OUR SEASIA Odyssey

Old May 16th, 2012, 12:25 PM
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You are always a week or two after us on the trips. Ecuador looks beautiful and we have a friend who lives there now. We jumped on a low fare. Yes--we do come to D.C. from time to time (NoVa, actually). I will let you know the next time so we can grab a drink.

Are you going to post any pics from your SEA trip?
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Old May 16th, 2012, 01:35 PM
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We have only edited some of the ones from VN. Maybe we can post some of them.

Perfect to have a friend in Ecuador. Yes, pls let us know when u r up this way.
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Old May 22nd, 2012, 08:15 AM
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<b>Northern Vietnam #1: Hanoi and Halong Bay </b>

Hanoi rocks. And Hanoi annoyed. The air was a miasma of exhaust fumes, charcoal smoke, and smoke from cigarettes and the burning of “ghost money” for the Chinese New Year’s. And we heard more horns honking in our first five minutes in Hanoi than in all four weeks in Thailand. But I like towns where there’s life in the streets – it was impossible for me not to like the Old Quarter of Haoi.

We’d taken a 6:45 a.m. flight from Bangkok to Hanoi and were somewhat sleep deprived when we arrived. Our hotel, the Elegance Hanoi on Lo Su Street, had, per arrangement, picked us up at the airport and given us our first exposure to the chaotic Vietnamese traffic. The hotel, located in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, was modern and comfortable, one of our favorites of our trip. We had an upper floor junior suite. After our luggage had been deposited in our room, we began to wander the crowded streets of the Old Quarter. The sidewalks were periodically blocked by parked motos or businesses and restaurants that had expanded to the curb. (The restaurants had small low plastic tables, and tiny chairs the size of the plastic folding stool that I use for gardening.) Traffic seemed to be a constant flow of motos and bicycles, with the occasional four-wheeled vehicle – inevitably a ridiculously large SUV. We’d had the procedure for crossing the streets – termed a “leap of faith” – explained to us in advance. One simply waited until there were no four wheeled vehicles oncoming and then strode into the sea of motos and bicycles. And it worked. The sea not so much parted as flowed around one. One had to maintain a constant speed and direction so that oncoming traffic could anticipate your movements and avoid you. We did our first few practice runs downstream of Vietnamese people crossing the streets, but soon we were confidently crossing on our own.

We explored the Old Quarter, noting the various items for sale on the streets. At one time each street in Old Quarter of 36 streets had specialized in a different good. Although not strictly adhered to, some streets still contained shops of a similar nature. We ran across a shoe street. And a street that seemed to have nothing except silk stores. We eventually stumbled across Madame Hien’s restaurant on a less-trafficked side street. The quiet courtyard appealed to us and we stopped for lunch – rice crepe appetizers, bun cha (grilled pork w/ rice noodles) and squid stuffed with pork and sautéed with clams. All very good.

Then more wandering. We discovered Ginkgo fashions, a somewhat upscale t-shirt store. And several retro Communist propaganda poster shops – they sold both vintage and reprinted revolutionary posters (some quite good as far as design went) for those possessed with both a sense of irony and an indifference to tragedy. There were numerous art galleries – most of which specialized in generic genre scenes that inevitably featured women wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical hat. Some handicraft shops. Cheap t-shirt shops, many featuring the alternatively avuncular and serious visages of “Uncle Ho.” It seemed that every building was flying the Vietnamese flag – a gold star on a red background. Some also flew the Communist Party flag – a gold hammer and sickle on the identical red background. We got lost repeatedly in crowded warren of streets; I found myself referring to our map on every street corner, more often than not finding myself at an unanticipated intersection.

We returned to the hotel at 4:30 or so for a nap (GotT) and a massage (YT). Much later we had dinner at New Day Restaurant on Ma May Street, negotiating our way there one block at a time by constantly referring to the map. Spring rolls, bun cha, Singapore noodles and beer for U$D9. Good. Then on to dessert at Green Tangerine, which we’d passed on the way to New Day. We had a passion fruit tart and lemongrass cake and port in an elegant courtyard of a charming old house. Then back to our room.

We awakened to patriotic music and a morning harangue coming over a nearby PA system. We took the elevator up to the rooftop dining room and had breakfast. I had pho, YT toast and fruit. Then down to the lobby. We’d scheduled a tour with “Hanoi Kids” today. Hanoi Kids is a university group where they pair English speaking tourists with Vietnamese college students who want to practice their English. It’s nominally free, although the tourist does pay for lunch and any admission fees and taxis. Our kids were “Vinnie” and Ban (sp?). Vinnie was a twenty-one year old student in business. Ban was a nineteen year old studying economics. We started our tour at Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ncog Son Temple, on a small island in the lake reached by an arched red footbridge. Afterwards, we walked around the lake, ending up on a street of bookstores. We turned off to go to an old ice cream store, which sold one flavor, coconut. Then we proceeded to the old French section, going by the Opera House (very French in appearance, recently restored) and the Metropole Hotel. We passed several high-end stores; bridal shots were staged both there and in a nearby park there were at least a dozen brides (and an equivalent number of sullen-looking grooms) being photographed. Then we went back into the Old Quarter for “egg” coffee at an ancient upstairs coffee house (didn’t catch the name). Egg coffee is coffee with egg whites whipped in and is actually pretty tasty. Recaffeinated, we moved on to an old merchant’s shop house on Ma May Street. This house had been carefully preserved and now functioned as museum. The front had once served as a shop. The back and the upstairs had been living quarters for the shop-owner’s family. Next, we went to Saint Joseph’s Cathedral. It had just closed and looked like a miniature version of Notre Dame. There was a horde of people on motos in front of the cathedral. They were parents waiting to pick up their children when the Catholic School let out. We watched, fascinated, as school ended, the children flooded out and were hauled away on motorbikes, typically perched in front of the driver. Then we cabbed it to Quan An Ngon (18 Phan Boi Chau) for lunch. This was a large, very crowded restaurant with both interior and patio seating. We sat outside. The kids ordered for all of us: Papaya salad with seafood, fried rice with seafood, a crepe dish with seafood (banh xeo), shrimp cakes, and that old standby, bun cha. It was a fantastic meal. It was hard not to like Vinnie and Ban. They’d been born into a world where the “American War” was a distant memory – far more distant than World War II had been to YT and myself. They had also lived their entire lives in an era subsequent to the economic reforms that had changed Vietnam from a Stalinist basket case to an exported-oriented economy that welcomed foreign investment and seemed to thrive on sidewalk entrepreneurialism. They both revered Bac Ho – “Uncle Ho” – and supported the reforms (as did everybody we met). Otherwise, their concerns were typical of young people of their age group: school, the loneliness of moving from a small town to the big city, etc.

After lunch we bid goodbye to the Hanoi Kids and walked to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum on Thuong Kiet Street. It was a great museum. It gave an overview of “ethnic minority” dress, women’s roles in minority ethnic societies, and women’s roles in the two Indochina wars (with France and the USA). Then we walked back to the Elegance Hanoi with an intermediate stop at the Vietnam Post headquarters to buy stamps as gifts for the son of some friends. At one point I stopped to take a photo of a large, deco-style government building - but was loudly warned to refrain by passers-by. By the time we arrived back at the hotel we were exhausted. We rested, read for a bit and then ordered a superb bun cha from Elegance Hanoi room service.

At 7:30 the next morning, the a.m. harangue and patriotic music were repeated. And I opted for a repeat pho at the hotel breakfast. After breakfast, we took a cab out to the Tonkin Travel office in the West Lake district of Hanoi. We met Nhung, with whom YT had been in communication for over a year as we’d planned, aborted and then re-planned our trip to Southeast Asia. Rather than booking flights, hotels and drivers/guides individually as we’d done in the rest of Southeast Asia, we’d used Tonkin Travel to book all of our hotels, internal flights, tours, guides and drivers in Vietnam. Nhung was young, friendly and spoke excellent English. We reviewed our itinerary and then got down to the business of paying for our three and half weeks of travel in Vietnam. (This consisted of twenty-two nights hotel lodging, three guided boat and land tours, covering a total of ten days, two internal airplane flights, an overnight boat cruise on Halong Bay and an overnight train from Sapa to Hanoi, all for less than $4,000 for the two of us – an incredible bargain, particularly given the hours and hours of research and potential on-line aggravation we avoided.) We handed over 700U$D, and 20,000,000 Vietnamese dong – a stack of banknotes over half an inch high – and charged the balance.

After meeting with Nhung, we walked along the lakeshore for a bit. We were simply astounded at some on the sumptuous new lakeside houses that had been recently constructed. Were it not for the raggedly dressed lakeside fishermen squatting on piles of rock with jerry-rigged fishing poles, we could have been in California or Florida. We eventually tired of the only modernist architecture we’d seen since Bangkok and took a cab back to the old quarter and its crowded sidewalks and narrow “tube” houses. We had a late lunch – we’d had a series of twists and turns while trying to hunt the place down – at Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu Street). This second-floor restaurant serves only one dish: bun bo, rice noodles with grilled beef and vegetables, topped with a mountain of herbs and peanuts. It wasn’t quite as tasty as the previous night’s delectable bun cha, but it wasn’t too shabby either. The tab for two (with a Heineken and a bottle of water) was less than 5U$D.

After our lunch, we walked some more in the Old Quarter (and then walked to the “Temple of Literature,” a thousand year old series of buildings once devoted to Confucian education. Our Google-mapped route took us there via the filthy and ill-maintained (albeit rhyming) Nguyen Khuyen Street, a decidedly unpleasant walk one block south of the much nicer Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. The Temple of Literature turned out to be an enclave of superb Chinese-influenced buildings surrounded by a low wall. Outside the walls, calligraphy, art and al fresco haircut vendors (haircuts U$D1, photos of haircuts U$D2) vied for clientele. Inside (entry was 20,00 dong – about a dollar – apiece) was a peaceful, if crowded, oasis that harkened back to another time. One enters from the south off of Quoc Tu Giam Street. The grounds consist of a series of courtyards. The first two are lawns and gardens with pools on the sides. The third courtyard has a large central pool with Chinese buildings on either side. The fourth courtyard is an open plaza with buildings on either side. The complex terminates in the fifth courtyard, a plaza surrounded by buildings on three sides, including a large temple against on the north wall. The overall impression was of an harmonic whole, a pleasing symmetry. We enjoyed it a lot despite the crowds. Afterwards, we cabbed back to the Old Quarter and, after the usual twists and turns, made it to the water puppet theater. There, with the serendipitous help of a Hanoi Elegance staff person already in line, we bought third row tickets for the next night’s 9:15 show.

