Rockin’ machine guns in ’Nam

Day 79
Saigon, Vietnam

One could get used to living like this. The Park Hyatt is easily one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed at over the last 80 days. English dominates the television channels, the pillow-topped beds make waking up nearly impossible and the carerra marble bathroom, with its rain shower and plush robes, sure beat this one.

This is a comfortable retreat from the energetic streets of Saigon, this country’s largest city. After reading about the 3 million motorbikes, we were prepared for chaos, but instead found Saigon the opposite. The streets are wider, the buildings taller, everything a little bit more Western. We love it here.

Shunning a $25USD breakfast at the hotel, we grabbed a cup of iced Highlands Coffee before haggling with a taxi driver to bring us to the Cu Chi tunnels. We finally found our man for 800,000 dong ($50USD) and were off on the 60-kilometer trip to Ben Dinh, a town located along the banks of the Saigon River.

The Cu Chi tunnels, which at one point stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border, played a key role during the war — the Viet Cong used them for supplying the resistance against the U.S.

After a short propaganda video (sample line: “Like crazy batch of chickens, the Americans fired into women and into schools.”), we set out to explore the area. The tunnels themselves were up to 10 meters below ground and absolutely tiny. After one look, we pretended to crawl through them and moved on.

On display were various weapons and bamboo traps used by the Viet Cong — they looked absolutely brutal.

There was also a destroyed U.S. tank that had been disabled by a mine.

It was hard to walk through these exhibits and not feel something for the tens of thousands on both sides who lost their lives in this conflict. As we neared the end, we heard gunfire and came upon a full-fledged military firing range. Although it wasn’t cheap ($1USD per round), we plucked down $100USD for a chance to fire an AK47, M2 Machine Gun and M1911 Pistol.

Burt shunned the ear protection while they gave me a pair of old headphones. Neither of us could hear much afterwards.

We had recovered by the time our driver dropped us off at the Hyatt. With a couple of hours to spare, we walked past Notre Dame Cathedral en route to the Reunification Palace, built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam’s government headquarters.

It had a cool retro feel to it, as nothing has changed since the communist tanks rolled in on April 30, 1975 — the day of Saigon’s surrender.

This being our last night in Vietnam, we threw on some polo shirts and went downstairs for dinner at Opera. The open-air kitchen served up a delicious bean dip with freshly baked bread, the perfect starter before fried calamari, Greek salads and a wood-oven baked pizza. It was just what we needed before a big night out on the town.

On the road to Hue

Day 78
Hue, Vietnam

With so little time and so much ground to cover in this country, we hired a car today to bring us to Hue, about 3 hours north of Hoi An, in order to see the countryside and a couple of important sights before flying to Saigon this evening. After another delicious breakfast, we climbed into our Ford sedan and kicked off the day by visiting My Son, an ancient city that dates back to the 4th century.

The ruins are some of the best preserved in Vietnam — since the Cham people were one of the few, if only, to build with stone, not wood, which stood up to the harsh climate — and are another Unesco World Heritage Site. Passing chili peppers drying on the side of the road and mile after mile of rice paddies, we arrived in the lush valley at the base of Cat’s Tooth Mountain and set out along a dirt path. It didn’t take long for us to come across My Son, whose impressive brick structures were (quite amazingly) not built with any mortar.

No one else was around, so we basically had the place to ourselves. Well, us and the sun.

We hopped back in the car and continued onward to Hue – which has a few a Unesco sites of its own. The Ford handled the windy roads well although our driver wasn’t the friendliest fellow. He also strictly and strangely abided by the speed limit, which we’re not sure anyone else in this country does. We got passed by bicycles – not motorbikes – several times and bowed our heads in embarrassment.

A little after 1 p.m., we arrived in Hue, the capital of Vietnam from 1802 – 1945. The sun was reaching its peak as we disembarked at Thien Mu Pagoda, which founded in 1601, is one of Vietnam’s most iconic structures. Overlooking the Perfume River, it’s a peaceful — and largely deserted — spot, especially with the tremendous heat coming from above.

