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Planning madness

Manchester, United Kingdom

We got the money, got the tickets and its all plans on deck! Flying to Hong Kong on the 3rd August, so lets all go and eat and drink before that to say bye! So far we have learnt:
- That the Chinese and Vietnamese and Hong Konganese want to charge you to get into any space that may be of vague interest to anyone including caves, parks, waterfalls and other such wonders of mother nature.
- We have also learnt that bedbugs are most visable at dawn, and that adult ones are 1/4 inch long.
- HSBC make money for Hong Kong and we feel rich because we have thousands of dollars!
- American money smells of playdough (though there is some debate as to whether this smell is actually crayon).
- The Chinese consulate has a big dip in the pavement near it which in the rain is dangerous as your foot can be completely submerged and soaked, this combined with the consulate being closed is heartbreaking.
- We could stay in peoples houses for free, but I (Laura) is scared (because she is scared of people).

Finally we have discovered that China is so mega massive that there is no way we could possibly see all of it in years let alone months, though we are going to the land that brought you Spring rolls and sweet and sour chicken (as far as most takeaways are concerned).

permalink written by  Mal and Laura on August 3, 2007 from Manchester, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
tagged China, HongKong, Planning, Manchester, Vietnam and Facts

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Phan Thiet, Vietnam


permalink written by  Delian2009 on January 31, 2009 from Phan Thiet, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Our big fat honeymoon
tagged Vietnam

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American Invasion of Vietnam: Part II, Tourism

Sa Pa, Vietnam

After five-thousand feet of steep, rigorous and back-breaking journey and Mr Cho (our guide) Cait, Taylor, Emmy and I (
) finally reached the top of Mt. Fan Xi Pan, the tallest mountain in SE Asia at about 11 thousand feet. Nothing compared to our American mountains, but hey, its a different place. Yet Setting, working, and reaching a tall goal in one day left us all with the great sense of exhaustive relief and accomplishment that made it all pay off. We hung around the top for a bit, then ventured downward to basecamp where we ate, drank some rice wine, and then watched the bright Milky Way and shooting stars until sleep. This was our trips last real intensive trek, and of the three options we were given, this was the hardest route.

A vacation town in the mountains of North Vietnam, Sa Pa exudes a very peaceful attitude, and very curious dress customs. The local H'mong peoples who live here (partially pictured right) dress in all black garb with funny hats ornamented with red and metallic things. Many of them try to sell you tribal gifts and thinga-ma-jigs such as bracelets, earings, hats, sunblock, playing cards and fruits, and many of them just hang around the market and the lake chillin'. Tourism has been a particularly good boon for this Vietnamese economy, as their communal farming of the 70s-80s was a failed experiment, and their reliance on opium and timber created a devastating economic void after the government outlawed both practices in the early 90s. The Vietnamese people adapt very well to the market economy, chiefly due to the large influence of the Chinese on the Vietnamese.

Vietnam is very different from the other mainland countries of SE Asia because their society is not as fully influenced by strict Buddhism as are Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Much of their influence comes from the Chinese, including their set notion of private property, their nobel dress/palaces/architecture, and their city structure.

I feel these much more Chinese attitudes have made their transition to a market economy much easier than it has been for the other countries in the entire region. The picture to the left shows an interesting cultural influence...Catholicism (see left-the Christmas tree and I, and above-the cave Jesus was born in). Many missionaries from the West worked in Vietnam during the colonial period and today they have 8 million Catholics in a country of 85 million. Even so, almost everybody celebrates Christmas, and there are many statues in Buddhist households to the Virgin Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist and even Santa Claus. The mainstream Buddhism of Vietnam and China are of a totally different breed than that of the other mainland SE Asian countries (Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos).

After Sapa, our group traveled to very tourist-populat Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a 300 square mile World Heritage region where massive limestone cliffs, caves and arches rise from the misty sea all around as far as the eye can see. The 14 Pacific Discovery group members and I had a boat (
) chartered for us while we sailed along for three days, kayaked, swam, and explored limestone caves I spent my free time mostly reading, enjoying the nice scenery atop the boat, and swimming. School can't get much better than this.

Some more pictures for everybody... Click on the photos to make them larger

Taylor, Emmy, Cait and I at the pinnacle of Mt Fan Xi Pan (Mt Fancypants)

Me achieving enlightenment at the top of the mountain of course.

A cool photo of the bamboo forests we tread through. An interesting side-note, wild marijuana plants actually grew around here!

Another mountainside photo, reminded me a bit of Yosemite in NorCal.

Vietnamese love Jesus!

Colin and I inside a cave in a limestone cliff of Halong Bay

More Halong Bay

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on February 23, 2009 from Sa Pa, Vietnam
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Vietnam, HalongBay, Trek, Sapa, Hmong and FanXiPan

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City of the Soaring Dragon

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is the capital and also the largest city in northern Vietnam with 7 million people. Ruthlessly crowded with motorbikes, people and goods-for-sale along the tiny winding roads, my first impression was that this city was completely nuts. Coming from the jungles and mountains, I felt overwhelmed at first by the congestion, claustrophobia, and from crossing the street even in this super-dense city. Nor would it be considered a particularly pretty city; there aren't many parks and exhaust fumes tend to discolor most of the buildings, and the weather is gray cloudy most of the year.

