Friday, February 26, 2010


Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam. It is still referred to this day by the locals as Saigon. There are over 9 million people that live in the metropolitan area. It was once known as Prey Nokor, an important Khmer seaport prior to annexation by the Vietnamese in the 17th Century. Under the name Saigon, it served as the capital of the French colony of Cochin China and later of the independent state of South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. In 1976, Saigon merged with the surrounding province of Gia Dinh to become Ho Chi Minh City. The center of the city is situated on the banks of the Saigon River.

An interesting factoid is how the name Saigon came about. The most favored etymological translation is the Sini-Vietnamese one which states that “Sai” is a Chinese loanword that means twig or stick while “Gon” is another Chinese loanword meaning cotton. So together the word means Cottonstick or Cottontwig. It is said that the name originated because of the many cotton fields that the Khmer people had planted in the area during the Prey Nokor times which can still be seen near the Cay Mai temple and surrounding areas. The funny thing is that most of the Vietnamese who fled the country during the communist takeover still today will not refer to the city they live in as Ho Chi Minh City. It is still and always will be to them simply Saigon. Of course, the reason the name changed from Saigon to HCMC is because of the god-like status of the former communist ruler. Why not change the name of the city that used to serve as the epicenter for the south resistance to HCMC just so as to add insult to injury, makes perfect sense right? In addition to that, let’s also put a war museum right smack in the middle of town that shows all the glorified battles that were won in the name of Ho Chi Minh just so you don’t forget. As if! One other thing we noticed here which we have already noted a couple of times is that there is still a lot of animosity in the south because they still don’t like the fact that they lost the war and because of the here is some mud in your face just to remind you that you lost. Very interesting to see in person.

So there are really only 3 things to see in Saigon - I like this name better for obvious reasons : ) so it is how I will remember HCMC. 1) The Reunification Palace, 2) The War Remnants Museum and of course, 3) the Cu Chi tunnels.

The Reunification Palace was built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam’s presidential palace. This is where the communist tank crashed the gate on April 30th, 1975, the day Saigon surrendered. Apart from a repaired front entrance, the building had been left just as it looked on the day.

The War Museum is a museum that even the non-museum goers would appreciate although it is not for the faint of heart. Lots of gory stuff is depicted on the walls. I am told that you definitely get a sense of just how awful the American War was after you get out. I didn’t get a chance to see this museum as I was not feeling so well for a couple of days but Katie did so maybe she can tell you how she felt after she got out.

The most popular tourist attraction near Saigon is by far the Cu Chi tunnels that were a central part to the American War. The tunnels are self explanatory. But what you don’t know is just how vast these tunnels were. In the district of Cu Chi alone there are over 200 KM (120 miles) of tunnels, each of them all networked to link to each other somehow. The tunnels actually extend all the way to what is now the Cambodian border which is miles and miles away from Saigon. We took a tour of the tunnels as this is really the only way you can see them because if you try to do it on your own as our guide told us, you would simply get lost. They were very serious about you sticking close to the group as well. I think this is because they didn’t want anyone maybe accidentally stepping on an old war trap or falling into an unmarked foxhole as this place is littered with stuff that would make paint splatter war games seem boring. Our guide for the day just so happened to be a comedian as well. He did a very good job of keeping us entertained. In one instance he was explaining to us how termite mounds were used to cover up entrances to the tunnel system. He gently touches the termite mound and puts his ear next to it and says: “It’s real, it’s fake, I don’t know”. Ofcourse this is a phrase now that Katie and I have decided to incorporate into our daily language routine as it hit our funny bone to the utter core. He took us to a few actual tunnels that were still hidden out of site and had his assistant show us how they used these tunnels to basically win the war. They were very, very, clever people and I am convinced that were it not for the land that they used to their advantage so well that the outcome of the war may not have been the same as it is today. We got to go inside a portion of the tunnel system and crawl around for about 20 or 30 feet or so. The tunnels that we went in were of course expanded so fat people like me could get a feel for what it was like to live in them. If I remember correctly, the families of the Vietcong actually lived in the tunnel system for over 2 years. That’s a long time to be in a tunnel that you can barely breathe in. As our guide put it, imagine living in there for so long where snakes, rats and all kinds of other creepy crawly creatures came to visit you all the time. Talk about resilience. This took great patience and bravery. I developed a real admiration for these people more than I ever had before after witnessing firsthand what they had to endure during the war. One of the most memorable sights in this area was the big bomb craters that are strung out all along the tunnels. Evidence of the futile attempts of the frustrated Americans to dislodge the Vietcong from the underground world they lived in. In some places these huge bomb craters have now become ponds. Very surreal to see this in person. Crazy stuff!

