Saturday, January 30, 2016

Encounters with the "Highland People" of Vietnam

Greetings All,
Upon arriving in Hanoi we said goodbye to our guide Ngoc and met our new guide Zang for the cycling trip from Sapa in northern Vietnam to Laos.  We were also joined by two other cyclists, Richard from the US and Vincent from Australia.  I hope I can keep up with the guys on our next cycling adventure.  The next day Zang took us to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.  It's a massive structure but very plain, modeled after Lenin's tomb in Moscow.  CNN International ranked it as "the 6th ugliest building in the world" in 2012.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Being Monday, the tomb was closed so we couldn't see Ho Chi Minh's body.  He has been put on display just like Lenin in Moscow even though he wanted to be cremated.  We walked past the mustard-yellow presidential palace built by the French between 1900 and 1906.  Ho Chi Minh didn't want to live here, it was too lavish, so he lived in a much smaller house originally built to house French officers living in Hanoi.  Ho Chi Minh was a well-traveled man having lived and studied abroad for 30 years.  He learned about communism while in the USSR and brought it back to Vietnam.  After defeating the French in 1954 he became president of North Vietnam.  He never married and had no children.  We also visited the last house he lived in.  It was built on stilts just like the ones he lived in when he was in the jungle fighting with his men.  

We walked back to the van and drove to a Buddhist temple.  The Trấn Quốc Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in the city, originally constructed in the sixth century during the reign of Emperor Lý Nam Đế.  On the grounds of Tran Quoc is a Bodhi tree taken as a cutting from the original tree in India under which the Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment.  

Trấn Quốc Pagoda

Our last stop was the The Temple of Literature, a temple dedicated to Confucius and his sages and scholars.  The temple was built in 1070 at the time of King Lý Thánh Tông.  There are stone tablets mounted on stone turtles that contained the names of students written in Chinese characters that passed the exams.  At the back of the complex was a temple containing a statue of Confucius and his sages.  

Statue of Confucius

That night we took the sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai.  Once again we upgraded to a private compartment and were able to get some sleep.

Our Compartment on the Sleeper Train

We arrived in Lao Cai early the next morning and were met by our van and driver for the transfer to Sapa.  Soon we were on our bikes to tour some of the villages in this area.  The terrain is much more hilly in this part of Vietnam.  With all this climbing I really have my work cut out for me.  We passed through a village where a Black Hmong woman sat behind in old sewing machine.  She gave me a broad smile when I stopped to take her picture.

Black Hmong Woman

We also visited the home of another ethnic minority, the Red Dzao, in the village of Ta Van.  Inside the house an old woman sat next to a fire sewing with a small child behind.  People eek out a living growing rice and other vegetables and raising livestock.  This puts a lot of pressure on the surrounding forest which is cleared for farming and firewood.


Red Dzao Woman and Child

After spending one more day in Sapa cycling around the local villages we headed out on our bikes to climb over the Tram Ton Pass, at 2000 meters or 6562 feet, it is the highest road pass in Vietnam. We stopped briefly on top to snap a quick photo.

Peggy on the Tram Ton Pass

After lunch we had a second pass to cross.  Although not as high as the first, there were some steep sections to cycle up.  It was hot and the sweat was stinging my eyes.  I had to keep on stopping to wipe my face. 

Climbing a 10% Grade Section

It was a long ride into Lai Chau or so it seemed to me.  We had to climb up to the city where the van was waiting for us.  Just another mile to go...  We passed baby-blue high-rise administration buildings since this is the new capital of Lai Chau province.  Formerly known as Tam Duong, this isolated town was renamed Lai Chau when the decision was made to flood ‘old’ Lai Chau (now Muong Lay).  Finally after cycling 52 miles and 4500 feet of climbing we arrived at our hotel!

The next day was to be an easy day of cycling according to Zang but we ended up covering 56 miles and climbing 2400 feet to reach Muong Lay.   We started with a 9-mile descent.  There were some interesting hill tribe women along the way.  Zang, Vincent and Richard had stopped by a group of Black Hmong women selling mushrooms.  

Black Hmong Woman Selling Wild Mushrooms

One woman with a baby let me take her photo but when Vincent tried she covered the baby's face. 

