Four travelers to Vietnam
  • Day39

    Hanoi to Home

    November 1, 2019 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Over a week ago now, we headed south from Cao Bang -- Don on his sturdy Honda 110 and Hans and I by taxi. We passed him on the road!

    Hans and I arrived in Hanoi on Thursday evening (24th), and spent most of the day Friday at one of Hanoi’s international hospitals. Turns out that Hans completely tore his quadriceps tendon, an injury that requires surgery -- the sooner the better. We spent Friday night figuring how to get Hans back home ASAP, talking to insurance, our doctor, the airlines, the credit card company...basically, anyone who could help figure our way through this. Hans ended up flying home on Saturday (26th) in business class. He had a Fit-to-Fly letter from the doctor, authorizing business class and wheelchair assistance. In Taipei, he received special treatment: transport between terminals in a cargo truck.

    Don arrived in Hanoi just a few hours before Hans left for the airport. He had motorbiked south from Cao Bang to Ba Be National Park. His homestay, right on the 8km long Ba Be Lake, was down a muddy potholed jungly 5 km dirt road. He reported it as very peaceful. The next night he ended up at a homestay a few hours north of Hanoi, where he used Google translate to communicate with the owner’s parents.

    Once Hans left, Don and I hit the sightseeing hard. (I felt a bit guilty, but knew that Hans would be in good hands with our son back at home.) We visited the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, a must-see if you ever go to Hanoi. It’s four floors of exhibits, all devoted to women in Vietnamese society: family, military, history, traditions, fashion, culture. The short video at the entrance is worth the price of admission. It focused on street vendors, the thousands of women selling everything from vegetables to flowers to household goods to feather dusters and toys. You see them on bicycles or scooters, or walking with heavy baskets dangling from a pole across their shoulders. We learned that the majority of these women are in Hanoi not by choice but by circumstance. There is not enough work in their home village to support their families, so they head to the city, visiting home as time allows. Life is hard: arriving at the market at 2 in the morning to buy vegetables, selling all day, returning to their boarding house at 7 or 8, only to do it again the next day.

    We also visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex, the Hoa Lo Prison Museum (aka Hanoi Hilton), the night market, the day market, the train street, the Temple of Literature, and the Imperial City. We ended up on a free walking tour, where we saw monuments, fountains, the cathedral, the Opera House, and were taken to a small upstairs cafe for the best egg coffee in Hanoi. (Hint: an eggnog like custard on top of a very strong espresso.) On our last morning, I got up early to walk the perimeter of Hoàn Kiếm Lake near the hotel to see the incredible variety of people exercising: stretching, dancing, jogging, bicycling, playing badminton, or lifting weights. Impressive. On his early morning walk, Don also took some videos.

    Exercisers 1:
    Exercisers 2:
    Exercisers 3:

    A few highlights from our sightseeing blast:

    Train Street: Wow, it is really cool. The iconic part of Train Street, where the train curves around a bend, is closed to tourists. Too many Instagrammers -- I guess the street was overrun. Guards now sit at street crossings, preventing tourists from wandering across the tracks. We walked up, took a look, and Don offered a sticker to a little girl in a red sweater. Her grandma then walked over to us, showed us a piece of paper with 17:30 written on it. The train was due in an hour. We decided to walk around and come back. But closer to the railway station, we found a few blocks along the tracks still open to tourists, with several cafes for the weary wanderers. We parked ourselves at the Rail Way Cafe to wait. The train roared through pretty much on time, and it was a surprise. It really is dangerous! The train whizzes by at a fast clip, not two feet from where all the tourists were standing. Definitely a highlight. Don took a video:

    The market: We wandered through the four story market, filled with fabric; souvenirs (where we loaded up on trinkets); shoes, shoes, and more shoes; tailors; food stores; and veggie stalls. Very colorful, and somewhat organized. We discovered the next market, with stalls and stalls of dried fish and shrimp; nuts; food stuffs; noodles. Outside, in a small alley, we happened upon the ‘live animal’ section. Cages and cages of song birds, soft-shelled turtles, snails, and carp swimming in tubs. A bit much for our western sensibilities. We didn’t take any pictures.

    The Ho Chi Minh Complex: We decided to brave the lines and see Ho Chi Minh lying in state. We arrived early, and were delighted to see the line moving along at a fast clip. We had to surrender our bags at the security gate, but were allowed to bring our phones and small camera. We followed the line until we reached the large plaza, Ba Dihn Square, in front of the crypt itself. It’s a massive building, guarded by a military honor guard. Each soldier stands stiffly, and is completely dressed in white: pants, shirt, gloves, shoes, hat. ‘President Ho Chi Minh’ is inscribed on the outside of the building, and the slogan written inside the portico reads: ‘Nothing is more valuable than independence and freedom.’ Ho Chi Minh’s signature is in gold plate. You file in, two by two, up the stairs, into the cool, dim interior. The body lies in a glass coffin. No pictures or talking allowed. No hats or hands in pockets. You walk through at a slow but steady pace. It’s long enough to get a good look at Uncle Ho. Once outside, the route takes you through the rest of the complex: past the simple building where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked; past the Presidential Palace, where Ho Chi Minh decided not to live because it was too ornate; past the garage storing cars that ferried him to and from events; past the famous Stilt House, which reminded Uncle Ho the simple rural life; past the One Pillar Pagoda. It’s quite a huge complex for a man who didn’t want to be honored in this way. In his will, he specified that his ashes were to be scattered in the North and the South.

