Vietnam

Don’t Miss Saigon

“Saigon” means “cotton trees”, possibly referring to the kapok that used to grow in the area. Now, of course, the official name is Ho Chi Minh City, or HCM, though the river that flows through it is still the Saigon River and people use the city’s two names interchangeably. By either name, it has 14 million people and looks like New York on motorbikes, only bigger. It’s a powerhouse of a city, the beating economic heart of Vietnam. Saigon’s GDP per capita is twice the national average, and its various industrial parks account for 25% of Vietnam’s entire GDP. This is not a city that you visit, it is a city that you plunge into.

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The view from our hotel balcony.  The spaceship-like building in the center is the tallest in Saigon.

We arrived at around 9:00 this morning after a short flight from Dalat and were immediately struck by the contrast with Hanoi. Saigon is very substantially and very obviously more modern, more Western-oriented, more orderly. (The drivers actually obey traffic signals here, at least most of the time, unlike everywhere else in the country.) Our hotel is right in the middle of District 1, the most upscale and busiest part of downtown; the streets around our hotel sport Dior, Louis Vuitton, and similar establishments.

But our first stop after arrival was a grim one, and of course a requirement for anyone coming to Saigon on an organized tour: the War Museum. (Technically, its name is the War Remnants Museum.) It is three stories of everything about the war, needless to say from the winner’s (i.e., Vietnamese) perspective.

Saigon IMG_9023-PanoYou might reasonably expect such a place to be a full-court propaganda press, but it’s much better than that, quite compelling and affecting. There is the required dose of propagandistic vocabulary and rhetoric — the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong are invariably “patriots” — but the displays for the most part let the facts speak for themselves: statistics on how many tons of bombs dropped, how many dead, and so forth, all copiously illustrated with photos and artifacts captioned in both Vietnamese and English. There is an entire room dedicated to the ravages of Agent Orange, particularly among children; I lasted about 10 seconds in there. There is a large gallery filled only with archival photos from well-known war photographers such as Robert Capa; there are many American weapons; and there is a gallery dedicated to documenting the American antiwar movement, including a lot of information about resistance among the American soldiers themselves. There is a replica of the infamous “tiger cages” where VC prisoners were held and tortured.

Saigon IMG_9038I was both impressed and moved. Unfortunately it all makes a very compelling case for how criminally stupid and cruel on a massive scale we as a nation behaved in that era.

More happily, the French influence on Saigon’s architecture is visible everywhere, and there are some very beautiful buildings. Among the more famous of these is the opera house and, unexpectedly, the Central Post Office. Here’s the former:

Saigon IMG_9060-Pano…and here’s the interior of the Post Office, which was built about 1890 and whose interior inexplicably resembles a train station (which it never was):

Saigon IMG_9048It’s a popular destination for visitors — people even get married there — so there’s a constant hubbub. You can see a souvenir marketplace in full swing in the foreground, with the actual post office counters at the back.

After a lunch of pho and some afternoon downtime at our hotel, punctuated by a ferocious thunderstorm and two-hour-long downpour, we went out to dinner and walked around the neighborhood with Phil. This included an amble through the conveniently located red light district, which is probably not part of OAT’s official itinerary. But it was well worth the diversion for its weird entertainment value. The area is a few square blocks, narrow streets full of restaurant and massage parlors with names like “Happy Spa”. The clientele is primarily visiting Japanese businessmen; there was quite a lot of Japanese signage. And the women were all clones, or so it seemed: every one had long straight hair, wore an ankle-length diaphanous dress in a monochromatic pastel shade, and sported voluminous pneumatic cleavage. At one point as we walked down a narrow back street, lit by Japanese lanterns fronting restaurants and “spas”, a phalanx of these women — at least 15 — came marching down toward and past us. It was like some shift change had happened and the clones were all going home, or maybe it was some kind of Macy’s parade, in either case displaying enough silicone to caulk every plumbing fixture in Vietnam. It was quite a sight, and I wish I could show you a photo of it, but taking a picture of them seemed like a really bad idea.

Tomorrow we head to the Mekong Delta, and after we return we are scheduled to have a Vespa tour of the city at night. That should be a blast, at least if it doesn’t rain. It will also add to our list of “non-standard forms of transportation” that we have used on this trip. So far that list includes, in no particular order:

  • Funicular tram
  • Cable car/ski lift
  • Car ferry
  • Motor scooter
  • Tractor
  • Junk
  • Rickshaw
  • Dragon boat
  • Golf cart

Tomorrow we should add “sampan” and “Vespa” to the inventory.

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Weasel Poop Central

Dalat is a college town of about 400,000 people with a large (13,000 students) regionally well-known university. It’s only about 30 miles from Nha Trang as the crow flies, but it’s a 3-4 hour bus ride; Dalat is up in the mountains at about 5000′ (1500 m) elevation, and the road to it is steep, winding, and very slow. It does take you through some scenic valleys with narrow waterfalls threading down the cliffsides.

Dalat IMG_8729-HDRThere used to be a rail line connecting Dalat with Saigon but the Viet Cong blew it up during the war and it has never been replaced. It does have an airport with twice-daily flights to Saigon, though. (People seem to randomly call it either Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as the mood strikes them, though the latter has been the official name since 1975.)

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the railroad, though, at least among the very small community consisting of a burnt-out expat American who opened a restaurant called the Train Villa Cafe, which sports a railroad car behind the building. He used to be the general manager of Tower Records in Singapore, but he moved here in 1991, married a local woman, and (according to Phil) has been running this restaurant and drinking himself to death since then. We ate lunch there, and he did arrange for some of the local hill tribespeople to come and perform some traditional music for us.

Dalat IMG_8767They are called the Kho, part of a larger set of hill tribes that are collectively known in the West as Montagnards. The Kho themselves are subdivided into a number of groups, including the Khmer in Cambodia. They have a very characteristic style of dress — dark blue cotton with vertical colored stripes as you see in the photo — and speak their own language. This particular family of musicians had been educated in the cities and spoke Vietnamese as well. The Kho language is significantly different from Vietnamese; Phil does not speak it.

