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Wednesday, January 14, 2004

First Impressions of Vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam

We have now been in Vietnam for twelve days, and we're starting to form first impressions of this incredible country. But before I get into this, I want to mention that Jen spent several hours offline writing up three massive blogs re-capping the last two weeks (we haven't had much time to get online the last little while, and once Jen lost a big blog when the power went out). So if you want to see what we've been up to the last while, scroll down to read her three blogs below.

There doesn't seem to be much in the way of a huge Communist flavour to what we've seen of Vietnam so far, at least not one that can be visibly seen on the streets. I guess there's the possible exception of the hammer and sickle appearing on the various flags flying around here and there. Free market capitalism seems to be the order of the day, at least in the shops of the towns we've passed through and all throughout Hanoi. There are certainly a few strict-looking policemen standing around, and who knows how many plain-clothes police officials, but for the most part, you wouldn't be able to guess that there is a one-party government running the show from Hanoi. The only real Communist propaganda that we've seen is at Uncle Ho's (Ho Chi Minh's) museum, and the occasional billboard in the countryside.

There have been very few places we've visited so far in Vietnam where we've experienced total silence. In Hanoi, there is the constant beeping and honking of millions of motorbikes and scooters. Everywhere you look, there is something under construction... typically the road, but there are also new buildings being put up all over the place. Jackhammers, dump trucks, and generators all combine to create a cacophany of noise that gives you the impression that all of Vietnam is under construction. At our homestay in the hilltribe village near Mai Chau, most of us were kept awake by the symphony of animals who were trying to outdo each other by making the loudest noise. There was a five minute period where we heard dogs barking, ducks quacking, pigeons cooing, birds chirping, pigs grunting, a puppy whining, a cat meowing, a buffalo bellowing, and cows mooing ALL at the same time. No kidding. Even out in the rice paddies, you can hear the constant chugging of fume-spewing diesel engines that are used for pumping water, propelling carts, and powering handplows.

Another thing that we've realized is that we have hardly seen any idle people here at all. From the city to the countryside, everybody on the streets and the farms seem to be busy, selling vegetables, farming the fields, fixing the roads, riding bikes, or doing something. Unlike many people we've seen in countries like India, Tunisia, and Morocco, everyone seems to have something to do or somewhere to go; there have been very few sightings of people standing around idly.

Trying to pick up a few words of Vietnamese has been surprisingly quite challenging. Maybe it's because I'm getting the few Chinese words I know confuse me, but the pronounciations and tones of Vietnamese words are quite difficult to pick up. We have been practising saying "Chuc Mung Nam Moi," which means Happy New Year for the upcoming Tet festival, but have probably been messing it up as people seem to laugh every time we say it. Oh well, at least we're trying.

We've been trying all kinds of Vietnamese food; interestingly, we haven't actually seen much of the kinds of foods we've been expecting, possibly attributed to the fact that we've only been in Northern Vietnam so far. While I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater, I haven't yet been able to bring myself to try cooked dog or fried cat. Drinking snake wine (a home-made rice wine that has a fermenting snake stored in the bottle) hasn't been accomplished yet either. I don't think this is a great country for travelling vegetarians, put it that way.

I've been interested in spotting any evidence of the Vietnam War, which is actually referred to as the American War here. Things are obviously improving in terms of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam, with each country maintaining foreign embassies and Bill Clinton visiting in late 2000. I haven't seen a war museum yet, but will be visiting one in Saigon. There was an outdoor display of captured US tanks in Hue that I checked out; the language of the signs was interesting, referrering to the rusting vehicles as US-supplied equipment to the puppet forces (South Vietnamese army) captured by the liberation (North Vietnamese) army.

According to our leader Dave, there is still very much a North-South mentality that exists, although we haven't been able to get a feel for that yet, as we have been spending most of our time in the North so far. I'm looking forward to seeing how that interaction manifests itself, if we ever get an opportunity to see it.

We have seen several things that were impacted by the Vietnam-American war, literally at times, like the flattened Imperial City at Hue, which was bombed out and pretty much destroyed. Bullet holes are visible in the walls, where 10,000 soldiers were killed during the infamous Tet Offensive. We met an ex-VC soldier in Hanoi who had a roughly tatooed AK-47 on his forearm, and made shooting gestures to indicate how he had earned his medal by fighting the Americans. We also saw kilometers of grey soil that had been forever altered by Agent Orange; we met a one-armed hatmaker who's birth defect was also attributed to this terrible chemical. However, as one guide said, Vietnamese people have long put all this behind them, and are looking forward now. To quote my uncle, it's interesting to get an impression of a people who once suffered and and are now improving.