The highlight of the Cu Chi tunnels for me was not the tunnels themselves, albeit they were very fascinating to see, but instead it was the chance to shoot real war guns that got my blood pumping at a blistering pace. Ooooh, what a rush! I got to shoot an AK47 and an M16. Words cannot explain how cool this was! I could have stayed there all day if it didn’t cost a fortune to shoot the damn things. Well worth the money though. Even Katie got in on a little bit of the action.
As for the rest of Saigon, it is just like any other big city. Lots of cool little areas you can hang out and have coffee, tea or a beer and just enjoy the day chatting it up. One cool thing about hangin out in Saigon was that since the Tet holiday was still going on we saw a bunch of cool flower displays in one of the promenade areas that we took pictures for you guys to see as well.

Off to Cambodia next so I’ll let you know how that goes. Ciao!


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Nha Trang – SCUBA Anyone?

As Chris mentioned, Nha Trang is pretty much a chill beach town to hang out a take it easy. It reminded me a little of Baja, CA with the parasailing, jet skiing, and party people. It was one of my favorite places in Viet Nam because of the nice people, food and all the Tet (New Year’s) celebrations. The one thing that Chris kindly glossed over was my trials and tribulations with SCUBA.

SCUBA – it sounds easy, I can swim, I hang out on the water a lot and don’t get sea sickness, tons of people do it – no problem. Our first day in town, Chris and I signed up for a three day open water SCUBA certification class. The operation was well run and a very friendly French gentleman, Jean Pierre, helped us out. At that point no one mentioned to me that there is actually a lower certification level, just SCUBA certification. Also, I didn’t know that I could just go out and try SCUBA and look around at the coral and fish and all that fun stuff to see if I like it BEFORE going to get open water certification. The instructors said that I could either start in the swimming pool or go straight into the ocean. If I went straight to the ocean I would get TWO extra dives. Why not? I’m not scared of the ocean. This is going to be easy. I mean, children SCUBA for goodness sake.

Early the next morning we got on the boat with a few other people. It turns out Chris and I were the only people in the first day of open water SCUBA certification so we had our instructor, Yance, all to ourselves. Yance was great and started showing us all the equipment and explaining the maneuvers we were going to be doing on our first dive. Basically just breathing and figuring out buoyancy. We put all our gear on and jumped in the water. We swam maybe 25 – 50 feet from the boat and then Yance wanted us to go under water. Huh? Just like that? Okay, if you’ve never done SCUBA before, I just have to say it is an odd feeling putting a little breathing apparatus into your mouth, deflating your life vest and slowly descending under water. It’s definitely different than snorkeling where at any moment you can just lift your head and breathe regular 100% normal air. It was at this point that I started to freak out a little, not a lot, just a little. Yance assured me that this was completely normal. This was my first time trying and it just takes some people a few minutes to warm up to the idea. I composed myself and we all made our way under water, completed a few simple maneuvers, looked at some coral and fish, and went back to the boat. Whew, my first dive over!

After lunch we got prepared for our second dive of the day. Yance started to explain the maneuvers we would be doing this time. Those darn maneuvers! One this dive, we were to descend to a depth of about 30 feet. Hang out on the sand and practice taking our breathing apparatuses out and putting them back in, and using our partners spare breathing apparatuses. Okay, that sounds like a good thing to practice. We started our second descent, after a few minutes of “adjustment time” for me and everything seemed to be going well. As we went further and further down and the water got cooler and everything was darker I started to feel the depth of the water above my head. I looked up – big mistake. The sky looked very far away and I began to realize that we were going to be under all of this water taking out our breathing apparatus! Why oh why do we have to do that? I’m getting air from that thing! Nooo!

