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Trip Report Vietnam Trip Report: Long Ago (2002) and far away...

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This may be a bit dated, but I thought it might be of interest and it's no longer available on the Untours website; alas, they've stopped the Vietnam Untour for the time being.

Vietnam and Cambodia, July 03-24, 2002

Hanoi Airport is a bit utilitarian looking after Singapore you-will-spend-money Airport, but after 34 hours of travel time I wasn't complaining. Actually the flight wasn't bad, what with a stop in Amsterdam for cheese toast, nice flight attendants, and some actual space between my knees and the seat in front of me. I slept most of the time, thank the Lord. An eye mask,ear plugs, and faux pashmina probably made me look a little strange, but they're great for catching some zzz's. I celebrated July 4th with a root beer float in the Singapore Airport, then back onto another plane for more sleep and the flight to Hanoi, arriving July 05.

Ky, Untour's Hanoi rep, met me at the airport and we took a taxi to the bank where I became a millionaire by exchanging $100 for about 1,500,000 Vietnamese dong. There's an ATM at the bank, too, and later I discovered them to be terrific for all your dong needs: the instructions are in English, the rates are good, and they give you a handy-dandy account balance, which helps after you've done a little too much shopping.

The taxi took us through the dusty, eclectic melange of colorful buildings and open storefronts, and we arrived at the townhouse (5 Le Van Huu, residential section) that was to be mine for a week. The green door in the creamy yellow building stuck a bit, but that's just a part of this tres grande but charming place. I felt like I had gone back in time (and was an imperialist swine pig, but that's another story) when I saw the huge mosquito net draped bed and the high ceilings and lovely touches in the study and the living room. The propane stove sent up a rather exciting but practical flame, the bathtub hot water heater worked well and noisily, and the air conditioners were very helpful...all the mod cons!
After settling in and a SHOWER (hallelujah) Ky came back and we went to dinner--via his motorbike. Motorbikes are the main form of transport, which is a jolly good thing as that many cars would make for impossible conditions. You can find motorbike taxis anywhere, and for about $1 get to anyplace you've got the name of. All these motorbikes do make for interesting street crossing, but if you just keep going once you've started you do fine. At least, I never got hit, and that's pretty good considering my ability to crash into things wherever I'm walking.

The dinner involved a crab soup, some wonderful spring rolls, shrimp, and a squid and veggie dish, accompanied by views of the lovely lake and by traditional music played by costumed musicians. Quite nice, and about $20 for two; not cheap by Vietnamese standards, but definitely a $50 for one meal at home! The city at night looked magical with the huge lake reflecting the lights, and the motorbike ride back stirred up a breeze that was lacking when one was standing or walking. It must be said that the weather in July is hot and sticky...not unlike Philadelphia during the same time. (Hot as in 90's Fahrenheit, sticky as in enough humidity that it rained some part of just about every day, which made things feel better for about five minutes.)

Life starts early in the morning in Vietnam, and the next day I was up by six thirty to have my bowl of pho, noodle soup that is sold in stalls all around. This one, with a beef broth, was delicious and particularly suited to the chill of being soaked from the rain while exploring the neighborhood. Everybody settled in together on the ubiquitous little plastic chairs and slurped it in. At 5000 dong it wasn't going to break the bank, either. Market ladies with baskets balanced on poles from their shoulders were everywhere, and a bicycle basket of roses tempted me to buy some more for the house. I got tomatoes and cucumbers, too--more than I needed, but it's hard to explain that you only need one cucumber when five of them cost about 20 cents!

Touring Hanoi
Ky arrived for my orientation and we went to get the Untours-provided cel phone activated; I'm not sure how many minutes were on the card that I purchased, but I do know I only used the phone once! It's nice to have, though, in case of emergencies, but, fortunately, no emergencies other than a huge brown bug in my room had occurred so far. (I didn't go barefoot in the house after that, but I never saw it again. Probably scared it more than it scared me.) From there we went to get a water puppet theater ticket for tonight, the 8PM show. A free cassette came with the 40,000 dong ticket, and I was unable to avoid (I'm a wimp!) buying a conical hat from a little old lady on the steps. It did, in fact, came in quite handy in the rain as it was plastic covered.