To end on a lighter note, let me just say that if you want to get a really close shave, then the tiny Vietnamese village of Thai Tuan is the place to go. Not only did the barber there use a fresh razor blade for each side of my face, but he shaved my cheeks, trimmed by eyebrows, shaved my earlobes, took some of my widow's peak off, cut the hair INSIDE my ears and nose (I really don't think I had hair there but oh well...), shaved the back of my neck down to my shoulder blades, and believe it or not, he shaved my eyelids as well! You can bet that I was as still as a rock when he was doing that last bit... it was a very nice haircut, I just wasn't expecting to be losing hair in ALL those places!

All well, we'll see what other Vietnamese experiences we have in store for us for the next week and a half! Stay tuned!

Halong Bay down to Hue
Hue, Vietnam

We arrived in Bai Chay just before noon. The starting point of most Halong Bay cruises, this port was full of tourists all lining up to get onto their boats. After getting our tickets for Halong Bay, Dave and Hung led us onto a double decked wooden barge. Our mouths dropped as we boarded this spacious vessel, especially at the sight of our lunch tables set up with napkins and wine glasses. It was incredible watching how our captain maneuvered us out of the dock. There were 2 smaller boats which were moored behind us, but somehow we managed to get out with the crew pushing against boats that got in the way. Since the boats were floating on the water, I suppose it was easy to move them around as they were not anchored down below.

Unfortunately the sky was grey and hazy, so photographs of Halong Bay did not turn out that well. It is a beautiful place; protected by UNESCO. There are 1,969 islands in the Bay, all marked by beautiful limestone mounds. On many of the islands are caves. Hung walked us through the Sung Sot Grotto, or Surprise Cave. A huge cave with three chambers, it has been ‘fitted’ for tourists, with cement footpaths, penguin and dolphin garbage cans, and multi coloured lights to show off the stalactites and stalagmites.

We arrived in Cat Ba, on Cat Ba Island, the largest in Halong Bay at 4pm. Our hotel, the Sun and Sea Hotel, was new and spacious. Cat Ba town is quite small, so everything was within walking distance from our lodging. I went out for a walk and bumped into Sarah, we both agreed that there wasn’t much happening in this town. All we could see were several seafood restaurants and not much else. The harbour front, like the rest of the country was under construction (they were filling in the beach to make the surface into a park).

Sarah and I spent a few minutes on the Internet (more expensive here than Hanoi) the headed back to the hotel. In the evening, Dave took us to his friend’s restaurant for dinner. Winston and I shared a crab and fish. They were quite yummy; the seafood was certainly fresh. Winston went to check his email while I headed back to the room in preparation of the upcoming trek.

Our group decided to do the ‘short’ trek, thinking that it would take 4-5 hours instead of 8 hours (long trek). It had rained earlier in the morning, so we felt that it would be safer not to have to worry about slippery rocks. We headed towards Cat Ba National Park in a minivan. The trek itself was quite short. The bottom part involved walking uphills for close to 300 steps. To get to the watch tower, we clambered over rocks and rusty stairs. It was very neat; we had never gone uphill literally hanging on to rocks and sharp edges before. I did not make it up to the top of the watch tower. The view from its base was already quite fantastic enough, and I didn’t feel like getting the extra rush of adrenaline walking up thin iron steps, that were missing bars here and there.

We walked back down to the base and realized that we had only been gone for less than 2 hours. We had to wait for our minivan to come back since we were not due to return for another hour. There was a volleyball game in progress right outside the gates of the national park. We happily watched these men play. The players were very serious, and were actually quite good. They played 5 on 5, in the 4-1 formation. It was weird that they were allowed to use their feet once in a while. The men had great air time when they jumped up to spike the ball.

Back at Cat Ba, once again we went to have lunch at Dave’s friend’s place. We had arranged for him to get us 3 kayaks for the afternoon. However, due to the crummy weather, we all decided not to go. In the end, we had to 20,000 dong per kayak for the deposit, so it wasn’t too bad. The power was on and off all day on the island. At one point it came back, so I headed to the Internet café. After spending an hour online, the power decided to go off just as I was only one paragraph away from typing up my blog. Grrrrr.. it was so frustrating, and depressing.

So I’m actually typing up these three blogs (this one and the two previous ones) on our laptop. We will load these up onto our website when we next visit an Internet café. In the evening, Winston was not hungry, so Sarah and I went out to eat. We shared a seafood hotpot, and stuffed our faces with yummy fresh squid, fish, prawns, scampis and vegetables. The soup was spicy and flavourful. Back at our room, Winston hooked up our camera to the TV and showed Sarah some of our photos.

