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Hue and Politics of the Region, July 2, 2017

Hue was a former imperial city and has an impressive citadel and Forbidden City to prove it. The Ngo Mon Gate is the main entrance to the citadel and is an example of Nguyen architecture. We saw the throne room that was very impressive with gilded decorations and lacquered columns. We saw the royal tombs of the emperors and saw the temples where the concubines would spend the remaining days of their lives worshipping the spirits of the deceased emperors. We also had a good lesson on Buddhism from our local guide, who was Buddhist. The pagoda we visited also housed the blue Austin that Thich Quang Duc, the famous monk who immolated himself in the famous picture, had driven to Saigon. This seems like a good time to reflect on the politics of the region.
In World History classes, we teach about how Vietnam has a long history of struggle against its more powerful neighbor, China. The Trung Sisters are still their heroes, embodying the freedom fighter spirit. Despite such figures, Vietnam remained a tributary state of China for hundreds of years. The Hue Imperial Palace reminds me of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and that is probably because of the great cultural and architectural influence China had on Vietnam (whether they want to acknowledge it or not). The religion of Buddhism and political/social thought of Confucianism greatly embedded themselves to become integral to how Vietnam would govern. There are Confucian remnants in the royal graves and temples scattered throughout Hue.
Unlike Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand historically were more influenced by India than China due to their geographical location. Most of the temples we saw were initially Hindu temples that were later converted to Buddhist temples. Even the ethnic make up (mostly in Cambodia) is similar to India due to centuries of intermarrying. Even the founding tale of Cambodia is about an Indian prince who married the offspring of two dragons, who created Cambodia out of the ocean as a dowry for their daughter.
The Khmer Empire (based in Cambodia) was the ruling center for a while, especially during the construction of Angkor Wat and its other temples. They were able to keep out the Siam and Da Viet (Vietnam) and the Malays until the 15th century, when the empire fell, due to many factors, such as invasion, overpopulation, drought and other environmental factors.
The Kingdom of Siam was able to fare better since it was able to modernize and learn from Britain (recall the Broadway musical, The King and I), while France brutally subjugated and extracted resources from Indochine (Cambodia and Vietnam). People in Thailand still drive on the left side of the road due to this British influence. Thailand also had the fortune of not getting embroiled in the Cold War proxy battles that devastated Cambodia and Vietnam. Instead Bangkok became the recreational capital where servicemen went to relax from the Vietnam War. We all know in general terms what happened in Vietnam during the war by the virtue of being Americans. Cambodia also was affected due to US bombings that gave more support for the Communist Khmer Rouge that are now infamous for genocide against their own people, letting their own people starve to death due to their zeal about collective farming and actively killing most of the bourgeoisie (any intellectuals, professionals, mechanics, even people who just wore glasses) in mass graves like the Killing Fields.
All three countries seem now to be ruled by military-backed dictatorships, with Cambodia and Thailand still maintaining their kings as their figurehead and Vietnam being ruled by a Communist one-party state. We saw loudspeakers announcing government propaganda over rice patties and people having to listen and choosing not respond publicly to any of it in fear of repercussions. They all seem to know innately that freedom of speech is not a valued asset since it might wreak havoc in their hard fought battle to freely earn a buck. All three countries rely greatly on tourist dollars and most people want to abandon farming to become English speakers who participate in the lucrative industry of tourism. For them it seems, economics is more important for now than political ideology.
The Thai were still in mourning for their king lining up in the royal palace to pay respects although he died October 13, 2016. There were many benevolent pictures of the queen mother and father in Cambodia everywhere, especially in its capital, Phnom Penh. Every few blocks from the Vietnam border to Phnom Penh, there were pictures of the current prime minister and his son, who will rule the country for years to come. In these countries that believe in the concept of re-incarnation, maybe in the next life things will be better. As we passed by rows and rows of Buddhist monks out on their early morning begging lines, it makes one realize that maybe Westerners are too quick to judge and want changes too fast.