Forward through the rain to....Uncle Ho! He's still dead.
Actually, it's quite an impressive mausoleum, especially considering that he wanted to be cremated. You shed all cameras and such, go through a quickly moving line, and enter to go in a line around his rather peaceful and gentle looking preserved body, surrounded by an honor guard all dressed in white. Outside is the Russian-built or designed, at least- Ho Chi Minh museum, which has some interesting juxtapositions but mostly things that make you go 'Huh?' It's a bit schizophrenic in its artistic view.

A short walk brought us (whew, sound like a guidebook there) to the One Pillar Pagoda, which is pretty much self explanatory, in that it's a rather small pagoda that sits on one rather large pillar in the middle of a little lake. Pagodas in Vietnam are what might be considered temples elsewhere, but a temple in Vietnam is a meeting place and a pagoda is a place of worship. It's usually just one tier, not the multi-tiered style that the word brings to mind. I climbed up and made the usual polite donation, then came back down so as not to interrupt the lady who was praying on the rather small platform.

We then went to one of the travel cafes and I got fixed up for my day trips: Perfume Pagoda, overnight on HaLong Bay, and one day with a car and driver to the 'rural craft villages'. Since I leave early on Friday there's not time for Sapa, which I regret, but 12 hours each way doesn't leave me with too many options!

Home to my townhouse, and out to the Internet cafe right up the street, where for 3,000 dong I catch up on my mail and let the family know that I'm quite comfy!

In the afternoon, after lunch at home, I ventured out in a cyclo (pedicab) for a tour of Hanoi. Let me state here, first, that you should always establish a price for this ahead of time, maybe even in writing. The drivers will, of course, spin the tour out for as long as possible, but the price per hour that they give you at the beginning becomes quite a lot more (per hour) at the end. Understandable and natural, but again, something best established up front. With this caveat done, let me say that a cyclo is a great (although slow) way to see the city. We went to a church and pagodas and Lenin (Independence) Park, but Maison Centrale, a/k/a the Hanoi Hilton, was the most interesting site to me. Although most of it was knocked down for a new high-rise, (and there is a luxe Hilton in Hanoi now) it is a sad reminder of the many prisoners who suffered there. Of course the emphasis is on the Vietnamese prisoners of the French--guillotine is still there--and on how well the Americans were treated, comparatively speaking!

That night at the water puppet show jet lag hit, so I'm not able to give an impartial observation: I knew somewhere in the haze that it really was pretty cool, with terrific colors and special effects that included fireworks, but all I wanted, suddenly, was to be asleep, and traditional Vietnamese music and sound effects do not lend themselves to that.

The Perfume Pagoda
It was a good thing that I did sleep, 'cause the Perfume Pagoda took all the stamina I could muster! The multi-functional travel cafe guy picked me up at the house on his nice red motorbike and took me to a mini van; these trips are a beauty to behold in that you have no clue what cafe's trip you might actually be on, but it all works. It's amazing, but ya gotta be pretty laid back about it or you could have a nervous breakdown. Two bumpy hours of riding past rice fields and placid cattle brought us to a little town with very persistent female vendors but also with boats for traveling up the river and ladies to row them. It's a lovely way to travel through the mountains and trees, with butterflies all over and occasional glimpses of people and animals. It was quite sunny, and the views were terrific. That sun, however, kept on shining when we got off the boat and started the ascent to Perfume Pagoda. Do notice how casually I said that. The ascent was, in fact, not at all casual. You climb rocky steps and paths through butterflied forests; the views are terrific and there are various places for drink stops along the way, but 2 and 1/2 miles of upward climbing in the heat and humidity tend to make one rather wilted. I understand that thousands come here at the Tet holiday, but it would be a wee bit cooler then. The 'pagoda', once you do gasp your way to it, is a cave. Interesting. There are also more traditional buildings up in the region, and the views on the way, as said, are truly awesome (reminded me of northern Madeira) but do take enormous quantities of water and fortitude if you go! We had lunch after our descent (much easier, of course) served family style in an open pavilion--lots of good veggies, rice, and such.