Drained from the weather, we asked our driver to bring us to La Residence, the chic boutique hotel that my parents will be staying at during their upcoming trip to Asia. Housed in the former French Governor’s house and surrounded by beautiful and lush gardens, the restaurant served up a delicious (and crust-less) chicken club sandwich and plate of crinkle fries. We were happy.

Happy enough, at least for the time being, to brave the sun again. We walked through the Citadel and Forbidden Purple City, a kind of Diet Forbidden City that was completely demolished by the U.S. in the late 60s. Reconstruction is underway, but for the time being, there isn’t much to see — besides a lot of other tourists.

Afterwards, we drove at exactly 35 kilometers/hour (the speed limit) to the Tomb of Tu Doc, a Vietnamese emperor in the 19th century, set among pine trees and overlooking a small lake. Hopefully, his power wasn’t correlated with the size of his throne, which looked small enough for a 2-year-old.

Whether it was the heat, lack of sights or general trip fatigue, we found Hue a pretty passable city. Now in this home stretch of my trip, I’m finding it more and more difficult to enjoy and really appreciate what I’m doing — so much of my thinking is revolving around my return to the States. But in this case, it didn’t really seem to matter as Hue offered little, and we’d much rather have spent an extra day in Hoi An.

Our car dropped us off at the tiny Hue International Airport — where international flights go to from here is anyone’s guess. We waited until the counter agents arrived to check us in and then played a couple games of Uno! (Marc: 3; Burt: 1). By the time we got on the propeller, it was past 8 p.m., about 90 minutes later than we’d been originally scheduled to depart.

After our somewhat scary Vietnam Airlines flight from Hanoi, neither of us were very excited about our trip. Alas, it was much better — although quite slow: 325 miles in 2 hours. Wheels were down on this 19th flight of mine at close to 10 p.m., and after grabbing our backpacks, we found a metered taxi to whisk us to our penultimate home, the beautiful Park Hyatt Saigon.

Ignoring the tailor touts

Day 77
Hoi An, Vietnam

The Ha An was even more impressive in the daylight. Our room overlooks the French-style courtyard and the onsite café has a legit and delicious breakfast buffet — the best I’ve had since Mykonos. After gorging ourselves on eggs, fresh baguettes and fruit, we stopped at the desk for a map of Hoi An, a charmingly small town of 75,000 on the banks of the Thu Bon River.

Hoi An Old Town, which dates back to the 16th and 17th century and basically encompasses most of the town, was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site about 10 years ago. Most of the sights in town can be accessed with a single ticket, so we bought a pair, a couple of bottles of water and started walking around.

We visited the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, a community meeting spot that later became a temple, the Tan Ky House, a preserved home occupied by seven generations of the same family, and the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, but weren’t terribly impressed with any of them. For us, just roaming the narrow streets, haggling with vendors in the market and checking out art galleries along the water were the highlights.

Hoi An is also well known for its 200 tailors, whose touts and constant “Hellooooo’s” can get beyond irritating. We’ve heard mixed things about the quality of the custom-made clothing often produced here in just a couple of hours so decided against have anything made up. Others at our hotel had bags full of what they claimed were perfectly copied skirts, suits and shirts.

The town really heats up in the afternoon, so we retreated to our hotel for bathing suits and then hopped into a taxi to Cua Dai Beach, a beautiful stretch of sand on the South China Sea. This beach runs for miles north to Danang, where it’s known as China Beach, what was once a hang-out for American soldiers during the war. We paid for some beach chairs under a palm-thatch hut and took in the surroundings.

There were a number of relentless hawkers on the beach selling crappy jewelry, fruit and lots of tourist junk. They walked the line between amusing and annoying, although more often were the latter. We went for a couple of dips in the sea to cool off before chowing down on a fresh seafood lunch. The grilled calamari and shrimp spring rolls were delicious. The skies turned overcast so we packed up and returned to town, where after some intense bargaining, walked away with some cool souvenirs.