We continued on to our hotel, a large ornate place with the inexplicable name of the Sammy Hotel. No one seems to know who “Sammy” was, but the architecture is pretty purely French Colonial and — because of our frequent travel with OAT — we have been upgraded to a very large and pretty snazzy suite, with a full living room and two baths. Yay!

The weather was deteriorating by mid-afternoon but we headed out anyway — eventually getting poured upon — to visit the Linh Phuoc Buddhist temple, a large and impossibly ornate complex in which every exterior square foot — and quite a bit of interior space as well — is covered by elaborate dragon-themed ceramic mosaic tile and statuary. It is an utter riot of color and detail, something that Antoni Gaudi would have happily designed if he had been into Buddhism.

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Dalat IMG_8891-HDRThe interior is no less elaborate, and includes some creepily realistic statuary along with all the ceramic frou-frou.

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Dalat IMG_8870By the time we left we were in a full-on downpour, which continued for the next four hours; it is the monsoon season.

It was still pouring at 6:30 PM when we were picked up at our hotel by a cheerful young woman in a rain poncho, riding a motorbike. (Vietnamese use their scooters to go anywhere at any time; monsoon rains are of no consequence.) Her name was Nhii, and she is the 26 year old daughter of the host family with whom we had dinner at home last night. As I have mentioned before, every OAT trip has a generous dollop of interaction with the locals, and each trip usually includes dinner at home with a local family.  Nhii put us into a taxi, and then led the way home through the driving rain on her motorbike.

Dalat IMG_8908Those are Nhii’s parents at left, and our travel mates Hazel and Bruce on the right. Nhii’s father is a retired archivist with the government; her mother is retired from a bank. Nhii herself is a receptionist at a hotel and the only one of them that spoke any English. (Hers was pretty rocky but serviceable enough for the occasion.) The language barrier put things off to a slow start, but as we started showing each photos of our various grandchildren, things picked up. Nhii’s mom is an excellent cook and served us a nice meal that included pho, spring rolls, sticky rice, and a salad that had a large number of hard-boiled quail eggs in it. The evening was enjoyable enough, but we would have liked to see more of the house (we never got out of the living room and dining room) and learn more about their lives. (We learned a lot more about Nhii since she could converse.)

The rain had stopped by the time we headed back to the hotel, and we slept well enough in our Colonial Overlord room to take on more ambitious sightseeing today.

Dalat is a major center for wholesale flower cultivation and sales; it is sort of the Holland of this part of Asia. Flowers are big, big business here, and the best way to illustrate that is to show you this panorama looking into the valley adjacent to the downtown part of the city:

Dalat IMG_8812-PanoWith the exception of the tile roofs in the foreground, every single building in that image is a greenhouse, hundreds and hundreds of them filling the valley. Here’s the interior of one of them, and happy Alice — who is an avid gardener, unlike myself, and much in her element here — with a sample bloom.

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Dalat IMG_8931I am informed that that is a gerbera daisy.

The greenhouses are not made of glass, but rather nylon, which we were told is a technique invented by the Israelis. Water condenses on the interior and drips into the gutters that you can see running the length of the structure, thus minimizing the need for an external water supply.

Besides flowers, the other cash crop in these parts is coffee, and so of course we were morally obliged to visit a coffee plantation. Since we live in Kona (Hawaii) for about five weeks a year that was not exactly new and exciting for us — and I don’t even drink the stuff — but here you go anyway:

Dalat IMG_8937-PanoWe got The Coffee Spiel. There are three types of coffee here, being Arabica, Mocha, and Something Elsa-a (Robusta, I think), and the differences are [at this point my brain turns off due to total indifference]. So of course they sat us down and served us a sample, which everyone duly admired, except for Alice, who literally shuddered and sotto voce averred it much inferior to Kona coffee.

Dalat IMG_8942Those are our travel mates Yvonne, Karen, and Joan. Yvonne looks a little dubious.

But this was not the main event. Oh no, far from it. This particular coffee was conventionally grown and processed. At no point did it emerge from a weasel’s digestive tract.

You may perhaps have heard of kopi luwak, the fabulously expensive Indonesian coffee that is processed from beans that have been eaten and excreted by a civet cat. Well, guess what? They do it here too. They call the creature a weasel here, but it is the same animal, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus if you’re taxonomically inclined. It is not related to the ferret-like thing that we in the West call a weasel, but looks rather like a raccoon. Here’s one in its cage at the plantation.

Dalat IMG_8975So the deal is, they feed the coffee “cherry” — the red fruit with the bean at its core — to the animal, which dutifully poops it out the other end, its digestive enzymes having dissolved the fruit and worked some chemical miracle upon the bean. The poop is dried in the sun and the beans then extracted by machine (thank God). You then process the beans and charge a zillion dollars a pound for them because people are insane. I mean seriously, this is certainly the only consumable substance in the world where declaring, “This tastes like shit,” is considered a compliment.

Dalat IMG_8948Note the sign above. For the record, I was not tempted to take any away. I am however going to start an emo band named “Weasel Feces”.

Alice, who is a coffee snob, was very disdainful of the whole thing but upon actually tasting it — they gave everyone about a half a shot glass to try — declared it quite excellent after all.  And as I looked on in head-scratching wonder she actually plunked down money to buy a few ounces, at a price that scaled to US $90 a pound.  That’s about three times the price of good Kona coffee. She is unable to testify that it is three times as good.

That adventure under our belt, we climbed onto a flatbed hitched to a tractor — this has been an especially interesting trip, transportation-wise — and literally headed for the hills, traveling a short distance up into the hills to visit a Montagnard/Kho village. Our first encounter was with some fierce children (one was wearing a Batman teeshirt so you know this is serious) who took a break from chasing each other around to threaten to eat us.

Dalat IMG_8994We navigated this existential threat — I taught two of them to play Thumb War in case my grandsons ever visit here — and spent some time talking to the village headman and his wife, who was patiently weaving through part of the conversation.

It’s an interesting society, matriarchal for starters; property is handed down through the women in the family, and arranged marriages have been abolished.

That’s as much of Dalat as we have time for. Tomorrow morning we fly to Saigon for the last leg of the trip. We’ll be there for three nights, then leave for home on Saturday.

