Week Twenty Three


There’s a rat in mi kitchen, what I’m I gonna do? – UB 40, 1986

Day One Hundred and Fifty Five November 20th
Luckily we have two rooms at the Victoria, one for the sick, the other for the caretakers.  Late last evening Adele came down with the bug.  She is barely moving under the covers.

Vince on the other hand bounces up at 6a with his usual banter and pitter-patter.  We try breakfast to see if the food stays down.  It does and we determine that Vince and I are OK, so we head out with Hai to see the Cia Rang floating market, one of the “highlights of the Delta.” (Per the guidebooks.) We have all been talking about the market for some time and Adele has been planning on spending her allowance here so missing the experience magnifies the impact of the “bug” even further.  Adele is weeping openly was we leave.

It turns out the market is just a forty-five minute boat ride upstream from the hotel and we can board a boat at the dock right in front of the Victoria.  We set out around 9a.

The river is crowded.  There are all kinds of boats, coming in many shapes and sizes, shuttling all kinds of things up and down the river.  We see big barges filled with sand so loaded down they just clear the waterline.  Fishing boats large and small spreading and hauling nets.  Cranes dredging up big scoops of mud and debris.  Little single person canoe type things piled high with vegetables.  There are wooden house boats, shacks lining the shoreline, bridges overhead, people bathing, swimming, peeing, eating, cleaning, washing clothes.  

The river is the lifeblood of the region.  Everything is happening on the river.

For all of the activity and use it is surprising clean and free of garbage.  This is a minor miracle in this landscape filled with trash.  It is almost as if the people know their lives depend on the water and therefore they are willing to respect it with cleanliness.  I have no idea if that’s true but Hai seems to confirm it.

Vince is thrilled to be out and about with Dad, riding on a boat, in the middle of a river.  How incredibly cool.  He takes it all in stride but nearly jumps out of the boat when he sees the pineapples piled higher than we are.  We pullover and board the pineapple boat for one of the tastiest treats to date.  We sit on the roof eating fresh cut pineapple on a stick!

The market is all about fruits and vegetables.  We thought is was going to be one big floating bizarre with all kids of good and services but in reality it is a shopping center for the locals to exchange food items.  They have a system so you know what each boat is selling or trading.  Whatever they have on board, they simply attach to a big bamboo pole and wave it in the air: so if a boat is trading onions, potatoes and carrots then one of each will be on the pole.  It is great fun to see all of the fruits and veggies waving about.  

There are no rules here in Vietnam, at least none that anyone pays attention to.  The boats are all so loaded down that one small wave will sink them.  No kidding.   They pile on so much stuff that the deck line is at the waterline (or below it).  I have never seen anything quite like it.  At times all you can see is a cabin floating towards you with a bunch of people sitting on deck, the rest of the boat is so heavy it is actually underwater.  

By 11a we are dockside and ready to switch off with Teri.  Adele is still sleeping so I volunteer to stay behind while Vince and Mom go out to see some bats at a pagoda.  Within minutes I am sleeping.  Three hours later Adele is starting to stir and I crawl out of bed.  The time change, late hours back with BOA in the States and the “bug” are all taking their toll.

Meanwhile, out on the Delta, Teri and Vince are driving in the rain for hours to Soc Trang to see a bunch of bats in the Khmer Bat Pagoda.  Apparently the bats are tres cool: the drive is not. 

At days end we are all back together booking Malaysia flights, trying to download some new iTunes videos, posting to the blog and struggling to keep down dinner.  We eat on the patio at the bar but the food here is just not working.  Everything familiar tastes terrible: everything foreign doesn’t work with the bug.  No one can sleep, and all of us are starting to look a bit thin…

Day One Hundred and Fifty Six November 21st

This is a travel day so perhaps it is good that all of the cars have flowers on them to celebrate some lunar holiday dedicated to honoring dead drivers.  They seem to honor everyone around here.  Any reason to place flowers on shrines is fair game.

