A Travellerspoint blog

Hurtling Down a Volcano Sounds Like a Good Time...right?

Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro

sunny 97 °F

Atop Cerro Negro, getting ready for my ride

As I lined up my wooden sled, aka volcano surf board, with the furrow in the volcanic sand and pebbles that the previous thrill seekers had worn, I tried to picture what his would be like. I was essentially riding a wooden sled down a 45 degree angle on the slope of Cerro Negro -- one of Nicaragua's youngest and most active volcanoes. Would it be a steady controlled ride? Or would it be like a roller coaster hurtling down the slopes of a volcano? Would I panic and spin out or go tumbling down the slopes? Then there was the way you slowed down...you are supposed to lean forward and press your soles harder into the sand and gravel. To go faster, you lean back and press your feet down with less pressure. What if I pressed too hard and flipped?

Cerro Negro, one of Nicaragua's youngest and most active volcanos

The morning had begun calmly enough. After breakfast, we walked several blocks to the office of Tierra Tours. We sat on rocking chairs and waited for the rest of the group to arrive. There would be 20 of us -- Americans, French, English, and Spaniards. The directionally challenged Franco-Spanish contingent was wandering the streets of Leon, trying to find the office. Eventually, the Tierra Tours rep told them to get to an intersection and telephone where they were and we'd pick them up. We loaded up in the van, and headed out. After picking up the lost Europeans, we stopped at a market for water, then headed off. A trucker's mishap blocked our path a few minutes later, but we detoured through a very rural looking neighborhood and were soon underway again.

Gorgeous views of more of Nicaragua's volcanoes, stretching into the distance

It was a dusty, hour-long ride to the volcano through the countryside. We slowed to let wooden carts drawn by yoked pairs of oxen to clear our path. Jenny remarked that rural Nicaragua looks like a hard life. Farmsteads seemed to scratch a living out of the dusty soil with their animals and crops that grew under the blistering sun. Passengers in the window seats had the dilemma of opening their window to catch a breeze, or sweltering by closing to avoid the clouds of dust the billowed in from time. Had we known how filthy we'd be at the end of our ride down Cerro Negro, we'd have tossed the windows wide open. The two French contingents were the most vocal and chatted back and forth loudly. The Americans and English were more subdued, and spoke quietly to one another or just watched the scenery go by.

More scenic views as we climb up the volcano's slopes

We arrived at the volcano's national park station, and piled off the van to sign in and make our choice whether to hire a porter or carry our own board up the slopes. I ended up paying the $5 extra to have my board waiting for me at the top -- mainly because I knew I'd want to take lots of photos. I didn't want to worry about it being torn from my grasp by the swirling winds while I was snapping photos. It was worth it, as the wind howled and tore at us. I watched the others struggle to hold on to their boards.

A line of hikers climbs past the smoking bowl of the volcano's main crater

The hike up was less strenuous than I thought it might be. The views were fantastic, though. This part of Nicaragua is pimpled with dozens of volcanoes. From our vantage point, we could see them stretching off into the hazy heat on all sides of us. Cerro Negro was indeed black. Its slopes are composed of varying sizes of black rocks, stones, pebbles, and sand. In some parts, your feet sank into the soil making it hard to get a firm foothold. In other places, you could step from one larger, jagged rock to another, and work your way uphill easier. Some sections of the pathway were sheltered from the wind, but others were exposed and you were buffeted as if you were running a gauntlet of pillow fights.

The group struggles into its gear while being buffeted by howling winds

Before long, we had climbed high enough to see into the mouth of the crater. We smelled the sulfur, and could see the white and yellow discoloration of the noxious gases and chemicals. We circled the crater on the cup of the edge, working our way up and up. Eventually, we would climb to more than 1,700 meters above sea level. We paused to look at the 360 degree panorama. The area immediately beneath Cerro Negro's slopes were stained black by volcanic rock and ash for its most recent eruption, less than 20 years ago. The dusty soiled regained its reddish-orange color the further away it stretched. Patches of thorny vegetations lent splashes of dull green. The blue sky smiled down upon us, a cheery counterpoint to the angry, intense glare of the sun. We struggled into our one-size-fits-all jumpsuits. Mine was obvious made for a smaller person. We stowed our cameras and water bottles in the thick cloth bags. The guides passed out goggles. I noticed mine were well scuffed and I would soon find out why.

