Here is the more thorough itinerary, from SmarTours:
Note: I will be doing times in 24-hour clock, measurements in metric units, and money in US dollars (US$), Cambodian riel (KHR), and Vietnamese dong (VND). The exchange rates are approximately KHR4000 and VND21,000 per US dollar. (I forgot to look up the exchange rate or indeed currency unit for South Korea for our lay-overs.)
To some extent, this tour covers the same ground as our 2001 trip to Vietnam. But that was on our own, and even though we spent sixteen days in Vietnam rather than eight, we are going to a couple of different places, and may well get more out of being on a tour for the others. The main appeal of this tour was four days in Cambodia, primarily at the Angkor complex. We had been very pleased with our previous SmarTours tour, so that made it even easier to pick.
(One might actually cheat and copy one's descriptions from last time into this log, but what I am more likely to do is just provide pointers.)
I have pretty much said everything there is to say about the problems of packing, getting to JFK, dealing with security, etc., so I will not repeat them here. I will report in due time on how the new titanium rod in my right femur affects going through security.
We did spend some time researching the money situation, and discovered that in theory we would not have to change money in Cambodia, where (at least in the tourist areas) the US dollar is the basic unit of exchange. Time will tell. The other interesting thing we discovered was that $2 bills are apparently considered lucky, especially in Vietnam and especially during Tet. Well, we are arriving in Vietnam during Tet, so we got a stack of $2 bills to use in both Cambodia and Vietnam as tips.
That is one difference between the tour in South Africa and this one. On the former, the tour company covered all the tips for porters, waiters, room cleaners, and local guides. On this tour, we seem to be responsible for these tips. It is not a lot of money, but it is annoying to have to bring a thick stack of small bills for this. (And in Vietnam, we have to make sure to get a lot of small bills when we change money.)
I am a bit skeptical of the amounts they suggest, though. They say US$1 per person for the waitperson at a meal. The last time we were in Vietnam, our most expensive meal was US$5 per person, and most were more like US$3.50 per person. Maybe we just ate in cheap restaurants, but the food was still very good. And does one tip the wait staff at a hotel buffet?
The big money project, though, is checking each bill's condition. Reportedly, even a tiny tear makes the bill unacceptable to people there, as does writing on the bill. I ended up pulling out about a dozen bills (mostly $1s) that seemed dodgy, including some that were just very worn.
On-line check-in was a bit of a trial. The Korean Air website is optimized for Internet Explorer, which in their case seems to mean it does not really work with anything else. Since the Mac has no IE, and the Windows netbook has no printer, this was a bit of a nuisance. It turned out that I had to shrink the browser text size (using "ctl-minus") to be to able to complete the forms and print the passes. We managed to get two seats together with one on the aisle, not near the restrooms, and since the center is only four across, we should not have anyone climbing over us during the night.
As they say, if it's not one damn thing, it's another. Luckily I checked my new black pants the day before the trip, because they had a sticker saying they were "over-dyed" and to wash before wearing!
January 27: Clearly, one drawback of this trip is the fourteen-plus-hour flight from JFK to Seoul, with another six hours to Phnom Penh. But when your destination is literally on the other side of the globe (though at least still in the Northern hemisphere), you have very little choice.
We had been told to arrive at JFK three-and-a-half hours before flight time, which would have been 8:30. We arrived about 7:45, and discovered the check-in counter was not even open yet!
Check-in and security was very fast--we were the first in line for the day. We got two seats including an aisle seat on the Seoul->Phnom Penh flight. It got even better--one of our seats on had no seat in front of it, which meant a whole lot of leg room, and the other had an empty seat next to it! (The drawback was that I had to seat pocket in front of me to put things in, or seat to put things under. There was a pocket, etc., but it was about three feet in front of me. Luckily I was able to share Mark's space.)
The rod in my leg meant I had to go through the body scanner rather than the metal detector, but it looked as if the former was being used for everyone anyway.
There were some interesting entertainment choices, including a 45-minute documentary on "Math and the Rise of Civilization--Part 4: The World in Motion, Differential and Integral Calculus" (!), "Angkor, The Land of Gods Part 2: Angkor Thom", "The Hidden Lives of Works of Art--Raphael", "High Art of the Low Countries", and "Prophets of Science Fiction--Jules Verne".
"Angkor, The Land of Gods Part 2: Angkor Thom" was not just a tour of Angkor Thom ("Great City"--Angkor Wat means "Great Temple"), but also had a historical recreation of the Naval Battle of Tonle Sap (1181), called the most significant battle in Cambodian history, and a CGI transformation of the current ruins to their original appearance in the 12th century. And of course it was ideal for us to watch on this trip.
Jayavarman VII was the monarch who built Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple in the center of it. He seems to be the equivalent of George Washington in terms of importance to Khmer history. He followed Sriyavarman II.
A note on "Khmer": The Cambodian people are the Khmer, the culture is the Khmer culture, and so on. The Khmer Rouge were the "Red Khmer" or Communists, and because that is how we are most familiar with the word "Khmer", it probably has negative connotations with a lot of people, but it is the correct word.
"The Hidden Lives of Works of Art--Raphael" was a documentary of a two-day session at the Louvre where they took all the Raphaels in their collection, removed them from their frames and protective glass coverings, set them all on easels at eye level, and had dozens of art experts from all over the world come in and examine and discuss them.
Lunch was bi-bim-bap, a traditional Korean dish. (Well, they also had Western choices, but why pick those?) Bi-bim-bap is meat and vegetables mixed with rice, hot pepper paste, and sesame oil. It came with seaweed soup, pickles, and orange wedges. I guess the one variety of pickles is the airline equivalent of ban-chan, the half-dozen small dishes of savories served with Korean meals. Oddly, the meal did not come with chopsticks, but they did have them for the asking.
We dozed a little, but no solid sleep. It is not clear what the best approach to changing twelve time zones is.
January 28: This is probably as good a time as any to switch days.