We had to wake up very early the next morning to catch the 5:45am ferry to Hai Phong. The ferry had hard bench seats; luckily it wasn’t too full so we could all get seats and place our backpacks in one corner. I fell asleep quite easily and didn’t wake up till we were 30mins away from our destination (it was 2.5hr ride). As the day turned from dark to gray, and the passengers start waking up, there was also an increase in the cigarettes that were being smoked. Bleah!

At Hai Phong, we said goodbye to Hung, and got onto our minibus which would take us down to Ninh Binh. On the way there, we stopped off in Thai Thinh, Dave’s home. Phung (Dave’s wife) and her family live in this village, in the province of Thai Binh. We went to visit the hospital where Dave’s son was born, the first ‘white’ baby in the town. In fact, this town is absolutely not on any tourist route and until Dave came along, they had not seen any other foreigner. Dave has since taken 3 groups to his village.

It was such a treat to hang out at their family home for a few hours. We got to chat with Phung, and Dave got to hold his baby. Lunch was an incredible spread; we ate till we were stuffed. Dave and Phung got married last year. Phung was a tour guide up in the Sapa region. She speaks excellent English. We got to see their wedding on their DVD player while we were there. It was fun.

After lunch, Phung led us on a village tour. We went to see the kindy kids, but they were all sleeping at the time. It was funny how they were all laying down in the same direction, three rows of them. They remind me of sardines in a can, all squashed together. Across the kindergarten was a barber shop, and Winston ended up getting a hair cut and shave.

There were several kids and women around the barber shop laughing at us ‘tays’ (foreigners). The kids warmed up once Natasha showed them photos of themselves on the digital camera, and then, they couldn’t get enough. They brought their friends and family over, to get photos taken. It was quite funny.

The village is quite small, with chickens, ducks, pigs, cows and dogs all sharing the road. Just before we left, some farmers began to burn their hay, and smoke and dust got up in the air everywhere. I started coughing and sneezing from this point on (which is what I blame my sinus/cold problem on). Phung’s great grandmother had passed away that morning, at the age of 96. The family was in mourning though they had expected her to pass on. Phung’s younger brother also set fire to a mound of hay in the front of their house.

We left Dave’s home at 3:30pm, feeling very grateful to have had the opportunity to see a real Vietnamese village. The drive to Ninh Dinh was quite uneventful; in fact, I think I slept most of the way. Imagine our surprise when our bus pulled into the same hotel where we had lunch just more than a week ago. The hotel was very good though, nice comfortable rooms and good food.

On Saturday, January 9th, we set off for a visit to Cuc Phuong National Park. We passed by many paddy fields along the way, noticing all the farmers out with their conical hats and buffaloes. It keeps amazing us how busy people are here; they are either riding on their bicycle or motor bike, working in the field or walking about. We hardly see anyone just sitting around doing nothing. This is a contrast to the men we observe in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, where their time is mostly spent in cafes, watching the world go by.

At Cuc Phuong National Park, we first visited the Endangered Primate Rescue Center, where we saw gibbons, lemurs and langurs. It was drizzling when we first got there, and a bit chilly, so most of the primates were huddled together staying warm. Somehow one of the gibbons starting to make a loud cry, and pretty soon all the other gibbons joined in, howling and jumping from end to end. It was quite an incredible noise, and very interesting behaviour. These animals were all rescued, mostly from the black market. Many of them are actually endangered or on the verge of extinction, so the researchers are being careful with their care. Their goal is to be able to release the animals back into the wild one day.

Next we went to visit the cave of prehistoric man. This was a very interesting activity. I had forgotten to bring my flashlight; we only had three. Our guide had one, Winton and Jonathan, the other two. It was pitch black inside the cave, and the floor was uneven. We had to climb several stairs to get up to the entrance of the cave. Evidence that the ocean once covered the earth was proven here as well; there are remains of shells and barnacles on the side of the cave, up high above ground in the mountain. This cave has been excavated for human and animal bones (more than 7000 years old), and tools.

Our last stop in the park was a 3km walk (6km total) to visit the ancient tree, believe to be over 1000 years old. It started to rain at this time; we were thankful we had brought our raincoats. The tree was quite impressive, with a large raised root system, and up 43m in the air. While large, it was not as huge in circumference as the El Tule, in Mexico, supposedly over 2000 years old.

The rain stopped as we were walking back. By the time we got back to the park headquarters, we were starving. Our guide gave us sandwiches (from the hotel) for lunch. We were so hungry that most of us ate 2 each and hardly stopped to talk. Winston found out that he had been attacked by a leech. There was a large pool of blood at the bottom of his sandals, and on his arch, but no leech in sight. We figured the leech must have had enough blood and dropped off.

