Saturday, December 31, 2011

Angkor Wat

I slept better last night, with my sore neck bothering me the least in over two weeks. After a filling breakfast, we got on the "green" bus, but found that the couple that few in the "yellow" team liked have switched to us.

The weather was much hotter today and more humid (I'd say Washington, D.C. mid-July). We took the now-familiar road to Angkor Wat, but got off in front of the entrance to the temple. We had to wear long pants as a sign of respect, but that also made things a little stickier.

The temple is surrounded by a wide (200 yards) and long moat, which was originally filled with crocodiles. Spanning the moat is a stone causeway, flanked by nagas and lions. The naga is a sacred symbol. It consists of a cobra with multiple heads (always an odd number for good luck) and it wards off evil spirits. At Angkor Thom, the gods and demons were holding the naga, but here it was on its own.

Around the first gate were numerous intricate carvings of apsaras (dancing divine figures) and nagas. Inside was a wide expanse with only a few structures, ending in some ornamental pools. These structures were libraries holding records on stone tablets and banana leaves. I got a nice shot of the temple complex reflected in the lily pond.

I should add, in light of yesterday's comments on the sparseness of the trees, that the complex is surrounded by a hedge of jungle. Elsewhere in the region, though, the jungle has been cut down for rice paddies.

From there we ascended to the first level of the temple. Here we so long narrow corridors with point stone ceilings (the original wood ceiling deteriorated centuries ago). The walls were adorned with bas reliefs depicting scenes from the Bhagavad Gita, such as Rama battling demons, along with monkey warriors.

The next stop was the second level. Here there were elaborate stone basins to collect and channel rain water and prevent flooding. There were also several elaborate carvings of aspsaras.

We were supposed to climb to the third, final, and holiest level, but the parks authority put up signs saying it was closed for cleaning (if they don't remove the various seedlings growing on the temple, they will grow as large as the ones in Ta Prohm that destroyed parts of the temple.

We went back down to the first level, and he showed us another gallery where the guide taught us how to distinguish "star commanders." What he meant was how to tell a 1 start general from a five-star general from the king: count the number of parasols in the drawing. The larger the number, the higher the rank.

From there, the group turned back toward the main gate. I had seen a buddhist shrine inside the first level and asked the guide if I could go off on my own. Sure, he said, but be back at the meeting point at the right time.

I hurried back into the temple and found the shrine. I saw several people paying to have their fortune read. Here's how it went: on one side of the shrine sat an old male fortune teller. The person desiring to have her fortune read sat on the mat and put money in his box. He the handed her a stack of long, thing, narrow wooden cards, all bound together. She took the cards and held them on her head and marked one, which he then read to her. I watched several of these, though the last one I heard apparently wasn't a good fortune, and there were audible reactions. After watching people burn incense and make offerings, I hurried back. I hoped to see one of the saffron-robed monks I saw earlier but none were around.

I made it back to the meeting point in time, but our group had been moved down a block so I scurried after them, catching up just before they reached and boarded the bus. We got back to the bus around 11:20 and it was a short trip back to the hotel. They announced that anyone wishing for a free bus ride to the old market in Siem Reap should be back on the bus in 15 minutes. We hurried back to the room, dropped off our stuff, and I changed into shorts. I also grabbed my guide book.

We went to the Khmer Kitchen restaurant and ordered almost the same thing: khmer curry (me we chicken, dad with mixed vegetables), and Cambodian beer. The meal was very good and the total bill came to $10.

After that we walked across the street to the old market. It is reminiscent of mahaneh yehuda, though more touristy. In the center is the food market, where we found bowls of shellfish, squid, octopus, etc., could wash fish being butchered, and saw plucked chickens out for sale. There were also many food vendors catering to exclusively Cambodian clientele. While there were a few stores for locals, including a beauty salon in one small shop, where one woman was getting her hair blown out, most everything else was directed to tourists.

I was looking at some very intricate and elaborate linens. I don't remember how big my table is (and I certainly don't know its measurements in centimeters), but they had bed coverings for king sized beds. I looked at several and asked how much a gold one with intricate patterns was. "$25." "Oh, I don't know if I can do that," I replied, "how about $15?" "For $15 you can buy table runner," she answered. "Oh, you mean $15 final price for bedcover? No, then I lose all my profit." She fiddled with her calculator. "How about $22," she said, and showed me 22 on the calculator. "How about $20," I replied and she agreed. I realized after I left, that I had never asked her what the cover was made out of. We circled back later and she said silk and cotton, not 100% silk.

