Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

More from Hanoi

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Our first day in Hanoi, we tried the brekkie at our hotel which was pretty dismal, so off we went to Tamarind café for waffles again.  We didn’t get a good sleep because of the noise from the loud street right below our room, and we were still a bit exhausted from the marathon day before. I went back to the room to book some stuff and have a quick nap. Grant went to shoe street and bought Jess some new sandals and got us tickets for the water puppets that afternoon. The water puppets were cool – Jessica loved them, and was still talking about them weeks later. We did some more wandering about and ate a super late lunch. Jessica napped in the afternoon while we ate our lunch so she was wired for sound. We ate a LATE supper at the pub where we ran into Paul and Ally – another couple we’d met a week or so earlier on the Mekong tour. We hung out with them until the pub closed.

Or second day, we slept in late and thought we’d visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum – turns out it was only open until 11…ooops slept too late for that. Wend to Tamarind for waffles and ran into Paul and Ally again! Jessica was ecstatic because she loves Ally.  We didn’t feel like doing much so we wandered about doing some more shopping and saw Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ngoc Son Temple. Went for lunch at the Pho 24 – not too bad – still searching for sate soup like they have at Y2K though!! We tried out a spa recommended in the Lonely Planet. OH WOW! For about $24 US they do a 90 minute hot rock massage in an actual spa. The setting is lovely; the service is fantastic, and the massage exceptional. Well worth paying the few extra dollars, especially given the same thing would likely cost a few hundred dollars at home. It WAS a little more…intimate…than I’m used to, though! I sent Grant for one after dinner, and he was hooked. I think we each went for one every day while in Hanoi!

The wireless in our room turned out to be completely useless – which was annoying because it was one of the main reasons we chose the hotel. The noise from the street was awful as well – one evening there were a bunch of drunken backpackers singing Que Sera Sera under our window until all hours!

Our third day, we got up really early to get to Handspan in time for our Ha Long Bay tour. There was a power outage, but luckily Tamarind had a generator and could cook us brekkie. Had breakfast by candle light, and ran into a lady and her son that we’d met in Hoi An. Jess was happy to see her little friend again so didn’t eat any breakfast. Rainy, grey day and no power – not a very good start to the day. Busses were late leaving, but the ride out there was quite beautiful, despite the rainy weather.

Got on the boat tired and hungry – Jessica was being a pain in the butt. There wasn’t any proper railing on the top deck so I made the poor kid wear her life jacket the whole time she was up on deck.  We reminded the tour guide that we’d requested either chicken or beef for meals as neither of us eat that much in the way of fish, and we were paying about 4-5 times the average rate for a similar tour, and they’d asked us if we had any requests! The cook came back with either eggs or tofu as a solution, so we started off lunch with a very bad attitude. Turns out we didn’t have to worry as there was a good variety of food and it was all beautifully prepared. Even the seafood dishes were lovely. (And Grant actually ate fish!) Jessica was winding me up at lunch so Grant took her downstairs where they made her some toast, and everyone was happy and in a much better mood!

Ha Long Bay was – in a word – magical! The rainy weather just made it more atmospheric and mystical. The boat we booked was lovely; we had a beautiful cabin with a really big bed and a nice hot shower. The group on board was really small – nine passengers including us. Every meal we were served was course after course of wonderfully prepared and presented food – absolutely amazing sculptures made of melons, etc. WOW. The first afternoon we took a little boat trip into this secluded little bay – wish we could have kayaked, though. There we saw a monkey off in the distance, which is apparently very rare.

The people on board were good, and it was nice to have such a small group. As usual, Jessica was a star attraction, and was generally petted and loved by everyone, especially our young tour guide. Four of the people on board were French, and I should have tried to speak with them more – I was embarrassed about my accent, but should have made the effort anyway. I was actually amazed at how much of the conversation I could follow in French. The gentleman with them spoke very good English, so I was lazy and let him translate everything.

It was a bit exhausting constantly trying to keep Jessica from falling overboard, and now we’re not sure we want to do the three day cruise we have planned for Turkey. Especially since she still swims much like a rock!

After our short trip on the small boat, we climbed up 400-odd steps to a temple on top of a hill for an amazing view of the bay below us and all the Chinese junks sailing about. We had the option for a swim, but the amount of garbage floating around convinced me otherwise! After a leisurely and spectacular dinner, we hit the hay early and had a great sleep. We couldn’t believe how quiet it was out on the bay after the hectic hustle and bustle of Hanoi. It was a break we all needed from the noise and pollution.

In the morning we visited “surprising” cave. Not sure what the surprise was supposed to be, but it was a really cool cave. Then we went back to the dock to meet the bus. A bit of a wait for the bus because we’d arrived early, which was kind of annoying, but what can you do? Some confusion about which bus to get on, but got it sorted in the end. Grant sat in the back with Jessica and I sat up front so – hooray – Mommy had a lovely and quiet drive! Weather was still a bit grey and dismal, but it was a bit better on the way back so got a few snaps from the bus…none of which turned out. I’m still looking for that perfect rice field with the pointy hat woman shot….which, as it turns out, I will never get.

We got back to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, and headed straight to the Tamarind for waffles for Jess and a wireless fix for mommy. Then off to Bar 69 for dinner for Mommy and Daddy which was crap – so much for Lonely Planet recommendations! Picked up the bedding which we had ordered before our trip and it looks nice. Then I headed off for another fabulous massage – thankfully not quite as intimate this time. Relaxation lasted about half an hour until Jessica wound me straight up again. I’m definitely looking forward to the dives in Thailand to get some Mommy time. Spending this much time in such close quarters is starting to be a bit of a strain on family relations! That, and the constant traffic noise and aggravation of the bombardment of solicitations that you encounter in the space of a few moments on the street, is making us a little weary of Vietnam.

Saturday I let Grant and Jess sleep in and headed to the Tamarind to catch up on some bookings because they have fantastic wireless and – hey – why break tradition? Saw a rat during breakfast. It was hanging out under the bench seat of the table next to me. Now, you KNOW you’ve been in Asia too long when you’re favorite breakfast place is STILL your favorite breakfast place after you come face to face with a rat!!

After brekkie Grant headed off for another massage and I went to the post office to mail some stuff. I was the second person in line and it took me almost an hour and a half to get a parcel mailed off. What a nightmare! Thank God Jessica was being reasonably angelic – probably because she saw how wound up the post office was making me. I am quite certain that I will never see that box of stuff again…and if I do, the lovely lacquer vase inside that I spent ages searching for will be ruined. The guy boxing stuff up for me was pretty harsh when he packed it!  Ah well. Nothing I can do about it now!

 After the post office, Jessica and I headed back to the hotel because I was too late to meet Grant at the spa. Then we all went for lunch at Little Hanoi – very mediocre and not worth the extra $$ in my opinion. Grant took Jessica back to the hotel, while I went to the spa to see if I could get a massage but they were booked up. I headed back to the hotel, and saw a whole street of shops that I’d never seen before. Hey – cool! Off I go, and get hopelessly lost. Eventually I realize I’m never ever going to find my way out of there, and give a motorcycle driver a card from my wallet that has the address of our hotel on it. I had been reluctant to use the card because it didn’t look familiar and it was all in Vietnamese. I distinctly remembered the one for the hotel being in English as well. But it DID say Hong Ngoc on the card, so perhaps I managed to pick up the Vietnamese version as well?  I can’t just tell the driver the name of the hotel because there are three or four with the very same name in the same area! Well, I figure worst case scenario, I’ve at least BEEN to the place where I got the card, so it should look familiar, right? Anyway, I give the driver the card and he looks at me a bit strangely but quotes me a price and off we go.

He sets off and I realize how FAR I’d wandered off my intended path. Good job I got a ride because I’d have been lost for forever. The streets start to look familiar again, and I’m getting happier. Then he flies past the turn off to my hotel and heads in the other direction. Oops. He stops in front of a row of shops and points. Dammit! The watch shop has THE SAME NAME as my hotel. Now I’m blocks from my hotel and have no card to give to a new driver. I laugh and pay the man and tear the card to shreds on my hike back to the hotel. At least I know where I am now. I turn up at the hotel and Grant asks: “how was the massage?” I’d been lost almost long enough to have had a 90 minute massage! Instead of arriving all relaxed, though, I showed up hot and sticky and grouchy!

I had a shower and woke Jess from her nap and we headed out to the Kangaroo café for dinner – Grant had had lunch there and had quite enjoyed it.  The ambience was a bit annoying with detailed instructions on how to have a holiday in Vietnam in the front of the menu, but they had peanut butter for Jessica and decent meals for us for a reasonable price. We had dinner with the family we’d met before in Hoi An. It’s funny how we keep running into the same people! Then I went for my massage, which wasn’t quite as nice as I’d had before, but still lovely.

Up early the next day and off to (where else?) the Tamarind. I saw “my” rat again and this time the cheeky little thing was running right under my feet while I sat there! Grant met me there later with a grumpy Jess who had been up too late the night before. But, we had to get moving early if we wanted to get to the mausoleum before it closed. We got a “real” cab with a decent meter but when it came time to get change Grant couldn’t get the guy to give him any and he had to get out of the car because traffic was moving.

The line for the mausoleum was appalling – hours long, by the look of it – so we wandered about aimlessly and ended up in the Ho Chi Minh museum. It was somewhat boring and chock full of people grabbing at Jessica. The whole family was annoyed and grumpy by this point. Grabbed a cyclo – one for all of us – back to the hotel and the guy quoted us 100,000 dong (about $6 USD) which I thought wasn’t too bad to pedal the three of us across town, but Grant was certain we were getting ripped off again because the taxi was only 30,000 (50,000 when you don’t get your change though!) So I agreed to deal with the guy when we arrived and true to form, he tried to charge me double what he’d quoted and then argued with me about how tired he was from pedaling. Too bad, I only gave him the 100,000 I had agreed upon. We are getting REALLY tired of the constant scams with the transportation in Hanoi.

Our final day in Hanoi, we were all tired of shopping and tired of temples, so we decided to book a marathon spa session each. Grant went for a facial and a massage package while Jess and I walked around the lake and then took a cyclo around to see the Opera House and some other local sights. (Yes, the guy tried to change the price afterwards and then called me cheap when I wouldn’t pay more than we’d originally agreed upon) I booked a Shiatsu massage followed by a hot rock massage thinking WOW will I be relaxed when I get out! Not so much. The first massage was nice but with the second one, the lady had no idea what a relaxation massage was about and ended up burning me badly with the hot rocks several times. I was anything but relaxed when I got out of there, and it cost me a small fortune. Bummer.