That night, dinner was in the Green Tangerine on Ma May Street, where we’d had desserts in the courtyard two nights earlier. We’d liked the desserts so much that we’d returned for a full meal. This time we were seated in the second floor interior of the elegant colonial-era (1928) mansion. The Green Tangerine features what can only be described as inventive modern French cooking with a slight Vietnamese influence. This was to be the first non-Asian meal – other than desserts or items at breakfast buffets – that we’d had in over six weeks of travel in southeast Asia. For a starter we had “bacon flowers” with tiny mushrooms serving as the pistils; it came atop a bed of pureed tropical fruits. Delicious. Then came the main courses. I had duck breast with roasted mushrooms and tamarind sauce with an accompanying cherry tomato tart. YT had a boneless chicken leg stuffed with currants, almonds, black mushrooms and “spices from the market” with a side of lotus and artichoke. We had a glass of wine apiece and later shared a glass of port. YT also had the “five treasure dessert, which, we were advised, “you don’t want to share.” (We didn’t, but I’m not a dessert person.) It was the most expensive meal of the trip, even more than the Chedi in Chiang Mai – about U$D75. The same meal back at home in DC could easily have cost twice as much.

The next morning, the harangue was mercifully short and the patriotic songs were skipped altogether. I made amends for last night’s French food by again having pho for breakfast; I’d come to appreciate this dish and its popularity. It was at once light and filling. We left in a light rain for the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Unfortunately, despite explicit instructions from the hotel, as well as from my guidance with a map of Hanoi, the driver nonetheless took us to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum instead. (We’d decided early on against viewing the dried-up old Ho – the potential spectacle was too reminiscent of Spanish Catholicism and the dusty “santos secos” we’d encountered in old Spanish churches. Besides, there were lines.) After some moments of mutual incomprehensibility, I managed to show him our destination on his map, which must have differed from mine in some unknown manner. Five minutes – and an additional ninety cents in taxi fare – later, we were there. The Ho Museum was a trip. It was an odd mixture of straightforward documentary (old photographs, newspapers, documents, etc.) on the second floor and a truly surreal tableau on the third, which featured an Edsel crashing through a wall, large, distorted furniture, and Dali and Picasso reproductions. Older Vietnamese from the countryside – I’m guessing based on their drab clothing and old military medals – seemed to be utterly perplexed by this decidedly post-modern scene.

Afterwards, we walked to the Hoi Lo prison, the former “Hanoi Hilton” of the era of the US intervention. Hoi Lo had originally been built as a prison back in the French colonial era. The focus was on the depredations of the French back in the day. If only a fraction of what they depicted was true, then French colonialism was one of the sorrier chapters in Western history. The cells were overcrowded, the torments were sadistic, malnutrition was prevalent, firing squads were busy and the guillotine had its work cut out. One room, the last one on the visit, purported to show, by comparison, the humane treatment meted out to captive American airmen by the Vietnamese. Knowing that they were actually treated with considerable brutality, this misrepresentation made me question the veracity of the French colonial era history presented elsewhere in the museum.

After leaving Hoi Lo, we walked to the Metropole just to see the luxurious lobby of this restored colonial-era hotel. (I believe that Graham Greene wrote part of “The Quiet American” here.) After catching up on the world via the International Herald Tribune, we headed towards the impassable sidewalks of the Old Quarter. We snacked while we ate: We first had mangoes with chili powder, under-ripe, but tasty nonetheless. Then a “doner kebab” banh mi sandwich, the best meal I’ve ever had for a dollar. Then on to Bun Cha Dac Kim (1 Hang Manh, my favorite street name in the Old Quarter) where we had the best bun cha we’d had to date – grilled pork, grilled pork patties, and spring rolls served over rice vermicelli with mounds of greenery (mint, cilantro, other herbs that I couldn’t identify) and fish sauce. Fantastic! Two huge servings – neither of us could finish everything - and a Coca-Cola cost less than 10U$D. We explored some more in the Old Quarter and then returned to the Elegance Hanoi for a nap and some repacking – the next day we were heading to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise.

We ate in at the Hanoi Elegance – a small late meal of bun cha and banh xeo – before leaving for our 9:15 water puppet show. The stage was a pool with a kind of set behind it. The show was accompanied by a small orchestra playing traditional music. The puppets are manipulated by sticks held under the water. Despite others’ opinions, I didn’t find it cheesy at all. It was a peek into Vietnam’s old rural history and humorous in a slap-sticky way at times. The only modern touch was in the instrumentation – splashy cymbals and microphones. Otherwise, this show could have taken place five centuries ago.

We awoke early the next morning, had a quick breakfast, did our last minute packing, and were picked up and on the road by 8:00 a.m. The route alternated between rice fields, industrial sites and small towns. I marveled at the Vietnamese ability to fit three lanes of traffic onto a one-lane road. On a less marvelous note, we passed a moto with a large wire cage on the back filled with live dogs piled atop one another. And, as we passed through the outlying towns, we noted several restaurants specializing in “thit cho,” including one that actually depicted a dog’s head on its sign. We stopped part of the way to Halong Bay for a bathroom break at a huge shop that sold every kind of Vietnamese craft available…silks, clothing marble sculptures, furniture and bottles of rice wine that contained a preserved snake and scorpion, seemingly in battle. We’d poked our heads in and then stepped back outside by the entrance and waited for our driver. Unbeknownst to us, we were supposed to walk all the way through the shop and then exit on the other side to meet our driver, thus availing ourselves of the opportunity of perusing the full array of merchandise for sale. We had a bit of a wait before we began to search for our car and ran across our puzzled driver.

We arrived at Halong Bay before noon. It was cool, foggy and beautiful. After a bit of a wait, we, and the rest of our fellow adventurers, were ferried out to the “Dragon Pearl” junk. Soon we were on our way. Halong Bay is renown for karst islets, which seem to rise almost vertically out of the sea. There are as many as 2,000 of these islets in a relatively small area. The resulting scene – leaden skies, pewter seas, sheer rocks, wifts of fog - was stunningly atmospheric. It was hard to describe and impossible to forget. It was also cold – so cold that we passed on the chance to kayak when we arrived at one of the larger islets…we’ll stay in here where it’s warm, thank you. Our cabin, below decks, was small but had a comfortable bed and serviceable bathroom. We didn’t need much room as we’d only brought a bare minimum of luggage, having left most of our stuff back at the Hanoi Elegance. The food at dinner was OK. Afterwards, the kitchen crew dazzled us with a series of carvings they’d done…a pumpkin carved into a phoenix, a watermelon combined with a pumpkin and carved into a replica of the Dragon Pearl (the watermelon was the hull). We met a couple who were some of the very few Americans we saw on this part of our trip – most of the tourists we met in Vietnam, particularly in the North, were French.

The next day was still cool but a bit less cloudy. We stopped at a floating village and were ferried about in a small boat by a villager standing in the back with a long-handled paddle. The village was set amongst karst cliffs and the houseboats were painted different shades and combinations of blue and green. We rejoined the Dragon Pearl and sailed back towards port, arriving a little after lunch. Our driver – the same as the previous day – picked us up and we were headed back to Hanoi. We had a bit of a role reversal at the obligatory bathroom stop at the big store. We couldn’t find our driver; it was only a while later that we noticed him eating having a hurried late lunch in the restaurant section.

We arrived back in Hanoi around 4:30. We went out much later to Madame Hien’s for an excellent dinner: a tasty rum ginger fruit juice cocktail, rice pancakes, a delicious duck “three ways,” shrimp with garlic sprouts, broccoli in oyster sauce. We walked back to the hotel in a light fog. The arched red bridge to the temple on the island in the lake was lit; it was beautiful, duplicated in the water below. Back at the hotel we went to the 12th floor for dessert and gran marnier. Then to room and to bed. The next day would be the start of a new adventure: The road to Sapa and the mountains of the northwest.
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Old May 23rd, 2012, 05:10 AM
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<b>Northern Vietnam #2: Six Days on the Road</b>

Our Tonkin Travel guide (Manh) and driver (Vung) showed up promptly the next morning and we were on the road a little after 8:30. Our destination for the day was the town of Mai Chau. The first hour of our drive took us through Hanoi and its outskirts. At one point, we were on the Vietnamese equivalent of a superhighway. The city eventually thinned into industrial parks – huge factories with acres of sheltered moto parking lots outside. Then rice paddies appeared, many flooded with farmers replanting rice seedlings or plowing with mud-slicked water buffalo. It seemed that every flat space had been pressed into use. As we approached the foothills to the mountains, the fields were terraced.

The weather, when we had left Hanoi, had been cool and overcast. As we arrived in the foothills, cool and overcast became cool and foggy. Eventually the fog became so thick that it reduced visibility to two or three car lengths. This was a blessing – in the clearer moments, the sheer drop-off by the side of the road was vertigo-inducing. At one point we stopped for coffee. Later, as we passed through a village, we saw a large tent that Manh said indicated a wedding in progress. We stopped the car to observe (so we thought). The bride’s car – festooned with flowers – arrived immediately behind ours and we watched her making her appearance amid a cloud of glitter tossed by the spectators. We soon became the recipients of Vietnamese hospitality. YT was enticed into dancing to some thumping techno music with a very young woman. Meanwhile, I’d been dragooned into meeting the father of the bride, who took me by the hand and half-waved, half-dragged us into the tent. I was seated at a table with him and three older women. They offered a little plate with betel nuts and cigarettes. I avoided the cigarettes – I quit many years ago but am still subject to temptation – by taking a betel nut and the accompanying leaf of an unknown plant and chewing the two together. It tasted incredibly bitter and was something of a topical anesthetic. It reminded me a bit of chewing coca leaves in Peru, except that this was more bitter, far more numbing and much faster acting. Then out came the chilled rice wine – YT snapped photos as the father of the bride and I toasted each other and then downed the liquor. It was mild, not unpleasant and a good excuse to rid myself of the betel nut residue. I managed to politely refuse further drinks and, with the assistance of Manh, we managed to slowly extract ourselves from the web of Vietnamese country hospitality via apologies, claims of prior commitments, congratulations and rounds of handshakes. (Throughout Vietnam, we found people to be very friendly and hospitable, even those, like the father of the bride, who were veterans of the Indochinese war; it’s almost as if the war had never occurred.)

