Wandering Again

Failed Priest
Living in: Santa Cruz, United States
  • Day24

    Ha Giang to Meo Vac

    October 17 in Vietnam ⋅ 🌧 63 °F

    We spent the first night of our mountain riding in a Dao hill tribe village homestay. Once again the rice wine flowed freely with chant of 'Mot,Hai, Ba, Yooo!' and followed by the tribal thank you 'Homaduum' with handshakes all around. We were able to take a nice, long soak in a Dao herbal bath infused with tobacco leaves. The view across the valley was gorgeous.

    People in these hills live long laborious lives. We saw children as young as six and adults well onto their 90s engaged in the efforts of day to day survival. I guess letting go with a cheap rice wine every night helps to make it a little more worthwhile. In several villages we passed gatherings of villagers dressed to the nines in brightly colored clothing.

    The riding has been spectacular. Each new pass leads to another idyllic valley. Some villages look unreal and more like like demonstration models of feng shui. The riding has also been busy. There are tons of twenty and thirty year olds plying this landscape. Some solo, but most in tours of 30 or 40 motorbikes. It is zooey.
    We did get off on some nice roads. Here's a video: https://photos.app.goo.gl/QTLnYRtvo4wvpFni6

    Not so the larger towns. They seem more like wild west boomtowns with the tourist money flowing in. Meo Vac is one such town. Busy and a bit overpriced. We landed in a circle of newly built and newly opened homestay houses constructed around a central courtyard. Unfortunately for us our quiet was interrupted by a group of 45 riders who proved themselves to be the worst of travelers. Party music thumped into the night leaving us with little rest and more than a little annoyed.
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  • Day22

    Hanoi to HaGiang

    October 15 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 68 °F

    We spent the last few days preparing for and riding motorbikes from Hanoi to Ha Giang. Ha Giang is the northern most province in Vietnam.

    It was fun to be in Hanoi again. We took several walks around the city and picked up our 110cc Honda Blade semi automatic motorbikes at Tigit Rentals. Augie and I used the same company and rented the same model bikes for last year's adventure. Augie said that he'd used chainsaws with larger engines than these bikes! Still, they are all that one needs on these roads. At Tigit we met a poodle chihuahua mix that is the closest thing to a demi dog I could have imagined. Way beyond cute. We also spent some time shopping for Nancy's new helmet. It is quite unique and she is very pleased as you can see in the photographs.

    Our concerns about getting out of the hustle amd bustle of Hanoi were largely unfounded. It was somewhat busy, but not too bad. By one hour out we were in the countryside. By two hours out everyone got accustomed to the bikes and started to really enjoy themselves.

    We stayed the first night halfway between Hanoi and Ha Giang. 170 kilometers. We were all weary when we pulled into Vu Linh Homestay. We witnessed some old world working of the land. In the evening we ate family style with three generations in the host family. Food was delicious and the rice wine flowed freely. 'Humaduum' we would exclaim as we shook hands after each and every shot of 'happy water'. We were all tipsy by the time we stumbled back to our rooms---at 8:30pm.

    Second day the roads were less congested and the views got better. We dealt with a flat tire at a mechanic some 5 kilometers up the road. $1.30 to put two patches on the tube. We passed a few waterfalls and took a ferry ride on a boat piloted by an 12 year old. Video here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/c3ZBHMyRx8S3isH68

    Pretty chill start to what, by all accounts, will be an incredible ride.
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  • Day18

    Siem Reap

    October 11 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 82 °F

    We said goodbye to Mary. She flew home from Ho Chi Minh City and is now back to work as Luna's service human. Don, Nancy, and I boarded a flight to Siem Reap, a seedy tourist town adjacent to the Angkor complex of temples and cities.

    The area was the center of the Khmer civilization from 900 to 1500ce. We had been comped a few Urban Adventures tours due to a snafu with our Intrepid Tours trip to India last year. We signed up for an eight hour group trip through the complex for the day after our arrival. Turned out we were the only people in the group as it is slow season in Cambodia. Vantha was our guide and Hua our driver. They had worked together for over ten years, the last three with Urban Adventures. Vantha was born in Siem Reap. He lamented some of the changes he'd seen over the past several decades as tourism has boomed in the area. Environmental degradation, extremely busy sites, and rising land costs were among his concerns. He was, however, pleased with he opportunities that this brought to the region. He shared that Siem Reap was a French colonial bastardization of Siam Re'ad which means 'defeat of the Siamese'. He expanded that criticism to the name Cambodia which is from Kampuchea

    Siem Reap is a prime example of a city overrun by tourism. Bars, KTVs, massage parlors, and western restaurants everywhere. In two short blocks Don was approached by 4 different tuk tuk drivers offering to take him to various women. Augie said that as he and his friend were walking together last November the number was 40 or 50 such offers in the course of an evening.

