant, she (the assistant) allowed that her boss was on vacation in Singapore and that it would be with her approval that any real price reduction could take place. The call was made, the heads were carefully wrapped in newspaper, and ekscrunchy handed over $US270 for both heads, which now live happily ever after in their place of honor in my living room.


After depositing the ladies in my hotel room, I wandered around the Dong Khoi area for a couple of hours, paid a visit to the Saigon branch of the Apricot Gallery:


http://www.apricot-artvietnam.com/

and had an indifferent manicure in one of the many full-service salons off Dong Khoi. I say “full service” because I noticed a parade of male Caucasian tourists making their way to the “treatment” rooms upstairs.
Well, at least I got rid of the horrid nail polish slapped on me during the Halong Bay cruise. This was followed by a hum-drum lunch at one of the cheap cafes in the area. (Spring rolls and limejuice=51,oooVND) (I had a persistent problem here due to my overindulgence at the hotel buffets; I was often not hungry during standard lunch hours and when I did begin to think of lunch, many places were already shuttered and even the street carts had disappeared, only to reappear near dinner time.

After that, it was back to the Hyatt for a swim and relax in their glorious pool area, and an early night in my hotel room where, a few hours later I dined on an exorbitantly priced club sandwich to which I gave rather poor reviews in my diligently completed hotel satisfaction survey. (The club sandwich was the only less-than ideal element of my stay at the Hyatt)

And so ended my last full day in Saigon, and in Asia.

I began my last day in Asia with another immense breakfast at the Park Hyatt. For the first time, I sample the Hyatt’s pho. Verdict: excellent. (Of course you would not want to order this a la carte because it probably costs 10 times what a similarly good bowl would cost outside the hotels, but since it was on the buffet….) Crab vermicelli was also tasty, and then I moved on to the pastries….. Honestly, these lavish hotel breakfast buffets really kill your appetite for the rest of the day, which is too bad, because you find yourself with no hunger at all for the tempting street snacks, not to mention lunch.

After my repast, I fought the urge to repair to the bedroom for an hour or two and set out to do some more exploring. This time, my walk took me north to the area around the Sofitel Hotel (close to the American consulate). This area is slightly less touristy, or rather, there are more local businesses mixed in with the tourist places. This area is also home to the place that I stayed on my first trip to Saigon in 2000, the Somerset Chancellor Court. If I have the good fortune to return, I might choose to stay here because while I adored the Hyatt, the price is very high for Asia. Here is the website for the Somerset:


http://tinyurl.com/cjmlr7



I had to stop into the Exotissimo offices to complete some paperwork related to my change of hotels. I give very high marks to Exotissimo in general; the people at the office here are absolutely lovely and even lent me a computer so I could write some last minute e-mails. Thank you, Ms. Nguyen To Quyen.


The rest of the day was spent relaxing at the Hyatt pool and packing. Probably because the hotel was full with Tet guests, I was able to negotiate a late-checkout only with payment of a half-day rate and even with that, I had to check out by 6pm. Since my flight was not until around midnight, I scheduled a massage before dinner and was able to shower and change into my travel clothes in the changing rooms of the spa.


For my last dinner in Saigon, after being turned down by another restaurant which would not take reservations for a single diner after 6pm, I chose the well-regarded Temple Club.


This is an exceptionally handsome restaurant located on a leafy lane of Colonial shop houses, across the street from a Hindu temple, about a 15 minute walk from the hotel (walking time includes repeated dodging of motorbikes whizzing along sidewalks) and above a popular ice cream parlor, Fanny’s, which I did not have time to sample. There seems to be some interesting shopping, too, on Ton That Thiep Street, near the restaurant.

j
Photo of the exterior:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/iwanna/501687962/


Temple Club is mentioned in many guidebooks but surprisingly, I was the only westerner in the dining rooms on the evening that I dined there. I ate quite early (around 6pm) since I had to return to the hotel and gather my things before departing for the airport. The brick-walled interior once housed to a Chinese temple and retains many of the original architectural elements. Even if you do not eat here, I would recommend coming for a cocktail.

I began my meal with my then-favorite of Absolut vodka and fresh lime juice. (75,000VND)

Rau Tron Thit Bo Kieu Nam Bo, a salad of sliced beef tossed with peanuts, banana flowers, onions, carrot, cilantro, and probably a host of other ingredients made a tasty first course. (100,000VND) My main course, Tom Me, or prawns in tamarind sauce, was very good. (160,000)

The total bill was 368,000VND, or $21USD. I would recommend Temple Club for whom a beautiful atmosphere is important. Food wise, I have to give the edge to Quan An Ngon, where I will be heading shortly after landing on any future trip to Saigon.

After dinner I returned to the hotel, gathered my bags, and awaited the Exotissimo car that would transport me to the airport. (A car service is most definitely NOT necessary, by the way.) After an unsuccessful stop in search of a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) we proceeded to the airport. I spent some time playing on the free computers and availing myself of a few last fresh mangoes before boarding the KoreanAir flight that would whisk me to Seoul and another spell in the lounge, followed by an uneventful flight home.

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