January 31, 2007

Cambodia, the Angkor Kingdom

To view all 205 photos from the Angkor Kingdom in a slideshow, press HERE.

Phnom Penh Monuments
 Phnom Penh Monuments
Old Friends
Päivi and Santeri
Crowds in Bayon
 Crowds in Bayon
More of Bayon
More of Bayon
Other Parts of Angkor Thom
More Angkor Thom
Thommanom to Ta Keo
 Thommanom and Ta Keo
Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm
Banteay Kdei
Banteay Kdei
Tramping through the Jungle
Angkor Jungle Trek
Jungle Natives
 Jungle Monkeys
Preah Khan
Preah Khan
Buffalo and Banteay Prei
 Buffalo and Banteay Prei
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
More of Angkor Wat
 More of Angkor Wat

Thursday, 24 January: First thing in the morning we started looking for our friends Santeri and Päivi. We walked about a mile to where they were last staying. We looked for them and checked out a room. They were not there. So, we finally check our email and discovered they had moved. We returned to our hotel checked out and made ready to go to their guesthouse. I contacted a tuk-tuk driver and he pulled out a map. Suddenly I was already on the street where they were staying. I retrieved the card of the hotel we were at and compared the addresses. We were less than twenty meters from them. We found them and checked in to the Burly Guesthouse. One bad thing about the guesthouses in Cambodia is that they do not include breakfast, but they make up for it by costing less.

We hung out for a good long time, eating breakfast and talking. Santeri was not feeling well and retired for a nap. Betty and I went for a long walk checking out several of the sites. We walked by the genocide museum, but I did not want to be reminded of that particular horror. In case you don’t remember what happened here 30 years ago, a despot - called Pol Pot - killed some two million Khmer. Soon we where visiting a large wat or temple. It was very run down and needed many repairs. We pushed off and headed for a large outdoor market, the Russian market. Before we got to the market we passed by an open garage where I saw a new Cadillac Escalade pickup. I stared at it and realized that it was most likely stolen in the USA, because I could clearly see decal from a New Jersey dealership. I started to look more closely at cars in Cambodia. I am convinced that large numbers of stolen cars end up here. The Russian market was the filthiest outdoor market that I have seen, and I have seen them all over the world. The quality of the vegetables was shit. The fragrance of the fish and poultry and meat was retching. The visit was a truly extreme experience. We headed east toward the Laotian Embassy, only to find it closed from 11:30 to 2:00 PM. I guess they do not want visitors; we never returned. We had wanted to find out the price of a visa. We have heard that it is very high and is only two weeks long. We hiked back to the hotel stopping to rest and drink tea along the way. In the evening the four of us visited an Indian restaurant, where the food was good and inexpensive.

After breakfast on Friday, we walked to the riverfront. We planned to visit the Royal Palace, but at 10:30 in the morning they were not letting visitors in as they closed from 11:00 to 2:00 PM. The midday siesta is strong and well in Southeast Asia. We never returned. We did get into the National Museum. It was hardly worth the time, while Päivi and Santeri departed for a cafe. After the museum, we accompanied our Finnish friends while they check out two apartments. They plan to live in Cambodia this next year. The second was nice enough and only $130 per month. We sat and drank and ate all day on the riverside. We taught Päivi and Sateri how to play 500 Rummy. They get very serious when they play cards. We end the evening early.

Saturday we left early and took the bus to Siem Reap. Everything went well, except the bus does not enter the city. We took a tuk-tuk into the town. The price was included in out fare, but of course - he wanted us to use his services to visit Angkor. We ended up taking rooms at the guesthouse that Marie Vittoria recommended. When she knew it as the Lovely Guesthouse, but it is under new management - Sophie, a Canadian woman. She calls her place the 2C Angkor Guesthouse. It is near Home Sweet Home Guesthouse, which is listed in the guides. It is a gem of a place. It is extremely clean and inexpensive - just $8 for a fan room. It quiet and has a large covered terrace. Sophie has a lovely attitude and gives excellent customer service. We ate dinner in the town center where there are several WIFI networks that connect you to the slowest internet system in the world. Cambodia is truly underdeveloped.