We were all really glad to get out of Hanoi; the noise, pollution, and constant scams and people trying to rip us off got a little wearing after a while. Plus we started off on the wrong foot big time with our bad hotel and train experience. A nicer, quiet hotel would have made the difference, I think! While we truly loved Vietnam, we spent too long in Hanoi. In hindsight, we should have spent longer in Ha Long Bay and maybe took a trip up to Sapa, but I’d felt it was rushing things a bit, and after our train ride from hell the prospect of two more overnight trips on the train wasn’t terribly appealing!

Train Ride to Hanoi

Friday, April 20th, 2007

The train ride from Hue to Hanoi was an eye opener to say the very least. We boarded the train at around 5pm and we would arrive in Hanoi at 5:30am, so we were looking at a pretty long time on the train. But we’d booked a soft sleeper, and booked an extra bed so that we could have the full compartment to ourselves. We didn’t want to get stuck with some chain-smoking person for 12 hours! We had debated taking a flight which wouldn’t have been that much more expensive. But, we wanted to see some of the countryside and – hey – it’s the Reunification Express – we’ve GOTTA experience THIS!!

We were told to head out the gate to prepare to board the train. Of course, we’re in car #12, so we have to haul the luggage a mile down the track – or the equivalent of 12 train cars worth! No luggage carts and we also have an extra bag full of souvenirs that we’ve bought in Hoi An and haven’t mailed. It’s hot as hell and the track is crowded both with passengers and people trying to sell you things as you elbow your way through the crowd, hands full of bags; trying to keep an eye on your three year old as you make your way through the masses. Needless to say, we’re hot, sweaty and grouchy by the time we finally arrive at platform 12.  

Platform #12 isn’t under shelter, so we wait out in the heat for the train to arrive which is, of course, running behind schedule. When the train pulls up, we climb aboard, dragging our mountain of luggage through the narrow hallway while trying to verbally maneuver Jessica along in front of us. It’s like working with a broken remote control because she’s wandering everywhere but where she should be!

When we reach our compartment, I am completely disgusted and instantly dismayed. We are going to have to spend the next 12 or so hours in THIS? As a child, during a game of hide-and-seek, I once made the unfortunate choice of my friend’s older brother’s hockey bag as a hiding place. (I gave myself up within about ten seconds) NOT a smell I will ever forget – nor have I smelled its equivalent until I walked into this train compartment. The place was filthy. Not just run down shabby, but completely, unequivocally FILTHY. I honestly didn’t even want to set the BAGS down on the beds, let alone let my child sleep there for a night. The sheets were grey and stained in several places with God-knows what. There was garbage and seed shells someone had spit out all over the floor.  The mattress covers had come loose, revealing grey and brown sweat (and God-knows-what-else) stains underneath. Even the small table was dirty. The floor was dirty. The sheets….oh yucky icky yuck icky yuck – did I MENTION the sheets?? The SMELL is revolting, and gagging me. OH MY GOD!!!

I immediately haul out the phrasebook and point out the “this is dirty” phrase to the attendant. He does nothing. (damn, the phrase book doesn’t HAVE the words for what I want to say NOW) We chuck our bags up on the top bunks and haul out the silk sheets and sleeping bag I brought with us. (Yes, Grant THIS is why we’ve been lugging that extra stuff around!) We chuck the filthy smelly pillows and blankets under the beds and I make new pillows for us out of stuff sacks and clothes. Well, at least Jessica now has a clean-ish spot to sit down.

I make my way down to the next train car to see if there’s a clean room available. Well, isn’t that interesting? The next car has nothing but clean – if a bit shabby – compartments. No garbage, no smelly room, no dirty sheets. I will happily sleep here. The train is moving, so I’m assuming that any empty compartments are up for grabs. I run back and find our attendant. I show him the clean room and show him our room. I point to the “THIS IS DIRTY” phrase in the book. I wave my arms and using gestures, tell him we want to change rooms. He seems like he’s going to agree until the attendant from car #13 shows up. They have a conversation in Vietnamese and then basically tell me that I can’t switch because MY ticket says 12 and THIS is 13. Yes, I understand that, but MY compartment is filthy (much pointing at the phrase book) and I am a paying customer. Can you do something? No. I am FUMING by this point, and stomp back to our room.

They deliver dinner. It’s in sealed packages like on an airplane. It smells very bad and is making the smell in the room worse, which I hadn’t thought possible! We keep the bottled water and Grant takes the unopened trays down the hall to the bathroom to get the smelly food out of our way.

Jessica, of course, has to go to the washroom. The bathroom……wow. The whole room is dirty. Even the walls. All the ones I went in were dirty. Most had a hole in the floor and two places to put your feet on. Typical squat toilet you think, until you realize that, in actual fact, the hole empties directly onto the tracks below. Ugh. There is one bathroom with a western-style toilet. It is beyond filthy. The movement of the train makes the water (and whatever else) from the bowl slosh up over the seat. THIS is why I brought diapers on board. But Jessica wants to use the toilet. So, I take much toilet paper and some wipes and thoroughly wash the entire seat (she hasn’t quite mastered the hover maneuver all you ladies will be familiar with, and the movement of the train means if she tries the squat version we will end up with a very wet pair of shoes) MUCH hand sanitizer later, we’ve accomplished our mission and head back to the room.

En route to our compartment, I run into our attendant who is trying to tell me something. I think – hooray – he’s relented and he’s going to let us change rooms! Not so much. He drags me over to the closet where the clean linens and pillows are kept. All right! If we can get those mattresses properly covered I can probably deal with the smell. We have a conversation in made-up sign language where I try to get him to give me some sheets. He wants money for clean sheets. There are DEFINITELY no words in the phrase book for the words I need now. I’m pretty sure he got the gist, though, as I stomped back to our compartment – sans clean sheets…which, in hindsight, would probably only have cost me a few bucks.

Jessica, throughout all this, is having the time of her life. She loves the small space of the compartment and is climbing all over the place, giggling. She doesn’t care about the dirt and grime and the smell. I brought the usual assortment of toys and books and crayons and play-dough and she was happy. Grant retreated sulkily into the world of his iPod, so I was left to entertain Jessica. The one GOOD thing about all this was the scenery. Fantastic scenery, and if the room had been clean, it would have been quite a pleasant way to travel.

Luckily, I had been forewarned about both the food and the bathroom situation, so I’d come prepared with snacks and drinks for Jessica. Even though Grant had seen the DVD on Vietnam and actually seen what the trains looked like – somehow he still had some romantic vision in his head about a lovely, comfortable, dining car where he could go for a beer and some dinner. HAHAHA I TOLD him to bring some snacks to eat, and stuff to drink, but did he listen? Nope. So, after a dinner of Pringles and Ritz crackers spread with peanut butter, we retired for the evening. Grant was decidedly grouchy about the food situation, but I was starting to cheer up a bit and make the best of things. After all, we had another ten hours or so to go!

Jessica, of course, has immediately spilled her drink all over one of our clean sheets. This means that we’re sharing a bed. Well, probably a good idea anyway because she’s likely to fall off the bunk when the train pulls into one of the stations along the way. We read a few books and played with play-dough for a while and then went to bed. The compartment was FREEZING, and we couldn’t turn off the air-con, nor did I want to use one of the grimy blankets. I’d given Grant the only sleeping bag so he could go to sleep and stop annoying me, so Jess and I were left with a partially dry silk sheet to cover us. I dressed her in a fleece and we tried to sleep.

Sleeping was interesting. I was seriously paranoid about any part of my body (or, more importantly, Jessica’s) touching any part of the bare mattress beneath me. Had I been sleeping on my own, I would have gingerly placed myself in the very middle of my clean silk sheet and gone to sleep. But with Jessica sharing, it meant I had to sleep on top of the silk sheet – which is, of course, slippery – being silk and all! One wiggly three year old, a narrow bunk, a filthy mattress, and a slidy sheet that kept coming untucked. I spent the whole night rearranging the sheet trying to keep her on top of it and not on the mattress. When I wasn’t arranging the sheet, I was itching. Probably my imagination, but I was CONVINCED we’d catch some sort of body lice or fleas or SOMETHING from those filthy beds. All in all, a long and awful night. Jessica, of course, slept like a baby.

We finally rolled into Hanoi at 5:30am. The train is a bit late and nobody is there to meet us. Our hotel was supposed to have a driver there to pick us up, so, of course, I don’t have the address for the hotel handy. We walk the length of the station carrying a mountain of luggage and a sleepy Jessica. Not seeing our driver, we swiftly realize we are at the mercy of the local taxi drivers – and we have no idea which ones are legitimate. I have heard stories about people getting ripped off on the way to their hotel, or of taxi drivers refusing to take you to the hotel you have booked saying it’s full, etc. So, I’m fully prepared for the worst possible taxi experience. But, we have no choice. It’s dark, we’re tired, and there’s no other options.

We grab a taxi and the driver doesn’t speak any English and doesn’t know where our hotel is. We ask how much for a ride and he tells us the taxi is metered. Perfect. We’ve lucked into a legitimate cab, it seems. He has a conversation with another nearby driver who tries to help us out. Well, seeing as he doesn’t speak English or know where the hotel is either, we’re at a bit of a loss. We are starting to get mobbed by taxi drivers so we just jump in our cab, and tell the guy to start driving towards the Old Quarter. I haul out my laptop and look up the hotel phone number and the driver calls the hotel for directions. We then amuse ourselves by watching the taxi meter rack up the bill at lightning speed. It’s obviously fake, and we’re obviously about to get totally screwed by this driver. Ah well, I expected it based on conversations I’d had with other travelers. I could even guess what the bill would be when we got there. At this point, I don’t even care; I just want this nightmare journey to be OVER.

We arrive at the hotel and it’s completely shuttered with rolling metal doors. Uh-oh….THIS doesn’t look too promising. The taxi driver rings the bell and the guy who has been sleeping on the floor in front of the desk – one of them, anyway – wakes up and opens the door part way. We had thought we could drop off our bags and then head for breakfast. We never suspected they’d have a room ready at 6am, and fully expected to wait until noon-ish or so to check in. But this guy tells us that not only are our names nowhere on the books; he has no rooms available for that evening. He is about to send us packing when he notices how tired and pissed off we are and that we have much luggage and a small child and absolutely no idea where to go. He relents, and tells us to come in for a moment; he’ll see what he can do.