Hurtling down the volcano's slopes, kicking up plumes of dust and gravel

Next, the guides explained how we would ride the sleds down the volcano. There instructions were simple and easy to remember. Keep your soles in contact with the slopes at all times. Lean back to go faster, lean forward to slow. Counter-intuitive, I noticed, and hoped I would mix this up if I started to go out of control! Our guides said the first section of our downhill run is a 40 degree slope, which then sharpens to 45 degrees at the halfway point. He advised going slow in the beginning until we felt comfortable,and then letting loose if we want to at the end. The 20 of us split ourselves among among two chutes or runs that previous sledders had worn into the side of Cerro Negro. I noticed we lost sight of the sledders almost immediately after they began their run.

Finally, it was my turn. I pushed off and slid back and forth through the groove. Apparently, I leaned too far to the right and slewed sideways to a stop. I righted myself and kicked off again. The sled seemed to take off like a rocket -- its smooth metal and Formica underside offsetting the friction caused by my weight on the board. I focused on the position of my legs to ensure they had the correct bend. I watched the storm of pebbles and sand the heels of my hikingif boots created as they fought the increasing momentum. With the mechanics of riding under control, I raised my eyes to look at the slope. And swallowed. Yikes! Picture yourself in the front car of the steepest roller coaster you've even on. Now, cut that car free so you are on your own. Oh, and while you're at it, get rid of the rails. You are roaring downhill completely on your own. The only control you have is how hard you press your soles into the explosion of gravel your feet are kicking up. Press too hard on one side and you begin to lean dangerously, threatening to overbalance and go tumbling off your narrow board.

I never noticed the lesser degree of slope. To me, it seemed my sled was screaming almost out of control at top speed from the moment I kicked off the second time. "Too fast! Too fast!" I kept telling myself. But no matter how hard I pressed my soles into the surface, I kept picking up more and more speed. I felt a wave of dust and gravel bounce off my body, face, and plink away at my goggles. A couple times I was sure I was about to crash at any moment. I was leaning forward to slow down (was that advice actually a cruel joke?), which made me feel I was about to pitch forward off my board. Eventually, I saw the end of the run approaching, and a previous boarder squarely in my path. I leaned to veer out of the chute, which bounced me across uneven slope. I stayed upright, though, and eventually slowed to a stop. "Whoo!" I think I shouted. As I dragged my board over to the group, I couldn't help but comment, "That was a LOT faster than I thought it would be!" I'm not sure if the French understood, but they cheered my ride.

We watched the rest of the group do their runs. Another tour company's group, in bright orange jumpsuits, must have been stocked with thrill seekers. We counted four or five of them who accelerated so fast that they lost control and pitched off their boards, tumbling and rolling downslope. A couple lost their goggles in the process, and one even left his board on the slope and loped downhill in a panic. Once our group was finished, we carried our gear back to the van and boarded. We all felt (and looked) filthy. Everyone's face was blackened by the volcanic dust, and I could feel it on my skin and in my hair. I dozed on the drive back, dreaming of pure cleaner water to drink and shower in. What I liked best about the tour was it was both thrilling and scenic. The views were fantastic from atop Cerro Negro. We got to circle most of the crater, and actually feel we were on top of a volcano. This was part of what I'd missed earlier this trip at Volcan Masaya. I was happy we'd decided to do this excursion. It was definitely one of the high points of Nicaragua.

Leon's museum of legends and myths, housed in an infamous jail where the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza tortured prisoners

Back in Leon that evening, we watched another of the religious processions as it left the cathedral. Earlier, we visited a folklore museum on the site of one of Leon's most notorious jails, where the dictator Somoza tortured prisoners and dissenters. It was somehow fitting that all of the spooky stories from Nicaraguan myth were modeled in life size figurines in a place where political horrors had been committed. Our guide at the museum was fantastic, and took the time to explain each of the dozens of mannequins in the collection, as well as the history of the jail. All in all, it was probably my favorite day of the trip. We would leave for home late the next day, and our trip was hurtling towards an end -- just like the ride down Cerro Negro.

We never saw any of these immense figures (see me for scale) parading through the streets, but it was nice to see them in the museum

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:14 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Local Advice Makes Leon (and Old Leon) Roar

Colonial ruins and colonial churches

sunny 96 °F

The cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua

Our entire plan for the day couldn't have happened without the excellent staff at Las Isletas Boutique Hotel in Granada. They have done a good job helping us out with our sightseeing, but they hit one out of the park with today's suggestion. We had booked our first 4 nights in Granada, and the last two in Leon, Nicaragua. The problem is that they are roughly 3 hours away from each other. Public transport, aka the "chicken bus," would be the cheapest route, but lose us an entire day of sightseeing. Shuttles run by travel agencies are faster, but not too expensive, but don't get in till about 3 pm -- too late to take in one of the two main things we wanted to see in Nicaragua (the volcano Cerro Negro and the ruins of Old Leon).

Ruins of Old Leon

So, the staff offered to hire a driver to take us to Leon, but stop in Old Leon on the way. Bingo! More expensive, but allows us to do both of the "must do" things we had on our list. Of course, Old Leon is not the most visited sight in Nicaragua, so we had to help our driver find it - ha, ha! Turns out they're rebuilding the road to Old Leon, but the engineers thought it would be a good idea to take down the sign for the turnoff! We drive about 5 minutes past it, but thankfully our driver sensed we'd missed it and asked another driver. We found out later the staff at Old Leon get complaints daily about the lack of signage. So, we didn't do too bad going only a little out of our way.

Monument to the Indian resistance to the Spanish conquistadors

Our English speaking guide at the site was a nice man, and between the three if us, we did a good job of translating the information. He did want to rush us through the tour, though -- even though we were only the 4th group to show up that day. That is one of my pet peeves and why I'm usually willing to take the chance of missing information by skipping on a guide entirely. Too often they want to give you the abbreviated tour, as all the incentives are set up that way. The sooner they finish, the sooner their turn comes up again, and usually that is how they get paid.

Volcan Momotombo, whose eruption was the deciding factor in the Spanish abandoning the site of Old Leon

Rant off, and now I'll tell you a bit about the site. It was built in the early 1500s, one of the earliest settlements in the area. However, it was abandoned about 86 years later due to the combination of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions -- which combined with the predatory, economic practices of the colonial Spanish, meant its income was dropping year by year. You can only enslave and oppress a people for so long before the profit curve begins to work against you. The city was moved northwest to its present location, and the jungle and volcanic ash hid Old Leon from the world for centuries. What is there today has been excavated in the last 50 years or so, and consists of brick foundations and walls of the town. It was a hot, but atmospheric, meander through the past. This is no Pompeii, but Old Leon makes a pleasant excursion for those who enjoy history.

Leon's oversized and ornate, white, stone cathedral

Once we checked I to our hotel in Leon, we began our self-guided tour of Leon's amazing churches. The top of the list, and less than 100 yards from where we are staying, is the cathedral. It is the largest in Central America, leading some to speculate there were some shady dealings to get the plans approved from Spain. The cathedral's massive white stone walls, towers, and dome are blackened with age. The decoration of the stonework is incredible, with carvings, statues, and shining bronze bells all contributing to the soaring effect of the exterior. The interior is more plain, but a number of important figures from Nicaragua's history are buried there. There is supposed to be an awesome rooftop tour we hope to squeeze in, but like all rooftops we've encountered in Nicaragua, it was closed.

Iglesia de la Recollection, probably the prettiest church in Leon, Nicaragua

We stopped by two more scenic churches in our afternoon visit, then headed back to get cleaned up. We wanted to be waitin to catch the Holy Week procession at 6 pm. Perhaps the best timing of one entire trip is that it is occurring during Easter week. The churches in Nicaragua take out their holy statues and parade them through the streets. We'd caught one in Granada, but hoped to catch more in more devout Leon. In fact, our stay in Leon (and Nicaragua) concludes on Good Friday. So, hopefully, we will get a chance to witness the pageantry of a Nicaraguan Easter week. As always, we will be counting on the information and advice of the locals -- just like we did this morning on our visit to Old Leon.

