11 March, 2017

Bike Trip to Cam Kim Island

Location: Hoi An, Vietnam

Just after we arrived in Hoi An we saw an ad for a free bike tour of Cam Kim, the island next to ours. Julie tried to call, email, and contact them through their website to no avail. We decided they must have closed down - so sad, since, (as you know) we are always interested in anything cheap or free.

Then, just last week Julie was walking to the market one morning and saw the Cam Kim ferry full of bikes just leaving the dock. The free bike tour had advertised taking the ferry to Cam Kim. Hmmm. Being quick witted she ran over  to the water's edge and shouted “Are you the free bike tour?”. “Yes!” was the reply. The ferry was rapidly getting further from the dock so Julie shouted “I've been trying to get hold of you for a tour and nobody has replied!”

“You need to go to our office – the address is on the website” they shouted back.

We were all so excited to get this news so that day Julie walked up to the office and booked the tour for us all for the following Saturday.

We've walked and taken bikes over to Cam Kim, an island just south of our An Hoi Island, a few times since we've been here. It's connected to An Hoi by a narrow, new (completed just last year) bridge that's only for bicycles and motor bikes We love it there – it's very agricultural, quiet and laid back, and there's very little of the high-powered tourist industry we see daily here in Hoi An.

The tour is offered by an organization that supports local families and encourages sustainable tourism on Cam Kim Island. The guides are young Vietnamese college students who use the tours as an opportunity to hone their English language skills.

We rented bikes, got up early and rode out to the tour office in Hoi An. There were several groups and the five of us (Steve & Marg, Julie's brother Tony, and us) lucked out with our own tour. Our guide Thao (pronounced “tao”) was sweet, friendly, funny, and spoke very good English. She led us through Hoi An old town on a somewhat harrowing ride through the morning market traffic to the ferry dock where we boarded.
This ferry boat was a piece of work. It was old, tired, and wooden, and had one of those old “ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk” single cylinder diesel engines. The gear shift was a bent piece of pipe sticking up through the deck, and the throttle was a knotted string leading up through the deck. The captain wrapped the string around his finger and pulled it to increase speed and released it to slow down. The engine speed fluctuated the whole way over to Cam Kim. All-in-all a rather “Rube Goldberg” but obviously effective arrangement. At one point he kicked off his sandal and grabbed the knotted string between his toes so he could keep the speed up while he stepped forward to reach something on the cabin roof.

The tour lasted 4 hours and we definitely got our money's worth :)

 Our first stop was a boat building operation. These wooden boats are well made and very sturdy. Built completely with wood and fastened with wooden dowels, each one is a work of art. We were impressed with their lines, their workmanship, and they all appeared to be very seaworthy. Note the varying sizes from small to large sea going fishing boats. 
All the fasteners are wooden pegs like this

This is a dragon lion called a unicorn by the Vietnamese
 At our next stop we learned that there are several kinds of pagodas. This one was for all members of one family and was established in the late 1800s. We were shown the family tree going back 12 generations and got a lot of insight into the family's traditions, religious beliefs, and ancestor worship. By the time we were done it was around 10 am and starting to get really hot – near 90% humidity at 85 F (that's 30 C). Whew!
 After a short ride we stopped at a house where an old woman and her daughter were weaving grass mats. We learned that these are used by Vietnamese people instead of mattresses. We were told that they sell for 100,000 dong ( $4.50) Our guide told us she could NOT sleep on anything but a grass mat – a mattress was too soft. Now we know why all the hotels, homestays, and rentals over here have really, really firm mattresses! We got to try our hands at weaving and drink some tea, and even feed their cows in a pen outside the house. A very generous and friendly family.

This was followed by a stop at a house where another family was making rice paper for noodles. We had already seen this process in Mekong but that had been a more mechanized process, this was all done by hand, a true cottage industry. We got to spread the rice batter over a tightly stretched silk membrane where it is steamed for about a minute. Two or three more layers are added until it is thick enough to make noodles. Remove it from the steam, lay it out, let it cool, then slice it into noodles with a knife (or use a noodle cutting machine). It is an interesting, time consuming, and hot process. They also offered us a cup of iced tea and some yummy noodle snacks. We met the whole family, husband, wife, tiny son and even the 90 year old grandma how wonderful.

Can you tell which one is Julie?

 The last stop was a wood shop where all manner of intricate carved wooden souvenirs were made. The artist won third place in a national competition
for an intricate and beautiful piece that contained 1,000 carved dragons, this piece was on display at the shop.

Thao was a great guide and we learned a lot about Vietnamese life in general as well as how each of these families produced an integral and necessary product for use by the local society.
Marg, Tony & Steve sitting on the foredeck of the ferry
The free tour turned out to be not exactly free - we each had to pay 20,000 dong for the round trip on the ferry and a 30,000 dong donation each (total of about $2.25 US) – however, we got to hand a portion of this to each family as we visited them, so we know for sure where it went. Every place we stopped on the trip was to an off the beaten path home or business we doubt we'd have found on our own, no signs advertising them as a business, so we were more than happy with the trip and came back hot, sweaty and tired, but happy and full of lots and lots of new knowledge.

Kudos to Hoi An Free Tours and Thao – great job and thanks!!

Such a great job, in fact, that we actually just did this tour a second time with another visitor, Tony's girlfriend. We got another tour guide named Ai (pronounced 'Aye'), who was also great. And she gave us a slightly different dialog so we learned even more about the island and businesses we visited.

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. 

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 

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!

03 March, 2017


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.

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.