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Friday, April 26, 2013

April 22- 25, 2013 – Bangkok, Thailand

We met Pauline and Martin at the airport. They had flown in from Sydney, us from Cambodia. What a wonderful reunion!
Although Pauline had recommended we stay in the city center, we had already taken someone else’s insistent advice that we would want a quiet luxury spot with a river view and booked a self-catering apartment at Chatrium down the river from the center that offered free water taxi service. Big mistake. The water taxi ran on a schedule that didn’t exactly coincide with ours and didn’t take us within walking distance of most places we wanted to go and so we ended up using taxis and the sky train. Side note: the river view room that we booked turned into a view of a demolished building with a slice of river view if we stood in a remote corner of the sitting room. Will we ever learn? Probably not.

OK, so we’re over that. We set out to explore Bangkok with friends who actually knew the place. We came to enjoy and dislike Bangkok on many levels.
The highlights of our group holiday:
Having a delicious dinner at the funky restaurant, “Cabbages and Condoms”, where instead of after dinner mints you are given a condom.
Walking curiously and timidly down the short sleazy red light street just to get a look at the rumored young girls/prostitutes and Lady Boys who would perform bizarre sex acts inside the bars (that we were unwilling to enter for because of a deep-seated, guilt-ridden southern Bible Belt upbringing). Many of our cruiser friends had submitted to curiosity and had gone to the sex shows in Phuket.  None of us could get up the nerve to go in for a show, pay the $60 each for a watered down drink to watch a girl shoot darts, ping pong balls and strange slithery creatures out of her private parts. As we emerged onto the main drag at the end of the street we felt slimy and in need of a shower.
Parking the men at the Hard Rock Café while shopping with Pauline and running all over town together to the Jim Thompson Museum, the huge malls with outrageous fashion designs, visiting trendy hotels where Pauline can charm us into looking at rooms as though we are considering hosting an event there someday, having girl-time over coffee, getting lost and just laughing like kids because we enjoy each other’s company so much.

Because Martin and Pauline had been here many times they told us to take a riverboat tour and go see the palace while they took care of some personal business. We did, and after several stops had grown weary of the temples and Buddhas. Finally arriving at the stop for the palace, we walked a country mile to the entrance only to be told that we were at the wrong entrance and also that the palace was closed for a special event but due to reopen in an hour. A little man in a taxi cart told us he would take us around to the entrance side. We got into his cart and off he dashed through town taking us on a long and confusing drive. The entire time, I’m leaning up into his ear insisting that he was going the wrong way, and that the entrance could not possibly be this far! Frank was punching me and telling me to relax. I kept saying we were being hijacked. Eventually, the driver stopped in front of a jewelry shop and told us to go inside. Frank jumped out, and I grabbed his arm saying, “This is a hoax! I don’t want jewelry, this guys is scamming us!” The little man became very angry with me and started pushing us along saying we must enter the shop. I went in, used the bathroom and walked back out to the taxi cart. The man was livid that I didn’t look at jewelry. Frank is meanwhile playing peacekeeper, accepting a cup of tea inside the shop. I insisted that the man take us back to the palace. He refused saying we owed him more money but if we go to see the giant Buddah and take his tour then he would return us to the palace. Frank said OK; I fumed. We were driven even farther into the belly of Bangkok to a religious site with a giant Buddha. We got out, trying to be nice snapped some photos and then I said we were ready to go back to the palace. He refused again. So I hailed a cab. We paid a fortune to get back to the palace. The cab dropped us at the same spot we had departed from over an hour earlier where we were immediately set upon by more people telling us the palace was closed...yada, yada, yada. We were so hot and annoyed we walked back to the boat dock and caught the tour boat back to the hotel. Later that night I read my friend, Judy’s blog and found that they had also been taken for a “ride” in the same manner. Should have read her blog beforehand.
We flew out the next day ready to leave Bangkok but not ready to leave Pauline and Martin. We said our teary goodbyes and boarded our return flight to Krabi (Phuket).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

April 17 – 21, 2013 Luang Prabang, Laos

I just love saying Luang Prabang! It is as delightful as it sounds, and is a World Heritage site. Wat's it all about? Wats, of course. Temples abound. Buddhist monks stroll about and icons are everywhere.

