Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vietnam: Day 8 - On to Ho Chi Minh City

All too soon, it was time to leave Hoi An.  So, we left at around 6am for the Danang airport by private car provided by the hotel.  They had even packed us a nice breakfast to enjoy as we drove.  We got checked in and settled on the hour-long flight to Ho Chi Mihn City. 
We landed on time and got ourselves over to the Rex Hotel in District 1 where we would be staying for our time in the city.  HCMC is a much more westernized city with wide boulevards and a dedicated financial district.  As our room was not yet ready, Jon and I went down the street to a coffee bar to indulge our inner Seattlelites over some high-priced iced coffees.  An hour later we returned to get our bags dropped off before hitting the streets.
Our first stop was lunch at a fantastic restaurant right in between our hotel and Reunification Palace.  The palace was built, destroyed, and rebuilt several times throughout the years, but its major place in more recent history is that it was the spot in 1975 where Saigon officially fell as tanks from North Vietnam breached its gates.  Our tour guide was quite knowledgeable about the history, and we enjoyed seeing the various rooms (meeting rooms for the country’s leaders with foreign leaders as well as other Vietnamese guests, living quarters, etc.) as we were led up and down the many levels including a fortified bomb shelter underneath.  This was the first time on our trip that we had really been confronted with evidence of the Vietnam War, and it was sobering to think about how different things were in this part of the world than the beautiful country we were feeling so fortunate to visit.  I didn’t exactly feel like I had to apologize for the US, but I was certainly aware of the conflict. 
We walked out onto the streets to the even-more-humid streets and made our way over to the Notre Dame Cathedral.  It is notable mostly because the architectural style is unlike anything else we had seen since we landed in Asia.  The cathedral could have been lifted right out of the French countryside and plopped in the middle of a very busy traffic circle!  Of note particularly was the neon blue light surrounding the Virgin Mary.  On our way back to the hotel we booked a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels for the next morning.
That evening, Jon and I walked down to the city’s market where all the vendors were setting up outside stalls and getting ready to sell their wares.  We did some window-shopping but didn’t see anything that caught our fancy.  We grabbed some food on the street and had a quick meal before getting some ice cream on our way back to the hotel.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Vietnam: Day 7 - Hoi An

Fully a week into our vacation, and we were relaxed!  In the morning, we headed over to the Morning Glory Cooking School for our cooking class.  One person took us in small groups over to the central market where we learned about local herbs, plants, fruits, and fish.  Interestingly, all places in town get their food daily from the market.  By noon, all the produce prices are dramatically reduced, as the quality is perceived to be diminished greatly.
After that, we came back to the cooking school where we began our class.  The teacher was one of the main chefs at the restaurant who has been working there since she was just 14.  She was an excellent teacher, except her English was a bit hard to understand at times (much worse, though, than my Vietnamese!).  Still, Jon and I were able to successfully make five dishes: a soup with cabbage and shrimp mousse dumplings, a fresh spring roll, marinated chicken that was then grilled and served with vegetables and rice, a crispy pancake with shrimp and pork, and a nice mango salad with homemade dressing.  The most interesting part, to me, was that most meats (cuts of pork, beef, etc.) are traditionally eaten with the fat still on them, as there is no dairy or other source to incorporate that taste into the diet.
We took some time in the afternoon to get some rest and then borrowed some bikes from the hotel to ride the 4 km to the nearby stretch of beach.  In recent years, several resorts have sprung up along the shore but there was still a fair amount of sand available to the public.  We walked along while some of the other tourists were swimming or playing games along the sand.  Our next destination while we were out on bikes was an herb garden (or vegetable village, as it was translated on one map) just north of Hoi An.  The sketchy directions we had led us down what I’m sure were several people’s driveways before we finally aborted the mission and rode back to town.  On our way back, some screaming caught our attention, and sure enough, there was Mary waving as she’d spotted us biking by!
That evening we were back on foot and over to the market area searching for a bahn mi stand we had heard about.  We weren’t able to find that specific one, but we did find a lady with a bahn mi cart who served us some delicious sandwiches for us to enjoy as we wandered the streets and grabbed some lemongrass ice cream at the Cargo Club, yum!  An early flight the next morning meant turning in rather early.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Vietnam: Day 6 - Off to Hoi An

