Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Our fancy hotel room. It was the size of our apartment.
Our hotel lit up at night. 
The rooftop bar at Rex Hotel. The view was fine but the drinks were way overpriced.
A portion of Saigon's skyline.
Car seat improvisation.
Even in a metropolis of 9 million, there is still room for a few roosters. 

We returned to Saigon from the Mekong Delta, knowing we only had one night, and two full days in town. We realized we would not be getting a real feel for the city, but had gotten pretty good at this quick, drive-by style of travelling. We decided not to stay in the backpackers ghetto for once, and instead splurged on the hotel Graham Greene made famous, the Hotel Continental. The palatial room was well worth it (especially since it was less than $100 on sale), and we were reminded of just how lovely a soft bed, nice pillows and high thread count can be.

We wandered around town, making a half hearted effort at souvenir shopping. Having to carry our possessions on our back for 7 months had put a damper on any desire to acquire new things. It's hard to break out of that habit. We did eat at an excellent dinner at Cuc Gach Quan, had noodles in the market and Bahn Mi on the street, and drank over priced cocktails on a rooftop followed by cheap beers in our room. All in all it was a fitting end to our adventures.

Coming home we flew via Bangkok, and then Korea. We had been watching the news so we felt safe enough to plan a day trip into Seoul for our 10 hour layover. Unfortunately we had totally underestimated the weather and found ourselves in 55 degree rain with no jackets or sweaters. Since it was early morning after a long flight we also didn't think through our transit desk vs immigration choice. So, we ended up on the outside, in the boring 'public' part of the airport, waiting 7 hours to check back through to the inner sanctum (clearly the part of the airport that won them the Best Airport title).

Being back in Vancouver visiting family and our new niece is both comforting and a little disorienting. We definitely have a lot to process about our trip (that's a future post), but also a lot to plan for the next one!

- Bree

Approaching YVR over the city. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Various boats on the way to Turtle Island.
Colorful fishing boats and plants floating on the river.
Approaching the Mekong Floating homes.
Our 'home' on the Mekong.
Bamboo in the material of choice in these parts.
Dusk through palms and a small Jackfruit tree.
A full moon rises over the Mekong River. 
A colorful, foggy sunrise.

After Hoian, we skipped through Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, and went straight to the Mekong River Delta. Our destination was the Mekong Floating House. After a car, plane, taxi, bus, motorcycle and boat we were not disappointed to arrive at a collection of rooms, really truly floating on the Mekong. We arrived in time to watch a gorgeous sunset walking along the bank of the small Turtle Island.
We returned to our room and enjoyed the set meal made by our French-Vietnamese hosts.

We woke up the next morning, pleased we had chosen to sleep in the bug net. Our room was full of bees. Not full as in the air was thick with bees, but still, enough that we noticed all the buzzing immediately when we woke up. We cautiously crawled out of our cocoon to investigate, and realized that the bees seemed to leave us alone (Mostly. After sitting and eating breakfast, I reclined in a deckchair and suddenly felt a sharp pain on my left hip. I didn't see a stinger, or a bee, or a spider, but the bite was swollen, hard and painful for a couple days. I should have paid more attention to my surroundings in hostile territory I suppose).

The bees eventually left, about the time that the breeze picked up on the river, around 11am. Unfortunately they left us with their old and infirm, so we had dead or dying bees spread around the room. Shoes on party!

We were told that Mel Gibson stayed in our room (that means we have now shared a bed with both Adrian Brody and Mel Gibson on this trip) and didn't do anything for 5 days. I felt totally justified in reading and napping and eating and then reading and napping and eating. In fact, I prefer to think that we were actively floating on the Mekong, and that in and of itself is a pretty cool way to spend a day.

We also busied ourselves watching the Mekong change direction. First it's flowing towards the ocean, then it gets very still, then it starts flowing up river for a while, with the winds following it, and then it gets still again and changes back. I understand tides of course, but when you wake up early in the morning and the river you watched last night is going the opposite direction and you are pretty sure you didn't drink that much the night before, it's a little disconcerting.

We had to leave earlier than we would have hoped as it was "reunification day" and since people had a 4 day weekend the good busses were all full. We retraced our boat to the motorcycle to the bus to the cab and were again in Saigon.

- Bree

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hoi An, Vietnam

A typical street in Hoi An's ancient town.

A 'cafe' we stopped at to have an iced coffee.
The covered market in Hoi An.
Lanterns hang in a shop.
One of the Chinese communal houses.
Chinese script made up of strokes of birds.

Dusk on the Thu Bon river.
An old house (now a restaurant) in old town.
The Japanese covered bridge.
Matt getting fitted for a suit.
Hoi An is almost too pretty. By that I mean, it almost feels like a section in Epcot Center. Flowering plants dangle from balconies, red and other colorful lanterns adorn every entrance, and all the old buildings feature terracotta roof tiles and a yellow ochre paint job. The ancient town of Hoi An has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. During most of the day, cars and scooters are prohibited, which adds to the slow pace of life here.