On returning to the house I went out the door and to the left for about a block to the Internet cafe, a casual establishment which seems to be very popular with kids. This one had decent access; I was able to read and respond to all my mail in about 20 minutes, which cost all of 3,000 dong. Since telephone service is prohibitively expensive, this was a wonderful discovery for communicating with the family, some of whom (Hi, Mom) were a bit concerned about me traipsing about Vietnam alone. From what I understand, most of these cafes have lots of terminals and just one connection, so in some places it can be a long and tedious task to get a message, but they're always cheap!

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    HaLong Bay (July 08-09)
    The nice man on the red motorbike picked me up and took me to a cafe from which I was put in a van to sit a bit and then into a little bus, setting the tone for the vehicle switching of the two days. (It all worked out nicely...just pack light.) The long ride to HaLong Bay gave us agrarian views and a fairly commercial rest stop; when we finally arrived, the bus group, including four lasses from Dublin and some French folks, had lunch at a hotel. It was served family style, and it, as were all the meals, was included in the $28 price for the trip.

    Since I was sleeping on the boat I got trotted off with another small group to a dragon boat, which was lovely and nicely taken care of, with curtains and bench covers and patterned tables down in the spacious cabin area. We stopped at some lovely limestone caves and trekked on through, discovering stalactites, stalagmites, and penguin trash cans along the way. (The penguins are ubiquitous, if not native--at least, as trash cans.) From there we sailed through the mist and the dragon like formations of HaLong Bay, watching as an exciting thunderstorm built up and rolled on in. It was great, if a bit soggy, watching it on the deck.

    At Cat Ba island we stopped for some of the folks to get off and for some of us to transfer to another, similar boat, on which we were served dinner and given sleeping accommodations: a fan-cooled cabin with a vibrantly patterned blanket on the bed and fringey curtains hanging about. It was terrific for sleeping, even though the generator that provided for this and five other boats moored nearby was a bit noisy at first. Before dinner there was swimming and sunset-watching time. The swimming is probably a good idea as the shower accommodations are a bit primitive: a hand-held shower in the loo, with naught but cold water.

    The sun was shining as we sailed back, making for great pictures of some of the folks who live on the bay in houseboats and of the junks that still sail the waters. We came back to HaLong City, had lunch, and went back on the bus to Hanoi--only this time with a much larger group. I have no idea how the guides sort everyone out, but it worked for me!

    That night I had dinner with Ky, the Untours rep, at his home; a nice home-cooked repast served by his adorable nieces and finished with tea on the upstairs patio. Many of the homes are located within twisting alley ways; it made for an interesting motorbike ride to go through the alleys and then over the train tracks...with the signals flashing.

    Traditional Villages
    Considering the $28 HaLong Bay trip, $35 seemed a bit rich for 9:30 to 2:30 for a car and driver (not a guide). However, the ceramics village of Bat Trang was appealing--and the ceramics, of which I bought too many, quite heavy--and the wood block prints of a local artist who works in the old time style make excellent wall deco for my classroom. We had a flat tire there; the artist gave the driver a conical hat to wear whilst he changed the tire! What made the trip truly worthwhile, though, was But Thap pagoda. There were people at the entrance, but the complex itself was old and peaceful and deserted, wonderful for wandering and ruminating and taking in all the detailed craftsmanship of the wood. We were out in a rural area, and this was a good opportunity to finally photograph some of those rice paddies that I’d been seeing from the buses.

    Temple of Literature, Wandering around the Lake
    The Temple of Literature is a rather lovely courtyard complex with tableted tortoises bearing the names of scholars as its major point of interest. There are also quite a number of chirping birdies in the trees and souvenir shops in the side buildings. It’s a nice peaceful wander. I walked from there to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum grounds again, then got myself quite lost in a twisty maze of residential alleys (where capitalism is still thriving, thank you very much, in the shops and businesses on the lower levels of the buildings.) I found myself by taking a moto to Hoa Kiem Lake, where a lovely 72 year old Vietnamese lady shared her umbrella as it had started to absolutely pour. The umbrella did, in fact, very little good as it turned inside out, but we had a very enthusiastic conversation about her children and my visit to Vietnam.