We bid a fond farewell to Pilgrimage Village and grabbed a cab back to town where we were to meet our bus to Hoi An.  The low price of the ticket had us curious as to what kind of trip it would be, but we were game for anything.  So, a very comfortable pink bus pulled up and as we started walking off to get on board, the tourism office attendant pointed us instead towards a small waiting van.  Would this be our transportation?  It seemed comfortable enough and not a bad place to spend a few hours.
Alas, after picking up 4 other people, this van dumped us out at a backpacker hotel only 5 blocks from where we had started.  So far, we hadn’t made much progress.  Eventually a large bus pulled up and divulged some disoriented travelers onto the streets of Hue.  To replace them, we put our big bags underneath and climbed on board.  The bus was air-conditioned, which was great, but it was also comprised entirely of bunk beds.  There wasn’t too much space when we got on board, so we snagged two bunks next to each other on the back platform, which was 5 bunks across.  We hoisted ourselves into position and settled in for our ride over the mountains.
The trip wasn’t as uncomfortable as I had originally thought it was going to be.  Once you found a comfortable position and got used to the weight of the seat in front pushing down on your feet, you could enjoy the ride.  We found out from our fellow passengers that some of them had been riding the bus all the way from Hanoi (about a 17 hour journey), so we counted ourselves lucky that we would only be with them for a short time.  The bus passes through the newly constructed tunnel and misses the picturesque mountain pass of the old road, but as we zipped along the coast and through some of the hills, we got some decent views.
About 3.5 hours later, we were in Hoi An, and what a relaxing place it turned out to be!  Our hotel was a short walk from the bus station, so we checked in there and explored the town.  At the center is the large marketplace with fresh produce, herbs, meat, and fish are sold daily.  It was pretty busy, even around lunchtime, and we took in all the sights and smells as we sought out a recommended restaurant.  There, I had another fantastic pork soup!
Our stroll after lunch took us past some of the town’s attractions: a Japanese covered bridge, some Chinese-inspired temples, and a bridge over the river to the more serene south bank.  Jon had been insisting since leaving the boat that we’d run into some of those same tourists again during our travels, and I had insisted that this was not going to happen since the country was so large.  However, sure enough, we ran into Mary from the cruise on the streets of Hoi An!  We spoke for a bit before parting ways.
Back at the hotel, we used the Slingbox to catch the latest episode of The Amazing Race and headed back out for a nice dinner.  This was a little pricey but very good, and I thought it was fun to spend a million (VND) in one place!  The town was alive that night with dancing, music, and many tourists as we took it all in on our way back to the Ha An hotel.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Vietnam: Day 5 - Hue

Jon’s birthday got off to a great start as we slept in a bit before enjoying a nice breakfast at the hotel.  We took the free shuttle provided to the main tourist area from which we’d start our exploring of Hue.  One of our objectives for the day was to square away our travel arrangements to Hoi An for the next morning, so our first stop after crossing the Perfume River was the bus station.  We found out cost of the bus ticket and decided to compare that to the train fare later on.
We were planning to explore the ancient citadel that sits in the middle of the old walled city, so our next task was to figure out how to penetrate the outer city walls!  Eventually we came to a gate that took us in, but then we got some misdirection from some cyclocab drivers who sent us all along the outer edge of the wall and up to the north side of the citadel.  What we didn’t know until we got there after walking in the humid and hot weather was that the ticket office is actually on the south end.  Hot but not undeterred, we walked around the city walls back to the ticket office and finally entered the citadel.
This was the place where the imperial family of Vietnam lived back when Hue was the capital of the country, so there were many lavish buildings that have been restored with fresh coats of paint.  The guidebook described the site as kitschy, but I appreciated the way the vibrant colors brought the area back to life a bit.  Some of the buildings are in ruins, but others are quite well restored.  The interesting to me was that the grounds are not tended to such that plants grow over the walkways and courtyards. 
After lunch where we enjoyed a crispy pancake (a Hue specialty), we began walking over to the rail station.  By the time we got there, we were hot and in need of a rest!  The train schedule would allow for us to get to Hoi An at a convenient time, but we would only be able to get as far as Danang before having to then arrange transportation from there to Hoi An.  The bus was cheaper and would take us all the way to Hoi An, so we decided to go with that option instead.
Refreshed from our rest at the train station, we hopped a taxi to the Thien Mu Pagoda a few kilometers from the city center.  This was a beautiful seven-layered structure overlooking a bend in the Perfume River and was a very peaceful place to stroll the grounds.  We saw a few monks tending to some of the bushes as we walked all the way to the back of the garden.  It had been a long day trudging around in the warm weather, so we hired a boat to take us back to our rendezvous point with our return shuttle.  The boat was operated by a husband and wife team who got us downriver as we watched the city fly by.
After purchasing bus tickets, we enjoyed some ice cream at a bar before heading back to Pilgrimage Village.  Jon took the opportunity to get some reading down out on the verandah while I opted for a spot in the air-conditioned room to relax a bit.  We had a nice drink at the bar down by the pool and then had a fantastic dinner at the hotel’s restaurant!  I got a noodle dish that was one of the best I had during our stay in Vietnam, and Jon’s beef dish got good reviews as well.
We wound up heading back to our room and later ordering some chocolate mousse for dessert from room service.  We packed a lot in to our time in Hue and really took advantage of the historical sites around the place.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Vietnam: Day 4 - Halong Bay and on to Hue

