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The Adventure Begins

Toronto to Taipei - first of 2 flights today

semi-overcast 29 °C

Our flight left YYZ on time at 12:50 AM on Friday on a nice Boeing 777W with EVA Air which is based out of Taiwan and off we headed for Taipei. Any flight that is just over 15 hours at one sitting is a true test for mind and body. David in his usual fashion slept like a baby for the first 7-8 hours of the trip and the rest of us (Hazel, Sue and Roy) tried to while away the time in addition to getting in a bit shut eye. Roy added a bit of excitement for the crew when he had a pretty significant nosebleed. We finally landed at Taipei airport around 5:20 am local time Saturday or 6:20 pm Friday home time.

We then had a wait of about 3.5 hours before we boarded our 3.5 hour flight to Bangkok again on Eva. This was our plane as it was being loaded for that flight.

Eva Air

Eva Air

Taipei airport is massive and nicely laid out with very pleasant departure lounges. Each lounge is decorated with a different theme. One is a water lily garden, another is a "Hello Kitty" display.

Hello Kitty departure lounge

Hello Kitty departure lounge

The retail space is dominated by electronics shops selling all manner of smart phones and tablets and shops selling an amazing variety of very expensive ladies purses.

We finally arrived in Bankok at noon after a 3 1/2 hour flight. Again we found a large modern airport with good facilities. The one notable feature of this airport was the long lines for passport control. It was handled well but the huge volume of people meant that we ended up waiting 45 minutes in lines to clear immigration. Once we got through and collected our luggage we quickly found the van we had arranged with the hotel and off we headed for downtown Bankok and our hotel, the Pantip suites.

The Pantip Suites Hotel is large and the suites are massive with a large kitchenette and eating area and a living room almost as big as our one at home.

Main Sitting room looking towards the balcony

Main Sitting room looking towards the balcony

Bedroom at the Pantip Suites

Bedroom at the Pantip Suites

and it has a very large balcony at one end overlooking our part of this city of 10 million souls. Below we can see the pool.

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Pantip Pool

and the view from our balcony
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The only negative side is that the hotel is probably 20-30 years old so everything is a bit on the tired side. We selected the Pantip as that is where our tour group will be meeting when they convene in several days before setting off to Vietnam.

Our restaurant in the hotel has particularly good breakfast and lunch and buffets with both Asian and Western food.

We headed for bed about 7pm that night getting ready to rise at dawn for our first city tour. Since this was our first day and we still adjusting to a 12 hour time change we elected a half day tour that we arranged via the internet from Toronto.

Stay tuned for the next blog about our 3 days of touring Bangkok before being joined by the rest of our group.

Posted by DavidandHazel 06:34 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Bangkok Touring

The most congested city we have ever been to

sunny 28 °C

Bangkok is the capital of Thailand (formerly Siam) and its largest city with a population of between 10 and 15 million depending on who you talk to. Because of its location in the delta of the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings), it is very water oriented with many canals running large distances off the river and through the city. Being a delta the land is also very flat with very little elevation and so is prone to flooding - there was a very big one last year which we saw the disasterous results of.

We decided to start our exploration of the city gently and booked a "Grand Palace and River of Kings Canal Cruise". The Grand Palace complex was established in 1782 and consists of the royal residence and throne halls, a number of gevernment offices and numerous temples including the renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Keow. It is a huge complex covering an area of 218,000 square meters. Here is a map of the complex.

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Grand Palace Complex

Here are the 4 of us in front of the Grand Palace.
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Hazel, Sue, Roy and Dave

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Rama IX, a much beloved and revered monarch who has ruled since 1946. He is the world's longest serving head of state having taken over the throne when he was only 18. Pictures of the King and Queen are very prominent in many locations in the country. Officially the king of Thailand is titled Head of State, Head of the Armed Forces, the Upholder of the Buddhist religion, and the Defender of all Faiths. The Buddhist religion is woven into every facet of life in Thailand and most homes and public areas have one form of shrine or another. Even our hotel has a 20 foot square shrine in the main parking area in front of the hotel.

