Friday 16th March 2007

I can't believe we're really going! Rich and I are working from home today. Richard Dicker will pick us up at 3:30 and take us to Heathrow. He's great! We got up at our normal time and got some work done. Everything appears to be in order - so no stress while we're away. Rich is packing while I'm running some last minute errands. It's better that way, less arguments!

We had a very quick trip to Heathrow! We were there in less than an hour - not a bad start. We were 3rd in the queue when the check-in desk opened. An upgrade would have been £450, so we didn't. Our seats are aisle and middle in the centre of the plane, which worked really well since there was a couple beside me who had their own aisle. We even got a few hours sleep on the plane. For once even Rich got some sleep on the plane. We also watched "Night at the Museum" with Ben Stiller. It was cute and really funny.

Saturday 17th March

The flight was 10.5 hours long, but fortunately it went quite quickly. I was dreading it, since my back was sore already, but I was fine. We were over half an hour late boarding the plane, which worried us since we had a connecting flight in Bangkok with only 2 hours between landing and takeoff.

Fortunately, we made up the time in flight and weren't late to land. The transfer in Bangkok was really easy. We didn't need to get our luggage and the gates weren't far apart either. The flight to Hanoi was fine. It was only 1 hour 20 minutes and they served us dinner too.

We arrived at Hanoi at 7:30 pm. We had to collect our visas on arrival. This was not an organised process. We had our visa guarantee letters that Travel Indochina gave us and went to the abandoned, forlorn looking area of empty disks with the sign "Visas on arrival". There was one lonely guy looking a bit nervous. He said he had given his passport to a man in a uniform who promptly disappeared for over 20 minutes (with his passport).

He had the look of someone thinking "I'm pretty sure he works here...". We filled in the form that appeared and gave our passports to a guy in uniform who also disappeared for about half an hour.

We eventually got our passports back, complete with a nice visa in them. The Travel Indochina driver looked very relieved to see us when we finally came out to the Arrivals area. He took us on a slightly harrowing drive to our hotel, the Galaxy Hotel in Hanoi. It's a nice hotel. We got in around 9:30pm and got a snack in the hotel bar. The spring rolls were nice - less greasy than the Chinese ones.

We took a short walk around the hotel area around 11:30pm, then went to bed. Beds are great!

Sunday 18th March

This morning we had a really nice breakfast! I had corn flakes, fresh watermelon and cantaloupe and juice. I was worried that it would be like the Chinese version - strange imitations of bread and butter, etc. but it was really nice!

We went to see the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, "the father of modern Vietnam". The guidebooks suggest that he might be a wax replacement and the real guy is in the crypt underneath. This seems likely as the figure looks good considering the elapsed time.

Our tour guide's name is Robert and our local guide is Viet. They are really nice.

Then we visited Hanoi's first university, the Temple of Literature, started in 1070. It was beautiful. Then we visited the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" - a prison for political prisoners and US pilots, which is now a museum.

We had a nice lunch at a local restaurant that teaches street children to work in the hotel industry - a very good cause.

We walked back to the hotel from the Hoam Kiem Lake, the "sword restored" lake, through the old quarter of the town. P-Hang-Bac street had a nice market with a wide variety of strange vegetables, etc. (wibble wibble!)

In the evening, we went to see the traditional water puppets show. It was good. One of the 6 instruments in the orchestra was the Dan Bau. It only had one string and a lever. It sounded amazing - like a human voice!

For dinner, we went to a restaurant called "cha ca" which served only 1 dish - a fried fish and veg dish. You get a BBQ on your table and a pan of fish sizzling in oil. You add the greens and put it on your rice noodles. It was delicious!

Monday 18th March

Today we visited Halong Bay. It is amazing place! The limestone karst mountains come up out of the water, hundreds of metres high, with nearly vertical sides. It's a magical place! We had a 3 hour bus ride to get there, with a halfway stop at a shop which is run by an orphanage which takes in children with disabilities and teaches them a skill. The shop sells their work, so we helped a good cause. I bought a vibrant blue silk scarf and Rich bought a white silk shirt with a symbol meaning "happy" and a dragon on it. It looks really good on him!

