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Vietnam

Peace and Beauty on Ha Long Bay

Week and a Half in Vietnam Starts with a World-class Sight

semi-overcast 86 °F

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Sunset on Ha Long Bay

It is peaceful, now. I'm sitting on the top deck of my boat looking out over the calm waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. A breeze lessens the stuffy humidity as I listen to the whir of cicadas and the distant chugging of a motorboat fading away into the distance. The waters are a jade green, deeper in the shadows of the massive limestone islands called karsts, which jut up all around the bay. Each karst looks like the rounded, jungle-clad peak of a mountain looming tall above the waters. Where vegetation hasn't sprouted, it's exposed stone faces are a mix of khaki, gray, and dark cracks rippling across their surface. The other six passengers, Aussies and Irish --guarantors of an enjoyable time, are still sleeping off yesterday's fun. Several of the crew silently practice tai chi on the deck, their graceful movements seemingly in harmony with the scenic beauty all around. The smells of breakfast drift up to me and I remember yesterday's sumptuous meals, as we were plied with more and more exquisite food until we could take no more.

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Although there are plenty of peaceful moments, you are never too far from other cruise ships on Ha Long Bay

It isn't food that draws travelers to Ha Long Bay, though. The striking beauty of the wide green expanses of water, dotted with almost 2,000 jungle-clad islands, summons millions from around the globe each year to Vietnam. The scenery prompted UNESCO to declare it a world heritage site in 1994. The seven of us (all of us backpackers at heart) arrived on the boat yesterday around noon, and were wowed by the accommodations, which were luxury class. We had the added bonus of a more than half-empty boat, so the crew of the Marguerite Garden was waiting with a smile whenever your drink was empty or you needed anything. I'd booked my cruise on the internet through Halong Best Cruises (www.halongbestcruises.com). They were quick and responsive to all my questions and requests. I paid a deposit for my cruise through a web invoice, and after the cruise was over, I paid the balance when I was dropped off at my hotel in Hanoi.

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Our cruise ship, the Marguerite Garden

Our guide, Tien, entertained us with stories and information from Vietnam's past on the four-hour minivan shuttle from our hotels to the dock. He taught us a little formula he'd created to remember the different phases of Vietnam's history. He was flexible with our schedule, too, adding more to our itinerary due to our small group. He wanted to make sure we enjoyed ourselves first, and worried about how much time we were taking second. I'd read reviews on the internet about Ha Long Bay guides who barked at passengers if they strayed from their side. Tien was the opposite, and laid back. He saw that we were all experienced travelers who didn't need hand holding. In my case, that meant he never frowned when I often lagged behind while taking dozens of photos of the gorgeous views. He was always waiting with a smile on his face, catching me up on anything I may have missed. Later, he and I discussed history, and he seemed genuinely interested in tips from a teacher on how to make the past more relevant and interesting to his groups.

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Close up of the limestone karsts that make the scenery of Ha Long Bay so special

My cabin aboard the Marguerite Garden was sparkling, spacious, and more than you could ask for aboard a relevantly small ship.I had windows that looked out on both sides of the ship, the most comfortable bed I've had yet on this trip, and a super-clean and cool-looking bathroom that exceeded Western standards. The air conditioning was cranking when I arrived, and it was a welcome blast of comfort in the muggy afternoon. Since it was only a two-day, one night, sailing, I unpacked only a bit of my things. I could feel the ship get underway almost immediately, so I snagged my camera bag and went up on the top deck to enjoy the view. One of the things that struck me immediately on our transfer to our cruise boat was the sheer number of ships plying Ha Long Bay's waters. Tien told us that 2 million visitors come to experience its majestic scenery each year, and that more than 500 boats are registered to accommodate them. Most of the 200 that do overnight cruises seemed to be smaller three dockers, like ours. Some were much larger, though, and I was happy we had only our seven passengers to offload onto our tender, not the hundred or so I saw others dealing with. That also meant we had a much more intimate visit to all of the sights, such as Suprise Cave, kayaking, and more.

