Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hoi An Pictures

To see Hoi An pictures go to:

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ho Chi Minh Pictures

Here is the link to the pictures:

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Seven - End of the Story

Coming Home

Today, the day we returned to Kuching from the longhouse, is February 23, my birthday - #74. We do big celebrations around birthdays, but this time we would simply acknowledge it, enjoy it and save the big celebration – Miller Fest – for when we return home. So it was a buffet dinner at the hotel and early to bed. Ah, the comforts of the Holiday Inn.

And now our final full day in Kuching and on this trip was upon us. Before we went on our rainforest excursion our plan for today was to visit a nearby jungle area – to see it and take a trek. Well, we’d been there, done that, and neither of us had any interest in a challenging walk. Our bodies were sore.

What appealed to us was to prepare leisurely for our flight home, pack, read, watch TV, eat, drink, hang out. So that’s what we did. A perfect day, capped off by another dinner featuring Sarawak food at the Khatulistiwa Café.

We needed to get a very early start the next day – up at 4:30. I never sleep well before an early morning wake-up call for a flight, and this was no exception. There was no chance we’d oversleep, so we were on schedule. As were the planes. We flew from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur and then caught a plane to Singapore. We had about five hours between planes in Singapore, but fortunately, after many economy class flights in Southeast Asia over the past three weeks, we would be in Business Class for the flight home, so there were a few perks. The main perk was the Singapore Airlines Raffles Lounge. It was very comfortable and featured a terrific variety of food and drinks. So the time passed quickly.

Between Singapore and San Francisco we were to stop, but not change planes, in Hong Kong. I thought we’d just stay on board during the stopover. I was wrong. We had to disembark and go through two complicated and thorough security checks before reboarding. The process was a royal pain in the ass, but this is 2007 and the world being how it is – that’s life in the travel lane.

We took off at dawn from Kuching. We landed at sunset in San Francisco. A long and exotic day from the jungles of Borneo to our favorite city.

In looking back I’d say we had a good, not a great, trip. Somewhere in the B/B+ range. We have had several very useful conversations about what kept it from being an A and learned some things about travel and us at this point in time.

One difference between this trip and others we’ve taken was that this time we went to places we hadn’t been before and had heard good things about, not to places we were called to see, eager to visit. We won’t do that again.

We also realized that we’re less willing than we used to be to put up with discomfort or inconvenience. Our Iban experience was an exception (we’d put up with something like that any time,) but our conclusion is still valid. Maybe we’re just getting old and fussy, but we think it’s important to recognize what our preferences are and respect them.

Large cities have less and less appeal. The best times we’ve had in recent years have been when we’ve traveled to small and less visited places. So on this trip the large cities, Ho Chi Minh City and to a lesser extent Hanoi, and the tourist-oriented Hoi An, were the least satisfying stops.

Some time ago we sat down and created a five-year plan for travel. Where did we most want to go? When would we go? That was a good strategy for us and we completed the plan a few years ago. It is clearly time to do another five-year plan, which will happen before the year is out.

Having said all this, we’re very glad we went. And writing this account of our journey helped highlight all the wonderful parts of it. At the end of our trips we play a little game with ourselves. We think about where we’ve been and what we’ve done and independently each of us name the five things/places we enjoyed most (not necessarily in priority order.) Here are our lists this time:

Lunch at the Waterfall
Brunch at the Metropole
The Monks in Luang Prabang
Wat Si Saket in Vientiane
Nanga Sumpa Longhouse

Old Hanoi
Dinners at the Emperor/Mandarin/Brothers Café
The Waterfall Lunch
Wat Si Saket in Vientiane
Our Longboat

For the record, my runners-up were:
Lunch at Cha Ca
Dinner at Kua Lao
Old Hanoi
Tomb of Tu Duc
Brothers Café

Sandra’s runners-up were:
Van (Guide) – Trip to Cham Complex
Lunch at Cha Ca
Food in Luang Prabang

We feel you’ve been with us on this journey. Thanks for coming along.

It’s possible I’ll post some pictures on this blog site – either by themselves or in conjunction with the text. I’ll let you know if that happens.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Six

The Longhouse

The longhouse compound is atop a steep embankment next to the river. It is divided into two sections separated by a small inlet and connected by a simple and attractive wooden bridge. The longhouse and several nearby structures are on one side. The lodge in which we would stay is on the other. All the buildings are wood with tin roofs.

We went to the lodge first to check it out and get settled. Like the longhouse it is built on stilts. The stilts lift it three or four feet off the ground; the longhouse stilts are much higher. The lodge is a very simply constructed L-shaped building. The walls are vertical planks of wood butted up against each other. An overhang from the roof provides (some) protection from the rain. It didn’t happen while we were there, but I assume if it is both rainy and windy it will be wet inside.

Inside the entrance door is a large room that is the dining area and, in the rear, the kitchen. The left side of the room is mostly open, like a veranda, where we could sit or stand looking out at the river and the jungle beyond. I assume there is a way to enclose the room if necessary, but it was always open during our visit. I found hanging out in this space, especially in the hour before sunset, was a wonderful experience.

On the right and then left down the long side of the L are the sleeping quarters and then sinks, toilets and showers. We began to check out the rooms. The lodge can sleep 17, but since we would be the only guests we could choose any room we liked. At this point reality started to set in. We began to understand what Lemon meant when he said the lodge was ‘primitive.’ They were all the same, a space about 12’ long and 8’ wide with a raised wooden platform for sleeping filling about ¾ of the area. There was no electricity in the lodge, so the rooms were dark. And there was no ventilation, so they were hot and humid. The sidewalls of the rooms were narrow slats of wood, so had we been sharing the lodge with other people there would have been little privacy.

We chose a room, #8, which had a sign on the door: Dulang Ini Manang. Unfortunately, I failed to find out what that meant. We chose #8 because it was close to the toilet facilities, which I thought would come in handy at about 4 in the morning when I had to pee. (I was right.) Sandra and I hauled our luggage (we had left most of our things back at the Holiday Inn, so we didn’t have too much) into #8. With the door closed it was totally dark, so we propped it open as we began trying to figure out how we were going to organize ourselves. We looked at each other and traded an unspoken thought – something like “Oh, my…”

A woman brought in two small mattresses, sheets, a light blanket, and a mosquito net and set up our bed. There was a foot or two of leftover space on the platform that we used to store our things. We had flashlights, which came in very handy.

I went down the hall to check out the toilet facilities. It reminded me of an army barracks. There was a row of sinks. There were three showers. There were a couple of latrines. Fortunately, they were western toilets so we wouldn’t have to squat. By this time it was no surprise to learn that the water was only cold. I wasn’t too concerned by this. It was the tropics after all, and I’d survived without hot water on numerous occasions in the past.

Without discussing it Sandra and I both realized that in order to get the most out of this experience we needed to spend little or no time being unhappy about any discomfort or other inconvenience we would encounter during our three days with the Ibans. In other words we needed to re-contextualize our circumstances. Or said another way, “Like it or not, this is it. Get with the program.” So that’s what we did – within a very few minutes.

Lemon suggested we visit the longhouse, which we were eager to do. To get up to the main level of the house we climbed a contraption that was like a slanted ladder with wooden blocks for rungs. The wood was slippery, so the handrails on both sides helped. We removed our shoes before going inside.

My guess is that the longhouse is about 200 feet long and 30 feet wide. Lemon said there were 31 families in the settlement, 21 in the longhouse and 10 in additional housing next door. Along the left side was a wall with doors, behind which each family had their private space. Running alongside the wall was a wooden walkway and to the right of that was community space, about 9 feet wide, covered with straw mats.

The light was dim, but it wasn’t dark. Interestingly enough, while we were without electricity in the lodge, there was electricity in the longhouse. They have a generator. I didn’t notice any working electric bulbs this afternoon, but on another visit the following evening one area was brightened by neon lights. I told Lemon later that I didn’t think a little electricity in the lodge would destroy the authenticity of the Iban experience. Just one bare bulb in a room would make a big difference. As it was, we were being asked to be more Iban than the Iban. He suggested I make the suggestion to the Borneo Adventure management, which I did in an email after we returned home.

Hanging from hooks on the wall were some of the arts and crafts the Iban made. There were gourds, baskets, woven items, bags, conical hats, rattan pieces, and more. As we walked through no one made any attempt to show us their goods or sell us anything. It was relatively quiet inside. There were children, babies and dogs, all of whom paid little attention to us, and some adults, mostly women. I had the sense that everyone was so used to seeing visitors like us the novelty had long since worn off. I didn’t get any sense of hostility – more just disinterest.

Apparently it was an important protocol for us to walk all the way to the end of the longhouse before completing our visit. So we did. There, a small balcony gave us a good view of another part of the colony. We looked down at the home of the former chief, who had died not long ago. It seemed to be quite a substantial dwelling. I don’t know whether the new chief will move into it or it will be used for another purpose. I shoulda asked. And we could see the houses of those families who didn’t live in the longhouse.

While the longhouse is a form of communal living, each family is responsible for their own financial well being. There are a few revenue-producing possibilities in and around the longhouse, but not many. The one that had everyone’s attention while we were there was harvesting and extracting illippinut seeds. The illippi trees yield fruit in shells (kind of like coconuts except smaller), which the Iban gather by shaking the trees or by collecting those that have fallen on their own. They break open the shells by hand or with a mallet to get at the seeds. They then sell the seeds which, when processed, produce cooking oil. Lemon told us that the current price for seeds is high, so it was not surprising that illippinuts preoccupied so many longhouse residents.

No one was exempt from the illippinut mania. Inside the longhouse old women were at work opening the shells while they babysat their grandchildren. Outside, men were hunched over piles of husks wielding their mallets. Teenagers and young men were floating up the river and then back again, their boats loaded with nuts. And the next afternoon, when it rained, little girls were wading in the river collecting shells that had dropped off the trees into the water.

It is common for members of the longhouse to move into Kuching or further away to find work. Most are untrained and settle for domestic or menial tasks. These jobs don’t pay much, but for them it is better than nothing. And it is a way for them to help support their families. An example: When we drove back to Kuching a young woman recently graduated from high school came with us. She would live with her sister who was already there and look for a job. Another example: We met two older men who had been away for several years working on oilrigs in various parts of the world. Even with the travel and long absences, however, it was clear that these Iban retained strong ties to their longhouse. It was home.

