Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Search for Barbara...March 29, 2009

We left Bastogne and headed back to Hue. Joe had reserved us a table at another restaurant that catered to mostly what they perceived as the western palate. It was very good, with a pineapple half hollowed out with a candle burning underneath, lighting the sculpted carrots and other accoutrement, making it look like a peacock, with a dozen skewered little spring rolls sticking out of its back. That was followed with some fish, shrimp, beef, rice, etc. There was a live traditional group playing a long zither, two different lutes, sticks for percussion, and tiny, teacup castanets. Two of the women would alternate standing and singing. It was very mesmerizing music, but the table of French loud speakers next to us made for a major distraction. I said shhhhhh, and pointed to the stage, but they ignored me.

The next place I wanted to revisit was a hill called Barbara, north of Hue, and inland where half of A battery and two guns from Birmingham spent Thanksgiving, 1971. Intelligence expected a major push from the North, and they wanted a forward presence to knock out some suspected ammunition caches. We loaded two guns on flat-bed trucks and our personnel on the open back of deuce-and-a-half ton trucks, picked up two guns and their crews at Birmingham, and headed east toward the river and Phu Bai. Through Camp Eagle and onto Highway One we rolled through Hue. Of course I did not know anything about the ancient capital, the beauty of the Perfume River, the Forbidden City, and had only barely heard of and remembered the Tet offensive of 1968, when Hue was a Full Metal Jacket war zone, with many American, VC, and civilian casualties. Not a clue. People lined the street and watched us roll through without any sign of resentment, protest, or anything. We were a presence that by that time was just there, and, if possible, ignored (at least by some of the population). Maybe about 20km north of Hue, we stopped at a base camp called Evans, on the west side of One. We spent the night drinking and sleeping in abandoned hootches and left early the next morning. Just a few more km north, we turned onto a dirt road and followed it on a winding course through some wooded, some planted countryside, until we came to a very big, high hill with a road leading up. On top was an abandoned, run down and rotting fire base with above ground bunkers, a terraced perimeter with many bunkers staggered around, and a tall look out tower at the top, above where we set up the FDC bunker. Climbing up into the tower I could look down at an ARVN battery of 105mm guns, laid out very neatly, with the place swept clean. Our side of Barbara, especially after a couple of days, was a garbage dump, muddy, and like I said, had not been occupied for some time. We ate C rations for two weeks, except for Thanksgiving when they flew out some turkey and dressing in the insulated, military food containers. We had missions every day and every night, and twice I heard the rolling thunder of B-52 strikes north of us.

Anyway, I was this close, had sent Joe maps of the area, and he had told me he could get me there, so that was on the agenda for Thursday. We drove up One and planned to take the van in as far as it would go and then get on the mountain bikes. The van went to the end of the dirt road, somewhat populated, and we had to ask somebody about the American hill. The man in the last house we could access invited us in to his two room concrete house, very sparsely furnished, with curtains separating the spaces. He was nodding and pointing in the direction the road would have gone, but he said it was washed out and never repaired years ago. There were other fire bases in the area, so I'm not sure if he was talking about Barbara or some other place. We headed back to One and turned north, looking for a road west. Roads entering One from the west were few and far between, but we finally found one (I think it was too far north) but we drove in for a couple of miles and got the bikes out. The road was typical one-lane, partially paved, with lots of kids coming and going. Fairly densely populated. I kept telling Joe to ask an old fart if they remembered. We finally found a tiny little house with a display of liquor and cigarettes in front, and some plastic tables, with a few men sitting around. One of the men was about my age, or a little older, and he said he had been an ARVN soldier and indeed there was an American installation up the road. We ate some soup with ramen noodles, and had a bottle of water. This was one of the diciest meals/places we had eaten. This guy kept saying something about McNamara and pointing up the road, but I thought he was saying Barbara and it sounded like McNamara.