 

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A Day in the Life, Vietnam Edition

Every OAT trip includes some kind of “day in the life” activity that attempts to give travelers a taste of what normal, non-touristic life is life in whatever country we happen to be in. These are unavoidably somewhat artificial (“Today’s activity will include contracting hepatitis while bathing in unfiltered sewage!”) but they do make an honest attempt given all the constraints of time, safety, etc. But we did pretty well yesterday, since our “day in the life” started with a big part of every Vietnamese’s life: getting somewhere on a motorbike. This was probably not the safest activity that OAT could have chosen for us — a couple of our group just straight-up refused to get on them — but it was probably the most fun one. So off we went in crazy city traffic…IMG_8716

IMG_8520That’s Alice in the red helmet at right.

IMG_8526We putt-putted and honked our way to the outskirts of the city, eventually making our way to the countryside, past rice paddies and temples.

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IMG_8593Our first stop was a place where guys hang out for hours, drinking and watching some entertainment. Your first thought is no doubt “bar” or “strip club”, but no, it wasn’t either of those. If you’re a Vietnamese city male, your go-to entertainment on a Sunday afternoon is the local….. bird cafe.

Say what?

Bird cafe. Songbirds are a very big deal here, in particular a type of bird called a bulbul, which is found throughout Asia but not in North America. It’s name is Persian for “nightingale” but it actually belongs to a different family. They sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars here, and at the bird cafes they hang in cages by the dozen, the staff moving them around from space to space to get them acclimated to their surroundings and keep them singing.

IMG_8534IMG_8536Notice all the guys in the lower photo, basically hanging around and staring at the birds. This goes on for hours. There are huge bulbul competitions, sometimes involving as many as 2,000 birds; they are judged on both appearance and the perseverance with which they keep singing. Hard to see this catching on the US. (“I’m heading out to the bird cafe to have a few glasses of lemongrass tea with the boys.” “Like hell. That’s the third night this week and I’m sick of picking feathers out of your clothes.”)

The next stop on our motorbike outing was the marketplace where, we were informed, we would have to go shopping for dinner. Phil gave us some money and a shopping list, and divided us into two teams: “Tiger”, and “Dragon”. I was the Dragon Leader, which is a title I have always coveted.

IMG_8575Various items were assigned to various people within the teams, but the catch was that we had to ask for all the items in Vietnamese. Remember what I wrote about the impossibility of saying anything correctly in Vietnamese? Now the linguistic rubber was about to meet the metaphorical road. My particular item was sugar, which in Vietnamese is Đường, which you pronounce by shooting yourself since you’ll never get it right. It’s sorta like doo-ong, except that the first syllable is spoken WAY down in your throat, and you glide into the second syllable all the way up top to your palate. Basically it’s the sound that a bullfrog makes, and I am proud to report that after three attempts Phil declared my pronunciation perfect. Off we went, me bullfrogging for all I was worth, and by golly we scored two plastic sacks full of sugar. Here’s more of our team in action, successfully buying a bag of limes.

IMG_8566Groceries in hand, we biked out to the countryside to a village where the headman was a former South Vietnamese paratrooper, Mr. Hoang. After the war he spent two years in a reeducation camp and was eventually fully “rehabilitated” into a position of responsibility in this small village.

IMG_8612He showed us around the village, which included a stop at a local family who derived their income from that most venerable and stereotypical craft, basket weaving. They put us to work. The head of this family was a former Viet Cong soldier.

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IMG_8624Then we went to Mr. Hoang’s house for lunch, where his wife put half of us to work in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. The other half of the group want out to the backyard to use that sugar we bought, along with limes and lemongrass, to mix up some drinks whose name I forget but which involved a whole lot of rum.

IMG_8628Drinks were poured and toasts were raised. The very first toast, in fact, was raised by the four men who actually fought in the war: Mr. Hoang and the three veterans in our travel group. That makes this a fairly remarkable gathering:

IMG_8633That toast drunk, more followed, with everyone getting into the act. Alice and I being teetotalers, our drinks were rum-free, but a couple of our group more than made up for our abstemiousness.

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Things got pretty happy, but everyone settled down for a lunch, which was of course yet another multi-course extravaganza. This one, though, was outdoors, in a shaded grove behind the house.

And then it was time to go. Hugs all around, especially among the vets, and everyone boarded the bus… except for me. Phil had cottoned to the fact that I am an adrenaline junkie — it may have been my look-ma-no-hands continuous camera-clicking from the back of the motorbike — and arranged for me to motorbike back the city instead of riding the bus. So I had my own personal tour of the back alleys, farms, graveyards, rice paddies, and other cool locales from my perch at the back of the bike.

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(The swastikas don’t mean what you think. They’re a very ancient Hindu symbol, appearing widely on temples and other structures throughout Asia. The Nazi corruption of the symbol came thousands of years later.)

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IMG_8684On we went, past the revolutionary statues in the city, back into the maw of traffic, and home again to our hotel. Helluva day!

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Russian to Nha Trang

We left Hoi An yesterday morning (Saturday Sep 28), heading back to Da Nang to pick up our flight to Nha Trang. But traffic was worse than our driver had anticipated and we were cutting it kind of close by the time we arrived at the airport. We felt pretty rushed to get checked in and through security, which is basically identical to the security at an American airport except that our Global Entry/TSA Precheck designation does us no good here. We made it to the gate just as boarding was starting.

Never heard of Nha Trang? That’s because you’re not a Russian tourist. It’s a big beach resort town, very popular with Russians. It’s also been a big deal since the war because it is the home of Cam Ranh Bay, considered to be the best sheltered deep water bay in Southeast Asia and thus the idea spot for a naval base. Indeed, one of the many specious justifications for the Vietnam War was that the US Navy must hold on to Cam Ranh Bay because otherwise the Russians would get it and hoo boy, pretty soon there’d be Russian amphibious craft landing at Waikiki.

Well, the Russians did get it and somehow neglected to take over the Pacific. They left several years ago and it’s now a Vietnamese naval base, which they are considering turning into a civilian facility to service international shipping traffic. This is actually a pretty canny move because the area undergoes continual encroachments by the Chinese navy, which as you may know has a lot of expansionist designs in the region. Chinese vessels harass and frequently sink Vietnamese fishing boats.

