Upon arrival at the Hanoi airport, I got some Vietnam Dong from the ATM machine and then following the "Lonely Planet Vietnam Guide" I went past the taxi stand to where the #7 local bus was parked and took it downtown. At the second stop, the bus filled to overflowing from the many workers who were leaving the huge clothing and electronics factories that were clustered along the highway into town. I guess I was quite a sight for them as the only Westerner on board.
As we got into town, weaving traffic became the rule. It was hard to believe that I did not see any collisions among the many bicycles and motor bikes. When I was last here in 2002, the weaving traffic consisted primarily of bicycles and now it was mostly motor bikes---some with 4 people riding on them. From where the bus stopped, I took a moto taxi to the Viet Anh hotel in Hanoi's Old Quarter which is the one I had reserved. Unfortunately because of the APEC Conference, they had overbooked this hotel so they sent me to nearby hotel which was very comfortable.
When I booked a 6 day tour to Halong Bay, with the receptionist, Buo Anh, began asking me where else I planned to visit while in Vietnam. When I told her I was just going to travel south to Ho Chi Minh City to see the Room to Read projects there and then fly back to Bangkok, she quickly worked up some bus and train plans as well as possible inexpensive hotels to stay at in Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City. She was so smooth that I agreed to have her book these plans which didn't cost me any more than if I had done it myself. Plus it saved me from going the the train and bus stations to book the travel. She used the hotels that I had identified in the LP guide book. How easy was that.
These vendors were doing a brisk business selling water and other treats to the tourists.
After that we took a boat ride along the Perfume River followed by lunch. Most of my fellow Vietnamese tourists wanted to have their picture taken with me and I accommodated them.
I guess Westerners do not do this trip very often from the looks I got.
On the 14th, I headed out by minibus from my hotel at 7am and arrived at Halong Bay about noon among hundreds of junks moored.
We boarded our junk and had a relaxing cruise through some of the most beautiful islands and karsts before we docked at Cat Island.
Some enterprising vendors visit the junks with their wares.
Half the people got off our boat and then we cruised around a bit more before anchoring in a protected bay with other junks. I had a private room with bathroom and A/C with richly wood paneled walls.
I took a swim in the warm, blue-blue ocean waters before a hot shower aboard. We then had a dinner of fish, calamari, and vegetables. I had some interesting travelers aboard this junk. Mark, from England, was a bricklayer back home and worked just 6 months and then returned to travel the other 6 months of the year. Mike, from New Zealand, was a Park ranger whose job was to cull domestic animals---goats, pigs, and dogs--- from the New Zealand National Parks. Other travelers were from Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Malaysia, France, Australia and Singapore. I was the only American.
The couple from Australia were actually Vietnamese boat people who floated their way to Australia and ended up swimming to shore. He went on to become an anesthesiologist who had raised four children. He said that he had first returned about 4 years ago, and he was shaking and his knees were weak as he got off the airplane at Ho Chi Minh City. He said he felt the same way this time when he flew into Hanoi.
Morning of the 15th, we returned to Cat Island where we boarded a minibus and took a curvy road to a place where we hiked to the top of a 55 foot looout tower. Everybody cheered the Vietnam vet who made it to the top with his artificial leg, and cheered him again as he got to the top.
On the way back to the pier, we stopped at a Viet Cong army hospital that was located in a cave. The hospital guide told us he had served there during the "American War " as our Vietnam War is called over here. He then broke into a patriotic song before showing us the rest of the hospital which was used just for officers. I can't imagine what the conditions were for the enlisted were like if this was what conditions were like for officers.
For the second night, we would be at the Cat Ba Island Sea and Sand Hotel and dinner of fish, calamari with sautéed vegetables. I rented a motor bike to ride around this small island through the island gap to the beach on the other side of the island.
On the 16th we returned to the junk and cruised to a floating village where we boarded small boats to explore the limestone caves that dotted the limestone karsts surrounding this floating village.
We returned to Hanoi and again fought our way through the weaving traffic. While in Hanoi, I again saw the water puppet show, and stopped for some cheap street beer.