We rode on up the road, climbing higher, through what looked like logging (small trees) country. The road was dirt and clay with many streams and run off creating deep, muddy bogs to ride through and hope you made it through without touching or falling down. It was mostly uphill and did not have the feel I remembered from 1971. After several km, we started seeing remnants of old asphalt which had been a road way up there in nowhere land. I don't recall any asphalt leading up to Barbara or on top, but I need to check with some guys who were there with me. I forgot to mention that two young guys from the place we ate came as guides, riding their motorbike. When we got to a place that felt like the top we hopped off the bikes to look around. There was lots of this asphalt, broken, grown-over, but the topography did not feel like the hill I remembered. We continued on a few km and the motorbike guys got off again and pointed up to another high point. We stopped and walked around. There were lots of long slit trenches, grown over bunker-like cavities, and we found an unexploded mortar round. I looked and looked and tried to imagine that area being what I remembered as the top of Barbara, but could not get the feel of it. Like Bastogne, it was totally grown over, so the shape was difficult to discern, and the asphalt meant that something had been there, but who knows what. John later said he had read something about McNamara's Eye, which was a network of listening devices set in the jungle to track movement. Back then I did talk to one person who was down on one of the perimeter bunkers who said his job was to place listening devices and then listen.

We walked around and finally hit the road back down. It was a fast ride down, a lot of fun. We loaded the bikes back into the van and headed back to One. A sign post as we hit One said Hue - 37km, and I think we were about 12-15km west, so I have something to compare to maps.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hue and Bastogne...March 27, 2009

Friday 27/3/09

It has been a busy three days and I need to catch up.


The train rolled into Hue about 11:00am on Wednesday. Joe had a driver waiting to pick us up and take us to the hotel for a quick check-in before lunch. The hotel is the Park View, about two blocks from the Perfume River. From the cafe/bar on the ninth floor, I can see the river, the forbidden city on the other side, the famous Eiffel bridge built in 1890 (now used just for motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians),and a more modern bridge for cars. The Eiffel bridge changes colors span by span continuously every night for a very nice light show. The Park View is luxurious, four star, with a great buffet breakfast with all the exotic fruit, cereals, french style pastries, Vietnamese style rice and noodle dishes, and standard fried eggs, bacon, crepes, etc., if one is so inclined. Everyone here but us and the staff is French. Hue was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty beginning in 1802, and the French made it the provincial capital when they colonized Vietnam in the mid-19th century. So, there is a lot of French influence here, and therefore, a lot of French tourists. There are just under one million people here, so about one-fifth of the motorbikes, and there are stoplights that people pay attention to, so it is a much more relaxed environment.

The Road to Bastogne

I came here for several reasons, but one of the main goals was to visit a hill called Bastogne where I lived in an underground bunker for about five months back in 1971-72. Bastogne is west of a town called Phu Bai, which is just a few miles south of Hue. Back then, Phu Bai was on the east side of Highway One, the main North-South artery from Saigon to Hanoi. On the west side of the highway was a huge sprawling base camp called Eagle. The few times I was at Camp Eagle, to get back to Bastogne, we would exit the back side (riding in the back of a deuce-and-a-half), and follow a winding dirt road to a large river. The river had a pontoon bridge which we would drive across, while local people poled shallow boats up and down, fished, and washed clothes in the river water. On the other side we would pass through a Montagnard village, local, ethnic people who lived in thatched huts and had a water buffalo or two, some rice fields on the south side of the road, and not much else. We would see these women carrying baskets of firewood on their backs. I remember a stone fence that looked very old on the south side of the road and always wondered if there were some kind of monastery back there. A few km west of the village on the north side of the road was a hill called Birmingham, where B Battery was stationed. Ten or twelve km beyond Birmingham, also on the north side of the road was Bastogne. Like I said, we lived underground. The top of the hill had been bulldozed, and holes big enough for bunkers to hold about 16 men had been cut and lined with timber and plywood. On top, from about calf height, there were sandbags stacked to about waist height. The entrance was a half round of metal culvert material. There were four of these crew bunkers, FDC (where we figured the shoot data and had radios to talk to HQ, forward observers, and the gunners), the command post, the XO post, and a mess hall, all underground. Twenty yards or so from each crew bunker was the gun pit where the 175mm cannon sat, with an above ground powder bunker and an above ground shell bunker. On the north side of the hill, out several meters, was a chopper pad, covered with asphalt. That was our side of Bastogne. The other hump of the saddle belonged to an ARVN 155mm unit, but we never communicated. All of Bastogne was barren, no green, all red clay mud.