When we left the longhouse we ran into a group of teenagers. They spoke a little English and wanted to hang out for a few minutes. Our interaction was not profound, but contact was made and it was satisfying.

In the lodge a couple of women would help Lemon prepare dinner. He was the main cook. We’d eat in about an hour, and since spending time in our room wasn’t an attractive option we read, watched the river and jungle as the light faded, listened to the birds, and I had a wonderful warm beer.

Dinner was quite tasty. Chicken, rice, two vegetables and pineapple. And healthful too.
Lemon had a plan for us to visit the longhouse again after dinner, and even though it wasn’t late we were quite tired and asked if we could do it after dinner tomorrow. A combination of travel plus the expenditure of a lot of nervous energy had done us in. So it was off to bed.

In the dining area of the lodge two kerosene pressure lanterns provided light. In the walkways alongside the rooms small glass covered candles lit the way. And, of course, we had our flashlights to use in the bedroom and toilets. Piece of cake? Well, almost, except for taking out my contact lenses. To do that Sandra held a flashlight and I flipped them into my hand. A little dicey, but workable.

I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping under the mosquito net. The thing allows no air and under the best of circumstances it is very warm inside. These were not the best of circumstances, though, and it was hot inside. While mosquitoes hadn’t bothered us up till now, it didn’t seem smart to assume there were none, so we climbed in and figured we’d survive.

In fact we did quite well. I slept far more soundly than I thought I would. The temperature dropped a bit during the night and it was quite comfortable, mosquito net and all. Before dozing off I let the lullaby of the jungle serenade me. I don’t know what all the sounds were, but they were wonderful. I could recognize the crickets, of course, and the distinctive chirp-chirp of the gekkos. But there was much more. Probably some birds, likely some animals nearby, and a few mystery voices.

In the morning we woke to a different lullaby – pigs and roosters. We had noticed that the Iban had quite a few pigs wandering around and many chickens and roosters. The pigs were right outside the lodge, grunting and snorting and rooting in the dirt for – whatever. The roosters were doing what roosters do in the morning. None of this was unpleasant, just different.

I have a morning routine that I’m attached to. I have to be highly disincented to change it. The lodge may be primitive, but that wasn’t disincentive enough. So I did my thing. Brush my teeth, wash my face, shave, and shower. I must say the shower was a bit colder than I expected it to be, probably chilled by the same temperature drop that made it easier for us to sleep. But not too cold to go ahead and get refreshed.

Lemon made a great breakfast. Eggs, potatoes, sausage and baked beans plus lots of good, strong coffee.

This would be the day we would go upriver and have lunch at the Enseluai Waterfalls. But before setting off we had a choice to make. We could go all the way on our longboat or we could trek for a while and meet the boat about halfway to the falls. Lemon said it would be about a 45-minute hike. We chose the trek/boat combination. We were blissfully ignorant of what we had signed up for.

Both Sandra and I thought the trek would be similar to the kind of hikes we take at Yosemite. Some ups and downs – a little tough in spots – on a well traveled trail. Well, the Borneo rainforest ain’t no Yosemite. It took us about 30 seconds to figure this out. We were taken to the other side of the river on the boat and had to climb up a muddy, slippery embankment to the trail. Sandra was wearing hiking boots that had no grip. I was wearing sneakers that had no grip. If you can slide uphill, that’s what we did to get started. But we weren’t about to back out.

It turned out that our trek was both wonderful and much more difficult than we’d anticipated. It wasn’t the distance traveled, or the elevation changes that made it tough. It was keeping our balance. It does rain in the rainforest, and even though it didn’t rain while we were walking (if it had I don’t think we’d have been able to make it) for much of way it was quite slippery. Lemon saw I was having trouble staying vertical and used a machete he was carrying to cut off a tree branch that I carried and used to steady myself. It made a big difference. Later, he did the same for Sandra.

We crossed several small streams on bridges of logs. We passed a small wooden house that is the grave of a legendary local Iban warrior. We saw one of the longhouse residents cultivating tapioca plants. Further on women were harvesting rice. We saw pepper growing wild. We learned that the Iban only clear land part way up a mountain, leaving trees on the upper slopes for the spirits of the dead. In some places there was open space. In most places the jungle closed us in.

All along the way Lemon tried hard to find an orangutan for us to see. They are the only species of great apes outside of Africa, are only found in Borneo and Sumatra, and are endangered. They live in this area and from time to time are seen. He listened closely and said he could hear them. He showed us trees in which they had nested. But none came into view.

By the time we met up with Nam and Abong on the river nearly two hours had passed. Clearly, when Lemon said the trek would take 45 minutes he didn’t take into consideration who he was walking with. My thighs were suffering. I guess that’s the part of my legs that bore the brunt of my struggle to stay upright. They cramped up a bit and were very sore. But we did make it and were proud of ourselves. It was also a glorious two hours. I noticed that in this case I was really happy to see the longboat.

From where we linked up with the boat the falls weren’t far. On the way we passed through quite a few rapids and we also stopped several times so Nam could fish. He fished the Iban way, with a net. He would toss a stone some distance out in front of the boat and then lower a round net, about 6’ in diameter, into the water. After a minute or so he’d pull the net up and check the results. I don’t know the purpose of the stone that begins the process. Maybe it is to frighten the fish so they swim in our direction. At the time I couldn’t tell whether he was catching anything, but later when we had lunch we realized he’d actually done quite well.

The Enseluai Falls are wonderful. They aren’t too large, maybe 25 or 30 feet high, but the setting is very beautiful. The trees, the plants, the color, the rocks, the sound, all come together into an idyllic whole. We were dropped off on the side of the river with the best spot for viewing the falls and our three guys, all cooks for this meal, went over to the other side to begin preparing lunch. We spent the next half hour quietly soaking up the rainforest’s ambiance.

In the meantime, a lot of activity was going on. Abong built a large fire. Nam built a small fire. Lemon was preparing fruits and vegetables. And the cooking began. Abong stuffed rice into bamboo cylinders and laid them in and (atop some poles he’d erected) over the fire. He was making sticky rice with a delicious, unique flavor. He was also grilling eggplant on his fire. Nam was frying the fish he’d caught (Lemon said they were small carp about 6” long) and steaming regular rice. The fish are very bony, but when thoroughly fried can be eaten as is. They were also delicious. Sandra balked at eating the heads, so I had more than my fair share of them. Lemon cooked a beef dish, pieces of chicken, string beans and made a sauce of I know not what. Finally, we had chunks of not-quite-ripe papaya.

This feast was laid out in front of us on planks of wood. We sat on our little seats from the boat and ate. I was in awe of what these guys had put together. I was also very hungry. All this plus the setting completed a perfect picture. What a lunch!

It was mid-afternoon by the time we got back to the lodge. I wanted to shower, change clothes and do nothing. Which I did. We had rain for the first time, which was a nice change of pace, especially since we could enjoy it from a distance in a dry spot.

I was content just to ‘be’ as day gave way to night. Dinner was similar to what we’d had last night. We were used to the routine by now. After dinner we went over to the longhouse. We sat in the common area and were joined by several members of the community. Nearby, people were doing their thing, again not concerned by our presence. Babies were being fed and played with. Some women were weaving. Chores were being done. Life was going on.

The new chief was sitting with us, as was his wife and another woman. Three men rounded out our group. We were offered something to drink – tuak, a rice wine that the Iban make. It wasn’t bad, although a little sweet for my taste. And we were offered a stronger drink, a kind of whiskey that they also make. I drank it but didn’t love it.

The men were all smoking cigarettes. Between smoking and the many candles and lanterns that were around the longhouse, and given the flammable nature of the structure, I wondered how they avoided burning the place down. Lemon said that fire was a problem but neither he nor the others seemed overly concerned about it.

I assumed they’d use the occasion of our visit to show us what they had for sale. Again, as with our first visit, it didn’t happen. And since we didn’t inquire and hadn’t seen anything that we wanted to have, the subject passed without comment.

Before we left, Sandra and I strolled through the longhouse, pausing to observe the various activities that were going on. Communication was limited to a word or two, and that was OK. Then, after about an hour, it was time to leave.

In bed I again let the jungle’s lullaby put me to sleep. While challenging for a time, it had been a really good day.

We’d be leaving after breakfast. As we were gathering together what we’d brought Sandra made an interesting discovery. On the way up she’d bought a package of crackers. She’d eaten a few and then wrapped the rest up in what she thought was a secure plastic covering. Her discovery was that during the night some creature had chewed through the plastic, taken a bite or two (apparently deciding it wasn’t so tasty after all), and moved on to forage elsewhere. What was unnerving was that the package was located close to where she was sleeping, just outside the mosquito net. We assume it was a rat, but don’t know for sure.

If you’ve read this far it won’t surprise you to hear that I was now preoccupied with the soon-to-be-confronted longboat trip across the reservoir. My preoccupation wasn’t going to change anything though. There was no way to avoid the journey.

We were ready to leave, but we were also conscious of having bittersweet feelings around our departure, since we’d really really enjoyed our time at Nanga Sumpa.

Not surprisingly, the boat ride back to Batang Ai was uneventful. Sandra had been concerned that it would rain (she doesn’t like to get wet), which would cause us to unpack ponchos we hadn’t had to use so far, and we’d also have to bail water from the boat, which would have been an eventuality that would have fed into my craziness. The logjam where the river ends and the lakes begin was more formidable than on the trip up, but Nam skillfully maneuvered our way through it.

Later, when the longboat was behind us, I asked Lemon if he’d ever had people go in the water. He said it had never happened on a trip he was working, but some years earlier two German people went overboard into a whirlpool and drowned. He said the main concern with these boats is wind, but the boatmen know when the conditions are dangerous and won’t take any risks. We thought Nam and Abong had been terrific and were pleased to tip them generously when we said goodbye.

