Category Archives: 2016 02 SE ASIA – Vietnam

SE Asia: FINALE

Ho Chi Minh City

Thursday, February 25

Back on the road again, this time to Da Nang for our short flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the ending of our five-week sojourn through SE Asia. In case you’re wondering, we did try to train it to several places but we couldn’t find seats or, at least not the seats everyone told us to reserve (soft sleepers with A/C). Not wanting to discover the joys of traveling in the ‘hard seat’ class coupled with the advice to get a berth as far from the toilets as possible, we decided to fly on the extremely inexpensive and efficient Vietnam Airlines. Plus, the shorter travel time allowed us more hours for exploring.

Similar to Bangkok, Hanoi, and Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City’s airport was modern and easy to navigate and soon we were on our way to our airbnb.com studio apartment. Recommended by Joe and Kim whom we met on the Living Farm rice tour in Laos, we were eager to try “The Mothership”, the complex’s nickname.

Owned and operated by an entrepreneur who lived in the U.S. as a youngster and studied at Boston College, Thu worked on Wall Street only to return to his home country to take advantage of growing tourism. He and his partner Christina have opened several airbnb accommodations in Vietnam. They promote connectivity with other guests as well as interacting with the hosts, such as Giang (on the right, 1st photo) and Duc (2nd photo) whom we often found working in the greeting lounge equipped with an honesty bar and fridge.

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The modern and airy Mothership was a perfect spot for us to drop our bags. Although, I must admit I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland as I stepped into this oasis of a New Age salon as I entered the wifi password “joy factory”.

 

Friday, February 26

The War Remnants Museum qualifies as a must-see in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon when serving as the capital of the French Protectorate (1862-1954) and South Vietnam (1954-75). This museum provides an in-depth view of of war brutality and atrocities, beginning with the Vietnamese struggle for independence led by Ho Chi Minh in 1946 against the French then bleeding into the American War or what we call the Vietnam War.

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In spite of changing the initial name from ‘The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government’ to the tamer ‘War Remnants Museum’, a visitor understands you’re peering at history through the eyes of the victors. And, the U.S. was definitely not a victor.

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Photographs accompanied by explanatory text and billboard-size charts chronicle the battles between opposing forces as well as the horrific acts against civilians.

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Two exhibits feature photographs which compelled our attention. As much as we wanted to turn away we felt trapped by the same pull that causes one to slow down and stare at gruesome traffic accidents.

The Requiem Exhibit, several rooms filled with both foreign and Vietnamese journalists’ and photographers’ war coverage (a collection published in 1997)

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and an Agent Orange Display, walls telling the history of how this containment not only defoliated the land but killed and maimed those in its path.

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I won’t show the photographs. You can probably find them on line; but, what I hadn’t known was the effects of Agent Orange continues today with children still being born with deformities. We were shocked to discover that Agent Orange is a gene toxin, which affects the DNA of its victims. The mutant DNA is passed on through childbirth and mother’s milk and has been passed down through multiple generations.

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As many foreigners state, yes, it is one-sided and full of propaganda; but, yet crimes committed by US troops did occur including one I wasn’t aware of:

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Yet, I wouldn’t doubt similar acts by the Viet Cong could be considered crimes as well. Individuals who are law-abiding in one situation can be brainwashed and indoctrinated with hate in another.

Even with its bias what the War Remnants Museum does invoke with its presence is the universal call to peace, something the world sorely lacks today.

The museum also reminds us that the US doesn’t always support other countries’ own fight for independence as ironically stated by Ho Chi Minh:  In a 1967 meeting with two American editors… ‘At one point Ho reminded Mr. Ashmore and Mr. Baggs that he had once been in the United States. “I think I know the American people,” Ho said, “and I don’t understand how they can support their involvement in this war. Is the Statue of Liberty standing on her head?”

This was a rhetorical question that Ho also posed to other Americans in an effort to point up what to his mind was an inconsistency: a colonial people who had gained independence in a revolution were fighting to suppress the independence of another colonial people.’ (Sept 4, 1969, Ho Chi Minh NYT obituary)

The museum closed for lunch, so we accomplished our touring of all the exhibits in two parts. In between we enjoyed a great lunch recommended by the every-helpful Duc from Christina’s.

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but we skipped one delicacy…

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then walked to the Reunification Palace (formerly the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace).  Anyone who saw the footage in 1975 of a communist tank bashing through the main gate on April 30 would recall the desperate fleeing of U.S. diplomats, advisors, and residents and the surrendering of the South to the North.

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HCMC boasts of a new prosperity seen in its gleaming skyscrapers
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and flowery parks free of debris.

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Like Hanoi, leafy boulevards invited lazy strolls as the day became hotter under the noon-day sun, but unlike Hanoi I felt the humming of a city oiled by foreign investments and dressed with high-end stores selling luxury goods found in Paris and London.

On our way back to our room we booked a Saturday tour for the other must-see:  the Cu Chi Tunnel located 70km NW of the city. Having grown-up during the Vietnam War our travels couldn’t help but include sites from that era.

 

Saturday, March 27

Being told to arrive by 8:00 am sharp we ended up at the tour group office ahead of schedule clutching a breakfast bag from the local bakery and keeping liquid intake to a minimum in fear of what lay ahead with regards to facilities. Spotting only three other individuals we thought it would end up being a small group for the day; however, as we were led down Backpackers’ Ghetto on a main street just up from our place, our leader kept stopping at other establishments along the way with the end result being a busload of tourists and a departure time of roughly 9:30am by the time we made it to the bus stop and then patiently waited for our transportation.

 

Glad I hadn’t drunk too much of that coffee, we set off for our drive through the typical maze of scooters (note the little boy’s helmet :)…

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and a stop at a laquer factory, which employs disabled Vietnamese similar to the set-up at the rest stop when heading to and from Halong Bay.

Unfortunately, we were rushed through the manufacturing process to ensure we spent time in the store; but, we did glimpse one of the artists applying pieces of egg shells to one of the items.

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Once at Cu Chi Tunnel we met our guide for the next few hours. In spite of the  crowds and the site’s transformation to a tourist attraction, I still felt the stillness and eeriness of standing where once a small village lived, worked and fought below ground.

The tunnel actually originated in 1948 when the locals used it to hide from the French. The Viet Cong later expanded upon this idea resulting in over 200km of tunnels through six villages and connecting to a river… all dug by hand.

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As the guide demonstrated certain booby traps

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and Max volunteered to squeeze into one of the tunnel’s hiding spots,

IMG_6189I realized this day would fall under what my sister has aptly labeled one of my husband’s “Disaster Tours”.

I couldn’t help but be amazed at the clever methods the Viet Cong used to minimize detection or confuse pursuers, such as sandals fashioned out of tires with the soles crafted to leave tracks in reverse

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… fake termite hills used for ventilation (they disguised the openings with American soap and other U.S. products to confuse any sniffing dog patrols used the the U.S.)

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… and disguised mounds, connected by underground chimneys far from the cooking fire, for dispersing cooking fires’ smoke as wisps mingling with morning mists.

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The opportunity to shoot a military-grade weapon (an AK-47) meant Max donned ear muffs to do just that. Having fired a rifle only once before in his life, he was amazed and a bit daunted by the power, range and accuracy of the weapon.

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The tunnels have three levels:  the first is 3 meters (roughly 10 ft); second, 4-6 meters (13-20 ft); and, the third, 8-10 meters (26-33 ft) deep.

