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Trip Report Vietnam - North to South

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Spoiler alert - this will probably be incredibly long and will take several days! We just returned from an amazing three weeks in Vietnam so there is lots to report. I will try to do it as fast as possible, but want to give lots of detail since other trip reports were instrumental in making this one possible.

Day One:
Early morning flight from ORD so we were up at 3:45. Used miles from United so the trip was basically free! Flew from ORD to SFO and then to Seoul (Inchon) before finally ending up in Hanoi at 10:30 at night. At this point we had the only "Murphies" of the trip. 1) We got in the wrong line for our Visa. We had elected to do the Visa on Arrival through Tonkin Tours (they helped with several sections of the trip but we did not use them exclusively). Apparently, the Hanoi airport decided that it made sense for you to have to go around to the BACK of the Visa office to give them your paperwork and then come back to the FRONT window to wait around until they call your name. After discovering our mistake we got things organized, but it took longer than it should have. 2) We had arranged for transport through the Diamond Elegance (our hotel for Hanoi) and when we got out to the pick up area there was no one waiting with our name on a sign. After asking several people, we finally ended up taking a cab to the hotel for $15. The hotel staff was VERY apologetic - they had sent someone and had no idea why they didn't show. But all's well that ends well and we finally fell into bed at about 1am.

Day Two:
Only to be waked up at 6:45 by the start of construction. EVERYWHERE in Vietnam there is construction, so I don't think it is possible to find a hotel that doesn't have something being built near it. And they start early! So much for the plan of getting a solid 8 hours so that we could reset our internal clocks. But who needs sleep :-P!

The Diamond Elegance is an amazing hotel and I HIGHLY recommend them. The staff could not have been nicer or more accommodating and the room was very comfortable and well decorated. The breakfast is a combination of buffet items and ordering off a small menu (basically eggs and pancakes made to order). We were meeting some friends who had flown in from New Zealand (where they spend half the year) and found them at breakfast.

After breakfast, we had the hotel staff flag us down a cab and we went to the Tonkin office to settle up our invoices. Since we had not seen much of the city it was nice to take a bit of a drive. But, riding in any vehicle in Hanoi is an experience. Apparently the road signs and traffic lights are only suggestions, especially for scooters which are the primary modes of transportation. Actually, walking can be an experience as the scooters dart in and out and drive up on the sidewalk. The trick is to not show fear (yeah right!) and to just keep moving. I found myself getting into kind of a "zen" mode and stepping out into the street. Even in the traffic circles, it was amazing to find that the scooters just sort of weave around pedestrians and somehow it all works. But bear in mind that when the light turns red for one direction of traffic, you CANNOT assume that it will stop. Scooters continue through the red light - as I said, the light seems to be just a suggestion.

The other thing that became very clear very quickly regarding the scooters is that since they are the primary source of transportation for most people, you will see all manner of things being transported. We had seen this in Thailand also, but it is even more pronounced in Vietnam. From families of four to people transporting sofas, we saw all some amazing things on the scooters. At one point there was a guy carrying a ten foot metal pipe on his shoulder with one had while he steered with the other. The only thing more amazing was when we saw people carrying things on the scooter and driving while texting! The traffic cops in the US would have a field day in Vietnam!

The rest of the first day we just took it easy. Our friends went for a walk through the Old Quarter while DH and I took a cyclo for about an hour. I had thought that the price quoted (I think it was about 100,000 dong or $5.00) was for both of us, but it turned out it was per person (we both squeezed onto one). So we could have spread out a bit and had two, but this way we got to talk about what we were seeing. Probably more work for the poor guy peddling us though! Since we were dropped off right by Hoan Kiem Lake, we walked aver there and went out to the temple on the little island. Very pretty. Then we walked along the lake to see some of the sculptures, including a very large world globe with a dove on top. Lots of pictures being taken including some wedding photos. We then stopped at a local Pho restaurant and had Pho and a beer.

One of the things I wanted to do at some point was to get some new glasses made. I found a whole area in the Old Quarter with optics stores and went to several until I found one that had what I liked for a price I was willing to pay. We did some bargaining and I managed to get a pair of progressive lenses and a pair of sunglasses (just distance) for $125 US. Given that those same glasses (frames and lenses) would be close to $1000 in the US, I was happy. It took 3 days for them to get them back, but we had time so it all worked.

For dinner that night we went to the Hanoi Garden. It was a lovely restaurant tucked away off the street. The food was excellent and it was very reasonably priced. Went to bed pretty soon after dinner since it had been a rather long day.

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    Great start...looking forward to the rest. we leave for SEAsia In a couple weeks and end with about 3 weeks in VN. On the glasses, did u take a copy of your prescription? Also could u pls be more specific as to where in the old quarter u found the area selling glasses. Thanks!

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    Yes, I did take my prescription with me since it is pretty complicated. The street with all of the optical shops was right off the traffic circle at the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake. I believe it was Luong Van Can. If that's not it, check Hang Dao. Enjoy!

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    Both Hanoi and HCMC have "optical" areas. There were many many places to get glasses near our hotel around Ben Thanh market in HCMC. You won't really be able to miss it. Same goes for Hanoi -- you'll stumble upon it as you wander around the old city.

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    Day Three:

    So, back to the report. This day we had arranged to have a guide from Hanoi Kids. We ended up with two (Duc and Trang), both of whom had good English skills. Trang was learning the ropes of being a guide and was very eager to have us enjoy our day. Our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We had assumed that we would not get to see "Uncle Ho" as he is usually off in Russia during November being "refurbished." But he had just gotten back so we got in line to go in to the mausoleum. It became very clear right from the start how revered he is (at least in the north). We decided that he is sort of a combination of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He is considered the "founding father" of Vietnam and he is also credited with the reunification of the country (although he was already dead by the time the war was over in 1975). Trang explained that he is known as "Uncle Ho" because he considered all of the people of Vietnam to be his "children." He never married or had children of his own, preferring to focus all of his attention on the people of Vietnam.

    After visiting the mausoleum, we walked around the grounds which were very beautiful. There are trees from every part of Vietnam planted in the gardens and the mausoleum itself has marble from every province. While we were viewing his home (very modest), we saw a whole group of older Vietnamese who were obviously considered very important as they were being allowed to enter places that most visitors were not. Many of the women had medals on their ao dais and we asked Duc and Trang about the significance. It turned out that they were part of a group of women known as the "hero mothers". This means that they had sons or husbands who fought and died in the "American War."

    As we left the Ho Chi Minh complex, our cab pulled up to an area that was apparently off limits. The police immediately came over and asked him to step out of the cab. Some discussion ensued and we ended up having to leave that cab and find another. We felt quite bad about him getting in trouble since he had been trying to get close enough that we would not have to walk too far. Later that day we ended up seeing him again and found out that he had not lost his license or been taken into custody. I think they ended up just giving him a warning.