The ride back to Kuching was also uneventful. We stopped at the same place for lunch. Except for changing from rice to noodles the food was pretty much as it had been day before yesterday (good), and I had my first cold Tiger since our earlier visit (also good.) We were entertained by people doing a Chinese New Year Dragon Dance, complete with firecrackers.

We were back at the Holiday Inn at 5. We deeply appreciated how well Lemon had taken care of us and let him know it. And so – our time with the Borneo Adventure people was at an end.

We’d kept the room during our time away. Returning was an interesting experience. It looked very different than it had when we arrived and found it rather plain and rundown. This time it looked almost luxurious. A large bed. Hot water. Air conditioning. TV. The works. Wow! A nice place to come home to.
And this is the end of Part Six

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Five

Here's Part Five: Into The Jungle

Malaysia/Kuching/Batang Ai

Malaysia was new territory for us, although I knew a little bit about its history. The colonial British left, but only after a lengthy, nasty guerilla war fought against the Malaysian Communists between 1948 and 1960. So Malaysia’s birth was not easy. A population that was multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious further complicated the situation.

52% of the people are Malays, who are Muslims and traditionally the politically dominant group. About 30% are Malaysians of Chinese descent, who control most business and trade. Add to this a significant Indian minority and a variety of indigenous people and you have a mix that is potentially volatile and more likely to pull in opposite directions than to work and coexist together.

Fortunately, over time enlightened self-interest overcame fissiparous tendencies and Malaysia as a whole is the winner. Today, Malaysia is generally peaceful and booming economically. It has a state religion, Islam, but nearly half the people practice other religions. As far as I know, the ongoing frictions between various groups have been kept in check. But I don’t think anyone takes for granted what is an uneasy modus vivendi.

When we arrived in Kuala Lumpur the Islamic influence was immediately apparent, mostly because of the number of women wearing headscarves (usually without an accompanying veil.) While I’m a strong separation of church and state guy, I don’t buy into the negative opinion many people have about these scarves. So what if someone wants to wear one? I recognize that there can be symbolic importance to it, but still I say, so what? If a woman is not forced to wear it, my libertarian views trump the unspoken political statement that may be being made. If she is being coerced into wearing a head cover, well, that’s another matter.

One thing, though, I can’t quite reconcile. If a headscarf implies modesty and piety, which I have the impression it does, how do you square that with the tight, form-fitting jeans and sweaters that often complete the attire for many young women? I recall this phenomenon in Turkey. And it certainly was prevalent in Malaysia.

Anyway, back to an awareness of Islam. Later, in Kuching, I loved hearing the morning and evening call to prayers. I’ve always found the haunting melody of “Allāh u Akbar” a lovely and soothing experience. I guess for some it has a different impact, but I like it.

The demographics of Sarawak are quite different than the rest of Malaysia. It is home to 28 ethnic groups, each with their own distinct language, culture and lifestyle. The Ibans form the major ethnic group with about 31% of the total population. The Malaysian Chinese, who generally live in the cities, are the second largest group at 29%. Malays (21%) are mainly concentrated along the coast. Other native tribes round out the picture.

Kuching is a modern city. Part of the ride in from the airport is on a new divided highway. The suburbs stretch out 30km. New construction is everywhere. It is obvious that the people of Sarawak are doing well. The staples of the economy are natural resources – oil, gas, timber, palm oil. But Kuching gave every appearance of being a thriving commercial center as well (even though when we arrived many stores were closed to celebrate Chinese New Year.)

There are things to see in Kuching, but that’s not why we went there. For us it was more a jumping off spot for our trip to the jungle. It was advertised as pleasant and unpretentious. Given that three of the four top hotels in town are the Hilton, the Crowne Plaza, and the Holiday Inn, Kuching didn’t need to live up to inordinately high expectations. And it turned out to be as advertised.

The hotel descriptions all sounded alike. So I chose the Holiday Inn. It was less expensive than the others and located right on the river, the Sungai Sarawak, with river view rooms available. The room was – fine. It looked like a Holiday Inn in Sacramento might have looked 10 or 15 years ago – functional, simply designed furnishings, some evidence of wear. Compared to what we had become used to for the past three weeks it was definitely a step down, but for $64 a night, what the hell.

We arrived early afternoon and went out for lunch and a walk. We ate at the Khatulistiwa Café. It is an open-air restaurant, round with a thatched roof, said to be modeled on a Bidayuh (one of the local tribes) skull house. A skull house was where, in the not-so-old-days, the heads of the people they’d hunted and killed were kept. Khatulistiwa mean equator, which is an appropriate name since Kuching is just a little more than one degree north of the equator. The food was local and tasty. And after my romance with BeerLao (only available in Laos) I was reunited with my Vietnam beer pal, Tiger.

At the café entrance was a sign that amused me. It said:
No outside food/drinks
No drugs/weapons/helmets
No fighting
No big bags/Oversized jackets
No underage (below 18) unless accompanied by adults
No soliciting and unlawful acts
No problem

We walked along the waterfront, on a paved walkway bordered by lawns and flowerbeds, past a children’s playground and food stalls. We saw couples, families and a few tourists (not many.) River ferries, called tambangs, carried passengers back and forth across the river all day long. They are small boats with small motors. The trip to the other side, about 200 yards away, takes something like 10 minutes. It is quiet and picturesque near the river.

We had a buffet dinner (Chinese) at the hotel. It was, we thought, quite good. Maybe it really was good, or maybe we thought it was better than it was because our expectations weren’t high. Maybe I’m not sure. And maybe there’s a lesson in this.

The next morning we were to begin our jungle trip. During my pre-trip research I concluded that a tour offered by Borneo Adventure, based in Kuching, would suit us best. It was three days and two nights and would give us a chance to see some indigenous people up close as well as a chance to spend time in a rainforest. This is how their website described what they offered:

Day 1 Kuching - Nanga Sumpa Longhouse (D)0730hrs - Depart by shuttle overland for Batang Ai reservoir (4.5 hours). Upon arrival at the Batang Ai reservoir, journey for 1-2 hours by river to Nanga Sumpa, and settle into Borneo Adventure's jungle lodge. After dinner, culture and relaxation await at the Iban longhouse. Overnight Borneo Adventure Lodge.

Day 2 Nanga Sumpa (B,L,D)Following breakfast, hike the leafy jungle trails along the river to the scenic Enseluai Waterfall. Time to relax, swim, explore the rainforest and have lunch or try fishing Iban-style. Return to the lodge. After dinner, visit the longhouse where handicrafts are available for display upon request and may be purchased directly from the longhouse people. Overnight Borneo Adventure Lodge.

Day 3 Nanga Sumpa Longhouse - Kuching (B)Following breakfast, depart down river by longboat, then overland to Kuching. Drop off at hotel or transfer directly to the airport for departure.

It was only after we arrived in Kuching that I realized I hadn’t asked any questions that would have provided more details about what we were about to do. Things like: Who would our guide be? What is the lodge like? What kind of boat would we be on? What kind of food would we eat? Etc.

Things didn’t get off to a good start. We were to be picked up at the Holiday Inn at 7:45 a.m., but by 8:15 no one had showed. I wanted to call Borneo Adventure, but didn’t have a phone number. Very bad planning on my part. One of the hotel staff was helpful and set about to reach someone. It took three calls to three different numbers, but finally we got Borneo Adventure on the line. Their system had broken down. At first they couldn’t find us in their records, but they said they’d send a van to pick us up immediately. From that point on our prospects for the day brightened.

When we arrived at the office it was clear they were scurrying around to put our trip together. They apologized and asked that we give them a few minutes to complete the preparations. They also said we’d pick up our guide on the way out of town. We were good guests – quiet and uncomplaining.

Before long we left. In a suburban area on the outskirts of Kuching we pulled over to pick up our guide, Lemon. Yes, that’s his name, spelled and pronounced just like the fruit. Whole name: Lemon Prabby. Lemon is a cool guy. 52 years old, although he looks younger. Medium height and build. With bronze skin and a sculpted face, he reminded me of an American Indian. A ponytail. Father of two teenage girls.

Lemon is Bidayuh by heritage. They, along with the Ibans, are one of Sarawak’s main ethnic groups. The Bidayuhs, who are concentrated in the Kuching/Serian area, traditionally lived in longhouses and were animists. Now they are more likely to be Christians living in a tract home. Lemon is Anglican, as was his father.

Lemon did his best to appear rested and on top of his game. But he looked a bit harried, as if he’d been rushed into service, which indeed he had. He hadn’t been scheduled to work today. So – given that it was Chinese New Year and all – he’d been out drinking with his buddies last night. He was awakened hours earlier than he’d expected to wake up with an emergency request that he cover for the logistical breakdown regarding our tour. Lemon is a straightforward guy and didn’t attempt to hide any of this. And for us, we were lucky he agreed to be our guide, hangover and all, since he turned out to be as good as it gets.

We were headed for the Batang Ai reservoir, about 250km east of Kuching, near the border with Indonesia. Our first stop, though, would be Serian, a Bidayuh town with a large, bustling market. Turns out Lemon had to buy food we’d eat up at the longhouse. So we went shopping with him. He shopped quickly, stopping at one stall, picking out vegetables (most of which were unfamiliar to me,) setting the bag down, moving on to a fruit stall, choosing, leaving the bag, moving on to chickens, then eggs, then bread, and so on. When he got to the final stopping place he paid, took the bag, and we retraced our steps, paying and picking up the bags we’d left, until all three of us were loaded with provisions.

Little by little in interactions with Lemon we came to have a better sense of what this trip was really all about, at least from the Borneo Adventure point of view. We’d signed up to have a direct experience of seeing what it is like to live as the Iban do. So the food would be Iban food. Where we stayed would approximate Iban longhouse living. Where we went, what we did and what we observed would help flesh out our exposure to the life of an Iban. The context was more about being a participant than being a voyeur. Lemon said the lodge was ‘primitive.’ We weren’t sure what that meant. We’d find out.

About an hour after Serian we stopped for lunch. The restaurant was in a small complex of commercial establishments on one side of the highway that catered to travelers passing by. It wasn’t in a town. Lunch was a simple and tasty set menu. We had rice, chicken and two vegetables. I had a cold Tiger. When we left I bought four more Tigers to take with us. Lemon wasn’t sure there would be any way to cool them at the longhouse, but I was willing to take the risk. As it turned out I was engaged in wishful thinking.

