Reflections on Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a special place for us.  We lived in Singapore from 1995-1998 and traveled extensively for work throughout the region. The return to Southeast Asia was about many things including visiting the places we missed such as Cambodia, Vietnam, etc.  Here are some observations over the last couple of months:

  1. People are nice and caring- not just to foreign tourists wielding dollars to spend but to each other.  It is the Buddhist way.IMG_2173
  2. Pajamas are worn all day by women of all ages.  PJs are the new leisure suit.
  3. There are no rules of the road. Traffic goes in many different directions no matter the size of the street.  Scooters ride on sidewalks, and the horn is a useful tool.
  4. Dogs are friendly ( or at least that is what everyone will tell you).
  5. Laundry service is abundant and same day service at that.  Pick up and delivery laundry service should be more prevalent in the US.  It is a wonderful thing.Laundry_Bangkok
  6. Fragapani trees with their beautiful, sweet smelling flowers seem to be everywhere emitting a lovely perfume in the air.
  7. There are 1500 different types of bamboo, 150 in Thailand.
  8. Chanted dharma’s can be heard at the temples no matter the day or time.
  9. Chinese tourists are more important to the economies than US tourists.IMG_0777
  10. Healthcare in Thailand is as good as it is in the States ( and maybe better), but far less expensive.
  11. All Thai people are happy, really.  We only met one grumpy Thai person, our bus driver to Pai, but he was a great driver handling all 762 curves.
  12. Older people are respected here as they should be.  Be sure to give up your seat to older persons around you, assist with luggage they are carrying, give them a hand.
  13. The word “no” does not existing in Asian languages.
  14. Wifi is everywhere. Every restaurant has it and even gas stations. This is both great and awful.
  15. Public transportation is abundant whether it is tuk tuks, mini vans, buses, trains, or taxis.IMG_2124
  16. Bathrooms at gas stations are cleaner and have toilet paper.
  17. Scooters can accommodate up to 5 people and are used to transport just about anything-a TV, a desk, painting, block of ice.  No problem, la.IMG_0252IMG_0804IMG_1070 3IMG_0807
  18. Bikes are as useful.IMG_1610
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  20. So are boats.  Rivers and water transport are key to the economy as well as daily living.IMG_1751 IMG_1208
  21. Soft rock is here to stay.
  22. 7-Eleven owns the convenience store market in Thailand and their brand/copyright is heavily infringed upon in Cambodia.
  23. Ford and Toyota trucks are popular.CMAC Truck Cambodia
  24. So are energy drinks and Tiger Balm.
  25. And for whatever reason, the Michelin man is everywhere.
  26. Clothes are cheap – both in price and quality.
  27. Vietnam is truly a rising dragon.IMG_1347
  28. Sex tourism is BIG here.
  29. Farm to table and sustainable farming really means something in Southeast Asia.  Nothing is wasted, and the food is outstanding.
  30. Pho is a good idea for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was our preferred breakfast while here.
  31. Eggplants are tiny, and carrots are huge.
  32. Pumpkin is quite popular for soups and curries.
  33. Fruit is fresh and tasty here -super sweet mangos and watermelon, green papaya (for salads), and 12 different types of bananas.
  34. There are a lot of westerners living in Thailand enjoying life. 20,000 expats in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
  35. Coffee in Vietnam is outstanding and much better than any coffee in the States.IMG_1570IMG_1276  IMG_2098 IMG_1435
  36. We love Khao Soi, Banh Xeo, Banh Mi, Pho, and Northern Thailand sausage.
  37. It is too hot for wine, and one often regrets ice in a few hours so it is beer or whiskey neat for happy hours.
  38. Do not wait for the check at the end of a meal to be immediately delivered following the last course. A dinner out is something to be enjoyed at leisure and not turned for the next folks in line. Take as much time as you would like.
  39. Checkpoints seem to be the new norm.  We went through several in Cambodia and a few in northern Thailand.IMG_1430
  40. We both hope it is not another 20 + plus years before we return back to Southeast Asia. Happy Holidays and Cheers.

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Two Different Perspectives on the Vietnam War

Catching up on more book reviews.  Here are a couple more on Vietnam.

We were absolutely smitten by Vietnam and its people.  Our visit has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. This is a bit of a surprise to me.  We had heard great things and had considered visiting 20 years ago, but it was hard to think about the country without being influenced by the history and the war. From a perspective within the States, Vietnam was demonized in the 70’s, the war was sensationalized by Hollywood in the 80’s and 90’s, and  school history books provided, at best, an incomplete view.

