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Sunday, March 31, 2013

March 25 - 27, 2013 – Saigon and Mekong Delta (Part 2)

 Mekong Delta
On Monday we hopped the tour bus headed for the Mekong Delta.

At the boat landing, we boarded a long wooden boat and were seated on folding bamboo chairs. 

As we headed down the river, our guide described life on the delta. For the most part, these folks are nearly completely self-sufficient. Most live either on the river or in stilt houses and do their trading by barge. Barges selling goods will hang a sample from the top of a tall pole to show what is available that day. 
This boat is selling yams

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Stilt Houses
 After cruising the river villages for a while we stopped at a rice processing plant (well, more of an exhibit area to show the process).  
puffing the rice
We observed them shucking the rice, making puffed rice (like rice crispies), making rice paper and candies and so on. The puffed rice is made by putting heavy black sand and the raw into a large wok and then tossed and stirred very hot fire. The sand helps to distribute the rice evenly while "popping it" out and over the edge of the wok onto a table, while the black sand settles to the bottom of the wok. It is a fascinating process. Everything about this factory was fascinating. We were given tasting samples throughout which of course encouraged us to purchase the products at the end of the tour.
making the rice paper

bamboo drying rack
Afterward we lunched at a quaint café where everything is locally sourced. There was even a beehive dripping with honey.
Next was a trip to the local market where we saw some VERY fresh items, including duck, hens, roosters and geese tied down to a pallet, squawking clucking happily away not knowing their fate would be the ax very soon. 

There was a tank full of live snakes that utterly gave me the creeps! It is quite unbelievable.

Our next stop was to a small tributary where the boat stopped and tied off to a pole. We were then gingerly dropped, two by two, down into little dugout canoes that were manned by a standing paddler. They were quite tippy!

Frank in the dugout
We had to very carefully maneuver ourselves to center. The paddlers took us on up the small tributary where the people live to so that we could see their homes and gardens.  I'm guessing these little dugouts are the local taxis.
We enjoyed this tour very much and were quite happy that we chose the one-day, rather than the multi-day visit in the delta. I don't think I could have stood the mosquitoes more than that one day!

Back to Saigon
Back in the city for our last day, we began with a stroll and continued to just wander throughout the city wherever we felt like meandering. We took a break at the local Baskin Robbins (which was our favorite stop), and then lunched at our favorite Pho café. We were already developing favorites and could have stayed just to eat here, especially after locating The Sandwich wagon that our friends Andy and Melissa (from s/v Spectacle) had rated as the best. Unfortunately it had taken us all these days to finally locate it, as she is not at her spot every day. It really is the best sandwich we have eaten to date, made on fresh baby baguettes with some sort of tiny meat patties and lots of fresh vegetables.  We lived the street experience and had a great time doing it, finally getting into the rhythm of life in this city.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

March 25 - 27, 2013 – Saigon and Mekong Delta (Part 1)

After our experience with the cyclos we booked proper tours for the next couple of days. Monday was a city tour that took us to all of the popular sites of what is now called Ho Cho Minh City. The first stop was a bit unnerving as we were dropped at the War Remnants Museum, which primarily focused on what, in Vietnam, is referred to as The American War, and told that we had roughly 90 minutes to self-tour. We were relieved for that because the guides whom we could hear leading other groups painted us (Americans), as ruthless savages. We are consistently referred to as "The US Imperialist Aggressors".

The exhibits were so graphic and revolting that I found myself filled with outrage as we witnessed hundreds of very young school children paraded through in droves, being spoon-fed these horrible images and anti-American propaganda, thus perpetuating the hatred and fear. The war is still so fresh there, and after seeing some of the exhibits I found myself softening as we entered the Agent Orange Room.

Frank and I departed the museum long before our time limit expired and ventured outside to look at the exhibit of USA aircraft and tanks that were on display. While outside, we noticed tourists entering and exiting another smaller building so we ventured over for a look.

The photo referred to in the caption was too graphic to post
 It housed torture chambers and other barbaric devices that the Vietnamese said were used against them. We left with the thought that this is their country and their story. We don't have to like it but we did choose to come visit here and knew this would be part of the experience. Now we have seen and heard from the other side, so to speak.
A fair bit of the tour centered on the historic evolution of Saigon, and then we got to pull in a bit of culture, moving on the Notre Dame  Cathedral, The Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh Square and the famous Rex Hotel. It is quite a city! We didn't get to everything but were quite happy by the end of the tour, which ended mid-afternoon.
Frank among in a sea of tourists in the Central Post Office

