A Trip around Southeast Asia
Summer 2007 (14 July - 17 August)
Part 1 – Thailand, Laos and Vietnam
Version: Version 1.01
Date issued: 19 November 2008
Table of Contents
List of Figures
List of Tables
C. Through the Forest, a Clearer View of the Needs of a People, NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/science/18prof.html?pagewanted=1, September 18, 2007.
E. Khmer Rouge Figure Is First Charged in Atrocities, NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/01/world/asia/01cambodia.html, August 1, 2007.
I. Rach Mieu Bridge to open new chances for Ben Tre’s investment promotion, http://www.bentre.gov.vn/english/index.php?Itemid=106&id=165&option=com_content&task=view, 04 May 2007.
J. Vietnam bridge collapse kills 42, http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/09/27/vietnam.bridge.ap/index.html?iref=newssearch, 27 September 2007.
N. Laos, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos.
O. Cambodia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambodia.
P. Vietnam, ISBN:1857289226, Spencer C. Tucker, 1999.
I was thinking about going to SE Asia for a couple of weeks and then a friend of Donna’s mentioned that they had taken a trip around Vietnam with IntrepidTours.com.
Checking the available tours at http://intrepidtours.com/, Donna found a month-long trip around SE Asia called "The Great Indochina Loop" which at AUD $1676 was 20% off the normal price with a start date of 30 July. So on 22 May, I booked a flight to Saigon, Vietnam with Air Canada. After a couple of weeks of considering this tour, the 20% off no longer applied to this start date so it was less attractive. However, on 4 July there was a 20% off offer on a trip that left Bangkok on 17 July so I booked it. This required changing the Air Canada flight from Saigon to Bangkok which was possible after paying a $50/ticket penalty.
Given the type of 29-day tour that we were going on around SE Asia, it seemed that backpacks were the best solution, so we each had a large backpack and a small daypack. However my backpack proved too small once we started buying souvenirs of any size and we had to buy a big suitcase in Vientiane. On our return flight we needed the two backpacks plus the big suitcase to safely carry all our stock. In retrospect it would have been better to buy a big duffle bag with wheels from Wal-Mart for $19 and tote it around until we needed to buy a cheap backpack in SE Asia.
Figure 1. "The Great Indochina Loop" via planes, trains and buses
This trip report is written to remind us of the trip that we took, the sights that we saw and why the places that we visited are of general interest. Without the later understanding, the sights are little more than interesting piles of stones that are unconnected to history.
I've tried to illustrate our trip mainly with our pictures, supplemented as required by other photographs freely available on the Internet. Apart from describing our experience, I've included the history of many of the sights. I hope that I've given credit to any material taken from the Internet in the list of references.
The costs of this vacation are shown by leg in Table 1. The grand total cost was about C$5500/person or $1100/person/week which is at the high end of what we’ve paid in the past for a week at an all inclusive sun destination in the Caribbean.
Note that once in SE Asia every purchase or expenditure was paid for in cash (US dollars) – the credit card was not used except to book a hotel room in Bangkok with expedia.ca over the Internet. Since the US dollar is widely accepted in SE Asia, we were lucky that the Canadian dollar was almost at parity with the US dollar during our trip.
Table 1. Key Vacation Costs per Person
During our month long trip, we visited many interesting places and met a number of people. The people were almost invariably helpful and friendly despite the endemic poverty. Without the help that we received, we wouldn't have had so enjoyable a trip and seen all that we did.
A traveller cannot go wrong visiting the places that we went to and by the different means of transportation that we used (Figure 3). Particularly memorable are the elephant riding in Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang (Figure 2), boating down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, visiting the silk weaving shops in Vientiane, riding around Hoi An on a rented motorbike and looking out on Saigon from the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel.
Figure 2. Bareback elephant riding at Luang Prabang (left), feeding bananas to Bounsou
During our trip, I took some 3,700 photographs with a Canon PowerShot A530 (4X optical zoom and 5 megapixels) and filled by 6 GB of digital memory cards which works out to approximately 120 per day! Some of the more interesting of these photographs are found in this document. In order to take so many photographs, I spent most of my time when traveling along observing the passing scene while the other fellow travellers frequently slept. I rarely got tied of watching the people and the sights going by.
I’d like to go back to Indochina but I'd like to dedicate whatever travel opportunities that I have remaining to visiting the South Seas, South America, Africa and Asia.
Figure 3. Trains, planes, automobiles and boats around Indochina
2 Thailand I
The Kingdom of Thailand has a population of about 63 million, 95% of Thais are Buddhists of the Theravada ("the Ancient Teaching") tradition. Thai culture is a sister culture of Cambodia since before the fall of the Khmer Kingdom in the 15th century, the Thai had adopted elements of Khmer culture and religion.
Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation never to have been colonized by a European country, a fact that Thais are quite proud of. Until 1932, the country was known as Siam when a bloodless revolution resulted in a new constitutional monarchy. During World War II, Thailand was invaded by Japan. After the war, Thailand emerged as an ally of the United States.
Since the political reform of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has had 17 constitutions and charters. Throughout this time, the form of government has ranged from military dictatorship to electoral democracy, but all governments have acknowledged a hereditary monarch as the head of state. Although democratic in principle, modern Thai politics has been dominated by a series of military coups d'états with the latest one occurring on 19 September 2006.
The official calendar in Thailand is based on Eastern version of the Buddhist Era, which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian (western) calendar. For example, the year AD 2007 is called 2550 BE in Thailand.
Thai is the national and official language of Thailand and the mother tongue of the Thai people, Thailand's dominant ethnic group. There is no universal standard for transcribing Thai into the Latin alphabet. For example, the name of King Rama IX, the present monarch, is transcribed variously as Bhumibol, Phumiphon, or many other versions. Figure 4 shows some Thai consonants and Latin counterparts. As can be seen the difference between some of the Thai characters is subtle, e.g. see the symbols that are transliterated into b/p and p/p.
Figure 4. Some Thai consonants and Latin counterparts.
Not only is the language difficult to grasp for those only familiar with languages that use a Latin-based alphabet, the Thai number system is not Arabic (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Thai numbers compared to Arabic numbers.
In short signs written in Thai were opaque to us and as we found out to our surprise, documents written using a Latin-based alphabet and Arabic number were opaque to many Thais (see the description of our taxi ride to our hotel in the following section). This made communications with non-English speaking Thai problematic at best.
2.2 Pre-Tour Day 1 (Sat, 14 Jul/Sun, 15 Jul) – Ottawa to Bangkok
We packed the night before and got up at 0500 hours on Saturday to catch our cab at 0600 hours. The cab ride cost about $60 and put us at the airport at about 0630 hours. The Air Canada check in was smooth and our backpacks were checked through to Bangkok – we hoped to see them again but carried all important item in our cabin luggage.
Overall we had a 32 hour long transit from Ottawa to Bangkok ahead of us of which some 24 hours would be in the air. There were six legs (three legs going and three returning) one of which was a seventeen flight from Toronto to Tokyo (Narita) which was the longest flight that we’d taken (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Flights to and from Bangkok
Figure 7. On Air Canada Toronto-Narita flight (left), flying past Kurile Island (right)
We took off for Toronto at 0830 hours and then waited until 1400 hours when our Air Canada flight (Boeing 777) to Narita (Tokyo) left. He flight was OK and AC even served food for free which they do not do on their domestic flights. We each had an individual entertainment center with a small screen TV so we could watch a variety of movies or TV shows during our seventeen hour flight to Narita. The only sighting of interest on the flight was the Kurile Islands, a long chain of volcanic islands between the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Japanese Islands (Figure 7).
At Narita (Figure 8) we had an hour layover until our flight to Bangkok on a Thai Airways Boeing 747 so we checked out the famous Japanese toilets and the souvenir store. The Japanese toilets were a disappointment as they were noting special. What was special was the cabin service on Thai Airways. The staff was very attentive and amazingly they changed clothes three timer during the 6 1/2 hour flight. After sitting down, they gave us a hot facecloth to clean up and during the flight they served us numerous beverages and two very good meals that were the equal of any that we had during our trip (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Rainy day at Narita airport (Tokyo) (left), 1st class meal on Thai Airlines (right)
At about 2200 hours we landed at the new Suvarnabhumi Airport ($3.8 billion), it’s pronounced Sawana-phoom (if you pronounce it the way it’s spelled, no one will understand you). This airport, which after four decades of debate, planning and construction, opened on Sept. 28 2006 was supposed to assure Bangkok's aspirations to be the pre-eminent air hub in Southeast Asia. Suvarnabhumi, which says it has the world's largest single terminal and handles about 100,000 people a day but it lacked adequate number of toilets so the government ordered the airport authority to tear down offices and install more toilets. The airport authority has earmarked 40 million baht, just over $1 million, to build 20 new bathrooms, with 205 toilets, 118 urinals and 248 new wash basins.
There were long lines to get through customs so it took about an hour. Fortunately our backpacks were waiting for us and we made our way down to the meter taxi area. We asked the taxi driver if he knew where the New Empire Hotel was located and of course he said yes (later we realized that his income probably did not let him turn down a fare of 450 bahts or $US15). The taxi ride from the airport in Bangkok to our hotel was just like The Amazing Race TV show, as the driver could not speak any English and he could not read our map. It turns out that Thai is a non-Latin based alphabet so an English map is not helpful (see Figure 9). Showing him the address of the hotel was pointless so he asked us if we could nokia. After puzzling this out, it occurred to us that nokia is a Thai colloquialism for cell phone. As we did not have a cell phone he lent us his but we could not phone using the number of the hotel – perhaps a country code thing.
Figure 9. English map showing hotel (left), map in Thai (right)
As I knew from the map that the hotel was near the railway station, I made the choo-choo train sound and pronounced the name of the train station which he found amusing but then understood the general location. Eventually we found the hotel and all was well. We gave him a 50 baht tip as he was a pleasant driver who did not get upset and tried his best to find the hotel.
Figure 10. Lights of Chinatown on Yaowarat Road
After checking in to our room in the New Empire Hotel, we went outside to have a brief look at the lights of Chinatown on Yaowarat Road. The lighted signs are very impressive except for the 7-Eleven convenience store sign (Figure 10).
Figure 11. Map of sights of Bangkok
2.3 Pre-Tour Day 2 (Mon, 16 Jul) – Sightseeing in Bangkok (New Empire Hotel)
The New Empire Hotel is at budget hotel (572 Yaowarat Rd – booked in Canada via Expedia.ca for $25/night) located in Chinatown (Figure 9). Its room are basic with a TV and a combined toilet and shower. However the view from our room was very nice as we looked out over the colourful roof of Wat Samphanthawongsaram Worawiharn (Figure 12).
Figure 12. View of Wat Samphanthawongsaram from hotel room (left), close-up of roofline (right)
As it was a hot and humid day (this would be the condition on most days), Donna decided to wear a sleeveless blouse despite the warnings in the guidebooks that uncovered shoulders and legs are reasons to be denied entrance to Buddhist temples, a.k.a. wats.
Bangkok suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion in the world which combined with the heat, humidity and pollution makes getting about a little more difficult than most other places. While walking is an option, most of the time the sidewalks are occupied by street stalls and double up as parking for motorcycles. The best options for getting around to the different parts of the city for the inexperienced visitor are the water buses, the taxis and tuk-tuks. Taxis come in two flavours – metered and non-metered. Metered taxis are cheaper as long as the driver agrees to turn the meter on. The fares for non-metered taxis and tuk-tuks must be negotiated before getting in otherwise you could be in for a rude surprise or unpleasant argument.
Figure 13. Working on entrance of Chinese temple (left), mural inside temple (right)
We walked down through the streets of Chinatown and past Wat Samphanthawongsaram to Pier 5, Ratchawongse, to catch the water bus (Figure 11). On the way we were attracted by a new Chinese shrine that was under construction. We stopped at the gate but we were invited in by a security guard to see the temple. We passed by the workmen (Figure 13) and then took off our shoes to walk around inside the temple. This type of friendliness was typical of that shown in all countries throughout our tour.
Figure 14. Inside river boat (left), river boat leaves Pier 5 on Chao Praya River (right)
At Pier 5 we paid 13 bahts each for a ticket to Pier 9, Tha Chang (Figure 14) walk to see Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. This is about C$0.50 for a wonderful ride on the river with great views of the various wats and other historic buildings. At times the boats are packed and getting a seat is not possible. These boats are sometimes as fast as a taxi since the traffic can be horrendous.
We noted a fair number of people, e.g. Figure 14 and Figure 21, wearing pale yellow tops – the colour of the King of Thailand. This is because this year marks the 80th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej or Rama IX of Thailand. His birthday is a national holiday celebrated on Dec. 5. The king took over the throne in 1946 and is the world’s longest-reigning monarch ahead of Queen Elizabeth II. Like the Queen, he does not wield real power as witnessed by the numerous military coups in Thailand but he is beloved by most Thais and he is the embodiment of national pride. Hence if you want to connect with Thais, wear pale yellow clothing.
Figure 15. Wat Phra Kaew from outside (left), view when entering Wat Phra Kaew (right)
Figure 16. Bejewelled buildings (left), model of Angkor Wat (center), fantastic devatas (right)
We got off the boat at Pier 9, Tha Chang (Figure 11) to walk to see Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. Near the entrance a well-dressed man stopped us and told us that he was an advisor to the king and unfortunately the site was closed to visitors until 1300 hours due to a state function. However he explained that we were fortunate as Wat Saket on the Golden Mount (Phu Khao Thong) was opened only one day a year and it was today! As this was our first day and we were still naïve tourists, we almost believed him but I recalled reading in the Lonely Planet about this type of scam so we kept on walking through the Viseschaisri Gate (#33 on Figure 17) to the ticket booth. We purchased our $12/person tickets and went to the entrance where we were turned away and told to go back to the entrance and rent a blouse to cover Donna’s sleeveless shoulders. We left and returned with Donna’s scarf covering her shoulder (right, Figure 19) and had no problems entering.
Figure 17. Map of Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace complex
Wat Phra Kaew is overwhelming due to its architecture and jewel box-like appearance (left, Figure 16) that reminded me of the Fabergé Easter eggs that were made for the Russian imperial family. And like a Fabergé egg, there is so much gold and jewel-like decoration that the overall effect is breathtaking. This effect is achieved through the use of gold leaf, gold paint, coloured glass and gold-coloured mirror mosaics (Figure 18).
Figure 18. Gold paint & coloured glass (left), gold-coloured mirror mosaics (right)
Figure 19. Gold-leafed mythical guardian at Wat Phra Kaew (left), fantastic devatas (right)
Everywhere one looks, there are amazing objects to behold that have very fine details that do not loose their impact with close-up inspection (right, Figure 19).
Figure 20. Emerald Buddha (see inset) on altar (left), Garudas on Emerald Buddha temple wall (right)
The Wat Phra Kaew grounds include the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which is a temple purpose-built to house a Buddha image carved from a large solid piece of green jadite/jasper – not emerald. Chaophraya Chakri, who went on to become King Rama I, brought the image from Vientiane when he captured the city in 1778. King Rama I built the temple and enshrined the Emerald Buddha there as a symbol of Siam's regained nationhood and it’s highly venerated. The temple does not house any monks.
The Emerald Buddha is small, about 70 cm high, and its located at the top of an altar high above the heads of the worshippers and tourists (left, Figure 20). Getting a good look at it is difficult as photography is forbidden inside the temple, and it's perched so high up inside its glass box that it's difficult to really see.
The Buddha was wearing its summer season attire (April through July) though that would soon be changed to its rainy season attire (August to November) by the King of Thailand in a ceremony at the changing of the seasons. The third season is the winter season (December through March).
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is surrounded by a corridor and the outside wall of the temple is ornately decorated including a line of golden Garudas, a mythical bird-like creature in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology (Figure 20 right).
Figure 21. Applying gold-leaf to Buddha at shrine in front the Emerald Buddha (left), praying (right)
Figure 22. Bundles of roof tiles for temple (left), hoisting up cement to roof of temple (right)
Outside the entrance of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, there is a shrine where Buddhists pray and make a wide variety of offerings. These offerings include placing gold leaf on a statute of Buddha (left, Figure 21), leaving lotus flowers and burning incense (right, Figure 21). The shrine has metal statues of cattle and large metal pots. The temple itself was wrapped in green netting as its roof tiles were being replaced (Figure 22).
Figure 23. Ancient guardian (left), modern guardian (center), building at Grand Palace (right)
At the rear of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is the rear of the entrance to Wat Phra Kaew with its guardian demons (left, Figure 23) and the exit into the grounds of the Grand Palace. The Grand Palace served as the official residence of the king of Thailand from the 18th century to the mid-20th century when the official royal residence was moved to Chitralada Palace. The Grand Palace is nowadays used only for occasional ceremonial purposes and there are white coated ceremonial guards in their pith helmets with unloaded M-16 rifles sprinkled around the grounds. We asked and the guard was willing to pose with Donna (left, Figure 23).