Our driver was an Iban named Nyaling. He and Lemon communicated in the Iban language. The roads were not particularly challenging or crowded, so it wasn’t a difficult drive. Nyaling moved us along at a good, but safe, clip. From time to time we passed through small communities and farmland, but mostly we were surrounded by lush, uncultivated vegetation. The weather was warm but not hot, and we had no rain en route to Batang Ai.

Batang Ai is a huge hydroelectric dam. The reservoir and lakes behind it seem to stretch on forever. Hilton has an upscale longhouse style resort on the shores of the main lake. It is hidden from view, so we didn’t see it, and that’s not where we were headed anyway.
We were the ‘real’ adventurers, headed for a ‘real’ longhouse experience. And we’d get there on a longboat.

My first view of our mode of transport was from a visitor’s area on a hill overlooking the reservoir and jetty down below. What I saw was a long, skinny thing that looked like a stretch-canoe. When I got closer I saw that it really was a long, skinny thing that looked like a stretch-canoe. I looked at the longboat. Then I looked out at this immense lake we had to cross. “Oh, shit,” I thought. Followed by a more emphatic, “Oh, shit.”

Under the best of circumstances I don’t like boats. I don’t feel safe on them. I have a theory that this is because I don’t swim well and feel that on a boat I don’t have control and won’t be able to save myself should that be necessary. I don’t know if that’s the cause, but even if I’m accurate it doesn’t help. My sense of unease or, depending on the circumstances, terror, is not alleviated. Sandra doesn’t have the same feeling about boats. But later she told me that when she saw our longboat she was terrified.

It was about 40’ long, and wide enough for one person to sit. It probably is more stable than it looks, but, no surprise, it didn’t appear stable to me. These longboats are motorized; a good size Yamaha engine would propel us. Two Iban boatmen were waiting for us when we arrived. Nam, the senior man, would sit in the front. He would give directions to Abong, the man in the rear. When we entered the river upstream Nam would have plenty of work to do.

Before we climbed aboard Lemon casually mentioned that we’d be going through some rapids. He added that they were gentle so we shouldn’t be concerned. He then said that since we could swim we wouldn’t have a problem. I didn’t say anything. Rapids, I thought, wonderful! We were asked to wear life vests. There may be times when wearing a life vest would heighten one’s concern. Since my concern was at its peak already, I loved the idea of having the vest. I was thrilled to put it on.

Getting in wasn’t difficult. Nam took our hand and that helped. Sandra and I had little wooden seats to sit on. She sat behind me. Lemon sat behind her. Abong fired up the Yamaha and off we went. Across the wide wide lake.

For about the first half hour I barely moved a muscle. I figured sitting quietly would be the best (and safest) policy. I began to relax, a little, when we moved from the big big lake to smaller lakes and the shore was not so far away. Plus, tree trunks were sticking out of the water. I could make it to one of them. Then, after another 15 minutes we left the lakes and were ready to enter the Delok River.

However, where the river current ends and the lakes begin we came upon a logjam. Literally, a logjam. Our path was nearly blocked by logs that had floated downriver and now had no place to go. With a pole and an oar Nam moved them aside and directed Abong through the maze. It took a while.

We were now truly in the river. And the rainforest was on either side. There was a current, but not too strong. The river was not deep. Lemon said 3 meters was about the max, and most of the time it was much shallower than that. We stopped to change propellers. In the river they use a smaller one than in the deeper water.

Now the rapids. They were, as Lemon had said, gentle. In fact, kind of fun. The routine was that Nam pointed a direction, Abong set the boat on that course and revved the motor, then when we reached a certain point he slowed the motor way down, and Abong used a pole to steer us around the rocks and rapids. This process was repeated multiple times.

An hour and a half after leaving the reservoir jetty we reached our destination, the Iban Nanga Sumpa Longhouse. The British called the Ibans Sea Dayaks. They were a fearsome warrior race, with particular expertise in headhunting and piracy. As with Lemon’s people, the Bidayuh, they were animists who converted to Christianity over time. Oral histories say that the Iban arrived in Sarawak from Indonesia about 1675. The centuries that followed were filled with wars against other ethnic groups and struggles against the colonial authorities and ruling sultans. In the end the Ibans did pretty well, maintaining their identity and some independence.

On the drive up to Batang Ai and during our boat trip we passed a number of modernized longhouses. I don’t know if they were Iban or not, but we could tell they were not original or primitive dwellings. That wasn’t the case at Nanga Sumpa. It was very much as it had been for a very long time. Borneo Adventure, remember, was committed to providing us with an authentic experience.

Part Six will follow soon.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Four

Here is Part Four:

Laos – Luang Prabang

Our job this Valentine’s Day was to fly from Hanoi to Laos’ capital, Vientiane, and connect to a Lao Airlines flight that would take us on to Luang Prabang. Given the difficulty I’d had getting Lao Airlines tickets my level of certainty about what was going to happen was low. As it turned out everything went smoothly. Not to worry – no problems.

We wanted to go to Laos for a few reasons. First, it is not a heavily traveled tourist destination, which appeals to us. Second, it has a reputation for being laid back, tranquil and friendly. Third – just because.

The contrast between the Laotians and Vietnamese is striking. Lao-ness is defined by Theravada Buddhism, which stresses the cooling of human passions. The Lao don’t get worked up over the future. The French have a saying: “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.” Laotians say too much work is bad for your brain and they feel sorry for people who ‘think too much.’ If you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing, stop doing it. And so on …

Luang Prabang fits the Lao picture perfectly. It is small and quiet. It opened to tourists in 1989, attracts many people who come to Laos and is oriented toward these visitors. But it didn’t offend us in any way as did, say, Hoi An. On the contrary, we liked what it offered. An example that makes the point about Luang Prabang and Laos in general: during our five days in Laos, only once did someone try to sell us something, and then it was a very gentle approach without persistent follow-up requests when we said ‘no, thank you.’

Luang Prabang is located at an elevation of 2,200 feet in a mountainous area about 240 miles north of Vientiane, where the Mekong and Khan Rivers converge. The Lonely Planet writes, “The city’s mix of gleaming temple roofs, crumbling French provincial architecture and multiethnic inhabitants tends to enthrall even the most jaded travelers.” So we had company in being enthralled.

32 of the town’s 66 wats (temples) house Buddhist monks and novices. The monks are ubiquitous in Luang Prabang, in the courtyard of their wat and strolling down the street singly or in groups in their orange and yellow robes. Many of the younger ones are eager to practice speaking English, so we had a chance to chat with several. They appeared to be serious young men, but not solemn. It seems that their English language proficiency is mostly self-taught. Impressive.

We stayed in the Hotel les 3 Nagas. A naga is a building and – surprise – the hotel has 3 buildings, two with suites (a total of 15) and a third for their restaurant. We had one of seven suites in the Lamache House, initially built in 1898 for Royal Court deliberations and later occupied by a French colonial family. Our room was comfortable, but with high ceilings, dark wooden floors and furniture, and not much lighting, it wasn’t bright and cheery. We had a private veranda that was attractive, but also poorly lit.

We expected to be bothered by mosquitoes on this trip, if not in Vietnam then certainly in Laos, both of which are classified as malaria areas. So we came prepared – with Malarone pills and plenty of repellent. It didn’t happen. We saw very few flying or crawling creatures.

We hung out around the hotel that first afternoon, had a snack and a BeerLao at the hotel restaurant, checked out the dinner menu, liked what we saw, and ate some really tasty Lao food that evening. A drink called lao-lao, which is rice whiskey, intrigued me. So I had one. It reminded me of homemade moonshine I drank in the hills of Kentucky a long time ago. I also tried sticky rice wine, a pinkish concoction that I found too sweet. I settled on BeerLao as my default drink in Laos. Sandra continued to search for drinkable wine, usually white, and managed to find enough to satisfy her.

The agenda for our first full day in Luang Prabang was to take a leisurely walk around town. Nothing is very far away so walking makes sense. The only for-sure destination we had was the Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s most magnificent temple. On the way we passed one wat after another. It seemed like it was wall-to-wall wats. It seemed like it was because in fact it was. At several points we came upon and talked with monks. At one wat, a group of teenage monks who were intrigued by his camera surrounded an Englishman from Newcastle, on a photographic assignment for UNESCO. They loved it when he let them click the shutter.

Wat Xieng Thong was very impressive. It dates from 1560 and remained under royal patronage until 1975. Whose royal patronage? I don’t have a clue. For certain periods of time Luang Prabang was the capital (of something.) I won’t even try to talk about Laos’ history. For a foreigner, and probably for locals too, it is complicated and confusing. Century after century of internal wars, invasions, sackings, occupations, various royal families, etc.

Whatever the story, the Wat is very beautiful. Mosaics. Elaborately decorated wooden columns. Gold leaf votive figures. Bronze Buddhas. Tapestries. And great architecture. All set on a small hill overlooking the Mekong River.

We stopped for lunch at the Villa Santi, a 120-year-old building that is now a hotel. We ate on the veranda overlooking the town’s main street. It was a great setting. Unfortunately, I ordered a local delicacy, spicy papaya salad, which I found inedible. Much too hot. I like very spicy foods, but this was over the top, even for me. The BeerLao was good.

After another lazy afternoon, we went to the highly regarded Elephant for dinner. I’ll assume its high regard is deserved, but I’ll never know for sure because I didn’t realize until we arrived that it is a highly regarded restaurant that specializes in French cuisine. I wasn’t a happy boy. I didn’t come to Luang Prabang to have European food. (At this point it’s fair to accuse me of inconsistency, since I loved the Metropole’s European brunch so much. To which my response is, yes, I’m being inconsistent, and I still didn’t want French food in Laos.) We found the Elephant did have one pre-set Lao dinner on the menu, which we ordered. It was OK, but not wonderful. Bummer. I guess you could say we had a bad food day.

