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!

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