We checked into Hotel De La Paix, which has an interesting history of its own. It is a World Heritage Site. We've been told (and also read that) it was a former prison for elite inmates, also that it was the French governor's compound and yet both sound like reasonable explanations.  It is completely unmarked and surrounded by a white wall.  Very private and exclusive.

As you walk the lovingly manicured and expansive grounds you will note the guard towers at the four corners. At the back of the property lies the Library, which is also the restaurant and a separate building that contains the spa. We booked one of the 4 suites with a private pool. We seriously did not want to leave our own little private compound because it was like being in a Heavenly retreat after the nightmare of Vientiane.

We took full advantage of the bicycles provided, cycling to the various temples and ruins during the daytime, meandering along the Mekong River and hiking up temple mounts and along trails from one historic site to another. We found an abundance of lovely riverside cafes and boutiques.  We visited the expansive night market/street market and even participated in the alms giving ceremony at sunrise when the monks parade down the street to collect alms (sticky rice). We participated through the hotel and followed their instructions carefully so as not to offend the locals or the monks. Many tourists are quite rude and pushy trying to vie for a photo op, completely disrespecting the monks, who are in prayer during the ritual. It was a very moving experience for us. If I were Buddhist I think this stop would have been even more spiritual for me. In fact I would put Luang Prabang at the top of my list.

Our time in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos was at an end, but we had one more exciting stop to look forward to…Pauline and Martin Broadhead were flying from Sydney to meet us in Bangkok.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

April 14 – 17, 2013 Vientiane, Laos – An Unfortunate Side Trip

 A visit to Luang Prabang was really the reason we added Laos to our trip, however, there are select embassies outside Thailand that will grant us a 60-day Thai Visa with an option to extend an additional 30 days (you cannot get this inside Thailand). Vientiane, Laos, is one of those cities, hence it was added to our itinerary, and would serve as our "visa run".

During the cab ride from the airport to our hotel we noticed the streets were alive with an atmosphere of utter chaos. The cab was bombed with water balloons and people were running the streets like apocalyptic madmen tossing buckets of water at us. As he dodged the lunatics our cabbie informed us delightedly that we had arrived just in time for Songkran. Oh No! Never in a million years did we think about the timing of our trip to the capital city. Although this is something people travel far and wide to celebrate, it meant only one thing to us at the time: all government offices would be closed for the duration of our stay and there was nothing to be done about getting our Thai visas.

We decided to make the best of an unfortunate situation and suck it up, so we checked in to the hotel and dropped our bags off at the room and then hit the streets to see what was going on and to scope out a place for dinner. The minute we left the security of the hotel's entrance, we were doused by buckets of water from a passing pickup truck! People were literally driving around with children's inflatable swimming pools and large tubs in the beds of trucks from which they would full their "Super Soakers" and water buckets to douse unsuspecting passers by. The element of surprise was the theme of the day. We literally ran the next few blocks bobbing and weaving to avoid the attackers. Every place we came to had a Closed sign prominently displayed on the door. We eventually spotted a restaurant attached to a hotel and arrived completely soaked to the bone and smarting from the impact of some of the water balloons. A kind employee handed us towels and pointed us toward a table. We enjoyed a fantastic meal and then caught a taxi back to our hotel where we hid safely in our room for the night. During the night we were both struck with severe stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. We both spent the entire next day in utter misery so sick and weak we could hardly get out of bed to use the bathroom. We called the front office to have water and sodas delivered. It was absolutely horrible. There was no pharmacy open, no doctor and no relief.
On the morning of the 16th, we emerged from the room still weak and crampy but starving for breakfast. I seriously dreaded leaving the hotel. We had no festival spirit in us whatsoever at this point. We forced ourselves to get out touring, and tried to cover our cameras and Frank's iPad as much as possible in case we got an unmolested chance to snap some photos.

We walked away from the center of activity until we found some sites and monuments. Although everything was closed we were able to get some good photo ops. As interesting as the street food looked, we avoided it at all costs. We were ready to get out of Vientiane. Another time…an different mood and we probably would have loved this place.