Yet another opportunity for confusion when traveling long distances in this modern world is the question of medications. When one takes pills that need to be taken specifically in the morning (say, because they are supposed to be on an empty stomach), and one flies halfway around the world, what does one do? Twenty-four hours after the last morning's pills is the evening, and vice versa. This was not a problem when it took days or weeks just to cross the ocean--you could adjust gradually. And people did not take as many pills then. Anyway, neither of us are taking medications that are that time-critical, so we will just skip taking anything on the plane, and take our morning pills on our first morning in Cambodia. Coming home, we will take morning pills in Hanoi, then take then again right before our morning landing at JFK.
Korean Air does some very nice things. They serve the children's meals first, which keeps them quiet and also gives everyone else a heads-up that food is coming. And in the morning, they do not just flip all the cabin lights on; they start with pink lighting between the windows and the overheads, then gradually bring up the cabin lights over a period of about fifteen minutes. Then after the meal, they dimmed the lights somewhat for those who wanted to go back to sleep.
We landed early in Seoul for our connection to Phnom Penh. This makes South Korea another country that goes on the "maybe it counts as a country we have visited and maybe it doesn't" list. (We do get to put Cambodia firmly on the "visited" list, and we had already visited Vietnam.)
(Someone pointed us to the "Travelers Century Club" list. On that list we would hit a maximum number of 71, rather than 68, because they count Alaska and Hawai'i separately from the continental United States, the Galapagos Islands separately from Ecuador, and Turkey in Asia separate from Turkey in Europe, but they do not count the United Nations.)
The music being played while we taxied to the terminal (i.e., docked) was "The Blue Danube" (the docking music from 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Incheon Airport is a civilized airport, which is to say it has free carts (at least in the international area), free WiFi, and security that does not make you take off shoes or belts. We checked our email (no bigees, but we may not have WiFi for a couple of days in Phnom Penh, so it seemed worth checking, and I guess it has been almost a day since we last checked. Incheon also has outlets you can use, and though all the ones I saw were 220V, they had signs saying to ask for 110V.
Even though the visa lines were a bit confused, we still got our visas and luggage and were out of the airport in Phnom Penh faster than we will be out of JFK when we get home. We got to our hotel room and had our luggage by 23:45.
Our hotel was the InterContinental Phnom Penh, which is as modern as hotels in the US, with a really great breakfast buffet. (This is may be an indication that this is a tourist hotel rather than a business hotel, but who knows? At any rate, it certainly makes sense to put tour groups in a place with a great breakfast buffet.)
January 29: Breakfast was an enormous buffet, with Western, Chinese, Japanese, and southeast Asian food; an egg station; a noodle station; a juicing station, fruit, ice cream, and who know what else. I doubt all the hotels will have this wide a selection. When they brought the coffee, I thought at first they had already added the milk, but it was just the foam on the top. It was very good.
After breakfast was the orientation meeting. Our tour director, Pitaya Yingmahisaranond (hereafter known as Peter) Peter started with the climate (which initially sounded to me like "crime rate"!). This is the dry season but there is still high humidity. We should drink lots of water.
We will be staying two nights in each hotel, except in Halong Bay (which is only one night). Peter said he would arrange a wake-up call an hour and a half before departure time, and our bags need to be outside the door forty-five minutes before departure time if we are changing hotels.
Tomorrow we leave at 7:00, because it is 300 kilometers to Siem Reap over local roads, so take at least 7 hours, with 2 rest stops. We should arrive in Siem Reap about 2PM if all goes well.
Peter talked about currency matters. There is no departure tax for either country. He said we should change about US$100 per person in Vietnam, but not to bother in Cambodia, since everyone took US dollars.
For internal Vietnam flights, the checked baggage was limited to twenty kilograms per person rather than some number of bags.
Dinner tonight would be an international buffet, and most (all?) included meals would be buffets.
In Cambodia there are tuk-tuks. In Vietnam there are metered taxis (reliable and unreliable, which means that the meter turns over faster than it should). There are no more cyclos for regular use in Vietnam. We will have tourist cyclo rides in Hué and Hanoi. Peter warned us that he will have paid the cyclo drivers already, and a tip of $2-$3 per person per cyclo (from us) is reasonable.
We get one bottle of water in the room and two bottles on the bus per person per day at no extra charge. Seat rotation is by moving forward by couples one seat each day. (This never really happened. The fact that we kept changing buses, and not all of them had seat numbers, meant it was difficult to figure out where you were supposed to be. And some people preferred the back, while others preferred the front.) At night outside the hotels use bug spray. In Hoi An, Mrs. Bon across the street from the hotel does laundry for about VND10,000 per piece, but we should use only plastic bags, not the cloth hotel bags.
In markets and such, bargaining is de rigueur (yuck!). Peter suggested offering half what is asked, and compromising around 60%-70%. Shops have higher quality items than markets. Always wash and peel fruit; use hand cleaner before eating.
As far as tipping, Peter suggested collecting from each of us US$20 for the hotel porters, the mini-buses in Angkor, three boat trips, and the waiters in local restaurants for group meals, rather than everyone doing it separately. This is easier, but it does rather make it look like he is tipping rather than us. Still, these tips are all handed out at the ends of our stay (well, except for the hotel arrival porters) and would not do us much good, but will build up good will for Peter, who will be dealing with these people again. One wonders why the tour company does not just raise the tour price US$20 and include all these tips that they suggested in the first place.
Our first stop was the Royal Palace, which is actually an entire complex of buildings, gardens, and so on. We saw the Throne Room, the Silver Pagoda, and a couple of other buildings, as well as stupas and gardens. We could not enter the Throne Room, nor could we take pictures of it, even from the outside.
One unfortunately common sight is beggars, usually missing limbs. This is obviously the result of the thousands of land mines buried in Cambodia. And while one wants to provide help, the books all point out that there are thousands of such people, and many have found jobs through various rehabilitation groups. Giving to beggars, the books say, may mean that begging becomes a more remunerative job that something actually productive, and just encourages people to stop working and beg instead. This, clearly, is something each person has to decide for himself.
