Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tidbits from hanoi

Have a moment in airport to try to catch up on blogging. Going 3 weeks back to our first days in hanoi (of which I have partially blogged).

We had coffee on hoan kiem lake early one morning. The cafe is called the Thuyta Cafe and is located at No1 Le Thai To. It is a curving old colonial style building that hugs the north shore of the lake with great views of the Bridge of the Rising Sun and Ngoc Son pagoda). We drank coffee ( I had a latte, jerry had vietnamese coffee served with its old little drip pot nestled on the top of the cup) on the open air terrace. We watched birds (something akin to our belted kingfisher and egrets) a wonderfully quiet moment.

This year is the 1000th anniversaey of the founding of Hanoi...there were many celebratory banners and balloons all around. We think that is why there were giant balloons tethered in the lake...quite a sight. But they may have been for other reasons. Pretty and festive regardless os the reason.

Hanoi is a city of motorcycles....very few private cars. They even use motobikes a strucks of sorts. A few birds but not many. No pigeons whatsoever...few dogs. We hesitate to think but we suspect the hard times in vietnam may have been even harder on small animals...perfect size for a pot.

In our morning walk, we experienced for the first time the mass of humanity eating together on small plastic chairs and door stoops...their morning pho (soup). At about 7:30 a manks voice started to blare over public loud speakers. Don't know if that is a regulsr occurrence, I forgot to ask. Could have been a weather report for all I know, no one seemed to be paying attention much.

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Dairy Queen

An open letter of appreciation to Warren Buffett (who is a principal stockholder of DQ).

Dear Mr. Buffett,
I have long shared your interest in Dairy a good Butterfinger Blizzard and the chocolate dipped cone. Imagine my surprise and pleasure in finding a DQ conveniently located in the Phnom Penh, Cambodia airport. After 3 weeks of excellent south east asia food and drink, I still hadn't been satisfied with vietnamese or cambodian ice cream...not bad, just a different creature altogether. So that mocha almond fudge blizzard at the cambodian airport was a little slice of nirvana. And the service was excellent! The young woman proudly turned the blizzard upside down to demonstrate its firmness...with a big smile.

I have yet to have a good feeling whenever I see a KFC or PIzza Hut in downtown saigon...but the DQ was a delight.

Respectfully Yours.
Annette Baesel
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Tonh sun nhut airport (saigon)

We are waiting for our flight to Danang...plan to spend 4 nights in Hoi An where, rumor has it, it has finally stopped raining good since we got soaked there last week. I mean soaked!!!!!

Checked in with time to watch the Phillies celebrate their world series win on the TV in the gate area!!! Very fun. We are now watching championship badminton betweeb malaysia and china!! I was hoping for the chelsea/hull football game. I am afraid I can not really get into badminton...doubles at that!

Its a sunny warm day but not nearly as hot and humid as when we first arrived in vietnam...thankfully.

We are at an international terminal gate (altho we are flying domestic) as there was a fire at the domestic terminal a few days ago. Still haven't one was hurt but it did extensive damage.

Consequently our access to airport food etc is limited as we are sequestered from the passport controlled gates of international flights. Probably not a great loss.

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Lunch the Day Before

Yesterday we ate lunch at Quan An Ngon" just near the Reunification Palace. This was recommended to us by our tour guide along with the restaurant next door, Bantua. This was the one most also looked inviting with big windows, umbrellas, and lots of shade. We ate "in the back" on the second floor of an old colonial building looking through a window on the patio below. The service was fabulous...smiling and helpful. We had whole crab in tamarind sauce, a beef pho (soup), steamed rice, and fresh spring rolls with shrimp that we "wrapped" ourselves...good thing for those two cooking classes. Our waiter helped us with the crab (cracking it) and explaining which sauces we should be using for what foods. Done in a very helpful tsktsking...although he could have!

There were a few tourists in the restuarants but the vast majority were Vietnamese...who always look so happy and chatty when they eat (I know that sounds like a gross stereotype...but it has been our experience). Meals are simple, tasty and a time to get together with your family and friends to chat. The menu at Quan An Ngon was very large and from what we read, it has cuisine from a number of locales throughout is translated into English. It is also interesting because there is a long row of cooking stations where different foods of different regions are being made fresh, right where you can stop and look. There is also a central kitchen somewhere. It was really fun! The restuarant is within walking distance of downtown hotels but there were cylcos and taxis right out front for those who need to get to that nap sooner rather than later. We walked back along Dong Quai one of the major shopping streets (silk, art, more silk, purses, crafts from the mountain highlands near Sapa).

International Saigon and Old Friends

updated on December 3rd
We have eaten primarily Vietnamese and Cambodian food on this trip (out of choice) being pleasantly surprised at the variety of styles and freshness of ingredients. I know we've only seen (or eaten) the tip of the iceberg so far. but everynow and then I'd like something off the Vietnamese path. So last night we walked a few blocks from our hotel (the very nice and conveniently located Renaissance Riverside Hotel) to Pacharan...a Spanish Tapas Restaurant. Located on Hai Ba Trung (across from the Park Hyatt) the Pacharan is a 4 story hotel with big windows that look out over the interesection. Warm tones and arched doorways with comfortable tables and a not too loud but still humming ambience. Excellent wine list reasonably priced and one heck of a red sangria!!!!. We had an excellent dinner...prawns in garlic, pork in moroccan spices on a skewer, fried potatoes, some cold dish with a mix of seafood and chopped vegetables, a toasty bread with tomatoes, garlic, and a few surprises. Then a rice pudding with glazed sugar on the top like a creme brulee (yum!). After our trip to Spain we continue up Hai Ba Trung to O'Brien's pub...which we found on the first try (this is definitely not Hanoi). Copper topped bar...several floors for eating...a beautiful bar back with my favorite, Jameson's on the shlef...a shot of jameson's and a wee bit of guiness and I was a happy ex-pat in Saigon. Walked home and got in just as it started to rain. What a lovely evening.

