Friday, January 11, 2008

Da Nang, Hue, Hoi An

Da Nang, Hue, Hoi An
Today’s port was right at the dock. As we prepared to go for the tour, there was a troup of dancers and loud music playing. The costumes were colourful and the provided a nice entertaining welcome. We boarded the bus and made our way up the mountain towards Da Nang. The views were spectacular. It was a bit misty, but as we approached the pass you could see the whole panorama. This was an area where the North Vietnamese controlled the border strategically to the south. Da Nang is on a narrow strip of land ~ 10 K wide between north and south Vietnam.
Our tender is leaving now so gtg. more about Hoi An tomorrow! Here's a pic of our guide, Sun and Rick. She's about a size minus 3 and wore high heels all day!

Nha Trang

Today’s port was so beautiful, not industrial like the previous ones. We woke to see beautiful mountain islands all around us. Pretty fishing boats were at the docks and some colourful tenders.
This was the first time for RC to visit these ports, so this was the first one to have a welcome party. Balloons and a big banner which read “Welcome Rhapsody of the Seas” a red carpet and about a dozen beautiful young ladies wearing colourful traditional long tunics and pants (ao dai) and of course the conical hats (non la) were waiting to greet us, and the President of RC.
Bright green rice paddies were all along our route, a water buffalo here and there, but most of the fields had already been prepared and were in various stages of growth. Farmers homes lined the highway and were pretty modern for the most part. In the backyard was the rice paddie. Mostly enough to sustain the family, some larger as a business.

Our first stop was to a weaving business. Here a family had an open air workshop in front of a very beautiful modern house. The owners of the business obviously were well off in comparison to their neighbours.
The mats they weave from the reeds are colourful and dyed bright red, blue green and yellow and then woven into patterns. The mats are mostly for sleeping on, but they had some smaller ones (placemats, beach mats) for tourists to buy.
They let us try the weaving with them and one very old man was spinning the raw reeds into a strong long fibre.

Then we went to kindergarten! All children must attend school from 6 years to 18 years of age for free, but kindergarten is available for a fee.
The kids were having rice for lunch and were so cute. Smiling and making faces, just like 4 year olds everywhere. The school was run by a catholic order, but the teachers were dressed normally. \Another group treated us to a folk song that seemed to be like “Mr. Sun” with lots of hand motions to go with the song. Again, adorable. We thanked them and they bowed to us. One little boy flashed me a peace sign, and I reciprocated.

Next stop a real farmers market. Dirty and gritty, with flies everywhere, raw meat lying on tables in the heat, lots of veggies, live and just caught fish, eggs, and even live chickens with their legs tethered. Not very appetizing for us, but everyday life for them.
Next we visited a community temple that was also for ancestor worship, and very different from a Buddhist temple.
Finally we made a stop at a local cafĂ©, chairs and tables were situated in the middle of the rice paddies under clumps of bamboo where the local farmers go during the siesta 11-2 or after a days work. We had coconut milk out of the fruit with a straw and a tiny banana. We passed on the cut fruit here as we weren’t sure about the preparation. While enjoying the scenery they had 3 musicians playing for us. One played a koto like instrument on her lap, one had a kind of one stringed harp that had bamboo pipes for amplification, and one had a percussion instrument that consisted of bamboo tubes, sort of like a xylophone. The combination was very gentle sounds and relaxing.

This tour was so different from the previous ones and very enjoyable.

Saigon/ Ho Chi Min City

Saigon – Ho Chi Min City - Uncle Ho’s city
I’m up a bit early so will recall yesterdays busy tour.
Early start today woke at 5:45 to tender to a port 2.5 hours from Saigon. Our guide Chin spoke the whole way giving us insights into the Vietnamese way of life and some personal tidbits. A communist country with ‘creative market concept’ (pretty much controlled capitalism) and pensions for government workers, everyone else is on their own. The currency is the dong. $1 US = 16,000 dong, so calculating a soft drink was weird.
All along the way rice fields and salt fields and shacks were along the highway. Salt is ‘grown’ by letting the salty water from the sea evaporate in fields. Then it is gathered, refined and sold to a company to make ‘sea salt’ for our tables! We also saw Tiger Prawn farms (I will look at them a bit differently when I go to Costco.)

