Southeast Asia: A Travel Journal

Kingdoms of Southeast Asia

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What an opportunity to return to Vietnam! This was a country I had not seen since 1966 when I was in a ship (an old World War II LST that had barely been reconditioned) and spent many months on the Mekong River on what we affectionately called the “Mekong Milk Run,” delivering supplies to units of the Vietnamese Army, U. S. Air Force, U. S. Army, and U. S. Navy, as well as landing at various ports along the eastern coast of South Vietnam and Saigon.

I inspected various itineraries as well as already pre-arranged tours and found the best plans for my purposes to be a trip labeled “Kingdoms of Southeast Asia.” As I wanted to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia and three days were included in that country as well as three days in the land-locked Laos, I selected the trip planned by Collette Vacations. I had worked with Collette in 2017 on a planned itinerary to Sicily and had added an additional four nights on the Amalfi Coast. Our Collette Regional Sales Manager had worked with me on an itinerary for that location as well. I had also worked with Collette in 2008 when I designed a trip to central and northern Thailand, so I was familiar with the quality of the hotels and the outstanding Tour Managers that Collette provides.

Because of the Southwest Monsoon that ravages the southern part of Vietnam into Cambodia, I delayed the start of the trip until after 15 October, when that weather system abates. Here is a short article defining monsoon definitionmonsoons

I had hoped that I could entice some of my LST shipmates to join my group, but none of them took me up on this. The long series of flights (Grand Rapids to O’Hare, O’Hare to Tokyo Narita, Narita to Saigon – now called Ho Chi Minh City) crossing the International Date Line with some layovers in the various airports meant more than 24 hours each way to get there and back. That discouraged some of my stalwart followers. As a result, there were only six of us who left Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids on 22 October 2018.

I keep track of the kinds of aircraft we fly and other than the Grand Rapids – O’Hare leg (which used a small Canada Air aircraft), all of the other international planes were Boeing. It is amazing to see the former Steelcase “Pyramid” which had been bought by Switch to be the largest and most advanced commercial data center east of the Mississippi. img_0481

The longest leg (12 hours) was the O’Hare—Narita one. If you inspect a map, the route has a definite curve in it as the track is a parabola passing near Alaska. However, if you were to draw the route on a globe, you would see that it is more of a straight line, thus it is called a “great circle route.” Surprisingly, in changing aircraft at Narita, we had to go through security again, but with typical Japanese efficiency, new lines opened up and the passengers moved through quickly.

The five-hour duration of the Narita – Saigon leg was a code-shared airline with United (All Nippon Airways – ANA) and the constantly smiling and bowing attendants overfed us. Once we arrived at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, I knew that I would seldom recognize anything from prior experience there. We produced our passports with the Multiple Entry Visa pasted in it.  I found our Collette Tour Manager, Tran Tuan “just call me Tuan” img_0499 who would be with us the entire trip, even the six days in Cambodia and Laos. With him in this picture is one of my group of six, Ed Cote, who like me, had served in Vietnam, but a couple of years later. Tuan directed us to the coach that would take us to the New World Saigon Hotel, where we checked in and crashed by midnight.

24 October

Because of the 11-hour time differential with Eastern Daylight Time – that would shift to 12 hours when the United States “fell back” to Standard Time, I knew that it would take a few days to get my circadian rhythm adjusted. But since the three countries that we would visit were all in the same time zone, that removed one of the complexities. After waking up at 4:30, I took a shower and we went down for breakfast right at 6.

The dining room was spectacular . img_0500While there, we met most of the other 14 people who would be on the entire trip: three from United Kingdom, three from Canada, and the other eight from various locations in the United States.

Our first day trip was to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I had always assumed that this complex north and west of Saigon had been built during the war with Vietnam, but it actually began in the late 1940s. To get a better picture of the history of the entire Southeast Asia, click here.history of vietnam revised

history of vietnam 1954 to present revised

The purpose of the hundreds of square mile complex at Cu Chi was initially to fight the French. If you look at the attached history, you will see that France conquered the entire southeast Asia area called French Indochina in the 1870s and 1880s. During World War II, almost all of eastern Asia came under the control of Imperial Japan (Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere). When the war ended in 1945, the French moved back in to control and almost immediately met with increased resistance. The tunnel complex included places for families of the Viet Cong to live and cook, weapons-making facilities, planning rooms, as well as booby traps for attackers. We had the opportunity to check out the smallness of the “rabbit holes” and most of our group took a tight tour of a sample tunnel (that had been enlarged for Americans, yet still was a bit claustrophobic). We were met at the end of our tour with a bit of the Southeast monsoon and rain

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and saw the ubiquitous motorbikes before we took a quick tour of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City, so I will abbreviate it as HCM). Tuan realized that most of us were brain-dead from the long overseas flights, so he delayed most of the scheduled HCM itinerary until the next day.