We passed a statue celebrating friendship between Cambodia and Vietnam, in honor of the fact that Vietnam was the country which finally came in and defeated the Khmer Rouge. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks the demonstrations that started as protests for better working conditions have acquired an anti-Vietnamese tone, so the statue has a bit of an ironic feel now.
The next stop was the National Museum. This was much smaller than one would expect a National Museum to be, with only six galleries. Had we been on our own, we would have probably spent a couple of hours. That would have been more time than the hour we spent here with the tour, but we would probably have allotted four hours for it and ended up with a lot of free time. The statuary, especially of the Angkor Period, is basically Hindu, so we were able to recognize a lot of the subjects. There were some interesting ways to identify pre-Angkor versus Angkor. The pre-Angkor Ganesha is a little slimmer, with no adornments; the Ganesha of the Angkor period is fatter, with a belt and necklace as well.
During the Khmer Rouge period, the Museum was not damaged or looted, but merely locked up and ignored. After that period ended, they reopened the Museum and found it two meters deep in bat guano. Apparently there is a unique species of bat that had taken over the Museum. They finally cleared out the two million (!) bats, which now live in the trees around the Museum. This had been the largest number of bats inhabiting a man-made structure.
Many of the statues look Egyptian, in pose, in garments, and in the shape of the head and eyes. There are also Ganeshas, garudas, and other statues clearly not Egyptian.
After this we went to what they called the Central Market, but which is actually named the New Grand Market (Psah Thom Thmey) with an Art Deco central building. There was the usual tourist tat, but we managed to find the meat and produce areas, which were much more interesting, and bought some candies and a tin of Danish cookies. There were also fancier stores in the central area, which was a permanent structure rather than just awnings and such.
Restrooms in Cambodia vary between Western style and squat toilets (though apparently there are some with half-height toilets as well). There is often a charge ("donation") for public toilets, and my suspicion is that none of them handle toilet paper well, since most have a hose with water sprayer next to them. I think you are supposed to use the spray to clean yourself and the small amount of tissue they give you to wipe the water dry, then throw out the tissue in a waste basket.
Driving around we could see masses of electrical power wires strung everywhere, tapped into, etc. It is a typical scene in cities in developing countries, though there are similar scenes in parts of the United States as well. It seems to be only European countries who went in for burying power cables.
Our final stop was the Museum of Genocide, covering the period from 17 Apr 1975 to 7 Jan 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were finally defeated. This is set up in a high school that was used as an interrogation and torture center. I started through this, but the intensity of it made me give up and wait outside.
Our local guide, Kim, had her own story to tell. She lost her entire family, but managed to escape to Vietnam. It was only a couple of hundred kilometers, but it took her seven months to get there, taking refuge in villages along the way.
We returned to the hotel about 15:00 and had a chance to rest up before the bus left at 17:30 for our welcome dinner at the Tonle Bassac Restaurant. This was a very large buffet restaurant, with hundreds of selections. The most "exotic" thing I had was probably pork intestine, but I also had fresh spring roll, seafood soup, fried mushrooms (and different sorts of mushrooms than we are used to seeing), grilled chicken, grilled beef, Amok Crab (a local dish), barbecued pork rib, water apple, sopapilla, jackfruit, and a bunch of other stuff I could swear I had written down but cannot find and cannot remember, along with an Angkor Beer. (I am not a beer drinker back home, but when traveling, and especially in Asia, it is often the best choice.) Mark got a Pokka, which was a lychee juice drink.
January 30: Leaving the hotel this morning, we got stuck in a traffic jam. This one went as far as the farmer's market, then things got better (on our side--the other direction became the traffic jam). All along the roads and rivers, and in the yards of houses, there are piles of trash that no one seems to worry about. (There are no signs saying, "The next mile of this road is maintained by the Angkor Wat Rotary Club.")
There is some progress though. They are widening the road, although not everywhere; apparently eminent domain is not absolute here. Mostly what one sees are rice fields, cattle, houses on stilts, and all those things that we think look so scenic from a bus but would never want to deal with on a daily basis.
We made a rest stop and I bought a Cambodia refrigerator magnet for my sister-in-law. (I am assuming she is the collector, since my brother never collected them in all the years before he got married.)
Peter had set up his laptop as a WiFi hotspot, but only three people could use it at once. While we were sitting here, I turned on my Kindle to see if I could get on. He had turned off his laptop, but a network called "giantibis8" appeared, and almost immediately after a giant tour bus labeled "Giant Ibis" drove up. That must have been a fancier tour.
We stopped at Skuon, also known as the "Spider Village" because the people there eat a lot of insects and other arthropods. They season them and fry them, but for some reason most of the people on the tour were not interested in trying them. Taking pictures of all the trays of fried bugs, yes, but not actually partaking. Only two people were willing to try them--yes, you guessed it. Mark and I had Peter ask if we could get a "sampler pak" (the offerings were sorted by bug type, just like produce or deli meats would be). We got a small baggie of a variety, including a large spider, for US$1. The caterpillars were a little sweet, the crickets a little crunchy, and the cockroaches a problem: they had a hard carapace and sharp points. There must be a special way to eat them (like lobsters). There were also locusts, and the spider (a tarantula?).
As I noted, we were the only two who tried them, so for the rest of the trip, we were "the ones who ate the bugs," or just "the bug-eaters." (I suggested that Mark should have told the men that the bugs made me horny, just to annoy them. :-))
After this we arrived at the Banyon Temple and Sunset Temple (at Pre Rup). The Sunset Temple was very steep, with crumbling steps and no handrails, so I ended up pretty much climbing it on all fours--and I was not the only one doing this. We did get there in time to see the sunset over the jungle; since there are only a limited number of temples one can climb to the top of, these are prime sunset-viewing destinations. (They may also be prime sunrise-viewing destinations, but we are not getting up that early.)
