Thursday, March 29, 2007

Back to Bangkok & Scottie's birthday, Mar. 23-25

Friday, March 23, we left Saigon at mid-day to return to Bangkok for two nights at the riverside Peninsula Hotel to celebrate my birthday and begin our journey home.

We're amazed and thrilled that Chuck Vernon (my friend Christie's youngest son) and his wife, Alina, came to Bangkok to join us in celebrating my birthday and Alina's June birthday. They live in Bucharest, where he has his law practice and she is an auditor. Their little ones, Christie (now almost 4) and Andrei (almost 2), stayed in Romania with Alina's mother.

Friday night Chuck hosted a spectacular dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's top floor Le Normandie restaurant, where world-famous U.S. chef, Thomas Keller, was cooking. It was an all-evening affair with too many courses to list and an appropriate wine for each one. Louis had orchestrated birthday cards from many family and friends to be waiting for me on a little stool next to my chair. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. An unforgettable evening near the end of a life-changing sojourn in Thailand and Vietnam.

Saturday we visited the Jim Thompson House Museum for lunch and a tour of the late American silk merchant's home, followed by a swim and relaxation at the hotel before dinner at the open air, casual, riverside Baan Klang Nam seafood restaurant. Terrific. Alina and I had river lobster.

Sunday we took a tour of two favorite temples, Wat Pho (famous for its huge, reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn with Khmer-style architecture covered in ceramic tiles). Traveling by long-tail boat, we landed at each temple, where the sun was VERY hot, so we didn't linger too long, but ended our time with a cooling and extensive ride through the khlongs (canals) of Bangkok. I had not seen this side of the city, and all of us found it fascinating.

Our time in Bangkok ended with tea at the Peninsula. Finally, in the early evening, we headed to Subarnabhumi Airport for the long ride home, Bangkok-Tokyo-Dallas-Columbus. We made it in about 35 hours with no mishaps - a minor miracle.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Mar. 21-23

Ho Chi Minh City is the huge commercial heart of Vietnam, and Saigon remains the heart of the metropolitan area. Hanoi, in the north, is an ancient seat of power and the governmental capital, but it is much smaller and quieter than HCMC.

Saigon is somewhat like Bangkok. It sits on the Saigon River, 60 km from the South China Sea. Not quite as hot as Bangkok, at least during our visit, its traffic is less gridlocked, too. Our two days in the city were interesting and fun. We look forward to coming back in a few years.

Development of high rise buildings, roads, and sidewalks is in progress everywhere, and commerce is absolutely the order of the day. Our room on the 8th floor of the Renaissance Saigon overlooked the lively river at a major ferry depot. The crush of motor bikes rushing back and forth with every trip was amazing, like watching an animal ingesting and disgorging a huge meal every 10 minutes. Fascinating. The river bank opposite the city is still relatively undeveloped, but it's obvious that won't last long.

Wednesday afternoon we took a walkabout and found the city pleasant, with French-style buildings, lots of parks and squares of green space (another difference with Bangkok, which has little green space), and street markets everywhere. When it started to rain, we returned to the hotel for a quiet evening and rest before our full day tour Thursday.
Our excellent guide, Anh, from Ann Tours, developed a tour for us starting with a visit to the Saigon Public Library, built on the site of a horrible prison, where, among other nasty things, the French introduced use of the guillotine. Our time here was a highlight of Saigon. We met the library's director of human resources and professional development, Le thi Thanh Thuy. A delightful woman, she spoke English and French very well, and gave us good insights into the impressive work they are able to do with a relatively large staff, but VERY little money. Their first childrens' room opened this past January. It was great fun to see the kids using the computers and happily learning new things. The library is also heavily engaged in creating talking books and tactile books for the area's many blind residents.

