Detomo's Abroad

Detomos Abroad

Archive for January, 2015

Vietnam – Sai Gon

January 29, 2015 10:32 pm

January 2015

Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon), Vietnam
We arrive in Ho Chi Minh City via bus and embark on a panoramic city tour including the Old Saigon Post Office, a beautiful yellow building that replicates a French train station, and the Opera House, a traditional ornate building also built by the French during their colonial period.

Street decorations celebrating the 40th anniversary.

Street decorations celebrating the 40th anniversary.

 

 

The Post Office

The Post Office

We also tour the Norte Dame Cathedral, the largest cathedral in all of Indochina. We then enjoy the hospitality of a local middle class family for lunch. Our hostess is a seamstress with three children and three generations living in her house. Her house is a typical 4 meter wide building that is two rooms long with a stairway in the middle that rises 5 stories high, providing 2 rooms with a bathroom under the stairs on each floor. She serves us an excellent 6 course meal of fried spring rolls, sticky rice, a chicken curry, a vegetable dish, a fish stew and fruit for desert. After lunch, we check into the Hotel Intercontinental of Sai Gon to get cleaned up and prepare for our evening’s entertainment.

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre  - there are only 4 puppet shows remaining in Vietnam

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre – there are only 4 puppet shows remaining in Vietnam.

The evening starts with a trip to a Water Puppet Show at the Rong Vang Theater by the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Company – an art which is practiced today only in Viet Nam. The “stage” is a pool of water, and the puppets are controlled by sticks, pulleys and strings under the water. The show is one of everyday life in the villages of the rice fields showing planting, harvesting, and fishing and displays incredible creativity and artistry.

Puppetry in action.

Puppetry in action.

After the show, we go to a traditional Vietnamese restaurant for a dinner that locals might go out to dinner for.

Saigon Opera House - built by the French.

Saigon Opera House – built by the French.

That leaves us time to walk to the Opera House where there is a show using bamboo that is a combination of gymnastics, dance and ballet. The show is in its last night at the Opera, and it “brings down the house” with its energy and incredible coordination. We finish the evening with a gentle stroll back to our hotel as the streets are abuzz with people enjoying the beautiful evening.

The Post Office at night

The Post Office at night

The next morning starts with a buffet breakfast before boarding the bus for a trip to the city’s Reunification Palace, formerly the Presidential Palace before the fall of the South Vietnam government in 1975. The Reunification Palace has preserved the rooms and offices of South Vietnam’s government as the French originally designed it, and as the Americans supported it. The building are compete with the bunkers and tunnels that provided former President Diem’s escape during the coup that deposed him and eventually resulted in his death.

Independance Palace - room where visiting dignitaries were met

Independance Palace – room where visiting dignitaries were met

 

Palace roof-top helicopter at the ready.

Palace roof-top helicopter at the ready.

After a brief return to the hotel, we re-boarded the bus for a trip to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch followed by a trip north out of Sia Gon to the area of Chu Chi where the high ground in the bent of the river provided a setting for extensive tunneling by the locals. Although the tunnels were began during the reign of the French as a way for the local to avoid their oppressors, they were extensively added to during the years of the Vietnam War. The USA’s approach to dealing with these tunnels was to carpet bomb them from B-52 drops, leaving the ground surface by 1972 a cratered, barren area. However, the original jungle and rubber trees have grown back, and the tunnels have been preserved, along with examples of booby-traps and life underground, as an historical site. We entered a number of the tunnels, which are characterized as extremely “tight” for average-sized Americans, requiring walking in a crouch while hunched completely over.

Our guide showing us a hidden tunnel

Our guide showing us a hidden tunnel

Rocky descending into the hidden tunnel - a tight squeeze.

Rocky descending into the hidden tunnel – a tight squeeze.

After our trip to the tunnels, we returned to the hotel to prepare to go out to a restaurant for our Farewell Dinner, another 7 course meal of traditional Vietnamese food, with a series of toasts and friendly goodbyes. The next morning would see us leave for the airport early, and begin our long series of air flights back home.

VietNam – The Mekong River

10:04 pm

January 2015
After anchoring at the Cambodia-Vietnam border for the night, we clear immigration and customs in the morning, and after breakfast, we resume our journey south along the Mekong River towards Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Sai Gon. Over the border, after lunch, we stopped on the river near the town on Chau Doc where we took sampans to visit a local family’s farm located on a sandbar that is only exposed during the dry season. The annual flooding insures fertile ground for growing a range of crops, but their houses are raised to survive the rising waters of the monsoon season. We then traveled the waterways of the Venice-like adjacent town in our sampan, and examined another local family’s floating fish farm. This bustling city has its river-throughways lined with boats and floating markets who indicate their commercial wares by tying an example produce to the top of a pole on their boat. We continue our village tour by going ashore and catching cyclo-taxis that take us to explore an unusual Caodaism church with its spectacular colors and imposing “left eye of God” staring from behind the altar.