Our hotel was the Royal Anghor Resort & Spa. It was very nice, and unlike US hotels of similar quality, the restaurant is quite reasonably priced (which is good, as we are a bit of a captive audience for dinner). On the down side, the breakfast buffet is very limited, and mostly carbohydrates. The room suffers from the flaw of a lot of non-US hotel rooms: it is not very well-lit. This is probably because we are just used to extravagant lighting. There is WiFi, but it is so slow it is frequently nearly useless.
January 31: Today was the big day: Angkor Wat.
The problem is that there is so much to see and write about, but also that so many people have already written about it. So here's my plan: I am going to tell you to go read all of them. (In part this is because I have let this log go almost a year and it is hard to remember details.)
I will, however, say that of course we saw the most famous bas-relief, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which was magnificent. One could spend an hour just examining the detail in this wall alone. Alas, no tour is going to give you that much time.
I will also report that I climbed to the top of the highest temple. It is three levels up, with over 100 steps (42 meters), the last set (11 meters) very steep, but with a railing. This is because they have installed a modern set of stairs over the original in order to protect the original steps from the thousands of tourists climbing them, and not just climbing, but climbing in hard-soled shoes and boots.
We spent only two-and-a-half hours at Angkor Wat (8:30-11:00). One could spend days, but there are many other temples, not as well-known, but well worth seeing. Only if one decides to spend a couple of weeks or more in Siem Reap could one do the entire complex any sort of justice.
After this we went to Ta Pronh (Ta Prohm), a temple in the complex not restored, but left in the state in which it was found. We would see more like this tomorrow at Banteay Srei.
After lunch, we had a bus ride through more areas with piles of trash decorating the landscape. At Tonle Sap, I had to crab-walk onto the boat for our boat ride. Tonle Sap is southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake (and river system) and is unusual because its flow reverses twice a year. As a result this makes it very valuable both as a fishing area and for growing rice, so one sees a lot of people living on it, either in stilted homes, or on houseboats in floating villages.
There are downsides. When the lake rises, the garbage lying around gets snared in trees and remains there after the lake falls. (I found myself thinking of some of that as possible scenes for Life After People, with plastic bags.)
As an additional environmental/safety issue, lots of people seem to be selling gasoline in containers such as re-used Hennessey Black Label bottles.
On the way back, ther was a traffic jam, which just indicates that "progress" is very rapid in this area.
In the evening there was a cultural show.
February 1: We started today with a visit to Banteay Srei, which is one of the temples left overgrown by the jungle. (For some temples, the government has decided not to clear away the jungle and reconstruct them, but to leave them as they were when they were "discovered" by the French in the 19th Century. Of course, the French did not discover these temples; the Khmer always knew they were there.) I think they said that Banteay Srei was used in Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, but since I have not seen that movie, I cannot be sure.
What is true is that the whole thing looks very romantic and mysterious, so naturally there was a crowd at the entrance posing for photos (including group photos). This was the temple from which in the 1930s Andre Malraux removed the heads of the statues and tried to ship them to France. Luckily, they were intercepted and he spent some time in jail. (Not enough, in my opinion, and when he got out and returned to France, they made him the Minister of Culture! Just when you think maybe we are too hard on the French, you find a new reason to dislike them.)
The carvings here are fantastic, with some of the best over the temple's library building, which is of course only reasonable. :-)
One problem here was that our local guide, Sim, tended to move at a fast pace, not hold up anything to make him easy to spot in the crowd, and not check to see if he had lost anyone. The result was that by the time we got to the end, only a half dozen or so were still with him. Luckily, Peter rounded up the rest of us. Then when we regrouped, people wanted to see some specific carvings Sim's group had made it to, so another half dozen of us followed him again--and four of us lost him at the first turning!
Eventually we all got back to the bus and the hotel, and packed to leave, then had lunch and went to Artisans of Angkor. The latter is the sort of thing described as a workshop when you see various crafts techniques, but it is really a glorified shopping stop. This is especially true since whenever we have gone to one of these, it seems as though there are only one or two people doing any sort of handicrafts. There is always some good reason--it is Sunday, it is Saturday, it is Tet, it is August, whatever--but I definitely get the feeling that not all the stuff sitting in the shop was made there. (And I do not mean just in this shop, but all such shops.)
We had an 18:30 flight to Saigon, so by the time we got to the hotel and checked in, it was after 21:00. Some people say Tet is an interesting time to visit Vietnam, but it also means that a lot is closed. In our case, there was one restaurant near the hotel open (and not late enough for when we arrived) and the grocery store near the hotel was also closed. It is sort of like Christmas in the West, but lasting several days.
The official name of the city is Ho Chi Minh City, often abbreviated HCMC, but the residents still prefer Saigon, and since that is easier to type, I will probably stick with that.
I noticed when we came through immigration, the man in front of us took a long time and then suddenly things seemed to speed up, right after he appeared to "tip" the immigration official. Mark's processing also seemed slow, but I think eventually the official realized that he was not going to be getting a tip, so he finished up with Mark and I got processed fairly quickly.
Although even the latest information from the tour company indicated StarCity Hotel, we ended up at Vissai Saigon Hotel instead. The room has a lot of problems. First of all, it is one of those that has a window between the sleeping area and the bathroom. From the beds you get a great view of the toilet if no one remembers to close the blinds. But even with the blinds closed, if someone turns on the bathroom light at night, it lights up the sleeping area as well. The room requires putting the key card in a slot to turn on the electricity, so if you want to recharge anything while you are out of the room, you need a second card. And all the ceiling lights are on one circuit, so you cannot turn off the lights over the bed and leave the lights over the desk on. And finally, there are very few outlets, and two of those did not work, so to use the computer, we needed to unplug the television.
We decided we were more tired than hungry, and went to sleep instead of ordering room service (which was actually quite reasonably priced).
February 2: The breakfast was bigger than Siem Reap, but very disorganized. The food was cold, the cheese was old (it looked as though some of the slices were left over from the previous day), and if you wanted coffee in a reasonable amount of time, you had to go over to the waiters' area and figure out from which pot to pour your own.
