Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City

Since we arrived quite late, our first exposure to the old capital of the South was of sketchy looking park patrons and an inordinate amount of inordinately large cockroaches scuttling about. But, we found our hostel and checked in for the night. As we were quite exhausted from the day of hiking and the weird pod bus, we fell asleep quite quickly. 

We woke leisurely the next morning and I decided that we should pursue a pedicure to begin the day. This was Jared’s first pedicure and, unfortunately, not nearly as nice as the one I received in Hanoi with the coffee scrub exfoliant. I think he is at least convinced that it could be better if he gives it another shot. Then, after lunch, we went to the Reunification Palace, the former seat of power for South Vietnam. The palace itself is a mansion, combined with the formal political spaces one associates with any head of government such as meeting halls and strategy rooms. This is also the place where the war officially ended. After that, we went to see the the Immaculate Conception Basilica and the Central Post Office, both built by French colonists, and both still functional and beautiful. That night as we walked back to our hostel, a few Vietnamese college students stopped us for a chat in the park. These conversations are always interesting and vary depending on the students’ mastery of English and their interests. My conversation revolved around geography and University in the U.S. Jared’s, on the other hand, ended in a discussion of states' rights, especially in reference to a woman’s rights in a divorce. Who knows where the conversation will take you?! That evening we went to the Saigon Skydeck at the top of the Bitexco Financial  Tower (the tallest building in Vietnam) and had a cocktail and listened to some Vietnamese lounge music, then finished the night with some traditional Vietnamese street food.

Reunification Palace

The inside of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral Basilica

View of the church from in front of the Post Office

Finished in 1891, the post office is still fully functional

Our last day in Vietnam, we visited two of the Buddhist temples in HCMC, got our last cheap foot massage, had Vietnamese coffee and again enjoyed some traditional food on the street. The first temple we visited was the most active temple we have seen. There were several statues and people everywhere lighting incense and venerating their chosen deity. It was a unique experience and one for which we are thankful. It was enlightening to see the religion in action.

Gate and entrance to the temple

Jared being sassy

Our last Vietnamese coffee. We started out not caring for the drink and ended up loving it!

The prospect of leaving not just Vietnam but Southeast Asia was bittersweet for me. I was sad to be leaving cheap accommodations, good food and foot massages but was also excited for a new adventure. I was apprehensive and a little scared about what China would be like, but Hong Kong acted as a nice transition.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Vietnam: Da Lat

We spent five nights in Da Lat and loved the city and surrounding area. Da Lat is the primary producer of fruits and vegetables in Vietnam, and as we drove the windy mountain path to arrive in the city, we saw hundreds of greenhouses dotting the landscape. Jared was feeling a little tired the first couple days so I did some independent city exploration and walked through the city center, admiring all of the beautiful flowers (they're everywhere in Da Lat), then toured the Crazy House. The Crazy House is an artistically designed home + hotel. The architect is the daughter of aristocracy and studied in China and Russia; she still lives on the premises. The hotel rooms are designed and named after animals in homage to different countries. The Eagle is the room for the United States. As you can see from the pictures below, it is a pretty crazy house but is beautifully designed to intermingle concepts of nature with the structural components as well.

A manicured city sign

The main church in the city, I walked past it no less than five times and was never able to go in. The stained glass on the outside was something that I'm sure reflected nicely on the interior.

Mr. Giraffe looking at the Crazy House

It is like a crazy hive of rooms, passages and balconies

I could have just walked around all day (oh wait, I did!) in the city that was more of a garden than a cityscape.

A collage of just some of the beautiful flowers. 

Once Jared was feeling up to it, we rented a motorbike and took a trip to Elephant Falls. This is a quaint little waterfall tucked away near a Buddhist temple that locals and tourists both enjoy. The exploration of the waterfall and temple were fun enough but it really got interesting on the ride home. As you can imagine, rain makes for a very interesting ride on the motorbike. So interesting, in fact, that we stopped en route at a little restaurant to have some lunch and wait out the downpour. This was perhaps our first real experience in Vietnam with someone who spoke no English. We, of course, were her equals in our knowledge of Vietnamese. As I tentatively entered the dining area and used my eyes and arms to ask if we could eat she responded by showing me some noodles and I gave her the thumbs up. Out came two steaming bowls of a soup composed of a mystery meat (Jared assumed beef), some green onions and a cube of a dark colored gelatin. We are pretty sure this gelatinous substance was congealed blood. I abstained from tasting the gelatinous glob but politely sipped my soup and my soda until the rain cleared enough for us to be on our way.

This was actually at a restaurant near our hostel. You get all of the components and then make and roll your own spring rolls. It was so delicious!

Elephant Falls. Breathtaking.

Waterfall selfie.

Mystery soup with mystery gelatinous cube.

The next day, we checked out of our hostel and went on a day hike with a guide. The hike started in a local village called Chicken Village, progressed through the vegetable fields and mountains, and ended at a manmade lake. At the lake, we took a little boat to meet a car for the ride back into the city. We spent a little over three hours on the hike and the first two were almost straight up. We ate lunch just before the rain started and halfway slid back down the mountainous slope to the lake. Between the two of us, I think we picked around 8 leeches off our socks, shoes and ankles. Leeches are also quite hard to kill, very rubbery and resilient. It was spring in Vietnam while we were there and afternoon rains had just started to be a common occurrence. Several of the locals informed us that during the actual rainy season it will rain for days without stopping. I couldn’t help but think of Forrest and his description of all the different types of rain in Vietnam, “One day it started raining, and it didn't quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin' rain, and big ol' fat rain, rain that flew in sideways and sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath." I'm thankful we only experienced the warm afternoon shower version.

