Thursday, September 26, 2013

TR - Vietnam - Part 2

8/25 – 9/11/13
Part 2


Now where were we? Oh yes. I just finished the Da Nang Marathon, puked up my guts and now felt much better and was ready to continue my tour through Vietnam.

 On Mon we drove south from Da Nang to the ancient city of Hoi An. In the 16th century Hoi An was an international trading center for VN. The Old Quarter is well preserved with many of the original buildings and temples. Much of the Old Quarter is restricted to walking - with no scooters. At night it is lit up with thousands of lanterns and is very colorful and lively. I saw more Caucasian tourists in Hoi An than all the rest of VN. Our guide toured us around the Old Quarter for an afternoon and then we had the evening to do our own thing. I found a ‘real’ French restaurant and enjoyed a wonderful (but expensive by VN standards) dinner. It was a much-needed change from VN food.

 On Tue we flew to Hanoi where we were picked up again at the airport and taken on a tour of the city. We visited all the main historical and tourist sites: Ho Chi minh Mausoleum and Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s house, One Pillar Pagoda, and Temple of Literature. We concluded the city tour with a show at the Water Puppet Theatre. That was quite interesting. My 3* hotel was on the edge of the Old Quarter in Hanoi and the streets are a maze so it was difficult to find my way around (safely) with all the scooters.

 On Wed we drove for 4 hours to the coast to Halong Bay for a 2-day cruise. I was looking forward to this cruise. I had seen many photos and scenes of Halong Bay (used as a location in two James Bond movies). Halong Bay has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. The scenery was as spectacular as imagined. Although it was cloudy and rainy for the two days the scenery was still awesome. We had private cabins on the Victory Star that accommodated 30 passengers. Although the ship looks like an old junket it was quite luxurious and the food and service were great. In the afternoon we were taken on sampans to Vung Vieng Village, a fishing village near Cat Ba Island. It is very picturesque but that would be a tough life. That evening Colleen and I enjoyed a great dinner with a bottle of wine (wine is expensive in VN). On Thu morning I rose early to get photos of the sunrise over Halong Bay but sadly the weather was still overcast. But I was ready for an early visit to Sung Sot Cave, one of the biggest grottoes on Halong Bay. It has three chambers with many stalactites and rock formations and great views overlooking Halong Bay.

 I wish I could have spent more time on Halong Bay. I strongly recommend that you add Halong Bay to your ‘bucket list’. Now it was time for the long drive back to Hanoi and the end of our formal tour. Our tour guide’s surname was Duoc so we called him ‘Duke’. I had worked out an itinerary with Duke for my extra five days in VN.

 On Thu Duke & I drove west of Hanoi into the mountains to the Mai Chau Valley that is near the Laos border and the ‘Golden Triangle’ – the drug center of Thailand, Laos and Burma. It is also the home of many hill tribes. The main tribe in that area is the Thai tribe. They have their own small villages and maintain the same culture and lifestyle of the past 100 years. Well almost. All homes are built on stilts and many still have animals living (& shitting) in the bottom level whereas others now have scooters parked there. Most homes have electricity, few have plumbing but a few have satellite dishes and I noticed a few cafes with Wi-Fi? They still spin and weave silk by hand for their traditional dress but few wear it except for festivals and ceremonies.

I stayed at the Mai Chau Lodge – the only (luxury) resort in the area. It was the nicest and most expensive room I enjoyed in VN. The room cost more for one night than most VN people make in a month and probably six months for the Thai tribe. I was feeling kind of guilty about that until Duke suggested I could enjoy a ‘home stay’ vacation where you live with a Thai tribe family and share their home and common room (& outdoor plumbing) with up to 10 people. I explained that “I didn’t feel that guilty”!

 We spent two days visiting the Thai tribe in their rice fields and their homes. It is a tough life.
On our way back to Hanoi Duke told me that his in-laws who were farmers living near Mai Chau had invited us to stop at their home for a home-cooked lunch. After stopping to buy a gift to present to them upon entering their home we arrived at their home/farm in a small village. Home was a single common room where they had raised six children. Dad had been a colonel in the VN army. Sixty-five men from his village had been conscripted into the army – he was one of three that returned after the war! He & I got along well even though we could only communicate through Duke. I had asked Duke to explain that I might not eat everything because of concerns about GI problems but I was able to eat almost everything Mom cooked for their special guest. They had killed a duck for the occasion and believe me after they take off the feathers they cook and eat everything! I passed on the organs (hear, liver, intestines, etc.) but did eat the meat. They were shocked that I didn’t eat all the fat and small bones? There were also a few veggies and leaves from trees that had been steamed or boiled that didn’t look very appetizing but tasted OK? The VN people eat anything and everything that can be eaten. Fortunately Dad had some home-made rice wine to wash all this delicious food down. It was served in shot glasses. The custom was that Dad would offer a toast to his guest – we would down the glass/shot of wine and then show everyone the empty glass. Then we would say “thank you’ and shake hands. Then the guest had to reciprocate with the same protocol. The first few shots of rice wine tasted like kerosene and had a kick like wood alcohol but after a few the taste buds and throat became numbed and it was easier to drink.
I don’t know how many ‘toasts’ we enjoyed but Duke finally told me his father-in-law was getting drunk so I politely stated that I didn’t want any more wine. At that point they brought in grandma – the matriarch of the family and 96 years old who lived next door- to challenge Maddog to one final toast. I really had a fun time and sincerely thanked the whole family for their hospitality. 