On the way back to HCMC and our flight to Da Nang we continue our discussion with Hai and Tuck.  It turns out the owner of Ann Tours, Tony, was separated from his mom after the war because his father was head of security for the South.  When he was killed the Americans thought it best if they sent the children to the US out of concern for their safety.  Our river Tuck was a security guard for the South and a friend of Tony’s father.  That’s how he ended up driving for the family business started by Tony’s mom, but not before he ended up in a camp for ten years post reunification in 1975.  He does not have much to say about the camp.  

Our guide Hai has been studying English and guiding for a number of years.  He works all the time, almost everyday he can, and is working to get a leg up in life.  He seems genuinely excited to be able to work so hard to build a better life.  

There is no government safety net here: no welfare checks or social security.  Here the family takes care of their own.  If you don’t have family the village steps in.  It is all for one and one for all.  You either support each other or starve to death.  The poverty line is that close.

Capitalism is a very powerful tool.  The people are industrious and support each other for the overall economic good of the country.  It is an odd blend and mix: not to be underestimated.

When we land in Da Nang the difference is noticeable immediately: the airport is much smaller with a single run way and only two or three planes.  Plus, there are far fewer people here.  As we taxi in you can see concrete structures, sort of like covers, that must have been used in the war to protect planes and helicopters, most likely ours I suppose.  The concrete appears old and slightly decaying.  Helicopters stand idle, tucked under here and there.

It is also hot here, much more so than down south and we are sweating as we walk from plane to terminal.  Our new guide, Newt, is there to meet us.  It turns out we are his last tour as he has landed a job in real estate sales starting the day after we leave.  Hopefully he wants to hang up the tour guide shoes with a big finale.  Maybe not.

When we tell him we are hungry and looking for a good local place he promptly declines.   We even wave the Frommer’s book at him and he still looks concerned.  Apparently Tony from Ann Tours called him and told him we are all sick and to be careful where we go to eat.  Big brother is always watching here.  We take full responsibility and end up at a terrible tourist place despite repeatedly asking for our Frommer’s recommendation.  Not fun and bad food.  

Our first stop after lunch is at the Open Air Cham Museum.  It is an odd collection of stone carvings and statues gathered from temples though out the country.  Most of it comes from one of the temples we will see tomorrow, set back in the jungle, outside of Hoi An.  It is a good introduction to the area and the Cham people: most of the works are of Buddhist and Hindu gods.  It rounds out our experiences with Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures thus far.  

China beach is here in DA Nang.  Who knew?  I keep looking over my shoulder for Dana Delany, no such luck.  There’s not much here really, just coastline and waves, but we do a quick drive just to say we did.  It’s beautiful but very windy so we don’t linger too much.

It has been a very long day by the time we arrive in Hoi An.  This is our home base for a few days of shopping and down time by the Indian Ocean.  The town is known for handmade clothing on a quick turn around and Adele’s birthday is right around the corner so shopping is definitely in order.  

We head into one of the tailors and have a great time picking out fabrics and getting a fitting for her new, Ao Dai, a traditional Vietnamese dress.  They can have it the next day with one fitting in the morning and the final by late afternoon.  How great is that?  Vince and I try to get suits made but it is too expensive.   Of coarse we find this out after the fitting and he is crushed.  All he wants are “work clothes” like Dad.  It kills me to walk away but we do.

The Victoria in Hoi An is excellent.   We are beachfront and poolside, one of our favorite combinations.   It is tight with all of us in one room but it all works out.

Pool Guy: That iPhone?
Me: No it’s an  iTouch. No phone.
Pool Guy: But you email? (He is looking at my screen) How much?
Me: Yes, I can email, but no phone, I have no idea how much is cost.
Pool Guy: Here very much.
Me: Home, not so much.
Pool Guy: When you go home?
Me: Maybe never.
Pool Guy: OK, I am pool guy, no money; you buy me one and ship?

Despite the 6a start, a four-hour drive, the one-hour flight, a few hours of airport down time, sightseeing, shopping and swimming, both Adele and Vince can’t sleep.  They must be over tired. It’s hard when the kids are up later than the parents. 

