Joined February 2018 Message
  • Day57

    Food Tour, Saigon Style

    April 13, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ 🌙 29 °C

    For the first time in quite a while, we slept late and woke with no definite plans for the day. OK, not totally true, if you count the evening hours as part of the day . . . Our only plan for the day was to take an evening food tour, so we decided to relax during the day, wandering around the city, doing some shopping and sitting at the pool.

    By the time we left the hotel at 10 am, it was already over 90 degrees, and extremely humid. Our first stop was one of the tourist markets, but I thought that poor Arie was going to melt in the heat. So, we pressed onwards, popping into this and that shop to pick up a few treats to bring home. As we walked through the city, I noticed that it is extremely green — there are lots of trees, there is vegetation growing on the mediums on the streets, and there are many big parks. It’s really pretty. I also noticed that there are a surprising number of very, very high end stores — Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Brooks Brothers, you name it. These stores are in fancy hotels, or high end malls. To get a break from the heat, and out of curiosity, we walked into a mall and a Coach store. I noticed two things — everyone inside was a westerner and the price of items was super high. A Coach handbag that costs $400 in the US costs $800 here. When I later asked someone about the price differential, I was told that all brand-name goods sold in Vietnam have a really high tax placed on them, which typically doubles the price of items. It is clear that these items are not being sold to your average Vietnamese woman, but sold to a wholly different market.

    As we strolled, I noticed that we were passing a chocolate store that I’d read about — Maison Malou. Time for a snack. Finally, after 5 weeks in SEA, we had found truly delicious chocolate. We popped into the shop and enjoyed some chocolates, and a egg chocolate (like egg coffee, but with hot chocolate instead of coffee), while we watched some chocolates being made. I was surprised to see that everything was done by hand, including the wrapping of the individual bars of chocolate.

    We also visited the Fine Arts Museum of Saigon. The collection was a complete mishmash of items, with modern items in galleries labeled “contemporary art before 1975.” My favorite piece was a still life with rambutans — not something I think that I’m likely to see again. While the art work was not particularly interesting, the building itself was fantastic. I believe that the building was originally a large mansion, built in the late 19th Century. It is in terrible shape — paint peeling off the walls, water damage on the ceiling, and no air conditioning. But, in its heyday, the mansion must have been gorgeous.

    In the evening, we embarked on a big adventure — a food tour on the back of motor scooters. When we were planning our trip to SEA, I read all about how many motor scooters there were, and how you could rent one for a few days. I casually mentioned this possibility to Arie, and he looked at me as if I had totally lost my mind. So, I crossed renting scooters off our “to do list.” But, as we traveled through Vietnam and Cambodia, and I watched all of the people on scooters — including young children sitting in their parents’ laps — I continued to yearn for the experience of zipping around on a scooter. It looked really fun, albeit a teeny bit dangerous. So, when I discovered that the most common way to take a tour in Saigon was on the back of a scooter, I renewed my pitch to Arie . . .what if we went on a scooter tour? Nope, he was still not interested. But then I found a new option — a food tour on the back of a scooter. Somehow I managed to convince him that it would be fun, so we signed up. Then, on our next to last day on the boat, I invited John and Debbie to join us, and they made reservations, too.

    We were picked up from our hotel at 5:15, by two women on scooters — Une and Binh. We introduced ourselves, were given some basic instructions about how to safely ride a scooter, handed a helmet, and told to hop on the back. I was told to ride with Une for the evening, and Arie was assigned to ride with Binh. I must admit, as we rode to the first restaurant, I was completely terrified that I would fall off. This seemed increasingly likely as the scooter zipped in and out of traffic, with cars coming so very close to us. I clung to Une (something that Arie was not allowed to do, as the men were told that it was improper to touch the female drivers, so the men had to hold onto the back of their seats). And, when we turned left, I was certain that we would drive right into oncoming traffic. In the course of the evening (and with a beer or two), I become considerably more relaxed and felt more comfortable riding the scooter — so much so that I was eventually able to stop holding onto Une, and simply hold the back of the seat. (But, I must confess,that I did not have the courage to ride without holding on, which is the norm in the city.) By the end of the evening I found it thrilling to speed through the streets on the back of the scooter. What fun.

    As we rode through the streets, I also enjoyed chatting with Une. She told me that she was 24, and graduated from university with a degree in accounting. She found that she did not enjoy accounting, so is now working as a guide full time. Her family is from China, but she is the fourth generation to live in Vietnam. She speaks Cantonese, in addition to Vietnamese and English. She lives with her mother and 12 year old brother; her parents are divorced, which is apparently relatively common in the cities, but quite rare in the countryside. She told me about her travels to Thailand and Cambodia, and that her mother has discouraged her from traveling to Hanoi saying that there is nothing of interest to see there. She also told me that life in Saigon is fun for young people, as there is much to do. But, she also told me that things are expensive for most Vietnamese people.