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90 to 95 % of the population are Buddhist. Thailand's holiest religious statue is the famed Emerald Buddha which is located in the Wat Phra Keow temple located in the Grand Palace Complex - so as to be close to the royal residence. Here is a picture of the Emerald Buddha which we found surprisingly small although the building it is housed in is very substantial and very elabourately decorated inside and out.

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Emerald Buddha in the Wat Phra Keow

The Buddha is mistakingly referred to emerald - actually it is carved from jade. It is dressed in gold garments which change 3 times a year with the seasons.

Many other items of interest included:
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Statue of a Giant

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Model of Angor Wat in Cambodia which we will be visiting much later in our trip

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Temple of the Emerald Buddha

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Other view of Temple of the Emerald Buddha

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Hall of the Elephants

This building is interesting as it was built in the European style. There was much criticism of the style so they simply put a roof on that was more to the eastern style. The front courtyard used to be the place where they kept the elephants. When the elephants were moved elsewhere they put 2 statues of elephabts on each side of the large front steps.

We left the Grand Palace and headed over to Wat Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha by tuk tuk.

Here is Roy getting into the tuk tuk
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and David following him
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The Reclining Buddha is the largest buddha in Bangkok. We guessed that it was about 100 feet long and about 20 feet high. Here is its head:

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Recling Buddha

This is the view looking towards the Buddha's feet
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and looking back up from the feet (note the "toe prints" on the bottom of his toes.
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The bottom of his feet have very intricate decorations (all with specific meanings) made from mother-of-pearl.
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This complex of Wat Pho has exquisite detail on the exterior of the buildings

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This was the centre of learning and medicine. Here are some diagrams on the walls related to traditional Thai massage and medicine

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Diagrams used to teach traditional Thai mecidine

We then visited another temple with another spectacularly decorated Buddha

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We then walked down towards the river through a market with raised walkways.

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Bangkok Market

We boarded a long tailed boat

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Long tailed boat

which had a pretty spectacularly large engine

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and headed out into the fairly choppy river and then into a whole series of canals to see how the people lived on the river. These people are very poor and live in very basic housing. Note the raised concrete walkways along the canals - we were to bicycle along some of them the next day. They had a big flood last year and many of these "houses" were flooded with the water rising well above the walkways. Here are some canal scenes:

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Even here, in the middle of this very poor section we came across another beautiful temple.

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During our boat ride we stopped to purchase some bread from a local buddhist monk to feed the catfish in the canal. This is believed to make the catfish happy and bring good luck. Tossing in bread caused quite a feeding frenzy.

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This blog is getting lengthly so we will stop it for now and continue with our next 2 days in Bangkok and area in the next blog post.

Posted by DavidandHazel 01:26 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Days 2 & 3 in Bangkok

30 °C

On Monday we headed out on an all day tour so the tour company kindly picked us up right at our hotel. We found only one other couple on the van so the 6 of us happily headed off into the Bangkok traffic which is chaotic at best. There are more motor bikes than cars in Bangkok - many ridden by women in little tight skirts and 3 inch heels! Many of the scooters and motorbikes are "step thru" style which make the skirt part do-able. Many of the helmets have a u-shaped opening in the back for the ever-present long ponytails. Massively overloaded bikes and pick-ups were common:

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We headed about 100 km south west of Bangkok to the Damnoen Saduak floating market. These markets are unique in that the vendors sit in heavily loaded boats in the canals and sell to people walking by in market structures on the shore. The structures also have vendors who are land based. We were told that you are expected to bargain unless you are in an area clearly marked for no bargaining with price tags and bar codes. You should expect to pay less than half of the initial asked price and if you can add a little humour to the process you will do better. The down-side of the day was that shortly after we left Bangkok it started to rain. The closer we came to our destination, the harder the rain came down. When we got to the market there were very few vendors and the scene looked like this:

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As the morning wore on several more vendors appeared.