Monday, April 15, 2013

April 11 – 14, 2013 Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi Hilton and then off to Sapa, Vietnam

Returning to Hanoi, we had one day and night to enjoy the city once again before catching the midnight train to Sapa. Ha! Sounds like a song, eh?

We checked back into the Tirant Hotel, and then used what was left of the evening to walk the streets of old town Hanoi. We were impressed that much of the area has maintained its historic significance and tradition. There was a street for everything.  We were surprised that there was a street for eating dog meat. Street cooking is very common here, and you can buy nearly anything barbequed.

Although the weather was deteriorating, we had until roughly 10 PM on Thursday before needing to head to the train station. First we went in search of the famous tomb of Ho Chi Minh. It's a bit hard to miss. The grounds that encompass his tomb and living compound must take up several square kilometers. There is communist propaganda everywhere, and an abundance of armed guards. As in Saigon, school children arrived in organized droves. Gotta start that brainwashing at an early age, although it doesn't seem to be adhering to their young minds so well. Most of the young adults we met are working hard to get out of there, expressing a strong desire to make enough money in order to migrate to America. That's it for my political commentary. I don't want to create flack about it.

Eventually we survived the long queue to see the preserved body of this horrible little man who had wreaked havoc for so many years. The TSA inspectors could take come lessons here from the Vietnamese. Security was tight and the screening process quite impressive. Of course no photos are allowed, and our bags were confiscated and tagged to be retrieved later. There were at least two dozen guards in the tomb and around the body that was displayed in a glass enclosure. He was amazingly well preserved. Creepy.
Afterward we walked over to look at his home that was set up in a very Zen-like environment. If I didn't know better I would've thought he was Buddhist rather than a communist. The grounds were astoundingly and lovingly sculpted and tranquil.

Later on we toured the Hanoi Hilton. To say it was disturbing would be a great understatement. I became disgusted and outraged seeing the prison and reading the contemptible captions depicting the atrocities that our brave men endured. These people were pure evil and heartless.
We both needed a break from the depressing agitprop, so we went to find something to eat. If nothing else, the food here is fabulous!

Eventually it was time to head to the train station. This was one of the most confusing and stressful parts of our journey.  Our agent had booked us 1st class on the Orient Express, which we eventually discovered is just one car on the train, and not so easy to find. There were masses of humanity milling about the station and no one seemed to be able to point us in the right direction. We were wandering around trying to figure out where to go when I was grabbed by what I feared was a hustler who walked us outside the back door; us dragging our luggage along potholes and across several train tracks, and then he deposited us smack in the train yard. I just knew we were going to get mugged, but soon enough more Westerners began to gather about us, led by similarly disheveled looking little men. Our man demanded several American dollars for the assistance. I was getting a little frightened and angry as this point, as were many others, when a train suddenly pulled up and a frenzied bunch of passengers suddenly began trampling by! We had no idea which car was ours and helplessly looked around for our little man. Finally Frank managed to find someone to point us in the right direction (for a few more USD), and we entered to find that we had been actually given a regular class berth as the porter explained that they were out of 1st class but that they reserved this berth for just the two of us instead of cramming 4 persons in. What? How does that make it 1st class? It didn't matter. By now we were exhausted. It was midnight and the beds were relatively comfortable so we ate a small snack that was provided and took a sleeping pill for the long night ride to Sapa.

Arriving in Sapa early the next morning we made two immediate observations: that the village was socked in with fog, very cold and rainy, and the colorfully appointed hill tribe women flock at you and stick to you like glue trying to shove their wares in your face, insisting that you "buy from me!"