Black Hmong Woman & Child

I took a photo of a woman and she was was not happy and threatened me with a sickle.  We continued down and passed a woman sitting in the road.  She was chanting over a bowl of rice and an egg.  We guessed she was making an offering and later Zang confirmed that she was making an offering to a ghost.  Could it be her child that was killed on this stretch of road?

Black Hmong Woman Making an Offering

After lunch it was another 19 miles on an undulating road to reach Muong Lay. We sat on the veranda at our hotel where the weather was pleasant.  It was hard to believe a cold front bringing snow to Sapa and rain here was on its way.

A big day of riding the next day...  As we set out it was raining lightly but not yet cold so we rode in shorts with rain jackets.  We crossed a bridge and started our 11-mile climb.  There was a billboard with a guy getting bit by a dog and having to go to the hospital for a shot - not the thing I wanted to see.  The climb was gradual,  mainly through forest and the occasional village.  It was a nice departure from the crowded roads we had been biking to this point.  We reached a plateau with a large village and actually had to descend before climbing again to the top.  There were Red Hmong women selling pineapples and ginger at the pass.

Red Hmong Women Selling Pineapples and Ginger

We descended to the town of Muong Cha for lunch.  On the way we passed a party with loud music, balloons and colorfully dressed Red Hmong women.  Zang told us it was a wedding celebration.  

Red Hmong Women

We had another 19 miles to go for our next break on mostly undulating road.  It rained off and on but we wanted to get in a metric century (100 km or 62 miles).  We had another pass to climb.  Fortunately it was only 2 and a half miles to the top.  We took a short break on top as there wasn't much to see.  Just another 8 miles to Dien Bien Phu.  It began to rain in earnest.  We were getting thoroughly soaked.  I was counting down the km instead of miles, they pass more quickly.  We had to ride through the crowded city streets to get to our hotel.  We made it, yippee!  Now to shower and clean all our wet cycling gear.  At least we have 2 nights here to let things dry out.  

Peggy at our Hotel in Dien Bien Phu

The Siberian cold front bringing unprecedented cold and snow to parts of Vietnam had finally reached us.  Today was a rest day so at least we didn't have to cycle in the rain.  Instead we went to the museum which had photos, life-like reenactments and artifacts from the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.  It was here the Vietnamese led by General Giap, who died only 3 years ago at the age of 102, defeated the French who vastly outgunned the Vietnamese.  On display was a bicycle used by the local people to haul 725 pounds of food and ordnance up the mountains to this site!


Bicycle Used to Haul Ordnance to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

After the museum visit we walked in the rain to the site of the main French bunker on a hill used during the 1954 battle.  This is where the French were defeated by the Viet Minh.  On top of the hill was a huge crater created when the Vietnamese dug a tunnel under the bunker and set off 1 ton of gun powder.  The explosion shocked the French out of the bunker thinking it was an earthquake and the Viet Minh took advantage, ending French colonial rule in Indochina.

Crater on Elaine 2 Hill

Our final stop was General Giap's bunker at Muong Phang, about 30 km outside of Dien Bien Phu.  It took us about an hour to drive there.  We were greeted by a young and friendly Black Thai woman.  She was bundled up against the cold but took off her hat so we could photograph her hair bun.

Black Thai Woman

We climbed up to the site where many bamboo huts stood.  One hut was General Giap's from which he conducted the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

General Giap's Hut

We walked across the street to the young Black Thai woman's house.  It was wooden and built on stilts.  She showed me how they wear their headscarves. 

Black Thai Headscarves

We went up to the second floor where an 100-year old woman sat by the fire. We were told she was the cook for General Giap, the man who led the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and who is still revered.  The Vietnamese defeated the French against enormous odds and became an independent country.  This woman has experienced a lot in her lifetime.  She has endured many years of war and hardships while living in very basic conditions without access to Western health care. 

General Giap's Cook

The young woman made us lunch.  She had grilled pork on skewers over the fire and removed the meat from the skewers.  A cat meowed loudly for it's share which it didn't get.  We looked at the portrait of General Giap in the living room before going downstairs where we had lunch.