Anyway, Nha Trang is now a very modern-looking beach resort town with a lot of Russian signage. We are staying in the Yasaka hotel, a pretty nice high-rise that is actually owned by the Vietnamese government. That fact leads to a lot of stereotypical mental images and obvious jokes, but other than having somewhat mediocre food (we have gotten really spoiled on this trip) it’s perfectly comfortable, up to date, and attractive. Here’s the view from our room.

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Doesn’t exactly scream “Third World”, does it? Take away the mountains and it could be Miami Beach. The night scene is all glitzy neon along the beachfront hotels; there’s even a big casino.

Around 5 PM Phil convened the group for a cultural discussion, in particular a lesson about the plight of the so-called Amerasians, the children of American soldiers and local women, sired during the war. There are something like 77,000 of them and they did not have an easy time of it here. Utter social outcasts, 90% eventually emigrated to the US. Many tried to track down and contact their fathers but, this all having happened decades before DNA testing, only 6% succeeded.

Following this rather somber discussion, we hopped back onto our little bus (did I ever mention that there are 15 people in our group?) and headed out to a “street food” dinner. It was a large unadorned hall, very smoky because of the small charcoal hibachis at each table. Here’s the scene:

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The lower photo is part of our group: Dave, Karen, and Yvonne (who is getting smoke in her face). As you can see from what Karen and several people in the upper photo are doing, in the US you would call this either Korean barbecue or Japanese teppanyaki. Here they just call it barbecue. They brought us plates of vegetables, beef, tuna, calamari, and large prawns as well as rice and a couple of dipping sauces. Phil cautioned us not to undercook the food for reasons that do not need explaining. (Eating sushi around here would be a very high risk activity.) But it was fun, it was tasty, and it forced you to shower back at the hotel because you and your clothing smelled like smoke afterwards.

Rather than returning to the bus, we elected to walk back to to hotel, less than a mile away. That was a good choice: we cut through some small side streets to enjoy the sights of a food vendor…

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..a cafe…

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… and a funeral. Wait, what?

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Yes, a funeral. Or at least a wake. The seated guy in the back wearing the FILA teeshirt is playing a keyboard, and the people in the building are paying respects at a shrine honoring the deceased. It was quite the hubbub, and the music was pretty loud (there was a drum track going too); if Phil had not told us that it was a funeral, we would not have guessed.

The street cut through to the beach, which we followed back to the hotel. There were a number of groups having parties on the sand. The walkway itself was a palm tree-lined promenade that would past small open gathering areas that sported benches and even exercise machines. It could have been a night beach scene from anywhere, and it was doubly pleasant because the temperatures had dropped into the upper 70’s.

We got back to the hotel at about 9 PM and crashed. That ‘s good, because today was a long day, a “Day In The Life” as Phil called it, that included motorbike rides, cooking, and other local real-life activities. I’ll write about it in a day or two.

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The Language From Hell

OK, I have been grousing about the Vietnamese language for over a week now, so it is time to tell you something about it. Here are some important characteristics that make it next to impossible for a Westerner to master. In fact, as nearly as I can tell it is basically impossible for a Westerner to even get the basics right.

First, it is tonal like Chinese. Chinese has five tones (including the so-called neutral tone); Vietnamese has six. Some of these are readily apparent to the Western ear (by which I mean, me); others sound indistinguishable from one another, so right off the bat you’re in trouble. You can’t even hear the differences among the tones, let alone say them correctly. Each of the tones is represented by a particular accent mark.

Second, the variation in meaning associated with the differing tones is vast. You know about pho, the Vietnamese soup, which is actually ritten phở  and pronounced sorta, but only sorta, like “fuh”. (And note that last letter: it is an o with two accent marks. More on that in a moment.)  Do not confuse this soup with the word phò, which with its different accent (and only one them) over the means “bitch” or “hooker”.  It’s pronounced more like “faw”, with a tone going downward.

Third, the alphabet, though using Roman letters like our own, has 29 letters including eleven vowels: a, ă, â, e, ê, i, o, ô, ơ, u, and ư. There is no F, J, K, or Z. Now at this point you may be thinking, “That’s not 11 vowels, it’s just the usual 5 plus some with accent marks for different tones.” Nope. Those accent marks are not the ones that indicate tones; they are a different set that differentiate separate vowel sounds rather than creating a “new” letter with a different appearance. You can apply an additional tonal accent mark to most of those vowels, as in phở as I mentioned above. In this case the last letter is the ơ from the list of vowels above (the 9th of 11); the little thingy that looks like a question mark on top of it is the tone indicator.

Because of the multiplicity of vowels and tones, there are words that can be pronounced eighteen slightly different ways, all with different meanings. We got a small taste of this during an impromptu language lesson that Phil delivered on the bus, which included a handout that listed the six possible tones and meanings of the word ma, to wit:

  • ma (ghost)
  • (mother or cheek)
  • (which, that)
  • mả (tomb)
  • (horse)
  • mạ (rice seedling)

Good luck with that. Phil read them off, had us practice, and then quizzed us. He’s a total sweetheart who always treats us with the greatest affection and respect, but even he couldn’t hold a straight face as we mangled the list; he actually burst out laughing at our pathetic pronunciation attempts. One implication is that those handy dandy phonetic “Common Words and Phrases” lists that you see in guidebooks are utterly useless; the odds of those phonetic lists guiding you to a successful enunciation of a desired Vietnamese word or phrase is essentially zero.

So how did this all come about? I mean, China is right next door so why doesn’t Vietnamese writing resemble Chinese? The answer is, that it used to. It was the missionaries (it’s always the missionaries, isn’t it?) who needed something that they could read to guide their pronunciation and be able to learn the language so that they could convert the heathens. The effort was spearheaded by Portuguese missionaries in the early 17th century, but it took a good 150 years before it broke out of clerical circles and came into wide use by the general population. By World War II it was the de facto official script. So in other words, it’s pretty recent, in general use only since the 1890’s or so.

The upshot of all this is that looking at all the signage on any Vietnam city street is to understand what severe dyslexia must feel like. You see all the letters and words in an alphabet that looks familiar, and your brain keeps involuntarily searching for recognizable words and syllables and coming up empty. Your brain, of course, does not know that the roots of all these almost-familiar letter combinations are in Chinese; it looks like there should be familiar words in there somewhere, but there aren’t. So far I have come across only three Vietnamese words that resemble their Indo-European counterparts, interestingly all of them beverages: bia (beer), trà (tea), and cà phê (coffee). That’s a pretty short list.