Sunday, 28 January:
The four of us visited the Angkor Archaeological Park. We thought that we had hired a car with driver for the day, and I will explain why this was not the case later. First, we stopped to get tickets: $20 for one day or $40 for three days. I cannot say that the price justifies what you experience, yet more than a million visitors come here every year. I later learned that a private concern had gotten concession rights for the entire park. Based on our tickets, I would guess that the Sokha Hotel is the concessionaire. The person who gave me this information thought that the concessionaire was Vietnamese. According to this source, they only provide a couple of million each year to the government for the concession that grosses $20 to $40 million annually.
We first entered the largest temple area, Angkor Thom, where there are many temples - the best being Bayon. Bayon was overrun with tourists from all over the world. It is truly amazing and I took many photos, some of which you will find in this entry and others with Santeri’s BLOG. We are merging our BLOGs for this entry. You can find his BLOG at . After Bayon we walked by Baphuon and Phimeanakas and the Terrace of the Leper King. We got back into the car and continued to two smaller temples: Thommanom and Ta Keo. Santeri had been hanging in the car, but exited and entered Ta Keo. It seems that his father and grandfather had visited this exact place some 55 years ago in 1952. He remembered from old photographs. Our next temple was Ta Prohm. This temple has been overrun by giant trees that are growing amid the ruins. Päivi was taken by this temple. Finally we were getting hungry. It was about 12:30 and we wanted to stop to eat and figure out where else to go. We were expressing our desire to visit Preah Khan and some of the temples to the north.

At this point our driver seemed to lose his mind. He was taking us on some mini-tour, and we dare tell him were to go. He was shouting and freaking out as we drove. I told him to calm down that it would not do any good. After the next temple, Banteay Kdei, he intended to take us to Angkor Wat and the end of his tour. That would have been at about 2:00. Since we had asked for a car and driver for the day, for us meaning sunset, and since he was clearly out of control, we decided that was the end of it. He continued to rage and followed us into the temple where we sat and ate our sandwiches. He threatened to call the police, an idea we liked. The best he could do was to call our hotel and talk to the man there who put us together. I made it clear that we would not go with him another inch, even though we were nearly ten kilometers from our hotel, and that we would not pay, as he failed to deliver a car for the day. I also told the hotel man that he should stay out of it. Finally, the driver left us alone. This incident changed the nature of our day dramatically. We all thought that the result was an improvement. The only draw back was that we were on foot.

Just another Disneyland
Päivi Kannisto

The absolute highlight of our travels in South-East Asia has been meeting our friends. We met Bill and Betty in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and after spending a few days in the capital they wanted to head on for the famous temple area of Angkor. We joined the caravan.

The whole temple area was - sad to say - a tourist rip-off. The entrance fee was outrageous: $20 USD for a one-day pass, $40 for a three-day pass. If you compare this with the average $20 monthly Cambodian salary, or with the price parents get when they sell their 5 to 6-year old children to brothels ($10 according to a 2007 BBC documentary on child prostitution in Cambodia), you will see the discrepancy. Worst of all, the money from Angkor does not end up in the pockets of Cambodians. The whole Disneyland is, according to an urban legend, run by a Vietnamese company called Sokha Hotel Ltd.

We have to admit that, by and large, we are not too keen on seeing any tourist attractions. There is always a terrible hassle with all the hawkers molesting you. Any place boasting to be one of the world's biggest wonders or offering ecstatic tours is a place to be avoided. The same applies to Angkor. It is just another market place, very far from a sacred temple area. There were lots of street vendors offering us all kinds of things from postcards to flutes. Usually the vendors were little, toothless children who maybe should have been at school instead.

