Friday, July 23, 2010

Checking out and last night in Hanoi

So last night was our final night in Hanoi. S&L wanted a final fantastic sidewalk cafe fresh seafood feast and I figured I could always watch them while drinking beer. They have an amazing nightly tradition here that starts at 8:00 pm. Many little sidewalk cafes/markets spring up with TONS of fresh (as in still moving around and wondering where all their friends are) seafood that they bbq or grill right there. bunch of little tables and lights and these little places all over the place. very neat. they sure love eating here in VN!

Boys wanted to stay home and study up on their VN history (aka stay in hotel and watch cartoons and play nintendo) so S&L and I found a place to eat right around corner from hotel. Tables were little tiny and the stools were even tinier. Could barely fit one butt-cheek on the stool...but no problem! I wasn't really planning on eating anything. Sue had her heart set on fresh clams in this amazing tamarind sauce. My conception of jumbo shrimp has changed dramatically. They had fresh (live) jumbo shrimp that were abs bigger than my entire hand. They convinced me to have some...I am always a bit on-and-off when it comes to shrimp...but these were unbelievable. Complete w heads, which Long loves (big delicacy here...yuck). The meat could have passed for lobster as far as I was concerned...definitely best shrimp I've ever eaten. YUM. So the 3 of us had a few beers and had a very nice final dinner in Vietnam.

I taught the boys and Sue and Long how to play Casino and it is now Derek's favorite game. It's all he wants to do any hour of the day. The first words out of his mouth when I see him in the morning are "Uncle Rob, do you want to play casino?" He has gotten very very good and we play the more advanced version where we can build face cards. I also taught them all how to play Cribbage, which Derek also loves. He now walks around w a deck of cards and has gotten very good at shuffling and can even do a bridge/waterfall shuffle.

Derek has one of the biggest personalities I've even seen in a kid. He is awesome - always 120% engaged in whatever he's doing (think I mentioned this before) - when he is mopey there is no kid mopier - very funny - head and shoulders sunk into his chest and his feet barely moving - and few minutes later can't wait to play casino or cribbage hour after hour. And he's also a very good sport and takes losing in stride w no problem - Ethan just the opposite - will be 12 soon and is pretty detached and wants to spend time more alone or internet or nintendo.

I tasted an amazing new fruit which I guess is maybe pretty trendy in the US also - mangosteen - very sweet and lots of flavor and yummy. I also like bamboo shoots when they are cooked properly!

I can't wait to get home..."be it ever so humble"... so I bumped up my flight from SJ and SD and will get into SJ late saturday nite and then fly to SD sunday noon. I cannot even believe the trip is nearly

Also very nice is that Long gave me a 10 out of 10 for my embracing of VN culture and not being the ugly american (at least not too often...I think I only had a few instances of ugly-americanism). Truth is it has been a lot easier than I figured it would be. I was in a good state of mind before the trip where I just wanted to leave all my american nice-ities behind and come to VN w a fresh outlook and it has worked great. And of course amazing planning and babysitting by both sue and long has made the trip even easier.

I suppose the next blog will be an epilogue written while I sit in my SD apt, happy to be home, but missing VN as well...

"Where are you going Derek?"
"I'm going to the bathroom. I have exploding diarrhea."
"Thanks for the info, Derek"

Now friday afternoon and we are all checked in for our flight tomorrow night. It will be nice to get home.

"Miss Nhan"
Yesterday I walked over to Hoan Kiem Lake to read my book and enjoy the scenery and activity. I was standing around looking for an empty bench and a very nice young vietnamese woman offered me a seat next to her. I sat down and we started chatting. She seemed very nice and was a recent graduate in computer technology. We were having a very nice conversation - her english was fair and we enjoyed trying to get each other to understand. She is from Hanoi, but the lake area is a bit pricey and touristy and locals don't necessarily spend much time there. She asked me if I would like to walk to the VN First University, which was a few km away. That certainly sounded fun so I agreed, but then started sprinkling a bit. We were both enjoying the cooling weather even tho we were starting to get quite wet. The rain turned into a downpour and we were both totally soaked and we sought refuge in a little trinket shop by the lake w about a dozen locals trying to wait out the storm. I actually found a little gift for Jeff (which perhaps he'll like). There was no way to walk anywhere in such a downpour but my hotel was only 2 blocks away and I thought it would be fun to introduce her to sue and long and the boys, since we had already talked about them some.

I didn't want to embarrass, or offend her by asking her to my hotel room, and I also didn't want to end up as the hapless groom that evening in a quickly arranged VN wedding...but...I decided not to overthink it, and since we both seemed to be enjoying each others' company and our shared experience I went ahead and asked and she agreed. We bought 2 rain ponchos for $2 and ran to the hotel. I was a bit worried that Sue and Long wouldn't be there, which would make things a bit awkward, but luckily they were in. Sue seemed a bit surprised when she opened up her door, and I was standing there with a cute little 24 year old vn woman and we were both soaking wet. Anyway, we came in to the presidential suite (sue and long's room) and chatted and had a very nice time together for the next hour-ish. We then invited her to lunch but she had other plans. We took a few pics and exchanged emails, so it will be fun to send her the pics and have her practice her english via email. Overall, a very nice afternoon.

For today's adventure I spent several hours wandering around Hanoi Old Town on my own, armed only w a little map. I managed to cross several very crowded streets and found both my destinations, the VN history museum (yawn), and the VN revolutionary independence museum, (a bit more interesting). I found a little side-walk cafe and ordered "some of these" and "some of those". These were pretty good, those were not, and I also had a nice ice-cold beer. I really enjoyed wandering around the city, and am feeling fairly comfortable now doing so. I must admit that the traffic takes full concentration to avoid getting rundown, but I also feel almost like a local crossing crowded streets, which I also get a strange satisfaction from.

Back in the presidential suite, using the only private internet computer in the hotel. Check out tomorrow and head home. Wow - unbelievable!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Winding Down

"Gray beard starts to fade.
Visions of san diego
becoming clearer"

Smelly feet problem is ME of feet stink, and I think everyone else's probably do as well. Scrub as I might they will not come clean (think lady macbeth out damn spot). My apologies to sue and derek - their feet cannot be worse than mine!

It is thursday afternoon right now as I sit in the hotel IndoChina II lobby using one of the 2 public computers.

Yesterday we had another adventurous day-trip to the Perfume Pagoda - which is very old and sacred Buddhist temple, high in the mountains a couple of hours S-SW (?) of Hanoi. All 7 of us meet for early breakfast and take a taxi-van to the small town where we will catch a boat that will take us rest of way where we can hike just a bit up to the pagoda. I am already a little travel-weary as we head out, and we spend the next couple of hours fighting Hanoi traffic and driving thru the entire city. Mercifully we have the mellowest taxi driver in Hanoi, who hardly ever honks and is not overly aggressive (Like most of the drivers) so this helps quite a bit w the long trip. Driving thru Hanoi SUCKS, but finally we get outside the city and the green fields of rice and mountains and jungles are everywhere and very very scenic. We get to the small town (name later) where we will rent a small river-boat to take us the rest of the way to pagoda. The heat is worse than it has even been since we've been here and it is nearly unbearable. We are all feeling it. Absolutely drenched w sweat, shirt and shorts, and drinking non-stop bottled water and never having to PEE!! The threat of heat-stroke is very real so we all make sure to drink plenty of water and try not to over-exert. I am esp concerned about Donald, since he is a very large man, sweating profusely (as we all are), and seems out of breath. Derek also seems very hot, but I must say how impressed I am w both boys once again, and neither of them complains a single time during the entire day-trip. very good boys!

(Right now there is some VN guy in the lobby screaming into his cell phone in his crazy annoying language - very very irritating, but I can rise above my baser instincts of walking over to him, screaming SHUT UP and smashing his cell phone beneath my very nice VN sandals that I bought in Hoi-An)

The boat is a small sort of large metal canoe with 5 seats up each side and there are 2 paddlers who paddle us up the river (i guess a tributary of the Red River) and the trip takes maybe another hour. Again the heat is outrageous but once the boat starts moving we get just a taste of breeze which makes a big difference. While I am sitting there pouring out buckets of sweat and thinking how uncomfortable I am, sue says to derek, "Derek, next time you complain about how much homework you have to do, I want you think about our paddlers, who do this all day long, every single day." point-taken and I start to (once again) enjoy the amazing and beautiful scenery along the river - green lush mountains and jungles everywhere, with distant ranges slowly dissolving in the mist -

Get to Pagoda area and it is a commercial zoo as we walk up the main path (pagoda still a ways off). Typical VN street-sellers type stuff every step along the way w just about everyone selling cold drinks, food, trinkets. We stop and all get a cold drink which is very nice.