We zoomed over to the hotel where we had booked a large suite at the Sapa Rooms Boutique. We were really looking forward to this after the last 24 hours of travel. The hotel's lobby was adorable and very cozy but our room wouldn't be ready for a while so we settled in for a delicious breakfast and warmed up by the fireplace, not daring to go outside to get accosted by the aggressive little Hill Tribe women.  Eventually we were taken to our room on the top floor (no elevator). 
OMG. It was dark, dank and had water-spots and mold on the walls! There was no heat, and the room was freezing. We were shattered. Frank tried to speak to the manager about it but because we had booked through Agoda, all they would offer as an alternative was a very small room on the next floor down but for the same price. Apparently those on Agoda who had given this place 4 ½ stars were backpackers from Pluto! The bathroom door had fallen off and was propped back up. The bathroom itself was full of mildew and the shower head spun in all directions when we turned it on (sans shower door or curtain). I think I grew an ulcer from anxiety about using the bathroom. The other really nice hotels had been fully booked when we found this one so we sucked it up and decided not to let it ruin our precious few days here. Eventually they did bring us a radiator and a lamp, and tried their best to repair the shower-head and re-affix the bathroom door. We're thinking we probably wont recommend this hotel to any of our friends.

Sapa is a very beautiful village situated high in the hill tribe region of northern Vietnam. Most visitors come here for the magnificent views and lovely hiking trails through the mountains. Unfortunately for us it was very cold and rainy the entire time we were there. Because of mudslides the hiking trails were all closed. Our first order of business was to get something warm to wear. Every other shop is The North Face, so I found a little jacket but there were no real clothes to be found. Most of what is for sale there is hawked by the little village women selling their handcrafts. I think if the weather had been nicer and if we weren't so distraught then we may have been more amenable to purchasing something from these pesky little women, but they were very off-putting and aggressive. If Frank said "later", then they would follow us around insisting that it was later and that he promised to buy. When we didn't purchase any of their goods, they began to call us ugly names. They were really quite horrible. Frank began to tell them to go away and would put his hand up at them but they were undeterred. I guess they figure they will eventually beat you down but they were no match for Frank.

We did manage to book a tour to the Red Zhao village. Normally one would hike to it but due to the mud and rain problem we were driven in a van. We parked some distance away and slipped and slid along the village road on foot, getting mud splattered all over our clothes but the adventure was worth it to witness how these tribes lived. Villagers followed us throughout and although they displayed their goods, no one was pushy.  We were taken to the bathing house and, while there took an herbal hot tub soak in a wooden barrel. That was both interesting and bizarre. They worked hard to find a barrel large enough for Frank to fit into because you literally squat down inside a barrel! Afterward we were served local tea, and a chance to chat with some locals. We had noticed that the women either had extremely high foreheads or were bald underneath their head-wraps, so Frank asked about it to our guide. Being a local, she removed her head-wrap. Down cascaded her silken black hair, but it began at the middle of the top of her head. Puzzling. She told us that from an early age, the women pluck the frontal hairs from their heads to reveal a very large, shiny rounded forehead. This is considered beautiful to them. I asked her if the hairs grow back, and she replied that they do and are plucked as soon as they appear. They enjoyed speaking candidly with us about their culture and habits. They really are a lovely group of people. It's a shame the aggressive ones in Sapa village give such a bad impression.
On our final day, we finally gave up the hope of hiking when the rain and cold persisted. Streets were even becoming slippery so we walked the town, performing evasive measures to ditch the persistent little ladies. After a while, they will sic their children on you to try to play at your heartstrings. We were now officially desensitized. Eventually we stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants perched atop the hillside. While awaiting our food the sky suddenly cleared and for about 10 brief minutes we caught a glimpse of the beautiful terraced mountains. The view was everything that had been advertised. Then just as suddenly, the clouds closed back in and the mist drove us back inside.

Soon enough it was time to return to the train station for the overnight ride back to Hanoi. Unfortunately the Orient Express car was unavailable so our agent put us in first class on a different line. What a difference! This car was smelly and dirty. The toilet was stopped up and the beds were very uncomfortable. We didn't get much sleep on the return trip.

