VietNam November December 2011
At some point in almost every trip I've taken overseas, I think how grateful I am to be an American. This trip it came much earlier than usual.. About three days into the trip, we were sitting with our guide. He said, “You Americans are so lucky. We work to get an education, then work hard and have no time to enjoy. You work hard and get an education then work hard, and then you get to enjoy.” He was mystified with what I do now that I am retired. He is having an operation this week, minor surgery, and is taking three days off. It will be his first days off in two months. And afterwards, he won't have another day off until the end of January. He doesn't get paid holidays or vacation. He only gets paid when he works. He has a contract with the tour company, so he is guaranteed a certain amount of work. He is more fortunate than free lance guides who have no guarantees. I am grateful for all the unions who worked to modernize the American workplace in the 20s and 30s—40 hour work weeks, paid vacations, an end to child labor. We are fortunate.
After three flights and about 30 hours of travel time we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone still calls Saigon. After a mixup with the visas (I won' t explain, though I must admit I was afraid I was losing my mind. The explanation is much too embarrassing.) We got to the hotel and collapsed. On Monday, we got up and walked to the main tourist area, about a mile from the hotel. It was hot and humid, as bad as the worst Memphis summer days. We first passed the old Hotel d'Ville, which is now the City Hall for the Communist regime. It remains however, a gingerbread house or as one guidebook put it, (paraphrasing what I remember) the habit of colonial regimes to imprint their cultural values on the conquered people, no matter how inappropriate. (OK, I've exaggerated a bit.) We continued our walk and first stopped at the Post Office. Several groups of students were sitting in front drawing either the Post Office or more modern buildings. The Post Office itself is a long rectangular hallway with iron arches. At the end of the hall is a large picture of Uncle Ho who bears an uncanny resemblance to Col. Sanders. In fact, I often see Ho and think I've found a KFC or at a KFC assume I'm looking at yet another propaganda cartoon. I wonder whether the resemblance has anything to do with the popularity of KFC. I have yet to find my first Micky D's. At the front are two perpendicular aisles filled with souvenir shops.
Back out in the square, wedding couples posed for their portraits. In one, the underlying meaning of which I am still contemplating, a young groom sits astride a motor scooter fitted with a cooler on the back. His bride hangs on the back, wedding gown spread artistically behind her, grabbing the back of the scooter as if for dear life. Other more conventional couples posed near the cathedral. It was closed for the noon time, so we missed the interior. Across the street, students clustered in groups, drawing buildings.
We wandered towards the Opera House, another neoclassical gem and closed. I was getting hot and so we returned to the hotel. We found lunch in a french restaurant and gorged on onion soup. Back at the hotel, we napped.
The following day, Tuesday, if memory serves, we traveled out of the city to see the Chu Ci tunnels, dug by the Viet Cong. Saigon has a population of 10 million and six million motor scooters, all of which were on the roads this morning. Getting out of the city took close to an hour. As we drove through the rural areas, scattered here and there were huge McMansions, two or three story houses with shiny aluminum railings at the balconies.
At the tunnels, the day was already hot. We saw small tunnels with entrances covered by a wooden board covered in leaves. One tunnel had been enlarged for tourists and so we dropped down into the ground and hunched over crawled our way a few yards and our again. It was long enough for me to get a bit claustophobic and sneezy over the dust in the tunnel. Andrew went through a few more. The tunnels included large areas dug into the ground which could be used for various activities—cooking, eating, preparing bombs and booby traps. I was taken with the exhibition of booby traps. Some were simple spring loaded iron spikes which when one stepped on the trap, ones foot fell through and then eight or so spikes trapped the leg. Some had fish barbs which tore through the flesh when one tried to remove them.
One of my recurring thoughts was why we spent so much on this small country. Why did we invent the monster out of people who simply wanted to live as they chose, without being ruled by a foreign power? I thought of the friends who fought here and those who died here for no reason. I wonder why we invent enemies or inflate the danger of the other. We did manage a few years free of boogie men after the fall of the Soviet Union, but we have invented another and until the last week or so, have ingnored a far greater threat to our way of life, probably because china holds so much of our debt.