    We did manage to find several restaurants run by local women during our stay. I also tracked down two legit massage businesses. Nancy and Don had foot massages, I got the Khmer style full body. We also toured a school for local artisans working in silk, painting, sculpture, and metal work. 'Bad with the good' is what our tour guide said.

    We toured the area in the air conditioned luxury of an eight person passenger van. Our tour took us to three palaces; Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the unrestored Bantaey Kdei. It has been estimated that Angkor Thom was the largest city in the world at its height in the 13th century. One million people. This was estimated through recent LIDAR flyovers of the area.

    As we toured I couldn't help but imagine what this place might have been like when Pop visited here in 1969. Even the most restored temples were overgrown with jungle. Must have been quite an experience to fly into a dirt landing and have no one around as he climbed through the ruins. As it was we were at times inundated by tour groups of over 100. Lots of selfies with the Buddhas at these sites. At one point Don mused, "I wonder how many photographs have been taken since the dawn of cell phones and digital photography?"

    I write this from the Plaza Premium lounge at the airport. One of the nicest we've visited, but not enough to lure me back to Siem Reap.
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  • Day15

    Mekong

    October 8 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 86 °F

    We took a two day tour on the Mekong. Another overnight on a wooden boat. It was quite relaxing and filled with activities introducing us to the region. We took a farm walk, visited a bee farm, a mushroom farm, took a bicycle ride on the levy paths, and were rowed around on small canoes by chatty Vietnamese women, ate well, and enjoyed watching the world go by on the river. The farm walk included a 'happy room' on stilts over a cesspool of fish. Our guide explained that these fish 'are only for family consumption, not for sale.'Read more

  • Day14

    Ho Chi Minh City

    October 7 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 90 °F

    We landed in Saigon, checked into our hotel and immediately made it over to the Ben Thanh market. The tourist sites refer to this as the central market in not only Saigon, but all of Vietnam. Lists of places to visit and walking tours all start here. It's a great place for introduction. The market is over 7000 square meters of clothing, knickknacks, bulk items, fresh foods, and food stalls.

    We wandered around the aisles for awhile waiting for just the right scent emanating from a kitchen to lure us to lunch. We found it and took seats along with a couple of Australian tourists on holiday. They'd just finished a beef salad bowl called 'special bowl' on the menu and recommended it. That and a mango Lassi really hit the spot.

    The afternoon we wandered up toward the ex presidential palace and American Consulate. Memories of war coverage came flashing back.

    In the evening we took a Grab taxi to Belgo, a Belgian brew pub some 3 kilometers away. The burger and Belgian frites with Samurai sauce were excellent. The beers were spot on as well.

    Our last night in Ho Chi Minh was spent at the Continental hotel. The legendary historic inn where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American, the war journalists liked to drink in the 60s, and Bourdain preferred during his visits to the city. The hotel upgraded our rooms to suites. Nancy and I had two bedrooms with full baths and Don and Mary's spacious digs overlooked the Opera House. A night to remember.
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  • Day12

    Hoi An

    October 5 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 88 °F

    Hoi An. Chosen by Travel and Leisure magazine as the best city in the world to visit in 2019. This could be bad...

    At least that's what I remember thinking when I read the article. One more place in the world to become like San Francisco, Venice, or Amsterdam. But it turned out to to be less over the top than I expected. If anything there were more Vietnamese tourist families there than any other sub group. Certainly more pleasant than last year when every other tourist scoping out the copious shops and restaurants was a a pink scowling Russian.

    We drove from Hue to Hoi An over the Hai Van pass. A squiggly mountain road with a view much like a spot along the Big Sur coast. I caught a photo of our crew on the pass and a selfie with our driver Phuc. From there we skirted along the coast at Danang and arrived at our idyllic little hotel in Old Town Hoi An.

    Nancy and I immediately headed out to Ba Ri tailor to be fitted for some new togs. The women who fitted us were the same sisters who'd fitted Augie and I for our Mumbai wedding suits last year. They kept asking about my son and asking to see pictures each time we returned to the shop over subsequent days.

    That evening we all walked around the night market buying smoothies and looking at some interesting grilled foods. We sat and watched the spectacle on the river as tourists hired boats to float in the estuaries. People floated candles in paper boats for blessings. It was quite beautiful. Nancy commented that she was enchanted by it all.