    After we parted I went across the flamingly red bridge to the N’goc (turtle) Pagoda with its charming paintings and also charming souvenir shop where I got a (you guessed it) charming metal cyclo complete with fringed awning. Even though I was still soaking wet and therefore chilly I got some green rice ice cream as I circled the lake: interesting but indistinct flavor. Shortly thereafter was a meeting with Van the Sapa man, a super salesman who was, in fact, interesting to talk to and who thinks that it’s time for changes and who wants to go back to Sapa to be a tour guide. He sells extremely expensive postcards, which seems to be a fairly usual occupation for young men of Vietnam who have good language skills.

    After a moto home, I went out to dinner at the, yes, touristic, Le Cyclo restaurant, with quite good French food: onion soup, scallops with spinach, and chocolate mousse for $9.80. And you get to sit in a restored cyclo to eat. (cutesie, cutesie) The hostess was very friendly and helpful, although she seemed a little surprised at seeing me there alone. Quite a nice way to spend my last night in Hanoi!





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    Part 2: Central Vietnam~Hue, HoiAn, and Danang

    Leaving Hanoi was a fairly painless process, with time even for one last email check at my favorite Internet cafe down the street. The flight to Hue (oo-ay? Hoo-ee? everyone seemed to pronounce it differently) was less than an hour.
    Hue: the Citadel, the city, and an unexpected guest
    My first impression of Hue was its very blue sky, as this had been a minus quality in Hanoi. I got a lovely large hotel room with mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture and silk plants and a gap under the door (you must not forget the gap, o best beloved) and booked the bus for HoiAn on the morrow; I was told that it leaves “before eight o’clock”. Gives a little leeway, huh?
    Venturing out, I found a pretty lavender cyclo with a nice accommodating driver. I went to the ATM first, then on to Hue’s chief prize, the Citadel Complex, evocative of Beijing’s Forbidden City as, of course, it’s meant to be. My driver parked while I wandered through the haunting ruins of the Purple Forbidden Court (destroyed by war in ‘47 and ‘68) and the restored buildings of this UNESCO site. There were great views from the entry gate and temple bells and costumes to admire; I could have happily wandered for even longer than the two hours or so that I did.
    The driver took me around the city, with river views, street scenes, and Coca Cola trucks filling my viewfinder. He offered the pagoda tour, but time didn’t permit, as I was booked for a boat tour with folk singing in the evening.
    And quite a boat it was! A double dragon boat with a wide platform greeted me after a cyclo ride down; I quickly discovered that I was a minority of one. I thoroughly enjoyed the earnest folk singers/musicians and the fairly loose Vietnamese tour group that made up the majority of the audience. The tourists wanted me to sing, but I was afraid that my croaks would put international relations back about ten years, so I politely declined. Our Perfume River cruise capped off with setting afloat little paper boats with candles in them; I was happily given all kinds of help and direction, albeit in Vietnamese, for launching my boat. After gradually finding my way back to the hotel, the night’s real adventure began (you haven’t forgotten the gap, have you, o best beloved? Sorry--the Just So stories will creep in occasionally)
    My one phobia about this trip was rodents: I had read a few horror stories about their size and omnipresence, and, though I’m generally not a wimp, I just don’t really care for the critters. So, when, earlier in the day, I thought I detected movement in my room out of the corner of my eye I had to really convince myself that it was imagination. Hmmmmm....
    it wasn’t. When I came back I found that the double ziplock bag of trail mix that I carry with me for a handy MRE had been chewed open from the bottom. It was:::::::RAT TIME! Since the front desk help was really vague and since the gap was under the door anyway (do you see why you must remember the gap?) I decided I’d just crash with the lights on and trust that the rodent had gotten filled up on nuts and wouldn’t need to nibble noses or toes. It wasn’t a particularly peaceful night as there were shkittery sounds and rat toenails scraping all night, but eventually it got to be morning and I got up and got ready (very carefully) for the bus to HoiAn. I mentioned my little problem to reception, but I didn’t get a response. Not to extrapolate here, but I got the feeling that they thought I needed to get a life if a single rat really bothered me.
    Hoi An, and the phat Hong Phat
