A Travellerspoint blog

A Trip to the Rice Bowl for one Final Serving of Vietnam

Mekong Delta day trip

sunny 85 °F

a147b485a1624fb7e129f4306b219d99_zps6c9c67f4.jpg
A day trip to the mighty Mekong River was my final sightseeing in Vietnam

For my final day of sightseeing in Vietnam, I decided to book a popular day trip out of Ho Chi Minh City, south to the Mekong Delta. This rural area of farming and fishing villages is the country's breadbasket -- or should I say rice bowl? The Mekong supplies the rest of the country with the majority of its food. In fact, Vietnam is now one of the world's biggest exporters of rice -- nearly half of its crop is sent abroad. Life is more traditional, here, our guide Hung explained. People wake up with the sun, work long hot days, and then go to sleep when it is dark.

e6b09b1fb5537c566b75c5c6d1ee422d_zpsc8ad2646.jpg
The Mekong River Delta produces most of the country's rice and other agricultural products

Another interesting fact is this is where the bulk of Vietnam's population growth is happening. The country has swelled to be the 13th largest population in the world, Hung said. The government has an interesting way of trying to keep the population down, though. If you are a government employee -- military, teacher, civil service, etc. -- you are permitted only two children. If you have a third or more, you will not be eligible for a promotion or raise, and may even lose your job! If you're in the private sector, though, you can have as many babies as you like. Vietnam's industries and agriculture were "de-Communistized" (my word) in 1986. Formerly, the government owned all the land and production facilities. It was given back to the people, in a sense, a couple decades ago to fuel economic growth, which it has. The country is still Communist politically, though. There is only one party and no official opposition. Economically, though, it is essentially Capitalist.

ed4ee316e315adab9af17a5df05333fe_zpsc264629c.jpg
After a 2 hour minibus ride, we transferred to a single deck cruise boat to cross the Mekong River

Our minibus load of day trippers include three other Americans, four Scots, a handful of Vietnamese, Italians, Danes and a sprinkling of other nationalities. I had a great time chatting with many of them -- particularly the Scots -- during the tour, and on the ride back. It took about two hours to drive to the river port where we would embark on a single-deck cruise boat. I was struck immediately by the muddy brown color of the Mekong. The long, winding river passes through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos before reaching Vietnam and emptying its accumulated silt into the sea. Our boat ferried us across the river to one of the larger islands in the river. There they had a few cheesy, Touristy activities lined up for us. These included a bee farm and coconut candy production facility. They were only mildly interesting, being the usual blatant attempts to sell products to a captive audience. Reading beforehand about them had almost made me reconsider taking the tour.

23333525ba2fef1a3fd45907205e08d7_zps9f3cd98e.jpg
Cruising the Mekong River

The next part was why I persevered, though. We boarded tiny boats paddled by two villagers each and holding just four of us passengers. We went up one of the narrow waterways of the delta for about 20 minutes. We were right down on the muddy brown water. Every shift you made with your body weight literally rocked the boat. On either side of us, coconut trees and other dense vegetation sprouted up, taller than man height. We spotted dragon fruit, jackfruit, and other products harvested by the villagers. The banks of the river glistened with wet brown mud, which they pack hard there to build up a barrier to control the Mekong's flood. A Vietnamese-American high school graduate was on our boat and she talked to our husband and wife team of paddlers. Apparently, doing this for the tourist trade is an important supplement to their income. They had been waiting two hours for their turn to take us on our 20-minute ride, for which they would earn 12,000 Vietnamese Dong. It was sobering to think that an amount slightly more than 50 cents could be such an important revenue source. That also explained why we'd seen so many young men eagerly paddling back to our starting point, so they could have a chance at another boatload.

b9caa2055e36f326c66ed00378d0ec0e_zpsaa756828.jpg
My favorite part of the tour was being paddled through a narrow channel in tiny boats by locals

Lunch was next, which meant a preset menu of rice, beef, and vegetables. We'd also had a nice snack of fruit at one of the earlier activities, so it was actually enough to fill most of us up. They gave you the opportunity to order (and pay for) other, more bizarre foods. These included "Elephant-eared fish" (looked like a blowfish), cobra, crocodile, and a particularly nasty looking river lobster. Thankfully, everyone at my table declined on the Man vs. Food opportunity. After lunch, we were given about a half hour of free time. Most of the group hopped on the ragtag bicycles the villagers had available to explore the island. I decided to wander around on foot to take some pictures. I was glad I did because it allowed me to see the delta area from a new angle. Much to my surprise, some of the homes were very modern -- sporting satellite dishes and colorful materials imported from the mainland. I asked Hung about it on the ride back. He said some of the villagers, such as those running the restaurant, had become comparatively wealthy from the tourist trade. Others have family members working abroad who sent back money to build or improve their family homes. And still others, may be government employees, who are well paid in Vietnam. I took a wrong turn going back and was the last from the group to arrive back at the restaurant. We boarded a diesel-engined boat and chugged noisily back through a bit wider of a channel to our cruise boat. From there, we recrossed the Mekong River, and piled back into the minibus.