Post Date: Thursday, July 20, 2017 - 03:29
Posted by: J. Joanne Cho
The Power of Ideology

One of the main themes of our journey in Vietnam and Cambodia, as was recognized by one of our tour leaders, David Kenley, has been war and reconciliation. Regardless of whether or not this was intentionally done by G Adventures and GEEO tours, the tour group has had discussions at the 'Hanoi Hilton,' the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, the Cu Chi Tunnels, and the Killing Fields about how different countries remember war and how they memorialize it. How should a country deal with traumatic events? How should the 'losing' or 'wrong' side be treated? How should we remember the dead? What does respectful remembrance involve?
I have had a hard time answering these questions on our visits. If anything, my visit has complicated my thinking about both the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge. What has come off as respectful and essential to me (for instance the displaying of human skulls of those murdered at the Killing Fields) has come across as grotesque to someone else. What has seemed perverse (like the firing range at the Cu Chi Tunnels, where tourists treat the tunnels like an amusement ride and fire guns at a shooting range for $2 a bullet) came across to someone else as an opportunity to make money and support a family in a developing country or a way to make history come alive. Regardless of my confusion, I feel that my experience at these places has been invaluable. I have failed, however, to ask any Vietnamese or Cambodians what they think about these places, or what they think these monuments and museums do/should represent.
What I have definitely found here (and maybe this is obvious to other people but I often overlook it) is a better understanding of the power of ideology. Of course there are myriad examples in the US but I am so accustomed to them I think I was almost blind to many of them. Seeing ideology in another country, from another perspective, has shown me just how powerful ideas, when taken too literally or with extreme prejudice to other ideas, can be. Democracy, capitalism, Christianity, Buddhism and communism - examples of the power of each can be found in Southeast Asia (just as they can almost anywhere else in the world) and each stop on our tour has forced me to reflect on their influence.

Post Date: Monday, July 10, 2017 - 05:54
Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Angkor was the political and religious center of the Khmer Empire from 802-1432. Angkor Wat, “City which is a Temple,” was built by Suryavarman II (1113-50) as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu (Protector of Creation). It is the largest religious structure in the world, measuring 1,626,000 sq meters. The layout is based on a mandala (sacred design of the Hindu cosmos). Unusually among Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces west and toward the setting sun, a symbol of death, which makes scholars surmise that it was not only a temple, but initially designed as a mausoleum for the king as well. While Suryavarman II may have planned Angkor Wat as his funerary temple or mausoleum, he was never buried there, as he died in battle during a failed expedition to subdue the Dai Viet.
A five-towered temple shaped like a lotus bud represents Mount Meru, the mythical abode of the gods and the center of the universe, and stands in the middle of the complex. The outer walls represent the edge of the world, and the moat is the cosmic ocean. There are 1970 ft. panel of bas-reliefs and around 2,000 engravings of apsaras (celestial dancing girls). Work seems to have ended shortly after the king's death, leaving some bas-relief decoration unfinished. In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, traditional enemies of the Khmer. In the late 12th century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple, which shows that like Hinduism, Buddhism was integral to the traders who came seeking spices and deposited not only goods, but their religion in the Khmer Empire. By 17th century, Angkor Wat was not completely abandoned and functioned as a Buddhist temple. Fourteen inscriptions dated from the 17th century discovered in Angkor area, testify that Japanese Buddhist pilgrims that might have established small settlements alongside Khmer locals. At that time, the temple was thought by the Japanese visitors to be the famed Jetavana garden of Buddha in India.
The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. The stones, as smooth as polished marble, were laid without mortar with very tight joints that are sometimes hard to find. The blocks were held together by mortise and tenon joints in some cases, while in others they used dovetails and gravity. The blocks were presumably put in place by a combination of elephants, coir ropes, pulleys and bamboo scaffolding. The Angkor Wat temple consumed about 6 million to 10 million blocks of sandstone with an average weight of 1.5 tons each. In fact, the entire city of Angkor used up far greater amounts of stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined, and occupied an area significantly greater than modern-day Paris. Moreover, unlike the Egyptian pyramids, which were built of limestone quarried barely a mile away, the entire city of Angkor was built with sandstone quarried 25 miles or more away.
Angkor Thom, “Great City,” was built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. The largest city in the Khmer Empire at one time, it is protected by a 26 ft. high wall, about 8 miles long, and surrounded by a wide moat. On the five gates, there are four giant stone faces. Within the city, the most celebrated ruin is the Bayon. The temple’s central towers are decorated with four huge, mysteriously smiling faces gazing out in the cardinal directions. These are believed to represent the all-seeing and all-knowing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, as personified by Jayavarman VII himself. The Bayon features 54 towers bearing more than 200 huge and enigmatic stone faces. The Bayon's plan can be divided into three levels — the first two are bas-reliefs and the uppermost consists of the central sanctuary. The outer gallery depicts scenes from everyday life and historical events, while the second inner gallery depicts mythical figures, battles, and stories. In total, there are more than 1km of bas-reliefs to be viewed in the Bayon. After Jayavarman’s death, both Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom lay forgotten as Thai invaders ravaged the land.
The artistic legacy of Angkor led directly to France adopting Cambodia as a protectorate in 1863 and invading Siam to take control of the ruins. Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. The restoration of Angkor Wat in the modern era began with the establishment of Conservation d'Angkor by Ecole Francaise D’Extreme Orient (EFEO) in 1908 with its major restoration of Angkor undertaken in the 1960s. However, work on Angkor was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge era and Conservation d'Angkor was disbanded in 1975. Between 1986 and 1992, the Archaeological Survey of India carried out restoration work on the temple, as France did not recognize the Cambodian government at the time. In 1992, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site and many countries such as France, Japan and China has been involved in numerous conservation projects. Angkor Wat appears on the national flag as a symbol of Cambodia and remains its prime attraction for visitors.
Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages of classical Hindu thought. Thus the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically traveling back to the first age of the creation of the universe. Like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, Angkor Wat also replicates the spatial universe in miniature. The central tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The seven-headed naga (mythical serpent) becomes a symbolic rainbow bridge for man to reach the abode of the gods. These are some important facts one should keep in mind as one travels through the complex.

