A different way to travel

We arrived home a few days ago after spending Christmas with family on the BC coast but we aren’t here for long! It seems we dropped in just long enough to experience some of the coldest days this winter has had to offer. Is it any wonder that I’m happily digging out our summer wardrobe and exchanging the contents of our suitcase for beach wear?

Much of our international travel has been done by the seat of our pants with a Lonely Planet guide in hand. Before each trip, I did lots of research. We always had a general idea where we were going and what we wanted to do when we got there but the details unfolded as we went along. This has led to many adventures and unforgettable moments including traveling the length of Vietnam by overnight bus and arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) late on New Years Eve without a hotel reservation, being caught up in local celebrations and even accepting a ride with a total stranger in China. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything but this time I decided that I wanted something easier, a stress-free vacation that I didn’t have to plan myself. After the year we’ve just been through, all I want to do is kick back and relax in the sun!

In late November, we did something we’ve seldom done before. We sat down across the desk from a travel agent and told him that we didn’t really care where we ended up; we simply wanted to go somewhere warm with a beach! We also favoured an all-inclusive vacation; one where we didn’t have to find our own way around or wonder where our next meal was coming from. We gave him the window of time available between my various medical appointments and let him do the searching.

“Let’s find you a non-stop flight,” he suggested. Thinking back to the many hours we’ve spent in airports and our unplanned 24 hour layover in Houston on the way home from Costa Rica three years ago, I readily agreed. He gave us some options to think about and we settled on a resort on Mexico’s Caribbean coast near Playa del Carmen.

We won’t have internet and our cell phone will be turned off. We’ll have TV, of course, but I’m not sure that we’ll bother to turn it on. For a little while, the world will get along without us. I’ve told a few family members how to reach us in case of an emergency but I’m praying that there won’t be any crises while we’re gone.

I’m going to immerse myself in the moment, soak up some sunshine and enjoy time with my hubby who, by the way, officially became a senior citizen earlier this week! Hopefully I’ll have lots to blog about when we get back.

Saigon for New Years

img_3382The night bus from Hoi An to Saigon was a little more comfortable and spacious than the one from Hanoi to Hoi An had been. The front half of the bus had seats like any other tour bus and the back half was double wide berths for sleeping. Since we expected to be on board for 24 hours with only two one hour breaks, we were pleased to see this. We were delayed by a flat tire sometime during the night, however, and 24 hours stretched into 26 with only a few quick bathroom stops and one half hour break for a hot meal.

We finally arrived in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it’s officially known, at about 8:00 p.m. on New Years Eve. We hadn’t been concerned with reserving a room because we knew that there were many small hotels in the downtown area where the bus would drop us off and we’d been assured that since Vietnam celebrates the lunar New Year later in January or February, there wouldn’t be a problem. Arriving as late as we did, however, it soon became apparent that this was not the case. As we wandered from hotel to hotel hearing “Sorry, we’re full” time and again, we began to wonder what we’d do if we didn’t find a room! Fortunately, we came across a very helpful desk clerk at one of the hotels. Though his establishment was full, he called another hotel and confirmed that they had a room available. At $45 US/night, it was significantly more expensive than what we’d become accustomed to paying but we reminded ourselves that this was still pretty cheap for a hotel room and it was nicer than most we stayed in. It was also located within easy walking distance of the all things we wanted to see. I think perhaps the real reason we ended up there, though, was the fact that it came with a large fan. As we settled in, we discovered that water had soaked through one of our bags that had been in the luggage compartment of the bus and all of it’s contents were wet. The fan was an absolute blessing as we were able to hang things up and blow them dry!

Once we’d hung everything up to dry, we headed out to find some dinner and to take in some of the New Years festivities that we’d noticed happening in an open area nearby. After watching several performances, we decided to head back to our hotel but we had a little trouble finding it. The new year actually came in as we wandered around looking for it!

After seeing nothing but gray skies since arriving in Vietnam, we were delighted when January 1 broke hot and sunny! Since we were flying to Siem Reap in Cambodia the following day, we had only one day in Saigon but that was all we needed to see the things we most wanted to see. We started with a visit to the War Remnant’s Museum, a largely pictorial display of the atrocities of the Vietnam war. We found it to be very one-sided and anti-American. Though I don’t for one moment excuse the dreadful things that the Americans did in Vietnam, I found this disappointing. We couldn’t help but compare it with the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima that we visited on our first trip to Japan four years ago. It’s exhibits are just as graphic and disturbing but rather than laying blame, it focuses on the need to prevent future tragedies of this nature and is much more balanced.

img_3394After leaving the museum, we wandered through crowded Ben Thanh Market where one could buy almost anything. Though it was interesting to see, I was glad we’d already done all the shopping we wanted to do in Hanoi and Hoi An.