By late morning, as we passed higher into the mountains, the fog burned off. By the time we started making our way down into the valley where Mai Chau was located, the fog was completely gone and we found ourselves enjoying the perfect sunny weather. We arrived at our hotel, the Mai Chau Lodge, a little after noon, checked in, dropped our luggage in our room and walked to the nearby village of Lac for lunch. We ate at an unnamed restaurant under a large stilt house. We were the only customers except for a nearby table of British tourists and another table of Vietnamese. There was no menu; we were just brought food. It was delicious…fried pork cutlets, stir-fried broccoli, chicken with mushrooms, fish steamed in bamboo. After lunch, we walked around Lac for a bit. It was a somewhat self-conscious “ethnic minority” village devoted to the production and sale of silk weavings. It seemed like every wooden stilt house had a loom underneath and a variety of textile items, mostly scarves and appliquéd wall hangings, for sale. Somewhat unusually for rural Vietnam (as we later found out), almost every street was paved in concrete.
After a while Manh joined us in our wanderings and we walked out to the vegetable gardens – some covered in chicken wire - and the recently flooded rice paddies. We exchanged helloes with the inhabitants and their children. Then YT and I walked back to the hotel and admired the view from our upper story room – rice paddies and small fishponds and distant hills. We took a nap that consumed much of the remainder of the afternoon.

Dinner was included in our lodging. It was a mix of so-so Western and Vietnamese food…shrimp wrapped in bacon with tamarind sauce, salad, chicken curry, beef in red wine sauce. After dinner, we wandered downstairs for the advertised “ethnic minority” dancing. The band – drum, percussion, flute and accordion – was great. They sounded at times like a mix between Irish and Cajun music. The dancers – who were young enough to be in high school – were good and seemed to be enjoying themselves. They constantly changed clothing as they performed dances by the various local ethnic groups. It ended with an ensemble dance that involved stepping between moving bamboo poles held slightly above the floor, inviting the audience – all eight of us - to participate. The ultimate finale was a ring of handholding kids and travelers stepping to “Frere Jacques” – I guess the French are an ethnic minority too. I regretted having left my camera in the room. Something in the way the kids had enjoyed themselves performing had made it seem more authentic than our evening in Laos almost four weeks earlier.

I awoke the next morning to find myself, if I ignored time zone differences, a year older. It was my birthday. I celebrated with a breakfast in the hotel – all western, as it turned out, bacon and fruit and a croissant. Then we promptly hit the road. Again, there was morning fog in the highlands. After a while, we stopped at a village was set amid flowering peach trees (a symbol of the Chinese New Year’s we were told). It was a beautiful village of weathered wooden houses. We exchanged “hellos” and “goodbyes” and took photos at the kindergarten then moved on again. Our next stop was a tea plantation. We strolled through the miniature hedges for a bit and then hit the road again. We stopped for a roadside lunch we shared with Manh and Vung…fried pork, two kinds of steamed vegetables, beef sautéed with greens, a tofu and tomato dish, the inevitable rice and the equally inevitable beer. All good. The cost for the four of us was about 10U$D. Then on through the mountains to the Moc Chau plateau and Son La. The fog had again burned off.

We arrived at that night’s lodging, the Hanoi Hotel in Son La, at around 2:00. This hotel – a last minute change from our scheduled stay at the Cong Doan Hotel – ranked as one of the worst of our trip. It was a soulless Stalinoid hulk. The bed was hard; only the Kool hotel in Siem Reap, with its concrete slab bed and polystyrene sheets, rivaled it in the abysmal bed category. Moreover, the furniture had cigarette burns and hot water was non-existent. We amused ourselves by reading the hotel regulations. I particularly liked Article 6: “Social evils are strictly forbidden in the room.” In its way, the Hanoi Hotel was a perfect reflection of Son La, a singularly soulless town.

Around 3:30 that afternoon, we went out again on foot with Manh to the French prison overlooking the town. We went through town and up a hill. The prison was mostly in ruins, although enough of it remained to provide a picture of the rough treatment of Vietnamese prisoners. Some of the cells were tiny, maybe five by two feet. We also visited the adjacent museum, which was, oddly, devoted to the costumes of local ethnic minority women. We walked back through town. There was a large red and white sign of Ho Chi Minh and accompanying communist slogans that I momentarily mistook for a Colonel Sanders KFC advertisement. Later that evening I went out for a birthday meal that was simply revolting, the first bad food since we’d had in Southeast Asia. The grilled pork fat was tough. The stir-fried socialist chicken product included a bonus of vegetable oil due to the glorious achievement of the people in having overfulfilled the quarterly vegetable oil production quota. (Perhaps we should have instead tried the “pepper with pork discharge” on the menu.) We couldn’t finish the meal. In fact, we could barely start it. We returned to the hotel and our hard beds.

It was foggy again the next morning. We had a quick and loathsome breakfast. Even the coffee was bad, a first for Vietnam. Soon, we on our way through the mist-wrapped mountains and before long Son La became nothing more than a bad memory. We stopped for an early lunch in Tuan Giao, a pretty valley town. Vietnamese cuisine redeemed itself. We had stir-fried greens, fried tiny whole fish, stir-fried tofu and chicken with mushrooms. All of it was tasty. We took a post-lunch walk through town. YT bought a facemask for protection against dust and air pollution. (I’d been rolling old school with a Jesse James style bandana.) We photographed a school built with USAID funds to send to a friend who works as a contractor at USAID. We took several photos of people wearing traditional tribal garb and were again amazed at the friendliness of everyone we had met in Vietnam. We returned to the restaurant and Manh and Vung and were on our way again.

A little ways down the road we stopped at a market. I checked it out while YT stayed in the car. I ran across a moto with a wire cage filled with miserable-looking goats. The owner saw me, strode over and proudly posed next to the moto - it wasn’t the reaction I’d anticipated. We definitely seemed to be in goat-eating territory. The market was filled with ethnic women selling deconstructed goats in bowls and on mats. There seemed to be hundreds of vendors – some selling a few vegetables from their garden, others with an array of vegetables and fruit, some of which I didn’t recognize. I looked away as a woman cut up a fish so fresh that it was still thrashing. Most of the market people were so-called black Thais. The women wore their hair in large buns piled atop their head. It made me think of the old saying, “the higher the hair, the closer to God.” I thought of telling Manh this, but wasn’t sure if it would translate well. Required by law to wear helmets while riding motos, they carefully perched their helmets atop their hair a good six inches above their heads. Manh called some of women “TV Thais” because of the little metallic rectangular hairpieces they wore; I have to admit that they did resemble tiny TV screens.

Each day’s scenery had become more attractive as we’d moved further into the mountains. We drove through terraced rice fields being worked by farmers with hoes or water buffalo. Then we ascended further into the hills. The roads were lined with stilt houses. Red floral quilts were being aired out on the railings or in the yards. Almost every woman seemed to be in the traditional dress of the various ethnic groups. Harvested cassava was being dried by the side of the roadway. Young men played pool in impromptu poolrooms set up under stilt houses. Motos were everywhere. Sometimes whole families – four or more – road together on one moto.

We arrived at our next night’s lodging, the Him Lam Hotel, outside of Dien Bien Phu at around 3:30. It had beautiful grounds and the buildings seemed impressive until closer examination revealed that they were poorly constructed or in disrepair. I stayed with the car while YT rejected the first room she was shown in a concrete stilt house – tiny and dirty. We instead took one at the “villa,” a massive Italianate edifice planted at the top of a small hill. We didn’t notice at first, but the room was a dump: Discolored walls, abused furniture, a moldy bath tub, discolored bathroom floor and absolutely wretched towels – thin, miniscule, stained bath towels and missing hand towels. We fled the room and walked the grounds. Everything had seemed beautiful at first glance. However, it didn’t stand closer scrutiny. The complex seems to have been relatively recently built as a resort. However, the construction was shoddy and everything was either dirty or in disrepair. The entire place had an aura of cheesy communist kitsch. (Contrary to reports we’d read on Trip Advisor, the pool was clean, though; it was probably an oversight.) I went to an open-air bar – totally empty – for a beer but decided to try a mango lassi instead - it was great, the high point of our stay. YT, meanwhile, had spotted Manh in the reception area and requested to move our departure time the next day to as early as possible.

We ate dinner early in the enormous and empty dining room. Some tables had not been bussed from lunch and were covered with old dishes, glasses and mounds of paper napkins. We moved from table to table, unsuccessfully trying to find one without a grease-stained tablecloth. Our meal consisted of spring rolls, fried rice and grilled chicken, all of which bordered on, but did not quite cross into, the inedible. We returned to our room for the night and ran the air conditioning to keep the mosquitoes at bay. At least there was hot water. In the morning, I took a shower in my flip-flops and stood in front of the AC to dry. We had had little sleep that night. On top of everything else, the bed was hard. For breakfast, we were offered cold fried eggs and a baguette. We skipped the eggs and ate the baguette with some jam. Manh and Vung showed up and we were on our way.

This morning’s agenda focused on the battle of Dien Bien Phu – we climbed hill A1, where the Vietnamese had dug under the French lines and detonated a massive bomb. The enormous crater is still there. After this we walked through an ethnic minority market to General de Castres’ bunker; de Castres had been the French commanding officer. It was a very large bunker, befitting a general. After our time at the French prisons and the Dien Bien Phu battlefield, I slowly came to a realization of why the Vietnamese government constantly flogged the French and American wars to its largely indifferent citizenry. More than half the population had been born after Vietnamese reunification in 1975. They have no memory of the war. Moreover, the Vietnamese population had suffered another fifteen years of privation and near starvation after the end of the war due to the government’s incompetent statist economic policies. The government’s victories in the two Indochinese wars – particularly the achievement of independence from the French in 1954 – are, however long ago they occurred, the only real achievements of which it can boast after almost sixty years in power. Further, given the uniformly friendly reception that we received on our trip, as well as conversations that we had with individual Vietnamese, I believe that there is a striking lack of rancor towards Americans (or the French, for that matter). The “American War” came to an end almost forty years ago. Yet it seems to loom larger in the American psyche than it does in the Vietnamese. I think that, for the Vietnamese, it represents only one of the more recent of the numerous wars fought over the past thousand or more years. Their major concerns now appear to be China (with whom they fought a war in 1979) and creating a decent standard of living.