In Hanoi we went directly from the train station to the airport. Destination: Vientiane, Laos.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

April 6 – 10, 2013 - Hanoi and Halong Bay

Before leaving for this trip many of our friends who had been to Vietnam encouraged us to take the 2-night cruise of Halong Bay. We went online to check it out.  There were so many beautiful junks, and so many varying packages to sort through that it was difficult to even get through them all to choose a junk. When we finally found the one we preferred and tried to book the cruise we quickly became overwhelmed. Frank managed to locate a travel service that booked the trip for us. It turns out everything is owned by the government and using an agent was seamless. Our agent's name was Hang Moon. What a great name. She arranged our hotel in Hanoi at the front and back end of our cruise, our airport transfer, and the accommodation on the 2-night cruise for just over $700 USD (for the both of us). We had chosen a suite onboard because the rooms on the ship are tiny.
Arriving in Hanoi was exciting. There is a buzz to this city that fascinated us. It reminded me of the feeling I got the first time I went to NYC. As in Saigon, after we got checked into the hotel (very nice room, by the way), we went for a stroll. We had many opportunities to practice our "Saigon shuffle" here as the traffic was much more congested, and again consisted of 90% mopeds and motorbikes. Immediately we regretted not booking more time here. What were we thinking? It is a vivacious and modern city but hugely old-world at the same time, which we realized, as from one street to another we seemed to morph into an altogether different era. It is indescribable for me. We only had the evening to enjoy so we set about stopping at various cafes along the lake for quick refreshment and then moving on until we had visited several different venues before settling on dinner at a popular local restaurant called The Green Tangerine. The food in Vietnam is just so darn good, fresh and inexpensive; all we want to do here is eat! We passed many, many shops selling everything from beautiful glassworks to large quantities of textiles and goods, a theme that we had begun to see repeated throughout Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, so we figure a lot of this stuff is probably made in China. The North Face is everywhere. Seemingly made in Vietnam, you can find everything North Face. We were warned, however, that much of it is Authentic Knockoff. There is an absolutely thriving tourist industry here. Tiring of the onslaught of humanity and sales people vying for our money, we headed off to our room for a good night's sleep before our early 4:00 AM departure for Halong Bay.
The hotel stored our bags for us so that we could take a combined small rolling carry-on and our backpacks on the trip. We were loaded into a minivan/bus that seemed rather comfortable at first.  Little did we realize the thinly cushioned seats would soon feel like torture boxes as we bounced away on the long and pot-holed road to the bay. At about the 2-hour halfway point our minibus made the obligatory stop at the massive souvenir shop that sold everything from hand carved items to glassworks to hand painted and silk sewn pictures. We considered loading up for a future garage sale but remembered we lived on a boat and didn't have a garage. We grabbed a coffee and waited at the café for the rest of the group. They dropped us off at the front door and then picked us up at the back of the store 30 minutes later. Back into the torture chamber, we bounced down the road to the tour company's office at the waterfront to await more passengers' arrivals. The first thing that struck me was that there were no beautiful wooden junks. There was a harbor full of large whitewashed monstrosities anchored all about the bay that claimed to be our lovely cruise boats. We understood that the communist government had ordered it so.  The reason is unclear even to those who claim to know. Apparently you just don't ask.

We finally boarded the tenders to take us out to our junk. The inside was beautifully appointed and our little suite had a balcony off the back of the ship. Our neighbors in the other suite were a Russian couple that claimed to speak no English and yet seemed to understand most everything. After stowing our gear, the ship took off through the stunningly picturesque Halong Bay. Disappointingly, the skies were overcast and we were shrouded in mist and low-hanging fog, so the gorgeous view was obscured. Nonetheless, the mist gave off a sense of mysticism and intrigue.

We were served a delicious lunch while the boat was heading to our designated cruising area. The vistas were so beautiful that we didn't want to be inside but the misty rain was chilly, even on the wraparound verandah.

Preceding dinner there was a happy hour and welcome drink on the top deck and then we attended a cooking class where we learned to make vegetarian and meat spring rolls. Everyone had a great time playing with the food, especially the children on board. Most of the spring rolls turned out nicely but some of them looked like Rorschach disasters. Of course I had to try to make mine perfect and was excited about getting to eat it because I put all of my favorite ingredients into it. But after we finished constructing them, the chef whisked them away to cook in the galley. We didn't get to see them again until they were served in the buffet at dinner.  Of course the people who made the crummiest ones got in line first and dove for the best looking ones. Ha! The joke was on us. The dinner was fantastic. The centerpiece of the table was an edible delight!