Meanwhile, the taxi driver points to the fake meter and asks us to pay a fare roughly three or four times what it should be. I know this and so does Grant. I don’t particularly care as I was fully expecting to get ripped off, and it’s about $3 worth, so WHATEVER. Grant, on the other hand, is completely incandescent with rage. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him that angry. He is arguing with the taxi driver about the fare, and I’m just worried that we have no place to stay at the moment. I thought he was going to end up punching the guy out, and he’s about twice the size of the driver. So, I figure I’ll just end the problem right now and get the taxi driver out of our sight. I tell Grant to JUST PAY the fare and let’s get this hotel situation sorted out. He pays, and I hear about how I let him screw us for the next two weeks. While I agree it’s a matter of principle (and can understand perfectly given my reluctance to pay for clean sheets on the train!!), at that very frustrating moment in time, I just didn’t care that some two-bit con artist managed to fleece us for a couple of dollars. Grant, on the other hand, just couldn’t let it go and the fact that almost every other driver we had in Hanoi tried similar tactics didn’t help matters any!!

We go into the lobby of our hotel. The Prince II for those of you who want to NEVER go there! The sleepy front desk guy phones a couple hotels to check availability and then sends us down the road to stay one night at a nearby place and then come back to his hotel for the remainder of our stay. Yeah – right. We have few choices at this point, though. So, I get directions to this new place which is a few blocks away and we head out with our luggage. On the way out, Grant smacks his head into the rolling metal door that he didn’t see because of his hat. He hits his head hard enough to see stars, and reels out the door into the street carrying about 50 kg of bags.

There are no taxis nearby and it’s pretty unlikely I can talk Grant into one anyway, so we start to walk down the street in search of this new hotel, which is supposed to be two blocks away on a street whose name we can’t pronounce. It is about 6:30am, and most places are still closed. We are tired, sweaty, and completely pissed off. Grant’s head is killing him and we have nowhere to go. We are worried about getting robbed for our luggage and we are tired of CARRYING our luggage. Each of us has a bag on our backs, and I’m carrying Jessica on my hip, my camera bag on my stomach, and another bag (full of goddamn souvenirs) in my hands. Grant has a heavy bag in each hand and one on his back. People keep coming up and repeatedly shoving things in our face and asking us to buy things, or begging for money. Grant is beyond angry and still seething about the taxi situation, and getting ready to smack the next person who asks him to buy something. I’m not far behind him on the rage-meter! Jessica, bless her, has been an absolute angel throughout this whole scenario. She was cheerful on the train, and absolutely no acting up or whining while we were trying to sort out the taxi or the hotel. Self-preservation, most likely, but MOST appreciated by Mommy and Daddy!

There are small boutique style hotels every ten meters or so, that are just opening up for the day. So, I stop at each one and ask for vacancy. No vacancy.  No vacancy. No vacancy. It doesn’t help that we’re in need of a family sized room in a town that specializes in closet-sized rooms! This guy is following us and trying to shove his hotel brochure into our face, saying stay at my hotel I have rooms! I have air-con! I have hot shower! Finally, after about my sixth or seventh “no vacancy” and realizing I really don’t know where the hotel we’re supposedly heading to is located in this rabbit warren of streets, I accept the tout’s offer of a free taxi to go check out his hotel. If we don’t like the room, we don’t have to stay, says he and the taxi is free either way. He calls us up a taxi and we gratefully drop our luggage into it and climb in.

We get there and I run up two flights of stairs to check out the room. The rate is $20 a night – which is about average for a budget hotel with air-con and hot water and a bathroom. They only have a double available but at this point we don’t care. The room is awful. Well, it’s a damn sight better than the train but that’s not saying much. It reeks of mildew, and the towels and bedspreads are limp and grungy. The furnishings are cheap and there is no in-room safe, just a rickety old wardrobe with a flimsy lock. Perfect, I say – we’ll take it!! I figure at least we have a place to shower and put our luggage until we find a new room. That is worth $20 easily!!

This is the point in our trip where Grant started smoking again.

Grant is as unimpressed with the room as I am and we vow not to sleep there that evening. Jess is happy there are cartoons on TV though and that keeps her busy while we try to sort out the room situation. There is free internet in the lobby, and we run into a nice Swedish guy that we met on the train! I send a blistering email to the manager of the Prince II telling him to sort out this room situation immediately. I mess around online for awhile trying to find a room and then call a few places in the guidebook, but those online saying they have vacancy actually don’t when we call them. So, I have a much needed hot shower (again, thankful I pack my own travel towels), give Jess a quick bath, and we lock our stuff in the flimsy cupboard and hit the pavement.

After looking at three or four available rooms, we find a triple room with three single beds that has a nice big in-room safe and looks clean and comfortable enough. Grant bargains with the lady at the desk for a bit cheaper rate of $40 a night because we’re staying for a week.  We leave our passports to secure the room, and head off in search of Handspan, the agency we’ve booked our Ha Long Bay tour with. Turns out they’re only a block away from the hotel and have a lovely café with waffles for breakfast. Oh – HAPPY JESSICA! We ended up eating there almost every day just so Jessica could have waffles or French toast.  

We wanted to check with Handspan to see if we needed our passports for the tour or if we could go apply for our Chinese visas. I hadn’t had a response from the email I’d sent them earlier so we went over to ask in person. We didn’t want a repeat of our previous overnight tour where we’d forgotten our passports! No, the lady says we don’t need the passports as long as we have the photocopies stamped by the Chinese embassy. Ok – so now we have to get to the embassy today instead of just handing stuff to the travel agent, because we need this official stamp. Sigh – gonna be a LONG day, isn’t it?  Grr. We go back to the grubby hotel where we’ve left our stuff because they have free printing and I need forms and stuff for the Embassy. Damn they have no Adobe so I can’t print a PDF file. So, we move our stuff to the new hotel to check in. The grungy hotel is unimpressed we’re checking out already, but at that point we just don’t care, we politely pay for one night and leave.

Check into the new place – which we liked primarily because of the big safe in the room – and there’s no safe. I go down to the front desk and she insists there’s a safe in the room. I go back upstairs and a guy shows up looking for the safe – he’s baffled there’s no safe. Great – so entire safes go missing. Fantastic. He grabs a safe from the next room and puts it in the bathroom. Even better – they’re PORTABLE! Jesus. Then he can’t open it. Obviously the batteries are dead. The front desk calls and says wait until 2pm and the manager will show us how to use our safe. I head out in search of someplace to print stuff so we can get to the Chinese Embassy before they close for the day.

I FINALLY find a place that can print three blocks away. Get the stuff printed, and head back to the room to fill out the forms. We need to get to the embassy that afternoon or we won’t have enough business days in Hanoi to get the visas. Grant calls the embassy to make sure they’re open and – as luck would have it – they only process visa apps until 11am, and it’s noon already. AARRGGHH. THEN we find out via email that the person at Handspan that told us we could use a stamped copy of the passports was wrong and we did need the originals. So, we abandoned all thoughts of getting our Chinese visas anytime soon. Truth be told, we were pretty thankful we could relax for the rest of the day instead of trying to deal with the headaches of a visa application.

Meanwhile, the manager of our original hotel Prince II gets back to me about our reservation saying they did send someone to meet us at the train and he didn’t see us there. Like we don’t stand out in a crowd of wee little Vietnamese people! AND he said we shouldn’t have expected to check in before noon – which we didn’t – we figured we could drop off bags until our room was ready. He said he had had a room available at 8am, which I’m sure was bull because the guy at the desk had never even heard of us before and had made it quite clear that there was no availability at all until the following evening. The manager offered us one night free and 10% off the room rate to come back to his hotel and I politely told him to PFO.

On the way back to the hotel I pick up some juice for jess and luck into some milk boxes that we can keep at room temperature – her preferred temp for milk. She will actually drink them hallelujah. Finally can get some calcium into this kid!

At 2pm (yep, it’s been a LONG LONG day already) the manager – or whoever – shows up to instruct us on how to use the safe in our new room. It’s not working because the batteries are dead – which was pretty obvious from the beginning. He goes and gets a safe from yet another room for us. This one, thankfully, works – but I vow to take my laptop with me on our overnight tour. At least the safe is heavy enough that it would be difficult to steal easily. Ten minutes after he leaves, two other guys come in and start poking around at one of the beds and arguing with each other in Vietnamese. They don’t speak English and we have no idea what they want. A call to the front desk says they are thinking of switching the bed in the room for another more comfortable one. Weird. We figure that a guest must have left something in the room and they are looking for it. Either way, we never got a different bed, so who knows what they were actually up to!

Thankful we didn’t have to rush off to the Chinese Embassy, and eternally grateful we were in a reasonably comfortable hotel, we headed out to do some shopping for the afternoon. We wandered around exploring the funky Old Quarter, and realized our hotel had two or three other properties that looked very similar and were all named the same…all within a few blocks of each other! This made things a little more difficult to navigate! We ate dinner at an adequate Indian restaurant, where, wonder of wonders, Jess tried some new food. She didn’t like it, of course, but I was impressed that she tried. We ran into an Aussie couple we’d met previously at a restaurant in Hoi An, and swapped Vietnamese travel stories.

I’ll sign off here – Jessica wants to watch a movie…..

Update from Hue

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

We’ll pick up the story in Hue.


Our driver Bill showed up right on time for our ride to Hue. We were quite happy to leave the Greenfield Hotel, but sad to be leaving Hoi An, where we’d enjoyed our stay immensely. We ended up taking the tunnel because the day was all foggy, which was kind of annoying because the whole reason I had booked a private car instead of taking the bus or train was so that we could see the spectacular views from the top of the old pass. Oh well, no point going hours out of the way just to see some fog! I wish we had taken the time to drive to the marble mountains the previous day, because even though we’d asked the driver to stop on the way there he just sort of pulled over to the side of the road for a long-distance view of them. But, the day being foggy and blah, I wasn’t too terribly interested in sight-seeing anyway. We did stop for a quick look at the infamous China Beach!


Of course, I didn’t remember to get the address of the hotel so our driver had to pull over and ask a friend of his. Luckily we found it right away. Let me tell you, the Orchid Hotel in Hue is an absolute gem! We only paid $36 for the three of us, and I can’t believe it’s listed as a hostel. We had a lovely, decent-sized, spotlessly clean, nicely decorated, comfortable room. The hotel was quiet, and the room had air-con, a free dvd player, an electronic safe, comfortable beds, fantastic shower, a bathtub, and a lovely balcony with a wonderful view. They even had FREE broadband access in the room, and VOIP installed so we could make super cheap calls back home from the comfort of our room! The service was spectacular and the only – minor – complaints we could have was the power outage that took out the air-con for most of a day, and the breakfast was only average. Other than that, we’d highly recommend this wonderful hotel to anyone!