9e35cc538ab8c31121ab991e4906b594_zps25fb7803.jpg
We also got a chance to wander around one of the islands in the river delta

I had enjoyed seeing a different side of Vietnam, away from its crowded streets, honking, and ever-present motorbikes. Getting down on the river, inches away from its chocolate milk colored surface, was quite the experience. Trading stories with the Scots and other travelers on my last sightseeing day was a nice way to decompress from my immersion into Vietnamese culture. It allowed me to step back and consider my nearly three weeks in Vietnam and Taiwan. I'd enjoyed the history and scenic beauty of both. The chance to walk the streets alongside them, and feel the fast-paced rhythm and energy of their daily life, was something photographs really can't capture. It is these memories I take with me on my way home to America.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07/02/2014 12:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam mekong delta Comments (0)

Revisiting the Vietnam War

My first day in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon

rain 84 °F

a3ac54fe4878c117fd9a1c01f7b94230_zps6ce48286.jpg
Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I actually slept in, today. I am not sure if that means my body is adjusting to it getting light so early, or if staying up kind of late last night after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City did it. Either way, I got a leisurely start to my sightseeing, today. That is so unlike me. Normally, I'm a crack-of-dawn, "time's a wasting" type of traveler.

930025c4e0fe746149b6b26c23c4ac39_zpsf459dca5.jpg
One of the meeting rooms in the luxurious palace

I started off with a walk to the nearby Reunification Palace. This former presidential mansion is a museum to the corruption and opulence of the South Vietnamese government. It has been left intact for the most part, but is clean and sparkling -- well maintained by their victorious Communist opponents. If you look at old photos or movie footage of the fall of Saigon, you ll doubtless see scenes of helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop. It certainly looked familiar on the outside. I enjoyed wandering the inside, too. The 70s details are there, from the style of furniture to the rotary phone sitting on a desktop. My favorite room was the Chamber of the Ambassadors, where newly-arriving diplomats would present their credentials to the President. The Japanese wood lacquer wall scene behind the desk was amazing. The propaganda here was more subtle than I expected, letting the lavish decorations and photographs of the rich and powerful hobnobbing with the government officials tell the tale.

8c4e89e471eea252f90f2ed008a3e362_zpsad60ef6d.jpg
Helicopter displayed on the roof helipad where the U.S. evacuated many as Saigon fell

I returned to my hotel to arrange an afternoon tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. I hadn't been 100% sure that was what I wanted to do, but the palace had whetted my appetite for Vietnam War sights. While I was at it, I booked the Mekong Delta day trip I'd been considering for tomorrow. I had time on my hands at that point, since the tour left shortly after noon. So, I decided to wander down towards the outdoor market, which is not too far from my hotel. I also had a full-blown, Vietnamese-style lunch with a God-awful number of dishes brought to my table. The pork was good, the rice and onion-tasting veggie were okay, the chicken was way too gristly, and the green, spinach-looking vegetables were not too appetizing. The soup was the worst dish -- such a change from yesterday's tasty, rice noodle soup in Da Nang. Overall, I would rate it a "bleh" on my scale. If I've said it once, I've said it many times: Anthony Bourdain I am not!

58e2a7cc06118b902a1d0a9d4e9ba0cf_zpse0f92370.jpg
B-52 bomb crater at the Cu Chi tunnels

It probably takes a military history buff to truly enjoy exploring the Cu Chi tunnel complex, about 70 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. This was a hotbed of the Viet Cong (communist insurgents, fight the U.S. allied South Vietnamese). Try as they might, the Americans had a tough time suppressing these guerrillas. One of the reasons for this is the elaborate tunnel complex they built to conceal and protect themselves from American attack. Our guide summed it up when he said the South Vietnamese ruled the area by day, when the fighters remained hidden underground, but the VC controlled it at night when they emerged to launch attacks against U.S. allied troops. The drive up there was long and bouncy, albeit in an air-conditioned minivan. It rained off and on most of the way up. My long spell of good weather on this trip seemed to be over. The downpour had stopped by the time we arrived, but the soaking gave the forest an authentic drippy feel, and the paths were muddy and full of puddles. It felt like a Vietnam War film as we walked into the tunnel complex.

