Friday, June 30, 2017

Nha Trang: Birthdays & Banh Mi on the Beach

After Saigon, we headed north for a couple of days at Nha Trang, a beach town near Vietnam's midpoint.  The beach was a nice breather after the urban intensity of Saigon.  We also celebrated two birthdays there, Lachlan's 11th and Scott's slightly more than 11th.  

Nha Trang is an interesting spot in that it attracts hordes of Russian tourists.  Russia isn't particularly close, but apparently a longstanding Russian naval base in Nha Trang led to return visits from Russian sailors, which led to Russians vacationing there, local Russian-speaking tour companies, and a daily direct flight from Moscow. 
just a street-side barbershop
the cheerful ma who made our birthday banh mi sandwiches.  delicious.
For Lach's birthday, we spent the day at VinPearl Land, an island resort across the bay from Nha Trang.  It was basically Vietnam's Disney World.  Huge, clean and with shorter lines.    
gondola car from Nha Trang to Vinpearl Island
Disney-esque, right?
all signs were in Vietnamese, Chinese, English and Russian
winding down the day
boarding the ferry back to Nha Trang after a full day of Vinpearling

Next stop:  Hoi An, which is a 10 hour drive North.  For that trip we booked seats on the VIP night bus--an experience in itself.
on the way to the bus station
hanging at the SingTourist bus station before boarding the night bus
Lach found the night bus dimensions just right
Finley, who's up to about 6'2, was a bit cramped
double decks of sleeper-recliners

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?

After Siem Reap we headed to Ho Chi Minh City or, as nearly all the locals still call it, Saigon.   After Vietnam's Communist Government opened up the economy to free enterprise investment in 1986, Saigon quickly became one of SE Asia's fastest growing cities. It's present population is around 10 million, and its streets are a dangerous blur of taxis, buses, and, of course, motorbikes, of which there an estimated 8.5 million in the city.

Visiting here, it's impossible to avoid thinking and talking about the "American War" into which my father Oliver H, Barber, Jr. was drafted fresh out of law school and soon after I was born.  The VC government erected numerous monuments to the "reunification" of the country after the U.S. abandoned the war effort in 1976, but there is nothing noting a separate South Vietnam, the doomed regime the U.S. misguidedly propped up with American troops and treasure.

It was a nice surprise that everyone we met in Saigon (and elsewhere in Vietnam) was very friendly to us as Americans--no hard feelings about the war whatsoever.  Many here view the U.S. as having tried to "help" South Vietnam during the war.  Revisionist history?  Maybe simply unhappiness with their current government.  We heard from many that the present Communist system is an unhelpful annoyance that slows everything down and can't even complete a subway after 13 years of planning.

We saw some crazy motorbiking on Java, but Saigon is another level.  Sidewalks are just another way for scooters to get from point A to point B.  It's Traffic insanity.

The intense traffic makes walking Saigon difficult, so we mainly got around by catching an Uber or Grab car. These apps have been lifesavers, especially where, as here, people don't speak a lot of English.  The occasional English-speaking cabby can be a great source of gossip, but sometimes its nice to punch in coordinates on our phone and get across town without having to embarrass ourselves trying to give directions or pay fares.

One of the best parts about our visit to Saigon was a chance to visit with Donn Garton, the first friend I made after we moved to Philadelphia in 1995.  Donn has been in Saigon since 2004, looks like a million bucks, and runs a couple of companies there.

hitting hotspots with Donn G.

lots of Catholic churches in Saigon; reminders of Vietnam's long stretch as a French colony.
Uncle Ho in the grand hall of the Post Office

release the bóng bay!

Downtown Saigon has a street dominated by bookstores. Actual brick & mortar bookstores. Imagine!
Hot pot lunch at Secret Garden, a restaurant on the roof of a five-story walkup.  😴
downtown Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City Hall.
More Uncle Ho
amazing what can fit on a cart
keeping it green in Saigon, which was noticeably cleaner than some other Asian megacities (we're looking at you, Bangkok)
the so-called Cafe Building, where every one of its nine floors is a different cafe.

new bling on the Saigon skyline
the kids' reviews of Bubble Tea were mixed
the pink cathedral around the corner from our District 1 B&B

On Donn's recommendation we took a day trip from Saigon to tour the Cu Chi tunnels--a network of Vietcong tunnels made what the VN government calls the "American War."

En route, our guides showed us a propaganda film made in the 60s by the then-North Vietnamese Army which described the entire military action as an American invasion & bombing campaign.  No mention of South Vietnam's existence.  As ever, the winners get to write the history books.

hitting the trails at Cu Chi

our guide said the typical Vietcong soldier was about Lach's size
so many nasty traps for the unwary

Z liked above ground better than the tunnels.  She was pretty sure the walls were caving in on her.

captured American tank, complete with shrapnel damage from a VC grenade exploding inside the cockpit

Lach and Whit made it all the way to the end of the tourist tunnel--about 200m.  I bailed after about 40m.
Turns out I don't like the sound of myself breathing in cramped, hot darkness.
A post tour snack of steamed tapioca root, a standard meal for tunnel-dwelling Vietcong. Verdict: flavorless.

cooking vents for underground kitchen

On the 7-hour train  ride from Saigon to our next stop, Nha Trang.  Three different passengers became violently ill with
food poisoning and frequented the sink behind us.  Not sure I'll get Megan on another train.  😬

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Holiday in Cambodia

Siem Reap

You can’t come to this part of the world and not go to Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument.  So we booked some cheap flights, did some research and headed to Cambodia, which, as it turns out, has a lot more to offer than stunning temples.