We explored the length of the market and ended as far south as the Terrasse des Elephants hotel and cafe, a colonial yellow covered building that looks as if it came right out of French Indochine. We walked back to the Blue Pumpkin, where I got a mango sorbet and then got a tuk-tuk cab back to the hotel. Dad is now napping; I'm considering going swimming (if there's a pool).

Tomorrow morning we leave at 8 am for the boat. As in Hanoi, we need to have our check-in luggage outside our room at 7 for pick up. Because the water level is low, we will need to be bused 4.5 hours until we can embark. Our welcome lunch is scheduled for 1:30 pm. We were also told we will have two stops en route in order to visit the "happy room."

Apparently wifi can be someone spotty on the ship, so I'm not sure how often I will be able to make postings on the cruise.

New Year's Eve

The cruise line sponsored a special New Year's Eve dinner for us in the hotel. I decided to sit with some of the "yellow" team people to get to know them better. To my right were Richard and Shannon, across from them were Terri and Richard, and across from dad and I were Bud and, and, I don't remember. Unfortunately, Amiko was sitting on dad's left. Her travel partner, Judy, is very engaging, and dad and I had a very nice conversation with her at breakfast in Hanoi, but Amiko tends to be very quiet, and dad and she said nothing to each other.

We heard a little more gossip about the "problematic" person on the "yellow" team; apparently, he has been making offensive remarks to various Vietnamese and Cambodian people randomly through out the trip. Terri asked if we were all getting along, and I said that I thought so, and Richard then offered to trade three "greens" for two "yellows," a reference to this person. We had a very pleasant conversation about traveling, and coping with rats and snakes in the plumbing (back home, not here). We also learned that Bud bought a bottle of snake wine in Hanoi. This wine has a real, dead cobra inside. Apparently, this is believed to improve one's virility, which has led to them all calling him "Bud the stud."

The conversation was so nice that I glanced at my watch as was shocked to see it was after 9:30. Dad had just asked what time it was and I told him it was the latest he had stayed up on the trip so far. He left for bed around a quarter of 10.

I should add the meal they prepared for us was excellent. Dad loved his cream of pumpkin soup, and I really enjoyed the scallops in broth with tomatoes and asparagus. We both got the skewers of beef in khmer sauce, which was cooked just right to what the French call au point. The other option was the sea bream cooked in a banana leaf, and I saw several people leaving that over almost untouched.

I suppose I should give a better description of the hotel. The hotel appears to be laid out as a triangle, with a reception hall in the front, and two residential wings. There are restaurants on either side of the reception hall: a long one with a veranda (where they served breakfast and where we also had lunch), and a smaller room jutting out on the other side (where we had dinner). There's also a small patio between them where we had the buffet last night, and tonight we saw frogs hopping about.

Each of the residential wings is about three stories tall, with a large, dark wooden railed stair case in the lobby of each, along with a small elevator. The rooms all have verandas. As you enter our room, there's a wooden bench for a suitcase, followed by a wooden wardrobe, then a hospitality bar. Next to that is the credenza with the television, followed by another wooden suitcase bench, and the desk. On the right wall is the bathroom followed by two full-sized beds with a small night stand between them (holding two pieces of what was originally six french macarons in a small glass - I ate the others). There's also a chair and lamp.

Between the two residential wings and the reception is a large ornamental lagoon containing lotus flowers and a canoe with Santa. There is a wide, tiled, covered walkway, decorated with Cambodian designs, that runs from the reception to the middle of the pond, and then turns right leading to our building. There's also a large gazebo for sitting that branches off from the walkway in the middle of the pond. If you want to see pictures, click this link:

Friday, December 30, 2011

Elephants, Monkeys, and Lost Cities

or walking in the footsteps of Angelina Jolie.

First, about the dogs. Yes, some people in Vietnam do eat dogs (they are considered to be very nutritious). From the road, once or twice I saw dogs in cages, looking as if they were intended for market. We also saw a lot more loose dogs in the countryside, though no where near the numbers in other places I've been.

When I got back to the room last night, dad had already gone to bed. I kept hitting the light switches, but nothing would come on. It turns out that dad had turned off the master switch by the bed. I woke him in order to fix the light situation, and then left the bathroom light on (with the doors closed) so I could find it in the middle of the night.

We slept well and this morning we discovered our room has a beautiful veranda overlooking the ponds and gardens. One other guest thought he saw monkeys this morning, but we didn't.

The breakfast was very nice (though the cereal bowls were extraordinarily small) and the room was very fancy. I asked dad if he preferred this buffet to the one in Tel-Aviv, and he instantly said "Tel-Aviv," though he couldn't explain why.