71027d7c8e53450dbb56b277d2fc640f_zps9a3bd67d.jpg
One of the onsite guides in period uniforms demonstrates a tunnel where soldiers may pop up, fire, then disappear back into

The Cu Chi complex tries to do a faithful mix of preserving what is still there and recreating or rebuilding accurate, tourist-friendly fighting holes, tunnels, booby traps, bunker complexes, weapons and equipment production facilities, and so on. The highlight is -- without a doubt -- an up to 100 meter long scramble through dirt and cement lined rebuilt tunnels. You are a good 20 meters or so underground. There are electric lights every 10 meters or so, but it is dark, cramped, hot, and claustrophobic. Every 20 meters, there is a ladder for you to opt out of going further. I soldiered on until the site guide (dressed in an NVA uniform) advised me that it got really narrow after that point. Had I worn jeans instead of shorts, I probably would have gotten down on my hands and knees and finished it. Instead, bent over double wasn't going to work beyond that point for this well-fed American invader. So, I "tapped out" after 60 meters. Still, I was proud I got further than anyone else on my tour! The reconstructions of various VC booby traps was probably the next most interesting part after that. I never realized there were so many varieties, all intended to wound rather than kill, because that took additional soldiers out of the fight to treat or move the wounded.

2c495d529f6d3b90b2fd7a341f0d93fc_zps0dc3f4ba.jpg
One of the reproductions of booby traps employed by the VC guerrillas

Many of the bunker complexes had uniformed mannequins, dressed as guerrilla fighters. There were also a number of onsite guides dressed in either the trademark "black pajamas" of the rural VC insurgents, or the green uniforms of the North Vietnamese army. They were friendly and helpful to us visitors (unlike the real thing 40 or so years ago!), and willing to pose for photographs. There is even a firing range set up for those who want to pop off some rounds from the various weapons of the war, including machine guns. I deferred, as I'd fired all the American ones they had during my six year stint in the Army Reserve. I know, shocker. But I'm sure it wouldn't be as good as what I got to do while I was in the army, as any shots I'd heard while exploring the tunnel complex were single ones -- no full-auto blasts. An American tank that was taken out by a mine is also onsite, rusting away forlornly. You come upon quite a few bomb craters from B-52s -- photogenically filled with muddy water. There was even an outdoor theater viewing area for watching a 70s-era propaganda film produced by the Vietnamese government. It extolled the heroic qualities of the rural guerrillas of the Cu Chi area. When visiting places like this, I'm able to separate my political views and instead enjoy the raw details and experience of exploring a battlefield.

For being one of my only two days of sightseeing in the Ho Chi Minh area, it was relatively light on sights. I'd seen a lot in my more than two weeks in Asia, so far. Maybe I was slowing down, or maybe I wanted to focus on a few places rather than cramming in as many as possible. Tomorrow's day trip to the Mekong Delta will squeeze in quite a bit. So, I guess if I started the day sleeping in, there is nothing wrong with taking it easy for one day in old Saigon.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07/01/2014 22:24 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tunnels palace city vietnam saigon cu chi ho minh reunification Comments (0)

Has This Monkey Lost His Marbles?

Final Day in Da Nang

rain 85 °F

73a2c471c34c9f9559277326698dd88a_zpsbec2d560.jpg
Da Nang as seen from Monkey Mountain, aka the Son Tra Peninsula

Due to squeezing in both My Son and Hoi An on "Scooterback" day two in Da Nang, I had an extra day of sightseeing. I'd asked around the locals I'd met and they recommended Monkey Mountain and the Marble Mountains. Both are within easy taxi distance for travelers staying in Da Nang. Since any sightseeing outside in Vietnam's summer means sweating, I asked the hotel about keeping my room until 6 pm or so. My flight for Ho Chi Minh City did not leave until 740 pm, and they said I could have it for the equivalent of $7 US. Deal done, I would have a place to shower, though as it turned out, it wouldn't be because I was hot and sticky!

42e117897ba9df827ec73ee4c67ee05f_zps5deb25da.jpg
The Buddhist sanctuary atop Monkey Mountain

Monkey Mountain no longer has monkeys, I was told, but it does have a massive statue of Buddha overlooking the city from a hilltop. There are several shrines there, and it was thronged with worshippers on a Sunday morning. There is a great view looking back down at the city below. There is also a row of white statues of various divinities mounted on animals such as goats, horses, bulls -- you name it. The Son Tra peninsula, which apparently got its nickname Monkey Mountain by U.S. troops when they garrisoned it, would be a great place for a scooter ride. I was offered to drive one, but honestly, the drivers are simply too crazy here for me. I didn't want to spend my last few days in Vietnam in a hospital! It is very scenic, though, with wide curves of alternating beach and rocky shore overlooked by green hills thick with tropical vegetation.

851602af49438899d756d934dd88673d_zpse33d389e.jpg
Gorgeous scenery and winding roads may tempt the novice scooter driver, but I resisted...!