    Don and Mary spent the next day exploring with a rented scooter and visiting the beach. Nancy spent her time shopping for cold remedies, bringing me sodas, and taking photos. We did get out to some really good restaurants in town. We returned to Ban Mi Phuong and found an excellent Greek restaurant run by a congenial gentleman from Crete.

    I'm feeling better today as we head to the airport in Danang for our flight to Ho Chi Minh. Hopefully a guy with a sign with be waiting for us at the other end.
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  • Day10

    Hue

    October 3 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 95 °F

    It is hot and humid again. It should remain so for the rest of the trip as we move south. Note the 'feels like' on the photo below. 114! On top of that I have come down with a head and chest cold that is slowing me further.

    I did manage to get out to visit the royal tombs in this ancient capital. Hue was the residence of the royal families over the past several centuries. Emperors spent money and time designing and building their tombs and completing those of their ancestors. The practice has filtered down to middle class families in this central area of the country. We were told that this is not the practice in the north. We visited Minh Mang and Tu Duc tombs. Tu Duc was the more fascinating.

    Google has misdirected us on several occasions. Earlier in the trip it sent us through a riverbed and construction zone. In between tombs it sent us on a newly constructed and very narrow road with lots of overhanging branches and right angle curves. Not the best for a 19ft long step van. Phuc managed pretty well until we encountered a tuk tuk blocking the road with no driver around. A little clutch work and a bit of shoving from the peanut gallery got us underway again. Phuc was not amused.

    As my cold deepened I spent the afternoon and evening resting. Nancy, Mary, and Don toured the Imperial Palace complex. We met for dinner at another highly rated restaurant featuring local dishes; Madam Thu. Night before we hit a less fancy but just as delicious place; The Hanh Restaurant.
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  • Day9

    PeaceTrees Vietnam

    October 2 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 91 °F

    After a hearty breakfast of very fresh eggs and rolls (and chocolate pancakes for Don), we left Phong Nha early, at 7, for our day visiting with PeaceTrees, the organization Hans and Augie visited last year and one that we support as a family. It was an incredible day. The PeaceTrees slogan is "Healing the land. Building community. Planting futures." The organization, a US non-profit, based in Seattle, was started by Jerilyn Cheney and her husband Danaan Perry. Jerilyn's brother, Daniel, was killed in Vietnam and Jerilyn vowed that when the time was right, she would figure out a way forward. Her way became PeaceTrees, now a thriving organization that does land mine removal and land mine education for children as well as provide support for families with someone who has been injured by a UED. The organization works in several provinces bordering the former DMZ. These provinces were heavily bombed during the war and much of the land is still unusable due to unexploded ordinance. Consequently, they are the poorest provinces in the country. PeaceTrees also partners with communities to build kindergartens, support families with healthy food and clean water, and build community centers.

    We met the In-Country Director, Ha Phan, at a small coffee shop near Dong Ha. Our first stop was a kindergarten in a small village in the mountains near Laos. On the drive to the village, Ha told us that the money for the school was donated by a Vietnam vet in memory of his best friend, killed in the war. She also told us how she came to PeaceTrees. She started as an intern after university, and was tasked with interviewing survivors of land mine explosions. The first day on the job she spoke to an 18 year old young man, just married, who lost both hands due to an explosion. That interview transformed her and she had been with the organization for 18 years now.

    The school was a bright open one room building, with colorful decorations in the walls. The children were eating lunch when we arrived. The focus of the school is teaching children Vietnamese, as the Viet language is used in school, business, industry, etc. A community has to ask for a school. This is not an organization that swoops in and takes over. If the community asks, PeaceTrees works with the community to design and develop the school, which is built by locals. 

    As a birthday present this year, Don had given Hans a portable mini-printer, which Hans brought along. We were all taking tons of photos, and Hans took photos of groups of kids. The children were amazed, watching this 5x7 inch device spit out an image. He'd hand them the photo and they'd smile and laugh. Don and Mary handed out stickers. The kids sang for us and we sang for them: the first verse, and the first verse only, of Mary Had A Little Lamb. After distributing gifts provided by Peace Trees, we said our goodbyes and headed to lunch and coffee. Here is a link to some of the singing: https://photos.app.goo.gl/RtYkDkWMPmcGEiDQ9

    The next stop in our day was the unexploded ordinance clearance site, where we met the team of 10 folks doing on the ground de-mining. Brave people. (PeaceTrees has 10 teams is the field.) They receive extensive training, but still, it is risky work with potentially fatal consequences. Wow. This work is funded by The Office of Weapons Abatement and Removal, a US Department of State office. Our tax dollars paid to drop them in the first place and are now paying to remove them. The team showed us a map of all the bombs dropped across the province, a map of dense red dots covering pretty much the entire province. The data was provided by the US Air Force. The area the team was working in was a rubber tree plantation. They started in February, and to date, had removed 92 unexploded ordance (UDX) so far, and expected to finish up at the end of the month. The area was the size of a football field. They walk every inch, using sensitive metal detectors, to ferrett out what lies below the surface. Not every find is a UDX, but it has to be treated as such.