The hotel recommended a GREAT massage place. It was only $4 for an hour long massage, and just under that for an hour long “foot” massage that ends up massaging everything but your bum and your face! I think we each got one every day while we were there. It wasn’t the loveliest of settings, given that the tables for the body massage were made by pushing all the foot stools from the foot massages together and throwing a chunk of foam and a towel on top, but it was reasonably clean, the massage was nice, and you can’t beat the price!


The food in Hue was pretty pathetic. The first night, we tried to go with a floating restaurant that was recommended on the Thorn Tree, but it was pretty crappy – and, once again, they never brought me any food. This time it was a language thing because when I said I’d have the same thing Grant was having….I meant bring me one too not I will eat half of his. So, we were both pretty tired and grumpy the first night. Jess didn’t eat anything at all and threw a big spaz just outside the restaurant. Couldn’t blame her, it was late, she was hungry and frustrated, and it’s almost exactly what I felt like doing! It’s getting frustrating having to eat at restaurants all the time. While we generally love Vietnamese food, we don’t necessarily want to eat it three meals a day for three weeks.


The second day, we trekked all over hell’s half acre looking for a grocery store. Grant hated the cyclo guys that hound you to take a ride so he refused to get on one…so we walked around in full mid day sun in 33 degree heat and 99.999999% humidity until I finally stopped politely suggesting we get a ride and demanded a taxi. NOW! The taxi guy tactfully told us off for having Jessica out in the heat. She was at that point passed out cold in my lap. Did a bit of shopping with a sweaty sleeping child slung over my shoulder– found some more peanut butter and yet another brand of children’s toothpaste to try out. (still no go with finding a toothpaste that our picky little bean will tolerate!) Back to the hotel for some well-deserved air-con and then out to Little Italy for lunch….where we had one of the most disgusting meals yet.


The third, and last, day in Hue we took a tour of the local area recommended by the hotel. We wanted to see some of the tombs and the Citadel, etc and the receptionist convinced us that we were better off not taking the boat tour with Jessica because of how long it took and all the walking we’d have to do in the heat.  We were pretty disappointed with what we ended up getting for our money! The driver spoke zero English so our “private tour guide” turned out to be nothing but a $30 taxi, and one that was hard to direct at that. I had hoped to stop along the way and take some pictures in the countryside. But he had no idea what I was talking about so I couldn’t be bothered with the sign language required. Truth be told, we didn’t even ask if we were to be provided with a guide or just a driver – live and learn. But, given that the taxi driver we had lucked into the previous day had been speaking very good English and pointing out sights left & right on the way to the grocery store, we had made the – very wrong – assumption that most drivers would speak some functional level of English – especially one that we’d hired for the express purpose of this tour.  Ooops. We’ve been too spoiled by the fact that English is so prevalent across Asia.


We went to two tombs, the pagoda, and the citadel. It was a long day of sightseeing, but the tombs were truly amazing, and Jessica liked poking around the old buildings and checking out the statues. We discovered some dog footprints that had been in the paving stones of a courtyard for centuries. Not much left of the citadel and the Forbidden City as the Americans bombed the hell out of it, and there wasn’t much to see and do there. We fed some fish, which was the highlight of Jessica’s day!  At about 4pm we called it a day and headed to a restaurant recommended by the hotel and actually had our very first decent meal in Hue. Of course, there was nothing on the menu that Jessica would eat, so we walked for 15 minutes down by the river until I found a vendor that had some bread available. Turns out I bought her dinner from her, but at that point I didn’t care, and – hey – she sold it to me! Neither of us spoke each other’s language, but we had a good laugh over the pickiness of small children anyway.


When we got back to the hotel, the place was lit by candles. The power had been out when we left, and remained out all day. Their generators were overheating and they’d decided to give them an hour break before firing them up again. So, we had a long hike up the stairs and then twenty minutes or so of candle light before the power was mercifully restored and we could turn the air-con back on! How fortunate that we’d been out all day and it hadn’t happened the day before when we spent most of the day hiding out in our air-conditioned room watching movies!


That evening I went for my last $4 massage in Hue. I’d been to this place two or three times now and kind of knew the drill. It’s a body massage with oil and you strip down to bra and panties, and they close the door for privacy. Then they proceed to pound the hell out of you and twist you into various forms of pretzel. No towel because they move you around too much. Only, this time I ended up with a guy. Ok – no big deal, I have a male therapist at home. But, then he starts in with the massage and it’s TOTALLY completely different from the others I’ve had. Nothing therapeutic about this at all – more like the kind of massage you give your new girlfriend when you’re trying to get a little better acquainted.  Eeep, maybe he thinks because I arrived so late in the evening I was interested in something additional in terms of service?  I spent the whole hour laying there COMPLETELY freaked out and uncomfortable, when in reality he didn’t do anything inappropriate whatsoever. My kingdom for a towel!!


We were really sad to leave the Orchid Hotel – it was so lovely and relaxing. But, we had an overnight train booked for Hanoi. We kept the room for an extra half a day so Jessica could relax and watch a movie and Mommy could have some more quality internet time to get some pics uploaded.


We took a cab to the train station and we were a bit confused about what to do and where to go, but a nice guy helped us poor lost white folks out so we found the right place to sit. He noticed our confusion, came over, grabbed our tickets and pointed to where we should wait. Not even sure he worked there! Just before we were ready to board the doorman from the Orchid ran in with my tripod that must have fallen out of my suitcase and behind a bed. The thing is probably worth at LEAST a month’s salary to him, and he goes above and beyond to bring it to me at the train station, and then left so fast I didn’t even have time to tip him. Again – HIGHLY recommend the Orchid!!


I’ll leave the story of our train ride for next time….

More from Vietnam

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

The first night in Hoi An was fairly uneventful. We had a terrible meal because I insisted we just stop at the first café we saw and we hadn’t had any time to look for recommendations. We’d forgotten to bring along bug spray or long pants for Jess, so I made Grant go back to the hotel to fetch them so we could stay out and explore the delightful town of Hoi An.

The main industry in Hoi An is tailoring. In this small town there is something like 200 tailors. In fact, our cab driver had stopped at his sister’s shop before taking us to our hotel so we could pick up her card. We’d already had a recommendation from some Canadians we’d met in Fiji, so we were looking for a particular tailor called Long Silk. Easier said than done! It took us ages to find the shop, and when we did, I wasn’t all that impressed. The ladies were certainly nice, and not pushy like some others, but there just wasn’t much on display as they’d sold most of their display goods recently. I wasn’t too sure what I really wanted and was uncertain about just choosing from a book. Somewhat disappointed, we headed out to cruise through some other shops. I wanted to pick a tailor that night so that we could order stuff the next morning, and I was getting equally excited and frustrated by the sheer volume of options!

We spotted a few likely options and took some business cards. On the way home we found a small children’s amusement park that was to become a regular stop en route to our hotel. It had this cute little carousel that was powered by a fan, a fishing game, a playground, etc. I’m not sure what time it actually closed, because it seemed to be open and full of little kids no matter how late we stopped by.

The following day we ended up back at Long Silk because I just couldn’t decide amongst the other tailors. So, having had one or two recommendations for Long Silk, we figured we might as well go there. I spent a long time pouring over the catalogs they had available, and finally ordered a TON of clothes! By mid-afternoon, our order looked something like this:


  • Four cashmere suits with pants & jacket; two with matching skirts and one vest
  • Four cotton long sleeve button down dress shirts
  • Three sleeveless Asian-style silk tops
  • One winter weight cashmere blazer/jacket
  • One traditional Vietnamese outfit (long silk shirt and pants)
  • One silk Chinese style full length dress
  • One pair of silk PJs


  • One cashmere suit
  • Two pairs casual cashmere trousers
  • Two corduroy jackets
  • Two cotton short sleeve button down shirts
  • One pair of silk PJs
  • One pair of Cargo pants
  • One cotton long sleeve button down shirt

I can’t remember the exact total for all of this – but it was something like $700 US. I know mine was under $500 for everything because that’s the approximate budget I’d set. We left with heads spinning and second guessed our way back to the hotel as we passed shop after shop with stuff we liked in it. We kept saying: “Oh, I wish I’d seen THAT jacket, or THOSE pants – why didn’t we go to THIS shop? They have more on display….”

We had a recommendation for Café 96 so we tried them for dinner. We ran into some fellow Canadians who had been robbed in Cambodia and they told us an amazing story about how they had to bribe the Cambodian police for a report to give to their insurance company. Remembering our own sadly uninsured and electronics-burdened state, we shuddered and instantly started worring about the guest house we booked in Phnom Penh! The food was excellent, but they never brought my meal. Jessica was sleeping on my lap by this point so we just left. The funny thing was that we fully planned to go back because the food we did receive was rather nice. In Canada, I’d have been so angry at not getting my food, I’d have never returned! We went back for lunch later in the week, sat down and ordered drinks. Then a lady came over from the only other table in there and warned us not to eat the food as what she’d just been served wasn’t fresh. Now what to do? We ended up leaving without getting food and BOY was the owner annoyed!

The next morning, I went out to try and get a massage. I walked down the street to a hair salon that had some tables set up in the back so I figured they did massage as well – most of them seemed to. So I asked the lady if she did massage and she didn’t speak much English. Another woman jumped off one of the tables where she was getting a facial and came over to help me. I assumed she worked there? She asked if I wanted a foot massage and pedicure and I mimed rubbing my arms and shoulders and said: “no, body massage.” She said OK $5. That sounded about right so I sat down where she motioned for me to wait and she jumped back onto one of the tables to resume her facial. Hmmmm.

I sat there for a few moments, until an older lady on the other table was finished and the first lady motioned for me to get up there. No mention of removing my shirt, and the curtain doesn’t look as though it will screen me from the road outside so I’m cool with that! The table is grubby and the lady before me has left a clump of hair on it. Ewww. I kind of flick it off, and the shop lady saw me looking and replaced the head towel for me, with a clean-ish one. I lay down and she hauls out some cream, pushes my sleeves up, and proceeds to rub my arms. Meanwhile, I’m looking around me and realizing how truly filthy this place is. The English speaking woman is still laying on the other table and keeps asking me if I’m ok. The lady rubs my arms for about five minutes and then my head and neck for about three minutes. Then she is finished! (I am secretly glad because my skin is crawling and I want out of there) I think I must have misunderstood the price, but nope, the English speaking lady insists I owe the shop $5. I pay and leave, vowing to be more careful in the future and I’m sure they laughed their heads off at me.

I came back to the hotel where Jessica and Grant were happily swimming in the pool. Grant decided to head out to get a haircut. He had almost an identical experience to mine! First, they let a little girl at his hair, and then an older lady came over to help. They snipped two or three times and didn’t really do much but make it uneven rather than shorter or thinner. Then they charged him for the “haircut.” He came back in an equally frustrated mood and we headed back to Long Silk for our fittings.