    During the course of the food tour, we got to see various districts around the City, which differ dramatically. With the exception of driving to the Cu Chi tunnels, we had spent both days in District 1, which is the center of downtown. It is both western and modern, and is the part of Saigon that most tourists see. On our tour, we also visited District 5, which is the heart of Chinatown, and is filed with wet markets, restaurants serving Chinese food, and stores with Chinese decorations. We criss-crossed the River, driving in scooter-only lanes. We also visited District 7, which is one of the most recently developed areas of the city, and one of the few districts which has underground wiring. District 7 is quite affluent, and is mostly occupied by expats It was shockingly quiet as we drove through. Seeing so many parts of the city was great fun.

    And, of course, there was the food. As the fellow in charge of the tour told us, the organizers wanted to make sure that people get to eat food that is eaten by average Vietnamese, and not just bahn mi and spring rolls. Our first stop was Bun Bao Hue — a bone broth soup with vegetables, noodles and meat. Doug had suggested that we eat this when we were in Hue, but we hadn’t had a chance. It was delicious, but being an old-hand at food tours, I knew not to gobble down the entire bowl. Next, we stopped at a huge outdoor restaurant, where each table had a small grill. As we sat with our pals John and Debbie, our scooter drivers did double-duty as cooks, and grilled goat, beef, and shrimp for us. We ate it with various sauces, and washed it down with beer. We also played a drinking game involving moving peanuts from a bowl to a bottle — what great fun. Our last stop was a seafood restaurant, in which we ate our way through a delicious spread of crabs, scallops and other tasty treats. After our stomaches were filled, we hopped back on the bikes and made our way back to the hotel.

    I must say, I loved the adventure and believe that it was the perfect way to spend our last night in Vietnam.
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    Karen perry

    Ok this picture has to be framed and put somewhere in your offices when that Monday morning glum hits! Fantastic pic of you both❤️


    What a day!


    Didn't like accounting?? Imagine that!

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  • Day57

    Exploring Saigon

    April 13, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 33 °C

    We left the boat at 8 am, and headed for our hotel. After checking in and dropping off our bags, we met our guide for a one day tour in Saigon/HCMC. (We’ve noticed that young people refer to the city by its official name — HCMC. But, people over 40 seem to use the older name, Saigon.)

    Our guide for the day was Jenny (or at least that is the name she gave us, although her name badge said Thranh). She grew up in the Mekong Delta, where she was raised by her grandparents, as her parents live on a boat that is used for transporting products. (She made it quite clear that she is much closer to her grandparents, than her parents, and that it is quite common for grandparents to raise children whose parents work/live on the water.) She moved to HCMC to attend university. She rents a room, which she now shares with her brother (who also came to the city to attend university). The room has a bathroom, and a hot plate, and is approximately 150 square feet. Her monthly rent is $200. Jenny works full-time as a guide, and tries to work as many days as possible during the high season as it is hard to get work during the low season (which is from May through November). During the low season, she studies so that she can improve her tours. This year she may learn a new language — either Korean or Spanish — as you can make more money leading tours in one of these languages, and there is a shortage of guides conversant in both languages.

    We started our day at the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are located just outside of HCMC. The tunnels were created during the French occupation, but were expanded during the American war. During the war, the tunnels were used by Vietnamese who supported the Vietcong and now have been turned into a museum and war memorial. The tunnels had two separate, but related purposes. First, the tunnels were used by the local community as a place to live while fighting was going on above ground. Second, the tunnels were used to allow the Vietcong to fight against the Americans, primarily by allowing soldiers to move around without detection. There are three levels to the tunnels — one is 6 feet under ground, the next is 12 feet under ground, and the deepest tunnel is 18 feet under ground. The tunnels are connected by a series of holes and diagonal tunnels. The tunnels run for a total of 65 kilometers, and within the system of tunnels are underground kitchens, sleeping quarters, and rooms used for medical procedures. In sum, an entire city. Despite the complexity of the system, the tunnels are extremely small. We had a chance to walk through a small portion of the tunnels. We had to duck down to get through, and were told that the tunnels were made substantially larger to allow westerners to go through them. The heat in the tunnels was simply overwhelming. I can’t imagine how people stayed in these tunnels for days on end.

    The tunnels are located in a jungle forest. As we strolled through the forest, our guide told us that every plant had been destroyed by Agent Orange during the war. Looking at the dense forest that we were walking through, it was shocking to think that it had all been laid waste. As we walked along, we also saw a maze of trenches that were used by the Vietcong for warfare. Many of the tunnels connected these trenches. And, amidst the trenches were huge variety of traps that were built and used by the Vietcong during the war. It was all frightening, and made more so by the sound of gunfire that we could hear from the nearby shooting range. I can’t imagine how horrible it was for both sides.