Sue and Long had been here 15 years ago and had actually hiked the rest of the way up the mountain to the pagoda, but there is now a cable-car thank god. We still have to climb up and up along stone/rock path, catch cable car for 10 minute ride to top. Weather much cooler and just a bit drizzley up here which is a very needed and welcomed break - but still quite hot and humid.

The Perfume Pagoda itself is actually down from the very top of the mountain into an amazing canyon/cavern with shear cliffs and feels very tropical rain-foresty. The entrance to the pagoda is now down down down long stone staircase that has been there for who knows how many centuries. At the very bottom right at the entrance to the pagoda, there is a sign for "No Shorts Please" (inside the temple) Personally I think it would have made a lot more sense to warn us of this a bit earlier, since we are all in shorts of course. I ask Long what his thoughts are about if we should go in or not - He's not sure, but many people w shorts are continuing into the temple - think "Bat Cave" (literally). So we all go in. Very very dark lots of incense lots of candles, lots of tourists, fairly small cave, a bit anti-climatic after the entire trip, but overall magnificent. I cannot even imagine the buddhist monks building this monument high in the mountains/jungles.

We head back and enjoy a bit of cloud-cover and just a bit of drizzle on the return trip which is just perfect. Still hot, but no longer "immediate coronary hot"...just "pretty uncomfortable hot" , which is a marked improvment. I take lots of pics of the beautiful and mystical, serene mountain scapes mixed in w lush greenery of jungles and river.

Back down along the river and back into the taxi-van for drive back to hotel. I am starving (we ate breakfast at 7:30 it is now 2 pm and we've done quite a bit of hiking) and I am feeling the trip and quite travel-weary and in the worst mood of the trip. Everything is bothering me and I spend most of the trip listening to Sue and Terri discuss their work, and Long and Donald discuss computer problems. I think we are all ready to go home.

Except of course for Saint Susan - who never seems to get tired or cranky. She is still amazing and I am starting to wonder if she is my sister or a cyborg replacement.

Finally back to hotel and we all find very nice resaurant to celebrate D&T last night w us. They will be flying out in the morning. The weather is nice and cool and rainy which is fantastic and we all enjoy a very very nice dinner w plenty of beer and great food. Grand total is about 700,000 dong which is about $7 US each - very very nice.

I say goodnight to everyone and retire early. Donald and Terri have grown on us all, and they will be missed and they were a nice addition to our travels. Donald, Long, and I have a billiards date next time I come up to San Jose, which should be a lot of fun!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

I'm Leaving on the Midnight Train to Sapa
(and the famous sunday morning market at Bac Ha)

"beautiful Sapa
where heaven and earth are one.
Mountains, clouds, and rain."

It's tuesday right now and we are back in Hanoi. Trip almost over, can't even believe it. We return on Saturday.

Spent the last couple days traveling and vacationing in Sapa. 8 hour overnight train ride from Hanoi. Details to follow...

We needed to catch the 8:30 night train from Hanoi on saturday night. Trip was with all the gang - D & T, E & D, S & L, and ME!! Rainy lazy day in Hanoi, killing time til we could take a taxi to the train station. Finally we take 2 cabs to train station (we will meet D&T there). Sue and the boys in one cab, me and long in the other. Long and I arrive at the train station 10 minutes later (very short ride) and get out and we hook up w D&T, but no sign of Sue or the boys. Storm starting to move in and intensify. Train station a total zoo (probably like this most of the time). It is now very close to train leaving and if we miss it, there is not another one and we miss the trip to Sapa and the market which sue has wanted to see for many years.

I am waiting on the street outside the train station for sue and the boys and Long figures maybe the cab driver took them to the "other train station" - very close by -maybe sort of connected to the main one- not sure. Anyway we've literally got about 15 min before train leaves - wind gusting very strong and rain picking up. Long decides to run over to the other station to search for his family and I standby in case they arrive. 5 minutes to departure and here comes the Le family thru the rain and fog. Sue is really mad for the first time on the trip - turns out the Hanoi taxi drivers are NOTORIOUS for being dishonest and cheating tourists - and this guy probably deliberately took them to the wrong station to drive up the fare, then wouldn't help them w their bags, then didn't want to give sue back change for the fare. Anyway, as w all of our other plans, we manage to be among the last people on the train, and it leaves 30 seconds after we get on.

We are travelling first-class so we have our own sleeping car/room. Very tight w 4 beds - 2 lower and 2 upper. Mercifully we also have A/C and as part of our first-class treatment we also get "soft beds". The 5 of us (Le's plus Stone) are very happy to be on our next adventure and we all crash fairly easily. Reasonably comfortable, beds plenty long, a bit narrow but not too bad, and good company. D&T are next door w their own sleeping car. The train is noisy and rattly but very nice for jostling to sleep. I doze off wondering whose feet are so smelly. I suspect Sue or Derek!

Arrive 4:30 am in Lao Cai - main stop in the very rural mountainous Bac Ha. Long has arranged taxi-van to pick us up and take us the next 2 hours so we will be a-mong (sorry bad joke) the first to arrive at the famous sunday morning Hmong market. Hmong people of course are hill/mountain people of SE Asia. The women dress in spectacular colored outfits, do much of the work, take their vegetables or meat or touristy trinkets to market and try to sell them, and the men sit around drinking home-distilled liquor and/or smoking opium all day.

We get to market around 7 am and are certainly the first tourists there. Market is still getting started and we spend a few hours wandering around and I really enjoy the town and market. Similar to other VN markets but certainly w it's own flavor and flair that is neat to be a part of. Sue is in heaven as she loves the Hmong people and customs - seconded only to her odd fascination w water buffaloes! more to follow on this.

Anyway, after several hours at market we continue on to Sapa - this is another 1-2 hour taxi ride as we go up and up in elevation and wind thru the amazingly beautiful north-western VN mountain rode. The fog is thick in the valleys but the road remains strangely clear. This taxi trip is amazing w the dense jungle deep green vegetation farmed by hand and water-buffalo all up and down these very large mountains and hills. Abs insane - terraced farming mostly rice, in places it looks impossible to even get to much less get water-buffalo to.

Arrive Sapa and check in to hotel where we will spend one night and return on the night train the following day. Sapa is high the mountains 10,000 ft? and it is actually COOL and light raining the entire time - just fantastic. Never raining too hard so you get soaked, and we could still wander around the town in the drizzle.

Sapa is just an amazing town, and possibly the most beautiful landscaping and natural environment I have ever seen. The farms and mountains and huts and villages (and 5-star resorts!) and the amazingly green lush mountain-jungle is constantly breathtaking! The town is populated by VN and Hmong and "Red Zhou" people - not sure about them - religious or culturally unique and distinct from VN and Hmong. Most of the town proper I think is populated by VN, w the hmong and RZ people living as they have for centuries in the hills and mountains all around.

I take a lot of pictures and I even shop a bit for a few little things, despite the fact that these little hmong ladies are extremely aggressive trying to sell their stuff. If you are unfortunate enough to make eye-contact or smile, they will hound you..."YOU BUY ME YOU BUY ME!!"

Sue of course just loves all of this and is now practicing her Hmong language skills. While she is wandering around she is accosted by a particularly aggressive and nasty hmong woman who will just not leave her alone. A few of the red-zhou ladies are then around them and maybe trying to help sue or maybe just trying to get a piece of the rich tourist. Sue is charmed by the RZ ladies (who are even tinier then normal VN), but the hmong woman does not like them, and she pulls out her umbrella and BONKS one of the tiny RZ ladies on the head. This is too much for Sue who has amazingly reached her breaking point w this hmong lady and she rushes to the defense of the RZ ladies. She gets between them and yells at the hmong lady "YOU Nhuc-dao ME YOU nhuc-dao ME" which means "You headache Me!!' and "khong mua" which means "NO BUY". Finally the hmong woman moves on defeated and Sue has 3 adoring old red-zhou ladies follow her back to the hotel. Sue buys a little something from each of them and takes a pic w them. I wander out of the hotel just about now and meet them all and I also get a pic taken w them. They then start pulling out native RZ caps for me to buy, but sue is able to tell them, "I already buy you no more" and I don't have to buy a RZ cap!!

Nice evening with everyone in good mood and we eat well and wander around, get a good night sleep. Next morning more wandering around taking pics mostly of the amazing mountains and farms and trees and rivers and fog and mist. The view from our hotel rooms is spectacular - right on side of mountain. Catch a early afternoon taxi-van back to Lao Cai for the evening train back to Hanoi. The 5 of us again share a first-class sleeper car w D&T next door. We are all in a very good mood and we play some cards and then finally get to sleep.