We then traveled to see a Temple for a new religion founded in the 20s. Our guide said that the religion is a mix of Catholicism, Buddhism and Confucisionism. The temple was built in the 20s. It consists of a long hall with an altar area at one end. Columns wrapped with dragons line two aisles in a fashion similar (tho not with dragons) to the layout of a typical european cathedral. On the central column in each row is a pulpit with steps winding up the column as one would see in old european Catholic churches where the word is preached from the center of the nave, rather than the front. In the narthex, worshippers lined up, women on one side, men on the other. Then at the appointed time, each group marched in according to their position in the hierarchy. Leading the congregation were men dressed in either bright yellow, red or blue. Atop each of the men's heads were hats which looked as if they were made of glossy cardboard. After these patriarchs strode in, the other men and women came in. They were seated in rows. Marshalls kept orders among the tourists, but also among the worshippers. I say one marshall tap a napping worshipper. In the balcony above the narthex, a group of women chanted while men played a stringed instrument. At times, a bell rung and the worshippers, sitting cross legged bowed their heads to the floor. (I was pleased to see at least one woman having as much difficulty with a forward fold as I do.) On the long drive back to Saigon, everyone but the driver napped.
Dinner was at Hoi An. We braved Saigon traffic to make our way to the restaurant. It is among several blocks of restaurants, ranging from Pizza Hut and cheap Indian and Japanese restaurants to places like Hoi An. Hoi An is in an old house. We went upstairs. Wooden panels adorned the wall. The upstairs seating area is divided in two by a wooden railing. Antique appearing chairs and tables complete the décor. We had a lovely Vietnamese dinner.
Wednesday. We left for the Mekong Delta early. We drove for about an hour and a half and arrived at a mall in a small city. During our drive we were never out of the sight of houses. At the mall, we tested our bikes and set off, biking through the rather crowded countryside. So, far, not what I expected. No rural vistas, no rice paddies, no jungle scenes. Just more and more houses and small shops aligned along the way. After about 10k, the heat had gotten to me and I called it a day. We were to start down a narrow road to a village. The van was able to follow the bikes, so I sat in the cool of the van while we went to the village. Of course, I never saw what I expected. More of the same—houses and shops. A few more fields visible through the yards, but we were never in what I consider a rural area. Dragonfruit bushes, trees, whatever grew in neat rows. The shrubs stand on a what looks like a slender tree trunk and then arms like cactus arms flow out from the center in what looks like an unruly haircut. I really can't do justice to the shrub or cactus or whatever and I don't think I have a picture. We finally met up with Andrew and our guide at a Buddhist temple. It had the largest, happiest Buddha I had ever seen. We wandered around a bit and then returned to the city where we had started the bike ride for lunch.
We ate in a small restaurant overlooking a branch of the Mekong. It would be comfortable as a NC BBQ restaurant—a good NC BBQ restaurant with formica tables and checked table cloths (if there are cloths at all). We had vietnamese pancakes—a rice flour, egg batter with chicken and vegetables. The owner served us a huge plate of greens including cilantro and mint. We took a large green leaf, put the pancake in it, added other greens, rolled it up and dipped it in fish sauce. Yum!
After lunch we went to the boat terminal and after repacking some overnight gear left for a cruise on the Mekong. We went around a couple of small islands and then got off with boats of other tourists on a larger island. We walked about a km and then got on a horse cart and went to a place where we had tea and fruit. Then we boarded small row boats. The paddler weilded a long oar back and forth from a standing position. We then boarded our original boat and went off to our home stay. Now, I expected a HOME stay. Where one stays in a HOME. Some's abode, residence. This was a coconut candy factory and green homestay. Green I suppose because there were no sheets, which obviously means no laundry detergent in the Mekong River. The rooms were in one of two buildings set in a L shape. The buildings were made of wood, with a window covered with a lattice made of palm leaf strips. A partition reached about 7 feet above the floor, dividing the rooms from one another. I had seen a communal WC and feared I would be wandering out in the middle of the night, but there were in-suite facilities. Well, a sink which leaked to the floor, a toilet still stuffed with the last guest's toilet paper (who hadn't gotten the memo about toilet paper in the developing world) and a shower head and somewhere a drain. No shower enclosure. A thin mattress of foam lay on the bed. OMG, what had I gotten myself into?
Still exhausted from jet lag, we turned on the fans and napped. In the late afternoon, we wandered out and found a path toward the village. We reached the main road, filled with motor scooters and bikes. We walked to a bridge and then returned to the factory and found a pier out onto the Mekong. We sat as the sun set. We saw a large cumulous cloud which appeared to me to be reflecting lightening. As we continued to watch, the lightening was contained within the cloud. It did not travel down (or up) to (or from) the earth. We could see spikes of lightening from one part of the cloud to another. We continued to watch and found lightening in two more clouds. I have never seen this before.