Halong Bay was wonderful! We had a luxurious boat and sailed around among the karst for a few hours. We stopped in a quiet area for lunch, but had plenty of amusement as the crew tied off the boat to a large rock. We sort of rammed the rock several times. We spun around the rock during lunch and crashed into it a few times too.

Lunch was very nice on the boat. Then we sailed around a bit more and then back to the harbour.

It was funny, but our local guide, Hoi, warned them they could lose their jobs if they kept doing that. After lunch, we cruised around some more, then headed back. Rich and I stood on the top deck (otherwise known as the roof of the enclosed bit) for the cruise out and we stayed on the front open area on the way back. It was such a peaceful place! I wish there was scenery like this closer to home!

For dinner we went to the Seasons restaurant that the rest of the group went to on their first night here. It was fantastic! I am now addicted to watermelon juice!

Tuesday 19th March

This morning we had our first Vietnamese cooking lesson. It was a lot of fun! First, we had a tour of the market to see the wide range of ingredients. The array of items was bewildering, but fascinating.

Then we returned to Highway 4 for the class. We had a great time and learned how to make spring rolls with chicken, mixed fried rice and clam soup. The fried rice was my favourite.

After the class we had a few hours to ourselves, so we walked back to the hotel via 2 parks and several shops. We had an ice cream in the "Sword Restored" lake park. The weather was warm and partly sunny today, so it was great to sit in the park and have ice cream.

We got some treats to bring back for people at work. They look nice!

For dinner, we went to a restaurant that served only 1 dish - pho. That's pronounced "fer". It's chicken and rice noodle soup with spring onions. It was really nice! Simple, nice food.

From there, we went to the airport for our flight to Hue, pronounced "whey". After we got in the queue for check-in, Robert realised that all our tickets were still on the bus! There was a slight panic as he called the bus driver and soon all was well again.

We found the nice peanut-sesame snacks that Robert gave us on the bus yesterday, so we got them to take back home.

Wednesday 20th March

This morning we visited the Citadel. It was the home of the Nguyen Emperors. The Citadel was a whole city for the Emperor and his royal family, concubines and advisors. There were several sections to keep concubines, wives, advisors, etc. separate.

Then we went to see the Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue's oldest religious monument. The pagoda was very nice and the gardens were very relaxing. Then we took a dragon boat back to the hotel on the Perfume River.

We saw lots of different small boats on the river. Many of them were dredging sand from the bottom of the river. Further downriver there was a sand collecting area where the boats dumped their sand and it was loaded on to trucks.

For lunch, we went to PHO 24. We had a nice lunch of beef and noodle soup. After lunch we went to the tomb of the 4th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. It's done with a French influence and is really detailed. The tomb was decorated with pottery imported from France, broken and put all around the tomb.

For dinner, we dined like Emperors! We dressed in great costumes and drafted Alistair and Merril to be our King and Queen. We had a band with the single stringed instrument with the lever, a drum and a lady playing cups (tea cups the size of shot glasses). The dinner was really good! After that, we went straight to bed.

Thursday 21st March

Today we drove from Hue to Danang via the Hai Van Pass. The countryside is beautiful! We took a coastal road up a mountain. Although it was cloudy and foggy, it was still beautiful.

Then we saw the Cham Museum. The stone carvings were really nice. The carvings were from the 4th to the 16th centuries. I liked the museum because it was open air. There were no windows and breeze was nice.

After the museum, we drove to the Marble Mountains. We walked up one of the mountains and saw the temple and shrines at the top. The view from the top was really good! We could see China Beach, where US and other servicemen had time off.

We had lunch at an open air café , then walked on the beach. From there, we drove to Hoi An. I really like Hoi An! There are many great little shops full of locally made crafts. We had a walking tour of Hoi An and saw an old merchant house, the Hoi An Museum, a Chinese temple and assembly hall where sailors prayed for safe boat journeys and the Japanese Covered Bridge.

Friday 22nd March

So early! Today we met our guide at 6 AM and went to see the fish market. It was such a buzzing atmosphere! There were people rushing around and sorting out the fish. The fish were everywhere! We walked through tiny gaps in the containers and took lots of pictures.