After our first Vietnamese lunch, we went to the Reunification Palace. This was the headquarters for General Ngo Dinh Diem until his own troops killed him (with possible support of the Kennedy administration) in 1963. In April 1975, President Nguyen Van Thieu surrendered to a Viet Cong officer, signifying the final collapse of the South Vietnamese government.dscn6239We saw the helicopter waiting to whisk him away at a moment’s notice. We visited the card-playing room, the private cinema, and grand reception rooms. We also saw the bomb shelter, war room and the communications equipment in the basement. Now restored, the Reunification Palace is still used for important State meetings.

The infamous ATM machine in the hotel allowed us to exchange $42 to 1,000,000 Vietnamese Dong in two 500,000 Dong notes. 500000 dong note The desk broke one of those notes into smaller bills.

 

 

 

 

 

25 October

Our destination this day was the city of My Tho in the Mekong Delta on a two-hour trip. When I was a passenger in a Huey chopper in 1966, although it seemed like a long time (as I was sitting on an uncomfortable but safe flak jacket), it was then about 30 minutes, with a firing operation near Vinh Long. In 2018, we had made a comfort stop (what Tuan called “singing a song” at a “happy room”) at an interesting religious site, Thanh That My Tho, for a new syncretic religion that combined Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism in the Cao Dai Temple. cao dai templeThis is the main church of that sect in the Mekong Delta. When I was researching this, I found several dozen churches further north.

We then went to the Mekong River and boarded a little tourist junk. dscn6273 We could tell those boats that deal with tourists because an eye is painted on the bow. dscn6321 As we putted upriver, when we got to a river junction, I looked up the other branch and remembered where we docked USS Chesterfield County (LST-551) in June 1966. Now there is a newer bridge spanning the Mekong as the first such enterprise. We landed at a small settlement where we bought candy and were entertained by several local players with stringed instruments and a singer. After a fruit snack and a chance to sample the homemade candy, (and it seems that Elizabeth had bought a lot, because she later treated us repeatedly to sweets she bought there) we boarded small horse-drawn carts dscn6303 and rode them to a narrow canal with the palm foliage creating a canopy or tunnel, where we got on narrow boats sculled by a woman at the rear.  She let us off on the Mekong, where we boarded a larger boat and took that to a landing, where we got off and had a prepared lunch of elephant ear fish, large prawns, and Bami-Bam (Biere 33).

The bathroom was interesting as I thought that I was being watched and photographed.

img_0508Tuan showed us some simple signs that the Viet Cong gave to their fellow fighters to mark the jungle trails, such as a small twig placed in a certain manner in a large horizontal leaf. We then returned to My Tho, boarded our bus and returned to Saigon.

Then we got our tour of Saigon that was originally scheduled for the previous day. Our first stop was the Post Office, which I remember well because of its ornate interior that did not seem to have been war-damaged. dscn6344 As the Notre Dame Basilica was being repaired, we could not enter, but in the main square, I recognized the Rex Hotel where I spent one interesting night in 1966, although a modern addition had been added. dscn6353 Here is a picture of the main square  across the street from the Rex and in the distance you can see the 81-story office building.dscn6352

Tuan described the ride-sharing company, Grab, that is similar to our Uber, that bought the Uber franchise all through Vietnam. Not only cars but motorbikes are used and the drivers were green jackets and helmets.

26 October  We leave Vietnam for Cambodia

This was a travel day, flying out of Saigon to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We boarded a relatively small two-engine propeller plane (our seats were right next to the spinning blades) dscn6359 that was a bit disconcerting, but it was a smooth flight and I recognized Tonle Sap as we made our approach to Siem Reap. It is interesting to note that this lake (Tonle Sap means “large river” in Khmer) is part of the Mekong Basin as that river replenishes the fresh water and provides fertile sediment like the Nile used to do prior to the construction of the Aswan Dam.

As we were in Cambodia during the “dry” season, the lake is somewhat depleted of its water. The Siem Reap terminal reminded me of one of the airports in Thailand. img_0513

Our Tour Manager, Tran Tuan, was with us – as he would remain for the entire trip, thank God. But he was joined by his Cambodian counterpart, Vanneck. dscn6446 copy The short trip to our hotel, the Royal Angkor Resort, was a true experience in luxury.

 

27 October

Our first stop after hotel breakfast was Angkor Thom (which is Khmer for Great City). What is distinctive here are the over 2000 large stone faces that are either imbedded in to the architecture or free standing. dscn6382 This complex was the last capital city of the Khmer empire. We concentrated our stay at the Bayon, that has significance both for the Hindu god Shiva as well as Buddhism. The troop of monkeys seemed to enjoy the area.dscn6448 We really felt the heat (Vanneck said that it was 33 Celcius – 91.4F!) but blue skies.