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Vendors sold all manner of produce as in the shot above, and also cooked and sold food as in the scene below

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Traffic on the canals was just as chaotic and congested as on the roads with the sturdy little boats the vendors used along with the big engined long-tail boats we used to get to the market area. People drive cars and boats here the way other people walk. No one has the right of way - the first person there just continues on and the rest just work around. Since no one has the right of way, there is not "road rage" - just an alert attention about where you can move next. (We will try to get some videos into later blogs - so far internet connections haven't permitted uploading videos.)

From the market we boarded our van and headed to the River Kwai area. On the way we stopped at an area where local craftsmen did the most amazing carving. The picture below shows a tree trunk which 2 men had spent years carving and still had more to go.

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We visited the JEATH War Museum (Japan, England, Austailia/America, Thailand, Holland) and learned some very touching and sad information about the war in the Pacific region. This is a vivid and tragic reminder of man's inhumanity to man.

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We stopped at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetary where hundreds of British, Australian and Dutch soldiers were buried.

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We then boarded our bus and headed on to our final destination -

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The Bridge over the River Kwai

This bridge had been rebuilt after being bombed and has turned into quite a tourist attraction and was a most interesting place to visit. Now we want to see the movie again!

We returned home through the chaotic traffic to have dinner at a local restaurant and get ready for our next day's adventure - a bicycle tour of Bangkok.

We ordered a taxi the next morning for 7:45 - plenty of time to get us to our starting location at 9:30. It was only a 20 minute drive but Bangkok on a weekday morning has more traffic than you can imagine. When the taxi had not arrived by 8:30 we started to get concerned and decided to walk down to a more major road. We couldn' get a taxi for love nor money - every one was filled. Finally at about 9am a local asked us if we wanted a taxi and after a little fruitless bargaining he agreed to take us off the meter in his taxi for 300 bahts - over 3 times the price we had paid to go to the same place two days before - but we were over a barrell (and 300 bahts is just over $10) so off we went to arrive right on time.

Our guide was a super young man named Jackie Chan (yup you heard right!). He walked us over to the bicycle shop about 10 minutes away and fitted us out with bicycles and helmets.

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Sue, Roy, Hazel and Jackie at the start of the ride.

We crossed the river to the old side of Bangkok, passed another beautiful shrine

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and started along many smaller but congested streets until we turned onto the paved walkways along the canals.

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This is some of the housing along the canals. You can see the water line on the houses from the flood last year which devastated this area.

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Amidst all this poverty where a significant portion of the population lives in a one room tin-roofed shack, we came upon a scene of real beauty - a lotus in full bloom.

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Lotus plant

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Lotus Blossom

We stopped for a break and watched the river traffic

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while we again fed the catfish to make them happy and give us good luck.

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Feeding the catfish

We stopped to explore another beautiful Wat (temple)

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before heading onto a ferry to cross back to the newer side of Bangkok and return our bikes some 4 hours later. We were very tired and hot but quite proud of ourselves for surviving one of our more exciting escapades.

We were now ready to return to our hotel and start looking for the other members of our group who were due to join us in readiness for our flight to Hanoi the next day.

Posted by DavidandHazel 06:17 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Hanoi

The start of our OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) Tour

sunny 31 °C

After breakfast at our hotel, we gathered in the lobby. The group boarded 3 vans heading for the Bangkok Airport. After clearing customs and security we boarded our 2 hour Air Vietnam flight to Hanoi where we boarded our tour bus. Here is the group in the bus.
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We were amazed at the traffic in Hanoi with all manner of things being transported by motor scooter.