Day One Hundred and Fifty Seven November 22nd

People do wacky things.  As we drive along small side roads, on a piece of road just wide and high enough to be above the waterline, surrounded by water and rice fields dotted with tiny clusters of houses passing as villages, we find ourselves in a traffic jam, caused by a monk.  

His entourage is huge.  People are lining the side of the road to get a glimpse of him.  They are sweeping the path in front and closing in behind him to follow along.  Apparently he is continually crisscrossing Vietnam, taking one step and then kneeling down in prayer, then taking another step followed by more kneeling. He does this every step, all day and night until he can go no more.  Then he lies down, sleeps, gets up and continues.  His only support for everything he needs in life is from the people on the side of the road.  He never stops.  They feed him, shelter him, fix him up if need be and take care of him so he can continue his journey.   Our guide describes him as the Forest Gump of monks.  

When we ask why the monk is doing this, our guide doesn’t really have an answer.  I Google “monk walking across Vietnam and praying” but he’s nowhere to be found.  Apparently the journey is drawing attention to a cause.  This cause maybe controversial we are told and so the monk is “watched very carefully by the government.” The “official” people follow him as well keeping track of every move and word: by the monk as well as those that support him.  Everyone is “very careful what they say.” It highlights the long hand of the Communist Party and the whole thing is very bizarre. 

Vince is in rare form.  He refused to eat breakfast and is now “starving to killing me” so we need to stop and look for crackers.  The problem with stopping roadside is that we may be the only ones to stop in these parts, ever, and the supplies look like they are from the early 80s.  When we don’t find crackers or Pringles he proceeds to lie down in the middle of the floor and through a fit.  It’s an odd scene: three old Vietnamese guys looking down in disbelief not knowing what to think of the small blond child, Teri trying to coax him off the floor, the guide and driver fake laughing trying to get his attention and Vince in the middle of it all howling.  Oh, to be four and the center of your world.

People ride bikes here instead of scooters or cars.  They carry everything on them and stack them as high as you can possibly imagine.  I have no idea how they balance it all.

The temple, My Son, is set way back in the jungle.  It is billed as “one of the best preserved in all of Vietnam” and has UNESCO World Heritage status.  It turns out we need to park a ways out and walk in a bit, not to far, but far enough in the heat.  It is really hot out here in the jungle.

The temples date back to the early 15th century.  There are four groups of buildings all in various stages of decay and all are overgrown and covered in grass, vines and trees.  Its funny they seem out of place in a way and just sort of pop up out of nowhere.  On one side of the main temple is a huge crater.  Once you take notice of it and then start to look a little deeper, its apparent that the craters are everywhere.

The place was carpet bombed during the war, more than once it seems.  Apparently it was an attempt to “hurt the moral of the troops,” or so the story goes.  The largest temple used to be thirty one meters high but now its mostly rubble.  In one of the interiors there are two large bombs propped up against the wall.  It’s odd to be here with US artillery on display, and certainly not in a positive light.

This is our first real experience with the war.  The kids don’t really notice so we can skirt the subject with them.  But we notice and it brings up all kinds of questions and emotions.  Honestly, it is hard to put two and two together.  Our country then and now, this country then and now and all of the people we know that were then and still are involved in some way or another. The experience is hard to describe and impossible to accurately articulate.  I won’t try, sufficed to say it’s a struggle and very much part of the experience.

Vince has decided that these “old ruins” are actually “old woodens” and he is trying to figure out why these are made of stone and not trees.  Adele has picked today to start her new fear of ants and is busy hopping from stone to stone so she doesn’t touch the ground that seems to be crawling with them.  Clearly this is not the best place to start this new phobia: in the heat of a steaming jungle, filled with all kinds of creepy crawlies.  After an hour or so we call it quits and head for town.

Hoi An is on the tourist circuit.  It does have an authentic town center but that has been converted to support the trade.  The place looks the part.  Canals hold beautiful boats; old warehouses have trendy restaurants and there is shopping everywhere.  The open-air market seems to be more for those of us from out of town than for those living here.  This is never a good sign in our book.  