So, I don't know what I expected to find. I thought we could sort of find where Eagle had been, find an old dirt road and follow it out. We drove to Phu Bai which now sprawled on both sides of the highway, with a large Vietnamese army base on the west side in many concrete buildings that looked like they might have dated to the French period. I had never been to the south side of Eagle, so I thought it was possible that those buildings might have been there. My old map of the region showing the locations of fire bases and base camps showed that the road we followed to Bastogne was number 7. Road 7 was now a double laned concrete road headed west past the Vietnamese army camp and just did not look right, so we went back to Phu Bai to look for someone who might have some recollection of Camp Eagle. We stopped in a little store and drank tea while Joe talked to the owner, a fifty year old woman who said her sister used to work at Camp Eagle. Her daughter jumped on a motorbike and came back in a few minutes with her English speaking aunt who seemed glad to see me. She said this whole part of town used to be Eagle, and if I knew Colonel something back in the states to please have him get in touch with her. She did not really know where Bastogne was, but was helpful in confirming that indeed we were sitting in what used to be a small town of plywood and screen buildings, mud, jeeps, trucks, all kinds of soldiers, and Vietnamese helpers.

We got back into the van and headed back to road 7 and kept following it. It was pretty well developed, with lots of houses along the road. We came to the River, but the pontoon bridge was a huge, modern, concrete span. The other side had no thatch village, just typical houses, lots of concrete walls, wooden doors, lots of kids and motorbikes. There were a few animals, but not like the areas we had been bicycling through. The land was much hillier than I remembered, and much more wooded. But the trees were not old, mostly 10-15 years, and all along the road there were piles and piles of logs of the skinny trees bundled up for transport somewhere. I did see an old stone fence on the south side of the road that looked like the one I used to see. Joe had a GPS and a laptop with the old military map I had sent him, so when we came up to a wooded, bushy hill on the right side, I said, "That looks like Birmingham." He checked his GPS and said he thought I was right. We kept going, farther than I recalled, still past very wooded country, but with lots of people living along the road.

Finally, we approached a hill on the right side of the road that had the shape of Bastogne, but it was so wooded and bushy that I could not be sure. We stopped at a house just at the base to ask. A man my age came out with Joe, and even though I could not understand what they were saying, the man was nodding and pointing at the hill. Joe said this guy had been a local ethnic villager who had joined the NVA during the war. He escorted us up what was now at least a partially paved driveway, where there were a couple of small houses. I could see a couple of women farther up cutting plants. We turned up the hill and found remnants of truck tracks in the bushes. It was totally covered with thigh high weeds everywhere, and the skinny trees in clusters in various areas. The man pointed out cavities in the earth which could have been bomb craters. After we left in '72, the NVA attacked the ARVN and took over the hill, but were bombed heavily by US air forces, so a lot of the holes were due to that. Given the shape and the complete overgrowth, I could not be sure if this was Bastogne. We worked our way to where the chopper pad should have been, and found an asphalt covered mound which was exactly where it should have been. I knew this was it, and standing on the chopper pad and looking back at the hill I tried imagining where the bunkers should have been. John got a picture of me with the NVA soldier standing there like long lost buddies. The other guys wandered back up and I tried to locate some bunker cavities. I found what would have been the bunker for the crew of gun 4, and poked around a little. Then, as they kept going, I fell into a pit up to my neck, and quite large, in the area where either gun 1's crew bunker or the mess hall was. These holes were not visible at all due to weeds growing up from the bottom and all around the edges. We found some remnants of sandbag material, but nothing else. The guy said that after the war everyone was so poor that they would come up to these places and scrounge every ounce of scrap metal they could find. I know there was a lot, metal canisters that had held powder lined the perimeter of the hill when I was there. I would have liked to stay, but it was getting late and I could have easily fallen into something and broken my leg or my neck. So, we headed back down, thanked the NVA veteran, gave him 100K Dong (about 5 dollars), and headed back to Hue.

I know none of the pictures would mean anything to any of the guys who were there, because it does not look anything like it did back then. Nature has a way of healing scars. I'm afraid a local villager or a farm animal is going to fall into one of those holes and hurt themselves. I fantasized about getting a crew of guys with gasoline powered weed whackers and going back and locating each bunker cavity, cleaning the weeds up, spend a few hours remembering the teeming activity and the gut-wrenching explosions when we fired the guns. Luckily for us, while I was there, it was all out-going, and I don't think we were doing much damage to the NVA or VC. They knew the range (15 or so miles) and stayed far enough away, most of the time. Then we could fill in the holes somehow, making it a safe place for goats, or cows, or water buffalo.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ninh Binh #2...March 25, 2009

10:00 Tues night in the Hanoi train station. We're scheduled for an 11:00pm all nighter to Hue. Joe said we'll have a sleeper, but with him, John, and me, the fourth berth is open to whomever gets it.

