[The final post in the series Smiling Kodiak to the Rescue]
It was my last full day in Vietnam — the first of May, International Labour Day, or May Day. It is a holiday of significance in socialist nations, and Vietnam is no exception. At six o’clock in the morning we set out for our morning constitutional around Hoan Kiem Lake. The crowds exercising around the lake had grown even bigger, the activities supplemented by a half dozen badminton games being played with real zeal.
As you would expect on a holiday honouring the worker, most businesses had closed for the day, although most retail shops were open with slightly reduced hours. We were in the market for propaganda posters, having started a small collection with some fine specimens purchased in Shanghai a few years back. Continue reading 14. Southeast Asian Rescue
Raised in the sixties, it was made clear to me that Hanoi was the bad guys, the commies, the aggressors, the domineers of the domino theory, the red menace, the yellow hordes, green with envy, blind to liberty, truth, justice and the American way. While I was years too young for the draft, the war and the draft were very much a threat to my older siblings. As with many other political and economic issues of the day, at a young age I was required to form an opinion on the matter. Mine was, “What on Earth are we doing there?”
The train from Huế reached the outskirts of Hanoi with the pre-dawn first light. Overnight only one strange man tried to enter our cabin (drat). He was foiled from proceeding past our faulty door lock by the plastic shopping bag I had rigged to create a racket in just such an eventuality. I said a quizzical “Hallo?” to the saggy-faced middle-aged man I saw through the crack. He looked shocked and angry to find me in his bed, then realised his mistake with a grunt and closed the door.
Continue reading 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
The very helpful staff of the Holiday Diamond Hotel plotted to send us up the river. After breakfast we fell for it, paying twenty-five bucks for a private tour to see the other great attractions dotting the Huong River near Huế, specifically, a famed pagodas and one of many emperors’ tombs.
By nine-thirty we boarded a junk, just the two of us joining an old woman who spoke no English but provided service of a sort, and a somewhat younger man at the helm. Only then did it dawn on me that we had just three days earlier completed more than a week on a river touring pagodas. But we were committed. Regardless, it was too damned hot to do much more than watch the world go by, and in Vietnam there is no better place to do that than on its superhighways, which are its rivers. Continue reading 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
I cannot recall ever having bleu cheese on toast for breakfast before, but the Pullman chain is one of the Accor family of hotels, French to its core, the bread and cheese impeccable. Despite a full buffet offering anything I wanted, bleu cheese on toast it was, and it was wonderful.
We struck out for a walk along the Saigon River towards a green splotch on the map labelled as the Botanical Gardens. First we filled our backpacks with about two gallons of bottled water, having discovered that consuming less than a litre per hour each was tantamount to suicide. Off the Doxycycline, I covered myself from stem to stern in DEET in the hopes of avoiding mosquito-borne malaria. Then I bathed in sunblock. I dislike starting the day covered in such crud, but to do otherwise would be asking for trouble. Continue reading 11. The Way to Huế
We debarked the Mekong Prestige II for the last time, having recovered our passports and paid the bill. Good-byes would come a little later, as we had a morning’s excursion to enjoy first. We passengers were divided once again by language, the Aussies on one bus, the French on the other, both headed for an hour’s drive into Ho Chi Minh City.
The language division that divided the passengers throughout the cruise struck me as an unfortunate but inevitable feature of the cruise. One obviously wants a tour given in a language one understands, and during the tours people will bond, later enjoying dinner and drinks and what-not together.
Speaking for myself, I would have liked to have met and attempted to converse with a more diverse group. Continue reading 10. Saigon Reunification
The Tuesday morning excursion was to a Vietnamese village by the name of Tan Chau, not far from the border. We met our guide for the remainder of the cruise, a forty-ish gent named Thang who at first blush came across as more formal, almost stilted, than our Cambodian guide, Samath.
A “local junk” (small wooden powerboat) took us to the first stop, a fish farm. It comprised of a series of docks surrounding and enclosing four netted fish pens in the river, each maybe ten meters square. One of the pens was covered with a simple shed roof, another by the home of the family that operated the farm, their continual presence necessary, according to Thang, to prevent fish thievery. Continue reading 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
Cruise Director Gaby made it clear that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the ship in the morning since the Cambodian border officials had already stamped our passports as having left the country. We’d have to take her word for it since none of us had seen our passports since we gave them to the purser before leaving Siem Reap some days back. We were some hours from the Vietnamese border yet, and had been forewarned that the border formalities for a shipload of passengers could take another four hours once we got there. Hence, we would spend Monday in limbo, a day at sea, or at river, as it was.
Continue reading 08. A Day on the River Limbo
I had been in Cambodia for five days. In addition to visiting the major tourist city, Siem Reap, I’ve taken a five-hour bus ride across the countryside, spent two nights on a river boat, and visited a school, factories, and villages. Most Cambodians live what can be euphemistically described as a simple life. Dirt poor is probably a better description.
In theory, I support tourism for the economic benefits it provides to such people. Continue reading 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
Our arrival at the village of Kampong Tralach provided the opportunity for an ox cart ride. I cannot claim this was on my bucket list. Nevertheless Frank and I put on our smelliest clothing, debarked the ship and boarded an oxen buttock buttressed buckboard. We were assigned to the English-speaking oxen, but all the passengers jumped at this rare chance, creating a bizarre scene as the parade of westerners rumbled through the village in a caravan of over a dozen ox carts.
Continue reading 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
There are a couple drawbacks to taking a Mekong River cruise downstream from Siem Reap, particularly during Cambodia’s brief but convincing dry season. First, the Mekong River doesn’t go anywhere near Siem Reap, making the proposed excursion an impossibility any time of year. Instead, the cruises usually start on nearby Lac Tonle Sap, crossing its length before proceeding down the Tonle Sap River, which meets the Mekong at Phnom Penh. During the dry season, even that is an impossibility, as the lake drops nine to twelve meters. At the moment it is only a half-meter deep, making it easier to hike than cruise. Continue reading 05. Cruising Cambodia