Our guide could care a less about us.  He is retiring tomorrow and it is very much apparent that he has already moved on.  He is interesting though: a degree in English, one in business, working on a third in engineering, a guide for five years to hone his English and people skills, moving into real estate to work on his sales and presentation skills and trying to get to a place where he can start his own company in five to ten years.  Sounds very much like the American dream.

We make the best of town with a meal at the Mango Restaurant.  It has excellent food by a chef trained in the States. The vibe is almost South Texas with a Mexican twist.  The fish tacos are excellent!

After a short walk around town, another brief stop at a Chinese Temple and a trip across an historic bridge, we stop by for Adele’s final fitting.  Vince and I wait outside.  When Adele comes back out she is beaming!  It will be ready tomorrow.

The day winds down with a nap, some pool time, dinner, the game room, and a new bedtime schedule that fails miserable.  We need to get on this time zone and have the kids go down at a reasonable hour or we are all going to crack. 

Day One Hundred and Fifty Eight November 23rd

We ditched our guide. Today is a day of rest and relaxation, time to hang out on the beach, body surf, build sandcastles and enjoy some sunshine.  Luckily it is all right at our doorstep.

By early afternoon we are ready to head into town to pick up Adele’s dress.  Since we know a good thing when we see one, we immediately head back to the Mango Restaurant for round two.  Everyone is keeping food down and our appetites have finally returned!  

We pick up Adele’s dress.  Now I know all Dads will tell you their daughters are beautiful.  And I am certainly no exception to this rule.  Adele is by far the most beautiful nine year old I have ever seen, standing in her birthday Ao Dai with purple dragons and golden highlights.  She actually glows and shines!  And she is so big and grown up all of a sudden.  Her birthday is next week.  She’ll be nine going on nineteen.

Day One Hundred and Fifty Nine November 24th

It’s yet another travel day.  We are headed further up the coast to Ha Noi for a few days to see the city and check out Ha Long bay.  These short hoppers are taking their toll on all of us, the constant movement is more than we bargained for and it is making all of us a bit weary.  I feel like I am commuting to a sight seeing job.  

Teri and I were here about ten years ago on one of our Asia trips so we think we have some idea of what to expect.  It turns out ten years is a very long time over here and we hardly recognize the place.  The airport seems bigger and much more crowded.  The roads are full of people in trucks, buses, cars, on scooters, bicycles, foot, carts, animals, each other.  The air is thick and dense.  It is beyond hazy, hot and humid.

On our drive into the city we discover that our guide’s father was in the war on the other side.  When we ask what he thinks of Americans he says that the people his age look forward not back.  How crazy is it that Teri’s dad and his dad were fighting each other while we are driving into the city talking about the future growth prospects for the country and the key differences between here and the States.  Our guide seems fascinated with the US.

One of the key differences is that in the States we are spread out over a great area and we actually appreciate smaller city living, here everyone is pouring into Ha Noi.  When we were here ten years ago there were about 2.5-3M people. Now there are 9M.  They think they will be at 25M by 2025.  He says this with pride, as if the explosive growth is a positive thing.  Trust me, looking out the windows on the drive in to the city it is clear there are some issues they need to deal with. 

Apparently there is no private land ownership.  Houses can be passed down to the next generation but the government owns all the farmland and it’s reallocated every few decades.  I can’t imagine how they do this, what good is a house in a village if you can’t farm there?  It’s not like there are any other job opportunities in the rice fields.  

You get the sense that change is happening so fast, driven from the ground up and a step or two ahead those in charge.  Its like somehow, someone opened up a fire hose and now they can’t turn the thing off.  They can thank Al Gore: it’s probably the Internet.  If the drive towards a better life and the current migration patterns continue, 25M by 2025 will be a piece of cake.  That is the size of Cairo.  I can’t begin to imagine. 

Typical of begin on tours we have few stops before the hotel.  Our first is the Museum of Ethnology.  Vietnam is made up of 54 different ethnic tribes/groups and this museum has examples of the lifestyles and contributions of each.  Since we are not going up to the far north to see the hill tribes this is good way to get acquainted with them and see how rural life is up in the mountains.  Apparently life remains unchanged for many of the tribe even to this day.