The best part of our visit was a lovely five-hour walk via small dirt roads through the jungle, guided by Indiana Bill. We got a better feeling of how big the area was. We saw many locals who greeted us happily. They were living in small shacks in the middle of the temple area. We were definitely the only tourists walking around there that day. It was like in the 50's when Santeri's grandfather and father visited the area. There were no mass tourists, tuk-tuks, or roads. That is, in our opinion, how it should have stayed instead of becoming just another wonderland for tourists to explore and boast about.

For more of my thoughts go to Just Another Disneyland.

Banteay Kdei was another interesting temple. When we finished exploring it, we doubled back toward Angkor Thom. Along the way we tried to engage tuk-tuk drivers to take us the three kilometers we were walking. Since none would take us for a reasonable price, we could see that prices were basically fixed within the park. Along the way we passed many workers cleaning the roadside. We were quite a site, the only westerners on foot. We always said hello, which led to happy greetings. I guess no one ever speaks to them. Finally, we made it to a dirt road that should lead to Preah Khan. It was a track unused by cars, just an occasional motorbike. When we got to the place where I thought we should head north again, the others insisted that we take the more traveled track. 500 meters on it ended at a dam on the Siem Reap River. We rested and doubled back to where the track turned north. It narrowed to a single path. The jungle moved in on us. I was looking for cobras and monkeys and saw nary a one. 400 meters north of our turn we came upon a dwelling with a family cooking and then the entrance to Preah Khan.
Preah Khan was the last of the great temples that we saw. It seemed older. It had a large moat. We only had one more to see, Banteay Prei. On the kilometer hike we passed a heard of water buffalo feasting in a dried wetland. After visiting this small, untouched temple we returned to sit with the buffalo herdsman. The four of us really enjoyed resting and watching them eat. We made our way back to the main road, and talked our way on to a bus. We rested in an air-conditioned beauty with Japanese tourists. Unhappily the bus brought us even further from town; now we were 14 kilometers away instead of 12. We tried to talk our way onto another bus, but failed. We were approached by a woman asking about a tuk-tuk. We simply let here know that they were all too expensive. She asked what we would pay, I said $4 and she suggested $5. Finally, someone who was willing to deal! We rewarded her by accepting the offer. She called over her man and he took us to town. It was 5:30 and we had been walking pretty steadily for the past five hours.
We were so tired and cover with road dust that all we could think to do was shower and grab some food. After washing the dust off we made our way to a Korean BBQ buffet, whuch for $3, was a good value. We were back in the hotel after stuffing ourselves. Betty and I were asleep before you could count to one-hundred.

Betty and I had gotten three day passes. The only thing left for us to see was Angkor Wat. With a good vehicle or even just a bike, you can see all the major sites in one day. They try like hell to keep you here longer with bull shit about mini tours and two day tours and where they stall at every site. Recently the police and powers-that-be banned the renting of motor bikes, because too many tuk-tuk drivers were put out of work. This Ludite mentality again cranks up the cost of the place. Angkor has turned into a tourist haven that is really a traveler’s nightmare. We tourists have ruined the ruins.

We did not return on Monday. Rather we took it easy, thinking, writing, reading and talking. We met a lovely girl, Dana, from NYC. We visited the McDermott Gallery with her. This gallery is dedicated to photos by John McDermott. They are compelling photos from Angkor, Thailand and Vietnam. You can find his photos at his website, www.asiaphotos.net. We left Päivi and Santeri at a café uploading photos. And we returned to write some more.

Virtual Angkor

Please note that the Virtual Angkor Map on the right will link you to several small photo albums. The link will take you to another map where you can choose the part of Angkor that you wish to visit. The photo application should be easy to follow. When you have finished your visit just come back to this window. If you want Angkor's heritage to live on, please join our virtual ride instead of going to the real one.