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Magnificent scenery in Ha Long Bay

We were greeted with an amazing lunch by the gracious Marguerite staff (www.tonkincruise.com). Halong Best Tours had queried me for dietary requests ahead of time, and Tien had confirmed them as he'd picked each of us up at our hotel. I told them seafood made me ill, which although technically not an allergy, is the truth! We also had a vegan, vegetarian, and a chicken allergy on board and the kitchen and wait staff never made a mistake on what food they gave us. We were plied with course after course, and sometimes that meant three different offerings for each course to suit our requests. The food was fresh and tasty, and gave me the added legitimacy of trying local, Vietnamese dishes. I tend to have to force myself to do that on my trips -- Anthony Bourdain I am not! The best dish of them all, in my opinion, was the chicken curry we had for one course in that evening's dinner.

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Suprise Cave -- our first stop on our sightseeing list

Our first sightseeing stop -- besides simply cruising through the jade green waters admiring the incredible scenery -- was Surprise Cave. It lived up to its name, being a series of three caverns that are progressively and dramatically larger. They are covered in stalactites and stalagmites, and artfully lit up with orange, green, and blue lights. A paved pathway leads through the caves, slick with the drip of water seeping through the limestone ceiling. Tien explained that more columns are being formed by this process all the time at a rate of one inch per year. When I'd read in the description of the cruise about a cave visit, I had no idea how impressive it would be. Although it wasn't as massive as the Skocjan Caves I'd visited in Slovenia, it was an unexpected scenic bonus...one could say a "surprise" (which is indeed how they got their name).

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We filed back on our little diesel tender, which ferried us from the ship to all of the sights. Our next stop was an island which had steps leading to its summit, which we would hike to, and then a beach to go swimming in to cool off. The views going up and down the steps were spectacular, with a half dozen ships clustered attractively nearby in the bay. Although I'd been hoping for clear blue skies to enhance Ha Long Bay's scenery, we had a somewhat overcast day, instead. Nevertheless, it was not raining and miserable, like it had apparently been for several days before. It was incredibly muggy and hot, though. The water on the beach was not the clearest or cleanest, but it was refreshing. While we were treading water, I spotted a group of monkeys further down the beach. Me and the Irishmen, Will, went over shortly to investigate and get some photos. Turns out they were Golden Monkeys, and had been drawn to a sack of rice that had broken open and was scattered on the ground. A dozen tourists snapped photos of them eating, cavorting, and doing the X-rated things monkeys tend to do.

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Golden Monkeys happily tear into a spilled sack of rice

Kayaking was next. I had not been in a kayak in more than a decade, so I was glad I was paired up with Tien. I took the risk of capsizing and brought my camera along, and am so glad I did. Some of my favorite photos from Ha Lomg Bay were taken while paddling on the water, including a couple sunset ones I'll treasure. I also took some good photos of my shipmates. Not being a master at kayaking skills, I managed to soak myself with repeated drips from the paddle. That was a small price to pay for the peace and calm of gliding through isolated coves in Ha Long Bay, far from the chugging of diesel motors. We watched a falcon glide through the air, keeping a sharp eye out for fish to swoop down upon. A few of us spotted immense jellyfish floating listlessly along, a patch of pink amidst the jade green waters. By the time our kayaking was done, my body was rudely reminding me of my 51 years. Kicking and screaming is my preferred method of accepting my age, but this is one battle I may concede. My airline back injury combined with being in my sixth decade of life (hmm...I do NOT like how that sounds) is telling me kayaking may not be my cup of tea -- despite it being a beautiful and enjoyable experience.

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Two of my Aussie shipmates enjoy our kayaking

With the setting of the sun, our first day on Ha Long Bay was drawing to a close. The shower felt wonderful, the meal was sumptuous, and the company of my shipmates was jovial. As darkness fell, we camped out on the top deck in cushioned lounge chairs. All around us, the other boats lit up their lights. We could see the blacker bulks of the karsts looming over us set against the midnight blue of the sky. We all felt like we were staying up late into the night, swapping stories, but everytime one of us looked at our watch we remarked how early it still was! I was glad to hear them say it, as most of my companions were still in their 20s. We were all happy we were on the Marguerite Garden, though, instead of the neighboring ship blasting out karaoke. It was way before midnight when we all retired for the evening. Will vowed to stay up to watch the World Cup soccer game in the bar, but admitted next morning he fell asleep at halftime.