Riding out of Ninh Binh this morning we rode out to an ancient Buddhist/Confucian temple from the 13th or 14th century. Hieu said it was one of the largest and oldest in the area, and therefore a major attraction for daytrippers from Hanoi, local and foreign. The day was grey and misty, which was a welcome reprieve from the heat of the last few days. Continuing after the temple, we took a small metal boat, just big enough for the woman paddling, the woman poling, and two passengers, down a canal system created when they built a dike to prevent flooding. The canal was just wide enough for a couple of boats, and shallow. The canal led to a cave in the bottom of a limstone karst. They paddled through it, with us needing to duck our heads to avoid the stalactites, and out the other side to a quiet spot surrounded by karst. We sat in the silence for a minute before they started the return trip through the cave. The land here is very wet and green, with very few houses, but all the land seemed to be being worked. A young woman was taking our pictures on the way out, and when we got back her boyfriend tried to sell us the very bad photos. We said no thank you, and they seemed really displeased.

After the boat ride I had a flat tire and found a local guy with a bike shop in his front yard who patched it in short order. While he was working, we were surrounded by 8-9 year old boys who showed us their whistling skills. I showed them my eyelids inside out, and one of them showed me that he could do it, too. We headed back through Ninh Binh, on a heavily populated dirt road, no cars but dozens of bicycles with mostly jr high students in their blue and white uniforms, either going home after a morning session, or going to school for an afternoon, crowding the road. They were all yelling hello, giving high fives, and giggling. This road was the old main road from the temple mentioned above and the ancient Le dynasty capital, Hoa Lu. We were going to visit the old capital complex, but Joe said it would be dirty and crowded (we were already surrounded by hawkers) and suggested we skip it. We thought we had seen enough temples, so easily agreed. The air conditioned, two hour ride to Hanoi sounded pretty good.

We arrived in Hanoi at about 4:00pm and did not need to meet Joe for dinner until 7:00, so we had time to shower and try a massage place that the Dutch couple on the junk had told us about. We opted for a two hour massage for $23 US. This felt great after five days on the road.

The train left right on time and the sleep came easily. At 7:00 this morning they rolled through with carts of coffee and rice soup, which had some chicken and herbs in it and tasted good and healthy. We stopped briefly at a little town just on the northern edge of the DMZ. The view from the train is similar to that from the bike on remote roads, lush, green fields, farm animals, and people working hard. We will be in Hue in 30 minutes

Ninh Binh....March 25

Mon 23/3/09

Corrections: It is languer, not lenguer. The NVA floated down the Ma River, not the Da River. The Ma is a tributary of the Da.

These machines are slow and the connections are slow, and most have 3 versions of malware blockers popping up all the time, so the typing at these hours gets sloppy.

After breakfast (white bread, fried egg, laughing cow cheese, banana, and Nescafe - this is the food the guide provides, easy road food) in the dining hall at Cuc Phuong, we had the bikes in the van and drove about 18km into the park to another guest house looking complex. By chance, we met a California (near Chico) woman a little younger than we, her two adopted Vietnamese kids(about six, who she has had since they were 3 1/2 months), and her mother. They are here to take the kids back to visit the orphanage where she found them. We rode back down the paved road, mostly downhill, toward the park entrance. We stopped at the Cave of the Prehistoric Man about halfway out. This cave, when discovered, held remains of three people, tools, and other artifacts dating back about 8,000 years. There was a truck full of German tourists just entering the cave when we got there. They were cyclists, too, and had done two weeks from southern China and northwest Vietnam (Dien Bien Phu, Sapa), and were just about to finish their trip with two days in Halong Bay.

Once out of the park, we rode through very remote country with new, small, concrete houses for the farmers to live in. It was dusty, humid, and hot. I'm glad it's hot and I'm sweating so much, because before beginning the ride, with such a salty diet, beer, no exercise, my ankles were beginning to swell. The ankles are back to normal, but the waist will need some work once I stop eating these 5-8 course meals. I don't think I have ever eaten this much. It is all delicious, but fatty - they don't trim the fat or gristle from the pork or goat, you just eat it. Today we had beef with morning glory leaves, green papaya, barely sauteed, goat in pumpkin flowers, and some kind of soup which I think was turnip.