Other observations and experienes in Saigon (out of order...but what the heck).

First off...had a great visit with my friend Doug Knapp. He is teaching at an American School in Saigon (just started in August...still adjusting). He was a good buddy of mine in College and was the person responsible for getting me into birdwatching! All these years later (30 to be exact) we met up again in Saigon (thanks to a facebook connection). We spent a too short evening trying to get caught up on 3 decades over many beers and food from the 7th floor buffet at the Renaissance in Saigon. Great time...hope it isn't another 30 years!

Prior to going to Cambodia we spent 4 days in Saigon still with the Smithsonian group...a few tidbits from that:

Al Fresco's a restaurant (several locations) near the Renaissance Hotel offering "American fare". Good food...great thin crust pizza, what looked like fabulous ribs, egg breakfasts, salads, very helpful staff. After 3 weeks of asian food (which we love don't get me wrong), a little pizza was pretty close to heaven.

Diamond Department Store. An upscale department store complete with a food court and on the top floor a bowling alley and video arcade...which was doing good business with local in the middle of the day.

Saigon Trade Center. Kind of a cross between a mall, department store, and supermarket. Loved wondering through the grocery store/supermarket and looking at everything! Found the rice crackers/cashew brittle cookies that I love.

CuChi Tunnels. Wow...what an experience. Located about 1 1/2 hours outside of Saigon this area was known to be heavily communist during the war. And consequently was heavily bombed and attacked. As a result the creative and industrious vietnamese dug a series of tunnels and rooms over the course of decades of conflict totalling at the end over 200 kilometers of tunnels housing at one time 6000 people. Amazing. The attraction is operated by the military and not only do you get a tour, have the opportunity to squeeze your bigass western behind into a skinny tunnel made for short slender vietnamese, but you can also pay (per bullet) to shoot an AK 47 or similar (there were no takers in our group). It was a well done attraction and truly painted a picture of how horrible and terrifying it must have been for both sides in that area.

later we visited the ARt Museum of Saigon housed in an old Chinese merchants home not far from BEn Thanh market (and designed by the architect who designed the Ben Thanh market) . There was a bit of ceramics (ancient and nearer in time). But most of the interesting work were paintings and sculpture from about 1900 to modern times. Many pieces were quite thought provoking and sad. Although I know some were probably created for propaganda purposes I belive they also reflected the life and attitudes of the times in Vietnam. The museum like many (all?) others we've seen has no climate control, open windows, no humidity control and virtually no security. It is a wonder these pieces of art survive at all.

For more modern art work we visited an excellent gallery on Dong Khoi Street in Saigon...the Thanh Mai Gallery...5 (or was it 6) floors of interesting artwork from current artists in Vietnam today. Many different styles and subjects. In particular we liked the works depicting monks by Bui Van Hoan, Arresting faces of women by Nguyen Van Cuong and bright colored rurals by Vo Ta Hung.

Our farewell dinner (since some people were not going onto Cambodia) was at an excellent restaurant called the Mandarin Restaurant (11A Ngo Van Nam St District 1). It is on a small side street nestled amongst "air condioned karaoke bars" (a whimsical euphemism for places where you can arrange for female companions for the evening). We had very good crispy spring rools and some type of marinated beef that we all likes. Good wines by the glass.

Morning in Saigon

Had a great time this morning. No world series game on the telly, so we got up and out fairly early. Took a taxi to the central market in District 1, Ban Thahn, where we were once again good humoredly surrounded by persistent young women sellling t-shirts (like attractive, smiling gnats) ...however this time we were in the market for a tshirt or two so Jerry bargained them down to something acceptable. We even got a begrudging "your husband, good bargainer". Took a look at the food stalls and "wet" (meat, fish, and vegetables) and dry markets before heading off to a restuarant we ate at yesterday.

And here is one of those amazing Vietnam stories. I've already mentioned how we recovered Jerry's camera from a restuarant in Hanoi the day after he left it there. Well, yesterday my little leather pouch with our travel dominoes fell out of the purse (or off the table) while we were eating at the Ngon restaurant on Nam Ki Khoi Nghia. I didn't discover it until late last night (when we were sipping a Guiness and a shot of Jameson at OBrien's Pub on Hai Ba Trung). Yes...once again the honesty of the Vietnam people graciously raised its head. When we went back (with a picture I drew of the pouch and a case the English didn't translate well) they indeed had our little pouch. I'm not sure which pleased me more...having our dominoes back or the honesty of the people at the restaurant!. This is how we've found people here..honest, considerate, and patient (and very confident, aggressive drivers!!!).

