And So We Come To The End

Well, actually, the trip came to an end a couple of days ago.  I planned on writing this final post while I was relaxing in the Incheon (Seoul) business class lounge with its many available computers to use.  But my wildly exciting trip into Seoul proper during my 11-hour layover (the things I will do to fly int’l business class for free apparently include traveling 42 hours through 5 airports with long layovers) sapped all of my remaining strength (which was okay since my plan was to pretty much just sleep on the flight from Korea to SFO – again, the things I do for free biz class…).

The last time I was in Vietnam, I saw little evidence of the war as I was only in the north.  My three most war-related memories are 1) the craters from the Tet Offensive shelling in the 11′ thick Hue city walls 2) the old pilings from destroyed bridges we invariably saw next to every bridge we drove on and 3) realizing that everyone I saw over 21 had lived through a war in their own country.

This time was different.  Not only did we go to Saigon and spend a very disturbing hour or so in the War Remembrance Museum, but there is also now a museum in Hanoi in the old Hanoi Hilton.  The latter was actually built by the French in the 1800′s.  Not to be offensive, but the prison left me feeling like French prison-builders in the 1800′s were sadistic pigs.  ‘Nuf said.

The War Remembrance museum, on the other hand, was an incredibly disturbing implication of American foreign policy and war in general.  I actually had to duck into the ladies room at one point to cry.  The depiction of the senseless destruction of civilian live was that awful.  Our museum visit was especially poignant as we had just spent a week walking through tiny, remote villages and rice fields that looked like the ones in the photos.  And we had been eating with, shopping with, walking with and driving with (not to mention trying not to be hit by the scooters of) people who looked just like those in the photographs.  I wonder if the impact of the museum would be less if you had just arrived in Vietnam and itwas one of the first things you visited instead of one of the last.

To move off the maudlin, one of the reasons we spent a whole lot of time actually in rice fields was because my traveling companion, Matthew, is a passionate photographer.  So we traipsed through a whole lot of them.  And met a whole lot of farmers who were very excited to see us.  Our visit to one in Hoi An was especially fun as we pedaled to the fields outside of town on loaner bikes from our hotel.  We spent the whole day zipping about, helmet-less, with the crazy motorbike-driving Vietnamese.  It was so nice to mix it up and spend an entire day getting around entirely on our own power.  We even rode the ~5K or so to the beach.  While the riptides and weather (warm but not that warm) made sunbathing and swimming unappealing, we did have one of many many many tasty Vietnamese meals at a little restaurant before pedaling back.

All-in-all a great trip!  We finished up with a quick day in the Mekong Delta, which was super-cool.  Although I couldn’t help but think about all of the crazy tropical Asian snakes I’d seen at the Bangkok snake farm with the Baskins on Day 1.  Fortunately, no snake sightings in the wild :)

Fifteen years later…

I’ve always considered Vietnam to be the first real 3rd world Asian country I visited.  While I went to Thailand first and on the same trip, at the time Vietnam was much much less developed.  Not only were there no ATMs, no one accepted credit cards much less traveler’s checks, and my then boyfriend and I had to bring in all the money we planned on spending in crisp US bills.  Needless to say, I knew it would have changed a whole lot since 1996, but I also know that I’ve changed a lot since that very first Asian trip, and I have always wanted to come back.

Well, now I’m here and boy has it changed!  Bikes have been supplanted by motor scooters, there are tourists everywhere, no one asks the question that was on everyone’s lips on my last visit “Hello, where you from?” and not only does the internet exist, but the hotel I’m staying at here in Hoi An actually provides each *room* with its own laptop – nirvana.

On the other hand, some things are exactly the same as before.  I was still delighted by the water puppet performance we watched (I’m here with my friend Matthew) and I didn’t even have to fight off sleep due to jet lag this time (although now the audience is full of Caucasians – 15 years ago it was mostly Vietnamese and I was so afraid I was going to offend them by falling asleep).  There are still women wearing conical hats all over the place, and they are both young and old, rice paddies are still shoehorned in everyplace there isn’t a new building going up and Hanoi’s old city is still crowded with Vietnamese shopping for every manner of thing (we  saw hardware street, Tet decoration street (the upcoming Vietnamese New Year is only a few weeks away), winter coat street, etc).

While the weather has not been as good as last time, I will blame it on global warming.  Northern Vietnam was actually quite chilly (50′s) and rainy (ugh – and especially ugh since it’s dry season).  But we have made the best of things and have not let the weather stop us.  I am now the proud owner of a very purple rain jacket and Matthew owns a fine Vietnamese fisherman coat that makes him look like Al Pacino when he also wears his watchman’s cap.

The chill also meant that I spent a very fun time sitting with a family in a random market village around their fire eating some sort of steamed root.  Our guide swore it was safe for me to eat and so far, 36 hours later, I still feel fine.

