Saturday, February 23, 2013

Day 49 - Ha Long Bay Day 2

After staying overnight in port, we had a leisurely morning, watching activity on the dock.  There is some sort of lumber operation here.  Someone operated a large claw to remove logs from barges pulled up to the dock.  The claw then attempted to dump the logs into trucks.  The funny thing was that, what did wind up in the truck was chaos and much of the rest either wound up on the dock or in the water.  More fell off as the trucks drove away.

Water Puppet Show Accompanists
Water Puppet Dancers

This afternoon we went of a tour to a hotel in Ha Long city to see a Water Puppet Show This was a longer one than the one we saw in the museum in Hue.  It was also accompanied by a live band and vocalists.  Our guide gave an explanation of each puppet skit in English before it began.  Then the group played the music and spoke the dialog in Vietnamese while the puppets performed the skit.  They performed at least eight 2-4 minute very entertaining skits. 

Most of the skits were either about life in Vietnam or illustrated folk tales.

The last skit was about the creation of Ha Long Bay and was down with both puppets and with the performers hands above a screen.  It was a very innovative performance.  I videoed most of the show, so that gets added to my editing task when we get home.

Snail & Crab "Hand" puppets
After the show we proceeded to the Ha Long Night Market.  This is an odd name since the market is open during the day.  It is like a big flee market under a large tent.  Instead of food like we saw in the Da Nang Market, this market was all souvenirs.  Mostly the vendors sold wood carvings, china, embroidered clothes,  bags suitcases.  I wandered up and down all the aisles, but didn't buy anything.  We got enough Vietnamese souvenirs in the last two ports.

Ha Long has been developed as a tourist area, mostly catering to Chinese tourists.  There is a nice beach next to the Night Market, and a number of high end hotels and resorts along the same road.  Our guide said most of the residents live in the section of the city on the other side of the bridge.

Dragon Puppets swimming past Ha Long Islands

Ha Long Beach

Our ship left port about 6pm and we said our goodbyes to Vietnam.  We hoped to see a sunset and have another view of the Ha Long Bay Monoliths on our way out, but it was too misty.  There was no sunset to be seen and it got dark too fast for any real view of the islands.

We will be at sea all day tomorrow.  The captain said we might have more rough seas on our way to Canton, China. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Day 48 - Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Monoliths at Entrance to Ha Long Bay
When we are coming into a new port in the early morning, I almost always seem to wake up at the right time to watch our approach.  My body must sense the difference in the ship's motion or speed as it slows down to pick up the harbor pilot.  This was one of those mornings and I am very grateful for it.

Cove in Ha Long Bay where ships seem to anchor overnight

We began a long ride into Ha Long Bay about 7am.  At first, when I looked out I saw nothing but sea.  Then I went out on the balcony and looked to the side of the ship to see a huge stone monolith.  This was the first of many.

The info we received in our daily ship news says there are 1,969 islands of various sizes in Ha Long Bay.  As the ship progressed slowly in we saw more and more of these.  Some are the size of true islands, like the ones in the photo at the right, while others are narrow rocks jutting out of the water like those shown above.  The ship had to follow a narrow path to avoid the rocks.  It took around 2 hours to get through them all.

Along the way, I saw several small structures built low on the rocks.  It was hard to judge their size.  I lost all perspective against these massive rocks.  I originally thought these might be spirit houses, like the Buddhist spirit houses we saw in Indonesia.  As I mentioned in a post from last week, these are small buildings, the size of our bird houses, used to leave offerings to the spirits to appease them so they won't bring evil to the house.  I suspected these might be to ward off evil weather in the bay.  However, when I saw the one with the ladder and stairs, I began to question my perception of size.  These may be lighthouses marking the rocks.  Regardless, I found them very interesting.

There were tours scheduled to take people out on junks to explore these islands, but I think we got a good enough view this morning without going on a separate boat ride. 