I doze off again wondering who in world has those smelly feet...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Adventures in Hanoi I

first a quick haiku:

silly old woman
attempting to squeeze past me.
I will yield no ground.

up early and meet sue,long, and the boys on the top floor cafe for breakfast. afterwards we all go for a little walk around our hotel, which is fantastically located near the heart of the "old city" and 1 block from beautiful lake Hoan Kiem - very picturesque, park like, nice bridges, neat old "Tortoise Shrine" in middle of lake - legend has something to do w ancient king defeating some enemies using sword he got from the "magic tortoise" who then returned the sword to the lake. No joke. A magic turtle. Go figure. Sounds quite a bit like arthurian legend - wonder which came first?

Boys a bit grumpy/mopey so they stay back at the hotel studying their vietnamese...oh wait a second, I mean playing gameboy and watching cartoons. oh well, true american boys!

3 of us wander around a bit more, rest, have some lunch at very local sidewalk cafe. very hot and muggy, back to room early afternoon for cool-down and naps.

Up around 4ish and we all head out again - we want to go explore the Hanoi Old Quarter not far from us. We wander around a bit, find yet another big street market and also find the "36 Streets" which is old and historic and each street represent one of the 36 trade gilds. So there is one street just for shoes (breathe mary ann!) one street just for clothes, one for kitchen-wares, etc. Sue is in heaven and could shop for days, Long and I in hell, boys fading fast. But they are excited to ride some "cyclos" around town - these are the bicycle-pedaled rick-shaw type seats for one or two w nice little canopy. The 5 of us rent 3 cyclos and have nice little trip around old quarter and back to hotel. Boys are going thru withdrawal from video games and TV so we get them quick sandwich and they very happily retire to their hotel room. Sue, Long, and I have very nice walk some more around the lake and markets. We are all thirsty and find this wonderful little ice-cream/cocktail cafe right on the lake where we stop and refuel w a few beers and smoothies. It has been a bit overcast and windy all day and it finally starts raining which is just wonderful. We enjoy the rain for a little while at the outdoor cafe, then decide we better high-tail it back to hotel since the rain can become monsoon intensity without any notice. we head back.

"Rob is culturally insensitive and embarasses everyone except Rob"
On the way back a very nice young lady selling fans peaks sue's interest and they start chatting and bargaining for prices. Seemed to me (WRONG!) that they were at it for a while, the lady was not dropping her price to where sue was ready to buy, and sue kept walking away, and the lady kept following us. Seemed rude to me (WRONG!). So I sort of block her way so she can't get to sue and maybe was a bit gruff/angry w her so she would get lost. This was the culturally insensitve part I later learned. Turns out Sue and the Lady were simply involved in the age-old bartering ritual of I offer price you refuse I walk away you follow and drop price a bit but not enough I walk away again you follow me some more and eventually we agree on price and everyone is happy...Sue informs me of my rudeness (go figure!). Lesson learned. DO NOT GET BETWEEN SUE AND ANY POTENTIAL PURCHASE. So sue and I have our first (amazingly) little mini-spat since the trip began.

Sue goes back to hotel (w her new fan) but I don't want to go back yet - still raining not too hard and very nice out and Long and I are both hungry so we find nice small local sidewalk restaurant and enjoy a couple of beers and some grilled chicken and beef, under a nice canopy, enjoying the rain and watching people and traffic. Long wants to head back but I am still not ready and I figure I can navigate the 2 blocks between the hotel and the lake, so I head back to the lake. Now is probably around 8 pm, completely dark, little rainy, very nice out, friday night so still quite a bit of activity.

"Rob is saavy enough to not get shaken down by young vn punks" or "Rob is incredibly rude to a couple of nice young vn students" - you decide...

So I find a very nice little bench along the walkway around the lake that is just a bit secluded and away from too much people and noise. I am sitting enjoying the scenery and just relaxing and taking it all in when a young vn guy sits down right next to me. (bench is small bench meant for 2 maybe 3 people) He asks me how I am, and I decide to assume the best but keep on my guard so I figure he is just being friendly practicing english etc. I say I am fine how are you at which point he signals his friends and I am now surrounded by 3 young vn guys and feel a bit uncomfortable. The 2nd kid says he is 17 (which he could have been) and we continue chatting just a bit how are you? how old are you? (a std vn question, common and appropriate) and I answer and we joke a bit. He tells me his 3rd friend is also 17 (no way). All a sudden he asks "you want massage? and I say "scuze me?" and he says "you want massage?" so I now know these are not just nice young kids. I say no thanks no massage and of course they don't leave and the kids keeps asking me stuff that I'm not quite sure what he is saying and by this time I am starting to act dumb so they will leave. I have my wallet and camera in a fanny-pack that I wear in front of me and of course it has several hundred dollars in it. I also have my nike golf cap hanging around my waist next to the fanny pack. All a sudden, the first guy (still sitting next to me) reaches across my lap and touches/grabs my golf cap and I fairly aggressively slap his hand away. So the younger kid in front of me says "We need some money - maybe 10,000" which is 10,000 dong and is about 50 cents. I ask him to repeat himself and he says it again - not particularly menacing, but I very quickly say in vietnamese (I had just learned to word for money) "no money, thank you, goodbye". At least that's what I meant to say. They stick around just a bit longer and ask again for money and I repeat "no money thank you goodbye" at which point it seems like they figured this wasn't the easiest of marks and maybe they should move on since there are plenty of people around in general. So they leave and I am pleased that I handled the situation pretty well. Of course maybe it just frightened them when they asked for money and this big white crazy guy keeps repeating "horse charcoal! kick water! Rice Soup!!" I guess I will never know...

I manage to make it back to hotel where I will now enjoy watching a little of the british open golf tourney.

Overall Hanoi is very neat and I like it. As w rest of VN, a very interesting blend of old historic city, french influence, poverty, communist center of the country, new wealth, and a city on the verge of blossoming into a major international city. (which maybe it already is?)

ok enough for now. rice soup.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hoi-An/Danang -> Hanoi

refreshing sea-breeze
share with us your sweet gift.
unbearable heat.
-(oh god not more haikus?!)

last day in HoiAn very nice lazy day. Plane to Hanoi not til 5:00 pm. Quick taxi into town w Sue to buy me some sandals! my Nikes finally broke down so got very nice pair for about $8 - little expensive but what are you going to do? Back to hotel and check out. D&T already left for a few days on their own - we will meet up w them in couple days. The heat is again a bit overwhelming and we spend couple hours in the (very nice spacious 5-star) hotel lobby, dozing, and enjoying an unusually nice and cool sea-breeze (hence the haiku! - warning-more to follow!).

Early afternoon we walk across the street to little restaurant. There are 3 restaurants across the street next to each other, and we go to the one WITHOUT the proprietor yelling at us "YOU EAT HERE VERY GOOD".

We have a very nice lunch and the whole day is very nice and lazy and quiet and uncrowded. Downtown Hoi-An of course a major zoo, but hotel about 30 min from town, on beach one-side and river on the other and very mellow. Long says the very nice guy (who I will call Mr. Thuan...don't know if that's his name, but I think there is 30% chance that it is Mr. Thuan) and his family who run/own the restaurant just bought or started it, so they are still a bit new at serving western customers. Example: while taking drink orders, long orders ice-cold lemonade for Ethan. Mr. Thuan then rushes to the front of the rest., fishes cold lemonade out of fridge, gets glass, and returns. Then I order ice-cold "Coke Lite" (aka diet coke). Mr. Thuan then rushes to fridge, gets my coke, glass, and returns. Repeat for rest of drinks!

(aside) [
I didn't notice a lot of war remnants while in saigon - of course we were playing it very local so maybe that's why. There were certainly very old bunkers and former military bases/prisons around, but not a lot of war-damage. Danang very very different. During 45 min drive from airport to HoiAn you see many bombed out wreckage of homes - presumably untouched for 40 years. very powerful emotionally for me and surprised havent been cleaned up etc. Of course most of region very very poor, and Danang was the dividing point betw N and S. Anyway, as w the rest of VN, the odd blending of new and old, rich and poor is striking. Danang countryside fairly wide-open, here a small bombed-out very small house, 1/4 mile later a very nice expensive new one. I guess similar story all over VN - very difficult to move and/or buy a new home - I think govt must approve every sale/move so aside from being very expensive there are some political hassles as well, that I guess virtually all the VN people would rather not deal with. So if you are poor you live in very shabby tiny little house/room, and as you get more money you just upgrade by adding extra floors, marble tile, AC, cable TV etc.]