They have a very good lunch stop here run as a training school for under privileged kids trying to get into the tourist business.  The kids have no idea what they are doing.  It takes three people to seat us, one leading us the table and two others following the first watching his every move.  Ordering is like a Saturday Night Live skit: one person is writing, two or three are standing around, another is correcting what the first writes down and several more are setting and re-setting the table. No less than five or six people, all greeters in training, stand and nod as you enter or leave, or get up for any reason.  They clearly have way too many people here.

At long last we check into the Hanoi Hilton.  We drop our bags and sit down for a few seconds only to be picked up again twenty minutes later for the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.  This is totally surreal.  We are in the very last row, the place is jammed, the building next door is under construction so you can hear hammering and electric saws through the walls, the seats are right on top of each other, everyone here is wearing a tour group name tag, the music is made by those ear piercing, whining, guitar-type things, someone is banging on big drums, the water is filthy, the puppets are old and the story line makes no sense.  All of this and the kids absolutely love it!

We survive this lunacy only to be escorted out by our guide forty-five minutes later and whisked onto cyclo rides for an hour tour of the old quarter.  We fear for our lives.  And our guide decides its time to bail so he literally pushes the two cyclo guys forward and wishes us all the best.  He mumbles something about the tour paying for the rides and that all we need to do is tip them and then he sort of fades into the crowd.

We are on our own in the middle of rush hour, in the middle of wall to wall traffic, in the middle of Hanoi, with two non-English speaking drivers, without any idea where we are, where we are going and how on earth we get back to the hotel.  Sometimes you must just sit back, put your feet up, and relax.  You do your best to try not to breath in the exhaust so thick your eyes water or catch fire from the street vendors torching anything that moves for the evening meal.  You try not to notice the lice being plucked in doorways in what seems to be a national pass time or the non-stop parade of people trying to sell you any/everything for “one dollar, one dollar!”  You turn away from the constant glare of neon and headlamps set against the falling darkness.

You sit back and watch with your soon to be nine year old daughter cautiously watching a girl her age working the crowd to sell a few postcards to tourists, a group of school kids kicking soccer balls on the sidewalks, the piles of trash, whole cows and chickens hanging in windows, laundry trying to dry in the dirty air, people eating, sleeping, cleaning and peeing all within a few feet of each other, wall to wall people with virtually no differentiation between street and sidewalk.  You sit and watch her shift with excitement as she absorbs.

We are a long, long way from Webster Elementary School.

Day One Hundred and Sixty November 25th Thanksgiving

It is appropriate we are here for Thanksgiving. This city highlights just how much we have to be thankful for.  

CNN is on in the hotel lounge and they are showing the Macy’s parade floats in real time, which is actually the night before our morning with the time change.  I explain to Adele that we used to go see them get inflated the night before the parade when I lived in NYC way back when.  She looks at me like I have two heads.  

Teri comes up with Vince to get some cereal and he promptly vomits all over the lounge, clearing the room for the most part and scaring himself to death.  He thought he was done with the throwing up thing and now he can’t keep down his favorite cereal.  It’s tough to be the big guy sometimes.  We do a holiday Skype to the States and the mood pick’s up a bit. 

Teri is constantly asking the waiters if they use meat chicken.  They all have the same reaction: a pause, they point to the menu, say “no chicken, its chicken,” over and over and nod feverishly.  Like we have accused them of serving dog of something.  “No, no, the chicken is it white meat.” Teri says louder so they can better understand her.  They repeat the first steps again then leave. 

They must just hack up chickens here with big cleavers.  When you get chicken in any order, any style with any other compliment, it comes in big boney chunks, skin and veins and all.  I wager they don’t even bother removing feathers in some parts.  

Feeling a little bolder we decided to head into the old part of the city again for lunch.  The Frommer’s restaurant is called White Rice, as in “like white on rice” so we should be all over it but we are not.  First off, we are the only ones there, granted it is a bit early but it is very odd to be sitting all alone in a place on an unbelievably crowded street with plenty of packed food stalls, especially since they insisted we make a reservation.  Second, the food is terrible except for my soup, which is mostly noodle and some kid of meat. Third, there’s a dead rat in the bathroom, what mi gonna do? 