After de Castres’ bunker, we passed on further battlefield nostalgia and soon were on our way to the new town of Lai Chau. Our route took us through the most rugged and spectacular terrain yet. Unfortunately, the road was as rugged as the countryside. Roadwork was omnipresent. Vietnam seems to be undertaking a massive effort to develop and populate the provinces bordering China. We passed through a “new town” and then were repeatedly delayed due to roadwork. Everywhere there seemed to be construction: Housing, bridges, dams, entire cities. We stopped for lunch at an anonymous roadside café overlooking a river and the four of us had little shrimp, tofu with tomatoes, boiled chicken, greens and rice. Due to all the roadwork, we did not arrive at Lai Chau until 6:00 p.m. We checked into a room at a cavernous new hotel that was a vast improvement over our prior two nights’ lodging despite a paucity of hot water. Dinner – we again ate at a hotel – was good: grilled chicken, grilled pork and spring rolls. Manh and Vung were eating at a nearby table and invited me over for rice wine toasts. I’d passed on previous offers and didn’t feel comfortable refusing again so I shared a toast. As it turned out the rice wine was not only tasty but also somewhat tame – 17.5% alcohol, more like rice water than firewater. They then tried to induce me into joining them in a drinking contest. That I did pass on. We waved good night and returned to our room. Exhausted from the day and the previous night, I was asleep by 9:00 p.m. YT stayed up a bit and read.

We awoke early, skipped breakfast and were on the road before 9:00. We stopped by a market of mixed ethnic groups – flower Hmong with their green/pink or blue/pink headdresses, TV Thais and Zao people with large headdresses. We waited while Manh undertook some lengthy negotiations with a Hmong man to purchase five kilos of rice for about 120,000 dong, about 6U$D. We stopped again to buy sugar cane on the side of the road and I was soon gnawing on this watery treat as we rolled down the highway. The road was good again except for a short section where we drove on a flattened stretch of bulldozed dirt by the side of the landslide-blocked road. We stopped again and walked up a hill to visit a Hmong village. Compared to other hill tribes with their elegant stilt houses, the Hmong villages seemed impoverished and poorly constructed. Manh took us into a Hmong house, which was exactly like the Hmong house we’d visited on the Mekong Cruise. Dirt floors, stacked bags of rice, open fire without a chimney or ceiling hole, loft space filled with dry foodstuffs (corn, mostly). I again felt uncomfortable about just strolling into someone’s home; it seems obtrusive to me.

We were approaching what Manh described as the highest pass in Vietnam, about twenty meters outside of Sapa. The mountains on our right hand side were magnificent, although too hazed in fog to photograph. We stopped at the top of the pass, 2,000 meters above sea level, and strolled through some stalls selling handicrafts, snacks, sodas and waters to take in the beautiful, albeit hazy, view. Then we were on the move again, rolling into the valley where Sapa was nestled. We caught views of cascading terraced rice paddies through the encroaching fog. We drove by the so-called “Silver Falls,” now reduced to a silver trickle by the dry season. We drove through town, noting the central soccer field and the Catholic church before arriving at the Sapa Boutique Hotel a little before noon. There we said goodbye and gave tips to Vung, our wonderful, taciturn driver and Manh, our nice, if young, under-informed and repetitive guide. We’d come to enjoy their company.
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Old May 23rd, 2012, 08:05 AM
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Yes. Wonderful description of a trip very similar to the one we took (also 3 1/2 weeks, also arranged by Tonkin). The hotels in the Northwest are pretty sketchy--I so agree with your description of the Him Lam Hotel (though I didn't think the Hanoi Hotel in Son La was quite as bad as you did). You really captured the essence of what appeared on first glance to be a lovely place but was spooky and poorly maintained when you scratched the surface. Consider yourself lucky that your Lai Chau hotel wasn't the Muong Thanh, where we stayed--air con didn't work, lots of mosquitoes so we couldn't open the window, hard beds, middle of nowhere, marginal food. A nightmare. We complained to Tonkin and I'm glad to see that they took that one of their list.

I appreciate all the detail you are giving. It's like reliving my trip! Looking forward to more.
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Old May 23rd, 2012, 10:56 AM
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A couple more comments: Did you see any other Americans while you were traveling in the Northwest? The only other Western tourists we saw during our circuit there were a group of 6 French people who were on virtually the same route--we kept running into them at the hotels and at some of the restaurants (we also bumped into them later in Hue--we greeted one another like old friends). The only Americans we saw were at the hotel in Son La--I conversed with a pod of U.S. military guys who are part of the unit that goes around the world digging up remains of military personnel who are missing in action – from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to whatever. They were staying in Son La for 5 weeks, trying to find the remains of MIA air force flyers who crashed in the area in the Vietnam War. The team leader was a 30-year-old from Pennsylvania, about 10 miles from where we live. He said he hadn’t seen any others since he’d been in Son La and was thrilled to talk American English to someone again.

Your comment about feeling uncomfortable strolling into a Hmong home resonated with me. We had the same experience--the home and lifestyle we observed were fascinating and the people were very welcoming, but I wish I had had a gift to give them--might have made it feel less obtrusive. I kept wondering what I would feel like if a couple of foreign tourists and their guide knocked on my door and asked to look around. On the one hand, it would be extremely strange, but on the other it would be fun to show a foreign visitor what small-town life in New Jersey is like. So I'm not convinced it's a bad thing.
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Old May 23rd, 2012, 11:24 AM
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@aprillilacs - We saw more French than Americans all through the north. There were, however, a fair number of Americans in Sapa. I'm going away for a long weekend, will resume narrative when I return. For one reason or another, it's taken much longer to write this than I'd anticipated. Longer then the trip was, in fact.
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Old May 23rd, 2012, 11:29 AM
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@aprillilacs-I remember your posts on Tonkin before we left and reading your blog. Apparently your complaints to Tonkin were listened to. We're racing to finish this report b4 we take off on a road trip in June. We'll c if we can finish what remains, Hoi An, Hue, Mekong Delta and Saigon...whew!

I meant to add in about Tonkin related to our negative experiences. I emailed Nhung the evening of our stay in Him Lam Hotel not because I thought she could do anything for us given that it was a one night stay, but to forewarn her about it. She got in touch with Manh, our guide, and he was very solicitous of our rooms after that. Checking them out and making sure they were ok with us. Eventually Nhung emailed me back and thanked me for my comments and inquired as to our other accommodations and the guides and drivers. At the end of our trip I did email her a complete review of all the hotels and drivers and guides. I thought it was good that she wanted to hear the feedback.
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Old May 29th, 2012, 02:40 PM
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<b>Foggy Mountain Breakdown: Sapa</b>

When we arrived at the Sapa Boutique Hotel, our room wasn’t ready yet. We added our luggage to the small mountain of suitcases accumulating in the lobby and went out for a stroll. Sapa is as much vertical as it is horizontal with beautiful views down terraced hillsides. Having pretty much skipped breakfast, we went looking for some lunch. Both of us had tired of the mediocre Vietnamese food we’d had during the Son La to Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau section of our drive. For the first time in almost seven weeks of travel in Southeast Asia we deliberately sought out Western food. A local bistro named Chocolate and Baguettes hit the spot. YT had smoked salmon quiche. I had a toasted open face sandwich of ham, cheese, tomatoes and olives. We both had coffees. It wasn’t Paris – but it wasn’t bad. We returned to our hotel and checked into our “deluxe” room. It was large, had a nice bed, a portable heater, heated blanket, a small balcony and a great view across terraced fields. The first item on the agenda was a shower – a treat after the cold-water sponge (actually, hand towel) bath that morning at our hotel at Lai Chau. Then we went through our clothing and accumulated a 3.5-kilo load for laundering at the shop adjacent our hotel. At 40,000 dong per kilo, we were paying less than 1U$D per pound. After I’d dropped our clothing off, we spent some time in our room reading up on Sapa and watching the fog slowly creep up the hill; it was the first room since the Hanoi Elegance that we felt comfortable sitting in. Then we went downstairs to the lobby, planning to wander the town a bit.

The lobby was in one of its chaotic moments as a group of muddied trekkers was just returning from a guided walk to nearby Cat Cat. These chaotic moments occurred periodically throughout the day, particularly in the morning as people convened in the lobby for trekking or in the evening gathered in small groups for pickup to the overnight train station in Lao Cai. The mountain of luggage in the lobby grew and then shrank on a regular basis. After a day or two, one could distinguish the nationality of the trekkers by what they wore: Californians in tennis shoes, shorts and hoodies; French with expensive safari gear and silk Vietnamese scarves; everyone else (including the Vietnamese) in jeans and North Face jackets.

The streets of Sapa were lined with sporting gear shops. In deference to the damp chill, I bought a bright red waterproof North Face all weather coat (most likely counterfeit) at store down the street. After bargaining, it cost about 50U$D. Since I planned to pay in cash (we’d gone onto an all cash basis since arriving in SE Asia), I needed to go to Cau May Street to make a withdrawal from an ATM. Although the storeowner had advised me to avoid the “dirty” market by taking an overhead walkway, my curiosity got the better of me. I noted a table in the meat section offering twelve dog paws for sale. I refrained from photographing this sad display.

As we’d dropped off our clothing almost immediately on checking in, I picked it up about five hours later. I took the three and a half kilogram plastic bag of clothing to our room, sat it on a chair, opened it and savored the glorious aroma of fresh clean clothing. On a comic note, we discovered that a pair of YT’s panties were missing when we conducted our post-wash inventory. I returned to the store – a combination laundry and massage parlor – and explained the situation as best I could, emphasizing “small” and “undergarment” with my hands, much to the hilarity of the watching massage girls. The owner placed a call, left on a moto and returned shortly with the garment in question wrapped in a piece of paper, which he ceremoniously presented to me for inspection. Giggles all around as I slowly opened the tiny package and inspected the contents.

Dinner was at the superb restaurant down the street at the Sapa Rooms Hotel. We kind of over-ordered:
• Banana flower salad;
• Fresh mango/chicken spring rolls;
• Fish in tamarind sauce
• Pork meatballs w/ rice vermicelli cilantro and mint, with rice paper wrappings and dipping sauce.
The first three dishes were heavenly, the last merely excellent. We accompanied our meal with a glass of torrontes and a Tiger beer. Dessert was a mango lassi and cookies with taro root ice cream. It was one of our best meals since arriving in Vietnam. We walked out into the enveloping fog and returned to our room.

We awakened to a grey wall of fog, incredible, thick, almost solid. Visibility appeared to be limited to twenty or thirty feet. (Unfortunately, it didn’t lift all day.) The lobby was again chaotic in the morning as a large group gathered for trekking. My faith in Vietnamese cuisine restored, I ordered pho for breakfast. It was delicious – once I removed the chili peppers I had injudiciously torn into pieces and added to the broth. Shortly thereafter, I made the mistake of putting my chili-stained fingers to my eyes and had to run to the bathroom to wash hands and eyes, alternatively laughing and crying at my stupidity. After breakfast I dropped more clothing – jeans and a couple of t-shirts – at the neighboring laundry/massage parlor. We returned to our room and took our time dressing for going out. It looked like we were socked in and were in no rush since we could see little besides grey.

