10 March, 2017

International Women's Day


Location: Hoi An, Vietnam

We've learned a lot of things while we've been here in Vietnam.  But one of the best things we've learned so far is that there's nothing quite like partying with a bunch of tipsy Vietnamese women!

We were invited to another street party a few days ago. This one was in celebration of International Women's Day, honoring the women on our block who work so hard every day. All these women spend their days sweeping, cooking, cleaning, working to make money, raising the kids, and doing everything else they can to improve the lives of their families from dawn to dark. Women who work so hard also, it would seem, like to party hard, too!

The black gate across the street is our house
Literally fanning the fire
 
We arrived early and they sat us down to watch their preparations. Mark helped setting up the tables and putting out stools. Julie helped arrange lettuce on a plate, turned her back, and, when she wasn't looking they rearranged it to their satisfaction. Got an “A” for effort, though. Everyone really seemed to appreciate our efforts to help, and not just sit around being waited on, and they were especially happy that we wanted to be there to share in their celebration.

Another grill in the alley

We were treated to some more really, really good food - and lots of it. They kept refilling our plates – and our glasses! 


The beer delivery truck


We had octopus, spring rolls and sliced sausage, barbecued pork with sesame seeds, and grilled baby squid, among other delicacies. And we had lots of beer.




“Mot (pronounced “moe”), Hai, Ba, YO!” means “one, two, three, YO”. We think “yo” must mean “drain your glass”. We didn't understand this at first. We just thought it meant “cheers”, so we'd toast and take a sip. Not good enough, apparently. After the first time, the lady doing the toast rattled her now-empty glass against Mark's. He took another sip. She rattled it again. He finally twigged to the fact that we were supposed to empty our glasses and emptied his. She looked on approvingly and then rattled Julie's glass until she drained hers, too. Next time we all did it correctly and no additional rattling was required. 

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Empty beer bottles under the table half way through the party

Luckily, the people in our neighborhood drink warm beer over ice in small glasses. So we came up with the brilliant idea that, if our glasses were full of ice, there wasn't a lot of room for beer. This way, you don't have to drink so much beer for each toast, and you can impress everyone with your ability to hold your beer. It's just as well that we figured this out early, as, over the course of the evening many ladies made the trip to our table for a glass-draining toast, several of them more than once!


Like our last street party, there was a lot of Karaoke. Unlike the last one, however, these women were celebrating being women. We wished we could have understood what they were singing. At one point, a lady who had lost most of her right leg (she even had a carved wooden foot complete with toes) was singing and another lady dressed up in a conical hat, scrunched down like a really old woman and hobbled out on stage with a cane. It must have been appropriate to what was being sung at the time, because everyone totally cracked up. Several ladies started banging the stainless steel table top with sticks to beat out a rhythm. It was very funny and we really enjoyed being 
included. 

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Julie's new friend ...

... and her husband, Mark's new friend
We are not sure, however, why Julie's brother Tony who is visiting and Mark were invited. There were only 2 or 3 other men there and all the rest, probably about 35, were women. But that didn't seem to phase anyone. By the end of the night there were several cases of empty beer bottles - proof that a good time was had by all.

Great food, great frivolity, great friendship, despite our great language barrier. And, like so many other good parties, this one ended with a conga line!

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03 March, 2017

Hue


Location: Hue, Vietnam

For Carter's last three days with us, we booked a trip to Hue (pronounced "hoo-ay" -ish), 80 miles north of Hoi An, for three days and two nights.  Hue was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors and the nation's capital from 1802–1945. 


We took the bus up, not realizing it was a 'sleeping' bus which, instead of seats has recliners. They are stacked 2 high and there are 3 rows down the length of the bus allowing people to sleep or sit up during long journeys. The back packers love them as they can travel overnight and save on a nights lodging. This sounds like a great idea but, unfortunately, they are designed for Vietnamese size passengers – not us!! Julie could barely fit in them her toes were smushed up against the front and Mark....well there was just no way! Luckily, right at the back was a 3 wide seat and he managed to fit in there diagonally. He was also helped by the fact that it was only a 3 hour trip.


There were lots of monks visiting Tu Duc, taking selfies :)

The afternoon we arrived we booked a private car to tour three Nguyen dynasty tombs. Tu Duc, Khai Din and Minh Mang.

The first 2 were similar styles but we thoroughly enjoyed them all, especially the prolific and intricate mosaics at the Khai Din tomb.



Stone guardians at Khai Din


The mosaics at Khai Din were spectacular



While we were at the Tu Duc tomb, we met an architect, who along with an artist and some workmen was renovating mosaics. He was very friendly and talked with us for a while, showing us their work on some in-progress and recently completed mosaic art.



Next day we went to the Citadel, a walled and moated city that was started in 1362 by the Nguyen dynasty, and took 203 years to complete. Within the citadel is the walled Ancient City and the innermost enclosure is the walled Purple Forbidden City in which only the Imperial family was allowed. We hired a guide for an hour to explain the history and what we were seeing, thank goodness. We then spent a few additional hours just wandering around and taking it all in. The exterior wall is 11km long! Not too many pictures this day as it was drizzling during most of our time there.