Visiting the country, meeting veterans in the countryside,  exploring their museums, and reading more has helped to understand more. One could study this country and the war for a lifetime without getting all the answers. There are certainly no lack of good books and movies on the Vietnam war. Unfortunately, tragedy and suffering can be just the catalyst for compelling stories, literature and art. I certainly do not profess to be an expert on the subject, but here are two more books that helped me explore the subject a bit more.

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Tim O’Brien has been writing books on the war for 40 years and has won awards and many accolades for his writing.  It is said that a large part of his first book was written while he was over there in foxholes.  The Things They Carried was originally published in 1990 and was considered for the Pulitzer.  It is an interesting set of short stories that hang together and highlight the mental and physical challenges of US soldiers (based on his experiences over there).  The stories are chilling and emotional and provide insights into the inner most struggles and thoughts of the US soldiers.

 

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When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is a fascinating read and highlights the struggles of the war from the Vietnamese people’s perspectives. Many in Vietnam were just as conflicted and confused about the war as those outside the country, and while most Vietnamese wanted independence, many from the same communities and families differed greatly about how to achieve it. This is the story of a women living in a border town during the war – caught between the North and South. It is an amazing story of struggle and perseverance.  Well worth the read to get a not so common perspective of the war.

 

If I Die In A Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home- Vietnam

Throughout this trip, I have been trying to read books set in the Tim Obrien Vietnam Combat Zonecountry that we are traveling. However, when we returned back to Thailand (for the sailing course), I had to break yet another rule as I could not find any decent fiction or non-fiction on Thailand.  Most of the books I found on Thailand were related to the  sex trade, and this was not something I was interested in reading.  We have another week in Thailand so if anyone has a recommended read on Thailand, I would definitely be interested.

That said, I downloaded If I Die In A Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O’Brien about the Vietnam War.  Tim has written many books on his experience in Vietnam.  Chris and I have read a number.  This one was a painful and poignant read about Alpha Company’s tour during the Vietnam War outlining in excruciating detail what these brave, young men experienced.  The author actually wrote the initial pages during his tour in Vietnam while sitting in foxholes and hence, why the book is so vivid in its description of the thoughts and experiences of these soldiers.

It was a war most did not want to fight questioning why they were soldiers and why the US was even engaged in the war. These questions are not new with respect to the Vietnam War, but what makes this book interesting (in a painful way especially for those of us that were born during the Vietnam War) is how realistically the book depicts the hearts and minds of the soldiers.  A recent article in the NY Times summed up the soldiers in  the Vietnam War well.  These brave men where another “greatest generation” like the WW II veterans; however, they were unfortunately engaged in a unnecessary war and a mistake made by the US government.  Here is a link to the NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/opinion/at-the-bloody-dawn-of-the-vietnam-war.html?_r=0

Perfect Spy (The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter & Vietnam Communist Agent)

Is it possible for someone to be an effective spy while remaining loyal to one’s friends and at the same time, be an objective journalist?  Or was Pham Xuan An a double agent?  These are a couple of the questions raised in the biography, Perfect Spy.

Pham Xuan An was a spy for the North Perfect SpyVietnamese while working for US publications in Ho Chi Minh City including but not limited to Time Magazine during the Vietnam War. An’s mission was to provide strategic, intelligence on US war plans.

Larry Berman, the author, spent years interviewing An as well as those close to An. The author attempts to cite some actions taken by An which are intended to support that An was loyal to his friends and an objective journalist.  For example, An was instrumental in getting a South Vietnamese supporter out of the country in April 1975 on a US helicopter when the US pulled out of Vietnam.  Also, many of An’s professional colleagues that were US journalists based in Ho Chi Minh City, sponsored and/ or raised funds for An’s son to attend UNC and later Duke Law in the late 80’s out of respect for An.

Personally, the book left too many unanswered questions and not enough details of An’s involvement, but nonetheless an interesting read with a different perspective on the Vietnam War.  For those interested in the Vietnam War and Vietnam, in general, I would recommend this book and would also suggest reading Tim O’Brien’s books on the Vietnam War simultaneously, if you have not had a chance to read any of his books (which provide another perspective).

Hanging in Hanoi

We woke up the bellman today at our hotel.  This is Hanoi.  Some of the hotel workers spend the night at the hotels instead of commuting back to their villages or towns.  At first, we did not see these guys sleeping on two couches in the small lobby  so we managed to startle all four of us as we made our way bleary-eyed to the exit.