    Ho Lao Prison: The infamous Hanoi Hilton we heard so much about during the Vietnam War. The prison where John McCain was held. Most of the exhibits focused on the French history; how the French tore down a village of potters to build the prison, and them brutally imprisoned male and female members of the resistance. A smaller section was devoted to the American War of Imperialism, with displays on the anti-war movement across the world. One part of the exhibit was a tribute to ‘Living Torches’: Men and women who immolated themselves to protest the war in Vietnam. A few panels were devoted to Norman Morrison, a Quaker who immolated himself in front of the Pentagon in 1965.

    We ate a few wonderful meals, walked upwards of five miles each day, and talked about getting back home.

    And here we are! I'm getting back in the swing of things while helping Hans recover from surgery. We’ll be home for a while, so let us know if you get to this part of the country. We’d love to see you.

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  • Day30

    Ban Gioc Waterfall

    October 23, 2019 in Vietnam ⋅ 🌧 24 °C

    After two days riding, Don and I met up with Hans in the eastern city of Cao Bang. It's a fairly large city and is the provincal capital. It's located in the middle of the province, on the banks of the Bang Giang River. The ride from Meo Vac to Cao Bang was fairly easy, after Don and I sorted out our route. We left Meo Vac and drove in completely the wrong direction, on a twisty mountain pot-holed road, in a heavy drizzle, for a good 15 km before figuring out our mistake! Hans could see us on the map (thanks to Google location sharing), and texted and called, trying in vain to reach us. Oops. Well, an hour later we were finally heading in the right direction.

    Our ride took us on a lovely, wide, well-banked and well-maintained road. We headed up and over a high pass, shrouded in mist, dropped to a river valley, and then went up and over several more passes until the air became tropical, where we stopped to take off a layer. We drove through villages and construction sites, slowed for kids getting out of school, and water buffalo crossing the road. At a coffee stop on our second day, we happened upon a praying mantis that was at least 8 or 10 inches long. It was just sitting on the concrete floor of the open air cafe. I desperately didn't want anyone to step on it, but just as desperately didn't want to touch it. So I kept my eye on it and shooed away the dogs that were very curious about it. Just as we were leaving, as I clapped my hands at the dogs and shooed them off, a local woman walked by and I pointed to it. She was wearing a traditional dress we hadn't seen before -- a white headscarf, slacks, white blouse. She reached down and plucked it off the ground, holding it fairly gently right behind its head. The praying mantis was fluttering its huge wings and waving its 8 legs. It was almost clacking. She held it up to me; I shook my head and started laughing. She started laughing and tried to put it on my shoulder, but I shrieked. The woman's friend and everyone else in the cafe started laughing as well. Howling! I could only imagine what they were thinking: how could this person be afraid of bugs? She then tossed the praying mantis in the air, it fluttered off, and we both continued to laugh.

    Anyway, the waterfall. The Ban Gioc waterfall is one of the world's wonders. It's river marks the border with China and is about 80 km north of Cao Bang. It consists of two waterfalls on the Quay Son River. The water drops 98 feet and is separated into multiple falls by the topography: rocks and trees. The ground all around is wet, and it feels like it's raining (in addition to the actual rain)! And it's thunderously loud.

    Standing on the Vietnamese side we saw tour boats circling one another as they made their way up to the base of the falls. Upon reaching shore Hans immediately said, 'Let's go!' and hobbled down the gang plank to the next boat out. It was great fun. We sat right up front and were often within arm's reach of the people on the Chinese sister boats. Our boat made it right to the base of the falls and we all got damp in the mist. As our boat swung back around it came within three meters of the Chinese shoreline. Don and I wanted to jump ship to see what might happen, but Hans' voice of reason called us back.

    Once back on land, we helped Hans get settled at a cafe, then wandered through the stalls looking for gift-y things. No go, but we had a good time shopping and playing with the cutest puppies ever. Once the rain lifted, we walked back out to the waterfalls to admire the cascades.

    And little did I know, my days as a regular run-of-the-mill tourist were just about to end. I was approached by a woman in a bright red Vietnam t-shirt, with a yellow star on the front, and 'Love Vietnam' on the back in yellow script. She was waving her phone, and beckoned me up to a monument marking the border. At first, I thought she wanted me to take her picture. But, no. She wanted me to be in her selfie. Within minutes, a dozen of her friends, all wearing identical t-shirts, were posing with me. Then group shots! I am going to be all over Instagram and social media, I just know it.