After lunch at Café Indo Chine, we went to Angkor Wat. Here is a map of the entire area. Our hotel was on Hiway 6 (the diagonal road to the left on the map).angkor wat

Vanneck called it a “mountain temple” because there were so many steps. (By the way, by law, no Siem Reap building could be taller than the towers of Angkor Wat!) We walked across a bridge spanning the protective three-mile long moat to one of the world’s largest religious building and the symbol of Cambodia. This complex was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but gradually converted into a Buddhist temple. We climbed up a narrow stairway and went through many rooms and saw a central courtyard from above before we climbed back down. dscn6467 I could easily show you several hundred great pictures, dscn6445 up close in courtyards, from above, some of the stone cutwork, statues, and other amazing sights.

As we were preparing – reluctantly – to leave Angkor Wat, we saw the gathering of these colorful figures, ready to perform a dance. dscn6472

That evening, after dinner, we were treated to an Apsara dance exhibition. This tradition comes from Indian mythology and religion, in both Buddhist and Hindu religions. Dancers, representing water nymphs (maybe this has some connection with the water puppets we visited in Hanoi several days later?) accompanied by celestial musicians, inhabit the heaven of the god Indra, who is the lord of the heavens.

28 October

After breakfast, our group was involved in one of the People to People programs of the Collette Foundation in attempting to improve the lives of community members. Our original itinerary was to visit a school this day, but it was not in session, so we visited a small farm and helped a family plant jackfruit trees. dscn6498 copyMade into desserts, jackfruit allegedly fights wrinkles, cures mental stress and skin diseases, prevents anemia, promotes healthy hair and good eyesight, prevents indigestion, and builds muscles.

We traveled to the nearby Banteay Srei Temple, with its intricate sandstone carving. dscn6539dscn6541 copyConnie posed next to a large termite mound dscn6546 copy

before we moved on to the almost adjacent Banteay Samre Temple, which was built in the Angkor Wat style with a central tower in the early 12th century. dscn6557 copy

There is still work to be done, but it is not just a matter of sticking one stone on another, but determining precisely where each stone laying on the ground goes and what the orientation is of that stone. Note that these stones are numbered. dscn6584

Our next stop, and one of the most mystical and eerie, was the Buddhist temple

Ta Prohm. img_0538Unlike what we had already seen, here is a series of buildings that had been overtaken by the nearby jungle. It reminded me of some of the Maya structures in Guatemala and Mexico. The intent of the researchers and archeologists is to keep many of the ingrown trees but work is still going on repairing areas where the forest has not intruded. dscn6619

After a good  dinner at a restaurant on the Siem Reap River, I walked with Tuan to the nearest ATM to get some additional money, and the ATM spit it out in dollars! The Cambodian currency seems to have minimal value and US dollars work well in all three countries.

29 October

Our first stop was to a workshop to see how local crafts are made. These included sculpting in various stones (soapstone, sandstone, and several other types), also silver work, pottery, silk weaving, and some copper ware and woodwork. img_0543 Of course, it included a stop at the extensive gift store on the way out. Supposedly, the profits go back into the craft apprentice program.

Then we went downtown to do some shopping – my favorite activity. Vanneck took us to the downtown market and told us to bargain. I am definitely not a shopper. The little pedestrian bridge crossing the river would be our meeting place as we would be leaving the hotel at 2:30 so I would miss my required 15-minute nap. Tuan had negotiated with the hotel to allow us to retain our rooms past the normal check-out time (one more reason why he should get all kinds of kudos!) We put our suitcases outside our rooms and then were transported to the small airport to fly to Luang Prabang, Laos. As Laos is land-locked and our group that went to Thailand had a very short excursion into the Laos adjacent to the Golden Triangle, I was seriously expecting a very poor country. The 80-minute flight on board an A-321 was interesting as we each received a half-sandwich of ham and a muffin.

Flight to Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is located in northern Laos at the heart of a mountainous region. The town is built on a peninsula formed where the Mekong River is joined by the Nam Khan River. The elevation of 1000 feet was not what I expected when I saw the mountains on the approach, but this city is in a valley.dscn6633 copyWe were met by KL dscn6754 copy (that is what he wanted us to call him) and escorted to the Sanctuary Hotel. Our room with a balcony (!) is on the second floor of the main building, as there are a number of small buildings built around a lotus pond and the dining area in a very serene setting. dscn6639 copyThis required a visit to the bar, where most of the group joined us for drinks.