Black Thai Woman Preparing Lunch

After spending 3 and a half weeks in Vietnam, we will cross the border into Laos tomorrow.  We have learned so much about a country that we were at war with a mere 43 years ago.  Today it seems hard to understand why we invaded a country who never did us no harm.  It's good to see all is forgiven and that the people of Vietnam have entered into a new phase of peace and prosperity.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Here is a map of our route:



Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Where the Dragon Descends into the Sea"

Greetings Everyone,
From Hoi An we rode our bikes to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of My Son.  My Son is a cluster of ancient Hindu temples built between the 4th and 14th centuries by the kings of Champa.  Sadly many were destroyed by bombs during the Vietnam War.   Fortunately some of the temples in the center of the complex have survived to this day.


My Son

We returned to Hoi An for one more night before resuming our journey north to Da Nang where we got on our bikes to climb the second "pass" of the trip, the Hai Van Pass.  At the bottom we rode past a long line of parked fuel trucks.  They weren't allowed to go through the tunnel that most vehicles use nowadays so we were hoping to get to the top before they did.  We climbed steadily on switchbacks with hazy views over the South China Sea.  Marc stopped to take photos but I peddled on not wanting to stop until I reached the top.

View of South China Sea from Hai Van Pass

As we were nearing the summit, the convoy of fuel trucks came chugging past belching out black clouds of diesel exhaust.  We arrived at the pass with a few Aussie tourists cheering us on.  It took us about an hour and 15 minutes to make the climb of 1700 feet.  On top were some old brick gates that once marked the division between the Champa and Dai Viet Kingdoms.

Gate on the top of Hai Van Pass

We cruised down the other side into northern Vietnam as the pass is also considered the boundary between the climates of northern and southern Vietnam.  The mountains shelter the city of Da Nang to the south from the "Chinese winds" that blow in from the northwest but now we could feel the colder temperature as we descended the northern slopes.  We biked along barrier islands with lots of cemeteries before getting back into the van for the drive to Hue.  

The following morning we cycled from our hotel to the Imperial City or Citadel as it is called.  It was the imperial capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945.  It was a huge complex surrounded by a moat and a wall.  It contained a main gate through which a reenactment of marching mandarins or bureaucrats took place. 

Mandarin Reenactment at the Imperial City

We visited an assembly hall that still contained the emperor's throne.  It was here the emperor would meet his guests.  There was a library, some temples and the emperor's mother's quarters that were still intact.  

Imperial City Main Gate

Many buildings were destroyed during the war.  Some buildings were being renovated or rebuilt.  After touring the Imperial City, we drove to the Thien Mu Pagoda, a 7-story historic temple and the highest religious structure in Vietnam.

Thien Mu Pagoda

After lunch we visited the Khai Dinh Mausoleum.  It was built for the Nguyễn Emperor Khải Dinh from 1920 to 1931 taking 11 years to complete.  It was built out of concrete and on several levels.  On the mid level were statues of bodyguards and horses.  

Khai Dinh Mausoleum

His tomb was lavishly decorated with glass and porcelain.  

Khai Dinh's Tomb

Next we visited the Minh Mang Mausoleum.  Minh Mạng was the second emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam, reigning from February 14, 1820 until his death, on January 20, 1841.  The actual tomb was at the end of a series of courtyards and temples in a hill.  The gate to his tomb is unlocked on the anniversary of his death.

Minh Mang Mausoleum

After dinner Truc drove us to the train station where we had to say goodbye.  He was a great driver and so willing to help us on the road.  I will miss him and our black Ford limousine van.  We'll get a new driver and van in Ninh Binh when we arrive there in the morning by overnight train.  We needed a dolly to haul our stuff to the train platform.  The train arrived at 9:10 and we rushed to board.  Fortunately not many people were boarding so we didn't have any problems.  We had upgraded to a private berth.  I couldn't imagine sharing this small space with 2 other people and all our bags. Hopefully I'll be able to get some sleep tonight.