Our first stop was a nearby Buddhist/Taoist/Confucian shrine, excessive even by the standards of South East Asia. It had enough flashing lights to put the tackiest of Christmas crèches to shame. Then we made our way up the street towards the market and center of town, avoiding interaction with groups of Flower Hmong vendors, who tend to be annoyingly persistent in hawking their textiles, jewelry and post cards. Their motto, or mantra, seemed to be “what you buy from me make me happy.” We found the Catholic Church. The inside was very plain and came almost as a relief from the excessive Buddhist ornamentation we’d been seeing for the previous seven weeks. Then more wandering. I took a lot of photos – very atmospheric - of hill tribe people in the mist. It was hard to identify which group they belonged to. The streets were so shrouded in fog that even the Flower Hmong looked grey from twenty feet.

We stumbled across the Petit Gecko Coffeeshop, went in for coffee but switched to mango lassis instead. We – and everyone else in the shop – were briefly accosted by a tribeswoman of undeterminable origin (black clothes, shaved eyebrows and partially shaved head). It was the first time that a vendor had actually been aggressive enough to solicit inside a shop. YT struck up a conversation with a woman at the adjacent table. I went to the store computer that I’d seen the woman use to access Facebook and successfully logged on to Facebook for the first time since we’d been in Vietnam. (The government blocks the site, with a great deal of success, particularly in Northern Vietnam.) It was probably the slowest computer I’d ever been on in my life, perhaps due to whatever workaround they used to aloow access to Facebook. I checked my status and found no less than thirty-three happy birthday posts. The computer was too slow to do much else. We left and went to the Chapa Hotel for a light lunch. It had beautiful grounds and public areas. We’d initially planned to stay here, but the tour operator had switched us to the Sapa Boutique Hotel – a good decision as it worked out. The Sapa Boutique hotel was less expensive and had larger rooms and king size beds, important features as we were destined to spend much of our time in Sapa in our room. After visiting the Chapa, we walked back to our hotel and spent the afternoon reading, emailing, catching up on notes and staring into a gray infinity of fog.

We stayed in until way past the dark grey dusk and nightfall. Then back out through the cold damp empty street – all 300 feet of it – to Sapa Rooms for dinner. We didn’t repeat the prior night’s excess and shared some steamed vegetables, fish in tamarind sauce (a repeat) and pork stuffed with limes, scallions and peanuts. Torrontes and beer with the meal. Cookies and ice cream dessert for YT. Then back to our hotel.

We slept late the next morning. Then rose and drew back the curtains to reveal that the featureless grey expanse of fog was still with us. The view was a bit like looking at an active TV screen without input. We went down to the lobby for breakfast. I had tasty pho ga – I didn’t know that chicken-flavored pho existed – and coffee and part of an omelet. We conferred with the front desk: Checkout time was noon, but our transportation to the train station in Lao Cai did not arrive until 6:00 p.m. Was there any way we could stay in our room until then? (It wasn’t so much that we reveled in cabin fever – the room was a good 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the chilly lobby, which suffered from the continual opening and closing of the doors due to the influx and outflow of staff and trekkers with their copious gear.) We were told that, yes, one could normally rent the room for $20 for the afternoon, a kind of hot sheet special, but that this wasn’t an option for today as the hotel was fully booked. The lobby it was to be.

We took our bags down around 11:30 and walked around town for a bit. Coffee and more illicit Facebook at the Petite Gecko. Some time in the elegant (and warm) lobby of the Victoria Hotel. An unsuccessful search for a bathroom with a “bum gun” for a humorous email to a friend. The only place we found was unphotogenic (and unhygienic to boot). A snack – apple, onion and coconut bread at Highland Coffee. A stroll through the market. Then we returned to our hotel lobby for our interminable wait for our 6:00 p.m. pickup. We figured we’d have an early dinner at the hotel – around 5:00 - as we were uncertain of the situation in Lao Cai and the train station. We’d no sooner begun eating than our “guide.” Mee, showed up. Mee was very young, very small and both a sparkling personality and excellent English. Mee was one of Tonkin tours guides and she was going to meet the train in Lao Cai to pick up her tourists and had come along with the driver. Thus we were rewarded with the pleasure of having Mee talk about the area and the culture. We quickly finished our meal why she played with the hotel cat and chatted with another traveler awaiting pickup. Soon, we were introduced to our driver, Mr. Quin, and packed our luggage into the waiting automobile. We left Sapa with mixed feelings. Other than the afternoon of our arrival, when we had briefly glimpsed the fabled terraced rice fields, we had been fogged in our entire stay. The market – the textile section excluded – had been singularly filthy. The hill tribe vendors and been overly persistent and annoying on occasion. Trekking to tribal villages – which some travelers engage in even when visibility is limited – didn’t appeal to us. All that said, Sapa is an oasis of good food and comfortable hotels (as well as some of the best handicraft and textile shopping in Vietnam). It came as a relief after our final three days on the road there. (Admittedly, this something of a circular argument as we had only gotten on the road for the destination.) And Sapa would have been a visual delight had we not had persistent fog.

So it was with mixed feelings that we left. As we descended from Sapa, the fog thinned and we caught glimpses of terraces through the mist. Mee and Quin kindly pulled over at spots to allow us to photograph. The dimming light made for poor photography, although I propped the camera on rock walls to allow long exposures. Our friendly driver deposited us near the ticket office at the train station Lao Cai. Despite our lacking the voucher for our compartment on the Livitrans train, Mee promptly secured our tickets on the overnight train to Hanoi. Given that we had over two hours before our departure, we and Mee adjourned to a nearby café to kill time until our departure from the Northern Vietnam highlands.
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Old May 29th, 2012, 07:44 PM
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I am greatly enjoying your trip report, gottravel and yestravel. It is excellent! I am in the midst of planning our trip to SE Asia for January. We already have our airline tickets. I appreciate all the advice from this forum.

Did you book your Dragon Pearl trip on Halong Bay through Tonkin? Was the transportation to and from Halong Bay by private car? We plan to stay at Hanoi Elegance Diamond too.
Were you in Vietnam during the holiday Tet? (If so, how did it affect your plans)? Just found out about the dates of Tet.

Thank you for all your advice and for a wonderful TR.
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Old May 29th, 2012, 08:19 PM
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@wkwb-Thanks! glad you're enjoying our report. I recall a post about your planning.

Yes, Tonkin booked the Dragon Pearl III for us. They booked most of the VN portion of our trip. We did use a private driver to get to Halong Bay, but I don't think I would necessarily do that again. I had thought we would save time with our own driver, but that proved not to be true. Also of all the drivers we had he was the only one who wasn't great. He was ok, but tended to drive really fast & honk constantly.

The staff at the Hanoi Elegance were just fabulous. We arranged for their driver to pick us up from the airport and was a great driver.

We arranged the trip so as not to be in VN during Tet.
This forum is great for assistance with planning.
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Old May 30th, 2012, 12:38 PM
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Trying to upload pics of Sapa (maybe)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/62472833@N08/
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Old May 31st, 2012, 06:29 AM
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Photos are of Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa & On the Road, unfortunately not necessarily in chronological order, but I'm learning!
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Old Jun 7th, 2012, 11:05 AM
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<b> Central Vietnam: Hoi An & Hue </b>

The café – across from a broad street from the train station in Lao Cai - was packed with westerners waiting for the train. Mee insisted on staying with us while we waited. She talked about her life…she was of Hmong origin, the youngest of five siblings. While she worked for Tonkin Travel, her father and all of her siblings were farmers. She was 21, unmarried and lived with her parents. As she talked, I had a Coca-Cola and YT had some fried rice. After a great deal of conversation – and Mee bouncing over to the café computer to check her email – we paid and left, rolling our suitcases back to the train station. There was a huge crowd, mixed Vietnamese and Western, waiting around the closed doors for the Livitrans overnight. Mee proved masterful at scooting through to the front of the crowd with YT’s suitcase. I did my best to follow her. Eventually, the signal was given, the doors opened and the crowd swelled forward. We rolled down the platform to Car Eight. I heaved myself and my suitcase aboard, we found our cabin and said goodbye to Mee.

The cabin was small – the per person square footage approximated that of the French prison cells in Son La. (Fortunately, we’d rented all four berths in the cabin.) The cabin – and the entire train – had a somewhat down at the heels feeling. I heaved our suitcases onto the upper bunks, allowing a little floor space. The bunks were less than two meters in length – stretched out, my head touched one end and my feet the other. The mattress was thin and hard. We left the cabin door open initially and had a moment of schadenfreude as two westerners attempted to maneuver two absurdly large rolling suitcases sideways down the aisle outside the cabin. We half-closed, then closed, the door as we seemed to have become an object of curiosity to every passing Vietnamese person. Eventually, the train lurched into motion with a chorus of shrieking and grinding metal. This sound was to accompany us all the way to Hanoi. Shortly thereafter, we donned blindfolds, turned out the cabin lights and attempted to sleep, fully dressed, on the bunks.

<i> YT Comment – The bathrooms on the train were disgusting. Given how clean much of Vietnam had been, this came as a bit of a surprise and made any trips there less than pleasant. </i>

We arrived in Hanoi around 5:00 a.m. and were picked up by our Tonkin Tours driver for the drive to the airport. Our flight to Danang left and arrived more or less on time and we were again picked up by a Tonkin Travel driver – Huy – for the final leg to Hoi An. He dropped us off at our hotel, the Vinh Hung Riverside Resort, at around ten thirty. We’d been dreading our travel from Sapa to Hoi An, but Tonkin Travel pulled it off without a hitch.

Our room at the Vinh Hung Riverside Resort turned out to be really nice – very large, well lit, a comfortable king-size bed, modern bathroom and a great river view. After we’d checked in, we’d dropped off our luggage in our room and walked to nearby old town Hoi An. The old quarter of Hoi An was a delight. The buildings were a beautiful architectural confluence of Asian and French style. Shops sold handcrafted lanterns, silks, art and handicrafts. There were also numerous tailor shops. We stopped for lunch at the Morning Glory restaurant in the old quarter and had a delicious banh xeo crepe and wonderful “white rose” dumplings. After lunch, we returned tour room for a nap. We were exhausted, having slept little on the noisy, lurching Sapa to Hanoi train.