The buildings in the Grand Palace grounds are impressive with theme of gold trim against white walls and multicolour tile roofs (right, Figure 23 and left, Figure 24). As with Wat Phra Kaew, the overall effect is amazing. The palace’s pith helmed tree trimmers were interesting to watch in action (right, Figure 24).
Leaving the Grand Palace, we walked around the outer walls of the Wat Phra Kaew/Grand Palace compound. There was an interesting traffic circle with a sculpture of three white elephants supporting an emblem of the king (Figure 25). Ignoring the incessant questioning by the tuk-tuk drivers if we wanted a drive, we kept walking to the Pier 8, Tha Tien (Figure 11), where we caught a small ferry across the Chao Praya River to Wat Arun (Figure 26). The ticket was but 3 bahts/person, i.e. only 10¢!
Figure 24. Grand Palace (left), apsara-like topiary (center), tree trimmers (right)
Figure 25. Elephant traffic circle outside of Wat Phra Kaew (left), Wat Arun across from Pier 8 (right)
Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) is located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, across the river from most of the other tourist attractions. It is a prominent feature along the river. Its central tower or prang, built at the beginning of the 19th century, is 260 foot tall is surrounded by four smaller prangs. Like Angkor Wat, Wat Arun is built on an architectural pattern that symbolically reproduces the five peaks of Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hindu mythology that both Hindus and Buddhists think of as the center of the universe.
Although from a distance it looks like Wat Arun is made of grey concrete (Figure 26), it is in fact it is in fact built of brick covered with stucco and decorated with bits of Chinese porcelain (right, Figure 27) that trading ships from China used as ballast on their way to Thailand. Once the ships arrived in Thailand, the porcelain was discarded and their holds filled instead with Thai goods to take back to China. The broken pieces of porcelain give the central prang a shimmering look in sunlight.
We payed some 20 bahts/person to enter and made our way up the steep staircase to the first level and then the even steeper staircase to the second level (center, Figure 27). Unlike Wat Phra Kaew there is no gold covered decoration and extravagant sculpture, however there is a good view from the second level including that over the Chao Phraya River and across to the Grand Palace (left, Figure 27).
Figure 26. Approaching Wat Arun (left), steep stair up to middle of Wat Arun (right)
Figure 27. View atop Wat Arun (left), descending Arun (center), flowers of Chinese porcelain plates (right)
Figure 28. Street vendor in Sampeng Market (left), porter (center), crowds in Sampeng Market (right)
Leaving Wat Arun, we caught the Chao Phraya River boat back to Pier 5 and walked back to our hotel through the rabbit warren of Sampeng Market in Chinatown (Figure 28) whose stalls were closing down around 1700 hours.
Figure 29. Bird nest soup menu (left), restaurant with shark fin (center), colourful cashew chicken (right)
That evening we walked down Yaowarat Road to find a place to eat. Most of the restaurant offered seafood including shark fins (center, Figure 29) and several offered bird nest soup (left, Figure 29) or bird nest in a gift box. Apart from restaurants in buildings, there were many street restaurants that setup along the sidewalks after 1800 hours and closed up at about 2200 hours and moved out of the area.
Figure 30. Monk with begging bowl (left), donate but don’t touch (center), donation (right)
2.4 Pre-Tour Day 3 (Tue, 17 Jul) – Sightseeing in Bangkok (New Empire Hotel)
We got up early and went out at 0700 hours to see the monks out in Chinatown begging for their daily food. It didn’t take long to come across the barefooted monks in their orange-coloured robes walking the streets with their begging bowls (Figure 30). The monks really don’t beg rather the locals give food to them, generally in the form of prepared packages (right, Figure 30), in exchange for the good karma associated with the act of giving. Donna made a donation of money to an older monk (center, Figure 30) that was accepted as long as she put the money in the begging bowl and did not touch him (a monk being touched by a woman must undergo a week long purification ritual to return to their pure state).
Latter we learned from our guide at Wat Po that becoming a Buddhist monk is not the same as becoming a Christian monk. He explained that he had been a monk for several months in his late teens as a way of ensuring that his parents would have a good afterlife. In fact for this reason becoming a monk for a short period of time is a right of passage for many young men. In Cambodia, many young men become monks to escape widespread poverty but they do not always devote their lives to the clergy. Monks are a common sight on the streets of many towns in Southeast Asia as they walk around carrying to collect either food or alms to pay for their temple food.
As with any religious order being a Buddhist monk does not guarantee upright behaviour as we found out for ourselves when we photographed a pair of extortionist monks at Angkor Wat (see Chapter on Cambodia in Part 2). On a more serious scale is the case in November 2009 when a young monk in Cambodia was arrested by police for allegedly raping a British tourist he was guiding to mountain-top temples. According to the police, the monk had befriended the woman when she arrived to look around the area and she was raped when she went alone to the summit of the Phnom Sam Pov Mountain where there is a temple.
We wanted to see the 5 1/2 ton, 3 metres high golden Buddha, the world largest golden statue, housed in Wat Trai Mit. This wat in Chinatown was very near our hotel but we had difficulty finding it in the warren of lanes but finally a local directed us toward it. The golden Buddha was made in the Sukkothai period (around the 1400s-1550s) but was not seen for a long period of time until it was discovered in the 1950's when a stucco covered Buddha was accidentally dropped when being moved, revealing the solid gold Buddha. Apparently along time ago to protect it from invaders, it was covered in stucco to disguise its value. Its current value is about US$106 million (176,000 oz of gold @ US$600)!
Figure 31. Entrance to Wat Trai Mit (left), inside wat (center), recess in wat’s school (right)
The wat itself is not a grand building as one might imagine given the value of the golden Buddha (left, Figure 31). We went inside the wat and there was a seated monk who was the center of interest for the tourists (center, Figure 31). Having seen the “golden Buddha”, we went outside and watched the school children playing during recess at school adjacent to the wat. The play area is a parking lot with cars parked and occasionally a car drives through the playing children (right, Figure 31) – certainly not what our sheltered school children would be exposed to.
The “golden Buddha” was not at all as shiny as I would have expected. However, the reason became clear when in writing this diary. The “golden Buddha” that we saw (Figure 31 center) was not the actual golden Buddha. It turns out that the real golden Buddha is kept in a separate small pavilion that we did not notice and it is shiny – oh well!
2.5 Tour Day 1 (Wed, 18 Jul) – Sightseeing in Bangkok & meet the group (Grand Ville Hotel)
Our ticket to the Grand Palace also included entrance to the Vimanmek Mansion so we took the river boat to its northern terminus, Pier 15 just north of the impressive King Rama 8 Bridge (left, Figure 32). This single tower cable-stayed bridge spanning the Chao Phraya River was completed in 2002.
Figure 32. King Rama 8 Bridge (left), Singha brewery (center), recess in wat’s school (right)
We passed by a number of interesting buildings including a clock tower beside a beautiful wat (center, Figure 32) and the Singha brewery with its giant can of beer (center, Figure 32). Singha beer, the leading beer in Thailand, is brewed using barley malt and hops to complement Thai food and the alcohol content is 6%. It is available everywhere and costs about 50 baht.
The walk from Pier 15 to the Vimanmek Mansion seemed to take forever in the heat and humidity. Along the way we stopped in a MacDonald’s restaurant for a very refreshing soft ice cream cone. There were lots of young Thais as there was a university just across the street. Finally we arrived at the Vimanmek Mansion which is billed as the world's largest teakwood building. It is made entirely of golden teak wood. King Rama V had it built in 1900 but it was only used for a few years before it fell into disuse and was practically forgotten until the early 1980s. A guide is mandatory as is the removal of shoes and a prohibition on photography. The mansion is a three story, L-shaped palace which house priceless Thai antiques and opulent collections. Most of the teak on the walls is painted in limes and blues and other colours to help the staff identify the sections. While the antiques were interesting, including many European items from the 1900s, the painting of the teakwood was disappointing was the wood under the paint may as well have just been pine.
We started to walk back to Pier 15 but it was so onerous in the heat and humidity that we decided to catch a cab back to the hotel. This was a good decision as we not only saved our feet but we saw another part of Bangkok.
Figure 33. Pier 15 fish feeding (left), Vimanmek Mansion (center), on our hotel’s rooftop restaurant (right)
While in Phnom Pen, we read an article in the Bangkok Post newspaper that the Bangkok police officers guilty of "failing to report for duty, parking in a prohibited area, fighting, or being the subject of a complaint about poor service" would be punished by having to wear a “Hello Kitty” arm band (center, Figure 34). Thai police don't have a great reputation due to their ongoing corrupt and violent antics. The most unusual thing about the Bangkok police is the skin tight uniforms that they wear (left & right, Figure 34).
Figure 34. Bangkok police traffic stop (left), planned “Hello Kitty” arm band (center), Bangkok police (right)
Supper that night was with our tour group (there were only six people plus the tour leader in our group vice the maximum number of 12) on the Grand Ville Hotel’s rooftop restaurant. We went to bed early to be ready for our first real day of our group tour.
After our buffet breakfast we walked along the busy streets in the light rain towards Pier 6 on the Chao Praya River to catch our long-tail boat for a tour through canals (klongs) of the Thonburi district on the west side of the river. We walked through a green space near Pier 6 and we noticed a Thai man crouching in the bushes while he was masturbating! This was the only such display that we witnessed on our trip.
We left Pier 6 in our long-tail boat and enter a klong south of Wat Arun and then circled around to the west of Wat Arun. The long-tail boats are long and narrow (left, Figure 35) and mount an automobile engine (center, Figure 35) with a propeller on a long shaft which keeps the prop off the shallow bottom.
The klongs were lined with houses both rundown (left, Figure 36) and expensive, shops (right, Figure 36) and unusual sights such as a man bathing in the klong (center, Figure 36).
Figure 35. Long-tail boat in klong (left), driver & engine (center), floating merchant (right)
Figure 36. Drying the washing (left), man bathing (center), shops and wat (right)
We left the klong and rejoined the Chao Praya River just north of the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun). We disembarked from our klong boat at Pier 8 and walked over to Wat Po which is directly adjacent of the Grand Palace. Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) is also known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage.
Entering the grounds we walked by an interesting fountain (center, Figure 40) and I was struck by the beauty of the four porcelain covered chedis that were constructed to honour the first three Chakri kings (Figure 37 right). The roof of Wat Pho was being re-tiled (Figure 37 left) and there were lots of clay tiles on site including some that one could buy, so I purchased a roof tile. These clay tiles are shield-shaped and about six inches long with a yellow, green or blue glazing on the top and a seal with the name of Wat Po pressed into the back. The tiles must last for a long time indeed.
Figure 37. Retiling the roof of Wat Po (left), porcelain covered chedis (right)
Figure 38. Reclining Buddha of Wat Po (left), mother-of-pearl feet of Reclining Buddha (right)
Housed in the temple is an impressive gold plated reclining Buddha that is 46 meters long and 15 meters high (Figure 38). It is designed to illustrate the passing of the Buddha into nirvana. The feet and the eyes are engraved with mother-of-pearl decoration, and the feet also show the 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha (right, Figure 38).
Along the wall on the backside of the reclining Buddha is a row of metal bowls and the local custom is to drop one coin in each bowl – for a few bahts you get a container with the correct number of coins to drop in the bowls (Figure 39). This custom was used as the basis of a “Fast Forward” in Season 1, Leg 9 of the CBS TV show named The Amazing Race (2001). In the challenge there were two teams, Team Guido (Joe and Bill) and Nancy and Emily, vying to win the “Fast Forward” to avoid elimination. The task was to choose a container with the correct number of coins to be able to deposit just one coin per bowl. Team Guido won and so Nancy and Emily were eliminated.
Figure 39. The Amazing Race at Wat Po (left), bowls behind the Reclining Buddha (right)
It was quite surprising the number of places that we visited on our trip that were featured in “The Amazing Race” over the years. Watching this show gives us a passing familiarity with various places around the world.
Figure 40. Meeting monk (left), fountain at Wat Po (center), refurbishing pumps on sidewalk (right)
After Wat Po, we hailed a metered taxi and returned to the hotel with another couple from our tour group. We relaxed for a while before our departure for the train station in the hotel room that was shared by our tour group. At about 1500 hours we left for Hualampong Railway Station in the mini-bus. This station is just outside of Chinatown and its friendly monks (left, Figure 40) and sideway workshops (right, Figure 40).
Hualampong Railway Station is Bangkok’s main station and it’s a busy place with lots of people, both foreign and Thais, coming and going. The Thai army has a booth from which they were selling saving banks shaped like teddy bears. The booth had a collage of pictures showing scenes of a roadside bomb blast and its deadly aftermath in southern Thailand where the Muslims are revolting. The contrast between the piggy banks and the photographs of dead people was stark to say the least.
At about 1800 hours we pulled out of the station for the 13 hour (751 km) overnight trip to Chiang Mai. It was interesting to see Bangkok and the countryside pass until darkness fell but unfortunately there was a European couple with children in our car who let them run around and yell like the train car was a playground. Meanwhile a Thai child of the same age sat quietly beside his mother. After a couple of hours, a crewmember came around and rearranged our seats into a lower berth, lowered the upper berth and made the beds in about three minutes flats. It was impressive to see her make this transformation in so short a time. The sleep was restless and I was ready to get up come morning.
Figure 41. Hualampong station train hall (left), berth maker (center), in berth on night train (right)
We pulled into Chiang Mai railway station at about 0700 hours.
Chiang Mai, population of 150,000, is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. It is situated among some of the highest mountains in the country on the Ping River, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya River that flows through Bangkok.
2.7 Day 3 (Fri, 20 Jul) – Chiang Mai (People Place)
After getting off the train, we were whisked off in a van for a good breakfast in a restaurant. Afterwards we went to our hotel, the ”People Place”, to check-in and drop off our bags before we assembled in the lobby for our optional elephant riding and bamboo rafting trip. We met our guide and driver and then climbed in the back of a small track and were off. In took about an hour to reach the site of the elephant ride in the hills and it was steadily raining.
We were looking forward to the elephant riding as it promised to be a very different experience and a way to connect with history of Sotheast Asia. For about the last 4500 years, Indian elephants have been captured, domesticated and used for transportation, labour and warfare. For hundreds of years in Thailand, elephants were domesticated for working in the logging industry. While not necessarily a happy existence for the animals, it ensured that the mahout had money to feed and care for the elephant – a typical adult elephant requires about 200 kilograms of food and 150 litres of water per day.
In 1989 the Thai government banned commercial logging in Thailand which left many mahouts and elephants unemployed so suddenly, the elephants became more of a liability than a source of income and many elephants were abandoned or killed. Today there are between 3-5000 elephants in Thailand (domestic and wild) and their numbers are falling about 3% a year despite the elephant’s role in the tourism industry. Elephants that are sufficiently trained and mild-mannered can now be supported through tourism and their working conditions are greatly improved compared to the logging industry.
Figure 42. Elephant boarding platform (left), our mahout (center), on the elephant (right)
Elephants are not like big dogs or cats, rather they are very big, strong, wilful and tough animals as we saw for ourselves in Luang Prabang (see Section 3.4). In order for the mahout to be able to train the elephant, he must have some way to send positive and negative messages. Along with assertive voice commands and touching, our mahouts used the traditional pointed metal hook called an ankus (center, Figure 42). This hook is used to guide the elephant and to correct poor behaviour. Though it may seem cruel, its use evolved over many years and ensures that the safety of the elephant and mahout.
We climbed up to the top of the 10 foot high platform and scrambled aboard our elephant and sitting on the basic howdah (elephant saddle) on the elephant’s back. The mahout sat aside the elephant’s neck just behind the giant wrinkled pink and mottled grey ears. The huge head has a sparse covering of thick hairs sticking up like a bristle brush. The feeling of moving while some ten feet off the ground on the back of such a powerful animal is very interesting and empowering.
Figure 43. Steep - looking DOWN on elephant (left), reaching back for banana (center), elephants (right)
The mahout moved the elephant slightly ahead and we waited for another couple in our group to board their elephant which had no mahout so was tied to our elephant. We then proceeded out on the trail that looped through a jungle valley and up on the side of a hill. Fortunately the elephant tour people provided us an umbrella so we did not have to wear our rain coats which would have been hot and uncomfortable.
Figure 44. QuickieMart for elephants (left), feeding our elephant (right)
Since it was the rainy season, the trail was very muddy (center, Figure 43). The most surprising thing about the trail was its steepness - it was so steep that a man would have to work hard to ascend and descend the trail especially given the deep mud. There were times when I feared that we would topple over yet the elephant plodded on serenely. Sometimes when ascending a hillside, we could look DOWN on the elephant following us (left, Figure 43)!
At a couple of places along the trail, we would stop at a platform where a local would sell us a bunch of bananas or sugar cane (left, Figure 44) which we could feed to our elephant (right, Figure 44). The area was a jungle with dense vegetation but at times we could look out and see other elephants plodding along in the distance (right, Figure 43).
After about an hour, we arrived back at the platform at the start of the loop and dismounted. The elephant ride was a very enjoyable experience that afforded us the opportunity to see the amazing mobility and strength of this beast.