We were originally booked on a tour called "Halong's Countryside," but after reading the description again we decided to cancel.  The tour most people booked was "Full Day to Hanoi," but neither of us wanted to do this.  Ray didn't want to go to Hanoi and I did not like the idea of an 11 hour tour, with a 3 hour drive each way.

I'm very glad we didn't go.  The ship docked a little late and the tour  didn't leave until after 10am.  That means they probably won't get back until about 9pm, traffic permitting.  Lunch was included in the tour, but I don't believe dinner was.  They will be very tired and hungry when they get back.

Ha Long

Although we didn't leave the ship today, it looks like a lot of the buildings on shore are new cement construction.  We are seeing a lot of that everywhere we go in Vietnam.  The old thatched huts are being replaced with more substantial, if simple houses.  This is a good thing.

Tonight the kitchen/dining staff prepared a barbeque on the pool deck. They had a buffet set up around the pool and tables where the lounge chairs usually are.  It was very nice. 

We are staying overnight in port and tomorrow we have a short tour in the afternoon, so we get to sleep late tomorrow.  It was nice to rest up today after two long touring days, but it will still be very nice not to have to wake up for anything tomorrow.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Day 47 - Chan May Port (Da Nang, Vietnam)

"Basket" Fishing Boats in Da Nang Harbor
We were wait-listed on the tour we selected for today. We hadn't heard anything by the time we got back from dinner, so we thought we didn't get it.  We were all ready to sleep in, but just before we went to bed, Ray decided to put the do not disturb sign on our door.  When he did, he found our tickets for today in our "mail" slot.   The tour, "Da Nang and Marble Beach", was scheduled to leave at 8am, so we had to set the alarm for an early wake-up and order breakfast in again.

We crawled out of bed and made it to the bus on time this morning.  Yesterday we traveled north from the port to Hue, so today we got to head south to Da Nang.   Our guide talked a lot about the cultural differences between people in Hue versus those on Da Nang and other areas of Vietnam.  It was very entertaining.   One surprise on our route was that a tunnel 4 miles long has been built under the mountains between the port and Da Nang.  It used to be a long drive over the mountain, and it still is for hazardous trucks and motor bikes.  Only cars, buses and trucks are allowed to go through the tunnel.  There are trucks on either side that will take motor bikes through for a fee.  This tunnel cut the travel time to the other side of the mountain to 10 minutes.

Ready for the Cyclo ride
Our first stop was to the Cham Sculpture Museum.  The Cham were people who lived in central Vietnam around the 13th century.  They were Buddhist and the stone sculptures in the museum mostly reflect Buddhist themes.

When we left the museum there were cyclos waiting to take us for a ride through the city to the market area.  A cyclo is the Vietnamese version of a rickshaw, as you can see from the photo.  The cyclist pedals from behind. This ride was a fun adventure, weaving through city traffic.  I videoed the whole ride.

Embroidery Artist at work
Next stop was an embroidery shop.  A group of women worked on the top floor, creating intricate embroidery art.  The floors below were showrooms of art and clothing items for sale. We saw some beautiful pieces and briefly considered a purchase, but the prices (although real bargains for the quality of work) were a little more than we wanted to spend for souvenirs.  

Market in Da Nang city center

When we left the shop, our guide took us for a walk through the market. Markets in Vietnam are like indoor flea markets, but selling mostly food.  Walking through the market was a complete assault on the senses.  There was so much for sale it was hard to take it all in.  I didn't recognize most of what I saw.  Our guide told us that the markets open at 4am and smart shoppers come early.  I understand why.  There was plenty of fish, meat, and vegetables, but no refrigeration.

One of the Marble Statues
Entrance to HellCave
 The bus picked us up after we left the market and took us to a marble carving shop.  The marble comes from a nearby mountain.  Again, lots of beautiful sculpture art of all sizes.  We saw several pieces that would look great in our yard, and they would have shipped, but we resisted temptation.  I picked up 2 small statuettes instead.