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Nightfall in Ha Long Bay

I think I was the first one up the next morning. When I peeked out my cabins windows, I saw some blue sky. So, I figured I'd better get up and about before it disappeared. It was only the tiniest slice of blue when I went up on deck to take photos. However, the sun would seem to try to break through all day long. After breakfast (only slightly less massive), we boarded the tender again to go explore a hidden cove in a rowboat. We got to be "lazy boat people" -- as one kayaker was overheard describing us -- while our Vietnamese rower glided us along through a cave-like overhang and into a pool of calm. The circular cove was about 100 yards across, and tropical vegetation grew from the shore up the slopes of the surrounding island like a giant green bowl. Equally green was the perfectly still water, disturbed only by the sluice of our rower's oars. It was a lazy start to our final morning in Ha Long Bay.

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Rowing through what appears to be a cave entrance but is actually a way into a hidden cove

Next, it was back to the boat, which was soon underway and threading its way through the dappled pattern of karsts in the bay. We took a sinuous route that maximized the scenery, and I remained on deck nearly the entire way back, taking photo after photo. We never did get that clear blue sky, but I have a feeling that it is hard to have bad views on Ha Long Bay. We passed by a number of the floating villages, where fishermen have made their homes. Some cater to the tourist business, but most retain their traditional lifestyle of fishing for a living. Tien and the tour representative, "Mr. T," described their method of staking out nets at high tide and then letting the falling water level trap fish, crabs, and other sealife for their meals. We saw the families in their boats, on the shores of the karsts, and repairing nets aboard their floating shacks, going through motions their ancestors had for generations.

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Rowboats approach the floating homes of some of the traditional fishermen of Ha Long Bay

As an appetizer for lunch, we were taught how to make spring rolls, and then given a demonstration by the chef on how to carve vegetables into decorative flower shapes. Our final meal on board was the equal of all the others, and then we gathered our things and said goodbye to the crew. I would highly recommend the Marguerite Garden to anyone looking for a boat to sail on Halong Bay. They were friendly, accommodating, and such gracious hosts that we never felt unwelcome. Tien was a great tour guide, too, and any future cruisers would be lucky to draw him as a leader. To give an example of the devotion he puts into his job, he wakes up at 3 am in the morning to study Spanish, so he can better serve future guests. He changed the drop off point for my Aussie friends without any hesitation to better ensure they made their flight that day to Da Nang.

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Traditional fisher families work and sometimes live on the shores of the limestone karsts

It was sad to say goodbye to the Aussies, though we may meet again in Da Nang later this week. It was also tough to say goodbye to our boat, too, and the brilliant jade waters of Ha Long Bay. As the humped backs of the karsts faded into a shadowy, blue distance, I tucked away the memory of a peaceful morning on the deck of my boat. Next time I hear the whir of a cicada, I won't think of an insect in a tree. Instead, I'll remember wide jade waters and jungle-clad limestone peaks sharing the moment with me.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 08:43 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cruises vietnam best cave garden bay long halong ha surprise marguerite Comments (0)

Hanoi's Test

A lesson in traveling to big cities

sunny 88 °F

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Hanoi, lit up at night, around Hoan Kiem Lake

I'm not the type of traveler who lives for the vibe of a big city. The crowds, the hustle, and the urban landscape is not a draw for me. Give me a smaller historic town, a scenic area, or something more manageable, and I'm happy. Part of the reason I'm traveling north to south In Vietnam is to put off the teeming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City till the end. Of course, Hanoi is no slouch, either. A city of 6.5 million, it has its crowds and bustle, too. I was staying in the Old Quarter, too, which is probably the most chaotic area in the city.

So, my first night in Hanoi I was determined to walk around and get a feel for its rhythm. The first thing I discovered is it is Taiwan's twin on using the sidewalks for everything except walking. Mom and Pop restaurants set up tables and chairs, racks of merchandise are pulled out onto the sidewalk, and of course, scooters park there. I took it easy on myself and simply walked one direction on my street until I found a cafe that looked nice. After a drink, I walked back. It was pretty crazy, with people, bicycles, cars, and scooters all in motion. I'd read that to cross the streets you simply walk out into the street at a steady pace. The traffic will flow around you. I cheated a bit on that and waited until one direction was clear, and then made my move. It worked, and I felt fairly confident crossing the little side streets after my first evening of walking.