Cao Dai Temple

Cao Dai Church

Finally, we journey to watch a family making traditional reed mats using a hand loom before re-boarding our sampan ferries.

Mat Weaving

Mat Weaving

That afternoon, we returned to the Mekong Navigator and resumed our journey downstream. After dinner, the boat showed the French movie “The Lover”, an acclaimed movie about a young French girl in Vietnam, who at 14 years of age, fell in love with a local wealthy Chinese man and began a torrid affair, until her mother took her back to France. The movie was based upon a book that was a biographical account of Marguerite Duras, and whose actual location we would visit tomorrow.

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The following morning, we were met with sampans for our morning excursion to Sa Dec. The sampans dropped us ashore where we walked to the former home of Huyn Thuy Le, the lover of author Marguerite Duras. The house displays the symbols of wealth with inlayed mother-of-pearl decorations and ornate carvings and paintings. We continue our walk through the village’s local market – a plethora of fish, meat, vegetables and fruit being sold along the bustling market street with deliveries coming and going and crowds of local purchasing their daily foodstuffs.

Village Children.

Village Children.

 

Village Market

Village Market

At the end of the market, our sampan takes us along the delta’s many tributaries to a brick factory where hand-cut slabs of clay are cut from the earth and delivered to be mixed with rice husks, extruded through a form, dried in the sun and then fired in a huge kiln heated with waste rice husks.

Brick factory

Brick factory

 

Harvesting water hyacinth stems which can then be used in basket weaving.

Harvesting water hyacinth stems which can then be used in basket weaving.

 

Sampam pulling along side the Mekong Navigator.  Sampan hold ~24 people.

Sampam pulling along side the Mekong Navigator. Sampan hold ~24 people.

We then return to the Mekong Navigator for lunch, before again catching sampan for our afternoon tour of the town of Cai Be where we pass another floating market, visit a wealthy man’s Bed & Breakfast home and gardens, and finally stop at a Coconut Candy-making Workshop that demonstrates making coconut candy, the creation of rice paper, and the popping of rice over fire using hot, black sand, coating of the rice with a coconut caramel, and the forming of it into candy rice cakes for sale at the market. After some brief souvenir shopping, we return to our sampans and to our ship for our last night aboard.

Making rice paper which is then used to make Spring Rolls.

Making rice paper which is then used to make Spring Rolls.

The RV Mekong Navigator then continues its trip downstream arriving at the town of My Tho in the morning. After breakfast, we depart the ship to board buses for the 1 hour trip to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon). The crew and staff aboard the ship have been excellent, and we will very much miss them.

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

Cambodia – The Mekong River

January 28, 2015 1:30 am

January 2015

Mekong River, Cambodia
We will pick up our boat at the city of Kampong Cham, which is south of Siem Reap along the Mekong River at a 5-hour bus trip away.

However, along the way, we stopped to interact and visit with local residents, all of which who have their homes built up on stilts due to the annual flooding the area incurs (upwards of 8 meters high)!

Stilt Village

Stilt Village

The center of Cambodia is shaped much like a bowl, where Phnom Penh is located at the outlet which is the confluence of the southerly flowing Mekong River, and the Tonle Sap River which connects to the northwest to Cambodia’s great lake – the Tonle Sap. The Tonle Sap River is interesting as it flows water from the lake to the southeast into the Mekong River during dry season, but reverses its flow northward, swelling this great lake to 5 times its size during the monsoon season when the Mekong River (the world’s 12 longest river), is at its highest. Because of this, the area can support 2 rice crops per year, and 1.2 million people live along the lake’s shores. However, since the shores move so far, these locals are forced to move up to 10 times during the year, following the changing shoreline. Along the way, we also stop near Kampong Thom to observe the vast latex rubber plantations and extensive cassava crops.

Rubber Trees giving latex - see the small bowls that are empty every day by cyclists with storage tanks.

Rubber Trees giving latex – see the small bowls that are emptied every day by cyclists with storage tanks.