Ninh Binh is a busy place, so for our safety, the van stopped several km out of town and picked us up. The room is nice, and we are on the edge of a canal system. We saw lots of fisherman, lots of duck farms, and lots of water hyacinth floating on the water, so I’m going to try for some fish tonight.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cam Thuy to Cuc Phuong ...March 24, 2009

As I said, the hotel in Cam Thuy was pretty gritty but during dinner we did hear a lot of one Vietnamese person's perspective (our tour guide) toward the Communists, Uncle Ho, and the move toward market based economics. He surprised me a little, but he is making good money and does not need the state to provide anything. They all said that there is no single payer healthcare beyond the very basics, unless you are employed by the government. School is mandatory through grade six, but available through grade twelve, but higher education is paid for by the student's family. I won't repeat what he said about Ho, in case anyone is listening.

The road out of Cam Thuy was moderate, mostly flat, with agriculture teeming on both sides of the one lane road. We crossed the Da river several times and saw a crew starting a new highway retaining wall, digging deep four foot diameter holes for rebar/concrete by hand, lifting the clay out with buckets suspended from bamboo crane/lever contraptions.

We had some bike problems which slowed us down, and everytime we stopped, all the kids within hearing/seeing distance came over to watch the repairs. This gave me lots of opportunities to unload the yellow LiveStrong bracelets. Our guide now is wearing three, the driver has given three away to ladies along the way, and I have given four to Hieu for his kids and one for himself. The worst bike problem was when John's saddle broke completely off the seat post and the crew did not have the necessary bolt to reattach it. Joe gave up his saddle/seat post and rode in the minibus the rest of the way. I don't think he regretted getting out of the 90-90 heat-humidity. He said he loves bikes, but does not like to ride all that much. We noticed that if some really narly hills were coming up, he would let Hieu ride with us for a while. Hieu is about 32, but he smokes a little, and he was walking up some the steep stuff while John and I were granny gearing it up. We stopped frequently for water refills and photo opps. This crew is taking good care of us.

After lunch of four different kinds of very tasty, but very fatty Muong pork, which is a small pig, and several beers, we got back on the bikes for the last 10-15km into Cuc Phuong National Park. This last stretch had some 10% grades, and the heat was at the highest. I was soaking wet all day. This park was established in 1962 by Ho Chi Minh. It now houses a threatened primate rescue center which has mostly gibbons and lenguers in cages. They say they can't let them out due to poachers. The plan is to eventually get the hill people educated about endangered species and be able to let them go.

Our room in the park was nice and the grounds were beautifully planted with ornamental tropical plants and flowers. We had another many course meal (mostly beef and pork with greens, and rice) and warm beer, all making for a nice sleep. Tomorrow we will ride through the park before hitting the road for Ninh Binh.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Mai Chau...March 23, 2009

Reentry --
I'm in the lobby in a hotel in Ninh Binh, using the tour operator's laptop with a flaky wireless connection. We just had our evening meal of goat, goat, goat, (that is all they have is a fairly good sized town next to a river, but they said all the fish are sent to Hanoi). Our guides like rice liquor, so we had a few shots of that with our warm Bia Ha Noi. But that is now. I need to go back a few days to catch up.