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Fortunately, we only went down to the first level. Even that was claustraphobic with quite a few of our group opting out of the experience.

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In addition to the historical significance of these tunnels I also made the discovery of why one never hands one’s camera to one’s husband if said one is bent over and in front of him.

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At least you get an idea of the size and how these people lived for many years – people who happened to be a heck of a lot smaller than I am.

There was an exit point that some used, which I might have done had I known part of the crouching was through darkness. And, yes, it was a relief to see light at the end of the tunnel (couldn’t resist).

At the end of our tour a film was shown that portrayed the victors as celebrated heroes (no surprise).

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As we travel I’m constantly reminded of the joys of meeting new folk, and this tour didn’t disappoint. One of our fellow travelers was studying at Boston College with a year abroad in Singapore. Hailing from Italy (but with absolutely no accent) he also was on the school’s water polo team. We mentioned our Kiwi friends’ daughters who once played that game and commented on how we’d heard how brutal it was (they’d exit the pool covered in bruises and pinches from the opposing team). He laughed and agreed. Voyagers such as this are fascinating to me. I’m curious about their lives no matter where they’re from or where they live. I mean to be discussing Boston College water polo while touring the Cu Chi Tunnel in Vietnam. Who would have thought it? Got to love it.

 

Sunday, February 28

With tourism booming many Vietnamese are eager to participate. In addition to lodging, Christina’s also offers tours, one being a free city tour. The reason it’s free is so university students wanting to become guides can practice their English.

Our guide for the morning was Linh, a junior at the local university. We really wanted to just share a meal and conversation with her; but, because guiding visitors, as well as using English, was more helpful to her we selected some sites we hadn’t seen and headed off to the heart of HCMC government quarter.

Both buildings had been built under the French colonial rule. Notre Dame Cathedral, built between 1877 and 1883, was the first stop.

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The next site was its neighbor, the Central Post Office, constructed 1886-91. At first I was thinking why visit a post office? But, then I read it had been designed by Gustave Eiffel. With its innovative skylight, ceiling vents, and maps of Vietnam and Saigon, I found this building much more interesting.

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Our formal walking tour ended in front of the People’s Committee Building (built 1902-08) and HCMC’s first pedestrian mall. This vehicle-free plaza opened a year earlier in time for Reunification Day April 30. We posed amidst the playful spouting water for a portrait until chased out by a chastising guard.

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At a coffee shop along the plaza Linh provided an impromptu lesson in chopsticks

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then we headed back stopping at one of the exercise stations where all three of us practiced our swinging prowess.

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Occasional conversations with locals we’ve met along our walks provided interesting perspectives on North vs. South Vietnam, such as the the man pictured below with Max and Linh. He served as a soldier in the South Vietnamese army.

IMG_6278After speaking with him he agreed to pose with this napping truck driver while promising not to wake him.

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Returning to the Mothership we asked to take photos of Linh, our lovely young guide, and Huong, a beautiful staffer at Christina’s. With gracious hosts such as these it seems a no-brainer to travel in this country.

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For dinner we had arranged to meet up with some friends, Sharon and Dave White, who happened to be in HCMC. It’s always wonderful seeing familiar faces from home, and the four of us walked, talked, ate, and walked some more.

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Monday, Leap Day February 29

Our last full day we simply took in more of HCMC on foot. We did end up taking a photo of our alleyway and its outdoor cafes.

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Earlier in our strolls we had noticed some grilling. Looking closely I saw the tail wasn’t curly, which I had expected thinking it was pig.

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We subsequently discovered our street was one of the few in HCMC that served grilled dog since it had lost some of its popularity in recent years. No, this, along with chicken feet, was another delicacy we weren’t tempted to try.

 

Homeward-Bound (March 1-2)

We left early the next morning for Ipswich.

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Thinking back on our five weeks in SE Asia I realize, once again, how fortunate Max and I are to travel to a country, mingle with its people, see its sites, and savor their culture. To then read about that region in various publications immediately places it in a richer context. Case in point, a recent article referenced upcoming Vietnamese elections with more independents applying for candidacy:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/world/asia/vietnam-election-mai-khoi.html?_r=0

And, a lengthy interview with Obama included a specific mention of Vietnam: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/

We can’t take our traveling for granted. It’s too much of a privilege, and we’d be spoiled brats to do so. So, here’s to curiosity about the world and satisfying it however one can… whether by reading, viewing film and TV programs, conversing with others, or traveling. Interesting folk surround us wherever we are–at home or far away. Just by asking a question of a fellow human being it’s amazing what one can learn.

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SE Asia: PART XI

Hoi An

Sunday-Thursday, February 21-25

From one World Heritage Site to another is where we next traveled via a three-hour bus ride from Hue to Hoi An. On the way we drove through Da Nang, a city booming with modern skyscrapers, luxurious hotel resorts and gated communities fronting the sea. Glad we were continuing through this growing metropolis. Forty minutes later we arrived in Hoi An, which was quite a contrast to the newness of its northern neighbor.

But still featured the scooters (incidentally, following a funeral procession seen in the distance)…

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A former major port, this prettied-up town appears a bit like a Disney theme park for adults with its clean streets bedecked with ornamental lanterns, picturesque building attractions, foodie restaurants, and silk tailoring shops in abundance.

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Yet, it also offered a respite from the urban atmosphere of previous cities partly due to its lack of towering office buildings and more open landscape. Although, resort hotel complexes along the river are changing the low-swept profile located just outside the protected Old Town.

For anyone desiring a relaxing and sanitized excursion in Vietnam, this is the place. It’s also where we enjoyed some of the best meals we had during our entire trip.

We landed at a guest house owned by a wonderful woman named B’Lan. Being welcomed by her and her staff of Mr. Khain and Tam is a bit like being enfolded into a happy family gathering. With hugs and a huge smile B’Lan took us next door to for an early evening beer and chat

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where we also met Thuong, a high school mate of hers who reminded us of a friend back home.

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With a prosperous tailoring shop and two guest houses and three children studying in the U.S., B’Lan represents the industrious nature of the Vietnamese. She said she’d really like for her children to come home but knows the better job opportunities are in the states; so, B’Lan is resigned to once-a-year visits and phone calls.

While enjoying the view out at the river we noticed a boat setting lights on the river.

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B’Lan explained today was the New Year’s first full moon (Tet Nguyen Tieu) and the most important one of all the year’s full moons. Adapted from the Western Chinese Han Dynasty, Tet Nguyen Tieu is a time to offer thanks for good fortune and pray for family and friends. This two-to-three day celebration is also known as the Lantern Festival, which explained the floating candle-lit glow on the river.

Feeling fortunate to have happened to arrive in Hoi An on this particular day, we explored the night festivities as we entered into the spirit of the Year of the Monkey.

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But, man, it was packed! Bus loads of Chinese tourists flooded the streets as did locals and westerners such as us. We managed to weave our way through and around throngs of celebrants as we, too, took in the sights and sounds.

We passed by one of the hallmarks of Hoi An’s Old Town, the Japanese Covered Bridge. Constructed in the 1590s to link the Japanese community with the Chinese across the stream, it was crowded with the night’s celebrants. We were happy just to look at it standing in our own mob scene.

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Unable to resist purchasing a candle, we opted to buy from someone who was competing with the numerous, hard-to-resist children who attracted the majority of buyers;

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and, we set one afloat in honor of some family members.