At any rate back to Mr. Thuan and the restaurant - As w many of the locals we have come across he is very open, warm, and friendly. He tells about VN war fighting that took place in Hoi-An right where his restaurant is. He tells us that his father was killed in the war just outside, along w 3 americans he was fighting alongside. I am mezmerized. He rushes to the back of the restaurant (which as usual is his residence as well) and comes back w an old VN helmet liner - the very one his father was killed in. He is extremely proud that his father fought alongside and died alongside the american soldiers. How is that for bring the VN war back into focus? I ask if I can take a pic w him and he is very excited. Sue must turn my camera sideways since he is very small and comes up to about my shoulder. very very sweet man - hope pic makes it home!

This episode also brings into focus perhaps how selfish I have been in avoiding any war sites etc. Of course I view the whole VN war and US involvement w great sadness and guilt (and a lot of naivete), but I think I got it wrong. I think you must embrace the war and the horror and the pain and sadness in order to understand a bit more about the VN people. I wish now we had seen the DMZ in Danang and "American War Crimes Museum" in Saigon. Next time I am in VN I will go!!

1hr15min plane flight from Danang to Hanoi - I have now prepared myself emotionally to spend the next 1.5 hrs in a seat designed for 2nd graders, totally immobile w my knees up around my chin (maybe a slight exag but not much!) The plane is an old 737 that holds I have no idea maybe couple hundred people? I think there are about 1200 vn people on board and each one has at least one small child or baby. Still I am in good mood and just tripping out on the whole experience.

My new hobby - I think I mentioned how amazingly rude and obnoxious the VN people are en-masse - and long confirms this - in small groups very warm friendly and polite, but in large groups - whether in traffic or cramming into an airplane, there is just no concept of "after you". So I am constantly being jostled out of the way by little VN ladies dragging their kids around. Often, I start off in line w rest of my family and by time we get on bus/plane I am nearly dead-last. So my new hobby is "yield no ground". I am tired of being pushed out of the way, so I simply "yield no ground" now. When a little VN lady tries to squeeze past me while we are waiting to deplane the aircraft, I ever-so-subtly stiffen my body and make it abs impossible for her to pass me. It gives me surprising pleasure when the lady finally realizes that I am every bit as stubborn as she is, and inevitably she gets stuck half-way while passing. I mean really, where in the world is she going in the airplane aisle that is already packed? No more Mr. Nice Guy!!

need to go eat lunch now w rest of family. continuation to follow.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Days something to something+2 or 3, or "Couple Nights in Danang/Hoian

We left saigon couple days ago. The boys took me out for great and very fun final dinner and beers - long, his brother tri (super great guy, very warm and open, very good english), his adopted brother Thanh (older, very gruff, no english, quite intimidating, but turns out heart of gold). They all ordered snails and stuff but were very considerate in ordering me some bbq ribs and yummy chicken stuff. I [very] accidentally ate some "sea worm" which somehow I thought was a pork wasn't, and it was yucky, but impressed everyone w my adventurous nature!
Many beers and a very nice send off.

Early morning cab to airport for mid-morning flight to Danang. VN 3rd largest city and very less crowded than saigon - altho I guess that's not saying much. Life here in the middle section of vn the most difficult - jobs are few, weather awful w typhoons etc wiping out modest homes etc. Weather fine for us - tho still hot hot hot. 30 min drive to Hoi-An, a touristy beach town. very very beautiful scenery still. We are staying in 5-star hotel - Palm Garden Beach Resort - very very nice. They hosted the 2008 miss universe pageant so there are pretty pictures up everywhere from that.

We spent the last 2 nights here. 7 am now and we will fly back to Hanoi this afternoon and spend a few nights there. The touristy section of town is brutal. The local vendors very very aggressive which I just can't stand. There were actually a couple of shops I wouldn't have minded browsing in, but the second you wander in and/or look at any of their wares (I was going to look at caps and t-shirts), they descend on you w their broken english buy this buy that how much this one for you etc. I can't deal at all w that, but Sue is right in her element and just loves it, so still fun to watch her interact w locals.

Long and I take off by ourselves for a few hours and get off the tourist beaten track a bit which is very much what I prefer. We find a very nice riverside cafe and get a couple of drinks. How is this for service...I order a pineapple smoothie from the old lady and her cart. no problem. she heads up the street to buy a pineapple, comes back, hacks it up, blends it, and there is my yummy smoothie. We sit and enjoy watching the people and the river activity. Strike up a conversation w 2 british lads just out of hs and have nice conversation.

back to town and hotel for shower and nap. Donald and Terri meet up w us in the evening and we have very nice dinner together across the street from the resort.

We retire for the evening around 10ish, but then long knocks on my door and wants to go to the bar, so we do that and the two of us drink and bond.

up early for magnificent buffet breakfast catering to virtually all tastes from all over the world. I get my first cup of hot coffee since in vn - which i actually havent missed - I really love the ice coffee w milk and sugar and am now addicted to it. nice meal of ham and cheese omelet, fruit etc. We spend most of the morning camped out by the pool in the shade of nice big umbrellas. very nice and relaxing, everyone getting along fine. boys love the pool, and I read a bit and doze a bit. into town later for walking around and taking some nice sunset photos and another nice meal. back to resort around 8 and I crash hard til next morning.

will blog again when I can. rice-soup for all!


Monday, July 12, 2010

Day 10-11, Saigon-Mekong-Saigon, or "That's not a Delta. THIS is a Delta!"

Up bright and early sunday morning and the 3 of us (Sue, Long, Me - boys staying w their cousins) catch a 7 am taxi and go and pick up Terri and Donald. Terri is co-worker and friend of sue's, and donald her grumpy hubby. The plan is to take 3-4 hour taxi ride to the Mekong Delta, spend the night there at a hotel, then return mid-day monday.

We have a nice big van and head out. Stop after few hours at My Tho (Mee-Taw) sort of on outskirts of delta. We stop at a very touristy rest-stop, which is OK, and take some pics and have some lunch. Back on the road. Couple more hours we arrive in Can Tho deeper in the delta.

Entire drive is very very GREEN everywhere. I see my FIRST rice-paddies and water buffalos. very beautiful countryside but temp is hot hot hot. We literally cross a river every few minutes - I think it's usually the Mekong and/or tributaries that wind like crazy snakelike throughout the delta. The ride reminds me a bit of driving back east and seeing very green lush countryside everywhere in the very hot humid summer. It's very nice.

Arrive in Can-Tho, check in to very nice (3-star) hotel. Very western and modern. We head straight for the (very touristy) boat tours of the delta. We have our own boat (10 seater w loud outboard gas engine, typical of others. We putter around the delta for a few hours, making stops at Dragon Island, Tortoise Island, Hotter-than-hell Island, Ready-to-die Island, etc. These islands are SUPER touristy with tons of locals selling tons of "stuff". Islands and the delta are very beautiful but a bit too touristy. We also take a small canoe-ish like boat tour thru the very dense jungle in very narrow waterways. Fronds line the waterway and soar 20-30 feet in the air and also overhang the river. To fully appreciate this experience you should imaging Disneyland's Jungle Cruise. Literally. I mean the boats are practically lined up (not quite, but you can almost always see the tour-boat/canoe infront and behind. The boats are piloted by locals who pole us along. It is nearly too hot and humid for me to even SIT in my seat, and I cannot imagine the back-breaking work these people live w every day of their lives.

So the trip is similar to jungle cruise ride at disneyland, except we see no hippo or crocs!! Something else that begins bothering me just a bit...I notice that ALL of the canoe-boats returning past us HAVE NO TOURISTS ON THEM! YIKES!! What happened to the big fat white tourists? Whew! Turns out we just de-boat at the end and explore a little of the island, before getting on yet another boat and going to next island. I love the boat rides in general and the delta is amazing.

We return after a couple hours of touring the delta by boat and all are TIRED and HOT. Back to hotel for quick rest then we all meet up to wander around the very pretty/quaint town right on the Mekong river in the heart (?) of the delta. Everyone in pretty good mood and more or less getting along fine. It's already dark and we are all still tired, but feel a bit like partying so we find a nice restaurant and order a bunch of great munchies (onions-fried==onion rings and some eggrolls and other stuff) and we order a bottle of vodka which we foolishly tho gleefully finish. Girls only drink a little just to keep the boys from drinking too much. Back to room and we need to meet in the lobby at 5 O-Frickin-O'Clock am so we can see the famous 'floating market in Can-Tho'. This is the main reason we have come and it's something Sue really wants to see.