Tuesday we returned to the Angkor Archaeological Park to see Angkor Wat. We rented bicycles in the morning and peddled about seven kilometers out to it. Angkor Wat is the most restored site. It is very beautiful and has a very large central temple, which has many spires and fantastic view of the area from roughly 15 meters above the surrounding countryside. While above it all we looked off too the west and saw a hot air balloon, what a wonderful way to view all the temples and wats in the park. We spent a good long time there. We ran into Dana from NYC again and gave her a better guide for the park. We also met a nice Swedish couple who we talked to for a good long time. Eventually we made our way back to our bikes and then back into town. Thus we saw, as Santeri calls them, our last pile of rocks.

In the evening we sat down for a second night of wine and cheese. Unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, French wines are fairly cheap here - a little as $3 per bottle. The guesthouse manager, Sophia, and another French lady joined us. It was a delightful end to a good day. .

Tourist: Guests or Customers

My hackles have been raised twice in the past week, once in Vietnam and once in Siem Reap. Without a doubt there is a strong tendency among some travelers to accept things as they are. I should not complain because "you are just a guest in this country." This sort of bullshit leaves no space to use the only weapon that exists against incompetence, tourist rip-offs, and poor quality service and products. The simple fact is that tourists, myself included, are not guests. We are customers or clients of the country that we are visiting. We pay high fees for visas. We pay for accommodations and food and transportation and communications. We are not guests living in the home of a gracious host. We are paying customers. And if we get bad value for what we pay, it is our job to put the seller right and call him on it. We do this not for ourselves but for the next client that walks through the door or visits the country. If you think the world outside of Western Europe and North America understands or is in tune with customer satisfaction, think again. Think about a place where there are absolutely no guarantees. Think about not being able to even test high cost equipment - like computers or cameras - before you buy. Think about outlandish demands for horrible product - like $1.80 per hour for a network link that connects your laptop at speeds slower than a telephone modem. Some westerners believe that you should remain passive, accept this reality and never demand that things should be different, that they should change. To this I say bull shit. And if this makes me the ugly American - so be it. At least I am not so arrogant as to think that I am a guest in places where they only want to take my money and give me dirt.

Several months ago my friends wrote a similar commentary on there BLOG.
Be sure to visit it for a very humorous recital on the same topic at Paivi & Santeri on Guests and Tourists.

Posted by bill at 03:13 PM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2007

Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta

If I have not said it before, I will now. The open tour buses, run by several companies, are the most comfortable and speedy way to travel in Vietnam, other than by air. The bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was smooth and easy. Of course Ho Chi Minh City is also known as Saigon.

To view all 270 photos from the south of Vietnam in a slideshow, press HERE.

Saigon Post Office
HCMC Central Cathedral
Nguyen Van Anh
Chris Smith and Megan Terry

HCMC is bigger, busier and glitzier than Hanoi. The downtown is better laid out with broader and cleaner streets, and nicer buildings. On the other hand, there is almost nothing to see or do. One day we rented a motorbike and visited a number of sites. They have a lovely post office that was built at the turn of the 20th century, probably by the French. Next to it is the central cathedral for the city. It was an ordinary looking catholic church that is at least 80 years old. We visit a small soup shop, Bienh Pho (peace soup), where the Vietnamese gathered information and planned the attack on US embassy for the Tet offensive in 1968. We also visited the War Remnants Museum. Even though it is not as good as the Hanoi Museum, it reminded me about the arrogance of "our" leaders, the viciousness and racist nature of the Vietnam War. I also learned that John McCain was not the only war criminal elected to the Senate. John rained bombs on the innocent from the sky. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska did his slaughter of civilians up-close and personal. He led a team that slaughtered women and children at Thanh Phong in 1968 during the Vietnam War, or as they call it here, the American War. If you want to read more about this SOB, Google him. I found one very interesting article on the Web that I recommend to all my readers. Click here to read it.
We went to a piano concert on Friday evening. We listened to a beautiful, young, Australian pianist of Vietnamese decent. Her name is Nguyen Van Anh. We have gone to many classical concerts in Vietnam: enjoyable, easy and inexpensive.