We went out again in the evening. There were lanterns everywhere. People were floating candles in the Thu Bon River that separated the old quarter and our lodgings on An Hoi Island. YT stopped at a tailor’s, thumbed through the fabrics, picked out a silk fabric and ordered a pair of slacks fit to her measurements for a cost of about U$D14. We were to return the next day for a fitting. We sought out the Secret Garden Restaurant for dinner. Unfortunately, they were fully booked for dinner; we made reservations for the following evening and returned to Morning Glory for more banh xeo. It was crowded, but they eventually found a table for us. We shared it with two friendly Englishwomen who were also touring Vietnam. They’d been to the USA once, for a tour of Civil Rights sites in the American South and had been to places in Mississippi and Alabama that we’d never been to (or ever thought of going to). They seemed singularly unimpressed with my one bit of trivia about Montgomery, Alabama – that it’s the burial place of pioneering Country singer/songwriter Hank Williams. YT and I have never been to the UK together and asked them when the best time to go for good weather was. Their laughing answer: never.

The next day, we had some more wanderings. While YT had a foot massage & pedicure I went to the neighborhood on the far side of the Japanese Bridge. It had a lot of nice arty stores: A bookstore, a nice t-shirt shop and numerous galleries. After YT’s massage/pedicure, we visited an old merchant house, a ceramic museum, the old Japanese bridge and glanced into a couple of Chinese Assembly Halls. We walked the length of town to go the cloth market. I stopped on the way for an impromptu hair cut that included a neck massage (3U$D); the results were great, despite my ending up with the shortest hair I’ve probably had in forty plus years. At the cloth market, we bought some silk fabric and engaged a lady to make us a pair of pillow covers, using an existing pillow cover we’d brought as a template for size. YT returned to her tailor shop for a refitting and liked the results so much she ordered a second pair of slacks. (They were a little less than 14U$D for the second pair.) We had a riverside lunch at Brothers Café, set amid some beautiful gardens and restored houses. We had yet another banh xeo and a pomelo salad - both were wonderful, albeit much more expensive than at Morning Glory. After lunch, contacted the Tonkin driver and arranged for a ride to My Son the next day.

I think the time right after lunch hour in Hoi An shows the old quarter at its best. The stores close up for a siesta, the traffic thins, the pedestrian street is empty. The constant solicitation from the tailor shops disappears. It’s quiet. That, in combination with the old houses and fading paint, creates an atmosphere that speaks of another era. Once, we walked down the pedestrian street hearing nothing other than a scratchy old tango record being played on the upper floor of one of the houses. Just wonderful.

That evening, we picked up our newly-made pillows, revisited YT’s tailor shop and went to the Secret Garden for dinner. This restaurant is well-named – it’s accessible only by alleyways off the larger streets. They lead to a walled garden courtyard reminiscent of the grounds of a Mexican hacienda. The food was fabulous. We had sour beef, grilled eggplant and grilled calamari. There was guitarist playing, whose repertoire varied between Spanish classical guitar, Beatles covers and “Hotel California.” We went to nearby Tam Tam Café for French desserts – passion fruit mousse and a lemon tart.

The next morning, the arranged car and driver took us to My Son. (We’d wanted to go early to avoid the mid-day heat.) My Son was one of the great tragedies of the Vietnam War. Once an intact temple complex, it had been used as a staging area by the Viet Cong and had been bombed into ruins by American forces in the subsequent fighting. Only the Temple B group was reasonably intact; much of everything else was vegetation-covered mounds of rubble. Unlike the Chinese–influenced antiquities we’d seen earlier in Northern Vietnam, My Son’s architecture was Cham- and Indian-influenced, not unlike the architecture at Angkor Wat. Many of the surviving sculptures had been removed from My Son and taken to the Cham Museum in Danang. We were back at the hotel by early afternoon and, for lunch, made a fruit salad of mangos, bananas and oranges.

Later that evening, we picked up YT’s tailor-made slacks and wandered some more. We paused outside the House of Traditional Music to listen to a trio play excellent Vietnamese traditional music. The instrumentation – if not the melodies - sounded a little like bluegrass…their classical Vietnamese instruments sounded much like a violin, a mandolin and a dobro. Oddly, when we looked inside the House of Traditional Music, we found it totally empty except for a couple of parked motos. Later, we had a sunset dinner at Sakura; the food was Vietnamese despite the Japanese name. This is a second-story restaurant with a good view of the Thu Bon river and the bridge to An Hoi Island. Unfortunately the food – we had white rose dumplings, mango salad with seafood, shrimp “ravioli,” and stir fried vegetables – was not nearly as good as the view. After dinner, we went to the Tam Tam Café for passion fruit mousse and cointreau, then moved on to the Cargo Club for vanilla, lemongrass and cinnamon ice cream with mango sauce. Then we headed back to our room to pack for the next day’s departure. Out of every place that we had visited, or were to visit, in Vietnam, Hoi An was my hands-down favorite. I’ll always remember Hoi An as lucky chicken charms, a melancholy tango on a deserted lunchtime street and nighttime reflections of glowing paper lanterns in the river.

<i> YT Note – While enjoying Hoi An, it was not my favorite place in Vietnam. I thought it an adorable, but. in many ways, a made for tourism, town. </i>

We left the next morning by car for Hue. On the way we stopped at the very empty Marble Mountain – we took the elevator up and walked down. There’s a great view from the top and a nice Chinese-style temple complex by the stairs on the way down. We drove through Danang – parts by the ocean seemed to be one huge construction site, with wide streets and apartment complexes that, judging by the English signage, appear to be marketed to returning American veterans of the Vietnam War. There were names like Surf City, Sunset Villas and the Tides. It looked a lot like southern Florida. We stopped at the legendarily beautiful China Beach and then went through the Cham Museum. The Cham Museum is small and wonderful, a two story building filled with Cham statuary. (The Cham were an Indian-influenced civilization that had originally settled in Central and Southern Vietnam fifteen hundred or more years ago and had been displaced over time by the Chinese-influenced Vietnamese civilization to the north.) I much prefer Indian art to Chinese art that we saw everywhere in Vietnam, so I found the museum to be nothing short of delightful. After leaving Danang, we passed through beautiful, foggy mountains separating Danang from Hue to the north. The driver stopped near Hai Van pass and we looked at an old Chinese-style gate and some bunkers from the Vietnam War era before moving on.

We arrived at our hotel (the Celadon Palace) in Hue around 2:00 p.m. It was a large multiple-story modern hotel. Our room looked out over the city. The one flaw was that our thermostat appeared to be broken, stuck at a constant 80 degrees Fahrenheit. We were to call the desk five times over the course of two days – the end result was a thermostat permanently locked at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That first afternoon, we took a cab to La Residence, a luxurious hotel/restaurant complex in a kind of Deco Indochine style. The fixtures and furnishings look like they had been transported straight out of the 1930s. We had an early dinner at Le Parfum, the La Residence restaurant…an appetizer platter, some fabulous rice noodles sautéed with turmeric and crab meat, and delicious shrimp and broccoli with lemongrass and tamarind sauce.

The next day thanks to the recommendations by sf7307 we took the Hue Riders tour, a guided tour on the back of motorcycles of sights in Hue and the nearby countryside. We’d booked this directly with Hue Riders on line at http://www.hueriders.com. Hue Riders does both one-day and multiple day tours; we’d opted for the one-day “Best of Hue” tour. Our drivers/guides were Mr. Quy and Mr. Dung. (Despite both being billed as English-speaking, only Mr. Quy, YT’s driver, spoke comprehensible English – but one English speaker was all we needed.) They showed up promptly after breakfast and off we went! It had been years since either of us had been on motorcycles, but both of us adapted instantly. We started by going to a Buddhist monastery (the Tu Hieu Temple, I think) and then to a scenic Perfume River overlook that had the remains of old French and American bunkers. Then we went to the lush green countryside to visit the tombs of Vietnamese Emperor Tu Doc (fascinating) and the imposing tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh with a courtyard full of mandarin statues that looked like a giant chessboard. Then back towards town. We hit the beautiful Thien Mu Pagoda, then had lunch next door to the Hue Riders office at the Phuong Nam restaurant/café…rice pancakes with shrimp and bun bo Hue, a delicious beef noodle dish. We had mango smoothies for dessert. Then back on the road to the Hue Citadel. The Hue Citadel is simply immense. Much of it is still in the process of restoration. Some of the fiercest fighting of the American War had occurred here in Tet Offensive in February/March 1968 and the Citadel had suffered extensive damage. After the Citadel, we again left the city for the countryside. We stopped and briefly visited Mr. Cuy’s spacious house, which he and a friend had built by themselves, funding the construction via his Hue Riders job. Lastly, we visited a beautiful covered bridge out in a country village. We were returned to the hotel around 4:30 and I tipped both drivers. This had been a great adventure, informative and fun. We had been lucky to have nice weather if a bit hot in the early afternoon. I would highly recommend Hue Riders and any of their tours.

Much later that evening we sought out the Mandarin Café, about five or six long blocks from our hotel. We had grilled pork with coconut, stir-fried “morning glories,” sweet and sour shrimp with tomatoes, onions peppers and pineapple, and steamed spring rolls. All except the morning glory dish were very good. We talked at length to Mr. Cu, the owner, and he gave us directions and a map to the Hue’s garden houses.

The next morning, after sleeping in and hitting the world’s largest breakfast buffet, we took a cab to garden house “Nhanh Tung Vuon An Hiem.” It was a roundabout route to our destination. The cab driver took us out Le Duan street along the Perfume River. (The street probably changed names several times as we drove away from Hue.) He then turned down a one-way road next to a canal, then turned crossed the canal to head back on a one way road on the other side to arrive at a garden house. It was perfectly executed, but, unfortunately, we had arrived at the wrong garden house. This one had been converted into a restaurant. Furthermore, the staff advised us, it certainly wasn’t open at 9:30 in the morning. Oops. We piled back into the cab, drove back to the road by the river and drove a little further to arrive at the garden house we sought. We entered the grounds and there was a large square pool in front of a house. No one seemed to be around and I took a few photographs. Then the owner, an older woman, came out to greet us and give us a tour. The house was a “mandarin house,” spacious, beautiful and constructed almost a hundred years ago without nails. The woman was the granddaughter of the original owners. She showed us around and was particularly proud of a plaque that had indicated her grandmother’s membership in the Viet Minh, the organization that had led the fight against French colonialism. The grounds were planted with various tropical and semi-tropical plants, most of which we were unfamiliar with. I had my first encounter with a cinnamon tree. I crumpled some leaves between my fingers and smelled that faint familiar fragrance.