Things are even CHEAPER in Hanoi though, than from the rest of the cities I have been in thus far! I am constantly amazed to see how cheap things are and am just surprised they can go lower than Bangkok or Chiang Mai. DVD's were only $1.75 and entire shows or sets of movies could be purchased for $5. Movies and TV shows are categorized completely differently than they would be in a Blockbuster or Best Buy back in America, they are organized by actor, director and show, not by genre. There are set compilations offering all movies by a certain actor such as Brad Pitt, or all the seasons of The Simpsons in a little box. And yes, they all work.

Our Pacific Discovery group also had the privilege of visiting both the 'Temple of Literature' and a prison used for the imprisonment of American's during the Vietnam War. The Temple of Literature was slightly interesting, it was Vietnams first university and founded almost 1000 years ago. A little band played ethnic Vietnamese music which made it worth it for my easily-bored self. The prison was more interesting, it housed John McCain during his time as a P.O.W. The walls and the cells looked haunting (pictures to come soon, bad internet here...) and the aura of the atrocious conditions made everyones mood very weary. The text along the walls explaining both the French treatment of Vietnamese prisoners and the Vietnamese treatment of American prisoners painted completely different stories, and was obviously mostly propaganda. I somehow doubt the Americans received 3 healthy meals a day and mostly played chess, basketball, and helped plant trees.

The Vietnamese tend to like Americans, and I have not encountered any situation during my time here to suggest otherwise. The population is mostly young and under 35, and American's were part of a long chain of attackers in the quest for a sovereign nation including France, Japan, and China. By the time we had come along, war was a very ingrained part of their world. Their war was not about communism, as we believed, but about independence and local rule. Ho Chi Minh simply chose communism because it provided the most distinct roadmap for economic, social, and political processes for the founding of an entirely new nation. The Vietnamese did not hold to any ideals other than a Vietnamese nation, communism was an easy path of action and nationalism to rally people under. The Communist experiment failed by the mid to late 80s in Vietnam, perhaps quickened by the West's embargo against the nation. It now seems to be a very capitalist society, allows foreign ownership of businesses, houses, etc, and actively courts foreign investment for factories. Its chief export is oil, and is the 3rd largest rice-exporter, just behind the US.

I will post more analysis of the situation here in my next post, when I am able to upload more pictures. I am currently in Saigon (in the south) and my next post will be from Cambodia. All the best!

The Lego House in Hanoi

People park their motorbikes on the sidewalk so most of the time you have to walk on the street.

A woman at the market wearing a funny t-shirt "Hunk if you (heart) my body!" They sell alot of t-shirts and jeans with misspelled words or meaningless English on them which usually turns out to be pretty funny.

A FOUR story KFC in Hanoi. Order on the first floor, recieve food on second, sit on 2, 3 or 4. Symbolically American food chains such as McDonald's or 7-11 haven't been allowed in Vietnam because of the war, although even these restrictions are starting to loosen as time goes by

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on February 27, 2009 from Hanoi, Vietnam
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Temple, Vietnam, Hanoi, JackCrestani, Johncrestani, Prison and Johnmccain

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Motos and Models: Having Fun in Central Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

After Hanoi and northern Vietnam, our Pacific Discovery group headed south to warmer waters in Hue and Hoi An. After a long bumpy overnight train ride from Hanoi, we finally ended up in beautiful Hue. A welcome change from the grit of Hanoi’s streets, Hue’s clear open sky, beautiful riverside parks (complete with ancient and modern sculptures), and less congested streets helped lighten everybody’s mood and help us relax. After a nice jog along the river and a little sight-seeing, I returned to the hotel for the afternoon ‘mystery activity’. It was a motorcycle tour of the city! 14 Americans riding around on motorscooters woohoo. And we were off.

We toured around two Buddhist temples, a monastery, an incense making area, French gun-turrets and a royal palace now tomb. Truly too many places to show pictures of here, though I chose to post up the picture of the sticks incense are made from to the left, and a picture of a Buddhist pagoda is shown at the top of this entry. Pagoda’s are built at some but not all Buddhist temples and are always seven stories high. The French turrets were quite interesting because they were a very new attraction, it had only been two years ago that they finished clearing the landmines from the site.
The turrets were used on ships of the Vietnamese traveling up the river back in the 50’s and 60’s. One theme was common among the separate sites; the endless rice paddies that stretched in between every one of them. Vietnam is one of the largest rice-producing nations and it shows. After Hue, we would travel another 3 hours across endless stretches of rice fields to the beach and resort town of Hoi An.