Post Date: Monday, July 10, 2017 - 00:00
Posted by: J. Joanne Cho
Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Ankor Thom (Bayon) July 9, 2017 and Pre Rup, East Mebon, Preah Khan and Neak Pean on July 10, 2017

We all got on the bus at 4:30 am and saw the sun rise above Angkor Wat this morning. The peace and tranquility of the hundreds of tourists all focusing on this one single event was a sight to see. Since we started the day so early, we were able to visit Ta Prohm, the temple of "Tomb Raider" fame, at a leisurely pace with few tourists. The beautiful smiles of Bayon at Angkor Thom also beckoned. Bas reliefs and Sanskrit texts were surprisingly well-preserved. The roots of a banyan tree going through the temple walls showed the power of nature to overcome any man-made edifice. People try to see nature in the way that is familiar to us so we were able to see elephant trunks and butt cracks in the tree roots. Many of us marveled at how incredibly hot and humid it was with sweat dripping down our bodies all day under the merciless sun. How anyone was able to transport, stack, carve and paint in such oppressive heat was an accomplishment in and of itself. The unique beauty of the design that was supposed to represent the whole cosmos shows the power of religion and the coercive power of rulers.
The second day of temples introduced varied designs with more orange tones and almost Aztec-like features at Pre Rup and East Mebon. The pools of water that forces one to take a boat to the shrine at Neak Pean gave us a glimpse of how many of these temples looked initially surrounded by water that has now dried up. The reflection of the temples on water produces a double image and more mystery to the already other-worldly surroundings. Preah Khan had several arches, each one getting lower at the center so that one is forced to bow in respect and reverence. Two storeys of Greek-like columns on one side made it seem more familiar to Western aesthetic sensibilities. We saw seven temples in all but what is amazing is that we had only scratched the surface of the country's hundreds of temples.

Post Date: Sunday, July 9, 2017 - 10:19
Posted by: J. Joanne Cho
From Lazy Eating to Food Nirvana: A SE Asian Odyssey