 

By afternoon, we arrive in Kampong Cham and board our boat along the muddy banks of the Mekong River. The “RV Mekong Navigator” is a new built ship for 67 guests, designed and built by the French in Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon), and it is spacious, luxurious and beautiful. We disembark and sail north up the Tonle Sap river as we settle into our rooms, have our “welcome aboard” dinner.

Mekong Explorer

Mekong Explorer

The next morning after breakfast onboard, we pull over to the bank in the town of Wat Hanchey (a town from the seventh century) where we are greeted by local children who have come to meet us.

Rocky with village child.

Rocky with village child.

After climbing a make-shift set of stairs up the bank, we walk along the road, visiting residents of the area, and arriving at a local secondary school full of polite, uniformed children, (grades 6-12). We have the opportunity to talk with the children, and to visit their classrooms where they are learning English, math and history. After the visit, we walk up the local hill to visit the town’s monastery and monks, and to receive the Buddhist Water Blessing. Here, the monks provide an education option for boys who are interested. They may join the monastery at 9-years old and stay or leave at any point in time. Their life is highly structured, but their education is excellent and their daily needs are met by the monks. As an option for families who cannot afford public school, (they must pay for books, uniforms and materials), monasteries across Indochina, serve an important option for many young people. In Cambodia 90% of the population is Buddhist.

Buddhist school - lunch time

Buddhist school – lunch time

After boarding the boat, we have lunch and sail to Wat Nokor where we explore a 12th century remains of the ancient Khmer Empire (the Nokor Bachey Temple), hear the tales of horror from the Khmer Rouge times and learn more about the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime and watch a movie documenting the life of Pol Pot.

The next morning we continue to sail up the Tonle Sap River to the mouth of the lake and visit the town of Kampong Chhang. There we climb aboard a sampan boat and visit the floating villages that make up the region as the locals have learned to cope with the changing lake height and size by building their homes and villages on floating barges and migrating with the shoreline. Schools, markets, gas stations and churches are all interconnected and floating as most families catch and sell fish and raise vegetables. After returning to the boat, we have dinner on board the ship and watch the movie “Goodbye Vietnam”. That evening, we steam back downstream towards Phnom Penh.

Stupas erected to honor the dead from the nearby Khmer Killing Field.

Stupas erected to honor the dead from the nearby Khmer Killing Field.

After sitting at anchor for the night, the ship resumes its journey to Phnom Penh the next morning. Upon arrival, we take up a position in the city dockside, exit the boat and each person boards a cyclo-taxi for a tour about town.

Cyclo-cabs!

Cyclo-cabs! They hold only one person!

Our first stop is at the former Royal Palace where the modern Khmer King lived during the 18th-20th century French rule. The Palace is ornate and beautiful, and takes up a prominent place along the banks of the Mekong River. The temple on the palace grounds is the Silver Pagoda, a temple with a solid silver floor! We then travel a short distance to the National Museum, where artifact are displayed, and an active recovery of stolen artifacts from around the world is being pursued.

Silver Pagoda on the grounds of the Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace.

After lunch on board the ship, we venture out on our own to the local “central market” where hundreds of every possible item is for sale. After shopping for souvenirs and gifts, we return to the ship for a lecture on “Life along the Mekong”,

World's longest bamboo bridge.  Only allows cyclocabs. motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians!

World’s longest bamboo bridge. Only allows cyclocabs. motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians!

and a presentation onboard of Cambodian dance by a local children’s group. That night, we have a lobster dinner and a few nightcaps in the ship’s bar before retiring for the night.

Apsara Dancer

Apsara Dancer

The next morning begins our last day in Phnom Penh, and after breakfast, we board buses to travel to Cambodia’s Genocide Museum and Killing Fields. At the Killing Fields, under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, thousands of individuals were trucked to the site, killed and buried in mass graves. After 1998, the site was excavated recovering the remains of many individuals, some of whom are presented and displayed at the site’s monument.

The Killing Fields Memorial

The Killing Fields Memorial

Today, walking around reveals emerging bones and clothes from the ground as the local rains wash down to unrecovered remains. We then traveled to the Internment Center (S-21 Prison) where the individuals were housed as prisoners for interrogation and determination as to disposition. The cells were constructed from the classroom of an old school, and when freed by the Vietnamese troops, only 7 prisoners had survived. By the end of Pol Pot’s regime, over 1/3 of the country’s population had died, including nearly all of its educated individuals. Only now, is Cambodia beginning to recover from this calamity. We returned back to the ship for dinner and a Vantage reception while leaving the dock and heading down-river along the Mekong towards South Vietnam.