Somehow on the way back to the hotel, our driver took a different route. It took us over slow bumpy roads, so we got back later than had planned. It wasn’t a problem though, as we had several hours to hang out before leaving for the train station. We had two day rooms in the hotel (one for the girls, and one for the guys). We took turns taking a shower, and felt much better afterwards. We went out to buy drinks and snacks for the train ride, and then met up with the others for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant.

At 9:15pm, we piled into a minivan with all our luggage and headed off to the train station (only 5 minutes away). It was such a tiny station that we didn’t even know we had arrived. People did start arriving soon though, as the train from Hanoi was due to arrive at 10:03pm. We had tickets for the soft sleeper, and Dave made me in charge of the 4 tickets for our carriage (namely, the 2 couples).

We went to sleep right away as we were tired. Winston and I both used our ear plugs and had a decent sleep. Natasha didn’t sleep well though, and could hear the radio blasting all morning. Since we’re in carriage 1, we’re at the end of the hall, which is right next to the loudspeaker.

We were traveling on the S3, a slow train down the reunification express track. Dave says they usually travel on the express train, which stops at fewer stations than this one, hence arriving earlier. We did not get into Hue till almost noon. We were all very glad to get off the train, though it was not too uncomfortable. The one from Bangkok to ChiangMai was certainly much more comfortable and nicer.

In Hue, we checked into the Thanh Noi hotel, inside the Citadel. It’s a nice hotel, with a swimming pool. It was too cold though, so I doubt anyone even used it the entire time we’re here. Hue was the former capital of Vietnam, from 1804 to 1945. The Purple Palace is modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing. Sadly most of the complex has been destroyed during the wars. We saw a model of the former Citadel, with the Imperial City and Purple Palace. It was certainly very grand in those days.

We went off to lunch at a great family restaurant nearby. Hue specialty pancake and steam springrolls were very yummy. We returned to the hotel, and got onto cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) to the Citadel. There, Mr. Tam, our guide led us around the area and explained the history and geography of the structure. I was happy to see that the Royal Library was spared from the bombing that killed 10,000 people inside the Imperial City. There is so much history behind the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the secret war in Laos, and the Vietnam war between South and North, and the French. We have certainly learnt a lot on our trip through Indo China, but it is still a difficult thing to fully understand.

While getting close to Hue on the train, we passed by several areas with white soil. Dave informed us that those were soil that were infected by Agent Orange. We have seen many people who were born/and grown up with physical defects as a result of their parents being in contact with this nasty chemical. It will be quite a history lesson when we go to the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Dave, Jon, Tom, Winston and I met for dinner and wandered onto noodle street. There were several noodle vendors to choose from, all selling the same stuff. We decided to go visit one which didn’t have a lot of customers to help share the wealth. We made the big mistake of not establishing a price initially. When we were ready to leave, the woman told us that it was 20,000 dong a bowl. We figured it should probably only been 5000 or less. Eventually Dave talked her down to 15,000 but that is still highway robbery. It was our fault though, number one rule while traveling. Do not assume!!

We were still hungry, so headed back to the same spot where we had lunch and ordered more food and dessert. They make delicious banana pancakes. You should ask Winston how many he has had since we’ve been here.

It is now Tuesday, January 13, 2004 and I am sitting in our hotel room. I’ve spent several hours on this laptop typing up our blog, though of course, I have also opened up FreeCell and Hearts several times today too  This morning, we went off sight seeing. Dave had suggested using motorbike as our means of transport, as they can easily maneuver the narrow streets of Hue. However, several of us chickened out last night anticipating that the weather would be crummy and we did not want to ride in the rain. As it turns out, our instinct was correct and it did rain most of today.

First, we were taken down to the pier where we boarded our ‘dragon’ boat. It is a tacky boat, with 2 dragon heads sticking out in the front. The ferry itself is very stable, and travels at a very slow speed along the Perfume River. There were souvenirs for sale on board, and the sales lady latched herself to Jonathan and proceeded to show him several versions of the silk kimono. She did not leave him alone for one minute, and finally Winston tried to rescue him by pretending to be interested in post cards. That did not work though, and Jonathan was rescued by the fact that we had arrived at our destination.

We walked up to a huge pagoda, 7 layer high. This pagoda was more than 400 years old. In the compound, we could see an old American car on display. This car was driven by a high ranking monk in 1963 from Hue to Saigon. Once he arrived in Saigon, he proceeded to burn himself as a protest against the government for discrimination against Buddhism.