High fashion city meets beach town in Hoi An! Not their fashion, not the Italians fashion, but Your fashion. This small beach town has hundreds and hundreds of tailors and tailoring shops with every cotton, silk, linen and polyester known to man and its up to you to point to something you like in one of their catalogs, bring in your own picture of what you want, or just design it yourself. From suits($60) to shoes($20) to boardshorts($15), they make everything, and quick, usually a day maybe two with alterations. I personally got a silk pink/black dress shirt (for Vegas), baby blue silk shoes (also for Vegas), and some really cool boardshorts (not exactly for Vegas). I finally shaved off my 'Wolverine' facial hair, which may have helped me during the groups ‘fashion show’(complete with thumping Vietnamese music and judges...) I came away with the award Hoi An’s Next Top Model.

Enough about that though, Hoi An as an awesome beach town is much more interesting. From luminescent waters at night to some guy I watched herding buffalo by bike, it doesnt really get boring. The bike-herding was a peculiar sight I saw while sitting in a cafe having a drink, wasn’t able to snap a picture but yea, it was quite a shock for someone not used to seeing water buffalo being herded through a city. That night was another annual event, ‘guys night out’. Craig, Jeremy, Will, Colin and I ditched the ladies for a night of beer, pool, beef, and biking. Awesome times. And all this combined to have us end up late night on the beach. But not any beach. The waters at Hoi An possess a special type of plankton that lights up like a starry aura around you when you swim through it. The plankton react to movement so that when you swim in it, splash it, or move a part of your body through it, a thousand bright tiny stars immediately illuminate. Truly the most magical experience of my trip so far and one that I will never forget.

If there’s anyone who you recommend I add to my blog’s mailing list, or questions you have about the particulars of traveling/touring in SE Asia, please shoot me an email at Jack.Crestani@Gmail.com. Cheers!

Strike a smile, the winners of the fashion show

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on March 6, 2009 from Hoi An, Vietnam
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Vietnam, Hue, Hoian, JackCrestani, Johncrestani and Pacificdiscovery

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Saigon is the Bomb

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Saigon is the newest, richest, and most lively city in all of Vietnam, and has a lot of history with the US through the Vietnam War. (The government tried to change its name to Ho Chi Minh City but all the locals still call it Saigon.) From the old US Arny bases to the VietCongs Cu Chi Tunnels and the various museums concerning the war, the area sheds alot of history. The group and I visited the Cu Chi tunnels the first day in Saigon, which lie roughly 20 miles north of the city. This complex boobytrapped tunnel system spanned hundreds of kilometers and was an important base for the Viet-Cong (the bad guys).
I was amazed they had a base so close to the American HQ in Saigon, but I learned why. The tunnels were almost completely self-sufficient; the men only came up for a short time at night to empty their toilet pots. Even the smoke from their cooking was directed through a series of vents so that it would emerge far away from the tunnel, to protect from bombs. Even so, something like 25x more Viet-Cong died for every American that died there (1,000 something Americans KIA, 25,000 VC KIA). Shown to the left is an example of a tunnel system. The boobytraps were so hidden that the soldiers could only stay in their own tunnels simply because those were the only ones they knew where the traps were.

Saigon itself is a very modern city though Western food chains are just starting to come into the city (I'm DYING for a good hamburger...) There is everything a tourist would want, and loads of Viet businesses, banks, tall buildings, fast cars, and large developments. This is where all ambitious or poor Vietnamese looking for a job end up, and it shows. There are people everywhere trying to sell you things. I made a joke, you don't need to even go anywhere in Saigon, sellers walk up to you with anything and everything. Books, food, snacks, drinks, hookers, drugs, motorscooters, bracelets, clothes...and this was just after walking back from dinner!
Only one of those illegal offerings caught my eye though, and that was the $3 book catalogs they had! Vendors and bookstores would have little book catalogs with the front and back covers of popular books copied on a page, you would flip through, point to the one you wanted, and only pay $3. Its genius. And the currency they use is dollars(mostly), which makes budgeting 10x easier and gives a cool little peace of mind.

Interesting Fact #39: On almost all men aged 40 and above who have moles, they sport mole-hair a couple inches long and its quite unsettling. Asian men regard their facial moles with reverence and allow their mole hair grow to its full length. Its very weird.

After a nice stay in Saigon for two days, we were off for the Mekong Delta region to the south of Saigon. This area is incredibly populated with Vietnamese and also ethnic minorities because it contains the most productive land and consistant water supplies in the entire country. While many of the northern provinves are able to produce only one crop of rice each year, the Mekong Delta produces three. The entire area is flat, and either built or farmed out. We spent an entire day of biking through the region and the region is flat, dense, and completely built out with many houses with small farms with a large commercial boulevard here and there. Canals run along almost every single pathway. The transportation through the entire region is by small concrete and hard-dirt pathways, big enough for two motorscooters or bikes to pass each other, but not for a car.

After all the biking was through, we arrived at our beautiful homestay situated right over the river. We ate just as the sun was setting over the river and the big sky which was breathtaking, except for the insane, relentless mosquitos. Overall my experience of Vietnam was amazing, the country has much to offer tourists, at the right prices, and with a solid structure in place to serve any need, from local touring to world-class golfing. The people are very ambitious and the most forward-thinking and progressive I have come across, this is definately a country whose economy is sure to continue developing into the future. The population has put away the events of the past, mostly due to the population being born after the events, and the fact that American culture/society is the model they take after (though their progress resembles China). I would highly recommend both Hue and Hoi An as beautiful and cheap travel destinations for those looking to vacation, and a visit to Saigon for the experience of the museums and the big city.