So the result for us is that, unlike on all of our previous exotic trips we will end this one exactly as we began it, linguistically, which is to say in complete ignorance. After ten days here, all I can say is xin chào (hello), cảm ơn (thank you), and xin lỗi (sorry, pardon me), all of them so atrociously as to be barely recognizable to the locals. But it’s all good… we’ve been eating so well, and so much, on this trip that we can’t speak with our mouth full anyway.

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My Son

Actually I have two sons, both exceptionally fine human beings whom I love and am proud of beyond words.  But this post is not about either of them. In fact, it is not about anybody’s son. It’s about a place called Mỹ Sơn, written with all those accent marks that make Vietnamese a special kind of nightmare. I just left the accent marks out of the title so I could have a moderately clever opening line. (And at some point down the line I am going to write a post about the Vietnamese language, which is an utter beast.)

Mỹ Sơn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a complex of temples and other buildings created between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Champa people, whom you have very likely never heard of. It’s considered to be one of the longest inhabited archaeological sites in Indochina, comparable in appearance to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ayutthaya in Thailand.  We spent yesterday morning and early afternoon there; it’s about an hour’s drive from Hoi An.

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Naturally, this being such an important site, the US bombed the bejeezus out of it during the war. Much of it was destroyed, and the path among the ruins is pockmarked by 50 year old overgrown bomb craters, perhaps 30 feet wide and still 8-10 feet deep.

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The Champa people were an extensive and aggressive group who were a big deal in central and southern Vietnam from about the 2nd century AD for a good thousand years or so. They were Hindu, not Buddhist, in particular venerating Shiva, part of the Hindu trinity that includes Vishnu and Brahma. In keeping with the whole yin-yang paradigm, and oversimplifying by about 2 billion light years, Vishnu is female, the creator, symbolized by the yoni (representing the female genitalia); Shiva is male, the destroyer, symbolized by the lingam (representing the male genitalia). There are stylized versions of each scattered throughout the complex; here is a yoni:

My Son IMG_8423 If your lingam persists for more than 400 years, consult your doctor.

There is a path that meanders among the ruins, a number of which have armless, headless statues of Shiva in and around them. The arm- and headlessness of the statues are one of the many gifts of later Western occupiers, notably the French.

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You will note from all of the above photos that the structures are made almost entriely out of brick. That is pretty remarkable in itself: it is very difficult to make bricks that will last for ~1500 years in this hot, wet climate. In fact, it is so difficult that no one knows how the Champa did it. The composition of the bricks is well known through various assay techniques, but the manufacturing process is still a mystery. Replacement bricks have been made as part of a partial site restoration process; you can see Phil pointing out some of the new bricks in the photo below. But these will not have anything like the longevity of the original structure.

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At about the halfway point of the path through the complex, we came to a small open area that is used for a folk music performance, using traditional instruments as we have sen before, and dancers as well. They played for about 10 minutes and we continued on our way.

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If you look carefully, you can see that the elaborate headdress worn by the dancer in red in the middle has a burning candle on top. Here’s a better view.

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We continued along the path, which looped back to the starting point. There was a pavilion there where we saw yet another performance, this time more directly tied to the Champa and having a distinctly more Hindu flavor, albeit a little sexed-up for the tourists, e.g.:

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By this time we were dance-performanced-out and, in keeping with our typical day here, drenched with sweat. So we retreated back to our hotel, Alice to get a massage (which costs about one-third here of what it does back home,) and me to take advantage of one of the hotel infinity pools.

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Crafts and Markets and More Crafts

Hoi An IMG_8206-HDRHoi An is known as a sort of retail craft paradise, in part because the locals are known to be able to create quality knockoffs of pretty much anything. In fact, last night we had what one might consider to be a dramatic example of this, when upon returning home from our evening’s wanderings (about which more in a moment) we discovered that the hotel had provided a turndown service and, instead of mints, had left a little packages of Oreos on our pillows. But closer inspection revealed that, despite the virtually identical packaging, they were not Oreos but rather “Creamos”. The package and the cookies themselves looked just like the real deal (except for the wrapper saying “Creamos”), and the cookies tasted just like Oreos, albeit a little thin on the filling. So there you have it: knockoff Oreos.

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Speaking of food, there is one item that I forgot to mention yesterday in regard to our cooking lesson of two evenings ago. When one of our group exclaimed “Yum!” upon tasting one of our creations, she was admonished with a wink and a leer not to say that: turns out that “yum” and “yummy” are Vietnamese slang for “horny”. Now you know.

We spent most of yesterday wandering around Hoi An, which in practice meant drifting in and out of souvenir, craft, and clothing stores. It’s one of those places where you can get a good custom suit made in 24 hours for a ridiculously low price, and if I were not retired I probably would have done so. (One member of our group did.) It also meant fending off a nonstop and utterly relentless stream of street vendors, all selling the same two tchotchkes: laser-cut popup greeting cards, and plastic windup birds that flap their wings and fly around for 5 or 10 seconds. The popup greeting card people in particular are implacable; they follow you down the street and into restaurants, and they are everywhere. “One dollah! One dollah!” You can buy them online, though they are admittedly much more expensive than one dollah. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a typical one:

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I was also approached by a perky 20-ish Japanese girl (her name tag was Japanese and her accent was unmistakable) who gave me a bizarre story about being in Vietnam on a business internship involving a project that required developing and selling souvenirs, and would I mind coming in to the store where she worked? I followed her in, having no more urgent priorities, and she proudly produced a bamboo spoon that I should buy. “You can eat soup with it!” she explained brightly. “Yes, I am familiar with the use of a spoon,” I replied, perhaps with unnecessary churlishness. I then broke her heart by regretfully informing her that she would have to complete her internship and return to Japan without any of my money.

We wandered for a while as a group, crossing an old covered bridge of some historical significance, and of course visiting a Buddhist temple or two. The best of these had a spectacular mosaic tile dragon statue in front of it.