With our trip to SE Asia nearly over, it’s finally time to address some of most intense and controversial issues that haven't been discussed yet. Clearly, I'm talking about food. When planning a trip anywhere, you should always be excited about the food (otherwise you shouldn't be going where you're going) and I was very much anticipating some amazing food in both Vietnam and Cambodia. After two weeks of eating out for two meals a day, I have not been disappointed. For those wary of eating new and street foods, Vietnam and Cambodia will test your willpower. The smells wafting across my path from food carts and roadside restaurants were enticing, but not because they reminded me of something from back home. Instead, I encountered original takes on familiar dishes and some things altogether new. This may not be too out of the ordinary, but I consumed multiple fish whose heads were still attached to their bodies. Back in America, I live a life where I order fish and it is brought to me as a nicely cooked filet with no bones and no trace of it ever having been a living creature. I think this speakis more about my own privilege than it is about America being more sophisticated than SE Asia. My eating experiences in SE Asia were delightful and forced me to be a little less lazy when eating. Especially when it came to eating fruits that have pits in them. Back home, I avoid any fruit with pits because it prevents me from enjoying my fruit as quickly as I would like. However, the smells and tastes of some of these fruits compelled me to overcome my deep seated hatred for pits and to try something unique and wonderful. In addition to fighting laziness, another aspect of eating in SE Asia that fascinated me was that I played a significant role in the taste of my entrée. With many of my meals, different supplements were placed on the table so that you could refine the taste of the entrée to meet your preferences. Various herbs and spices were available to modify the taste as well as peppers. It went well beyond the salt and pepper found at every American restaurant.
If you’re growing weary with lack of specifics, let me hit you with some truth. Order anything that ends with the phrase “…in a clay pot.” Albeit chicken, pork, or seafood, do it! I don't know what kind of magic happens in the clay pot, but I don't care. Eat it and accept the sumptuous results. In fact, at one restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City I ordered pork in a clay pot and it came out in a metal pot. It didn't matter. It was still delicious. If you see those magical words, say yes. Also, every curry I’ve had in Cambodia has been superb so try them all (go spicy…don't fear the intestinal repercussions). The most interesting dish I tried was elephant ear fish in the Mekong Delta. We were shown them earlier in the day and I thought “why not!” I split the fish with two other members of the group and we were taken aback as it was placed on the table in front of us, its eyes peering into my soul. Then, the waitress proceeded to tear into the fish for meat and using rice paper, construct spring rolls for us. We dipped the rolls in an incredible tamarind sauce and I knew I was in love…with the elephant ear fish.
One of the most interesting things I've learned while eating in Vietnam and Cambodia is that you east as son as your food is on the table and you don't feel bad about it. In America, most often every one’s meal is brought out simultaneously or if one or two are late, you wait patiently for the last few meals to arrive. In SE Asia, just eat. The food is fresh and you're only letting it get cold. Why diminish your food satisfaction in the name of forced politeness. This also got me thinking about how long my food waits underneath heat lamps before the rest of my party’s meals are ready. So eat away and don't feel bad about it.

Post Date: Saturday, July 8, 2017 - 05:47
Posted by: Benjamin O'Donnell
You're Never Really Too Far From Home

I was a little concerned about booking this trip in the beginning since I've never been away from home for longer than fifteen days. Fortunately, the days have passed by quickly and each has been busy. I hadn't really thought much about missing home because we've had opportunities for wi fi connections along the way and we've been able to get messages to and from home as well as FaceTime. I did falter a bit the other night though when I stopped in a small bar in Saigon and the Tom Cruise movie "Jack Reacher" was playing. The film was shot in Pittsburgh and the opening scenes feature much of the skyline and city...and I felt homesick...
As fate would have it, the next place I entered was not very crowded, but there was a group of young Vietnamese "twenty-somethings" sitting across the room. One of the boys was wearing a backwards baseball cap. That in itself was not so notable, but this was not your run of the mill Yankees cap - It was a Pittsburgh Pirates' cap! The owner of the restaurant was a Vietnamese woman who was married to an Austrialian man and she had lived in Austrialia, so she spoke English. She translated for us and told me that the boy got the cap as a gift from his cousin who -you guessed it!- now lives in Pittsburgh!

