Cambodia here we come! HCM City to Phnom Penh!

Early May 2019

Bright and early our newly formed Intrepid team of 12, plus our Cambodian guide Sareth, met by the steps of our hotel in anticipation of our upcoming adventure. Laden with cases we departed from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to board the public bus bound for our new destination of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Highlights from our trip Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia May 6th 2019

Our trip would include border crossings and the estimated length of travel today was 10 hours! It would take about 2 1/2 hours to the first border crossing. After arrival in Phnom Penh we would check into our hotel then quickly head out for a tuk tuk (Cambodian style) tour of the downtown area.

We entered this next stage of our tour with fresh knowledge as we prepared to cross borders into Cambodia. Sareth, our guide, offered some introductory information to ease our transition into Cambodia.

We learned Khmer is the proper name for a Cambodian person. Generally people here are easy going and laugh a lot. It is rude to touch somebody’s head. 4,000 reil = $1 USA ATM. 54% of the population of this country is below 18 years of age! Wars have really effected family structures here!

Currency in Cambodia also required thought and preparation. Cash is available from ATM machines in Cambodia (as in Vietnam), but the bills you receive are in US dollars. We were advised to only carry small amounts of cash while travelling.

Although Riel is the national currency of Cambodia, usually prices were quoted in US dollars. Change is often returned in Riel though. So it’s to your benefit to learn money conversion values quickly! Also… Be careful about the US bills you bring. We were advised to only bring US $1, $5 and $10 bills. The bills must be crisp, not torn or marked, and newer than 2006. Members of our group did experience refusal at hotels if bills were crumbled or too old!

The 12 members of this tour group included 3 couples from our previous Intrepid tour through Vietnam and 6 new tour partners. The countries/cultures we represented were quite global: 4 Canadians (Nanaimo and Calgary), 4 Australians (Adelaide, and Canberra), 1 from Chile, 2 from New Zealand, 1 from Romania. However… the Romanian lived in Switzerland; a New Zealander lived in Brisbane; and several of us hold dual citizenships. The group was a prime example of what an interwoven global community our world is now.

Day 1 of our Intrepid tour of Cambodia

Here’s my video reflecting our day departing from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam at 7:30 am travelling by public bus, passing through 2 border crossings (no photography permitted at border crossings), then continuing our travels through Cambodia to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

In Vietnam 🇻🇳 there are red and yellow flags displayed everywhere—yellow stars are the national flag of Vietnam, yellow scythes represent communism. Motorcycles are the main source of transportation for families. Vehicles drive on the right side of the road (mainly). Traditional conical straw hats are common. Pagodas are seen occasionally; but unlike Thailand, there are minimal Buddhist Wats or places dedicated to religious study.

Roadside photos reflecting daily life

Crossing into Cambodia… The most immediate differences were: no more red and yellow flags; large billboards of the King; driving is also on the right side of the road (unlike Thailand); increase in cars and trucks; variances between areas of poverty and wealth; and Buddhist Wats and religious temples.

However, in both countries the rivers are fundamentally important to their economy and food production; weather in Early May is extremely hot (32-40 degrees C) and humid; and local men lift up their shirts and expose their bellies to cool off!

Border crossings were hectic with lengthy lines and masses of people. (And this wasn’t high tourist season!). First we needed to complete forms and pass our passports and papers to our guide—who then passed them to another individual. There were some mix ups at the booths, but everything was solved and we progressed through the first border crossing to exit Vietnam. No photographs allowed!

Next we had to walk, following our guide, a fair distance to the Cambodian buildings where we completed more forms and repeated the passport process again to enter Cambodia. I didn’t see any wheelchairs or mobility supports, so I’m not sure how physically challenged people would cope? Thankfully Sareth solved issues when they occurred and we all progressed into Cambodia.

Some members of our group quickly bought new SIM cards for their phones and Cambodian Riel and US dollars, then we were back on the public bus heading to Phonon Penh the capital city of Cambodia. This bustling city of over 16.5 million people has been the national capital since French colonization and is known as the nations industrial, cultural, and economic center.

Tuktuk tour of Phnom Penh led by Sareth

After registering at the Cardamom Hotel, we decided to take the optional Tuktuk tour of the city. $5 US/person lead by our guide Sareth.

The French architecture is stunning and we really enjoyed the delicious sweets Sareth shared. Tourists and locals enjoyed the sights and sounds of the lively evening activities. Entrepreneurs approached us to buy products like: sweet treats, hand fans, clothing, even releasing birds to bring you good luck. Eamonn was approached by children to release a bird and he released it when we were down on the main pier.

Most tuk tuks had barriers on the outside walls where you sit, as protection. We were informed to keep purses and bags hidden and protected as there is a problem with bags being stolen as motorcycles speed past near the tuktuks. Our Tuktuk driver’s son ran over and begged to join his dad as he toured us through the city center. In spite of the broken rear vision mirror and no helmets on our driver or son, it was a fun way to experience the city.