    Our next stop was the Temple of Literature which was the first university in Vietnam and is based on the teachings of Confucius. In one area of the complex there was a group of traditional musicians performing. One of the instruments was very different - it had only one string but based on how the musician manipulated it, the sounds were quite varied. There were also many young women in the complex in beautiful ao dais (the traditional dress) having their pictures taken. We had our picture taken with them and later commented to each other that they were all so pretty and thin. We wondered where the chubby ones were ;-). Never did find them!

    For lunch we went to a very popular local restaurant - Quan An Ngon. As it was a Saturday there were many families out having lunch together. We asked Duc and Trang to order for us and I have no idea what we ate, but it was fabulous. The Vietnamese pancakes and the pork skewers were especially good and the bill at the end was very reasonable.

    For our afternoon, Duc recommended the Museum of Vietnamese Women. DH decided he was tired and went back to the hotel and the rest of us continued on. The museum was very interesting but a bit warm. We spent about 2 hours there. The most interesting part to me was the role of women in the military during the 1960's and 70's. After that it was back to the hotel and farewell to our guides. They refused any money (as I had been told they would) but we had each brought some t-shirts as gifts. One from Chicago and one from New Zealand for each of them.

    We went up to the terrace bar at the hotel and had some drinks and then ate dinner at the restaurant there. The food was very good and the service was even better. Early to bed as DH and I had an early pickup the next day.

    Day Four:
    We parted ways with our friends for a few days as they wanted to go up to Sapa and we had decided to follow the "road less traveled" and go to the northeast. Our primary goal was to see Ban Gioc waterfall on the border with China. If you go to any Chinese restaurant and see a terraced waterfall, that is the one we were going to see. Getting there, however, is not easy. We had arranged a five day package with Tonkin Tours that included a guide (Hieu) and driver (Mr. Hong).

    One of the first things that Hieu told us was that it was National Teachers Day in Vietnam. Both of us are retired teachers (as are our friends) so that made us feel good. Apparently teachers are very well respected in Vietnam and are well paid compared to many people.

    Our first stop was at the Museum of Ethnology about an hour our of Hanoi (different from the one right in Hanoi). There were some interesting exhibits, especially the Cham pagoda and the tomb house of one of the ethnic minorities. We stopped for lunch at a great local place. There were several groups of teachers having lunch and we chatted (through Hieu) with a group of math teachers. After lunch we got more out into the country, but what surprised us is how far out of Hanoi the development extends. We eventually started to get into a more mountainous area and smaller towns. We stopped in one for some sweet corn on the side of the road. I can tell already that eating is going to be a big part of my memories of this trip!

    The road less traveled is the only way to describe this part of our trip. We turned off the main road to head towards the town of Cho Ra and Ba Be Lake. The road has been under construction for about three years and it is definitely not done yet. For an hour and a half we bumped over gravel and through hairpin turns. The countryside was beautiful - steep mountains and rice fields all over. Finally we arrived in Cho Ra and checked in to our guesthouse (the Ba Be Guesthouse). It is very basic (to put it mildly). It took us a while to figure out how to work everything, but we finally managed to get the air conditioning to work and started to feel better. One caveat to anyone going to this part of the country - do not expect the typical comforts of the US. And certainly do not expect an elevator. We were on the third floor which involved walking up the stairs (difficult for DH who has bad knees). That being said, the room was clean, the bed was nice and firm, and the view out to the rice fields was breathtaking (I'm sure that's why they gave us the third floor - it had the best view). The bathroom was interesting in that the shower was simply part of the room - not in its own little stall. But there was hot water and they provided all of the toiletries you could possibly need or want.

    Dinner was at a local restaurant where we had some Pho and a beer - better than the Pho I had in Hanoi. Then back to the room and early to sleep.

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    I think that heading to Ba Be and Ban Gioc was a much better choice for us. It seemed that the way to really experience Sapa is to do some trekking and that is not something that we could do. But drifting in a boat on a river and lake and going to see a waterfall was perfect. Ban Gioc has been said to be the fourth largest waterfall to span a border. The other three are Niagara (been there), Victoria (there too) and Iguassu (and there). Iguassu is, for us, the best of the four, but Ban Gioc definitely ranks with the others. It kept opening up new corners as we got closer. Maybe the challenge of getting there made it special, but we really enjoyed it tremendously. I'll try to get some more done tomorrow.

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    You definitely should. It was well worth the time and aggravation on the "road less traveled" to see the northeast. As we reported in one of our e-mails to family and friends: "The reason it is less traveled is that it is bumpy, under construction, and occupied by rather crazy drivers. In realty, the road barely exists. It is frequently only one lane and is inhabited by buffalo, dogs taking a nap, pigs, heavy construction equipment, and entire families carrying unbelievable amounts of stuff on motor scooters (sometimes while texting). It is not unusual to see mom, dad, and an infant barreling down the road with absolutely no safety equipment for anyone. Headlight and taillight usage is truly optional, even at night. It is utterly impossible to exaggerate the sheer insanity of it all. But apparently, it works." And even as we moved further south and the roads got better, the insanity of the scooters continued. We did see a few accidents, but not as many as I would have expected.

    The other thing we saw very clearly as we traveled around the country was how hard people work. Whether they are working on a construction project or in the fields, much of the work is very physically taxing. And even in the service industry, the energy and upbeat nature is hard to miss (and is definitely missing from many of the service industries here in the US). We found it difficult to imagine most Americans being willing to work so hard and keeping a positive outlook.

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    <<<It is not unusual to see mom, dad, and an infant barreling down the road with absolutely no safety equipment for anyone. Headlight and taillight usage is truly optional, even at night.>>>

    In Hanoi, we saw a family of five on one motorbike. And on the road to Halong Bay, we saw a guy driving a motorbike and carrying two dead pigs!

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    Back to my report now:

    Day Five:
    It is hard to believe that's all it was when I think of how much we had seen and done so far. Our day started early as we awoke to roosters, dogs, and the voices of people working in the rice field below us. It was a somewhat misty morning and the photos I shot from our balcony are some of my favorites. BTW - we ended up with almost 3,000!!! I think we need to do some editing before we subject people to them.

    Our breakfast was back at the same local restaurant we had gone to the night before and was the typical Vietnamese breakfast of Pho. We definitely felt like we were a bit "on display" as people came in to the restaurant and just had tea while they watched us. The owner took a photo of us on his phone. They do not know what to make of this older American couple so far from home. It kind of made me glad that we could shatter some stereotypes. And we were received so warmly by everyone we met.

    We headed to the local "pier" to get on our boat for the day. There wasn't much of a pier that I could see, just several boats pulled up to a very steep, muddy embankment. A bit of a challenge for someone with bad knees, but fortunately I had gotten one of those collapsible walking sticks prior to the trip and it earned its keep in those few minutes. The boat was relatively comfortable - we sat on a wide board across the width of the boat and the bottom was fairly flat so it was stable.