Following dinner, we were invited to fish for squid off the back of the boat but Frank and I chose to relax in the salon for movie time.  Early the next morning, we were taken to a floating village and transferred into local boats in groups of four that were piloted by local floating villagers. Each home displayed their goods for sale. Everywhere you go in Viet Nam, someone has something to sell. We chose to just relax and enjoy the tour. It's fascinating that people can live like this. Afterward, the rest of the group was put back on the big junk while Frank and I along with the Russian couple were transferred to a beautiful smaller junk for the day. Apparently we were the only couples staying for two nights, and had a special itinerary with a separate guide.

By now the misting had turned into a light, chilly rain.  Our first stop was an absolutely beautiful beach area with hiking trails leading up to a high peak. Our guide led us up the trail. Did I mention that we had no idea what our itinerary was for the day, and that we were not wearing appropriate shoes and that Frank was in flip-flops?  We sucked it up and followed our guide up the muddy slippery path. At first it appeared that we would just stop at what we thought was the peak but that was deceiving from the ground. It actually seemed to go on forever and at times was a straight up climb using our hands and feet. I was fine going up but was getting worried about the return trip down. At the summit, we should have seen a breathtaking panoramic view of the bay and its myriad islands but were socked in by fog and mist. It was still lovely but the only breathtaking part for me was going back down the steep hill. I performed several not so ladylike butt-slides on the way. Some involuntary! Returning to the little junk we were wet and cold but met with hot tea and some kind of sweet snacks. Then came lunch. Wow! An artful bounty followed the most beautiful sculpted food arrangements. One comprised two doves carved from cucumbers and carrots served on top of a pineapple half, perched between grilled prawns. The presentations were so beautiful that we tried to take some photos before the food disappeared. The Russian couple had brought along a bottle of vodka and insisted on pouring shots for us. Frank kindly helped me with mine. During the meal we learned through hand signals and body language that the man had been associated with the Russian equivalent of the USA's FBI. He demonstrated on our little guide some ways to take a man down with one hand by hitting pressure points on his opponent. We were blown away and realized there was more to this guy than he appeared to be.

After our feast we were taken to a beautiful cave and given kayaks. Our guide led us into what in Thailand would be called a "Hong". We entered through a low hanging rock formation into an absolutely beautiful fairyland where the water was so clear we could see abundant sea life beneath us. It simply felt magical.  Back on board the little junk we were returned to the big boat, The Paloma, where the new group of arrivals were just starting their happy hour and cooking lesson.  We enjoyed yet another unbelievable feast and hit the sack early. We'd had a full day.

Next morning the Paloma took us over to a massive underground cave, larger than the Mammoth Cave that I'd seen in America. We toured inside for over an hour and then were sent back to the junk to pack for our return to Hanoi. I so dreaded the backbreaking ride in that minibus.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

April 3 – 6, 2013 Hue, Vietnam

Hue, situated along the Perfume River, is an amazing city with a rich cultural as well as violent history. It was the royal city, the capital city, and the spiritual center; ruled by emperors under the Nguyen Dynasty for many, many years resisting French involvement until 1945, when communist rule took over and the capital was moved to Hanoi.  (This information was given to us by a local so don't quote me on it but it seems to be accurate.) There are many lovely and historic sites here including ancient tombs, pagodas and, of course the Citadel.

Evening views from our hotel room
Daytime views

Our hotel was situated just a couple of blocks back from the river, giving us a view that was breathtaking.
We were overwhelmed from studying the travel guide, so on our first evening we decided to just take off walking. Although we normally avoid these kinds of places we stopped at a popular western-style restaurant/bar. We were tired from traveling and just wanted a brainless evening. We managed to grab a table on a corner of the upstairs balcony that provided the perfect vantage point for people watching. There was a lot to watch. Local hustlers were at work among the throng of tacky, rude and drunken tourists on the streets below us.
We spent most of the first full day at the Citadel that houses the Imperial City, which again encloses the Forbidden (or Purple) City where the Royal family had resided. The Citadel was contained within a 2.5-kilometer wall and moat. Sadly it was all but destroyed during the 1968 Tet Offensive. What remains, however, has been preserved in a way that we could still sense a flavor of the magnificence of the former palace, surrounding grounds and outbuildings. Some of the remaining statues and structures are stunning in the detail of craftsmanship.
The Imperial City

One of the Gates at the Citadel
dragon at top of gate archway

the moat
main entrance to Citadel

Forbidden city

Royal Theater

By mid afternoon we were roasting in the sweltering heat, and so sought the cool comfort of our hotel for an air-conditioned break and since it was such a highly rated hotel, decided to just grab a late lunch there. Big mistake. The food was extremely average to poor and the prices were out of site but at least we were out of the heat! We decided to have a dip in the pool until the heat of the day passed, only to find that the pool was closed for repairs. In the height of tourist season!?!