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After lunch, everyone split up to do their own thing, which in Alice’s case meant shopping and in my case meant looking for places to take pictures. Hoi An sits on the Thu Bon river, and there’s a lot of activity on the river in the form of tourist boats, water taxis, and the like.

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The Thu Bon is also the channel by which the fishermen bring their catch to market in town. (I hope to God that they do not actually fish in the river itself; the town does not have a water filtration plant and so everything is flushed into the river.) Phil directed me to the fish market on the river, and I spent a happy hour or two taking photos there.

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Note the flags. We’re talking communist fish here.

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The market was bustling, crowded, and unsurprisingly smelled like a fish market. One thing that struck me was that every one of the vendors was a woman; market work is considered woman’s work, since the men go out to do the actual fishing. And hard work it is; there were a lot of careworn faces here. Here’s a gallery of several portraits that I took long distance with a telephoto lens; the subjects did not know that I was photographing them. (Click on the thumbnails to see the full size images.)

After I had been there for a while, it started to rain. Then it started to pour. It rained monsoon-like buckets for a 45 minutes or so, so I just meandered in the market and took a couple of shots out into the rain, like these two.

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It eventually let up enough for me to venture outside with a rain slicker and an umbrella that I had wisely brought along in my backpack. I rendezvoused with Alice and the rest of the group at the prearranged meeting point, she feeling well satisfied at having picked up some suitably classy gifts for the folks back home.

We returned to the hotel, lounged for a while, and came back to the town just after sunset to find some dinner and take in the night scene, which is lively. There’s a tremendous amount of activity both on the river and in the side streets; the shopping and the restaurant scene is going full blast, and everything is lit by lanterns. Boats on the river are all lit with lanterns as well, and there are floating candles drifting downstream. It’s a riot of light and color and yeasty activity.

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We are on our own tonight, so we will probably go back and wander around some more, weather permitting. We leave Hoi An and our snazzy resort hotel tomorrow morning to catch an early afternoon flight to the coastal city of Nha Trang for the next leg of our journey.

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On to Hoi An

If you are traveling in Asia for any period of time then there will come a point when a certain two words will strike fear in your heart: “Buddhist Temple”. There are a lot of them, and you may be sure that at some point you will feel that either you have visited every one or must feel vaguely guilty for not having done so. We hit that point yesterday morning on our way out of Hué when we stopped at a temple both whose name and history went in one ear and out another. I will grant that it was in a beautiful and serene setting, marked by a cool pagoda over looking the Perfume River. That’s about all I can tell you about it, so here are shots of the pagoda and the river scene that it overlooks.

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The colorful boat at the bottom is a dragon boat, the same one we were aboard the previous night for our folk music concert. The river is full of them; they are popular tourist attractions and also serve as houseboats for the owners.

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We walked down to the river bank from the pagoda and boarded “our” now familiar dragon boat, then set off down the river. No concert this time, just a few minutes of Zen as we motored peacefully down the Perfume River. Phil took the wheel for a few minutes, then asked if anyone wanted to try. You never want to pass up an opportunity like that — I have driven an ox cart in Thailand, mind you — so I jumped up and sat myself down, successfully navigating us down the river for about ten minutes, including passing under a bridge without actually hitting anything.

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Back on the bus, we left town heading for Da Nang and then Hoi An, the latter a center for crafts and our destination for the next three nights. The city gave way to countryside surprisingly quickly, and we were underway for well less than an hour, paralleling the coast before we found ourselves in a very rural area indeed, with the Tam Giang-Cau Hai lagoon on our right as a foreground to the mountains of Bach Ma National Park. The lagoon hosts a large number of traditional oyster farms, and the nets and poles stick out of the shallow water along a few mile stretch. I desperately wanted to stop the bus and take some photos but we were en route to a lunch reservation at a seafood restaurant out over the water where I might have another chance.

The restaurant, as it turns out, had a view of its own, as you can see here, and served us yet another spectacular eight course lunch.Hue IMG_7935-HDR-Pano

But I really wanted those oyster beds, and Phil — in typical OAT Tour Lead style — delivered. As we were finishing lunch, he whispered to me to follow him outside and, admonishing me not to tell anyone we were doing this, handed me a motorcycle helmet and led me to a motorbike. He got on, I got on behind him, and off we went, a mile or so down the road to a spot that afforded me these views.

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This sort of thing is one of the reasons we travel with OAT.

Lunch consumed, we continued Hoi An-ward. But along the way, we passed through a 4-mile long tunnel that brought us to the city of Da Nang, the largest city in central Vietnam. That’s a pretty well known name to my generation: Da Nang airport was one of the hubs of US military operations during the war, and at the war’s peak was the busiest airport in the world.  It’s still a major port and fishing center, and as you exit the long tunnel into the city you first cross, and then drive along, a river dotted with blue fishing boats. In Vietnamese tradition, many are decorated with stylized eyes at the front.

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We walked along the river bank and encountered two unusual (for us) sights: first, a man fishing in a coracle, which is basically a bowl that serves as a boat, i.e.:

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Phil informs us that the popularity of these devices — I keep thinking there should be a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker in there — stems from the fact that boats are taxed and these are not. So if you’ve got good balance and minimal space requirements, it makes financial sense. According to Wikipedia, the craft is actually of Welsh origin, where its name is — you might want to sit down for this —  cwrwgl. (That’s not actually as unpronounceable as it looks: the Welsh w is a vowel that is pronounced like oo.) Anyway, how they got to Vietnam is not clear to me; apparently they are used in Iraq and India too.

The other new sight to us was a method of fishing that I had never heard of: flour in a jar of water.  You take a jar (about the size of a peanut butter jar), fill it 3/4 with water and stir in a tablespoon or two of flour. Attach to a fishing line, twirl around and cast, then wait a moment and drag it back in. A fish (a small one, obviously) swims in to eat the flour and if you drag it back at the right speed it is stuck in the jar. This guy on the riverbank successfully demonstrated this technique to us, and of course a couple of us tried and failed. I had never heard of this technique… any fishermen reading this, have you?

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Rather more conventionally, a little further up the road we stopped at China Beach, one of Vietnam’s major resort areas. It’s a 20 mile stretch of sandy beach, a popular R&R venue for American soldiers during the war. Today it sports resort hotels along part of its length, but the stretch where we stopped was pretty deserted, save for a few coracles scattered along the beach and some fisherman pulling nets in the surf. You can see all the fishing boats anchored just offshore.