    We puttered down the river and watched construction, laundry, and other daily activities. There were huge stands of very tall bamboo along the banks and the limestone mountains kept getting higher and higher as we went. It was absolutely stunning!

    We saw where the "international" pier is going to be along with a huge hotel. That will definitely bring in more people, although the road to get here will still be the same. Right now the primary westerners who visit this part of the country are ones from France.

    At one point the river went into a huge caves with hundreds of bats (we couldn't see them but we could hear and smell them). The formations in the limestone were amazingly beautiful. Continuing down the river the cliffs and the caves in the limestone continued to amaze us. The jungle on either side was very thick - although I am not sure how many of those trees managed to stay put on the steep cliff walls.

    We stopped for lunch at a little village area (I think it may be where some of the homestays are) and took a walk to a small waterfall. The path along the river was quite lovely and the waterfall itself was small but pretty as it split around huge boulders. Lunch was at the "Pirate" restaurant (the name of the owner) and was delicious. we were visited by the largest bee I have ever seen who decided that the top of our beer cans were tasty. Fortunately we were done!

    After lunch we went back up the river and into Ba Be Lake which is part of a national park. It was absolutely stunning. The pictures I had seen of it looked nice, but did not do it justice. I cannot come up with any words to fully describe the serenity and majesty of the lake. Our time on it was over way too soon.

    When we got back to Cho Ra, I went for a walk in the town. Every kid that I passed by waved and shouted "hello, hello". I passed what seemed to be a high school where a "driver's ed" class was going on - kids learning how to drive scooters. Then I met up with some young boys just getting out of school who wanted to practice their English with me - English is a required subject in school. Back in the guest house I figured out how to connect with the free wi-fi and sent some e-mails. It amazes me that we can be so far off the beaten path and still be connected. In some ways I guess that is good - especially for the people who live there - but I always liked being a bit unavailable on trips.

    Went to dinner at a different local restaurant and had amazing spring rolls, BBQ pork, and veggies with lots of garlic. YUM!

    Day Six:
    I said this was going to be long :-P! Breakfast today was at the guest house (the owner had returned from being out of town) and was more western - eggs and toast. We again woke to the sounds of the field and the town and watched people working on the rice harvest. We also watched several dogs having a great time playing keep away with something. We asked Hieu about dogs as meat in Vietnam and he said that some people do still eat dog meat, but they do not eat dogs who are pets. There is apparently a big difference in people's minds regarding which dogs are OK to eat.

    This day we drove from Cho Ra to Cao Bang for our next two nights. On the way from one to the other we went over five mountain passes. Unfortunately it was a bit overcast and drizzly so we couldn't always see the view that should have been there. We stopped first to watch the rice harvest and the burning of the fields. After the rice is harvested, they cut the remaining straw and use it for various things. Soem they collect to use as bedding to keep their buffalo warm in the winter. The rest gets burned on the field as fertilizer and pesticide. Very organic farming! In the south they will also use the straw to burn for cooking and making bricks. Everything gets used at least once. At another point we stopped where they were using a rotating machine to shake loose the last of the rice from the stalks. I went and helped with it which was lots of fun. Got talking with the guy in charge and we discovered that we were the same age (although he said that I looked younger - always good to say to a woman!).

    Our next stop was in a town where they make honey and we got to see some of the hives and the process. Then we stopped in the town for tea and to wander through the market. In that market it was clear that dog meat is still used as there was a dog butchered up at one of the stalls. Very strange to see, but I have to keep thinking - how is that different from the various pigs that are for sale at other stalls?

    As we continued on I noticed that there were poinsettias all over the place - many of them at least 8-10 feet tall. I guess that's appropriate since Christmas is coming. We got to Cao Bang at 12:30 and checked into our hotel which is right in the center of town. A bit fancier than the last one, but not as good a view. We had lunch and then went back to the room to rest.

    I discovered one thing about Cao Bang - there don't seem to be any places to have laundry done other than the hotel which is pretty pricey. So I washed things out in the sink and had the hotel only do a few shirts. At about 4 I went for a walk with Hieu around town. Saw a whole group of scooters blocking a street and he said that it was parents waiting to pick their kids up from school. Just like at home....fits the saying we heard throughout Vietnam: "same same but different!" Dinner, relaxing in a cafe watching people, and then to bed. Another full day!

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    <<<It is not unusual to see mom, dad, and an infant barreling down the road with absolutely no safety equipment for anyone. Headlight and taillight usage is truly optional, even at night.>>>

    In Hanoi, we saw a family of five on one motorbike. And on the road to Halong Bay, we saw a guy driving a motorbike and carrying two dead pigs!

    Amazing, isn't it...one of my favorite pictures is the live pig on the back of the motorcycle. Probably going to market. Another favorite is from Siem Reap where I captured a family of 6 on a motorcycle. You'd never see that in the USA as most family members would never fit on a motorcycle together.

    Loving your report. There's just so many interesting places to visit on this earth!

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    Glad everyone is enjoying this. I enjoy writing it as it helps me relive the trip.

    Day Seven:
    This was one of the days we had really anticipated and it did not disappoint. We started out with a wonderful breakfast of a warm baguette straight from the market and then headed to Ban Gioc Waterfall. It was going to be a very long drive as the roads are terrible. One of the things we learned is that the Vietnamese and the Chinese signed a treaty a while back regarding the border. What it meant for us was that we could cross into China with no problem and no visa. But for the Vietnamese it means that they cannot build any hotels or improve the roads within a certain distance from the border. Unfortunately prior to signing the treaty, the Chinese had built hotels and improved the roads. So the tourism to the waterfall from China is quite strong while the visits from the Vietnamese side are very sparse. Many people in Vietnam have never been there or even really though about going. But for our money it was incredibly worth the hassle of getting there.

    Our first stop of the day was at a local market. We wanted to stop and take pictures of the mountains without bouncing and the marker was an added bonus. There was a very nice woman selling cake made of rice flour that we bought (she gave me an extra piece when I declared it wonderful) and a wonderful old woman who allowed me to take my picture with her. She was all smiles and hugged me like a long lost relative.

    Our next stop was a village that makes knives. We got to watch the guys as the pounded the steel over the hot fire. It was incredible to watch the strength it took to make the quality knives that people then use in the fields and in the kitchen. Of course we were offered the obligatory tea when we arrived. I love this part of the culture!