Figure 45. Rafting (left), on raft (center), purchasing photograph of rafting (right)
Arriving back at the truck, we mounted up and headed out to the bamboo rafting site on a nearby river. Unbeknownst to us, it was a placid river (left, Figure 45) and we accepted the direction to leave our cameras in the vehicle – hence the lack of photographs. We drifted along the river through the jungle but along side the road, poled by along by a local (left, Figure 45). We stopped along the way and our boatman ran up to a small building and returned with a plastic jug of local rice whisky which tasted like a liqueur. Apart from the vegetation and plastic bags caught in the vegetation along the river banks, there was not much to see but it was relaxing. At the end of our half hour rafting trip, Donna purchased a photograph of us on the raft for US $10 (right, Figure 45) that was taken by a photographer along the shore.
Figure 46. Blossoms at Wat Doi Suthep (left), monks at prayer (center), leaving offering (right)
After the rafting we headed back to Chiang Mai for the long drive up the Doi Suthep Mountain to the Buddhist mountain temple of Wat Doi Suthep founded in 1383. It was a long, winding and nausea-inducing road up to Wat Doi Suthep. It was a chilly drive, given the altitude, the light rain and the fact that it was getting on to 1800 hours. From the car park, we climbed up the 309 steps to reach the temple (we descended via the tram for about 30 bahts). There is a view to be had of Chiang Mai, some 15 km in the distance. We arrived in time to take a brief tour and then see the monks at their evening prayers (center and right, Figure 46). We sat down at the temple’s entrance and listened to the monks chanting for about 15 minutes but soon it was time to descend to the car park via the tram.
Figure 47. Muay Thai advertisement (left), match (top right), musicians (bottom right)
Figure 48. Performers on way to stage (left), stage at food market (center), on way to stage (right)
Our tour guide (right, Figure 45) was selling tickets to the Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing) event that evening for 400 bahts. I had wanted to go to a Thai kick boxing match in Bangkok but it didn’t work out so I decided to go to the matches that evening. These matches were billed as international fighter against Thai fighters (left, Figure 47).
Before the kick boxing match, we went with the group for supper at the Chiang Mai food market and beer garden. Just as we arrived, a parade of performers arrived dressed in historical Thai costumes for a dance performance (Figure 48). After supper, I went back to the hotel for the drive to the kick boxing match while Donna went shopping with the others to the night market.
About 2100 hours, I went in a tuk-tuk with a couple of English girls to the Kawila Boxing Stadium which looked like a hockey rink from the 1950s. The audience was segregated with the Thai fans on one side of the ring and the foreigners on the other. The matches were preceded by the boxers performing traditional rituals including bowing at the four sides of the ring – interesting the foreigner fighters seemed more into the rituals than the Thai fighters. The matches themselves were accompanied by repetitious music from what I thought was a recording but turned out to be from a group of five musicians (bottom right, Figure 47). The music sounded very eastern with drumming, a snake-charmer’s wind instrument and finger cymbals. The matches consisted of more boxing than kicking but occasionally a kick or knee could be devastating. After my matches and Donna’s shopping, we went to bed that night at about midnight.
After breakfast we were off on our six hour drive to Chiang Khong on the Mekong River. Most of the drive was through a hilly rural countryside with rice paddies (left & center, Figure 49). We stopped just south of Chiang Rai, off Highway 1, for a lunch and to see one of the most amazing Buddhist temples that we saw in Southeast Asia (left, Figure 51). It is called Wat Rong Khun, but for most it is known as the White Temple.
Figure 49. Farmer in rice paddy (left), verdant countryside (center), nun at temple (right)
Figure 50. Cabbages and Condoms store (left), cleaning temple (center), temple sign painter (right)
We parked and picked up snacks and souvenirs (condom patterned necktie for Donna’s son) at the store called Cabbages and Condoms which is just across the road from the White Temple (left Figure 50). Cabbages and Condoms is the non-profit arm of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) of Thailand, an organization that encourages the Hill Tribe villagers to make the best use of both the cabbages which grow freely in the mountains and condoms which the PDA supplies.
Wat Rong Khun temple is different from most other temples that we saw in that it is almost entirely white with highlighting provided by small mirror mosaic tiles. The white colour stands for the Lord Buddha’s purity. The temple’s construction began in 1998 and the driving force is a Thai artist name Chalermchai Kositpipat who vowed in 1997, at age 42, to dedicate himself to serving the Buddhist religion by constructing Wat Rong Khun to the last day of his life.
Figure 51. White Temple (left), 911 mural (center left), nice skirt (center right), demon booze (right)
To visit the temple, Donna had to cover up her legs with a white sheet (center right, Figure 51) what was less than flattering. The entrance to the temple was passed a fiery red sculpture of the demon booze and across a bridge across a sculpture of hands reaching up from hell. Inside the temple are murals including one about the destruction of the New York City World Trade Center (center left, Figure 51). This mural shows a plane flying at the Trade Center and snakes formed from gasoline pump hoses that entwine one of the towers.
The temple hosts nuns, i.e. female monks, dressed in white robes (right, Figure 49). Off to the side of the temple are the workshops that make the sculptures and signs (right, Figure 50). Really the overall effect is that of a temple designed while the architect was on LSD.
Arriving at Chiang Khong we checked into the Ruan Thai Lodge on the banks of the Mekong River (left, Figure 52). The Mekong was about ¾ of a mile wide at that point and just across the river is Laos. The lodge is made from exotic tropical woods and has a very airy and open feel.
Figure 52. Ruan Thai Lodge (left), baggage at check out (center), supper (right)
That night we walked down the street to a restaurant (right, Figure 52) that was run by an accountant from Holland who had married a local. He returns to Holland for about four months a year to earn money to enable him to live in Chiang Khong. That night the chef was off drunk so the owner’s wife cooked. The food and drink was very good. After supper we walked down the street to a convenience store to buy some snacks for our slow boat trip on the Mekong River.
Figure 53. Room at Ruan Thai Lodge (left), Mekong slowboat (center), relaxing at lodge (right)
The New York Times recently published an article entitled “The 53 Places to Go in 2008” (Ref M). The number one place to go is Laos. The article states that “Laos is shaping up to be Indochina's next hot spot. Ancient sites like the Wat Phou temple complex and the capital city of Vientiane are drawing culture seekers. Luxury teak houseboats are cruising down the Mekong. And global nomads are heading to Luang Prabang.”
Laos, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is a poor landlocked country in Southeast Asia, with a population of some 6.5 million. The best time to visit is from November through February but that was not possible for us.
Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in the fourteenth century, which lasted until the eighteenth century, when Siam (Thailand) invaded and assumed control of the separate principalities that remained. To avoid a costly war with the French, the Siamese king ceded lands now known as Laos to them, and these were incorporated into French Indochina in 1893. The French saw Laos as a useful buffer state between the two expanding empires of France and Britain. Under the French, the capital (Vieng Chan) was changed to Vientiane. Following a brief Japanese occupation during World War II, the country declared its independence in 1945, but the French re-asserted their control and only in 1950 was Laos granted semi-autonomy as an "associated state" within the French Union. Moreover, the French remained in de facto control until 1954, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy. In 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to support the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the U.S. containment policy. (Ref N)
Laos was dragged into the Vietnam War, and the eastern parts of the country were invaded and occupied by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which used Laotian territory as a staging ground and supply route, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos in 1972. The result of these actions were a series of coups d'état and, ultimately, the Laotian Civil War between the Royal Laotian government and the communist Pathet Lao. In the Civil War, The NVA, with its heavy artillery and tanks, was the real power behind the Pathet Lao insurgency. In 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack against the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing and leaving the conflict to irregular forces raised by the United States and Thailand.
Massive aerial bombardment by the United States followed as it attempted to eliminate North Vietnamese bases in Laos in order to disrupt supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Between 1971 and 1973 the USAF dropped more ordnance on Laos than was dropped worldwide during World War II (1939−45). In total more than 2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped (almost 1/2 a tonne per head of population at the time) which destroyed much of the country's limited infrastructure and restricted much of its population to living in caves.
In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao, backed by the Soviet Union and the North Vietnamese Army, overthrew the royalist government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on December 2, 1975. He later died in captivity.
After taking control of the country, Pathet Lao's government renamed the country as the "Lao People's Democratic Republic". After years of economic hardship the communist government of Laos began decentralizing control and encouraging private enterprise in 1986 and since then the economy has experienced economic growth. However, subsistence agriculture still accounts for half of GDP and provides 80% of total employment. This accounts for the slash and burn agriculture that we saw on the hills along the Mekong River (left, Figure 57).
3.2 Day 5 (Sun, 22 Jul) – Entering Laos & down the Mekong
We walked down to the Mekong River and exited Thailand through the border control point at Chiang Kong (left, Figure 54) under a gate claiming that it was the “Gate to IndoChina” and got into a long tail boat (center, Figure 54) to cross over to Huay Xai, Laos and its border control point.
Figure 54. Gateway to IndoChina (left), longtail boat to Laos (center), humping luggage to slowboat (right)
After the border formalities and entry head
fee, including an extra overtime payment since it was
Figure 55. Walking the plank to boat (left), relaxing on slowboat (center), sboat crew playing cards (right)
The slowboat was quite spacious especially since our group was only seven people plus our guide on a boat that could carry some twenty tourists. We have been told in our trip material that we needed to have cushions to sit on since the seats would be hard, hence we packed a thick piece of foam that we bought at Wal-Mart in Kanata. In fact the seats were very comfortable since they were brand new driver car seats of the type found in any North American mini-van. In fact we never used the foam for its intended purpose but carried its bulk around SE Asia and finally used it as packing to protect our souvenirs.
Once we got underway, the captain turned the boat over to a young man and the rest of the crew of eight people, including a couple of young couples, settled down to playing a lively game of cards (right, Figure 55).
We had plenty of time to read, relax (center, Figure 55) or watch the scenery go by. To accustomize ourselves with Laos, we read the illustrated Do’s and Don’ts in Laos which included admonitions against drug use and the export of cultural artefacts. However the two most interesting ones were the ones on the use of sabai dee (hello) and the prohibition against women touching monks (Figure 56).
Figure 56. Use of sabai dee in Laos (left), women – don’t touch a monk (right)
I spent most of my time on the boat watching the scenery go by. There were many water buffaloes bathing themselves along shores (right, Figure 57) and the hills were patch worked by the practice of slash and burn agriculture (left, Figure 57). Frequently there were trees floating downstream and the branches of one appeared to resemble the arms and fingers of a man. Drawing closer, I caught sight of a face and it immediately dawned on me that this was a body. I called out to the crew but after a quick glance, they returned to their card game. Donna was upset that nothing was done and our tour leader assured us that the body was the result of the burial rituals of upstream tribes. We were very skeptical of this explanation.
Figure 57. Slash & burn agriculture (left), body floating down Mekong (center), water buffalo (right)
Later on at Angkor Wat, I asked our guide if tribes along the Mekong put bodies on rafts and floated them downstream. She said that this was a practice but that it ended hundreds of years ago. She felt that the body was the result of a robbery or revenge which was more in line with our thinking.
In the late afternoon, our boat docked on the banks of the Mekong at Pakbeng and there were many men there to carry our luggage to our hotel, the Sivongsach Guest House, for a dollar per bag (left, Figure 58). There a great rush by the men to grab a bag since the money was much needed.
After checking into the Sivongsach GH, we walked with our guide down the main street through the town (right, Figure 58) and up a hill to visit the small wat that has a magnificent view out over the Mekong River (left and right, Figure 59). The wat is a very quaint example of a Buddhist temple from the former Lanna Kingdom. The monk’s quarters (center, Figure 59) were a stark reminder that this is a poor country for the majority of its people.
Figure 58. Climbing up to Pakbeng (left), Pakbeng main street (center), our guest house (right)
Figure 59. View east from wat (left), monk’s quarters at wat (center), view west from wat (right)
Figure 60. Goodbye to guesthouse (left), lunch on boat (center), lumbering along Mekong (right)
After breakfast at our Sivongsach GH (left, Figure 60), we headed back down the steep bank to our slowboat. Immediately south of Pak Beng is a lumbering operation that we were told uses elephants however we didn’t see any elephants – only a big yellow Cat (right, Figure 60). The guesthouse provided us with a packed lunch that we enjoyed along the way (center, Figure 60).
About 30 minutes upstream from our Mekong River journey's end, we stopped at the Pak Ou Caves at the confluence between the Mekong River and Nam Ou River (Figure 61 left). The cave is known locally as the Tam Ting Caves (Caves of a thousand Buddhas). The Tam Ting Caves have been in use for religious purposes from the earliest times even before Buddhism was introduced to the region. There are approximately 4000 Buddha figurines within caves of which approximately 2500 are in the lower cave. Many of the sculptures were the work of artisans under royal commission between the 18th and 20th centuries and a number of the Buddha figurines were placed there by worshippers.
Figure 61. Pak Ou Cave entrance (left), praying at altar (center), fortune-telling sticks (right)
We walked around the lower cave to view the thousand of dusty Buddha statues including those at the altar used by visiting Buddhists for prayers (center, Figure 61). We climbed the steep stairs up to the upper cave where our guide told us that the cave was used by people sheltering from bombing during the Vietnam War.
Back in the lower cave we tried the fortune-telling sticks. The sticks are in a container which one shakes until one falls out. The sticks have a number of them and out guide looked up the number on the chart and then translated the associated fortune which was written in Laotian. Our sticks were number 15.
Figure 62. Thongbay Guest House (left), breakfast at cottage (center), Nam Khan River (right)
Arriving in Luang Prabang, we took a mini-bus to our hotel, the Thongbay Guest House (http://www.thongbay-guesthouses.com/) on the Nam Khan River. There were a couple of monks staying there (left, Figure 62) apparently as guests of a European development mission. All the cottages are arranged around a garden with a fish pond. When we ordered breakfast, it was delivered on our porch where we ate looking out over the quiet of the garden (Figure 62 center). There is a lookout over the Nam Khan River where one can watch the local fishermen at work (Figure 62 right). This hotel was the most unique on our trip as you got the feeling that you were staying in a jungle lodge. The only downside was that a tuk-tuk was required to get back and forth to the center of Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang (population 20,000) was chosen as a World Heritage Site in 1995 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which determined that its architectural ensemble was culturally significant and worthy of protection by the United Nations. UNESCO’s strict guidelines on renovation and new construction have helped preserve the narrow streets, small structures and relatively light traffic of a past era - no tall buildings mar the cityscape.
Tourism in this poor country is so important that the core of Luang Prabang is losing its population as development drives up prices and local residents move outside of the city, leasing their homes as guest houses and restaurants. Traditionally, young men in Laos become monks for several months or years before returning to life outside the monasteries. However many a monk in the city’s 34 temples uses his time in the temple to learn English to prepare for what has become the city’s only industry - tourism. Most of the people who work in Luang Prabang’s restaurants are former monks.
As with certain towns and cities in Vietnam and Cambodia, decades of war and repression Laos has held back the development that is now despoiling cities and historical sites elsewhere. Hence a decrease of poverty may well destroy the spirit of the city that tourists find so attractive. However, overall the architecture in Luang Prabang does not live up to what I thought would be associated with a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The buildings and temples are somewhat rundown and not that inspiring but what grabs most tourists is the ambience of the city.
Figure 63. Terraced fields (left), Kuang Si Falls (center), swimming in downstream pool (right)
From Luang Prabang we went by jumbo (right, Figure 64) some 32km south to Kuang Si Falls. It was a rainy days and on the way we passed the scene of an accident between a scooter and a truck (left, Figure 64). As most folks do not wear helmets, the injuries could have been bad.
The falls are in the mountains and the road is lined with rice fields many of which are terraced (left, Figure 63) and being worked some with water buffalos. At times the jumbo struggled to carry 9 people up the mountain road and sounded like it was ready to breakdown. Finally after about an hour we arrived at the big parking lot and market stalls at the entrance to the Kuang Si Falls Park. Walking to the waterfalls we passed by two large enclosures, one containing several Asian bears and the other a tiger named Phet. Apparently these animals had been rescued from poachers and are supported entirely by donations.
Surprisingly the waterfall did not disappoint (center, Figure 63). Just down river from the falls we went for a swim in a pool (right, Figure 63). The swim was nicely refreshing given the hot, humid weather back in Luang Prabang.
Figure 64. Scooter meets truck (left), jungle monks (center), in jumbo (right)
In the jungle trail at Kuang Si Falls we passed some monks whose saffron-coloured robes stood out against the verdant jungle green (center, Figure 64).
Figure 65. Luang Prabang from hills near Kuang Si Falls (center), repairing sick jumbo (right)
Figure 66. Seven-Headed Nāga serpent guarding entrance (left), hell (center), monk quarters (right)
Descending the mountain from Kuang Si Falls, we stopped to take a photograph of Luang Prabang in the distance with Phu Si Hill visible on the left near the bend in the Mekong River (Figure 65 left). Finally our jumbo broke down and the driver announced that it was sick (Figure 65 right). He phoned his partner who quick arrived on a motorcycle and replaced the broken relay – obviously this type of breakdown was not unexpected.