We had heard yesterday about a difficult person in the "yellow" group, so I finally found out who: it was the guy that dad had a long and energetic conversation with yesterday in the airport! They actually hit it off quite well as they debated various physics and math questions.

We gathered round for the morning briefing, and I felt something hitting my leg. It was Frau Fabissiner's purse. I chose not to move, so she walked around the group to find a place on the other side. Ah, the small victories of pettiness.

This morning we headed off to Angkor Thom. The road is quite dusty and lined with small shops and a lot of almost-finished construction. There were a fair number of tuk-tuks (motorcycle-driven carts), but nothing like the number of mopeds and scooters we saw in Vietnam. By the entrance to the temple complex, traffic jammed, but we still had to wait, get out, get our picture take (for our pass), and then get back on the bus. Frau Fabissiner's pass wouldn't fit in her badge holder, so we had a little drama, but they got her a new one.

Let me add here a description of this area of Cambodia. I had assumed that this would be mostly jungle. Instead, it's flat, hot, somewhat humid (like D.C. towards the end of June), and dusty. Most of the land is made up of rice paddies, with the occasional palm tree or isolated tree. It's quite different than I expected.

Today, I visited my second lost city (after Petra), and it was a fabulous and fantastic experience. Later, as we went through Ta Prohm, the guide kept referring to it as the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider temple (where the filmed part of the movie). I want to know why all these famous lost cities are now known by the crappy movies filmed there (Petra was the site of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Waiting to enter Angkor Thom, we saw people riding elephants ($15 but I doubt we'll have time). Along the causeway, there were 54 figures: on one side gods, on the other side demons. 54 was a lucky number, since it adds up to 9, another lucky number. Bob then says to me "gematria" referring to Jewish games with numbers. The walls of the temples are decorated in a breathtakingly wide array of ornamentation, including depictions of wars (with elephants), apsaras (divine temptresses), lotus flowers, smiling buddhas, intricate patterns, etc.

Angkor Thom was overrun by tour groups, so it was somewhat chaotic moving along, trying to get a good shot of the various buddhas and carvings. The stairway to the second level was a modern wooden one, but it was quite steep. The staircase down was just a steep, but lacked a hand rail.

At one point, we walked through a tower and could make out a high-pitched squeaking sound: bats. The floor was dotted with dark guano and one (seemingly) dead bat. At one point, the guide pointed to one particularly well-preserved buddha, which is on the national currency. It was surrounded by what looked like a Japanese tour group posing for pictures. I just pushed my way through and got a great shot. See, living in Israel has provided me with skills that will last a life time.

From Angkor Thom we went on to Ta Prohm (aka "the Tomb Raider temple"). On the way, we had a bit of excitement when we got to see several small monkeys running on the ground. The guide strongly cautioned us against trying to approach or feed them, as they can jump on you and injure you.

The temple of Ta Prohm is some 900 years old, but it was abandoned in the 15th century. Since then, trees have grown out of and on top of the structures, their roots tearing apart the buildings. This was another one where we were constantly jostled by tour groups. At one point, the guide said, go look in the corner where you can see a dinosaur, and sure enough, one of the small wall carvings looked like a stegasaurus. In other case he would say, go stand by the room and look up. There was a great shot of a very tall tree rising out of a building. In some buildings, there were people burning incense before shrines to buddha, so the air was strongly perfumed with sandalwood. The walls were mostly red, and sometimes green, not from paint but from lichen. Eventually, we made our way back to the buses and then back to the hotel.

We had a 2-hour break for lunch, so dad and I sat on the restaurant veranda by the lagoon. He ordered the salad caprese and the "healthy pizza" (zucchini and carrot), while I had the tom yom goong soup (hot and sour with 6 giant prawns) and the roast duck curry with tomatoes and pineapple. The soup was fantastic! If I had known it was that big, I wouldn't have ordered the curry main course. Dad was much less pleased with his meal. The salad caprese consisted of a large mass of lettuce (which he won't eat) some sad, greenish tomatoes, and one strip of mozzarella. He sent it back and ordered the tom yom goong soup instead. It took a half an hour for his soup to arrive.

This afternoon we went to Banteay Srei, also known as "the citadel of women." My colleague who came here last year thought this was the best of all the temples in the Angkor complex. A Hindu-inspired temple, the walls and structures have delicate and intricate sandstone carvings that cover almost every inch of the structures. The figures of the Hamuran (sp?), the monkey gods who battled Rama and Vishnu (I think) were great, but turned out to be copies. The originals are in the Phnom Penh Museum.

I could have spent hours there (in fact, I could have spent hours in any of these locations), but we were only there for an hour. That didn't stop Frau Fabissiner from complaining "they said we would only be here for 30-45 minutes, but look, it's been an hour!"