Yance gave me the okay sign asking if I was okay (they are always doing this during the dive). I gave him the noooo I’m not so okay sign and then the let’s go up sign. He came over and looked at me and said ok again? Again – noooooo not so okay – let’s go up. He got the picture that I was serious and we decided to all go up. That took longer than I wanted, but I still did not freak out. When we got to the surface Yance said: “Ohhh, but Kayteee, you were doing so well. I do not see a problem, what is the matter?” Yance is German, not French. I explained that I got a little scared. We all took a little break and then somehow I managed to find the courage to go back down. We did ALL the maneuvers, including taking out the breathing apparatus, thank you very much, and finished our second dive! Woo hoo! Two dives down, four to go.

The next morning we got back on the boat, bright and early. We had some more SCUBA 101 lectures from Yance, in preparation for the written test, then got down to business talking about the kind of maneuvers we were going to be doing today. The list of torture, I mean training, included taking off our vests and masks under water and putting them back on as well as some sort of hover, yoga lotus position. After another little “adjustment time” on the top of the water we started on our dive. I lucked out on the first dive and we didn’t have to do any of the maneuvering because the water was so choppy and the current was very strong. While Chris enjoyed looking at all the underwater world and would go explore far away from Yance, I was like white on rice right near him. The whole time I was just trying not to think about the water above and focusing on being grateful that we didn’t have to take of our masks.

At this point I was half way through the dives in order to get open water certified and had spent close to an hour underwater, but I was still very apprehensive. I really did not want to take my mask off underwater because I was still accidentally breathing through my nose sometimes. Unfortunately, our second dive that day was in the same place as the previous day when I had to ascend to the surface because I was freaking out. This got me a little freaked out from the get go. We started the second descent and I felt the world closing in on me. I just didn’t like the feeling of being under the water and having to put myself in the vulnerable position of taking of the mask and vest, even though logically I knew that I’d be safe. I started to try to get Yance’s attention, but he didn’t see me. There is nothing worse when freaking out under water than not being able to get the instructor’s attention so you can go up, it just makes you all that more scared. Luckily, Chris saw me and we got his attention and safely went to the surface. I went back to the boat.

That night at the hotel, I decided that I wasn’t going to go back out the next day. I didn’t like the feeling I was getting and all of the different maneuvers we had to do under the water. It was a hard decision to make because I had already spent all that time trying to get certified. I knew that I would be able to pass the written part of the exam, but what does that matter when you don’t want to go back in the water? I hate giving up on things and worse feeling like a scardy cat, but I did not want to dive again that day. Chris left for the boat in the morning and I was lying in bed wondering whether or not I made the right decision. Then, I heard a knock on the door. It was Chris! He said that Jean Pierre said that he and Yance had spoken the night before and that I had done enough dives and although I didn’t want to do anymore, Yance said that I didn’t really freak out underwater and showed all the basic skills to get plain SCUBA certified if I took the written test! Apparently, even when I’m totally freaking out on the inside it doesn’t show much on the outside – thank goodness for that.

Chris and I ran back to the SCUBA shop and hopped on the boat. We took the written exam in the morning, which I passed with 100% :p, and I am SCUBA certified. This means that I can dive up to 12 meters with a professional with me. I’ll be able to save a little money this way, keep on trying SCUBA, and get open water certified in just one days time if I choose to do so. The rest of the day Chris went diving with Yance and they had a grand old time. They had an underwater photo shoot and we’ll post the pics as soon as we can get them off the CD-rom. I spend the day snorkeling and was happy to do so. I’m excited to give SCUBA a try again, but this time just enjoying the scenery and no maneuvers!!!



Monday, February 22, 2010


Not much historical stuff to talk about here as this is a mellow kinda town and I guess always has been. As the Lonely Planet puts it “ This is where the fun zone starts.” This is the place where booze cruisers, adrenaline junkies, sun worshipers, and water frolickers all alike go to have fun. I have to say that I agree with them. Never mind the uptight squares of the north, this is where you can hang ten and relax a bit and let it all hang out, literally. :P Anything you could possible want to have a good time starts here. Discos round the clock, snorkeling, scuba, tubing, temples (yes, more temples!), island hopping and whatever else you can drum up if you get bored.