    After finishing up in the tunnels, we returned to the city. We started at the War Remnents Museum, which was built by the government of Vietnam in 1975, immediately after the end of the war. The museum was created as a propaganda tool, and portrays the US in the very, very worst light possible. There were galleries with photos taken by the journalists who were killed in the fighting, galleries of pictures of children born with deformities due to Agent Orange, and galleries about other atrocities committed during the war. Obviously, the museum does not present any information about the atrocities committed by the Vietnamese, and it was a war, but as an American, I felt like a monster by the time we were done. Of course, the cherry on top was the very last gallery that we walked through on the bottom floor, that had a detailed history of American opposition to the war. Beginning in the early 1960s, Americans were already vocal in their opposition. By the late 1960s, men who had fought in Vietnam had returned to the US and were actively opposing further involvement in the war. Despite the opposition, our government continued this pointless war. Such a tragedy.

    Our last major stop of the day was the Reunification Palace, which was both living quarters and governmental offices from the end of the French occupation, through the end of the Vietnam war. The current building was constructed after an earlier palace was destroyed during a bombing at the end of the French occupation. The Vietnamese government created this fantastic modern structure which is composed of huge, impressive rooms, that are both decorated in a contemporary style, with nods to Asian traditions in the art on the walls and the color schemes (red and yellow are very prominent). The building is quite beautiful.

    We finally made it back to the hotel, tired and hot, but excited to spend a few more days exploring the City.

    After cooling off a bit, we decided to take a walk to get a banh mi sandwich for dinner. As we strolled, we were struck by the ways in which Saigon and Hanoi differed. Saigon is so much more modern and clean that Hanoi, as well as considerably more western — both in dress, in the style of clothing that people are wearing, and in the way that life is conducted (life seems to be conducted on the sidewalk in Hanoi, with people, food and scooters forcing you to walk in the gutter). Of course, my perception is undoubtedly affected by the fact that Hanoi was our very first stop in Southeast Asia, and I was totally unaccustomed to the pace of life, as well as the sights and sounds of Vietnam. It would be interesting to go back to Hanoi now, and see whether it feels as frenetic as it felt a mere five weeks ago, when we began this part our adventure.
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    Hope Ratner



    amazing story. What a comparison. What a difference one generation can make. Dorit



  • Day56

    Saigon, Here We Come

    April 12, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ☀️ 35 °C

    After leaving Ben Tre, our boat headed straight for Saigon — aka Ho Chi Minh City — Vietnam’s largest city. Our tour guide, Phiem, had told us that we should gather on the front deck to watch the scene as we passed from the Mekong into the Saigon River. I wasn’t exactly sure what we were supposed to see, but I proceeded to the deck.

    For the past week, as we had cruised along the Mekong, we had seen lots of houses built on the river banks, small to mid-sized vessels, and fish farms. As we headed into the Saigon River, it was as if we had entered a watery highway — there was traffic on the river, and many of the vessels were substantial container ships! The number of vessels that we saw astonishing. As we watched the passing parade, we noticed that even on the large vessels, there was still laundry on the back deck, hammocks in the wheelhouse, and men squatting on the floor as they steered the wheel. Someone spotted a young child playing in a big bucket on the deck of one of the ships. And, as we smiled as the passing parade, we were met with waves and smiles.

    As the afternoon wore on, we started to see the skyline of Saigon, a big metropolitan city. Knowing that our cruise was coming to an end, we exchanged emails addresses with the pals that we had made on the trip — Gail and Dennis, a retired couple from Ottawa who now live in Mexico and travel all over the world (listening to their stories was tremendous fun, and gave me a huge appreciation for how delightful retirement can be); Paola and Steve, a couple from Australia with whom we laughed and laughed (Paola, who has lived all over the world, charmed us with her stories and Steve made us howl with laughter as he talked about biking, motorcycling and moving to meet Paola whom he only knew casually); and John and Debbi (recently retired, living in Toronto, and simply charming). What a lovely week.

    As the sun set over the bridge at the end of town, Arie and I packed our bags, and started to get ready for the very last leg of our sabbatical adventure — two days in Saigon.
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    Hope Ratner

    Such a different take since you first boarded with trepidation concerning the cruise itself and the company, :)


    Beautiful entrance

  • Day55

    Ben Tre

    April 11, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    Our last excursion of the cruise was to the island of Ben Tre, which is one of the largest islands in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Almost a million people live on the island, which is located relatively close to Saigon. Of course, we only visited the very tip of the island, and saw two very curated sites.