Lunch was next and I finally got around to the trying rice noodle soup. It is a staple of Vietnam -- their hamburger, so to speak. It was very good, actually. Like all the other restaurants, they were happy to accommodate my chopstick deficiency with forks and spoons. Other diners piled in what looked like fresh mint leaves and bean sprouts, but I thought I'd leave well enough alone. No use trying to play chef and spoil the pot! The real reason I hadn't tried the rice noodle soup yet was because one "soup joint" looks just like another. No menus, little plastic stools to sit on, and run by unhappy looking ladies. Okay, maybe the last part is an exaggeration. Truly, everyone has been very happy to do their best to communicate with a traveler who essentially couldn't speak a word of Vietnamese.

c1cc7269bf771072ac37774e3f26c6bc_zpse7927990.jpg
One of the caves in the Marble Mountains with Buddhist shrines visited by the locals

The Marble Mountains are along the shore in the opposite direction from Monkey Mountain. It takes about 10 minutes to get their by car (or scooter). They are called the marble mountains because that is where many of the local craftsmen quarry their stone. Although impressive to look at, "mountain" is an exaggeration. They are several hundred feet high peaks that jut up suddenly from the surrounding area. Think of them as land-based karsts -- like the island versions in Ha Long Bay. Stone steps have been carved up their steep slopes. The steps climb to various pagodas that have been built up there, along with scenic overlooks and a few caves. Inside the caves are Buddhist shrines, though one had a distinctly Cham figure carved onto a block of stone. I have asked everyone in both Taiwan and Vietnam how you tell the difference between a Buddhist and Taoist temple, and haven't gotten a satisfactory answer. Obviously, if it has a statue of a big-bellied, happy Buddha seated cross-legged, you can safely guess it is Buddhist. However, there are other divinities in the Buddhist faith and that is where the line starts to blur for me. I'm beginning to get the hang of identifying a Confucian temple, though I wouldn't bet my paycheck on the guess.

0b6484bb4871930fa55ddf36e5abcc6a_zpsee337f92.jpg
One of the flower-shrouded pagodas atop the Marble Mountains

It was fun to climb around and enjoy the different views and check out the various shrines and pagodas. The caves were often surprising in their size and nooks and crannies that opened up into a tiny temple with statue and offerings. I heard the high pitched squeaks of bats and finally spotted a cluster of them on the ceiling of one cave. Since these mountains were where the source of the stone for many of the souvenir statues you see around, the area atop the Mountains was well-stocked in stands selling all kinds of goodies, and cold drinks for weary climbers, as well. There we're quite a few other Westerners checking out the sights, too. It is always fun to listen in on their conversations to try to identify their nationality by the sound of their language. I heard French, Italians, Brits, and Americans. I still have difficulty distinguishing local Vietnamese tourists from Chinese or Japanese ones. The Vietnamese language has a very staccato sound. It is not sing-song like some Asian ones, or melodious like Italian or French. It has a kind if "ping-bong-bing-pong" sound. I don't mean that to ridicule the language. For example, I always say German sounds like "schleeben-schlieben-schluben" ring to it. I've always wished I could pick up languages easily. I admire those who can. Until then, I guess I will have to settle with doing imitations of how they sound...!

7546e22b50dff430b6f890d0439593e7_zpsc97a3655.jpg
My next stop: The beaches of Da Nang

I looked at my watch and it was still early. I'd done pretty much everything in Da Nang except for one last sight. Most people who know anything about Da Nang will connect it with the television show "China Beach," or if they're history buffs they'll know the U.S. Military had a rest and recreation base there. The beach was one place I hadn't hit, yet, and it was what the city was best known for -- in America, at least. I didn't really feel like swimming, but a stroll along the beach would be a nice way to wrap up my time in Central Vietnam.

Now, those who have been reading my blog faithfully might notice the lack of mention of rain. I have had very little rain on my trip, so far. Most days were bright and sunny (and hot, of course). This morning it had dawned overcast and pretty much remained that way all morning and into the afternoon. Some darker clouds floated overhead from time to time, but I'd seen no downpours. So, I felt safe leaving the poncho where it has been all trip -- in the bottom of the backpack. The beach isn't far from my hotel -- maybe a 20 minute walk. As I walked along the beach I checked out the fishermens' nets drying in their boats. I watched two men carry one out to sea about 30 yards, then one walked parallel to the shore, stretching it fully out. The two then headed shore to see what they could catch. I was curious, too, but that was when the first heavy drops began to fall. Within minutes, the sky had opened up. I walked quickly to the shelter of a palm tree, but they're really not much help blocking heavy rain.

832e146ab0267b688fccde5250c76447_zpsdd1f8ba9.jpg
Ignore those thunderheads at your own risk, Forrest...!