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We passed a play being performed, and I noticed that the wooden ladder-type structure around one woman’s neck was the same worn by some prisoners in “Hanoi Hilton”. Just wish I could understand Vietnamese. Actually, wouldn’t it be wonderful to speak ALL the world’s languages? But, with that sword I assumed it wasn’t necessarily a happy ending…

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Another sidewalk vendor whose wares we perused was an artist who stamped a tattoo on Max’s arm.

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The image is a bit ironic considering that will probably be the closest we get to owning a little pup due to Max’s allergies.

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After about three hours of wandering through the lit city

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and a chowing down on a delicious meal accompanied by political art on the wall

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we crossed the bridge back to the peninsula and our much-quieter street and guest house.

 

Monday, February 22

We had heard Hoi An’s environs feature some great day-trip exploring, so we rented a scooter to do just that.

Heading towards the coast we rode through the Tra Que Vegetable Village. Only a few miles NE of Hoi An we spotted rice paddies located between the De Vong river and an alga pond on either side of a dusty, main road. We rode just a bit down a dirt lane between the paddies and pond but decided to turn around because it just seemed more of the same.

Just another mile or so was the beach Cau Dai. Having read about the persistent beach vendors we weren’t surprised to be accosted by waving parking attendants trying to get us into their lots. Finding one close to the sand, we paid the US$1 fee and walked to sea where surf and sun worshippers spread out before us.

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There were also these tubby fishing boats that seemed more like kids’ surf toys than fishing boats; yet, these bamboo bobbing boats must be effective because we saw many of these outside family homes when riding back from the coast.

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Having to snap a surf photo for my surfing brother and nephews

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we also wanted to document the irony of lifeguards sitting behind a ‘No Swimming’ sign while watching tourists frolic in the sea.

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Deciding to return the next day with suits, we retrieved our scooter and rode back to Hoi An for more sightseeing.

We thought we’d try once again to find the Vegetable Village since it was a noted attraction. So, we turned back onto the dirt path between the paddies, passed an alga pond,

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and were rewarded with the unveiling of a lovely neighborhood.

Growing lettuce, coriander, basil, and other greens used in Hoi An’s special dishes such as Cao Lau, small plots…

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and then an expansive one nurtured thriving plants.

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Back to the Old Town to view its historical structures.

As an example of a 15th and 16th century trading port in SE Asia, Hoi An’s Old Town showcases architecture with Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese styles. The integrity of the original buildings–many constructed of wood–remains due to Hoi An’s decline as a port in the 19th century. Similar to Germany’s medieval Rothenburg, another town that escaped modern development, Hoi An’s economic stagnation became its future savior as tourists flood its streets today.

Although they all started to run together without the benefit of a guide’s knowledge, they were lovely to walk into and through.

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Many featured gates which ushered us into a sunlit patio, which led into darkened rooms, some with altars for worshiping various gods, such as:  Quan Cong Temple, a confucian temple dating from 1653 and named for a 1st century Chinese general who symbolizes and is worshipped for traits of loyalty and integrity; and, the Assembly Hall of the Fujan Chinese Congregation transformed into a temple to worship Thien Hau, a god from the Fujan province.

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One included an old tale displayed in its original script

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and translated for foreigners.
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These old buildings were enchanting with their outdoor areas bedecked with potted, flowering plants and brightly painted surfaces. Again, reminding me of an adult theme park, but one comprised of cultural artifacts as opposed to gaudy rides.

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Adding to the floral scenery were bright orange fruit bushes later identified as kumquat. Being a sign of fertility and fruitfulness, many of these miniature trees were carefully tended by nurseries then delivered to homes and businesses for the Tet holiday. Later, they are picked up for another year of professional nurturing: the more fruit, the luckier you are.

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Further down the road we toured the Tan Ky (“Progress Shop”, so named by the owner in the hopes of fostering prosperity) House. Built in 1700s by a Vietnamese merchant, this home was inhabited by the same family for multiple generations who lovingly maintained the home’s original features.

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One of the most interesting displays was a wall noting previous water levels reached due to flooding. Like many of the Old Town’s structures, the Tan Ky house backed up to the street running parallel to the river allowing for easy loading and unloading of trade goods; hence, the propensity to fill with water on fairly regularly.

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The site also featured a boatload of tourists, causing me to quickly scan the interior and exit, soon to be followed by Max.

Just down the street was the market selling the usual exotic (to us) vegetables,

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noodles,

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and flowers.

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Looking forward to a more solitary experience we opted to explore the Carpentry Village. Located on the other side of Hoi An  we crossed another bridge (one just opened and only available for pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, and animal-drawn carts). The route was suppose to be fairly obvious, or so we thought.

Not so much… of course we got lost and tried to ask directions to get re-oriented. That failed, but, no matter as we just liked riding around on narrow dirt lanes that wound through small neighborhoods waving to people as we scooted past. Eventually we rode out onto an open space where, once again, we were greeted with lime-green rice paddies

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and the occasional farmer and his water buffalo.

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Tuesday, February 23

Wanting to actually go swimming we decided to return to the coast and join the other sunbathers R&Ring on the white-sand beaches.

After two hours we’d had enough of lying under a beach umbrella and taking dips in the ocean, so we retrieved our scooter and picked some main roads leading west. With no plan other than to just ride and stop when we saw something interesting, our trail ended up being a circuitous loop with no sight-seeing involved. Just as well as sandy grit and salty skin were playing havoc with our bodies, and showers beckoned.

 

Wednesday, February 24

Our last day in Hoi And was spent wandering around the Old Town on foot (they actually convert some popular tourist walks into pedestrian-only ways, removing the likelihood of being mowed down by a car, scooter, or bike). The most fascinating part was life at the river as we, along with a perched rooster,

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watched women disembarking from a river boat.

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Our days of lounging were drawing to a close but I can’t describe our journey in Hoi An without giving you the names of two foodie destinations that made our mouths drool:  Morning Glory, whose excellent cuisine we devoured for lunch (reservations needed for dinner) and where we enjoyed one of our favorite dishes, sauteed morning glory (similar to spinach); and, Hola Taco, a fusion of Asian and Mexican dishes that may seem an odd choice when in Vietnam but, trust me, it’s oh most definitely not.

And, some Vietnamese coffee and Cau Lau is a must.

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Next, our last destination in our five-week sojourn…

 

SE Asia: PART X

Hue

Saturday, February 20

Max left early for an all-day tour of the DMZ (SE Asia:  PART IX), a site covering the Geneva Accords’ 1954 split of Vietnam into north and south divisions. A fascinating experience, to be sure, but one I knew he could aptly describe to me upon his return.

Instead I retraced our route to the Citadel from several days prior and crossed the moat where I, along with tour groups, spilled out into a wide open expanse of red brick pavers and wet greenery with the huge Flag Tower behind us sitting atop stone walls.

(With an old iPhone for a camera , I wasn’t too great using it; but, you’ll get the sense of the place…)

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UNESCO (United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture, an abbreviation I should have spelled out before) added Hue Citadel to its roster of World Heritage sites because it’s “an exceptional specimen of a late feudal planning in East Asia.” This encapsulated city showcased Asian aesthetics with a French twist and further fortified when the outer earthen walls were replaced with stone in the style of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), King Louis XIV’s military engineer.

Like many sites around the world, the Citadel has suffered from wars (the latest being the American/Vietnam War), human development, and climate change. Few structures remain from the original dozens….

some wear time’s erosion,

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while those restored leave no doubt as to the power that once resided amidst this splendor.