I hope everybody is doing well, leave comments if you can, and feel free to contact me about anything! All the best.

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on March 7, 2009 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Vietnam, MekongDelta, Johncrestani, Saigon, Cuchitunnels, Vietcong and Americanjohn

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Day 15: Hue, Vietnam (9th cruise day)

Hue, Vietnam

Day 15: Saturday, December 26th, 2009

9th cruise day: Hue, Vietnam

Our first day in Vietnam! We pulled into port before 6:30am and passed by many small fishing boats in the harbor. The view was beautiful as there were beautiful, tall, green mountains near the pier, which we later learned were the mountains separating Vietnam and Laos. The captain said they were late docking because the pilot boat met them late, but they quickly got immigration officials on board to clear us. Hunter and I ran into two of them in the hallway and they were SCARY! They were dressed in their green military uniforms and looked ominous as they weren't smiling. We grabbed a quick breakfast and then packed up for the day for our tour of Hue and the Perfume River Cruise. We met in the Cabaret Lounge and were released for the bus 10 min early.

We were in the B2 tour group that had less than 40 people. Our shuffleboard partner-in-crime, Jim, was on board, and we finally introduced ourselves as we keep running into each other throughout the cruise ship. We had a very pleasant tour guide who spoke a lot of English, but was difficult to understand sometimes as she couldn't pronounce “c” or “r” in her words. She was a petite young woman, probably no more than 30-ish and was originally from Saigon before moving to Hue. She told us a lot of interesting facts about Hue and the Vietnamese and proved the benefit of taking an organized tour instead of going off on your own.

Our tour started with a bumpy bus ride to Hue. The guide said the ride would take one hour, but it was more like 1 ½ hours each way. The main road leading out of the pier was a dirt road and we passed by more scary looking police at booth stations exiting the pier. The bus ride to Hue took us past many small villages, which were really just one road with shanty tin-roof houses (with sand bags holding down the roofs) . There were small boxes that looked like oversized open-faced mailboxes that were shrines where family members would pray for deceased parents and grandparents. Then each village had multiple large shrines which were places to worship 3rd and 4th generation ancestors. Only 2 generations of family members could be worshiped in the home. It is difficult to know who is related to who across all these villages, so once a year in the beginning of the new year, all relatives make a pilgrimage to the large family shrine, at which point you look around to see who you are related to, so that, as our tour guide said, “you don't fall in love with your relative,” The villages were very rundown and looked very 3rd world. In between villages were acres and acres of rice paddie fields with workers plowing the field. Even though a few rich farmers can afford motorized plows, most of the farmers we passed on the journey were literally plowing their fields with a wooden plow pulled by 2 water buffalo. The water buffalo were everywhere! We don't know how the farmers keep track of them as they wander into the roads and munch on grass growing in the cemeteries. The bus stopped once off the side of the road so everyone could get out and take pictures of the rice farmers plowing nearby. There was a small boy on the road, balancing on one foot on top of a water buffalo, hand outstretched for money. Another little boy in a ragged t-shirt walked up to people, poking them, begging for money. We saw little kids everywhere, and so many of them! Our tour guide later told us that 5 and 9 are very lucky numbers to the Vietnamese and each farming family tries to have 5 or 9 children. Only 20% of children go to school and the rest help their families on the rice paddies. We also think the parents exploit the children for money and we saw several mothers parading their babies and young children in front of tourists begging for money. It was very sad.

We also passed eucalyptus trees in the fields and learned that eucalyptus oil is a very popular remedy for pregnant women. The rub it on their bellies all during pregnancy and for three years after the birth of the child. Kem never said what it was for, (prevents stretch marks or promotes fertility!) but said the men hate the smell but the women wear it anyway. I'll have to look for a big bottle to take home for Liz! We also learned that the Vietnamese want at least 1 son with their huge family and if after 9 children they don't get any sons, they blame the wife and the husband is allowed to go out and have an extramarital affair with another woman to try to produce a son. Nice thought – after giving birth to 9 children you still have to watch your husband dally with another woman!

The mountain range was so beautiful and a great backdrop to the wide murky rivers carrying the motorized dragon boats and fishing boats and sand boats. The trees were tall and green, although we weren't in the “jungle” area that you hear about when talking about the jungle warfare of the Vietnam war. However, Vietnam was exactly like what we pictured and we don't think much changed in the 40 or so years since the start of the Vietnam War. There is a lot of road construction being done on the route to Hue, and even in the city, but instead of Caterpillar bulldozers and forklifts, the construction is predominantly done by men with shovels and pointed hats – and sometimes working barefoot! At this rate, the construction will never be done! Our tour guide told us that one of the fancy hotels in Hue took 10 years to complete because the sponsors kept pulling out and the government delayed the project many times in hope of finally getting financial aid from Unesco and other agencies. The hotel opened just 1 month ago and looked very nice – it had a lot of French architectural influences to it, which could be seen in many buildings in Hue. Kem also talked about corruption and said it is EVERYWHERE. Each time we crossed a bridge, we were stopped by policeman who made the driver turn over $10 or $20 USD as “payment” for crossing the bridge because we were a large van with many passengers. That money, Kem said, goes straight into their pockets. The chairman of the city makes only $500 USD per month on his government salary but takes home a total of $10,000 USD per month when you factor in all the bribes and special payments he receives from his dominant position in the city. The average city resident (60% of the Hue city residents work in the tourism industry) take home on average $300 per month. Government employees take home an average of $500/month while rice farmers earn only $50-$100/month.