Donald sort of crusty grumbly old guy (mid-late-50s) who is sort of always complaining, which is a bit annoying, but he is also sort of half-kidding (usually). Anyway he is obsessed w being bit by mosquitos and contracting Dengue Fever (very nasty no cure). I tell him that one of the first symptoms of The Fever is unreasonable paranoia about being bitten by mosquitos. I think pretty funny, donald maybe not so much.

We all manage to make it to lobby at 5 am and we have another little boat waiting for us. (Hotel is right on river). We putter out to the Floating Market which about 30 min ride. Market is well-worth the trip and getting up early. Local vendors big and small all floating around and/or anchored and all selling different foods. I think many locals shop here sort of like for wholesale prices, and then they can go sell their stuff in town for a little markup. Wonderfully, there is a small canoe-boat selling COFFEE, so we wave her over to our boat and she pulls up alongside and we all buy some yummy ice-coffee. Still right around dawn, and already warm and humid. (Sunrise over the Mekong is amazing.) Terri has heard that the bread down here is really good, and sure enough, floating by is the bread-lady, so we all get a nice VN sandwich for breakfast. Very nice and quite impressive what these people do in their boats. I guess many of them in the larger boats that are anchored live in their boats and work in their boats, and live their entire lives on the river. Generally people here are friendly also, especially the children, who always seem to give us big smiles and waves which we happily return. Sometimes they just sort of stare at us until we wave and smile first, then they usu reciprocate.

We make several passes around the market which takes 1-2 hours. Then back to hotel for very nice breakfast buffet. Shower and nap, checkout at 11:00 and then take very long 3.5 hour taxi-van ride back to saigon. We are all exhausted and sleep on and off during the trip, and it also starts raining which is very nice for us, but maybe not so nice for all the locals, esp on motor-bikes, many of whom just throw on a rain-poncho and continue motoring along.

Nice to be back home in Saigon. nap and dinner. more later

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Day 9, "Chilling in Saigon" or "God how I miss paper towels!!" (no joke!!)

lazy day today, sort of boring. Sue and Long went to pick up sue's friends at the airport so I spent most of day lazing, napping, sweating, crosswords.

But this evening had a great time. Sue and Derek and I took a taxi downtown saigon and walked around a bit. We found Ho Chi Minh Park, but I guess they are ALL called ho chi minh park!!

Found a very local corner restaurant and had a yummy meal of beef something and pork something and I had a couple of saigon beers! Everyone is very pleased and impressed by sue's knowledge of vietnamese, and I am too! It's a lot of fun poking around w her, and she even got us home after the taxi driver got lost!!

Tried internet phone calls back home - not very successful but really nice to hear mary ann and jeff's voices!

The trip really starts ramping up from here. Tomorrow 7 am van picks us up, then we pick up teri and donald (sue's friends) at their hotel and then head into the mekong delta for sight-seeing and overnight stay in nice hotel.

ok very tired,

rice soup.


Friday, July 9, 2010

Day 8 (apparently) or "More motorbike adventures in saigon"

As i lay in my bed this morning I am softly awoken by the not-too-distant putt-puttering of old gas engines as the chinese junks slowly motor up and down the river, sometimes towing enormous barges filled w raw materials. As dawn approaches the also not-too-distant sounds of motorbikes join the symphony, and in no time at all I can feel the street slowly come alive. Now I hear the beautiful sing-song of a street vendor walking by, pushing her cart and selling her fruit, vegetables, or some other items. Suddenly the street bursts to life thru sound and the chorus is completed w saws cutting concrete, hammers hammering, children yelling and playing. It is amazing.

Sleep in til about 7 am and hang around the house for a little while w sue and long. The boys spent the nite at long's sister Mai's house, who has a couple of kids the boys love playing with (cousins). We have plans to meet another of long's sisters at the main market in town around 10:30, but first we scooter over to Mai's house which is quite close and not at all terrifying on the bike. (long has sue on his and I ride alone).

Mai's house is spectacular. She has a fair amount of money (she has worked extremely hard her entire life and made some money in real estate) and also has a western sense of style, so the house (while still in the same generally slummy neighborhood) is much more familiar to me. The kitchen looks pretty much like a kitchen complete w microwave, sink w hot/cold running water, nice fridge, nice cabinets, nice marble counter-top. The narrow and very steep marble staircase leads up to several more very small floors w a not-too-small room or two for herself and her several kids. Oh yeah - she also has FIVE cute little dogs as pets, which all do tricks for treats.
Her kitchen and living room also have one of my favorite luxuries...padded seats and sofa. Most of the other places we've been/stayed are pretty much exclusively wood, metal, or plastic, which stand up very nicely under the extremes in weather and all the rain and humidity. My bottom was very happy for the few minutes we spent at Mai's.

Boys are fine and want nothing to do with us, so we scooter over to the major market downtown. I am starting to feel more comfortable on the scooter and with the insanely overcrowded streets and with the traffic lights which, as sue says, are really more like suggestions than orders. Anyway, still a bit terrifying but exciting and exhilirating as well.

We spend WAY TOO LONG at the mall while Sue shops for jewelry and other things. I am unquenchably thirsty, and the heat has really worn me down. I spend most of the time sitting in a chair watching saigon pass by trying not to melt away into a puddle of sweat. Finally we are ready for another great lunch in the "food court" and I have a fairly std fare of bbq pork meatballs, vn egg rolls, cucumber on rice noodles w fish sauce. very very yummy. top it off w an ice-cold coke and I am very happy - despite sue making fun of me for not ordering ice-cold coconut milk or sugar cane juice.

We finish lunch, hop on the scooters and head home. We hit our usual traffic circle where we need to make a left turn (you don't even realize what this means!). Long is in front signalling to turn left and I see an opening and sucessfully execute a perfect left turn, floating thru oncoming traffic just like my old college days (just kidding). Unfortunately, Long and sue do not see me make the turn and I do not notice they have not turned so all off a sudden I am alone. Just pulling over to the side of the road is an adventure but I manage and wait for a few minutes. No Long and Sue. Hmmm. Let's assess. Alone on a scooter in saigon. no idea of where I am. no idea of where I am going. no idea of where I live. not so good! the only vietnamese I can speak is to say "hello" with the wrong intonation so all the locals think I am smiling and saying "rice soup" to them - which explains some of the reactions I've been getting. I finally manage a uturn, where I see Sue standing on the corner by herself. Long had gone BACK to look for me. He shows up in a few minutes and we laugh at my expertise, make it back home, wonderful quick shower and a nap. What could be better?!

The rains come again, a bit earlier than yesterday and the skies and wind open up and pour pour pour for about 30 minutes. very refreshing, but probably not for the families stuck on their scooters. The heaviest part of the monsoonal rains momentarily close and quiet the streets, but while still pouring, the kids also pour out onto the street for their barefoot soccer-in-the-rain on the asphalt road that long says is tradition. They are playing right outside our house and I enjoy stepping outside and watching them, almost as much as they enjoy watching me. Some of them speak just a tiny english that they study in school and they ask me "what your name" and I am able to say "Doy Rob" which maybe means "I am rob" - I am never quite sure what I am saying. They also ask "How old are you" and I try to say the vn word for old man, which makes them all laugh a lot. God only knows what I said. Then they ask me "Where is the library"...just kidding.

Rain has stopped and it's about 6:30 pm now. We will eat a nice dinner at home and get to bed early again. not a bad lifestyle! I think that tomorrow we pick up sue's friends at the airport and head to mekong delta for a day or two. WOW!

OK! Rice Soup to you all!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Day 7 - Phu Quoc Island and back to Saigon.

about 8 pm right now and we're all back in saigon sitting in long's brother's house. The skies have absolutely opened up and it is wonderful. never seen monsoon rain before. skies darken and temp drops 20-30 degrees and pouring rain and wind and COOL weather! really awesome. neighbor kids rush out the street to play soccer in the monsoon, and tho there are many fewer motorbikes, the ones you see now are simply wrapped in ponchos. crazy neat.

woke up early on phu quoc and had nice leisurely morning. Sue and I took a taxi to the famous Pepper Farms up in the mountains on this crazy very rough dirt road. Pepper farm was pretty neat! I have never seen live pepper before. They start out as little pea-pody things w tiny little nodules all over and the nodules slowly grow into indiv pepper balls. we pulled one off the tree and it was amazing - very spicy and so so fresh. The pepper grows on vines (i guess?) and they train it to grow straight up and around like trees. So crazy - sue and I take this taxi 1 hour out of town into the dense vn mountain jungles. they are building a new road but no road right now so big mess. the farm is pretty small and there is a little tiny "shop" (someone's home w cold drinks and pepper and little other stuff for sale. They probably havent seen any customers in days (weeks?). We buu a couple of sodas and there are some young boys working the farm and we buy them sodas also. very friendly all around.

back to hotel and I pass out from about 11-12. we get taxi to airport and fly 1 hour back to saigon arrive around 3 and back to long's brother's home. This is our 'home away from home' and it's nice to be back.

