Sunday, May 27, 2012

On to Vietnam (Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue)

It was touch-and-go re: getting Amy Suzanne on the plane for the short flight to Hanoi from Siem Reap.  She was weak, but the "going from both ends" had ceased and she was able to drink some water and sit-up for the whole flight.  One of the things our travel-agent extraordinaire, Eve Wertsch at Fugazi Travel told us would be a good investment all-around was the "express visa service" when we arrived in Hanoi.  Now...getting visas when you arrive in any country can be a hassle...the forms could have changed from the ones you've pre-filled-out ... you could be unprepared and have the wrong kind of currency (most of the SE Asia countries will only take U.S. dollars!) ... there can be big lines, especially of 2 or 3 planes land at the same time...

In Hanoi, our guide and one other man met us at a fairly modern and nice international terminal... immediately after we exited the business-class shuttle-bus ... and far ahead of the rest of the hoi polloi flying in coach - no offense to them - we've done it that way, too - - but in the case of Vietnam Airlines, the bump to Business Class was not that much more and so-highly worth it!! Our guide, in perfect English, told us to "follow him"... the other man took our passports and headed toward an office. We followed the guide and were escorted by an army official in uniform, through a locked gateway and out to the street.  The other man ran up to catch us - delivered our completed passports with visas attached...and we were simply waiting for our van to take us to the hotel.  Total time waiting for our Vietnam Tourist Visas?  About three-minutes and thirty-seconds!!! Amy looked at her passport and ask me and our guide: "Hey....are we sure that was legal??"  No kidding!  It was so quick we had to have cut some major corners!!

I gotta say, we really liked Hanoi.  A lot.  It's modern, but not too modern...the Socialist government has done a good job preserving parks and green-space...and - as of about 1986, when the government decided to open their markets (i.e., abandon communism for capitalism) - there are all of the modern amenities you could want.  Including a very cool hotel across from Hanoi's famous Opera House... the Hotel De L'Opera Hanoi  A fairly new hotel...kind of funky-chic...and very comfortable!

We saw enough sights to get the feel of the place...The Temple of Literature, the Museum of Ethnology (there are 54 different ethnic minority groups living in Vietnam!!) - we had a meeting and lively discussion with a local professor of history and writer about the history of Vietnam - - it was much like going to a college lecture - - very cool and very informative.... We saw the Old Quarter... and finished the long day with a show at the Water Puppet Theater - - by far one of the highlights of our trip to Indochina!!

The next day we began a three-hour drive to Ha Long Bay where we would board a cruise-sip (really a fancy "junk" - old but pretty cool!!!)  It was the holiday celebrating the end of the Vietnam War (funny - you don't hear that term used in Vietnam!!) - and the traffic was brutal!!!!  We were almost late for our 1:30 P.M. leaving time... but our guide was in contact with the boat and they knew all about the traffic problems!

The boat was sort of old and funky...but our cabin was nice (albeit tiny!) - - the food was great - - sitting up on the sun-deck was amazing... but the most incredible thing about cruising ni Ha Long Bay is the scenery!! Ha Long Bay, situated in the Gulf of Tonkin, includes some 1600 islands and islets forming a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. Because of their precipitous nature, most of the islands are uninhabited and relatively unaffected by human influence.  One of the most amazing places I have seen on this earth!

Dinner followed by a sunset that seemed like it would never end...then a nightcap on the sundeck... it was time for a good sleep!  The next day I went out on a shuttle-boat to a beach for a swim and more sightseeing.  Amy slept.  She was still not 100% recovered from being sick in Cambodia...

Anyway - if you go to northern Vietnam... YOU MUST TO TAKE A CRUISE ON HA LONG BAY! You will never regret it!!

We drove back to Hanoi and boarded a plane for the old capital of the Kingdom of Vietnam: Hue.  (It's pronounced "Way")  We walked all over the Citadel, saw the Thien Mu Pagoda and had a nice cruise on the river.  N.B. It was super hot and super humid...I thought me might die!!  Then, another unexpected treat...we had lunch with a princess!!  Princess Ngoc So was the daughter of Emperor Dong Khanh - when she married, her father granted her the land to build a home.  Today it is one of the best garden houses and has been maintained largely in its original form.  The home has an incredible set of beautiful gardens.  The "princess" today is the great-granddaughter of the original princess...and she and her mother graciously fed us local delicacies and good cold beer!!  