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I followed a route, beginning at the Ngo Mon Gate, an entrance once reserved for the emperor alone (the rest entered via other gates), and leading to the Imperial Enclosure and Forbidden Purple City, both straight ahead.

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The Citadel is like one of those Russian wooden dolls where the largest is composed of several, ever-decreasing smaller ones.

In Hue Emperor Long decided to create two additional ‘cities’ in the center inside the “Capital Citadel” (whose walls at six meters high, two meters thick, and 10km in circumference enclosed the entire site):

  • the Imperial Enclosure (the “Royal Citadel”) where the emperor conducted his government, ceremonies were held, royals educated, etc. (walls four meters high, one meter thick, and 2.4km in circumference with a small moat).
  • and the Forbidden Purple City (the “Forbidden Citadel”), which is modeled on Bejing’s Forbidden City built in the early 15th century (both created to imitate the mythical Purple Palace in heaven). The latter was for the sole use of the Emperor and his family (walls roughly same height and thickness as the Royal Citadel and circumference of just over 1km).

 

 

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Located in the outermost “Capital” citadel were:

  • palaces for princesses and temples (SW);
  • national offices and palaces for princes (SE);
  • and, houses for officials and soldiers along with handicraft works, markets and depots (N).

I have to say this site was one of the most beautiful and most peaceful fortresses I’ve ever visited. Quiet raindrops dripping from the slate-gray heavens muffled sounds of others as  I wandered through pavilions, temples and gardens.

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As I strolled through buildings historical photos populated the walls. In one I overheard a guide explaining an odd illustration:  that of a battling elephant and tiger. The elephant, a symbol of the monarchy, always won because the tiger, representing rebellion, was drugged and had both claws and fangs removed. The last fight took place in 1904 at the arena located off-premises. Must have been horrific to witness.

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In many official portraits some Mandarins sat regally in their court costumes. This class of civil servants represented just one of the many cultural factors the Vietnamese had absorbed under the 1,000 year rule of the Chinese.

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Speaking of Chinese rule, below is a little more background on how the Nguyen Family came to rule over a unified Vietnam:

  • The Vietnamese cultivated the Red River Delta in the north and slowly started to inch their way further south in search of more land for growing rice, their staple crop.
  • Meanwhile its neighbor to the north, the Chinese under the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), invaded and occupied the Red River Delta. Although the Vietnamese never forfeited their strong identity, they were heavily influenced by the Chinese, especially the aristocracy.
  • With the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in China, the Vietnamese overthrew their occupiers in 939 C.E. and began self-rule; however, there were repeated attacks by China in its effort to reclaim this rich delta state.
  • In 1428 Le Loi, one of Vietnam’s most celebrated heroes, defeated the Chinese once and for all and began the longest dynastic rule in the country’s history: 1428-1788.
  • During this time the Vietnamese expanded further south coming into conflict with the Khmers and the Chams, indigenous people of Cambodia and Champa. The latter were defeated by 1471, and the Khmers in 1749.
  • The Le Dynasty began with strength and reforms… for example, Le Loi introduced the Hong Duc legal code incorporating Vietnam’s recognition of the higher position of women, invested in infrastructure such as rebuilding irrigation dams, and encouraged the Confucian examination system resulting in a golden age of literature and science… a lot of his measures were influenced by the Chinese but adapted to Vietnam’s own cultural beliefs.
  • But, as the country and its population increased in size, the Le Dynasty’s rule weakened and conflict between two noble clans, the Trinh and the Nguyen, led to the partition of the country (similar to what occurred in 1954) with Trinh taking the north and Nguyen, the south by the 16th century.
  • A century later with peasants rioting against greedy feudal lords the Nguyen factor managed to grab power and eventually unified the country under the rule of Gia Long (1762-1820)  whose portrait I found online:

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As mentioned earlier, many of the structures had been destroyed over the years; but, the buildings that were restored included some wonderful chronological displays. One topic particularly fascinated me:  the royal administrative documents. Thousands of these written records offer a detailed record of the social and economic issues facing the 13 emperors who ruled between 1802 and 1945.

A full range of subject matter is covered in these reports:  diplomacy, millitary, society, culture and economy. Like reading any historical papers, you can obtain a real-time glimpse into the life of the Vietnamese back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Presented to the emperor by local and central agencies, the documents reflect the personality and interests of each ruler measured by both the content and the number of his comments on specific topics. An explanation of the editing marks was included as part of the exhibit.

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On display were documents illustrating Vietnam’s participation in foreign trade, including a list of gifts from the Siamese King to Emperor Gia Long and the resulting thank-you note.

These communications provided proof of an extensive export-import business with Vietnam sending missions as far as the European commercial centers. Below is an 1816 translated letter from England’s King George III to Gia Long.

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Unfortunately, once again in the name of religion, conflict brewed culminating in a battle on April 15 between the French (wanting to protect some missionaries who had defied the emperor’s ban on their living and working there) and the Vietnamese. Not only was trade with the west affected, but the persecution of the Christians provided France with the pretext to attack and colonize the area ten years later.

Included in the exhibit were doctoral laureates or certificates promoting those who passed stringent examinations. The monarchical education system recruited talent seemingly regardless of one’s social or economic status. Not that this period in Vietnam’s history meant everyone was treated equally. During the Nguyen Dynasty rule the elite grew richer and the peasants, poorer (sound familiar?). But, country-wide examinations at least gave many the opportunity to participate and advance through the ranks of civil service.

The focus on education continued through the centuries with one sign quoting “Uncle Ho” who, in 1945 on the first day of school, encouraged the Vietnamese to follow their forefather’s tradition of striving for excellence in knowledge. Throughout our time in Vietnam we witnessed this passion for improving one’s mind, one perfect example being Duyen in Hanoi.

After scanning the display covering the Nguyen Dynasty and its 13 emperors I left for Dien Tho Residence, the apartments and audience hall of the Queen Mothers.

On the way I  I passed by a tennis court installed in 1933 by the last emperor, Bao Dai (1913-97).

IMG_0021Curious about this last Nguyen ruler I subsequently read about this king.

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Born in 1913, Prince Nguyen Phuc Vinh Thuy attended school in Paris starting at age nine. With his father death in 1925 he succeeded to the throne taking the name Bao Dai or ‘Keeper of Greatness’. He went back to France to continue his studies leaving the country under a regent’s rule until returning in 1932 at age 19.

Considering he was awash in French culture it’s no surprise he was a French puppet and cultivated western pleasures becoming known as a bon vivant and playboy.

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Tragically Bao Dai never escaped the yoke of foreign domination with first the French, then the Japanese, overseeing his governing, or lack thereof.

 

Reaching the imperial women’s compound I stepped into a bit of a wonderland containing smaller versions of other royal pavilions. In addition to the main house and a temple there was a charming ‘pleasure house’  built for the residents’ use.

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Photographs of the more recent Nguyen queens and children adorned the walls inside the main apartments, and I peered at black and white portraits of the last emperor’s queen, Nam Phuong…

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and her husband’s concubine and second wife, Bui Mong Diep. She only recently passed away five years ago in France, a sanctuary for many of the last of the Nguyen line including Bao Dai who died there in 1997.

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One of the last complexes was the To Mieu Temples with its magnificent entrance gate.

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Miraculously the famous dynastic urns, nine of them, had survived destruction. They dominated the temples’ courtyard, weighty reminders of the early Nguyen emperors’ strength.