As I sat there getting soaked, I wanted to quote Forrest Gump, "One day it started raining and didn't quit for four months!" About that time was when I realized this shower wasn't going to pass. My dilemma fully hit me, then. My shoes, camera bag, wallet -- everything -- was getting soaked. By the time I got to the hotel, I was thoroughly drenched. Thank god I had kept the room for the afternoon! Can you imagine how awful sitting in the airport and plane would have been, soaking wet? As it was, I had to repack my bag to accommodate some dripping wet items. I had seen the beach, though, along with other choice sights from Central Vietnam. It was time to head south and wrap up my trip in Ho Chi Minh City, the former "Saigon", and teeming metropolis of this country.

Posted by world_wide_mike 06/29/2014 09:16 Archived in Vietnam Tagged beach monkey mountain vietnam china marble Comments (0)

A Day in Hue

Vietnam's answer to the Forbidden City impresses, while its trains don't...

semi-overcast 89 °F

f1ebbaf5ae7ce53501b8b8be68832d1e_zps1d62ba8b.jpg
A stone dragon decorates the entrance to a palace in Hue

By and large, I enjoy trains. They are almost the perfect conveyance. They tend to get you to your destination faster than a car could. They are slower than airplanes, of course. Their advantage over airplanes, though, lies in the fact you can get up and move about easier on a train. You also can enjoy the scenery sliding easily by your window -- something you usually can't do in a plane on account of cloud cover. There are exceptions, of course. I took a train in Egypt once which was like riding inside a paint agitator. On another one in Georgia, the air conditioning kicked on only well after it was underway. It cut off at every station...pity that I was on a route with frequent stops!

b3d9726d48f35e21ef18af486cc19f4d_zps1bd5dd57.jpg
The Imperial Citadel's long brick walls enclosing Hue's answer to Beijing' Forbidden City

To those less than comfortable trains, I have to add Vietnam's. I was hopping on the "Reunification Express" for a day trip north to the old capital of Hue. Pretty much all of Vietnam's trains run between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Some make more, some fewer stops. So, as the train pulled into Da Nang, I assumed it'd be a quick stop -- just long enough to offload passengers and take on new ones. All of their trains claim to be air conditioned. However, the conductors decided to save a few Vietnamese Dong and shut it off as it pulled into Da Nang. Thirty sweltering minutes later we finally were underway, more than a half hour late, at this point. This was crucial to me as the train was due in at Hue at 2:43 pm. Since most attractions close at 5 pm, I had a small sightseeing window.

9e09f0247b2f06b839cd538b8e1028e2_zps6fb66111.jpg
It was getting on towards evening when I began my sightseeing in the imperial city

Part of the sightseeing, though, would be the train ride itself. One impartial website claims the section I'd be riding was the most scenic in the world. After about a half hour, we pulled alongside the coast. It was indeed beautiful. Blue bays sparkled by our windows, attractively sprinkled with tiny boats bobbing on the ocean swell. We caught glimpses of gorgeous stretches of deserted and pristine beach. Green hillsides closed in and would snatch away our view for a few moments, then part their curtain and open the panorama, again. Much as I wanted to, though, taking pictures wasn't an option. The windows were heavily polarized, and quite dirty. Which leads me to the other reason Vietnam's trains fall short of the perfect mark. My return train was positively filthy. Every seat I saw was stained and looked like it'd been through one too many college frat party.

Ear buds and music are mandatory, too, as a Vietnamese train is every bit as loud as my fight from Hanoi to Da Nang had been. Kids are allowed to scream at the top of their lungs with no parental correction, or bounce in their seats, hammering on the seat back in front of them. I am beginning to think the description my guidebook had of Taiwanese parenting ("indulge children to the point it is developmentally harmful") might apply wider in Asia. I cranked the Genesis and Thomas Dolby and tuned them out, though. When the scenery switched from hillside and seascapes to rural Vietnamese villages, I soaked that up eagerly, too. I saw water buffalo wading neck deep in canals, neon green rice paddies, banana palms, and ramshackle villages. On my way back, I had the day's photos of Hue to pore over, select, and edit. So, I kept myself occupied for the three hours or so of each leg of the journey.

3387ccf8589886fcd3bb6c7e17631eb1_zpsfc3ea7c9.jpg
Rooftop decorations in Hue

When we pulled in to Hue, I exited the station and made a beeline for one of the metered taxis. In less than 10 minutes, I was standing in front of the imperial Citadel. This massive, walled complex is Hue's answer to Beijing's Forbidden City. It is huge and sprawling. You can duck away from the plentiful tour groups fairly easily and find a quite patch to wander away from the crowds. Some parts of the Citadel have been fully restored and sparkle with red and gold paint. Others are in a semi-ruined state, and have a romantic, crumbling feel to them. This was enhanced by the late afternoon sun's rosy tint. The tour groups stuck pretty much to the main pagodas and temples -- the highlights -- leaving large portions for the independent traveler to explore. I particularly liked the Royal Library where the Emperor would retreat from the bustle of his court to read or study. There were gardens, ponds, and winding pathways where you could lose everyone else and imagine the peaceful quiet of a royal reading session. Many of the pond surfaces were covered with water lilies. Fish surfaced and frogs splashed into the water, spooked by up your tread. A brief rain shower passed through the Citadel's grounds. As if in apology, a rainbow glittered as it receded into the distance. I wasn't the only one who overstayed the 5 pm closing time. It was nearly 6 pm before I finally made my way to the exit.