Back out on the street we meandered, following the most shaded areas using that as our master sightseeing plan. There are so many Vietnam War relics scattered about the town; American and Russian tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery were found in clusters of fenced off areas.
 Little museums housing Royal and religious artifacts were abundant.

All along the streets (as in Cambodia) we found hundreds and hundreds of military artifacts for sale: ammo, medals, hashish pipes, opium pots and personal effects that had been owned by locals and soldiers. Anything and everything was for sale. We ended our day with a massage before freshening up for dinner.

Friday we headed out for more sizzling hot touring of the famous pagodas and sightseeing. The heat and humidity really did detract from our ability to truly enjoy the sights.

 By 10:00 AM you could feel yourself boiling from the inside out and all we wanted to really do was to get into the pool that was of course closed. The most impressive and famous pagoda is the Thien Mu Pagoda that remains a working monastery today.

It houses the car in which a monk named Thic Quang Duc drove himself to Saigon in 1963, where he disembarked, sat down in the lotus position on a busy intersection then poured a can of gasoline over his head and burned himself to death in protest of the Nao Dinh Diem regime's policies against religious freedom, particularly persecution of Buddhists.
That night we treated ourselves to a 5-star dinner at the Les Jardins de La Carambole.

Early Saturday we boarded a train to the Danang airport to catch our flight to Hanoi.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

March 31 – April 3, 2013 - Hoi An, Vietnam

As we were heading to the airport I realized that today is Easter. It is very strange spending Easter in a communist country. There's no sign of Christ (or the holiday) at all although I didn't expect any, yet we think there must be Christians here somewhere. We didn't see a bunny or an egg to even signify the commercial aspect. I can't imagine living in a world where Christianity has been obliterated. It was disorienting with no buildup or advertising to realize Easter had slipped in and out so inconspicuously.

Our flight experience was a pleasant surprise. Air Vietnam does a very nice job, from which United Airlines could use some tips! The service was courteous and very efficient, and although we had no seat choice and I was placed in a middle seat, I didn't mind at all because mine was extra large. In fact all of the middle seats were much wider in order to compensate for the two outside seats having the extra side room.  On arrival in Da Nang, we went through the ritual of finding a taxi to drive us to our hotel in Hoi An. We had a serious language barrier here, and in spite of giving him a copy of our booking, which included a map and the phone #, he drove us all over God's half acre before Frank spotted a sign off the main road that eventually led us to the hotel. It was well after dark and yet in spite of the late hour, the restaurant stayed open just for us.

In a nutshell; we loved Hoi An and wished we had planned to spend much more time here The highlights…
The Hoi An Chic hotel was the perfect luxury getaway set just outside of the town amidst the farmland and rice fields. We booked the grand chic suite, an absolutely fabulous accommodation with a massive luxury bathroom and very large balcony where we enjoyed lounging on the comfy sofa and hanging lounge chair. We were provided canvas shopping bags, hats, lovely slippers and robes, although Frank couldn't get his toes into the slippers, nor get his robe even halfway around him. We got a kick out of realizing that their mindset is not on large Americans. The little spa was lovely and so inexpensive that we used it every day. The hotel had a sister spa that would provide any service that couldn't be provided onsite. The restaurant's food was absolute gourmet and out of this world.
Herb wrapped prawns with "5-s's" dipping sauce
We had a difficult time not staying there for every meal but we did want to enjoy and experience Hoi An. I cannot say enough about this exquisite boutique resort and did in fact leave a glowing review on Trip Advisor. The hotel had a small fleet of US military jeeps that they used to shuttle guests into town on a daily schedule, otherwise we had the option of using the complimentary bicycles that were on hand.

controls beside me in the back seat
We chose both depending on our agenda for the day.
riding from town to hotel through farmland

The Morning Glory restaurant and cooking school owned by Ms. Vy were highly recommended to us by friends, and were at the top of our list.  We did have a sublime meal at the restaurant on our second night.  Every place you eat in Hoi An, however, is said to be just as sublime. We never had a less than splendid meal here.