    Our first stop was a shop where they made coconut candy, which is a traditional sweet in Vietnam. Everything is done by hand. First, the coconuts are split, by hand. Then, the coconut meat is separated, by hand. Then the meat and coconut milk are cooked, by hand. The result is a sticky toffee, which is pulled by hand, cut by hand, and wrapped, by hand. Yep, every stage in the process is done by hand. The cost to purchase a bag of 40 pieces — $1.25 USD. Watching the process was pretty interesting.

    After we watched the candy making demonstration, we were also given a chance to taste some local spirits — coconut (meh), banana (ok) and snake whiskey (tasted like moonshine, but snake in bottle was huge). And, we were serenaded by three men playing traditional Vietnamese instruments. I can’t say that I particularly liked the music, but seeing the instruments being played was pretty cool.

    We then walked through the jungle and got onto horse carts — another new form of transportation. The carts carried us about 15 minutes up the road, where we disembarked, walked down to a canal, and got onto sampans. Although all of the sampans now have motors, each of our boats had someone rowing with a long wooden paddle, which was operated by a villager who stood up (similar to the way that a gondola is rowed). We spent about 20 minutes going through a palm forest. The ride was just beautiful — quiet, shaded, and gorgeous. But, I couldn’t help think about what it must have been like for American soldiers to move through these forests. (After we got out, I spoke with a couple of my fellow passengers — one Canadian and one Aussie — and apparently I wasn’t alone in thinking about this as we were rowed through the canal.) The jungle is incredibly dense. There are shadows everywhere. It would have been incredibly easy for someone familiar with the land to plan an ambush. It must have been totally terrifying for the soldiers. And, I can’t imagine how anyone might have thought that soldiers who were unfamiliar with the area could possibly win a sustained battle.
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    sweet ride


    interesting day. loved seeing the candy.

  • Day54

    Cu Lao Gieng

    April 10, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ☁️ 28 °C

    This afternoon we visited another Vietnamese village — Cu Lao Gieng. This village is known for making sampans, which are an essential part of life along the Mekong. Sampans, which are typically made from a few pieces of wood, are relatively small, as they are designed to carry 2-4 people, or to move items. People who live on the Delta generally own a sampan, and have it tied outside their back door, which is usually located on the river. The sampans are all hand made — the wood that is milled by hand, the boards are shaped by hand, and then the entire boat is assembled by hand. A boat usually costs about $300 USD, and lasts for about 10 years. We were told that we could ship one back to the US, but that the cost of shipping would be approximately $2000 USD (which probably still makes it quite a bit cheaper than buying a handmade wooden boat in the US)).

    From the moment that you step off the dock into the village, you know that making sampans is the local industry. Virtually every shop that you pass has a sampan that is in the process of being assembled. And, some of the shops have multiple boats being built at the same time. As you peer in to the shops, you feel like you’ve stepped back into time. Most of the techniques that are being used are identical to those that were used 100 years ago. The only nod to modernity is the presence of a few electric tools — a table saw that is set in a wooden table, a very old band saw for making boards, and a hand sander that is used in one shop. But, the boards are still shaped over a blazing fire, but a man who we were told has been doing this work for 40 years.

    At the same time as the traditional methods are being used by the boat builders, as we walked through the town we saw young men with mobile phones in hand. And, we saw flat screen televisions hanging on the walls in sparsely furnished houses. The new and the old sit side by side, which is clear metaphor for life throughout Vietnam.

    After visiting the village, we went to see the oldest Catholic Church in Vietnam. The church was built by the French in the 1880s, and protecting the Catholics was one of the reasons that the French used to justify the Indochine war. The church still remains standing today, and approximately 20% of the population of South Vietnam is Catholic. The village near the church must have a much higher percentage of Catholics, because almost every house that you look into has a picture of a white Jesus, or a statute of Virgin Mary. We spoke with a local Catholic doctor, who told us that he’d spent much of the last ten years working to cure leprosy on the island. As he talked about his work, everyone in our group looked on in wonder, as leprosy is not something that we ever hear about in our countries. Once again I was reminded that westerners, including myself, live in a very privileged little bubble.
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  • Day54

    Walking through Long Khanh A

    April 10, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    Yesterday we crossed the border into Vietnam. Today, we went on a walk through a “wet” market (which is a produce market in which live fish are sold) and went to a monastery where a goddess is worshiped. Even stepping off the boat into this small town had a different vibe than in Cambodia — more people, more motor scooters and more prosperous.

    Today we visited Long Khanh A, a small village on a tributary of the Mekong River. To get from our boat to the village, we road in a sampan. (We learned that traditional sampans are much smaller than the one we took, which was large enough to carry all of the passengers on our ship.) Our cruise company — Avalon — really prides itself on using as many means of transportation as possible. The village is on the far edge of one of the islands. The total population of the island is approximately 20,000 people, but the village that we visited in quite traditional and probably has about 1000 inhabitants. Once I again, I was struck by the differences from the villages we saw in Cambodia. In Cambodia, the houses were made of wood and straw, the roads were unpaved, and there was no running water. In this small village in Vietnam, the roads are paved with cement, the houses are made of bricks and cement and are substantially larger than those in Cambodia, and there is running water. And, as you look into the houses while you are walking around, you spy television sets in lots of the houses - although that is often the only modern item in the house.

