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


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