    The team had saved a cluster bomb for us to detonate. We could see it lying in the sandbagged hole they'd carefully excavated around it. It was a small black ball, the size of a tennis ball. You could see why it would be so appealing to a kid. A single bomb held hundreds of these small balls. When they exploded, they sent out small bullet - like projectiles that reached a radius of 300 feet. Anything in the area didn't have a chance. Mary and I were given the task of blowing it up, but before we did, we had to sign a waiver and provide our blood type. Just in case…. The team made sure the site was secure, then ran a wire from the bomb to the detonation site, 300 feet away. We practiced, Mary armed the device with one button and I hit the Fire button. After the technician, a young woman, wired it up, and the team leader counted down in Vietnamese, we pressed our buttons. It was deafening and terrifying. I could imagine the impact. Here is a link to the video: https://photos.app.goo.gl/ZehWCvYUS41Si17X6

    Our day ended with a visit to the PeaceTrees office, on a former Marine base. We saw the tree Hans and Augie planted last year. It was an amazing day, and I urge you to check out the PeaceTrees website to learn more about what they do. There's a short video there about a day in the life of a young woman working on a de-mining team.
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  • Day8

    Phong Nha

    October 1 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 91 °F

    We spent most of a day driving from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha. The trip took a little extra because ws asked the driver to cross a stream bed to bypass a 'road closed to cars' sign. We also asked him to add a half hour or so to steer away from the busy truck traffic on the A1. This allowed us to head up into the mountains and witness some stunning landscapes. The mountain road is now designated the Ho Chi Minh route. At one point the road suddenly get very flat and straight for about a mile. The road here is a remnant of the clandestine airstrip built by the north Vietnamese to land and refuel Russian MIG fighters flown by Vietnamese pilots. The US forces in Danang were completely unprepared as they assumed that they were beyond the range of those planes. The attack shook US confidence.

    Phong Nha is a town bordering Ke Bang National Park. It's sort of a case study in tourist planning and zoning gone wrong, but it does have its positives. The government built a streetscape heading out of the town to the south that is now completely crumbling and overgrown. The actual investor related development snakes up the riverside for several kilometers. Lots of homestays Nd bars right on the river.

    Ke Bang National Park is home to several of the largest caves in the world. One of which is the largest. Period. That one costs 3k to enter and takes days to explore. We chose the cheaper and more visited Paradise Cave. It is vast and filled with interesting formations. See the first few photos below.

    In the late afternoon we visited Phong Nha Cave. It is a few miles upriver from the town and requires a boat to visit. See the subsequent photos.

    Evening we headed out to Momma D's. A new open air bar/restaurant atop one of the tallest buildings in the area. Momma D, from Edmonton, Alberta is a great host. See photo from the rooftop.
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  • Day6

    Tam Coc Ninh Binh

    September 29 in Vietnam ⋅ ☀️ 90 °F

    We have left Hanoi and begun our trek south. We are traveling in a Ford Transit passenger van driven by Phuc, a native Hanoian who speaks only Vietnamese. We use a combination of Google Translate and texting our tour operator Manh to communicate directions and plans.

    First stop is Tam Coc Ninh Binh. Tam Coc is an area of limestone karsts similar to Ha Long bay. These formations are surrounded by rice fields rather than ocean. We stay at Sunshine Homestay with Phan and her family. Augie and I so enjoyed this place last year that we extended our stay for several days. The family is pleasant, the area is fascinating, and Phan's cooking is really wonderful.

    We spent our first evening hiking up the karst at Mua Cave for a view from above. The next morning we woke early and drove to nearby Trang An where we followed a waterway through nine caves and three temples. Unfortunately someone let a small Smokey like creature into one of the temple areas. Still, it is a pretty cool place. Our last stop for the day was the ancient citadel of the northern kingdom. Mary took a photogenic ride on a traditionally attired water buffalo.
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