After recovering the dominoes, we took a taxi to the cholon market in chinatown. The Chinatown is argued to be one of the largest if not THE largest chinatown in the world (outside of china, of course). We believe it. Its in District 5...about a 5 dollar taxi ride (about 20 to 25 minutes) out of District 1. it was FASCINATING. We loved it. The central market was kind of like an Asian Costco in that many things were for sale in bulk...I needed a new set of tweezers because i lost my old ones...I had to buy 5!! Of course it only cost me 1 dollar for 5 tweezers...need one? There were rows of dried mushrooms, peppercorns, dried fruit, and lots of things I have no idea what they were. A whole roll of plastic know the kind you can use for outdoor tablecloths? A great fish, crab, shrimp market...fresh, fresh, fresh. Fresh fruit. Chinese market had a small temple in the middle where people came and lit incense (to take their prayers to god on the smoke). Pots and Pans for sale. We bought these vegeteble scrapers that peel off long "strings" from things like green papaya or carrots. We did not have to buy 5 of them fortunately. Rows of bras, underwear, children's clothes, socks and more shoes (don't know if people here are especially hard on their shoes or what...maybe its the rain and dragging them along the moped)

After meandering through the market and enjoying a coca cola light in the center courtyard we took two cyclos (a bicycle driven a rickshaw) through China town. We thought we had bargained them down for 1/2 hour ride for essentially 3 dollars a piece. Turns out it was an hour ride that we bargained them down to 3 dollars a piece. Funny how that works. Worked for us. Again...streets that specialized in dried mushrooms, locks, hardware and safes, chinese celebration paraphenalia (dragon heads, costumes, banners), "fruit" streets", DVD and CD streets, children's toys streets. All mixed up with housing old and new, freshly painted and quietly decaying. We passed a mosque, many buddhist temples, and one grand Catholic Church, Cha Tam

Then it was a taxi ride back to District 1 where we had a pizza and coke (i had TWO cokes) at Al Fresco, a delightful ex-pat find. Good food, good price. And another funny story. When we walked in a young woman with a big smile who worked there looked at us and at Jerry in particular and say "hi" as if she recognized us...hmmm?. She came over to the table and in broken but passable English explained that she had just come by motorbike from the Chinese area and had seen us in our cyclos. She recognized us because jerry was wearing a bright orange checked scarf as a headband (we bought it in Cambodia) which looks pretty exotic and also a bright orange shirt. She recognized him! Very funny. At least she didn't think that Elton John had just walked into the restuarant!

Now we are back in the cool of the hotel. The club lounge overlooks the Saigon River and it looks like it will rain this afternoon. Jerry went to get a shiatsu massage...I'm going to read for awhile. Having dinner tonight with an old friend from college.

More on Saigon in a later post.

Monday, October 27, 2008

One flight at a time

It appears that vietnam air can only juggle just so many balls at one time. There is no early check in...meaning more than 2 hrs in advance. You just have to wait. Which is interestring becuase there are very few people in the airport. Sigh
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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Phnom penh

Flew by prop jet from siem reap to phnom penh this morning. We followed flooded rice fields and mangrove swamps that line the rivers that flow south to phnom penh. Spent morning at royal palace, silver pagoda and national museum. Afternoon relaxing at the Raffles Hotel.

Phnom Penh is a poor city in a poor country. but like much of South East Asia things seem to be looking up and people are beginning to show optimism. With Smithsonian we visited the National Museum of Cambodia (very interesting...but my feet were killing me) and the Royal Palace and related grounds, stupa, and temples. (see
for photos of Phnom Penh.

The Raffles was a delightful oasis with a peaceful pool in its center where we relaxed in the shade one late afternoon. We ate "in" one night with fruit plates. Read books and regrouped.

One day took a taxi to the "Russian market" a large market located in an area that was once heavily inhabited by Russian expats. It was really fun. It had parts that were "touristy" but people weren't nearly so "persistent" as in Saigon or Hue. And then there were large parts of the market that was the TRUE market for the locals...everything from toothpaste to toys, crabs to pig's feet. Enjoyed our time there.
Later we took a taxi to a restaurant run by a NGO charity that takes street kids and teaches them how to work in a restaurant. it was a delight. It is called Friends (or Good Friends) Mith Samlanh restaurant. Good food, good cause, great price. Here is a review with info:

we walked back about a mile to the hotel...the only caucasians for blocks (if not miles). but we felt safe and unbothered. Again, like in much of SE Asis we walked in the streets because the sidewalks were full of parked scooters, tables for outside cafes, or people selling clams, or lotto tickets, or cigarettes.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

You CAN sweat in the pouring rain!

Visited ankor wat and ankor thom and environs today outside of Siem Reap. Wow!!! Overwhelming. Jerry thinks they are even more impressive that any of the ruins in the Yucatan or Mexico...and that is saying something! Wait until I get the pictures up with some commentary. We had rain, sun, clouds, and rain again. And it was sticky humid (the mantra for the group was "I am NOT hot...I am NOT hot".) And we'd practically end up in a pile up whenever we'd stop suddenly when we'd feel a breeze that we didn't want to "lose". Pretty funny.

I've only got a few minutes left on my "30 minutes" here at the hotel. Tomorrow we leave for Phnom Penh for two nights at the old grand dame the "Raffles Hotel". Except for the 5 AM wake up call, I'm really looking forward to it.

Cambodia is very green and very wet (at the moment). The people are gracious and graceful. And they are making every tourist dollar count! Again...another phenomenon in southeast asia...another phoenix rising from its ashes.

More later.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Journey to Can Tho

Last saturday we left a very rainy Danang and headed south. We landed in a sunny and steamy Saigon where we loaded onto a bus and headed further south into the Mekong Delta region and the city of Can Tho.