The day that our visas came last October from the Vietnamese embassy, the letter carrier was a substitute. We had to sign for them and Betty learned that his daughter, Megan Terry, lived in Saigon. We got her contact information, and arranged to meet her. We had dinner with her and her boyfriend. It was a long and lovely conversation and evening. She and Chris have been living and teaching English in Saigon for seven months.

On the Mekong River
Ending in a Tiny Canal
The Can Tho Floating Market
Boats in the Market
Making Rice Noodles
The Way to Chau Doc
Floating Homes and Fish Farms
A Minority Community

Sunday 21st of January:
This was the first day of a three day journey to Phnom Penh. There are only 130 miles that separate Saigon and Phnom Penh. So, you might wonder what took so long. There are two answers to that question: Half the journey was by boat and the route was not direct. In general the boat travel was good because of what we could see along the way and bad because it was so slow. Except for the first day, when the boat traveled at 19 km/hour, the boats were going less than 11 km/hour or 6 mph.
We ate lunch on the boat before reaching My Tho in the early afternoon. We spent time visiting several local villages to observe life in the Mekong delta. We got on to some very small boats where we passed through the thick delta vegetation. In the late afternoon we boarded a bus to travel about 70 km to Can Tho during the next three hours. Yes, it was as slow as the traffic in India.

We were roused at 6:15 on the second day of our tour through the Mekong delta. I was really enjoying the sites. The people seemed to be the friendliest that we had met in Vietnam. By boat in the Can Tho area we visited a floating Market and several businesses operations related to rice. The floating market consisted of a hundred boats anchored in the river. Each boat had a cane pole from which hung a sample of their product, mostly fruit and vegetables. We went to a rice noodle factory. It was very primitive. The rice paste was pored on to surface heated by rice husks. Then a large pancake like sheet of semi-cooked rice paste was laid on a bamboo screen to dry in the sun for six hours. Later the dried sheet was cut into noodles. We also visited a rice husking operation. They said the equipment was modern, but it looked to be about 60 years old to me. We returned to the town center for lunch. We were given far too much time to get on the bus and then the bus was late, due to greed or disorganization. This pissed me off. It was so late by the time we got to the next boat; I knew that we would soon be traveling in the dark on the water. The people along the canal we travel on were extremely friendly, constantly waving and calling hello. We could see them swimming and washing. Their homes were so close we could practically see in. The sad part was that they were so poor, although we did note, based on the antenna along the way, that every home had a television. I was right about darkness coming before we left the boat. That was a pity because the people and the sites were so good on this section of the tour. We arrived at a crummy hotel in Chau Doc, and checked into a pretty unsatisfactory room. Our fellow travelers were just as unhappy as Betty and I were. Speaking of fellow travelers, we got to know a number of German, Swiss and Australian tourists, wonderful people. The second day showed me that Delta Adventure Tours was greedy and not the service provider they are trumped up to be. The promised tour group size of 15 was really forty or more. Still, we enjoyed what we saw and did. If we had known how wonderful the delta would be, we would have taken our time and gone much more slowly.

The Mekong in Cambodia

Tuesday, the 23rd:
We were roused even earlier, at 6:00, on the third day. We went to the docks and got on small boats that took us through a myriad of floating homes and fish farms. We stopped on fish farm. While it was a family operation, it was clear that it was extremely profitable, producing more than $200,000 per year in gross revenues for a very small fish farm. Then we visited an Islamic minority community. There were 30,000 living in this area. It was interesting, especially the argument that arose among the westerners; some who where disgusted with the treatment of women in the community and others who were upset because of the judgmental nature of the first group -after all, these were cultural differences. To westerners who value freedom and cultural diversity it can be a real dilemma as to which side to come down on the issue. For me it is easy choice. Guess which side I came down on? We got on a large boat and headed for the boarder. The boat was nice and comfortable enough and in the narrow channels the views were great. We got our Cambodian Visas at the boarder, $20 each. Then we walked across the boarder and were put on a really bad boat:, no vests, no floatation, and very uncomfortable benches. We traveled in this hellish situation half way, for 3-1/2 hours. Then we transferred on the worst boat dock imaginable to an awful bus that took us to the King Hotel in Phnom Penh. The hotel owned the bus. God, was the tour operator a greedy, cheap bastard: Screw that Delta Adventure Tours.. We would have stayed there one night, but I was not going to walk up five floors to another crummy room. I found a really nice room a couple of streets over.