 When we returned to Hanoi Duke booked a nice 4* hotel for me in the Old Quarter that was close to Hoan Kiem Lake where I could run each morning. There was a path/sidewalk around the lake without cars/scooters that provided a 1-mile run with pleasant scenery. I shared the path with thousands of runners/walkers and locals doing their morning Thai Chai each day. I soon became familiar with the Old Quarter and could find my way around the maze of twisting streets without getting lost (or run over). I revisited some of the tourist sites for more/better photos and a few that we had missed such as Hoa Lo Prison or the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ as American POWs called it.  I found many streets in the Old Quarter that contained shops for specific products such as the ‘Toy Street’ that only had shops with toys for kids. My grandkids will be happy that I found that street and that I had to use up my VN money before leaving. I was glad when my final 2 days in Hanoi were over and I headed to the airport for the long trip home.

 It was an interesting and exciting adventure. The marathon sucked – not due to any fault of the race organization – but due to my inability to handle and run in extreme heat anymore. But I am already booked for my next tropical country/marathon and planning the one after that. So I guess I will never learn – or give up?

 What’s next? Stay tuned!

TR - Vietnam - Part 1

                                                                             8/25 – 9/11/13
                                                                                    Part 1


Race Results:
Sun, Sept 1/13
Da Nang, Vietnam
Da Nang Marathon
6:05:45  (PW)
Marathon # 364  - Country # 117

 Vietnam had been on my ‘wish’ list or bucket list for a long time but there had been no marathons for many years. So when a friend informed me late last year that he was running an inaugural marathon in Da Nang I was very interested - but not sure I would be able to run the race. At that time I was suffering major health issues and didn’t know if I would ever run a marathon again? However when my health started to improve and I was able to struggle though the St Kitts Marathon in May/13 I figured I could ‘struggle’ through another marathon in Vietnam in Sept.

 I started to plan the trip and decided that if I was going that far I might as well stay and visit the country for a few weeks because it was unlikely that I would ever go back. I managed to find a travel agency in Australia that was offering travel packages for the race as well as optional extended tours. I bought a 10-day package. When I checked air fares and learned that it cost $2K to fly in economy I decided to check 1st Class tickets using air miles.  I booked 1st Class but had to extend my trip by 5 days to get return seats on free miles. I decided to fly ‘by the seat of my pants’ for those extra 5 days.

 Nicole & I drove to the airport together – she was going to visit the kids & grandkids while I was in Vietnam. After 30 long hours – even with flat beds in 1st Class I arrived tired in Ho Chi Minh City
(Saigon) late Tue night. The tour started Wed afternoon with a city tour of HCMC. I met my sole tour mate – Colleen – from Aukland, NZ. Colleen had booked 4* hotels and cheapskate Maddog booked 3* hotels so we only saw each other during the tours. Luckily we got along very well and in fact enjoyed each other’s company and conversation. I believe we both enjoyed the tour much more by having a compatible friend/companion to share the experience with. And we essentially had private tours – just Colleen & I with a driver and guide – for our 10 days in Vietnam.

 The first city tour of HCMC included the major tourist and historical sites: Reunification Palace, the French Quarter with the Cathedral and Post Office and the Ben Thanh Market. (Lots of photos with captions on my website  The traffic is horrendous in HCMC (and all VN cities). There are 12 million people in HCMC and 6 million scooters. It is scary trying to cross a street until you quickly learn the rule of survival “Be bold and deliberate”! If you hesitate or change your mind you are dead!

 The next day we travelled North West of HCMC to the Binh Duong province to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong during the war. There are three levels of tunnels stretching over 200 km: the 1st level (about 8 m under the surface) are small to prevent a bigger enemy from getting in and were used for fighting and access to the larger tunnels in the next two levels at 11m and 15 m where the VC and their families lived. The tunnel system is very complex and still unmapped. We crawled through  50m of one tunnel in the 1st level and I had to fight claustrophobia to get to the exit!

 On the 3rd day we travelled north to the Mekong Delta for a cruise on the Mekong River. We were transported by big boats, little boats (sampans) through small natural canals and horse cart to visit villages along the Mekong River and experience the life of the people living along the river. For lunch we were treated to a great meal including a local delicacy – deep fried ‘elephant ear‘ fish along with some fancy puffed rice bread that looked like a soccer ball? To be honest the fried steak and French fries that were also served were a bigger hit with both of us.