Back in Luang Prabang we walked up the steep staircase guarded by silver painted seven-headed Nāga serpent to see a wat (left, Figure 66). There was a poor pair of frantic monkeys caged at the top of the stairs. The wat was fairly poor as witnessed by the basic monk quarters (right, Figure 66). On the front of the wat were graphic murals depicting visions of Hell designed to encourage people not to act badly towards others. One panel depicted a liar having her tongue pulled out by demons (center, Figure 66).
While waiting that night for our ride back to the guest house, we watched a European biker park his BMW motorcycle in the lobby of a hotel (left, Figure 67). Apparently this is the accepted practice with motorcycles in SE Asia.
In the morning we visited the Royal Palace Museum (center, Figure 67). The Royal Palace (Haw Kham) was built in 1904 during the French colonial era for King Sisavang Vong and his family. The site for the palace was chosen so that official visitors to Luang Prabang could disembark from their river voyages directly below the palace (right, Figure 67). In 1975, the monarchy was overthrown by the communists and the Royal Family was taken to re-education camps and the palace was then converted into a national museum.
Figure 67. Motorbike in hotel lobby (left), Royal Palace Museum (center), slowboats below palace (right)
Figure 68. Village wat (left), washing clothes at village pump (center), water buffalo (right)
Leaving the museum we went down to the Mekong River to see the former royal boat landing and then walked over for our 10AM elephant riding and bathing excursion. We went with our guide and one other tourist who happened to be from Edmonton!
The site of our elephants was in the hills about 20 km outside of Luang Prabang. When we arrived, the elephants were still out on the trail with other tourists so our guide took us through the close by village. It was a small rural village in the hills but had a very nice wat (left, Figure 68). One of the villagers was washing clothing at the village water source which contrasted with the village satellite dish in the background (center, Figure 68).
We walked back to the elephant camp and I stopped in the toilet prior to our ride. I left the toilet and was walking away when a local kid shouted to me and held up my camera which I’d forgotten. This act of kindness saved the record of our trip.
We mounted our elephants from a platform and we were off. Our mahout (left, Figure 69) was outgoing and started singing a song as we moved off. We followed a trail in the jungle which passed through a dry river bed when suddenly our mahout spotted a snake in the river bed and jumped down from the elephant to try and catch it (apparently it’s tasty) but it got away. Donna spotted another snake which I was able to get a picture of (right, Figure 69).
Figure 69. Our mahout (left), sitting in howdah (center), snake in river bed (right)
Figure 70. Entering river (left), fording river (center), feeding Bounsu (right)
The trail wound steeply down to the river (left, Figure 70) and we then forded it (center, Figure 70). Exiting the river, we returned to the camp, dismounted and bought some bananas to feed our elephant. Our elephant was a 39 year old male named Bounsu. He ate the bananas but not without some encouragement on our part.
We went for a simple lunch at a restaurant on stilts (left, Figure 71). Following lunch we were to take the elephants for a bath in the river. The elephants arrived at the restaurant and were positioned along side the steps so that we could mount them. The first elephant grabbed a large sack of rice and the handlers sprung into action to reacquire the sack (left, Figure 71). Then it was time to mount up and to our surprise, we realized that we’d be riding bareback down to the river.
We mounted our individual elephants and sat directly behind the head with our legs behind its ears. Our mahout then sat behind us. The elephant’s ears kept flags to help keep it cool and the ears would beat against our legs. Riding bareback was an unnerving experience as there was nothing to hold on to except be pressing on the two big bumps on the elephant’s head (center, Figure 71). Going up and down the steep river banks was harry with little to hold on to. Donna was very nervous but her mahout was very good in calming her anxiety and letting her off when she wanted and help her back on when the ground was more level.
Figure 71. Fighting elephant (left), saddling up (left center), bareback (right center), tipping mahout (right)
Entering the river the elephants went out until the water was up to our hips. We used our hands to splash water on to and rub the elephant’s head. After finishing we returned to the elephant camp and we tipped our mahouts (right, Figure 71). The two times that we rode elephants were amongst the best experience of our trip.
Figure 72. Nam Khan River (left), tourists on Phousi Hill for sunset (center), sunset across Mekong (right)
We headed back and we were let off at our hotel and relaxed for a bit before heading back to downtown Luang Prabang for Donna’s massage appointment. While Donna had her massage, I climbed up the long and winding stairway of 329 steps to the top of Phousi Hill to enjoy the view back to our guest house on the Nam Khan River (left, Figure 72) and the sunset view of the city (right, Figure 72). There were a lot of tourists for the sunset (center, Figure 72) but most went down the way they had come up. However, taking the back way down there were many interesting things to see and views to be had. Right near the gilded stupa of Wat Phousi at the top of the hill is an abandoned Russian anti-aircraft mount that still rotates (center, Figure 73) and could engage the passenger planes coming into land (left, Figure 73)! It was probably put there by the Pathet Lao forces during either the Vietnam War or the following civil war.
Figure 73. Plane landing (left), AA gun mount (center), Buddhist prayer circle (right)
On the way down I passed many gold painted statues of Buddha (right, Figure 73) including a reclining one and saw some interesting views back along the Nam Khan River towards the Thongbay GH (left, Figure 73) and looking down to the night market (center, Figure 74). We dined that night in an excellent Parisian style restaurant along side the night market (left, Figure 74). It had the nicest ambience of any restaurant that we encounter on our trip. After supper, we perused the night market and Donna bought from the local artist, a nice painting of a woman kneeling in front of a monk with her food offering (right, Figure 74).
Figure 74. Nam Khan River from Phousi Hill (left), night market (center), monk painting artist (right)
Figure 75. Floating flower design at Thongbay GH (left), contemplative monk at GH (center), in bed (right)
We returned to the Thongbay Guest House for our final night under the mosquito netting (right, Figure 75) and our last anti-malaria pills. Next morning we packed up and said goodbye to the guest house with the fascinating floating flower art (left, Figure 75) and the contemplative monks (center, Figure 75).
3.6 Day 9 (Thu, 26 Jul) – Sightseeing Vientiane (Riverside Hotel)
We spent most of the morning lounging guest house and then headed out to the Luang Prabang airport to catch our early afternoon Lao Airlines flight to Vientiane (left, Figure 76). We flew over Luang Prabang and could see Wat Chom Si on Phousi Hill (center, Figure 76). On the 40 minute long flight, we passed over an interesting terrain that included the Mekong River, karst mountains and rice paddies (right, Figure 76). Coincidently the man who was on our elephant outing the day before was also on our flight.
Figure 76. Lao Airlines’ Embraer ATR-72 (left), Luang Prabang & Phousi Hill (center), rice paddies (right)
Figure 77. Sticks supporting floor (left), old woman vendor (center), young boy vendor (right)
We landed in Vientiane (population 200,000) and drove in a mini-bus to the Riverside Hotel which was surprisingly just a short walk from the Mekong River. Before going for supper with the group on the banks of the Mekong, we wandered down the street to see the some of the sights. These included the shops selling silk weaving; a concrete floor being supported with sticks (left, Figure 77); the exercise class beside the Mekong; an old woman vendor carrying a heavy load (center, Figure 77); and a young balloon vendor on the banks on the Mekong (right, Figure 77).
3.7 Day 10 (Fri, 27 Jul) – Sightseeing Vientiane (Riverside Hotel)
For many years the ancient silk-weaving tradition of Laos was stifled under the Communist regime that took over the country in 1975. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party saw no need for the elaborate hand-woven silks that Laotians (mostly women) had been making since at least the 14th century. With members of the country's royal family confined to “re-education” camps and with wealthy Laotians in exile, the market for lavish, labour-intensive fabrics dried up. Today, however, with the government amenable to entrepreneurship and tourism, as well as conservation-minded foreigners have revived this once-endangered art.
In the same block as our hotel there were several shops selling handicraft including Lao silk weaving. We went in to the some of these including Mixay Boutic and Camacrafts. We bought some silk hanging, bamboo silk hangers (center, Figure 78) and a fantastic painting of an old mountain tribeswoman in traditional dress smoking her pipe (signed Laduong 07) for US$125 (left, Figure 78). Although I was not certain, the woman in the painting may have been from the Hmong, a hill-dwelling ethnic minority (see inset in left pane of Figure 78). During CIA covert operations in Laos against the communists, from 1961 until 1975, tens of thousands of Hmong were hired as mercenaries to fight in America’s secret war in Laos because, unlike in Vietnam, America’s military involvement was prohibited by international treaty. The Laotian Army has been attempting to eliminate the remaining Hmong veterans who continue to hold out against the communist government.
Just down the street from our hotel was Carol Cassidy's Lao Textiles workshop, studio and gallery (http://www.laotextiles.com/) in a refurbished French colonial mansion (left, Figure 85). She founded Lao Textiles in 1990 and now employs some 40 Lao artisans who produce 100 percent hand-woven silk wall hangings, scarves, shawls and custom furnishing fabrics. She is credited with helping spur international interest in this art form. The products are exquisite but not cheap and I was undecided about what to buy so we left and were going to think about it and return before the shop closed at 1700 hours.
Figure 78. Bangkok elephant w/silk (left), painting w/water puppet (center), guard at Culture Hall (right)
Figure 79. Breakfast (left), installing prayer strings on baci tree (center), baci tree at Culture Hall (right)
We continued down the street and stopped for breakfast beside the Lao National Culture Hall at a small restaurant with very friendly waiters who were university students and teachers (school was out) (left, Figure 79). After breakfast we walked by the Culture Hall and I asked the armed guard with the AK-47 if I could take his picture and he consented (right, Figure 78). In front of the Culture Hall, we came across the world's biggest baci pha khuan at almost 10 meters high (right, Figure 79). We discovered that the baci was built for a traditional Lao baci ceremony that evening in conjunction with the Lao Ecotourism Forum. The automobile passing in front of the baci tree (right, Figure 79) illustrates the anomaly that we only saw in Vientiane, namely the abundance of expensive, late model automobiles.
We walked east towards the Talat Sao (the Morning Market) and passed by the fascinating That Dam (Black Stupa) (left, Figure 80). This large dark grey stupa is covered with plant growth. Traditionally it is believed to be inhabited by a seven headed dragon that tried to protect the inhabitants of Vientiane from the armies of Siam, who invaded in 1827.
Figure 80. Black Stupa (left), US Embassy (center), wat entrance on Lane Xang Road (right)
On both sides of a street running towards That Dam is the heavily protected US Embassy (center, Figure 80). We walked down the street to the entrance of the embassy and stopped to read the notices to US citizens at the entrance. Most interesting is the notice that there is a 'secret law' in Laos which stipulates that it's illegal for foreigners to have sexual relations with a Laotian woman unless it is one’s wife. The penalty for a breach of the law is imprisonment plus a $5000 fine.
Figure 81. Traffic in modern Vientiane (left), AK-47 in Talat Sao Mall (center), audience in mall (right)
Continuing on towards the Talat Sao (the Morning Market), we walked along streets full motorbikes and new vehicles (left, Figure 81) before entering the Talat Sao Mall. This mall is much like any North American mall and thankfully it was air conditioned given the oppressive heat and humidity outside. There were many jewellery stores in the mall but unlike a North American mall there were police armed with AK-47 rifles (center, Figure 81). Our guide later told us that the police hire out there services to the private sector to increase their income which is not unlike what off-duty Ottawa police do.
Coincidently the Talat Sao Mall was holding a show which featured a comedy sketch group. The three floors of the mall were packed with well-heeled young and older people who had come to see the group (right, Figure 81). Of course not being able to speak Laotian, we could not understand the dialog but we could get the gist of the sketch which involved a man dressed up as a woman. Like everywhere, he got a lot of laughs.
Of course most locals cannot afford to shop at the Talat Sao Mall and like them we went to the Talat Sao market next door (left, Figure 82). This was the most exotic market that we saw during our trip in SE Asia. In the food section, the smells of the fish, toads and other interesting animals was strong in the hot temperature. On we pressed, looking for a large suitcase to hold our long painting. After combing through much of the market, we finally found a luggage vendor who had some big luggage. He wanted US$35 for the Ralph Lauren looking “Polo” suitcase (Conclusion Section in Part 2). We offered US$30 which he reluctantly accepted. It’s funny to note that in the course of our travel with this suitcase: the pullout handle broke; the carrying handle pulled off at the Saigon Airport; and the zippers threatened to come open. I figure that either it was a counterfeit product or it was karma for bargaining down the vendor.
We walked down the broad Lane Xang Road to see the Patuxai (Victory Gate). On the way we passed by a wat archway that was decorated with a giant naga (right, Figure 80). Lane Xang Road is remarkably like the Champs-Elysées in Paris which is fitting given that Patuxai was inspired by the Arc de Triumphe. The colloquial name for Patuxai is the ‘vertical runway’ (center, Figure 82) because in 1968 the US government donated cement for build a runway at Vientiane but the government decided to use the cement to complete this monument to the independence of Laos from France.
Figure 82. Shoes in Morning Market (left), our jumbo (center), army truck as public transport (right)
The sign on Patuxai says in part "At the northeastern end of the LaneXang Ave arises a huge structure resembling the Arc de Triomphe ... From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete." Never a truer statement has been made by a government official since Patuxai is indeed a soulless concrete monstrosity.
We climbed up the stairway to the top of Patuxai which has wonderful views out over Vientiane especially down Lane Xang Road to the Presidential Palace (left, Figure 83). On the west side at the top there is a sign that you are forbidden to take pictures – apparently they are building a new sensitive government building, possibly the ministry of defence (right, Figure 83).
We were quite tired from walking in the oppressive heat and so flagged down a passing jumbo (center, Figure 82) to go back to our hotel. On our way back, the nature of the vehicles on the roads indicated the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor in Laos. In Vientiane there were many brand new expensive SUVs and cars on the road – automobiles that are expensive here in North America. At the other end of the economic spectrum are cargo trucks carrying people packed in like sardines (right, Figure 82). Our guide later told us that the expensive cars are accounted for by extensive corruption in government and that if a person has US$100K to invest in Laos then they are exempt from the steep sale taxes on new vehicles.
Figure 83. Lane Xang Road (left), ‘vertical runway’ (center), sensitive construction (right)
Unfortunately, we arrived back too late to go to Carol Cassidy's Lao Textiles before it closed for the day and we were leaving on the morrow.
Figure 84. Laotian dancers (left), prayer strings on baci tree (center), carrying water jugs in teeth (right)
That evening we returned to the Lao National Culture Hall to see the baci ceremony and we were surprised to see the courtyard set up with food booths and a stage. There were about 30 food booths set up by various local restaurateurs serving free food and drinks. The free food was complimented by the free stage shows which included beautiful Laotian dancers in colourful silk clothing (Figure 84 left) and Laotian tribal men and women carried heavy water filled jugs in their teeth (Figure 84 right). The dancers looked so good and comfortable which was impressive given the oppressive heat and humidity.
Meanwhile over at the baci pha khuan, people were grabbing white cotton threads off it (Figure 84 center). In Laos, white is the color of peace, good fortune, honesty and warmth and the white cotton thread is a symbol of continuity and brotherhood in the community and permanence. These cotton threads were blessed by a Buddhist monk and by tying them on, one is binding the 32 spirits (the kwan) believed to watch over the human body's 32 organs which are thought to constitute a person's spiritual essence. According to tradition, the baci threads should be worn for at least three days subsequently and should be untied rather than cut off, however it is preferred that they are kept on until they fall off by themselves.
I was able to climb up with the assistance of a kind local and retrieve a couple of the threads for us and we tied them on our wrists. After watching the fascinating stage show until it ended, we returned to our hotel for the night. All and all, it was an excellent evening of free food and entertainment.
3.8 Day 11 (Sat, 28 Jul) – Vientiane to Hin Boun Homestay
As we were leaving at 1000 hours in the morning, we got up early to have breakfast and be at the Lao Textiles store when it opened at 0800 hours to buy a wall hanging. We arrived before the lady who opens up the store (center, Figure 85). She escorted us in and offered us a coffee while we looked around. I decided to buy a navy blue siho (a mythical half lion half elephant creature) hanging for the US$45 list price and US$5 for its carved wooden hanging rod. She must have been surprised that we did not try to bargain because she gave us US$5 off! She then expertly wrapped the hanging and took us out into the weaving shop to show us the women who was making a siho hanging exactly like mine. She said that it took 5 days to produce one of these small silk hangings.
Figure 85. Lao Textiles (left), wrapping hanging (center), weaver (right)
At 1000 hours we were off to the homestay at Hin Boun but before leaving Vientiane we stopped to see Pha That Luang (Great Stupa in Lao), the most important symbol of Laos nationality. It was built in the 16th century under King Setthathirat on the ruins of an earlier 13th century Khmer temple, which the Lao believe was in turn built on a 3rd century Indian temple. Pha That Luang was destroyed during the Thai invasion under King Rama I in 1778 when he took the Emerald Buddha to Bangkok (see Section 2.3). Pha That Luang was later restored to its original design. On a sunny day such as we had, Pha That Luang is spectacular (Figure 86).