    The four dollar ride from Hue to HoiAn was enough to make me forget Monsieur Rat and all such unpleasantness. The quite full bus travels over the mountains, giving you incredible views of coast and beaches (and accident sites). I had an open window all to myself after tucking the curtains up, and reveled in the sun and scenes. Three hours of riding with one stop (“my first sale today...you be my lucky sale...I start in business”) brought us with filthy faces into the newer part of HoiAn. As I was staying in the old part, I and my two suitcases got trundled onto a motorbike and taken to the coolest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, the Hong Phat Ancient Lodging House.
    The HPAL really deserves its own paragraph, even if not to have its full name written out again. My room was in the front, up some very steep, precipitate-you-on-your- nose steps; within, I felt as if I’d entered a museum. The furniture was massive carved dark wood, the bedclothes pink silk, there was a rose on the table, lanterns hanging outside my doorway that opened to a view of the street...supposedly this was a 16th century Chinese merchants’ room, as HoiAn was a center for trade. Whatever the case, it captivated me! The quite modern burgundy loo did spoil the ambiance a bit, but I’m glad that it was there. One can just close the door to preserve ambiance, and the in-room frig was nicely hidden in more dark wood. And all this for $35 a night.
    This room became my haven against the omnipresent bicycle girls, whose job it is to strike up soft-voiced conversation and lead you to a cloth shop. Now, I will state right here and now that I did, in fact, buy custom made clothing and am, in fact, now regretting that I didn’t buy a lot more. If you go in knowing that there’s a strong likelihood that most of the “silk”--isn’t, you can get some fantastic clothing; fully lined pin-stripes-matched suit for about fifty bucks, for example. They’ve got books and catalogues from which you choose your pattern, bolts of fabric, and the ability to finish the stuff overnight even with the electricity off.
    On the other hand, when you’ve already ordered your full quota, the pressure can get a little off-putting.
    My first meal here was at the “Old Town Bar and Grill”, a tourist spot, to be sure, but with very friendly and helpful staff and quite good food.
    Touring began with my “five-entry ticket” purchase: it’s mandatory for most of the sites, and you get your choice of two or three sites per ticket. Even if you just want to visit six or seven sites, you’ll need to buy another five-entry ticket. I visited the Japanese bridge, where they didn’t take my ticket because the electricity still wasn’t on, then the Tan Ky merchant’s house right on my hotel’s street. It is a fascinating place with incredible mother of pearl inlay birds/calligraphy on the wooden pillars of the house. Then I went to Fujan Chinese Congregation, just brimming with Chinese art and culture. From here I got captured by another cloth shop lady, who at least led me to #7 building where my finished clothing awaited; they made a few adjustments on the spot while a smiling little lady massaged my back and two assistants fanned me. (shades of colonialism--kinda embarrassing.) I went with the very strong smiling little lady to her establishment in the market place and got a back massage, manicure, and facial for 50,000 dong. It felt great, I’ve got to admit. I then visited the craft workshops--wood carving, embroidery, lanterns--and back to my peaceful rosy room.
    Dinner that night, lit by candle, was at TuDo, a nice little place near the market; the electric was off, came back on again, and then went off (cheers and sighs) but finally resumed about 7PM. After an Internet cafe visit (yeah, Internet cafes, no ATMs) I got back to the hotel with just one cloth shop detour.
    The next morning I had time to visit a pagoda and the history museum before my taxi was due to leave; when I returned to my hotel, I found that my flight out of Danang had been delayed from 1:10 to 7:10. Since I was quite ready to leave Hoi An by this time, as my suitcase was bulging and I really couldn’t afford another cloth shop detour, I went to Danang and found that the airline was giving us a hotel room and dinner.
    Danang
    This gave me a chance to see a bit of Danang; after wandering a bit, with lots of cheery hellos from lots of construction workers, I caught a motorbike to the don’t-miss Cham museum, which had English inscriptions but which was explained by a dictatorial “volunteer” (tip alert!) guide who was quite helpful and knowledgeable. The Chams appeared to be quite....earthy. The grinning lions and Indian influenced figures were a good introduction to this very early Vietnam civilization. After the hotel dinner, Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon beckoned at the end of a one hour flight.