We had a great dinner at the home stay. Chicken and rice soup and then a chicken salad. The chicken salad was the meat from the soup, shredded and added to cooked vegetables. A dressing of lime juice and a bit of sugar was used. After we finished our dinner, three more courses arrived—a second soup, a beef dish and some more veggies. Really great food.
Thursday. We were to do a bike ride early in the village, but the bikes were in need of some repair, so after going back and forth we ditched the idea. We had breakfast and then boated back to the city where our driver was. Andrew and our guide took off on bikes. They biked down a rural road full of scooters and a few trucks. After about an hour, they reached the point where I would join them. It was a sidewalk sized roadway along a Mekong stream. I was a bit frightened by the narrowness of the roadway, particularly when scooters were coming towards me. This was a “village”, but houses lined the roadway. Some were particularly large and beautiful. The large rural houses are mostly two stories with a wide veranda. They are built with bricks and faced with stucco. I noticed that the bricks are not solid. They are about the length of our standard bricks but square on end instead of rectangular. The bricks are not solid but contain four hollow cores about ¾ inch wide and deep, running the entire length of the brick. All the materials for these houses are brought in by motor scooter, or I suppose by river. The village was filled with mostly modern houses. We crossed the river by ferry and then rode some more, crossing again and meeting our van.
Lunch was at a local restaurant. The restaurant was basically the porch area of a house. In the “villages” new houses are four stories or more with the first floor being a shop or restaurant. Again, the new houses are very opulent. I asked our guide who owned the houses and he replied “rich people”. I asked how they became rich (Vietnam is after all a communist country). He said they were farmers or owned a boat. Some were Vietnamese who worked abroad and built a house to live in when they came back home. The restaurant was not in an opulent house. The first floor (I went inside looking for the toilet only to have the grandmother shoo me outside) was a room about 12x12 feet. Behind that was a hall way with two small bedrooms off that. Behind that was the kitchen with an open back porch area. Along the side of the house were a line of hammocks where tour drivers rested until time to pick up their tourists.
Lunch was red snapper. The best red snapper I have ever had. It was served with fish sauce and greens to wrap it in. The second major course was duck, served over rice with a vegetable soup to finish the meal. Really fantastic food.
After lunch we continued our drive toward Chou Doc where we would spend the night. We never reached what I would consider a rural area. Houses or businesses lined the entire way. Lots of seafood processing plants and in one area a plethora of brick making plants. Andrew tells me that Vietnam's rural areas are the most densely populated in the world. Nowhere that we visited came close to what I had expected from the Mekong Delta. But, that's one of the reasons to travel—to find where one's assumptions are wrong. We spent the night at the Victoria Hotel there. I soaked in the tub, still a bit sore from biking. We had dinner at the hotel—recommended as the best restaurant by Lonely Planet and one that was the most appealing in the D-K guidebook. The food was a bit flat, though.
Friday. We awoke early (as usual). Had breakfast and then boarded a small speed boat (7 passengers plus luggage plus two pilots) for Phoem Penh. As we eased out into the water, we saw houses built on stilts. Further up, there were more small houses arrayed along the river. As we ventured further upstream, we saw more small houses around rice paddies. Huge electric pumps were pumping water from the river into the fields. Fishing boats plied the shores and boys were fishing with lines and nets. With only a few exceptions, the area did not seem to be particularly poor. We reached the Vietnamese border point after about an hour. We got off the boat and the guide took our passports and did the paperwork while we meandered about the office area. Back on the boat for about 20 minutes until we reached the Cambodian check point. Andrew remarked that he didn't want to make a snap judgment about the economic disparity between Vietnam and Cambodia based on a few steps into the country, but. . . We climbed up the bank and then walked among small houses. We reached the checkpoint. We were all visa on arrival clients. The guide disappeared with the paperwork, while we watched puppies cavorting in the dust. A man in uniform came out with a dish and put some food up in dish in a niche about 18 inches above the ground. The mother dog happily ate while her pups clammored for scraps. Our guide appeared, handed out passports and then we went to the immigration check. For some reason the clerk I got took forever. I'm not sure what he was doing; I think he was just slow. Back in the boat for a 3 hour trip.
The land here was much more what I had expected to see in the Mekong in Vietnam. Small houses surrounded by banana trees, a boat along the shore, cattle grazing, a few rice paddies along the way. Many, many fewer people with houses further apart.