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Cast in bronze and representing the nine emperors up to the time of casting in 1836, each urn is decorated with 17 traditional Vietnamese patterns ranging from stars to vessels to valuable forest products.

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Covered in 153 illustrations these urns collectively serve as a history of Vietnam during the early years of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Large signs in the Hien Lam Pavilion explain the significance of some of these illustrations. What captured my attention were the depictions of all the boats relating to the emperors’ dominion over the waterways. For instance, the following is a Le Thuyen, a sailboat with 12 oars designed for high winds and fast-running water. Whenever the emperor patrolled the seas, this smaller boat escorted his ship.

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Another one carved into one of the urn’s was the black pirate boat. Used by pirates in the north, this black-sail-black-hull boat was equipped with oars as well, providing it with excellent maneuverability and speed. They were later used for coastal patrols by the emperors.

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Claiming liquid as well as land territories, the emperors carved their ownership of the seas on the urns, such as the 1836 illustration below. According to the accompanying explanation, “The east part of the sea belongs to Vietnam’s sovereignty. In the East sea there are the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes…”.

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This display also showcased one of the country’s oldest maps:  a 1490 depiction of Hoang Sa Archipelago (aka Paracel Islands, currently claimed by China and Japan as well as Vietnam).

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With a parting glance of this complex,

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I finished my structure-touring.

Yet, there was one last area I wanted to roam. I had read about the garden of bonsais and I really wanted to see those. Some friends of mine in Portland use to grow them, and I remembered being enchanted by these horticultural sculptures.

Walking to the other side of the Citadel I finally found them displayed in pots spread throughout a large deserted garden.

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In spite of looking a little unkempt, the bonsais were still magical and Tolkien in appearance. And overwhelming in their multitude, purported to be up to 400 (I didn’t count them).

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With the phone running out of battery I passed by the Capital Citadel’s eastern gate set in the outermost wall…

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and headed towards another favorite site of mine:  a cafe with hot coffee and a dry seat.

 

SE Asia: PART IX

With Max’s interest oriented towards more recent history and mine towards older, we each headed off in different directions on our last full day in Hue…
DMZ by Max

Saturday, February 19, 2016

The DMZ is an hour’s bus ride north of Hue. After driving around the city picking up 25 or so fellow travelers we drove north, stopping to meet our tour guide in the town of Dong Ho in Quang Tri province. This is the northernmost province in the former South Vietnam, hence an area of intense conflict and fighting during the “American” war.

A very simplified history of the conflict from a Vietnamese/North Vietnamese viewpoint: the French occupied areas of Vietnam starting in the mid 1800s. During the Versailles Peace Talks after WWI a young Viet citizen now known as Ho Chi Minh and others pleaded unsuccessfully with the world powers for more autonomy from the French, whom they saw as exploiting their resources and over-taxing the country. Within a couple decades Ho formed a guerrilla movement, known as the Viet Minh, which had considerable military success against the Vichy French and Japanese occupiers during WWII (the U.S. secretly provided training and support to the Viet Minh). After WWII Ho Chi Minh repeatedly petitioned President Truman asking for autonomy from the French and a unified Vietnam, without reply. After a tumultuous decade, and with the help of China and the USSR, the Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Convention of 1954 awarded the land north of the Ben Hai River to the Viets, led by the Ho Chi Minh and the Communists. The land south of the river went to the French, with a Catholic president named Diem. A 10 km wide demilitarized zone separated the two sides. Country-wide elections designed to re-unify the country were to take place after two years.

Vietnam quickly became the epicenter of what had become a greater world conflict between the U.S. and the USSR. Realizing that Ho Chi Minh would likely win the country-wide elections,, and fearing countries falling like dominoes to Communism, the U.S. prevented the 1956 elections. The division of the country forced Vietnamese to take sides, with some supporting the north or south, and others simply supporting reunification. In our very brief time in the country we met folks with pro-north sentiment, and others in the south who are outspoken in their hatred of the ‘corrupt communists’. No wonder the conflict gradually escalated to war.

Our tour guide wasted little time demonstrating where her sympathies lay. She grew up in Quang Tri province just south of the DMZ, which she said was ‘liberated’ in 1972 after military successes by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). After liberation the province was a wasteland of bomb craters and unexploded ordinance, having seen 15 million tons of bombs dropped.

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Our first stop was “The Rockpile”, the tallest mountain in the area, accessible only by helicopter. The Americans established observation posts and a radio station here. Later in the war, the Rockpile was surrounded by the NVA, re-supply became difficult, and it was abandoned.

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This area of Vietnam is inhabited by an indigenous tribe called the Bru Van Kieu, which came over from Laos about 1,000 years ago. They maintain ancient  traditional ways, and are ‘poor but happy’ according to our guide.

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The NVA had soldiers and sympathizer throughout the country. To move men and material to the south, they set up 5 North-South supply routes and 21 East-West connecting routes, which collectively became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of the 5 North-South routes started at the Dakrong River and ran all the way to Saigon. A cairn marks the start of this supply route.

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Khe Sanh, a large hilltop near the Laos border, became an important and symbolic stronghold for the Americans. President Johnson and General Westmoreland decided to make it fortress-like, and believed it to be impregnable. However, the Bru Van Kieu living in the surrounding area supported Ho Chi Minh, and provided significant local support for the Viet Minh troops; this was to become a significant problem for the Americans.

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With the approach of the Tet holiday in 1968, and believing the NVA to be faring poorly, the South Vietnamese army sent home many of its soldiers. The NVA waited for a stretch of stormy, rainy weather, when U.S. Planes and weaponry would be less effective, and launched attacks throughout the country. The strength of the attacks surprised the Americans, and gave lie to the perception back home that the U.S. was winning the war. Khe Sanh became isolated, and the US commenced an extensive bombing campaign, dropping over 100,000 tons of bombs to try to save it. And while they held out for a time, the U.S. abandoned the air base in July 1968 – the first major loss of territory to the enemy in the war. Historians argue, and the NVA General Giap agrees, that the real value of attacking Khe Sanh was to draw American attention away from the main target of the Tet offensive: the populated areas in the south.

The extensive, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, both at Khe Sanh and in many other times and places during the war, helped drive otherwise neutral non-participants to the Communists, according to our guide. This was a common refrain we have heard before, not only in Vietnam but in Cambodia and Laos as well.

Reading about the war, I was surprised to learn that tactical nuclear weapons were urged by at least one American General (John McConnell) in order to save Khe Sanh. From WikiPedia: “A secret memorandum reported by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, sent to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson on 19 February 1968, was declassified in 2005. It reveals the nuclear matter being excluded because of terrain peculiarity inside South Vietnam that reduces the effect of tactical nuclear weapons.” One wonders what the results of the war might have been had General Lewis Walt, the Marine commander of I Corps, prevailed. Walt argued heatedly that “the real target of the American effort should be the pacification and protection of the population, not chasing NVA and the VC in the hinterlands.”

From Khe Sanh we drove over the Ben Hai River, the dividing line between north and south. The original bridge (though often repaired) still stands, along with a Palm leaf themed reunification memorial. Celebrations are held here every April 30 to mark reunification.

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The northern part of the DMZ became an area heavily bombed by the U.S. They believed the villagers were supplying food and armaments to an NVA garrison, which in turn was hindering American bombing runs on Hanoi. Not wanting to leave their land and with no place to go even if they did, the local population went underground – building tunnels and living spaces 12 meters underground. When this proved susceptible to bombs, they dug deeper –  to 15 meters and finally to 23 meters underground. 70 families lived in these tunnels over a period of 6 years, and 17 children were born in the tunnels. Unable to grow their own food, they were supported by outsiders.