Post Date: Friday, July 7, 2017 - 06:59
Posted by: Sandra Gianella
A Language Beyond Words

Having taught ESL for most of my career, I always try to start off the year by placing myself in the position of my new non-English speaking students and the trials and frustrations they face when first arriving. Changing schools in itself can be incredibly stressful for kids let alone changing cultures, language, dress, food, smells, social norms, and school expectations all at once. One experience I was expecting to encounter along this tour was to also find myself facing some of these same frustrations. I have to say for the most part I have not as so far it has been fairly easy to find people who speak at least a little English and many signs posted with English and often accompanied by pictures. This being said, what I did find pleasantly surprising is the international language of "the selfie" let alone picture taking in general.
Regardless of whether I was walking along the street, in a museum, or even in a cave, I was able to witness the manners, gestures, smiles, and willingness of one person towards another person who was totally absorbed in his or her own self taking a "selfie." I find hope in this simple kindness towards others that despite differences in skin, language, and likely some times religion, that a total stranger would just patiently wait while another person works at getting that perfect shot to post on Facebook. Considering in addition to the amazing scenery, art, and culture we've had the opportunity to discover here so far, we've also seen evidence of the cruelest of autrocities one human being could ever inflict on another. At least with "the selfie" we all find not only some commonality, but some humanity and not only tolerance, but respect for one another.

Post Date: Friday, July 7, 2017 - 06:06
Posted by: Sandra Gianella
Journey from Hué to Hoi An

As we find ourselves back in the bus, we eagerly await this nation's next splendor. The mountain pass national highway, HaiVan- sea and cloud, does not disappoint. Our ascent is slow and we are able to take in the breathtaking views of the East Sea.
At the summit we are greeted by eager shop keepers hoping to score a sale of their trinkets, crafts, or snacks.
A Russian and an American bunker straddle the top but to this romantic, I notice how love and union prevail with a beautiful bride and handsome groom posing on the dais for their pre-wedding photos.
While descending the peak and ambling towards Hoi An,a family vacation hot spot, I think of the laborers and engineers who constructed and designed the switch-back roadway. It is made to accommodate large construction vehicles and wide and lengthy freight haulers.
This brings me to reflect on my recurrent thoughts, complementary contrasts. Vietnam is a bustling quiet, a calm chaotic cadence of motorbike traffic, a sweet ginger and jasmine stench and a menu of simplistic exquisite delicacies.
My attention is immediately drawn to what I hear in the voice and the melody of the language. Vietnamese is very musical. They have drawn out vowels and hook catching endings to their words. The consonants are clearly pronounced and discernible. In short, my limited experience in Asian languages affords me the simple conclusion that Vietnamese has a lilt and lightness to it like their humor and spirit.
It is 42 years since the American departure from war. The spirit of the people is as mesmerizing as their voices. They have committed to self-improvement in roadways, tourism and national pride.
Hoi An is a tourist-town flowing with multi-national spenders looking for their new look at half-price, trendy shoes, and glamorous handbags. It is, however, much more than fashion to this town. The art galleries draw you in with poignant and dramatic photography of the local culture and population. The handcrafted sculptures and masks entertain the traveler whilst you stroll the tourist car-free zone. A tariff or entrance fee of 120,000 dong will grant you entrance to the assembly halls and the ancestral family homes, complete with alters, photographs of their distinguished and beloved family, and displays of coin collections, porcelain treasures and religious relics. The family greets you, offers you a tour, shares their lineage and explains the detail of their homes. They also will answer any questions you have about the blended architecture of the Chinese, Japanese, and French. Some nudge and encourage you to buy a coin trinket, make a wish with the two coins in a dish or light a stick or three of incense.
The gentle patience of their explanation and care in language accuracy are equally comforting and impressive.
The group met at Oodles of Noodles for a lively demonstration of their most impressive program and internship selection process. It is a wonderful opportunity for anyone in the country to apply for the extensive 18 month all inclusive in- house boarding cooking training program. This non-profit organization originated with the idea of training the less fortunate in highly relevant and employable skills such as food service, restaurant management and bilingual English and Vietnamese language classes.
We were entertained with humor, skills and teaching of the five kinds of rice available in the region. We made rice noodles and enjoyed rice crackers with three sauces. The fish sauce was a favorite by many.
Several group members took advantage of the better-known tailors at Yaly. Personally I purchased two dresses and a blouse. The process was nearly as impressive as the finished product. After 10 minutes of accurate measurement and photograph taking, I made my follow-up appointment for later that same day.
Once the final fitting is done, you may either wait for your garments or have them delivered to your hotel.
Evening comes early here in Vietnam, 6 pm sunset. It is that time of day when the travelers see the floating lanterns and the dragon boats on the Thu Bon river.
So much to see and do in this booming tourist town. Once again there is the contrast between the latest fashion trends and the steadfast family tradition that gives the visitor a warm experience of all in between.