It was about 3 1/2 hours travel an hour at a really nice "happy stop" where we had an excellent lunch under a giant coconut frond lined patio. Happy stops are what the vietnamese called rest stops...some are more happy than others. This one had gardens, a small market and clean toilets. The drive was long mainly becuase there is so much traffic. It used to be longer before the austrailians built a beautiful bridge over the upper mekong river. The japanese are currently building a bridge over the lower mekong but it isn't finished so we needed to get across the river to can tho. The line for the ferry was about 2 hours so our guide called the hotel and they sent two small boats and picked us up essentially on the riverbank...the bus with luggage followed later. Very fun, very interesting. We ended up happy that the ferry line was so long. Our hotel had its own dock and we entered these beautiful gardens right from the boat. More on the victoria can tho later.

It's later!! We took a great water trip while in the Mekong. We boarded two motorized, canopied long boats and traveled to the morning market in Can Tho and then onto other areas within the warren of rivers and canals of the Mekong area. We visited a brick making factory (very interesting) and a plant nursery where we tasted some Vietnamese moonshine (they said it was rice wine...hmmm...that was some potent rice wine) and listened to traditional vietnamese folk songs. It was a lovely trip. Photos (many of them) are up on my flickr site:

we also visited a Chinese Pagoda in Can Tho and the Can Tho Museum which I think was the best museum we saw in Vietnam at least in depicting the history and lives of Vietnamese people.

And then it was time to just relax. We had a lovely afternoon by the cobalt blue pool at the Victoria Can Tho Hotel followed by massages...oh baby! Had pizza and pineapple juice for lunch at the pool (or was that dinner).

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Onto Cambodia

Haven't had much time to blog...will need to catch up once I get home. Have many, many notes. But quickly before we leave for airport for flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia (and Anghkor Wat). Spent last week in Mekong Delta and Saigon. Had fabulous time on waterways in the Mekong delta and was very impressed with Can Tho the largest city of the Mekong region. Stayed at the Victoria Can Tho on the lower Mekong River and it was devine! Very romantic (and had great air conditioning). Spent 4 nights in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) have had time to explore on our own as well as group touring of the War Museum, Reuninfication Palace, Art Museum, and Art Galleries. Have had some great food. Jerry and I return here on our own after the Cambodia extension. Will have dinner with an old college friend who is living here now teaching at an International School.

We continued to be impressed with the economic success of open market policies in Vietnam. Vietnamese are tenacious, hard working, and extremely polite and pleasant (except for the occasional less than honest taxi driver).

And although we are 12 time zones away...we watch the world series with a shizophrenic delight...I'm rooting for Philly and Jerry is rooting for Tampa Bay Rays. Thanks to ESPN we can catch at least a few innings in the morning before sightseeing (and thanks to my blackberry we can continue "watching" the game via internet). Go Phils...ooops Rays....oh whatever!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rain and the Greek President

Originally posted on October 17, 2008
modified on December 3rd)
The president of greece is visiting vietnam. We run into him everywhere. He was at Ho Chi Minh's home in hanoi when we were there, at the hotel across the river from us in Hue...which restricted where our bus could go. This evening he arrived at our hotel in danang...he and about 100 reporters and another 50 or so assistants or vietnamese officials. It's a mad house in the lobby!!!!. We hope he won't be at the airport in the morning when we leave Danang (fortunately he was flying out later than we did...we did see his blue and white "OLympus" plane on the tarmac...lucky for us, he slept in...we sadly did not.

Hue was overcast and humid. Very interesting but perhaps a little too many mausoleums squished into too few hours.

Hue (Dong Ba) Market. We spent a short time in the Hue Market in a drizzle. I never had seen so many shoes in one place in my life (until I got to Saigon). I guess they have their entire inventory on display all crammed chockablock into a stand covered by blue and brown tarps. And we felt like Brad and Angelina at a movie premiere...we couldn't walk two steps without a Madam? Mousier? Mister? madam? What are you looking for? tiger balm? shoes? tshirt, 5 dollar? tiger balm? it was exhausting. I finally escaped to the produce section where they figured I wasn't in the market for anything (while Jerry was trapped by the tiger balm lady somewhere behind me). Yes we ended up coming home with tiger balm.

While in Hue we took a boat tour of the Perfume River (the main river in Hue) with its large ensemblage of boat people living along the edges of the river. We also visited the mausoleum/temple complexes opf King Tu Duc (the 4th Emperor), King Hai Dinh (the 12th Emperor) and Minh Mang (I forget which one he was). We also visited the Thien Mu Pagoda and the Citadel (or Forbidden City...what remains of it...heavily destroyed by time and battles furing the Vietnam War (referred to in Vietnam as The American War).

We flew from Hue to Danang...again in the rain. We took a quick peak at the Cham Museum in Danang which was only moderately interesting. It is interesting and a bit sad as to the condition of most museums and most collections in Vietnam. It is understandable. In fact it is commendable there are any museums and collection left in places like Danag so hard hit by decades of conflict.

It has been impressively raining all day as we explored Hoi An (just south of Danang) . But we just put on ponchos...we looked like a pack of walking easter eggs. We visited a kindergarten in a small village...I loved the kids wait until you see the pictures!!! We waded through farmers fields, excellent produce and walked through historic hoi an. We took a group cooking lesson...much fun...and got to eat what we cooked. More walking in the rain....and it rains still. A late monsoon.

We are on China Beach in danang at the lovely Furama Resort ...fortunately it was sunny yesterday and I walked on the beach and put my feet in the warm china sea.

Tomorrow we fly to can tho on the mekong delta.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Back to Hanoi

updated on December 3rd...sorry there are repeats in this blog posts of things I already shared. Better twice than not at all.
No, we aren't actually back in the Hanoi but I have other bits and pieces to share about our time in Hanoi.
First...getting lost. VERY EASY TO DO! There are so many little streets and very few of them are on the standard tourist even at a walking is more than easy to know where you are but have no idea how to get to where you are going. Even the taxi and cyclo drivers aren't always on the ball...i think they come from outside of Hanoi and only have a rudimentary knowledge of Hanoi. We spent almost 45 minutes walking and in a taxi trying to find the Press Club restaurant which was literally 2 short blocks from our Hotel. We even had the address written on a piece of paper and the taxi driver got lost. However, sometimes pleasant surprises come out of getting lost. One day we were trying to find a small street that has culinary school where they serve lunch and dinner. It was midday. It was hot. We were hungry. We could NOT figure out where the heck the street was. Apparently very few people in Hanoi know how to read a map because we were sent off in the wrong direction at least once. So finally we were dragging our sorry behinds down a street and I saw a very pretty colonial French style building. Trying to interject a pleasant comment amonst the grumbling ones I said "look at the pretty building (clever conversation had wilted in the heat)". Jerry said, "is it a restaurant?". hmm. IT WAS. The "Au Lac" serving wonderful vietnamese cuisine in a beautiful, graceful, historic setting. lovely. we ate there twice in two days. And not just because it was so good...but because Jerry left his camera there at the end of our first lunch. We didn't figure that out until the morning of the next day. We had the hotel call and wonderfully it was there and we could come and get it. so lunch again! happy with the food, happy with our camera, and impressed by the quality of people in Vietnam (even if they can't read maps...then again my friend Peg can't either and I love her too!). The food at Au Lac was varied and excellent and although not cheap it was reasonably priced and a very good value for quality and quantity.

Turtles. The turtle is one of 4 divine animals in the Vietnamese traditions. He represents longevity and wisdom. The tradition of the founding of Hanoi has to do with a magical turtle in the center of Hanoi (Hoan Kien Lake) who returns a sword to its rightful owner and brings peace to the city. Turtles are often brought to pagodas that reside on lakes or ponds as its considered lucky to release a turtle at a temple. so many pagoda ponds have MANY turtles. And when young men studying to be mandarins in Vietnamese would pass what would essentially be their "doctorate exam " their name would be engraved on large steles that rode on the back of carved turtles at the Temple of Literature. There used to be hundreds of the there are about 80, I think, massed together at the temple of literature. All the turtles are unique and their heads are rubbed smoothe where students would (and still do) rub the head for good luck (Jerry said "their time would be better spent studying harder! ever the professor).

When it rains it pours! yes, indeed. Although we are at the end of monsoon season for the north we had one heck of a rain/thunderstorm one afternoon. Streets flooded (for once I was happy to be riding in the great big bus). Ponchos, plastic tarps, and umbrellas came out from no where. We were just exiting the Water Puppet theatre (described in a later post) to the deluge. I had to remove my shoes because we had to walk through nearly a foot of water to the bus (with the bus driver ferrying us under an umbrella). Motorcycle engines flooded (when they went into too deep of water) and riders were forced to push their motorbikes to higher ground. Hard to imagine what happens when it rains for days here...

Time to go watch the Rays beat the Bosox (sorry Peg...but the score WAS 8 -1 when I came downstairs...its just a statement of fact for the day). And then we are off for a full day excursion to temples, the Perfume River, and the home of a local famous historian. Until next post~


Flew south to Danang from Hanoi (about a 90 min flight)and then traveled by motorcoach north to Hue. It was warm and cloudy with rain at times, very tropical feeling. We drove along the shore much of the time looking out to the vietnam sea (south china sea) to the east and to green mountains in the west (beyond which lies Laos only about 30 miles distant). We passed flooded rice fields (its apparently been raining a lot) and men fishing in the rain. Small towns and many rivers. Staying in Hue at the Morin, a gracefully restored hotel built around 1900. The hotel sits on the shore of the Perfume River in Hue. It is really lovely, just wish the A/C worked a little better. But it is worth it for the sense of history and grace (and the fabulous buffet...Hue is famous for its fried rice pancakes stuffed with pork and shrimp...they look just like tacos...only better!).
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Sunday, October 12, 2008

HaLong Bay and Back

updated December 3rd

Halong bay is on the northeast coast of Vietnam. It is the ethereally beautiful 600 square mile area of over 3000 miles of islands made up of karst/limestone formations. Upfront let me say that one should really try spending more than 3 hours on a boat exploring Halong Bay. The jury was out in our group as to whether it was worth the 3 hour each way drive from Hanoi for the 3 hours in the boat. I thought it was worth it (but I liked the scenary from the bus window. Jerry could have done without it. I'd say our group was evenly split also on the issue. so if you can either spend the night in Halong Bay so you can take a full day trip or better yet take an overnight boat trip you will see more and get away from the parade of 1/2 day trips boats (again interesting but they do get in the way of enjoying the scenery in any serene fashion).

A large portion of the bay (over 400 sqmiles) is a UNESCO Heritage site. The waters are a deep jade green. It is often misty/hazy as it was the day we were there but that just brings out a different beauty. In the area we were in there was not a lot of bird life but we did get to watch brown kites (a type of raptor) 'fishing" for dinner. I understand that further away from the mainland near Cat Bo Island there are larger populations of seabirds.