The bus ride pulled into the city of Hue, and we thought it was more like a larger town than an actual city, but it is the 3rd largest city in Vietnam behind Saigon and Hanoi. Hue maintained its pro-US sentiments and the tour guide made many disparaging remarks about the NVA and talked about the heroics of the US soldiers during the fighting in Hue. We passed several markets and street vendors selling scarfs and ceramics and china and touristy items like t-shirts and pointed hats.

Our first stop was at an embroidery factory next to the Century Hotel that later served us lunch. We were ushered into stuffy rooms where very young woman in long beautiful silk gowns were hunched over sheets of silk, embroidering patterns by hand. They encouraged us to take pictures, which made them seem like the workers themselves were on display. Throughout this whole trip, we felt bad taking pictures as every place we went, the tour operators treated the locals like items in a zoo, there for our amusement and picture taking. More on that later....the embroidery was gorgeous and so inexpensive! We would have loved to buy a framed print but have limited room. We later saw many much simpler patterns being sold in the markets for $1-$5 USD. We picked up the Perfume Riverboat cruise at the pier near the embroidery shops. On board, older women and men were eagerly ready to sell us silk pajamas, robes, and embroidery prints. Our tour guide passed around a binder that contained old photos of the wartime in Hue in 1968 and we saw American soldiers rescuing local people, wounded soldiers being helped to safety, and other pictures of the city of Hue during the war.

The riverboat cruise lasted only 30 minutes but gave us great views of the tourist dragon boats and of the canoes paddled by the locals. We also passed several sandboats, which were large flat motorboats with holes in the bottom from which a worker would shovel out heaps of sand from the bottom of the river. We learned that after they pay off the policeman guarding the river banks, a boat operator can sell a boatload of sand to construction companies for $10-$50 per boat. Unfortunately, this drains the river of the rich sand that allows the microorganisms to survive and which used to give the river its fragrant perfume smell. Now the river is just murky and smelly in a not-so-good way.

As we pulled in to the dock to end our tour, we passed a canoe boat with a very old woman, hunched over, covered in wrinkles, wearing a pointed hat, just like you would see in the old pictures of Vietnam. She paddled right up to the side of our boat and tried to squeeze in between our boat and another dragon boat, as the passengers on our boat shouted “look out, you are going to crush her!” She then tried to leap from her boat onto our boat, trying to get up so she could see us and beg for money. Our boat driver kind of just pushed her boat aside, preventing her from climbing up. She was so desperate for money she was willing to crush her boat!

The perfume river boat stopped at the Thien Mu Pagoda, also known as the Temple of the Heavenly Lady Pagoda. We got a lot of good history on it and then proceeded further into the temple area to see the monks. Each family tries to send one son to the temple to become a monk, either for financial reasons as they can't support all their children, or because they think it is lucky to have a religious son. The monks start as early as 10 years old and get special haircuts to show they are novice monks until they pass all exams. Our tour guide pulled over one novice monk and made him answer questions for us and pose for pictures. Again, we felt like we were at a zoo gawking at unusual things and felt very bad for the monks who were trying to go about their day, interrupted by picture-snapping people.

We continued the tour by driving back across a white bridge that had its own lane for motorcycles as EVERYONE rode motorcycles instead of bikes. We then went back to the Century hotel for a big buffet lunch of lots of kinds of rice and noodles, beef satays, pork and different shrimp dishes, with a few cakes and fruits as desserts. They basically ran out of food once our tour group got there – the last one out of many Princess tours that stopped there – and we got the bottom of the barrel. Surprisingly the food was good and luckily didn't make us sick! We had free soft drinks, waters and beers, and the waters all came with protective plastic wrap over the top so you know it was unopened. I kept flashing back to the movie Slumdog Millionaire where the restaurant waiters refilled plastic water bottles with tap water and then resealed the caps with glue. I felt much safer that there was unbroken plastic seal covering the main plastic seal. There was a wedding going on in the hotel with a beautiful young bride and the guests were all dressed in fancy outfits.

We were supposed to have an hour and a half for lunch and more shopping at the embroidery factory, but most people finished their shopping early and so we headed out by 2pm, a half hour ahead of schedule. This gave us time to stop at the busiest food market in Hue, which was unbelievable. We passed by market stalls selling fully chopped up pigs – they sold platters of giant pig ears and calfs with the black hoof still on the foot/leg! We also saw pig intestines, pig hearts and so many kinds of fish, all chopped up and sliced open so you could see the insides. You should see the kinds of photos we got – it was truly disgusting from our point of view, as we would never buy food like that – just sitting out exposed to the air for all those hours – and the food parts were so unbutchered and distinguishable that you felt as though you were buying an actual body part of the pig. But these are delicacies to the Vietnamese and they were buying this stuff in bag-fulls!