Post Date: Tuesday, July 4, 2017 - 10:10
Posted by: Jennifer L Gipe
Rubber trees at Ho Chi Minh City on route to Cu Chi tunnels
Post Date: Tuesday, July 4, 2017 - 05:53
Posted by: pamela burrett
New friends at Hoi An
Post Date: Monday, July 3, 2017 - 20:44
Posted by: pamela burrett
Hoi An to Danang to Ho Chi Minh City, July 3, 2017

Hoi An was my favorite city after Hue in terms of its cultural significance and beauty. The old quarter was definitely touristy, but full of charm, especially at night, like a scene from "The Quiet American." Before our gourmet cooking class with Hai, the owner and chef of Green Mango, David, Angela and I went into Quan Thang Old House, where the 6th generation owner himself was collecting tickets. His grandfather was best friends with Ho Chi Minh and General Giap and had the first communist meeting in Hoi An in that very house. I asked about his impressions of Ho and he said, "I prefer making money," very defensively emphasizing that all these tourist dollars are helping him stay in his old estate and restore it after each flood. We were able to visit the market and pick out ingredients for our cooking class, trying different fruits -- even durian -- and bought nifty cooking gadgets. We learned French techniques of smoking a duck, "Frenching", and quenelle-spooning mango sticky rice. Everything was delicious, especially since we sweated for three hours to make it.
After an early breakfast, we left for the airport in Danang. Danang is well known to Americans for its airbase during the war. China Beach is also close, although now it is covered with high-end beach resorts. The airport had four large maps dating back in history showing how the Spratly Islands were always part of Vietnam and never China, written in Chinese, English and Vietnamese. Who that was intended for is anyone's guess. Our flight on Vietnam Air was full of tourists and upper middle class Vietnamese, who would rather take a one hour flight than a thirteen-hour train ride.
The air in Ho Chi Minh City was so stifling I could not breathe. Many of us went to the War Remembrance Museum, where there were a lot of graphic images of the negative effects of Agent Orange. The French-influenced buildings of Notre Dame, Opera House and the Post Office were beautiful in the daytime but much more so at night. We enjoyed a plethora of foods at the Street Market and walked through the night market on our way home. Ho Chi Minh City has an active night life and doesn't seem to sleep.

Post Date: Monday, July 3, 2017 - 12:04
Posted by: J. Joanne Cho
Halong Bay, Vietnam

A UNESCO site, Halong Bay's beauty has to be experienced firsthand. These limestone formations surround you as your boat moves through the waters. We stayed overnight on the boat, with the crew serving us three lovely meals. Some of the group went kayaking, all of us went to a beach and many of us hiked in sweltering heat to the top of one of the formations. We also were given a tour of the "Surprise Cave," which is one of the largest among the many caves scattered throughout the area. Sounds like typical tourist fare, but we learned a lot about the geography and waters of the area, and even about the kinds of people who visit the Bay. Everyone enjoyed walking alongside the Buddhist monks in Saffron robes, with their cell phones, taking pictures of each other at every stop. Everyone has cell phones, tablets, and those awful selfie sticks. You have to get used to ducking under or around.

Post Date: Sunday, July 2, 2017 - 22:26
Posted by: Brenda G. Jordan
Trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay

Today, we traveled for four hours by private bus from Hanio to Halong Bay. On the way, Choy, or tour guide, shared some information about Halong Bay and government policies in Vietnam. Halong Bay has 1969 islands that were once limestone mountains but have since dwindled away due to water erosion. It is hard to explain the beauty of these island in the lake, as I am sure pictures will not do it justice.
As for the government policies, I learned that hospitals are not allowed to tell the parents the gender of their child before birth since males were the favored gender. Choy stated that in the next 5 years, 5 million males will be without a girlfriend due to everyone wanting a boy. The boys take care of their families and the girls will marry and take care of their husbands. Although if one can afford it, they can go to a private clinic to find out the sex of their child.