I think we learned the Vietnamese for "bloody tourist" as well, since we were often in their way. After the market visit, we went back to the hotel and had breakfast, then took a nap. We had the early afternoon free and did some shopping. We got a silk robe for Rich because he looks fantastic in it! We also got a silk shirt with a dragon on it for him. We are told the writing says "happiness". I got a T-shirt with a dragon on it.

We also went to Yali to get tailor made clothes for us. Rich got 3 silk shirts in the Chinese style. I got a raw silk shirt in vibrant blue and a pair of trousers that fit me now and will still fit me in a few months time! They keep our details on computer for 5 years, so we can get more stuff made later if we want. All the clothes cost only around $90 and it fits perfectly! I love having something that is made just for me! I may order some more maternity trousers when we get home!

We have our second cooking class tonight. We will meet up at 4 PM and get a boat ride into the center of town. We saw villages on the side of the river. The fishing nets stay suspended above the water, then the people lower the nets into the river for about half an hour to catch the fish. It seems to be a good living. The men fish at night, then take the fish to market and the women sell the fish at the market.

We got off the boats at the center of town and went to our cooking class. It was good. The chef / teacher was a great comedian. He called for the men to help him (1 or 2 at a time) and heckled them while they helped. It was really funny.

Dinner was really nice. After dinner, we went to the shop that had the oil painting that we really like. It's an abstract painting of a Vietnamese fishing village with houses on stilts in the background over the water and small fishing boats in the foreground. The colour is vibrant yellow / orange and it looks fantastic! We got it for $90. I can't wait to see it in our living room!

Saturday 23rd March

This morning we flew to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City). It's much hotter here! We arrived around 10AM and everyone was really tired, so we had a break for lunch and met up at 2:30 for our tour. We had lunch at the place across the street from the hotel. I didn't like the soup. Rich thought it was OK.

In the afternoon, we went to the Reunification Palace (formerly the Presidential Palace). The place was a 70's style office building with luxury accommodation, banquet rooms and underground bunkers. The place is still used for diplomatic functions, but wedding receptions are held on the second floor now as well.

After that, we went to the War Remnants Museum. This is totally 1 sided view of what the Americans and Australians and others did in Vietnam. Including a section on the effects of Agent Orange, which is still ongoing.

Tonight, we went to dinner with Robert and the rest of the group. The restaurant wasn't as nice as it could have been. The dé cor was great, but the food was overpriced and not that nice.

Before dinner, we were in the hotel for a few hours, so we went for a swim in the hotel pool. The pool was nice. It helped ease a bit of the crampiness in my stomach. I keep pulling my stomach muscles, mostly as I move around in bed. I'm going to have to start paying more attention to the advice for moving around soon.

The swim helped my stomach and we had a nice time. After our swim, we decided to try an ice cream! After a 20 minute wait, I asked about our ice cream. After 5 minutes, the waiter brings us Sunday tubs filled with liquid, melted ice cream. We looked at these in astonishment and then I took them to the bar and complained. After another 10 minutes, we got proper (unmelted) Sundays. They were really nice. The chocolate ice cream was fantastic!

After our slightly disappointing dinner, we went to an ice cream shop called Fannys. It's fantastic! I had more chocolate ice cream! It was great!

Our tour group is a lot of fun. Robert is our guide. He's from Butler PA! He's nice and he clearly loves Vietnam. He's very good at getting everything to run smoothly. Our local guides have all been great. Loi was our guide in Saigon. He is very positive about the future for Vietnam. When we spoke about the war, he said he is from the North and his father was an anti aircraft gunner.

He was very nice to me and he seems glad that I don't have any issues with him about the war. It's amazing how friendly and normal the Vietnamese are. They have moved on completely and have embraced capitalism with an incredible enthusiasm. The government seems to approve and lets people get on with it, but there is still only 1 political party. The government seems quite happy to let capitalism sweep the nation, just not the political freedom. The people seem quite happy with this arrangement.