 A little ways up the road, we stopped at the "Hell Cave."  This is a cave in the Marble Mountains that contains Buddhist symbols.  There is a Buddhist temple on the mountain high above it, that you can get to either by climbing the mountain or by taking a lift that was recently built.  Ray and I started to go in and we got pretty far, but there were lots of stone stairs.  When the lighting got dim as well, we decided to turn around and go back to the bus.

Marble Beach
The Da Nang beachfront, Marble Beach, was our next stop.  The beaches here are beautiful and a number of very nice resorts have been built in the last 20 years.  Da Nang is a pretty modern city.   I noticed the big difference between Hue and Da Nang is that almost every business had signs in both Vietnamese and English.  This is a city that is definitely looking for English speaking tourists.

Lady Buddha Statue of Da Nang
Our last stop before heading back to the ship was to see the Linh Ung pagoda and Bodhisattva of Mercy statue.  This 67 meter high statue looks over the city of Da Nang. The groundbreaking for the pagoda was in 2004 and the statue is the highest of this subject in Vietnam.  As with all Buddhist temples and pagodas,  there were lots of steps leading up to it.  Ray and I have climbed enough steps between yesterday and today, so we decided to just take photos from the bottom of the stairs.

We made it back to the ship about 1:30pm.  The ship was scheduled to leave port at 3pm, so we had plenty of time.  We got some ice cream at the buffet and went back to the room to watch the sail away.  The captain announced that we might have some more rough seas this evening, but it will get better overnight.  Dinner should be interesting.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Day 46 - Chan May Port (Hue, Vietnam)

Today has been a really good day.  We had to get up early to join our tour at 8am, so we set the alarm for 5:30am and had breakfast sent in.  I got to start the day watching another lovely sunrise.

Our tour today was called " Hue and the Perfume River," and it seemed half the ship was either going on the same tour or leaving on a tour at the same time.  This port is an hour north of Da Nang and 90 minutes south of Hue (pronounced "way"), so a tour in either direction was going to take a long time.  Our 7 hour tour included a 90 minute bus ride each way, but it was worth it.  Ray was stationed south of Da Nang when he was here in the 70's, so the bus ride gave him an opportunity to see how living conditions have improved for the locals since then.  He was very pleased with what he saw.  Vietnam has come pretty far since then.

King Tu Duc's Tomb,
Our first stop in Hue was to visit King Tu Duc's tomb.  He was the fourth emperor in Vietnam's Nguyen Dynasty.  He is considered the last emperor of Vietnam.  There were a number of buildings here with artifacts from his reign.  We were only allowed to take photos outside, not inside the buildings.  I imagine, just like in other historic museums, camera flashes would harm the colors of the paint.

Emperor's writing pavilion on Royal Palace grounds

King Tu Duc lived on these grounds before he died.   There were lots of steps going up and around this, as well as at the previous stop. Although the years and the weather have taken their toll on these buildings, the beauty that they once held is still apparent. It must have been a wonderful place in it's day.

We made a short stop next at a place where they make the conical hats and incense sticks.  They demonstrated their craft, but it was too small a space for me to get close enough to see.  Mostly, I think this was a shopping stop.

The Heavenly Lady Pagoda was next.  This had a LOT of steep steps leading up to it.  Later on we found out that there was an easier way in, along an incline path, and that's the way we went out.   I am very glad we didn't have to go down those stairs.

There were monks quarters on one side of the grounds and guest quarters on the other side, with lovely gardens in between.

From there we walked across the street to the banks of the Perfume River and boarded a Dragon boat. We had a nice ride down the river to the Hue city center.  There we disembarked and got back on the bus.  Riding around the city, it is apparent that the city has 2 parts, the old and the new.  We drove to the new section for lunch at a very elegant hotel.  It was a wonderful buffet and Ray even found enough choices for lunch, despite his dislike for Asian cuisine.  There was entertainment during lunch, alternating between a group of musicians playing Vietnamese instruments and a group of Vietnamese dancers.