Today was our Mekong cruise. This was a half-day tour; a description of the full-day tour including Mekong cruise that we took in 2001 can be found at http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/vietnam.htm#mekong. This one was included in our package, though brochures for full-day tours from Saigon seem to indicate they run about US$70 now. In 2001 ours cost US$7--including lunch!
On the way, our local guide Thuy talked about the history, economy, etc., of Vietnam. Regarding the war, she says that people were not to blame, the governments were. In describing the end of the war, she always used the phrase "my country two become one." The economy seems to be at least somewhat capitalist, with private ownership of many businesses and plots of land, and people responsible for paying for education (even in primary school), health care, and so on. Thuy was fairly frank about high levels of corruption in government and the lack of freedom of speech or of the press.
There were definitely changes since our last trip. The dock from which the boats left had a new building with a lot of souvenir stands, there was a new bridge to one of the islands, and so on.
We rode in a motorized boat and stopped on an island where they make coconut candy. Getting on and off the boat involved crumbly cement steps with no railing, though there was a piling one could use for support for some of the way. (My broken hip in 2013 has made me more cautious.)
We saw one of the pythons kept on the island--Mark even had it draped all over his shoulders. They have pythons because they make "snake wine," actually a much stronger liquor (at 29% alcohol) than wine. We tried some--there was not much taste, I guess something like vodka.
Then we saw how the coconut candy was made (the same as last time), and bought some durian coconut candy. Afterwards we had a snack of fruit and honey tea, made with the local honey. Last time we had visited the bee farm, but not this time. Then we returned to the boat and to the main dock, taking about two hours altogether for the boat tour. There were no boats paddled down smaller canals, but we did get to spend some time observing the scenery on the big canal. Still, the noise of the motor pretty much guaranteed we would not see what wildlife (if any) there was.
Lunch was at the Mekong Restaurant, with a family-style meal of pomelo salad with shrimp and pork, Mekong pancake stuffed with pork and shrimp, fried sticky rice ball, grilled pork, "elephant ear" fish, and fruit. "Elephant ear" fish as a whole fried fish is the local specialty. The first portions to each person were served wrapped with lettuce and other vegetables in a rice paper wrapper, to be dipped in a vinegar sauce. But there was a lot more fish, which was eaten by breaking off pieces of the fish skeleton and combing the meat out of the bones, either with one's fork or one's teeth.
I napped on the way back (it was about a two-hour drive each way). The initial itinerary called for a visit to a local market, but because of Tet they were all closed, so we ended up at a lacquerware factory instead. Bor-ing! One problem is that one item in a pattern in someone's home might look striking, but dozens in a showroom just look mass-produced.
After this we stopped for a half-hour to walk around the flower festival that was taking place as part of the Tet festivities. For this, several blocks of one of the main streets were cordoned off and the center filled with floral decorations. Along the sides were other displays, people making balloon animals, etc. One stretch even had an outdoor bookshop set up, probably as an outside display of a regular bookshop on that block. Unluckily (or perhaps luckily, given the short time we had) at that point we were on the opposite side of a bank of floral displays from it.
We got back to the hotel a little earlier than yesterday, but again only one restaurant was open and we were not that hungry. So we finished our trail mix and cookies and just rested up.
February 3: One woman had told other people on the tour that someone had recommended taking the extra toiletries (soap, shampoo, etc.) from the room and giving them to all the children who come up to you asking for money. According to what she heard, they are really happy to get them. Even assuming this is true, one "problem" is that in Vietnam, there were no children coming up to us asking for money. (And this was true all over Vietnam, not just Saigon.) There were some in Cambodia but Vietnam, though poor by United States standards, is much more prosperous than Cambodia. (It is sort of like in the Western Hemisphere, where Miami is richer than Puerto Rico, which is richer than Dominican Republic, which is richer than Haiti.)
The other problem--and this applies to conventions that collect these items for homeless shelters--is that the hotels provide these for their customers and expect a certain level of use. They budget based on this, and do not expect to be also supplying the local homeless shelter. If they wanted to do that, they could do it directly. If they suddenly discover the total cost for these items going up (for example, because 60% of the shampoos disappear every day instead of 10%), they may very well stop supplying them altogether.
While I am complaining, I will also complain about people who get on a tour bus and then stand in the aisle having a conversation with someone and blocking everyone else from getting on and settled.
Our first stop of the day was the Cu Chi Tunnels. The last time we were here we also visited these tunnels; see http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/vietnam.htm#tunnels. Peter showed us a documentary about the tunnels made in North Vietnam in 1967 or so, which was similar to the materials in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon (from last trip) in that it was very anti-American and pro-Viet Cong. It was reminiscent of early Soviet documentaries about how all the people supported the revolutionaries and so on, or even of World War II propaganda films in the United States.
The tunnels we visited last time were at Ben Duoc; this time we went to Ben Dinh. The difference is that the tunnels at Ben Dinh are real, while (at least according to the Lonely Planet) the ones at Ben Duoc are reconstructions.
The entrance to the tunnel area is very different than the last time, though this is a different location. Still, the entrance (a standard pedestrian tunnel which may have gone under the road or something) looks as though it is fairly recent.
This time Mark went in the hidden entrance. This is a square hole in the ground about a foot on each side. To get in you lower yourself in, then hold the disguising cover over your head (by handles on its underside) and squat down. (It is only the top of the entrance that is that small. Right below the lip it widens out so when you squat down there is someplace for your knees and tush to go.) To do this, Mark took off his vest, camera, etc.--one wants to be as compact as possible. The last time he did not try the entrance, because that was before he lost sixty pounds on his diet.
There were still displays of the traps and somewhat explicit murals of how they worked, but I seem to remember there having been even more graphic line drawings last time and those were absent. I may be misremembering, or they may be only at the other tunnels, or they may have been removed.