    We finally arrived at the waterfall at 11:30. Our guide said that we could take a bamboo raft up to the waterfall if we wanted to. I think he was thinking we wouldn't want to - silly him! Of course we did. It was like taking the Maid of the Mist but more up close and personal. The spray from the waterfall was wonderful and the pictures we got were amazing. I won't ever be able to go into a Chinese restaurant without saying "I've been there!" We then walked over to the Vietnamese side of the falls (the boats take you to the Chinese side). There was a border dispute between the two countries and the Chinese kind of won it and moved the border so that more of the falls is in China. But the Vietnamese side is the taller side and just as beautiful. We spent over and hour just wandering around and enjoying the falls. Then we went back up to the top and found that the restaurant had opened up for lunch. We had one of our simplest but best meals of the trip. It consisted of what our guide called "student noodles" which was basically Ramen noodles fried with pork and vegetables. That and a beer cost us about $2.

    Most tours to this area then go to the cave where Uncle Ho spent several years, but our guide said that the walk in was very steep and difficult. I had also read that it was more interesting to Vietnamese than to Westerners. So he took us to a border market that was very interesting. Then we started heading back to Cao Bang taking a slightly different but just as pretty route.

    Day Eight (Thanksgiving):
    We got up early and checked our e-mail. Found a change to my Christmas flights and I was able to e-mail my dad to ask him to look into it. This wi-fi connection in the middle of nowhere is amazing!

    Our first stop on the way back to Hanoi was another (and bigger) border market. Our guide was looking for a new cell phone (which he found) and we were just browsing. I must say I was somewhat offended in that market. I saw a pair of athletic pants that were listed at only about $7 so I thought I would try to bargain them down a bit. The shopkeeper took out a pair that would fit me and when I looked at the label and saw the XL tag (I typically wear a small in the US) I could not bring myself to buy them. Of course, compared to most Vietnamese women, I probably am at least a large if not more so.

    We stopped for a bit in Lang Son at a cave with a carving from the 16th century. It is considered to be a very sacred cave and as we were leaving two buses pulled up and disgorged their visitors. We then went to a local restaurant for lunch and then back to Hanoi to meet up with our friends. While everyone was resting I went and picked up the glasses I had ordered. They came out really well and I have worn them every day since then. Amazing for $75!

    Over dinner in the hotel (no turkey, but I had Cashew Chicken) we traded stories of our adventures and then went to the Water Puppet theater. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was very cute and a lot of fun. It is an old art in Vietnam and has been listed as a cultural treasure. It was very engaging and I would highly recommend it as a fun evening. Apparently it is not only a very old tradition, it is also something that is passed down from father to son an is considered to be quite an honor to be a puppeteer. Then back to the hotel and to bed so we can be ready for our pick-up for Halong Bay. More on that later.

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    Day Nine:
    Amazingly we weren't waked up by construction noise this morning. Not only do the people in Vietnam work hard, they get to work early! Had a slight panic when I couldn't find one of my credit cards. The hotel helped me call Citibank and I put a hold on it - ended up finding it later in the day in a very safe place. I love it when I hide things from myself!

    We were picked up at 8:15 by the Indochina Junk Company to head to Halong Bay. I had done a lot of research on this part because I wanted a 2 night cruise that went to the "less traveled" parts of the bay. I also wanted a true two night cruise, not two one night ones put together - to many of them it looked like you went to the same place twice.

    On the way out we stopped at a workshop for people with disabilities who make some amazing art - lacquer products, clothing, and embroidery. We bought some gifts for people at home. Then back in the bus and back to the traffic heading to Halong Bay. We got there about noon and met with our guide and the one other woman on our boat. We were on the Prince III and I highly recommend it. The cabins were small but comfy and the bathrooms were better than some of the hotels. Plus the staff was wonderful and the food was amazing.

    There were only five of us on the boat - the four of us and a single woman from Singapore. Turned out she is a journalist in Bangkok and was doing an article on Halong Bay since it had just been voted to be one of the 7 wonders of the natural world. We headed out from the port and had lunch as we motored through the gorgeous rock formations. During the three days we kept trying to come up with words to describe the area. Amazing and breathtaking just didn't seem to be enough.

    In the afternoon we anchored in a little harbor are and went kayaking. We went into a cave where we saw anemones, oysters, barnacles, and some weird green stuff that was definitely alive, but not like anything I had ever seen before. When we got back to the boat we went for a quick swim before dinner. I couldn't believe that I was actually swimming in the waters of Halong Bay! While we were eating dinner we watched the captain catch several squid - maybe lunch for tomorrow?! Then we sat around talking politics, travel, etc. We got to know our traveling companion (Simi) more - a very bright and interesting young woman.

    Day Ten:
    We slept in a bit this morning which was wonderful. I had tea up on the upper deck and gazed out at the islands of the bay. Breakfast was pho followed by eggs and toast. we are definitely eating well!

    Our first stop this morning was a fishing village. The village we went to is called Cong Dam and has about 35 families for a total of about 150 people living there. Their life is very hard. Their diet consists mainly of fish, clams, oysters, etc. They trade for rice and a few veggies. Plus they also have to trade for or buy water and gas. During the typhoons their houses can be destroyed in a matter of minutes. Some of them are able to have a generator and a TV - we saw some antennas on the roofs. One of the places we visited in the village was the school. It was a Saturday so there were no kids there, but typically there are two classrooms and three teachers. The teachers volunteer their service for 2-3 years and then they are able to get a government job (those are hard to come by so teaching is their way in). The kids go to school from age 6-12. If they continue on to secondary school at that point they have to go to land so most don't. Many of the people in the village live their entire life without every setting foot on land. And when they die they are buried on the islands. It's amazing to see the life and meet the people. The sounds of the community are just like any suburb at home. Kids laughing and dogs barking.

    For lunch we went to a beautiful beach and had a BBQ. Lunch was followed by swimming and soccer. We then went to another cove and went for a kayak to a different fishing village. Our guide was fighting a cold so we went on our own. We paddled by a group of boats all rafted together, people on shore digging clams, and fishing boats coming home after a day of fishing. Then back to the boat and a little rest before dinner.

    Day Eleven:
    Our final day on the boat :-(! We got up a bit earlier and had a smaller breakfast since we will have an early lunch. We went to a small island for swimming, relaxing, and visiting a cave. The cave was up a huge amount of steps. DH climbed all the way up and then discovered that there were more (and steeper) stairs to get into the cave so he went back down. We heard the myth of how Halong Bay was formed. it was something along the lines of the people being under atack and calling on the dragon to help them. She came down (Halong means "descending dragon") and spit out gold, silver, and gems which formed the islands. She then called all of her babies down who did the same. We were in the section called Bai Tu Long which means Bay of the Baby Dragons.

    The cave was beautiful. It had been used for many years by the fishermen of the area and it was being damaged in the process. Indochina Junk came to an agreement with the people living there to re-locate them from the cave and in exchange they hire them to provide much of the food for their boats. I was very impressed with everything the company is doing to preserve the bay for future generations. After the cave we went for a swim and then back to the boat to check out of our rooms and head up to the deck for lunch as we cruised back through the islands to the port.