Royal Palace
Our last stop was at the Citadel and the Royal Palace behind it.  This is a huge complex that is currently undergoing restoration.  It has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.  Many of the buildings were destroyed by floods in the early 1900's, but there is enough documentation for them to recreate what was lost.  The work has just begun, and is being funded with tourist dollars. 

We walked around the palace grounds for almost an hour.  By the time we were through, we were totally exhausted.  Our guide, Ha, kept us at a very fast pace all day in order to keep to the 7 hour schedule.  Even with her efforts, we got back to the ship about 15 minutes late.  That was OK because the ship is staying in this port overnight.  We are scheduled to spend 2 days at each of the Vietnam ports.  Vietnam is trying very hard to improve the lives of the people here, and one way of doing that is by promoting tourism.  There are more people than jobs, and the tourist industry provides employment.   For every bus that took people on tours today, 3 locals had work for the day, the driver, the guide, and a young assistant.  There are also the mechanics, tour coordinators, and probably others who have jobs because our ship came to visit. 

To me, conditions appeared better in the countryside and towns in central Vietnam than in Saigon.  We were told that many people flocked to Saigon from the country to find work, but even in the cities, there are only so many jobs, and those jobs require the right skills.  There is no magic bullet. The people in the country work very hard, but they appear to have a better life than those who come to the city with no skills and attempt to eek out a living selling things on the street.  I admire the hard working people we saw along our travels today.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Day 45 - China Sea off East Coast of Vietnam

Sunset Leaving Saigon
It's a nice, quite day at sea again.  We spent last evening on our balcony during the 3 hour ride from Saigon down the Saigon River to the China Sea.  It was a lovely night and we got to see the sunset.

Sandra Bowren gave a lecture this morning on "The Cultural Contrasts of South-East Asia."  She talked mostly about the differences and similarities of the religions and art forms in the various countries between India and the Philippines.  Sarah, if you're reading this, I'm wondering how many of the musical instruments of this area you've heard of.  I tried to write down some of the names, but it went too fast for me to get them all.  Some of the instruments she mentioned are the Kwang Wong Yai, Pi Nai, Song Na, Ranat, T'rung, Khean and Mo Lam. 

After the lecture Ray attended a meeting of Vietnam War Veterans.  Unfortunately, none of the other guys who attended were in service similar to Ray's so he didn't find much in common with them.  They were either on ships or flying Air Force or Navy missions, while he was in the Army either walking through the jungle or flying reconnaissance missions.

I went to another art auction this afternoon.  Each time I go to one of these I learn a little more about art, so that makes it fun.  Plus I get a small print just for attending.

Got to get to sleep early tonight.  We have to be in the theater to get our tour bus assignment at 8am tomorrow.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Day 44 - Ho Chi Minh City

We were originally booked on a 7 hour tour called "Cu Chi Tunnels & Fruit Gardens," but after seeing slides on it in Sandra's presentation 2 days ago, we decided to cancel.  This was a tour Ray had originally wanted more than me, but once he saw the preview, he didn't want to see it either.  He knew enough about the North Vietnamese tunnel network when he was here during the war, and said it sounded like they had made it too touristy.  We're glad we didn't go because everyone we spoke to who went on this tour yesterday had negative comments. 

There were no other tours that interested us here so today was another restful day.  I went to get my hair cut and did a load of laundry while most other passengers were off the ship and there was very little competition.  There was a little market set up on the pier for locals to sell stuff and I went out this afternoon to browse and pick up some souvenirs.   It's now a little after 3pm. All aboard is at 3:30pm and we are scheduled to set sail at 4pm.  Sunset is around 6pm and we should be just leaving the Saigon river around that time.  We are going to order dinner in our room so we can enjoy the sail away and sunset and still eat early the way we like to.  If I get any good sunset photos I'll post one tomorrow.  We will be at sea all day tomorrow on our way to Da Nang.
Ray on balcony as we leave Saigon. Bridge in background is only 2.5 yrs old

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Day 43 - Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Pre-dawn Sky on Saigon River
Last night was a tough night. I got about 2 hours sleep before the ship started rocking, then tossed and turned until we stopped to pick up the river pilot about 4 AM.  Then I only slept again until first light crept in around the curtains.  I really wanted to see our passage up the Saigon River, so I got up at 5:30AM, through on a caftan, grabbed my camera and went out on the balcony. The sky was beautiful.  I stayed out there and videoed the sunrise, fishing boats starting out, and the coastline.  I was surprised to see how flat the land is and how the trees and brush is growing right up to the water line.  The river isn't that wide, so I am really surprised it is deep enough in the center for a cruise ship.