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We were up just before sunrise for a run around Hoan Kiem Lake  to beat the heat and make our morning flight out of Vietnam.  This was another rare opportunity to head out for a jog. Of course, in a city of seven million, we had some company. Even at  6 am in the morning, we had to dodge hundreds of walkers (not many runners) and packs of older women in pajamas and men in singlets collectively  (as in 20-40) swaying to the music of ABBA or practicing group Tai Chi. There were also more than a few Western backpackers either finishing up a night out in the absolute chaotic scene of the old quarter or looking for a spot to rest after an overnight train.

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Hanoi has been great. We had a chance to spent time in a couple different spots here. Initially, we spent a couple days in a very residential area in the central-east part of town, allowing us to experience the regular routines of every day life and then a couple days in the old quarter that has an absolute manic vibe.

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When they shut down the streets of the old quarter to cars and scooters, it really feels like old Asia – what Singapore and Hong Kong and so many other Asian cities must have felt like back 40-50 years ago. It has hundreds of shops and street vendors, endless options for street food, huge and lively bia hoi bars that spill out to the middle of the street. We had some excellent Banh Xeo and quite a bit of the delicious Vietnamese coffee over the few days.

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In addition to eating our way through the city, we made time to visit a wonderful art museum, the infamous Hoa Lo prison, and stopped by the massive mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh.

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We have both really enjoyed Vietnam and it could be our new, favorite spot in Southeast Asia.  The history, the food, the beaches and the cities have been wonderful. Travel here is relatively easy and super affordable.  The service, no matter where we were, has been top notch.

We’ll be back!

Descending Dragons and Cruising the Ha Long Bay

IMG_1652 IMG_1660 IMG_1665 IMG_1751Some rules are meant to be broken.  Chris and I have had an unwritten rule for some time- no cruising.  However, there is really only one way to see Ha Long Bay and that is on a boat cruise. A day trip on a boat is certainly an option, but we wanted to spend some time out in the bay, get into a kayak to see it at eye level and have a chance to swim so we opted for an overnight excursion.  Options abound as there are hundreds of boats and thousands of people visiting each day, but many are low-end or cater to different types of experiences (e.g. party boats). Hanoi is also filled with travel agents selling tours of all flavors.  The best way that we found to sift through the good, the bad and the ugly is to leverage a hotel in Vietnam that you like and trust.  Our hotel in Hoi An, Essence Hotel & Spa, once again, did a great job of helping us identify the right option and a cruise with availability.  Although it was not our first choice, we ended up with Aphrodite Cruises, and we really enjoyed the whole experience.  Aphrodite offered a smaller, wooden junk with only 17 nicely, appointed rooms, a wonderful staff and an itinerary that offered kayaking in Cat Ba National Park.

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Ha Long Bay (  Ha Long means descending dragon in English), another UNESCO Site, is bay of about 1900+ limestone islands.  The way it was described to us by the locals is that there are 1969 islands which aligns with the year Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) passed away.   Ha Long Bay is a vast body of water comprised of gorgeous, limestone islands that rise up out of the water making for a spectacular setting. Interestingly, these land masses were created by tectonic shifts rather than any volcanic activity.

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For those considering a trip to Ha Long bay, the 3 days/ 2 nights cruise is a must.  The other option is 2 days/ 1 night, but in our opinion, the scenery is so spectacular in Ha Long Bay 1 night is just not enough.  In addition, the 3 days itinerary included swimming in a gorgeous, deserted bay (except for a few local fishermen), kayaking Cat Ba National Park and a visit to the local pearl farm.  I know what some of you are thinking  – the pearl farm sounds a bit touristy – and it is,  but we also found it quite interesting and informative.

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Unfortunately, Ha Long Bay is no longer off the beaten path as evidenced by the number of cruise company options and boats in the bay, but given the spectacular scenery, local communities that still live is this spectacular spot and the activities, Ha Long Bay is another must to add to the itinerary when visiting Vietnam.

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A Gem On the Central Coast of Vietnam

After two train rides (for a total of 16 hours – I am not crazy about the idea of flying in Vietnam), we arrived in the much anticipated Hoi An, and it did not disappoint. The area offers a compelling combination of history, beach and culinary delights with a bike-friendly town center.  It is the kind of place we could spend a month or two!

Hoi An, recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is a small town of 120,000 people on the central coast of Vietnam with incredible architecture dating back hundreds of years that attracts an interesting set of locals and visitors looking for awesome food and beautiful beaches.