At the hotel, we packed our backpacks before having dinner at Brother’s Café, what is said to be the classiest joint in town. Burt’s red snapper cooked in a banana leaf put my grilled beef with chili and lemongrass to shame. After a drink overlooking the scenic waterfront, we walked back across the street to the Ha An and hit the hay.

Burt + beating cobra heart = SuperBurt

Day 76
Hoi An, Vietnam

We awoke at 7 a.m. feeling remarkably refreshed after what may have been the best night’s sleep of this entire trip. After all of the lightning last night, it didn’t even end up raining and the boat sat peacefully through the evening in a secluded lagoon. Our scrambled eggs and fresh fruit for breakfast up on deck was about the food as much as it was the setting: the thousands of lush limestone karsts rising above the early morning mist.

Our captain picked up anchor about an hour later — and although our boat was the only one in Halong Bay with working sails — cranked the engine to reach our next destination: Sung Sot Cave, on the island of Bo Hon. This is the largest and grandest of the many caves that dot the Gulf. This “Cave of Surprises” as it is known was a huge and cavernous spot, lit to accent its many defining features, and packed with day-tripping and screaming Vietnamese tourists to break the creepy silence.

With one last swim under our belt, we made our way back to mainland. After a solid lunch – the food was good, eating downstairs in the air conditioning, even better – we snapped a group shot with our foster-parents, Richard and Esme. We’ll miss their supervision! (Just kidding.)

The transfer back to Hanoi was a bumpy and long 3-hour ride. We made the obligatory stop at the arts village/tourist rest area/sweatshop where most of us sat in the air conditioning of the jewelry showcase. The motorbikes of Hanoi start appearing en mass shortly thereafter — a sign that Hanoi was close. After arriving, our hotel informed us that our Vietnam Airlines flight to Danang, originally scheduled for 6:40 p.m., had been delayed, so we had a couple of hours to kill.

Burt had recently watched an episode of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods. On a visit to Vietnam, host Andrew Zimmern had eaten a beating cobra heart (believed to bring strength and good health) and Burt was feeling particularly inspired. We hit up Google on the lobby computer and found Le Mat, a snake village just a couple of kilometers from downtown.

Our taxi driver navigated the clogged streets and about 20 minutes later dropped us off at a nondescript alley. “We’re here?” we asked. He just nodded, so we jumped out and were soon mobbed by Vietnamese. Using a lot of pointing and gesturing, along with some half-English, we were able to somehow find a cobra and negotiate a price (400,00 dong, or about $25USD). Here’s our little friend.

We were both really scared at this point, as the snake was vicious looking and generally trying to attack anyone or anything that it saw. With his hand clenched around its head, the handler told us to follow him down the street into a small courtyard. A crowd gathered, tensions grew and Burt debated backing out. Before he could say anything though, a knife was taken to the cobra and its still beating heart was ripped out.

They drained some of the snake’s blood into a glass of rice wine, mixed it all up and then poured Burt a shot, with the heart floating on top. Bottom’s up!

In one gulp, it was gone. And then, reality reared its ugly ahead — albeit momentarily.

“Now bile,” one of the women said. “Bile?” Burt replied with hesitation. “Good for stomach,” she said, before placing an unidentified organ in another shot of rice wine and handing it over. With a group of curious gawkers, there was no backing down, so Burt caved and offered a cheers.

Last up was the remaining glass of blood. But this was perhaps too much. And after one sip and a slight gag, the glass was back on the table and we were ready to get the heck out of dodge.

Before we could go though, this Vietnamese guy had to express a newfound respect for the unknown American who had come into his village as a boy — and was now leaving a man! A really strong one, too!

We sat down at a tiny bar nearby for a few Viet Ha draught beers (the cheapest in the country, at 4,000 dong or $.25 cents a glass) and recapped the last 30 minutes. “I’m feeling great right now,” Burt said. “All it tasted like was booze. Salty, bloody booze.” It wasn’t inspiring — think I’ll stick with the Bombay.