30 October

After a great hotel breakfast, the group walked about a kilometer where KL bought a yellow carnation display from a sidewalk vendor; img_0562 these are used as offerings at temple. KL, unlike Vanneck who served as a monk for a month, served as a monk for six years from his mid-teens until his 20s, when he was finally released from the order in order to get more schooling and get married. We stopped at Wat Sen, also called Wat Xieng Thong,

 

 

 

 

 

 

dscn6645 copy Wat Sen is a Buddhist temple that was built in 1718 by King Kitsarath with 100,000 stones from the Mekong River. It was restored in 1957 to commemorate the Buddha’s birth 2500 years earlier. The interior is fascinating with its statues and elaborate dragon boat. dscn6656

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also stopped at Wat Visun, the city’s oldest. It was built in 1503 and its main building is a 100-foot high stupa that served as a royal tomb. This is not that stupa but another one that I saw in Luang Prabang. dscn6731Restored in 1898 after being destroyed in the late 19th century, there is an impressive

collection of Buddha statues.dscn6663

This complex was very interesting and as I wandered around, I saw some unusual sights.

We boarded three small vans (since we could fit in two vans but Collette had contracted for three for the group, so we used all three with three different drivers) and drove to Kuang Si Falls. According to legend, these falls were created when a wise old man revealed the waters of the Nam Si by digging deep in the earth. After the waters came, a beautiful golden deer made its home under a protruding rock. Kuang means “deer” and Si means “dig.” Here is one part of the falls.

As we moved upstream, we were treated to even more spectacular views and one area that was relatively calm enticed many members of our group to jump in. dscn6694 The water was too cold for me as I like tepid bath water. Finally, here was the apex of the falls.

This was followed by a joke of a lunch because of the poor and slow service.

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I would recommend that all of you fellow travelers make a list of who is in this group picture — or I can guarantee that you will forget. (If you don’t remember someone, send me an email.)

We then returned to Luang Prabang and climbed the 330 uneven steps of Mount Phousi to observe the sunset, but we were not alone as a crowd had gathered with the same intent.dscn6714After our descent, we stopped at a Buddhist temple to observe monks and novices at prayer. dscn6727

31 October

After breakfast, we hopped in to our three vans and headed down to the Mekong where we boarded a long boat that had seats and tables. The driver was in the prow, then the passenger compartment, then a raised stern area with a kitchen, bathrooms, and more seating aft. dscn6735We traveled upstream for more than two hours. Based on the flow of water passing concrete slabs in the river, I estimated the water flow to be between five and seven knots, yet I calculated that we were still making about 10 knots over ground. (Quite a positive change from our LST in 1966 on the lower reaches of the Mekong!) Our first stop was at a small village. We checked out a relatively primitive pottery-making shop that had its own kiln. We then made the school visit that we had to cancel in Cambodia. We watched the children do organized calisthenics, then they entered the classroom and sang some songs for us. img_0585dscn6755Returning to the long boat, we passed some of the local housing.

Further up the river, we saw an elephant washing station.

 

 

 

Our next stop was Pak Ou Caves. Our boat driver dscn6764dscn6787 dutifully worked his way against the current of the Mekong, at the point where the Mekong is joined by the Nam Ou River, landing alongside a rickety float attached by sections of bamboo to a permanent dock and then to the shore.

We climbed the 50 feet above the water to the opening and were amazed at the collection of some 4000 Buddha icons in various parts of the cave. dscn6810

Some of the icons were standing, some seated in meditation, and a reclining Buddha. The figure in back is NOT a Buddha! Luckily, we were not there in April which is the Laotian New Year when huge crowds descend on the cave to wash and take care of the statues.

As a student of geopolitics, I am always interested in national development. Obviously, one of the key components is the creation of electrical power. According to Tuan, much of the power for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos comes from hydroelectric dams. Developing dams on the Mekong upstream will adversely affect the flow of water – the lifeblood of the entire Southeast Asia region – so there must careful coordination and planning. Coal-fired plants – the other main source of electrical power – is also disruptive to local environments and communities and contributes to greenhouse gases. China has a very large role in the development of the entire Southeast Asian region, but the poisonous tentacles of that nation have already proved deleterious to other nations as the China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China extend their cloying influence.

Other than power generation, infrastructure development requires increasing trade that can occur only with the development of a transportation system, including railroads, airports, and all-weather surface roads. I didn’t intend to make this journal a research paper, but consulting such sources as https://www.adb.org/news/expanded-road-networks-link-mekong-capitals-boost-investment gave me a better insight for future growth. Here is a foreign-funded bridge project crossing the Mekong in Laos. Remember that the river is an avenue but crossing it without bridges is an impediment, only done by slow ferries. dscn6774

The return trip downriver took about half the time because we were going downstream and we had nice buffet lunch on that journey leg. After we landed, we walked to a small paper-making shop, Xangkhongposa Weaving and Paper Handicraft Village,  where many of our group bought paper products. From there to a silk shop where we saw the process from silk worm to loom and finished product, then the ubiquitous gift store.