Do you casually mention this to the family when you return looking all freaked out?  I think not.  How about telling the waiter or all of the people standing around the restaurant with nothing to do but gawk at the foreigners?   No way, for fear it will end up in the chicken fried rice.   Ignore it?  Not a chance, we get the bill and clear out as fast as possible.  Only in Vietnam.

Vietnamese artists are excellent.  We have two paintings from our last visit and we can not wait to go back to see what the galleries here have in store this time around.  It turns out the two painters we picked up ten years ago have gone up ten fold so they are out of our price range.  We do mange to find another up and comer that is a bit more affordable and we plunge for a third.  We have learned over the years that when we see something we both like we no longer think twice about purchase.  If it is meant to be, haggle a bit, pay up and move on.  Your happy, the artist is happy and the art will be with you forever.  If you don’t you will forever regret it.

Vince finds his own art in the Lego store that we bump into on the way home and he cannot be happier (save for the vomiting).  Adele finds a new download of Man Verse Wild and is beyond thrilled (she loves Bear Grills).  We find four loads of clean laundry for twenty bucks from an old lady around the corner to be a work of true art and are ecstatic.   We are all thankful this day.

Out here on the road we settle for snacks from the hotel lounge for our Thanksgiving dinner and call it a day.  Not a lot of turkey in this neck of the woods.  Rat or dog maybe, but not turkey.  

We very much miss this holiday with friends back home.

Day One Hundred and Sixty One November 26th

The tour guide says it is a three to four hour drive to Ha Long bay.  They lie.  It is the longest drive in the world.  

When we finally arrive after almost five hours of driving we immediately board the Ha Long Jasmine boat and set sail.  Now this is cool.  It is a big junk (I think this is the term) made of wood that gleams and shines from years of polish.  There are three floors, tiny cramped sleeping rooms, a big formal dining room with set tables, a small bar, two huge masts on the top deck, a loud clanking engine and a full crew.  There are about twenty people on board and we are headed out to sea for an overnight.  Yes, we get to sleep on a boat!  The kids look like they may explode with excitement.  

Lunch is served immediately.  So refined this cruise thing.  We eat while the boat gets underway and sets a course towards the bay.  Unfortunately it is overcast and rainy.  We can see the limestone spires all around us but to be honest the true majesty of it all is lost a bit with the rain.  I am sure it must be really something to see in good weather.  No worries though: there is plenty for four and nine year olds to explore.  Not to mention the possibility of pirates, whales, seas monsters and the like.

In the late afternoon we depart our big boat in smaller launches to experience the Van Chai fishing village.   This is a UNESCO World Heritage site tucked away in a protected harbor deep within the bay.  Everyone here, all 400 plus people, live on boats in the middle of the sea.  There is no land, no place to dry dock.  The rock walls and cliffs make climbing the limestone impossible.  

This place is fascinating.  It has been around for fifteen years or so and many of the children are returning to raise their families on the water so the population is actually growing.  The “boats” are more like “house floats” with one big room, a small dock as a front porch, a generator for power (to watch TV) and the basic essentials.  They have stores, a school and communal floats.   No idea on sewage.  

Everything here is tied to the ocean.  They fish to survive and sell the catch at markets in towns along the coast.  They harbor is protected so they can withstand storms and high seas though there must be more than a few unpleasant days and nights in monsoon/ typhoon season.  

After a brief introduction at a floating museum we board very small boats rowed by people from the village for an up close tour of life on the sea.  Both Adele and Vince get to row.  The woman in our boat speaks no English, she just smiles and nods and points to things.  We see dogs and cats, small children, grandparents, mother and fathers.  People swing lazily in hammocks, clean fish, fix boats, play games and go to school.  The deeper you look the more it is like any other small town except it floats in the middle of the sea.

That evening we return to the Jasmine where Adele learns how to make Spring Rolls with the chef and we all dine on a wonderful meal.  By 9p we fall exhausted into bed and then quickly to sleep, all to the to the gentle sounds and movement of waves and sea.