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Our final stop was one of the many cemeteries that line the coastal road south from the DMZ. Extensive heavy fighting occurred along this road, earning it the nickname “Highway of Horrors.” A majority of the graves in many of the cemeteries remain unmarked, tombs of the unknown.

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We have been told repeatedly not to miss the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which presents the war from the Vietnamese point of view, documenting their hardship and suffering, not least from Agent Orange. We are braced for a sobering experience.

SE Asia: PART VIII

Hue

Thursday-Friday, February 18-20

An early morning flight via Vietnam Air brought us halfway down the coast to Hue, another World Heritage Site and the capital of unified Vietnam from 1802-1945.  The cool, gray weather followed us south but didn’t deter us from exploring this city and the environs.

Our friend Carol whom we met in Luang Prabang had provided us with several recommendations for restaurants, so we unpacked our bags and went on the hunt for one of them, the Golden Rice . And, we weren’t disappointed. Like the other ones she suggested in Luang Prabang, this one also offered delicious meals. So much so, we went back for dinner that night.

With full stomachs a walk was in order so we headed down to the Suong Huong (Perfume River) and checked out the main draw of Hue:  the Citadel, where the emperors ruled from the early 1800s until 1945 when Ho Chi Minh convinced the last emperor, Bao Dai, to abdicate.

Located on the southern side of the river our hotel was only a few blocks away from the waterfront. The broad avenues and large parks bordering the river were deserted except for the occasional hawker for dragon boat rides and sellers of pet birds and fish from sidewalk stalls. We crossed to the north via one of the large, connecting bridges and made our way towards the Citadel.

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As in most of the cities we’ve explored in SE Asia entrepreneurs beckoned us into their shops. Loads of branded merchandise covered tables and hung from walls… from North Face jackets to RayBan glasses to Kipling bags, someone interested in picking up bargains would be in heaven; yet, in spite of Vietnam manufacturing many products sold internationally, you can’t always be certain what you’re buying is authentic. But, hey, if it looks good, feels good, and the price is right, who cares?

Thinking we didn’t have enough time to actually explore the Citadel we did a u-turn and crossed back to the south side of the river via another bridge.

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Friday, February 19

Yahoo! Sun was out, which meant warmth and sunscreen and a motor scooter adventure. We had arranged to rent one the night before, and at 9am we donned our helmets, mounted the bike and headed northeast towards the coast. A narrow island several miles long serves as a barrier between Hue and the South China Sea, and it was this stretch of land we rode down with a lagoon on one side and the sea on the other.

Hue environs Map

Passing shrimp farming framed by wooden fences

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and vegetable gardens carefully plotted out

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we came upon a boat yard. Seeing two other tourists wandering around we opted to stop to do the same.

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Allowed free rein to roam we did just that, peering at the various stages of boat building and repairs. Not speaking Vietnamese and the builders not knowing English, we pantomined our interest and were received with smiles and chuckles.

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The yard was pretty self-sufficient, including its own sawmill.

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Marveling at how much work is done by hand with limited mechanical tools, we watched the the use of fire to shape planks…

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the fitting of a plank to a new hull…

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caulking…

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and an old woman cleaning up the yard.

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We also noticed a stand with remnants of burnt incense by the launching area. I don’t know if this was left over from a Tet celebration or if the ritual related to the launching of boats.

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Having  poked around the yard enough, as we headed towards our scooter Max noticed some numbers written on a door. They appeared to be some sort of measurement conversions, yet we couldn’t figure them out. But, every time I see construction, whether for boats or buildings, it reminds me of my brother’s and sister-in-law’s (Cam and Carmen’s) business, and the adage measure twice and cut once. Just wish we spoke Vietnamese…

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We had read religion doesn’t play a part in most Vietnamese’ lives, especially since the communist government declared the country an atheist state. For those that do practice, the folk religion, a blending of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, is the most predominant. Whatever the belief, it obviously involved pink incense sticks.

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As we rode down the small backbone of this coastal island, we passed a large number of colorful tombs nestled in and on top of the dunes on the ocean side

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Having someone explain the significance of the carvings and illustrations, such as the one espied inside,

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would have been great but just seeing the elaborate architecture honoring the dead made a strong impression.

The only way we really got a sense of location was watching for schools since they included the village name; yet, even then we weren’t exactly certain where we were but felt content just to be lost as beeping scooters overtook us and we overtook bikes (a definite pecking order to the traffic around here).

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Throughout our ride we got a feel for country living as we saw farmers planting crops in orderly rows

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and water buffalo bathing in the lagoon…

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then crossing the street to feed on hay.

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A side road took us to a fleet of fishing boats, which we most definitely had to inspect.

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Continuing on we began searching for a lunch spot and finally found one where we inhaled the traditional, beef noodle soup:  Pho Bo, crouched on surprisingly comfortable in plastic chairs.

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Waving goodbye to the family who cooked and served us lunch,

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we got back on the bike for our return to Hue. (FYI:  this is how we were welcomed during most of our travels in SE Asia. Pretty wonderful.)

But, we weren’t going to leave the coast until we at least touched the ocean, which supposedly was lined with “stunning sandy beaches and dunes” as per the Lonely Planet guide. Since the dunes block one’s view of the ocean we finally found a little lane through a few houses that led to the beach and our anointment by the Gulf of Tonkin which flows into the South China Sea.

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With butts getting sorer by the mile, it was definitely time to get back and enjoy more tasty Vietnamese dishes. Our adventure in the countryside ensured we wouldn’t be leaving this country without an appreciation for the beauty and the warmth of the coastal-scape and people, a scooter ride  we will remember for a long, long time.

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SE Asia: PART VII

HALONG BAY

Monday-Wednesday, February 15-17

A mini-bus picked us up Monday morning for our three-hour ride to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprised of over 3,000 limestone islands jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin. Having heard others rave about the dramatic scenery we knew we’d be remiss not to add this to our destination list. So, we signed on for a two-night sleepover on one of the multitude of wooden boats or junks carting tourists around and about this bay.

About halfway to the coast we halted at a rest stop, which happened to be a factory store for crafts and souvenirs manufactured on the premises by disabled Vietnamese. The most impressive were the huge stone monoliths created outdoors…

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out of a huge junk pile of stones.

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Marveling at the techniques we also understood that regulations regarding workers’ health didn’t appear a huge priority as we watched jackhammering without ear protection

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and grinding without eye protection.

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Wondering how on earth they expected foreigners to purchase one of these statues for their homes, we noticed a large display board listing shipping details to major destinations per country. And, no, we didn’t buy a jovial Buddha for our garden…

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Arriving at the cruiser port at Halong City we joined the other tourists milling about as skiffs exchanged their loads of previous boaters with new ones such as us. Within fifteen minutes we landed aboard our ship and headed out to cruise around the impressive vista of rugged rocks, many studded with green vegetation.

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What we hadn’t really counted on was how cold it was. For some reason I kept expecting the weather to be hot and humid because that’s been my perception when contemplating traveling in SE Asia. Even knowing there’d been unprecedented freezing temperatures in northern Vietnam’s mountains I still held onto my expectations of heat and sun. It’s also how I made a mistake in telling Max there was no need to pack his long underwear…

But, just as our time in Laos proved my climate prediction false, so did our boating excursion. Not only was it not hot, it wasn’t even warm. And, throughout our cruise we found ourselves huddling with others in the seemingly unheated lounge ordering hot coffee and hot tea. Fortunately our rooms had heaters with our tour leader instructing us on how to turn them on and up.