Our Cozy Compartment


I slept reasonably well despite all the stops, Marc's 3 trips to the toilet and strangers popping their heads into our cabin despite Marc locking the door.  We arrived in Ninh Binh at 9:40 AM.  Our new driver, bikes and van were waiting for us.  We cycled on quiet roads past rice paddies and duck ponds.  Karst Limestone mountains rose out of the mist.  

Karst Limestone Mountains

We biked along a dam and the weather got worse.  Hung, our new driver, picked us up and we continued by van to Cuc Phuong National Park where we visited the Endangered Primate Rescue Center (EPRC).  It was established in 1993 and is a project of Frankfurt Zoological Society. The establishment of EPRC began with 2 individuals of Delacour's langur and Hatinh langur confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.  The Center currently houses about 160 individuals of 15 species and sub-species in which 6 species are kept nowhere else in captivity.  These include Delacour’s langur (Trachypithecus delacouri), Hatinh (Trachypithecus laotum hatinhensis), Black langur (Trachypithecus laotum ebenus), Lao langur (Trachypithecus laotum laotum), Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus), and Grey-shanked Douc langur (Pygathrix cinerea).  

Red-shanked Douc Langurs

Gray-shanked Douc Langur

Initially the monkeys are kept in cages while they are being rehabilitated and later are kept in a 2-hectare enclosure with the intent to release them to the wild.  We walked gingerly along slippery brick paths to admire these amazing monkeys.  I had no idea that Vietnam had so many primate species and that unfortunately many are critically endangered.  We passed by the 2-hectare enclosure where animals are released with the hope that they may be able to go back into the wild.  A female White-cheeked Gibbon checked us out from a nearby tree.

Female White-cheeked Gibbon

After dinner we arranged a visit to Save Vietnam's Wildlife to see the small carnivores and pangolins.  Mr. Tran Quang Phuong, the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program (CPCP) Program Manager, took us on a tour of the facility.  He showed us the Owston's civets which are usually off limits to visitors during the breeding season.  We also got to see Chinese and  Sunda Pangolins.  They were still sleeping in their nest boxes but we got a glimpse when they poked their heads out of the hay.  There were also Leopard cats, binturong, common Palm civet and masked palm civet.  

Leopard  Cat

Masked Palm Civet

Mr. Phuong didn't do the feeding so we had to wait for another local man named Hung to show up.  He was with a young female volunteer from Australia.  The pangolins were fed a mixture of ground ants and silk worms in plastic bowls.  We followed Hung as he placed the bowls into the pangolins' enclosures but none were coming out.   It was too cold and rainy.  Finally one of the Sunda Pangolins came out to eat.  What a treat to see this critically endangered mammal!  He (or she) used his long sticky tongue to lick up the food.  He kept scraping his face with his claws.  I wondered if this was an innate reaction to eating stinging ants in the wild.  Mr. Phuong later told us it was caused by eating the frozen food.


Sunda Pangolin

The next day we drove to Haiphong, northern Vietnam's most important seaport, where we spent the night.  The following morning we took a speed boat to Cat Ba Island, the largest of the 366 islands that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago, which makes up the southeastern edge of Ha Long Bay in Northern Vietnam.   I was keen to see a Cat Ba langur in the wild after learning about them at the EPRC and we rented a boat to search the southern tip of the island where they have been spotted. 


Cat Ba Archipelago

I knew it was a long shot as there are only 50-60 left in the wild but we had to give it a try.  Cat Ba Langurs were once hunted extensively to supply the traditional medicine industry.  They were used to make a "monkey balm" believed to help with erectile dysfunction (buy Viagra instead!) and other health issues.  Between 1970 and 1986, an estimated 500 to 800 langurs were killed.  When we tried to enter the restricted reserve we were turned back.  It was good to see some of the conservation efforts put in place were being enforced.  We didn't see a wild Cat Ba Langur but a photo that Marc took at the EPRC will show you how beautiful this primate is!

Cat Ba Langur

The next day we drove to the northern end of Cat Ba Island where we caught a boat to Halong City.  From the harbor in Halong City we boarded a traditional Chinese junk for a 1-night cruise on Halong Bay.

Our Cruise Boat, the Victory Star

Unfortunately, the weather was still not cooperating and the karst limestone islands that Halong Bay is famous for were hidden in the dense fog.  That afternoon we visited a floating fishing village in the Bay where pearls are also cultured.