We have a great dinner of cabbage stuffed w pork, bbq roast duck, veggies of "morning glories" (tastes sort of like green beans - I think they were cooked w garlic) All very good. then a few drops of rain and then BOOM skies open up and it's still raining!

we will spend a couple of days chilling (when it's not 95 deg 100% humidity) here in saigon and then pick up sue's frieds terri and her husband who will do some travelling w us the rest of the trip.

back to the rain...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Day 6 - Phu Quoc Island or "Dripping With Sweat"

up at dawn, wandered to restaurant by myself and managed to order an ice-milk coffee without being slapped! Mid-morning I take Sue on a motorbike and we head into main "town" (very small) day-market. Night market was fun but much more touristy - day market much more local. I guess about 80,000 people live here and also a lot of vn from mainland come here for vacation - probably sort of like catalina? I would guess there are maybe 1 in 4 westerners and the rest are asian. Day market crazy like rest of vn - fairly narrow dirt road packed packed packed w people and motorbikes - incessant honking sort of like world cup game! Street vendors and people selling stuff from their homes everywhere. The heat was truly overwhelming - I think it was 175 degrees and 120 % humidity. Literally soaked in sweat and after walking for just a few minutes ready to pass out! Sue and I find a nice little place to sit and enjoy a soda, then change some money, then ride back to resort.

Everyone jumps into taxi and we head into town for lunch and then back for couple hours rest and nap during worst part of the day heat. I fall asleep on my veranda as the clouds roll in and we get just a drop of rain. Damn! Still waiting for the downpour. It's really amazing - the clouds are so thick here when they pass in front of the sun the temp must drop by a good 20-30 degrees.

Up from nap around 5, rent 2 more motorbikes and we head into town again for a quick sight-seeing tour and we find very nice buddhist temple w nice view of the ocean. Back to night market for a fantastic meal of sort sort of pork dish wrapped around a piece of sugar cane and then bbq'd, served over rice noodles w fish sauce. Just fantastic. Add a couple of saigon ice cold beers and it is just perfect.

Back to resort and quick blog. We go back to saigon tomorrow around 2 pm. I really could stay here for quite a while, but nice to get back to long's family.

ok - time for sleep - bye

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Day 5 - Phu Quoc Island - Another day in paradise

Up at dawn again and a quick breakfast at the inn - a couple ice-milk-coffees and something they call an "egg and ham omelette" - very nice.

Then we rent 2 motor-bikes for the entire day for about $5.00 each. Long starts out with Derek and Ethan, and I have sue behind me, but we switch shortly and I carry Ethan w me for most of the day. We head out early morning on a fantastic scenic excursion from Du'ong Dong (where our resort is) and explore the southern tip of the island. For about the first hour the road is very rough, dirt, bumpy and it takes full concentration to avoid hitting pot-holes and bouncing Ethan off the bike. Turns out he is a skilled rider and has no problems at all even w big bounces. Still, I need to keep one eye carefully on the road, one eye on the beautiful Phu Quoc Jungle, and another eye on Ethan in my rear-view mirror to make sure he is still sitting behind me.

Our first stop is at a small pearl farm - we are the ONLY people there, and they open up the one-room museum for us. The highlight here was a small monkey that was the pet of the owner. We played w the little monkey (who was on a leash) and he seemed very friendly and curious, and was only interested in our packs! His little hands would very adroitly immediately unzip zippers and undo snaps to reach inside and grab whatever he could. He managed to grab Sues wallet (and the owner laughed and said, "we've only been working on that trick for a few days", but he dropped it when he was tossed a tomato. Stupid Monkey! He could have bought many tomatoes with the money he had just relinquised! We also all enjoyed a huge bowl of taro and papaya ice-cream. Very refreshing.

Back on the bikes. The traffic here is very light compared to saigon of course, but still quite adventurous. They have a funny rule regarding right-of-way here - Bigger Wins. So in practice what this means is while we are riding on the 1 lane bumpy dirt road, and an on-coming construction (or maybe military?) truck comes barreling towards us, he doesn't even bother honking. He is dead center in the lane, going quite fast, and we have a simple choice of swerving off the road into the even bumpier "shoulder" or he will run us over. We choose to swerve off the road.

Fortunately we are still "bigger" than bicycles and pedestrians, so we can take our our frustration by forcing THEM off the road. HA

Next stop Bai Sao Beach, which ancient legend has it that this beach was voted by Time Magazine as one of the 10 most beautiful undiscovered beaches in the world. It is amazingly remote and peaceful. We take an even bumpier dirt road to the beach and have a nice drink and snack at a tiny little "restaurant" - We spend a little time here and then back on the road.

By this time the road is now paved which is a great luxury. We head to the famous Phu Quoc Waterfalls-which are fantastic cascading falls over rocks, sort of like great falls maryland? The falls are deep within the tropical jungle overhang so it is very cool and the water is also cool, unlike the ocean which must be 80 degrees.

While walking along the rocks and paths I am taken back to some of my fondest memories playing in the local woods and creeks at my Grandmother's house in Delaware. I remember the hot humid summers and jumping from rock to rock w my sister or some neighbor kids. Very very nice time.

By now it is noon-ish and we are fairly road-weary. Also, the white shirt and white golf-cap I decided to wear was not the best choice, as they are both caked w the famous red dirt/sand/clay of Phu Quoc. No Problem! We get back into town and enjoy a nice local lunch along w an ice-cold Saigon beer. Nothing better. Then home for maybe the most enjoyable shower I ever had, followed by a fantastic nap for us all.

Up around 5:00 and we still have the bikes so we scooter into the Night Market for shopping (mostly trinkets and junky jewelry and the boys buy a few things. I have a great BBQ dinner of pork ribs and another Saigon beer. Little more walking around, then home to hit the hay early as always and prepare for tomorrow.

New Food Checklist
Vietnamese Banana (little tiny fat banana), score :)
BBQ Wild Boar, score :)
VN bitter melon, score :(
Dragon Fruit,score :[
Eel, score DID NOT TRY :)
Snails,score DID NOT TRY :)
VN sandwich,score :)
Leechee fruit,score :| to :)
Crazy VN leaf sort of like spicy-mint,score :)
VN chili sauce (but be careful),score :)

Tomorrow we try to find the world-famous (?) Phu Quoc Pepper Farms :) and Fish-Sauce Factor :{

Monday, July 5, 2010

Day 4? - 9 pm Phu Quoc Island

up again crack of dawn in saigon. Longs brother Tri picked us up some delicious vn sandwiches for breakfast and a local merchant delivered our ice-coffee. Packed up all our stuff and took a taxi to the airport for our 1 hour flight to Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Thailand, just off of Cambodia.

Nice flight on a prop plane and arrive Phu Quoc around 11:00. Very beautiful island just opened up to the public as a tourist destination about 5 years ago. Before that the island was used by the VN govt as a military base and only way to get here was by military helicopter. They have a huge renovation and devlopment plan underway for the island, so it's nice we get a chance to see it before it becomes too too developed. Right now it is just wonderful - Similar to Saigon but without any people (well nearly any people) or traffic.

We took a taxi to our hotel - the Sea Star I think which is absolutely gorgeous - right on the beach and I have my own bungalow right next to the bungalow for the Le's. The bungalow is a very nice one room w a nice veranda in front w 2 lounge chairs. Inside, a nice bathroom, which I must admit I have missed just a bit! We took a taxi around the corner and had a nice lunch at a local restaurant along the main road thru the main drag. Nice lunch w the most amazing pineapple smoothie I've ever had. Apparently, these "pineapples" actually grow on trees here! Go figure!

Back to the inn for a shower and a nap and recover from the heat and humidity. Up around 4 and we rent 2 motorbikes - I have Sue behind me, and Long has Derek and Ethan on his bike. No Problem! We scoot around town and find the famous night-market where we walk around and look at all the food vendors and have yet another wonderful meal - I had beef skewers in satay sauce and vn spring rolls. yum!

Walk around a bit and head home again. Time for a nighttime swim in the gulf of thailand for all of us. The bungalows are right on the beach and the night sky is crystal clear and beautiful, complete w venus and milky way shining brightly - I havent enjoyed the evening sky like this in years. We all sit in the 80 deg water enjoying ourselves and marveling at the beauty, tranquility, and QUIET of the island. This is the middle of the wet season, so there are very few tourists around - it is just fabulous.