Hanoi to Mai Chau -

We left Hanoi on Friday morning about 8:00 in a drizzly, grey, traffic laden rush hour headed south, I think to a town called Hoa Binh. It took at least an hour to get out of Hanoi and into some green hill country. Our first rest stop was owned/operated by Muong people who had some brilliant handicrafts, weaving and embroidery for sale. Further on we were able to change into our riding gear in the minivan and get onto the bikes. As I said, it was grey and drizzly, and John and I both were covered in brown, oily sludge within the first half hour. The road had some good climbs, not terrible traffic, and we only knocked down 10-15km before stopping for lunch. These guys love to eat and take a relaxed approach to things. I don't recall the food that first day, but the dogs roaming the restaurant kept the floor clean. We got back on the bikes for some 8% climbs, up and down, stopping for photo opps of the lush green valley floor below us. After another 15km, the driver stopped us and said the climb would be too radical and had us load the bikes into the minivan. He was right, I was glad we weren't riding as we climbed higher and higher before descending into the town of Mai Chau. At this point of the tour, we had Hieu, our guide in Hanoi, the driver (we still don't know his name, but the owner/operator told us he had several wives in different houses in Hanoi), and a young woman Houng, who was doing a sort of residency for her studies in tourism at Hanoi U. Same degree that Joe (owner/operator) and Hieu have. We did not stop in the town of Mai Chau, but went on a mile or two and turned off the main road into what they call the home stay village number 1 and number 2. These are White Thai villages of houses on stilts with one or two big rooms which are divided (if needed) by curtains or mosquito netting. The floors are joist with thin bamboo planking running across the joist. There is usually a water buffalo housed on the ground below. When the government realized what a tourist attraction these quaint villages were, with their incredible weaving and needle work, they subsidized the building of water closets separated from the house by a few yards. We slept on thin futons on the bamboo floor with mosquito netting surrounding us. The family and the guides were separated by curtains and netting. After dinner, very tasty beef with leafy vegetables, pork with leafy vegetables, etc., we went to a dance performance of traditional White Thai festival dances, to celebrate Spring, weddings, harvest, etc. The dancers were wearing colorful, traditional woven garb, and the dances were very well-coordinated. These villages are nestled in a verdant valley with water flowing, buffalo grazing, birds chirping. It has to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Next morning, we noticed the young apprentice was crying, and then she disappeared. Later, the guys told us she was complaining about the amount of work, so they sent her back to Hanoi. She had washed our muddy cycling clothes, and entertained us while we waited for the dance performance to begin. Her English was not great, spoken, so we communicated via the cell phone display where she texted what she wanted to convey.

Mai Chau to Cam Thuy -

Joe arrived early on Saturday morning. He had to finish a French group's tour before joining us. We left Mai Chau on a dirt road, two track path, through lowlands, as a 10km shortcut to the first village. This first village was on the (I think) Da river, and was the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Joe pointed to a rugged dirt path headed up the hill which was used for ground troops. The river was used to float heavy stuff, Soviet tanks, artillery southward. This little town was busy and dangerous. As we sat having bottled iced tea, and taking pictures, a pedestrian was hit by a motorbike. The walker seemed unhurt, but the biker did a faceplant onto the hard clay road, and seemed shaken. Our guys pulled out the first aid kit and applied some mercurochrome, and he rode away. The road out of this village was just one lane, but there was very little traffic, gorgeous views of the river, water buffalo drawn carts, and a lot of bamboo harvesting. We passed several chopstick factories where they cut the bamboo down to manageable size and clean it up, making thousands of pairs of chopsticks per day. There were baby ducks, baby chickens, baby pigs, baby buffalo, baby dogs, baby humans, everywhere. Little kids were eager to run to their fence and yell "hello" to the funny dressed people on funny bikes. The land along the road was full of terraced rice fields, people working at everything, irrigation, weeding, bamboo harvesting, fishing in the river. The road had many 8% and 10% grades and the heat and humidity were high. Everyone was friendly. Most women wear a mask which we thought was for latent fear of avian flu or protection from bad air, but the guides said they do it to protect their skin. As dusk approached, the guide said enough two wheeling, and we drove the final 10 or so km into Cam Thuy. A dusty little town where our hotel had given our room away to some govt official/brother-in-law who needed space for a wedding party. We found another little place (probably 1 star) where we wondered about bed bugs in the quilts we pulled out of the wardrobe. We had another meal of pork and beef which you wrap in rice paper with leaves of mint or other herbs and flowers and dip into a sauce, and pork cooked with pumpkin flower, rice, soup, etc., and many beers shared among the four of us.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ha Long Bay