From Banteay Srei we drove to a school supported by AMAWaterways (the cruise company). This gave us a great opportunity to see the rural countryside. Most of Cambodia is rural, and 60% is under the age of 25. Unlike Vietnam (or at least the parts of Vietnam that we saw), Cambodia is quite poor and undeveloped. The cows and water buffalo in the fields were very skinny (as were many of the dogs we saw). We saw many traditional Khmer houses, which are built on stilts. This is to 1) protect the children from cobras and tigers (not so many tigers these days); 2) protect everyone from mosquitoes; 3) provide a safe shelter under the house for coal and cooking during monsoon season; and provide a safe shelter for live stock during monsoon season.

The school visit was better than I expected. The kids liked posing for pictures and broke into big grins or giggles when I showed them the pictures I took of them. There was a really cute puppy who greeted us. Dad commented on how soft his fur was, so I reminded him that the puppy probably didn't have any shots, so he should use the hand sanitizer on the bus. We dropped off our school supplies and headed back to Siem Reap.

Tomorrow morning we visit Angkor Wat (we have to wear long pants as a sign of respect for the temple) and we have the afternoon free. I'm hoping to visit the market in Siem Reap. On Monday, we embark on the river cruise. Tonight we have a New Year's Eve dinner indoors in one of the hotel's restaurants.

Ha Long Bay

Before I get to our fabulous day and night in Ha Long Bay, first some additional details concerning the water puppet show in Hanoi.

We went up two flights of stairs to the auditorium. There was a large rectangular pond where a stage would normally be, with a small platform stage right and a wall with a shrine on top of it, stage middle in the back. There was a distinct mildew odor in the air.

The show began with performers in the small platform, playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, accompanied by two singers. After an instrumental number and some singing, the puppetry began. The "wall" partially opened on the sides to allow the puppets to come out. These were various figures who seemed to float on the water and were controlled by means of a long underwater wooden pole. This pole allowed the puppeteers to move the puppets, but also had enough complexity to allow them to move their hands. In one case, a puppet "swam," both freestyle and back stroke.

Given that I was dozing off during the performance, it's hard to give a complete description of each element, but there were several elaborate numbers involving fish, snakes, fishermen, and the finale including the tale of how the carp became a dragon.

Thursday morning we had the long drive to Ha Long Bay. Outside Hanoi, we drove past long stretches of rice paddies. In the north, they plant rice after the lunar new year when the spring rains come (in about a month). Now, they are turning the soil, and burning the old rice stalks to fertilize the grounds. We saw water buffalo being used with plows, as well as peasants in conical hats burning straw.

In some towns, the streets were black from coal dust, used in the thermal power plants. As in Hanoi, most houses were unique; each one was decorated differently, and even when there was space, they were thin, tall, and long. Dad noted that they are only painted on the front and wondered why. I suggested because they often had neighboring houses built right next to them, so why paint what no one will see?

We learned that Vietnamese do keep dogs for pets (we could see several from the bus), but that in Hanoi, dog owners keep them locked up to avoid theft. We also learned that Hanoi was badly damaged by U.S. bombardment during the war.

After two hours, we stopped at a tourist trap where we had the opportunity to buy various items. I bought some bamboo place mats to supplement the ones I already own, but then learned about how much the material was marked up. So be it. I looked around, trying to find ideas for possible gifts to buy when I'm in Saigon. There were two cafes: one for the tourists and one for the Vietnamese guides. The latter was very smoky. After a jasmine tea, we got back on the bus for another hour and a half to reach Ha Long Bay.

When we got on the bus in Hanoi, dad and I got the first seat in the front, which gave us a great view of the chaotic traffic and the vista ahead of us. This was a mixed blessing. The metal pole made sitting a little uncomfortable; but on the bright side, it made Frau Fabissiner (as I've called her) a little more sour. When we got on in Hanoi, I heard her screaming at the driver "no! no! no!" when he tried to put her carry on bag under the bus. She always seems to have a rather curdled expression.

The morning was overcast and hazy, but the sun began to appear when we reached the bay. We took the tender to the junk and it (the junk) was gorgeous. Dark wood shuttered windows, with dark wood trim. Our room was on the lowest level and dad though the bathroom, with its marble walls and walk-in shower, was nicer than the one we had at the Sofitel in Hanoi. The beds were very comfortable, though a little high for dad's taste.

We met in the galley for lunch and the guide told us that this would be our table for our time on the junk. That meant we ended up sitting at a mostly Jewish table. Needless to say, there was much confusion over all the special orders: gluten free, shellfish free, meat and pork free, etc. As it happens, the meal was so-so. Dad thought it was the weakest part of the trip in Vietnam.