The souvenir shop does still sell toys made from old ammunition shells (or maybe new ammunition shells, since they still offer a firing range as well). The Zippo lighters no longer have names and serial numbers on them, probably because those were too easy to verify as fake (or if they were real, very likely to get the families of the original owners protesting about this commercialization of their relatives' belongings), and they all say "Cu Chi". They do have years (e.g., "72-73"), which I guess is supposed to make them look "authentic."
Lunch was at a local restaurant, the Ben Nay Restaurant, with a family-style meal of legume soup with shrimp, grilled chicken with fried sticky rice, dice beef (with vegetables in a spicy sauce), steamed basa with ginger and onion, sautéed morning glory with garlic, fried rice with egg, and pineapple.
After lunch we visited the Reunification Palace, which is really just a government/diplomatic building, and nowhere near as interesting as, say, the War Remnants Museum (see http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/vietnam.htm#warremnants). But it is less controversial. (It is considered the site of the end of the Vietnam War, when a tank crashed through the main gate on 30 April 1975.)
After this, we went to the square where Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office are. This was an opportunity to be pestered by vendors, but a lot of people had been really eager for a chance to buy stamps and mail postcards.
And finally, we drove past the United States Consulate, which was the same building as the United States Embassy was during the Vietnam War.
Then it was off to the airport for our flight to Danang, with all the boring check-in, security, and so on. Even after landing, we still had to take our bus to Hoi An. By the time we got to our hotel, it was after 21:00, so we ended up once again eating dinner in the hotel.
Needless to say, we saw very little of Danang from the bus, except the very colorful "Dragon Bridge". Seen by day, it has a yellow/golden sculpted metal dragon along it; at night it is brightly lit. In fact, Danang seems to have lots of neon, modern artistic lighting on bridges, etc. The Dragon Bridge and one other bridge are new since we were last here.
We passed a Crowne Plaza hotel, along with its casino, which is only for foreigners. This is the sort of thing that the Communists in Cuba were upset about in the 1950s--the use of their country as a decadent destination for foreigners with the local people being treated only as lower-class servants. But now it is the Communist government doing it--George Orwell's Animal Farm is alive and well.
Our hotel was the Hoi An Hotel, an older hotel that was modernized. (One result was not enough electrical outlets.) Everyone was friendly, but registration was very confused, with some people being assigned rooms already occupied, and others being unable to read the room numbers given them. The blankets are too short for the bed.
February 4: (A description of our previous visit to Hoi An can be found at http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/vietnam.htm#hoian.)
Our walking tour of the Old City went to many of the same places we did last time: the Museum, the Quan Cong Temple, the Chinese Assembly Hall, and the Japanese Bridge, as well as the Central Market and the shops. In part this is because there are only a limited number of specific attractions, which are included on a single admission ticket.
One change since our last visit (2001) is that motorbikes are prohibited in the Old Town during certain hours. I am pretty sure that the motorbike taxis last time picked us up at our hotel during what are now "quiet" hours.
Another change is that all the used bookshops and book exchanges seem to have closed. There are a couple of shops selling new books (pretty much all pirated editions, but of a much higher quality than we saw last time we were here). There are also shops selling DVDs--again, all pirated, with not even the pretense of a label on the disc, just a blank in a plastic sleeve, then wrapped in a cardboard label to size of a DVD case and apparently photocopied from an Asian release, then the whole thing inside another plastic sleeve.
We had recommendations from TripAdvisor for a few restaurants, so we decided to go to the one in the Old Town, because if it was still closed for Tet we had some other options we knew of. But Ancient Faifo (not to be confused with another restaurant called just plain Faifo) was indeed open. Mark had some sort of noodles with pork and soup; I had grilled seafood (shrimp, squid, mussels, and fish). With dessert ("Trio Cake", which was three small pieces of different cakes) and beverages, it came to VND570,600, or about $29. For Vietnam that seems pretty expensive, though back home that would be quite reasonable.
After lunch, we walked past Vinh Hung (143 Tran Phu), the hotel where we stayed last time we were here. I think I know now why the taxi had such a hard time finding us last time: although all the paperwork for the hotel had said "Ving Hung II", this was actually "Vinh Hung". Vinh Hung II is outside the Old Town.
We also picked up some cookies and candy for snacking, but mostly just wandered around for a while. We saw the end of a boat race (with paddlers, not speed boats) on the river, probably part of the Tet festivities.
Eventually we went back to the hotel, which was very convenient to the Old Town. As usual, we were too full from the late lunch we had to have dinner.
February 5: Today we drove from Hoi An to Hué. (Well, the bus driver drove; we passenged.) This was a similar trip to the one we took in 2001 ( http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/vietnam.htm#triptohue) but there were definite differences.
For one thing, this time we did stop at the Marble Mountains. But rather than have to climb 156 steps to the top to see the grotto, we could take an elevator. There was still some climbing in the grotto, but that was manageable (or avoidable--there were a couple of sections that were more like rock-climbing than stair-climbing). The carvings and statues were very impressive and worth seeing, which we were not able to do the first time.
Then we made a stop at China Beach where we got to wade in the South China Sea (a.k.a. the Eastern Sea--Vietnam is not keen on calling it the South China Sea). The only drawback is that one had to clean the sand off one's feet very thoroughly before putting one's socks and shoes back on, or one spent the day in sandy socks.
In Danang, we saw the Dragon Bridge in the daytime and visited the Cham Museum, where we saw a variety of Hindu-inspired sculpture from the Cham Empire, including what they claim is one of only two standing Ganesh statues in the world. I find it hard to believe there are only two.
The Museum itself was quite small--about the size of the Cambodian National Museum. We are so used to enormous museums in the United States, Britain, France, etc., that we do not realize this is not true everywhere. It is especially ironic that museums in the West are able to be as large as they are because they filled themselves with art taken from places like Cambodia and Vietnam, and Egypt, and China, and all those countries with smaller museums. (It is also true that Cambodia has a huge amount of Khmer art--but it is sitting in Angkor Wat and other original sites, and they are not going to destroy the sites to fill museums.)