We ate lunch in a little bakery/cafe where we met and chatted with the proprietor, a very interesting man who escaped Vietnam as a young boy. Immediately after the war, when his father who had been a leading politician was imprisoned, his mother put her seven children on boats and sent them off hoping they’d find a better future. He grew up and was educated in Australia eventually becoming very wealthy there. He now divides his time between Australia and Vietnam where he and his associates have set up their business to provide jobs and training for disadvantaged people. They even provide meals and on site accommodation for some of their employees and hope to be able to expand this venture into a chain of similar shops.

After lunch, we enjoyed a very interesting tour of Independence Palace which was built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam’s presidential palace. It was toward this building that communist tanks rolled on the morning of April 30, 1975, the day that Saigon surrendered and it has been left exactly as it looked on that day.

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With over five million people, Saigon is bigger than Hanoi but it seemed to be a little cleaner and the traffic was definitely more manageable. Streets were wider and there were more traffic lights and for the most part, people actually paid attention to them. Saigon is also more westernized with many North American and Australian chain stores to choose from. For example, there was a La Senza just down the street from our hotel and the first McDonald’s is due to open soon.

Night bus to Hoi An

Dec. 27 was a drizzly wet day in Hanoi. After checking out of our hotel and leaving our luggage there for safekeeping, we set out with umbrellas in hand to do some more exploring. After lots of walking, we treated ourselves to one hour full body massages for $15 US each!

Late in the afternoon, we headed back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and meet the van that would take us to catch the overnight sleeping bus to Hoi An which is located about half way down the coast of Vietnam. What an adventure that was! Three rows of narrow bunks filled the bus from front to back and the narrow aisles in between were crowded with luggage. We claimed two top bunks toward the back of the bus and settled in. The passengers were an interesting mix and camaraderie soon developed. It reminded me of being in an overcrowded summer camp cabin on wheels! We drove through the night making several bathroom stops along the way. The facilities were very primitive and way beyond dirty but when you gotta go, you gotta go! Everyone would pile out of the bus, climbing over the luggage in the aisles and line up. Then back on the bus and on we’d go. It didn’t help that it rained most of the night.

Travel in Vietnam is incredibly slow. I think the bus averaged about 50 km/hour. At times, however, it barely crawled over roads that were almost impassable due to road repairs and bridge construction or in some places, washouts. In spite of the bone jarring ride, we did manage to get some sleep. Early in the morning, the bus pulled in to Hue and those of us who were going on to Hoi An were shepherded onto other buses for the remainder of the trip. We were part of a group who had to carry our luggage a couple of blocks down the street to the place where our second bus would pick us up. It seemed like mass confusion but we were soon on our way again and arrived in Hoi An around one o’clock.

We quickly found a very nice hotel with an indoor swimming pool where we were able to get a room for $14 US/night including breakfast and free internet. Prices in Vietnam continued to amaze us. Dinner for two including wine could be easily had for around $10 US.

img_3287Hoi An, a town of about 76 000 people, is like a living museum and it’s Old Town area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. After having showers and settling in, we set off to explore this fascinating place. There are over 200 tailoring shops in Hoi An. By this time, I had fallen in love with the traditional Vietnamese ao dai, a two piece silk outfit comprised of pants and long tunic, that is still in common use. When I discovered that I could have one made to measure in the fabric of my choice for $35 US, I couldn’t resist even though I’m not sure where I’ll wear it! Of course, we think of silk as a luxury item but in Vietnam, it’s commonplace. It’s nothing to see women dressed in silk sitting on the ground selling vegetables. It took the seamstress only a matter of minutes to take my measurements and I was told to come back the next afternoon for a fitting. What fun!

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After strolling the riverfront area and enjoying a delicious seafood dinner, we were caught up in an amazing street scene on the way back to our hotel. Vietnam had just won the Suzuki Cup, an Asian soccer championship, claiming victory over Thailand, the expected winner. Impromptu parades of flag waving, cheering people filled the intersection. We simply had to stand back and take it in as there was absolutely no way to cross the street and head back to our hotel. The police were visible but there was no sign of violence or vandalism, just a great overflowing of national pride and rejoicing. It was a privilege to be a part of it. As the crowd dispersed enough for us to move on, I returned to the hotel wearing a bright red “Vietnam Vo Dich” (Veitnam wins) ribbon around my neck. Many of the locals who saw it were delighted and called out to us as we passed. The ribbon, purchased from a child in the crowd for just a few cents, is as meaningful to me as any souvenir I’ve ever bought.