Cambodia – Siem Reap

January 27, 2015 6:07 pm

January 2015

Siem Reap, Cambodia

This part of our trip started with flying on Dragon Air from Ha Noi, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Cambodia, (or historically what was referred to as Kampuchea), also has a long, (and sad), history. The Cambodian people have also been referred to as the Khmer people, and the Khmer Empire reached its peak in the Siem Reap area between 900 and 1200 AD. During these times, Emperors would build temples that needed to be completed during their lifetimes, giving rise to a large number of sandstone temples scattered throughout the jungle. With an engineered series of waterways and a location near the largest freshwater lake in the region, the Khmer Empire moved large stones, and provided rice farming to support what was likely the world’s largest city of the time, estimated at ~1 million people. By 1200 AD, after repeated attacks from the west from Thailand and from the north from Mongols and the Chinese, the Khmer Emperor decided to move the capitol to the south, closer to the Mekong Delta and the present location of Phnom Penh, for better security. Abandoned and forgotten, the temples of this area were overgrown by the jungle until “re-discovered” by the French in the mid-1800’s. The French spent considerable resources over the next 60 years clearing away the jungle, building infrastructure, and restoring these ancient temples, but World War 2 had left the French control of the region seriously weakened. Having received independence soon afterwards, the country fell to the communist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, after the USA left the region in 1975. Unfortunately, Pol Pot’s idea of reforming the country and imposing communism involved evacuating all cities and forcing everyone to work in the rice fields. In addition, he instituted a systematic elimination of all intellectuals and dissidents in the country, killing nearly 5 million people in “the killing fields” until he was driven from power and into the mountains in 1979 by the Vietnamese army. However, the Khmer Rouge continued their “civil war” within Cambodia until Pol Pot’s death in 1998. Today, Cambodia is a country of only ~17 million people, 50% under 25 years old, that is primarily agricultural, surviving principally on rice and fish supplied from the Mekong River and seasonal monsoons that characterize the country.

Upon arriving in Siem Reap, we traveled to the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Resort where our rooms were located among beautiful ponds and gardens. That night, we went to a local restaurant where we had an enjoyable dinner while watching a local show of traditional Cambodian dancing.

Aspara Dancers

Aspara Dancers

The next morning, Julie and Rocky arose early and hired a tuk-tuk (motorbike carriage taxi) to take us to the Angkor Wat Temple for observation of sunrise. Angkor Wat was the largest of the Khmer Empire Temple constructions which covers a very large area and is the most famous of these monuments. We observed sunrise from behind the temple with its reflection in a lake with ~400 other early risers.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

After the sun was up, we took our tuk-tuk back to the resort where we met the rest of our group for an extensive buffet breakfast before we left with the group for a more guided tour of Angkor Wat again.

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After Angkor Wat, we went to the Bayon Temple Ruins (also known as Angkor Thom or the temples of smiling faces) before heading to a local restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately, many of these temples were ransacked by archeological thieves during the chaos of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and many of the statues have had heads and pieces stolen for collectors.

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That afternoon, we explored to Ta Prohm Temple, made famous by its use in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider. This Temple is somewhat unique in the some of the jungle has been left so that visitors can observe the integrated nature of the two.

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That afternoon, we returned to the hotel and had a chance to explore the local market before having dinner at the hotel and being presented by another traditional Cambodian dance troupe.

Apsaras Dancers

Apsaras Dancers

The next morning, after breakfast, we traveled to a local Cambodian dance school. Traditional Cambodian dance was also a lost art under the Pol Pot regime, and only a few teachers survived the genocide. Today, the few students that were taught by the survivors are now the teachers, in spite of being under 25 years old themselves. Students to the school must be between 9 and 13 years old, must come from a needy family and must demonstrate capability and flexibility. Their training takes many years, but also includes a traditional textbook education, as well.

Apsaras Dance School

Apsaras Dance School

After visiting the dance school, we traveled to the Artisans Angkor Silk Farm that demonstrated the life cycle of growing mulberry plants for the silkworms, feeding them, harvesting their cocoons, unraveling the silk thread to spinning thread and weaving materials. The process is highly manual and the farm employs many local people who earn ~$1/hour, dependent upon their capabilities.

Silk Farm

Silk Farm Spinner  – 1000 meters thread will come from one silkworm cocoon.

For lunch, we went to a restaurant in downtown Siem Reap, and took the occasion afterwards to walk across the street to the local market to shop before returning to the hotel to leave on our optional village tour to an upcoming Ecotourism site. At the Ecotourism site, we rode on an Ox Cart, took a fishing dugout canoe on a brief paddle, and enjoyed dinner and wine while watching sunset on the horizon. At night, we returned back to the resort to pack and to ready ourselves for transfer to our boat and the trip along the Mekong River.