Tuktuk tour of Phnom Penh

This short video reflects our fun and memorable evening activities in Phnom Penh. We saw many highlights including: the Royal Palace (from a distance), Independence Monument, and Norodom Sihanouk Memorial commemorating former King Norodom.

Tomorrow the group views Tuol Sleng genocide museum and the Killing Fields, then the National Museum and Royal Palace (optional), and an optional boat cruise down the Mekong River. Wait until you see what Tyler and Mark eat!!!!

Free day in Ho Chi Minh City — Cambodia next!

May 4th 2019

Today was bitter sweet as we said goodbye to 1/2 of our Vietnam tour group and met 6 new members who would accompany the remaining 3 couples through Cambodia!

While some of our Intrepid group of 12 departed early, others remained until the afternoon and joined us as we explored the Independence/ Reunification Palace, the food market, and the Ben Thanh Market.

Some highlights of our day in Saigon

Jay, our fearless leader, had departed early to immediately lead a new tour. The morning felt strange and disjointed as members departed, yet we were still continuing on this journey through Asia. We had a 6 pm session to meet our new Cambodian guide and 6 new members of our tour group.

After breakfast we headed off to explore the Independence Palace. Our confidence walking and exploring around Vietnam has increased … We know how to safely cross hectic roads and avoid erosion on the sidewalks or oncoming motorcycles on sidewalks. We headed off in a small group.

We encountered some delightful Vietnamese students who enthusiastically practiced some basic conversational English with us. Andy convinced a local vendor to let him try his carrying pole (also called shoulder pole). This traditional method of carrying a load (in baskets) suspended by a yoke of wood or bamboo is more commonly seen used by females.

The Reunification/Independence Palace cost 40,000 VNDong each (About $2.30 CAN) to enter both the palace and the museum. Originally in 1868 a residence was built on this site for the French Governor-General which eventually became known as Norodom Palace.

After the French departed, Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem claimed the palace as his home. Apparently in 1962 the palace was bombed by his own Air Force in an assassination attempt. He had the palace rebuilt but the unpopular leader was killed by his troops in 1963.

The newly constructed building was named The Independence Palace and became home to South Vietnamese President, Nguyen Van Thieu until 1975 when communist tanks crashed through the gates.

Since this historic date, the palace (whether called the Independence Palace or Reunification Palace) was claimed by the Vietnamese communist government. The Palace is now a working government building, but when not in use, it’s also a historical museum.

Here is a video reflection of our final day in Vietnam.

Interesting areas inside the Palace include: Ground floor—meeting rooms, a room with phones which ring by importance; Upstairs—reception rooms. President’s living quarters with model boats, antlers, horse tails, and severed elephant’s feet;

2nd floor—games rooms, bar; Rooftop—cinema with massive projector, rooftop dance floor, helipad. Basement—telecommunications, bomb shelter, tunnels. In an adjacent building we watched historical videos and learned about timelines.

Time to explore the food fair then the famous Ben Thanh market. The choice is vast and extensive in each location. If you want cheap bargains… check out these spots. However, we didn’t stay long because I found the tight enclosed markets and aggressive vendors too much for me. J.J’s market in Bangkok is larger and vendors are much calmer.

Our remaining team of 6 saying goodbye to Anj and Rob

Sadly we said Tam biet to 6 of our tour group … Jess, Selina, Nell, Anne, Anj and Rob today. Tomorrow we depart Vietnam bright and early heading off to Cambodia with our new tour guide Sareth and 6 new team mates.

Cam o’n Vietnam! Thank you for opening our eyes to your amazing country!

Lush Mekong Delta! Tuk Tuks and Sampans to Elephant Ear Fish!

May 3rd 2019

Each day on this Intrepid tour of Vietnam has fulfilled our hopes and was packed with diverse opportunities to experience local activities and customs. Today, on our 9th and final full day together, was no exception!

Starting with a quick tour of Ho Chi Minh City, our main focus was to explore the Mekong Delta (Ben Tre); ride in sampans and tuk tuks; sample regional specialties from the famous river for lunch; and end the day at KOTO restaurant for our group farewell dinner. This blog post includes 3 short videos to reflect this amazing day!!

Our day started bright and early as Jay led us through a shortened version of the Ho Chi Minh city/Saigon tour. In this city of over 8.6 million the roads are hectic and noisy and motorcycles are common anywhere there is an open space!

In spite of this intensity, shear number of vehicles, and questionable safety of many loaded vehicles, we saw very few accidents during our time in this amazing country.

Ho Chi Minh City (also called Saigon by many locals) is the most populated city in Vietnam and has a vibe of development, evolution, commerce and culture.