Figure 86. Great Stupa (left), colourful roof line (center), golden facade (right)
We drove from Vientiane to the homestay at Hin Boun. Hin Boun is a small village in the north-south mountain range that runs along the Laos-Vietnam border. However to get there we drove through a flat verdant plain (Figure 87 left). There were interesting scenes such as the vendors on a motorcycle selling soft drinks in plastic bags with straws (Figure 87 center) and a local market where we bought some deep fried dough balls (Figure 87 right).
Figure 87. Rice fields (left), motorized Coke vendors (center), local market (right)
We left the plain and climbed up into the mountains where the locals engage in hunting and bamboo harvesting (left, Figure 88). Since the road leads to Vietnam, there were trucks on the road and signs urging the truckers to wear a condom (right, Figure 88). Many of the bridges on this road were of the Bailey bridge variety used extensively by the Allied forces in WWII (center, Figure 88).
Figure 88. Bamboo harvesters (left), truck from Vietnam (center), truckers wear a condom! (right)
Figure 89. US bombing campaigns in Laos (left), Hin Boun and Ho Chi Minh Trail (right)
Climbing through the mountains to Hin Boun, we were approaching the area in Laos through which ran the well-known Ho Chi Minh Trail as it made its way from North Vietnam into various areas of South Vietnam (right, Figure 89).
The trail system wound its way through some of the most difficult terrain in Southeast Asia: a sparsely-populated region of rugged mountains (1,500-8,000 feet) covered by a triple-canopy jungle (right, Figure 90). Porters and trucks from North Vietnam crossed the Truong Son Mountains into Laos, followed the jungle trails, and then re-crossed the mountains into South Vietnam to deliver their shipments.
Table 2. Distribution of US bombing sorties during Second Indochina War (1968-73) (Ref K)
Largely due to a fear of direct Chinese involvement in the American War (Vietnam War), the US forces were enjoined from attacking the movement of war supplies into North Vietnam from Russia and China. So the targeting of men and materiel by US airpower occurred in Laos and Cambodia even though these countries were theoretically neutral according to the Geneva Accord. Although the US “secretly” dropped millions of tons of bombs in Laos and Cambodia, the North Vietnamese were “able to move what they truly had to move” (Ref D). In fact Laos received almost 50% of US bombing sorties during the Second Indochina War period of 1968-1973 (Table 2)! Overall between 1964 and April 1973 when the bombing of Laos ended (Operation Barrel Roll), Laos had become the most heavily bombed country in the world with over 3 million tons of bombs dropped - 3 times the amount dropped on North Vietnam. The US spending on the bombing campaign was 10 times that of the Laotian national budget (Ref P).
Figure 90. B-52 boat (B-52 inset) (left), B-52 boat & rugged mountains used by Ho Chi Minh Trail (right)
Although the bombing of the trails failed, the result on both Laos and Cambodia was devastating. Perhaps the only good thing to come out the bombing was the B-52 boats at Hin Boun. The local people used old B-52 bomber drop fuel tanks to make boats (left, Figure 90). The 1,000 US gallon drop tanks can be seen end the end of the wings in the inset of a B-52 bombing in the left pane of Figure 90.
The homestay was at the adjacent houses of two families (center, Figure 91) who each had several young children. The houses were on a high bluff overlooking the river. We got to the homestay late in the afternoon and went out for a half cruise on the river in the families’ B-52 boats (right, Figure 90) at a cost of US$10/person. From the boats we could see the rugged mountain terrain in the distance. It was getting dark when we returned to the homestay.
We ate separately from the families and slept in a separate room. The supper and breakfast prepared by our guide were excellent. During the preparation of supper, a toddler received a minor burn on her finger and Donna tried to apply a band-aid but the kid was too afraid to accept the aid (Figure 91 left).
We went to bed early as there wasn’t much to do and slept under mosquito nettings on a mattress on the floor. Oddly our sleep was interrupted by a truck that drove up to the houses about 2300 hours. I got up to check that our mini-bus wasn’t being broken into but all was well.
Figure 91. Baby rejects Band-Aid (left), homestay buildings (center), old woman off for river bath (right)
Although the people were nice enough, overall I found the homestay was disappointing as we had little interaction with families and did not see what they did for work. I would have preferred staying at a rice farmer home to learn a little about rice farming.
The three-month flood and storm season (monsoon) often extends from August to October in Vietnam. Vietnam faces up to 10 storms a year, causing millions of dollars in damage and killing hundreds of people. So travelling through Vietnam during the monsoon period can involve dealing with problems such as flooding which cuts road and rail service (see Section 4.7) or stormy weather that keeps the Halong Bay tourist boats in port.
The Vietnam War was one of the major events of my youth as it dominated the news and popular culture. Hence for me, any trip to Vietnam is intimately tied to the story of that war. The names of the various recent wars involving the Vietnamese peoples depend on where you’re sitting. Since the Vietnamese have fought the French, the Americans and the Chinese, the terms “Indochina War” and “Vietnam War” that are used in the West could cover anyone of these wars. Hence the Vietnamese know these wars as the French War, the American War and the Sino-Vietnamese War.
Given that French Indochina included the current states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the three aforementioned wars that touched this area are also known as the First Indochina War, the Second Indochina War and the Third Indochina War.
4.2 Day 12 (Sun, 29 Jul) – Laos to Ninh Binh, Vietnam
We left the homestay after breakfast at 0800 hours and made the 1½ hour drive to the border. The mountainous countryside and towns were interesting along the route and we passed water buffaloes on the roadway (left, Figure 92) and displays of motorbikes for sale (right, Figure 92). Given the mountainous nature of the terrain it was hard to see how military professionals could believe that bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail could be overly effective (center, Figure 92).
Figure 92. Transport passes water buffalo (left), misty mountains (center), motorbike dealer (right)
At the Laos-Vietnam border (center, Figure 93) there was much activity as goods were being cross-loaded from Laotian trucks to Vietnamese vehicles (left, Figure 93). We had to carry our luggage across the border (right, Figure 93). As it was Sunday, we had to pay an US$1/person overtime to the personnel manning the customs desk – apparently the godless communists take Sunday off. Our passports were not sufficient to get into Vietnam and so we had to present another form of identification – Donna presented her credit card and I used my expired driver’s license.
Figure 93. Loading refrigerator on jeep (left), border crossing (center), walking to Vietnamese bus (right)
Driving in Vietnam from the border to Ninh Binh, we saw many surprising and interesting scenes. Once down from the mountains we drove on Highway 1 (connecting Saigon with Hanoi). This is nominally a two lane highway but clever Vietnamese drivers have turned it into one that can handle five lanes of traffic (center, Figure 94). Passing occurs even if there is oncoming traffic as it was assumed that the oncoming vehicle will move over and drive on the shoulder while the bicyclists and motorcyclists will find a way to survive (right, Figure 94)! There are a fair number of traffic police on the highway but the drivers signal each other using hand signs and by flashing their headlights to alerts oncoming drivers to presence or absence of police.
Overall, the driving on Highway 1 and elsewhere is quite daring as the Vietnamese make a two lane road into a 3 or sometimes 5 lane road with the added thrill of getting a very good look at oncoming traffic and passing by the cyclists and scooter drivers quite closely. The women toll takers on the highway and other women frequently wear long sleeves and what looks like anti-flash headdress to keep their skin from darkening in the sun as white skin is highly valued (left, Figure 94) – dark skin is that of a peasant farmer.
Figure 94. Toll taker’s anti-flash garb (left), five wide on Highway 1 (center), mix of vehicles (right)
Figure 95. New house (left), urban water buffaloes (center), rice planting (right)
There was a lot of new construction throughout Vietnam including private houses. These houses are interesting in that they are generally colourful, narrow and 2 ½ stories high with a turret on the top (left, Figure 95). Apparently the turret is used as a spirit house for the souls of the house owners’ ancestors.
For me the water buffalo is the quintessential symbol of SE Asia and I was not disappointed in the drive along Highway 1. There were water buffalo in the rice fields (right, Figure 95) and even in the town (center, Figure 95).
As we went deeper into Vietnam and the cities became bigger, we passed through cities decked out with colourful banners in the yellow and red colours banners of the Communist party (left, Figure 96). These banners are associated with Vietnam’s 60th anniversary of Martyrs and Wounded Soldiers' Day.
Having finished an eleven hour bus ride, we arrived late in the afternoon in Ninh Binh and went to the Thuy Anh Hotel. Our room in the hotel was fine but the mini-door to our room was most unusual (right, Figure 96). The hotel was quite good and it had a courtyard with a bar service. However while sipping her beer, Donna saw a rat running along a pipe on the side of hotel. This put her off the hotel and so we had the keep our room window closed to keep out the vermin and the cool night air J
A short walkabout Ninh Binh revealed some interesting sights such as the man on the tricycle delivering big vases. This was another example of the Vietnamese’s ability to make work whatever transport they have available – just like on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Figure 96. Communist banners (left), delivering big vases (center), our room’s mini-door (right)
In the morning, we drove from Ninh Binh to near Haiphong Harbour to board our Chinese junk for a cruise and overnight on Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site (Figure 97).
Figure 97. The amazing Ha Long Bay - UNESCO World Heritage site
The cruise through the karst limestone tower formations was very scenic (Figure 97). The small rocky islets rise vertically out of the flat-calm South China Sea, undercut by waves around their bases and dotted with caves. Lush jungle vegetation clings to their sides wherever it can, home to the endangered Golden-headed Langur which is now too rare to stand a realistic chance of being seen. Floating fishing villages take shelter in some of the coves and bays (right, Figure 97), and the women row their fragile-looking sampans out to the tourist boats to sell food and drinks (right, Figure 100).
Against my better judgment we opted to get off the boat and climb up the long flight of steps to see the Hang Sung Sot (Cave of the Surprises) cave that consists of three vast chambers full of enormous stalagmites and stalactites that are lit for dramatic effect (Figure 98). This cave was discovered by French on 1901.
It was so hot and humid that I took off my shirt but I was still drenched with sweat when we arrived at the cave entrance. In the cave we followed a 500 meter paved passage until we climbed up to the exit (left, Figure 100). At the exit of the cave there are vendors selling drinks and we bought a large bottle of water. There is a rock formation at the exit that when viewed from the right angle looks surprisingly like a pair of bears with their feet hanging over the edge (Figure 98).
Figure 98. Illuminated cave in Hang Sung Sot cave (left), bears hanging out (right)
The view from the exit out over the waiting tourist boats is amazing (Figure 99). Perhaps the view made the climb worth the effort but a day relaxing on the boat would have been equally rewarding.
Figure 99. Tourist boat below Hang Sung Sot cave (left), close-up of boats (right)
At the base of the cave we bought a snack from a vendor working out of a small skiff (right, Figure 100).
Figure 100. Sweating at the cave exit (left), vendor in skiff at base of cave (right)
After leaving the cave, we sailed about a mile to a large sheltered bay and anchored for the night. We when had a chance to go swimming (left, Figure 101) including making a 20 foot jump off the sundeck of the boat. After swimming we could relax on the sundeck and watch all the other tourist boats at anchor (right, Figure 101). Rowing between the tourist boats were a number of women vendors in small skiffs selling water and snack food (right, Figure 101) who made it clear not to photograph them.
Figure 101. Swimming in Halong Bay (left), relax on top of boat (center), tourist boats at anchor (right)
Figure 102. Sunset over Halong Bay (left), moonrise over Halong Bay (right)
The food onboard was prepared by the crew and was very tasty and colourful - there was fish, prawns, chicken, pork, squid with tentacles, spring rolls, steamed rice and french fries. For desert we had pineapples, watermelon, apple and dragon fruit (red pitaya) - a very pretty looking fruit whose inside looks like an apple mixed with black sesame seeds.
There are women who row around from junk to junk selling snacks and drinks (left, Figure 104) and one does feel bad that you cannot buy something from everyone. However, at the end of the day, we were rewarded with a magnificent sunset over Halong Bay (left, Figure 102) which was followed several hours later by an equally dramatic moonrise over the bay (right, Figure 102).
In the morning we got up about 0700 hours as the anchor was being raised and went to breakfast while the boat headed back to port from Halong Bay (Figure 103 center). The breakfast included the fascinating dragon fruit (Figure 103 left) that tastes somewhat like a weak apple. We later saw the dragon fruit growing on trees in Hué (Figure 125).
Figure 103. Dragon fruit (left), farewell to Halong Bay (center), the bridge of our boat (right)
Figure 104. Women vendors afloat (left), boat’s flag (center), pushing into dock (right)
When we arrived back at the busy dock, our boat pushed its way in as is the practice (right, Figure 104). Soon we were off on our mini-bus to Hanoi. About an hour from Hanoi, we stopped at the Dai Nghia Humanitarian Center which states that it was set up on 10 December 2000 to teach handicapped children affected by Agent Orange (sprayed by the US as a defoliant – see Figure 131) and war invalids and martyrs to do some handicraft so that they can be self-supporting. I bought a silk thread picture and Donna bought some scarves.
We arrived in Ha Noi meaning “between rivers“ (the city was known as Thang Long until the 1830s) in the afternoon. Hanoi is located in the Red River Delta but there are many other rivers flowing through the capital including the Duong, Cau, Ca Lo, Day, Nhue, Tich, To Lich and Kim Nguu. In fact Hanoi has several lakes in the built-up area. The city is situated in a tropical monsoon zone with two main seasons: the dry season, which lasts from October to April, is cool (average 62.9ºF) and there is little rainfall; and the wet season, from May to September, is hot with heavy rains and storms (average 84.6ºF).
We had lunch at Koto (61 Van Mieu Street) which was just around the corner from our hotel and across the street from the Temple of Literature. Koto is a training restaurant run by former street and disadvantaged youth who receive training as cooks and servers. Their placement rate is very high which is not surprising given the quality of the food and the excellent service by the trainees. The founder of Koto, Jimmy Pham, plans to open a Koto in Hué then next year in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The food was so good that we ate there several more times and the food proved to be amongst the best that we ate during our trip.
Figure 105. Map of downtown Hanoi (left), Temple of Literature model showing 3 of 5 courtyards (right)
I was not interested in paying to go and see the Water Puppet show but it was included in the price of our tour, so that evening we walked from our hotel to see a performance of the Water Puppet theatre.
Vietnamese water puppetry has a long history. An inscription on a stone stage relates in 4036 words a water-puppet show staged in the year 1121 to mark a birth anniversary of King Ly Nhan Tong. Vietnamese water puppetry is an age-old typical and traditional art, closely bound to rural culture and agricultural civilization of rice planting of Vietnamese peasants. In water puppet shows there is a combination of the visual effects provided by fire, water, and the movements of the puppets (puppets on long sticks that are kept underwater). The puppet masters are behind a curtain, while under the surface of the water is concealed the control system of the show.
The show started with a group singing and playing traditional folk music on period instruments including the pak bo. The music was interesting but it did not grab me. The performance of the water puppets told a series of stories involving water buffaloes, farmers, dancing fairy figures, scenes of battle with the participation of fire-spitting dragons moving about a very agitated water surface. While it was interesting for a while, it went on for about an hour which was too long.
After the show we went to supper with the group after which we bought some Vietnamese communist khaki-coloured baseball-like caps with a big red star on the front for US 2$ from an old woman in a shop. We walked back to the hotel. It was somewhat dark and near the hotel, Donna stepped into a recessed drain in the street and fell, wrenching her ankle. She cried out when falling and immediately three Vietnamese rushed over to help her up and pick up the items that she had dropped. Donna could only hobble and I immediately felt that she had broken her ankle and would have to fly home to Ottawa for treatment. After limping back to the hotel, we went up to the room and I got some ice from the hotel staff for Donna’s ankle. Fortunately we had an elastic bandage and anti-inflammatories so we were able to perform first aid on the ankle. The ice and bandage kept the swelling down but it was still very painful to walk on. Since a high percentage of medicine in SE Asia is counterfeit, we were lucky that we did not have to purchase any following the accident.
About a month after returning home, Donna went to her doctor who ordered an x-ray of her still tender ankle and discovered that it had broken and was still healing. In short we were lucky that the break was such that it could bear weight and knit in a manner that did not require medical intervention. In any event Donna did an excellent job of toughing out a painful injury.
In the morning Donna was able to get up and limped to breakfast at Koto’s restaurant. The tour leader was kind enough to arrange a motorcycle ride for Donna to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (Figure 107) while the rest of us walked over.
Access to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is tightly controlled and we had to check our cameras and then queue up in the hot sun for about 40 minutes before getting in. The air conditioning inside the Mausoleum keeps it very cool which is initially a welcome relief from the heat outside but soon it feels uncomfortably cool. Ho Chi Minh, wearing a white suit, was lying inside a sealed glass coffin and looked like a wax figure from Madame Tussaud’s waxworks – the effect left me cold. His corpse is preserved using the same Russian technology used to preserve the corpse of Lenin in Moscow’s Red Square.