This morning, we got to an early start relaxing on the boat.  We had parked overnight but were now moving again towards our next destination.  Jon and I had breakfast with our new friends the French couple before we all disembarked to visit a local floating village of fishermen.
From the Dragon’s Pearl, we were transferred to bamboo boats as women from the village took us around.  All of the houseboats were clustered but didn’t all seem to be connected.  Apparently 300 families live there!  Eventually, we checked out the town hall and school before heading over to the oyster farm where one of the locals demonstrated the process of extracting a pearl and all the different sizes they find.  After that, it was back to the boat for lunch before making landfall back at Halong Bay city in the early afternoon.
Another 4-hour shuttle ride took us back to the hotel.  We didn’t witness any traffic accidents this time around, but the trip along the bumpy roads was certainly a challenge.  Still, we were in high spirits as we left our bags at the hotel and ventured out to find the bahn mi doner kebab (which is a nice way of tying together last year’s Turkey adventure with this one!).  Shuffling through the crowded old quarter, we spotted a stand near the backpacker area and loaded up our small bags with sandwiches for the flight to Hue.
Our taxi ride to the airport brought us into a huge traffic jam that took about 40 minutes to get through.  Luckily, we had left enough time before our flight that we still arrived with about an hour to spare.  After breezing through the domestic check-in process, we soon joined a plane almost exclusively filled with tourists to Hue (only about an hour long flight).
Rain was falling in central Vietnam when we emerged and snagged a taxi to Pilgrimage Village, our hotel for the next two nights.  The only disadvantage to this place was that it was outside the city, but we soon forgot all about that as we saw the beautiful grounds.  It truly was an oasis in the midst of the active streets outside, and we soon settled into our giant room with our own private balcony overlooking one of the swimming pools.  After a long day of traveling from junk to shuttle to taxi to plane to another taxi, a good night’s rest was in order!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Vietnam: Day 3 - Halong Bay

After having a taste of Hanoi, it was time to head out to Halong Bay for our one-night cruise on a junk named the Dragon’s Pearl.  The shuttle bus picked us up shortly after 8 where we rode with a Malaysian family out to the coast.  Along the way, we learned that the crazy traffic was not just confined to the city and continued on the rural roads as well!  We even witnessed a traffic accident (looked like a minor rear-ending) as we made our way through the lush countryside. 
The trip was only supposed to take 2.5 hours, but it took us nearly 4 to reach the new suspension bridge that took us out to Halong Bay city where we met up with the rest of our adventurers.   
Here's a video of the sort of scenery we were in for:

Including us, there would be 18 guests on the boat: the 6 Malaysians, 2 people from Australia, 2 from Germany, 2 from France, 2 from China, 1 of unknown origin (I never heard him speak), and 1 brash lady from Scotland who we nicknamed Mary (Queen of Scots, you see).  We boarded the junk and immediately sat down to lunch on the stern of the boat.  It was at least 7 courses and included many fresh seafood items.  Jon and I sat across from the French couple who didn’t speak much English.  I tried to translate a few things for them and even engaged them in a little French conversation about on the level of a second-grader (“My name is Rob, what is your name?”,  “We are from the United States, where are you from?”, “Where is the library?”, etc.).
That afternoon, we disembarked on a small island where we toured some caves that had once been inhabited by 2 fishing families who now reside on a nearby floating village.  The cave formations were very nice, and then we had some time to enjoy the beach.  I opted to go kayaking with some of the other folks from our boat while Jon took in the beach and checked out all the boats parked nearby.
We relaxed the rest of the day, checking out all the rock formations as the boat motored around.  We had dinner in the dining room of the boat (again, many courses and again, fantastic) before doing a little reading from the upper deck as night fell.  We turned in early to our stateroom.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Vietnam: Day 2 - Hanoi