Fishing Village in Ha Long Bay

The following morning we awoke to clearing skies, yippee!  The sun was actually poking through the clouds.  


Sunrise Over Ha Long Bay

There are 1969 islands in the Bay.  Ha Long Bay literally means “where the dragon descends into the sea".  One Legend has it that a dragon created the islands when he plunged into the sea whipping his tail around to cut out the islands.  I like this theory better than the one put forth by science that this type of limestone is ideal for the formation of karst or landforms shaped when water dissolves layers of this soluble bedrock.  We visited one of the many limestone caves in Ha Long Bay before heading back to the harbor.


Limestone Cave in Halong Bay

Ngoc,our guide, and Hung, our driver, picked us up in the van for the 3-hour drive to Hanoi.  Although we didn't cycle as much as planned due to the traffic and rainy weather we still managed to log 270 miles.  More importantly, we got to see many interesting sites along the way, learn about Vietnam's culture and history and meet many friendly people so willing to help and make our visit to Vietnam enjoyable!  Stay tuned for the next leg of our journey, a cycling trip from Sapa in northern Vietnam to Laos. 
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Here is a map of our route:


Monday, January 18, 2016

Vietnam, Looking to the Future

Greetings All,
A new year brings a new adventure.  We left home on the morning of December 30 and landed in Ho Chi Minh City (also still called Saigon) just in time to ring in the New Year.   We had a great view from the 11th floor of our hotel of a spectacular fireworks display over the Saigon River.  

Fireworks Over the Saigon River

The next day we set out on foot to explore the city.  We were surprised to find a vibrant city where Cartier and Communism coexist.

Cartier and Communism

This was not always the case.  From 1955 to 1975 Vietnam was embroiled in a bitter civil war between the communists in the north and the anti-communists in the south.  The US entered the conflict in 1963 supporting the South to fight the global spread of communism.  Curious to learn more about this war that took place when I was a child we went in search of the War Remnants Museum.  Outside the museum were US Army tanks, a helicopter and an Air Force jet.  Inside were many graphic photos that I will spare you the details.  It was quite disturbing and I had to fight back the tears.  On a brighter note as we walked back to our hotel we found a city fully-healed with upscale shops, gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels.  We walked through the beautiful gardens in the square of Ho Chi Minh City Hall where tourists and locals alike strolled in the warm sunshine.


Ho Chi Minh City Hall

The following day we drove for about 45 minutes to the outskirts of Saigon where we stopped to set up our bikes.  We set off on quieter roads toward the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels, now a popular tourist destination.  There were still plenty of motor bikes, mini vans, trucks and a few buses to contend with.  It will take me a few days to get used to riding in Vietnamese traffic. We continued to the Cu Chi Tunnels, about a 10-mile ride.  When we arrived the parking lot was jam-packed with tour buses.  You had to admire the ingenuity and tenaciousness of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietnam Cong who dug by hand a 120-km maize of tunnels in which they hid during combat. The tunnels also served as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for North Vietnamese fighters.  They beat the South despite all of the American B-52's, tanks, Agent Orange, and well-trained troops who had never seen anything like "tunnel warfare".  We continued our tour where we saw tiny trap doors used to enter and exit the tunnels, booby traps with bamboo spears and finally some of the tunnels themselves.  They were narrow but were actually made larger for Western tourists.  We foolishly brought our packs down which scraped on the roof of the tunnel.  Marc stopped for me to take a photo and dropped his cell phone (behind his right foot on the left).  

Marc in a Cu Chi Tunnel
He didn't notice until we had exited the tunnel and in a panic had to return to find it.  A big group had just arrived and he needed to get back into the tunnel before they did.  Fortunately, he found it, whew!

The next day we took a 30-minute flight to the city of Dalat.   We biked through the city having to negotiate a few roundabouts.  It was more traffic than I was expecting but as we rode out of town the traffic thinned out and I started to relax.  We climbed a small hill next to a cemetery for a view of the city.  We continued around the city passing greenhouses growing flowers and vegetables.  Agriculture is the big business here.