Evening Holy Week procession from Leon's cathedral, complete with lighted statue, band marching behind it, and a crowd of worshippers...hopefully, the first of many we will see in Leon!

Posted by world_wide_mike 21:47 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (1)

Up in the Air & In the Clouds

Hiking and Zip-Lining a Nicaraguan Volcano

all seasons in one day 86 °F

Volcan Mombacho, home to a cloud forest, monkeys, and more!

I'm not sure which were more numerous on the pedestrian street in Granada tonight: stray dogs, roaming souvenir sellers, or mariachi bands. We were unwinding after dinner at one of the streetside cafés, and it was amusing to watch each ply their trade with varying degrees of success. I'm not sure what it says about me as a person that I had the most sympathy for the dogs, but that's the way I am. It was our last night in Granada. Tomorrow, we head off to Nicaragua's other second city, Leon.

Our last day began with yet another tasty breakfast from Las Isletas Boutique Hotel. A driver then picked us up and dropped us off at the Mombacho Volcano National Park. We planned to hike the cloud forest that drapes the still-active volcano. Having been to a cloud forest in Costa Rica, I knew to pack my rain jacket. Though we saw no rain, the mountaintop alternated between sunshine and clouds, which swooped in with high winds and chill breezes. It was very pleasantly cool atop Mombacho -- especially after the 90+ degree temperatures we'd experienced since arriving in Nicaragua.

One of the dormant craters of Mombacho, covered in the greenery if the cloud forest

After a short wait, about a dozen plus tourists piled aboard an old open air army truck for the ride to the Visitors Center. The cobblestone road is one lane, and twists and winds its way up past coffee plantations until reaching the national park. Then it is all woods and jungle pressing in on both sides of the impressively powerful truck. There were about 20 guides aboard (we were the first bus load up), but the truck never faltered or seemed to struggle. You could feel the temperature grow steadily cooler as we ascended. Jackets were pulled from backpacks as we adjusted to the new climate zone.

The pathway, Jose explained, is constantly being repaired and replaced. It consists of sawn log rings as steps through most of its steps. He said much of the wood comes from recycled telephone and electrical poles. Once we left the overlook, the wind died off and the damp stillness of the cloud forest closed in. Jose pointed out the plants and explained their uses by the indigenous people. He asked us a lot of questions about Ohio, and was diligent about augmenting his English by asking what equivalent words were. He was a pleasant and low key guide, who genuinely seemed interested in us. Jose pointed out the fumaroles, or steam vents from the volcano's interior. We could feel their damp, hot air and smell their sulfur easier than spot the whisps of steam.

A fumarole belches barely-visible sulfurous steam on Volcan Mombacho

Unfortunately, we spotted no monkeys or other exotic wildlife on our hike. The climb was strenuous at times, but the footing was always easy with the well-maintained wooden steps. We ascended to the second highest peak of Mombacho, and were rewarded with a number of blustery scenic overlooks. After nearly losing my hat on the first one, I was careful to take it off and clip it to my camera bag at each mirador. Before long, and way earlier than I'd wished our hike was over. we waited about 20 minutes before our redoubtable army truck returned to ferry us down. Our driver was waiting for us, and he whisked us off to the next stop for the day.

One of the majestic views from Mombacho's miradors

I had never done zip lining before, and Mombacho had two choices. The one our hotel had picked out had about a dozen segments. It is built over one of the volcano's coffee plantations. The one not chosen was actually in the jungle canopy, which I would have preferred. I should have spoken up when arranging the excursion, though, instead of expecting them to pick out the best one. The bonus was that when we arrived, Jenny and I were the only customers. That meant our three guides took their time with us and encouraged us to do tricks, like the "superman" glide, and the upside down "monkey" glide. It was a blast, and I felt comfortable after about the third segment. The guides took our cameras to film us, so I will have video of me zip lining uploaded before too long.