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and arrived at the lovely May de Ville hotel. Here is the Hanoi skyline from our hotel.
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Hanoi is the capital and second largest city with a population of 6 million in the greater metropolitan area. 50% of Vietnam’s population is under 30 so the people are young and appear very lean and healthy. There are considerably more motorbikes, motor scooters and bicycles than cars. There are at least as many women as men on the road. We saw many, many of the people, particularly the women, wearing face masks supposedly for the dust and pollution. However our tour guide told us that now a big part of the reason is to protect their faces from the very powerful UV rays of the sun. The fashion here is to try and stay as white as possible and not develop more tan or get weather beaten skin. Many of the scooter riders also wore various forms of helmets, none of them very substantial. You have to look long and hard to find any motorbike or scooter over 150 cc. This is because fuel although priced about the same or even a little less that in Canada is very expensive given the very low wages of the average citizen. Many many city people are working for less than $10 a day and in the rural areas it is less than that. Although Vietnam has several large cities the vast majority of the population is involved in small farming operations of one sort or another.

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We went on an orientation walk with our tour leader, Lee Trien and then gathered for a dinner at a local restaurant. The food is delicious with many small courses. There are often 2 or 3 appetizers followed by a main course which is always signaled by the arrival of a large bowl of steamed rice. You frequently will have both a meat and a fish main course along with a vegetable dish. This is all followed by desert. They serve bottled water with every meal. Alcoholic beverages are available as well. The local beer is quite good.

The next day we drove through the beautiful French Quarter to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

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Hazel and Dave in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Visiting “Uncle Ho” as the people fondly refer to him, was quite an experience. The security was very tight and we were not permitted to even carry a camera into the mausoleum. We had to dress appropriately, of course, with our knees and shoulders covered and with no hats or sunglasses. We had to walk in two lines with our hands by our sides and once inside were not permitted to talk. There were soldiers every hundred feet or so all along the walk and at every corner of every staircase in the building. We all walked slowly up and around the stairs and into the main viewing room. Ho Chi Minh lies in a glass encased coffin with 4 soldiers posted around him. Everything is very quiet and respectful.

Once outside we walked all around the magnificent square and visited two small houses that Ho Chi Minh lived in and saw the building in which he worked.

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Ho Chi Minh’s first house

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The more traditional one he moved to several years later.

We left the square and walked past the Ho Chi Minh Museum

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Ho Chi Minh Museum

We walked over to the Temple of Literature which is dedicated to Confucius and hosts the “Imperial Academy”, Vietnam’s first national university. Now is a time of graduation and we ran into a group of newly graduated medical students who were delighted to pose with an American Doctor – our own Dr. Bob.
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Dr. Bob with newly graduated medical students

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Confucius temple

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Golden Turtle in the temple – a symbol of good luck.

On our way to lunch we drove past the lake where John McCain was shot down in 1967 during the “American War”.
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John McCain Memorial

Several of the streets in Hanoi are built on the top of dikes. Typical of the architecture of this region are the tall, narrow buildings which frequently have no windows on the sides.
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Typical Vietnamese Building

After another wonderful multi-course lunch we headed to the Museum of Ethnology to learn about the cultural history of some of the Vietnamese peoples. We saw reproductions of 2 fascinating types of housing.

This long house
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Would have been occupied by a family headed by a matriarch. The family lived and ate in the first part of the house. As each daughter married an addition was built onto the end of the house – so this house would have been for a family with several married daughters.

The tall house
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Is typical of a communal house of the mountain people. It was built on stilts not to avoid flooding but to protect against insects and animals.

That evening we gathered at a local restaurant for another great dinner and our Guide, Lee, surprised Dave with a gorgeous birthday cake. Having all of our passport information they know our birthdates and it is an OAT custom to celebrate the birthdays of travelers.