    We were transported back to Hanoi and went back to the Diamond Elegance (I love that they welcome us "home" each time we return). We relaxed and then had dinner at the hotel (we were going to venture out but everyone was pretty beat and the restaurant in the hotel is so good). After dinner the other three went to bed and I met our friend from Singapore and went to the night market. We wandered the whole market and mostly saw covers for cell phones and clothes. But we finally found some refrigerator magnets to bring home for gifts. It was not as impressive a market as I had thought it would be. But it was fun nonetheless. Tomorrow we fly out to the middle part of the country.

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    Day Twelve (travel day):
    We were flying today from Hanoi to Hue with Vietnam Airlines. On the way to the airport we got concerned about how slowly the driver was going (DH was in the front and said he thought the driver was stoned or hung over). We managed to get to the airport about an hour before our flight only to discover that it had been delayed by two hours. We'd been warned about this. What was interesting was that they apologized and gave us a coupon to get lunch. United never does that! Of course it was only a bowl of instant noodles, but it wasn't half bad and it was free.

    When we got to Hue and checked into our hotel (the Huong Giang Hotel right on the Perfume River) we were very pleased with our view of the river and the boats going by. It is a big conference hotel with a pool and good location near restaurants and shopping. A little bit worn in spots, but comfortable. I found a place right across the street to take our laundry so all was good.

    We discovered in reading the hotel literature that we could get a massage for $11. We called and they had availability right then so DH and I went down to see how a Vietnamese massage compared to a Thai one. Mine was quite nice (although I prefer the Thai style) and I was pleased although a bit offended when the girl demanded a larger tip. But no biggee since we were only talk a dollar or so. However, when we got back I discovered that DH's massage had a been a bit more "aggressive" shall we say. He could have paid quite a bit more for a little extra and the girl did not want to take no for an answer. Needless to say we did not get another one while there and our friends decided that she would get a massage but he took a pass.

    That night we walked to a local restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet - the Tropical Garden. The ambiance was lovely and the service was terrific. The food was also quite good. A nice end to the day.

    Day Thirteen:
    The Huong Giang has a great buffet breakfast with made to order omelets, but the service was not what we had grown accustomed to at the Diamond Elegance. I think they spoiled us! We were then picked up for a day of touring Hue. We had arranged for a guide and driver through Tonkin. We started with the tomb of Khai Dinh and quickly discovered a problem that we were to have for the next few days - that of accessibility. The tomb was amazingly beautiful but it has A LOT of stairs. Unfortunately that made it hard for DH's knees.

    Our guide took us to this one since it is very different from the style of the Citadel. It is in the "modern" style and was covered with lots of mosaics. There is also a painting on the ceiling that was done by an artist holding the brush in his foot! DH missed all of that because of the stairs, but he ended up surrounded by a bunch of kids on a school field trip, all of whom wanted their picture taken with "Happy Buddha" and wanted to practice their English with him.

    Our next stop was the market which is very crowded and chaotic. I ended up buying a couple of beautiful silk tops and a pair of silk pants. This trip is quickly becoming my clothes shopping trip and we haven't even gotten to Hoi An and the tailors yet!

    Next came the citadel - the original capitol. Again there were a lot of steps but the views were worth it. Much of the citadel has been destroyed by French bombs in the 1940s and American ones during the Tet Offensive. They are repairing it slowly but most of the forbidden city is gone.

    After we left the citadel we went to the Thien Mu pagoda on the banks of the Perfume River. At the front is a tower with 7 levels to represent the 7 steps of Buddha. Next is the temple itself with the Happy Buddha inside. Behind that we three buddhas representing the past present and future. The bonsai gardens in the temple area were beautiful and behind those is the area in which the novice monks live and study. I think they were taking a break from studying as they seemed to be involved in playing a game with some sort of marbles.

    The final part of our tour was a sampan ride on the Perfume River. It was very cool to see the different boats, including ones that people are living on. The ferry boat going across with multitudes of scooters, bicycles, and people was amusing.

    After the boat ride (which dropped us at our hotel) we walked with our guide to a very local restaurant (Hang Me - seriously that was the name!) to try food unique to Hue. I have no idea what it all was but it was fabulous! The only thing we passed on was the raw pork. Most of the dishes had some sort of shrimp or shrimp paste in them. Some were made with rice powder or casava powder and all was wonderful. The rest of the day was spent camera shopping (our friends needed a new one as theirs had died) or relaxing by the pool. I discovered once again that service at the hotel is not that great when I had to wait 20 minutes for a glass of wine to be brought to my room (I finally had to go get it).

    Dinner that night was a departure from Vietnamese - we went to Little Italy which was recommended in Lonely Planet and it was wonderful. The pizza was excellent and the gnocchi would be fabulous in Chicago or in the North End of Boston.

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    We characterized each city's energy at the end. Hanoi had a very strong and gritty energy, HCMC had an energy that was lively and enthusiastic, and Hue was laid back and calm. It was a nice break from the chaos of Hanoi. And the food was wonderful!

    BTW - I agreed with you about Hoi An. It was a wonderful little town and the beach was beautiful even if it was a bit windy and cool so no swimming. The tailors were fabulous. Checked out Lala but ended up using Blue for most of my clothes.

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    Day Fourteen:
    Not sure if anyone is still hanging in (especially since I took a few days break - lots of holiday stuff!). Anyhow, this is partly for my own documentation so I will keep going.

    We were picked up at 8:30 for our drive across the mountains to Hoi An. It rained last night, but now it's just cloudy and cool. So far we have not needed our rain jackets. We stopped briefly in Lang Co where they farm raise oysters on bamboo sticks in the lagoon. They also grow eucalyptus for the oil and we saw lots of stands selling it along the road.

    We drove up over the high pass where we could see down to the sea on both sides. It was beautiful! There is a tunnel now that goes through, so the only people who go up over the pass are tourists and trucks carrying hazardous materials. We drove down out of the mountains into Danang but took the coastal road so we could stop at China Beach. it was totally empty and beautiful. They have very weird dinghies here that are round and made out of bamboo. It looks like they propel them by basically sculling. I think I would go in circles!

    Our next stop was at the Marble Mountains. First at a place where they carve the marble (absolutely magnificent work that I wish I had the money for and the use for!). Then we went up many stairs (there was an elevator for DH) to a cave and temple. Not nearly as pretty as the one in Halong Bay, but still nice.

    We drove on in to Hoi An and stopped at a local restaurant for two local dishes: Ming Quan and Lao Co. Both were delicious! After lunch we stopped at a small tailor shop that our guide recommended. I ended up ordering two dresses (one more dressy and one somewhat casual). I almost didn't get them as I thought they were expensive until I realized that one was fully lined and they were both custom made. The two only cost $95 USD which is more than I usually spend, but for what I am getting it is a bargain.