Then there was a long drive (but a neat one - - we went through a really long tunnel into the post city of Da Nang!) and arrived at a cute little hotel on the river in Hoi An.  Much more later in the final blog-post of this series, coming very soon!!) In the meantime - see our photos from this part of the journey:

Good Morning Vietnam - a photo update

Hue!!  No Hue!!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cambodia: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

We left Laos with a heavy heart.... the people (and our guide) were just as sweet and wonderful as they could be.  But now the real adventure was going to begin: we were off to Cambodia to see the awesome Hindu Temple complex at Angkor Wat, near the town of Siem Reap.  The ancient name of the town was Angkor - but - after a particularly contentious war with neighboring Thailand, the name was changed to Siem Reap, which means "Victory over Siam (Thailand)"  Nothing like rubbing salt in a wound!  We left the small airport at Luang Prabang on our first of many Vietnam Airlines planes.  I cannot say enough about the staff and service of  Vietnam Airlines.  This particular jet was a small one - a Fokker 70 - and it was a fast little Fokker! We arrived in Cambodia at about 1:30 in the afternoon - and went right out to see the temple called Ta Prohm.  This is the iconic temple with all of the giant heads of Vishnu and other gods (see photo left/above - my head only LOOKS giant!!) - This temple was the one made famous by Angelina Jolie in "Laura Croft: Tomb Raider".  All over Siem Reap - you see signs and notices that "Angelina Jolie ate here!"

The thing you notice about Cambodia first is just what the old cliche says: "It ain't the heat, it's the humidity!"  The daytime temps were not all that much warmer than At Home In Hyderabad - which this time of year is about 40-42-degrees Celsius - or, about 104 to 109 F. But the air is thick with choking humidity...very much like a steam-bath - and it doesn't take long before you are feeling the effects.  After our first temple visit, we felt like wet-dish-rags - and went to our hotel for the next two nights: The Hotel De La Paix - a modern, artsy kind of place that really was just what we needed!  We had a "Spa Suite" - I swear it was bigger than most apartments I ever lived in!!  There we crashed...after I made a short visit to the hotel's absinthe bar downstairs!!

The next day was dedicated to seeing Angkor Wat.  To really see the complex properly (it is HUGE!) - you would need more than 2-3 days as we had - - but - we really did see enough.  Mostly, our guide "Sonny" took us around... but we saw the main temple complex and Angkor Thom with a local Khmer scholar whose father had been an academic and was killed by the Khmer Rouge - if you remember the movie "The Killing Fields" - this fellow lived through it.  The climb to the top of the main temple required a lot of climbing of stairs... and I made it 75% of the way up.  Amy Suzanne made it all the way to the top (and down!) - but the stairs were much too steep for me to try.  She came down and looked like she might pass-out from heatstroke!  As it turned out, the poor thing ended-up sick as a dog for the next 24-hours - and could not leave the hotel room!

The next day, Sonny and I went out to see the Roulous Temple group... these ruins are among the oldest Khmer monuments in the area - dating back to the 9th Century A.D.  There are three main Hindu temple structures that remain: Lolei, Bakong and Preah Ko.  I got to see all three before the heat got to me and I got shuttled back to the hotel to check on Amy.  She was not doing too well.

We spent that night and the morning of the next day making arrangements for the "what if Amy can't make it to the airport and on to Hanoi" scenario.  Thanks once again to Eve Wertsch at Fugazi travel, she gave us sage advice: "Do whatever you can to get her on that plane!"

Thanks be to God the plane did not leave until 6:00 P.M.!!  We got some fluids in her and she weakly made it to the airport for the 90-minute flight from Siem Reap to Hanoi!!

Was Angkor Wat amazing?  Was it the highlight of our trip to Indochina?  Was it a bucket-list trip that everybody should make?  The answers are "Yes, yes and YES!!"  Would we go back?  Not during the summer!  It was brutal...and I thought for a time I just might lose my wife and favorite traveling companion to the heat and some kind of viscous local stomach-bug (we don't think it was anything that she ate...we both ate the same things!)

Anyway - please enjoy these two Facebook photo albums from this part of our trip.  Next - on to Hanoi and Vietnam!!

A Taste of Angkor Wat

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (Part One)

Hey, everybody!  It's now the middle of May, 2012!  We've been here in Hyderabad almost exactly two full years!  Still loving it, and loving it so much that we have opted to extend our stay in India for an extra year - now due to repatriate in June of 2013.  The best part about being here is the travel opportunities we've had!  As a matter of fact, we just finished another amazing, amazing trip!! This journey was actually planned by us long in advance as a "get away" trip for Amy after this years' tax busy season that ended on the 17th of April this year.  She had a few things to wrap-up in Hyderabad before we could leave...but on Friday night the 20th of April, we were on our way to Bangkok, continuing on to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for two-whole weeks!