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We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon, but deferred going into town until this morning; I’ll write about that in a day or so. We are staying at the Hoi An Silk Village resort hotel, which is quite the most luxurious place we have ever stayed on an OAT trip. It’s spread out over about 10 “villas” of several very large rooms each, in a complex that includes two large infinity swimming pools plus a tastefully upscale shopping complex featuring local crafts — Hoi An’s claim to fame — at about twice the price that you’d pay in the town itself, barely a mile down the road.

What we did do, a couple of hours after arriving, was get a Vietnamese cooking lesson/demo from the hotel chef, who was a major league wise guy and quite funny to watch. Here are a couple of travel mates, Kim and Linda, getting a lesson in spring rolls..

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…and here we are, going full Iron Chef to end the day.

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All the Way to Hué

The dynast Nguyen Anh – he after whom nearly 50 million Nguyens are currently named — unified Vietnam in 1802, as I mentioned earlier, and the question arose as to whether he would keep the capital in Hanoi. One of the first foreign emissaries to present his credentials to Nguyen was the Mexican ambassador, Jose Valdes Bolano, who posed that very question. Nguyen famously replied, “No, Hué, Jose.”

(OK, I invented that conversation just to go for the cheap pun. If you don’t like it, go write your own damn blog.)

(Does it help if I tell you that the current Mexican ambassador to Vietnam is a woman named Sara Valdes Bolano? I didn’t think so.)

Nguyen did in fact make Hué the capital in 1802, and it remained such until the French showed up and started knocking over the furniture in 1945. It’s our first stop in what used to be South Vietnam, i.e. the part of the country south of the 17th parallel that defined the infamous DMZ. The contrast with Hanoi is striking, a legacy of the  contrasting paths of economic development that the North and the South took prior to the unification in 1975 when Saigon finally fell to the Communists. Hué has a population of less than 400,000, about one-twentieth the size of Hanoi, and yet has the feel of a fully developed Western city: a glitzy downtown with lots of neon and a thumping bar scene; lots of English language signage and stores that would be at home in any American mall; and (slightly) less random traffic. It’s an attractive town, threaded by the placid and scenic Huong (“Perfume”) River.

The historical centerpiece of Hué is the Imperial City, a.k.a. the Citadel, whose planning was begun by Nguyen around the time he took over. It sits near the river, facing southeast for both feng shui and political reasons, which is to say that it faces away from Beijing. In its heyday it was an enormous thriving complex, dominated by a fort with cannons but, very much like the Forbidden City in Beijing, containing over 150 buildings containing the residences of the royal family and their retinue, attendants, and hangers-on. It’s surrounded by a moat — formerly populated by crocodiles, per our tour lead Phil — nearly 10 km long.

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The Citadel started to fall on hard times when the Viet Minh (the forerunners of the Viet Cong) occupied it in 1947, and was pretty much devastated during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when both sides variously occupied or bombed the living hell out of it. There are only about 10 buildings left today. Fifty years later, the destruction is still a source of hard feelings among the families and descendants of the antagonists. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the subject of a fair amount of restoration. Much of what’s there is beautiful but it still contains a lot of overgrown fields.

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In keeping with a very Buddhist yin-yang, war-piece paradigm, we traded the Citadel for a nunnery, in this case a nearby small Buddhist nunnery housing ten nuns ranging in age from 16 to 73. Our guide was a 24 year old nun who had been there since the age of 16; she spoke no English (Phil interpreted) but served us a typically wonderful lunch — vegetarian this time — and answered our questions. You are well aware that male Buddhist monks shave their heads but it may never have occurred to you that the nuns do as well, though this is frequently hidden by their headpieces. It makes some of them surprisingly androgynous.  Our guide spends long days running errands, chanting, and going to college in town. She comes from a poor family — not uncommon among nuns and monks — and traveled a few hundred miles to be here.

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Religion, of course, is kind of a no-no in Communist countries, but the authorities here have lightened up a lot and about 20% of the population is observant of one or another religion, the most common (about 11% of the total population) being Buddhism as you would suppose. But there are others, perhaps the most oddball being Cao Dai (sometimes written Caodaism), which is a Bahai-like amalgam of all sorts of sorta-monotheistic stuff. It was founded right here in Vietnam in 1926 and claims something between 2 and 6 million adherents, almost all of them here. (If the higher number is accurate, there are as many Cao Dai followers in Vietnam as Jews in the US. No reports on whether they can find a decent corned beef sandwich.) Caodaists believe that the word of God has been revealed repeatedly through the writings of Earthbound prophets, whose numbers include Sun Yat Sen and — go figure this one — Victor Hugo. I mean, I know that Les Miz was a big hit, but c’mon.

I mention all this because we visited a Cao Dai temple, which I am happy to report was as loonball colorfully crazy as you would expect from a religion that encourages you to communicate with two of the their other revered figures — Joan of Arc and Vladimir Lenin — via seance. (If they ever adopt Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, I’m converting.)

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Our next religious experience was a somber one. Overseas Adventure Travel is part of the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports about 100 various social projects (schools, orphanages, etc.) in some 59 countries. They’ve given out something like $200 million, and a small part of each OAT trip cost is sent to them. Each such trip — and this is our sixth with OAT — includes a visit to a Grand Circle project, which yesterday was the Duc Son orphanage. Grand Circle has a provided computers, lockers, beds, sewing machines, and other stuff; we brought along gifts of school supplies. (Click on the thumbnails for the full size images.)

The orphanage houses 135 children, which is not exactly the right word since some stay into adulthood. The youngest are infants, and most have been abandoned. The place is run, heroically (there is no other word) by only 12 nuns. There used to be 18, but burnout is a real problem because the work is literally non-stop. The older kids help take care of the younger, which is the only way that such a place is even remotely workable. We were very, very impressed: the staff is nothing short of superhuman, and it shows in the kids’ behavior, which was raucous, cheerful, well-organized, and… normal. The kids receive Buddhist religious instruction, but not very extensively; although the staff are all strict vegetarians, they prepare and serve the kids non-vegetarian food in order to avoid any nutritional or developmental risks. That’s a big leap out the staff’s spiritual comfort zone and is one of the many measures of their extreme commitment. (The kids do get two “vegetarian days” per month, however.)