There are over 20 limestone caves that are know of in HaLong Bay. 5 are easy to visit. We visited Thien Cung Grotto (Heavenly Cave) which is probably the MOST visited so its a little like Carlsbad Caverns at rush hour. They've installed lighting which in some cases enhances viewing but in others (garish red, green, and blue lights) it makes it seem a bit like a Disneyland attraction. But the cave is beautiful nonetheless. Do not expect the temperature to be cool however...a portion at the top of the cave is open to the outside which brings in a wonderful shaft of light to illuminate the cave in one spot...but also warm humid air.

We had a very good seafood lunch (crab, shrimp, seabass, some type of spring roll, and stirfried morning glory) while we motored out into Halong Bay. We sat on comfortable sofas and watch the sea whoosh by.

The drive out to Halong Bay was very interesting as it is both a rich rice growing area and an area of new industry much grown with foreign investment (Nike shoes, Canon, etc). The rice in the region was near to or ready for harvesting so much of it was a rich gold/yellow. Farmers were out with their water buffalo working furrows in areas just harvested (we did she one machine powered furrower which look not much easier to handle than a water buffalo...but it was faster). Women bundled rice stalks together. Baby water buffalos hung out waiting for "mom" to come back for the next meal. In the evening, there were fires everywhere while they burned chaff and "unusable" materials. The ash is used for fertilizer in the new clearly fields. The fields are often surrounded by small plots of cabbage, banana plants, water hyacinths, and other produce used for family food and market. Very little land goes to waste. ducks are prevalent eating up rice that has fallen to the wayside. Fish ponds predominate near homes. And then you have brick factories, power plants, small towns, more rice fields, shoe factory, army installations, more rice fields, more small towns, and of course motorbikes everywhere. More on the economics of motorbikes later.

A few humorous tidbits from the road. Rest stops on the highways in Vietnam are few and far between...clean reststops even further. When there is is time to make a "happy stop"...the way they are referred to in Vietnam. Fortunately there were Happy Stops to and from Halong bay...both associated with craft making. A place to use the bathroom, get a coke, and if you want buy a handmade souvenir (without very much it was nice).

When we were on the long drives Tam (our tour guide leader) would share information about his country and his life. It was one of the highlights of the trip (along with the interesting lectures we got from Clark Near, our Smithsonian expert on Southeast Asia). One funny story related to the complexities of the Vietnamese language which is the word "tam" depending on how it is pronounced can mean many things besides Tam the man who is our group leader. We asked him what the most common mispronounciations mean....he chuckled and said that most of the time we are either calling him a "toothpick" or telling him to "take a shower"....very funny.

Gotta to Danang, Hue, and Hoi=An for the next four days.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ha Noi's Old Quarter

Ha Noi's Old Quarter (Ancient Quarter, Quarter of 36 Streets) is a not to miss experience in Ha Noi. We had visited parts of it several times on foot during our days leading up to the Tour. Yesterday we joined are tourmates for a cyclo tour (a cyclo conga line more like it) as each one of us got our own cyclo and driver for an hour tour to and through the Old Quarter. Being Saturday it was a little less hectic than a weekday (a good thing because I'm think 20 cyclos in a row didn't do much for traffic management!). The Old Quarter is in an area that started to develop in the 13th century and originally was reached by canals from the Red River (a la venice)l In the early 1800s after the construction of the Hanoi Citadel and its wall the area developed a a series of villages that all specialized in some form of craft or service. Over time these villages connected in a rabbit warren of streets and each streets took on the name of its "speciality" (tin street, cotton street, cheap shiny toys from china street..oh sorry...that is one of today's labels). Some streets stay true to their names, others have "re-specialized" - shoe street, shiny red packages for wedding and parties street. Although there are a few areas that cater to tourists (with hotels, travel cafes, and tourist shops) most of the area is of and for the people of Ha Noi. Wait until you see the pictures when i get home.

The architecture is a hodgepodge of new and old, fit and decaying, modern and old french colonial. The French colonial is undeniable and gives the area a wonderfully romantic look especially since there are also large trees squeezed in amongst the buildings (some young ones growing out of roofs as a matter of fact).

On Friday we joined up with the Smithsonian Tour group. A group of 24 interesting and educated people from all parts of the U.S. (and beyond) with interesting stories and interesting views. It turned out to be a very pleasant group to be with over the next couple of weeks. We were fortunate.

Our time in Hanoi together was spent at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House, the Temple of Literature, attendance at a traditional Water Puppet Show and dinner at the Wild Lotus. Most of these attractions are probably best discussed and experienced through the photos in my flickr photo blog :

But one fun and memorable event was the "water show" after the water puppet show. The water puppet theatre is located across a main street from Hoan Kiem Lake. When the show was over (a truly unique theatrical event...worth the time) we got stuck in the human traffic trying to descend the stairs (why? what is this about?) Well what is was about was monsoonal rains emptying the heavens onto the streets of Hanoi. It was a deluge...and the streets were NOT handling it. The water was so high you couldn't make out the curb, sidewalk or plantings between the theatre and the lake...which i think means the lake was in the street! We waded across a lane of traffic in about a foot of water (some with, some without their shoes on) to get to the bus. Our trusted leader, Tam, rigged up an umbrella posse who ferried us back and forth with at least our head staying dry! Then it was off to Wild Lotus on the other side of the lake through water that was swamping scooter engines and causing all sorts of consternation and the sudden blossoming of multi colored ponchos water lilies! A wild evening.