I was just sitting here in our bedroom - flipping through the sports-channels on our satellite TV service here At Home In Hyderabad... instead of the steady-diet of IPL 20/20 Cricket we've been getting lately...Star Sports is televising the first-ever "Lao Open" golf tournament...and it's being played at the new golf course in Luang Prabang in Laos.  Since we were just there (21 April through 5 May 2012) - the images being shown during a brief travelogue on the golf broadcast brought back lots of memories... Our first stop (after a brief stopover in Bangkok, Thailand with a minimal layover) was, in fact, Luang Prabang.  They showed the Mekong River where Amy Suzanne dipped her feet (I think it was the exact spot where she hiked down to the river!), the Kings Mansion and Museum, several Buddhist Temples, some riverside restaurants, the Night Market and the 328-step staircase that Amy climbed to the top of Phousi Hill... The more we travel, the more places we see on the TV where we have actually been.  we are so totally blessed!  As I said before, by far the best part of being here in India are the incredible opportunities to travel in this past of the world!!

Laos was an unknown treasure for us.  We book all our trips with the greatest travel agent you could ever hope for - Eve Wertsch from Fugazi Travel in San Francisco.  We stayed at the Luang Say Residence in Luang Prabong.  It was beautiful, we had our own private suite, the food was good and the Happy Hour prices made having a cocktail not quite as painful. There were also two new bunnies running around the garden. It all had a very French feel to it!

We loved our guide - - on our first day he took us around to the Royal Palace (now the National Museum) - and we went to three beautiful Buddhist Temples: The Wat Visoun (16th Century), Wat Xiengthong (also from the 16th Century) and finally, Wat Mai.  We had a nice lunch with our guide at L' Elephant restaurant - right on the bank of the Mekong River - where we learned all about the nuances of how to eat "sticky rice"  After a return to the hotel to nap and freshen up, we went back out and walked around the setting up of the Night Market and Amy (not me, I had to save my knees for the 14-days to come!) climbed the 328-steps to the top of Phousi Hill to see the sunset.  We returned to our hotel for dinner and calling it a very long, very hot and very humid day!

The second day in Laos was totally different.  We enjoyed a drive out into the hill country, where most of the Hmong tribes still live in huts on stilts and weave cotton and process fresh tobacco for a living - something they have done for centuries.  We made a stop at a school (see photo album!) - and them on to another village where we walked around (and sweat!!) and - then went into one of the stilted homes for a sit down (on the floor) lunch prepared by a local family.

Now - you might not think that this would be the highlight of our trip to Laos...but it was!!  The food was fresh, the company comfortable (although they spoke little English) - and our host was a man who liked to distill his own whiskey from rice... and he loved to share!!  He served it into what looked like little jam-jars - poured from an old Johnny Walker Black bottle with a faced-to-grey label.  He made sure our glasses were always filled!  We then were told that the Laos custom was to take a little nap after lunch (after a filling lunch and half a bottle of rice-whiskey - no problem there, mate!) - so - we were provided with pillows and our own bamboo mats - and we snoozed for about an hour while the afternoon sky opened-up and it poured down all of the humidity it had been holding throughout the day!  Thunder and lightning - it was perfect.

We came back to the hotel to shower...then we went out to the night incredible outdoor affair, very popular in this part of the world - where bargains abound!  We got some t-shirts, some cool woven cups for sticky-rice serving...and - well... how do I describe this?  We were at this lady's booth - checking out what she had...and Amy Suzanne spotted something among the wares for sale.  "Oh, wow - that is so cool - what is it??" The lady explained that it was an ancient laundry basket - probably been in the family for 50 years... a beat-up old thing with a wood base and two old handles.  "Is it for sale??", Amy asked. Well, of course it was. Needless to say, after the lady cleaned up the old basket by removing some baked-on sticky rice (I think she used it to carry her lunch to work - we had just purcheased somebody's lunch-box!) - we carried that beat-up old basket around Southeast Asia for the next two weeks!! It will be a very well-traveled laundry basket now, that's for sure!!  We had a nice dinner at the Blue Lagoon (rated #1 in town!!) before taking a tuk-tuk back to the hotel for the night.  We were already feeling the effects of the heat and takes a lot out of you when you're walking around all day!

Our final morning in Laos was spent "at leisure" (our favorite phrase on a travel itinerary) until we boarded a small plane for Siem Reap and Cambodia... More to come in Part Two - so stay tuned!

In the meantime... here is a very small Facebook Photo Album from our time in Laos...the Internet connection was extremely slow - so - I didn't get around to uploading a bunch of photos from this part of our trip!

A Taste of Laos