Of the 135 charges, 16 are handicapped in some way (we saw one Downs infant, being played with by a rambunctious non-handicapped boy of about 3). The orphanage receives gratis twice-weekly visit from a nearby doctor, another critical lifeline that makes the institution manageable, but only just. We left the place awed at the nuns.

Our final outing of the day (yes, this all happened yesterday) was a musical interlude. The Perfume River is home to a large number of touristy “dragon boats”, basically raft-like dual-hull houseboats decorated with dragon heads on the front.

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In this case Phil had chartered the boat and the owner family had brought aboard an ensemble Vietnamese folk musicians, who played some traditional stringed instruments, one of which appeared to be a Japanese 16-stringed koto. The other three were variously banjo- or violin-like, though each had only one or two strings. Here they are in action:

Note the gal who’s using teacups as castanets! They played and sang for about a half hour whilst we lay at anchor in the middle of the Perfume River. And when they finished they lit some candles in paper containers folded into lotus shapes, and one by one we set them adrift in the river…..

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So Long Hanoi, Hello Ha Long

I mentioned a day or two ago that we had visited the town of Bat Trang (not be confused with “batarang” which is that thing that Batman throws that always comes back to him). Like Tho Ha, it is a single-industry town, an economic monoculture built in this case on ceramics instead of rice paper. There is apparently a lot more money in the former than the latter: Bat Trang looks a lot more prosperous than Tho Ha, with wide streets and mostly non-decrepit buildings. No surprise there; rice paper is strictly a high-volume, low-profit commodity serving a local market, while ceramics attract tourists. Store advertise that they will ship, although you can always take the more adventurous “giant vases on motorcycle” approach like this guy.

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We visited one studio and were given a lesson on the process, no different than you might find in a ceramics art class anywhere. The big finish was sitting us down at hand-turned potters’ wheels to try our hands at making a bowl. One of our group was a ringer with some actual experience, who made quite a nice one, unlike my own, which resembled a large asymmetric ashtray. (And, uncharacteristically, even my off-kilter effort yielded a better result than Alice’s, which underwent gravitational collapse and ended up as some kind of unrecognizable alien artifact.

Our final visit in Hanoi was to a couple who, once upon a time, had owned 10 houses, all confiscated by the Communists under the aegis of so-called land reform. We were there mostly to admire their house – they had gotten one back – and to hear their tale of woe (which was quite genuine). We heard the family history and liked them a lot; they were charming people who had gone through some hard times when their country changed around them, and their lined and expressive faces told their story.


So we left Hanoi yesterday morning, making two stops en route to famously scenic Ha Long Bay: a small (nonmilitary) graveyard in the middle of an large otherwise empty field, and a large roadside craft store — the Humanity Center — that employees young handicapped people who otherwise have difficulty making a living.

The cemetery was an oddity to our eyes, located as it was in an empty expanse immediately adjacent to a highway and a rice field. Turns out there’s a good reason for this, namely that land is scarce. So you end up with a sleazy entrepreneurial cohort of what you might call “grave squatters”, analogous to Internet domain squatters: they buy grave-sized plots of land in areas where cemeteries are or will be sited and then gouge you for the price of plot if you want to be buried next to Uncle Trang. I guess you might also call it “plot scalping”. Thing is, feng shui is a very big deal here, so it might be very important indeed for you to be buried next to old Trang, or at least be facing in the right direction. So you’re gonna pay. I confess that I have a hard time personally relating to this particular problem, but hey, this is why we travel.
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So after three or four hours of travel we finally arrived in Ha Long, which over the past several years has started developing into a major tourist destination. And for good reason: the bay is stunning, dotted with nearly 2000 craggy, forested limestone islands. It’s an ensemble of postcard views, and I guarantee you that you have seen it a number of times in movies, including the 1994 classic Indochine and one or two James Bond films. It’s pretty much the archetypal view of Vietnam.

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We overnighted on what is billed as a traditional junk, which is a pretty big stretch. The Halong Secret is a metal vessel, not wood, though it sports the traditional scalloped sail of a real junk. It’s got about a dozen comfortable, compact staterooms, each with a full bath and an air conditioning unit. So, not exactly an ancient traditional vessel. It has a lot of company; the bay is filled with dozens of its cousins, particularly around sunset, all filled with tourists like us, ogling the spectacular view. The Secret was far from the largest such boat.

We motored among the limestone karst islands, soaking up the view, en route to the Sung Sot (“Surprising”) grotto, a limestone cave reachable by some 200 stairs, about halfway up the side of one of the islands. The ship’s tender brought us to shore and we made the sweaty trek up the stairs to the cave. It was enjoyable enough, not being greatly different from any other big cave (e.g., Luray Caverns in Virginia, the largest on the East Coast of the US), with spookily lit stalactites and such. It differed from those primarily in being high up on a cliffside rather than deep underground, which in turn meant that the interior was no less hot and humid than the surrounding bay. We’ve been in a fair number of caves; this is the only one that left us soaked in sweat.

Oh yeah… one other respect in which Sung Sot differs from most other caves is that, e.g., Luray was not used by the Viet Cong to store ammunition.

The tender ride from the beach back to the Secret was at about 5:30 PM, getting on towards sunset. The Secret raised its vestigial pseudo-junk sails to create a wonderful photo op as we approached, so here she is in her glory (and yes, this is a real photo).

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Back on board, we congregated for a sunset happy hour.

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By this time, no less than 30 other tour boats had congregated to admire the view; piloting those boats must be a nightmare with all this traffic. Everyone seemed to lay anchor here for the night.

I slept particularly well, Alice less so, no doubt because of the cinderblock softness of the bed, or possibly a pea under her side of the mattress. But we got up early enough to watch the sunrise, as well as an early-morning top deck Tai Chi session conducted by one of the crew members and attended by four women from our group.

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This morning we (and 30 other tour boats) motored back to Hal Long city itself to begin the next leg of our trip. I am typing this from Hanoi airport, waiting for our flight to Hue, the historical capital. So I expect that I will be reporting from there in a day or two.

 

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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