    Long Khanh A is known for two features. First, there is a order of nuns that live in the village. This is pretty unusual, as nuns are relatively rare in Vietnam (in contrast to South Korea, which there are apparently quite a few nuns). A few of the nuns live together, full time, in a house in the center of the village. They are joined by other women from the village who are referred to as nuns, although they still have families and actually live at home. We had a chance to talk with one of the nuns, who told us that she joined so that she could meditate. We were surprised to hear that the nuns don’t really engage in teaching, although there are books that they do lend to members of the community.

    The second notable feature of the village is a scarf factory. But, to say that it is a factory suggests that it is a large operation. Not so. It has single manual loom, and about 5 electric looms. Around the village you can see the thread that is being cleaned and then dyed for use in the scarves. We were told that a single person, weaving all days, can make about 6 scarves ... tough way to make a living.

    We also had a chance to meet, and chat with, a man who had been a Vietcong soldier. I had thought (erroneously) that the term Vietcong referred to anyone who was fighting on the side of the communists/North Vietnam. Actually, the term specifically refers to those men and women in South Vietnam who were opposed to the “puppet government” that was supported by America, and were fighting on the same side as the North Vietnamese Army. The Vietcong received supplies and reinforcements from the north, primarily with with people and resources being moved along the Ho Chi Minh trail. This gentleman was trained as a medic. He not only fought during the “American” war, but was then called back to fight with the North Vietnamese soldiers who were sent to help liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. (If the Vietnamese had not intervened in the genocide in Cambodia, it is hard to say how long it would have taken to defeat the Khmer Rouge.). The former “freedom fighter” told us that he was injured in the war, and raised his shirt to show us his battle scars — a piece of shrapnel still sits near his lung. He also told us that he does not blame the Americans for the war, but blames the American government. He explained that he knows that many Americans opposed the war and that there were lots of protests, which is the reason that the US finally left Vietnam. I suspect that this is a very diplomatic explanation, but it certainly is the same thing that we’ve heard throughout our travels. Must be the Buddhist influence, as it is also pretty widely acknowledged that if the US hadn’t intervened, the war would have turned out the exact same way, but it would have taken 2 years, rather than 20, and a lot fewer people would have died.

    As we strolled through the village, people were extraordinarily friendly — waiving, saying hello, and smiling at us. One pair of sisters — ages 79 and 82 — asked our guide where we were from, and told us about themselves. And, a group of women sitting on their stoop asked our guide where he was from, as they interpreted his western dress and English skills as meaning that he was not from Vietnam, which he found quite amusing. Just goes to show, wherever you go, people are curious about each other.
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  • Day53

    Life Along the Mekong Delta

    April 9, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 32 °C

    After a week in Cambodia, we have returned to Vietnam, crossing into the country on the water.

    The Mekong is the breadbasket of Cambodia. Twenty-two percent of the population of Vietnam lives in the Delta. And, of those who live in the area, 80% rely upon the river for their livelihood, primarily as fisherman, fish farming, or growing rice in the land that runs along the side of the Delta. Moreover, Vietnam is the third largest producer of rice in the world, and more than half of that rice is grown in the area around the Delta. So, to say that the Delta is of crucial importance to the economic health of the country would be putting it mildly.

    Geographically, the Mekong Delta includes both the area along the Mekong River, the tributaries that run off the river, and more than 1000 canals that were dug over the last two hundred years to supply water to the surrounding countryside. The canal system is immense, and extremely complex. Some of the canals are small, and are used for local transportation. Other canals are wide and deep enough for navigation by commercial vessels. But all of these canals, regardless of size, are man made, and are maintained by the people who live in the area.

    Coming from Cambodia to Vietnam, I was struck by the stark differences between life in the two countries. In Cambodia, people live upon the river, and fish on the river, but use the resources of the river in a somewhat passive manner. In Vietnam, the people actively grow and harvest the resources of the river by building fish farms, and diverting the water into rice paddies. The level of activity is incredibly impressive.