We've been here a week now, and finally, tomorrow, will get to get on a bicycle. I'm not complaining, this has been a fantastic week, full of the sights and sounds and motorbike danger of Hanoi (John's foot was run over this evening as we crossed the street), the beauty and tragedy of Cambodia, and the ultimate vacation/honeymoon/anniversary spot, Ha Long Bay. John and I both complained that the other was the wrong person to enjoy it with. It is a three hour drive by private tour bus from Hanoi, through rice fields, brick plants, coal fired power plants, little towns with the same type of sidewalk life that we see here. Upon arrival they take the party by ship tender out to the junk. The bay in this area is a huge anchoring area for these two masted ships which can hold about 16 guests. Our group was mostly English, one Dutch couple, one Austrailian couple, and one Russian couple. A motorized sail of about two hours through the classic limestone monoliths that are famous from all the tourist literature and geography books got us to a large island where we disembarked to explore what is known as the "amazing cave." This cave is very large, made up of three main cavities. There are French soldiers' grafitti (names and dates) in a couple of places. The dates are 1907, 1906, etc. Another section has Chinese characters evoking hope and long life, from the time when the cave was used as a hospital facility during the struggle against the French. This ship had great food, several courses of shrimp, squid, fish, chicken, beef, broccoli, all mostly stir fried served to each table. We sat with the Dutch couple and enjoyed swapping stories of travel experiences. Their's was quite extensive, as is John's. We finished dinner and played around with some karaoke. The sky was grey both days we were on the water, so some of the photos are not as good as one would wish, but should still help the viewer to get an idea of how stunningly beautiful this place is. This morning we sea kayaked for a couple of hours among the islands, under connecting land bridges, etc. The temperature was great, and the lack of sun probably made the experience more enjoyable. The bay has many floating homes, and oyster farms where they grow pearls, which were of course for sale on board. Three hours on the bus and back we came to Hanoi. These next few days on bikes may or may not have any entries, as I don't know if these little hotels will have internet. I'll see what I can do.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cambodia Day Two...March 17, 2009

Cambodia is a wonderful place with beautiful people and an ugly history. The Hindu/Buddhist temple complex at Angkor is exhausting, physically and sensorily. These structures were built from about 1100 to 1300 by the Kings of Kampuchea as monuments to the Hindu deities. Later in the 13th - 14th centuries, Buddhism was adopted and some of the structures were modified to reflect that shift. They are made of volcanic rock and faced with sandstone. All the bas relief telling the stories of Krishna and the exploits of the kings are carved in the sandstone as are all the facing that gives the structures the three-dimensional faces of the gods, elephants, dragons, etc. Some of these giant complexes such as Ankor Wat (which was just the monastery for the entire city) were built in periods of ~50 years. The whole place was abondoned in the 1400s and forgotten about and overgrown until a French archeologist stumbled upon the broken down, overgrown temples in the mid 1800s, and began a rebuilding effort. One of the structures, where parts of Tomb Raider, were filmed, has been left in the overgrown condition so you can see the Spung trees (3-400 years old) growing on the tops of walls with the huge root systems hugging the walls on their way to the ground.

On day two in Siem Reap, the guide asked us if we wanted more temples or other aspects of the region. We chose the latter, and saw the Great Lake (Tonle Sap) ("the largest fresh water lake in the world" (I think he meant Cambodia)) which is fed by the Mekong river. People live on and around the lake, and have to move their floating houses 8 or 10 times per year to follow the water level as the lake expands during the monsoon and contracts now, in the dry season. These are very squalid little bamboo huts with typically one or two rooms, whether it floats in the water or is on stilts at the water's edge. I stopped to give a canal kid a LiveStrong bracelet and was swarmed with about 30 kids all wanting a bright yellow bracelet. The guide managed to get them to line up and I was able to hand them out one at a time.

Back to Siem Reap the guide, Soth, pronounced Rot, took us to the local monastery which was used by the Khmer Rouge as an interrogation and execution center between 1975 and 1979. He was very good at explaining the rise of Pol Pot, the role the Vietnamese played in '79, the methods used by the Khmer Rouge, the economic and political circumstances that gave rise to the holocaust. More than 1.5 million were killed outright in those 4 years, and another 2-3 million died of starvation during and after. The monastery had a shrine, a glass walled structure full of skulls and bones. It is amazing that these young people whose parents were probably teenagers during that period, are doing so well.