Figure 107. Wounded on motorcycle (left), Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (center), Mausoleum entrance (right)
There was no talking or stopping allowed in the Mausoleum which is just as well. Exiting the Mausoleum, we got our cameras back and were able to take photographs of the mausoleum’s exterior (center, Figure 107). There was a group of Vietnamese veterans wearing their medals who were visiting the mausoleum. They were escorted to the head of the queue and the ceremonial guard placed their floral wreaths at the entrance (left, Figure 107).
Exiting the mausoleum’s square, we walked past the former palace of the French Governor-General of Indochina (left, Figure 108). This attractive yellow palace, an excellent example of grand French colonial architecture, was built between 1900 and 1906. When Vietnam achieved independence from France in 1954, it was renamed the Presidential Palace of Vietnam but Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the building for symbolic reasons, although he still received state guests there. Today, the palace hosts important government meetings and it is not open to the public.
We then walk over to see Ho Chi Minh’s house on stilts. The guide explained that in 1958 Ho Chi Minh moved to this simple but tasteful wooden house on stilts, which served as his living quarters and work space until his death in 1969. An elegant but spare study - some books, his small typewriter, a few newspapers, and an electric fan presented to him by a group of Japanese Communists are visible - adjoins his equally spare bedroom.
Figure 108. Presidential Palace (left), stilt house guard (center), Ho Chi Minh’s house on stilts (right)
We stopped over to see the famous One Pillar Pagoda which was originally built in 1049 structure to resemble a lotus blossom floating on the water. Unfortunately it was destroyed by the departing French before leaving Hanoi to the Vietnamese in 1954. It was rebuilt by the Communists with a massive concrete pillar and so looks completely uninspired (left, Figure 109). The fish pond is nice though.
Figure 109. One Pillar Pagoda (left), golden Art Deco-like panel (center), Objective Saigon! (right)
Next we visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum which is dedicated to the life and deeds of Ho Chi Minh (broadly defined). It was built with the aid of the USSR in the late 1980s and is an attractive building. Inside this museum is a collection of displays that are related to the life and times of Uncle Ho. I found the displays to be interesting. For example in the section dedicated to the American War, there is a war map showing the thrusts by the North Vietnamese Army on Saigon in 1975 that ended that war and finally reunified Vietnam (right, Figure 109). There were several very interesting pieces of art such as the impressive Art Deco inspired golden panel showing a horse arising from what looks like clouds and fire.
We had to leave the museum at 1130 hours as like many institutions in Vietnam, it was closed for siesta between 1130-1300 hours. We then caught a taxi back to our hotel so Donna could rest her ankle until supper. While Donna rested (left, Figure 110), I went out to see some more of Hanoi. From the hotel restaurant I could look into the police barracks courtyard and could see the police being issued ammunition before their shift started (center, Figure 110).
My first stop was the Temple of Literature (right, Figure 110) which was just down the street from our hotel. In 1070 King Ly Thanh Tong founded this temple to pay tribute to education and to those of high academic achievement. Six years later, it became home to Hanoi's first university. It has been hundred of years since it was an active university but it is a peaceful place to repose in the middle of hectic Hanoi. The temple is laid out into five courtyards (right, Figure 105; left, Figure 111) whose surrounding buildings have fascinating architecture.
Figure 110. Donna’s wounded ankle (left), issuing police bullets (center), Temple of Literature (right)
In 1482 Emperor Le Thanh Tong ordered the erection of stelae with inscriptions of the names, places of birth, and achievements of graduates who had received doctorates since 1442. There are Presently 82 stela stand at Van Mieu. Each stela is carried on the back of a turtle. Young people, probably students stop by these stelae and seek out certain ones and then rub the turtle’s head. This is apparently a way to have the success of the doctor laureates rub off (center, Figure 111). I too elected to rub the head of a turtle but it was unclear to me which doctorate I targeted.
Figure 111. Side on courtyard (left), doctorate turtles (center), Chinese temple statue (right)
The courtyards towards the rear of the Temple of Learning have several building that appear to being Chinese temples that hold larger than life Confucian statues that are venerated by locals (right, Figure 111).
Figure 112. Army Museum & Flag Tower (left), bird on T-54 tank barrel (center), PT-76 & T-34 (right)
Leaving the Temple of Learning, walked over to Lenin Park, with a statue of Vladimir Lenin, and passed by another park containing the Cot Co Flag Tower (left, Figure 112), built by the French as an observation tower in 1812 and a rare survivor of the French and American Wars. Beside this park is the Army Museum (Bao Tang Quan Doi). The Army Museum was established in June 1959 and documents the great periods of the armed struggle of the Vietnamese people. The museum holds the tank that burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon to mark final reunification of Vietnam. There is also an assortment of military relics including a Mig-21 fighter (left, Figure 112), anti-aircraft missiles, tanks and the wreckage of US B-52 bomber and a French prop-driven plane that were both shot down in the Hanoi area.
On my way back to our hotel I came upon another traffic accident, in this one a motorbike carrying bags of ice collided with a cyclist and his load fell off and was melting away in the heat (left, Figure 113). The motorcyclist was a bit shaken but the traffic police didn’t seem that interested until I started to help the rider pick his bags of ice off the roadway and onto the sidewalk where he could repack the unbroken ones. Once I started to help the traffic police came over to help out.
Other members in our group felt that there were few accidents in Vietnam because unlike us, they had not seen any. The fact is that 13,000 Vietnamese having died in traffic accidents last year alone, 80% of them from head injuries (Ref L). There is a new law is to take effect on 15 December 2007 that requires motorbike riders and passengers to wear helmets on the road. However with 22 million motorbikes in the country, up from 500,000 motorbikes fifteen years ago, and the low income of many owners, it’ll be a difficult law to enforce.
Figure 113. Iceman gets hit (left), selling produce in the street (right)
4.6 Day 16 (Thu, 2 Aug) – Sightseeing in Hanoi & train to Hué
Donna’s ankle felt better so after our meager continental breakfast at our hotel we went for a short walk to see the Temple of Learning which she had not seen.
Figure 114. Monk reading (left), retired water puppets (center), big drum (right)
We saw a monk reading in one of the
courtyards which seemed a perfect for the Temple of Learning (left, Figure 114). We stopped in a store
whose sales women claimed that the wooden puppets on display were retired from
performing in the Water Puppet show (center, Figure 114). Donna bought a nice
puppet of a woman in traditional dress (US$20) and I bought a damaged dragon’s
head (US$15) (center, Figure 78). Later on we stopped at a store across from the
Temple that also sold puppets very similar to the puppet that Donna had
bought. We did not however see another puppet like my dragon head. Hence I
believe that the dragon head could have been a retired puppet but the woman
puppet is unlikely to be one. In any event both wooden puppets were nice.
In a building in the center courtyard, we stopped in to see a short performance by a group of traditional musicians (left and center, Figure 115). They have several interesting instruments including one that looked like the pipes of Pan but it was played by clapping hands at the mouth of the instruments to create air movement rather than blowing into the pipe (center, Figure 115). This traditional group was right up to date in that they were selling their CD recording.
At one of the entrances to a courtyard, there was the sculpture of a small warrior whose nose had being polished by people rubbing it (right, Figure 115).
Figure 115. Traditional musicians (left), clapping flute (center), warriors (right)
At the far end of the Temple was a courtyard with a giant drum hanging drum on one side (right, Figure 114) and a large bell on the other side.
On our way back we came across a flower shop on a motorbike (Figure 115 left) and a barber with a barbershop on the street near our hotel. I needed a haircut so after waiting for the other customer to finish, I got in the chair and received an excellent haircut. I paid US$2 while the Vietnamese customer before me paid the equivalent of about US25¢. In any event it was a very good haircut.
Figure 116. Flower shop on motorbike (left), street barber (center), my haircut (right)
At abut 1600 hours, the luggage for the whole group was taken to the Hanoi train station on a single cyclo (left, Figure 117)! Once again it was amazing to see how much the Vietnamese can move on a manpowered vehicle.
Figure 117. Luggage on cyclo (left), at Hanoi train station (center), Reunification Express (right)
Figure 118. Four bed sleeper compartment (left), in the bunk (right)
At 6 PM we boarded the Reunification Express for the 27 hour trip from Hanoi to Hué (the train continues on to Saigon). Fortunately we had an air conditioned sleeper with four bunks (left, Figure 118). It was a panic situation when the air conditioning in our compartment stopped working. Since the window didn’t open, the lack of air conditioning would make it very uncomfortable given the heat and humidity. After about 30 minutes, the repairman had fixed the AC and we could literally breathe easier.
With dawn, I got up to see the countryside and some grimy factories (left, Figure 119) pass by. The farmers were up early working their fields with their water buffaloes (right, Figure 119). The sunrise also brought music over the car’s PA system. Surprisingly the music was American songs from the 1960s and 1970s – it sounded like a soundtrack captured from the US Army during the Vietnam War.
Figure 119. Factory (left), countryside with water buffalo (right)
In the early morning we passed through the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separated North and South Vietnam following the Geneva Conference of 1954 which ended French rule of Indochina. There were some Vietnam War-era bomb craters visible in the countryside. In various areas bombed by the Americans, many of the craters (38' diameter by 20' deep from 1000 lb. bombs dropped by B-52s – Ref R) have been turned into reservoirs or fish ponds.
Our train arrived in Hué at 0900 hours, only about an hour late which was much better than the Intrepid Tour travelers who were stranded on the train for a couple of days following a big tropical storm on 10 August that caused serious flooding along the line and required reconstruction work to repair the damage.
Having arrived in Hué, we were in the former Republic of Vietnam (RVN) or South Vietnam which was the scene of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War (a.k.a. American War) was a military conflict in present day Vietnam occurring from 1959 to April 30, 1975. The conflict was a successful effort by the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV or North Vietnam) and the indigenous National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, (also known as NLF, the Việt Cộng, "Charlie" or "VC") to unify Vietnam. The ground war occurred mainly in South Vietnam between the US Armed Forces and their allies in the Army of the Vietnamese Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and their allies in NLF. To a degree, the Vietnam War was a proxy war part of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China supporting the DRV against the American side. Of course the end result was a reunified Vietnam under the rule of the communist North Vietnam.
In the lobby of the Gold Hotel, we again saw that the Vietnamese do like big, heavy, carved wooden furniture (left & center, Figure 120). In fact some of these chairs are too heavy for a single person to lift.
After checking into the Gold Hotel we went out on a motorbike tour around Hué and its environs (right, Figure 120). Each of our group was given a helmet and a motorbike with driver. The group of seven motorbikes was lead by a local guide who spoke good English and was very entertaining. The trip cost us $10 US each plus and we gave a tip of US $2 tip to our drivers at the end.
Figure 120. Big chair in Hanoi (left), big chair in Gold Hotel lobby (center), off on motorbike tour (right)
Figure 121. Hué Citadel (left), Lilies in moat around Purple Forbidden City (right)
We crossed the Perfume River from the south bank where modern Hué is built to our first stop of the tour – the Citadel of Hué (Figure 121).
During the Tet Offensive in February 1968, North Vietnamese regulars, supported by Viet Cong local soldiers - an estimated 2,000 men in all – attacked Hué and seized the Citadel of the ancient royal palace, dug in and raised the Viet Cong flag atop its crumbling battlements. Initially to avoid damaging much of Viet Nam's heritage, planes supporting the allied counterattack used only guns and rockets no larger than 2.5 in. in order to protect the city's buildings and royal tombs and monuments. However after four days the Communists still held more than half the city, heritage was reluctantly sacrificed to necessity and the bombs loosed on the Citadel. (Ref G)
In 1968, Time Magazine stated that “After the 24-day battle, the Citadel of Hué resembled nothing so much as the ruins of Monte Cassino after allied bombs had reduced it to rubble. An avalanche of bricks littered the streets and open spaces, and loose piles of masonry provided cover for both sides in the battle for the fortress. With every explosion of bomb or shell, the air turned red with choking brick dust. Having fought through Hué block by block, house by house, then yard by yard, the U.S. Marines were now engaged in what a company commander called a "brick-by-brick fight" to drive the North Vietnamese forces from the Citadel. The destruction in Hué was such that 90,000 of Hué pre-Tet population of 130,000 became refugees. As well, 9,000 houses were destroyed and the 10,000 heavily damaged Hué.” (Ref B)
Figure 122. Ruins in Purple Forbidden City (left), Gate in Forbidden City (right)
Figure 123. View of tour boat from pagoda (left), Thien Mu Pagoda (right)
Leaving the Citadel, we drove west along the Perfume River to Hué's best-known religious site, the Thien Mu Pagoda (right, Figure 123). The view from the pagoda is very nice (left, Figure 123) and one can readily see the verdant hills in the distance where the Viet Cong operated throughout the Vietnam War.
On the grounds of the pagoda is the Austin car (right, Figure 124) in which the 66 year old monk named Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon for his deadly protest against the anti-Buddhist policies of the Diem regime. On June 11, 1963 Duc’s fellow monks doused him in gasoline and he then lit a match and burned to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon (left, Figure 124). The unburnt heart of Duc is also preserved at the pagoda as a religious relic.
Figure 124. Duc’s self-immolation in Saigon (left), Austin that carried monk to Saigon (right)
On a less depressing note, the flowers in the pagoda’s pond are very pretty (left & center, Figure 125) and the dragon fruit is strange and interesting (right, Figure 125). We ate dragon fruit several times in Vietnam (left, Figure 103).
Figure 125. Flowers in pond (left, center), dragon fruit in tree (right)
Figure 126. Crossing Perfume River on RR bridge (left), Approaching train (right)
Leaving the pagoda we crossed the Perfume River on a railroad bridge with a narrow pathway (left, Figure 126). Opportunistically we met a train heading to cross the bridge (right, Figure 126). Life is experienced so much more vividly on a motorbike compared to a car.
Next we stop at Ho Quyen, an amphitheatre where the Vietnamese Royal family used to enjoy watching elephant and tiger fights (left, Figure 127). Since the elephant was a royal animal and much loved and revered, the tigers were doped beforehand and had their canines and claws removed prior to the duel. This ensured that although the bouts were lengthy and action packed, the elephant would invariably win. This amphitheatre was used right up until 1904.
We had an excellent lunch at a Buddhist monastery (right, Figure 127) but I was unwilling to eat as I was suffering from diarrhea.
Figure 127. Ho Quyen amphitheatre (left), lunch at monastery (right)
Figure 128. Front of monastery (left), altar (center), monastery courtyard (right)
It was interesting to walk around the monastery and stick one’s head in the various buildings (left, Figure 128). The courtyard was very nice with its potted trees (right, Figure 128). Given that we ate there, it was the only monastery that we felt comfortable poking around.
The monks’ dormitory was sparsely decorated and the beds had no mattresses (left, Figure 129). When walking around the temple’s altar, we came across a monk lying down and sleeping on the floor, holding a fan, with his head resting on a thin cardboard box (center, Figure 129). As well we saw some shy children who were peeking out at us from behind a beautiful stone screen in the temple (right, Figure 129).
After lunch we headed to “Bunker Hill”, west of Hué, where first the French during the First Indochina War/French War and then the Americans during the Second Indochina War/American War had a fire base. Along the way we stopped at a roadside stand where they made and sold incense sticks. A young girl was making incense sticks by rolling the sticks on wet dough made out of incense and spices (cinnamon, sandal wood). Once dried, the colourful sticks can be used. Donna tried her hand at it (left, Figure 130) but hers was too fat with incense and as we were leaving after purchasing a bundle of sticks, the girl redid her stick J
Figure 129. Monks’ dormitory (left), monk sleeping near altar (center), children behind stone screen (right)
We drove up to the top of “Bunker Hill” to where the French built bunkers (right, Figure 130) and the Americans used the area for a fire base. The commanding view over the surrounding countryside and the Perfume River explains why it was occupied by the armies of these two countries (center, Figure 130).
Figure 130. Rolling incense sticks (left), view towards Laos (center), French-era bunkers (right)
Figure 131. Spraying Agent Orange (left), defoliated mangrove forest in Mekong Delta (1970)
West of Hué in the mountains and in other areas of South Vietnam, are areas that remain contaminated by the potent dioxin from the Agent Orange that was aerially sprayed as a defoliant to strip the cover provided to the Viet Cong/NVA forces by the triple canopy jungle (Figure 131). Unfortunately the dioxin has left significant ecological damage and continues to cause birth defects and other health problems. In place the natural forest cover has been unable to regenerate since once Agent Orange had destroyed large swaths of forest, the dead roots could no longer anchor the soil and the monsoon rains washed away the topsoil and its nutrients, allowing invasive grasses to take over and prevent forest regeneration. Where the American stored Agent Orange there are dioxin “hot spots” that have measured soil levels of dioxin more than 200 times greater than the residential standard set forth by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. (Ref C)
We drove back down “Bunker Hill” through the cemetery, avoiding the wire strung between trees, and back out to the paved road. Our next stop was the tomb of Emperor Tú Ðúc and like all the Royal Tombs around Hué, it was made and designed before the emperor died. Emperor Tú Ðúc built a park around his tomb, with ponds and pavilions, but exactly where he and his treasure were buried remains a mystery, since the 200 workers who buried the emperor were supposedly all beheaded.