We exited the garden house to find the taxi that had taken us there parked under a nearby tree. We cabbed back into Hue city, onto a side street off Hung Vuong, a major street. YT had a hair appointment at a stylist’s shop that we had noticed in our previous wanderings. I went to the nearby Phuong Nam café for a mango pineapple smoothie. I returned to the stylist after an hour to find the hair appointment still a work in progress. Afterwards, we walked to a spa for foot massages, but cancelled our plans due to the unpleasant heat and humidity and a mosquito sighting. We had a small lunch at Phuong Nam Café and then returned to our hotel room. We spent the afternoon in our room reading and on the Internet. It was too hot – about 95 degrees Fahrenheit - to go out.

That evening, our last in Hue, we went to a restaurant, Hang Me Me, that had been extensively written up and lauded on Trip Advisor. Hang Me Me serves only six dishes, all based on variations of glutinous rice. We ordered five, all small plates. I liked four of the five. YT disliked all five due to the gelatinous texture, essentially leaving me to eat a dinner for two – fortunately, they were very small plates. After our – or, more accurately, my – dinner, we went down the road to our old stand-by Phuong Nam for steamed spring rolls. We both agreed: delicious.

We walked around some and then, on a lark, took two cyclos – think bicycle-driven rickshaws – back to the hotel, perhaps half a kilometer away. Always negotiate in advance. The drivers had repeatedly ignored my questions regarding price and tried to charge me 100,000 dong apiece (about $10U$D total) on our arrival. I managed to get the price down to 90,000 dong total – still high for Vietnam - by claiming that that was all the money I had on me.

The next morning, at the breakfast buffet, I startled the waitress by adding sugar to my bun bo Hue. I was only half awake. She must have thought that Americans have truly peculiar culinary tastes until I explained that the sugar had been intended for the coffee, not the noodle soup. We returned to our room, packed and then read until a little before 11:00 and then took our luggage down to the lobby for our ride to the airport and our 1:00 p.m. flight to Ho Chi Minh City (almost universally referred to as “Saigon” in Vietnam). The Hue airport was miniature – all of one gate. Our plane shook so much on take-off that I thought for a moment it would fall apart mid-air. Then it turned over the ocean and we were on our way south.
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Old Jun 7th, 2012, 12:53 PM
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Hue & Hoi An Photos
http://www.flickr.com/photos/80018999@N03/
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Old Jun 8th, 2012, 05:24 AM
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Now I know why you titled this your odyssey--it's a true epic report! Really nice selection of pictures, too.

Wow, Hoi An sounds so wonderful. Is that the same Hoi An I spend 2 nights in? I'm with Yestravel, though--not my favorite place in Vietnam. Too many tourists, too many tourist shops. But it does have its charms, as you point out--the lanterns and lights at night and the many good places to eat and drink among them. Wish I had known about Hue Riders because a day touring by motorbike sounds like such a blast. We visited many of the same sights by boat and car, which was not nice but not nearly so fun.

Thanks again for taking the time to write up such a detailed report. It's chock full of great information.
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Old Jun 8th, 2012, 08:14 AM
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Thanks! Glad you're enjoying it. We're almost at the end -- Saigon and Mekong Delta and that's it, at long last. Should be posted next week. At this point not sure its helping anyone due to the length. I thought maybe we should have broken it into segments by country for easier access. Oh well.

Yes, Hue Riders was so much fun-a great way to see the sights. Highly recommend them.
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Old Jun 8th, 2012, 11:21 AM
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YT & GT, I'm loving this report! You have provided a treasure load of information about so many different places in SEA. I'll be saving a link to your report in my travel folder. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough report.
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Old Jun 8th, 2012, 03:32 PM
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@brendafaye -- thank u - nice to know the our copious note taking and report report will help others.
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Old Jun 12th, 2012, 02:34 PM
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<b>The End: Saigon & the Mekong Delta</b>

The cab ride from Tan Son Nhat airport to our hotel, The Liberty Central, took the better part of forty-five minutes. Saigon - as everyone I spoke to in Vietnam called it - seemed to be one enormous traffic jam. Our first impression was of a modern city with towering buildings and streets filled with four-wheeled vehicles and motorbikes. We’d noticed as we traveled south from Hanoi that Vietnam seemed increasingly prosperous the further south we went. Newer buildings, more cars – even the people seemed to be taller.

Our room at the Liberty Central was small but pleasant. We’d undergone a bit of a mini-odyssey when we first arrived at the hotel, checking out several rooms to find one that was both quiet and well-lit. After checking in, we checked out our neighborhood. The Liberty Central was indeed central. We were mere blocks from the center of Saigon. We went by the Rex Hotel, the Opera House and the Continental Hotel. We had cocktails on the Rex Hotel rooftop, then moved on to the Caravelle Hotel rooftop for the sunset views. We returned to our room to research restaurants, but ended up going the enormously popular barbeque garden down the street. We cooked our own food at a gas burner on the table – peanut pork skewers, five spice beef, vegetable skewers. It was fun and our amateur efforts turned out some pretty tasty fare. With drinks, dinner was all of 12U$D.

Liberty Central had a nice breakfast buffet. It had pho “ga” (chicken), but no pho “bo” (beef). I’d never heard of chicken pho before. I tried it. Not bad, but not bo - and “if it ain’t bo, it ain’t pho.” After breakfast, we visited the nearby Ben Thanh market and, after numerous test runs and considerable bargaining, bought an additional wheeled suitcase, allegedly Kipling, but assuredly a counterfeit given that it cost ~U$D13. The additional suitcase prompted further gift, spice and t-shirt purchases at the market. We wandered down neighboring Le Loi Street to the Coffee Terrace House at Saigon Plaza. We had the house special, iced coffee. It was good, but overpriced and undersized.

We then went to Tan That Thiep Street to check out the Temple Club, where we planned to have dinner. I promptly detoured into the nearby Hindu Temple, for which the eponymous restaurant had been named. I immediately fell in love with this serene and understated space devoted to one of the world’s gentlest, yet most persecuted, religions. The temple is located within an aquamarine-colored compound. The interior wall is lined with photos of Hindu savants and depictions of Hindu deities. Within is a shrine. The walls of the shrine are patterned ceramic tiles not unlike Spanish azulejos. Children played within the compound. The lone guard, awakened from his dozing by my arrival, lazily waved me towards the shrine. I was enraptured. Had YT not returned to extract me, I probably would have spent the rest of the morning there. The Temple Club, across the street, was a second story space filled with Chinese antiques and rugs. It possessed a charmin ambiance of an earlier era. We checked out the menu and made dinner reservations. Never have I had to provide so much information for a simple reservation! We had to prove who we were and where we were staying.

We went on to the central Lam Son Square to revisit the attractive “Bac Ho” (“Uncle Ho”) statue and admired the ornate former Hotel de Ville, now romantically re-named the “People’s Committee Hall.” Then we went on Paris Square and the Notre Dame cathedral – it looked like the entire edifice had been transported brick by brick from a mid-size northern French city and then reassembled here. The adjacent General Post Office was a large, beautiful beaux-arts building. The interior was light and cool, an oasis from the heat. We noted with subdued amusement the large painting of Ho Chi Minh with a decidedly lop-sided beard. Incredibly, the post office had a USPS presence – a small counter, closed at the moment, but with the familiar logo and signage. Near the entrance, on either side there were two large old maps, one of French Indo-China and another of old Saigon. (Our guidebook described their survival after the Communist takeover as “miraculous.”) This building is not to be missed.

We returned to the Temple Club that evening at 7:30. Unfortunately, despite impeccable service, the food nowhere approached the ambiance. The fresh spring rolls were unremarkable, saved from complete blandness only by the accompanying peanut and fish sauces. The fish in tamarind sauce and the spare ribs in orange sauce were both over-sauced and cloyingly sweet. The sole highlight of the meal was a perfect “Peking duck with young papaya” salad. YT also had a stir-fried vegetable with a spicy caramel sauce that she liked – I disliked it, one of the few times that our tastes in food have diverged. Lastly, we had the house dessert, a “Hue crepe” in a sweet “secret” sauce. YT disliked its gelatinous texture; I thought it was so-so. We eavesdropped on a British couple at an adjoining table. They seemed to have the same complaints about the food – over-sauced and overly sweet – as we did. With cocktails – kir royal and a delicious “Temple punch” – the tab came to almost 1,500,000 dong (75 U$D), placing this among the most expensive meals of our trip. On the way back, we stopped by a bakery on Le Loi street for a replacement dessert for YT; she finished it off in our hotel room.

The next morning was our departure date for our two-day Mekong excursion. We arose early, showered quickly and headed down for breakfast. There was still no pho bo, so I made do with pho ga, bird flu be damned. We returned to our room and brought our luggage down to the lobby; we were leaving all of our luggage other than one shared bag behind and would retrieve it two days hence. Our guide, the charming, fluent and out-spoken Duy – not sure about the spelling, his name was pronounced like “Dwee” – showed up promptly. He introduced us to the driver Hong, (“hero” in Vietnamese), loaded our bag into the car and we were on our way.

Duy was recently married – all of one month. (He’d gotten married during the Tet holiday.) His wife was a primary school teacher and a member of the Communist Party. He’d met her while studying with her father, a policeman, and also a Party member. Duy was not a Party member and his take on the current political and economic status came out over the next hour or two as we made our way south and west into the Mekong Delta. He disliked government corruption and didn’t talk politics with his father-in-law. He also disliked northern Vietnam, agreeing with our perception that it was poorer and dirtier than the South, and adding his own, that visitors from southern Vietnam are routinely overcharged and cheated in the north. He attributed the difference in outlook and income primarily to the climate – the south was vastly more productive agriculturally due to a benign (albeit hot) climate. The cold and rainy North produced one rice crop a year; the warm and sunny south could produce three. Had we been inclined to argue with him (we weren’t), it would have been difficult, surrounded as we were by a vast green and yellow sea of flowering rice fields. He indicated that the economic reforms begun in the late 1980s had had a profoundly favorable impact on the country. Once perennially on the verge of food shortages, Vietnam was now the world’s second largest rice exporter. Duy seemed to favor the continuation of the current situation – the government concentrating on large infrastructure projects while allowing extensive private initiative. Duy indicated that there had been some political as well as economic reforms – people can write (and have published) letters to local Party authorities. He followed this with a denunciation of government corruption and Party incompetence and meddling. The subject then changed to eating. Duy said that, during the hungry times before the economic reforms, Vietnamese ate anything: rats, cats, dogs. Some people still do. He said rice field rats are tasty when hot off the grill, but shouldn’t be eaten cold (they stink). And, although he had eaten them in the past, he did not eat dogs. Indeed, his entire family didn’t eat dogs. He said that Vietnamese people as a whole certainly do not eat their pets…(pause)…they eat other people‘s pets. He also found our use of the phrase “okey-dokey” amusing and kept repeating it periodically through the trip and giggling. We couldn’t help but like this passionate advocate of Vietnam, personal freedom, linguistic caprice and pet ownership.