Once back in Granada, we made arrangements for Wednesday's travel to Leon. We also walked around the town some more, and of course -- hung out on the pedestrian street where we watch the antics of the stray dogs, souvenir sellers, and mariachi bands. It was a low key end to a high energy start to our last day in Granada. Tomorrow, we are off to a new (and even hotter) city. So, we will see what it brings!

The well-maintained trails on Volcan Mombacho

Posted by world_wide_mike 21:54 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Storm Cloud Looms Over Volcan Masaya and Day 2

Am I getting jaded as I visit more and more countries?

sunny 91 °F

Volcan Masaya, or "The Gates of Hell" to the Spanish conquistadors

I've always wondered if I would get jaded as I visited more and more countries. Would I be a cynic, saying that his mountain range isn't as scenic as one I'd seen elsewhere. This historical sight wasn't as fascinating and inspiring as another I'd seen. Would I end up going to new countries and evaluating them, "not good enough," or "I've seen better." I certainly hope I will never turn into that type of person. I can't imagine how insufferable it would be to travel around with such a dark cloud.

I felt the first inklings of that type of feeling here in Nicaragua. Hopefully, I've kept it to myself and not vocalized those thoughts. Hopefully, I am still being an interested, eager traveller. But I HAVE found myself silently doing that this trip. I have seen cooler cathedrals and churches. I have taken more interesting and scenic boat rides. And today, after hiking around Volcan Masaya, I couldn't shake the feeling that I've seen cooler volcanoes (El Salvador). And hiked more scenic and dramatically situated extinct caldera rims (Easter Island). Is this the end of my endless yearning to see new places and be thrilled by new marvels of man and nature?

The parking lot and the smoking crater

I don't think so. But I confess that my feelings of the last two days have me worried. I hope tomorrow, or some sight here in Nicaragua dispels this storm cloud hanging over me. Perhaps that is all it is -- a bad mood that will blow away soon. The day certainly began on a bad note. I somehow lost one of my contact lenses. Back in Columbus, I'd considered packing a spare pair, or at least my glasses, but told myself that it was only six days. Can someone with even my propensity to lose things on trips manage that? Yep!

Our hotel's driver/not guide showing up completely unable to speak English didn't get it off to any better start. Everyone else from Las Isletas Boutique Hotel has been great, and every other bit of advice or thing they've arranged for us went great. And later, the desk manager all bit apologized for that. However, it meant a rocky start to our visit to Volcan Masaya. We did a lot of head scratching, but after a quick visit to the museum in the Visitor center, we were deposited in the parking lot of the steaming crater that the Spaniards called the "Gates of Hell." From what if read beforehand, I was hoping to glimpse lava at this, more active, volcano...but no such luck. The crater was shrouded in a thick gray cloud of gas and steam.

The hill that we hiked up away from the crater, leading the the view of the lake

We decided to make the best of our uninformed situation and followed the other hikers who struck off uphill to the left. Our visitor center map seemed to indicated there was a trail that circled the crater. There was a trail, but it headed off away from the gaseous pit and instead circled a dormant caldera. We followed it for awhile until it rewarded us with a nice view of a lake. We finally figured out it was heading away for where we wanted to go, and we doubled back to the parking lot after an hour's worth of hiking through sandy, volcanic gravel. After one last look at the crater, we rejoined our driver/not guide.

Our next stop was the market in the town of Masaya. We cruised the stalls for about a half hour. I was tempted to buy a leather change purse to replace the one that has came up missing a couple weeks ago. I didn't like any, so walked away empty-handed. We then drove to the mirador of the village of Catarina. This town is the first of Los Pueblos Blancos, where most of Nicaragua's handicrafts are made. The view of the clear blue Laguna de Apoyo -- a volcanic crater filled with a gorgeous blue lake -- was striking. However, that nagging feeling of having seen a volcanic lake more spectacularly sited spoiled my enjoyment of it. We walked around and took pictures for awhile, but there was little else to do but shop. I thumbed through my guidebook and read the other Los Pueblos descriptions. I was hoping to find one that was more village and less row upon row of booths selling the same handicrafts. I picked out Diria, but it proved to be merely a smaller version of Catarina.