Entering the gate of the tomb, we were greeted by a picturesque lake covered in blossoming lilies and a view of a Xung Khiem Pavilion across it (center, Figure 132). Since Emperor Tú Ðúc was well versed in eastern philosophy, history and literature, he spent some of his time in the Xung Khiem Pavilion composing poetry.
Figure 132. Khiem Cung Gate stairs (left), Xung Khiem Pavilion (center), inner courtyard gateway (right)
Figure 133. Stela Pavilion (left), stela guardians (L center), cleaning lake (R center), vendor (right)
On our left from the entrance beside the lake are a tier of stairs (left, Figure 132) leading to a complex of palaces where the Emperor spent his time resting, worshipping, watching theatre and reading. As well the emperor who had many wives would take them here for a retreat after boating or fishing on the nearby lake. Despite having numerous wives and concubines though, he only left one son after becoming sterile due to smallpox.
We stopped at the Stela Pavilion which houses the largest stela in Vietnam (left, Figure 133) upon which are written an epitaph of the emperor’s deeds during his reign. There are several elephants which act as guardians around the Stela Pavilion (L center, Figure 133). On our way out we passed by a man who was cleaning out the lake of weeds (R center, Figure 133). Just outside of the entrance to the tomb complex are numerous local vendors (right, Figure 133) where we stopped for a refreshing drink in the oppressive heat and humidity.
Leaving the tomb complex, we rode on towards a farming area and passed by a large church (left, Figure 134). After waiting for a train to pass (center, Figure 134), we pressed on through a group of water buffaloes - mother with calves (right, Figure 134).
Figure 134. Church (left), railway crossing (center), meeting water buffaloes (right)
Surprisingly we passed by a group of B-52 boats used by the local on their watercourses (left, Figure 135). We next stopped for 15 minutes in Thanh Toan Village, 7kms from Hué City, whose main sight was the Thanh Toan Covered Bridge (center, Figure 135). This tile roofed wooden covered bridge was built in 1776 which is ironic given that 1776 was the year that America declared independence from its colonial master – obviously the concept of independence is universal but one must fight for it. The middle part of the bridge contains a small shrine which is used for worship by a Mrs. Tran Thi Dao (right, Figure 135).
Figure 135. B-52 boats (left), Thanh Toan Covered bridge (center), side view of covered bridge (right)
Figure 136. Farmer with water buffaloes (left), high fiving kids (center), slummy part of Hué (right)
We left the village and drove over farm roads (left, Figure 136) and through some more villages where the children liked to slap hands with we tourists on motorbikes (center, Figure 136). We then drove through a slummy part of Hué (left, Figure 136) and back to the Gold Hotel. We tipped our drivers a couple of dollars and prepared for supper.
From our hotel, we could see the mountains rising west of Hué where the Viet Cong and NVA operated through the Vietnam War (left, Figure 137). The rebuilding of Hué since its destruction during the Tet Offensive in February 1968 is evident (center, Figure 137). The San Van Dong Stadium (right, Figure 137) was near the hotel and where we walked to the restaurant for supper.
Figure 137. Mountains west of Hué (left), narrow buildings (center), San Van Dong Stadium (right)
In the morning we drove from Hué to Hoi An in our mini-bus (left, Figure 138). We were supposed to drive via the picturesque but hazardous and winding Hai Van Pass (‘Pass of the Ocean Cloud’) highway that overlooks the South China Sea. However it was pouring rain with limited visibility so we bypassed the pass by driving through the 6.3-kilometre (3.9-mile) long Hai Van Tunnel which opened in 2005. This tunnel, the longest highway tunnel in Southeast Asia, was built by Japan and avoids 15 kilometres of nervous driving on some steep slopes and hairpin bends along the mountain which normally sees three or four traffic accidents each month - many serious.
Figure 138. Intrepid group leader & sleeping Donna (left), big bus (center), Mini-bus (right)
Exiting the tunnel just out of Da Nang we came upon a serious accident – a big bus had just creamed a little bus. Looking at the scene and the wreckage (center & right, Figure 138), it was hard to see how the mini-bus driver could have survived. Later our Intrepid Tour group leader (left, Figure 138) told us that she read in the paper that all was well with the folks in the accident. We found this very hard to believe.
During the third season of The Amazing Race TV show, several legs took place in Vietnam and the teams went from Saigon to Hué and then to Danang and on to Hoi An. The roadblock at Hoi An required the teams to use a fishing platform to raise a giant dip fishing net (left, Figure 139) out of the water with the clue dangling underneath. We passed by several of these giant dip fishing net and saw a fisherman pedalling hard to raise his net (right, Figure 139).
Figure 139. Giant dip fishing net (left), cranking up fishing net (right)
We drove down the mountain from the tunnel to the coast and along the coastline to Da Nang where the US Marines first landed in 1965 (center, Figure 140). “In March 1965 the U.S. Marines landed on the beach at Da Nang. These were the first U.S. combat - as opposed to "advisory"- troops to arrive in South Viet Nam to stiffen defenses around the big airbase at Da Nang. The Marines were prepared for an opposed landing by instead there was a welcoming committee of Vietnamese girls bearing garlands of yellow dahlias and red gladioli (Ref H).” And so the US military built-up in Vietnam began – by 1966 there were some 30,000 Americans stationed in Da Nang. On 30 April 1975, almost ten years after the Marines landed and with most US Forces withdrawn from the country, NVA tanks smashed through the ornate gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon to effectively end the American War (a.k.a. Vietnam War).
Figure 140. Basket boat (left), US Marines landing at Da Nang 1965 (R center), US aircraft shelters (right)
Figure 141. US Huey at Army barracks in Da Nang (left), Huey over China Beach in 1968 (right)
There is not much sign left of the large American presence in Da Nang except for the hardened aircraft shelters (right, Figure 140) and some US military equipment on static display at a Vietnamese army base in Da Nang (left, Figure 141) which harkens back to Hueys flying over China Beach (right, Figure 141).
Figure 142. China Beach TV (left), we travellers on China Beach (right)
We drove by what the US Forces R&R site in Da Nang called China Beach (right, Figure 142). China Beach was best known as an edenic respite from the hell of combat. During the Vietnam War, thousands of American GIs spent their leave surfing the 30-kilometer golden beach near the central coastal city of Da Nang (right, Figure 141). Years later, millions of television viewers tuned in to the acclaimed 1980s television drama (left, Figure 142) based on the famed U.S. Army rest and relaxation (R&R) base. On the beach was a basket boat (left, Figure 140), called a coracle in English, like the ones used in the detour at Da Nang during the third season of The Amazing Race TV show.
We drove south of Da Nang for about 25 kms, past Mable Mountain, to our hotel in Hoi An. We checked in and then walked with our group to lunch in Hoi An.
Hoi An, formerly Faifo, is an ancient town and World Heritage Site that has become one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations. It is located on the banks of the Thu Bon River, a few miles from the South China Sea. Hoi An was a thriving international commercial port for Chinese, Dutch, French, Japanese, Portuguese and Arab traders who came for locally produced high-grade silk and ceramics. The town has a quaint feel with low, tiled-roof houses and narrow streets giving it a unique ambiance. There are numerous tailor shops that can produce bespoke clothing in a matter of days.
After lunch, we walked around central Hoi An to see the sights and shops. One of the more interesting stores was the Reaching Out (Hòa Nhập) Handicrafts shop. Reaching Out Handicrafts is a fair trade gift shop showcasing high quality handicrafts made by disabled craftspeople in Vietnam (http://reachingoutvietnam.com/). In the back of the shop is a workshop where some 25 disabled people are employed making items for sale. This shop was just one of the many businesses that we frequented in SE Asia that were setup to help economically disadvantaged people.
Figure 143. Map of Hoi An
Figure 144. Hostess at restaurant (left), Japanese Bridge (central), ferry boat (right)
We saw an elegantly dressed hostess at restaurant (left, Figure 144) and the ferry boats coming and going in the Hoi An quay (right, Figure 144). Further along was the "Japanese Bridge" (Chùa cầu) that was originally built by the Japanese in the 16th-17th century. The bridge is a covered structure built with a Buddhist pagoda attached to one side (center, Figure 144).
We had the whole day to explore and decided to rent a motorbike (right, Figure 145) for the day at the hotel’s front desk for US $5 plus the gas. While waiting for the motorbike to arrive, we saw the most bizarre sight - a wildly decorated funeral vehicle in a funeral procession (left, Figure 145). The vehicle was carrying at least ten people in the back all dressed in white and the passenger was wearing a tall decorated hat and a long false beard – it looked like something off of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover!
Figure 145. Funeral vehicle (left), on motor scooter (right)
The woman who brought the bike patiently showed me how to drive it with its self-automatic transmission, i.e. there is no manual clutch. It was a bit of a risk to drive a motorbike in Vietnam giving the unstructured approach to driving that we’d experienced to date but there was not much else that held the promise of an interesting time in Hoi An. There were no helmets provided so the ride was like a scene from the movie “Easy Rider”. Interestingly, Vietnam is trying to get mandatory helmet laws in place.
Figure 146. Irrigation canal (left), fisherman mending net (central), old temple (right)
Driving west to the coast we passed through an irrigated agricultural area (left, Figure 146) whose farmers relied on bicycles and motor scooters to get to their fields. On the coast we drove to the beach and met a fisherman who was mending his nets beside his small fishing dory (center, Figure 144). In the nearby village there was an old small temple whose roof was extravagantly decorated (right, Figure 144).
In the distance toward Da Nang we could see Marble Mountain but it was a US $15 bus tour from our hotel. However now with the bike it was only a 25 minute ride away along a newly constructed four lane highway with limited traffic (right, Figure 148). The highway was built to serve the new resorts springing up along the Cua Dai Beach, some 5 km out of Hoi An, on the coast of the South China Sea. To widen the road from two lanes to four, they demolished many houses and there are lots of houses that now look like they were cut in half by a knife (center, Figure 147).
The trip there was interesting as we crossed over a river with a group of fishing boats with Vietnamese flags flying proudly (right, Figure 147) and were hailed by couple of locals who indicated that our rear tire was low but they could fix it (left, Figure 147). After a look at the tire, I ignored their entreaties under the belief that it was a line for the gullible foreigners. In the event, the motorbike lasted for the trip and appeared none the worst for wear.
Figure 147. Leaky tire? (left), shrine in demolished house (central), fishing boats (right)
On our way to Marble Mountain, we were hailed by a woman riding on another motorbike who talked to us as we rode along the road. She wanted us to stop at her family’s store in the village at the base of Marble Mountain. The village at the base of Marble Mountain is well known in Vietnam for its sculpting of marble statutes of all sizes.
Marble Mountain (center, Figure 148) played its part in the American War since located on the Da Nang side of Marble Mountain was the Marines' Marble Mountain Air Facility that was attacked at time by the North Vietnamese including major attacks in 1965 after its opening and in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive. The Marines maintained an observation post on the mountain which had an excellent view of the area including the airbases near Da Nang (left, Figure 148).
Figure 148. Marines on Marble Mountain 1965 (left), Marble Mountain (central), road to Da Nang (right)
We rode through the village to see the numerous workshops and stores involved in the marble sculpting trade (center, Figure 149). There was a wide variety of sculptures on sale including one shop that offered Ho Chi Minh, St. Joseph, angels and the very popular lions (left, Figure 149). As well one could buy stone caskets for the traditional Vietnamese above ground burials.
Figure 149. Sculptures on offer (left), vendors on main street (central), above ground caskets (right)
Returning to downtown Hoi An, we rode across the Cam Nam Bridge to Cam Nam Island (Figure 143) with some interesting sights such as a man panning for snails (left, Figure 150) and a real grass shack (right, Figure 150). We also came across a bicycle vendor selling donuts and I bought several for us – they were fresh and very good.
Figure 150. Panning for snails (left), donut vendor (central), ultimate grass shack (right)
This day was my birthday and first thing in the morning before breakfast I booked a half day trip to My Son for US $15/pp so we didn’t have much time to eat and get ready. After collecting Donna, we went downstairs to the lobby where the hotel reception staff surprised me by giving me a birthday present and flowers (center, Figure 151). The present was a T-shirt decorated with the Vietnamese flag (right, Figure 151). I was a bit chagrined to receive a gift from staff who were so much less affluent than myself. Hence when we checked out the next day I gave the reception staff US$5.
Figure 151. Hanging in disabled shop (left), birthday surprise at hotel (central), T-shirt present (right)
The T-shirt was wrapped in nice shiny birthday paper (center, Figure 151) with a wish in English to the recipient. The wish said "May the day of youris is like a flower, full fo sweetss, beaut and happiness". Despite the mangled English, the sentiment was nice especially since this was a non-English speaking country.
About 0800 hours the bus picked us up at our hotel and went on to collect more tourists at other hotels in Hoi An and then we headed south to My Son, a Hindu temple complex built by the Cham people of the kingdom of Champa about 1500 years ago. Along the way we passed by numerous weddings and receptions as apparently this day was considered an auspicious one to get married on. We passed the scene of a tragedy - a beer truck had overturned and spilled its precious cargo (left, Figure 152).
My Son is located near Cat's Tooth Mountain about 70 kms south of Hoi An and it is one of the most important archaeological sites of the ancient kingdom of Champa with a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We arrived about 1000 AM and already the site was crawling with tourists who made it difficult to get photographs of the ruins without tourists in them. At the visitor center we could either use a mini-bus or an old US Jeep (center, Figure 152) to avoid the hike up to the actual ruins. We chose the Jeep as it seemed more evocative of Vietnam’s recent history. We climbed into the back of the Jeep and I had déjà vu of the time that I’d spent in these riding around in these Jeeps during my time in the Army.
Figure 152. Spilled beer (left), US Jeep at My Son (center), guide at map of My Son (right)
During the orientation by our guide (right, Figure 152), we learned that there are some 70 buildings in the complex including stupas and tombs that date from the 7th century to the 14th century and that the results of tomb exhumations revealed that Cham kings were buried there since the 4th century. After this orientation we started our walk to the ruins along trails that passed through suffocating tropical growth and over running streams. Soon the first of the groups of ruins came into view (Figure 153).
Figure 153. Series of buildings (left), mountain behind temple (center), sculptural detail (right)
It is immediately clear that these buildings built of red brick are based on Indian Hinduism architecture. The remaining sculptures show Hindu gods and goddesses (right, Figure 153). My Son is one of the smallest members of Southeast Asia's extended family of ancient grand cities of Indian-influenced civilizations, headed by the sprawling Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia which we’d soon be visiting. Like Angkor Wat, the stupas are of conical shape, representing the peak of Mount Meru, the residence of Hindu gods.
The building are built with red brick without the use of mortar, unstead the Cham builders glued bricks together using tree resin native to central Vietnam. The corbelled arch was used to make interior spaces inside the temple towers (left & L center, Figure 154). There were a couple of headless sculptures suitable for photo ops (right, Figure 154).
Figure 154. Temple tower (left), corbelled arch inside tower (L center), goddess & god sculptures (right)
After the decline of the Champa Kingdom and the abandonment of My Son in the 14th century, the jungle started to reclaim the complex. However, the damage to My Son has not all been natural as the site was subjected to heavy bombing by Americans during the Vietnam War in 1969. This bombing was brought to President Nixon’s attention by archaeologists and he ordered the bombers to avoid the temples where possible while continuing to attack the surrounding VC strongholds. In fact the surrounding area is still dangerous due to the threat of unexploded land mines and other ordinance.
While the site is not comparable to the temples of the Angkor Wat area, it is well worth a visit. This visit to My Son was a chance to experience walking through steamy jungle terrain and it vividly showed the physical difficulties that the American GIs experienced in conducting operations in such terrain.
On our return trip, we stopped where the road crossed the Thu Bon River and got on a boat for a downriver cruise of about 5 miles to Hoi An. Our tourist boat had an outhouse on the stern (left, Figure 156) for passenger comfort! On the river we passed fishing boats, ferries and sand barges. The ferries carried their life preservers on the roof which look like wrapped tires (right, Figure 157).
Figure 156. Outhouse on tourist boat (left), boat with eyes (right)
The sand barges were small and of shallow draught, given the shallow depth of the river, and they were heavily ladened and low in the water (left, Figure 157). Like the barges, the boats had eyes painted on their bows, a tradition that was intended to ward off from attack water monsters who would think twice before attacking such an alert creature.
One of the most interesting things that we saw when on the boat was the ribbon of white clouds that outlined the mountains in the distance (right, Figure 157). We’d never seen this interesting phenomenon before.
Figure 157. Boat with eyes (left), strange clouds (right)
We watch several boats of fishermen and women in small boats along the river banks (left, Figure 158). Where we docked across the river from Hoi An to visit some craft shops, there was a fisherwoman leaning way over the side of her boat as she strained to pull a fishing net attached at the bow and stern of her small boat (right, Figure 158). It was quite remarkable to see.