After the eye-opening trip to the market we drove to the Royal Ruins to see the tomb of the second king of the last Vietnamese Dynasty. We couldn't see the actual tomb as the stone wall that enclosed it was locked since a fire broke out there several years ago as a result of teenager negligence lighting a camp fire nearby. But we saw the beautiful imperial grounds with waterways for the king's canoe. The lush park-lake hectare was a great contrast to the dusty impoverished streets of Hue. On the walk from the bus to the imperial grounds, we had to walk down a dirt road which was bordered to the left by a barbed wire fence. There were mothers and children on the other side and the little boys climbed through holes in the barbed wire with platters of bananas singing “have a banana. Won't you buy our bananas?” and the mothers held up their babies with distended bellies begging us to buy the bananas to help their babies. Everything was on sale for one dollar – as soon as you got off the bus there were old 70-ish year old women selling coins on a chain for $1 dollar. We again had that impression we were walking through a zoo just gawking at people. It was not a pleasant feeling.

The sightseeing aspect of the tour ended at 3:45pm and we started our bus ride back, which didn't take an hour as the tour guide planned, but more like 1 ½ hours. We avoided collisions with wooden log-bearing trucks more than once although Hunter didn't think we would make it home alive. There was constant horn honking as our bus driver swerved into the on-coming traffic lane in order to pass the truck or motorbike in front of him. It was a ride to remember! We got back to the ship with 10 minutes to spare and were the last tour bus.

We are glad we did the Princess tour as our guide was very informative about Vietnamese life and we got some basic sightseeing in. The city of Hue is not impressive and we really weren't interested in the pagoda or imperial tomb, but the drive through the small towns, and seeing the boats on the wide murky rivers surrounded by the mountain range was worth the trip. Vietnam has not changed very much in 40 years and we can't wait to see what Saigon looks like!

The rest of the night was uneventful. We quickly showered and attended the entertainment show, which was scheduled tonight before dinner at 7pm. It was the comedian, Mike Newman from Ireland, who was probably in his early 70s and did a basic comedy routine with some raunchy humor but mostly puns. We then ate dinner with Connie and Tony and had beef short ribs, before heading to the Tahitian Lounge for Wii Sports night with Chantal and Ian. Only our new friend Jim was there playing (playing Wii for the first time!) and so Hunter got to play a lot of rounds of Mario Kart. Everyone was having such a great time that we past the ending time and other cruise passengers had to send over a waiter to ask Chantal when they were finishing so the dancing could begin! I was wiped out and hit the pillow as soon as we got back to the room.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 26, 2009 from Hue, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia, Vietnam and Cruise

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Day 17: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (11th cruise day)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Monday, December 28th, 2009

11th cruise day: Ho Chi Ming City / Saigon, Vietnam

After a fitful sleep, and dozing after the alarm went off, we got up by 7am and I decided I was stronger in the knees and could make it through the day. Laying in bed was not comfortable as all I could think about were the stomach pains, so I decided I would rather be distracted by the sights of Saigon.

And so our adventure began early in the morning with a 8am bus ride departure to Saigon. We had decided the day before to cancel the “shopping excursion” tour we had pre-booked and instead to book the shuttle tour which allowed us to do Saigon on our own, since we didn't want to spend an hour touring an overpriced toy lacquer factory. After speaking with people on the ship, we were comfortable we could navigate Saigon on our own. And so back to the bus ride -- the roads were paved highways, but the paved roads were full of potholes and loose pebbles and rocks, so the ride was pretty bumpy. Luckily the air conditioner worked well so we were comfortable and slept most of the whole way. We stopped once for a bathroom break at the half way point since the coach buses in Asia, although very comfortable with reclining seats, don't have restrooms on-board. At last we got to the outskirts of the city, and the traffic began. There were lots of buses and construction vehicles on the roads as construction was everywhere!! But unlike Hue, this construction was being done by bulldozers. We were amazed at how many bulldozers there were....really, the construction was everywhere on the outskirts of the city – and then even in the city itself as new tall skyscrapers are going up.

We were surprised to see an actual skyline of Saigon. We had set our impressions of Vietnam on the city of Hue, and we were unprepared at how huge and modern Saigon had become! We were expecting dusty roads and a lot of short, older buildings in the French architecture, but instead we pulled into a huge bustling city that had just as much activity as New York! There were new, gleaming skyscrapers that were mega-complexes of restaurants and high-end shops. Signs for new skyscrapers even taller were located at construction sites around the city. There was just as much traffic, but it was always moving – we never saw the standstill gridlock of New York. Our first impression was “wow – look at all the motorcycles!” Our tour guide on the bus told us there are 4 million registered motorcycles in the city alone. Luckily, these riders all rode helmets, but they still rode dangerously. We saw a family of three all packed together on one bike – dad and mom, with mom holding a baby covered in mesh netting! A lot of people wore face masks to keep the dust out of their mouths. The surprising thing about the traffic was that there were very few traffic lights or stop signs which made crossing the road impossible! Saigon traffic makes Jaywalking a must-have survival skill. Since we've spent lots of time in NYC, jaywalking wasn't a problem for us, but in the beginning, we tailed a few locals as they ran into the street amidst the on-coming motorcycles and small vans and we figured if the cars stop for them, they'll stop for us too! You literally had to walk into on-coming traffic or else you would be stuck on the corner forever! There were many large circles in the city which helped the traffic continue moving, but those were the most difficult ones to cross!