The next morning we visited the Royal Palace Museum, built in 1904 as a residence for King Sisavang Vong and his family. I’m sure you know all about old King Sis, as do I, so no details are necessary. His home underwhelmed me. There is some nice statuary inside, but for the most part I thought the art and objects were mediocre and uninteresting. Some of the rooms were decorated in a faux-baroque style. His and the Queen’s bedrooms were under furnished and looked uncomfortable. The ostentation put me off. I think I’ve made my point. I’ll move on.

We stopped at a few more wats, had a good lunch at the 3 Elephants, no relationship to the single elephant from the night before or the 3 Nagas where we stayed, and finished our day with dinner back at the 3 Nagas restaurant, which again was very good.

I’ve just reread what I have to say about our stay in Luang Prabang. It’s accurate, but misleading. Misleading in the sense that it sounds a little too laid back, even boring, and without wonderful adventures. That’s not the impression I took away. My experience is that it is a little jewel of a place, totally enjoyable, with a gentleness and sense of peace that is unique and worthy of being appreciated. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.


Upon our arrival in each new city we needed a taxi to take us from the airport into town. My memory from past trips to this part of the world is that when we’d exit a terminal we were 1) besieged by a throng of taxi drivers and 2) needed to negotiate a fare before deciding which one to take. It was a hassle, and no matter how hard I bargained I usually felt we’d been ripped off. This time we found a system in place at every airport that eased the process. A taxi booth offered set prices for rides. And they were fair prices. So we paid our money, got a receipt, walked outside and climbed into the cab.

That’s what we did when we arrived in Vientiane. In this case the car was rather beat up and lacked air conditioning, but the driver was a happy guy who asked us if he could pick up his daughter on the way and give her a ride home. No problem. She met us at the airport entrance and off we went.

It was a really ugly drive. Near as I can tell the road into town was in the process of being widened and repaved. But the work wasn’t very far along, so it was dusty and bumpy and crowded. The entrance to Laos’ capitol city didn’t show well. We hoped the environment would improve by the time we arrived at our destination, the Green Park Boutique Hotel. It didn’t improve much, and we were beginning to wonder what the Green Park would be like. Happily, as we approached the hotel it looked like an oasis in the desert.

We were reminded of the Life Resort in Hoi An and Pilgrimage Village in Hue. Recently built. Two story buildings designed in the local style. Ponds and lovely gardens. Large rooms with Lao fabrics and materials. Very comfortable. Regrettably, the staff and management were not on a par with the design. They were willing and pleasant, but untrained. At dinner the restaurant was missing some basics, like rice and chicken, and the white wine was warm. Fortunately, the BeerLao was cold.

Our one full day in Vientiane was a really good one. How could we miss? We had three temples to see. The most famous, called Laos’ #1 national monument, is Pha That Luang. It is imposing, a 150’ high gold-gilded stupa in the center, surrounded by several dozen smaller stupas, atop a base, each side of which is 227’ long. From a distance the temple looks like a gilded cluster of missiles. It was originally built in 1566 and restored in the 1930’s. Imposing, but not my favorite.

Nor was Haw Pha Kaew, which also dates to the mid-16th Century and has been restored. Some beautiful stone and bronze Buddhist sculpture is kept here.

My favorite was Wat Si Saket. It is newer than the others, built in 1818 in what is called the early Bangkok style. The main building, the ordination hall, is surrounded by a colonnaded terrace and topped by a five-tiered roof. Inside, the walls have hundreds of niches, in each of which is an image of the Buddha. Also on the walls are fading murals depicting stories of the Buddha’s past lives. I had the feeling that the inside of this hall is a sacred space.

Outside is a cloister, the walls of which are also riddled with small niches that contain over 2,000 silver and ceramic Buddha images. Over 300 seated and standing Buddhas of varying sizes and materials rest on shelves below the niches.

Finally, the grounds of the wat are planted with coconut, banana and mango trees.

From the temples we walked through Vientiane’s downtown, looking for a place to have lunch. Lo and behold, a French bistro caught our eye. It suited my mood perfectly. I would have steak/pommes frites. They were delicious. Another inconsistency? Of course.

Later, in what was a very good food day, we had dinner at Kua Lao, specializing in top-end Lao dishes. Kua Lao was like a favorite neighborhood restaurant – simply designed, not pretentious, good service without airs, great food. Since we were leaving Laos in the morning I wanted a farewell glass of lao-lao. I got it.

The next day was a serious travel day. We flew first to Bangkok, spent about five hours waiting for our connection to Kuala Lumpur, and then continued on to Malaysia. It all went smoothly. By 8 in the evening we were settled into the Pan Pacific Airport Hotel for an overnight stay, before continuing on to Sarawak in the morning.
End of Part Four

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Three

Correction: Earlier I said that in Vietnam almost all the motorbike riders wore helmets. I mis-spoke. Almost none of them wore helmets. It was in Laos that everyone wore helmets. A great example of the difference between the two cultures.

And now Part Three:

From Hoi An it was on to Hue by car. We had read and been told that the drive would take 4 hours or more, mainly because it was necessary to go over the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass, part of the Truong Son Mountain range, and that the road was slow and difficult. But when I checked at the hotel I was told it would take us 2½ hours. The hotel was right.

What we didn’t know was that the Hai Van Tunnel opened in 2005. The tunnel is a state-of-the-art 4-mile long project that cuts the drive by 20 km and 1 hour. It looks quite sophisticated.

The rest of the drive was not difficult. We traveled along Highway 1, the main north-south route in Vietnam, along the coast of the South China Sea and through the countryside. I was surprised that the traffic was quite light. A few trucks, buses and cars – that’s all. Our driver was Mr. Ho, who also drove us to My Son with Van. He was careful, helpful, and friendly. Can’t ask for more.

We stayed at Pilgrimage Village, a relatively new place on the outskirts of town. I wasn’t impressed with what I read about the centrally located hotels, so this looked good. About themselves, they say:

Pilgrimage Village will awake a breath of memories, a sense of the past, a purity of nature in a fresh and rustic village setting.

Well, I guess so. It is in a rustic setting, reminiscent of the Life Heritage Resort in Hoi An. The two-story buildings are spread out over a large area; the architecture is consistent with local styles. As to awakening my breath of memories – I come up a bit short on this one.

Being out of town was a mixed blessing. The surroundings were lovely. It was quiet. But when we considered going into Hue for dinner, our location was a disincentive. And the restaurant at Pilgrimage Village had an unexciting, unchanging menu for lunch and dinner. So we weren’t thrilled with our food choices. And you may have noticed by now that we do have a hot button about enjoying what we eat, especially dinner.

Our room was large. The bathroom had design features I’d never seen before – like pebbles around a large, open shower into which some of the water disappeared. And we had a veranda (in Hue they call it a porch; in Kauai we’d call it a lanai) with a view of the countryside. The only real problem with the room was that it had an abysmal lack of light, so reading was a challenge.

Reading wasn’t a priority on this trip, but I did finish some good books:
“The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai
“Shalimar the Clown” by Salman Rushdie
“Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy
And I got half way through “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk

We had one full day in Hue – February 9, which happens to be the date Sandra and I met and the one we celebrate as our Anniversary. This February 9 marked 33 years together. Given that we have a tradition of celebrating our Anniversary with great food and wine, and given the paucity of both on this day in Hue, we had a mini-celebration and delayed the real thing until we returned home.

Hue is an important city in Vietnam. Americans of a certain age will remember Hue for its role in the Tet offensive of 1968, which turned the American War around for the Viet Cong. For the Vietnamese, Hue was their Imperial capitol in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It is home to the famous Citadel and Imperial City. We decided to hire a guide and spend half our day visiting the Citadel/Imperial City, an Emperor’s tomb and (surprise) a pagoda.

Our guide was Thi, a woman about 30, mother of a little girl. She was OK, but not on a par with Van. Thi did her job competently, but we were unable to establish a ‘beneath-the-surface’ relationship with her that would have made our day more fun and allowed us to learn more about Vietnam.

The Citadel is huge. Its perimeter is 10km long. As the name implies, it was built to enclose and protect the Emperor, his family, and his government. Over the years much has been destroyed, so the few walls, gates and buildings that remain seem a bit lonely inside the large open spaces. Even so, for the people of Hue I had the clear impression that the Citadel is #1 on their list of important things to see.

We were much more taken with the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, who reigned from 1848-1883. Tu Duc was a practical guy. He designed this tomb complex long before he died and used it as a place to live and work. I assume he spent time both here and in the Imperial City, but I don’t know for sure. Since the tomb is located outside the city, maybe it was kind of a second home in the country for him. In any event, the design and feel of the tomb communicate a sense of exquisite harmony.

It is a large walled compound set amid frangipani trees and a grove of pines. Long quiet pathways connect the different parts of the tomb. In the middle is a lake, which for me was the tomb’s centerpiece. On one side is a boat landing. On another is a pavilion built out over the water where, it is said, the emperor would sit among the columns with his wives (there were 104) and concubines (countless) composing or reciting poetry. Does it matter if all this is accurate? Of course not.

In another area is a stele pavilion in which the accomplishments, exploits and virtues of the deceased emperor are engraved on a marble tablet. The testaments are usually written by the dead ruler’s successor, but since Tu Duc had no children he chose to compose his own. I’ll resist the temptation for conjecture about the reason for his lack of progeny.

There is a temple, used only by the emperor and his family. There is a sepulcher, in which his remains are buried. And there is a large courtyard used for ceremonial occasions, along the sides of which are stone elephants, horses and mandarins.

We were left with a very positive opinion of Tu Duc.

Our pagoda of the day was the Thien Mu Pagoda, built on a hillock overlooking the Perfume River. It is tall – a seven story octagonal tower – and old, 1844. It was also closed for repairs. So we walked around the grounds. The most interesting relic we saw at the pagoda was an old Austin car that in 1963 transported a monk, Trich Quang Duc, to Saigon where he immolated himself to protest the policies of the Vietnamese government. A picture of the burning monk was on the front page of newspapers around the world.