Yet, the views were mesmerizing, in part due to Vietnam maintaining the pristine nature of this site. Other than the large number of cruise boats, the bay’s occupants consisted of a few floating fishing villages, oyster farming for food and pearls

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and persistent women selling snacks and souvenirs to tourists.

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To keep passengers entertained the cruising company organized several group events, one being a visit to Hang Sung Sot (Cave of Surprises). Discovered in 1901 the cave’s first tourists were allowed into the space 1993 after the constructing of safe paths and openings. The large interior, secure walkways, and lighting ensured this was my kind of spelunking.

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Yet, I’m always thankful to be out from under rocks; and, like the other tourists we posed for a backlit portrait looking out over the bay (you had to climb a bit to get to the cave opening):

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When asking our guide how Halong Bay was created he said it was complicated. He tried to make it as simple as possible, which I’ll relate here:  over the past 500 million years the sea ebbed and flowed with underlying teutonic plates pushing and shoving, causing flooding, erosion and mountainous limestone build-up of over 3,000 feet thick. From 67 million to 9,000 B.C.E. mountain-forming and erosion created the features seen today in Halong Bay including the caves caused by water seeping through cracks in the mountains.

In the past 1,000 years the water’s become saltier and coral grew with the end result being a karst topography, which I’ve since read is landscape formed by the withering away of soluble rocks. If only time-lapsed video was available 500 million years ago… or, our friend Joanne U., a geologist who could explain all of these wonders.

 

Tuesday

The next day those who were staying for a second night went kayaking. Thinking of getting into a tipsy watercraft on a cold, gray day didn’t exactly engender feelings of ‘oh boy! what fun!’; however, since this was one of the primary reasons we signed on for two-days, I knew I’d regret not doing so. So, our great guide (Dan Dang Tran, who had taken over from the first one), Max, two honeymooners from New Zealand, and I plopped ourselves into two-person kayaks and pushed off from the mothership.

And, what a great way to spend time on this bay! Because our cruise took us a bit further than most other boats and due to our guide’s getting us up and out fairly early, our paddling took us through open-ended caves into deserted coves and back out again.

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In one we spotted monkeys (later found out to be macques) foraging for their breakfast and sea eagles riding thermals.

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Eventually we were joined by other kayakers enjoying splashing about as we all tried to coordinate strokes with our partners. After several hours it was time for our next jaunt, which was visiting Halong Pearl Farm, a saltwater pearl grower.

I was interested in seeing just how cultured pearls were created, especially since a friend of ours, Leighton Reeve, started a jewelry company featuring a range of beautiful items using pearls and semi-precious stones (http://www.theislandpearl.com). Pulling up to a floating platform

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we were led through the process for saltwater pearl farming:

A two-year-old oyster is harvested…

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seeded (implanted) with a small shell bead,

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along with a piece of donor mantle tissue (the organ which makes the shell) from another oyster…IMG_5691

and, returned to the water inside a net (protecting it from predators), which is when the real waiting starts. For the oyster to graft (grow) a pearl can take from 18 months to five years depending on the size; and, this farm raised three different sizes (two shown below).

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Basically, a foreign body (parasite, fish scale, piece of shell but never grains of sand) gets into the soft oyster’s body, which causes it to protect its soft innards by forming a blister or sac around the irritant. The oyster begins secreting nacre (a mineral composed of crystalized calcium carbonate) and conchiolin (a natural proteinto adhere the first layer of nacre to the foreign body). As the oyster grows, more nacre layers are added until you harvest the oyster and remove the pearl.

Okay, I’ll stop with the nature lesson but I do love the fact that mother-of-pearl is literally nacre, which is the birth mom of a pearl.

Even with this careful planning and planting there’s no guarantee a cultured pearl will form or be round enough for sale. Considering how rare a natural pearl occurs (roughly 1 out of every 2,000 oysters), being able to fake an oyster to produce a pearl is pretty good. Even then it’s only about a 10% success rate with the remaining sold as food.

This delicate process obviously requires a deft touch by a trained technician.

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To get an idea just how delicate, check out this site:  grafting oysters. No need to read it, only scroll through the list. No wonder they call it surgery.

Naturally there was a store as part of the tour, and Vietnamese are exquisite salespeople. They just don’t take no for an answer but keep coming up with reasons for purchasing their products.

And, they have all the displays ready to ensure you’re getting top quality:

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These natural gems have popped up in other travels we’ve done. In Hyderabad, India, when we were fortunate enough to join one of our friend Noel’s tours (http://bodatravels.asia/newtrips.php) and in Doha where they use to pearl dive before SE Asia began their pearling.

And, no, we didn’t purchase any pearls to go with the un-purchased grinning buddha; but, Max did insert a light bulb being the tallest one around. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in trade for a big fat pearl… :)  Leighton, here I come!

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During our day we got to know and enjoy our guide Dan and the young couple from New Zealand.

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The Kiwis had just had a huge wedding in Auckland three weeks prior (we know about Indian weddings now thanks to Noel’s tours to India) and were returning home at the end of the week. In speaking with them we discovered the airlines (Malaysia Air) had lost her luggage on the initial flight from New Zealand. What a trooper! She’d been wearing almost the same items for two-weeks straight; no trousseau, simply sweatpants, teeshirt, flipflops (with socks), and a jacket she’d fortunately been wearing. She travels lighter than Max, which is saying something. It was only later that night they heard her luggage had been located.

In addition to the Kiwis we met another couple back on the mothership. They hailed from northern India, and the six of us had wonderful conversations–from engineering a marina on a remote Fiji island to establishing long-term care philosophy in India–

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as we watched the chef create a sculpture out of an apple

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then produce a dramatic cloud when steaming fresh prawns for dinner.

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Another six-degress-of-separation moment occurred when the Kiwis and Indians discovered each had ties to Fiji with the Kiwi bride’s family hailing from Fiji and the Indian doctor’s nickname derived from her spending some of her childhood there.

 

 

Wednesday

Returning the next day to the mainland we passed by some ships waiting for smaller boats to unload their cargo. Whenever we see tankers and freighters we think of our friends Joanne and Rod who are involved in the shipping industry. They also had just been in this part of the world recently; and, some other friends from home, Sharon and Dave, we’d actually rendezvous with with later. Halfway around the globe and we see familiar faces. Pretty amazing.

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The day also happened to be the one sunny sky of our three days on Halong Bay. Isn’t that typical?

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But, no matter, because what really counted is rarely affected by weather, only by one’s company. The connections we enjoy always give me hope that conversations begun out of curiosity about others’ worlds will lead to a broader exchange of friendship and understanding. And, in Halong Bay as in all of our exploring, the people–hosts and fellow travelers–have been spectacular.

Soon to come, a step back in time to Vietnam’s Imperial court.

 

 

 

 

SE Asia: PART VI

Hanoi

Thursday-Monday, February 11-15

Figuring the celebrating of Tet would be winding down we entered Vietnam to begin exploring this country north to south. Flying on Vietnam Air, now a favorite of ours due to its reasonable fares and efficient service, we landed in Hanoi Thursday night and walked into an airport sparkling with newness and the buzzing stream of travelers.