We spent much of the following day wandering the Old Town visiting a variety of attractions including a Chinese assembly hall, the Museum of History and Culture, a couple of handicraft workshops and a historic house that has been in the same family for seven generations. The family lives upstairs and opens the main floor to tourists most of the year. The house is located on the river’s edge. During the three month rainy season, the main floor floods and all the heavy wood furniture has to be moved upstairs!

Late in the afternoon, we returned to the Dung tailor shop (how’s that for a name?) for my fitting. The ao dai fit to perfection so I was able to take it with me.

img_3354Early the following morning, we were picked up at the hotel for a tour of the Cham ruins at My Son, 35 km southwest of Hoi An. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the ruins were a religious centre built and occupied between the 4th and 13th centuries. Though they pale in comparison to Angkor Wat, which we would see later in our trip, the ruins were fascinating and their location, nestled in a lush valley, gave us opportunity to see the dense jungle growth up close. Part way back to Hoi An, we transferred to a boat and finished the trip by river. Once back in town, we had a mid afternoon meal and picked up food for the next long bus trip to Saigon.

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Hoi An was once a major Vietnamese seaport but with the advent of larger ships that couldn’t enter the silt filled harbour, that role was taken over by Danang and the once thriving community faltered. In very recent years, tourism has been a boon to Hoi An and I suspect that it will contribute to future restoration and development. Hopefully, the town will continue to become the jewel that it could someday be without losing any of it’s charm or quaint character.

Halong Bay

We awoke very early Christmas morning to the sound of roosters crowing. This might not have been unusual had we not been in the middle of Hanoi, a city of approximately 3.5 million people but we were quickly learning not to be surprised by anything!

After eating breakfast at our hotel, we were picked up by a 14 passenger van for our trip to beautiful Halong Bay. The trip took longer than we expected but it gave us an opportunity to see more of the countryside as well as many small img_3116towns along the way. We also stopped at a very large souvenir shop that sold local pottery and a wide variety of other handicrafts. At one end of the building, a workshop had been set up where embroidery pictures were being handmade. This was a work project for disadvantaged people, many of them quite young.

img_3125We arrived at the busy Halong Bay tourist wharf and boarded our junk around noon. As this was our Christmas gift to each other, we had booked the deluxe tour. After a welcome drink, we settled into our small but comfortable cabin then made our way to the dining room for the first of the four fabulous meals that we’d be served aboard. Though the food was incredible, some of us jumped up several times to rush out on deck and take photographs of the amazing sights that surrounded us.

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More than 3000 rocky islands rise from the waters of Halong Bay which is both a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Vietnam’s natural marvels. At about 3 o’clock, we docked at one of these unusually shaped limestone formations and climbed up well over 100 steps to the mouth of a massive and fascinating cave which is made up of three enormous caverns complete with stalagmites and stalactites. The cave has been well developed in recent years with lights and a pathway so that it can be safely enjoyed by the many tourists that pass through it. Apparently there are countless other caves throughout the bay area but entrance to most of them is forbidden in order to protect them from damage.

Sea kayaking was one of the options that was available to us when we booked our tour but Richard and I were the only passengers on board our junk who chose to take advantage of this. After exploring the cave, the other passengers boarded the junk again while we and our guide set off by kayak. We met up img_3159with them just outside a fabulous lagoon with just one entrance, a tunnel through the rock. As we kayaked through the tunnel, we sang Silent Night and listened to our voices echoing off the rock walls around us. We enjoyed a peaceful paddle around the lagoon while our fellow passengers boarded a small boat and came in for a quick look around then we all returned to the junk which was now anchored for the night. As the sun set over the bay, we relaxed on board until supper, another wonderful feast, was served by candlelight. The water was dead calm and the lights of several other junks reflected off it beautifully.

We shared the junk with fifteen other passengers, mainly French, including two families with children. Our Vietnamese guide, however, spoke fairly good English. He seemed to take quite a liking to us and as we visited that evening, he willingly shared his concerns about the corruption of the Vietnamese government and the plight of his people. We learned that in his youth he tried to escape Vietnam as one of the boat people but after reaching Hong Kong, was sent back and endured many years of regular interrogation by the police. He talked of how difficult it was to decide to bring children into such a world. He now has two, aged 8 and 10. What impressed us most was the fact that this young man constantly had a smile on his face and whistled and sang as he paddled his kayak. We saw this repeatedly throughout our trip; people who have so little and who truly don’t know what their future holds living for the moment and doing it joyfully.

Following a good sleep and an early breakfast, we set off again by kayak rendezvousing with the junk and our fellow passengers at a sandy beach on one of the islands for a climb to the top where we were able to enjoy spectacular views of the bay. North Vietnam is a bit too chilly for swimming at this time of year but I did go wading before climbing back aboard the junk!