Lunch was family-style at the Apsara Restaurant: beef and vermicelli salad, simmered pork in clay pot, steamed pink fish with soy sauce, sautéed water spinach with garlic, "soup of sour with shrimp" (hot and sour soup, I suppose), steamed rice, and watermelon.
After lunch we drove toward the Hai Van Pass, but instead of driving over the pass the way we did last time, we used the new six-kilometer tunnel under it. This avoided all the traffic problems and the persistent vendors at the top (assuming they are still there).
Dinner in Hué was at the Banana Flower Restaurant: crab meat and shrimp soup, banana flower salad with shrimp and pork, spring rolls, roasted duck, pork caramel, fried fish with lemongrass, grilled eggplant, steamed rice, and dessert.
Our hotel was the Mondial Hotel Hué. As we were getting our bags, workman came around to pound nails into the door. (The alarm in door goes off each time we enter the room.) Again, there are not enough electrical outlets. Yet, it seems petty to complain, but the problem is that when you are traveling, you only have a limited time to recharge or use everything, so you need to be able to do everything at once, e.g., if you need a CPAP overnight, that ties up an outlet that you cannot use to charge something overnight.
February 6: Today we took cyclos to the Imperial City. A description of our previous visit to the Imperial City can be found at http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/vietnam.htm#imperialcity, and indeed there was not much difference between then and now. The cyclo ride was the only difference, which wound through a couple of neighborhoods and gave us time to see a little more of the city. Though one of the guides claimed that the only cyclos left were tourist cyclos, I did see a couple of cyclos carrying "freight." Maybe the guide meant only in Saigon.
After the Imperial City we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda, which is at the monastery where the first monk to immolate himself during the Vietnam War was from. This, too, we had seen last time.
After the pagoda, we boarded the boat for our short Perfume River cruise. A description of our previous Perfume River cruise can be found at http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/vietnam.htm#perfumeriver, which was a much more comprehensive tour. This one just took us downriver from the pagoda to a dock in town.
The name "Perfume River" is a bit of an anachronism. It used to be that there was a forest with very fragrant trees upriver and the scent would come down with the river. The war destroyed the forest, and hence the perfume as well. Now it is just another river.
Then there was another market stop (at the Dong Ba Market, according to the itinerary, but a lot of the market stops have been changed due to some markets being closed for Tet). As with many of the markets we stop at, there are a lot of tourist-oriented shops, and then further back in the market, more stuff aimed at locals (like shops selling produce, or meat, or plastic bins, or toilet paper). This business of bargaining may make sense for locals, but for tourists it is just crazy. Most of the books say things like, "The vendor will ask for about twice what you should end up paying." That may be true some places, but in the market in Hué, I saw "iPho" t-shirts that were US$3 in Hoi An. The vendor punched into her calculator what I thought was "$3.5" for one or "$3.0" each for two, but when I took out US$6, it turned out she meant $35 or $30! That is just plain crazy and I told her so, saying they were US$3 in Hoi An. (I probably should have said they were US$2.) We eventually settled on US$8 for two, still higher than Hoi An, but then Hué is the big city. I also got some drip coffee makers for friends. Those were much more reasonably priced, probably because they are not tourist merchandise.
February 7: Today we had a morning flight, which meant we could sleep in a bit, as we were not leaving the hotel until 9:00. (Most days we leave for touring at 8:00.) We got to Hanoi about 12:00, met our final guide (Mr. Nam) and our final driver (Mr. Hing) and his assistant (Mr. Sun). I am not sure why in some locations the drivers have assistants and in others not.
Nam (I will drop the "Mr." for here) gave us the usual introductory talk about the area, etc. He said that Halong Bay was one of the "Seven Natural Wonders of the World." This turns out to be the results of an uncontrolled poll by a commercial venture, which also did the "Seven Manmade Wonders of the World." In both cases, massive multiple voting made the results meaningless. (In the case of one of the winners, there were about twice as many votes recorded from the home country as the entire population. In Brazil, there was a huge advertising campaign telling people to text to the phone number to "Vote for Christ"--the statue atop the mountain.) So it may be beautiful, but not necessarily in the top seven. (It is, however, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)
Tomorrow Never Dies was supposed to be shot in Halong Bay (also The Man with the Golden Gun). In both cases the Vietnamese government would not allow it, so Thailand got them instead. The first American film shot in Vietnam was Three Seasons, which Nam recommended. Indochine was also shot here. The Vietnamese themselves like American action movies--at least the men do. The women (according to Nam) like South Korean movies, which Nam described as "two ladies love one man or two man love one lady and finally they all die of cancer." The last South Korean film I saw was The Host, and this hardly sounds like a description of that film.
Nam then switched to politics and economics. The first big turning point for Vietnam came in 1986, with the "New Renovation" and a new president called "Mr. Speaking and Doing". He ended government subsidies, and returned the land to farmers, giving them the opportunity to keep the income from their farms (less income tax). In just a few years, Vietnam went from not having enough rice to feed itself to exporting rice.
Then in 1995, the United States recognized Vietnam and suddenly all sorts of global economic opportunities opened up. We passed a lot of factories for major non-Vietnamese companies, including a Samsung factory with a sign saying that it was the largest mobile phone factory in the world.
The houses here are all very narrow. That is because here, as in Amsterdam, houses used to be charged on frontage, not size.
Everywhere now we are seeing "weasel coffee," although it usually has a picture of a squirrel rather than a weasel. One brand is VND150,000 for 100g, which works out to $34 for a pound. That is much cheaper than the prices one hears for that sort of coffee, but then the authentic version involves civets, not weasels or squirrels. Civets are members of the family Viverridae and weasels are in the family Mustelidae, both of which are in the order Carnivora, while squirrels are in the order Rodentia. One might argue that once you are talking about making coffee from beans that have passed through the digestive track of some mammal, the precise mammal may not be that important, but it is important to be accurate.