I am still feeling great - no big problem w bites but still coating up w deet couple times a day. The boys are getting a lot of bites, which is bad for them but maybe good for me. If the boys are more appealing to the mosquitos than who am I to complain?

Long has booked us here for 3 days and 3 nights - what a wonderful place to unwind and get away. Many more white people here of course since this is a tourist spot now - around Long's neighborhood we were the only white people. I sort of like that better.

Everyone relaxed and getting along well. wonderful time. I am blogging from the one computer they have at the reception desk w internet, which is a very nice amenity.

more later.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Day 3 or
"Rob goes for a walk" or
"Rob barely avoids bringing home a vn wife"

up at the crack of dawn again which seems very natural here. I awake to the sounds of river traffic, motorbikes, and vibrant vn life. It is sunday morning. Everyone wakes up leisurely and Long goes to get Pho for everyone for breakfast which is delicious. He also has ice-coffee delivered and that may be my new favorite drink. so good! Done by 8 am and the street is completely alive w tons of kids in the street playing, people walking around, motorbikes zipping by, street vendors pushing their carts...and this 8 foot tall white guy sitting on his stool in front of the house. I continue to be a source of great amusement for most of the least pretty much all the women and all the children and many of the men although their are certainly shady looking characters (young men maybe teenagers) strongly resembling small gangs who also appear interested in me, but maybe not as friendly...hard to tell...certainly no problems of any kind yet.

The children (especially) just love looking at me, and if I wave and say "hello" (which I enjoy doing) it nearly always elicits outright laughter from the kids and usu their parents. Many kids yell "ALLO" at me when they fly by on their bikes and I yell hello back. I am a big hit!

it's still only about 9 am but the humidity has been up at 100% for the past day - the air is so heavy and sticky, and the rain keeps holding off or just a few sprinkles to tease us. We are all waiting for big downpour to clear out the air and give a little refreshing break. maybe later. Pretty much quite wet and sticky and already feeling a bit drained but no problem -we had into our ac rooms and take a quick morning break.

Sue had a good friend of hers, Trang, from the Thailand refugee camp days, and her daughter, staying w us last nite. Sue loves her very much and her life is very very sad and tragic, as so many are here. She is a beautiful woman of about 40ish, very intelligent (speaks 5 languages) and one of the sweetest people you could ever meet. She has working incredibly hard for the last 20 years trying to get the hell out of her little tiny dusty vn town where life is bleak and hard, and the chances to educate her daughter for a better life are grim. She is desperate to get out. So...
her english is pretty good not great and we are sitting outside talking together and she starts asking about if I'm involved in a relationship etc. I foolishly am honest and say no and she suggests that maybe if I were to marry her I could get her out of the country...YIKES...I think I mumbled something incoherent but she mentions marriage a couple more times. very crazy and very sad. Anyway, she also mentioned to sue about the proposal, and after Trang leaves to go home in the morning we talk about it. Sue says she expects it won't be my last proposal! We will see.

For lunch Sue has made plans to visit another very good friend (Tran - do not confuse w Trang) from the camps, so we all get in an ac taxi-van and go across town to their home. While driving a motor-scooter myself was terrifying (and exhilirating and a lot of fun!) I think driving in the front seat of a vn taxi is even more terrifying. I keep talking about the crazy traffic so I will only say again that the motor-bikes flying all over the streets by the hundreds and hundreds, swarming around much fewer cars, is just crazy crazy crazy. Long made the same trip w derek on a motorbike and arrived in about half the time that we did, which is typical.

Lunch was OK and Tran took us all out along w his wife and child to a nice vn restaurant and we all had a nice meal and a nice time. I was able to catch a little of the women's final at the bar while sue caught up w her friend. Then back home for the highlight of the day - post-lunch shower and nap.

How is it even possible that after travelling halfway around the world, the highlight of my day is still my nap?!

This is also very typical - do some stuff early morning when the weather is nice (100% humidity and 80 degrees at 7 am) and then stay inside during the really oppressive afternoon hours. I wake up at 4 pm feeling refreshed and great. Smear on some Deet and get up. Everyone else is still napping so I take my little stool and put it outside our gate to watch the street scene. It starts raining just a bit and w the clouds it becomes just a bit cooler and quite nice out, so I decide to go for another walk around the neighborhood. I now like having vn currency on me so I can buy a little something, so I grab a 100,000 dong note and head out. (that's about $5.00).

After walking for a few minutes the sky really opens up and it is pouring! very nice. I take refuge in a local alley-market where I can find some cover. The market is also very neat where there is just so much going on I need to walk very slowly to take it in. They sell everything from home-grown fruits and veggies, to fish, eel, and live frogs. Apparently the frogs were on special, 3 for 1, since the vn lady was tying 3 live frogs together for easier handling. The frogs didn't seem to mind, but they sure looked silly tied together trying to jump every which way. If the frogs only worked together, they could certainly escape their fate. But it was not to be. I did not buy any frogs.

After about 10 minutes the rain lightened up and I made it onto the main local street. I enjoy just wandering around seeing all the stuff for sale and all the activity. I guess I looked very much out of place! A nice young vn boy (17 yo?) came right up to me and asked me where I was going. We spoke for a few minutes and he is a student who lives around the corner from the market and he politely invited me over to his home. I am sure this was a sincere and friendly offer, but I wasn't quite comfortable doing this so I thanked him and moved on. Sue says if this happens again, I could accept and go over for a few minutes and they would probably offer me water or some sort of treat.

As I come around the corner back onto Long's street I see him heading toward me - no doubt worried that I had been gone so long (maybe 30-45 minutes). We have a good laugh and head home to a great home-cooked meal of rice, bbq beef, vn veggies, mystery fish (which was quite good) and a diet coke that long had brought home from the market. very very nice!

It's about 9 pm now, watching the men's final. Tomorrow we take an early morning plane to a beach resort island off cambodia Phu Quoc Island where we will stay in a nice hotel for 2 or 3 nights and hang out and enjoy the scenery and nicer cooler weather. Looking forward to it!

Not sure about internet access there - I will blog if I can - I like summing up my day and reliving it and helping me to remember it.

I'm feeling good physically and emotionally. No stomach problems or really any problems of any kind. Handling the heat OK but it really help to have our ac rooms to come back to. Without the ac the stiffling heat would get very old very fast. Although it appears to me that most of the people here live very (bleak? or too judgemental?) hard lives w little hope of improvement, I have found them to be wonderfully open and friendly and curious. There is an absolute buzz and electricity of being alive here (or is it just actual electricity from the ubiquitious rat's next of electrical wires hanging from pole to pole - my god tracing a bad phone line must be nearly impossible!)

many more thoughts about deep things like how fascinating, sad, tragic, and beautiful life is here. A very poor under-developed communist country trying to come of age but stuck w one foot deeply rooted in centuries-old vn customs, one foot rooted in an oppressive communist regime, and the third foot trying to take hold in modern society, where women are not subjugated, individual rights are more important than the states, and for god's sake where people can come or go as they please. I forget sometimes about the communists...but not for long as communist party field-offices and security people are quite noticeable wandering around (keeping order? taking bribes?) Long says they don't mess w foreigners because it's too big a hassle, and the communist party does not want to scare away tourists or their money.

more later.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Day 2 or "Rob rides a motorbike thru Saigon" or "Longs Birthday"

9 pm saturday nite - a great day today! woke at the crack of dawn to roosters crowing to each other all up and down the river. Some old beatup boats (sort of like chinese junks?) go up and down the river all day carrying raw materials or picking them up.

Sue and I walked around the neighborhood in the morning. The neighborhood is not a "good neighborhood". In gereral it is quite slum-like with wretched poverty everywhere. Longs family house and the one we are staying at are river-front, but apparently here many river-front houses (shacks) are for the poor people-living next to the smelly polluted river. The neighborhood is many small alley-streets very crowded w a lot of activity - wild alley dogs roam around and many people just sitting in front of their houses watching the street traffic. Street vendors push or pedal their bicycles while selling various stuff.

I was sitting in the front people watching and saw a street vendor several houses down surrounded by children very excited to buy what she was selling. I figured it was ice-cream and candy, but I walked over and turns out she is making sweet white corn! She has a bunch of raw corn and stir-fries it in a little pan w butter and a bunch of seasonings. I bought a "large bowl" for 5000 dong (local currency...settle down Jeff) which is about 25 cents. It was really good and I ate it all up! How funny! Can you imagine a bunch of american kids gathered around a street vendor waiting for their delicious bowl of corn? I didn't think you could.