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After an early lunch, we arrived back at the wharf, transferred to another van and headed back to Hanoi. That evening we attended a performance at the Water Puppetry Theatre. This unique art form originated in the rice paddies of North Vietnam more than 1000 years ago. The large wooden puppets are manipulated by puppeteers who are themselves standing in water but hidden from view behind a curtain. The performances are accompanied by music played on traditional instruments. After the performance, we stopped at a nearby KFC (the only North American fast food chain that we saw in Vietnam) for a snack then took a cyclo, a bicyle powered rickshaw, back to our hotel.

Hanoi, our introduction to a different world

We flew into Hanoi, Vietnam on December 23 to begin our Christmas/New Years vacation. As we rode the airport shuttle into the city, it was obvious that we were entering a world that was entirely foreign to us. Women wearing traditional conical hats worked the fields alongside the road by hand and we saw water buffalo for the first time. As we traveled Vietnam, we saw harvesting being done with small hand scythes and land being cultivated by hand with hoes. Some labourers used old fashioned plows pulled by animal and others had large roto tillers. We saw only a few small tractors.

My first impression of the city itself can only be described as culture shock! I don’t know if there are words to adequately describe the traffic! Hanoi is a city of three and a half million people and most of them appear to be riding small motorcycles! The average annual income in Vietnam is approximately $1000 US so most workers can’t imagine ever being able to afford a car. The motorbike is their family vehicle and it isn’t unusual to see whole families on one bike – three, four or even five people! If there are traffic laws, no one seems to follow them and very few intersections have traffic lights. The only road rule seems to be that small vehicles yield to bigger ones. Roadways are a cacophony of sound as horns honk constantly. No one seems to be honking in impatience or irritation. It’s simply their way of letting one another know where they are which is perhaps a good thing as lanes seem to mean absolutely nothing! Can you imagine crossing the street in such a place? You simply take your life in your hands, step out and the traffic weaves around you! Amazingly, Richard, my small town prairie boy, found this totally exhilarating. He likened it to skiing down a black diamond run – not that he’s ever done that, but he has a good imagination! I, on the other hand, found it quite overwhelming at first. It’s amazing how quickly one adjusts, however.

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The other thing that stood out to me was how run down and dirty the city was. In many cases people are living in buildings that seem to be falling down around them and garbage is strewn everywhere. For the most part, however, it doesn’t smell bad. The garbage seems to disappear overnight so I’m assuming that street cleaning provides much needed employment for some.

The airport shuttle dropped us just outside the Old Quarter. Walking through the Quarter to our hotel was quite an adventure. We were constantly approached by taxi drivers of all sorts (car, motorbike, cyclo) and vendors trying to sell us books, maps and postcards. The streets are narrow and crowded and seem to go in every direction. When we finally found our hotel, we discovered that even though we had a reservation, they didn’t have a room for us! They had, however, arranged for us to stay in a similar hotel nearby for our first night and had someone waiting to show us the way and carry our luggage.

After returning to our original hotel for breakfast the following morning, we took a taxi to the Museum of Ethnology about 7 kilometres away. That was another adventure! In spite of the fact that the hotel clerk told the driver where we wanted to go and we showed him in writing, he decided to take us on a circle tour first! When we realized what was happening and protested, he took us directly to our destination but then expected to be paid the full fare on the meter. We refused but ended up paying him more than we should have because we didn’t have smaller change.

The museum itself was very interesting focusing on the many minority groups living in Vietnam. Until recently, many of these people have been living very traditional, quite primitive lifestyles. Many have depended on crafts such as pottery making and basket weaving as their only sources of income. As the market for such items dries up, they are finding it necessary to adjust.

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Behind the main museum building is a historical park of sorts featuring traditional houses of various ethnic groups constructed by builders brought into the city from their home villages for that purpose. We found these especially interesting.  The one pictured on the left above reminded us of the longhouses built by some of Canada’s native groups.

After eating lunch at a restaurant on the museum grounds that is a branch of Hoa Sua School, set up by a group of retired Vietnamese school teachers to provide training for disadvantaged youth, we took another taxi to the Temple img_3083of Literature which was originally dedicated to Confucius and img_3093later used as a university. Built in the 11th century, it is a well preserved example of traditional Vietnamese architecture. While there, we had the opportunity to listen to a performance of Vietnamese music played on a variety of traditional instruments. We then walked the couple of kilometers back to our hotel, growing ever more accustomed to crossing the busy streets.

Well this is just a glimpse of our first 24 hours in Vietnam. There is so much more to tell but it will have to wait. We arrived home early this morning after flying through the night so it’s definitely time for some shut eye!

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