Figure 158. Fishing in boat (left), straining on the oars (right)
Figure 159. Re-caulking fishing boat (left), carving model fishing boats (center), carving furniture (right)
The handicraft village across the river from Hoi An has several shops for tourists, most of which sell wood carving. Walking around, we saw a fishing boat being caulked (left, Figure 159) and several carving shops including one where the carver was making model boats by holding the wood with his bare feet while he hammered on a chisel. As elsewhere in SE Asian, an occupational health and safety act (OHSA) is not a luxury that the workers have to protect themselves.
After we shoved off to cross the river to Hoi An, a couple of tourists kept asking our guide if there would be a bus to get them back to their hotel as they insisted that it was included in the cost of the tour. The guide reassured them there would be but of course that wasn’t the case. Our boat landed at the quay in downtown Hoi An and we hoofed it back to our hotel.
Back at the hotel, we again rented the motorbike from stall next to our hotel. We drove out to Cua Dai Beach and then south along the seashore road to where new resorts were either opening or just being built. We rode along the as far south as we could and came across a couple of hydrofoils on dry land. These were a couple of the Ukraine-made hydrofoils, one of which was named “Cu Lao Cham II” (left, Figure 160). Apparently these were bought to take tourist on the 18 minutes trip from Hoi An to Cu Lao Cham Island. Cu Lao Cham is a 15 square kilometres island with a population of 3000, mostly fishermen. Apparently it is planned to be developed with luxury resorts. We never saw any indication at the tour agents in Ho An that there were any hydrofoils were in service to Cu Lao Cham Island when we were there.
We stopped briefly at the Cua Dai Beach for a quick walkabout and Donna got to meet several of the beach vendors (right, Figure 160) before we had to leave.
Figure 160. Hydrofoil named Cu Lao Cham II (left), Donna with Cua Dai Beach vendors (right)
We rode the motorbike back from the beach to downtown Hoi An and our supper RV with our tour group. I got a bit confused and ended up riding through the Hoi An Central Market (Figure 143) between the rows of stalls. It was very tense given the number of people in the market and the other motorbikes. Some of stall vendors implored us to stop and look but I was concentrating exclusively on not hitting anyone or falling over as we were going so slowly. We safely made it through the market and parked on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant where we were to eat supper. The sidewalk had about a 12” high curb so getting the bike up on the sideway was not a trivial matter.
Figure 161. Birthday and restaurant (left), scrumptious food (center), coconut from staff (right)
Prior to supper we returned to the Reaching Out Handicrafts shop to buy a traditional long shirt with embroidered dragons (left, Figure 151) for US$37. This shirt is now hanging on a wall in my living room.
At supper we had scrumptious food (center, Figure 161) after which I was surprised by a birthday cake from the tour leader and so everyone had a nice piece of chocolate cake (left, Figure 161). The staff presented me with a coconut carved as a monkey (right, Figure 161).
The following day we were to leave Hoi An at 1200 hours to go to the Da Nang airport so we had the morning free. When returning our motorbike, we asked the man if we could rent it for the following morning for US $3 and he agreed.
4.11 Day 21 (Tue, 7 Aug) – Flight to Saigon & Saigon Cyclo Tour (Thien Tung Hotel)
We got up early and pick up our motorbike and headed out to Cua Dai Beach, some 5 km out of Hoi An, on the South China Sea. Cua Dai Beach is a pleasant white sand beach with few public facilities but surrounded by an ever growing number of posh resorts.
We arrived at the beach around 0830 hours, so there were few tourists there and only a few vendors. Incredibly, the bay in front of the beach was dotted with some 80 small fishing boats (center, Figure 162). It is amazing that sea life can survive this level of sustained fishing. We went for a dip in the South China Sea (left, Figure 162) and then settled down to relax. It was not long before the vendors came around and Donna found a new friend with a sad story of raising her children. Donna bought an overpriced necklace and then it was time to mount our motorbike and return to our hotel and pack our bags.
Figure 162. Cua Dai Beach (left), fishing boat in bay (center), chatting to vendor (right)
Figure 163. Da Nang war memorial (left), propaganda (right)
We left Hoi An at 1200 hours in our minivan to go to the Da Nang airport to catch our Pacific Airlines flight to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). We stopped briefly at the Da Nang war memorial which we were told is the largest in Vietnam – it was big but not particularly inspired or inspiring.
Figure 164. Our Pacific Airlines Boeing 737 (left), concrete slab dated 12 Dec 1968 (right)
The Da Nang airport appears to be caught in a time warp with not much appearing to have been built since the Americans left in the 1970s, in fact the concrete slabs of the apron bear the date that they were poured by the Americans in 1968 (right, Figure 164). The security guards at our airplane (left, Figure 164) didn’t appear to be too pleased with my photograph of my foot but soon we were off in our Boeing 737 to Saigon.
Figure 165. Soviet-era helicopter (left), derelict US hangar (center), busy streets (right)
We landed at Tan Son Nhat International Airport outside of Saigon and taxied past old derelict US Air Force hangars (right, Figure 165) and several Soviet-era helicopters (left, Figure 165). During the Vietnam War, Tan Son Nhut Air Base was an important facility for both the United States and the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF). Before 1975, Tan Son Nhat International Airport was one of the busiest airbases worldwide. Tan Son Nhat International Airport is the country's largest airport in terms of passengers with an estimated number of over 11 million passengers per year in 2007, more than a half of that of Vietnam's all airports.
After retrieving our baggage, we loaded our baggage into our mini-bus. Just as I picked up our big Polo suitcase, purchased in the Vientiane market, the handle ripped off and I was left holding the handle while the suitcase remained on the ground. This was just the latest step in the self-destruction of this suitcase.
We were in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the Communist victors of the Vietnam War. Saigon, as it is still called by many of the locals, was the site of many of my memories from the 1960s. For example it was the site of the iconic image taken on 1 February 1968, with the Tet offensive in its early stages, when General Loan executed a Vietcong prisoner (bottom right, Figure 169). This was an event viewed by many at the time as illustrating the evil of the war and America's involvement in Vietnam.
Figure 166. Map of central Saigon showing cyclo tour in blue
We headed out onto the busy Saigon streets (right, Figure 165) to reach the Thien Tung Hotel south of the Ben Thanh market in downtown Saigon. After dropping off our baggage, we left on a cyclo tour of downtown Saigon (left, Figure 167) – one person per cyclo. We were told that some of the bike peddlers were former ARVN soldiers. Given the volume of traffic, it seemed to be death defying to make our way along the busy streets (center, Figure 168).
Figure 167. Off on Saigon cyclo tour (left), Notre Dame Cathedral (right)
We stopped to see a number of the buildings in the old Saigon (District 1). The neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral was constructed between 1877 and 1883 using bricks from Marseilles and stained-glass windows from Chartres. The Romanesque towers of nearly 60m (197 ft.) tower over a large white statue of the Virgin Mary (right, Figure 167) and the nearby remarkable Saigon Post Office. In November 2005, the statue of the Virgin Mary was reported to be crying and vigils were held by the faithful.
Saigon's city hall was originally a French hotel constructed between 1902 and 1908 and it’s an ornate example of refined colonial architecture (left, Figure 168). Saigon Opera House (right, Figure 168) was built at the turn of the 20th century as a classical opera house to entertain French colonists. The building was renovated in the 1940s, only to be badly damaged by bombers in 1944.
Figure 168. Saigon's city hall (left), traffic to left and right (center), Saigon Opera House (right)
The last stop on our tour before finishing up at the Ben Thanh Market for supper was the Reunification Conference Hall or Hoi Truong Thong Nhat (left Figure 169). This building was built in 1873 on the site of the Norodome Palace as a residence of the French Governor General of Indochina. The current structure was built in the early 1960s and named the Independence Palace. Its most famous moment occurred on 30 April 1975 when the tanks of the North Vietnamese Army burst through the palace gates (top right, Figure 169), effectively ending the War in Vietnam and heralding in the reunification of Vietnam.
Figure 169. Reunification Conference Hall (left), tank thru gate (center), Gen Loan shoots VC (right)
Ben Thanh Market (from Vietnamese Ben meaning "wharf", and Quy Thanh meaning "turtle citadel") was built in its current form by the French colonialists in 1870 and it is listed as one of “1000 Places To See Before You Die” by Patricia Schultz, an American travel writer. It is a beehive of market stalls and vendors both inside the market building and in the surrounding area. However, starting at about 1830 hours the stalls surrounding the market are removed and portable restaurants are setup for the evening (center, Figure 170). The restaurants are good with a wide variety of food at reasonable prices.
The following day after returning from our trip to the Mekong Delta, we returned to the market and I bought a beautiful eggshell painting of planters in a rice paddy (left, Figure 170). Later that same evening we again ate at the night restaurants.
Figure 170. Eggshell painting (left), night restaurants (center), drinking coconut (right)
4.12 Day 22 (Wed, 8 Aug) – Day trip to Mekong Delta (Thien Tung Hotel)
At 0800 hours we left the hotel for our day trip to the Mekong Delta. From the hotel we were taken to a central collection point where other tourists taking this trip were gathering. After an hour delay, we boarded our bus and headed out south on the 75km trip along Highway 1A to My Tho City. We crossed over the Sai Gon River and drove through an area south of Saigon that is experiencing a construction boom with condominium apartment buildings and multi-lane roads being built (left, Figure 171). Our guide told us that a 1000 square foot condominium is going for US$200,000 with a lot of Chinese buyers.
On the way to My Tho City we saw a number of interest sights, including what appeared to be a church with the swastika instead of the cross on its spires (center, Figure 171). The swastika, appropriated by the Nazis in the 1930s, was originally an ancient Hindu/Buddhist symbol and is displayed all over India to bring good fortune and well-being. In fact many older editions of Rudyard Kipling's books have a swastika and associated picture of the Hindu deity Ganesha printed on their covers (center, Figure 171).
Figure 171. Building boom south of Saigon (left), swastika on spire (center), maximum use of road (right)
Again we saw the drivers on Highway 1A making maximum use of the available road space – they can fit three or four lanes of traffic onto two lanes of pavement (right, Figure 171).
At the My Tho pier, we boarded a thirty passenger boat (Figure 172) and made a short visit to the waterside houses in My Tho (left, Figure 173) before headed across the muddy Tien River branch of the Mekong River. In the distance loomed a cable-stayed bridge under construction across the Tien River (right, Figure 173). This 2.8km long bridge to be known as the Rach Mieu Bridge will replace the four Rach Mieu ferries that are constantly crossing the Tien River. Bridge construction was started in April 2004 and was scheduled for completion in June 2006. Apparently the delay was caused by financing difficulties and the fact the lack of experience Vietnamese engineers in building a cable-stayed bridge without foreign expertise (Ref I). It is one of the several new bridges being constructed across various Mekong River branches in the delta. However, unfortunately on 27 September 2007, a new bridge near Can Tho collapsed killing at least 42 workers as it was nearing completion (Ref J).
Figure 172. Mekong tour guide (left), loading boats (center), tour boat in My Tho City (right)
Across the Tien River, we headed down a jungle river (left, Figure 174) and stopped at a small coconut candy factory (left, Figure 174) where they were busy crushing and refining coconut into yummy tasting candy. Everything was done by hand including wrapping the candies (center, Figure 174)! There was also a python snake at the factory that tourist could drape around their neck for a photo op (right, Figure 174).
Figure 173. Brass propeller at house in My Tho (left), My Tho (center), ferry & Rach Mieu Bridge (right)
Figure 174. Jungle river (left), wrapping coconut candy in rice paper (center), our guide with snake (right)
At one point along the jungle river there was an impressive pile of pile of coconut shells at the base of a coconut tree (center, Figure 175). Exiting the jungle river we crossed the Mekong, passing freight boats with painted eyes on the bow that were carrying large pottery jugs (right, Figure 175).
Figure 175. On jungle river (left), pile of coconut shells (center), boat with eyes carrying jugs (right)
Figure 176. Leachy fruit tree (left), paddler (L center), colourful fruit (R center), fallen tourist (right)
For lunch we stopped at a restaurant in an orchard that was growing a number of fruits including the leachy nut (left, Figure 176). After lunch while reboarding our boat, one woman fell into the Mekong and had to be fished out (right, Figure 176), we were able to provide her with our bandages to dress her cuts. We next stopped at a small island and took the fastest trip by paddlers that I’ve experienced – apparently the paddlers (left center, Figure 176) were paid by the trip. At a pavilion on the island, we had a dessert of fruit including leachy nut, dragon fruit and the ubiquitous red hairy fruit called rumbutan (right center, Figure 176).
Figure 177. The ultimate drive-in (left), Ben Thanh Market (center), restaurant on Sai Gon River (right)
Returning from our trip to the Mekong, we stopped at the Ben Thanh Market so that I could buy a delightful eggshell painting of the rice harvest (center, Figure 177). As it was near the 5 o’clock closing time, I was able to bargain the price down to $15 US.
We then walked downtown from our hotel to visit the Rex Hotel’s rooftop bar that was made famous by the Americans during Vietnam War. On the way we passed by the ultimate drive-in restaurant with many motor scooters inside (left, Figure 177).
After about 20 minutes we arrived at the Rex Hotel (left, Figure 178). During the Vietnam War, the Rex’s ballroom served the setting for the ‘Five O'clock Follies’ where the daily military briefing of journalists occurred and dubious reports of ‘progress’ were served up. The Rex Hotel also served as the US Bachelor Officers' Quarters and its palm-tree-lined 5th floor rooftop garden bar (center, Figure 178) still evokes images of the past and offers up one of the best views of the heart of old Saigon. In fact, the bar was voted “The Best Bar of South East Asia” by the Newsweek Magazine in 1996 and it is one of “1000 Places To See Before You Die” as listed by Patricia Schultz, an American Travel Writer. Personally I preferred the rooftop bar of the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) in Phnom Penh.
Figure 178. Rex Hotel with crown on top (left), rooftop garden bar (center), in front of Rex’s crown (right)
There weren’t many folks in the bar perhaps as the prices of the rooftop garden bar are a bit steep but we had a coffee/tea and a dessert and enjoyed the wonderful view of the heart of Saigon from a roof side table (Figure 179). The waiter was a little bit snooty and corrected Donna on how to dispose of her tea bag. However we enjoyed our visit to this place with one foot in the past. How much longer it’ll maintain this ambience is an open question as a large modern wing is being built onto the Rex Hotel.
Figure 179. Caravelle & Sheraton Hotel from Rex Hotel (left), City Hall from Rex Hotel (right)
Exiting the Rex Hotel, I made a navigational error and we walked southeast instead of southwest and we ended up down at a park the Sai Gon River where we saw an interesting floating restaurant the river which was illuminated in the shape of a fish (right, Figure 177). We retraced our steps and found our hotel.
Our most lasting impression of Saigon was that it was a dynamic city that is in the process of ongoing an impressive building boom and is populated by an entrepreneurial people who practice free enterprise was well as any people on earth. This certainly causes one to wonder what the Vietnam War was all about as this outcome is all the American government could have hoped for had the Americans won the war.
4.13 Vietnam – Propaganda on Display
Propaganda signs seen in Vietnam told us something about the thinking of the Communist regime. It especially told us that the regime strives to keep alive the cult of Ho Chi Minh and stresses the importance of the armed forces (Figure 180). The importance of the cult of Ho Chi Minh is to remind the population that the founder of the reunited Vietnam is Christ-like is his love of the Vietnamese people and that he is a relative of every Vietnamese, i.e. our Uncle Ho. The importance of keeping the armed forces in mind is obvious in a country reunited by force of arms and who has fought four major wars against invaders in some sixty years, i.e. against the French, Americans, Khmer Rouge and the Chinese.
The date of 27 July 1947 seen in one of the propaganda signs refers to the occasion of the 60th Anniversary Day of War Invalid and Martyr (27 July 1947 – 27 July 2007). It was in 1947 that the Vietminh launched its war of liberation against the French colonial power.
Figure 180. Propaganda signs in Vietnam
Throughout our trip in Vietnam, we saw enormous loads carried on all types of bikes be they bicycles, motorbikes or three-wheeled motorbikes. The ingenuity of these folks cannot but be admired as one must admire the strength of these vehicles. We were told that a Chinese motorbike cost about US$700 compared to some US$2,000 for a Japanese one. Needless to say, the Japanese bikes were a status symbol while the Chinese ones were much more affordable.
They carried most things on bikes including cattle, pigs, produce, furniture and boxes of every size.
Figure 181. Vietnamese bikes of burden
 The description that we received read: “The Siho, a mythological composite half-lion, half elephant, is unique to the Lao culture and is considered to be imbued with special powers. The Siho is usually shown with an ancestor figure riding on its back.
Ritual symbols such as the Siho will often be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on the weaver’s background. Particular emphasis is usually given to its ability to ward off illness or injury. However for her dowry, a Lao girl will weave pillows, curtains and decorative bands for the special wedding mosquito net, with auspicious birds, deer, flowers and diamond-shaped motifs. Projecting her wish for children, she may incorporate mythological animals such as the Siho in x-ray style, intended to reflect small animals visible inside the animal. Hence the Siho is also a symbol of fertility.”
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