The Jade Emperor Temple is one of the oldest Chinese temples in Saigon. Quite busy with devout locals and tourists. You'll see a photo of a turtle pond, because many who worship at the temple release an animal (usually small birds or turtles sold nearby) to bring themselves good luck. The temple seems to incorporate several different religions. As I've remarked before, Vietnam has many different ethnic groups and religions, including Buddhists, Catholics, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Protestants, plus followers of Confucianism, Taoism, and ancestor worship. This is one remarkable difference between Vietnam and Thailand, where more than 90% of the population follow Theravada Buddism and most come from the same ethnic group.

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum is a wonderful, old French Beaux Arts mansion that now houses paintings, photographs, and artifacts in rather dusty conditions. Like many similar public buildings, it is the favorite place for brides and grooms to have their official photos made, and we saw several such contingents busy with posing on the curved stairway and on the balconies. The 1970s jet fighter plane and helicopter on the lawn seemed a bit incongruous, but, hey, it's their museum.

Lunch was at a traditional Pho (noodle soup) restaurant crowded with locals and a few tourists at long, family style tables. The big bowl of broth comes with chicken or beef, noodles, and lots of green herbs that you add to your preference. Delicious.

The former palace of S. Vietnamese's last leader, President Thieu, and his predecessors, now called the Reunification Palace, is a more modern style than I remembered from the newreels. Everything about it is a 1970s time warp, the furniture, draperies, etc., but the expansive lawns, trees, and fountains are a pretty oasis in the city. Anh showed us all the public rooms, the family quarters, and the basement war rooms, which are remarkably similar to Churchill's World War II war rooms beneath London.

After quick trips to the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral (built in the 1870s by the French and the major seat of surviving Catholicism in modern Vietnam) and the beautiful old French-built Post Office next door, we opted to forego the War Remains Museum in favor of a ride to Saigon's huge Chinatown (whose residents speak five different Chinese languages, plus Vietnamese and often English) in search of gifts to take home to the grand neices and nephews.

We celebrated our last night in Vietnam with dinner at the Temple Club restaurant. Hidden in the back streets of the Central District of Saigon near our hotel, the second floor Temple Club has a stunning dark, carved wood d├ęcor in a moderately lit French colonial house. We ate on an enclosed porch overlooking the street, where a lively motorbike parking enterprise was efficiently run by two women of a certain age in an ever moving collage. The food and drinks were quite good, I had soft shell crab, and the atmosphere quietly festive.

Nha Trang, March 17-20

Nha Trang was to be the relaxing, beach part of our vacation, and the beach was stunning, indeed. We had the most fun in the surf here of any place we've ever been. Gentle waves, soft sand, pleasant scenery, and NO crowds made that part of this location spectacular.

Unfortunately, we were not so pleased with the Sofitel Vin Pearl Resort, which is obviously trying (unsuccessfully) to become SE Asia's Disney World. I don't recall any mention of an amusement park on the hotel web site when I was planning this trip, and my travel agent had recommended this as an alternative to the extremely expensive Ana Mandara hotel in Nha Trang.

The Vin Pearl is on an island off shore from the small city of Nha Trang. Guests gather at a landside reception center, check-in, take a ferry to the island passing under a new tram overhead. Looming on the other shore is an amusement park under development. Then you take an open tram over the hill to the hotel on the other side of the island, where another wait at reception is required.

I'd booked a superior, ocean view room, so I asked for a high floor, whereupon the desk clerk told me we'd be in a deluxe bungalow on the beach. That sounded good. NOT.

They escorted us to a hot, tiny and extremely dark duplex overlooking a weedy lawn and the water sports concession. The noise of jet skis and motorboats pulling sky kites was deafening. Absolutely not. We want an ocean view room on a high floor in the main hotel. Sorry, those are all taken for tonight. Long story short, we had to take a room with a view of a barren hillside for the first night, but they did move us to a nice, two-room suite for the remaining three nights. This suite was quiet, with a gorgeous view of the ocean and islands beyond, and it had two bathrooms.

For a place that caters to tourists, especially westerners (all prices are listed in US dollars, and they aren't cheap), their staff speak little or no English. This was a particular problem in the restaurants and with room service.