    Our next stop was the ancient town of Hoi An to see the Japanese bridge and one of the traditional houses. We also stopped at a Chinese temple. Then we just wandered the streets a but. It seemed like an Asian Bar Harbor for those of you who have been to Maine. We finished with a boat ride on the river watching fishermen and the setting sun.

    Our final stop was our hotel - the Hoi An Beach resort. This was our splurge for the trip as we got the Riverview Villa. We almost got a Seaview Villa until we discovered that there is a road in between the resort and the sea. So the Riverview is the way to go. It was an amazing room with a fabulous view. We were on the first floor which meant we had a patio right outside with a couple of chairs and a table. We ended up eating at the hotel restaurant which was OK and a bit pricey. I would not do it again. But we were all pretty tired and didn't want to go anywhere. It was nice watching them light floating lanterns in the river and listening to two women playing traditional Vietnamese instruments (even if they were playing Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bells!). After dinner I found a place to do laundry and we found a grocery store for wine and snacks.

    Day Fifteen:
    This was a down day - no plans other than getting our clothes that we had ordered. The breakfast buffet at the hotel was wonderful - excellent local dumplings and made to order omelets. After breakfast, Lynne and I took the shuttle in to town and went to another tailor (Be Be) that she had been told about. She ordered several items there and I ordered a skirt. Then we went to Blue (the tailor from yesterday) to have a fitting. They needed to do a few alterations on mine but I was amazed at how good they were in such a short time.

    We then wandered the town as we had time to kill before the shuttle back to the hotel. I bought a good fortune charm from a young woman and told her that I was going to hang it in our 1968 VW Bus that has peace signs all over it as a charm for bringing peace between enemies. It seemed fitting given our history with Vietnam. We found a great bakery/restaurant and bought sandwiches to take back to the hotel (we also committed to coming back there for desert!). It is called Tam Tam and I highly recommend it - especially for desert.

    In the afternoon I took a walk on the beach, picked up our laundry and read. DH read the whole day and relaxed by the river. For dinner we went into town and went to a restaurant across the pedestrian bridge from the old town that our guide had told us about. DH and I had the Hoi An set menu and we are pretty sure one of the dishes had dog in it. The name included the word "Chien" and they never would say what the meat was. It was a bit tough and leathery. Hard to tell the taste since there was so much else in the dish. I guess when in Rome.....

    After dinner we went to Tam Tam and had fabulous deserts and then took the shuttle back to the hotel. This was after having Hoi An cake for desert which are basically cream puffs - but they were small :-)! Tomorrow we have a bit more time to relax and then we will head south to HCMC. More on that later.

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    Glad to hear it. I seem to be stuck in Boston right now as my flight to Bangor has a delay. Merry Christmas!

    Day Sixteen:
    Our flight to HCMC got changed so we don't leave until about 8. We arranged to stay in our rooms until 1:30 which helps. After breakfast we made a quick trip back to town to pick up the final clothes. I wasn't as pleased with the skirt as I was with the dresses, but that may have been my fault in the design. I headed back to the hotel and relaxed by the river and read until it was time to check out. The we walked down the beach and found a restaurant for lunch. Had a lengthy conversation with a woman selling trinkets. We ought a few bookmarks and then had a relaxing lunch. Unfortunately the day was pretty chilly and windy but no rain. I was shocked since I had fully expected rain in Hoi An.

    We hung out at the bar and had a very expensive cup of tea and then I picked up a top that I had altered at a local tailor. Then we had a driver take us to Danang to the airport. We got there very early, but that was fine. After an uneventful flight to HCMC we found a cab and headed to our hotel - the Sanouva. We had a lovely deluxe double but unfortunately it was on the 2nd floor and our view was of a tree. But it was very nice. We ate a snack bar and headed to bed since it was about 10pm by that point.

    Day Seventeen:
    We had arranged for a private guide and driver for two days through Tonkin Tours. As with all of them, they were punctual and very nice. We started with the Reunification Palace. It was very interesting to me as a US History teacher for several years to see the palace where the helicopters took off in 1975. It is pretty much a museum now with some very interesting exhibits in the basement. I took pictures of a lot of the signs next to the various pictures as the wording was SO interesting. Not surprising, of course, since it is all from the point of view of the Communist Party. A lot of discussion of both French and American aggression. They seem to dislike the French more than Americans, though.

    After we left the palace we drove through town and went to Notre Dame cathedral. HCMC is a very pretty city with a lot of parks all over the place. We all decided that it was a much more liveable city than Hanoi. It has a great energy about it and feels very cosmopolitan. There were several couples taking wedding photos by the cathedral and a wedding actually taking place. The cathedral itself it beautiful both inside and out.

    Our next stop was the post office which seemed strange,but it is an amazing building. It was designed by the guy who did the Eiffel Tower and it is very pretty architecture. Plus the inside is very unique. Imagine a huge post office with counters for everything (including the US post office). There is also a gift shop in the middle.

    Well, they are finally calling my flight to board so I will finish this later.

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    Finally made it to Maine. Relaxing now with a glass of wine after a nice Christmas Eve dinner with my parents.

    Day Seventeen (cont.):
    After the post office we drove by the Opera House and City Hall. Then we went for a cyclo ride through Chinatown. It was pretty wild! At times we were crossing four lane highways with scooters coming at us from the side. I figure the guy can't lose too many tourists and stay in business. The streets of the market area were narrow and crowded with scooters, bicycles, people, and wagons. We went through several streets that seemed to be the automotive store. You could buy anything and everything for your scooter, including some pretty fancy wheels.

    For lunch we went to a pretty touristy place. The food was good, but there were no locals eating there. We missed our local places from Hue and Hoi An. After lunch we went back to the hotel to rest. As usual when we get somewhere where we will stay put for a day or so, I found a place to have our laundry done.

    For dinner we went to a place that our guide had pointed out. Turns out it is a sister place to our lunch spot with the Hanoi Kids - Quan An Ngoc. It was very crowded with a mixture of locals and tourists. The meal that Tom and I had was pretty good, but Lynne and Bill weren't as pleased with theirs. After dinner we walked over to the Sheraton and went to the bar on the 23rd floor. It is open air and looks out over the city. The drinks were pricey, but good and the view was worth it. It is right next to the Opera House which is all lit up at night and is gorgeous. Kind of reminded us of the Opera House.

    Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and a Happy and healthy New Year. Not sure when I will get back to this since my Internet is limited here. Coming up are the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta.

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    Hi, I'm finally back online. I love Maine, but I end up very disconnected. Yes, the two dresses were a total of $95 USD. I don't normally spend much on clothes (I think I am lacking that "girl gene") so initially I was a bit shocked until I realized that it was less than $50 per dress. Quite a bargain. And as for the desert place, it is jus across the bridge in the old part of Hoi An just down from the little triangle where they do traditional music performances. I head home tomorrow so will try to get the rest of this written up. Then if you have any interest in Hong Kong you can check there as well since we spent 5 days in Hong Kong on the way back. That was quite a change from Vietnam!