We arrived in Halong City about 17:00. Our room at the Novotel Ha Long Bay had a balcony with a beautiful view of the bay. However, the view in the room was not as beautiful. There is a window between the bedroom and the bathroom; this must be a new thing--our resort hotel in Costa Rica had the same thing. But that at least had blinds one could close. This did not, which means if one person wants to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, the bedroom is flooded with light. While it is true that the toilet area does have an opaque door, it is the same door that closes off the whole bathroom area from the rest of the room, just swung in the opposite direction. So you can close off the toilet but only by leaving the rest of the bathroom open. We also could not remember which switches controlled which lights--it was not at all intuitive.
There was supposedly a night market somewhere nearby, but though we spent some time walking along the path through the shops and restaurants along the shore, we never found anything we would call a night market.
Dinner was once again a buffet.
February 8: Halong Bay was like a flash crowd; all the tour groups arrive at close to the same time.
Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate as much as we would have hoped. It was cold, and it was windy. The only good news was that it was not raining. We had not expected it to be this cold, and Mark ended up getting a souvenir T-shirt to put on as an extra layer, which helped.
The main attraction of the bay are the islands, or rather the karsts, hundreds of them covered with green foliage. The sun peeked out a couple of times, and it is more beautiful in good weather.
Another attraction are the caves, most inaccessible and unexplored. Thien Cung Cave (Cave of Heavenly Residence) is the one that all the tourist boats stop at, and you climb up to the cave entrance (on steps that are easier than the temples'). Inside are stalactites and stalagmites, as well as winding passages and other typical cave features.
After the cruise was a seafood lunch: shrimp, pork spring rolls, squid, butterfish, rice, cabbage, and banana.
Driving around we still saw some ISO 9001 signs, as well as the ubiquitous URLs. On the other hand, people still work fields by hand and with water buffalo; the contrast is striking.
As seems usual, everything was dusty and there were piles of trash and rubble. It was a long drive to Hanoi. This is one reason we had not visited Halong Bay when we went to Vietnam on our own in 2001--it was out of the way and would have added at least three days to the trip.
Dinner was at Quan An Ngon, a highly recommended restaurant serving authentic food only two blocks from the hotel. We had grilled clams, beef ngon style, and noodles with beef, for about US$20.
Our hotel was the Mövenpick Hotel Hanoi. It is very modern, but the rooms have some odd touches. The bathroom again has a window to the bedroom offering "interesting" views and the light switches are very confusing, as are the bathtub/shower functions.
February 9: The hotel had a very nice breakfast buffet, not big, but what they had was excellent. Mark said the hot chocolate was some of the best he ever tasted.
We visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, an obligatory visit in Hanoi. A description of this from the trip that we took in 2001 can be found at http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/vietnam.htm#hochiminh. Nothing has changed.
We also visited the "House on Stilts" which we had skipped last time, and the "One-Pillar Pagoda".
From there we went to the Temple of Literature, which was full of people making offerings for their (or their children's) success on upcoming exams.
We then had a walk around the Old Quarter, during which people kept getting separated from the group. This sort of thing is a nightmare for tour guides, but obviously not for those traveling on their own.
Dinner was at Quan An Ngon again, this time a seafood hot pot. Both meals were excellent. The restaurant is very crowded, but we did not have to wait either time, and the service was prompt and friendly. Most of the clientele seemed to be Vietnamese--it was not a totally "tourist" restaurant.
After dinner was a performance of the Water Puppets. A description of this from our last trip can be found at http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/vietnam.htm# waterpuppets.
February 10: We had the morning free, so we visited the Vietnam Womens Museum, which was rated the "Number 1" attraction in Hanoi in TripAdvisor (and was also only a short walk from the hotel). It was interesting, but I am not sure I would rate it as the prime attraction.
There was an emphasis on change over time, and I was reminded of the short film we saw about three generations of women in one family making gefilte fish. The grandmother bought the fish and chopped it by hand, the mother used a food processor, and the daughter bought it pre-made and opened the jar.
There was a section that talked about how Vietnam was now a market economy, with no food subsidies. They seemed to say that there was no tradition of ostentation, or going into debt, the way one sees in some other Asian (and other) cultures, and that there was an emphasis on honest practices.
A special exhibit (not easily found) was about the Mother Goddess.
Random observation: We express concern about the accumulation of power, but not of wealth; Communists express concern about the accumulation of wealth, but not of power. In actual fact, the two are connected, but we regulate power and Communists regulate wealth.
After this, we returned to the hotel and checked out. Then we got into our cyclos for a tour of the Old City. going past Cha Ca La Vong, a very famous fish restaurant that we ate at on our last trip.
The last stop was Hoa Lo (a.k.a. the "Hanoi Hilton"), the infamous prison where John McCain and many others were held during the Vietnam War. We had skipped this on our earlier trip, but it is apparently considered de rigueur for all tour groups.
After this we returned to the hotel, where we tipped the bus driver, including a couple of $2 bills in the amount. When we came down to dinner, Peter came to say that the driver wanted to know if we had any other $2 bills that we would be willing to trade for most common United States bills. We still had another sixteen $2 bills, which he was quite pleased to exchange for a $20, a $10, and two $1s. I have no idea how much profit he will make on them, but it is certainly more than I would have made by taking them home.
Our farewell dinner consisted of Vietnamese Noodles with Chicken, Meat Balls, Egg, and Mushrooms; Rolled Beef & Herbs in Rice Cake; Yam Bean, Chicken & Fresh Coconut Salad; Steamed Tiger Prawns with Coconut Milk; Steamed Rice; Char-Grilled Beef with Lemongrass; Stir-Fry with Cashew Nuts, Bell Pepper and Baby Corn; Pan-Fried Eggplant; Fresh Fruit; and Lotus Tea.
The return flights were nothing special. In Incheon, there was someone coming around the waiting area trying to convince people to check their carry-on bags, but when Mark said he had medical equipment in his, she immediately gave up and moved on.
Dinner on the plane was eel with rice, and jellyfish salad.
Evelyn C. Leeper (firstname.lastname@example.org)