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Hanoi's outdoor vegetable markets

My second day in Hanoi was after my Ha Long Bay cruise had dropped me off around 430 pm. I wanted to squeeze in some sights in the later afternoon and evening, and maybe in the morning before my 1 pm flight. Back home, I'd made a list of things I wanted to see, but you know what they say about how plans survive contact with the enemy! The only things still open after 5 pm on my list were the Don Xuan covered market and Hoan Kiem Lake. I would be doing more than just walking back and forth on my hotel's street today, so I studied the map. I took a wrong turn almost immediately but realized it and adjusted on the fly. I was able to find the market with no problem. My guidebook said it stayed open till 6 pm, but at 530, most of the stalls were closing up.

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The Hoan Kiem Lake temple at night

The challenge would be to navigate from the market (which was maybe 5 minutes from my hotel) to the lake. The lake was a good 20 minutes away, through twisting turning streets that sprayed forth a never-ending fountain of scooters. So, how did I do? Remember, I consider myself to have a relatively good sense of direction. To use my 7th graders' terminology, it was an epic fail. Don Xuan street was supposed to be a straight shot to the lake, but every block it did a slight jog. By always veering left on those jogs, I ended up going east instead of south. When I ran into an elevated roadway that was obviously impassable on foot, I gave up. That's when the Hanoi Humbling began. The Old City's streets are not on a squared grid pattern. They are a geometry teacher's dream, with more angles and diagonals than you would think possible in 360 degrees. I proceeded to spiral in towards my hotel, going first north, then west, east, south, west again, until I'd probably drawn a Spirograph of rings around it. I always felt I was one last turn away from my street. Like the mirage of the water patch on a summer freeway, it kept receding into the distance. Of course, since I am typing this, I did eventually find my way back. I am not still wandering out there in the Old Quarter today, like a modern day Captain Ahab hunting the elusive white hotel.

The most amazing thing to me, though, was after refreshing myself with a cold drink in my hotel room, I was ready to regroup and try again. I picked out a new route and was determined not to be defeated by Vietnam's streets. Yes, I could have hopped in a cab and said, "Hoan Kiem Lake, Jeeves..." The point was to get my bearings, to hope for serendipity, to find not just my way around, but the lay of the land. And this time, I was victorious. Along the way, I stopped and purchased a couple souvenirs for my friends Allen and Joel, but within 25 minutes, I was walking along the shores of the lake. It was dark by that time, but that was a bonus as it gave me a chance to get some shots of the city lit up at night. There is an island in the center of the lake with a temple, and it was floodlit a rich golden color. I set up my mini tripod as curious Vietnamese watched me. Joggers, walkers, and strollers all circled the path running around the lake. I looked at the restaurants, cafés, markets and such in the area and realized this was the area I should have stayed in. It is a perfect mix of amenities and sights. I double-checked my map and plotted a new route back to the hotel. My favorite moment came when a group of French tourists were hovering nervously on the street corner, unsure when to cross -- like wildebeests wary of crocodiles lurking in the river. I sailed past them, and could hear their voices murmuring as the traffic flowed around me while I crossed to the other side. It was hard not feeling smug, but I admit I'd did. A little. And I would pay for that tomorrow morning. My minor league victory would soon meet a major league challenge In Hanoi.

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The Don Xuan covered market

My hotel said I should head to the airport at 11 am, so that gave me a few hours to see Hanoi's sights the next morning. Most opened at 8 am, but the Temple of Literature (what middle schoolteacher could resist?) opened at 730 am. I decided to do taxis for the most part to save time. At a few dollars a pop, there's not a lot of reason NOT to use them in Hanoi. The air conditioning and no chance of getting lost is an added bonus. The temple complex takes up a huge city block, with a brick wall around it and a series of courtyards going from the front progressively further back. It is dedicated to the great teacher....Confucius -- not me -- in case you're confused. It was peaceful and used wide pools and gardens to add to its air of tranquility. Not only Confucius was honored, but a number of acclaimed scholars and even three kings who'd supported Confucianism and embodied his ideals of a ruler taking care of his subjects like a loving father had monuments or shrines in their honor.

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The Temple of Literature inHanoi, Vietnam

The Military History Museum looked a short walk away on the map, so I got my bearings upon exiting the temple, and headed that way. While walking alongside the walls of the temple complex, Vietnam sunk to a new low, in my book. Seeing the traffic jam ahead of them on the street, a steady stream of scooters drove up on the sidewalk to crowd towards the intersection..I was sorely tempted to clothesline a few, but figured a tangle with the police could cause me to miss my flight. But seriously! Where do you draw the line if you're going to take away the sidewalk and make it simply another lane? It is arrogant and rude, considering your own personal schedule more important than the safety of others. It is too easy to fall back on being "tolerant" of other cultures, and say, "Well, that is just the way they do things..." No. Were scooters part of Vietnamese culture in the Middle Ages? During Chinese rule? Heck, during French rule in the early 20th century? No. The Vietnamese need to simply say "enough is enough" -- like they are currently doing with drunk driving -- and stop it.