    BTW - apparently we are woefully trendy and tragically hip. This month's Playboy has an article on why you should go to Vietnam! Who knew we were all trendsetters!?

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    Day Eighteen:
    Today was an early morning so we could beat the crowds at the tunnels. It's about an hour and a half to get there from HCMC and I am guessing we saw at least a dozen weddings (by the end of the we lost count at about 30). We also saw a group of scouts setting up tents in one of the parks in HCMC. Across the street was a group of kids learning karate.

    The countryside going out to the tunnels was beautiful. Not as spectacular as up north, but beautiful in its own serene way. Small towns and houses with lots of lowers in bloom. As you get closer to the tunnels there are huge forests of rubber trees all in rows planted and owned by the government.

    The Cu Chi tunnels were fascinating. The first stop in the complex was a 20 minute propaganda film produced by the communist government in 1967. "The peaceful people of the Cu Chi hamlet had to become guerrillas to protect themselves against the aggressors from America who had no business being there." Our guide warned us that some people get very upset by the film, but it is no different than wartime films of any government. Change Vietnam to Iraq and some would argue that the same film could be made today. Anyway, it was interesting to see the communist spin.

    We went through the restored tunnels and the models. I tried going down into one of the "spider holes" - it was tight but I was able to do it. When I pulled the lid down over my head it was so dark I couldn't see a thing. We also went through one of the tunnels they created for tourists. It was bigger, but still pretty tight. We also saw the exhibits of the homemade weapons and traps. They were pretty brutal. I had shown pictures of them to my students when I taught US History, but to see them up close like that was pretty wild. We also watched a guy making sandals out of old tires. I was tempted to buy some to use as water shoes for boating. I suspect they would work really well.

    At the end of the tunnels you can spend a few dollars and fire an actual weapon from the war. We decided to shoot the AK 47. If memory serves me correctly, this was the first time I had ever shot anything other than a BB gun - and I start with an AK 47! It had alot less recoil than I thought it would. It was pretty cool!

    After the tunnels we shifted from war to peace and went to see the Cao Dai temple. I knew nothing about this religion and it is really fascinating. It is the third largest religion in Vietnam (behind Buddhism and Catholicism) and is basically a combination of Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, and Confucianism. In a way it reminded us of Baha'i. The goal seems to be to bring the world together in unity. Very laudable goal. The temple itself is absolutely stunning. It is probably the most decorative temple we had seen in Vietnam. We got there just as they were going in for the noon prayer and got to stand in the back and take it all in.

    We were very fortunate that our guide was very knowledgable about the religion as his mother and grandmother are both followers of Cao Dai. The religion started in about 1925 in Vietnam. We found it interesting that two of the "saints" are Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen. They believe that Jesus, Buddha, Confucius and LaoTzu were all prophets. They pray to the "Holy See" which is the world with a left eye in the center. The eye is the all-seeing eye of the divine.

    After lunch in a local restaurant we made the long drive back to HCMC. On the way we saw more weddings, but also several accidents. Including one where a scooter almost ran into us. Apparently if he had, it would have been considered our driver's fault even though it was clearly the driver of the scooter that was not driving safely. The driver of the larger vehicle is always at fault.

    We had an interesting talk with our guide on the way back. We had been interested to hear how people felt about the country and the government. In the north it seemed that people supported the government and were very happy with the way things were being run. In the center, we felt that there was some discontent, but no one would say anything outright. At first our guide in the south didn't say much, but once we were in the privacy of the vehicle, he opened up more. His father was a South Vietnamese soldier who fought with the Americans and consequently there are jobs that he can't have. He is also not as free to leave the country as our guide in the north. He said that his fiancée is a communist party member (he can't be) because she is a teacher and she can get better jobs by being a party member. Only about 3 1/2 million Vietnamese are members of the party. We asked if people were free to complain about the government and he said no. He was very critical of taxes - he said they have to pay 10% in taxes, but don't get anything in return. They have to pay for school and health care in addition. No one seems to know what the taxes pay for. It seems that there is definitely some discontent and he seemed to have been watching what went on in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world.

    When we got back to our hotel we went to try to find ice cream but couldn't. We did find a great coffee house on the corner - Trang Nguyen Coffee. Their tea is also good. We decided to go for Italian food that night. Couldn't find the one we were looking for, but we ended up at a great place right near the Duxton Hotel. I'll have to find the name and post it later. It was great food and a lovely setting.

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    Fascinating -- always interesting to hear the locals different points of view.

    Funny u should mention ice cream. Being an ice cream fanatic, last night I was wondering what kind of ice cream we will find in SEAsia.

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    We found an ice cream shop in Hanoi that was good called Fanny's. In Hue they advertised New Zealand ice cream, but it was made in Vietnam. Our friends are Kiwis so they were experts. It wasn't as good as New Zealand ice cream, but it hit the spot.

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    I remembered the name of the restaurant in HCMC that we loved - it was Pendolasco. I highly recommend checking it out for a change of pace.

    Day Nineteen:
    We weren't sure what time our transport was coming to take us to the Delta so we were up and ready at 7:30. It ended up coming at 8:30 so we could have slept in. Oh well. Our friends were doing a one night cruise on the Mekong Eyes (they really liked it) and we were doing a 2 night on Le Cochinchine. We drove to Cai Be to meet our boat - about 2 hours, part of it on a four lane expressway!

    We were greeted at the dock by two very enthusiastic young men (Thuy and Loi) who will be our guides. We also met the other guests in our English speaking group (there was alo a group from Germany with a different guide). We really enjoyed all of them - Anna fom Australia who was traveling solo and two other couples, one from Sweden and one from Spain.

    A caveat for able bodied spouses with a significant other who has mobility issues: Vietnam is very challenging, especially the boats. We love boats and so I had thought that spending two nights aboard would be ideal. Unfortunately there is a lot of getting on and off, often in ver precarious situations. I had a bit of a meltdown when DH said he planned to stay on board the whole time. He assured me he was fine with that and wanted me to enjoy myself. With Anna traveling by herself it gave me someone to hang out with on the shore stops. And the crew was SO earnest about making sure we were happy that I snapped out of it. We had a fabulous lunch as we headed our into the river and got settled into our tiny cabin.

    Le Cochinchine is lovely in many ways, but it is a bit more primitive than the boats in Halong Bay. The cabins are very tiny nd the shower is just in the middle of the tiny bathroom. The "stairs" are more ladders, but the whole boat is beautifully decorated and the staff couldn't be more accommodating. For someone looking for a true two night cruise that goes into some of the mallee cnls and tributaries, I would recommend it as an option.