After picking up our bags at the hotel, a transfer brought us to the airport, where we had noodles for dinner and Burt proceeded to tell everyone of his feat of courage. Surprisingly, our flight to Danang was aboard a monster jet, which felt like we should be traveling a whole lot further than one hour south. As we approached for landing, a huge thunderstorm broke out of the sky, rocking the plane with turbulence. Burt glanced at me.

An announcement in Vietnamese crackled over the loudspeaker. A garbled English translation sounded like we would be circling until the weather cleared. With lightning flashing outside of our windows and an occasional loss in altitude, it wasn’t the most comforting of situations, although we did eventually (and successfully) reach terra firma.

Despite the two hour delay, our van transfer to Hoi An was still waiting for us. With a rain falling, we set out for the 45-minute ride and promptly slammed into a passing motorbike. With the way people drive here, we were surprised it hadn’t happened sooner. Our driver looked at his girlfriend in the front seat, they both laughed, and we continued on our way.

We pulled into the Ha An Hotel at around 10:30 p.m. and could immediately tell that this would be a nice place. The rooms, filled with fresh cut flowers, were immaculate and spacious — and the provided shampoo, clearly home-concocted and offered in little clay jars, worked wonders.

Exhausted from caves, cobra hearts and commuting, we didn’t last more than 15 minutes before promptly falling asleep.

Unraveling the mystery

Day 75
Halong Bay, Vietnam

On any extended visit to Hanoi, a visit to mysterious Halong Bay, with its 3,000 limestone islands jutting into the Gulf of Tonkin, is a must. Although we got a taste of this beauty while on the beaches of southern Thailand, we had heard such rave reviews of this Unesco World Heritage Site that we booked an overnight tour aboard the Lagoon Explorer that left this morning.

A 3-hour transfer, which included a stop at either an arts & crafts village or a sweat shop, brought us to Halong City, an overdeveloped eyesore, where we were quickly herded onto the boat. The crew welcomed us aboard the highly lacquered replica junk boat, at which time we realized that there were only four rooms, of which we would have three. The last was taken by a great Aussie couple — who actually didn’t seem to mind being with a bunch of young American guys.

After being treated to a delicious seafood lunch, we picked up anchor and began our tour through the emerald and tranquil waters of the Gulf. We passed through some amazing coves while sweating profusely on deck.

Several hours later, we were desperate for a swim. At Cua Van, a floating village, we were given the opportunity to go kayaking — nothing like 100-degree weather to make you appreciate a post-exercise dip.

Around 6 p.m., we moored for the night in a placid lagoon. Thankfully, the sun gave us some respite and we had the chance to hang out on deck again and take in our pretty spectacular surroundings.

Being on a boat like this in Vietnam in late June certainly gave Aswan a run for its money as the hottest day of my life. And, although the clouds infringed on our sunset, we happy obliged if it meant cooler weather.

We gathered everyone up for a big pre-dinner game of Uno! (of which your author was victorious) and then chowed down on some barbecued meats and seafood. The food was quite good. After dessert, an obscene lighting storm rolled in and we sat outside debating what might happen if our mast were struck. The humidity was still pretty unbearable, so we retreated to our air-conditioned sanctuaries for some sleep at around 10 p.m. — perhaps my earliest bedttime in 75 days.

Pilgrimage to the pagoda

Day 74
Hanoi, Vietnam

We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into after signing up for a private trip to the Perfume Pagoda, a complex of Buddhist temples and pagodas about 2 hours south of Hanoi. Last night, the receptionist told me that the trip would leave at 8 a.m. “It’s hot, you leave early” she said. Of course, we slept in this morning and didn’t get rolling until 10 a.m., for which we’d pay the price.

Traffic was horrible getting out of town. An accident — one of 30 daily, according to our guide, Zoom — created a monster gridlock that set us back another hour. Today was also the peak of the bi-annual rice harvest here, so the streets of the countryside were filled with drying plants, creating an obstacle course that delayed us even further.