Notre Dame Cathedral
We wandered around some and stumbled into the Water Puppet Theater where we made a reservation to see the evening show after having a wonderful steak dinner at the Hard Rock Café.
Returning later to the Water Puppet Theater…we thoroughly enjoyed the show.  Stories are told through music and song using water puppets in a small pool. Of course we couldn't understand a word but had a program written in English so that we could follow along. The sets were changed regularly just as at any theater. The stories were very cheerful and often very funny. Characters ranged from dragons and fish, a variety of animals to little people. We would recommend it to everyone!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March 24, 2013 - Day 1 in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our first full day in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City began with one of the strangest breakfast buffets we had yet seen. Our hotel's restaurant was interconnected with three others that spanned nearly a block. When we booked the hotel it was described as a new family owned boutique hotel that offered free foot massages in the lobby, personal care and a quaint but lovely breakfast. Apparently between the last review and our arrival the hotel had been sold to a conglomerate with 3 sister hotels behind it so they knocked out the first floor back walls and merged the four lobbies via a common dining area. Breakfast was like Grand Central with various buffet stations placed among several wings, offering every type of Asian meal we could have imagined. They made an attempt at a Western-style breakfast that wasn't very appetizing. So what do you do when in Asia? You eat like the Asians. I found that I liked it very much in spite of the fact that I have only a vague idea of what I was ingesting. Best not to think about it. Frank wasn't as keen on the idea, but he got by.

After breakfast we inquired at the front desk about tours to some of the iconic sights. We'd already missed those available for this day but were told to walk outside and find a cyclo driver to take us around. Frank found two cyclo drivers and after telling them which sights we wanted to see and haggling for a price that we had no idea how to set, we each got on board. 

They promised us a 5-hour tour and then took off telling us time and time again not to take out our iPhone or iPad to take photos because someone would drive by and snatch them from us. So because they made us so paranoid, we didn't get many photos. I did sneak my phone out to snap a local street barber – literally cutting hair right on the sidewalk, in a makeshift shop.

The first stop was some musty old market that looked like a clearinghouse for all of the others. The drivers kept urging us inside. We wandered around, tripping over people sitting in the aisles eating smelly food and staring at us until the moldy smell and cramped quarters sent us running for fresh air. Frank said to the driver, "We don't want markets, we want to go to the History Museum and the Jade Pagoda." The drivers smiled and said, "Yes, yes, we go!"

The next stop, however, was a Chinese temple. It was beautiful, although we had no idea what it represented. We enjoyed walking around and looking at all of the statues and adornments, but we were seriously Chinese-templed-out after having already seen so many in the previous year. 

So back outside, Frank insisted that they take us to the History Museum. The drivers smiled and nodded and said, "Yes, yes, but first we stop for lunch!" They took us to a locals' area that provided outdoor tables where two nubile young ladies were very attentive to us (mostly to Frank of course), heaping very tasty food, bottles of water and beers on the table. The guides ate and drank along with us (Frank's driver had several beers), and then we were presented the bill as they split to fetch the cyclos. Little stinkers.
Out on the curb, Frank was just about fed up trying to get these rascals to take us where we wanted to go. Clearly they had their own agenda and we decided that they were pleasant enough and we were enjoying ourselves all the same, so we just gave in.

We pulled up to the Fine Arts Museum. Suddenly, the drivers announced the end of the tour and asked us for a tip! We said, "Hang on, we don't know where we are! You can't just dump us like that." The one guy who spoke limited English pointed across a roadway to a roundabout and said, "You go that way to market". What!? We didn't want to go to the market; we wanted to be returned to our hotel. They stood firm. They had decided their time with us was finished and we were on our own.  We had had spent 3 hours with them, ¾ of which had been at the café.

Will we ever learn not to get hoodwinked? Probably not.

We entered the museum determined to let it go. It is an exquisite building with some fine artifacts. We actually strolled it for quite some time, taking in the modern and historic art works. What got to me, however, was an exhibit of oil paintings and other canvas works that were completely focused on the American War and it's affects on the Vietnamese people. A few of them were very touching, but most were graphic and shocking. Because of the history of this war in our own country, it was quite disturbing to me, but necessary to see it from the other side. I'm posting one of those works here – I have no motive and no personal comment.
The Title of this picture was Agent Orange
When finished, we consulted our small street map and wandered our way back to the hotel. It wasn't too far after all, about a kilometer away.  On our return we freshened up and headed out for dinner.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