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    Yestravel, unfortunately, we found that most of the ice cream was just ok, Fanny's included. Not nearly as good as we get here. The one exception was a place in Hong Kong, but I don't remember the name off-hand.

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    I would have to agree that when I say "good" it probably means more just OK.

    So I had to abruptly end the last update as they were calling for my plane to board. I am now back in Chicago and getting ready to head to Florida for the winter. I guess when we called ourselves the "King and Queen of the wandering hippie tribe" we weren't just kidding!

    Day Nineteen (cont.:
    As we traveled down the Mekong River, the one surprise we had was how built up and industrialized it is. We had sort of expected it to be like the Rio Negro part of the Amazon that we cruised several years ago. Instead there are huge tankers and barges, fairly large cities, and lots of brick factories.

    Our first stop was to visit one of the brick factories. It was interesting to see how they make the bricks and tiles. They use the discarded rice husks to fire the kiln which seems like a great way to get rid of them. As always, I was very impressed with how hard the people were working (including a boy who looked to be about 10). But yet they were full of smiles. One woman had great fun with me showing off for pictures.

    The next stop was an "ancient house" (from the late 1800's). It is owned by the family of a Marguerite Duras. Apparently there was a movie made about her life (I think it might be called "Lover"). From there we wandered through the market and I bought some VERY sweet little bananas and some oranges.

    Back on our little shuttle boat and we went to a Cao Dai temple that was much smaller than the one outside HCMC, but it was lovely and we could go into the sanctuary and see the elaborate carvings up close. Our final stop was a flower farm. Apparently this entire village (1,000 families) specializes in growing flowers and creating bonsai.

    Back on the boat we were greeted with cold wash clothes and a lovely fruit drink. Then we got a wonderful surprise - part of our package was a foot massage. I decided to do mine tonight and it was a wonderful way to end the day. Dinner was preceded by a complimentary cocktail of rice wine and fruit juice. I certainly cannot fault the service! And the food was fabulous!

    Day Twenty:
    We were unfortunately waked up at 6:30 by the crew walking around overhead and going up and down the stairs. If you take this cruise - try to get a cabin more in the front of the boat. We also began to hear the fishing and transport boats starting their day. The river is basically the highway system for the area.

    Breakfast was OK - they tried to do a western breakfast and had trouble with the eggs. For me, I would prefer Pho every morning, but I think DH would have objected.

    A local boat came and took us to the floating market in Cai Be which is fairly small. DH decided to try going with as the boat was easier to get on and off than the one yesterday. We headed for a different ancient house which had wonderful fruit gardens and served us excellent fruit and tea. The custom in Vietnam is that if you visit someone's home they will serve you tea and either local fruits or small snacks. What a nice custom!

    Our next stop was a handicraft village which was very interesting. We watched as they made coconut candy (OK - very sticky salt water taffy texture), rice paper (fresh rice paper is WONDERFUL), and pop rice. We ran into our kiwi friends whose boat was also visiting the same village. At the end we had more tea and some of the pop rice treats they had made (yummy!) and I bought some lotus tea. I haven't tried it yet - maybe tonight for the New Year.

    In the afternoon we relaxed on deck as the boat cruised through the various canals and small rivers. It was a very pleasant way to pass the time after a wonderful lunch (I feel like we are on a non-stop eating cruise!).

    At about 4 we stopped to ride bikes through the countryside. DH passed on that activity, but he got to watch us from the boat as it followed along our route. The ride was beautiful - lots of rice and lemongrass fields and kids waving to us. At one point I stopped at a local elementary school to take a picture of some of the kids out front and when the ones in the playground saw this they ALL came running out to get in the picture yelling "Hello, hello!" We also stopped at a secondary school and watched a group of girls playing volleyball. I could have kept riding much longer, but an hour was all we had (at least I feel like I worked off some of my lunch!). DH had his foot massage on the upper deck as we watched the sun go down. Another fabulous day!

    Day Twenty One (final full day in Vietnam):
    Up early for a 7:00 breakfast. We are in Can Tho and we got on a local tour boat to go visit the floating market (the biggest one). It is basically a wholesale market where larger boats come in and sell fruits and vegetables to smaller boats who act as the retail stores by going into the smaller tributaries. Each wholesale boat has a large pole with the fruit or veggie they are selling displayed on it (some have several).

    Our next stop was a fruit farm and we got to see how all of the wonderful fruit we have been eating is grown. Then the usual tea and fruit snack. It was, of course, so fresh and fabulous! Then back to the boat and we had to check out of our cabin. A local boat took us to the dock and we said farewell to our new friends.

    After a 3 1/2 hour drive back to the city, we went to find some lunch. DH needed western food, so we found a great French patisserie (I will see if I can find the name) and had some wonderful sandwiches and fabulous chocolate cake. We also bought some croissants for tomorrow since we had a VERY early flight. We the relaxed at the hotel (Sanouva again) and then met up with our friends for a final night in HCMC.

    Decided to go to the Barbecue Garden which was a lot of fun (you cook your food at the table). It was packed and noisy and good. One word of caution though - stick to the beef, chicken and pork. I tried the wild boar and goat and it was very tough and gristly. After dinner we went to the Rex Hotel to the bar on the 5th floor that was the officer's hangout during the war. There was a great band playing a lot of American classic rock and I had an excellent Passion Fruit Caipirinha. Then said good by to our friends and went back to the hotel for our last night. We had a 6:00am flight the next morning to Hong Kong. Look on that board in a few days and I will try to get a trip report posted.

    All in all it was a fabulous trip and I am very glad we went. We learned so much and saw so much it is still hard to wrap my head around all of it. But as I go through our thousands of pictures, I get transported back to a country filled with beautiful sights, wonderful food, and the friendliest people you could ever want to meet. And best of all - I ate like a little piggie for 3 weeks and didn't gain a pound! Maybe it was all that walking, but I think it is just that they eat such healthy food. I am going to try to incorporate some of that style of eating if I can in this new year!

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    Thanks so much for your wonderful report. My husband and I are going to Vietnam in November of 2012. Unfortunately, we are still working, so have only two weeks. We have gotten a quote from Tonkin Tours and it seems quite good. They have also been very responsive to all my emails. I am guessing you were pleased with their service, right? Is there anything you would have done or not done that you can share? Thanks!

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    MaryJan - we were very pleased with Tonkin Tours. The guides they sent us were great and their prices were excellent. We tried to do everything possible and I think we pretty much did that. If you are short on time, you would probably want to just do one night on the Mekong, but I would still recommend two on Halong Bay. The five days up north to Ba Be Lake and Ban Gioc Waterfall were a big investment of time that I loved, but with only two weeks you probably won't be able to get there.

    Regarding the Sheraton Bar, I don't thing we could see the Opera House from the bar, but the Sheraton is next to the Opera House.

    Aussiedreamer, enjoy your trip. You will have a fabulous time.

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