By the time we arrived in the town of My Doc, it was close to noon and the sun was at its highest peak. The air was thick with humidity. It couldn’t get much worse until we learned that we’d now be treated to an hour’s boat ride, paddled by a poor Vietnamese woman who looked out on the empty river — then looked back at us and cursed our arrival. At least the weather gave us an excuse to buy these really dope conical hats.

Properly sun-screened (for you Grandma!), the four of us squeezed onto a tiny boat and squatted uncomfortably in our seats. Zoom gave us some umbrellas to shield us from the sun. Then, the serious sweat started.

We would later agree that we sweat more in the next several hours than we probably have in our entire lives. If you have also ever tried squatting for 60 minutes (why you would, I’m not sure), you know how terribly uncomfortable it can become — with limbs falling asleep and aching backs. Needless to say, by the time we reached the shore, we were somewhat delirious from the heat and the squat.

Just when it couldn’t get any better, our guide told us that the cable car we had thought would bring us to the top of Huong Tich Mountain might no longer be running — since all the other tourists had come through several hours earlier — and we would have to walk the 4 kilometers to its peak. This was not what we wanted to hear. Luckily, a huge group of Korean tourists had arrived a couple of minutes before us and they warranted the cable car being turned on for one trip. We rejoiced and hopped on board.

At the peak of Huong Tich was the most sacred temple of the Perfume Pagoda. It was built into a cave in the 15th century and is visited each January through March by millions of pilgrims. The cave was a remarkable place, and not just because it was so cool that you could see your breath. Zoom explained all the shrines to us and then invited us to rub a dollar bill on a special rock for prosperity and take one drop of water to our bodies for good health.

The experience was almost transformative — with our body temperatures lowered to normal, we found this a remarkably peaceful and tranquil spot — that made the entire journey worth it. (We think.)

We took the cable car back down and then had lunch before visiting a few of the other surrounding temples. Zoom was able to charter us a motorboat back to the mainland, so we avoided another hour of squatting in the sun. Our driver returned us to the Elegance by around 6 p.m., where we took the most amazing showers, relaxed and then packed for tomorrow morning, when we leave for Halong Bay.

Good morning, Vietnam!

Day 73
Hanoi, Vietnam

With humidity inching towards 100 percent, Hanoi was a complete swamp this morning. We couldn’t let that stop us from seeing the city though, so after all becoming millionaires (16,000 dong to $1USD exchange) we hired a guide and driver (with a well air-conditioned car) to show us around. Our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, which like Mao in Beijing, is considered a holy site. Vietnamese queue by the thousands to see Uncle Ho in his glass sarcophagus — except from September to December when his body is sent to Russia for “restoration.”

Afterwards, we visited the somewhat strange Ho Chi Minh Museum, filled with exhibits singing the former Communist ruler’s praises. The complex grounds had a few other sights within walking distance, including the One Pillar Pagoda and the impressive Presidential Palace, a grand building constructed in 1906 and used by the French during occupation that stood in stark contrast to the simple stilt house we saw that Ho later ruled from.

We loaded back into the car for a short drive to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which introduced us to the country’s 54 ethnic groups. Our favorite was the Bahnar, who had this really sweet traditional communal house where we were served a cup of steaming tea (exactly what we wanted in 95 degree heat).

Next stop after a quick noodle lunch: the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), built and dedicated to Confucius in 1070 and later established as Vietnam’s first university (nowhere near as solid as UNC).

It would be impossible to come here and not visit Hoa Lo Prison, ironically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by U.S. POWs during the Vietnam War. We saw John McCain’s flight suit and toured the wretched facility, which was originally built by the French to detain Vietnamese. Afterwards, our guide took us to the Ngoc Son Temple, a meditative spot that sits on an island in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake.