Speaking of eating, which I have been doing a whole lot of, I was also eager to come back to Vietnam to eat all of the foods I have come to love like Pho and fresh spring rolls.  Last time my guidebooks had put the fear of God in me when it came to eating uncooked greens, and I just would not do it.  This time, between my trusty pepto trick and the very real likelihood that I have already suffered through most Asian tummy ailments and am therefore immune, I have been eating with impunity.  Fresh herbs in my pho?  Let me at it!  Lettuce in my cao lao?  Come to mama!  While I hope I am not jinxing myself, so far (12 days in) so good.

We also dinner at our guide, Tuong’s house last night, outside of Ninh Binh.  His wife and mother (who was in the North Vietnamese army and helped clear roads to enable the lorries to get through) prepared an amazing hot pot for us.  It was so great to be able to eat everything they dropped into the boiling broth.  Well, almost everything – I managed to avoid the cock’s comb and beak.

It’s been a great trip so far and now we’re in Hoi An, a picturesque village that has virtually exploded in the last 15 years.  Most of the road between the airport and town used to be rice fields.  Now it is giant resorts along the ocean with casinos and almost no rice fields – crazy.

Okay, lots to do tomorrow so it’s time for bed.  Now if I can only figure out how to get this up on Facebook since FB is blocked by the Vietnamese gov’t…

Breasts Vertical Like A Lotus

One of the ten wishes a famous Laotian Queen once made.  Susie B and I were duly impressed!

But I am getting ahead of myself since Susie’s husband Steve has not yet blogged about our sightseeing in Luang Prabang today.  Suffice to say that it involved breasts vertical like a lotus, one duck made out of recycled plastic bags and a lot of tasty helpings of dried riverweed (Matthew is trying to figure out how to import it – I’ll help with the marketing).

So you can read all about our travels to Laos yesterday in his blog post here:  http://www.campchampions.com/blog/leaving-for-laos/

Blame it on the Baskins

Since I am currently traveling with people who feel compelled to blog about our trip every day, I am going to turn this portion of the blogging over to them.  I am especially proud to have been featured in their post yesterday about our visit to, yes, a snake farm.  For those of you who know me well, you know I have a VERY strong aversion  to snakes.  So how in the hell did I wind up with a 10 foot python wrapped around me at a Thai snake farm show?  I blame it on the Baskins!  Read on:  http://www.campchampions.com/blog/2933/

Egypt, safe & secure

A number of people asked me about security in Egypt before I left.  It turns out, the Egyptians take the security of their tourists, who account for something like 60% of their economy, pretty seriously.   This is especially true in the wake of the massacre at Hatshepsut’s Temple in ’97 (and, yes, we did go to that temple a couple of days ago).

For example, there are metal detectors everywhere.  Some of the fancier ones on the cruise ships even are designed so that the sides look like pillars.  But most of the time you either A) walk through it, beep, and keep going or B) walk around it and keep going.

The airport is another great example.  Much to my chagrin, after landing in Aswan, I realize I had flown with my big honkin’ Swiss Army knife in my carry-on bag, but no one noticed.  And when we flew from Luxor back to Cairo last night, I put a full bottle of water in my carry on, just to give it a shot, and no one stopped me, despite the warnings to the contrary (just like in the US).

On the flip side, when we drove out into the countryside yesterday morning to go to the amazing Temple of Dendara.  We left at 6:30, had a gorgeous drive past fields of sugarcane, cabbages and bananas, and watched as the villages we passed came to life with people going to school, out to their fields, etc (despite the warning from the rather pompous British couple we met who called everything on the road between Luxor and Dendara, to quote: “Squalid and boring”).  We were very happy to be the first tourists to arrive, and we had the entire complex entirely to ourselves for a good 15 minutes (which is really saying something this time of year in Egypt as there are so many amazing things to see here, most of which are about 3000 years old, and lots and lots and lots of people come to see them (that would be that 60% of Egypt’s economy again).  But Dendara was beautiful and peaceful.

Okay, so back to the flip side of security here: At every major road crossing in the countryside, there are barriers so that only traffic from one side can go through at a time.  And up above the intersections there are watchtowers with big old guns sticking out of them.  Just in case a donkey cart full of chickens decides to create a ruckus or something I guess.

Flip side number two: There are soldiers and armed guards at every tourist site.

Final flip side, number three:  Mary has purchased, among other things, three small lamps, maybe 7″ tall, completely covered in these really cool handblown glass marbles.  They’re rounded and slightly tapered at the top, and  each one weighs a good 4 lbs.   She dragged all three in her carrry-on luggage last night.  Unfortunately for her, they apparently look a whole lot like hand grenades on the X-ray screen!  She’s now thinking about buying a big clear bag for her 3 legs back to the states, as she’ll be coming from Jordan and going through Germany, probably not the best itinerary when it looks like you’re toting hand grenades!