March 23, 2013 - Saigon, Vietnam

We enjoyed a surprisingly nice flight on Cambodian Air, arriving at the zoo of an airport in Saigon. Frank had gone to great lengths to get our pre-approved arrival documents arranged, but it seems that didn't do a lot for getting us "in". We made it to the arrival window at 7:30 to find only a handful of people in the queue. We were thrilled to see this until we realized nothing was happening and no one was moving. I have to say that now I really can't criticize our own bureaucracy, because here there were two officials at the window and 10 or so sitting in the back passing time (playing tiddlywinks?), seemingly doing nothing. Actually getting to the window took at least 20 more minutes, at which time the guy grabbed our passports and documents and turned us away without explanation or instruction so we took that to mean that we should just step to the side and wait. We waited, and we waited while dozens more people poured off flights and pushed their way to the line at the window. 
After nearly 45 minutes of waiting, we were summoned and told that we were only halfway finished. At that point I think I shut down. I began to form a very disagreeable attitude toward this country and I wasn't even in yet! I told Frank that we were perhaps still being punished for the war 50 years ago because I swear all of the non-Americans were getting processed expeditiously. We finally got stamped and cleared and then hit the taxi stand where we had to haggle and fuss with a driver to take us to our hotel. It was now almost 10:00 PM. I was still trying to figure out why so many of our friends told us that we MUST DO Vietnam. We reached the sanctuary of our little room at the Alagon Hotel and all I wanted to do was sit on the bed and stare at the walls, which incidentally were only about 24 inches from my face. Are we sure they gave us the executive suite that we booked? Yep, this was it. Isn't it amazing what a fish-eye lens and 4 stars on Agoda will do to get you to book?
At Frank's insistence I allowed him to drag me out into the night. As we tried to cross the busy intersection adjacent to our hotel I was quickly reminded of the repeated advice we had gotten from friends who had come before us: There is no right of way or break in traffic for pedestrians. You must simply walk right out into the fast and ever flowing traffic while placing your footsteps rhythmically and constantly in front of you. You NEVER pause, turn back, stop, slow or quicken your pace until you reach the other side of the street. When you step off the curb, the hundreds of mopeds and cars simply flow around you just as a fast moving stream of water would flow around a rock.
A car and mopeds parked on the sidewalk, and the traffic that we just crossed. 
We began to call this The Saigon Shuffle. My heart beat so wildly while crossing those streets that first night I think I burned 5000 calories.

We strolled about just marveling at the mass of humanity that poured through the streets. Sidewalks are arbitrary, and are not used as pedestrian walkways. They are used as overflow traffic lanes for motorcycles and mopeds. On some corners they are designated as parking lots. At cafes they are often used for seating, crammed with tables and chairs. Some hotel lobbies and shops are used as parking for motorbikes. Amazingly it all works quite efficiently. As we turned back toward the Alagon we noticed a massive Starbucks situated on a corner not 500 yards from our hotel. Feeling a need for a touch of home, we entered. The line to the order counter was darn near wrapped around the block! There wasn't a table or chair available, but by golly we were hell bent on getting a nice cold frappucino.
the bottom floor of Saigon's Starbucks
God bless Frank, who stood in that line while I trolled upstairs and down through the seating areas constantly chair-spotting. An hour later we were seated and sipping, watching and marveling at the vibrant nightlife of Saigon and her masses. It started to get into our blood and I began to think we might like this.

Monday, March 25, 2013

March 21 – 23, 2013 Phnom Bakheng, and a Drive in the Country

Wednesday evening, after our R&R at the spa, Rong picked us up for the sunset experience at Phnom Bakheng. This temple sits at the top of a mount, and although once massive and glorious, is one of the most severely damaged from neglect and jungle overgrowth. It was built to honor the Hindu god, Shiva, and is still regularly visited by the monks. 
Monks at the top of Phnom Bakheng
A restoration project is underway, but it appears they have a very long way to go.  You can either make the rigorous climb to the top or pay $20 to ride an elephant. We opted for the novelty of the elephant ride and thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Once at the top, hundreds of tourists gathered to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat. 
It is said that the setting sun illuminates the 5 spires with an ethereal glow. It is spectacular. We tried our best to take pictures that would do this phenomenon justice but just couldn't capture the beauty with my crummy little camera. 

After hiking down, while waiting for Rong to pick us up it was still so hot that Frank bought a beer from a vendor with a cart. A man gets thirsty on a dusty trek down a temple mount.

Thursday we readied ourselves for the tour of Banteay Srei, "Citadel of Women", but Frank had misplaced his multi-day park pass. We tore the hotel room apart and asked Rong to search his car. It was nowhere to be found. We think when he must've dropped it when he pulled out his money to pay for that beer at Phnom Bakheng. What a pricey beer! (The multi-day pass is expensive.) We cancelled our tour for the day and spent it hanging out at the pool, eating and getting 2-½ hour 4-hand massages instead.