Amazingly, they had almost everything fully completed! I was led into the back room – which had an open door and window right into the front of the shop. It was 30 plus degrees and we’d been walking around quite a bit that morning so, as you can imagine, I was – erm – shall we say “glowing” a wee bit. The shop was not air-conditioned. I am standing there in my knickers and bra trying on cashmere. Not only am I hot and disgustingly sticky, people of both sexes keep walking in and out of the room! Modesty went out the window pretty quickly. One poor man wanted to wash his hands before touching some of the silk and the ladies brought him into the back where the sink was. Of course, there’s me standing there mostly naked. He went an interesting shade of pink, and by that time I’d been seen by so many people I just laughed it off.   

I could not believe the quality that they can turn out in such a short time. There were a few mistakes that they quite happily rectified, and I wasn’t terribly impressed with the dress shirts. They were only ok – mostly due to the quality of the cotton. Good enough for the price, though. I would say that, unless you’re one of those people who is hard to fit off the rack, don’t bother with the dress shirts. One lady was back there trying on her shirts and was SO excited because she’d NEVER been able to find a button down shirt to fit her bust-line. (some of us don’t have this particular problem!) As for the suits, the zippers seemed a bit cheaper than they would at home, but the material and the workmanship was generally excellent. Both Grant and I had a list of changes, and both of us ordered a couple extra things. He didn’t like the cargo pants – again the cotton just wasn’t the kind of quality stuff you’d buy at the Gap! They looked like the kind of thing your Grandmother might make you when you ask her for cargo pants – pockets in all the correct places, but a very distinct “home-made” look about them! He had them made into shorts and ended up leaving them in the hotel because he just didn’t like them. I didn’t like how the silk dress looked on me, but they changed it into a shirt and trouser set for me that was more flattering.

After our fitting, we went for a late lunch. If memory serves, we ate at the Mermaid café. They make really good white roses – a local delicacy that is sort of a shrimp filled dumpling. Mmmmmmmm. Then we decided to do a tour of the old town by cyclo. Jessica must have overheard what we were planning, because, before we had even left the doorway of the café, she had flagged down not one but two passing cyclos for us! She is figuring out pretty quickly how to get a ride when she’s tired of walking, and it cracks me up that cyclo drivers stop for her and go where she directs them. Once she and I were just taking a quick spin to the ATM (yes, we spent way too much cash in Hoi An) and back, and the driver suddenly pulls over in front of this shop. I told him no, we wanted to go to the Japanese bridge, and he said; “the baby wants to shop here!”

We toured the old town for about an hour and a half and checked out an old house, a silk factory, a museum, a temple, and the Japanese bridge. My driver was fantastic – he saw me taking photos and every time I raised the camera, he’d pause so I could get a steadier shot. Jessica loved the silk worms – she got to pick some up and watch them crawl around. That was the highlight of her day and we heard about the worms and the sugared coconut that they fed her during our tour of the old house for a while afterwards. 

The silk factory had a whole bunch of women working there making embroidered pictures. Forget everything you know about embroidery and all your pre-conceived notions of flowery “Home Sweet Home” samplers hanging on the wall.  These pictures were amazing! From a distance, they looked like paintings or photographs. You had to get your nose a few inches away to see that they were in fact individual stitches. We were so tempted to buy one, and they were reasonably priced when you considered the amount of work that went into each one. They ranged anywhere from about $200 to $2000 depending on the size and level of detail. The one we liked would have taken something like four months to make and was only about $350.  But, we didn’t see a picture that both of us loved enough, and we also figured we’d see lots of them later. We did, however not of the same quality. I would highly recommend checking out the silk factory in Hoi An if you’re in the market for either a tablecloth or an embroidered picture.

On the fourth day in Hoi An, I had booked us onto a bus tour to go out to My Son. But, when I tried to get Grant and Jess out of bed, nobody was interested in getting up early. So, I went by myself and they stayed in the pool. The hotel didn’t even charge me for their tour even though I cancelled about a half hour before departure. They met another family with young kids so Jessica had some English-speaking playmates for the first time in a couple of weeks, which was nice. 

My Son was amazing, but I’d say if you’re only interested in doing one ancient temple sort of thing in South East Asia, then go to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. They’re both worth seeing, though. I had a blast wandering amongst the ruins and taking photos without having to watch Jessica, and as ever I enjoyed the bus ride out there and back. I am amazed at just how much I am enjoying riding around the Vietnamese countryside. Usually bus rides for me are a necessary evil and, unless the scenery is particularly spectacular, I’m generally sleeping. Vietnam, however, is a different story. I LOVE just driving around watching the daily life happen all around me. There is always something interesting happening, and the countryside is beautiful.

That afternoon, after a much needed swim for Mommy, we headed back to Long Silk for more fittings. Grant ordered yet more stuff and we went off again to do supper and some shopping while they finished the last minute alterations to our clothes. The shop had offered to have a friend from the post office come to the store to ship our things for us, AND they told us to bring all our souvenirs along as well to put in the box. So, we rushed around like mad for the last couple of hours buying all the things we “needed” to get from Hoi An. We ended up shipping 20kg home for only just over $50! The ladies packed it up and hauled it all away for us, and we filled out the paperwork using the shop as a return address, which is nice in case there are issues with customs.  Exhausted and broke we headed back to the hotel – stopping off at the kiddie amusement park first, of course!

We also stopped at the little drinks stall next door to our hotel for some drinks. The lady there tried to give Jessica a cookie, but she didn’t like it and (tired and grumpy) threw it on the ground. Well, I thought it was rude and was just in the midst of scolding her, when the guy behind us smacked her smartly on the bum! I was gobsmacked! She thought I had spanked her and then wouldn’t believe me later when I said it wasn’t me. Good thing Grant didn’t see that or he would’ve been livid – as I was! 

Our final day in Hoi An was pretty laid back. For once we didn’t have to go for fittings, and we’d decided to take in China Beach and Marble Mountains on the way to Hue, so I spent the morning catching up on the blog, and then we went shopping – again – in the afternoon buying last minute presents for my Mom and Dad. At lunch, Jessica was begging us to unroll a spring roll for her (something she dearly loves to do) so she could see what was inside. Well, these ones were really good so we didn’t want to undo one. Finally we were full and there was one left so we unrolled it to let her examine the insides. We weren’t really paying attention as she listed out the things she could see inside because we’d heard this before. (she likes to examine what we are eating and I think she takes in nutrition by osmosis because she certainly doesn’t put anything in her MOUTH.) Anyway, she’s listing contents and I think I hear “ant.” I laugh, and say – silly girl there’s no ants in spring rolls. She says oh yes there is and sure enough there’s an ant crawling around and had very obviously been rolled up inside….and we had eaten the rest of the plate full! Eep.

That afternoon, as we were waiting for the tailor to finish up some presents we were buying for people, Grant decided to have another go at a haircut. He walked into this tiny shack on the outskirts of Old Town. He got THE most amazingly thorough haircut. The guy clipped with electric clippers, than scissors, then manual clippers, then scissors again. Grant was so impressed with the guy he asked him to sort out his beard, too. (a SURE sign of trust) The guy tilts him back in the chair and shaves him, trims his eyebrows, trims hair out of his ears, and then grabs a big long silver stick and rams it down Grant’s ears to clean them out! HE was in there over an hour and came out looking more hair-free than I’ve ever seen him. I almost wanted the guy to do my eyebrows!

All in all, our Hoi An experience was fantastic. Aside from a few minor belly-aches about the hotel, we really loved it there and would like to go back sometime. There were a few power outages while we were downtown and BOY is it dark without the lights. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face – literally! The food was the best of anywhere in Vietnam, and we especially loved the white roses and Cau Lao (sp?). I had some amazing Cuban black bean soup at the Cargo club on our last day there and they make some fantastic pastries as well. Old Town is a beautiful and fun place to explore and seems to ooze charm and character out of every pore. Just sitting in a café and watching the world go by is a truly lovely way to spend the afternoon. Of course, the extensive amounts of retail therapy didn’t hurt, either!

Jessica loved shopping and kept buying – and breaking – tiny teapot sets and beaded bracelets. Finally she refused to buy any more breakable tea pots – no mommy, I need a plastic one….Thankfully, they were cheap! She has developed her queen wave and sits atop Grant’s shoulders as he walks through the crowd and waves at everyone – or waves from the cyclo. She adores the little green taxis and is starting to refuse to walk anywhere, which is a bit of a bummer with no stroller. She also insists on stopping in every little shrine in every store to check out the Buddha. I think she’s on her way to becoming Buddhist! People adore her here and are constantly giving her presents – most notably some very annoyingly loud whistles. She has learned to say hello and thank you in Vietnamese and the shopkeepers love it when she says thank you. 

Well, I think that about wraps up Hoi An…..and I am late to meet Grant after his cooking lesson in Laos – he’s supposed to be cooking me lunch!

Vietnam Updates

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

Whew – finally have some time to sit down and catch up on this blog. We have been having way too much fun – we’re already in Cambodia and I am still working on writing up Vietnam!

I forgot to mention the last time that the bus driver got lost on the way to the tunnels. How is that possible? The guide had been working with Sinh Café doing this same tour for over ten years!!

Jessica loves all the small toilets and bathtubs. The first time I sat down on a toilet here I really noticed the difference in height, but now it just seems normal. I feel tall here – the light switches and everything are built for a much shorter population.

I think I left off last time just before the Mekong Delta tour that we took with Sinh Café. It took some doing to make sure I’d found the ORIGINAL Sinh Café when I was making the bookings as there are many many copycat businesses trying to capitalize on the good reputation of the original. The tour cost us $18 each and Jessica was either 50 or 75% I can’t remember which now. This included two days of air conditioned coach transportation, an English speaking guide, two boat rides, one night’s accommodation (more on THAT later), one lunch and one breakfast – oh and a free t-shirt! What more can you ask for?

We were up early the first morning and it was a mad dash to pack a day bag and eat breakfast before catching the cab. We paid an extra dollar for Sinh Café to organize transfers for us. Well worth the extra cash, as we didn’t have to fuss about with the touts outside the hotel. We promptly forgot Jess’s new juice bottle in the cab, which cost Grant $16 at the airport in Singapore. It turned out to be a good thing, though, because every place here sells canned drinks with a straw, so a sippy cup is just a stinky germ-fest anyways.