What a difference a good night’s sleep makes!  It was Thanksgiving in the US, but Hanoi was as busy as any weekday with a vibrant streetscape everywhere we went.  The density of the old quarter means that the sidewalks are taken up by vendors and motorbike parking with very little room left for pedestrians.  We had breakfast at our hotel and took a few minutes to get our bearings.  We quickly realized that due to the restricted hours, visiting the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum would be our first stop.
Out of the hotel and on to the street, we waded through the vehicles and into a cab on the far side.  The chaos on the roads is hard to describe, but if you can imagine all manner of vehicles (trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, and hand carts) all seeking to use every inch of pavement in an effort to move forward, that would be a good start.  Part of me really admires the desire to use the road so efficiently, but the tired American in me longed for lane lines and traffic laws.  Add to that the fact that a delegation from Israel was in town, motorcade and all, and the ride in the cab was quite an experience.
Fairly soon, we had made it to the mausoleum, which is only open for a few hours in the morning 3 or 4 days a week.  We stood in line, went through a metal detector and were then directed to a small window where our cameras and binoculars were seized.  Then, we lined up 2 by 2 to walk into the mausoleum and past the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh.  He is still revered as the great unifier of the country, and all the guards on hand ensure the solemnity of the room.  Interestingly, Ho Chi Minh’s wishes were that he be cremated and that his ashes be divided up between the south, central, and north parts of the country as a show of unity.  Despite their reverence, however, the Vietnamese did not honor this request.  Next door, Ho Chi Minh’s house and office have been turned into a museum, and so we strolled through and admired the lovely grounds and simple furnishings.
Our next stop was to be Temple of Literature, but a navigation snafu had us walking for a few miles in the wrong direction before giving up and hopping a cab back on track.  As we again passed the mausoleum, we realized that we had gone the wrong direction from the very beginning!  The cabdriver, much better at navigating these streets, got us safely to the temple.  Inside there are markers for all of the Vietnamese that have passed the very difficult national exam.  There were a few courtyards to explore as a brief respite from the crowded streets outside.
Ready for lunch, we located ourselves on the map and headed for a restaurant that had been recommended in the old quarter.  Each street is named after the product that used to be sold along it when this was a market town (bamboo street, rubber street, etc.), which is great, except it means that each street changes names at every intersection!  Still, we found our way to a place that served Bun Bo (noodles with beef).  That seems to be the only thing they make, and they do it well!  We sat on the upper level and watched as the assembly line was set in motion: each person added one ingredient until the dish was completed and whisked off by a server to a waiting starving patron. 
In the afternoon, we hit the streets again to explore the old quarter.  We took a little walking tour suggested by our guidebook and made it all the way to the only remaining city gate before doubling back to the lake in the middle of the city.  In the evening, we went to a restaurant that was famous for its one dish: fish cooked tableside in a pot of oil with fresh herbs, peanuts, and noodles.  We grabbed some ice cream afterwards to counter the warm evening before wandering back to our hotel.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Vietnam: Day 1 - Across the Pacific

Well, it was that time of year again:  Jon and I were ready to bypass the Thanksgiving turkey order line at the supermarket and head off to another country.  Our first flight didn’t leave until mid-day, so we had plenty of time to grab a bus and the light rail to SeaTac.  Once there, we checked in with Korean Airlines for our 11.5-hour flight to Seoul.
The first flight was quite comfortable, despite the fact that we both had middle seats sitting along the spine of the 2-4-2-arranged A330, and we soon emerged in Asia.  The airport in Seoul was very nice as we awaited our connection.  About two hours later, we boarded our flight for Hanoi!
A little bit tired and a lot disoriented, we made our way out of the Hanoi airport around midnight for our first glimpse of Vietnam.  I always think about the road in from the airport as the first view one might have of a place.  What do O’Hare passengers think when they creep down the Kennedy towards the Loop?  Visitors to Seattle at least get a chance to see the Boeing 737 plant before cruising through the industrial side of town en route to downtown.
Hanoi nightlife was non-existent, so everything looked quiet as we rode in a cab.  I could see signs of the uncontrolled growth I had read about: streets had been widened hastily, and along the outskirts small pockets of high-density buildings had sprung up.  I suppose I expected to see something more similar to Bangkok with its modern highway and active nightlife.  Soon, we were at the Maison d’Hanoi in the old quarter and were ready for bed.