At one time Hoi An was a major center for trade through Asia. The traders from China, Japan, India and the Netherlands influenced the culture and architecture. And many small groups of Chinese settled here after being oppressed at home. But then the river silted up making it undesirable as a trading port. So for the next 200 or so years, Hoi An didn't really change much.

Until the tourists started coming. Now, most buildings in the old town feature shops, and most of those shops are custom-tailored clothing shops. The tailoring biz has really taken off in Hoi An and now it seems that most locals are involved in it some way or another. Interspersed between the tailor shops and other souvenir shops are heritage buildings that have been restored to a time when the building's use was at it's height.

We went around town, trying to be good tourists and see all the heritage houses. It was fun, but most buildings are small and when a stampede of a Chinese tour group comes in, all you can think is 'where is the nearest exit'. Let me just note here: I like Chinese people. When we were in China, we met a lot of really nice people and didn't have one bad experience (aside from the spitting). But a "Chinese Tour Group" is another thing all together. I don't dislike them, but I don't want to be crammed in a small, albiet beautiful, museum room as the tour guide waves his little flag in my face.

We did give in and decided to get some tailor-made clothing. I got a suit and a pair of jeans, Bree got a dress, a shirt, and 2 pairs of shoes. All of these items completely made from scratch in about 24 hours. And at lower prices than anywhere in New York.

- Matt

Monday, April 22, 2013

Hué to Hoi An, Vietnam

Inside the train from Hué to Danang.
The train traveled though some of the more beautiful landscape we've seen in Vietnam.
The rocky coast into the South China Sea.

The elevator up to the Marble Mountains.
A pagoda built on top of one of the mountains.
Many of the caves in the Marble Mountains are Buddhist shrines.

The view from the highest peak of the Marble Mountains, China Beach stretches down from the right.

As opposed to the last train we took, this one rocked. It was only about 3 hours long but passed through some of the prettiest scenery. I maybe sat in my chair a total of 15 minutes. The rest of the time I spend in an empty train car that had open windows on both sides. I took some video (which I will try and post at some point), and took photos the whole time. There were tunnels, train bridges, mountains, secluded beaches, waterfalls, overgrown military outposts, and small hillside villages. This stretch of Vietnam's coast really packs it in. 

After the train we got a taxi to take us from Danang to Hoi An with a stop at the Marble Mountains. Which, as you can probably guess are several rocky outcroppings made of marble. We trekked up to the top to see the view, peaking in some of the naturally formed caves along the way. It was really hot and by the top we were both pretty drenched in sweat. We happily jumped back into the air-conditioned taxi for the remained of the trip down to Hoi An.

- Matt

Hué, Vietnam

Our train from Ninh Binh to Hué.
Matt deciding what to do.
Hué's iconic citadel.
Inner walls and moat of the citadel.
Much of the citadel was destroyed during the Tet offensive in 1968. Some buildings remain and some are being restored.

Some sort of shelter within the citadel.

Thien Mu Pagoda, the tallest in Vietnam.

The car that the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc was riding in Saigon before setting himself on fire. As seen in this pulitzer-prize winning photo. And the cover of Rage Against The Machine's album.

Our dragon boat.
Bree sips sugarcane juice on the side of the road.
Children actually reading in the bookstore.
If you know Matt, you know how excited he was when he saw this.
Assorted vegetarian versions of Vietnamese dishes for lunch.
We boarded the train in Ninh Binh, bound for Hué. Soft sleeper was unavailable so we went with hard sleeper, which is six berths per compartment as opposed to four. It would have been fine but the guy who had the bottom bunk (where people are supposed to sit during the day) decided he wanted to lay down for most of the journey. So that meant that our only option was to lay down in our upper bunks.  So the trip was mostly uncomfortable, but we've done worse. By around 6pm we arrived in Hué (pronounced hway).

Hué was the capitol city of the Nguyen dynasty until the end of WWII. It was also the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, which eventually left about 80% of the city destroyed. If you've ever seen Full Metal Jacket, the battle of Hué is where most of the fighting in that film takes place.

With the exception of the crumbled remains of most of the buildings within the citadel walls, you don't really get any sense if that turbulent history now. Hué is a major tourist stop but we never really felt overrun with tourists. And even the more touristy restaurants and bars have a good deal of locals mixing the crowd up.

We really liked Hué. It was easily walkable, had a laid-back vibe, and had really good food. The culinary history in Hué included several lords that were very picky eaters. And because of the strong Buddhist contingent, there are a lot of restaurants that are vegetarian or have vegetarian options.

As we left, I mentally put Hué on the list of places I'd like to spend more time in.

- Matt