The next afternoon we flew to Hanoi. The airport is more than 20 miles from the city, and under normal circumstances it’s a long ride into town. But these were not normal circumstances; it was now a week before Tet, and along the side of the main road were wall-to-wall sellers of Tet-related items, particularly small peach and kumquat trees filled with beautiful pink blossoms and orange fruit. It was slow going or when a car stopped to buy something, no going, on the narrow two-lane highway. We were in no hurry and totally enjoyed the scene, especially watching people balancing and protecting their trees while riding on motorbikes, bicycles or in cars.

We were taken to the Metropole Hotel, our accommodations splurge for this trip. In comparison with other parts of the world, our itinerary allowed us to stay in very good hotels for a lot less than it would have cost elsewhere, an average of about $150 a night, including service and taxes. The Metropole was twice that, but given its reputation we wanted to experience the luxury of what was said to be the best hotel in Vietnam.

The Metropole is a truly Grand Hotel, in the same sense as are Raffles in Singapore (where we haven’t stayed) and the Oriental in Bangkok (where we have stayed – and enjoyed incomparable service.) The Metropole is more than 100 years old and has a classic French ambiance.

Upon arrival we were greeted and accompanied to the reception desk. Someone took our passports and completed the various forms that we usually filled out ourselves. Someone else described the various services they would provide. Within a few minutes we were in our room in the Old Wing. It was glorious, extravagant, impeccable, exactly what we had hoped for.

The furniture, the art, the fixtures, the linen, the windows, the wooden floor, the high ceilings, the flowers, the soap even, were exquisite. And I found this to be the case not only in our room but everywhere we went in the hotel. Just walking down the hall to the elevator, every few feet passing gorgeous small lamps and orchids sitting atop antique tables, was an exhilarating experience. Unbelievable. Un-fucking believable. I’ve never been in a hotel where the design excellence and attention to detail equaled the Metropole.

And the quality of the service matched the décor. Whatever we asked for was attended to quickly, efficiently, and with a smile. Add to all this that the hotel is perfectly located for a visit to Hanoi, and – voila! – perfection. We were thrilled that we would be here for four nights.

Since elegance had become our theme of the day, we continued with dinner at the Emperor, a Vietnamese restaurant not far from the hotel known both for outstanding décor and food. The Emperor fills a beautiful restored colonial building and features an interior courtyard used for dining. Our table was upstairs overlooking the courtyard, so we had the feeling of being both indoors and outdoors. During the evening we were treated to live traditional music. At the end of our first day in Hanoi I would characterize our mood as very very satisfied.

The next morning we went out for our first real look at Hanoi. We headed for Hoan Kiem Lake, a lovely body of water in the heart of the city. In contrast to Ho Chi Minh City, in Hanoi it is possible to find in-city relief from the traffic and commotion. This lake area is the main oasis. Having said that, I don’t want to understate the motorbike population or the challenge of crossing the street. As in HCMC, it is a frightening experience.

At the north end of the lake on an island is the Ngoc Son Pagoda, reached by crossing the lovely Bridge of the Rising Sun. As we walked along the edge of the lake we passed several young couples who couldn’t care less about us, the bridge, or anything except each other and families with children who were enjoying a Sunday morning outing. While there were many people out and about it was not crowded. Our walk around the lake and back to the Metropole was very tranquil.

We had set ourselves up to have brunch at Le Beaulieu, the hotel’s French restaurant, which was advertised as a special eating experience. Special doesn’t come close. This brunch was spectacular. It is a huge buffet tastefully arrayed on maybe twenty tables. Dozens of dishes awaited us. I can’t begin to remember all the choices. Mussels, prawns, caviar, varieties of salmon. Cheeses. Breads. Fruit. Eggs, chicken, meat, noodles, rice. Washed down by a good bottle of white wine.

Brunch wiped us out. I wanted to sleep. Sandra read. If we hadn’t had tickets for a late afternoon performance at the Water Puppet Theater we probably wouldn’t have done anything else for the rest of the day. Anna Hannon recommended the Water Puppets even though she said they were a bit corny and kitschy.

They were that, but also unique enough to be interesting. The performance is in a waist high tank of water, with 11 out-of-sight puppeteers manipulating large brightly painted wooden puppets representing people, fish and animals. Along with a band of flutes, gongs, drums, stringed instruments and singers they present more than dozen vignettes of pastoral scenes and legends. The show lasts less than an hour. For adults it’s more a ‘why not see’ rather than a ‘must see.’ For kids it would be ‘don’t miss it.’

After the show we were supposed to go to dinner at Indochine. But we weren’t very hungry, so we cancelled the reservation. We had a drink and a snack in the Metropole’s Bamboo Bar. We’d had a great day.

Morning came, and it was time to visit Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which dates back to the 13th Century. The Quarter evolved from workshops that were organized by trades (guilds), and to this day some streets are dedicated to a product or trade (as was the case in HCMC.) I love these old areas. I guess my first Old Quarter was Old Delhi in 1962, and since then I’ve been in quite a few. While each is unique, there is also a similarity quarter-to-quarter and country-to-country. These are the places where life happens. They are not about tourists. They are authentically themselves. They are crowded. In places the streets narrow to a few feet. Here there are more mobile shops – women walking around selling produce from long bamboo shoulder-poles with baskets at each end. There are more cyclos (cycle rickshaws) than in other parts of town. I love ‘em.

Of course we needed to make an obligatory temple visit. Ms. Marsh suggested Hanoi’s oldest temple, Bach Ma, which was built in 1010. I thought it was a brilliant idea. After all, my day wouldn’t be complete without visiting a temple. So we went. Our day was now complete – but not finished.

We went to Cha Ca La Vong for lunch. Appropriately, Cha Ca La Vong is on Cha Ca (fish) Street in the Old Quarter. It is a narrow and simple place, with too many wooden tables squeezed into the small space. We had to wait a while for a place to sit. Each table accommodates 8-10 people. Fortunately we found ourselves next to a Thai guy and a Filipina (business colleagues they said) who spoke English and knew how to prepare and eat Cha Ca. We followed their lead.

A seriously hot charcoal hibachi was put in front of us. On the side were bowls filled with boneless chunks of white fish, noodles, greens, peanut oil with dill, peanuts, tumeric and fermented something. Our job was to cook it and eat it. Which we did. For me, cold beer completed the picture. It was delicious. Cha ca is a well-known Hanoi dish. Cha Ca La Vong is a well-known Hanoi restaurant, frequented by both tourists and locals. I totally enjoyed being there. They say the family that owns and runs Cha Ca has been doing it for five generations. I can believe it.

As we walked around Hanoi and HCMC we noticed many tall, very very narrow buildings. They looked strange, and we couldn’t figure out why they were built that way. Then we found out they are called ‘tube houses.’ Turns out that in Vietnam properties are taxed on the basis of their street frontage, so it makes good economic sense to minimize the width and concentrate on organizing the various components of the house and/or business front-to-back and up-and-down.

We relaxed for the rest of the afternoon and had dinner at the Club Opera restaurant. It was – OK. OK food. OK ambiance. Nothing to write home about.

On our final day in Hanoi we went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. By the time we arrived the Mausoleum itself was closed, which was fine with me. I had no interest in checking out a stuffed Uncle Ho. In earlier years I’d passed on viewing Lenin in Moscow, but I had gone to see Mao in Beijing in 1983. One national hero under glass was enough for me.

The Mausoleum is an imposing, somber, granite and concrete structure modeled on Lenin’s tomb. The complex is a traffic-free area of parks, monuments, memorials and pagodas. Ho’s house is there, as is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. There were many police and/or soldiers patrolling and guarding. For the most part they were serious, humorless young men. They made sure we walked in the proper places and didn’t take pictures where we shouldn’t. They weren’t really a problem, but they seemed out of place in present-day Vietnam. They reminded me of their counterparts I’d seen in Indonesia in the 1960’s and in the Soviet Union in the 70’s and 80’s.

We walked from the Mausoleum Complex to the Temple of Literature, another relaxing retreat in central Hanoi. The temple was founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius in honor of scholars. It was here in 1076 that Vietnam’s first university was established. Doctoral examinations were held every three years between 1442 and 1778. The names of the 1,306 doctoral laureates who managed to pass the rigorous exams are engraved on 82 stone stelae that line the temple’s third enclosure.

In the Temple of Literature are beautiful Chinese/Vietnamese-style gates that set five courtyards apart, each gate filled with statuary and ornamentation. Lovely old trees and flowers along the central pathway complete the picture.

We ate dinner alfresco on the terrace of the hotel’s Spices Garden restaurant. We needed to pack and prepare for an early morning flight, so we didn’t want to have a late night.

And it was an early start the next day, like up at 5 and in a taxi to the airport at 6, since we wanted to be there by 7. Surely, we thought, at this time of day an hour is more than enough time to get to the airport. Again we underestimated the entrepreneurial zeal of the Vietnamese.

The markets were in full swing. They were packed with people and the road we were on was packed with delivery vehicles. It was like our drive in from the airport four days before, only more so – and it was still dark. At one point an accident somewhere up ahead brought traffic to a standstill. We had a very aggressive taxi driver who fought for every inch of space he could get and pissed off a few other drivers in the process. I thought, if we get through this without having an accident it will be a miracle.

We managed to get through one market area and the accompanying traffic jam only to come upon another one a short distance ahead. My calm associated with having more than enough time to get to the airport disappeared. I was now in my on-the-edge pre-travel mode, not worried about the flight but the logistics associated with it. Sandra was, as usual, cooled out.

In the end we arrived not too long after 7 and even beat the bulk of the other passengers through check-in and security. I relaxed. I was ready for a change of scenery.

End of Part Three

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Two

Here's the second installment of our recent trip to Asia:

Sandra has never met an old structure or ancient ruin she didn’t like. As we’ve gone around the world I’ve learned not to resist her fascination with what I call ‘old stones,’ but to negotiate an acceptable compromise on how many we’ll see. There aren’t any old stones in HCMC, but there are many pagodas and it was no surprise that they loomed large and bright on her radar screen. So off we went this next morning headed for the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

It turned out to be a challenge to find the place. First we told the hotel doorman where we wanted to go. He then told a taxi driver, who didn’t seem to have a clue what he was talking about. He then told a second taxi driver, who professed to understand, and off we went. Except he took us to the Vietnam History Museum which 1) we weren’t interested in, and 2) was closed. By the time we figured out what was going on he had taken off, so we got another taxi to try again.