The city has a complex history and the strong French influence from the past is noted in its architecture and French colonial landmarks, including Notre-Dame Cathedral. This majestic cathedral was constructed of materials imported from France. The gardens were colourful and well manicured, and appreciated by a multitude of birds and toddlers!

The yellow 19th Century Post Office also reflects this French connection. Walk inside to view the beautiful arched ceilings and “step into the past” red phone booths!

Jay presented a famous photo of a helicopter perched on the rooftop of a CIA’s apartment building as Americans evacuated the city on the final day of the American/Vietnamese war. The photo was taken by photojournalist Hugh van Es on April 29th 1975. This building was formerly called the Pittman Apartments. This is not a tourist site, but for further information on this event, here is an interesting blog site.

The building formerly known as the Pittman Apartments is located at 22 Ly Tu Trong St in Saigon’s District 1. https://www.rustycompass.com/blog/visiting-saigons-historic-rooftop-symbol-of-the-end-of-the-vietnam-war-295/#.XU4rnboTGEc

We drove by the Reunification Palace which some of us plan to explore tomorrow on our extra day in Ho Chi Minh City.

Heading out of the city, we boarded a boat for Ben Tre. Ben Tre is the capital city of the province of Ben Tre located in the southwestern part of the Mekong Delta, about 90km west of HCM City and is famous for its coconut products.

The Mekong River is a massive water system fundamentally necessary for the survival of the Vietnamese people. Economic advantage vs environmental vision is always a balancing act.

 

This video reflects Part #1 of our wonderful day exploring Ho Chi Minh City then our trip up the river in the fascinating Mekong Delta.

The low lying boats are close to overflowing with heavily loaded sand from the river bottom. Massive amounts of the silt from the natural base of the river is being excavated and sold. I couldn’t help pondering what effect will this have to the future of the Mekong Delta?

Other vessels are loaded with coconuts or produce from the Delta. Some boats are fishing vessels often accompanied with interesting living quarters on the back. Vessels have eyes painted on the front by their owners. According to legend, the custom of decorating  Vietnamese fishing boats with a pair of eyes is credited to Lac Long Quan, who believed this practice would scare off sea monsters.

Although we didn’t see any floating markets, pagodas, or Buddhist Temples today, we had an amazing adventure touring the coconut gardens and mangrove forests around Ben Tre. Clearly you need more than 1 day to explore this magnificent and abundant ‘rice bowl’ Delta!

Our modes of transportation were tuk tuks on a narrow cement roadway through the villages and coconut plantations, then sampans meandering through mangrove canals.

As we toured through the villages at Ben Tre the importance of coconut trees to these rural villagers’ livelihoods became blatantly evident.

We stopped at various locations to witness hard working locals (mainly women) manipulating palm leaves to create brooms (also used for roofing materials and baskets); utilizing the fibre from coconut husks to create mats and handicrafts; and extracting the water and milk from coconuts to create candy and delicious food products.

This video #2 reflects much of our experience traveling around villages in Ben Tre.

 

Ben Tre is famous for its delicious variety of coconut dishes in addition to specialty fruit, green Xiem coconuts, Mo Cay candy, coconut tree items, and handicrafts. Although many locals live off the land in similar ways to generations proceeding them, there is a growing push to diversify and expand economic options in this area.

I discovered some very informative websites about the Ben Tre economy and exports. I have attached these links particularly the Vietnam Investment Review.

“One of the area’s most famous products is keo dua (coconut candy), a favorite treat of southerners, closely followed by banana candy. The two traditional candies originated in Ben Tre.”

https://www.vir.com.vn/ben-tre-vietnams-coconut-kingdom-59087.html

“Only in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre can you find the Green Xiem coconut. It’s so special that it was recently granted a certificate of Geographical Indication.”

“Some of the province’s unique fruit specialties include milky yellow-fleshed and stoneless durians, green-skinned pomelos, Cai Mon mangosteens, high-yield “Four Season” mangos, and special Mo Cay oranges.”

We tried mangosteens with Jay at a market and rambutans on the boat. Although the exteriors are brightly coloured, the fruit inside is delicious. We also saw durians and pomelos growing on trees during our walks.

http://coconutvietnam.com.vn/news/use-the-8-great-part-of-the-coconut-tree/250.html 

During our excursion in the sampans we meandered through the canals bordered by mangrove and coconut trees. Our group was divided into 3 sampans  (small rowing boats) with a local gently maneuvering us through the water. We all wore the traditional conical hats called non la (leaf hats). They were light and cool as they protected us from another day of 38+ temperatures. Our guide even sang traditional Vietnamese songs as he softly directed our boat, until his cell phone rang!

We stopped at a lovely restaurant/boarding location on the return trip from Ben Tre back to HCM City. At this location we consumed a vast range of foods specific to the Mekong delta area. Possibly the most intriguing menu item was the Elephant Ear Fish which were presented so uniquely they were the focus of many photos.