Delta Adventure Tours gave at best a mixed service. The route and what we saw were good. The accommodations and some of the buses were not at all good. I would not use them again.

Now we are in Phnom Penh. I will report on it next time.

Posted by bill at 11:58 PM | Comments (3)

January 15, 2007

Central Vietnam and the Beach

To view a slideshow, press HERE.

Wet Weather in Hue
Scenic Hoi An

On Monday the 8th of January we rose at 4:00 AM. We had packed the night before and were ready to leave after a quick breakfast. At that hour of the morning, the taxi made good time to the Hanoi airport. We checked and waiting for our 6:30 flight more than an hour before departure. Less than an hour after lift off, we landed in Hue. Flights on Vietnam Airlines are fairly inexpensive, just $50 to Hue. The bus to Hue is only $8, but the journey in more than twelve hours by bus.
It was raining in Hue. We asked about the weather and the locals said that it would rain all the month of January. We had hardly checked into the hotel before we were looking for a way out of town. The only site we visited was inside the citadel, where the Vietnamese imperial residence was once located. Very little is left of a once vibrant old city. By the middle of the afternoon, we were checking weather forecasts for Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Ho Chi Minh City. It looked to us that the weather on was not going to be good anywhere for the next couple of days, so we opted to travel more slowly. We booked a trip to Hoi An, a tourist center 100 miles to the south.

On Tuesday we traveled by bus to Hoi An. We passed through Da Nang and passed by the Army airfield that US servicemen first came to in Vietnam. Just across from the airfield is the famous China Beach. We arrived midday. It was not raining but it was overcast and misting. We spent the afternoon exploring the little commercial center. There are resorts just a few kilometers to the east, but the real charm of the place is in this little village. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of foreign tourists roving around its little alley ways. There were so many that they seemed to pollute the atmosphere. It rained a bit in the afternoon. We were figuring out how to get out of the town by then. We were very disappointed to discover that the open tourist buses only depart at night. Not being willing to travel by bus at night we looked for a plane or train to take us away. The plane was booked the next couple of days, so we opted for the train.

On the Beach in Nha Trang

Our train left from the Da Nang train station at 1:15 Wednesday afternoon. We took a taxi to Da Nang. The driver spoke good English and was the son of rice farmers. So we tried to learn as much about rice farming as we could. We also learned about the land redistribution that took place at the end of the American War. The simplistic redistribution was probably popular, but did little to improve agriculture in Vietnam. The train ride lasted 8 Ω hours. The central part of Vietnam is green, green, green. Rice paddies, rivers and small mountains fill the misty horizon as it rained all day. We met a wonderful couple, Antony and Thao. He is English and she is Vietnamese. They met a year ago and were living together for the past year in England. They were back to arrange their marriage and her permanent entry to England. When we arrived in Nha Trang, we shared a taxi to our hotel.

Thursday and Friday were glorious days. Finally we felt the heat of the sun. We felt the humidity of the tropics. The beach is beautiful, clear fine sand that stretches for several miles right through the center of city. We slept late and so we did not find the beach until midday. We languished in the sun and sand, drinking beers and playing cards.
Some advice from Antony convinced us to stay on Friday. It was just as wonderful as the day before. Both nights we visited the Blue Gecko bar where Thao had worked for three years before moving to England. Saigon Beer is good and we drank plenty of it. All in all, Nha Trang turned out to be a very nice city and a place worth returning to, especially since we saw so little of the surrounding countryside - which Antony clearly explained was very beautiful and devoid of the all the western tourist so numerous in the area where we were staying.