We knew the drill from the last time we took a tour, so we hopped on the bus immediately. We got the front seat because we figured it would be better to see out and maybe help to minimize Jessica’s motion sickness. But, we forgot about all the horn honking and how impossible it would be to sleep. It was a loud trip out to Cai Be! But, the view was fantastic. Amazing how the busses drive down the wrong side of the road and just honk at people to get out of the way, the driver is talking on his cell phone half the time. With one hand on the horn and one on the phone, I have no idea how he managed to steer the bus down a narrow highway clogged with cars, trucks, scooters, motorbikes and about a million school kids on their bicycles who all ride in packs and refuse to get out of the way!

The first stop of the day (aside from “stops to rest”) was Cai Be floating market where we drove around in motorized boats with dubious safety standards and loud motors that looked as though they’d been cannibalized from lawn mowers. I was instantly glad I’d brought Jessica’s life jacket, as there was one jacket per two people strapped to the back of each bench. The benches weren’t bolted down and the one Grant got was so rickety he thought for sure it was going to collapse under him. Jessica was safely jacketed up, though, so Mommy could relax and watch the market go by. The market was a wonderful glimpse into the every day life of Vietnam.

People obviously live on some of the boats, while others are just for marketing purposes. To advertise what they are selling, vendors will hang one of whatever it is at the end of a long pole that can be seen from quite a ways down the river. Piles of every kind of produce imaginable are for sale in the floating market and boats just pull up beside one another to bargain for goods. Enterprising drink vendors weave in amongst the main market boats selling drinks and snacks to tourists, of which there are many. The live-aboard boats have laundry hanging from the tops and often plants growing aboard for a bit of greenery or fresh fruit. Kids run everywhere and dogs are plentiful – not sure if they were for food, but they looked like pets to me. The river is everything to these people – water source, bathtub, transportation, garbage dump, and toilet. We were pretty careful NOT to get any water splashed in our mouths. Of course, later on I saw one of the local café’s washing dishes in the river. Best not to dwell on that too long….

After the fairly noisy and sweaty boat ride, we pulled into one of the villages built along the river. Here we had a wander in the market and saw people making rice paper, rice crispies, and coconut candy, etc. Of course, we bought some of everything so Jessica could try it. She actually ate some of the rice crispies and coconut candy to my great amazement! As we’re walking through this crowded rabbit warren of a market, trying to follow our little Vietnamese guide, Grant decides to stop and do some shopping without looking where the guide was going. I left the rice popping demonstration to see where he’d gone off to with Jessica and saw him way behind us shopping. The guide told me that: “the baby wanted to shop,” so I figured that Grant had seen us and knew which side street we’d darted into. Not so much. When our group was ready to head further into the market, I looked around and no Grant. I backtracked through the market and found him merrily joining a completely different tour and about to board the wrong boat. I told him to keep up with the tour in the future! It seemed like I was always missing out on every demonstration because I had to keep going back and making sure Grant was keeping up.

After the various industry demonstrations, we stopped at a lovely shady spot fo our free lunch. I can’t remember what it was they served, only that we didn’t like it very much. Jessica was feeding fruit to the Japanese guy sitting with us, and he was too polite to refuse her. After lunch we had a demonstration of some of the local music, with an absolutely adorable little girl singing. Jessica started singing along to the tune of “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” though thankfully only the few people directly around us heard her.

We re-boarded our boat and took a trip through the village and down the river through some islands. Then we got back on our bus where our English speaking tour guide left us! He said we’d be driven to our hotel for the evening and we’d be joined by our new tour guide in the am. Ok. Nobody was worried until the bus stopped at some sort of official-looking place and the driver told everyone to get off. No explanation given – because nobody who knew what was going on spoke any English, and our Vietnamese was limited to “Hello” and “Thank-you,” which didn’t get us too far! We were herded into a group and watched helplessly as the bus with all our belongings in it disappeared over the horizon. Speculating madly amongst ourselves as to what might be going on, we followed the crowd into a waiting area and tried to stick together. Eventually it became obvious that we were getting onto a ferry. At that point, most of us suddenly remembered that the trip itinerary mentioned that we were spending the night on an island, so a ferry began to make a lot more sense. Unfortunately, we then watched as our bus got onto a completely different ferry.

The ferry was packed with people, vehicles, and livestock – including a particularly smelly truckload of pigs, which fascinated Jessica. It was only a short ride and then we all filed off to look for our bus. Thankfully, it showed up and we boarded for the short drive to our hotel in Can Tho.

Upon arrival to the hotel, we realized that we were supposed to have our passports with us – and they were hours away safely locked in our hotel in Saigon! Thankfully, I had photocopies with me, and the hotel bent the rules a bit. By law, hotels in Vietnam have to have your original passports complete with valid entry visa before you can rent a room. The guy was seriously unimpressed with us, but he let us in!

The hotel was a bit of an eye opener for Grant, who had thought we were roughing it before! There was no elevator, and our room was on the fourth floor. After lugging our daypacks and a tired three year old up four flights of stairs, we opened the flimsy door to our room for the evening. The room was a windowless rectangle with three single beds along the wall. The beds filled the entire wall, with no space in between – a fact that Jessica capitalized on by bouncing to her heart’s content and shrieking at the top of her lungs. Nobody could have heard her over the noise from the busy street outside, though! There was a small TV that got only Vietnamese channels, and Jessica insisted on watching some of the singing. The “mini-bar” was six cans of warm pop sitting on top of the end table. There was also a phone and a rickety old built-in wardrobe that reeked of mothballs.

The bathroom was a tiled room with a toilet and a shower head. There was a hot water heater on the wall that looked about two gallons worth, but we couldn’t ever get it to work. Thankfully, the place was clean enough and the air-conditioner worked. I spent about twenty minutes chasing down all the mosquitoes in the room because we didn’t realize that the hotel supplied RAID to spray through the room while you were out for dinner. Turns out that enough people sprayed the hallway and the surrounding rooms that ours got done by default! So, between my manual efforts, and the residual cloud of pesticide leaking from the adjacent hallway, we had a relatively mosquito free night.

Once we’d “settled in” we headed out to explore the town a bit and find a bite to eat. Kitty corner to the hotel was a shopping mall with a grocery store so we headed over there to check it out, because we were a bit tired of the bustle of the streets by that point. We browsed through a bunch of fake watches and Jessica once again got mobbed by the locals. (Apparently all Asians adore her, because she gets mobbed by all Asian tourists as well.) One woman was trying so hard to get her daughter to play with Jessica. Not that I mind her playing with local kids, but this poor child did NOT want anything to do with Jess and her mother kept forcing her to come over and “talk.” They finally went away only to come back a few minutes later with candy that the mother forced her daughter to give to Jessica.  In the course of about three hours, Jess had her photo taken at least ten times. Everyone here has cameras in their cell phones and they all whip them out the moment they see Jessica coming. She is definitely a little rock star! (so I don’t feel bad about taking pictures of their kids!)

At the top floor of the complex, we discovered – much to Jessica’s delight – an indoor playground. This was perfect because she could run around and scream and generally be a kid. She did so well all day on the bus and boat rides, that we were really glad to find some safe(ish) space for her to run free. There was a bunch of video games, some small mall-type coin operated rides, some bumper cars, and a big play structure in the back. My favorite was a fishing game that incorporated real live (and somewhat stressed out) goldfish. We wouldn’t let Jessica try it though – what on earth would we do if she caught one?

Grant got to shoot things, and Jessica met a little boy to play with so everyone was happy. The little boy she met spoke no English, and Jessica only knew how to say “Hello” in Vietnamese, but I don’t think she even noticed that he wasn’t talking…she never stopped chattering at him the whole time they played together. He took full advantage of his new girlfriend and happily jumped on all the rides I paid for. They held two kids, and Jess was happy enough to have him along, so it didn’t bother me. The funniest was the bumper cars. Jessica really wanted to go on them, so in they jump and he immediately takes the wheel. Jessica let him take over and then proceeded to give him direction on how to drive properly and criticize his every move: “you’re not really a very good driver, you know.” Typical woman!

After our little monster had some time to run free, we went next door to the food court for dinner. It looked clean enough until some commotion half way through our meal caught our attention. One of the kitchen girls was chasing one of the waiters with a live mouse (rat, maybe?) that she’d just caught by the tail! Ick – well, the food wasn’t that good anyway, so who’s hungry now?

We headed back to our less-than-luxurious accommodations and Grant decided he’d head out to get a massage. Six seconds before he came back through the door two hours later, Jessica FINALLY fell asleep! His massage was interesting to say the least!

He walked next door to a hotel with a massage sign prominently displayed and asked for an hour long massage, which would be the local equivalent of $4. He was then led into a room where he stripped down to his undies and a towel. They wanted him to wear these little plastic flip-flops, but they were only about half the size of his feet! Then, much to his surprise, he was taken for a 15 minute steam bath.  After exiting the steam room, he was told he’d have a further 15 min in a sauna….at which point he figured the undies were pretty much useless and soaked anyway so he dropped them off in his locker. After 15 minutes in the sauna, he had a further 15 minutes in a Jacuzzi and was beginning to wonder if there was a massage in his future after all! Finally, after a five minute shower, he was led into his massage. Of course, at this point, he was naked, exceptionally clean, and clutching his towel like a life-preserver.

The massage was the traditional Thai or Vietnamese style that we’d experienced in our hotel room involving lots of back walking and arm pulling. The woman didn’t speak any English so Grant couldn’t tell her to stop, either. At that point, he just wanted it to be over. When he got up to leave, the woman had him sign a slip of paper, which, of course, he didn’t read. Apparently, he’d just approved a 100,000 dong tip (about $6) for his masseuse. When he realized what he’d done, he refused to pay the extra tip, and gave her about $1 instead. There was a big bouncer-like guy glowering at him the whole time and hot-footed it back to our hotel room, where he arrived looking so upset and disturbed that it caused Mommy to inquire about just what KIND of massage he’d just experienced.

The following morning, we headed downstairs for breakfast. Coming down the stairs, Grant spotted a cockroach under the buffet table and the cook stomped it and kicked it under the table on the way by – so needless to say, he didn’t eat any breakfast. Jessica, of course, doesn’t eat. So, breakfast consisted of bread and jam for mommy, and we all piled into the bus hungry and tired and grumpy.

We boarded a second boat to take us to the Cai Rang floating markets. This boat was even more rickety and old than the first and didn’t have a roof on it, so it was a hot ride to say the least. Jessica was squashed between us on a bench seat built for two Vietnamese people so you can just imagine how comfortable that was for her! She kept elbowing us to try and make some room for herself.