Just 10 cents---2,000 Vietnamese Dong--for a cold beer.
On the 17th I explored Tam Coc which was very picturesque with jagged rocks rising from the rice paddies. We took another boat ride to explore three limestone caves under high rocky peaks. Again I met some interesting travelers. Michael who was from Germany worked as a crisis negotiator with the UN and recently had worked in Afghanistan trying to work with the government and the Taliban. With the Taliban he maintained that he had negotiated with four factions of Taliban to abandon suicide bombing as it violated the Koran and urged them to get certified as a political party to gain protection from the military. Most difficult he said. He also indicated that the drug trade had increased significantly since the US came into Afghanistan and believed that the drug trade was being condoned by the military. Miguel was an ER Doctor from Spain who had spent the past 3 months in India at a meditation retreat. He said he had to leave there or he was afraid that he would "lose" himself in meditation.
A funeral procession passed us throwing along the pathway counterfeit US $50 and $100 bills---lucky money as a way to assuage the spirits and pay the way into the other world.
That evening, I took a shared taxi to the Hanoi train station where I picked up and paid for my night train reservations to Hue. The cost was $30. I got a good sleep on the train.
When the train arrived on the 18th in Hue, I was pleased to see that a Phui An Hotel representative was holding up a sign with my name on it. He then gave me a ride to the hotel. After checking in and having lunch, I started the City Tour by A/C bus and Dragon Boat. While on this tour, the representative worked on getting my glasses repaired.
This half day tour took us to the Minh Mang, Thai Dinh, Dai Noi, and Tu Duc Tombs and monuments. We then took a Dragon Boat across the Perfume River to the Thien Mu pagoda.
On the 19th, I toured the Hue Citadel which was a real battle place during the Vietnam War with lots of bullet marks along the walls of this ancient place.
Check out the ordnance hole made during the Vietnam War.
This was the first of many newly wed photo shoots I would encounter at the various tourist sites throughout Vietnam.
I tried to roll incense with the same success I had with weaving.
It was then on to nearby Hoi An by bus where at dusk I arrived at the Thanh Bin Hotel that cost $14 for an A/C room with bathroom and hot shower with breakfast. I really enjoyed walking about this waterfront town that has a high concentration of craftsmen, artists and tailors. The food in the restaurants was an excellent blend of French and Vietnamese cuisine.
Japanese Bridge in Hoi An
Hoi An Harbor Market
Dog delicacy anyone?
On the 20th, I caught a taxi($10) to Danang where I boarded a noon train to Nha Trang for a cost of $30 for a 10 hour ride. Once at the Nha Trang train station, I caught a mototaxi to the Blue Star Hotel that just cost a $1. The Blue Star Hotel was the third hotel that the Hanoi agent had reserved for me and it was the best so far. It was clean, comfortable, furniture was elegant and I had A/C, TV, and hot shower in the private bathroom with a peekaboo view of the ocean at just $12 per night including breakfast.
After a day of relaxing on a beach lounge chair and dips into the ocean, I booked a 4 island day tour. It turned out to be a real party boat with lots of food and booze along with great snorkeling. The group I was with included Russians, Swedes, Germans, Hollanders and the other half were Vietnamese tourists with two couples who were honeymooners.
On the 23rd, I took mototaxis to the White pagoda and the Pagan Hindu temple and then returned to my hotel for some final beach time before boarding the night train for Ho Chi Minh City---Saigon on the train ticket--$11.
Here in the HCMC train station as I arrived on the 24th, the mototaxi drivers were all wearing blue uniforms. The cost for a ride to the hotel started at 50,000 Dong and I gradually negotiated the price down to 25,000--just over $1. The Lonely Planet guide said the price should be just 10,000 Dong---O' so cheap. A $1 was a good fare for such a long ride to the Ha Vy Hotel which cost $12 including a continental breakfast. Even though it was just 6 am, they let me in my room to freshen up before my meeting with the Vietnam Room to Read staff and other donors at the nearby New World Hotel at 9am.