Based on typical Collette philosophy, tour groups do more than just take pictures and retreat into their soundproof and isolated bubble, but also give back to the local society – and that is more than just bartering for trinkets. Besides the gifting of necessary school supplies to the Laotian school earlier in the trip, we went to a tree farm to plant some small seedlings in a nursery and learned about some farming culture. dscn6497

We also participated in a Buddhist blessing that was very moving.

1 November

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At 0530 (zero dark thirty in Navy parlance) we left our hotel to ride to a temple so that we could give alms to monks. They had been at a religious ceremony since 0400 and no one had eaten breakfast. We sat alongside the road and monks walked single file past us, each one of them had a decorative bucket and we put a small handful of sticky rice into each bucket as the monks walked solemnly past. We were not to talk to them and generally did not have time to make eye contact. Each of us had a specially knotted scarf around our neck, with men’s scarfs knotted differently from the women’s. After that, back to hotel for breakfast, pack up and prepare for our flight to Hanoi. KL’s daughter had come along to see what kept her daddy away from his home. dscn6846

After that, we wandered around Wat Xamg Khong and marveled at the intricate

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decorations  and the fantastic architecture that has a dreamy quality. We even found one of the fabled dragon boats that are raced around the world with a team of paddlers, a steersman, and a drummer (to keep the rhythm).

Security at the Luang Prabang airport was easy-peasy and our 90-minute flight got to Hanoi late in the afternoon.

Hanoi, so we are back in Vietnam

The Movenpik hotel is relatively conveniently located in the French Quarter, but it is hard to determine where the center of Hanoi is. Because everyone was tired after the early morning wake-up, an early dinner and sleep.

2 November

After breakfast, we traveled to Ba Dinh Square, which is the true center of Hanoi. It was here where President Ho Chi Minh read the Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on 2 September 1945. It was named after the Ba Dinh Uprising, an anti-French rebellion that had occurred in 1886-87. To commemorate this event, the granite mausoleum with Ho’s embalmed body was built here. hcm tombLocated here also are the President’s Palace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Planning and Investment, and the National Assembly building. The mausoleum just happens to be larger than Mao Zedong’s in Beijing. Just off the square is Ho’s Stilt House dscn7013where he met guests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there, a quick walk to the One Pillar Pagoda dscn7026where supposedly, careful prayer allows women to become pregnant, so we saw some hopeful couples. (Connie and I did not offer a prayer here, for obvious reasons.)

Not far away was the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university, built in the 11th century. As I am always intrigued by posters and signs, there was an entire wall dedicated to entreaties dscn7029 with propaganda overtones.

 

 

 

 

 

Cynthia took a picture of me in front of some of the stelae of scholars. dscn7045

 

 

 

 

 

If you are familiar with my picture taking druthers, I like to photograph signs. One of the intriguing signs I captured was this one:

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Of course, it required translation. Remember that Vietnamese writing used Chinese characters for much of its history, until they romanized and created what is now their alphabet, but with all kinds of diacritical marks. So this sign is in Chinese characters, and because I have a good friend who was born in China but teaches at Grand Rapids Community College, I imposed on him. He gratefully translated this as: “Model Teacher for All Ages” which was a praising phrase for Confucius. It was written by the Qing Emperor Kangsi (1661-1722).

Our lunch at a training restaurant took way too long.

Then we boarded our coach and went to Hoam Kiem Lake in the Old District where we boarded cyclos to check out the area.

We obviously were enjoying ourselves and our driver was a “good egg” and gave us some traffic thrills that we will not forget along with his banter of what we were seeing.img_0621

Look at the typical architecture of Hoam Kiem District which is probably from the late 19th century

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After that experience, we walked around part of the lake. Compare the two pictures taken in the daylight and after the lights came on.

.After a little waiting time, we went to a traditional water puppet show that was quite interesting. Our return to the hotel after the show and dinner showed how many people were riding motos and had parked them to spend a “night on the town.”