We planned on staying for about 4 days and ended up staying there for a whopping 7 or 8 days. Most of the reason for us lingering around was because of the Tet Holiday the Vietnamese were celebrating. Tet means New Years Day! Most of Southeast Asia follows the Chinese Lunar New Year Calendar and for 2010 that means that New Years Day falls on Feb 14th. So lucky for us, we got to celebrate New Year’s twice in 2010. Oh Grrreat! Happy New Year everyone! Just to give you an idea of how big this holiday is here and what it is like imagine July 4th, New Years Day and Christmas all rolled into one for 5 days straight! Whew! That’s what it was like. Everything shuts down cause everyone skips town to be with their families. Grocery stores, booking agencies, restaurants (save a few) all shut down. Its like being in a ghost town in some places. So needless to say, we stayed in Nha Trang for a few more days so we wouldn’t get stuck out in the middle of bfe looking to hitchhike to Saigon or worse maybe having to pitch a tent or something. Lucky for us Nha Trang must be one of those places that everyone goes to because we got to see some parades all done up with Dragons, bands and colorful outfits and nightly performances of local dancers and singers all for us to enjoy and join in with all the fun. Yippee! Happy New Year everyone! To top it off, 2010 happens to be, yes you guessed it, the Year of the Tiger! So we got to see tiger displays on every street corner as an extra. Woohoo! All kidding aside, it was really fun to be a part of it and to watch these people celebrate with each other. It was obvious that this was a special time for them and we were really fortunate to be a part of it. They had a fireworks show at midnight that makes our July 4th look like a couple of roman candles in the backyard. They spared nothing to light up the sky, seriously. All in all, it was good fun.

In addition to all the other stuff we did, we had decided before we got to Nha Trang that we were going to learn how to dive and get our license and that’s exactly what we did. It took 3 days (2 with boat sickness for me since I didn’t have any pills. I’ll leave the details out) to accomplish but it sure was worth it. Nha Trang is known as one of the best diving destinations in Vietnam, if not the best, and we were not disappointed. The diving was excellent on all 3 days and our instructor was very good so we learned a lot. One of the biggest reasons we decided to get our license here is because it costs about half as much as it would have cost to get our license in Thailand where we plan on doing some more diving. Now that we are certified lungfish, we can just pay for the equipment and dive away.

The rest of the time was spent just frolicking on the beach, getting tanned, swimming and just sightseeing. We made a couple of Vietnamese friends while in Nha Trang as well that took us out one day and showed us the town. We rented motorbikes and drove all around town. It was definitely a different perspective. Way cool. I’ll let Katie tell that story as she now has a Vietnamese best friend to always come hang out with and it was really KATIE that she wanted to hang out with. I was just along for the ride.

On to Saigon! Ciao!


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Da Nang it!

Chris did a fantastic job describing Da Nang and Hoi An already, so I won't be repetitive here. For me, the greatest thing about our time in these two cities was that we were able to meet up with some of my father's old colleauges. They really went out of their way to show us a good time.

Kumu gave us a tour of Da Nang including the pants factory as Chris described. Da Nang is mostly a stop over point to other destinations, but it has a few highlights including the Lady Buddha statue that is just being finished and the Marble Mountain that Chris and I toured ourselves.



One of the cities close to Da Nang that is a famous tourist stop is Hoi An. I think Chris mentioned that Hoi An is best known for its tailors. I'll remember it for two things. One - the 30 mosquito bites I got on just my right calf while dining at an outside restaurant by the river. Welcome to Southeast Asia! Two - the AMAZING dinner we had with Jackie, Hahn and Felipe, my father's friends, at Before and Now.

Chris and I met up with Jackie and crew around 7 pm on a friday night in Hoi An at the Before and Now bar/restaurant. We met downstairs and it seemed just like a local touristy hang out. There was loud American music, a large bar, and people playing pool. We all decided that Italian food sounded good and to my surprise, instead of going to another local, Jackie led us upstairs to an upscale looking restaurant. In the meantime, a friendly looking Vietnamese fellow came into the restaurant in street clothes and happily said hello to us. When we sat down, the man returned in a chef's hat and jacket. It turns out that he was the head chef and that he had been at a party, but when Jackie and co. showed up for dinner he was called in to cook just for us! We had the best seafood dinner including shrimp as large as lobsters, seabass and great Chilean wine that Felipe picked out because that is his home country. To give you an idea how good the food was, I NEVER EVER EVER eat shrimp, but that night I had some of Chris' shrimp and a shrimp appetizer! Needless to say, it was a wonderful time that ended with chocolate pie and as Chris mentioned, Jager shots. I feel no need to expand. :)



PS - Check out the beautiful red silk shirt I'm wearing in these pics. This is one of my gifts from Chris for my birthday. Thanks, Chris!