Our next stop was a very odd one; the only coliseum in Asia! It is now just a historical brick ruin, covered with grass. At one time, there were tigers and elephants here, fighting for the amusement of the emperor and his people. Mr. Tam showed us tiger claw marks in the cells; the tigers were starved to make them weak.

At a monastery, we were lucky enough to arrive in time for the morning chant. Accompanied by drums, cymbals and other hand held instruments, the monks perform their ceremony ignoring all the tourists huddled in the corner taking photographs. Nuns were also present at the beginning of the ceremony, bowing to everyone they see (including tourists) and the photos of previous monks and buddhas.

On the way to lunch, we stopped by to see a 12 year old girl make incense. Apparently she can make 5000 a day! Tasha took a turn, and proceeded to make a very fat incense. It was quite funny. Lunch was a feast the nunnery – all vegetarian. Delicious, and tons of it! The nuns themselves were having a laugh over us; they made fun of Dave getting fat, and laughed their heads off at photographs of themselves on the camera. They have a young girl there, whom they call ‘baby nun’. She was only 13.

Our final stop for the day was to see how conical hats were made. We have seen these hats all over the country, in the fields and on the backs of bicycles or motor bikes. The lady who made them had only one arm. Her right arm was missing; it was just a stub. However, she could tread needle and sew together a hat right in front of our eyes! It is amazing what many of the disabled can do. The conical hats are extremely light, and weatherproof - very useful for this climate, though impossible for us to carry home since it’ll likely get crushed.

I was planning to go out for dinner, but since it’s been wet and cold, I decided to stay in nursing my cold instead. I ordered spring rolls from the restaurant (quite yummy), and Winston brought me 2 orders of steam spring rolls when he came back (extremely yummy). It’s now time for bed, so I will write again when we’re further down south. Next stop, Hoi An, and lots of shopping!

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

A New Tour: Hanoi and Mai Chau
Hue, Vietnam

On the morning of Sunday, the 4th of January, our new group went over to KOTOs for breakfast. It was a treat to go there a second time as the breakfast buffet is quite excellent. After breakfast, we went off walking towards the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was not too far from the hotel, and we past by several embassies along the way. Security is extremely tight at the Mausoleum; Dave stayed outside and hung on to all our bags as we lined up to visit ‘Uncle Ho’. The line moved quite quickly as you are not allowed to linger inside the Mausoleum. We entered the cool marble building and walked around the body of Ho Chi Minh, who is surrounded by several guards, holding large guns. We weren’t sure if they were afraid that people who steal the body? The body was very well preserved, and Uncle Ho looked quite good.

After the mausoleum, we went to visit the palace that was built for him, though he never actually lived there, and his residence, ‘the house on stilts’. Uncle Ho was a very simple man, having just 2 rooms in his house: his study, and bedroom. A visit to the HCM museum was interesting; there was a lot of interesting artifacts and documents from his life, though the ‘artsy’ displays on the second floor are questionable.

Dave led us on a walking tour to the Old Quarter, and we stopped to have lunch at a very local restaurant, serving fried rice and noodles. We sat on low plastic stools and tables, and ate there with the locals. It was cheap, and good. We had the afternoon off, so Winston and I headed off to the Internet café. That’s where I spent 5 hours and did the blog for Laos. It seems ages ago.

We were hoping to meet up with Sarah, Tom and Jon for dinner at 6:30pm at the hotel, but we were still online at the time so ended up catching a bite at a Chinese restaurant, near the Water Puppets Theatre. The food was quite good, definitely Chinese, and not Vietnamese. We seem to be the only tourists there; sometimes you find the best things when you’re lost and out exploring.

Next morning, we left our big bags with the hotel and jumped into a minivan with daypacks for our trip to the hilltribe region of Mai Chau. This area is home to the White Thais; these people came over from Thailand many years ago, and still maintain a very traditional life. Unfortunately for us, the road to Mai Chau is under sever construction. A new hydroelectric plant was going up in a neighbouring province; thus the road to Hanoi through Mai Chau had to be widened.

Mr. Hung, our friendly guide from our walking tour, took care of us for the next six days. On the way there, we stopped at a small town and walked around the local market. None of the women here spoke English, so it was with sign language and chicken Vietnamese numbers that we were able to buy fruits and sandwiches. Our bus driver had to go pick up his license from the police station so we had extra time to mingle with the locals while waiting for him.