Then around noon, Long, Sue and I took motorbikes into the city. This is a lot more impressive than it sounds. Long and Sue on one bike, me following. Frickin Crazy Insane Thank God I made it. There are maybe 10 motorbikes per car and like I mentioned before the bikes are more like swarms of bees going every direction at once. I just tried to stay close to Long and not wobble at all. The traffic circles were the most insane - at one point Long turned left but I wasn't in the correct "swarm" so I ended up having to go straight. After a few minutes I was able to make a u-turn (much more impressive than it sounds) and we ended up at a local outdoor market/mall where we had a fantastic lunch of barbeque beef and pork over rice-noodles w some delicious spicy fish sauce over it. I also had a vn soda (sort of like dr pepper). The total for all 3 of us was over 75,000 dong!! oh wait, that's only about $4.00 US! We then scootered to a nice coffee shop and stopped and had some vn ice-coffee, which I didn't think I would like but it turns out to be absolutely delicious - really tastes more like a jasmin-mocha shake- very very good w all the heat and humidty. Then back home for a quick shower, quick read, and a very nice several hour nap in my little air-conditioned room. We are very fortunate to have that luxury and it makes a huge difference.

Today was cloudy so that eased the heat just a bit, but 100% humidity is still tough. Being able to recuperate in ac room and/or ac cars really helps.

After the nap, there were big plans to celebrate Longs birthday at his (adopted) brother's 4 story spectacular "mansion". Very odd still because many rich vietnamese buildup their current homes in the same slummy alley. So you have this amazing mix on the same alley/street where you might have a single decrepit one-story shack right next to this relative mansion. You can't really buy land or move I guess so you just build up and up and up. Richer you are the more stories you have and the more amenities you have inside. But one step out of your home and you're back in this very crowded filthy alley.

Anyway, this mansion belongs to the same guy (Thanh) who gave up his regular house next to Long's for us to stay in. The mansion inside is all italian tile, mahagony spiral staircase that just goes straight up to each floor and yields a nice view of the city - slums, shacks, hotels, office buildings, and lots and lots of small commercial businesses run out of most people's homes.

Thanh and his wife prepared a great meal for everyone and we had a nice cake and sang Happy Birthday to Long, who clearly was very very happy being home surrounded by his family - and I think he like having me there too! Altho the eel and snails looked very appetizing, I had to pass and instead had delicious homemade eggrolls, and steak and vegetables barbequed hibachi style on the floor which is where we all ate. Add a couple of ice-cold Heinekens and it was a very nice time for all.

Taxi ride home in time for the world cup match which is now at halftime. God I hope germany doesn't win.

I am looking forward to a similar day tomorrow, walking around the neighborhood watching pretty much everyone we pass look at me w a huge smile on their face. Long says the people in this very small village are not used to seeing foreigners so I am quite an attraction. I think they may also be smiling at me thinking to themselves "Look at that 10 foot tall freak! It must be so hard being so tall. Let's watch him smack his head on the rafters." (which I often do!) Probably go on another scooter ride, so if this is my last post you can find me in the middle of a crowded street in downtown Saigon, waiting for a break in traffic so I can scooter to safety. Sue and Long say crossing the street in Saigon is like a human game of Frogger, which I can now totally relate to.

more to come...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Trip across the pacific and first day in Vietnam

Rob is in Vietnam!! Who would have ever guessed?! I am going to try and blog as often as I can since otherwise I will probably not be able to remember what happened the day before!! The house we are staying in has internet! So at least for the next few days I will be able to update!

Trip from SJ:
Flew Cathay Pacific from SJ to Hong Kong (13 hour flight!!). We left at 1:00 am and the flight was very long and the seats were TERRIBLE so a lot of napping and then getting up and stretch and try to nap some more. And I watched Star Trek, which killed some more time. Got into HK Intl Airport and had a 3 hour lay-over for our flight to Saigon (about 2.5 hours). Got to Saigon at 1:00 pm on Friday - picked up at the airport by Long's brother who rented a very nice taxi-van for all of us.

Pretty quick trip from airport to Long's family house. Amazing traffic - Long told me about all the motorbikes and how crazy traffic is, but I couldn't even imagine how crazy!! More motorbikes than cars and they are everywhere, mixing and merging w traffic with no regard for any personal safety! Families of 4 on a single little motorbike are common and you can't even imagine how nuts it is with hundreds of motorbikes swarming all over the streets going with traffic, against traffic, between traffic, across traffic and always within a few inches of other motorbikes and all the cars. Total insanity - zero eye contact ever with any other driver, no yielding right of way - but everyone somehow manages to get by!

We made it to Long's street, which is an amazing scene unlike anything I've ever experienced - but it's also really neat and wonderful. Narrow very crowded street with a ton of activity as people live and work from their homes and sell stuff on the streets - very noisy and crowded and so ALIVE!

We have a nice house 5 houses down from Long's family home that someone is letting us stay in - I think it's Long's brother, or brother-in-law, or maybe just a family friend, but our 2 bedrooms downstairs have their own AC which is awesome.

Weather hot and humid of course, but generally not too too bad right now. Today was about 90 deg and very humid, but the eve actually cooled down a bit and it's quite nice out. Sounds like we got lucky w the weather, since the last month has been one of the hottest summer's they've had here in 15 years so maybe we'll stay lucky!

Lots of meeting Long's family and a few friends - As far as learning Vietnamese goes, my first job is remembering all of Long's brothers and sisters name and telling them apart!! I've already called one sister by another sister's name - but everyone is so so nice and warm and friendly here it is very very nice. They enjoy teasing me quite a bit and we're having a lot of fun. The couple of VN words I know are a bit hit - even tho who the heck knows what I am really saying!

Long's family put together a big mid-day lunch for us all - a VN chicken salad that was very good. Then we were able to take a quick shower and catch a quick 4 hour nap.

Long woke me up around 6 pm since some other brothers and sisters and friends had come over so time to get up. Big feast again and lots of ice-cold Heineken (VN version but still very good). I had some dried squid with chili sauce, just like home!! It was actually pretty good and tastes a bit like beef jerky - they say this is a classic snack w beer and they go great together!

There is a lot of yammering in VN and Long (and Sue) keep me up on the conversation, or I just kick back and enjoy the company and meeting Long's family. They are all very nice and very funny. I also had my first Leechee fruit which was OK too! Long was very impressed w my adventurous palette, but one of his sister's (Yim? Binh? Mai?) was very funny and teased me and told me that her sister who cooked the food was quite offended that I wasn't MORE adventurous (I didn't really eat that much and didn't try a bunch of stuff). She told me his sister wasn't going to cook anymore - and I wasn't sure if she was kidding, but then they all broke into laughter and it's clear we will all get along very well!

Long also has a brother-in-law and lifetime friend named Thanh, who at first seems very quiet and made me a little nervous but they told me he's just shy. After a few beers and laughing he turns out to be very very nice and funny and keeps telling Long that he has big plans for me to introduce me to VN. (yikes). Here's how the conversations go:

Thanh: na goi chun mai su phqew ROB su somph
(all the vietnamese people laugh laugh laugh)

Anyway, it's very funny since the only VN word I can recognize when they talk is "Rob".

Now we're watching world cup with a few family members and friends and it's very jovial and pleasant. Everyone is taking very good care of me.

As far as how I'm feeling I am generally feeling pretty good - not (too) nervous and really looking forward to exploring Long's neighborhood tomorrow. The houses are adjacent to a very polluted river - I couldn't figure out where the trash can in the house were, until I noticed his sister clearing the table, taking the trash over to her kitchen window, and then just dumping it into the river!! :( So no swimming in the river for me (or anyone else).

Still the river is pretty good size and is quite scenic - very colorful hand-built houses (small) packed in very closely. It is supposed to rain for a few minutes everyday, and I can't wait to sit on the outside porch during the next rainstorm and watching the river, drinking a beer, and enojoying the experience.

I guess we will hang here for a few days and poke around which sounds like fun. Also looking forward to tooling around on a motorbike (a lot mellower wrt traffic here than by the airport (maybe 30 min away).

After that an overnight trip to the Mekong Delta which is supposed to be a bit coolor and incredible scenic.

It is 10:30 pm now friday nite and I'm starting to fade - hopefully a good night sleep tonite (I have my own little room!! How nice is that?!) and ready for a new experience tomorrow.

Back to memorizing Long's brothers and sisters names - there are also lots of kids around for derek and ethan, and they all play together w great enthusiasm and noise - lots of noise but the general noise issue (I think the guy living next door runs a metal shop so very noisy - but I'm starting to be able to just zone it all out (sort of like the vuvuzalea's in the world cup games).

I'll try to blog again tomorrow - should be a very fun and interesting day!