Fresh coconut water…Bird of Paradise flowers…Delicious local food… Fascinating tours and scenery. I would have loved spending additional time exploring the Mekong Delta area!

During the bus trip back to Ho Chi Minh City, we saw many more motorcycles with unique loads–even one pulling a huge live pig! It was raining and the ponchos were out!

In Vietnam most garbage is burned, but there are roadside vendors recycling nearly anything you could imagine. I have included a few photos of some specialty metal being recycled in these roadside stores.

In video #3 more of Ben Tre is illustrated plus our return trip on the Mekong River, back to Ho Chi Minh City, and our final dinner together as Jay’s “Tiger Team”at KOTO restaurant.

 

Jay shared a heart warming ‘Thank you’ speech on the bus as we returned to Ho Chi Minh City and I responded on behalf of our tour group.

This was a very unique, cohesive, adventurous group of individuals from England, Australia, Canada, and Vietnam. Most of us are still keeping contact with one another. Thank you to each of you for sharing your laughs, stories, photos, energy, and positive attitudes. In addition, Intrepid is extremely lucky to have such a knowledgeable, caring, efficient ambassador of fascinating Vietnam.

KOTO restaurant is run by an organisation dedicated to developing the hospitality careers of disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.

Jay’s final gift to us was a personal clay whistle of our animal sign according to the Chinese New Year. We had fun and made quite a racket attempting to create a melody with them. Thanks Jay! You will always be in our hearts and memories.

The next blog post will include: our sad goodbyes to 6/12 of our tour group, further exploration Ho Chi Minh City, and meeting 6 new tour members and a new guide as we make the transition from Vietnam to Cambodia.

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon– Somber Past and Optimistic Future!

May 2nd 2019

The purpose of today’s adventure on our Intrepid tour was more serious than on previous days. Vietnam is incredibly populated (over 97 million people), for its geographical area. On Sunday, August 4, 2019, the United Nations estimated that Vietnamese population is equivalent to 1.26% of the total world population. https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/vietnam-population/

During our 9 days in Vietnam, we have witnessed hard working, serious people who adapt to their situations and environments and have diverse talents. Each day has been a new adventure on our Intrepid group tour.

Today’s agenda was to depart from Da Nang airport and fly to Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Our tour of the most populated city in Vietnam (over 8.6 million people according to most sources–although 13 million was also quoted?), was postponed due to plane delays and traffic jams. However, we would be expanding our knowledge about Vietnam/American war history at the War Remnants museum and during the Cu Chi Tunnels tour.  This is not my favorite topic…but knowledge brings new understanding.

We departed from our hotel in lovely Hoi An at 5:30 a.m. to drive to Da Nang airport.

I was lucky to gain a window seat as the aerial views during the journey were fascinating and really told a story about the geography, land use, and importance of the mighty rivers between Da Nang (Han River) area

and the (Saigon River) metropolis of Ho Chi Minh city.

The people in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) seemed to have a more entrepreneurial outlook and dressed more western style than Vietnamese locals from the north and central regions. This was evident from the moment we exited the plane at the Ho Chi Minh airport.

Early in our tour we were informed by our tour guide that there are over 45 million scooters/motorcycles in a population of 97 million Vietnamese people. This was clearly evident here!

Foreigners are not permitted to drive in this country. Unlike Thailand and Cambodia, in Vietnam you drive on the right side of the road (like North America)–well at least that’s the plan!

Sidewalks and the opposing traffic lanes are also fair game here. Each day of travelling in the bus was a new experience in terms of eye opening limits. The record for a family transported on one scooter was 10 members! The loads and items we observed being transported, never ceased to entertain and shock me!

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) had a strong French influence in the past and is known for its French colonial landmarks, including Notre-Dame Cathedral, made entirely of materials imported from France, and the 19th-century Central Post Office. Photos of French architecture will be displayed on the next blog post as we saw these buildings on our city tour tomorrow.

Meanwhile… The next stop today was the War Remnants Museum (formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes). The brutality of war expressed in a new and different point of view with graphic photos and artifacts was deeply disturbing.

After viewing the effects of Agent Orange and meeting survivors, I was too horrified to see further displays. This museum was a strong reminder why we must communicate, compromise, respect one another and avoid war!

This short video mainly shows war vehicles and paraphernalia displayed around the exterior grounds of the museum … I did not wish to share visually disturbing images.

After checking into our new hotel –Hoang Phu Gia Hotel on Bui Thi Xuan St, 7 members of our group were off again to experience more Vietnamese war history and view the Cu Chi Tunnels. I enjoyed the scenery as we drove past rubber tree plantations and different rural landscapes 47 km north west of Ho Chi Minh City.