055d43ab11542421af63aeb514d2a62f_zps5eb08491.jpg
The Royal Library, where the ruler would retreat to for peace and quiet

I took a few more pictures of the walls, gates, and defensive tower. Families used the wide open spaces to fly kites, and a group of teenagers had set up a baseball game. Hue's citizens and guests used the gardens that encircle the walls for a sunset stroll. I evaded the frequent offers of a pedicab, motorbike rides, and taxis. I still had an hour and a half before my return train. So, I hunted through the shops clustering near the Citadel for a restaurant that looked acceptable. Nothing really stood out, so I took a chance on one that I hope my stomach won't have cause to regret tomorrow.

ce1cbed50bbb20adda59dcf87fa9d034_zps9c4c015c.jpg
Rainbow over the imperial city

My train ended up being an hour late, so I had even more time on my hands. There really wasn't much to do but sit in a cafe and swelter in the heat. Eventually, the train showed up, and I picked my way through the fleabag of a conveyance to find my seat. Vietnamese trains use a relatively random numbering system, so it is not as easy as it sounds. True to my usual luck, my seat was next to a bizarre elderly passenger. It had been a semi-crazed woman on the flight from Hanoi to Da Nang, who muttered to herself the whole time. This seat mate pressed his bare feet into my seat area, and took up the random muttering where the airline woman had let off. He also decided that pounding his calves, thighs, and anywhere else on his legs that wanted a good beating was a good idea. I just hope he doesn't decide to extend his Thugee-style massage services to me! But hey! I said I enjoy riding trains, didn't I?

168f76ed731ed8bd89e3c70b5f3e2130_zps9f7665c3.jpg

Posted by world_wide_mike 06/29/2014 01:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged train city vietnam hue imperial citadel Comments (1)

If You Can't Beat the Scooters in Vietnam, then...

Ancient Cham Ruins, Da Nang, and Hoi An

sunny 92 °F

df741e23455d755512b8d2ec2adba5f4_zps957076b5.jpg
Scooters rush across the Dragon Bridge in Da Nang, Vietnam

I'd planned my Vietnam trip dividing my time between the north, center, and south equally. After Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, it was off to Da Nang by plane. Distances are huge in this north-south oriented country. Given a choice of a more than 12-hour train or bus ride, or a one-hour flight, it was an easy decision. What's more, domestic flights in Vietnam are very affordable, at less than $100 a piece. I do have to say my fight from Hanoi to Da Nang was the noisiest I have ever been on in my many decades of flying. Tons of kids, and passengers that shrieked every time we hit an air pocket, made me put in the ear buds early and try to tune out my fellow passengers.

a85902be9582ab2e9169c8a4aaf9f380_zps58c4071c.jpg
A couple dragons carved by the ancient Cham people in the Cham Architecture Museum

A quick taxi ride to my hotel, and I unpacked for my three days in central Vietnam. The only real sight I'd planned for Da Nang itself was the Cham Architecture museum. I had only an hour left before closing time, so I hopped a cab there to maximize my time. The Cham are the cousins/enemies of the Khmer, who built Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat. The statues and stone carvings in the museums are very similar to what I'd seen in Angkor years ago -- and you may have seen Angelina Jolie dodging around in the movie Tomb Raider. I would see similar carvings the next day when I visited the ruined Cham temple complex at My Son.

c2f3437fbb370e3eeea9d10844e9f917_zpsa22f4a99.jpg
A line of asparas -- Hindu dancing priestesses -- in a Cham carving

I wandered around the museum, snapping photos at depictions of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahman (Hindu gods), and their assorted colleagues and servants, such as the great bird Garuda, water snake Nagas, and temple lions. Halfway through, I did a Homer Simpson and remembered my tripod allowing better shots in the museum's low lighting. The museum director was getting interviewed by a TV crew. The camera man laughed when he shook hands with him and joked, "Ho Chi Minh." The director did indeed have that Colonel Sanders of KFC appearance. I saved the gift shop for last as I'd glimpsed some pretty cool looking statues in there while wandering the museum. I thought they'd be ticked off since I was shopping 5 minutes before closing. On the contrary, the two ladies were eager to sell, and cut the price of the aspara statuette (Hindu priestess dancer) that I wanted in half. I could even pay by credit card, which for me always makes the deal better.