The shuttle bus dropped us off at a shopping mall directly across the intersection from the famous Rex Hotel. We got a map from the tour guide and planned out our route. It was very hot and humid, reaching 91 degrees. We walked two streets over to the famous Dong Khoi street (formerly known as the Rue Catinat or Tudor Street) and came face to face with the National Theater (very well maintained) and the Caravelle hotel. Dad had given me a photo taken in 1965 of him in front of the hotel and we set out to recreate the photo. However, our tour guide had told us that the hotel had been completely rebuilt, and so it was. It is now a huge complex, with a tall tower of rooms that probably went up 20 floors. Attached to the base of the hotel, off to the left of the lobby was a huge Gucci store. And across the street, diagonal from the National Theater was a flagship Louis Vitton store! Imagine that – Gucci and Louis Vitton in Saigon! We saw the original pavement in front of the hotel, and tried to imagine the old outline of the hotel. After picture taking, we retraced our steps and walked down Le Lui street, past the Rex Hotel to the Ben Thanh Central Market.

The Ben Thanh Market was the ultimate flea market. Out of all the market shopping we have done in Asia, this was by far the most jam-packed market. Stalls upon stalls were arranged in a giant square, with handfuls of rows running up and down the middle of the square. There were so many stalls that the aisles between them could barely accommodate two people walking side by side. You had to shove your way through and avoid the women carrying platters of food and soup back from the attached food market. It was much cooler on the outside ring of the market so we did most of our shopping at those stalls. But we did venture into the middle of the market for some of the jewelry and shoes. And so many shoes!!! We didn't know that shoes were a specialty production item in Vietnam but there were mounds and mounds of shoes at these stalls. Mainly many fancy flip-flops and dress shoes. Meredith bought a pair and said it was the most comfortable pair of flip flops she's ever owned. The best part of the market was that everything was inexpensive. Unlike China, where the prices start very high and you have to bargain them down by 50-75%, at this market, the starting price was so reasonable you felt guilty bargaining! And most of the shops were “fixed price” so they wouldn't bargain at all. However, that didn't stop Meredith, who wanted to bargain out of principle! We got some good deals, and thought the quality of the goods being sold in the markets was just as good as department store quality, unlike in China and Hong Kong where the markets sold only junk.

After a good time in the market, we decided to walk outside to get some air. We had been guzzling water in the market as it was so hot and sticky. We only had a total of 4 hours in Saigon before we had to head back on the long bus ride, so we couldn't see much but decided to walk the streets (and run across the intersections!) We found some more little items in the side stores and found it easy to bargain there. It was so hot and I wasn't feeling well so we ended our day by going in to the Rex Hotel and walking around (but you couldn't get up to the roof where the war correspondents would gather) and in the department store where the bus would pick us up – both were air conditioned. The Rex Hotel was beautiful inside, which wasn't surprising as it was a 5-star hotel. According to our tour guide, there are only 5-star hotels in all of Saigon. The department store had a marketplace inside of it, and they were selling old military cigarette lighters that had the location of the place and the year (ie. 1968-1969) but we didn't recognize any of the bases that were inscribed on there.

We were sad that we didn't feel better and have more time in Saigon, but we got the general feeling of it. Dong Khoi street, which was the main street in the 1960s, was still one of the main attractions of Saigon, but we didn't spend time walking up and down it as it was now filled with all International and American high-end brand stores, like Gucci. The streets were all decorated for the holidays. There were huge arches placed at the start of the busiest streets, sparkling Happy New Year type of signs. Santa Clauses adorned store windows and you could tell the city was in a festive mode. There were tons of tourists abound. Besides all the cruise passengers, we saw many small parties of tourists from Europe who were walking up and down the busy streets with guidebooks. Who knew that Saigon was a hot spot tourist destination? Everyone spoke very good English and Saigon is winning so far out of the cities we've visited on this trip for most accessible locals!

If it weren't for all the communist flags waving about, and some billboards with pictures of soldiers hailing the President, we would have thought we were in a large European city (it doesn't have much of an American feel to it because of all the motorcycles). Almost every building, and every street block had the two red and yellow flags of the star and the sickle/hammer. Coming in to the city, the bus passed by the American Consulate and then stopped in front because of traffic. Hunter and several other bus passengers took out their cameras to take a photo and the guards outside of the consulate were watching the bus windows closely and made wild gestures to us that no picture-taking was allowed. We couldn't believe that the guards would be watching tour bus windows to stop harmless photos!