Starting the hike through the fields of Chicken Village

Looking back on where we started

Jared in his sleeper cubicle
The bus we took was technically a ‘sleeper bus.’ Now, this is something that we were avoiding rather diligently after reading  this and similar accounts of the nightmare that is a night bus in Vietnam. But, we were booking through a reputable company and the journey was only going to take 6 hours. We weren’t planning on sleeping anyway, which turned out to be a good thing. There weren’t individual, stacked beds as was described in one account but these individual pod-like compartments. Each person had a separate space and crammed their legs inside the pods while the seat back reclined. I tried to get a picture but it was hard to capture the whole scene. I am only 5’6” and I found it ridiculously uncomfortable. Jared actually didn’t mind it so much, perhaps because the duty of backpack guarding does not fall to him whilst in transit.

The pod bus took us to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, where we spent the last two days of our visa allowance before flying off to Hong Kong.

Vietnam: Hoi An

Hoi An is a heritage city with tons of shops and restaurants. We easily understood why it is so popular with Western and Eastern tourists alike. We stayed at a homestay (like a hostel but the owners/managers live onsite) that had free bike rentals, good WiFi, and a passable breakfast (One thing that we thought was quite a humorous and interesting part of the Vietnamese culture was the prevalence of the baguette. It seemed to be the one obvious remnant of the French occupation and it made an appearance at almost every meal.). The first afternoon we checked out some bikes and headed down to the ‘heritage’ area of the city. This consisted of traditional Vietnamese style shops- at least in architecture- and restaurants lining the canal. The area was packed but we found a cozy place for lunch and mosied around looking at different shops. It was a pleasantly passed afternoon and we went to bed early in preparation for our visit to the Cham temples the next day.

These little girls were all along the river selling lanterns to light and float in the river. I was tempted to get one but my always environmentally oriented husband pointed out that the lanterns just accumulate in the river.
The Cham ruling period coincided roughly with the Khmer reign in Cambodia and the construction of the impressive Angkor Wat. The similar style of architecture can be seen in these ruins. This area of Cham temples was part of the Cham capital before conflict forced them south. The area is surrounded by mountains and has a river running through it. The temples were first discovered by the French and then forgotten during and after the war with the French then discovered again and then forgotten and partially destroyed during the war with America. The bomb craters are still evident and luckily the French took pictures during the first discovery and reconstruction efforts so the original design can still be studied.

The vegetation has completely taken over some of the ruins

The greenery around the ancient temples was almost as impressive as the ruins

A cornerstone

An intimidating guardian.

You can see the indentation of a bomb crater 

After our Cham adventure we had the next day to spend in Hoi An before hopping on our night train to Nha Trang. We decided to go to visit the Marble Mountains, which are right outside of Da Nang. Da Nang is a city that was used as a base by the Americans during the war, and is where my step-father was stationed. There is nothing left there as far as war memorials go, but the Marble Mountains were reportedly used as a hospital base for the Viet Cong. Inside these mountains are several hidden caves which are Buddhist temples or shrines. The area is peaceful and scenic and still has an active monastery at one of the mountain plateau areas.

Peaceful, sitting Buddha.

Peaceful, sitting Christy

The guardians along the stairs

Carved, sitting Buddha in the cave

A beautiful, old gate leading to a rock garden

We left Hoi An that night to sleep on a train (again) and woke up in Nha Trang where we then took a bus to our mountain paradise, Da Lat.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Vietnam: Hue

In Hue, we explored the tombs of Minh Mang and Khai Dinh two ancient emperors, and the Imperial Citadel complex during our first afternoon. Several of the monuments had been destroyed during either the war with the French or the war with the Americans. Vietnam is by far the most ‘war torn’ (at least in recent history) of any of the countries we have visited. It was sad, enlightening, and revealing to see the country now, not only in how it has recuperated and moved on from the wars, but also in how it continues to portray them.

The second day in Hue we travelled to the Demilitarized Zone or the DMZ. This area is along the 113th parallel, which served as the dividing point between North and South Vietnam. We had a guide and a driver who took us through the area and explained the main areas of interest. The guide was a boy during the war and he and his family lived in a village near the area we were exploring (we actually went through his village at the end of the tour). They were displaced twice during the war and he lived for some time in a resettlement area set up by the American forces. He has been guiding tours of the DMZ for almost 30 years, and had several interesting stories about veterans who had returned to the area and used him as a guide. They were able to explore different perspectives and memories of the past, and hearing about those additional experiences added to the day’s history lesson. I have an absolutely horrible memory for dates and specific historical details so the below descriptions are buffeted by Wikipedia and Jaredpedia.

An entrance gate replica in the Imperial Citadel
The gardens and one of the partially restored buildings from the palace grounds
The ancient tomb grounds often consist of at least three different buildings connected by pathways and either gardens or a pond flanking each side. Often, you cannot even visit the building that serves as the actual tomb.
Jared taking his turn guarding the tomb
You can see some of the buildings from the old palace in ruins in the background 

The Rockpile. A strategic hill for American observations of the VC.

This bridge goes over where the North Vietnamese Army plotted out the Ho Chi Minh trail and violated the Geneva Accords which established the DMZ.
This is at Khe Sanh air base which was completely destroyed by American forces when they abandoned the site. These are restored bunkers.
A B52 airplane at Khe Sanh.
This is in the Vinh Moc tunnels which were built to allow for continuous occupation of the territory. It was basically a fully functioning village underground. There were separate living spaces for each family and even a little room used as a hospital. There were three births in the tunnels. It was impressive and also hard to imagine people living down there.

Hue was a delightful city with a nice little tourist area that even had an Indian food restaurant… I might have made Jared go there… BUT we couldn’t stay and eat Indian food forever. We left the day after our DMZ tour and took a short (but scenic) train to DaNang and then a taxi to Hoi An- one of the most popular tourist cities in Vietnam.