The town has been a strategic, commercial port since the 1st century when Vietnam was part of the Champa Kingdom.  Around the 15th century, Hoi An was a major port in Asia along the spice route.  As a result, it has an interesting mix of architectures influenced by the Chinese, French,  and Japanese.  The downtown area is extremely well-preserved. For example, during the 16th and 17th century,the Japanese settled here and built a lot of infrastructure including a bridge that still stands today. The Chùa Cầu bridge is unique in that it is the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple attached to one side.

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Hoi An attracts a lot of tourists but do not be dissuaded.  To reinvent itself in the 90’s, Hoi An attracted UNESCO funding and became a major tourist destination. It is a beautiful town with hundreds of shops and restaurants.  The shop competition is fierce here, and custom tailors are a specialty here.  There are over 1,000 tailors that turn out custom shoes, boots, shirts, dresses, suits, bags and more for visitors that flock here for inexpensive, tailor-made clothes. If you need a light blue tuxedo with ruffles or a little black dress for a night out in Manhattan, you can find someone to make it for you.

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Our hotel, Essence Hotel and Spa, had 1-speed cruiser bikes that were a great way to ride to the beach or check out downtown.  (We definitely would recommend this hotel. A nice location about 1K from town and 3K from the beach with a great gym( for working off all the Banh Mi we have been eating), private beach access, and lovely, spacious rooms.) We took the bike one day and went to the gorgeous An Bang Beach which was very clean and stretched out for at least 10 km.

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Hoi An is also a culinary mecca for things like Cau Lau, Banh Mi, and Pho.  Hoi An’s speciality of Cau Lau is a noodle that is made from rice and water .  The water is supposedly from a well in Hoi An. The locals place the ash of the La Gai leaf into collected well water. The water and ash are then left overnight to rest, and then it is this water that is then used to make the noodles which gives them a light brown hue.  We had some Cau Lau at Pho Xua which was great. We didn’t have time to try many versions, but this one definitely worked for us.

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We tried Banh Mi at two hot spots – Madam Khanh’s and Banh Mi Phuong.  Madam Khanh’s Banh Mi, in my opinion, is the best.  It is a hole-in-the wall  shop at the front of the family home.  Madam Khanh is a lovely, feisty woman who has been making Banh Mi for decades.

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If you go, she will direct you where to leave your bike.  Walk into the shop and grab a seat.  Do not wait for the menu and just relax.  There is a lot of love in these sandwiches.  We tried to watch her prepare these wonderful sandwiches and not sure exactly what was in the concoction.  This spot is not to be missed.

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Another non-descriptive Banh Mi place in town  is Banh Mi Phuong.  Chris liked the Banh Mi slightly better here. If you are in Hoi An, check them both out.

Wrapping Up Our Cycle from Bangkok

I am tucked away in the corner of a French bakery in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), enjoying the air con,  a Vietnamese coffee and streaming some KEXP.  Susan is off getting her hair done.

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We are regrouping after three weeks on the bike, and HCMC is a welcomed stop. It has clearly been influenced by the West – Starbucks, KFC, Circle-K, and many others are here , but it still remains exotic enough to provide an interesting stop for a few days.  More about some of the interesting stops in HCMC in a future blog.

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Last night, we enjoyed our first dinner and sleep in weeks  without sharing our table with other guests and/ or guides and enjoying some nice accommodations without gecko’s, mosquitoes, cockroaches or any other crawling critters.  We are digging our hotel in HCMC and highly recommended it- The Silverland Sakyo Hotel (http://www.silverlandhotels.com/silverland-sakyo-hotel-spa.html).  Vietnam has so much more infrastructure than Cambodia, and we were in some off the beaten path places while cycling.

Before arriving in the city,  we had the chance to enjoy some local, much anticipated Pho (pronounced fa), and local coffee -out in the country side in places like Chau Doc, Can Tho and Tra Vinh.

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It was fantastic to spend the last week in smaller towns and areas of both Cambodia and Vietnam, spots that are generally overlooked by most tourist trips. We biked through rice fields and  on islands using a local ferry system.

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We also managed to visit another floating market (our 3rd or 4th one) before we finished cycling. Floating markets are a bit of a tourist trap, but they do represent how many in the area live. The Mekong river which flows from China through Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea is a major waterway for transport and commerce (very similar to the Mississippi back in the States).

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It has been HOT!  Here is a shot at 5:30 in the morning in Can Tho, Vietnam.  This was a warm day for sure.

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We will switch gears a bit and play tourist for the next couple weeks, setting out to see the sights of HCMC, Nha Trang, Da Nang, Hoi An, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.  We will be hopping on the train to check out these places and a few UNESCO sights along the Vietnamese coastline.