    One of the most interesting things that we saw on the Delta were the fish farms, although I would never have understood what I was seeing without someone explaining it. As you cruise through the Delta, you see these large square buildings that look like modern houses. Upon first glance, one would assume that people are living in these buildings, although they do have a commercial feel. But, it is what you cannot see is the important part of the structure— below the houses sits these enormous cages, which extend down approximately 30 feet below the water, in which fish are being raised. The fish are actually purchased elsewhere, and transported to the Delta when they are about 2 inches long. Over the next 3-5 months, the fish are raised in these cages, where they are fed twice a day. Tending to the fish takes 2 or 3 people, depending upon the size of the fish farm. At the end of a few months, the fish are big enough to be sold. Each cage can hold tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of fish, depending upon the size of the cage. You can actually see some of the cages that have not yet been submerged, and are being built. Typically, the fish are then transferred into huge nets that attach to the bottom of boats that can sail the 300 kilometers to Saigon, where the fresh fish are then sold. It is ingenious. We were told that building one of these fish farms costs $50k to $100k, which includes the cost of the farm that sits below the water, and the build above the water that is also used for living quarters.

    Side by side with these fish farms sit traditional nets that are used to pull fish up each evening, small houses in which people live, and houseboats that float along with the tides. The contrast in the lives being lived along the Delta are completely reflective of the contrasts in Vietnamese society — people striving and succeeding, next to people who are barely getting by.
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    My godson, Jonathan, is in Vietnam right now too with his school. If you see a bunch of teenagers from International High School, say hello!

  • Day34

    Goodbye Vietnam, for now

    March 21, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    Our ten days in Vietnam flew by, and it is now time to move on to Thailand. The guide that we’ve been exploring Southern Thailand with — Quy — was unable to take us to the airport, so his cousin — Lin — picked us up and took us to Da Nang. Lin was just delightful, and was the first female tour guide that we’ve had a chance to speak with since we had the food tour on our first night in Hanoi.

    Lin, like the other guides whom we’ve talked to, told us about life in Vietnam. Much to my surprise, her perspective was similar to that of the male guides with whom we’ve talked — there is a huge gap between rich and poor, the government is incredibly corrupt, bribery is common, and people are working very hard to improve their financial situation. She us told us about her experiences in going to university, which was quite interesting.

    At one time, there was a university in the Hoi An. However, attracting teachers proved impossible because there were too few students, so the university closed. As a result, anyone who wants a university education must go to Da Nang to study, which is prohibitively expensive for most people. To make if possible to pay for school, Lin lived in a one room apartment with 5 other women. The apartment had a “kitchen,” which sounded like a hot plate and a sink. The bathroom was down the hall. Each woman had a desk and stool for studying, but they shared a large sleeping mat that was rolled up every night. She spoke fondly of the experience, and mentioned that because of development in Da Nang, the building has been torn down to make way for a big hotel. According to Lin, this type of development is a very mixed bag for the average person in Vietnam. The person who owns the building that is being torn down rarely has a choice about whether to sell the property, although they do get compensation. The people who lived in the building, or had small business in the building, or left without anyplace to live or work, and generally have to move back to the village that they came from. Obviously, the problems of gentrification are not unique to the United States.

    Before leaving Vietnam, I would be remiss if i didn’t discuss politics a bit.

    As we traveled through Vietnam, we were obviously visiting tourist sites. Much to my surprise, the majority of the tourists that we encountered were were Asian (mostly Chinese, but also Japanese and Korean). There were certainly some Westerners, but far, far fewer than Asians. The people with whom we spoke — who admittedly work in the tourist industry — had kind words about Westerners, but lots of criticisms about the Asian tourists, mostly having to do with the fact that Westerners spend more money, and are more interested in learning about Vietnamese culture. The Chinese, in particular, are only interested in how the history of Vietnam relates to China, and tour guides often talk about how this or that place was once part of China, and then criticize the Vietnamese. (Lin told us a crazy story about a Chinese tour guide who was overheard to say China was going to take over Vietnam again — something which most Vietnamese actually fear — and the tour guide was “reported” to the Vietnamese government for making such claims and had to flee the country. It could be apocryphal, but it certainly tells you a little bit the relationship between the countries.)

    The people with whom we interacted — again, all in the tourist industry — were surprisingly sanguine about the American role in the war. Lin seemed to sum it up best — “It is always better to have another friend than an enemy. So, we forgive, but we don’t forget.” All of our guides asked us if we wanted to hear about the war before they told stories, as some Americans do not want to talk about it. And, when I made it clear that I felt the US had made a mistake going into Vietnam, I was met by shrugs. And, when I asked about people being injured by unexploded land mines, I was told that people only get hurt when they go where they shouldn’t. While this struck me as an enormous oversimplification, I thought that it was indicative of a fatalism about life that is quite common and not too surprising in a country in which infants ride on motor scooters and food poisoning is considered of fact of life.

    I also noticed that there is still huge tension between the North and South Vietnam. Historically, Vietnam has been divided far longer than it has been united. While America played a crucial role in the war, we weighed in on one side of an ongoing civil war. The actions of Vietnamese soldiers on both sides led to huge civilian fatalities, and both sides engaged in what we’d now consider to be war crimes. After the war, Ho Chi Minh and the government established a series of rules that were designed to assure that power and wealth would remain with those who supported the communists. So, for example, if you fought on the side of South Vietnam, your descendants for the next three generations (children, grandchildren and great grandchildren) are barred from holding any government position, including teachers, ranking military positions and any political position. Since the payment of bribery is common, and is unbelievably lucrative, being excluded from government jobs has enormous financial ramifications. Moreover, the social mores of the country differ as you move from North to South, with life becoming more liberal the farther South you move. These social and economic differences, combined with lingering resentments from the war, create a population that is sharply divided.

    Our time in Vietnam has been fascinating (but is not over, as we return for a week at the end of the trip). On to Thailand . . .
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    Hope Ratner

    Thank you for your political’s so interesting to read about the after effects of our ruinous intervention. And of course Agent Orange continues its devastation without any final satisfactory resolution.

  • Day33

    My Son -- Champa Temple Complex

    March 20, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    About an hour outside of Hoi An is Vietnam’s most famous Champa Temple Complex — My Son. The complex consisted of a series of more than a dozen temples sites, each of which had approximately a dozen buildings. The temples were built from the 4th century to the 14th century AD, and were used for Hindu worship, although the primary God worshiped in the complex was Shiva (locally referred to as Bhadreshvara). The site was considered holy due to the geography — a valley, surrounded by mountains, with a river running through it. After the slaughter of the Cham, the complex fell into disuse, and was essentially lost for five hundred years. It was “re-discovered” in 1904 by a French archeologist, named M.C. Paris. Messr. Paris knew that the French archeologist Henri Parmentier was working on similar ruins in Cambodia (Angkor Wat) and invited him to see the complex.

    From 1937 to 1943, archeological work on the My Song complex was conducted. The first step involved removing the vegetation that had covered the various temples in the complex. Each “site” had multiple structures, built over hundreds of years. The sites were given letter designations from A through N. The finds were remarkable. The archeologists determined that each “temple” actually included buildings, including a building in which the monks conducted religious blessings, and one in which offerings were a stored. Sculptures sat within and around the temples, and many items were moved to museums. Then, when the war with France broke out, the excavations were stopped. Later, during the American/Vietnam war, the site was used by the Viet Cong for hiding. In a single week in August 1969, the Americans carpet bombed the site and almost every structure was destroyed, leaving only the temples at site C standing. Even now, as you walk through the site, you see enormous craters which were created when the bombs dropped.

    We had left the hotel at 7:30, so that we could beat the crowds to the site, and also avoid the heat. (It turned out perfectly, as it also allowed us to see the site before a huge rain storm blew in.). We were in the third vehicle to arrive to the site, and got to walk through the jungle alone. It was so gorgeous. We arrived at site C, where the only intact temples are, with a few other families. Wandering through the complex without hordes of other people was fantastic. We learned lots about the religious practices of the Cham, and the uses of each building. But, the most interesting thing that we learned was about the Cham view of perfection. According to the Cham, no human being can ever achieve perfection. Only the Gods can achieve perfection. So, in every religious structure, there is some purposeful imperfection included. The type of imperfection varies wildly, and it takes close examination to see the imperfections. In one temple, the imperfection was that a column was left incomplete. But my favorite “imperfection” was in a statute of Shiva. In the statute, Shiva raises her hands together, and places her thumbs together. When you first look at the statute, it looks right. But, when you look again and try to place your hands in the same way, you realize that the hands have been reversed. (Quy had Arie try to replicate the pose, and it was only when he did so that we saw the imperfection.). Subtle, but a beautiful “philosophy.”
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  • Day33

    Beautiful Hoi An

    March 20, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ☀️ 27 °C

    Before we came to Vietnam, quite a few people told me that Hoi An was their favorite city in Vietnam. I read about the City, but didn’t really understand the hype. Well, now I get it.

    Hoi An is an old town, which was first established in the seventh century. The city was an active port for over a thousand years. Unlike other port cities in Vietnam, Hoi An had significant settlements by immigrants from China and Japan, who were both given royal permission to live and conduct business in the City. The culture and architectural styles of these immigrants became part of the fabric of the city, and their influences are still seen today.

    Despite the fact that central Vietnam was a battleground during both the French and Vietnam/America wars, the ancient part of the city escaped with little damage. Today, the ancient city is a huge tourist destination, filled with old houses, shops and alley ways. When we toured the city, we saw houses that are over 1000 years old, but still occupied by families who open the front part of their houses in exchange (for which they receive money from the government). We also saw the usual variety of temples, some of which have strong influences from Chinese and Japanese immigrants.

    Hoi An is actually known for two different things.