Now we're off to Ha long Bay.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Evening in Ha Noi

revised December 3rd)
Tomorrow we join the Smithsonian for the next phase of our adventure. Tonight we rest after much walking, considerable afternoon humidity, and lots of good food. Highlights of the past couple of days...with more details to follow later.

Hidden Hanoi. A great "culture company" for lack of better words. They provide walking tours, cooking classes (hands on), and language lessons. We availed ourselves of the first two services: a tour of a large market in the Hai Ba Trung district and a delightful 3 hour cooking class (and introduction to the "philosophy" of Vietnamese food). The market tour was just the two of us and a guide (for a very reasonable $30 US) for about 1 1/2. She met us at the hotel and we took a short taxi ride (cabs are metered, no bargaining necessary) to the market area.

First, there are hundreds of fresh markets all throughout Ha Noi...small and big, legal and "illegal" (people from the country that sell there products on the sidewalks and in the streets). The reason for so many markets is that Vietnamese insist on VERY fresh ingredients (and can tell the difference) much so that they will go shopping for produce and meats/fish/poultry several times a the market can't be very far from their where they live and cook.

There are dry and wet markets...the wet markets is where they sell fish, poultry and meats and is referred to as "wet" because they often wash down the floors and the tables to keep things clean. Dry markets are well they sell produce, fresh rice noodles, herbs, etc. Some produce was familiar some completely foreign and others a variation of what we are used to (pineapples for instance are smaller and have more "cavities" inside...quite pretty when cut up). Some are familiar only if you shop at asian markets or have asian friends (such as leechi nuts in their bizarre prickly casings). We finally ate durian (that tropical fruit that smells so bad when cut open and supposedly tastes so fine...we think you have to have been raised on it to find it "so fine"...however, the smell also wasn't so bad either.

All parts of animals are sold including the "innards", feet, etc. (okay didn't see any pigs teeth being many not ALL parts). Snakehead fish are very popular (and don't look like snakes). We saw live frogs and live green turtles for sale (farm raised both). Freshly killed chickens with heads and feet attached. One definitely knows where all their food come from here!

There are also many restaurants in Ha Noi as well. Fancier air conditioned (or fan-conditioned) restaurants serving fine food of all types. Also, smaller "plastic stool" sidewalk cafes...where fresh pho noodle soups are made and served to locals who seat on small plastic stools over plastic tables....spilling onto the sidewalks.

In fact sidewalks for the most part aren't used for walking in many areas of Ha Noi...if people aren't using them for market or for eating, they use them to park the thousands and thousands of motorbikes that buzz around Ha Noi. Apparently, the Chinese started making really inexpensive motorbikes of good quality and exporting them to VietNam about 8 years ago...its never been the same since. They instituted a helmet law not too long ago and about 95% of the people wear helmets...and like most people...don't like to. So now you are seeing decorated helmets and helmet covers that make the helmets look like stylish hats!

Back to Hidden Hanoi ( . Yesterday we took two cyclos (bicycle powered rickshaws...and we needed two because they are built to house two skinny vietnamese not two robust americans) out to the West Lake District of Ha Noi for a cooking class where we were joined by 3 lively folk from the UK...workmates from London. They were a real hoot and we had a great, great time. i highly recommend this group....Hidden Hanoi. We had a lovely teacher who gave us an introduction to the yin and yang of Vietnamese cooking. And then it was to the kitchen...a big open space with a large area in a square with woks and work surfaces...very clean and very well prepared. We cut, we scraped, we chopped and we put together a delightful soup, green papaya salad, sweet and sour stir fried prawns, and fresh spring rolls in rice noodles (not fried). yummmmmeeee! Then it was back by cyclo to our hotel via a short tour of the Old Quarter (which we have also walked...more about Old Quarter in another post).

Let me tell you...a cyclo ride is really something. Can't wait to post the pictures I took....although only a video would really tell the story. There were a few times when I just closed my eyes...but other times when it was so nice to be able to stare up at the old and new buildings without having to worry about stepping into a pot hole (you know me!).

so for future for our tales from the Old Quarter, our lunch at Au Lac, the Press club, and just how lost one can get (twice) without a detailed map to guide you!!!

By the way...we find the Vietnamese to be extremely patient and polite people. Friendly in a quiet way. Quite beautiful. And they have the ability to sit and enjoy life, to find a quiet spot within themselves in the midst of hustle and bustle. Quite admirable.

added on December 3rd

Au Lac was one of our favorite restaurants in Vietnam. We are their twice for lunch. We came across it quite by accident and had to return by necessity. Here's the story. Jerry and I had walked quite a bit in the late morning hours (when it was hot and humid) we were starting to get hungry so we decided to walk to an area south of our Hotel where there is a cooking/restuarant school for locals. They are supposed to have a good meal at a reasonable price. I say supposed to because we never found it. Even with a map (and I'm good with maps). But maps in Hanoi just don't seem to have all the streets on them (I understand no alleys...but named streets???). We asked some women who worked in a pharmacy but they appeared to not understand the concept of the we wearily starting walking back towards the hotel (Jerry on very low blood sugars). I saw a pretty colonial building and remarked on its beauty...Jerry in single track fashion said "Is it a restaurant?"...and it was! So Au Lac became a wonderful oasis of good food and cool shade for two very weary travelers. (here is a URL to a good review of the restaurant that also contains the address and phone number: . We ended up back at Au Lac the next day when we realized that Jerry had left his camera there. We had the hotel call and yes...the camera was there for us to pick up. The least we could do to say "thank you" was to eat there again...don't you think???