These knuckle heads are serious frequent flyers

After hiring a tour company and lots of emails to build the right itinerary, we were off.  Because I was setting the schedule for Cambodia (our 5th country on the trip), our days were more jam packed than Scott’s preferred pace of taking in one major activity per day.

Day 1 – after arriving late afternoon, we headed to Pub Street/ downtown Siem Reap, which is bursting with everything Cambodians think will entice tourists to part with their money: fish spas, souvenirs, 50 cent beers, so many restaurants, fried bug carts that charge for photos, neon lights and a horde of drivers wanting to give you a lift in their tuk-tuk carts.  It was a bit over the top.

Can't do too many fish spas, this one had some big suckers.

Day 2- started early with a trip to an orphanage run by the Sunrise Cambodia Foundation who has both residential care for truly orphaned kids and day programs to help kids who have a struggling parent or who otherwise might be begging on the streets.  The tour was eye opening for our kids and the children there were adorable and really wanted to try out their English on us.  They have supplemental classes for them and we sat in on a dance rehearsal and even got to learn some traditional Khmer dance moves, well at least Whit, Scott and I did.

so so adorable 

From there we headed to the floating villages on Lake Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake.   As we cruised down a wide channel to the expansive lake a true village on water emerged- complete with grocery stores, churches, medical clinic, cafes, and an occasional crocodile farm – all without land. 

this market boat has all you need

Ahh Laco

Boys with sticks- Universal it seems

floating croc farm

In case we need some Christianity

Morning Wod- Row down river

Ex soldiers jamming away

From there we headed to a local market to buy food and toiletries & other staples for some needy families in a nearby village as well as school supplies for a local school.  The market was crowded and completely unorganized, like a developing world Costco but without the pallets and 59 cent hotdogs and a lot more dust.  

Cambodian Costco

this kid- Lachlan's buddy

Kids lined up perfectly and had the best manners while we handed them notebooks, pens and a lollipop. They only do school for half a day because that's all the country can afford, but one of our guides said they all wished they could go longer. 

Food delivery

"Scott - can't we bring her home?"

We delivered all the staples the next day which was rewarding.  As Fin said: “that felt good”.  I wished I had taken a pic of the sweet old toothless woman who lived alone in a 1 room dirt floor hut and gave us the warmest Cambodian blessing for good health and fortune with tears in her eyes.

We had been talking a lot with the kids about the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the atrocities of war that plagued Cambodia as recently as the 1980s.  So we headed to the War Museum to learn more.  Unfortunately the museum was too basic and didn't make the impact we were hoping for.  Also our guide at that point in the trip was not the best.  Bizarrely, at one point our guide told us that Pol Pot was actually a good man, and that it was the Khmer Rouge from Viet Nam who killed millions of Cambodians. Because this seemed so unbelievably wrong we had him repeat it several times to make sure we heard him correctly and that his point was not somehow lost in translation. This strange exchange did prompt Fin, Whit, Scott and I to do more research, delve deeper in the historical conflict and learn more on our own.

That evening we had a fancier dinner at a modern, open-air restaurant called Por Cuisine and watched a traditional Khmer dance performance.  Beautiful women who can bend their palms and fingers so far back.  We also liked the dance where male performers joined them and they mimicked preying mantises. 

Day 3-am Sunrise at Angkor Wat is all the rage.  However, from experience we know this 6 pack of seasoned travelers are not at their best pre-5 am, so we decided an 8 am pick up to head to the temples was the right choice for all.   We had a fantastic guide who led us through 3 of the hundred, yes hundreds, of temples that make up the complex of Angkor Wat, circa 11th century.  We were able to tour Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon temples.  It was super hot, incredibly massive and awe inspiring.  The kids were troopers, listening to a lot of history and trying to not bump into the throngs of tourists taking inordinate numbers of photos so they could nail the perfect selfie.

kids selling cactus for snacking

These following pics begin Angkor Wat, which is the name for this temple as well as the entire complex.

Vishnu, the protector

Here's us with our thousands of friends visiting that day

Yep, that's us

monk sighting

Teens- looking cool

And then Scott was pronounced King- we are so proud.  He nailed his parade wave instantly

We hiked up these steep steps to get "inside" the temple and for an incredible view.   Lach and Z were not allowed hike up because of age limitations so they stayed down with our guide and Lach lost his 4th tooth since we started this journey.  Leaving teeth all over Asia, that boy. 

Now begins pics from Ta Prohm, the temple made famous by Angelina Jolie's movie Tomb Raider.  We were blown away by the "Spong" trees that have been left to do their thing in, around, below, through and on top of the temples, a living jungle.

Yep, no digital trickery here.  Its for real.

Love this pic of the girl, hope this stays in her memory hard drive.  Lots to take in. 

And now the last temple, different than the others but equally impressive is Bayon.  It was built slightly later, more 12-13th century and exclusively Buddhist from its origin.  Known for its 216 gigantic unique faces on 54 towers. 

So many stories carved in the walls of  all these temples, explaining spiritual tales, war reenactments, and even what the people did in everyday life.  Whit liked seeing the chess match carved in stone,   Here our guide is explaining another legend. 

We wrapped up our day at the Phare Circus, where Cambodian performers use theater, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories, historical folk and modern.  The performers are graduates of a professional arts training school.  This school was founded by a group of Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  They found offering free art and drawing classes to be a  powerful tool for healing.  Now all students attend K-12 education in the arts and vocational training for free.  

Pictures were hard to get and I never wanted to miss the next act fussing with my camera. So cool. 

Siem Reap will be hard to top.