Our first stop after leaving Saigon was the Vinh Trang pagoda, home of a large outdoor sculpture of a happy Buddha and a leaner, remarkably photogenic Buddha inside the temple. (The lean Buddha had a multi-colored neon halo.) After the temple, we went to My Tho for a bumpy boat ride across one of the many branches of the Mekong to Ben The, manufacturers of honey, coconut candy, and tasty rice cakes. We stopped for honey tea, candies, coconut strips and an array of fruit: mango, pineapple, jackfruit, longan (not unlike lichees) and dragon fruit. By now we’d started to like dragon fruit – inherently bland, it becomes quite tasty with a squeeze of lime juice.

Then we went on a horse-drawn cart trip to a canal where we traveled gondola-style down the canal to a river and a landing that took us on a hike to a pond-side restaurant. The restaurant specialized in coconut-coated deep-fried “elephant ear” fish. Our fish was accompanied by spring rolls, fried rice, soup and a banh xeo crepe. All of it was good, but it was way too much food, particularly given the platter of fruit we’d eaten only half an hour earlier. After our lunch, we returned to our car by boat, again lurching across the choppy river. We were on the road again, this time to Can Tho. There are a number of bridges funded by foreign aid in the Mekong Delta. We first crossed the “Australian” bridge. Forty-five minutes later, we crossed the “Japanese” bridge outside of Can Tho. One lane on the Japanese bridge had collapsed shortly after opening, killing 54 people – an event that Duy attributed to government corruption and incompetence.

We arrived at Can Tho around 3:30, in the hottest part of the day. Duy and Hong dropped us off at the hotel Kim Tho, where we ensconced ourselves into the largest room of our trip. It was an immense ninth floor suite with sweeping views north and west of the city and the river. The beds were low and comfortable. Stunned into exhaustion by the heat, I promptly fell asleep and only roused myself after 5:00. We went up to the roof top bar, where we ran into the British couple that had been seated at the next table at the Temple Club the prior night. (Incredibly, they’d also stayed at the Liberty Central back in Saigon.) We saw a spectacular sunset from the roof, chatting with the British couple and a gentleman, also British, who lived in Bali and worked on Vietnamese infrastructure development projects for the World Bank. The male member of the British couple was, like me, a recent retiree. They’d decided to come to Vietnam after their daughter had traveled here for three weeks. The British couple and I lamented the sad state of Asian beer; there are some fine lagers, but no ales whatsoever. Both travelers and natives are forced to subsist on food and lager.

We walked to the riverfront after dark. It was a pleasant stretch of town along the river. We ate at a corner restaurant named Nambo, recommended by Duy. We actually managed to get a table right on the sidewalk by the street corner where we could watch the world pass by. We had spring rolls (better than the Temple Club’s), papaya salad and caramel pork. We had a dessert of Kahlua ice cream and a lemon crepe. As we were finishing our meal, a female French tour group, all about our age, arrived in a minibus. Every woman in the group had on silk scarf, elegantly wrapped around them, as only French people seem to be able to do. I wondered whether they brought their own scarves to Vietnam or were bused, on arrival, to a silk shop to purchase scarves. Later, when I went inside to find our waiter and pay our tab, the table of eight French women seemed to be watching me; I think I might have been wearing my bandana wrong. After dinner we went for a brief riverside walk and then returned to our room. We liked the view. And we had to get up early the next day.

The Kim Tho hotel had a good breakfast buffet with a local variety of pho made with pork and a different kind of noodle than I’d seen previously. We left with Duy and Hong at 7:30 sharp – for all of a two-block drive to a dock. From there, we took a boat to the Floating Market. People pile their boats up with produce and then sell it on the river. They indicate what they’re selling by sticking whatever they’re selling atop a tall pole that rises from their boat. Even pineapples and watermelons were advertised in this “hoist high the pineapple” way. We stopped by the coffee boat for some delicious Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. Then we went by the pineapple boat and bought a pineapple; the vendor removed the skin, cored it, cut it into edible slices and dropped it into a clear plastic bag. The entire operation took about thirty seconds. We enjoyed the floating market and the vivid river life. There were a lot of colorfully painted houses riverside on eucalyptus poles, reminding of us of the palafitos that we’d seen in Chile. On our return, we had some minor engine troubles that caused us to lose power and drift into a barge at a sand and gravel loading site. A worker from the site jumped off the barge onto our boat and ran to the stern. Assistance? No. He was flagging a passing market boat to buy cigarettes. Our boat crew – of one – managed to fix the engine after some tinkering. We backed away from the barge and resumed our return trip to Can Tho, although at a slower speed. Pretty soon, we were back to the dock and back to the car and on the road.

We drove through a succession of towns, canals and rice fields, making our way around and through the swarms of motos beeping, honking, changing lanes and carrying beds, coffins or families of four. Our next stop was the crocodile farm. The crocs are raised for exportation of the skins. They were held in stinky, size-segregated fenced ponds. Had I any interest in smelly reptilian carnivores, it might have been interesting. I don’t and it wasn’t. We had lunch there. Fortunately the restaurant was up-wind and far from the croc pens. The food was good – fish in orange sauce, prawns with black pepper and a beef dish. Then we were on the road again – more towns, bridged canals and rice fields. Dazed, we dozed in the afternoon heat.

We arrived in Chau Doc a little after 2:00. We had the sensation, abetted in part by Duy’s assertion that Chau Dac’s sole purpose was as a layover spot for people traveling up the Mekong river to Pnomh Penh, that we had arrived at nowhere, a place without interest at the end of all roads. Perhaps we were just traveled out – we’d left the USA for Asia over eight weeks earlier. But we were figuratively scratching our heads - why had we come here? – as we entered Chau Dac. Duy and Hong dropped us off at our hotel, the very pleasant Chau Pho, with a promise to return to see the sights – such as they were – at 4:30 when it was cooler. I napped. YT strode the hallways with her iPad, trying to get wifi reception.

At 4:30 we drove to the nearby Hotel Victoria, a beautiful old building with beautiful grounds by the riverside. There we boarded a low boat and went to a local fish farm. We fed some fish, caged in a large pen under a floating dock. Then we travelled on to a floating Cham village. This was another of Vietnam’s ethnic minority peoples; they looked like Thais or Cambodians and were darker than Vietnamese people. Many of them – entire families – lived on half-covered, half-exposed boats that were no more than twenty feet long and four feet wide. We walked across some unsteady wooden bridges, dodging vendors all the while, and visited a pretty blue and white mosque. As we rode back down river to the Victoria Hotel, our earlier mood of finality returned as Duy told us of the “House of Bones” and cross-border atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge against Vietnamese villagers in the late 1970s.

After we returned to the Hotel Victoria, we drove to the top of a 450-meter (a little less than 1,500 feet) hill. It wasn’t much of a view. The landscape below was flat and hazy, the sky filled with plumes of smoke from people burning rice fields post-harvest. We were so close to Cambodia that it was visible on the horizon – or would have been visible on the horizon if not for the smoke and the haze. We left the hill shortly before sunset and Duy and Hong dropped us at the Restaurant Bay Bong near our hotel. It was a good dinner – clay pots of fish (YT) and pork (GotT). We strolled – if that word can be used to describe dodging traffic on a busy street with incomplete sidewalks – back to our hotel. We had desserts there. Then back to our room for the evening. We had barely forty-eight hours left in Southeast Asia.

We left to return to Saigon about 7:30 in the morning. A bit down the road, Duy pointed out cigarette smugglers coming from Cambodia on high-speed motorcycles. First would come a scout moto, followed thirty seconds later by a second moto loaded with crates of cigarette cartons. They sped through the traffic like people possessed. Due to our early departure, we made good time and arrived at a normally crowded ferry crossing by 10:00 a.m. and only had a short wait. We took the ferry across a river to a highway that was largely free of two-wheeled traffic. We stopped at one point at a “café vong,” a business concept indigenous to southern Vietnam, where one reclines in a hammock while sipping one’s beverage of choice – iced coffee for YT and me, Red Bull for Duy and Hong, our hero driver. Then on to Saigon. We made it to the Liberty Central Hotel a little before 1:00, in large part due to skipping lunch. We tipped Duy and Hong and wished Duy the best of good fortune in his marriage to the Party girl.

We recovered our luggage and were taken to a wonderful room on the tenth floor – pleasantly cool and with great views of the Saigon skyline. We had a quick lunch of banh xeo and papaya salad, and then wandered over to the Reunification Palace, South Vietnam’s former presidential palace. This was a nice, somewhat modernist building designed by a South Vietnamese architect and constructed in the 1960s. It had been preserved more or less intact and offered a glimpse into that era. We enjoyed touring the enormous premises. Afterwards we returned to the Liberty Central to escape the heat and slept almost until sunset. We’d had the desk make arrangements for us to eat at Xu. This was a superlative meal, far better than the Temple Club. We started with a glass of rosé (YT) and a ginger mojito (GotT). We ordered the six-course tasting menu for one and added a coconut-crusted pork belly with cabbage and daikon radish. We shared everything as it arrived. Both the pork belly and the tasting menu – prawns with pomelo salad, pork and snail spring rolls, beef with sesame, sea bass with lemongrass, a mushroom dish and dessert – were heavenly. The bill came to almost 90U$D – our last, best and largest blowout meal of the trip. Back in our room, we found the view to be even better by night.

We slept in a little the next morning, our final day. Down at the breakfast buffet, I discovered that they finally had pho bo! It was wonderful. We ate quickly and went to the War Remnants Museum. This had once been called the Museum of American Atrocities, but had been renamed after the USA and Vietnam established diplomatic relations. The lower floor was devoted to exhibits condemning the United States’ intervention on behalf of South Vietnam. The upper floor documented the careers of various war photographers, including Robert Capra, and was both fascinating and free of the heavy-handed 1st floor propaganda. Recommended.

After the museum, we returned to the hotel for showers and packing. We killed time until 1:00 and then dragged our luggage and ourselves to the lobby to check out. They stored our luggage for the afternoon. We wandered down the street to Cosmo (aka 86 Bis) for mango/passion fruit smoothies – the best we had in Vietnam – and noodles with grilled pork and spring rolls. We followed that with a round of coffee. We loved the white furniture, blue glow and lounge atmosphere of this place. We lingered there for two hours taking advantage of the wifi and a/c. Then it was back to the hotel for massages and then for our cab and our ride to the airport and our evening flight home.

And thus ended our odyssey.
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