    First, Hoi An is the home of Vietnamese custom tailoring. Every other shop offers clothing and custom tailoring. Want a suit? No problem. Come in, pick out your fabrics, have your measurements taken, and come back a few hours later for your first fitting. Both Arie and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to have some clothing custom made. I had done some research about which tailors to go to, and our guide, Quy, gave us some additional information. The first shop that we went to was BeBe. Arie decided to have a suit and two dress shirts made for him. There were literally thousands of fabrics, at various price points, from which to choose. After some discussion with the woman who was helping us (all of the salespeople in these tailor shops are women), Arie chose some fabrics and made some choices about the style. While we stood in the showroom, he was measured and the numbers were jotted down on a piece of paper. A small deposit was taken, and we were told to come back at 7:30 — about 5 hours later — for his first fitting. As I hadn’t found the fabric that I wanted for a wool coat that I had in mind, we headed to a second store called Laly. I found the right fabric for the outside of the coat, and a cool pattern for inside. But why stop at a coat, when I could easily add a couple of pairs of slacks to the order. Done. I was told to return the next afternoon.

    Just before dinner, we returned to Bebe for Arie’s fitting. So, a mere 5 hours after we had ordered his suit, Arie was trying on a brand new suit, and two beautiful shirts. It was crazy.

    While I watched Arie try on his new duds, I exchanged some texts with Maya, in which I joked about buying a whole new wardrobe. She was with Hannah, and they told me to go back and order something else, as I’d regret not ordering more. So, I decided to go back and order a pair of silk slacks and a top! In the 48 hours in which we were in Hoi An, Arie had two fittings and I had three (getting the right style for the coat turned out to be complicated, as we were working from a picture that I’d brought with me.). But, by the time we left, our clothes were finished, and we arranged to have them shipped home. Had we been in Hoi An for a week, I think that I would have had a hard time not ordering more clothes. It was super fun, and not very expensive by US standards.

    The second thing for which Hoi An is known is the manufacture and display of fabric lanterns, which are made in small shops and factories in and around Hoi An. These lanterns come in half a dozen shapes, although the “garlic” shape seems to be most popular. They come in a variety of sizes, from relatively small (8 inches long) to quite large (2 feet long). And, the lanterns come in every color of the rainbow. The lanterns are hung everywhere — on trees, balconies, and wires that go across the streets. The colors and shapes look beautiful during the day. But, at night, it is simply magical, particularly in the ancient part of town, were the lights in the shops are pretty dim and the lanterns glow. (I understand that during the full moon, all of the lights are turned off in the ancient city, and it is particularly gorgeous.).

    I was completely enchanted by the lanterns, and decided that they would be an excellent addition to the garden at the River. Arie was initially skeptical, particularly when I mentioned that I wanted to hang them outside and put bulbs in them. (“What? How do you think I could do that? Don’t count on that, Sharon.”). But, as we walked along, I won him over to the idea. We found a wonderful shop that specialized in lanterns, and actually made their own (as opposed to simply buying lanterns from someone and just selling the finished product.). We had a lengthy conversation with the shopkeeper, Van, who taught us about the different fabrics that are used for making lanterns, the various sizes and shapes, and told us which lanterns were best for hanging outside. She also told us that she could ship them to the US. If they were sent by sea, delivery is in 3-4 months, but the cost is considerably less. We selected an assortment of shapes, in an array of colors, and she said that she’d make them for us and then ship them. She also said that she’d have to call the “boss lady” to come and discuss the order with us. We said fine and began the process of ordering. In about 5 minutes, a woman who we’d met before arrived by motor scooter. Turns out that Van called the “box lady,” not the “boss lady.” We had met her earlier when we stopped in the shipping “office” to inquire about the prices of sending a box to the US. Apparently she has a monopoly on shipping and services all of the shops in the area. I guess that is expected in a small town. So, lanterns are ordered and should arrive mid-summer, if we are lucky. Whenever they arrive, I know that hanging them in the garden will be a lovely reminder of a delightful visit.

    Of course, every city also has its special foods. Hoi An has two — banh mi, and white rose dumplings. The banh mi are Vietnamese sandwiches, and can be filled with pork, chicken, beef, or eggs, as well as a smattering of vegetables. Anthony Bourdain has made one shop famous, and our guide took us there. Each sandwich was $1.25, and was quite yummy. (We actually went there twice in two days.). White rose dumplings are handmade rice noodles, which are shaped into a rose, filled with pork or shrimp, and steamed. We tasted them on our first night, and then got to see them made when we toured Hoi An. The woman we saw making them lived in one of the oldest houses in Hoi An. She and just a few other women make this delicacy, and then they sell them to restaurants around town. Seeing them made was quite interesting, and a real treat — as was eating them.
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    Hope Ratner

    When you return home, you should check out the bahn mi sandwich place on Larkin in SF. Not quite as inexpensive but really yummy!

    Grace Benveniste

    They will,look lovely at your house.

    Grace Benveniste

    Looking sharp!!

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