We arrived in Phoen Penh just before noon. We went to our hotel. Then off to find lunch. We stopped at a schwarma place owned by a Lebanonese man. He made us lime juices and fairly good schwarma. Then off to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. One of the things I have learned is that a pagoda is not a pagoda. Here, a pagoda is a temple, not a tower with curved eaves at every story. As we wandered down the street along the river, we looked for a restaurant for dinner. We never quite found anything appealling. They all had the look of cheap, plentiful food aimed at tourists—western food intermixed with “Khmer” cooking all in the same establishment. As we approached the Royal Palace, the tutu drivers (tutu are motor scooters with a two seat carriage in the back) told us the Royal Palace was closed today. We continued to walk and discovered that it was indeed closed, but would reopen at 2:00 a mere five minutes from then. We waited in line and then waited again for tickets. There was a large group of women who were buying tickets and then arguing about change with the ticket seller. We finally entered.
I found the Royal Palace grounds to be lovely. The architecture is much like that of the temples in Bangkok, but less glitzy—little gold, the color more judiciously applied. It is less crowded, too. The Silver Pagoda is a temple within the grounds. It is called the Silver Pagoda because the floors are silver (though mostly covered by rugs) and somewhat tarnished where they are uncovered. A central Buddha figure is the focal point and is surrounded by other Buddhas including one adorned by thousands of diamonds. It was hot and I was tired, so we didn't get to the National Museum, but walked back by a different route. We went by the market which was filled with stands selling just about everything. It was certainly a quieter experience than being constantly accosted by tut tut drivers.
We found a place for dinner near the hotel, at least in the guide books, but couldn't find it. The area looked a bit dicey so we opted for a Halel Chinese restaurant. The food was OK, but certainly not what we were looking for.
Saturday. We had a morning flight to Siem Reap. We arrived and were whisked away to the hotel. It is an amazing place. It's new, but retro and looks like a hotel from the colonial period. The exterior is yellow stucco trimmed with dark wood which is used extensively throughout the hotel. The lobby area is bisected by a long carp pool with four large planters. Two central staircases to the second and third floors. Two old fashioned cage elevators also make the journey. Our room overlooked the pool which is huge, lovely and tiled in dark blue. We met our guide and went to lunch at Kanell. Now I don't like included lunches because they are invariably designed for the most indiscriminating tour member. No spices, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing particularly tasty or indigenous. The owner walked by and sounded German, another bad sign. It was a set menu, too which I'm also not fond of. The first course was beef lab and was wonderful. The beef was minced and cooked with garlic and onion and ginger. The owner came over and chatted with us. She was French and owned a restaurant in Paris. She hated the rain and gray in Paris and loves the weather here, except when it is really hot. She loves Luang Prabang which is our next destination. The rest of the meal was good, though I didn't like the fish in the amok.
In the afternoon we visited the oldest ruins in the area, the Romolos group. For dinner we ventured out to Happy Herb Pizza. It was not as I expected. (The happy herb is supposedly marijuana, but that seems to be mythological.) It was basically a family run hole in the wall. I expected to see aging and not so aging hippies, but there was only one group of ex-pats there.
Sunday. We visited Bayon in the morning. At this point, it all seems to run together. It's a flat temple, as I recall. We did visit the Lara Croft Tomb Raiders room with the tree growing over everything. There were some interesting butterflies as well. On one column is an 8th C (I think) bas relief of a stegasaurus. Really. We then visited another temple in the area. I was sweltering from the heat and we returned to the hotel for lunch. In the mid afternoon, we went to Angkor Wat. It is huge, surrounded by a moat. Of course it was crowded. Bas-reliefs telling the story of Vishnu line the wall on the lower floor. Some are original, some were put up in the 1600s. The temple has been repurposed as a Buddhist shrine. The complex is huge and it was difficult for me to imagine what it might have looked like with all the carvings and paint in place. Almost all the surfaces would have been carved. At the base of columns were meditating figures. Above were Sanskrit inscriptions. We climbed to the top level and mostly avoided our guide who didn't climb along with us. In the center is a shrine to Buddha. We waited until sunset for pictures. The sky to the west was lovely, and Angkor faces west so there was not brilliant sunset behind the building.
Dinner was back at the hotel and the food was fantastic. I had a vegetable curry and Andrew had a beef salad and then red snapper.
Monday. Today we went to the last temple. I was having a bit of someone's revenge and so we cut the trip short. The temple was exquisite. Red sandstone and much of the original pediments and lintels in place with some statuary remaining, too. It is hard to describe the buildings.
After lunch we visited the Angkor museum.