We visited vermicelli making shop, and a rice husking mill and then sat in some fruit gardens to enjoy some tropical fruit. Jessica finally ate some bananas, much to my great relief! This is also where Jessica encountered her very first squat toilet. Up until then, we’d managed to find ‘western’ style toilets everywhere. But, this place had a tin shack with a porcelain squat toilet and a bucket of water beside it to “flush” the toilet. (Those of you with any experience with toilets in Asia or Africa will be thinking “Oh, you found a nice one!”) I tried to make it sound like fun to pee in one of these, but Jess was having none of it. I stripped her to the waist figuring there’s no way she’s coming out of there dry otherwise, and at least we’d have a shot this way! She cried and fussed at first and we stood on the pink one and then tried out the blue one next door because she liked the color better. Finally, I convinced her to try peeing and she did rather well aside from a few splashes on the shoes. (Much dousing with hand sanitizer…..) When we came back out to the tables where everyone was eating she gaily announced: “Hey Daddy! I’m a better pee-er than you are!!” Since then, there have been no issues with toilets unless they’re terribly dirty and/or smelly – and who can blame her there!

The Cai Rang market was similar to the one we visited the day before – a colorful chaos of people, boats, produce, animals – you name it. There was something interesting to see no matter which way you looked. After the boat ride through the market and our “rest stop” for fruit, we boarded the bus again. This time, we had an English speaking guide for our ferry ride, because he had joined us in the morning before the boat ride. He explained to us that we couldn’t travel on the ferry on board the bus because once one sunk and: “there was nobody left on board still alive.” NOW we understood why we got on a separate ferry from the bus!

As we’re walking up to the dock to get on the ferry, I lost sight of Grant in the crowd. I had been talking to a really nice Kiwi couple as we were waiting for the ferry. The guide was motioning for us to hurry because they were closing the gates to the ferry and we would be left behind. I looked around and figured Grant must have gotten ahead of me, because I couldn’t see him anywhere (and he’s a head taller than everyone.) So, I grabbed Jessica and the lot of us ran for the ferry before they closed the gates. After boarding, I look back, and there’s Grant wandering along in the OPPOSITE direction to get on an entirely wrong ferry. Once again, he’s not anywhere near anybody in our group. They are closing the gates to depart and he’s barely within shouting distance! I SCREAMED his name and Jessica started yelling as well. The guide realized we were leaving him behind and started shouting at the guys closing the gates to wait, but they shook their heads and closed the gate. At this point, Grant looks round and realizes what’s going on. He starts to run for it, but the ferry is starting the engines and the gate at the back is shut. By the time he reaches the edge of the dock, he’s got about a three foot jump to make and the ferry is pulling away fast. The guards at the back are screaming at him not to jump (in Vietnamese, so I’m assuming here) and waving their arms. He jumps anyway and makes it ok, and climbs over the gate. The guide just claps him on the back and laughs: “It’s OK You have very long leg.” Needless to say, Mommy was LESS than impressed.

Waiting for the bus on the other side of the ferry dock, we’d been there for ages because it took longer for our bus than it did for us. We were standing in front of a market with a bunch of stalls, all selling more or less the same stuff. We wait for something like half an hour in the hot sun. Most of us have turned around and bought cold drinks from the vendor behind us. The bus will come down the busy street and stop for us to get on, and we can’t be wandering away. So, all of us are standing in a group and talking and drinking our cold drinks. Except for Grant, that is. He doesn’t want a drink…well, not until six seconds before the bus arrives when he decides he needs to walk half a block away to get the same drink that was sold precisely where we were standing. (The kids begging were annoying him and Jessica) Once again, we’re all on the bus and the guide is looking at me: “where is your husband??”  This is starting to become a theme….

Lunch on the second day was emphatically NOT FREE, but they shuttled us off to a nice little place with good food at really cheap prices. I can’t remember now, but a yummy lunch was something like five or six dollars. Then we all piled back into the bus for our long ride back to Saigon. Grant, bless him, sat with Jessica so I could actually listen to my iPod without someone complaining about my choice in music – AND hear it in stereo. (Jess steals one of my headphones all the time and insists I play “Bingo,” “Piano Man,” and “Halleluiah” all the time. Although it’s way cute to watch her sing along to Piano Man, the novelty quickly wears off on a long bus ride) I was kind of dozing and listening to music when I realize we’ve been stopped at some lights or something for quite some time. Hmmm. Odd. I wait a few minutes and we’re still not moving and people seem relatively animated, so I unplug my headphones and ask Grant what’s going on.

Turns out, we’ve been pulled over by the police for speeding! In Vietnam, this means they immediately impound the vehicle and pull the driver’s license. Wow. You can put a family of five AND their groceries on a scooter with no helmets and drive down the wrong side of the road without signaling, but get caught for speeding and you lose your vehicle for TEN DAYS, and immediately. The worst part of this is some people on our tour have planes or trains to catch and we’re now running seriously behind schedule while our guide and driver argue this out with the authorities. They first wait to get the picture back to ensure that it was indeed our vehicle that had been speeding. Once it’s determined that yes, our terrible driver has indeed broken the law, negotiations ensue. I’m naïve enough to think that the authorities simply want a bribe. Not, apparently, in Vietnam. (THAT would be Cambodia) 

After much haggling, they let us continue on our way. However, they keep the driver’s license and registration. This is making him into the slowest and most paranoid driver on the planet because it’s illegal to drive without a license – no matter what the reason and we’re beginning to gain an appreciation for how serious the Vietnamese traffic police can be! The driver has to drive two and a half hours to Saigon and then BACK to this place to have the vehicle impounded…all without a license. So, the tour bus will spend ten days locked up, and we are all getting the impression that this driver is not going to have his job for too much longer.  We rolled into Saigon over an hour behind schedule and then we felt REALLY guilty when we found out that the bus driver first had to drive us across the city back to our hotel in very busy traffic before he could head back to the police station….all because we’d paid $1 for transfers. Had I been more on the ball, we would have simply taken a taxi from Sinh Café and let him get moving. Oops. We tipped the tour guide heavily and all the tips were being handed over to the driver which made us feel a little better about it. Hopefully the poor guy didn’t lose his job over the situation!

For our last night in Saigon, we were too tired to feel very adventuresome with our food, so we hit the Irish pub again for dinner. I was exhausted and had tons of bookings to sort out, so I let Grant do the packing. It drove me crazy because then I couldn’t find anything later and made everyone angry…but Mommy is learning to delegate a bit more.

We took a cab to the airport the following morning to catch our flight to DaNang with Vietnam Airways. What a pleasant surprise!  Service was impeccable and friendly, food was good (they actually fed us a meal on an hour long flight), flight was early, and the baggage showed up unscathed and intact. More than I can generally say for Air Canada! We were surprised at the size of the plane though – we had been expecting a little puddle jumper, and got a massive plane! The only issue we had was that they didn’t seat us together, but Grant managed to trade seats with the guy sitting next to Jessica and me.

Jessica is not too sure about Vietnam yet. She says everyone has black hair (she’s realized it’s mostly her hair people are fascinated with) and she is getting frustrated because she can’t talk to people. She doesn’t mind all the attention showered on her once she’s actually made someone’s acquaintance – like the women in the salon who did her nails. But, she’s getting pretty fed up with the constant bombardment on the street. Good thing Daddy is tall. She spends a lot of time riding up on his shoulders where people can’t touch her as easily.

We were met at the airport in DaNang by a driver from our hotel for our free airport pick up – BOY is that nice! Hotels do this mostly because taxi drivers will try to take you to a different hotel than the one you’ve booked and often successfully divert business. It’s just easier to send a driver to pick up guests, thus ensuring your guests actually arrive!

En route to Hoi An, we negotiated with the driver to pick us up five days later and drive us over the mountains to Hue. This saved the commission on the hotel booking this for us, and we paid $50 US for an air-conditioned car to drive us two ½ hours door to door.

We were not terribly impressed with Green Field hotel. We had our choice of two rooms and chose the one on the second floor because we figured it would be quieter. It turns out the building was under construction and, in fact, NO rooms were quiet from about 6-7 am onwards.

On arrival, some sort of bugs in the carpet were biting our feet, so we got them to RAID the room. The beds were super hard, the pillows like rocks in a pillowcase, and the shower sprayed all over the floor and was about chest height so you had to kneel in the tub to rinse your hair. We slept on top of the covers with our own sheets because we were paranoid about the bugs we’d encountered on our first day. Construction on the hotel began very early in the morning so no sleeping in!! However, our air-con worked (more than our friends across the hall could say), the shower had hot water, the pool was lovely and clean, there was free fresh fruit in the room every day and breakfast was free and reasonably edible. The free internet was REALLY slow, but front desk service was quite friendly, and we were able to book train tickets to Hanoi right from the lobby. Not our most pleasant stay, but nobody got sick or robbed, so all in all a success!

Well, I’m signing off now – we’re actually already in Laos…I just can’t seem to find the time to do these updates anymore. We’re having too much fun shopping in the night markets, and Grant keeps stealing my computer to rip music! I’ll post about Hoi An next time….