The scenary was quite beautiful all along the way; limestone karsts, paddy and vegetable fields, and rolling hills. Our lunch stop was a very interesting restaurant. The food was fine; the house itself was constructed in 1988 (all the houses in Vietnam have a big sign that announce the completion year) and open up in the back to a cave in a limestone karst. It was quite neat, actually. There was a pig style with 4 pink pigs, and 2 large squirrels in a cage. One appeared to either be ill or very shy (it hid under a towel while we were visiting) while the other did somersault nonstop around the cage.

The final stretch of road into Mai Chau was the worst. Orange dusty dirt was everywhere. The workers were out jackhammering the side of the mountain; no helmets or ear guards to protect themselves. All they have on their feet were soft canvas shoes or flip flops. The safety of workers is definitely very different here than at home. Since most of the work is manual, I can’t even imagine how long it would take for them to finish the highway. There were several roadblocks as much of the path only permit single lane traffic. In some cases, work trucks blocked the path as they dumped material on the side of the road.

We eventually arrived in Mai Chau at 3pm (we left at 8:30am – this used to be only a 2-3hr drive). Getting off the minivan in the town area, we walked for a while to stretch our legs. Our homestay is in the nearby village of Pom Choong. For the next two nights, we all slept together in a big room, on thin mattresses laid on the floor with mosquito nets over our head. The house was built on stilts; we hung out around the table below the house during the day, and slept up above at night and for meals.

Dave had told us about bracelets that the kids sell in this village. Sure enough, within a half hour of our arrive, several children arrived, and set up their wares on wooden stools on the road in front of the house. At a cost of 2000 dong each (14 US cents), we all bought several (we made sure that every child at least made one sale) to help out with the local economy.

All our meals were prepared by our hosts; Mrs Thuy and her daughter and daughter-in-law. Everything was delicious, and it was great to have home cooked meals again. Every dinner and lunch included soup, 4 dishes of meat and vegetables, steam rice and fruit. Mr and Mrs Thuy also came by and poured everyone a glass of rice wine. The first night I could hardly drink any (gave the rest to Winston, as usual), but I actually drank it all the next night! It taste like sake, but much stronger and dryer.

Here in Vietnam, you always have to pay for water or drinks, but rice wine is always free. Interesting, eh? We woke up early the next morning, and after breakfast, set off for a walk around the area. We passed by many farmland, and paddy fields. It is common to see brick making happening on the paddy field during the winter season when the land is dry. We stopped to look at one and noticed that all the workers were bare foot. We were constantly reminded of how hard farmers work; nothing is wasted. All animals are kept for food, or to chase unwanted pests away, and plants either produce vegetables or fruits. Nothing is wasted, and anything that can be reused, will.

We also passed by several kindergartens and waved to the kids. In one instance, the kids were so solemn that even when Winston blew bubbles for them, they did not even crack a smile or try to catch them, as other kids have done. We weren’t sure if they were not used to foreigners. Dave told us that they are always that way when he’s visited; it’s strange since the teacher was very friendly and smiled to us, but not the kids.

Our walk was nice. Most of it was flat since we were passing through the valley. The last hour though, was a constant uphill, then steep downhill as we crossed a mountain in the middle of the Mai Chau area. Our trek is not the one on our itinerary. Due to our late arrival caused by the construction of the road, we were unable to get to the planned destination on time. Instead of our morning walk, we would have had to hike 22km from another village to Pom Coong. Oh well, it was nice anyway, and not too strenuous. It was very peaceful, and we saw lots of animals too.

We got back in time for lunch, then Sarah, Natasha and Daniel had a nap. Winston and Tom when into town to climb up 1000 stairs to visit a cave (I chose the lazy route and hung out at the homestay instead). After Sarah woke up, we walked to the next village and shopped for the locally woven scarves. Then it was time to meet the others and go on a walking tour with Hung. As it turns out, Sarah and I had visited all the places Hung was going to show us. No matter, we still enjoyed watching the girls do the weaving and the boys got a hand at playing with homemade cross bows and slings.

After dinner that night, we were treated to a set of Mai Chau traditional songs and dance. There was music (drums, cymbals, accordion, 2 types of flute), 2 male and 6 female dancers, with Hung doing all the introductions and explanations. Towards the end, we were all taking part in the bamboo dance. It was quite fun. To cap off the night, a big ceramic jar of sticky rice wine (different than the regular rice wine) with bamboo straws was brought out. It was interesting sipping the wine through the bamboo straw. Sticky rice wine is much sweeter and therefore easier to drink. However, there was no way we could finish that whole jar.