 On Fri we flew from HCMC to Da Nang. After being picked up at the airport by our private guide and driver we were taken to lunch. By then both Colleen & I were tired of rice and stir-fried anything and we were also a little sick (HCM revenge) so we told the guide that we didn’t want to eat any more Vietnamese food. There are very few ‘western’ restaurants in VN and none were included in our tour package so we compromised. We would go to an appointed VN restaurant but would select what we wanted to eat rather than just accept the typical 5 or 6 courses that were provided at a meal. We rejected any salads (hadn’t been eating any anyways) and anything stir-fried. We stuck to plain steamed rice and meat that had been baked or grilled.

 After lunch we toured Da Nang including the Cham Museum and Marble Mountain. Da Nang is the 3rd largest city in VN and is much different than HCMC and Hanoi. It is modern, clean and new with shopping malls, movie theatres, etc.! The infrastructure is new with wide 2-lane roads and several new bridges across the Han River. There are miles of great beaches on the East China Sea and all beach front property has been reserved for luxury resorts. Except for the scooters you would almost think you were in an American city? Only the Old Quarter in the center of the old city looks like the rest of VN. After the tour we joined a few other runners who had just booked a race package with the Tour Agency for drinks and conversation. Thankfully the tour agent, Fran, had picked up our race packets to save us a trip to the expo on Sat in the grueling VN heat. The race organization had kindly reserved bib # 117 for Maddog.

Sat was a rest day to pick up race packets and prepare for the pasta dinner. I had asked the six members of the Country Club to meet at the pasta dinner for a group photo and discussion on some club matters but only three of us showed up? The others went on a tour and claimed they waited in the lobby for us since they weren’t attending the dinner?

 Sunday was M-day! It was 84 F and humidity even higher at 4 am when a bus picked us up to take us to the start line. The heat index was already in the mid-90s.  It was going to be UGLY! I managed to collect all six members of the Country Club together at the start line for a group photo since I figured some would not be able to wait at the finish line? The course was a half-marathon loop that ran along the beach, crossed a bridge into the Old Quarter, along the Han River and back over another bridge to the beach. Surprisingly there were 400 in two races – 200 in the marathon and 200 in the Half. The race started on time at 5 am. I started out slowly at an 11 min/mile pace knowing that the heat and race would get ugly. I had hoped to run the 1st Half and then start to walk/run. I didn’t make it that far! By the time I reached the 2nd bridge on the 1st loop at 12 Km in 1:26:55 and a split of 7:57/Km I was already overheated and struggling so I started to walk. My goal was to break 5 hrs. I knew that wasn’t going to happen! When I passed the Half/21 K in 2:45:05 and a split of 8:44/Km I was hoping I could break 6 hrs? By now it was almost 8am and the heat was soaring as well as my body temp and I was wilting. I started dumping a bottle of water on me as well as in me at each water station in a futile attempt to cool down and prevent dehydration. When I reached that 2nd bridge in the 2nd loop at 33K in 4:32:30 and a split of 8:43/Km I was still hoping to break 6 hrs but after climbing the bridge and reaching 35K in 4:49:52 I knew that wasn’t going to happen – and I didn’t care! I went into ‘survival’ mode! The best I could hope for was to finish – ALIVE!

 It got real UGLY fast. My splits increased to more than 10min/Km as I was forced to walk more & more. I couldn’t run more than 1 min before my body would shut down and refuse to run. When I passed 40K I thought I might have to walk the final 2K when Fran drove by on a scooter and gave me two bottles of ICE-COLD water – one on my head and one in my gut. That helped to revive me enough to struggle across the finish line in 6:05:45 - a new PW (Personal Worst) for a road marathon.

 The second I crossed the finish line I knew I was in trouble. I felt nauseous and light-headed. I tried to walk it off but I was dizzy and light-headed and thought I might faint so I laid down. And I couldn’t get back up. A few friends and medical staff started to worry and then I started to worry that the doctors might carry me off to a VN hospital. I tried to drink water thinking I was dehydrated but that didn’t help. I asked for a coke because that has worked in similar situations but there was none so I drank a few sips of an isotonic sports drink. That stayed down less than one minute and then I puked for several minutes until I purged my stomach. That fixed the problem and I started to feel better immediately and a medical volunteer rushed across the street to buy me a coke. After a few sips of coke I was able to sit up and then stand? Coke does it every time for me? I recovered quickly and gathered a few friends to take the mandatory finish line photos before returning to the hotel.

 After a hot shower I still felt tired and weak so I skipped the gala awards dinner. I tried to eat my usual greasy food but even that wouldn’t go down well so I went to bed with nothing to eat for 24 hrs and slept for 12 hrs. I felt fine the next morning. It had been UGLY – one might say it had even been SICKLY – but I finished marathon #364 and Country # 117 – the new World Record. I hope there aren’t (m)any more like that. But that wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last time I was sick at a finish line – especially since I only have tropical countries/marathons left to run.

 But the race was over and now I could enjoy the rest of my VN tour. And I will leave that story for Part 2 of the trip report.