After lunch we sailed through Ha Long Bay, which has hundreds of craggy limestone outcroppings, rising out of the hazy, green sea. The air was definitely a surprise: clear, clean, and fresh, but not salty. Perhaps it was only in comparison to the diesel fumes of Hanoi, but it was delightful. I took dozens of photos of each particular outcropping as it came into view.

Eventually we reached the harbor for the largest cave in the bay. After a stern warning about the large number of steps we would be climbing, the heartiest (and heart healthy) travelers got in the tender to shore. It was a mere 138 steps to the entrance to the cave, but it also gave us a beautiful view of the harbor full of junks and small ships. The cave complex is quite large and is brightly and fancifully lit inside. There are all sorts of shapes formed by rain water eroding the limestone. Dad kept up well, though at times on the steepest climbs we needed to stop for a rest. I still think, though, that the view from the trail was nicer than the views in the cave.

We headed back to the junk and then in late evening, we visited one of the floating fishing villages in the bay. Originally, we were scheduled only to do the floating village on one day, and the cave the next, but they needed to shift plans when Vietnam Air moved up the time of our departure to Cambodia.

From the tender, we boarded a small skiff, holding four people and a rower. She then proceeded to row us around the village (which was laid out like a giant "U" in the shelter of a large bay. We saw various fishing boats and clam harvesting platforms. I noticed that in many of the houses, I could see a large mirror opposite the front door. This was for fung shui. We also saw some dogs, including one running across the bamboo poles of a clam platform as if it were flat wood. We saw many young children and a school before we headed back to the tender and the junk.

Back on board we had a brief rest before dinner. Some people went to see the fruit carving lesson, but I stayed up on the upper deck chatting. Dinner was buffet and so-so. After dinner I tried to stay up, but ended up going to bed a little before 9 pm.

In our bathroom, I noticed something plugged into the wall socket. I thought it was a nightlight, but when I pushed the light button it started flashing various odd colors. It turned out to be some kind of Glade plug in freshner. When I went to the bathroom at 4 am, I was trying to discretely turn on the light, but accidentally hit plug in button, but instead of the lights flashing, I hit the music button and it started to play some ring tone. I frantically hit it to turn it off before it woke up dad.

I was up around 6 am, and went up on deck to watch the mountains rising from the morning sea. Around 7 am, they had a tai chi lesson, so I decided to try it. I'm not the most coordinated, so this was rather a challenge. After about 15 minutes I decided I had had enough, so when the instructor had his back turned, I slipped away. 1 minute later he ended the lesson, so I had quit for nothing.

Breakfast was again so-so, with the pastries tasting as if they had been frozen and defrosted. The best food was the pho, which was hot, fresh and tasty. After that we packed up to go to the airport.

After two hours on the road, we stopped for lunch at a very fashionable golf course. Dad and I had the pho again. Then we continued to the airport. There, our guide instructed us to make sure that customs did not stamp our visa "used" as this would invalidate our return visa for a week or so from now. Dad and I made sure to get behind Frau Fabissiner as she was sure to raise a ruckus if they made a mistake. Thankfully, there were no problems.

Our flight to Cambodia ended up being delayed for an hour, which gave us more than enough time to chat with the passengers on the "yellow" team. We were all divided into two teams: green and yellow. Each team gets a different bus and guide, and we were on different junks last night. We began to hear from some of the "yellow" team that there was a "problem" passenger in their group that we needed to take care of. We're not sure yet who the passenger is, but I suspect that it's the guy from Texas who kept trying to start political debates with dad and me.

It was rather warm and humid when we got to Cambodia. No problems with customs and AMA handled all the paperwork for our visas (though we haven't gotten our passports back yet). Because of the delay, we had to rush to our rooms and then back to the buffet dinner. The rooms are gorgeous, with a tub and a shower, two large beds, a desk, and other amenities. To get to them, we went along a lit walkway over water (it's rather dark, so I won't be sure until morning). It's very beautiful.

The dinner was buffet, and I particularly liked the chicken curry, skewered beef in khmer sauce, and cashew chicken (the last being quite spicy). While we ate, some Cambodian dancers performed elaborate and intricate dances.

Tomorrow morning, we leave for the temples at 8:30 am, so that means a 7 am wake up. I'm going back to the room in a little bit to unpack. I'm going to try to stay up until 10, in order to get my body back on a more normal schedule.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bumper-Level View of Hanoi Traffic

The highlight of Wednesday afternoon was a rickshaw ride through the heart of Hanoi. These are also called "cyclos" or pedicabs, and seat one person. I only had to close my eyes twice as we went through particularly busy intersections. The ride was a blast, and we not only got to see Hanoi traffic up close and personal, but we also could see whole aspects of contemporary Vietnamese life.