The Cu Chi Tunnels, are located about 1 and one-half hours away. They are part of a 250 km maze of connecting tunnels and chambers below the city.

These famous tunnels took over 25 years to construct and were started in the late 1940’s. We were informed the tunnel network was utilized successfully by Viet Cong (VC) to control a large rural area during the “American” war.

There are 2 main areas of Cu Chi Tunnels which are open to public viewing–Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. Our tour guide took us to the Ben Dinh site.

Here is a video of this frightening historical reality.

Introductory maps showing the locations and the layers of tunnels. Some were several stories deep and included living quarters and field hospitals in addition to multiple traps. It’s truly unbelievable to fathom this scary existence forced necessary to survival during these extreme war circumstances.

The Ben Dinh site included: a section which illustrated types of death traps for people; tiny underground hiding holes; an actual 50 m long section of original tunnel; as well as outdoor displays; a gift shop and an area where a man sold sandals made from recycled tires; and an optional activity where you could pay to operate and fire machine guns!

The bursts of fire exploding from this “activity” resonated throughout the wooded trails making this experience feel even more real and unsettling! None of our group chose to partake in this option!

Out of the 7 of us on this tour, no women selected to try fitting into the tiny underground hiding holes or crawling along the actual underground tunnel passages. These tunnels are the original size. The other location at Ben Duoc has enlarged their tunnels for tourist access.

Although the GIF showing the underground hiding area might seem amusing, one man on our tour closed the camouflaged cover over his head longer than others were comfortable with, and required assistance to be pulled out of the tiny opening. What horrifying conditions must have existed to precipitate humans to hide in these holes!

All three men on our tour also selected to crawl through the entire 50m section of actual Chu Chi tunnels. They all entered the tunnel with smiles and waves, but re-emerged moving a bit more slowly!

Imagine living and moving underground this way for extended periods of time!

Today was a day of pushing my comfort zone levels and learning about the atrocities of war. Tomorrow I’m so thrilled to be touring Ho Chi Minh city and exploring the lush Mekong Delta!

Alluring Hoi An! Dragon Boating Vietnamese style! Boat/Cycle Tours. Shopping. Cooking lessons. Rice wine!

April 30th/May 1st 2019

Hoi An, a city located in central Vietnam, is a thriving hot spot of adventure, shopping, history and markets. We had a free day on our tour today and we all chose to maximize our time between tailor fittings, optional extra tours, and night life/markets .

In addition to the usual draw of tourists to this tantalizing city, we were lucky enough to experience an influx of Vietnamese due to a national holiday! As a previous Dragon Boat competitor, I was thrilled when we even discovered a dragon boat competition–Vietnamese style– during our bike tour! The video of this high energy event is located later in this blog post!

On April 30th, 1975 this national holiday, called Reunification Day by our local guides, was born.  This date has varying names in other geographical areas from Liberation Day to the Fall of Saigon. After researching, I discovered on this date “Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, forcing South Vietnam to surrender and bringing an end to the Vietnam War”. nytimes.com “The country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam the following year” history.com

Our entire “Tiger Team”chose to participate in the optional half day boat/bike Discovery tour around the island of Cam Kim. Cost CA $47.00/person. I am not able to peddle bicycles due to a chronic knee condition, but gratefully was accommodated as a passenger on the safety motorcycle which followed the group.

Our adventure started at Hoi An Cycling where our group of 12 were fitted with helmets and bikes for the day; met our vivacious leader and tech support men; and reviewed basic safety rules for this outing. Next we were off to the boat launch area! The bikes were loaded and the vessel headed off to Cam Kim Island.

During our short boat trip we passed multiple types of eyed water craft. We witnessed Vietnamese fishing techniques and enjoyed the sights of cattle grazing along the banks.

Upon arrival at Cam Kim Island the bicycles were unpacked and the 15 + km adventure commenced! The group cycled past rice paddies, sugar cane fields, cow pastures, reed fields, rivers, and numerous home businesses. An unexpected result of exploring during the national Reunification holiday was that we even witnessed a local Vietnamese dragon boat competition!

 

Here is a video depicting our amazing views and experiences during the first half of our boat/bike tour.

After rice is harvested, it is dried and sorted on the roads! Rice is the seed of the grass species Oryza Sativa (Asian rice). When rice is harvested it is called “paddy”.

Sometimes the rice is spread on top of tarps and sometimes it sits directly on asphalt or cement roads. It was a common sight to see locals out in the ferocious heat spreading the grain and kernels around as they dried.

After passing over a small bridge we were thrilled to discover multiple long boats full of men in the river; crowds of exuberant locals sitting on the river banks; and motorcycles lining both sides of the road. My motorcycle driver yelled “Racing Day!”

I nearly jumped off the motorcycle in excitement! We convinced the tour guide to stop here for an unscheduled break so we could share this dynamic experience!