The rest of our tour group consists of 11 people, including a fun couple called Alistair and his wife Merril. They're great to talk to. I hope we will keep in touch with them. The rest of the group is also really nice. There's another British couple from Bristol called Chris and Dwarra, they're quieter, but really nice. There's also an older lady named Jane.

She's originally from England, but has lived in Australia for the last 30 years. She's 78 years old and wonderfully mad. The first night in Hanoi, she started talking to a young lady on a motorbike, then took a ride with her around Hanoi for 2 hours on the back of the bike. I really hope I'm like that when I'm older.

Sunday 24th March

Yesterday everyone was really tired after the plane trip, so we didn't do a walking tour around Ho Chi Minh City as planned. Instead, we're doing it this morning before it gets too hot. We went on a walking tour around Saigon and walked down Dong Khoi Street (formerly Rue Catinat), past the Rex Hotel, Ho Chi Minh Square, Municipal Theatre and Notre Dame Cathedral.

Saigon is nice, but Hanoi had a friendlier atmosphere. We saw the central post office and bought 2 packs of stamps, 1 with caves of Vietnam and 1 with ladies in traditional Vietnamese dress.

We then got the bus and went to the Mekong Delta. The trip was around 4 hours, so we stopped halfway at a shop run by a disabled person's shelter. They had all sorts of handcrafts there, including wood carvings, vases, clothing, wall hangings, paintings, etc. On the way back from the Mekong Delta, we stopped again and Rich bought a couple of silk shirts.

For dinner, we went to a BBQ place. It was great! There were gas grilles set into the table. The food came out on skewers. There was a place of prawns, each longer than my hand, on skewers. Unfortunately, they were still moving! I felt bad for them, but they were still delicious.

After lots of courses of nice things on plates for the BBQ, we went to Fannys (the ice cream place) below the BBQ place. Alistair and Merril came with us and we had wonderful sundaes and a great time.

Monday 25th March

We had the morning free in Saigon. We went to the central retail market and bought stuff! I wanted a big bag that I could use for baby stuff. The idea is that the bag will remind me of fun times when I'm covered in baby vomit.

Hopefully this will help. The bag is beautiful, big and not too girlie. It's a nice pattern in slightly subdued colors, with bamboo on the sides. I also got a Vietnam T-shirt. We got all seasons of Charmed and Buffy at a DVD stall. We both like them and they're light hearted and nice. Everything was fairly cheap and the market was huge.

For lunch, Rich saw a diner style place. We were craving Western food by this time. I had 2 glorious chocolate milkshakes and a BLT. Chocolate milkshakes are wonderful things! Rich had a club sandwich and a chocolate milkshake too!

We went for a swim after lunch. The pool is great!

After our swim, we met up with the rest of the group and went to Thien Hau Pagoda, dedicated to the goddess of the sea. The Chinese came to Vietnam by boat, so honouring this goddess was very important to them. Next to the main area is a side area to pray to the god of prosperity. Pregnant women come here to ask for a boy. I just asked for a healthy, happy baby!

After the Temple, we went to the Binh Tay wholesale market. You can buy almost anything there, providing you want a hundred of them!

Then we went to our cooking class. This one was different from the other two in that everyone had their own gas hob and ingredients laid our for them. Rich and I shared a double table. The chef showed us each dish, then we ate them as we cooked them. It was really nice! Unfortunately, I was too hot and thirsty to eat much.

The cooling at the cooking class was really clever, there was a sort of waterfall over the open window section, at high level along the whole wall. Fans brought in the cooler, wet outside air into the space. It was really nice. I was really hot all day and drank loads of soda and water, so I didn't eat much of the nice food we made, but the class was still really good.

We got presented with our certificates after the class. Apparently, the chef is a bit of a celebrity, with his own column in a local magazine.

After the cooking class, we went back to the hotel to freshen up and then the whole group met up to go out for a drink. We went to a bar above one of the nearby hotels (Caravel I think). The drinks were really expensive considering the location.

We sat in the open area facing the view over the city and had our drinks. I had a chocolate milkshake for me and the bean. Rich had a nice local beer and we all had a great time. After we got back to the hotel, we went to the hotel pool café and an ice cream with Alistair. It was a nice end to a wonderful tour!
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