fb32ae8f7d6a8dc131923a240e2a9900_zps8383cc15.jpg
Da Nang's colorful Dragon Bridge

On the way back to my hotel I wandered along the riverfront. Da Nang's riverfront was the first true pedestrian-friendly place I'd strolled in either Vietnam or Taiwan. Joggers, parents with babies in strollers, and families all enjoyed the wide brick pavement, river views, and pretty slanting, late-afternoon sunlight. I wandered out onto the Dragon Bridge with its gaudy yellow stylized dragon snaking its way along the bridge's uprights. Colorful boats were lined up along the opposite bank, which are used for evening river cruises. Returning to the river walk, I came upon a half dozen clusters of men encircling paired chess players in friendly competition. At first I thought it was checkers, but it was later explained to me the flat disks represent chess pieces. Another interesting difference was they use the intersections of the board's grid -- not the inside of the squares themselves -- for placement of the pieces. A friendly Vietnamese college student wanted to practice his English, so offered to walk along with me and explain what I was seeing. He pointed out the modern marble and glazed ceramic statues, and identified each and recounted the story behind them.

eb4f400c9eda450ce9d0cbed7a524cd3_zps61a27442.jpg
Men crowd around one of the chess games going on along the river walk in Da Nang, Vietnam

I was the beneficiary of an even more generous offer by a local the next morning. Learning of my plans to purchase a tour to My Son ruins, Van offered to take me there (and my planned destination for that day, Hoi An) for free. She said shed always wanted to visit My Son, and if I paid her entrance fee, she'd shuttle me around. Plus, her friend -- an American Vietnam War vet who'd married a local and lived in Hoi An -- could join us when we got to that town. One thing holding me back was the prospect of buzzing through Vietnam's chaotic traffic on the back of a motorbike. Traffic lights are few and far between, and routinely ignored where they do exist. Imagine every intersection in town is a four-way stop -- without the stop signs, and everybody thinking it is their turn -- and you have some picture what traffic is like in Vietnam. It works, though, because drivers defer to interlopers once they get a nose in, unlike in the U.S. where there'd be more T-bones than in a Brazilian steak house if anyone tried that.

a328292a8ff1856aa2841792a09cc0d5_zps46226f8d.jpg
Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam

So, should I? I decided that part of international travel is experiencing another culture. And the scooter is definitely part of Vietnam's culture. Countless other travelers have hopped on the back of a motorbike and survived the experience. I figured I liked the ring of "worldwidemike" better than worldwidewimp, so decided to take Van up on her offer. She assured me she was a good driver, not the type to barrel along recklessly. There were definitely dome butterflies when we took off into Da Nang's whirligig of traffic, especially when we made left turns in the face of an onrushing phalanx of cars, trucks and scooters. Van proved true to her word, driving as cautiously as I could have hoped for during our day of her taxiing me around.

9ff8eefe21345118c4f1af203c5a7a57_zps96beceea.jpg
Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam

My butt was pretty sore, though, an hour and a half later, when we finally pulled up at the visitors center in My Son. I should have popped a couple of the Ibuprofen I'd brought along on the trip beforehand. My 51-year-old body and my previous herniated disk meant anything after the first half hour on back of the bike was distinctly uncomfortable. It wasn't sharply painful, just a nagging wish to be able to stretch my legs from their position. So, it felt good to wander the museum at the visitors center, and then walk down the path of paving stones to the ancient ruins.

9f559cb8336ca8d204c7d20f589f18d3_zpscaf54ec3.jpg
Cham statues carved into the face of ruined temples at My Son, Vietnam

Although not as sprawling or as intact as Angkor Wat, the temple complex at My Son was much bigger than I'd expected. You walk from the various groupings of ruined temples as opposed to driving between them in Cambodia. Some of the temples are merely vertical piles of the reddish bricks the Cham used to construct their temples between the 4th and 10th century A.D. Others are semi-ruined shells with sandstone carvings of Hindu gods, demons, and animals from their mythology lined up on the outside. Still others are fairly intact, with interiors you can enter and gaze upward at their corbeled vaulted ceilings. Lines of apsaras, those lithe priestess dancers, cavorted in sandstone and brick in rows along the exteriors. Pacing from temple to temple was often shaded from the bright sun by the encroaching forest, but it was still muggy and hot. Sweat sprung out from every pore on my skin, it seemed, but the humidity defeated my body' attempt to cool itself. An occasional breeze was a welcome respite -- more welcome than the swigs of my by now lukewarm water.