The main streets had lane dividers that were filled with beautiful palm trees, which reminded Hunter of Savannah – sort of a dirty, built-up city with streets adorned with palm trees. The other thing that caught our eye were the massive coils of cable wire that were strung from each telephone tower. Rows and rows of wire were strung together, forming giant nests of wire. We hope one of the wires doesn't short or else it would be a mess trying to get in and repair one of those! We are guessing the roads and infrastructure are still too bad for all the wiring to be run underground and so it's just hanging there in the air.

At 2:15pm we met up with the other Princess passengers and boarded the bus and navigated traffic out of the city. We had some near-collisions with buses in the adjoining lane, but made it back to the ship unscathed and with 5 minutes to spare. Our tour guide was very nice and tried to teach the bus passengers some Vietnamese phrases and a Happy Family song, which was kind of weird. The tour guide was only 24 years old but had a much older face. However, his body looked like that of an 11 year-old. He was the skinniest man we have ever seen. In both Hue and Saigon, all of the locals are on the short side and painfully thin, like they look malnourished. It must be their genetic disposition and diet, but everyone looks so frail. And despite the presence of the high end fashion boutiques, we could not say that they were well dressed. In all other Asia cities – especially Shanghai and Hong Kong – the locals were dressed to the nines, wearing expensive clothes and fashionable shoes. But here in Vietnam, the clothes were cheap button-down cotton shirts and tiny tight-fitting pants, or loose cotton sheathes on the old beggars.

We got back to the ship by 4:25pm and everyone was supposed to be on deck by 4:30pm. At 5pm, the Captain announced to the ship that all paperwork was completed for our departure but that one of the Princess tours was stuck in traffic and wasn't yet here. It wasn't until 5:30pm that the small tourist van dropped off the last 5 passengers! It turned out to be the group that sits next to us during dinner.

We skipped the sit-down dinner again because the food was too fancy again and I didn't feel like eating, and it was a good thing, because we heard that one passenger got sick in the dining room from motion sickness and it was a mess. Hunter got some sandwiches and snacks at the buffet as soon as we got onboard at 4:30pm and then ate a cheeseburger from the Grill once we realized it was open until 6pm. I ordered a room service sandwich around 7pm and he got one around 8:30pm, at which point I was fast asleep. I was so drained from the day and had a lot of stomach pains, I just crashed! Hunter stayed up until midnight, watching tv with the volume low and typing on his netbook. I slept right through it all.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 28, 2009 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia, Vietnam and Cruise

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My Vietnamese friend

Hanoi, Vietnam

He is Mr.Kien who is now owner of two famous Restaurants, Kiti Restaurant and Trong khach Restaurant, in Hanoi, Vietnam. We met together in Germany when both of us are student. My friend is very active, he both went to school and worked out of school time. He worked so many career. fistly, be a waiter, then he was a employee in clothes company... After 7 years, he come back his country, I lost contact with him. But I have been Vietnam in a travel trip, I met him again. It's very nice! And I was so surprised at his Kiti restaurant which is a famous restaurant in Old Streer not far from Hoan Kiem lake.
The restaurant located in a nice place in famous Old Street in Hanoi. I like foods, service style and atmosphere of the restaurant. It's exciting that there're so many foods of many areas on the world concentrated on here. Mr.Kien makes me more admirated when he said he was owning 2 restaurants in Old Street. I talked to him for an hour, I see he is a good manager with many feasible creative ideas.
I have some business plans in Vietnam next time. It's lucky I met my good friend, It's easier in business when I coorperate to him.

permalink written by  blackspide on July 13, 2010 from Hanoi, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Vietnam
tagged Vietnam, Restaurant, Friend, Kiti and Kien

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The Old Quarter Street - Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam

It was a bad day, I wandered on The Quarter Old Street and Hoan Kiem Lake all afternoon. On the late afternoon, I wanted to find a quite place for my dinner but I changed my idea when seeing Kiti Restaurant on Hang Hom street. There was a buffet party in the restaurant, and so many people joined, they were funny to talk together. I wanted to join it because I thought I should have change my bad feeling. I came in and joined the party but I didn't talk to anyone, I only listened to their talking and I felt more funny. I called one big beer, after two beer, both drunk and saw everyone telling together. There was a waiter coming me and asked what I needed and she invited me try some dishes in the buffet party. At the time, I was hungry and I wanted to try some dishes although I didn't have mood to eat.
The girl catched talk to me, she both asked how I felt the dishes and told me about mean of dishes. I felt more funny and felt dishes delicious. Then I ate quite much. After the buffet party in Kiti, I came back home with good mood.
It was surprised that I had only to pay 200,000 VND for my pax. It was so cheap with so many dishes.
Wandering on The Old Quarter Street and enjoining the party in Kiti Restaurant helped me come back. I felt well and smiled with everybody, everything was easier to me. So more and more I love Hanoi and The Old Quarter Street where I am living near.

permalink written by  doublering on November 15, 2010 from Hanoi, Vietnam
from the travel blog: The Old Quarter Street - Hanoi
tagged Street, The, Vietnam, Restaurant, Hanoi, Quarter, Old and Kiti

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