    After a stop at a Bhuddist temple overlook, and a stop at the border (where we almostblost Don!) we lingered over a looong lunch. On our way back to Cao Bang, we stopped at a small village, famous for its knife making and other forging skills.

    Definitely a highlight day. I didn't even know it was on my bucket list, but it was definitely one of those places. I loved waving to the Chinese tourists, and also seeing the joy of the Vietnamese tourists. People love their country here, and are so proud of its beauty. And they seem to embrace tourists.

    It's a wonderful place to travel.

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  • Day27

    Exploring Meo Vac

    October 20, 2019 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    This is our fourth day in Meo Vac, the northern city that is not far from the Chinese border. It is surrounded by steep mountains, and is at the bottom of the Mai Pi Leng Pass. The pass is a 22 km stretch of winding road known as the Happiness Road. It took 11 months to build and was completed in 1950 by ethnic minority and Vietnamese youth. The Youth Monument, a colossal statue built on the side of the road commemorates the effort. The pass is almost 5000 feet high and looks down into the turquoise water of the Nho Que river.

    Hans took a spill a few days ago and rested up while Don and I explored. Don has been eager to get as close to the Chinese border as possible, so we were delighted to discover the road to China. It split off from the Happiness Road and switched back down to the river in tight curves. We crossed the river and followed the road as it rose steeply and steadily up and up, over another pass and another. As soon as we crossed the river, however, the macadam dissolved, replaced by stones and mud. I followed Don as he carefully and impressively picked his way through the dirt. Up and up and up. 

    But China was not to be. About 6 km from the border, we hit a small guard house and 2 representatives of the Vietnamese military. Just one look at us, a shake of the head, a hand gesture indicating 'turn around now' was all it took. I did pause and ask if I could take a photo, but another firm shake of the head told me that we should get out of there fast, before they asked for papers.

    We were able to enjoy our ride down a bit more, stopping to admire the river, at least 1000 feet below us, waving to the kids walking home from school, gawking at the villages, and gasping at the spectacular scenery.

    Before heading back to Meo Vac, we decided to ride up to the Mai Pi Leng Pass. The road hugs the limestone cliffs, with sudden and severe several thousand foot drops off to the right, so as a driver, you really have to be on your toes. The view is absolutely stunning, into Vietnam's narrowest river canyon, so we made sure to stop plenty of times.

    There is a path called the Sky Path that leads into the many small villages above the road, so we found the start of it, and promised to return the following day. It lead up from the road, into the green mountains. Definitely worth the effort.

    It was legendary. The path runs somewhat parallel to the road, but in some places is at least 1000 feet above the road. I think we did see all the way into China. Part of the road is scooter-able, part is a pedestrian path only (though I'm sure that at least one hapless tourist thought it might be a good idea to try it). The trail took us up and over several passes to small villages where laughing children ran away from us, hiding. We saw rural life in sharp relief. Parents working in the fields, teens doing reluctant chores, phone in hand, and the smaller kids minding the goats and cattle. Amazingly, we did not run across any other tourists walking on the path. The entire hike took about three hours, truly magical.

    I'd like to pause for a minute here just to comment on the riding skills I saw first hand on this extremely narrow path with steep drop-offs and sharp turns and a descent angle of at least 10 percent. First off there's usually more than one person in the scooter. A family with a bunch of kids, teens, a couple. Second off, there's usually some load as well. A bag of cement, an enormous bundle of firewood, building materials, bags of this and that, propane cannisters. You get the picture -- overloaded. And finally, the drivers are coasting, gliding down the mountain as if they're on skis. When they reach the up slope, they coast along until the bike slows, then pop it into gear, and take off.  It's truly impressive to see.

    The pedestrian part of the path led us along the base of the white cliffs. We happened upon four goats, bells around their necks tinkling. A girl passed us, in traditional Hmong dress of a brightly colored heavy swishy skirt, leggings, plastic sandals, and a blouse. She carried a small bouquet of daisies she'd picked and looked as surprised to see us as we were to see her. The trail took us down hundreds of steps, through another small village and past kitchen gardens of lettuce and corn, back to the road, where we picked up our scooter.


    Now, we're on our way east, heading to Cao Bang, to see the waterfall on the Chinese border and Ho Chi Mihn's cave. Hans will come by car. My last day of riding is tomorrow, as I'll ship my bike back to Hanoi and head back to Hanoi by car with Hans. He's off to get his knee checked out by a doctor.

    Until next time!
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  • Day24

    Ha Giang to Meo Vac

    October 17, 2019 in Vietnam ⋅ 🌧 17 °C

    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:

    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, 2019 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    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:

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

    Siem Reap

    October 11, 2019 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C

    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


    October 8, 2019 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 30 °C

    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, 2019 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 32 °C

    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, 2019 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 31 °C

    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


    October 3, 2019 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 35 °C

    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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