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    Part 3: Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia
    Saigon/HCMC
    The sophisticated, art-filled apartment is located by a park and quite near the Notre Dame cathedral; sophisticated is the word that best illustrates the difference between Hanoi and Saigon, to me. “Hotter” would be another one. The kind and helpful Mr. Chien, Untour’s rep in HCMC, came at about 8 AM on Tuesday, and I arranged tours to CuChi tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple and an overnighter to the Mekong Delta. I was fairly exhausted by this point in the trip, so Mr. Chien kindly left me to my breakfast of a limp-from-travelling Nutri-Grain bar and a Fanta. Note to self: exhausted and moving on Fanta fumes is not a good time to negotiate with a cyclo guy outside the main post office.

    The huge, lovely Post Office building is just beyond Notre Dame, where I stopped to see the mix of Old World European and neon on the various altars: an interesting juxtaposition that I haven’t seen in places like, say, Basel. I wasn’t quite ready to buy stamps yet, as I tend to write out enormous quantities of postcards and the amount written out by this point was just “large”, so I checked out the P.O. and tried to walk around the area, only to be accosted by a cyclo driver with laminated references and a bargain tour of the city.

    I saw: tons of pagodas, a lacquer ware store (no commission there, sorry), the War Remnants museum, Binh Tray market, church where Diem and his brother were dragged from and killed, Chinatown, and the History museum (hello again, Uncle Ho!) which was all fascinating except that I had a major headache from the sun and kept trying to get back to the apartment. At the end of 4 or 5 hours, when I finally got back to the Post Office, he told me I owed 600,000VD. Usually I’m not a terrible whiner, but I did some whinging then, and ended up paying 250,000--which is still way too much, and definitely not what we had agreed on, but I was too sick at that point to care. Okay, enough of the whiny bit and on to the sites:

    The War Remnants museum has tanks and such in the courtyard, photos and posters in the museums, and a no-holds-barred viewpoint. Sad, sobering, and essential, although as ever in these situations, one sided. The effects of Agent Orange are chronicled along with the war itself, and it takes a strong stomach for some of the exhibits and pictures.

    The History museum is in a lovely courtyard setting, with rooms of the various eras and some interesting artwork; a rather eclectic collection.

    Binh Tray is huge and full of tee shirt stands and such; I think one would need a great deal more time to explore in order to find any hidden gems. Chinatown, surrounding it, had some interesting pagodas and open markets, but, again, there wasn’t a great deal of time for exploring.

    A trip to an eclectic grocery story in the ‘hood and a stop at a swanky, swervy, free Internet cafe (you just pay for your drink{s}) took care of the rest of the day, and I made macaroni and cheese for dinner and wrote out postcards and watched--get this--Father of the Bride, Part II. Sometimes you just gotta give in.

    Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels

    17th July, 2002, was mostly spent jouncing up and down in the back of a mini-van beside an elderly Japanese gentleman, but the stops were emphatically worth the trip.
    On the trip were also a couple from Den Hague, a Floridian, a Korean, and a French couple who had some of the same ambivalence about travel in the “former colony” that most Americans seem to.
    Our eventual first stop was the “It’s a Small World (and It’s Got Enormous Eyes)” ambiance of the Cao Dai temple; we arrived in a rush, took off our shoes, toured the main sanctuary, and entered the balcony for viewing the noon time ceremony. This gives you a view of the pink swirly pillars, sky like ceiling, and, eventually, the seated white clad disciples and brightly clothed leaders. Music, singing, and bells become a part of the surroundings, while the disciples bow from the lotus position in response to the ceremony. Cao Dai is a fusion religion, with an eclectic pantheon that includes Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin. Later in our travels we saw a Cao Dai funeral, with a “hearse” that was elaborately decorated, almost like a parade float. Fascinating mixture, the simplicity of the people and the ornateness of the surroundings; it seems to be an insular group (perhaps due to governmental regulations) yet welcomes the tourists to the noon ceremony. Cao Dai’s main principle is inclusion of all religions into one. It’s a peaceful and gentle group with somewhere around six million adherents worldwide, and this temple in Tay Vinh is the main headquarters.