Many locals wear decorative masks over their noses/mouths as protection against air pollution–especially when riding motorcycles. Observe the woman in the 1/2 sphere boat. These boats are common with locals as a previous king taxed boats based on their length. So Vietnamese responded with these round vessels!

Here is a video representation of our local Vietnamese Dragon boating experience! Such fun!

 

After resuming our journey we passed more fields then small man made ponds with interesting aeration systems. The tour guide informed me these were prawn farms. There are so many innovative and practical ways to utilize and maximize harvest potential here. More huge drop nets were evident near water edges. My guide said the nets are dropped around sunset and lifted before sunrise.

The next stop on our day’s experience of rural Vietnam was a rice wine distillery.  The distillery and adjacent home were owned by an elderly ex soldier who proudly displayed photos and sang songs about Ho Chi-Minh. This positive man lost his foot as a result of a land mine explosion during previous war periods in Vietnam, but has adapted to a small prosthetic foot. He greeted us with smiles and welcomed us to his home.

The connection between pigs and rice wine is substantial. The manure from the pig and piglets is used as fuel (as well as rice husks) to heat the boilers. The left over rice product not used in the rice wine is fed to the pigs. Win. Win. There are different levels of rice wine. We sampled the “typical” rice wine. It’s strong! Only a few dared to try the rice wine which was fermented with cobras, poisonous snakes, scorpions, or giant centipedes. The question is…did they suddenly become more manly and virile?

Reeds were thickly growing in many locations around the island. We observed people hacking them down with curved machetes while others sorted them into piles. We even observed piles of reeds dyed in various colours–yellow, red, green (natural), purple. Reeds were used to create colourful sleeping mats. Prior to arriving at the home of the couple who created sleeping mats we passed more very unique modes of transport…

We had the opportunity to observe the mat weaving process and try adding a few rows! The couple who introduced us to this traditional craft work together for nearly 10 hours a day to create about 4 mats/day.

I’m afraid our group would starve if we were dependent on mat production to feed our families–as we were painfully slow! It was fun attempting this type of weaving, but I would imagine your back would ache doing this endlessly!

Next stop was lunch at a family home/store. We learned how to make wraps created from rice into a type of appetizer.

Add to that real coconut water and traditional Cao Lao noodle soup.

We also learned about Vietnamese celebrations including lanterns, decorations, and symbolic burning fake US dollars. There was a small residence at the back of the rice wraps/noodles area and small store at the front. A lady (grandma?) and 2 children were sitting on the floor in the back area. There was also 1 bed and a tiny bathroom with a squat toilet which they allowed me to use during the visit. Everyone has been so welcoming to us.

Our 5 hour tour around Cam Kim island was drawing to a close as we returned to the boat launch site for our homeward trip.

This is a video representation of the second half of our wonderful experience and events from the rest of our packed day! I would highly recommend this Discovery tour.

We had tailors to visit in Hoi An prior to our next extra excursion which was a cooking class at the Green Mango! Cost for the 3 hour group cooking session was $92 CAN/person. Our Intrepid tour guide presented us with a list of suggestions of where to shop if we were interested in any of the following: custom tailoring, shoe-making/leather, silver, optometrists, etc.

Mark decided to get some fancy new frames and prescription sunglasses at Optic Au Viet Glasses. For 2,200,000 Dong $129.00 CAN the owner had his new glasses made to his specifications and delivered personally to our hotel within about 24 hours.

Although there are literally hundreds of tailors in Hoi An city,  most of our tour group decided to get some clothing custom designed from one of the two tailors Jay recommended. We stopped in to check out both locations. Yaly was upscale and quite famous. They also had the best selection of styles and fabrics. Sisters Tailor was family run with a very good reputation.

Mark and I decided to support the smaller company and selected Sisters Tailor. We were carefully measured then we selected our designs and fabrics. We had 4 items custom tailored for 7,820,000 Dong which was $461.00 CAN for 2 custom designed dresses, a fully lined sports jacket, and a men’s dress shirt.

By our second fitting the items were nearly perfect for us. Everything was delivered to our hotel on the second evening. Overall…Our group had more success with Sisters Tailors as multiple extra fittings were required before the clothing from Yaly fit properly.

Now we were off to the Green Mango for our evening cooking lesson and concluding meal. The chef was delightful and so vivacious. We all wore black aprons and chef hats.

Although it was interesting to learn how to cook new Vietnamese dishes and fun to bond with our group in another setting, I preferred the cooking lesson we experienced in Chiang Mai when we each had our own station rather than standing around watching most of the time. Plus $92 CAN/person seemed a bit pricey for this activity.

As we headed back to our hotel the streets and markets were bustling with activity and energy. The lanterns strung above our heads truly made the place feel so magical. The sound of drumming and chanting caught our attention and drew us toward an active area where people were sitting up in a type of tree house playing a Vietnamese game.