66e40ac3fb0fd4c6fd9a1b230b854bf7_zps4089ad6e.jpg
Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam

I hate keep comparing My Son to Angkor, but they are similar. This site is also a UNESCO World Heritage one, but does not have as much of that strangling, vine and tree-covered feel of a lost city being reclaimed by he jungle. The temples are more in forest clearings, and sunlight strikes reddish fire from the bricks. The richly-carved temple exteriors are highlighted in bold relief by the sun's rays. My favorite exterior carving was the row of growling, befanged dogs guarding Temple Complex G. A couple of the complexes are more ruined than others, though. The cause of their destruction is mostly bombs that were dropped by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. One of the several tour groups paused nearby at one of these sites, and I listened in on the guide's English commentary. It struck me as a distinctly one-sided view of the events. Van wondered why anyone would purposely destroy a historic sight like My Son. I cautioned her that there are two sides to every conflict, that it takes two to make a fight. Does the fault lie with the combatant who dropped the bombs? Or does the side who made the conscious decision to shelter amidst a historical treasure share the blame? I drew a parallel to the Iraq War, where America had the initial policy to not target mosques. The insurgents seized upon that to store weapons and hide there. Whose fault is it when subsequent air strikes are launched against those mosques? She said my point made sense.

38c3775453eee0a72de3e83a94e7ab34_zpsd2e2f794.jpg
My favorite carvings at My Son, Vietnam

We concluded our visit by watching a local group perform a few traditional Cham dances. It was interesting to see the asparas I'd seen in the museum and at the site come to life in the form of slender costumed dancers. Their movements exactly mimicked the poses of the carvings I'd seen. Van was amused more by the male dancers who tried to match the young girls' grace. I thought they did well, except when they tried to conclude the performance by hoisting one of the girls high in the air. Their struggles proved they needed either needed a little more practice or some additional protein in their diet!

4ab287e9858b449ebefb40817f66df85_zps9a1dc48b.jpg
Like temple carvings come to life, locals perform traditional Cham dances

My backside wasn't looking forward to getting back on the motorbike. So, I actually welcomed the brief rainstorm that forced us to take shelter in a cafe for about 15 minutes. Van had made the trip to Hoi An on her scooter many times, but never from My Son. She made a wrong turn or two and added a bit of time to the trip. It was no biggie, though, as I was getting used to riding on the back of her bike. Or numb. One or the other! We arrived at Hoi An as the sun was coming out in the early afternoon. This is another -- you guessed it -- UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the ancient ports of Vietnam, and the Old Town is well preserved with intact homes of 17th century merchants, temples, and charming covered bridges. I mentioned to Van that we may run into the Australians from my Ha Long Bay cruise, as they were staying here. Sure enough, within 5 minutes of entering the Old Quarter, I spotted them having lunch in a cafe. We connected and shared stories a bit. Then it was on to our own exploration of Hoi An.

1aa5c925acaf335304f983f7329bd1d3_zps61b6d64b.jpg
The river is at the heart of the ancient port town of Hoi An

There were plenty of tourists -- including Western families with young children -- exploring the streets, as well. It was relaxing to stroll the streets, shop a bit, check out the historic homes, marvel at an ornate temple, and stop for a cold drink when it grew too hot. Van's American friend, Richard, wouldn't be able to join us until dinner. So, we killed time while I took pictures of the houses, riverfront, and colorful temples. Once I met him, Richard proved to be an amazingly informative insight to Vietnamese culture. He teaches English at a handful of local schools and maintains a friendly relationship with his former students, which include Van. Not only has he married a Vietnamese lady, he has built a home for his in-laws, and fully immersed himself in the culture. We talked on and on, and it became obvious to me why he is so well loved by his students. He is a caring leader, who consciously sets out to improve the lives of those around him.

3d9257970e21316790db55b72b4e35c2_zps8644b16c.jpg
Flower-lined streets are a feature of the charming Old Town of Hoi An

Our night ride back the short distance to Da Nang was uneventful. Vietnamese love to decorate their bridges, Las Vegas style, with neon lights. It made for a colorful kaleidoscope of a ride back to my hotel. Van and I joked about the looks the other locals on scooters gave us. She said they probably thought I was her uncle teaching her how to drive a motorbike. I wondered if they were thinking I was some old, Western dude fishing for a young, Vietnamese bride, instead. The little kids waved when they saw my Western face, while the young men honked their horns and grinned. I thanked Van as I creakily dismounted for motorbike, and handed back her extra helmet. I was tired and sore. It had been a full day, though, and it was glad I accepted her offer and took the risk of a day of sightseeing in Vietnam on scooterback.

2609ae0d9101ca207e006aaa754289b9_zpsaf285230.jpg
Sun sets on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An

Posted by world_wide_mike 06/28/2014 09:47 Archived in Vietnam Tagged my son river walk bridge vietnam dragon scooter hoi an cham da nang Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 47) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 »