3 November

Today, we drove the approximately 50 kilometers to Ky Son Village. We could not enter the village, so we had to walk there after getting off the coach. Tuan said that it was 300 meters, but it was closer to half a mile. We stopped at the Happy Room to Sing a Song, then got on fat-tire one speed bikes to ride the alleged 5 kilometers of level road to the next village. I quickly found out that my bike turned with great difficulty. It was actually closer to 10 kilometers and it definitely was NOT level. I found myself pumping up hill weaving all over the narrow road and then coasting at breakneck speed down hill. After about two kilometers, a truck coming the other way forced me to the right where I rode over gravel, so I attempted to slow and avoid going off the paved portion of the road. When I tried to get back on the part of the road without gravel, I lost it, slipped and fell into bushes with the bike on top of me. An embarrassing end to my bike riding. As one of our fellow Canadians said, “Who can forget Crash ‘n Burn Paul?” (As I write this on 15 January 2019, the scars are still on my knee and lower leg!) Tuan shifted his role to First Aid Technician and pulled out his kit and ministered to me.

But the trip was worth it as I got a ride on the back of a motor scooter to the agricultural village of Duong Lam where we visited the Mia Pagoda. Built in the 15th century and deserted in the 17th century,  a concubine of the Trinh Lords saw it and encouraged the villagers to rebuild it. We went through the Three Doors, seeing the bell and the large banyan tree. We saw the line of Buddha statues in various poses. dscn7127

We also stopped at Ngo Quyen Temple, named after a king born in 887. He led Vietnamese people to fight a Chinese army and get the Chinese out after a millennium of domination. dscn7121

Here is one of the guards at the side of the entrance.dscn7122 Typical of many of the temples we have seen, at Phung Hung Temple, local parishioners leave objects in veneration. dscn7125This temple was named after the king (761-802), who also led a revolution against the Chinese.

We then returned to Ky Son, where we had a cooking lesson to make vegetarian spring rolls. Ah yes! Spring rolls! After lunch, we returned to Hanoi to do our own thing. Many of us took the opportunity to walk the four blocks to the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where American flyers were imprisoned, some for many years. They were subjected to varying amounts of torture. This compound, officially known as Maison Centrale, img_0608 had originally been used by the French against political prisoners, and most of the displays covered the history of this prison prior to the war with the United States. Also, the beatings and torture were not really shown. When the beatings lessened and the food improved, that was a time to worry, because this technique was used to get captured men to rat on their fellows in return for early release, what James Stockdale called “The Fink Release Program.” Jeremiah Denton, who later became a U.S. Senator from Alabama, in a propaganda video, winked out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse Code. One prisoner was tortured into writing a confession of war crimes; he identified a LT Clark Kent and so was the author of Superman’s confession.

Although not used on American prisoners, as far as I know, this was starkly present. img_0616

And here was the cell where John McCain resided for many years. img_0619

DSCN7166.jpgHanoi, like Saigon, is a modern city of 3.5 to 7 million people, with skyscrapers, the inevitable construction cranes, good public transportation, fine restaurants, parks developed around the 100 lakes (one of which, Ho Truc Bach, John McCain landed in when his plane was shot down in October 1967).

4 and 5 November

Tom Ellis painted a great picture of his impression of Halong Bay and I am including it here.

tom ellis on halong

We packed up and headed for Halong Bay and an overnight cruise on a luxury junk. If you are interested in Halong Bay and Tien Ong Cave, click halong bay and tien ong cave.  The luck of the draw gave Connie and me a slightly better stateroom that had a nice balcony overlooking the forecastle of the junk. (Remember that “junk” probably came from Chinese chuán (boat) or from the 15th century French jonque. Traditionally, these boats had sails, today mostly cosmetic.)

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As the junk slowly moved through the limestone uplifts, we all “oohed and ahhed”. dscn7258

dscn7276Some even got in the water and swam (again, too cold for my tender young body). dscn7267 Before a great dinner and Tai Chi in the early morning, we boarded small boats and traveled to Tien Ong Cave. Would this be our traditional Christmas card picture? dscn7304

When we departed from Bhaya Classic 2 after brunch and paying our bar bills,

dscn7340 some changed clothes and then we drove 45 kilometers north of Hanoi to Noi Bai or the Hanoi International Airport (HAN) for our flight to Hue, first making a stop at a pearl “factory.” I have this “thing” about signs and here is one wordless one attempting to convince Vietnamese to change some of their habits. dscn7350 We arrived at Pilgrimage Village Hue after dark, so we really didn’t see how beautiful the setting was.

6 November

After we woke and knew that we would only be at this hotel until after breakfast, we wandered around and many of the group commented that we should spend at least one more day here. After breakfast, we boarded our coach and got as far as the Perfume River, where we boarded a dragon boat. dscn7388 It was called the Perfume River because in the spring, the flowers blooming on the banks fell into the water. As we headed up river, Tuan noted a police boat further upstream that was stopping boat traffic for “inspection.” When the small accompanying the police boat came alongside and our boat stopped,  one of our crew members jumped aboard the other boat with a pamphlet folded in the middle.