Post Date: Saturday, July 1, 2017 - 23:55
Posted by: Angela VanAtta
Halong Bay, day 2 Natural and man made beauty

We spent the night on our junk boat after feasting on seafood and fresh salads expertly prepared by the chef and served by boat staff. We were lulled to sleep by gentle rocking and the music of a few party boats, also moored in the bay. In the morning we visited a cave found by the French in the 1901. Halong Bay, with its hundreds of karst formations, is a natural wonder of the world, so it is not surprising that the cave was busy with tourists from all over Asia and the world. Our guide in Vietnam, Thuy, explained that the French called the cave "surprise". Around a bend and down some limestone stairs we gazed upon the big stalagmite surprise, lit up in all its splendor.
My grandmother Yvonne used to say that Pearls were put on this earth a for women to wear, and that is exactly what they are doing in Halong Bay, where they cultivate natural pearls so we may adorn our ears, wrists, and necks. With a 30 percent success rate, pearl cultivation is a labor intensive task. Workers pry open oysters, plant a "seed" pearl, and secure these seeded oysters inside cages that are placed in the bay. The black pearls are my favorite, and our leader Brenda Jordan acquired one of three beauties for herself.
Back in Hanoi, Jennifer Gipe and I walked to the Hanoi Opera House. We found open sidewalks and wide streets outside of Hanoi Old Town. As we came upon the Opera house, emerging through the traffic of motos and buses, the beauty took our breath away. French architecture and iron works are both familiar and unfamiliar. Simple and elegant, the cheerful butter color of the Opera House is a welcome site for a franophile.

Post Date: Saturday, July 1, 2017 - 21:50
Posted by: Michele Beauchamp
Hanoi Vietnam

Since this my first trip to Vietnam I cannot compare it to another visit but the influence of China is evident in signage, architecture and food. The French have also left their mark. Like China traffic is crazy, requiring walkers to dodge cars, motorbikes and other pedestrians. Hanoi, specifically, is part of a watershed and sits on the Red River coming from China. This watershed originates in Yunnan Province so the geography of lower China and Hanoi are similar. Hanoi is close to HaLong Bay with many limestone mountains and caves caused by erosion. These karst mountains, made of soft rock like limestone are exactly like the mountains in lower China.
Our group has enjoyed an overnight on the boat in HaLong Bay with several great seafood meals. In Hanoi City we visited many temples and had time on our first day to squeeze in a Water Puppet show accompanied by women singing local tales and a small group of instruments of Vietnamese origins. The stories are acted out by puppeteers standing in water, not visible to the audience. It is quite a show since water is so important to the Vietnamese people. A very local experience, not unlike the Chinese opera.

Post Date: Saturday, July 1, 2017 - 09:12
Posted by: pamela burrett
Vietnam Itinerary thus far

We have not been able to access the internet for a few days, due to the overnight boat trip on Halong Bay (wow) and the overnight train trip from Hanoi to Hue (definitely an adventure, but maybe once is good enough...). June 26, Monday, we met in Hanoi, and the drove to Halong Bay on June 27. On the way, we stopped at a rest stop that was a workshop and showroom for artisan work created by the disabled. Everywhere we looked on the road to/from Halong Bay, there were construction projects, but no one was working on them. The rice plants were in place and growing, and most of the work was being done by hand. This contrasts with the fact that a large number of people have smart phones and tablets, and use them all the time.
We had an afternoon and morning on the boat. Some of the group went kayaking with our guide. Some enjoyed the scenery. We all went to the beach later in the afternoon, and a number of us braved the steep climb to the top of a hill where there was a great view of the bay. Then there was dinner on the boat, and watching the sun set from the deck on the roof.
June 28 we drove back to Hanoi in the afternoon after exploring the Suprise Cave in the morning. A train ride overnight to Hue was quite the experience. Each compartment on the train held four bunks (upper and lower), a tiny table, and just enough room in between for two people to stand back to back. It was a juggling act to get four adults into bed in each compartment. For some, the rocking of the train put them right to sleep. For others, the rocking, rolling, jerking, and jumping of the train kept them up for hours (not to mention the hard bed--clean but hard). Almost everyone was up around 5:00 a.m., either because they were well rested or because they couldn't stand it any longer!
Thuy, our guide, got us into our Asia Hotel at Hue right after we arrived in Hue. We had a huge buffet breakfast there, and then were able to check into our rooms. SHOWERS!!! Change of Clothes! Afternoon was spent on a bus tour to important historic sites such as Tien Mu pagoda (the entire complex is called a pagoda here), Royal Tombs along the Perfume River, and the Imperial Citadel which still bears bullet marks from the Vietnam War. One major impression thus far is that the historic sites are not being kept up well at all. There is some effort at restoration, but overall some amazing sites are just crumbling. More money seems to be put into memorials for the dead from the Vietnam War, the battles with the French, Chinese, and Japanese in the 19th and 20th centuries. An optional tour in Hue consisted of a group motorbike ride, which about 11 of us elected to do. It is impossible for photos or video to really convey the sensation of riding on a motorbike through the masses of traffic on the roads, over the changes in pavement in the villages, and up and down trails to/from the bunkers from the wars. Our drivers were amazingly skilled, and we all felt safe but it took your breath away to barely miss little old ladies, cows (lots of cows), other motorcycles, and the big truck with the pigs, etc. etc.
From Hue, we journeyed yesterday to Hoi An via Danang by bus, which was a spectacular drive up into the mountains with the ocean to our left. Hoi An was not bombed during the Vietnam War, and thus has a great number of preserved houses dating back several centuries. The city, like Danang, is also much cleaner than what we have seen to present. Flowers and lanterns abound in the old quarter, which features merchant houses from days gone by. This is also a shopping Mecca, as the city is focused on tourism. So there are many shops and resorts. Completely different feeling from Hanoi (or at least the areas that we saw in Hanoi). That's all for today--except to say again that the food is great and people are gracious and kind.