Cooking school began very early in the morning with a trip to the local fresh market. We were taken through the market by Ms. Vy's own head shopper, who pointed out various fresh meats, seafoods, herbs, seasonings, fruits and vegetables and were given tastings by many of the vendors. Our guide pointed out to us which ingredients we would be using in School and how to prepare them. What makes Hoi An unique in the food arena are the products that are locally made and available only in Hoi An. For instance there is a delicious special noodle called the Hoi An noodle that is best when used fresh. 
so many wonderful fresh noodles!

one of the strange things we tasted
After the trip to the market, our class was taken to the school where we were shown how certain Vietnamese staple foods are made and again were given samples to taste. We learned the secret of the 5 S's that are the primary factors in Vietnamese cooking: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Spicy, Savory. We had a great time making banana blossom salad, Hoi An pancakes, wedding soup, spring rolls and more. Following our class we were led into the dining room where we got to eat our own creations for lunch. It was difficult not to snarf it all down as we prepared it!
Ms. Vy

our shared cooking station
After school, we roamed the beautiful village and took in the sights of the old town, the waterfront and the beautiful shops,
paper lanters
 coming to an interesting street where a lady beckoned us to her tiny shop, offering facial threading for $1.  I happily sat down to have her remove my middle-age, upper lip hair that I seem to have developed in recent years. She was brilliant and so quick! She then turned her attention on Frank, who was shuffling around in the background looking very uncomfortable, motioning for him to sit down. He tried backing away but I convinced him to get his eyebrows trimmed up.
She was thrilled, and while she had him in her clutches she next turned to his nose and ears. As he winced and teared-up he shot me a look that needed no words. I smiled back knowing that he would be pleased with the end result. When handed the mirror he actually sat up a bit straighter and smiled. She was so pleased that she had made him happy. Because she had done a little extra work on him, she charged him $2. We gave her $10, just to see her big smile spread even wider, as she bowed and thanked us over and over.

Hoi An is also known for tailor-made clothing and shoes. We didn't have shoes made but I did order some hiking pants with zip off legs that convert to shorts, and several pair of shorts. My mistake was in not knowing how to choose the shop. There are dozens upon dozens of storefronts offering tailoring. I chose mine by what I saw on display at the front of the shop. Little did I know the storefront only took measurements and then sent them out to someone else, somewhere else to be made. It never occurred to me to ask if they were actually made onsite, nor to refuse to pay for them up front before I received the finished product. This caused me no small amount of grief because all 4 garments were sent back and forth countless times, and I had to keep coming back for re-fitting appointments over the course of our 3 days there. We were both pretty upset that our precious time here was being taken up by this. They laughed when Frank told me to request a refund and to just cancel the order. At the end of the ordeal, I told the shop owner on our final evening that we were leaving Hoi An at 6 AM the next morning, and I would really appreciate having my garments before we left. She assured me they would be delivered to me at the hotel prior to our departure. We went to bed thinking we'd seen the last of that shop, our money and the clothes. On checkout at 6 AM the next morning I was presented a bag from the concierge, explaining it had just arrived from the shop. By the hair of my chinny chin chin! I didn't have time to try them on, so I put them in the suitcase with a prayer on my lips.

After hearing that the journey between Hoi An to Hue was very pleasant and scenic we had arranged a driver to take us instead of flying. It was by far the most expensive option but one that we treasured. This would bring our Vietnam experience thus far to trains, planes and automobiles.

The drive was all that we had been promised, passing through lush countryside, up into the mountains and over a pass that revealed terrific panoramas.

Passing fishing villages, we stopped for lunch at a rickety looking structure out over the water that proved to serve excellent fresh fish.

 Continuing our journey, we arrived at our hotel in Hue at dusk, and got checked in just in time to watch a beautiful sunset from the roof bar.