With our jam-packed day complete, we headed back to the hotel to rest. Our tour included a traditional water puppet show later that evening, but we couldn’t find the motivation. Instead, after struggling again to locate an open restaurant, we were ripped off by another taxi driver before making our way to the Hanoi Hilton — the real one — for drinks and air conditioning.

Of monks and Mirabelle

Day 72
Hanoi, Vietnam

A little after 5:30 a.m. this morning, the Tak Bat procession started. Without fail, as dawn breaks each day, the monks of Luang Prabang arrive by the hundreds from the town’s surrounding Buddhist temples to collect their daily alms. There are lines of big monks and “mini-monks” (not my expression) as they wait to receive sticky rice and small cakes — their food for the day.

In their burnt-sienna robes, the monks yield to traffic yet don’t say a word. They are focused and they are solemn. Soon the town is awash in color, complementing the quickly rising sun. And, just as quickly as they are here, they are gone.

This is a part of life in Luang Prabang. While it has become something of a tourist attraction, today was blissfully free of those interfering in a religious ceremony for a new Facebook profile photo. The government of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos has also taken steps to protect this. A memo in our hotel room says: “Observe the ritual in silence, and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and you can do so in a respectful manner.”

We got back to the hotel, rested for a couple of hours and then met Phet, our tuk-tuk driver from yesterday. He brought us to the town of Ban Ean, about 30 minutes away, where we boarded a boat headed down the Nam Khan. Yesterday, our captain belched a BeerLao burp before firing up his rickety engine. Today, our captain couldn’t even get the engine to start. Guess drunk is better than incompetent. Luckily, our destination was downstream, so we had a leisurely float in the baking sun.

After a short walk, we arrived at Tad Sae waterfall, a beautiful and secluded spot, with clear water gushing over many levels of limestone. There, we met Mirabelle, our beast of burden who would be showing us around.

The ride was, well, slow. It was pretty cool to sit in a basket on top of a gigantic elephant in the middle of the jungle. But, at the same time, Mirabelle didn’t seem too happy with her job — after a couple of minutes, we really just wanted to set her free. The guys who run the park would’ve been heated if we pulled a Prison Break, so we could only feed her some pineapple plants and wish her well.

Phet brought us back along the bumpy road to the Apsara, where we showered and rested up. With no other planes at the Luang Prabang airport, our Lao Airlines (motto: “You’re safe with us”) flight to Hanoi was delayed about 90 minutes due to a “technical problem.” We gladly allowed the maintenance men to work their magic on our tiny propeller while playing several super competitive hands of Chinese Uno! and drinking our final BeerLaos. For the record, Derek romped me, 4 – 1. The series is to be continued.

After touching down in the People’s Republic of Vietnam at around 7 p.m., a transfer brought us to the city’s Old Quarter and our hotel, the Hanoi Elegance 2, where we were cheerfully reunited with Burt and Andy. This warranted opening our Lao whiskey wine for a toast.

Burt had gotten rid of his Rangers playoff beard from Dubrovnik and Andy had shed some of his facial hair from Siem Reap. I’ve debated growing a beard, but after watching all those who have furiously scratch themselves all day, am now firmly against it.

We took a cab through this wild city, which at times felt like one big motorbike race. There are four million people in the capital of Vietnam and there might be as many vehicles. Forget about traffic laws or lights. Along the way, our driver sideswiped a BMW, whose owner was less than happy. We got to the restaurant, but it was closing for the evening, so with no clue of where else to try, we hopped into another cab and somehow ended up at a decent place.

After dinner, we raced around in tuk-tuks trying to find a bar but weren’t really feeling any of our destinations. When we asked the drivers to bring us back to the hotel, they had no idea where it was — even when we showed them its location on a map. Ninety minutes later, we’d finally found our way and arrived back at the Hanoi Elegance, whose lobby was now strangely filled with parked motorbikes. (Can we escape them?)

Hanoi is certainly one of the crazier destinations I’ve been to. A well-traveled friend of mine recently remarked, “It’s places like that city which make you happy to get home.”