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Viet Nam – Ha Noi

5:30 pm

January 2015

Ha Noi, Vietnam

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Having been in military service during the early 1970’s, but never deployed, there was this desire to actually get to Indochina, a place that none of us had ever visited. Vantage travel offered us the opportunity, and we, along with Pam & A.J., Julie’s sister and brother-in-law, began our travel with a series of air flights from Orlando to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Ha Noi, Vietnam. Ha Noi’s airport was new and modern, having just opened to the public. From there, we traveled by charter bus to the Hanoi Sofitel Hotel as we learned a bit about the country’s long history and current circumstances. One of the tidbits of information was that, in Vietnamese, all words are actually 1 syllable, thus the city spellings that you observe in this log. Also, as one would expect in this region and in a city of ~6 million people, (Vietnam is a country of ~95 million), the streets were dominated by motorbikes carrying passengers, furniture and whole families.

 

Enjoying "Welcome" Drinks - Julie, AJ, Roc & Pam

Enjoying “Welcome” Drinks – Julie, AJ, Roc & Pam

After arriving and settling in a beautiful hotel room overlooking two lakes in downtown Ha Noi, we went for a walk along the road between the two lakes, visiting a Buddhist Temple, engaging the local vendors, dodging motorbikes and looking for The Season’s Restaurant. Upon returning, we were hosted with a great “Welcome” dinner, and finished the night with nightcaps on the Hotel’s roof bar.

Sofitel Plaza Ha Noi

Sofitel Plaza Ha Noi

 

Tran Quoc Pagoda  - a Buddhist Temple

Tran Quoc Pagoda – a Buddhist Temple

In the morning, after a huge buffet breakfast at the Hotel, we took a bus to the Ho Chi Minh memorial, where we observed his mummified remains under fairly tight security. It turns out that although Ho Chi Minh wanted to be cremated, his body was preserved by the Russians against his wishes. Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890, and was educated and lived many years in France until he was arrested for Communist agitation. After release and fleeing to Hong Kong, he was arrested again and held until his release was negotiated. As a founder of The Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh travelled extensively to Europe, Russia and the United States, spoke 17 languages and wrote in 7, and fought for Vietnam’s independence from France. After World War 2, Vietnam was granted independence on September 2nd, 1945, where at the Geneva Accord, it was decided that the country would be split into North, under the direction of Ho Chi Minh, and the South, under the presidency of Dang, (supported by the French), with a reunification election (which never happened), scheduled in 3 years. The issue of reunification escalated into the familiar Vietnam War with Ho Chi Minh seeking help from communist Soviet Union and China, and the South being supported by France and the United States. Ho Chi Minh dies in Hanoi on September 2nd, 1969 and the war with the USA ends in 1975. He never married and had no surviving family or children. In addition to visiting the Ho Chi Minh Memorial, we went to the site of his residence, the city’s former Zoo and Gardens where he met foreign dignitaries and lived simply.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

 

Ho Chi Minh's Vestige at the Presidential Palace Area - the Gardens

Ho Chi Minh’s Vestige at the Presidential Palace Area – the Gardens

After this tour, we took the time to walk through the old town Ha Noi markets, where every sort of animal, (cooked or raw), and every sort of fresh fruit and vegetable was readily available.

 

Market - fruits and veggies- can you find the dragon fruit?

Market – fruits and veggies- can you find the dragon fruit?

 

Market  - eggs and seafood

Market – eggs and seafood

From there, we traveled to a local Buddhist temple for lunch, where the Temple’s nun was running an orphanage for 50 children.

Bo De Buddhist Monastery

Bo De Buddhist Monastery

After lunch, we returned to the Hotel where we had drinks and hors d’oeuvres on the roof before traveling via cab to The Season’s Restaurant for a wonderful 7 course meal for only $17 each!

Bridge tween 2 lakes with Temple on the right.

View from the Roof – Bridge tween 2 lakes with Temple on the right.

In the morning, we had breakfast, and used our short amount of free time to travel to Starbucks, where we enjoyed a coffee and watched the local power line workers, before returning to the hotel to pack and travel to the airport, for our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia, with our time in Ha
Noi now at an end.

Banana's or Pineapple's?

Banana’s or Pineapple’s?

 

How many boxes can one motorcycle carry?

How many boxes can one motorcycle carry?