One of the things that most stands out is how young the society is. I don't know the average age, but it is far younger than in the U.S. You really can see how people are hustling to make a better life for themselves. There are also three classes (in this communist society). There are those who dress very stylishly, in suits, ties, dresses, or other very fashionable outfits. Then you have the working class, who sit on small stools or squat on the pavement. Sometimes, you see groups of workers eating meals together. The third group are more "peasant-like" than the workers, and wear the conical hat one associates with peasants. Mostly women, you see them carrying two baskets suspended on a pole, draped over their shoulders.

After 45 minutes, we reached our final destination (dad said he thought he'd seen all two million scooters in Hanoi), and we began our walking tour of the old quarter. I love markets, and this was particularly colorful. I saw my first dog and cat of the trip (the guide pointed the dog out to me since I had asked him about why there weren't any dogs this morning; I still have to wait until tomorrow's bus ride to find out why). We saw people lathing wood, doing metal work, cooking food, and butchering, all on the sidewalk.

The hard part was finding a way for 24 people to cross the street safely and all stay together. The guides had us all line up in rows and then cross slowly in a group (the guide stood on the side closest the oncoming traffic). We did this three times, with no injuries.

We ended back where the cyclos had dropped us off. The guide told us we had 10 minutes if we would like to go into the building and visit "the happy room." Ah, I said to the confused woman next to me, "it's a bathroom break." After 10 minutes we went in to watch the water puppet show.

I think dad liked this best of all. I, however, was starting to fade. It was 5 pm here, or 2 am in Los Angeles, and even with 11 hours sleep, my body is still on California time. The puppets were skillfully managed, and the music was enjoyable, but I nodded off (or would have had there been any space). Afterwards, we came back and gave the guide our passports, extra photos, and cash for our Cambodian visas.

When we got on the bus to go back to the hotel, I took the first two seats available. I noticed that someone had left something in the back of the seats when we had used these buses in the morning. A few minutes later, a woman angrily accused me of sitting in their seats. I reminded her that the main guide had said we would be rotating our seats over the trip. She huffily responded that she didn't know that meant we would be doing that today. Personally, I was rather surprised she had left anything on the bus earlier as there was no guarantee we would be having the same bus on other days (there are two buses being used). She is a rather fabissineh woman from Canada. On the day we arrived, dad and I heard saying she had no intention of providing a credit card impression to the hotel. Dad thought that she hadn't traveled very much.

I had made reservations for dinner at the Hanoi Press Club and it certainly lived up to its reputation. Across the street from the hotel, the restaurant has dark wood floor, beautiful, dark wooden shutters and pillars, and an overall feeling of French colonial rule. I start off with the cream of leek soup, which was hot and tasty. Dad and I both had salmon: his was steamed, while mine was grilled. We both loved our meal, and were too stuffed for dessert.

Now I'm going to head up to finish packing up my luggage. I'll post this tomorrow morning before we head to Ha Long Bay, as I don't think we'll have internet access on the junk, and any further update will have to wait until we're in Cambodia.

I went to sleep around 9 pm last night, and woke up at 6:20 this morning. Slept rather fitfully as the thermostat in the room was set at 25 (I found it this morning). Far warmer than I'm comfortable with. We're all packed and we're leaving in a few minutes for Ha Long Bay. I probably won't have another update for 36 hours.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Over His Dead Body

By the time I finished writing yesterday's entry, I was wiped out. I went back up to the room and went right to sleep. I napped for about an hour, then woke up. I was still having trouble concentrating, so I napped again, and dad woke me up 15 minutes before our dinner reservation.

We had dinner in the hotel's french restaurant, one of the most famous and elegant in Hanoi. Both of us felt slightly under dressed. Dad had a Vietnamese beer, which he thoroughly enjoyed, but I thought it safe to stay away from alcohol given how tired I still was. I had a club soda, which came with ice cubes. I decided not to panic over the ice, and this morning I found that the ice in the hotel restaurants is made with bottled water, not tap, so I had nothing to worry about.

Dad ordered french onion soup and the grilled salmon (all of which he thought was wonderful), while I had the fig and duck pate with grilled leeks, and then the sea bass stewed in red wine and winter vegetables. I had thought about getting the soup, but I had had a big bowl for lunch. My fish was delicious and the pate was great.

The only off putting thing was they offered us an appetizer of beef tartar, and I won't eat raw meat. I debating telling my father, but decided I ought to, and he didn't want to eat it either, so we left it untouched.