It’s hard to believe today was our last day in Egypt.  We have seen the most amazing things.  Every day seems to have had at least one strong contender for the Trip’s Top Ten List.  Yesterday’s was probably going down into the crypt under the Temple of Dendara.  Fortunately the helpful guard was unsuccessful in his relatively feeble efforts to cop a feel with either me or Mary (Matthew had gone down on his own a little earlier and was not there to “protect” us as he has in other instances.

During our cruise up the Nile (with, sadly, no belly dancing lessons) we stopped at a number of riverside temples along the way, and then, while based in Luxor, we not only saw more amazing temples (I swear I see hyeroglyphics (?) on the insides of my eyelids now when I close my eyes) but we also went down into some of the tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens.

We also did an amazing midday hike up over the mountains between the two valleys.  I am happy to report that despite the blazing heat, none of us got sunburned.  However I do now have a very interesting “female tourist in Muslim country” tan, which means that my hands have a lot of color, as does my face, but that’s about it.

Tomorrow morning’s wake up call is at 5:30 (UGH) and then we leave Egypt for Jordan.  It’ll be time to put away the Tevas, as Jordan is much cooler than Egypt (although still a heck of lot warmer than Chicago this time of year).   Apparently it is not uncommon for it to snow in Amman, and Petra has even been known to get  dusting.  We are hoping we do not get to see this phenomenon firsthand.

I’m hoping to write one more missive  from Jordan, and will try to put together the Susie-Mary-Matthew Top Ten List to post as well.

Salaam Alekum

Happy New Year from Aswan, Egypt!  Mary, Matthew and I rang in the New Year last night the traditional Egyptian way:  Belly dancing, tinfoil pyramid covered in shrimp and olives, and of course the strobe lit dance floor.  Until our “Compulsory New Year’s Gala”, the best quote of the day had been at the sun temple of Ramses the second at Abu Simbel:  “No wonder they named a condom after him”. 

As anticipated, the 2 hours we spent at the temple were worth every minute of the 6-hour round-trip drive through the Sahara.  We traveled in a very loose convoy through the desert, and, as the middle vehicle, we had the privlidge (sp?) of conveying one of the 3 armed military guards in our mini van. 

The temple of Ramses and its much smaller companion temple in honor of Rameses’ wife, Nefertiti, was amazing.  The walls and pillars were covered in murals and hieroglyphics, including pictures of offerings and battles.  Definitely a highlight!

But it’s hard to pick highlights as every day seems to have  had something amazing.  Our first day, we saw the pyramids and the Sphinx.  We visited two pyramids that you could actually go down into.  Unfortunately, the first had had a power outage, so the lights lining the 65 meter shaft into the center of the pyramid were out.  All three of us descended (as did lots of other people) to the bottom of the warm, humid pit.  At the bottom, with zero light save for the light from people’s cell phones (my blackberry’s light was worthless), I chickened out and scurried up the long ramp.  Mary and Matthew reported that the central chamber was humid and smelled of bat guano. 

The second pyramid, the Great Pyramid, fortunately had its electricity working, and the three of us made it to the central room in the pyramid.

Today’s highlight was the fellucca ride (kind of an Egyptian pontoon boat) on the Nile.  It was on a boat owned by our Swedish travel agent (long story) and it was gorgeous and peaceful as we sailed up the Nile.  We lounged on cushions, drank tea, ate cake and took lots and lots and lots (Matthew) of photos.  In many places there were large swaths of bullrushes (no surprise if you think back to the Moses story) and there were hundreds of birds – lots of egrets, plovers, kingfishers, etc.  A great start to the new year!

And, speaking of New Year’s, the Ramses quote was ultimately supplanted by a strong contender from the dance floor last night.  A very pretty young blonde woman was dancing up a storm.  When I asked her where she had taken her belly dancing lessons, she said “In my country, this is how we dance.”  I asked her where she was from and she answered:  “America”.  I was, like, um, “Me too”.   To paraphrase, she basically replied “This is how we dance when we’re in our 20′s”.  OUCH!

We’re on our cruise ship now.  Our room is lovely and it’s time for dinner.  More in a few days!

And so it continues!

Once upon a time, a long time ago before anyone had ever heard of blogs, there were Susiegrams.  These were emails I sent to my friends from random destinations far, far away including Laos, Morocco, and Bolivia.

Now, in a nod to the new decade and modern technology, Susiegrams are evolving.  Old dog, new tricks, you know the drill.  From now on, I’ll be posting my Susiegrams here.  Feel free to subscribe via email so that they’ll come right into your inbox, just like the good old days before iPods and Twitter.

And if you’d like to read the old Susiegrams, you can CLICK HERE to see them.