Post Date: Saturday, July 1, 2017 - 06:33
Posted by: Brenda G. Jordan
First dinner together‼️

We enjoyed a great first evening together. More to come!

Post Date: Monday, June 26, 2017 - 20:51
Posted by: Nancy Stanich
Good Morning Vietnam

Well, we all made it to Hanoi, had our first meeting tonight, and went out to dinner together. We'll be writing blogs and adding pictures as soon as we can, but we are off tomorrow to Halong Bay, and a overnight boat trip.
So...Hanoi. This is one colorful place, rather like being in the middle of a movie set. If you walk the streets of the Old Quarter, in particular, there are small shops crowded on top of small shops, people gathering outside to eat, drink, and talk, and singing birds in little cages. Traffic is just as chaotic as it was when we visited in 2009, with one major change. Now you have to negotiate streets filled with CARS in addition to the motorbikes and buses. Hiroshi has taught Nervous Nelly Me how to approach this situation. Wait until there is a bit of a break in the traffic, then calmly and slowly walk across the street while giving all the millions of vehicles time to anticipate your path. Don't do anything unexpected. Don't jump like a frightened rabbit when the motorbike with an entire family on it swerve around you, missing you by a hair. Not a problem. Breath deeply.
Otherwise, food is fabulous here. People are nice. There is a colorful picture of city life around every corner. Weather is...HOT...HUMID...miserable. But we will survive.
Cheers from Brenda to all our friends at home.

Post Date: Monday, June 26, 2017 - 11:26
Posted by: Brenda G. Jordan
Getting ready for the adventure

Just one week to go before we head to Hanoi. Last night was our orientation meeting. As part of the meeting, we discussed how we might fully capitalize on this upcoming adventure.
We decided that with a little mental, physical, and emotional preparation, we should be able to accomplish each of the following during our trip:
Improve our intelligence through discomfort.
Experience a journey of self discovery.
Develop cultural sensitivity.
Find opportunities to network and make new friends.
Discover the commonality of man.
Write a good story worth retelling.
Enjoy both serendipity and synchronicity.
To that end, we want to use this blog to reflect on our day-to-day experiences and lessons. Each day a different person will write a blog post sharing the details of the day and responding to a reflective prompt. We will address such topics as food, economics, politics, the environment, cross-cultural misunderstandings, social relations, and on and on. By doing so, we hope to make this trip very memorable for those in the group, and educational for those who may read the blog.
As Cesare Pavese once said, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things –air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
While we certainly aren't masochists seeking brutality, we are adventurers who thrive in the realms of the unfamiliar. We hope we can gain a better grasp of the eternal--or what we imagine of it. Thanks for reading and for sharing the adventure with us.

Post Date: Tuesday, June 13, 2017 - 15:13
Posted by: David Kenley