Day Trip in Mui Ne
The Fishing Village
On the Beach
With Kites All Aflutter

Video from the Mui Ne Beach

On Saturday we took another open tour bus, run by Sinh Cafe. The bus was excellent and the four-hour ride very comfortable to Mui Ne. The only draw back was that they did not drive along the beach; instead they came in on a road from the north in the center of the beach area. The problem was that we wanted to stay where the there was no sea wall about two or three miles to the west. I got on a moto-taxi on a resort discovery mission. I booked at the second resort I visited. The beach was wonderful. The sky was filled with large colorful kites pulling windsurfers over the waves. We also saw several of the older style windsurfing rigs with a sail attached to the board. With winds at 15 to 20 knots, all the surfers were cruising con gusto over the waves. We found a couple of beach chairs under a palm tree and made the most of the afternoon. A long walk down the beach showed one resort after another.

I rented a motorbike on Sunday. We wanted to explore a bit of the peninsula. There was a canyon to find, the red and white sand dunes and a small fishing village. I think that we found everything except the beautiful white dunes. I now think that they were five kilometers further east than we went. Still it was a great ride. We found the red dunes, nice but not super impressive. The canyon was pretty but not much to see. I loved the fishing village. We also saw a large number of dunes far to the east, but not the impressive ones that we had seen in Antony's photos. Then we made it back to the beach to rest and enjoy the wind, waves and water. Before returning the bike, we rode west until the beach disappeared into a rocks and surf. In the evening we went out for beers and met a lovely couple from Canada, Conrad and Patricia. With no TV, we retired early.

Today, Monday, was our last day in Mui Ne. We changed hotels due to a small dispute with the owners. It seems that they have trouble keeping their word; in fact, they down right lied to me and would not face up to it. And I, despite the nice rooms and great location, I cannot recommend the Heip Hoa resort. We moved next door and are pleased that it costs less than half our previous night's bill. It was not as sunny today, but the beach was still great. The windsurfers and kite boarders were flying through the air. I tried to catch a picture of one twenty feet up, but he was just too far away for a good shot. You will find it among the posted pictures. We both have begun to tan. I love the sun and the heat this time of the year.

Tomorrow we are off to Ho Chi Minh City.

Posted by bill at 06:52 PM | Comments (2)

January 07, 2007

Last Days in Hanoi

At the Vietnam Military History Museum

We have not been very busy in the past two weeks. We have tried to slow down and relax mostly. This has meant more venues for entertainment. One Friday or Saturday evening, we saw the first set at the Minh Jazz Club on Hang Ngang, the main street of the old quarter. Like most bands that play in Hanoi, they were Filipinos. The jazz was straight ahead and a delight. We have also seen a few movies, including Casino Royale. And we finally watched a DVD of The Departed that we got in China. Our favorite pastime still seems to be playing cards. I recently taught Betty how to play Gin Rummy, which is the only game that I can regularly beat her at as she was always good at 500 Rummy and has become a very good Cribbage player.

We went to the Vietnam Military History Museum which was filled with remnants of their victories. Especially telling were all the captured weapons. Two small anti-aircraft guns seemed to say a lot to me. On had shot down 357 French planes and the other 124 US planes It rattled my cage a bit. It was a shocking reminder of how short a memory Americans have, about how arrogant our so-called leaders can be and about how the will of a people will always win out - no matter the obstacles. Even today, Vietnam is no industrial giant; it is just a poor, mostly agricultural country. Yet, it defeated the Japanese in WWII, the French in the early 1950's, and finally the USA in the 1960's and 1970's. Why? The most likely reason is that when 80 million people in unison decide they want to change their lives, nothing and no one can stop them. I cannot totally blame the US people for their stupidity in their memory loss. The USA's quick victories in Grenada and Panama against tiny populations or causing enough pain in Nicaragua to cause a change were the anesthetic. And the knock out punch was the pain the USA inflicted on the Iraq after their so-called invasion of Kuwait. The USA got away with that and caused Iraq to withdraw. But try to subdue 40 million people without their implicit consent. Let their land fester in poverty and fear. Let them grow united in their opposition to the invader. Then you get Vietnam all over again. Such arrogance, such stupidity, such is the legacy of George W. Bush.