Thanks to a recommendation from our friends Marcia and Steve we had arranged to stay in the same hotel they did, located in the Old Quarter and close to many key sites. We felt immediately immersed in the culture as we stepped out of the cab onto a sidewalk populated with numerous small storefronts, stalls selling street food, and the ubiquitous scooters zooming through the streets. Yet, as soon as we walked through the hotel door, a calmness settled around us and we knew we’d find a welcome oasis upon our return from upcoming days of touring .

Friday morning we had arranged to meet with a friend of Laurie’s. Duyen (the ‘D’ pronounced as ‘Z’) had met her when he attended graduate school in St. Louis. With a background in finance, which he had parlayed into tourism, he helped us plan our trip through Vietnam. In addition to giving us practical information we also learned how he came to study in the U.S.

With the Vietnamese government recognizing the value of tourism, jobs in this industry offered an opportunity to earn a decent living. Duyen wanted to practice his English, and one of the simplest and cheapest ways involved speaking with English tourists. Seeing a foreigner in a park, he approached her and asked if she’d speak with him. No money or gifts were wanted, only the opportunity to learn a language that promised a better living. From that initial meeting, Duyen made a lifelong friend. They communicated over the years and eventually Duyen, having completed his studies in Vietnam, travelled to Missouri for graduate school. His story – consequential foreign connections developing from chance encounters – is one we heard several more times, including from an Austrian staying at our hotel.

After meeting with Duyen we left for our first destination:  Hoa Lo Prison Museum, known as the “Hanoi Hilton” by Americans.

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I don’t know too many people of my generation who haven’t been touched by the Vietnam War; but a lot of my contact with this war was through the media and campus protests. Walking through the doors of this complex changed that. And, throughout our time in Vietnam I felt the echo of this war trailing us as we toured other sites associated with the deaths of so many on both sides.

First used as a prison by the French beginning in the mid-1800s, there were displays of Vietnamese men…

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and women…

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incarcerated for crimes against the colonists. A guillotine used for executing prisoners added to the gruesome feeling one got walking through these rooms.

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Other visitors had told us about Vietnam’s framing of the war, which positioned it from their eyes. No surprise considering it’s their country and, as another friend said, winners write the history books. However, the displays at this prison and elsewhere turn fiction into ‘facts’.

We saw the ‘rescue’ of John McCain from Truc Bach Lake along with his flight suit…

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and a pensive portrait of captured pilot Jeremy Denton (someone I remembered from growing up in Va. Beach) who had alerted the U.S. military of POWs’ treatment by blinking ‘TORTURE’ in morse code during a 1966 Viet Cong propaganda film.

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I’m not saying the U.S. is innocent of atrocities or Vietnam is alone in demonizing their enemies. Far from it. All one has to do is turn on the evening news or browse articles by credible journalists reporting from around the world. But, in watching a film on continuous loop amidst the photographs taken at this prison I had to stifle my disbelief. It was then I began snapping shots as words appeared on the screen:

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Wow.

To clear our minds of the horror found in the now-sanitized cells of Hanoi Hilton we exited the building in search of much lighter fare. Walking towards Hoan Kiem Lake, which was close to our hotel, we found a restaurant perched above a rotary and treated ourselves to refreshments as we gazed down on a typical Hanoi view of today.

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Saturday we opted for Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, which was an easy cab ride from our hotel. We hopped out only to find ourselves being directed to a very, very, very long line that streamed down at least a half of a mile from the entrance. Being the last weekend of Tet, this revered figure’s grave attracted a lot of tourists, us being only two amidst tons of others, the majority being Vietnamese.

Yet, the line moved quickly and within thirty minutes we were being ushered through security (dropping off our camera and knapsack). Becoming part of a hundred-leg centipede we shuffled under a covered walkway into an open space and finally spotted the massive gray structure hosting the embalmed hero of Vietnam’s independence from foreign powers.

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We continued as part of the procession, snaking our way up the steps and into the darkened room featuring Ho Chi Minh.

We were fortunate his body was actually on display. Evidently he’s sent to Russia for several months of maintenance each year (and that’s as much detail as I need on that topic). No photos were allowed so we happily took some shots of the white-clad guards both standing and goose-stepping.

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Max being Max had to defy the regulations by dipping a toe into the no-entry zone.

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Must say the site was lovely with its gardens, grandiose buildings (including the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Presidential Palace along with Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house where he lived off and on from 1958-69). Instead of touring those we left the square and headed back to retrieve our checked backpack*.

*The camera surprisingly was perfectly timed to match our exit from the mausoleum; as Max pointed out they must have some conveyor belt sending visitors’ cameras underground to this specific checkpoint; pretty impressive.

On our way we noticed a woman recycling all the plastic water bottles discarded by visitors. We were thinking what a great example of being environmentally conscious. We didn’t realize just how much they were into saving the earth’s resources until we saw she was actually emptying out the water from the individual bottles into one giant jug.

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In search of more war remnants we walked down tree-lined boulevards past relics of French colonialism.

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Our meandering path took us to Truc Bach Lake, site of John McCain’s crash, where we saw folk enjoying the afternoon paddling swan boats.

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Continuing on we found Huu Tiep, another pond in which a B-52 had crashed during the 1972 “Christmas Bombings”. Another sobering casualty of the war.

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Grabbing a cab we headed across town to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. We’d heard this museum was well-worth a visit and we totally agree.

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Yes, it was overwhelming in the amount of information provided on three levels (how could it not be with 54 ethnic groups?); but, strolling through the displays, we couldn’t help but absorb some knowledge of this country’s rich tribal heritage. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed so we just meandered and peered until our eyeballs glazed.

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We had heard one of the best ways to see some of the country’s traditional lifestyles is to visit Sapa, a former French hill station close to the northern border.  Boasting stunning country vistas and offering beautiful trekking, this mountainside town is home to several tribes still dressing in traditional clothes and melding traditional lifestyles with modern ways. Our friends Jack and Zdenka (who just finished their sailing circumnavigation this spring!) gave us the name of a Hmong guide in case we made it to this town. We wish we had but not enough time and the forecast of continued cold and damp weather kept us heading south and along the coast.

By now we were ready to rejuvenate ourselves in A/C and some liquids–which we could at least pretend hadn’t been slurped before–so back to our hotel.

Sunday was our day of simply walking around Hanoi culminating with watching a Water Puppet Show, an art originating in northern Vietnam and dating from the 11th century. With communal ponds a common feature in many towns and villages, this puppetry provided entertainment for locals.

The lacquered wooden puppets are manipulated by puppeteers standing in waist-deep water behind the curtain. It’s confusing to envision just how these puppets work, but here’s a site that explains it a bit more: http://www.sagecraft.com/puppetry/traditions/Vietnamese.html.

In spite of the narration being in Vietnamese, the show enveloped you in its playful drama. As Max’s son Chris told us the music alone is worth hearing even if one can’t understand the puppets’ tales. (You can just make out the narrator and musicians and singers on the left and the puppeteers in the water stage after the hour-long performance.)

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That night we wandered once more along the lake becoming part of the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists. We had learned how to cross oncoming lines of scooters with steady determination, thanks to Marcia and Steve’s advice.

Our time in Hanoi was coming to a close. Not having known what to expect from a country where we were once considered an enemy, we rarely felt animosity or resentment from the Vietnamese. Just the opposite. Only government propoganda, a common communication tool of most countries, appeared to stigmatize foreigners. However, the Vietnamese are focused on looking ahead, not backwards; and, their strive for excellence thrummed throughout a country striding purposively into the future.

Next, our first glance of the coast!