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Lee must have told our hotel about the birthday because when we returned the hotel management had left this lovely flower arrangement for him.
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The next morning we were up and out for a tour of the Tho Ha countryside 20 miles north of Hanoi. On the way we stopped to explore a cemetary.
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We stopped at a local market.
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One of the vendors showed us how they chew the Betel nut.
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We sampled Dragon fruit
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Here are some more market scenes

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Selling meat

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Selling fish

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Selling veggies

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Mom and child at the market

We continued on our way, left the bus and boarded this little ferry
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This was our ferry driver crossing the Nhu Nguyet River to the town of Tho Ha.
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Ferry driver

Tho Ha is an interesting little town. Years ago it used to produce small ceramic caskets to hold the bones of people who had passed away. The tradition was that the dead were buried for a few years, then family members would dig them up and clean the bones and bury those bones in a much smaller ceramic casket which would then be placed in a cemetary. At one point they lost the contract to produce those ceramic caskets - so the town switched industries and started to produce rice paper. This is rice paper used for cooking and eating, not paper to write on. There were many, many of those caskets remaining so the ingenious people used them as building materials. Here is a wall made of those old caskets.

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Ceramic caskets

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Wall of a house made of old ceramic caskets.

People in the town also make rice flat bread. It is made like a crepe on a hot griddle

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Man making rice flat bread

It is them toasted over hot coals
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Woman toasting rice flat bread

until it finally puffs up and looks like this:
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Lee with rice flat bread

Most of the rice paper is made in long strips by a machine and fastened onto bamboo racks to dry. Every street and alleyway in the town had rows and rows of these rice paper racks.

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Rice paper on drying racks

We visited a family who did not have a machine and made rice paper in the traditional way - much the same way the rice flat bread was made like a crepe on a hot stone. Here is Sue making rice paper at their home

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Sue making rice paper

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Rice paper drying in the courtyard of the house of our host.

We then sat in the main living area with our host to ask questions and learn about daily life in his village.

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Main living room of the house in Tho Ha

As it turned out, our host was a musician and he agreed to play several of the instruments for us and sing some traditional Vietnamese songs. Can you imagine our surprise when we recognized "You Are My Sunshine" ? We all promptlhy chimed in and sang along.

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Dr. Bob as the rhythm section as our host played.

Our host was in the North Vietnam army - being a musician his job was arranging entertainment and recreation actsivities to entertain the troops - and he was part of the group which marched south to take Saigon. He explained that they were told that the Americans had invaded Vietnam and the north Vietnamese were trying to free their countrymen from the invading army.

We walked next door to visit with a local "pharmacist and met some of the children of the family.

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Children of the pharmacist

This is the cooking area in their home

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cooking area

Here are some of the herbs and natural ingredients he uses for his medicines.
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We took another ferry back across the river to our bus. We were joined by local merchants taking the rice cakes we had seen being made to a local market.
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We returned to the hotel and got ourselves organized for a great group dinner
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We were to be on the road again very early the next day for our Halong Bay adventure on the junk.

Posted by DavidandHazel 06:40 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Halong Bay to Hue

sunny 28 °C

After breakfast, we set off for Halong Bay—the Emerald Bay of Vietnam—a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Gulf of Tonkin about 165 km east of Hanoi. We packed everything we needed for the overnight stay in a small carry-on bag and locked our luggage in the bus. The journey offered quiet views of the flat green countryside dotted with rice paddies and small villages.
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En route we stopped for a bio break at a place where they were carving marble and doing some very fine embroidery work. This is a local success story. An entrepreneurial former soldier set up the business to employ local people – he was so successful that the government helped him buy more land and expand his facility on the highway. They also built good “western-style” washrooms and thereby encouraged tourists to stop and shop. The business has prospered as it is a regular stop for most of the tour busses since it is just about at the half way point between Hanoi and Halong Bay.
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Local people doing beautiful embroidery work

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Carvings for sale

We arrived about noon to see a small harbor crowded with boats of all types.
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We boarded a smaller tender boat at the main marina area of the village
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and set off for our junk where we were greeted with cinnamon tea. We had a lovely lunch on the junk while we motored through some amazing scenery.
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Lunch on the junk.

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Halong Bay

Our room on the junk was quite a surprise.
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In addition to the good sized bedroom we had a good sized bathroom with a very large shower. Clearly these craft are purpose built for tourists.