    Not at all peaceful and gentle are the Cu Chi tunnels. They are, however, a monument to the intrepidity of the human spirit. At this point they’re a quite touristy monument, with a decided and deserved air of pride and achievement. The miles of original tunnels and rooms were dug by hand, with bamboo air holes and cooking smoke vented underground in gradual degrees and hidden entrances of only 20cm square. The tunnels themselves were only 50cm wide and 70cm high, connecting the underground rooms where the people (61,000 of them) lived. Not only did this prevent the tunnels from collapsing from bombs, it definitely prevented American GI’s from entering the tunnel. Only the obliging young soldier who led us around was able to enter the original opening, which he did very gracefully with his hands entwined above his head. Even our Vietnamese tour guide couldn’t even think about fitting into the entrance. They have enlarged some portions of the tunnels for tourists, but this bit is still winding and claustrophobic enough; you crouch the whole time and your sides brush the tunnel as it twists and turns in the dark. When you make it out into the shade of the trees, you are served the food that they survived on: bamboo tea and tapioca root with peanuts. Apparently, tapioca was very easy to grow.

    There’s a shooting range here, as well, where I shot a Soviet AK47 on the premise that, hey, while I might be anti-war and anti-guns, when else would I have the chance to shoot an AK47? It’s a bit of a kick, and adds to the oddly festive, triumphant atmosphere of the tunnels.

    I just got in from my moto ride back from the tour cafe in time; there was a huge, major, teeming downpour! This is the rainy season, but it’s been timed quite well; not whole rainy days, just showers during the day and then rainy nights. Very handy!




    Trek to the Cambodian Embassy

    I’d gotten conflicting advice about getting my visa for Cambodia, so I decided to play it safe and go to the Embassy in HCMC. I found it using my handy-dandy basic city map after I sent my 150+ postcards off from the main post office (780,000VD). It was quite a simple process, really, using the photos I had gotten at a photo shop near the tour cafe yesterday.(I got them taken before I left, picked ‘em up on the way home.) There’s a nice outdoor table at the embassy where you fill out your paperwork, and by 4PM that afternoon the visa is ready. Actually, though, you don’t have to do any of this as you can get a visa right at Siem Reap Airport in Cambodia. On the other hand, it was an interesting walk and I’m glad I didn’t have to wait in the airport line!

    The Reunification Palace was closed, so I just took a picture of the famous gates and went on my way to the Ben Thanh market on the recommendation of Markus, (Hi, Markus!) who is the grandson of Hal Taussig, founder of Untours. It’s smaller than the one in Chinatown, and I found it to be friendlier and more charming, as well. I bought some of the famous butter-roasted coffee beans, which came with the classic drip-style coffee cup used all over here. Here’s where I picked up quite a few souvenirs, too, such as embroidered tee shirts for my nieces and nephews. I also got some yummy fresh hot bread and tomatoes, as this is a food market as well as a souvenir place.

    By this time I needed to go back the other way to the Cambodian Embassy for my visa, so, with a stop at “Goody’s” for ice cream, I picked up my nice elaborate full page adhesived-in visa for the Kingdom of Cambodia. After the decadence of the ice cream and the kingdom, a stop at Diamond Department Store seemed to be right in order. Diamond is much like upper-level department stores everywhere, except perhaps for the Kentucky Fried Chicken and the bowling alley on its fourth and final floor. There were some very tempting carvings and silk purses available here, but I restrained myself and just bought a baby gift and some household supplies.

    Mekong Delta--Overnight in Can Tho

    My trip to the Mekong was switched from Kim Cafe to Saigon Travel: to quote, “Same, same, but different.” Evidently Kim Cafe didn’t have enough people going on the trip. This interchanging is pretty common, it seems. Kim’s trip only cost $15.00, including the hotel, so I may have gotten a bargain here, as I think Saigon’s was a bit more.

    We had an air-conditioned bus for the trip down to our low, noisy, smurf-blue and white boat, which went rather noisily down the crowded Mekong to a popped rice factory, where we were served flowery green tea and rice that had been popped in burnt black sand and mixed with peanuts and sugar. It was, in fact, quite good, albeit reminiscent of Rice Krispie treats. Back on the boat, (ouch! Watch your head getting on!) we putt-putted past a small floating market and lots of houses with lots of antennae to the broader Upper Mekong and then to Cai Be island, very lush with farms and the lovely narrow arched bridges and friendly people who are a little less used, I think, to the foreign invasion. Bicycles were available after lunch, but I walked through the dusty streets and over some bridges through the farms and made friends with an adorable baby who was dancing in her walker.