We were supposed to sing songs from our respective countries, but everyone was too shy so Dave got up and sang for everyone. He did a funny adaptation of ‘New York New York’. I think everyone slept much better the second night. Oh, I forgot to mention that while it is beautiful to be out in the village, it is by no means quiet. The dog started barking at 3am, while the roosters start going at it at 4am. Luckily Winston and I have ear plugs so we were able to sleep through most of the noise. Also at 5am, the “Voice of Vietnam” radio is blasted across the village so you are forced to listen to their speeches and music. It’s all a very interesting experience.

Wednesday morning, we left the homestay after breakfast. We got back to Hanoi by 1pm, and cleaned up in our nice hotel rooms. I did take a cold shower at the homestay, but nothing beats a nice hot shower. We wandered over to KOTOs for lunch, and bumped into Jacqui and Justin, just as we were finishing. It was nice to see a familiar face again, and we made plans to meet up for dinner after we finish the water puppets performance that night.

We chilled out at the hotel room the rest of the afternoon, sorting out laundry, and reading. Whenever we have a break from sight seeing, Winston relaxes by playing games on the laptop. He’s most recent acquisition is FIFA 2004 (soccer), and has been playing in some league games. I must say, I’m also quite impressed with the graphics and sophistication of the game! Artificial intelligence has come such a long way; everything is so realistic now, from the chants of the home crowd, to the players’ faces to the ongoing commentary of the game. Unfortunately I’m not good at these kind of games, so I stick to FreeCell and Hearts.

At 5:30pm, we met down in the lobby and Dave led us to a bar around the corner. We walked into Mr. Minh’s (nicknamed Moulah – cross eye) living room cum restaurant. His bar is currently undergoing renovations, so he’s operating out of his home. The friendly fellow was a Viet Cong, and fought against the Americans during the war. On his right arm, is a huge tattoo of an AK-47 and a date in 1972. He won an award for single handedly killing the most enemy soldiers. His medal is proudly displayed on the wall. Dave treated us to beer, and then sent us on the water to see the water puppets.

It was interesting, that’s probably how most people would describe the show. Accompanying the puppet show, is a traditional Vietnamese orchestra. The music itself was pretty good, but it got a bit weird when the men and women do their ‘mock’ opera voices. Water puppets is a specialty of northern Vietnam. The huge theatre was well set up, and puppeteers stand in the water behind a screen, controlling their puppets. You will probably have to wait till we post our website to have a better idea.

Jacqui and Justin were waiting for us when we got out. After consulting the Lonely Planet, we headed to the Hanoi Garden for dinner. The restaurant was quite busy, but they were able to get us a table for nine upstairs. After we ordered, one of their waiters approached Sarah to let her know that our food would be late tonight because the kitchen was extremely busy. When she asked him how long (thinking an hour), he replied, “10 to 15mins”. We thought that was quite amusing since we were so used to waiting. The food actually showed up quite soon after we ordered.

In the morning, we checked out of our hotel and said goodbye to Hanoi. We got 2 taxis to take us to the local bus station, where we managed to get onto a public bus headed for Bai Chay.

Entering Vietnam; Tour's End in Hanoi
Hue, Vietnam

First of all, let me tell you that I spent 45 minutes writing up this blog only to have the power go off on the island of Cat Ba (in Halong Bay) just as I was a paragraph from completing this section of the writeup. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of it saved so I hope I still remember the details from the past couple of weeks.

We crossed into Vietnam on News Year Day at Cau Treo, where the immigration process was very confusing. We had to fill out quarantine and immigration forms, then get stamped by the police and customs. There was no signage nor were the different stations placed in any logical order. Nevertheless, we eventually all got through and boarded our mini bus which had come to bring us to Vinh (110km).

The road from the border, is part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was used during the ‘war’. Unfortunately for us, most of that road was under construction so we had a very slow and bumpy ride. We were not quite prepared for all the noise and people in this country after spending a relaxing week in neighbouring Laos.

We arrived in Vinh in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel. There isn’t much to do or see in Vinh; we stopped here to avoid driving 12hrs to Hanoi. Upon getting a restaurant recommendation from the hotel clerks, Lisa led us down the street in search of this café. Along the way, we had to wave off vendors who stuck their oranges, buns and apples right into our faces. We were a bit taken back by the ‘in your face’ treatment. Holly also had several marriage proposals that day from strangers on the street.

We found the restaurant only to realize that not only did the waitresses there not speak any English, there was also no pho or any vegetarian dishes. With sign language and several flips through Lisa’s phrase book, we manage to order some fried rice and mixed veggies and tofu, though by then several plates of pork and steam rice had also arrived. It was quite fun actually, to communicate this way. This was Lisa’s first trip to Vietnam as well, so she’s learning with the rest of us.