Friday, February 12, 2010


Hoi An is to central Vietnam what Miami Beach is to South Florida I am guessing. Hoi An is the best example of Vietnam’s yesteryear. It is a charming Old Town set on the Thu Bon River. Known to the early settlers as Faifo, it was an international trading port as far back as the 17th century. Influences from Chinese, Japanese and European cultures are all over and well displayed in the local architecture. It is the place everyone goes to relax, get some sun while frolicking on the beach, and just meander through the market streets and of course eat some of the best food around. We had some of the best food and wine I have had ever here. It is a quaint village type of community. It comes alive at night. Lots of younger backpackers come here to party and have a good time. We did exactly that, partied and had a good time with Jackie and Felipe Katie’s dad’s friends. Maybe Katie will illustrate further and tell you a little more about the good wine and Jaeger shots we did while in Hoi An as I was not in the best of health at the time. I had a slight case of funkitis (congested head, massive sneezing, drowsiness,etc.) all due to something in the air I caught when we landed in Danang. But still I managed to have a good time. We met an interesting bar owner where we were having drinks along the river that asked us when we were born so that she could tell us what animal represented us on the Chinese astrology/sign charts. To our chagrin, we are both goats even though we were born many years apart. The goat stands for lucky. Something I did not know before. Good stuff. Katie bought some very nice clothes here as well. Hoi An is known as a place to do some shopping so that is exactly what she did. Maybe we will all get lucky and she will show us some of her hot outfits she bought.



Danang is Viet Nam’s 4th largest city and is the place where the first US Marines landed for the American War. There is not much there to see. It serves mostly as a transit stop for people going to and from Hue and Hoi An which are two towns that are very close. Even so, there were a couple of things in Danang that were worth mentioning. 1) The Lady Budda was built on a hillside near the main town area. We don’t really know the full story but it goes something like a woman was enlightened back in the day. She became a god and eventually was worshipped, even to this day she is. She is supposedly the guardian of all sea goers in some way shape or form. The statue of her kind of reminds me of the Statue of Liberty only on a smaller scale and built in white marble instead of green whatever. A very elegant structure. As we visited we noted that they are spending loads of money to refurbish the entire area and make it a big tourist destination eventually. They were building houses and churches and I believe even a monastery where monks will eventually live once it is done. It was quite obvious that in maybe a year or two years time this place would be a very special place. 2) The other place in Danang that was cool was Marble Mountain. This is the most unassuming mountain I have ever seen. At first glance it just looks like a couple of peaks with a few statues scattered about it. What we found out was that there was much more than meets the eye. After purchasing a ticket and gaining access to a map we soon realized that the entire mountain is a series of caves. Each peak on the mountain contained a huge cavern filled with Buddhas and other types of shrines that extended all the way up to the top of the mountain. Some of them had openings at the top. The best part is that if you stood in the right place you could see the entire spectrum of light emanating from up above, brilliantly! So cool! To my surprise, we ended up spending half the day here just relaxing on the mountain side, soaking it all in.

The other fun part of Danang was a very special tour of a textile factory thanks to Katie’s parents. We were given a VIP tour of one of the factory’s that Katie’s father worked at few years ago. Lucky for us some of the people her father knew were still working here and they graciously gave us an all out tour. Very educational, indeed. Let me just say that I will never look at a pair of pants the same way ever again now that I know exactly how a pair goes from nothing at all but a stained fabric to a complex system of cuts, angles, and zippers all intertwined and pieced together to form a tightly knitted clothing item. There is a station for every part of the pants or shirt or whatever is being made. Such a massive undertaking just to produce one single clothing item. Very neat to learn about. Thanks Bill and Margie. Much appreciated.