We stopped at a laquer factory. Here the workers painstakingly did either paintings or assembled tiny pieces of egg shell or mother of pearl on a painted piece of wood. Many layers of laquer were applied and dried. Then it was sanded with a very fine sandpaper in water. The work was beautiful but very expensive. Later we found some probably not so fine work, yet still quite nice for 1/2 the price. And yes, though I may regret it later ( it's really heavy) we bought a small four panelled picture of a countryside scene that is beautiful.

As we drew closer to Saigon population 8 million, the sheer numbers of motorbikes became clear. In Vietnam there are over 20 million motor bikes! It’s amazing to watch. Everyone wears a helmet (well almost) which is better than in Thailand where almost no one does. And everyone wears a mask for the dust and fumes from all the bikes. Most women wear clothing from head to toe, including gloves that cover them from finger to shoulder. This is more about not getting tanned as lighter skin is desired. Babies ride on their parent's lap, with a fine net on their heads to stop bugs from smacking them in the face while 'driving' their parent's bike!

Some new construction of condos was seen but mostly low stores lined the road. The houses that started to pop up as we got closer to the city were 8 – 10 ft wide and sometimes 3 or 4 stories tall, usually with a business on the main floor.
Very similar to the French style row housing. Finally we got to the city after crossing the Mekong River. It is dry season now, so it wasn’t that deep. The condos in that area went for about $800,000 US for a 1500 square ft.apt.

We headed to the former palace of the president, constructed around 1963 very modern and huge. It looked like some of the architecture at York University. Used as his residence until the late 1990’s and later as a meeting place with huge reception rooms all on the first level. On the upper floors were living quarters; in the basement a bomb shelter and strategy room. Overall very modern sleek designs with an open air atrium in the middle of the living quarters complete with a garden and fish pond. That was really nice! Lots of usage of feng shui.
The situation room and bunkers down in the basement were creepy; dark and damp and starkly furnished with old office equipment that was rusty, and old teletype machines and phones. You had a sense of what happened there during the war.
Saigon is a fairly clean city but a bit stark in design with the exception of Notre Dame Cathedral built by the French around the turn of the 19th century.

We then traveled to a museum where we watched a water puppet show. Formerly performed for royalty, it was very entertaining. The puppeteers stand in waist deep water behind a grass curtain and manipulate the puppets in water in front of the audience. English translation told the story while we watched the amazing show. The finale was a dragon complete with exploding fireworks who seemed to catch the elusive fish.

But more entertaining was watching the cyclists weave in and out, ignoring the traffic lights, and there was a lot of horn honking. Whole families were on one small bike. The whole thing reminded me of a flowing river, the water moving around rocks and other fixed obstacles. It’s a miracle there aren’t more accidents.
We each rode a ‘rickshaw’ which was more of an individual pedicab. The driver lowered the seat for us, and we jumped on, he was on the back on a high seat. It was a 3 wheeled bicycle like vehicle. Flowing smoothly with the traffic, it was really fun, but I wished I had a scarf or mask as the air was nasty.
Back on the bus to a very swanky restaurant in the centre of the shopping district. Chanel, Fendi and all the very expensive stores. Inside Maxim’s restaurant there was a very New York dark elegant atmosphere. We were to have a fixed menu of Vietnamese foods. The meal was delicious and was served family style. 4 persons to a dish.
First we had great spring rolls, then a soup of lemongrass and some greens with fish balls, Extremely good. The next dish was a salad of basil and cooked beef with a dressing that was a vinaigrette, and some other veggies, it was so flavourful.
Main course was one tiger prawn in a tamarind sauce, chicken in a ginger garlic sauce and a mixed vegetable dish that was pretty bland, (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and carrots). We finished off the meal with various fruits. It was filling and yet light. Surprisingly no rice or noodles! Beer or soft drinks were included.
Tomorrow Na Trang!