After that we went to the other part of Siem Reap (a small town, very dusty, noisy, geared for western tourists downtown) to a cultural crafts trade school where people from 18-25 learn one of many skills, wood carving, stone carving, silk weaving, lacquer, all beautiful, and made to sell all over the world as fair trade items. Spent lots of money in their gift shop.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cambodia Day One...March 15, 2009

We are in Nirvana, and have not even seen the temple complex at Angkor Wat. The plane ride was just about one and one-half hours, and then a short trip to the hotel in what used to be a sleepy tropical village. After UNESCO named Angkor Wat a World Heritage Center, tourists started coming in droves and financial interests began building gorgeous hotels. Our guide said that prior to 1992, there were 3 hotels here in Siem Reap. Now there are 114, and mostly very plush. This one, the Apsara Angkor, is a 4 star, and is stunning. Hardwood floors, staircases, bathroom vanities, wall carvings, all teak. With a beautiful courtyard with lush greenery surrounding a large, warm pool and jacuzzi, gym, massage/spa center, all the amenities. We are just about the only guests here. It is at the end of the "high" season (winter) and the guide said we could expect temperatures over 100 degrees tomorrow, so I expect there aren't too many people. At least not at this hotel. That would be good not fighting crowds to see the architecture tomorrow. Except for the hotels, the area looks empty, with a huge lake and lots of open space. Descending, I saw only a few scattered houses, and the map shows only a very small town down the road from this road from the hotels. This road is an interstate highway in Cambodia, linking Bangkok to Phnom Pen. More tomorrow

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hanoi Day 2...March 14, 2009

We are leaving for Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit Angkor Wat. These two days in Hanoi have been very enjoyable, with a tour yesterday of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh museum, the grounds around the French built presidential palace, the national art gallery, the hospital that the US bombed in June and
December of 1972, and the enchanted lake in the middle of town, where in Vietnamese legend, the king, Le Loi's sword was taken by a turtle, symbolizing the end of war. It is a beautiful lake with a pagoda on one side, dedicated to Le Loi. It resembles Lake Merrit, but larger, with lots of shops on both sides. This mornig, there were many people enjoying Sunday morning, doing exercises, drinking coffee, hanging out with friends.

War is a popular theme in the art museum. At least half of the floors of 20th century art depicted soldiers fighting either the French or the Americans, with lots of villager support. The other half depicted rice harvest, portraiture, village life, etc. All very nice. The museum, as was the hospital, was in need of repair and painting.

Must go, our ride to the airport is here.

Hanoi....March 13, 2009

It is almost 10:00pm here in the Old Quarter of downtown Hanoi. This has been a long day, but before trying to sleep off the jetlag, here in the Hoang Thanh hotel, I wanted to get some notes down. I'll have to ask somebody to post this on blogger, because is in Vietnamese, and I don't have the energy to try to fix it to accommodate my inability to read it. This quarter of Hanoi is bustling, with streets full of motorbikes, some with three riders, going both directions. There are no lanes in these streets, and no traffic lights, it is a free for all, between the motorbikes, bicycles, pedicabs, automobiles, and pedestrians. Luckily, it is such a crap shoot, that people are driving pretty slowly and using the horns liberally. We saw two accidents today with no injuries. I see no homeless, no panhandling, no mumbling wanderers. Everyone is occupied, going someplace with freight on their bike, or bags/baskets of fruit/vegetables hanging on bamboo planks carried on one shoulder, or sweeping the sidewalk in front of their home/business, or cooking up food to sell to passersby. People seem happy and friendly, attractive and well- but not over- fed. On the trip from the airport, the man who will be our contact during our Hanoi stay, Hieu, a very nice, 30ish type guy, gave us a quick lesson on Vietnamese pronounciation, party membership, the Red River Valley, market economics, healthcare and schooling, and how bygones are bygones regarding the American War. He said his father had joined the army in 1974, and stayed in until retirement.
After Hieu deposited us in the hotel, the wife of the man who will be our real tour guide for our bicycle trip dropped by to settle business, collecting our fees for the trip, another very friendly and polite exchange. The exchange rate here is more than 17000 dong to the dollar, so we are typically dealing with tabs and charges in the hundreds of thousands of dong. It takes getting used to, and we're still cloudy from the long flight.
We did a lot of walking today, dodging motor bikes, enjoying the mix of aging, colorful architecture. Aspects of this city remind me of Puebla or Oaxaca City, crowded, but neat, with people living behind or above a sidewalk business, with lots of food being cooked on charcoal stoves on the sidewalk. In the course of our walking we found art galleries, antique stores selling old Buddha statues and opium pipes, and a store devoted to revolutionary posters left over from the struggle years from 1945 to 1975. This store also had lots of pictures of NLF troops working on tunnels, standing atop blown up American armor, and slogging through rice paddies and jungles with RPGs and AK-47s held high. Very interesting.