Ha Noi is the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam(SRV). Ha noi is in the far north and is surrounded by the countries best sights and adventurous type of places. Also a place for cheap bia(beer) and cheap shopping in the Old Quarter where you can still bargain and negotiate a price that fits your budget. There are basically three main sections of Hanoi. The Old Quarter, the French Quarter and a third section that I like to call the “Westside” as there is no name to it but it is geographically its own area. As Katie has already mentioned, there is lots to see and do around Ha Noi. We were able to visit many of the best places and still there were a couple that we did not get a chance to see because of time constraints. As I said there is so much to see in the north. So much vast beautiful areas and so little time to see it all. I would say that 2 to 3 weeks in the north alone should be enough time to see it all and soak it all in. Nonetheless, we saw plenty. Halong Bay, Sapa, were wonderful places to visit. Halong Bay, as Katie already described was a series of limestone cliffs surrounded by the ocean. Nestled in the Gulf of Tonkin(Part of the South China Sea) it was a surreal kind of place. The best way I can describe it is felt like we were at Skull Island. For those movie aficionados out there who saw the movie King Kong, remember how it looked when they first pulled up to Skull Island? That is exactly how HaLong Bay looked in the foggy mist that surrounded us. The “junk” boats were really nice. We were told that we got a preferred room on the boat(the only one with a window), but I’m not sure I believed them. Anyway the boat was good fun. We went canoeing though tunnels, coves, etc. and partied with the new friends that we made on the boat. The caves were nice too but I guess if you have seen the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico a few hundred times like I have then the phrase “Seen them once, seen them all” might apply.

After a couple days of good boating, we headed back to Ha Noi to catch a train to Sapa. The train turned out to be an interesting ride as well. Why is it that on this trip that of all places we have managed to meet some of the most fascination people is on the trains!?? Go figure. On the way to Sapa we were in a compartment (4 beds to each compartment) with a grandmother, her daughter and the daughter’s 2 babies. The father who was either on the train in another compartment or was just making sure that his clan was safe was issuing Katie and I around before the train took off. I thought at first that he was a train worker making sure everyone got to their seats ok. But I soon realized he was just another passenger trying to bully us around. He asked to see our tickets, grabbed both of us by the arm and pulled us back so that we entered one at a time. I had to check in with him to make sure it was ok to leave our bags under the lower bunks as we were on the top bunks. He reluctantly gave me a nod and issued a gesture that we scurry up to the bunks right away! Geez, talk about a protective father. After all the commotion, of course, the old lady hands Katie something to eat as if nothing even happened (Hmm? reminds me of a similar train story in India) . Katie proceeded to taste it and then gave the woman a warm smile and a signal that it was very yummy. Truth was that it was not even close to tasting good. We still to this day do not know what it was that she gave us. It tasted like dirt, only a chewable version. I think it was a root of some kind. In the end, we waited for the opportune moment to stuff it in my shoes without the old lady noticing so we could discard of the evidence perhaps on a bathroom break somehow. Whew!

Sapa was a splendid place as Katie as already mentioned. Nestled in the highest peaks in Vietnam, there were lush trees, mountains and rice fields as far as the eye could see. It was well worth the 7 hour train ride to get there. We trekked the hills and valleys until we got our fill. It was especially nice to see the tribe women wearing their vestigial clothing as if time had not passed at all way up here in the mountains. Never mind that they followed you all the way on your trek hoping that you might say two words to them so that they could sell you something at the end of the trail. Or hoping that you might slip a bit and fall so they could pick you up, put your bag or shoes back in order and walk by you again just in case you might slip or lose something that they could help you with. It’s hard not to buy something from them because they were so persistent. And how could you resist the words “You buy from me, you buy from me, you buy from me” when you were given a little animal made out of bamboo halfway through the trek. I must say they were very good saleswomen. Of course I relented and ended up buying a wrist band made out of cloth they weaved themselves. That was not such a bad idea as they were not asking for much money for them. The mortal mistake I made was to buy it from the wrong woman. As soon as I bought it, the woman who had followed me the whole way proceeded to get in my face and say to me “you buy from me, I follow you and talk to you all day, you buy from me?” So as you might imagine, I ended up buying one from her as well because, yes I will admit, I am a sucker for these kind of situations. At least it left a smile on face and it made me feel good in that her trek with us was not in vain.

As for the birthday I had while in Sapa, it was one that I relished thanks to my sweet girlfriend. She went out of her way to let everyone know that it was my birthday. So it was because of her and only her that I had such a memorable birthday. Thank you Katie. I only hope that your birthday was as enjoyable as mine was.