We also ate lunch at the Press Club (right near the Metropole Hotel) as well as dinner. The lunch is a buffet and a very good value for price and quality. The dinner was very good. Continental with a few nice twists. More expensive than lunch time. Comfortable wood paneling and wood floors...rooms within rooms...quiet without being dead quite. Reservations are a good idea...but we didn't have any and they found a table for us anyway.

Bike Helmet Covers. Bike Helmets for motorcycle/scooter riders became required by law last December (but not for bicyclists). Being either very law abiding or heavily fined (or both) we'd estimate that 99% of cyclists where the helmets. These arent' the huge heavy duty helmets we see in the US...but something of a cross between a US mototcyle helmet and a snowboard helmet. And what is becoming fashionalbe in the cities is to where helmet covers (with or without brims) in all types of fabrics and designs. Nothing like seeing a young Vietnamese woman in a skirt, stilletos and a burberry helmet cover to make you wonder just country are we in anyway?

Hilton Hanoi Opera not the Hanoi Hilton. The Hanoi Hilton of POW fame during the war is no longer a hotel. In fact only a small portion of that building (in the form of museum) still stands. We stand at the Hilton next door to the Hanoi Opera house (hence its name). New, modern, well located, and very, very nice. Good food, good service.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


(revised December 3rd)
The sounds of Ha Noi...the varoom of the motorbikes, the honk of the taxis, the beepwhirr of the cyclos and more varrooms of the motorbikes. Amazing there are so few "splats" of pedestrians crossing the street (there IS a system...walk confidantly, moderate pace (to give them a chance to zigzap around you...stare them in the eye, and don't kidding).

Arrived yesterday morning to a hazy sky. Crossed the meadering Red River (aptly named for its red color courtesy of upstream soils) into Ha Noi. People are friendly. Tourists are few (I'm not sure I have ever felt so conspicuous). Motorbikes are everywhere. Few dogs (no jokes please).

This morning we rose early (clearly in some other time zone than here). Decided to go to Hoan Kiem Lake for a walk at 6am. why? because EVERYONE is was delightful. All of Ha Noi doing tai chi, graceful calisthentics, group fan dances (no not burlesque dances...graceful exercise with bright red hand held fans), something using a paddle and a ball moving to Que Sera, Sera. Many individuals stretching on benches and the lakeshore. Even a group back massage line that look like a conga line (maybe 40 women in a line)...And let's not forget the street where they were playing badminton (with and without nets) along the sidewalks and in plazas...maybe 30 games or more? Badminton? 6AM? on the sidewalks? Great!

We crossed over the red picturesque Bridge of the Rising Sun (or "where the rays of the morning sun touch" or "Flood of Morning Sunlights" get the idea. ) to explore the tiny island where the Ngoc Son pagoda resides. The temple supposedly dates back to the fourteenth century, although the current buildings were probably built in the eighteenth century. The temple is dedicated to the hero Tran Hung Dao, who defeated a force of 300,000 sent to invade Vietnam by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. There are also altars dedicated to the scholars Van Xuong and La To, the patron saint of physicians!

We took a short break at the north end of the lake and had a vietnamese coffee at the Thuyta Cafe (locate at No 1 Lo Thai To). It had a lovely view across the lake and we sat outside in the early morning haze watching a birds on the lake.

As we continued our early morning walk around the Old Quarter we saw everyone eating their breakfast pho (a noodle soup) on the small squatty chair and stools made out of either red or blue plastic (occassionally green) right on the sidewalks. One bowl and then its time to school. The vienamese are very communal people, they exercise together, eat together, talk and chat together. I know its partly because their is so little space per person...but none the less they seem to happily social, like its out of choice not circumstance or geography.

More tomorrow about our walking tour of the market, the Hilton, squeezing into a two person cyclo, the 1000year anniversary of Ha Noi, and roaming the streets. But for now...jet lag is setting in...time for bed.

Oh...and here is your vietanmese lesson for the day: Dang Nhop "sign in"...had to figure that out to get into blogspot!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Vietnam and Cambodia

We leave tomorrow for a month's adventure in Vietnam and Cambodia. Check here for probably won't show up until we return. Wagons Ho!

Friday, October 3, 2008


I know it's fall...I just put on my green corduroy jacket for the first time since June. I'm smiling!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

St. Pete and Ray Fever

Down for a couple of days to go to St. Pete City Council to get our permit...which WE DID!!! Yippee yahooo. Celebrated with carnitas tacos and gorditos at our favorite mexican place in Clearwater, La Cabana de mi Tio (on Drew at Duncan). Also went to the Sports Authority and got on the Tampa Bay Ray bandwagon and got a hat and t shirt in celebration of the Ray's Division Championship.

Last night we went to Pepin's a spanish restaurant on 4th in St. Pete. Had the BEST Sangria...really, really good...steeling ourselves for today's hearing! Before that we had a drink in the new "prohibition bar" at Grayl's (where I stayed the night). very pleasant...they have done a bang up job remodeling the 1st floor into a wonderful set of bars (yes two). A restaurant is coming in a few months. Rooms are still delightful and a good value for the St. Pete area. Most (if not all) have little kitchenettes...good beds...lovely decor...very comfortable...and right on Beach Ave in downtown St. Pete.