We travelled for a couple of hours through incredibly beautiful scenery.
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We passed places where they caught and farmed fish
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Fish farm
and also farmed oysters for pearls.
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Oyster farm

We arrived at an area where we disembarked to explore a huge cave system.
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View of Halong Bay from the mouth of the cave.
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Inside the cave

We returned to the junk to have a “happy hour” with our fellow passengers as we continued to cruise through this unbelievably beautiful part of the world.
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Michael and Mercedes

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Dave and Hazel

The next morning we were up before dawn, showered and packed while the junk cast off from its moorings and headed back to the harbor. We had breakfast and landed just as the sun was rising. We needed such an early start because we had a long drive back to Hanoi to catch an early flight to Hue which is further south down the coast.
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Our junk docked in the early morning.
As you can see, it has a sun deck on top, the main dining room the next deck down and below that the deck with the cabins.

We boarded our Vietnam Airlines plane about 10:30 am for the one hour flight south to Hue.

Hue was the capital city of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945 when the emperor abdicated and a communist government was formed in Hanoi. It was not only the political center but also was considered a cultural, educational and religious center of the country. Although it suffered a good deal of damage during "the American War" it has many beautiful historical sites and is an Unesco World Heritage Site. The emperor returned in 1949 with the help of the French and established another capital in Saigon in the south.

We met our new bus driver at the airport and were taken to the lovely Camilla Hotel. After checking in we went for an orientation walk with our leader, Lee. He took us to his favourite lunch spot for some Bun Bo Hue - a soup much like Pho with either chicken or beef. This is the little restaurant
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After lunch we walked down to the Perfume River and walked along the waterfront looking at all of the dragon boats ready to take us for a ride for "two dollah, one aowah (hour)".
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Dragon Boats on the bank of the Perfume River
We didn't take advantage of the offer as we knew our group was scheduled for a dragon boat trip the very next day. After a good walk around the area we returned to our hotel and got dressed to see a local water puppet show and have a late dinner.
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Water Puppet "stage"
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Water puppets are an ancient Vietnamese art form. The Puppeteers behind the scenes who spend hours submerged up to their waist while performing their craft.

The next morning we went on a tour of Hue starting with a dragon boat ride on the Perfume River. These boats are also the homes of the people who own them. The smaller ones have a single hull and one dragon - the larger have 2 dragons with 2 pontoons. We had a double.

Here is a shot of a bridge built by the same builders who built the Eiffel Tower in France from our dragon boat.
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We then visited the famous 7 story Thien Mu Pagoda - one story for each reincarnation of Buddha. Behind it was a temple where we saw Buddhist monks praying and chanting.
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Thien Mu Pagoda
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Buddhist Monks

We continued on to the citadel - a huge walled area over 2 km on each side which was where the Emperor lived. This is a model
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Here are some shots of the outside and inside.
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One of the 11 gates to the Citadel
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We then headed over to visit some Buddhist Nuns and to have lunch with them. This is a young woman training to be a nun. The trainees leave one lock of hair growing and shave the rest of their head twice each month as do the nuns and monks.
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We had a delicious vegetarian lunch (nuns and monks avoid meat if possible) and then an interesting discussion with one of the nuns who spoke English and was very open to discussing her life, reasons for becomming a nun, her hopes, and any other questions we were able to come up with.

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Dr. Bob and Patty with our host, a Buddhist nun

We later visited the Minh Tu Orphanage which was started by a Buddhist nun after finding an abandoned baby on her doorstep. We were encouraged to play with the children and were able to leave some gifts which we had brought for them. Our tour company, Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) and its parent company Grand Circle are financial supporters of the orphanage.

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After play time we were able to sit and chat with the nun who started the orphanage who was also able to speak English and was delighted to share her experiences and philosophies with us. They now care for about 180 orphans and are seeing their charges grow, attend university, marry and join the local community. This is another true success story.

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Buddhist Nun who started the orphanage

We would be off to the port town of Hoi An early the next morning.

Posted by DavidandHazel 16:57 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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