As Katie said the staff at the hotel were very kind to us as well. We had good fun with them as well karaoke’ing with them well into the night. It suffices to say that Katie definitely won the best act prize and took home the trophy. She ended up wowing us all, including the hotel woman who was convinced she had met her match. Big surprise there, duh!!! In the end, we were both sad to leave Sapa because we hung out with friends we met in HaLong and because we made some new friends while there as well. But we both knew that it was time to go so we said goodbye to our new friends, wished them well and headed back to Hanoi to catch a plane ride to Danang.



The communist party is still alive, but not well. Only a very small percentage of the population are party members and government officials are struggling to keep their hands on the steering wheel of the zooming economy. There is only one political party and people who speak out are often jailed for long periods of time with no chance for trial. Just as an example, in 2004 a protest by hill-tribe people against government restrictions on religious practices and confiscation of ancestral lands ended up in 10 people being shot to death on the spot by police and many protestors receiving Propaganda people riding around on motorbikes or in cars with a big fat megaphone with some recording that just replays itself over and over and over. It must be a kind of psychological method of inducing people who live here to never forget how this country was founded and who won the war. It is very chilling just to hear it over the megaphone everywhere we go. Even though we don’t understand a thing they are saying, the tone in the voices are very obvious!

Around the late 2nd century AD when the Cham(very early ) empire was putting down roots in the Danang area, the Chinese had conquered the Red River Delta near Ha Noi. This was the beginning of a 1000 year pattern of of Vietnamese resistance of the yoke of Chinese rule. The most famous act of resistance way back then was a rebellion of two Trung sisters who drowned themselves rather than surrender to the Chinese. By the 10th Century, Vietnam had declared independence from China and so was the beginning of the 1000 years of Vietnamese dynasty rule. During this era, the Vietnamese successfully repulsed attacks by the Khmers, Chams, and Mongols and of course the Chinese eventually assimilating the Cham civilization into what is known today as Vietnam.

In 1858 the French invaded Vietnam by storming through Danang after several missionaries had been killed. A sort of “payback time” situation if you will. The following year, the French seized Saigon(now Ho Chi Minh City). By 1883 the French had imposed a Treaty Protectorate on Vietnam. The French colonial rule was termed as cruel and arbitrary. Ultimately, the most successful resistance to the French rule came from the communist party, of course. And so, the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League was founded by none other than Ho Chi Minh himself in 1925. When WWII ended, Ho Chi Minh(whose forces already controlled large parts of Vietnam) declared Vietnam independent. A very bold move indeed. French efforts to reassert control soon led to full on confrontations and full-scale war. In May 1954, Viet Minh forces overran the French and ultimately drove the French out. The Geneva Accords of mid-1954 provided for a temporary division of Vietnam at the Ben Hai River. When the Catholic, anticommunist leader (Ngo Dinh Diem) of the south refused to submit to communist rule, the Ben Hai line became the border between North and South Vietnam. In 1960 the Hanoi government decided to take action and assimilate the defiant south and so the Viet Cong(VC) party was formed and the rest is of course history that we all should know already.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hanoi, Sapa, Hanoi....

I can NOT believe we have been in Viet Nam (yes - two words) for more than 10 days already. Time has just flown by and we have done a lot. In addition to going all around the country, which I'll tell you about soon, Chris and I both celebrated our birthdays. Chris' birthday is on January 30, while mine is on February 1. Having our birthdays during the trip added another dimension in that we saw amazing hospitality that we might not have otherwise seen.

When we arrived at the Ha Noi (again two words) airport, I was so relieved just to be in a place that didn't smell so much. Actually, I really wanted to be back in Kuala Lumpur because that airport was so clean and modern. Anyway, we had set up a room ahead of time and they picked us up from the airport. It was a lot of mental math to go from rupees to dong. Once we did, it still gave me pause to take out 2,000,000, yes million from my account to get about $100. Zeros are very important numbers.

We took about a one hour cab ride from the airport to the Old Quarter section of town. For some reason that area reminds me of San Francisco. We got to our hotel no problem and then ventured out onto the street to find dinner. We ended up going to a restaurant, La, that quickly became our favorite for the trip. Sorry to say it was just western food, but the wine list was impeccable, food delicious and service hospitable.