Laguna de Apoyo, a lake filling a volcanic crater, viewed from the Mirador Catarina

We decided to pull the plug on Los Pueblos and told the driver to take us to the Laguna de Apoyo. There are apparently lakeside resorts where you can buy a day pass and swim, kayak, relax, and enjoy the amenities. This lived up to its billing and it we spent a pleasant two hours enjoying the sun and water, along with a few cervecas. The drive back to our hotel took way less time than we'd anticipated. So, after a shower, we headed off to dinner and an evening in Granada. The highlight was the church procession, featuring two huge floats borne aloft on the shoulders of parishioners. This being Easter Week, we were hoping we'd see such a procession. Luckily, I had my video camera handy and we dashed around and filmed it for a few angles. We hope to see more of these when we shift our base to Leon on Wednesday.

Pleasant lakeside views and water activities awaited us along the shore of Laguna de Apoyo

It was a nice end to a day that began not so well. I confess I am still worried about this jaded feeling, and hoping it is a temporary "blah" rather than an onset of anything so terminal . Tomorrow's zip lining should decide that. I have never been on a zip line canopy tour. And the ones down here are supposed to be awesome. So, hopefully I'll be back tomorrow refreshed and enthused. The jaded storm cloud hanging over Nicaragua will have blown away and my outlook on this trip will be more sunny.

Posted by world_wide_mike 21:08 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Granada's Sights -- Catch Them Before it's too late!

Churches, Pre-Columban History, and Las Isletas

sunny 95 °F

Granada's cathedral with Volcan Mombacho in the background

We were arriving late into Managua, Nicaragua - our plane was due to land just after midnight. Delays in our connecting city meant we actually showed up about an hour later than that. Thankfully, our hotel driver was still there waiting. We were staying in the nearby city of Granada, about 50 minutes away. Managua simply didn't seem interesting enough, while there were tons of things to do near Granada. It was after 2 am when we went to bed, but surprisingly, we were both ready to get moving shortly after 8 am.

Antiguo Convento San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua

The hotel breakfast was great with lots if fresh, tropical fruit. We talked to the owner and he had lots of suggestions for how to start off our day. They were also willing to set up excursions to the places we wanted to visit during our stay. We began by walking 5 blocks to the Antiguo Convento San Francisco. First built in 1529, then destroyed by English pirate Henry Morgan 150 years later (can you say, "Aaaar!"), the building serves as both a church and a museum. And since today was Palm Sunday, there was a service going on in the church with lots if singing. It provided an atmospheric backdrop as we checked out the museum and the former convent grounds. My favorite part was the pre-Columban statues lined up on two sides of one open air room. Most were from the 1300-1500s. You could see the Mayan and Aztec influence in what was depicted, what the statues were carved wearing, and so on. Most statues were of gods or goddesses from the rich Central American mythology. You saw manlike beings carved with crocodile, jaguar, and eagle features. There was also nice displays of early Nicaraguan pottery. Once again, you saw the obvious Mexican influence.

Two rows of almost 1,000 year old statues show major influence on Nicaragua's indigenous inhabitants by the Maya and Aztec

From there, we took our hotel owner's suggestion and checked out the private, "Mi Museo," which was the collection of an obviously very wealthy and very enthusiastic aficionado of early historic relics of Nicaragua. Most of it was pottery, each piece labelled in both English and Spanish. My favorites were the pots shaped like animals with faces, feet, and richly painted. I glimpsed the back, storage rooms where 4-5 times what is on display sits categorized inside plastic tubs, each labelled appropriately. What's more, the museum is free and tipping is expressly NOT allowed. Sadly, the Danish gentleman who put the collection together died in 2012. His gift lingers on, though.

Examples of of the early Nicaraguan pottery at Mi Museo, a free and interesting museum in Granada

From there, we decided to check out a couple more of Granada's churches. Unfortunately, we were hitting them near the noon closing time. So, we were unable to climb the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced, built in 1534 and considered the country's most beautiful church. So, instead of taking in a panorama of the city, we walked around the locked exterior and took photos of its baroque decoration. It is a beautiful church, even though the electrical wires running along the street made photographing it difficult!