Spikes placed under water to disable enemy ships
The slow trip up river took several hours.  We docked about 8:30AM. Our tour was not scheduled to leave until 1PM, so we went to breakfast, then came back to the room and took a nap.

Our tour was called "Highlights of Saigon" and it was really good.  We began with a bus ride to the Vietnam History Museum.  There were artifacts dating back thousands of years.  Vietnam has a complicated history and has been invaded by China several times.  Vietnamese generals defeated invading ships twice over the centuries by placing spikes in the harbor to disable incoming ships.

Water Puppet Show

At the end of the museum we got to attend a water puppet show.  This is an art form unique to Vietnam.  Puppeteers stand in the water behind the curtain and control the puppets with long sticks.   This was a lot of fun.

 Next we went to "The Independence Palace Historical Relic", the building that was the former South Vietnam Parliament building.  For those who remember the end of the Vietnam war, this was where the North Vietnamese tank crashed through the front gate within days of the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon.  The building is maintained as a museum.  We visited a large assembly room and 2 large conference rooms before going down to the basement.  This area contains many rooms used as tactical control during the war.  Old radios, typewriters, etc. from 40 years ago remain on display.

Saigon Post Office

Our next stop was a photo stop at the post office and the Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame.   The Saigon Post Office is an amazing building.  The entrance leads to a huge central hall with a cathedral ceiling, old style wooden phone booths on either side of the entrance, and a large photo of Ho Chi Minh at the far end.

Saigon Cathedral of Notre Name

The Cathedral of Notre Dame is across the street from the post office.  I understand that this is the seat of the Catholic diocese of Vietnam.

We made 3 other stops after that.  One was to a Lacquer shop.  Artists were working in an open hall in the entrance and a guide explained how lacquered items are made there.   Of course there was a visit to their shop after the explanation.  There was a wonderful collection of art, plates, boxes, furniture and other items.  We picked up 2 small flower vases as souvenirs.

Sea Goddess Temple, Chinatown, Ho Chi Minh City

The next stop was in Chinatown to visit a 200 year old "Sea Goddess Temple."  Our guide said that the Chinese immigrants to Saigon originally came by boat, so they erected this temple to thank the goddess for their safe voyage.

The last stop was to visit the local food market.  Ray and I decided not to get off the bus at this stop.  I wasn't interested and Ray had no desire to be reminded of what Vietnamese food is like.  From comments we heard from people getting back on the bus, we made the right decision.

Our guide for today was very good.  He gave a fairly balanced and sensitive narative of Vietnam's history.   Ray did very well today too.  He was a bit apprehensive of his first time stepping on Vietnamese soil in 40 years.  He did not spend any time in Saigon when he was here, so he doesn't have a real point of reference for what it was like during the war.  That will be different when we get to Da Nang.  I'm glad our first stop was Saigon.

Overall impression - Saigon is on it's way to recovery, but still has a long way to go.  There are lots of new buildings and bridges, and some industry is coming into the city, but there is still a lot of poverty.  Our guide said there is zero unemployment because if you don't do something you don't survive, but jobs like selling vegetables or lottery tickets on the street don't seem like enough to sustain life.   Much of the infrastructure is still either from the early 1900's or non-existent.  It sounds like the most progress has been made in the past 10 years. 

We made it back to the ship just in time to change for dinner.  The ship stays in port tonight so we are looking forward to a good night's sleep.