On Ha Long Bay
To view the Ha Long
slideshow, press HERE.
With Laura

Hanoi Tours Sucks

Should you decide to use a tour service in Hanoi, I recommend that you avoid Hanoi Tours at all costs. They are located on Han Bac street in the old quarter. There are dozens of tour offices on this street. Scrutinize them with care before using them, because some will be like Hanoi Tours. Hanoi Tours was not honest with us. They did not honor their agreement. They did not fully refund our money. Yes, as far as we are concerned, Hanoi Tours sucks big time.

We had heard many wonderful things about the beauty of Ha Long Bay and we wanted to go. The weather forecast had been poor everyday, yet the weather seemed to be getting better everyday. Finally we booked a five hour cruise on the Bay with Hanoi Tours. The next morning as we departed, we noted how cold it was and the lack of sunshine. Based on the weather, we clearly booked for the wrong day. Three hours after leaving Hanoi we arrived in Ha Long City. But the boat they were trying to put us on was not the promised deluxe boat; it was the worst junk on water. Worse yet, the tour was switched to the four hour cruise. I raised holy-hell but to no avail. It was clear that the agency executed a famous bait-and-switch con. I knew that the four hour tour did not show you much of the bay, but it was even less than I had imagined. The next day, I got sick from the shell fish I ate on the tour. We also returned to get a refund. We only got partial reimbursement, which is better than nothing. All we could think was of the thousands of tourist who book, but are never back in Hanoi the next day. What little of the bay we saw was beautiful. I would like to get a proper tour one sunny day. The other thing that was extremely enjoyable was the people we met, especially the Vietnamese. Two Vietnamese women were even from Minnesota visiting family for the first time in several years. Two other Vietnamese men had immigrated to Australia years ago. They were interesting and charming people.

The day before we left on the Ha Long Bay tour, one of our roommates, Laura, returned after going home to Finland for two weeks. We had met her the day we arrived and she left later that day. Our other roomy had grown continually irascible. Lorraine is a bully at heart and uses her orneriness to control people. We had tried hard to ignore her, but it finally came to head over money. I had chipped in $50 for household bills when we arrived as the normal cost of the household was jus a little over $100 per month. Just after Christmas, I paid for the November internet bill - because service had been cut. I asked for a reimbursement. But she refused to pay. We argued and she was so angry that she invited us to leave. We declined and she offered to refund the payment and for our remaining days. We took her up on the offer and moved out Saturday morning. I won't say that I will never move in with folks again, but if the opportunity comes again, I will be extremely careful about who we will be living with.

Laura was also moving that day into a new apartment that she and her husband will share when he arrives next week. We had only known Laura a few days and yet she offered to let us stay at her new apartment. She is a lovely person. After leaving our old home we visited her new apartment. God, is it wonderful! It overlooks Truc Bach Lake. It is sunny and airy and full of life. We booked a hotel nearby, and went back to cook a dinner from the food we had brought from the other house. The spaghetti sauce was very good and the Bordeaux was excellent.

Today was our last day in Hanoi. We had heard about the pottery village of Bat Trang and finally decided to take a look. Riding the 16 kilometers was a chilly proposition. The road was very narrow and in very bad condition. The cars and the trucks almost push the bikes off the roadway. Buses are even scarier on this narrow pathway. When we arrived we thought that there was nothing special about the pottery. It was mostly commercial Asian style pottery. We bought a house warming gift for Laura and received the one special thing of Bat Trang, a very low price. I returned the motor bike a week early. Now, we are preparing to leave tomorrow morning on a 6:30 flight to Hue.

Posted by bill at 07:29 PM | Comments (1)