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The title “Danh Sach Hanh Khach” is translated as “List of Passengers” but it had not been made out with our names; instead there was a sum of money (I never found out how much) and we were allowed to proceed. In Guatemala, we called this “mordita,” or little bite. They don’t pay police very much and they have to find other ways to make a living wage – or sometimes quite a lot of money. The police “on the take” share their largesse with their superiors, making it all “legal” and this additional income is most likely tax-free.

 

 

When we left the dragon boat at a landing, we climbed concrete stairs to the Thien Mu Pagoda

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and went through yet another complex which is considered to be one of the oldest and most remarkable religious buildings in Vietnam. In a small garage sat a small car that the monk Thich Quáng Dúc used to drive to the front of the Cambodian Embassy (a country with a very strong Buddhist tradition) in Saigon, pour gasoline on himself and light it off as a protest against the South Vietnamese government. dscn7420

We then reboarded our boat and rode it to the Imperial Citadel further down river.

dscn7428It was here that the most fierce fighting had occurred during the TET offensive of 1968 and the longest-lasting battle. The American Marines had tried to save the buildings, but in the process of retaking the area, many of the buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. Some of them have been restored. Tuan gave us a good introduction of what we could see. As the Citadel was the home of the emperor, it reminded me somewhat of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

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One of the emperors had over 100 concubines as well as many wives, and his “girl-boys” (eunuchs who usually entertained the emperor and his family with their artwork, musical ability and knowledge) decided which concubine would be “favored” by the emperor. If one became pregnant, although the issue could not inherit the throne, he or she was given positions of importance for that emperor – but succeeding emperors had their own collection of concubines. Here is the roofline of one of the restored buildings.

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There was so much to see that needed closer inspection.

dscn7459 copy When we left the Citadel, we crossed the protective moat and I saw a worn-out cyclo driver resting.  We then headed south along the Pacific coast on the famous Highway 1 towards Hoi An. A boring way is through a fairly new tunnel under the largest peaks. The old way, which we took, was a scenic route over Hai Van Pass. But first, we stopped at Lang Co, a fishing village. Here we had a seafood lunch (large shrimp, mussels, smaller shrimp in a salad, squid, and elephant ear fish) as well as pork, chicken, and a great Pho. After that, we all went down the many steps to the very wide beach, considered the best beach in Vietnam (it was low tide, but it was starting to come back in). dscn7500 We then continued our coach journey over the Pass, stopping at the top with a storm threatening.

We saw a bridal couple on a pedestal who had to climb a ladder to get there and she was in a white wedding gown.

dscn7507The Vietnamese tradition is to take many photos sometimes as long as several months prior to the ceremony and then PARTY! This was the location of a deserted watchtower but we had a great view of the bay around Lang Co and could see further south towards Danang, as it was threatening rain.dscn7521 copy Take a look at the interactive map that goes from Hue to Lang Co where we had lunch and then beach-walked, past Danang, and to Hoi An.

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We drove through Danang, crossing the Han River on the famous Dragon Bridge.

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It is six lanes and 666-meters long that breathes fire and spouts plumes of water on weekend evenings. This is NOT the Danang that I remember from 1966 with its low Quonset huts, the concrete LST ramp, and the deep water pier. Now there are high rise buildings and luxury resorts, one with a Jack Nicklaus golf course!

Because it is only 30 kilometers south of Danang, we got to Hoi An and checked into our room at the Almanity Hoi An Resort and Spa just before dark. Just in time for Happy Hour and a double-sized drink before dinner. We experienced a truly full day! Hoi An is a well-preserved Southeast Asian trading port with a history going back to the 15th century and a rich heritage of Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and French architecture. Thus, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many of the houses and Buddhist temples have been restored, although the city had received no war damage. This is known as the city of lanterns and we saw them everywhere.

7 November

After breakfast, we got on our coach and went downtown, sitting at a little shop for coffee, where we were divided into three groups of six, each group having a local guide.

dscn7559 Our pregnant local guide took us to the market and pointed out some unique fruits and vegetables as well as the meat. The cleanliness of the market was very apparent with no flies, even sitting on the pig heads, beef tongues, or any of the fish.  She talked many of us into purchasing a “magic knife” that Connie has used once but I have not tried.

 

 

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Hoi An is for lovers. We saw a few couples getting their wedding photo books ready with the beautiful surroundings, all seemingly in a yellow caste.

 

 

 

We then walked to the Thu Bon River and boarded a small boat to go downriver about a mile, then up a very narrow canal where we were introduced to yet another cooking school, making such things as spring rolls, pancakes, and other foods. dscn7577

dscn7579 copyWe then ate the results for lunch. We almost hated to eat what we produced as it was so elegant.