I don’t know for sure where the breakdown in communication began. It was probably at the beginning, with the doorman. It’s fair to argue that we are in Vietnam, that the language people speak in Vietnam is Vietnamese, and if we’ve got a communication problem because we don’t speak Vietnamese this should be laid at our doorstep, not theirs. It’s an appropriate conclusion. In the moment, however, it doesn’t help.

The language gap is further exacerbated in a place like Vietnam because our attempts to say something in Vietnamese were, to their ears, hopelessly inadequate. Names, a phrase, were unintelligible to them. And vice versa. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had an expectation, based on my experience in other countries, that in Vietnam we would be able to communicate without difficulty in English. That didn’t turn out to be the case.

In any event, the second time around we made it to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. The Pagoda dates from 1909, and was built by Cantonese Chinese. Given the long and turbulent history between Vietnam and China (not the subject of this story,) I found it interesting that the Chinese presence, people/temples/neighborhoods, is as great as it is. As a matter of fact, when we left the Pagoda we headed for Cholon, the Chinatown of HCMC.

The Pagoda is an active temple. It is replete with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes from the Buddhist and Taoist traditions. The pungent smoke from joss sticks fills the air. Offerings of food, drink, money, and other miscellaneous items are everywhere. I could say that the Jade Emperor Pagoda is an archetype for similar temples and shrines all over Southeast Asia. It’s got everything you would want in a far out, very foreign to us, place of worship.

I enjoy such visits – certainly the first time, and maybe even the second and third. But then it all begins to blur together. So my preference is to limit the number of exposures. I don’t need to see more than a couple of pagodas in HCMC, thank you very much. Or churches, or mosques, or markets, or monuments, or old stones – wherever they are.

OK, on to Cholon. My agenda was to wander around, discover how this part of HCMC was different from other parts of town, sniff the traditional herb shops said to be located here, maybe have something to eat. We did that. Cholon is, as advertised, very Chinese. On our map of Cholon Sandra had circled not one or two or three, but six pagodas that would be interesting to check out. We settled on two, and everyone was happy. Or at least I was.

The cab ride from the central part of the city to Cholon, a couple of miles to the west, isn’t all that far, but it takes a while. Observing the traffic from the inside of it is interesting, and certainly less harrowing than on foot. It actually appears quite civilized. The motorbikes maneuver for position, crowd into all available space, and seize every opportunity that comes their way, but they do it without much overt aggressiveness or macho behavior.

As in the U.S., traffic travels on the right side of roads. On their side, cars drive on the left and all others (mostly) on the right. The ‘all others’ take up about 2/3 of the driving area. Cars and most of the ‘all others’ comply with stoplights at major intersections, but the ‘all others’ pay no attention to the lights at other intersections. I noticed that women driving motorbikes wore gloves, mostly long ones that went up to the elbow. I didn’t notice any difference in driving behavior between men and women. Finally, there was near universal adherence to what must be a law requiring people on motorbikes to wear helmets.

Continuing Chinese as our theme of the day, we had dinner at Mandarine. Housed in a large two-story building on a quiet street, Mandarine offers an upscale Chinese motif – timber beams, screen paintings and artwork – and both Chinese and Vietnamese food. Frommer’s calls it a “quaint, elegant oasis.” We totally enjoyed it. And our taxi driver knew how to get there. Reminds me of that old Chinese expression: Win-Win.

That’s it for HCMC. An enjoyable but not memorable stop. Crowded. Busy. Very good food. Many pagodas and motorbikes.

Hoi An was next. To get there we flew 600 miles north to Danang where we hired a taxi to drive us to Hoi An, a 45-minute ride. Hoi An has a great history going back 2,000 years. In the Old Town many of its 19th Century wooden buildings are well preserved. Lonely Planet says Hoi An is “a living museum that oozes charm and culture…the most enchanting place along the coast.” In 1999 Hoi An was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a ‘must see’ for tourists. And that’s the problem. At this point Hoi An is all about catering to tourists.

In Hoi An we traded the motorbikes of HCMC for tour buses and groupos scurrying around on a mission not to miss anything. I was reminded of San Gimignano in Tuscany. A wonderful location. Wonderful things to see. And a main street overflowing with curio and souvenir shops and groupos on a tourist mission. Lord, have mercy.

To see the main attractions requires a ticket that costs $5. But the ticket has restrictions. You can only visit one of five different attractions. In our case we were most interested in old houses, not museums, assembly halls, and the like. So we could only see one old house. That was annoying enough, but what really pissed me off was that 2/3 of the time we spent on a tour of the old house, the Tran Family Chapel, was devoted to trying to sell us stuff. No, thank you.

There’s no question that Hoi An has charm. It is set on the lovely Thu Bon River. The old Japanese Covered Bridge at one end of town is beautiful. The architecture is special. It is a small, quiet place. It must have been great before it became a ‘must see.’

OK, that’s off my chest. Fortunately, that’s not all there is to say about Hoi An. We stayed at the Life Heritage Resort, right on the river and adjacent to the Old Town. It consists of several two-story buildings surrounded by lush gardens. We had a suite with a garden view. The space was large, well designed and comfortable. Also, we had a private porch. The staff was friendly and helpful, and we had no problem communicating in English.

Our favorite spot in Hoi An was Brothers Café, a short walk from the Life Resort. We checked it out the afternoon of our first day and were totally seduced. The restaurant is in a French colonial building. You pass through a large bar area into a beautiful garden with small ponds and tropical flowers and trees out toward the river, where the dining tables are located – overlooking the river. We checked out the menu, Vietnamese food, and chose our table for dinner.

When we returned at sunset it was even more beautiful. Very romantic really. The weather was perfect. In fact, we were favored with great weather for the entire trip. Very little rain. A little warm, with highs in the low 90’s, but we expected that, and lows between 70 and 75. We liked Brothers Café so much we returned for dinner the next night as well. A special attraction was the frogs that serenaded us while we ate. They intrigued Sandra. Also special was observing the small fishing boats out in the river doing their thing. Very idyllic, Brothers Café.

About an hour drive from Hoi An is My Son, a place with old stones. So of course we had to go there. My Son was the intellectual and religious center of the ancient kingdom of Champa and was occupied for about a thousand years, from the 4th to the 13th Centuries. With a heavy Indian influence, it is considered to be a smaller counterpart to Angkor in Cambodia, Ayuthaya in Thailand and Bagan in Myanmar.

It’s hard to know what was originally built in My Son. There are traces of 68 monuments, temples, sanctuaries, etc., but only 20 have survived the pillaging over the centuries and bombing during the American war. For us, these Cham remains were interesting but not stunning. While it is unfair to compare My Son to larger complexes like Angkor, having seen both such comparisons are inevitable.

The best part of our visit to My Son was Van, our guide. We’d arranged for a guide through the hotel, one who would be with us on our drive and tell us what we wanted to know at My Son itself. Van more than filled the bill. First of all, she’s a she. I somehow had an expectation that in Vietnam a guide would be male. She has a great personality, was willing to discuss anything we brought up and speaks excellent English.

Van is about 30, tiny in stature, is unmarried, and lives near her parents but separately in an apartment with her sister. She gives the impression of being a responsible free spirit. Our drive to My Son took us through the countryside where women were working in the newly planted rice fields. I’m not a big fan of the color green, but on this ride I was reminded of how beautiful the color of young rice plants is. Van talked with us about how average Vietnamese in these areas live, the economics of their lives, family life, and more.

We learned about her, how she learned English (less through school than being around English speakers and practicing,) her life as a guide, her life as a young woman in Hoi An. In college she studied to be a teacher but couldn’t find a teaching job when she graduated. She talked about how fast attitudes are changing in Vietnam. Certainly, 10 or 20 years ago, as a single female she wouldn’t be out living on her own. Sandra tells me that what stands out about Van for her is her desire to improve – her skills, her position in life, her well being.

A sign of the times: we traded email addresses with Van when we said goodbye.

End of Part Two

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Asia 2007 - #1

I promised to write about our trip. I've begun documenting the story and will add it here in parts as I finish. This is Part One:

We hadn’t made a trip out of the country in three years, which is very unlike us. Our pattern has been to travel overseas at least every other year. And we hadn’t been to Asia since 2003. So it was almost predictable that we’d want to return to one of our favorite parts of the world this year. The question was: where shall we go?

We decided to look first at places we hadn’t visited. That meant we eliminated Japan, China, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Bali, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. It wasn’t that we’d traveled extensively in each of these countries, but we had been there so they weren’t virgin territory for us.

OK, what was left? Korea – that didn’t interest us much. The Philippines – same response. Indonesia – didn’t get high marks and didn’t feel particularly safe. Taiwan – nope. New Zealand and Australia? They were possibilities. That left us with Vietnam and Laos, about which we’d heard good things from friends who’d been there, and Malaysia. Sandra and I conferred and aligned on Vietnam and Laos.

I thought it was possible Malaysia could satisfy my desire to add a jungle area not on most tourist itineraries, so I went into Google and Wikipedia research mode for ideas and came up with Sarawak. Sarawak, along with Sabah, are Malaysian states located on the north end of the island of Borneo, closer to Singapore than the rest of Malaysia. The area is filled with jungles and many native tribes. Seemed perfect to me, so I checked it out with our good friend Jerry Joiner, who’d been a Peace Corps doctor in Malaysia in the 60’s. He said he loved visiting Kuching, Sarawak’s main city, and urged us to go there. That was all I needed to hear. Again I conferred with Sandra (guys, never assume the woman is on board without being consulted – bad mistake) and she gave Sarawak her blessing.

One question remained. Could we use United miles to get to Vietnam and return from Singapore? The answer was yes and yes. United and its Star Alliance partner, ANA, fly into Ho Chi Minh City. Another partner, Singapore Airlines, could fly us back to San Francisco. And so we had a plan. Vietnam, Laos and Sarawak.