After dinner, dad and I took a walk around the block the hotel is on. They have two classic autos (and 1953 and 1956 Citroen) in which you can reserve to be driven around the city. The streets were lit and still full of mopeds. We got back to the lobby, but it was too early to go to bed. We sat in the lobby for awhile and read, but dad went up to bed around 8:30. I tried to hold out to 9 pm, but ended following him up 20 minutes later.

We had arranged a wake up call for 7 am, but I ended getting up around 6:40. Still, that's 9 and a half hours sleep (11, if you include the earlier naps). We met with our fellow cruise mates at breakfast, as I struggled repeatedly to get names right. I really want to be better at this time.

The breakfast buffet provided by the cruise was a mix of traditional and American breakfasts. On the one hand they had congee, sticky rice, and steamed veggies (I had the latter two); on the other they had a omelet station, cereal, and milk. There was also some fresh fruit, though far less than one might find, for example, at an Israeli buffet breakfast.

As we waited for our first morning briefing, one gentleman, from Kenya originally, but now living in Texas, tried to start a political discussion by making some rather strident remarks about how giving hand outs to Indians after putting them on reservations only led to alcoholism, and why people should be encouraged to work or starve. Neither dad nor I rose to the bait. When the director talked about news on TV, such as CNN or BBC, I heard him mutter "and Fox!"

Many of the people we've met so far have been very nice. There's Karen and Janice, a very nice couple from Rhode Island, and Gloria and Tom, a retired couple from Palm Desert. I was surprised to see one man with a kippah at breakfast this morning. He and his wife split their time between Tsfat and Virginia City. I'm not sure how he'll deal with the food issues, but I heard him order the pho soup without meat for lunch today, so I guess he's going vegetarian.

We loaded up on buses this morning to visit some of the more prominent historical sites. First on the list was the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. A few people, dad included, wanted to remain on the bus, but it turns out this wasn't possible. You can really see how strong the Soviet influence has been on the aesthetics of the Vietnamese communist party. The uniforms and various public symbols are all redolent of Soviet iconography. Even the tomb itself, with Ho Chi Minh displayed in a glass box coffin (he looks very waxy), seems modeled on Lenin's tomb in Moscow.

Afterwards, we saw the old French governor's mansion and the small gardener's house nearby the Ho Chi Minh used. The buildings were interesting and they gave one a small feel for French Indochina. Our final stop this morning was the Temple of Literature. This Confucian Temple was dedicated 1000 years ago. There are a serious of courtyards, several decorated with dragons. One of the courtyards is filled with stone stelae, honoring scholars who passed the examination (the Chinese examination system was used to staff the imperial bureaucracy). Think of them as successful Ph.D. candidates. The final courtyard contains a temple with incense and statues, and places to pray. When I got on the bus, I noted the man with the kippah had not gone in, so I mentioned that it was just a little bit of avodah zorah (idol worship).

On the way back to the hotel, they distributed green silk ribbons (we're in the green group). We need to tie this to our big suitcase, since when we check out tomorrow, this will go directly to the airport and we won't get it back until we're in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We need to take an overnight bag for the junk in Ha Long Bay.

Two things about Hanoi that really stood out to dad and I:
1) Dad repeatedly points out the masses of electrical wires the flow across and down the street in a crazy, mixed up fashion.
2) I have been struck by the complete absence of dogs or cats. There's absolutely no dog droppings on the street nor can dogs be seen anywhere. Similarly, there are no stray cats at all. I asked the guide, but he asked me to hold all my questions for the long bus ride tomorrow. Among the questions that I'm waiting to hear answers for are: when and why did Vietnam adopt the Roman script; why are there no dogs or cats; and was Hanoi seriously damaged by U.S. bombardment during the war?

Dad and I went back to the poolside cafe for lunch (two more bowls of pho), and dad is now napping. In about 40 minutes, we rejoin everyone for our rickshaw ride through the old town and then a water puppet show this afternoon. We're going to try to get reservations at the Hanoi Press Club for dinner, as it's only a block from the hotel and the guide book describes it as one of the most popular "dining experiences in Hanoi."

Close Your Eyes and Pray to God

or how to cross the street in Hanoi.

The seats on our Dragonair flight to Hanoi had even less legroom than our Cathay Pacific flight, but at least these could recline. Unfortunately, that meant when the guy in front of me reclined, my paper was in his scalp. Luckily, it was a short flight.

We breezed through passport control in Hanoi. I've never, ever gone through passport control that quickly. A slightly nerve-wracking wait for luggage, mostly because we got an earlier flight to LA and I wasn't sure our luggage would catch up, but then we breezed through customs.