Wednesday morning at 5 a.m. we were at the check-out desk as directed, so we could repeat the tram, ferry, shuttle bus routine to catch a 7:45 flight to Saigon. They had no record of our pre-payment of the four nights. Geez..........very stressful, but after calls and e-mails to our travel agent, I THINK we have that resolved.

The coast of Vietnam is gorgeous, but we'll definitely try another resort next time. Meanwhile, I'm including photos of the pleasant aspects of our stay.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Dalat, March 15-16, 2007

The ride to Dalat from Nha Trang/Cam Ranh airport was long, bumpy, and curvey. Through a serious, early miscalculation on my part, I thought Dalat was only about 60 km from Nha Trang. WRONG, it's 220 km, mostly straight up.

Fortunately, I discovered this before we left Bangkok, so I had arranged a car and driver to take us to the famed Dalat Palace Hotel. Thursday, Mar. 15 turned out to be a long day of flying from Danang to Cam Ranh, then a drive of almost 4 hours. Fortunately, our driver was expert, and the arrival after dark without mishap. The air was cool and felt sooo good after the heat and humidity of the coast.

The hotel is a cream-colored, stucco Art Moderne structure on a hill overlooking a pretty lake, Ho Xuan Huong. After dropping our bags in a stunning 3rd floor room with three huge windows overlooking the lake, we had dinner in 'Larry's Bar' in the former wine cellar in the basement. Named for the famous/infamous co-founder of shipping marvel, DHL Worldwide Express, Larry Hillblom, the bar is cozy and the food a mixture of European and American. I had a Caesar salad and Louis a French-type hot dog! Hillblom, who lost the $40 million he invested in trying to save this old hotel, died in 1995 in an Asian plane crash leaving heirs of various legitimacy to fight over his huge estate. We're lucky that Sofitel/Accor stepped in and now runs the hotel in a thoroughly professional manner.

Dalat reminds me of Asheville, NC, but at higher altitude - at 4,900 ft. it's almost as high as Denver. At the turn of the 20th century, the French turned this outpost into a cool retreat from the Vietnamese tropics down below. After the railroad arrived in 1917, the hotel was opened in 1922. European villas in various states of repair dot the road around the pretty lake. Until 1954 it was also the home of Vietnam's last emperor, Bao Dai, of the Nguyen dynasty. He died in Paris in 1997 after a long exile, leaving many children from his five wives.

As appears to be the case everywhere in Vietnam, the roads here are clogged with motorbikes, trucks hauling the produce and flowers the region is famous for, and very few cars.

On the way up the mountain, we saw lots of greenhouses. Our driver, Dyung, said they are lighted all night, growing crops 24/7. I'd hate to live downhill from them - too bright to sleep.

Friday, we enjoyed breakfast seated at a terrace table in the perfect air, and visited the large flower garden at the other end of the lake. The orchids there were especially lush, with several varieties we'd not seen before.

There was a business communications meeting underway for Roche Communications. Young Asian executives were all over the hotel today, with lots of chanting teams (in various colors of baseball caps) on the front lawn doing a form of "bunny hop" kind of dance. Interesting.

High tea in mid-afternoon, reading, writing, and a fine dinner in Le Rabelais completed the day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hoi An, March 14, 2007

Hoi An became a World Heritage site in 1999 because it has been a locus for international trade for centuries. Turns out that was probably a mistake, because the town has now become hopelessly populated with tourist traps and assertive (more often aggressive) beggers and hawkers of postcards, cyclo rides, and tchotchkes.
Finding no restaurants with air conditioning, we ate in a riverside bistro on the terrace. Food was good, but I later regretted having to walk through the kitchen to reach the toilet. Sometimes it's much better not to know where your food comes from.

Nevertheless, we DID enjoy seeing the ancient Japanese bridge and Chinese houses with storefronts, as well as the Chinese Temples.

Our Palm Garden Hotel is a small resort about two years old, on the beach and quite pleasant. Our room was on the second floor among low-rise bungalows with a balcony and view of the ocean. Lush bougainvilla grows everywhere.