As early as possible, i.e., about 10 months prior to departure, I nailed down our outbound and return flights, business class using miles. It would be ANA going out on Feb. 2 – San Francisco to Tokyo, a layover of a few hours and a change of planes and then non-stop to Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to in many places as Saigon.) And it would be Singapore Airlines coming back, on Feb. 25 – Singapore to SFO, with a stop in Hong Kong but not a change of planes. So this would be a 24-day journey.

About six months before we were to leave I began organizing key logistics for the trip – hotels and flights. As with other vacations in the Internet era, research, planning and nailing down the specifics proved to be infinitely easier than in earlier days. We would end up with 13 different flights and 9 places to stay. Not surprisingly, Laos was the most challenging destination to deal with. Why? Because it’s the least developed of the places we were going.

It was particularly difficult getting specific information about flights to and from Luang Prabang from Vientiane. I knew from reading I’d done that flights existed, on Lao Airlines. But it took me a while to get a schedule and even longer to find a way to buy tickets. I searched all over Google for a website that could help. Finally, I found a travel outfit in Bangkok that had the ability both to get the tickets and accept payment online using my Visa card. At that point the process became pretty straightforward. Once I faxed them a form they required and a copy of my Visa card (front and back) they completed the purchase and I had the tickets two days later.

Choosing hotels was fun. I started with recommendations in the guidebooks and articles we had and supplemented them with newer possibilities I found online. If the US dollar is your currency, given the dollar’s weakness these days and the increased basic cost of everything, traveling around the world can be rather expensive. That’s less true in Southeast Asia 1) because some currencies (in our case Vietnam and Laos) are pegged to the dollar and 2) what things cost to begin with is significantly less than, say, in Europe. So we were able to find great places to stay that were not exorbitant.

We planned our trip to unfold as follows: We’d arrive in Ho Chi Minh City late at night on Feb. 3 and stay three nights. We’d fly to Danang and drive to Hoi An for two nights. We’d then drive to Hue and stay two nights. From Hue we’d fly to Hanoi for four nights. We’d leave Hanoi for Vientiane, Laos and connect to a flight going to Luang Prabang, where we’d stay three nights. Then we’d go back to Vientiane for two nights, before leaving Laos for Malaysia. We could not get from Vientiane to Kuching in one day, so we had to fly Vientiane to Bangkok and then on to Kuala Lumpur for an overnight stay at the Airport Hotel before catching a flight to Kuching the following morning. We’d stay one night in Kuching, then two nights out in the jungle, then two nights back in Kuching before leaving for home. We couldn’t find any flights directly from Kuching to Singapore, so we had to fly from Kuching back to Kuala Lumpur and then down to Singapore to catch the plane that would take us to SFO.

Even though there were multiple opportunities for missed connections, delayed or cancelled flights, and the like, we didn’t experience any travel breakdowns. Our luggage arrived with us every time and in those instances where our luggage needed to be checked through various connections it all happened without a problem. Obviously, my logistical expertise and mastery is the source of these flawless results. That, and an enormous amount of nervous attention and anxiety I bring to bear each and every step of the way. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say we benefited from a lot of dumb luck. Or maybe, given where we were traveling, it was just Karma.

We arrived at the Grand Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) a little after midnight on Feb. 4. We’d been en route for 24 hours +. We were more than a little happy to see a comfortable bed.

Despite our long travel day and jet lag we slept well and woke the next morning in pretty good shape. We liked the Grand. It is a renovated 1930’s landmark building noted for an old-fashioned ornate iron elevator in the middle of the reception area and, in the old section where we stayed, rooms with high ceilings, French windows, parquet wood floors and granite bathrooms. It caters more to tourists than business travelers and offers a very good buffet breakfast.

We’ve always traveled on our own, not in groups (we call them groupos.) So a hotel that is more for tourists than businesspeople isn’t necessarily a plus. In this case the groupos were small enough and upscale enough so as not to be offensive. If that sounds elitist – well, it probably is. On this trip we noticed that there were other Americans traveling, but not too many. The foreign visitors seemed much more to be from Europe – many French along with the inevitable Germans, British, etc. – and from other parts of Asia, especially Korea and Japan.

Our agenda for the day was to get out, walk around, and begin to settle into our travel mode. We have a strong preference for not spending more than four hours a day sightseeing. We’d rather go out after a leisurely breakfast, finish by early afternoon, and then hang out, read, whatever, until about six when it’s time for a drink and then dinner. On a trip like this one, since we had quite a few travel days, we couldn’t always have it this way, so we modified our schedule to accommodate the circumstances.

While Hanoi is the political and cultural center of Vietnam, HCMC is its commercial center. Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese are business-oriented and entrepreneurial. So they are busy, headed somewhere, in a hurry. The feel of their cities echoes their priorities, which from our point of view is a negative. This is particularly true in HCMC. It doesn’t offer a lot in terms of historical, religious, cultural or architectural gems. For sure, there are some pagodas and museums, but no showstoppers. And since we didn’t have any interest in visiting sights associated with the “American War,” they were out.

When we’re traveling I rely on Sandra to come up with ideas about what to see, where to eat, when to go where. She does the research, devours the details (as is her wont,) and proposes a plan of action. Usually some negotiation is necessary since she wants to do more than we can possibly do. Her preference is to leave nothing unseen. My preference is just to ‘be’ in a place and soak up the ambiance. I figure I’ll quickly forget all the details anyway, so why bother in the first place. In the end we work it out so that we’re both satisfied.

Our walk would take us to both outdoor and indoor markets. They were, predictably, unbelievable. Crowded. Noisy. Thousands and thousands and thousands of everything imaginable for sale. Outside, certain streets or blocks were home to specific items. E.g., candy in this place, silk on this street, pots and pans here, shoes there, meat, fish, vegetables, etc., etc. The huge indoor Ben Thanh Market was basically the same, except everything was squeezed into narrow, nearly impassable aisles. It was fun walking through. While we ran across a few tourists, almost everyone at all the markets was local. We got what we wanted – a close look at average people doing everyday chores.

We had heard that HCMC is home to uncountable hordes of motor scooters (they call them motor bikes) and you risk life and limb crossing a street. That is an understatement. I used to think that Rome held the title for most motor scooters per square meter. Rome isn’t in the same league as HCMC. The only saving grace in Vietnam is that the riders spend less energy blowing their horns than in Italy. But that doesn’t lessen the fear we felt when trying to reach the other side of the road, since rarely is there a break in traffic.

We couldn’t help remembering that Ardian Gill, husband of Sandra’s good friend Anna, ended up in the hospital with a badly broken leg after being hit by a motor bike in HCMC. So the possibility of getting mowed down was more than theoretical. Anna, by the way, was the source of many helpful comments and information about both Vietnam and Laos, where they’d been before their trip was cut short by Ardian’s injury.

It may be that the streets and markets were exceptionally crowded because Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, which is based on the lunar calendar, was two weeks away. Preparations for Tet start months before the actual celebrations. People try to pay off their debts in advance so that they can be debt-free on Tet. Parents buy new clothes for their children so that the children can wear them when Tet arrives. Because a lot of commercial activity will cease during the celebrations, people try to stock up on supplies as much as possible.

So in the days leading up to Tet, it is normal for the streets and markets to be full of people. Everyone is busy buying food, clothes, and decorations for their house. If someone lives far away from home, they will try to come home to celebrate Tet with their family.

The decorations particularly caught our attention. A lot of tinsel and color and lights and flowers. They were in the hotel, on the streets, and for sale in many shops. For the next 11 days, when we left Vietnam, we observed this buildup to Tet. There was a kind of accelerating gayety and franticness. Later, during the week or so after Tet, we were in Malaysia where the Chinese celebrate the same New Year. Now it was the reverse. Most businesses were closed. People were with their families.

We saw how serious the Vietnamese take Tet later in Hanoi. Sandra wanted to have a silk shop duplicate a dressing gown she’d worn for a long time. We went to the shop (it was about five days before Tet at this point) and asked if they could do the job. The woman said ‘no way.’ The tailors had already gone on vacation; soon everything would be closed. Sorry. This from people who usually put making a buck (or in their case making a dong) above almost everything.

It is not difficult to find European food in Vietnam. But we wanted local food, so we chose Lemongrass, a restaurant not far from our hotel, for our first dinner in HCMC. It was very good. Sandra found wine to drink. I began a very successful relationship with Tiger Beer. Lemongrass was advertised as candlelit and intimate and not terribly formal. Well, there was a lit candle on the table and our table was close to other tables, but when I think ‘candlelit and intimate’ I come up with a different image than this brightly lit and somewhat noisy dining room. They were right about it not being terribly formal. Didn’t matter. We loved our dinner.

The next morning I turned on the TV and found (this should not have been a surprise) the Super Bowl, live from South Florida. In the world these days there is no escape. The timing was such that I saw the Colts finish thrashing the Bears before we were ready to hit the streets. Even though my interest in American football has been very low since the 49’ers went in the toilet, I was intrigued to find ESPN International in living color in my Asian hotel room, so I watched.

In fact, this wasn’t the first Super Bowl I’d seen in SE Asia. In January 1993 we were in Koh Samui, a lovely island in southern Thailand. I went out early one morning for a walk through the small village near where we were staying. As is usual in that part of the world, the fronts of stores are wide open to the street. As I walked by I heard cheering. When I looked in I saw that this was both a store and a home. Sure enough, the people inside were watching the Super Bowl. They invited me in and I watched the second half of Super Bowl XXVII. In this one Dallas whupped Buffalo.

Until about 1980 I was the primary picture taker on trips. Since then Sandra has done most of the shooting – until this time. For Xmas we gave each other our first digital camera, and I took on the job of learning how to use it, which led me to want to take pictures again. It’s a beautiful little thing, a Panasonic Lumix FX50. We’ve bonded, the FX50 and me. And Sandra too. So she made sure she took her share as we went along. At the end of most days we’d go through the pictures, talk about what we had, and discard any that we agreed we’d never use. (It won’t surprise those of you who know us to hear that I’m much more willing to dump a picture than Sandra is.) In any event, our FX50 added a new level of fun for us. Also, having each day’s pictures to look at as I write makes it easier to tell this story.

End of Part One