We had no trouble finding AMAWaterways, but they had trouble finding us. Someone goofed and they had us down on the no transfer list. Luckily, we happened upon them and they took us to the hotel. Had there not been others waiting for them, however, we might have had to wait in confusion, not understanding why no one was there to pick us up.

It was rather hazy and misty when we landed, and on the drive to Hanoi, someone asked the guide about smog. No, he said, this wasn't smoke like in China; rather, this time of year is generally misty and overcast. Walking around afterwards, we weren't choking, so I think this is mostly right.

Certain things really strike you right away about Hanoi. First is the enormous number of scooters and bicycles, zipping in and out, with only a few trucks, cars, and vans. The second thing is the architecture. In many communist countries (at least the ones in eastern Europe that I've seen), the state put up large, monotonous, generic apartment blocks where everyone lived. I generally describe such buildings as "charm free."

In Hanoi, by contrast, we saw almost no large buildings or flats, and none was generic. Most buildings were very thin, but varying in floors and depth, each differently decorated. I was really surprised by the variations.

Our hotel, the Sofitel Metropole Legend, is gorgeous. The room was clean and elegant. At first dad didn't think we had the complimentary water, so they brought more bottles. Then he found that the velvet wrapped bags didn't hold alcohol but the complimentary bottled water, so now we have 6 bottles of water. The room faces the old Opera House bar, but the windows are well sound proofed, so there's no street noise.

After showering and shaving, we went to lunch in the pool side cafe. We split an order of fried spring rolls, and we each had a bowl of pho, Vietnamese noodle soup. I'm trying to stay awake as long as possible (though I feel myself fading quickly), so after lunch we took an hour-long walk around the main lake at the center of old Hanoi.

The guide warned us about how to cross the street. Since the cars, scooters, and mopeds are constantly zipping by, they navigate based on where they think you're going to be. As a result, you can't stop, pause, or run while crossing the street, because that makes your position unpredictable. Instead, you just have to close your eyes, say a prayer, show no fear, and step out into the bedlam of traffic. The first major intersection, we crossed with a trio of middle aged women (always keeping them on the side of the oncoming traffic - no easy feat). The next time, there actually was a traffic cop.

There's a lot of communist-style posters (stuff one my see on display in the history of communism museum in Prague) commemorating the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the First Indochina War on December 19th. For new year's they have large numbers of kumquat trees for sale, so people can decorate their homes. Finally, there are a whole bunch of things under construction that seem to be rather kitchy displays, but of what we don't know.

At the center of the old part of Hanoi is a large green lake and park. Dad and walked around the perimeter of the lake, and then we returned to the hotel, where he went up to take a nap. I thought I might read my book for a while, but I'm so wiped that I may take a nap myself. Our dinner reservations are for 7pm (the French restaurant in the hotel), but I don't think I'm going to make it without a rest.

Hong Kong

It's really strange being here in Hong Kong airport. On the one hand, I've never been this far away from "home" before. I really am on the other side of the world; 16 hours time difference. First time I've ever crossed the international date line. This is also the first place I've ever traveled to where I didn't speak a single word of the local language, leaving me feeling far more helpless than I'm comfortable with.

On the other hand, it's basically a large, international airport. In other words, completely generic. We even have generic Christmas carol muzak wafting into the Cathay Pacific business class lounge. I may be in China right now, but it doesn't really "feel" like China.

The flight was ok. It was over 14 hours and our seats didn't recline; instead they slid forward, tilting my head at an uncomfortable angle. Rather than further strain my sore neck, I slept sitting straight up. Luckily, the Ambien worked and I slept over four hours, and neither the occasionally screaming toddler two rows ahead of us, nor the sick and coughing gentleman across the aisle from me prevented me from falling asleep.

The breakfast options this morning were mushroom omelet or something called congee. I thought I would try the latter, but I got a glimpse of it and it looked like across between chicken and egg drop soup and thin porridge, so I switched to the omelet at the last minute.

Both my father and I are fine. We have about 2 hours before the last leg of our flight to Hanoi. Dad's particularly happy that they have bananas in the lounge.

I will write more in Hanoi when I am able.

[This was originally posted this morning on my other blog by mistake]

Leaving, on a Jet Plane

Almost finished packing for the trip. The big question is whether I bring a handful of ballpoint pens to give to school children. Here's the itinerary:

Hanoi: 2 nights
Ha Long Bay: 1 nights
Siem Reap (Angkor Wat): 3 nights
Cruise down the Mekong River: 7 nights
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): 2 nights

[This was originally posted three days ago to my other blog by mistake]