It was a bit strange when the girls (age 15-18) started to go through our phrase books asking people how old they were, etc. They also got their hands into Barbara’s bag and proceeded to take a photo her camera. Ange got pinched on the face as they told her she had beautiful skin. I must say that we were all a bit weary of how little personal space we were going to have in this country.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by the local market and picked up some mandarin oranges and longans. The fruits were certainly very inexpensive and delicious. Back at the hotel, we heard a lot of noise from the back and checked out the wedding reception in progress. Our plans to rest up in our rooms were futile; the karaoke coming from the wedding party was quite loud and off-key. Needless to say, no one got any sleep that afternoon.

The next morning, we drove north to Hanoi, stopping for lunch in Ninh Binh at a hotel in town (as it turns out, we were to stay at this same hotel while traveling down south with our Vietnam Adventure Intrepid Tour). We arrived in Hanoi in the late afternoon, and checked in at the Holidays Hotel. 7 of us piled into a taxi and headed to the ANZ bank to withdraw some ‘dongs’. Walking through the Old Quarter on the way back to the hotel, we all made mental notes of things to buy. There are tons of lovely souvenirs to purchase here, along with cheap CDs and DVDs. It took us about an hour and a half, and by the time we got back to the hotel lobby, it was time to head out for dinner.

Lisa had made reservations for us at the Cyclo Bar and Restaurant, an absolutely fabulous restaurant with excellent food and drinks. It was to be our ‘final’ night dinner even though we still had another night to go. Glenis and Dave were leaving us in the morning to go on their sea kayaking trip in Halong Bay. Winston shared two bottles of French Merlot with the Phillips and Jacqui and Ange. I enjoyed yummy fresh mango shake.

In the morning, we walked to Koto’s (Know One Teach One – a vocational training center for disadvantaged youth). It’s a wonderful restaurant with excellent food. This program was started by an ex-Intrepid leader and it’s been a very successful venture. All the students who graduate from the program are found jobs in other restaurants and hospitality areas in the city.

After breakfast, Ange, Lindsay and I went off in search of the Grace Beauty Salon, to get pedicure and manicure. We got lost a few times since the street isn’t actually on our map, but it was fun asking the locals for directions. In most cases, they did not speak any English so we communicated via sign language, as they signed us to turn left/right and how many blocks to go before turning again.

We enjoyed our treatments, and the girls actually got their nails painted with flowers too. They were beautiful, but would not stay on my nails for more than a day so I opted to just get plain nail colour. We walked towards the Old Quarter and found Fanny’s, a recommended place for ice cream. I savoured my watermelon cone quite quickly. We also found a big supermarket, and Ange’s eyes were so big as she found many goodies from Australia, such as Tim Tums (which I have never even heard of). Of course we stocked up with snacks.

We picked up some CDs and DVDs before rushing back to the hotel in time for our walking tour. Hung, a local guide (coincidentally, he was also our guide through Mai Chau and Halong Bay with our new group) led us back towards the Old Quarter passing by many different streets: Worship St, Chinese Herbs St, Sunglasses St, Cookie St, Shoe St, Silk St, etc. In the old quarter, there used to be 36 unique streets, all the stores on each street specializing in the same trade or merchandise.

We left the group in front of the Water Puppet Theatre to head back to the hotel to meet our new group. The Vietnam Adventure trip runs from 3rd of January to the 24th. We et our leader Dave Campbell, from Australia, who now lives in Vietnam, and has a wife and 3 month old baby in the province of Thai Binh. Our 5 other tour mates are: Sarah from Wellington, New Zealand who has been teaching pre-school in Korea, Daniel and Natasha from Darwin, Australia (They are both in the Army; Daniel’s a helicopter pilot and Natasha’s a health officer), and Tom and Jonathan (15 year old and his dad) from Canberra, Australia.

We had a short group meeting to get acquainted, and then the rest headed off to Cyclo for dinner (we told them to expect an excellent meal). Meanwhile, Winston and I headed to the 69 Restaurant to join our travelmates for the past 2 weeks for a final dinner. After dinner, we crossed the street to the Tamarind Restaurant, and ordered dessert. Back at the hotel, it was time to say goodbye. The JETs and Lisa were flying back to Bangkok early in the morning; three others will be joining other Intrepid tours: Barbara - Best of Vietnam; Holly - Roam Basix, Jenny - Oxfam trip; Jacqui will be meeting up with her boyfriend Justine for three weeks to go south (we will be meeting them in Saigon/HCMC and also Holly and Tess); Tess is meeting a girlfriend from home and traveling down South as well.


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