Very ornate gutter spout


We took a boat up the river to the Thien Mu pagoda on our last day. The boat was ornate and the family that owned it lived on it and moved all their bed rolls and cooking equipment out of the way to make room for tourists. We had the boat to ourselves (other than the crew) and it was a lovely trip.




While there we found a garden used by the monks that contained many different songbirds in cages. Lovely music in a nice, quiet place.

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No idea what this plant is

Our boat waited for us as we walked around the pagoda


Landing back at Hue

We have seen a lot of old buildings now, but each one is interesting and slightly different. Of course we were offered souvenirs and trinkets to buy on the way up and back. The people here have so little we really don't mind giving them a little extra income.

We took the bus home and Mark was able to reserve the back seat in advance, thank goodness, because the bus was full and he was glad to have a full king sized bed to stretch out in.

27 February, 2017

Mekong Delta


Location: Saigon, Vietnam



A few weeks ago we booked a 3-day-2-night tour of the Mekong Delta. Five days ago we flew down to Ho Chi Minh City, a.k.a. Saigon, and booked a hotel for the night before and the night after our trip.



Saigon traffic is amazing. In this city of over 9 million people, there are over 7 million motorbikes. At a red light they all jam in and around any cars and trucks that happen to also be stopped, creating this immense blob. Then, about 5-10 seconds before the light changes, people start running the light and the blob gradually sorts itself out into it's disparate parts and traffic begins moving again.  Possession of the road seems to be 9/10ths of the law – if you can jam the front third or so of your vehicle in front of another, you win. There are over 14,000 traffic fatalities in Vietnam every year, most of them being motorbikers.



Crossing the street on foot is an exercise in patience, terror and trust. There are seldom any breaks in the traffic, so what you do is find a break nearest you and start out. Make slow, steady progress and the traffic somehow flows around you.  Don't falter or stop – everyone judges their speed and route based on everyone else's progress, and if you stop, you're more likely to get hit or cause an accident. It takes practice, patience, trust, and a certain amount of courage to make it safely across. Luckily, we've had almost two months of crossing streets in Hoi An, so we weren't as intimidated as some other tourists we saw.






Okay, back to our trip.
Our hotel told us this was the best authentic Pho in Saigon.  We were the only non-Vietnamese in the place.  Delicious



We really had a great time. Planned, guided excursions are not really our style but we don't think we could have seen all that we did if we'd traveled independently and certainly could not have done it in only 3 days.


Our first stop was Vinh Trang pagoda, with it's giant Buddha, then on to Ben Tre for a boat ride which included a bee farm and tasting of all the yummy things you can make with honey. A fruit plantation with a lovely flower garden, followed by an amazing lunch at an orchard including a spectacular upright smoked fish that we all flaked away from and ate. We continued on the boat and stopped to be treated to a sampan ride down a small coconut tree lined river. 




After a full day of water based activities we were bused to Can Tho where we spent the night in a lovely hotel and enjoyed a hot pot dinner.



On day 2 we started early again as we were going to the floating market on the Song Hau river. 



Smaller boats would drive around to the distributors and buy what they wanted then they'd zoom around the river hawking their wares to the tourist boats and anyone else who was out shopping.


There were even floating cafe boats in case you got hungry while shopping. 

This vendor has a wide array of produce for sale


We were surprised to see hundreds of boats anchored in the river, some were distributors and had bamboo poles sticking up with a piece of whatever fruits and vegetables they carry tied to the pole so everyone could see what merchandise was available.

Do you think this prop shaft is long enough?

An interesting way of rowing with these very narrow oars


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Julie on a Monkey Bridge




Drying rice paper

Our boat dropped us at a rice noodle factory where Julie got to feed in and catch the noodles from the noodle cutting machine.

Pour the rice mixture on a fine silk cover over boiling water

Spread it out and let sit covered for maybe a minute

Roll onto bamboo utensil then off for drying. Then feed in batches through noodle slicer

Menu, we didn't try the rat, it may look expensive but $1 = 22,000 dong


This was followed by what, for many of us, was the highlight of the trip. Tra Su National Forest is a bit like the Everglades. We were taken by boat through the lotus and duckweed covered watery forest and were treated to lots of amazing birds.
Water buffalo


Our guide didn't have a hat so she picked a lotus leaf as we passed and used it, instead.

See the bird

Our boat driver through the swamp, he was great at pointing out all of the birds.


The day ended with a ride to another hotel in Chau Doc near the Cambodian border, another wonderful dinner, and another wonderful, soft bed.

Bikes are used to transport EVERYTHING here

On our third day we were taken out in yet another boat to see another floating market, on the Bassac River, a tributary of the Mekong. We also stopped to see a floating house fish farming operation, visited a Muslim village where we watched some speedy weaving and Julie bought an elephant purse – elephants woven in, of course. 

Indigenous Champa weaver


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The day ended with a long bus ride back to Ho Chi Minh City where we spent the night before returning to Hoi An the following evening.


Beautiful flowers in Saigon





Motor bike parking in Saigon

Skateboarders are worldwide

A pagoda in Saigon famous for it's porcelain murals

What a varied, interesting, and fun time we had! A bit more “touristy” than usual for us, but a great experience, nonetheless.