On Friday because we still hadn't found Frank's park pass, Rong decided to take us for a scenic drive to the floating villages at
Tonlé Sap Lake. The drive alone was interesting, taking us beyond the jungled areas near Angkor and into the flatlands of the farming and river lands. Because it's now the dry season there wasn't much to the rivers and streams, yet the lotus flower farms were going strong.
Stilt houses with lotus gardens below
We stopped at a place where the last living hand-cast bronze statue-maker ran his shop. It was fascinating to watch the artist at work as he made the master carving that would serve as the mold for all other pieces. These ranged from small souvenirs to massive, important statues commissioned by temples and by the government. We enjoyed this stop very much, although they would not let us take photos.
Along the drive were "Hammock Bars" where apparently during the wet season, people came to laze around in the hammocks eating and drinking.
All of the bars, homes and shops were built on stilts high up above the raging waterline when the summer floods come. Most of them looked like death traps to me!

At the end of the line was the launching base to take a boat out to the floating villages. We took one look at the dry hole down there, and overheard some comments about having to "pole" to get through some areas and decided to save our money for something better.
Rong and Frank at the basin to the floating village
Our next stop was The Killing Fields museum. After spying the massive square glass enclosure that housed 100's of skulls, we decided this is as far as we would go. We did stand outside to read the stories on the large billboards in front, but after having seen the movie and then this, we wanted no more visual reminders of the tragedies that nearly wiped out these beautiful people in that short four year period of genocide under Pol Pot's regime. No pictures were taken here. Time to move on…

Nearly back in town, Rong took us to a very large building that housed many of what we thought were "made in Cambodia" goods that ranged the likes of statues, fabrics, wood carvings, and real remnants of Khmer Rouge soldiers, such as opium pots, eating utensils, and so on. We found the prices surprisingly high, so we settled for three small pieces. Later on in our travels throughout SE Asia, we found that this is nothing more than a scam, and that every city holds such a store of mass-produced "hand-made" artifacts. Gee did we have "sucker" written on our foreheads again?

It was getting late and HOT, so we returned to the sanctuary of our hotel and another appointment at the spa!

Friday, March 22, 2013

March 20, 2013 Angkor Thom and Preah Khan

March 20, 2013 Angkor Thom and Preah Khan
Day 3 in Siem Reap we first visited Angkor Thom, "The great City", which was the largest city in the ancient Khmer empire. The center is dominated by the Bayon, which is packed with over 50 towers.  
Bayon at Angkor Thom

We could actually climb up into the tower complex to view the faces more closely. Each and every square tower bears a massive engraved smiling face on all of the four sides, so that everywhere you turn you feel stared upon by these eerily serene faces.  Apparently this depicts the all-seeing/all-knowing lord who looks down on the world with infinite compassion.
This part of the complex is the most well preserved part of the old compound, particularly the bas-reliefs of the Khmer army engaged in battles and also of every day life in the 12th century: cock fights, cooking meals, festivals, market scenes, Kings riding elephants. You can literally see the stories played out here, just as at Angkor Wat. Again, every surfaced is decorated and carved with dancers, vestal virgins, gods and common folk.  
7 Vestal Virgins
The entrance paths are lined with rows of massive carved statues of gods and nagas.
There are statues of lions, elephants and serpents throughout.
Lion in the foreground, a Naga behind
 Just amazing. Reluctantly, we noticed our guide, Mr. Rong waving us back to the car. It was time to move on.We stopped at a typical tourist trap for a mediocre lunch before heading over to the next complex. 

The drive alone to Preah Khan was just incredible. We passed countless statues, carvings and ruins along the way. This entire area must have been magnificent in its glory days.
The path leading into Preah Khan is very long and lined with complex statues and carvings.
Add path leading into Preah Khan
The main entrances are guarded with warriors holding a massive cobra (Naga).
Preah Khan is said to be built as a monastery and hostel for weary travelers, and is named for the Sacred Sword of the King's father. As with the other complexes, it is built to lead you to the center sanctuary of the sword where the tomb of the king is (was) encased. 
It appears to be lit with a flame when the sun hits a certain point in the sky You will note the many holes in the walls…these were formerly inlaid with precious gems, which have long ago been raided. It must have been a magnificent sight when the sunlight entered this sanctuary.

There is a wing dedicated to the shrine of the White Lady – the queen – who promoted education and had established an on-site library and religious college.
Shrine of The White Lady

The Library

There were many small buildings set throughout the complex that I thought appeared to be tombs, but a local guide indicated that these were the hostels.  Hmmm.

There was also the Hall of Dancers adorned with dancing Apsaras.
Entrance to the Hall of Dancing Apsaras
Another view of the small buildings
Preah Khan is distinctly unique and sadly has also been raided and stripped of all jewels and adornments, when the Hindu rulers conquered the area and replaced many Buddha images with Hindu deities, although vestiges of both are still evident. There is a feeling of spirituality to this place that I did not sense at Angkor Wat or at Angkor Thom.

The sun began roasting us so we gratefully climbed back into the car for our fresh towels and cold water. Next stop was the hotel pool and the spa where we were both booked for massages to end our  day.