On the way to the meeting I passed several groups of people doing their morning Tai Chi exercises with some Vietnamese music in the park by the New World Hotel.
Our group consisted of two other donors Joanne from Hong Kong and Chee Kim from Singapore. Room to Read officials included, Matt from HQ, San Francisco, and Tam, Vietnam IT Program Officer. We headed out town in a minivan which shortly ended up driving on dirt roads and over several rickety bridges before we came to a ferryboat landing. We walked on the bridge and then after crossing the Mekong by ferryboat, we walked a short distance to the school.
As we entered through two columns of cheering children we headed to the 2nd floor where we found the Room to Read library and Computer lab that were also filled with children.
The principal told us all of the valuable school materials were on the 2nd floor because they experienced frequent floods below where the water came 3 feet up the 1st floor walls. He joked that for the kids to go to school here, they had to know how to swim.
After touring some of the classrooms, the principal and staff invited us to have some lunch of fish soup with rice noodles topped off at the end with a swig of whiskey.
I spent the following day checking out many of the tourist sights including the Public Market, Reunification Palace, War Remnants Building, Rex Hotel, Central Post Office, Opera House, and the Old US Embassy----last exit from the Vietnam War.
Reunification Palace and the Viet Cong tank that captured the Palace.
It must have been the marriage season with all of these brides and grooms that made for some beautiful poses around the Reunification Palace grounds.
On the 26th, I took off for the 4 day Delta Adventure Tour at
a cost of $50 which involved a boat ride on the Mekong to the floating markets where they sold food, vegetables, fruit and goods near Cai Be. We rode bicycles on the narrow village trails as well as crossed some "monkey bridges". We went to a factory where they made coconut candy, honey whiskey, and rice puffed candy. We spent the night in Can Tho city and had a fish dinner at the waterfront restaurant.
We went to the second floating market called Cai Rang where we wended our way through hundreds of vessels selling lots of fruits. Each boat had a pole that posted the kinds of fruits and vegetables it was selling.
On land we visited a rice husking mill and a rice wrap and noodle making factory. We then boarded a minibus that took us to a ceramic factory. At night we stayed at a hotel in Chan Doc.
In the morning, we climbed up Sam Mountain to the Cavern Pagoda where we could see all the way to the Cambodian border.
We then made our way first to more floating villages and fish farms to Cham village populated by Islamic minority people.
There, we visited the Cham weavers and the local mosque.
I ended up the day with a homestay with the Loc family on Tiger Island.
I am trying out my cot before dinner and visits from the nearby curious children.
Well protected from the mosquitos with this netting.
They did not speak English, however, some neighborhood kids did and they entertained me throughout the evening.
Whenever there is picture taking, many love to flash the peace signs.
The shower there consisted of a 50 gallon water barrel with a dipping pan to pour water over me. The toilet was a squatter toilet. An interesting experience. Vanh, my guide, picked me up after a dinner of fish soup with turnips and okra along with some other unidentifiable vegetables. We stopped at a bunch of beer bars with plastic chorded lawn chairs. The beer girls that served us turned out to be 16-17 year olds. Vanh said that girls like this married early and worked here to met guys who come over from the big city of Long Xungen.
I returned to the Locs where more local kids made me the object of their attention with hackysack games and singing some songs.
I did not need an alarm clock in the morning since the many roosters crowing did that. The I heard some patriotic song being broadcast on loudspeakers followed by a lot of talking---probably the local commissar urging people to grow more rice. The neighbor, who was wearing the blue and red dress last night, is wear a school uniform that is a Ao Dai---a fancy pants suit--that is the traditional Vietnamese dress as she and her friends head to school just at daybreak.
In the morning on the 30th I took the noon Nok Air flight back to Bangkok
The total Vietnam trip cost was $1,117 for a daily cost of $62. The travel and tour costs were $754 with the round trip flight from Bangkok to Vietnam cost $488, lodging costs were $212 for a daily average of $14 per night, and the food costs were $151 or $8 per day.