Dome and statue that are part of Iglesia La Merced, said to be Nicaragua's most beautiful church

Lightning struck a second time as Xalteva Church was also closed. Along with La Merced, it is a favorite of the wealthier descendants of the Spanish conquistadors and colonists. Its bright yellow exterior and soaring towers made it a pretty sight -- especially from the tiny park across the street.

Xalteva Church, seen from the tiny park across the street in Granada, Naicaragua

We continued along the road hoping that Forteleza La Polvora would be open. It also boasted views of Granada from its towers. Sadly, it also was closed. I vaguely considered doing an Indiana Jones to get inside if I found a way through or over its walls. But there was a policeman on duty at the gate who (I believe) said it was closed for remodeling. Frustrating. It was after noon and I could tell the temperature was well into the 90s, with a bright sun blistering down on us. It was definitely time to head back to the hotel to rest and recover. Besides, we wanted to arrange our afternoon excursion with the desk before it got too late.

The closed towers of Fortaleza La Polvora

We ended up picking a boat ride to the Las Isletas, a cluster of more than 300 islands that are remnants of the eruption of Volcan Mombacho, which looms over Granada and Lake Nicaragua. The islands are little patches of jungle in the calm, vegetation-choked water. Egrets, cormorants, ibis,and even eagles prowl its waters. They are nearly outnumbered, though, by the boats chugging through the channels between the islands. The Las Isletas day trip is a popular day trip for visitors and locals alike. A big part if the tour is pointing out which wealthy Nicaraguan family owns which upscale weekend home you could glimpse through the trees. For Sale signs advertised others available to be snapped up by the elite and turned into a place to entertain friends or get away for it all. One of my favorite parts was the anti-pirate fortification on San Pablo island. The tiny, two story brick and stone structure still sported a couple relic cannons and overlooked the route pirates would need to take to attack Granada.

The tiny fort on San Pablo island in Las Isletas -- a cluster of 354 islands in Lake Nicaragua

An interesting aspect of the raids English pirates would make on Grenada is that they had to sail for many miles up the River San Juan River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, to reach their target. Coincidentally, a new attack on Nicaragua is planned by a foreign "partner" using the same Río San Juan. A Chinese company has essentially bribed the Nicaraguan government into letting them dig a canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The first part will dredge the Río San Juan and destroy the habitat and two national forests to reach Lake Nicaragua. The passage of ocean going container ships will likely do zilch to help the ordinary people of Nicaragua. Only the government and elite will have a chance to snatch a piece of this destructive fortune cookie. All the animals, fish, and subsistence fishermen will have their lifestyles destroyed so that more inferior quality, "Made in China" merchandise can more quickly insinuate itself across the world. Yay! So, I guess I'm glad I am getting a chance to see Nicaragua's natural wonders before they are destroyed by the impersonal and ever-grasping hands of progress.

Tiny fishing vessels and scenes of aquatic beauty may go away and be replaced by ocean-going container ships, if a Chinese scheme to build a canal in Nicaragua happens

Spider monkeys like this one stand to lose their habitat if "progress" -- Chinese-style -- has its way...

Posted by world_wide_mike 20:54 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged church san francisco granada las la nicaragua iglesia merced convento xalteva isletas Comments (0)

Getting ready for Nicaragua

My last Central American country!

all seasons in one day 48 °F

I leave Saturday to visit my last Central American country: Nicaragua. Spring break starts Friday once school let's out, and once again, I'm heading overseas. I plan on seeing volcanoes, zip lining through jungle canopies, checking out mountain lakes, pre-Columbian history, and more! The weather is supposed to be in the 90s all week, so this should be the perfect antidote to a long, cold winter.

As usual, I encourage you to follow my travels and pass along my blog to others who might be interested...thanks!

-- worldwidemike


Posted by world_wide_mike 20:57 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged america nicaragua spring central break Comments (1)

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

Mekong Delta day trip

sunny 85 °F

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

One of the reproductions of booby traps employed by the Viet Cong 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 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

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!

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.

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.

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.

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...!

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.

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)

A Day in Hue

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

semi-overcast 89 °F

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

Archways in the walled city line up in the late afternoon sun

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

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