Our next stop was a lantern-making shop where we attempted to make lanterns to take home, for some not a very successful venture, even though our experts coaxed us and took our results apart: “No good!” but worth the try. This was followed by a walking tour to the Japanese covered bridge, but Connie and I elected to not go because it had started to rain, and I guess that I was afraid that I would either melt or shrink even more. But we didn’t miss Happy Hour!

8 November

Following an early breakfast, our first stop was My Son Sanctuary, another UNESCO World Heritage Site that was in a remote jungle valley. Here are Vietnam’s most extensive Cham residue. We first saw a demonstration of some of their ritual dances and music.

Although the temples which go back to the 4th century and extend to the 13th century are not in very good condition as fewer than one-third of the buildings survive, they are under some repair. Many were damaged by American air power. Here is a bomb crater. dscn7622 copy

Built out of sun-dried and then kiln-dried bricks with no mortar, instead using tree resin to hold the bricks together. After installation, many of the bricks were inscribed with symbols. dscn7596

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was one of our few rain days, and as we got to the site in 12-person golf carts, we purchased cheap rain ponchos.

Our local guide did not use the speaking device because Tuan was afraid that the moisture would destroy it and so we were hard-pressed to hear her excellent presentation as she described the intricacies of the various buildings we visited. They reminded me of one of the ancient temple complexes in central Thailand or even some of the Maya and Inca sites. dscn7612 copy

We then returned to the hotel to pick up three of our group who had been under the weather and drove just a few minutes to Tra Que Herb Village. (Tra Que means “cinnamon tea”). On the way, I saw this propaganda sign.

dscn7624The translation: “Great President Ho Chi Minh Lives in His Career.”

Once there, we sat in two rows with a wooden bucket in front of each one of us. We removed our shoes and socks and the attendants poured warm water with some herbs in the buckets and we had the pleasure of a foot bath. Some got neck and back massages.

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It all made the beer taste better! OMG! How many years since I sampled Bia Larue!

 

 

Then another chance to cook, but this time Vietnamese pancakes done up by Chefs Extraordinaire Cynthia, Ariel, Tom, and Ed.

If you are interested, here is a recipe that I found for crispy Vietnamese pancakes.

Then we walked out in the fields to see the many rows of herbs in the very sandy and friable soil. With our assistance, the farmer demonstrated how to prepare the land for the next crop. Fertilizer of dried river weed that would break down in about four days was laid down about two inches thick in a furrow

dscn7654then covered with soil

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then holes made about eight inches apart to take the transplanted herbs, then watered. dscn7657

We then returned to our hotel and because it was around 92º, the inviting pool called to us. img_0707

We ate dinner at a nice restaurant by the Hoi An River and then walked along the river taking night pictures. Here is the restaurant menu: img_0713

9 November

We packed for our late morning flight from Danang to Saigon (Hoi An does not have its own airport) which gave us yet another opportunity to see some of the development in Danang, albeit in the rain. We returned to the New World Saigon Hotel for our final night in Southeast Asia. Our room on the 8th floor was on a different side of the hotel, so I could get a picture of that skyscraper that had a heliport on the 40th floor.

dscn7659Some of our group had tailored clothes made, so they had to pick them up. Tuan moved the scheduled time of the dinner from 7 to 6 because some of us had early departures the next morning. This is one more reason why he was so great: accommodating and thoughtful and should be given super recommendations by all.

The farewell dinner was served quickly (like they wanted us out to prepare for a second seating) and we were back at the hotel by 8, so we could finish packing. I set the alarm for 0330 because we had a 0430 departure for the first leg of our return trip.

 

10 November

Tuan met us at the elevator on our hotel floor and took Ruthie and us to our van and then to the airport.

img_0734While waiting for our flight to depart, we talked to a retired doctor who had just spent a few weeks in Vietnam on her own. I am adventurous, but not that much.

 

Our flight went over Saigon and I got a few aerial pictures of the Saigon River (Song Sai Rap) and Nha Be (where we anchored in 1966 waiting to get to New City and either on- or off-load cargo).

Our flight to Narita (Tokyo) went quickly, but then came the long Great Circle trip from Narita to Dulles International west of the District of Columbia.

The final flight to Grand Rapids was in a very small aircraft and there were several aboard who had difficulty negotiating the narrow aisle, low ceiling, and small seats. Landing around 7PM, we were greeted by a lot of cold – so different from what we had been experiencing for almost three weeks. Welcome back to Michigan in the winter!

All in all, a great trip! I had never dreamed in 1966 that I would willingly return to Vietnam as a tourist, and be well received. The food was good, the hotels were fantastic, the group that we traveled with provided lots of entertainment and we became close. But what made the trip a resounding success was our Collette Tour Manager, Tuan Tran.