    Back on the boat, we made another stop, at a coconut candy “factory” (think salt water taffy, but in the jungle instead of on the boardwalk.) This was followed by a switch to another boat and a two hour glide through the brown waters on wide canals, past kids yelling “allo!” and swimming in the water (along with a snake that I saw). I spent part of this time on the roof of the boat, which was flat and afforded wonderful views and a lovely feeling of contentment.

    When we reached the city of Can Tho (hello, big bright silver Uncle Ho as the Tin Woodman!) and got to our hotel, I paid a princely $3.00 over the price of the trip ($15) to get a single room, which had the best double knit blue doggy bedspread and orange print sheets ever, its own balcony, and a shower that got the toilet wet. No a/c, though.

    The personal knock-on-the-door wake up call the next morning was at 6:30, as we were going out to the floating market and it’s up and running before then. It was an eclectic conglomeration of mostly little boats; we got into a very small one in groups of two or three and threaded our way through the aquatic maze and back to our bigger tour boat, which then went on to the “rice husking factory island”, where my wanderings through pagodas and drying herbs were accompanied by a raft of kids, most of whom wanted soda. They swarmed me as I was writing in my journal, so I gave up and started drawing their pictures instead. There was even one chubby little guy with dimples--a rare sight in Vietnam. It’s a tough line between being friendly to these very welcoming children, who pushed and poked each other and giggled, and contributing to the “gimme” effect that tends to affect kids everywhere.

    In Can Tho, to which we then returned to see an on-land market (flopping fresh fish, gorgeous dragonfruit) there was another little girl who annexed me to escort me through. She appeared to be in expectation of candy, which I don’t carry. This is the kind of thing that anthropologists discuss, but I don’t know if anybody has come up with a definitive answer on sharing vs. capitalist/colonial condescension. I don’t want to give the impression that everyone was out for what they could get, but touristed sites do tend to create these situations.

    After another leisurely hour of floating past houses both old and new, various jungley plants, more folks yelling “allo!”, and swimmers/bathers in the Mekong, we were emptied rather abruptly onto the side of the road, there to be picked up fifteen minutes later by our bus back to HCMC via a garden/rest stop.

    The classic tune, “Everybody’s got a water buffalo...” echoing through my head, I bade farewell to the Mekong Delta.

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    Sorry, I don't have the info for Hong Phat; it was about $30-35 a night, I think, for the huge room with private bath. I really enjoyed it.

    I had gotten the recommendation and reservation through Untours; sorry I can't be of more help, but possibly Untours could give you some info even though they unfortunately aren't doing the trips to Vietnam right now.

    Happy trails!

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    Amy, I am leaving for my solo 5 week trip which includes 10 days in Northern Veitnam and it was a pleasure to read your detailed report!

    I was hoping you would have some feedback on the water puppet show but it sounds like you were too tired to fully enjoy it. I am debating on whether or not to see it.

    Thanks!

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    I would definately recommend the water puppet show. But - I also think it is important to do a bit of reading about the history of the artistry, the lengthy training of the participants, as well as the craftsmanship in the making of the puppets themselves. It is not very long, nor expensive. Parts are really quite comical. They give you a program and it really helps to try to follow along and figure out what is happening. It is a real chance to get a feel for a very historical part of Vietnamese culture and in my humble opinion it should not be missed. When water puppetry first began, it was essentially the only form of entertainment the hard workers in the rice fields had.

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    Thanks Connette.

    I did some research on it and it seems pretty interesting. I would guess the shows are about 45 minutes each?

    Coincidentally, a friend of mine will be in Hanoi with her husband at the same time I will be there! We are planning on meeting up for dinner and they mentioned they would have to work around the puppet show.

    I am going to ask them if they mind me accompanying them for the show and then we can all go out for dinner.

    Cheers!

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    Yes, the water puppets are definitely a must-see...just don't go when you're struck by jetlag! The puppets themselves are gorgeous; they had some on exhibit when I went (but of course that's been a while ago now!)

    Have a wonderful trip; I'd love to go back!

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