We watched and were enticed to try playing the next game. It was like Vietnamese Bingo! You paid a small amount of Dong to buy a wooden stick with 3 designs on it.

As the lady started chanting, a man walked around showing a wooden paddle with a design on it. If you had that matching design you were passed a small yellow flag. The first people to obtain 3 yellow flags won that round. It was fun! We were so close!

Another full and exciting day in Vietnam! Tomorrow we fly to Hoi Chi Minh City!

 

 

Hue to Hoi An–Vietnamese Shopping Central!

April 30th 2019 Vietnam!

Today was mainly a day of travel through gorgeous rice paddies and windy mountain roads with spectacular ocean views through Hai Van Pass. Then we had lunch in the tourist center of Lang Co Beach eventually arriving in the shopping hub of Hoi An–home of Old Town attractions, lanterns, and a plethora of tailors!

Tiger Team departed from our Hue hotel about 8:00 a.m. destined to spend the next 2 nights in the shopping mecca of Hoi An.

Initially we passed beautiful countryside of rice paddies until we reached our morning tea break location.

What fascinated me at this location was the oyster farms behind the shop. I observed men filling their simplistic wooden boats with old tires then wading through the water setting up floats and checking oyster lines.

After our morning coffee, we continued upward through the spectacular scenery of the Hai Van Pass. The windy highway was narrow and scenic displaying tropical flora and rugged ocean views.

Here is a video depicting some highlights from our trip from Hue to Hoi An.

At the summit there are some historical bunkers. They were built by the French in 1826 to protect this strategic pass. Control of the bunkers was later held by the US Army.  I located information indicating the Vietnamese People’s Army also used this ramp to shell Da Nang. We passed a look out where we observed a train on one side of the highway and a gorgeous view of Lang Co Beach on the opposite side.

As we approached the tourist beach location, we noticed some interesting new ocean equipment/apparatus. There were enormous nets supported by poles which were dropped into the water at sunset and lifted at sunrise. Round 1/2 sphere boats lined areas on the beaches. This tourist area was very different than any other location we had previously seen in Vietnam…beach volleyball nets, parasailing, beach chairs? We were informed that Lang Co Beach is a very popular vacation destination for Chinese tourists.

Next stop …Thuy Duong 3 Hotel in Hoi An.

Hoi An is a World Heritage Site city of appropriately 152,000 people located on Vietnam’s central coast. Hoi An is known for its well-preserved Ancient Town, cut through with canals and excellent shopping–particularly tailoring, shoe-making, leather, silver-making, and optometrists services.

Hoi An was historically a thriving trading base port city. The architecture is diverse mixing eras and styles “from wooden Chinese shophouses and temples to colorful French colonial buildings, ornate Vietnamese tube houses and the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge with its pagoda.” Wikipedia

After unpacking, we headed out with Jay for a fascinating sightseeing tour through the Old Town of Hoi An visiting some of the city’s major attractions. Here is a video reflecting some of the attractions we experienced.

We viewed the historic Japanese covered bridge which dates back to the 18th century and is depicted on the Vietnamese Dong , and explored multiple lantern clad historic streets. This truly is a fun and fascinating city–especially during Vietnamese Re-unification National Holiday period.

We visited an interesting historical home/museum where a family member had been a high official of the communist party under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership.

We had a lovely group dinner at Lantern Town Restaurant observing the beauty of the canals and lanterns. Gin and Tonic is the preferred drink by our English members, so I tried one tonight! After dinner, Jay surprised us by shouting for us all to participate in a special Vietnamese lantern ceremony.

It was an extremely touching and moving experience. We each got to light a candle and place a red paper lantern in the canal.

The paper lanterns carry ‘wishes’ and this ceremony usually marks the Buddhist Vesak festival in Vietnam. Unfortunately, it was a windy night and a few lanterns overturned. But the experience was surreal and deeply moving.

Instead of returning to the hotel, many of us detoured to explore the night markets or get fittings from the multitude of tailors in this city. The skies opened up and there was a tropical rainstorm! The night market street flooded. Entrepreneurs ran around selling plastic rain ponchos. Mark and I waited out the downpour in a clothing shop with a merchant and her children.

It was another full and fascinating day in Vietnam!

 

Exploring Hue, Central Vietnam by motorbike and dragon boat!

April 29th 2019

Here’s to another spectacular day of sightseeing and exploring Hue, central Vietnam, care of Intrepid tours! We progressed from adventure to adventure throughout the Hue area on the back of a 125 cc motorcycle driven by a local guide.

Some of the highlights included: 18th century covered bridge, local markets, 17th century active Buddhist monastery of Thien Mu Pagoda, a dragon boat cruise down the Perfume River, lunch at a nunnery, the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, and a dinner together in the home of a local Vietnamese family who were close friends of our guide.