View of Dalat

We had a big day of cycling today.  We had to cross the Hon Giao Pass at 2062 meters or 6765 feet.  Fortunately, the grade was not too steep and we were able to cycle to the top.  The summit was shrouded in mist so there were no views.  We donned our windbreakers for the long descent.  Traffic was still light but we had to keep an eye out for the big red buses that took up the whole road.  We passed cascading waterfalls and forest-clad hills before reaching agricultural fields below.


Peggy Next to a Waterfall

The traffic picked up again and after cycling 60 miles and climbing over 4000 feet, we piled back into the van and drove the rest of the way to the coastal resort city of Nha Trang.

View of Nha Trang from our Hotel Room

We had a layover day in Nha Trang so we explored the bay stopping at a fishing village where a woman in a round boat called a coracle came out to ferry us to shore.   It was a bit tippy but a unique design made from tightly woven bamboo.  

Local Woman in a Coracle

Later in the afternoon we visited the ancient Cham temple of Po Nagar founded sometime before 871 AD.

Dancers Preform at Po Nagar

The next day we resumed cycling along the coast.  We passed fishing villages where women squatted on the sidewalk to weigh their catch and prepare it for market.  Everything from fish to octopus to sea urchins were for sale.


The Day's Catch

In the afternoon we climbed high over the South China Sea, past a lighthouse where we stopped at a viewpoint.  

Admiring the View of the South China Sea

We covered 37 miles today before climbing back into the van for the short drive to Tuy Hoa.  Our hotel room overlooked a wetland and in the evening hundreds of egrets flew in to roost in the trees.


Roosting Egrets

We awoke to our first rain of the trip.  We opted to ride in the van about 14 miles out of town when it stopped raining so we were able to cycle.  We covered 31 miles today riding through towns and past people working in the rice paddies.  Rice is still planted by hand.  In the south seeds are scattered onto the field and once they start growing are thinned with a type of hoe.


Working in the Rice Paddies

We ended in the coastal city of Quinhon.  The rain continued over the next few days but we managed to get in some cycling between showers.  On January 9, we visited the My Lai Memorial Site.   We were the first to arrive and had the whole place to ourselves.  We were ushered into a meeting room to watch a 30-minute video about the massacre that took place here on March 16, 1968.  On that dark day in US history, US soldiers killed 504 unarmed men, women and children in this peaceful village.  The rationale remains clouded but they thought they were engaging Viet Cong that were part of the Tet Offensive.  When they met unarmed civilians who did not resist, they killed them anyway.  We went upstairs to the museum where there were lots of graphic photos, war relics and a wall containing the names and ages of all 504 victims. 

Victims of the My Lai Massacre


Afterwards we walked around the site where only the foundations of the villagers' homes remained.  


Foundation of a Home Destroyed in the My Lai Massacre

One home had been reconstructed (in back of photo above).  As we were leaving I broke into tears and apologized to the two sweet young women working in the museum.  I told them I was sorry that Americans did this.  They replied "it's in the past, we have forgiven and moved on."  "We look to the future and today the Vietnamese people are living in peace."  If only people around the world could live by these words.  If only our politicians remembered these past mistakes and vowed never to repeat them.  Yet to this day we are so eager to go to war and meddle in the affairs of other countries and to what end??

It was still raining so we rode in the van to a small town where we stopped to walk through the market.  The cheerful look on the women's faces brightened the mood.


Care for Some Eels?

We ended the day in the colorful city of Hoi An, a well preserved trading port dating from the 15th to 19th centuries.  Today it attracts tourists from all over the world with its many shops, restaurants, and historic sites.  One of the most famous sites is a covered bridge built by the Japanese in the 1590's to link them with the Chinese quarters.

Japanese Covered Bridge

At night the city comes alive with brightly colored lanterns strung overhead.  Street vendors were selling candles set in cartons for the tourists float on the Thu Bon River.


Lanterns in Hoi An Ancient City

We've seen so many interesting sites and learned much about Vietnam's culture and history during our first 10 days in the country.  We're sure to see and learn a lot more as we head north toward Hanoi.  Stay tuned.
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Here is a map showing our route from Saigon to Hoi An: