All images and associated pages copyrighted © by Don Chesnut, 2006
I booked my flights from Lhasa, Tibet to Hanoi with my travel agent, Frances Woollam. She booked my stay in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand through Brendan Vacations (www.brendanvacations.com). They, in turn, booked certain segments with other regional travel services, including Indochina Services (www.indochina-services.com) and Pandaw Cruises (www.pandaw.com). All three services and my travel agent proved to be excellent. I will use them again on my next trip.
I traveled alone and in the hot and humid season when few other tourists were there; perfect for me.
The rain was heavy at times and many planes were delayed. My flight to Hanoi was supposed to be at 9:20 PM but it was delayed till midnight. I walked around the concourse for several hours. The flight was a little bumpy at lower altitudes. We landed in a heavy downpour and had to wait on the plane for an extra half hour till it slackened slightly. We then boarded a bus to the terminal. Although the rain was very heavy, it was warm and felt like taking a shower.
I went through passport control and then into the non-secure part of the terminal, it was then 1:30 am. I was very happy to see someone holding a sign saying "Chesnut". It was my tour lady, Lan (Nguyen Thi Lan). We had another 45 minute ride to the Hotel in the rain. By the time we got there the rain was just a sprinkle. Lan told me that there was a typhoon in Guangzhou that had caused the delays, and the rain we were experiencing in Hanoi was part of the same typhoon.
We had to awaken the staff of the hotel; it was 2:15 am when I checked in at the Sunway Hotel Hanoi (www.sunway-hotel.com). It's a 4 star hotel and very nice. I am to meet Lan and the driver at 9:30 for out tour (I gave them an extra half hour, it was supposed to start at 9. The room was very nice.
I got up at 7:30 (by habit) and took a shower. I filled out my laundry form and gave the dirty clothes to the housekeeper. I had a bunch. Then I went to the first floor (our 2nd). Breakfast is included. Wow! A very nice buffet and one could order eggs cooked any way. I had a big plate of fruit and homemade yoghurt and a croissant and coffee. I then had two eggs over easy, bacon and sliced baguette (?) and chili paste. According to signs, the water is drinkable.
I changed dollars at the desk and got over 3 million Daum; a bunch of bills and some coins. I met Lan at 9:30 and the driver (Quan) took us to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. It was very humid and sprinkling a bit. The lens of my film camera was fogged up, so I had to use the digital camera. We also went to the Ethnic Museum, the Museum of Art, the Confucian Museum of Literature dedicated to education. I was not allowed to take pictures in the Museum of Art, just the outside. We also went to the "Hanoi Hilton" where John McCain and 200 other pilots were imprisoned during the Viet Nam War. The prison was built by the French and held political prisoners during the first half of the 20th century. We drove all over the old town and I took some pictures along the streets. We ate at the Indochina Restaurant and had a very nice Vietnamese meal. Lan has a 2-year old daughter and her husband works at a tire plant. She is a Viet (cultural group) and a Buddhist. I showed her a picture of my girls and told her about Donald.
They dropped me off at the hotel by about 4:30 pm. According to the BBC, Hanoi was 33 degrees (in the lower 90's F), but it was very humid. Luckily, the cloud cover made the temperature relatively cooler than it normally would be. I took a shower and wore the same clothes I had been in earlier (my laundry won't be back till tomorrow). At 7:30, I went to the hotel restaurant and ordered Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup, which I love) and Argentinean filet mignon on petit fois gras in rice paper and also potato wedges and a glass of red wine. This was my first western meal in 3 weeks and it was surprisingly good.
By 8:30, it felt like midnight. Yesterday, I was awake for about 21.5 hours.
I woke up about 6:00 and got up, took a shower by 6:30. I went to breakfast at 7:00 and had a fruit plate with some cheese and a plate with three crepes with honey, orange marmalade and strawberry jam. It has been raining steadily since I woke up and visibility is less than a quarter mile. Today, we're supposed to drive for about 3-4 hours to Ha Long for a boat trip to the submerged pinnacle karst. It's going to be a long day. It will be hard to take pictures out the wet windows. I'm to meet them at 8:30. Maybe it won't rain the entire day (though it looks like it will). My laundry will not be back till about 11 am so I will wear the same clothes as yesterday. I left a 20,000 tip (big spender). By the end of breakfast, visibility is down to about 1/8 mile.
We drive to Ha Long Bay, a World Heritage site. It's a three-hour drive (160 km). We will be on a boat for 4 hours and then drive back.
They picked me up at 8:30 and it was raining. After about 45 minutes, the rain stopped, but it was still cloudy. We got on Highway 18 at Bac Ninh, northeast of Hanoi. At Sao Do, we stopped at a handicapped artisans' workshop where over a hundred (?) workers were painting, embroidering, making pottery, woodcarving, gem cutting and jewelry making. About 5 percent appeared to be handicapped. I bought Anne a souvenir. After we left there, I noticed karstic limestone hills on the south side of the road with quarries. I also noticed coal mines on the north side, plus a coal-fired power plant. I took pictures of the quarry, mines and power plant, centered around Mao Khe(?). Judging from the dip of the beds at the coal mines, it appears that the coal-bearing beds overly the limestone beds (unless there is faulting). This is the same situation with the Carboniferous rocks in the eastern USA.
We proceeded to Ha Long Bay, a coastal tourist town. There were hundreds of tour buses and crowds waiting to get on the tour boats to take the tourists on a trip around the bay and the many pinnacle (tower) karst islands. I thought I was in for a long wait in line. Lan went to get our tickets and came back, then talked to the gatekeeper. After a couple of minutes, we bypassed the long lines and proceeded to walk along the dock. The man told us to wait by a set of steps leading to one of the tour boats. A minute later, he led us onto a big boat, but walked to the back and got on another one. It was a little smaller. We sat down at tables in the covered part and the crew launched the boat. We were the only ones on it except for the crew (3). We proceeded at a slow pace to an island across the harbor. This island had a cave and we docked, and walked through the cave. I took a few pictures. It was very hot and humid and no breeze on the forested island. I bought a T-shirt and pin at the souvenir shop.
We got back on the boat. Lan's lunch was not included, so I offered to buy her lunch. We had crab, shrimp, deep fried spring rolls, squid and fish. We proceeded around many of the islands. The islands are submerged pinnacle karst. They obviously formed as pinnacles millions of years ago, long before the last interglacial sea level rise. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and well worth it! It's a beautiful area. The clouds had parted by then and I took many pictures. I wished that my family were here.
After four hours on the boat, we disembarked at the dock, got in the Isuzu and headed back to Hanoi. It started raining again, off and on.
I was dropped off at the hotel by 6:30. My laundry was back, so I started packing my little red backpack. I leave tomorrow. The clothes didn't smell much better, but they looked better.
I went down to the lobby bar and ordered a Hanoi beer, Halida and sat down to write in my journal. A Hanoi jazz quartet is playing and they're pretty good. The pianist is great. I'm the only person here. I'm stuffed from lunch, so probably will not eat tonight (it's not included anyway). I have a bag of lychees and a banana left from a roadside stand in Ha Long, in case I get hungry later.
When I signed up for this trip, I was expecting it to be a challenge. Tibet was a challenge and catching three planes in China was a challenge. So far this (Viet Nam) has been an easy trip. The hardest part is crossing the street. The temperature and humidity seem to be somewhat higher than in Guilin. I think my family would have been OK on this trip.
I went back up to my room and ate the rest of the lychees and banana and went to bed by 10.
I woke up and showered by 7 am and put on some clean clothes. I went down to breakfast and the room was packed by a new tour group. They were German or Scandinavian, but I couldn't make out which (I couldn't hear a clear conversation). I had a fruit plate, yoghurt, cheese, croissant and crepes. The white slices of fruit with black specks are called Dragon Fruit. The outside is rosy red with petal-like features. The pink skin is peeled off. I took a picture of it yesterday at a fruit stand. The fruit stand had two kinds of lychees, the regular type and another with long, soft "spines" (rambutan). I haven't tried that one yet. The bananas are good. They're picked ripe, unlike the bananas that we get. They have a bit more flavor. I tried to catch an elevator to my room, but every time that the doors opened, members of the tour group would rush in from behind and fill the elevator before I could get on. I finally took the stairs.
I was picked up and taken to the airport. It rained from the time I woke up till I got to the airport. The plane was late, so I waited an extra hour. I guess it was weather related; other flights were late too.
The flight was about an hour to Da Nang. I walked through the Da Nang airport and passed the baggage claim into the general arrivals area. I saw a tiny woman with a sign saying "Donald Chestnut." She was about 4'6" and her name was Oanh which is pronounced "won." She and the driver took me to the Cham Museum which had a lot of statuary from Hindu and Buddhist periods of the Cham or Champs people of central Viet Nam. She said she got her small size from the Cham; she is 1/2 Cham, 1/2 Viet. She is an English teacher at night and a tour guide in the day.
Then we went to Marble Mountain where a lot of stone carving is done. White and pink marble is carved in this region as well as multicolored alabaster. I bought some bracelets. Then we climbed the mountain and went through several caves and a 7-story pagoda.
It was very hot and humid and my shirt was thoroughly wet by the time they dropped me off at the Furama Danang Hotel (www.furamavietnam.com). This hotel has 3 swimming pools and a nice beach (with a bit of an undertow). It's a family-oriented hotel with a lot of Japanese families (it's Japanese owned). I went swimming on the beach and then in the pool. I swam till almost dark. Then I went to the "Indochina" restaurant at the hotel. I had a big bowl of spicy Pho (soup). I went back to my room and it started to rain heavily at 10. Good sleeping weather.
I got up at 7:00, took a shower and went to breakfast. Breakfast is included and they had a huge buffet with Vietnamese, Western and Japanese selections. I had some vegetables with fried noodles, some dim sum, 2 slices of California roll, 2 fruit plates with the usual fruit, but with dragon fruit, lychees, spiny lychee (rambutan), longan (like a small gray lychee), passion fruit, sapodilla, jackfruit, small banana and yellow mango. The rain had stopped sometime in the night and most of the sidewalks had dried in the sun. Looks like it will be a hotter day than yesterday.
The tide is high and the waves much more calm than yesterday. My nose is starting to give me problems, but my eyes are burning, so I think it is allergy related from all the tropical trees. Cicadas are singing as they were in China and Hanoi.
The driver and guide picked me up at 9 and we drove to Hoi An, also a World cultural site. The rain started and stopped along the way. We walked about a mile along several streets; visiting a museum, old home and several shops. I was soaking wet from the humidity, but the temperature wasn't too bad because the clouds blocked the sun.
After Hoi An, we drove through the countryside to My Son ("mee san"), up in the hills. My Son is the site of Hindu temples spanning many centuries, 0 AD to about 1400 AD. U.S. bombs had destroyed most of the site and bomb craters were still visible. A couple of temples weren't hit (out of 70). The earlier temples were made of brick with some carved stone ornamental features. The brick didn't have visible mortar, but something held them together. The last temple was built of carved sandstone, but it was only partially constructed due to expense and time for carving the stone.
After My Son, we drove to a village halfway back to Danang. Here, we entered a little restaurant, typical of where the locals eat. We had beef soup, which was delicious. They served a rice bread somewhat like a large tostada. This was broken and put into the soup. The entire meal for all three of us totaled about 3 dollars.
After we left the restaurant, it started raining. They dropped me off at the hotel and I went swimming in the surf in the rain. I was the only one on the beach. Lifeguard flags indicated that it was too rough, but I didn't see anything wrong with it. Then I went swimming in the pool.
After a lot of solo swimming, I worked up an appetite and went to eat in the hotel restaurant. I had Hue style soup and Lemon Grass Chicken.
I found out that they had Internet available here. I'm not sure how much it costs (per minute) but sent out several messages from my journal (Beijing and Tibet). I'm staying at a different hotel tomorrow and don't know if they have internet or not. I'll send e-mails as I can. It's still raining.
I got up at 7:00, took a shower and then had my usual fruit breakfast. The guide and driver picked me up at 9 and we took off for a 3-hour drive to Hue, over the mountain from Danang.
We stopped at two tombs for 19th and 20th century kings at Hue--Khai Dinh and Tu Duc. They were very picturesque.
Then we went to a local's restaurant and had noodle soup.
Next, in Hue ("hway"), we visited the sprawling Citadel. This place reminds me of the Forbidden City in Beijing; in fact, it was modeled after the Forbidden City. I took lots of pictures.
My hotel, La Residence (www.la-residence-hue.com), is just across the Perfume River from the citadel. I checked in and went swimming in the saltwater pool.
I walked around the hotel and found that they had free internet. I sent off several e-mails about the last part of my Tibetan trip. The tour guide came by to pick me up for dinner. We went to a little restaurant serving Banh Bao. This is a cassava product. There are several variations. Most are wrapped in banana leaves and then cooked. I unwrapped the leaves, and I saw a hot, gelatinous paste with bits of shrimp or other meat in it. It's actually quite good, but you won't find this style in most restaurants. After that, I went back to my hotel for the evening. I updated my journal and then realized that I had missed recognizing the 4th of July for most of the day.
I got up at 7, showered and went to the very nice breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant. Then I got my camera gear and waited in the lobby area for my guide and driver. I received a phone call at the reception desk and it was my guide saying that she had a fever and was too ill to do anything this morning. I think I'm still supposed to meet her at 4:00 pm for a boat trip if she isn't too ill. So I spent the rest of the morning catching up on my e-mail journal entries to my family. It's great to have free and fast internet! I was caught up by late morning and my hand ached from all the typing. I played a short game of solo pool.
I then got a very small map of the neighborhood and spent a couple of hours and walked about 10 km. The sun was shining brightly and it felt like 95 or so in the sun. Many of the streets are tree-lined and the shade was a big help. It felt like walking in the heat in South Carolina. I forgot to bring a bottle of water or sunscreen or a hat. After awhile, I ducked into a local hotel and they let me have some water to drink. I got back to my hotel, somewhat damp. I cooled off and read two newspapers (NY Herald Tribune; yesterday's and today's). I didn't have an appetite so didn't eat lunch. I went swimming in the pool, but the water was warm. There was a lot of cottony stuff floating in the water so I gathered a bunch of it and put it on the deck. The pool attendant told me that it was Kapok from the Kapok tree. He pointed to the tree near the swimming pool and said that it was over a hundred years old. It had big pods, sort of like milk weed pods, but much bigger. The pods split open and the filaments and seeds blow with the wind. I took pictures.
I went back to my room and got a call from my tour guide at 3:30. She was in the lobby waiting for me. She was still very sick and had a glazed look in her eyes. I felt her forehead and she had a high fever. I insisted that she call off the day and see a doctor, but she wouldn't do that. Activities had already been set up for me. I helped her walk around because she wasn't very steady. I kept telling her to stop, but she kept going. We drove to a pagoda, but I was able to make her sit down while I quickly walked around to take pictures, and felt guilty doing that. Nearby, there was a boat waiting for us for a trip up the Perfume River. I told her that she should go back, but the driver had already left. On the boat, a husband-wife-baby team helped us to our seats. I told the wife that the guide was sick and had a fever (using my Lonely Planet dictionary). The guide wanted to lie down on the deck so they got a blanket for her to lie on. I took a few pictures and bought a couple of souvenirs for the girls. The boat landed about 100 feet from my hotel, luckily, so I helped her to the lobby. I told the receptionists that she was sick and an attendant helped us. I got some aspirin and an antibiotic and some water and gave it to her and we put a cold washcloth on her forehead. She rested for an hour and I think the aspirin kicked in (it was a high-dose aspirin). Her fever became less and she looked a little better. I gave her my last 1000 mg aspirin packet to take back to her hotel. She wouldn't let me or the receptionist call a doctor. She had a little soup in the restaurant and then I gave her some money to take a taxi back to her hotel. I had a seafood soup.
Before I end this story, I will record what happened on the boat trip. While I was photographing, I turned around and saw what the young mother (age 22) was doing to the guide. She was leaning over the guide who was lying on the floor and doing something to her neck. She had pinched very hard, nine places on the guide’s throat; three by three forming a 3-sided square over a place you wouldn't think to pinch. It formed nine bean-sized red marks. I then saw that she had done that to each temple. Apparently the throat treatment was a folk remedy to prevent vomiting (according to the guide later). Then the boat wife turned the guide over and rubbed some essential balm on her back and then used the bottle to scrap her skin until there were big red streaks across her back. She also rubbed essential balm on her forehead. Back at the hotel, westerners saw the red marks on Oanh's face and neck and wondered what was going on. When the Vietnamese staff saw the marks, they asked if she were feeling better. It must be a widespread form of treatment.
After Oanh left, I started worrying that I might catch her illness and went swimming in the saltwater pool. Oh, yes, Oanh said that last night, the driver called her all night long in her hotel because he thought she might die.
I went to bed at 9, early even for me.
I got up at about 7, took a shower and went for breakfast. I had a fruit plate, yogurt, croissant and coffee. Then I went back to my room, packed and checked out. The guide showed up at the hotel lobby looking much better. She still had the 9 red spots on her throat, but seemed normal and didn't have a fever.
This was the second hot and sunny day; no rain. We drove to Da Nang and instead of going over the mountain pass; we drove through a very long tunnel. About halfway back to Da Nang, we stopped at a new beach stop, had tea and I took some pictures.
They drove me to the airport and Oanh got my boarding pass. I waited at the airport about 2 hours and then boarded my plane. The flight was a little over an hour. I didn't have checked luggage, so breezed through the airport at Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Outside security, I saw a man holding a placard with my name. This was Ban, my guide (Hoang Xuan Ban). He took me to the car where I met Qui (pronounced Gwee), the driver. They drove about 45 minutes to get me to the Caravelle Hotel in downtown Saigon (HCMC)(www.caravellehotel.com). I checked in and got to my room about 3:30. This is a big hotel right next to the Sheraton. It has a gambling casino on the second floor (their first floor). There is a nice roof top swimming pool as well as restaurants and shops. I went outside for a walk around the block and everyone kept asking me if I wanted to go somewhere by motorbike. It seems that everyone is an opportunistic taxi motorbike rider. I had a large sushi and sashimi platter for 9 dollars and it was fresh and good. Later, I went to the Lion Brewery and Restaurant (lionbrewery<at>hcm.vnn.vn) near the hotel. It was a German-style brewery and their beer was excellent. Tomorrow, I am to meet with the guide at 8:30 to start our tour of HCMC and the Cu Chi tunnels.
I got up early. I couldn't sleep all night and I was very tired the rest of the day. I took a shower and went down to a very extensive breakfast buffet (included). I had the usual fruit plate, yogurt, croissant plus a very nice selection of about 10 European cheeses.
Mr. Ban met me in the lobby and we headed off to Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour northwest of Saigon. Here, there are over 200 km of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam war. I took a lot of pictures here. Then we drove back to toward Saigon.
We had lunch at a nice little restaurant called "___ Ginger" (I can't remember the first word). They served a variety of Vietnamese food that I had not tried before. After that, we went to the geological museum (at my request), the Viet Nam war museum (about American atrocities), a pagoda built by the Chinese, and visited a lacquer furniture factory. I think the factory was a little disappointed that I didn't buy a large cabinet to take back home with me.
I was back at my hotel room by 4:15 pm, and my laundry was back. I was very tired today because I didn't sleep well last night. I took a nap, and then started packing. I will meet the driver at 8:00 AM tomorrow. He will take me to the La Renaissance Hotel where I will meet the rest of the group going on the Mekong boat trip.
I had the sushi/sashimi platter again at the lounge bar and cafe. Mr. Owen McMahen, manager for food and beverages at the hotel introduced himself to me and handed me his business card. He asked how the food was, etc. Everything was excellent.
PS: My experiences in Viet Nam were excellent; the tour guides were all excellent and the accommodations were excellent.
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