All these experiences were magnified by the fact we had been lucky enough to be in Vietnam during their Re-unification National Holiday! Let the adventure unfold…

After admiring the view of Hue “Hway ” from our hotel window in the early morning, we met our “Tiger Team” in the lobby of the Gold I Hotel 28 Ba Trieu St . Just at the base of the staircase, we met our local motorcycle drivers for our day of adventure!

Yesterday was Cyclos… Today we had more speed on our whooping 125cc motorcycles! Before we commenced, Jay led us through a safety lesson 😉. As the day progressed, I discovered my driver spoke some English… “Hello” and “quack quack” (each time we passed duck farms!) I practiced my survival Vietnamese, “Xin chao” (Hello) and “Cam on” (thank you). We mutually recited “quack quack” whenever we passed flocks of ducks!

After a quick tour through Hue a city of over 455,000, we were off heading towards Thanh Toan.

Hue is in central Vietnam and was the national capital from 1802–1945. It’s history includes the Nguyen Dynasty Emperors. A major attraction from this era is the 19th Century Dai Noi Citadel (built between 1804–1833) which was heavily fortified including a moat and 2m thick stone walls. Inside the Citadel is the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Imperial city with palaces, shrines, and memories of a past existence and royal history in spite of extensive damage due to several horrific wars.

Here is a video showing highlights of our day exploring Hue on the backs of 12 motorcycles!

We took our first stretch break by the rice fields and duck ponds dodging a tractor which happened to cross the narrow back road as we were chatting together. We continued on our adventure to Thanh Toan where many local Vietnamese were visiting the 18th century famous bridge, the market, and the neighboring village.

Thanh Toan Bridge is situated at Thuy Thanh commune, Huong Thuy district. It is 8km east of Hue. We enjoyed observing fishing boats, lanterns and decorations, and the Vietnamese version of BINGO which was very upbeat and energetic with its chanting and drumming excitement. The market was fairly small.. but very diverse and traditional..

People dressed in traditional clothing were being photographed beside the famous covered bridge.

The bridge was built in the time of Emperor Le Hien Tong from the mid 18th century. Tran Thi Dao, the wife of one of the emperor’s high ranking courtiers, who grew up in the area, provided the money to build it. The tiled roof makes it quite unique for its age and it spans an irrigation channel.

Although this site was included in our tour the entrance fee is normally 30,000 Vietnamese Dong/person.

Our next stop was the Buddhist monastery of Thien Mu Pagoda. 4 km southwest of the Citadel on a hill overlooking the Perfume (Huong) River you can locate this Pagoda.

Thien Mu Pagoda was constructed in 1844 under the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri and is known for its unique 21m high octagonal tower. It is also renowned as the location which houses the car of a former monk who drove to Saigon in 1963 to set himself alight to protest the poor treatment of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese regime. 

As you can tell from the slow movements of the people and the multiple sun umbrellas and hand fans in the video, the temperature was oppressive–hitting nearly 40 degrees while we were walking around the grounds.

Happily, our next adventure was a dragon boat cruise down the Perfume River before eating a vegetarian lunch at a nunnery.

As a previous member of a dragon boating team in Canada….this was a fun excursion (although we weren’t paddling and getting soaked in the process!). There were merchants on board promoting the sale of intricate pop up cards, wooden toothpick bookmarks, and other souvenirs.

Time for a break from the sun while eating a delicious vegetarian lunch at the Nunnery.

Back on the motorcycles for our final destination of this tour–the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc located 5 km south of Hue. This elaborate, beautiful and expansive tomb was constructed between 1864–1867 and designed by the benefactor himself.

Tu Duc is the longest-reigning Nguyen Emperor on record. Although he had over a hundred wives and concubines, he was unable to father a son (some information indicates it is possible he became sterile after contracting smallpox).

This mausoleum also known as Khiêm Tomb, was built with the intention that Emperor Tu Duc would use it both before and after his death.

In addition to the extravagance of his mausoleum, the Emperor is remembered because he demanded forced labor during its construction.

It’s so disheartening and surreal seeing bullet holes and damage from bombs intertwined with such magnetic detail and artistic beauty.

Back on the motorcycles…It’s time to return to Hue and air conditioning in our Hotel!

Tonight we have another special event planned…Our amazing guide, Jay, has organized an authentic home visit with a family in the Hue area. We all assisted with money to buy the groceries and the family will be cooking an authentic Vietnamese dinner hosted in their own home.

Here is a short video of our host family and our lovely meal sharing and learning about different cultures.

We are all so grateful for this wonderful experience. Another full and amazing day! I loved Hue! Tomorrow we travel through mountains and beaches to our next destination Hoi An, Central Vietnam.