The next day we ventured around Ha Noi. The main thing about the city is that traffic is insane. I think Chris is going to try to post some video. Basically, everyone just goes at once and hopefully everyone makes it ok. We walked around all of the markets and found a place to get some pho for lunch. Pho is a super popular meal. It is rice noodles with veggies and chicken or beef. We pulled up at a little side cafe that looked good and sat in some chairs or stools that looked like they should be in a kindergarten classroom. We definitely picked the right place because the food was wonderful. It was also easy to order because they only served one meal and you didn't have a choice of what to get! After our lunch, we walked down some other main markets and ran into the food section. We started to pass by all different kinds of meats and fish. To keep the fish fresh they just keep them alive in buckets nearby and allow people to select from there. As we were walking along, I saw an animal sitting on one of the chopping blocks. All hair was removed and its teeth were showing. It was about two and a half feet long. I leaned over to ask Chris what it was when another English speaking girl heard me and told me it was dog! AHHHHHH! All I could think was that I hoped we didn't eat dog pho for lunch, but I've repeatedly told myself that it wasn't possible.

While walking around Ha Noi, we booked a ticket up to Ha Long Bay for the next day. Ha Long bay is a gorgeous area just north of Ha Noi. In the Bay are rocks of limestone, I believe, that have been cut away over the years to leave random rocks spread all around. While we were on our boat for two days and one night, we saw a lot of the bay, but unfortunately, we also saw a lot of fog. We were on one of the traditional "junk" boats with about 14 other people from all over. At one point we stopped off and went to a cave called "SURPRISE CAVE" and saw a bunch of stalactite and stalagmite formations. The funniest things was that our guide told us that many of the rocks looked like certain animals or people, but we could never see what they were talking about and then other guides would say that the same rocks looked like different things. I was most surprised in Ha Long Bay by how many tourists there were. For some reason I didn't think of Viet Nam as a huge tourist destination, but apparently it is. Our tour guide for the Ha Long Bay trip, Tam was great and on the trip we met up with some super fun Aussies, Gita and Dan, that we saw later in Sapa. Overall, Ha Long is a must see place, but hopefully it doesn't get ruined through lack of responsible trash clean up.

After Ha Long, we went up north to Sapa a rural area just a few kilometers south of China. We took a trek to a "village" but it was more of an area where people sold goods. Regardless of the commercialism, Sapa is a beautiful area and we very much enjoyed the mountain views. We stayed at a hotel a little outside of town called the Sapa Eden hotel. We made quick friends with the front desk person, Zoom. When I mentioned that it was Chris' birthday he totally went out of his way to set up a great dinner for us including a Happy Birthday cake! Even before we had the special birthday dinner, we had wine at a different restaurant in Sapa and I mentioned it was Chris' birthday only to make conversation. The manager brought a fruit plate out for Chris while playing Happy Birthday over the speakers! We enjoyed the dinner Zoom set up with Ellen from the Netherlands who we met while trekking. After dinner, we sang karaoke forever. The difference between American karaoke and that here is that the songs all have this weird electronic sound and you can never really tell what it is that you are actually singing.

We had a long train back to Ha Noi from Sapa and made it with little excitement, at least compared to all of the madness we experienced in India. Back in Ha Noi, we had a little R&R because it was my birthday!!! We shopped all around Ha Noi and I picked up a pair of pants that I had made for me. It was so nice to have custom made pants, but really the only reason I got them was because I had to. All of the women in Ha Noi are teeny tiny. It was rare that they even had my size and usually I would tell them my size and they would just laugh. Luckily, I went into one store where I tried on a pair of linen pants that fit around the waist, but were about five inches too short! When they offered to make a tailor made pair for the same price, how could I resist? After shopping, Chris took me to a lovely dinner at La, our favorite restaurant in Ha Noi.

On our very last day in Ha Noi, we had a tight schedule. Our flight out was at 3:30 pm and before that we went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and bought our very first piece of art together. The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum was a huge ordeal. They don't really tell you where to go and I think Chris almost got shot for going two feet in the wrong direction. The Vietnamese people are very serious about Ho Chi Minh who is their great hero. He is embalmed in a similar way to Lenin and Stalin and his body actually goes to Russia each year to make sure the embalming is intact. Speaking of Lenin and Stalin, I'm not sure why, but for some reason it is very hard to get onto facebook here. In the entire ten days, I've only been able to get on twice for a limited period of time - That being said, thanks to all of those that left me birthday wishes on facebook! Enjoy the pic from the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the government would only let us get in a pic with our foreheads!!!


  © Free Blogger Templates Blogger Theme II by 2008

Back to TOP