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Next to the Military History museum is a tower built to honor the country' s defenders

Okay, I warned you that I would have a "Major League" test crossing the street. It happened when I got to that jammed packed intersection they were driving on the sidewalks to get to quicker. It was a big intersection...wide -- about six lanes, back in the States where there ARE lanes. But that's when I saw it: my first crossing signal in Vietnam! A little red lit guy telling me to wait. I thought, "Maybe this won't be as hard as I thought..." The little guy turned green and it was as if Poseidon had open the gates and released the Kraken of all traffic. A veritable torrent of scooters, cars and buses poured across my little white striped crosswalk. The little green guy seemed to be shrugging his shoulders at me, saying, "Sorry, dude..." There was no waiting for a gap -- none was in sight. I thought of those French tourists watching me cross last night. I could almost hear them snickering, "Where's your silly American bravado, now? I taunt you a second time!"

So, I took a breath. Then I stepped into the intersection. I moved steadily across the street, hesitating only once to avoid walking into a motorbike. I would estimate I crossed a dozen streams of intertwining traffic before I stepped up onto the sidewalk on the other side. What a rush! It worked...reading those guidebooks and watching travel channel shows had truly prepped me for a test I would have failed otherwise. Damn! I wished I'd gotten that on video! I could hear my fellow teachers at Orange Middle School cheering, "WorldWIDE!" Ha, ha! Seriously, that is half of the addiction of travel. You set challenges for yourself, strange new cultures, exotic lands where you don't speak the language, grueling hikes to see places of wonder...all of that is a test for yourself. Can you rise to the challenge? The confidences that overseas travel gives you is one of the benefits few people talk about. It is there, though, and I felt it as raw adrenalin-fueled triumph surged through my veins as I stepped up onto that curb.

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The tower next to the museum

I had braved the Hanoi traffic for its Military History Museum. It turned out to be a confusing, sprawling complex of buildings. As expected, it focused on Vietnam's struggle for independence from the Chinese, Mongols, French, Japanese, and it's war against the "puppet regime" supported by the United States. You could easily spend a full day here, if you're the type to read every caption to every exhibit (which were in Vietnamese, French, and English). I'm not, though that may surprise some. The best part was the collection of military equipment outside on the grounds of the museum. These included a Soviet jet fighter, armored vehicles, artillery, missile batteries -- you name it! I took more photos than I would for the benefit of my friends, who are at times even bigger military history buffs than I am.

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Soviet jet fighter at the Military Museum

My last stop in Hanoi was the prison where U.S. POWs were kept during the Vietnam War. I had not realized it was also the place the French kept Vietnamese rebels ("patriots" is what the museum called them, fairly enough). There was definitely some propaganda going on. The Vietnamese prisoners were depicted in shackles, being tortured and starved, and generally mistreated. I believe that happened, of course. That is the French colonial track record. Read up on what they did during the Algierian revolution. It became propaganda when the U.S. prisoners (which include Sen. John McCain) are portrayed decorating Christmas trees, playing volleyball, and generally enjoying a country club atmosphere. We all know that wasn't the rule. We learn no lessons when we distort the truth.

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The Military Hostory Museum in Hanoi

A quick cab ride back to the hotel, another shower, and it was off to Da Nang. Will Hanoi end up being my favorite part of the trip? Of course not. I think I will never forget that feeling, though when I waded into that intersection full of traffic. Equally, I will always remember the exhilaration when I stepped up onto the curb on the other side. The big city had tested me, and I had embraced its challenge.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:05 Archived in Vietnam Tagged military temple history museum hanoi hilton literature pows Comments (0)

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

Ancient Cham Ruins, Da Nang, and Hoi An

sunny 92 °F

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sun sets on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An

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

A Day in Hue

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

semi-overcast 89 °F

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

Has This Monkey Lost His Marbles?

Final Day in Da Nang

rain 85 °F

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...!

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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.

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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 09:16 Archived in Vietnam Tagged beach monkey mountain vietnam china marble Comments (0)

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