Hello from Saigon

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

First an update on the last frantic post. I am pretty sure that the only thing getting into the room is the gecko that I saw scurry up the wall directly after I posted, and they do squeak at each other. But, I think there are rats or something outside the window because I can hear something making a scrabbling noise and geckos are usually pretty stealthy…..and we saw a rat today in broad daylight scurrying through a crowded market.
Other than the (maybe) rat issue, the Spring Hotel has been fantastic. Centrally located, clean, decent food, super friendly service and a bargain at $36 USD a night.
The hotel has given us a cot for Jessica to sleep in. It is a cradle that is just barely long enough for her, but she loves it and won’t hear of us changing it for anything. Of course, she thrashes around enough to wake the dead and ends up sleeping in our bed anyway.
So far we absolutely love Vietnam. Jessica is like a movie star here – people nudge their friends to look at her and everyone has to touch or say something. Everywhere we go, it’s “BABY BABY!!!!” At first she thought we were back in Fiji and called them “Bula people.” Then I told her they spoke a language called Vietnamese and that I didn’t know how to say hello in that language yet. (just off the plane & couldn’t find the phrase-book) I tried to ask our driver, but he didn’t speak any English. Jessica suggested that perhaps I should speak louder and he’d understand me. I told her that they spoke a different language and she got all upset and said: “how am I supposed to TALK to people then?”
The following day, on the way back from our tour to the tunnels, Jessica was listening to the bus driver and his friend talk to one another and she turns to me all exasperated: “Mommy, I just can’t UNDERSTAND these people!” So, I explained to her that she will need to learn a whole new language to speak to them. She’s learning some words now and she made us all laugh tonight at dinner when she brought the phrase book over to the waitress so she could have a conversation with her…and, of course, she can’t read. So, she opens it to a random page and just starts pointing at words. The flabbergasted waitress tries to explain that she’s pointing at words in Thai and it’s YET ANOTHER language! Poor kiddo. She’s so confused about language. Yesterday we were walking through an echoing hallway and Jessica announces: “Mommy! This echo speaks ENGLISH!”
The food thing will be an issue for sure. We managed to find a grocery store that had some familiar looking bread, goldfish crackers, and….PEANUT BUTTER!! So, the kid won’t starve, anyway. She’s doing a teeny bit better with trying things that aren’t quite familiar, so I’m hoping eventually she’ll come around. We’ve been seeing some pretty strange things on the menus ourselves.  But, generally, we’ve managed to find something that doesn’t involve insects, bone marrow, tendons, or “field rat” (I guess it’s bad form to eat city rats??)
The whole city is just an overwhelming assault on the senses. There’s just so much going on. Grant stood on the corner the first night for half an hour just to watch the traffic. The streets are overflowing with people. Much of daily life seems to be conducted on the sidewalk. There are people eating, selling stuff, kids sleeping, people packaging goods or building stuff, guys on the street corners with tire repair stalls…it’s just this amazing ebb and flow of human life that I never tire of watching.
It’s loud, and the traffic is nothing short of crazy with a billion or so people on scooters and bikes of all description. You see people carrying the most amazing things on the back of a scooter. Two guys holding a massive pane of glass between them, families with three small children, dogs, and produce of every possible description. There seems to be very few rules to the traffic, either. Generally, you drive on the right-ish. Unless there’s someone in your way – then just swerve into oncoming traffic they will move for you. Just honk your horn. If someone is in your way – no matter which direction you might be intending to move, or whether or not you are signaling, just honk and the road will be clear. So this amounts to this unbelievable mass of organized chaos, with everyone honking their horns at least every ten seconds at all hours.
The first night we were here, Grant decided he wanted a massage. The place down the street was closing, so I told him to ask our hotel to see if they had a service. They told him they could send someone up right away and he blushed and stammered that he would have to discuss it with his wife! I figured that I’d like one as well, and if Grant’s looked nice, I’d ask the girl for one too – or we’d split the hour – or something like that. Grant mentioned this when he phoned back to book. Unfortunately, they sent TWO women.
That was truly the weirdest experience ever. Picture this – small hotel room with a queen sized bed. Small child sleeping on the floor so it’s near to impossible to walk round that side of the bed and it’s also important to be quiet. Both of us lying on the bed in our knickers (me with a towel for modesty purposes, in case I have to flip over – thinking ahead, you know!) with two women alternately pulling and pounding and walking on us. Of course, MY woman was about forty pound heavier, too! We were twisted into all sorts of unnatural positions, made all the more embarrassing by the fact that the women had to both be on the bed with us at the same time, and weren’t shy about using whatever part of their anatomy was required to gain maximum leverage. Full body massage had become full body CONTACT massage. By the end of it, my towel had been cast aside and the woman had me in a full nelson and was whipping me about cracking my neck and back. I may never recover from the embarrassment. Thankfully we’re married, and the women truly were only there to give us a massage, and weren’t offering up anything extra.
We went to the Chu Chi tunnels and a temple yesterday which Jess really liked.  She was really good, considering the tour was about 12 hours of bus rides and walking, and the fact that we’d flown in the evening before after a quick one night layover in Singapore.
The temple was beautiful (entirely too lazy to look up the proper name of it) and we got to watch a service. Jess loved it and all the monks and nuns(?) ADORED her.
The tunnel tour was a bit disappointing, though. We didn’t really have enough time to explore properly. I was ok with that, as I’d pretty much seen enough at the end of an hour and a half, and I could understand the tour guide far better than Grant was able to. I would comment on stuff the tour guide had just finished saying and he’d be AMAZED at my wealth of knowledge. Jessica loved the tunnels, especially because she got to go in first and it was almost exactly her height. The guy behind us gave her a flashlight and she was off with the rest of us crawling through trying to keep up!
We got to fire an AK-47 while we were at the tunnel site. LIVE AMMO. Grant was SO excited. Jessica was scared of all the noise, and they didn’t have any ear protection so I couldn’t go down there and take his picture. I fired one of my five bullets and it was SO loud that I gave up. The guy couldn’t believe I wouldn’t finish off the bullets I’d purchased, and Grant was kind of bummed that he didn’t get to fire them himself.
Last night we stumbled on possibly the most expensive Vietnamese restaurant in the area. After spending only $5 USD on lunch, we were a bit gobsmacked when dinner was about $50! The place was really pretty ritzy and we rolled into it all exhausted and sweaty from our day tour, with boisterous three year old in tow! The resident businessmen were likely not impressed, but the meal was pretty good. Unfortunately, we were all so exhausted we didn’t really enjoy it properly. That and it wasn’t FIVE TIMES the going rate good! The tea they served was amazing, though. It was called flower tea and they bring it out in a clear pot with this weird flower in it. It looks sort of like a Russian thistle. When the flower blooms, the tea is ready. Very cool, and surprisingly tasty!
Today we managed to talk to Grandma and Grandpa face to face via MSN, which was great. We had breakfast in the hotel where I learned that either I can have my tea without sugar, or with teeny ants. Upon discovering that ants float, I opted for the sugar!
Then we headed out to the supermarket to pick up some stuff for Jessica and off to the market to do some souvenir shopping. Along the way, a lady offered us a brochure for a local salon so I decided to get a pedicure. She motioned for us to follow her and – wow – six blocks or so later we arrived at the salon which was actually tucked away upstairs in the back of a building. We never would have gone there on our own, and it was amusing to watch the parade of bemused tourists come through the door after having marched for miles when they thought they were going just round the corner!
Jessica decided that she would have a pedicure as well. At first she wanted ten different colors because there were so many to choose from and she DOES have ten toes. Eventually she settled on pink with sparkles for all ten toes. She sat SO still for the lady doing her toes and when she saw a woman working on my hands, she leaned over to her lady and said: “excuse me, I’d like my hands done, too.” So, fingers got done too. She sat perfectly still for that as well. Amazing. She never does that for me.
The women at the salon absolutely adored Jessica. She was an instant celebrity. Everyone cuddled her, several took her picture, and she was helping herself to their food. (I should HIRE these people who can get my child to eat, although it was only bread) She even got a free massage. The lady doing my hands was massaging my arms, so another woman asked Jessica if she would like one too. She sat Jessica on her lap and was massaging her legs, and Jess looked at her curiously and said: “Why are you squeezing me?” When told it was a massage she just said: “oh,” and sat there for more!
Once her ‘massage’ was finished she went over to examine the fingernail paint samples. She essentially had the run of the salon because I was held captive – literally – hand and foot, and Grant had abandoned me to do more shopping. She decided she’d like some designs done on her nails, so she ordered that up as well! The lady didn’t even look to me to approve the extra cost, just assumed the little madam could have whatever her heart desired! (Thankfully it was only $1) So, Jessica got a snowman painted on one of her nails and spent the rest of the day comparing her nails with every other woman she saw at the market who had hers done as well. She was even worried about taking a bath tonight because it might damage the nail polish. I had to promise we’d have it redone if there were any mishaps. I am raising a princess.
Once we finished at the salon, we took a cyclo over to a local market to see what was on offer there. Grant was on a mission to find a watch and I’d promised Jessica a purse so she could stash all the money she’s been conning out of Daddy. We taught Jessica how to bargain with the lady, which was pretty cute. I didn’t find the market as exhausting as somewhere like Tijuana, but Jessica was getting pretty sick of all the touching (she had started to hit and spit on people….) so, we figured we’d head out.
We grabbed another couple of cyclos to do a short city tour. A cyclo is basically a bicycle with a big basket on the front for people to sit in. There was much confusion and more than probably a little scamming going on about the price of both rides which got Grant all heated up…until I reminded him the difference in cost was only a few dollars! We took an hour long tour through the city on these to take in the major sights – Saigon River, Reunification Palace, Museum, Notre Dame, etc. The most impressive thing of all was witnessing these guys maneuver us through the traffic pandemonium. A bit dodgy without a helmet for Jessica, but what can you do? She promptly fell asleep on my lap throughout the entire tour and woke up for the last five minutes: “Hey, THIS is fun!”
For dinner we went to a local Irish pub – go figure – and I had lasagna that surpassed all my expectations of what lasagna in an Irish pub in Saigon would taste like! Superb! Once again Jessica charmed the waitresses and got her picture taken and was shown pictures of everyone’s small relatives. EVERYONE here has a mobile phone with a camera. Mobile phone and a scooter and you’re set!
Well, about bed time now. We’re off on a tour of the Mekong Delta tomorrow and the next day with the same company as the last day tour. Hopefully we will be better able to understand this guide as I don’t think our Vietnamese is progressing rapidly enough to be even remotely useful!

3am in Saigon….

Monday, March 5th, 2007

It is 3am and I can hear rats.

I turned off the noisy air-con and lo an behold….

Up until now Jessica was sleeping on the floor on a thermarest. What if they bite her and give her some horrible incurable disease? Or even just go NEAR my adorable sleeping bambina?

I have managed to move her into my bed but now I can’t sleep.

She is pissed off because MY bed doesn’t have silk sheets and hers does. 

I called the front desk and asked about a COT and managed to confirm my wake-up CALL. Not sure my phrase book or my horrible pronunciation is up to this task.

I can see some droppings behind the fridge and on the window ledge in what is otherwise a spotless and highly recommended hotel.


This really sucks – I have to be up in 3 1/2 hours for a tour. This is going to happen every place we go in Asia most likely. How will I sleep?

Grant woke up while I was dithering about moving Jessica. I told him what was wrong – and he had seen the droppings earlier – he rolled over and is now back asleep.

I can hear them squeaking. I can even smell them.

I’m putting Jessica on GRANT’S side of the bed. 



Good Morning Vietnam!!!

Monday, March 5th, 2007

Just arrived in Saigon after a quick night’s stopover in Singapore. I’m way behind on my blogging because I’ve been frantically booking stuff for Asia and I’ve been feeling pretty crap lately. So, figured I’d catch up later…..

So far this place is crazy! The plane ride was pretty uneventful until Jessica announced AS WE’RE LANDING that she has to go pee REALLY BAD. Of course, Mommy doesn’t even have an emergency diaper with her anymore. Poor kid actually held it for about half an hour until we managed to find a bathroom.

The hotel minibus met us right at the gate, which was well worth the extra few bucks, and the ride through town was nothing short of chaotic. The hotel is pretty nice, and reasonably priced. My head still hurts from the heat, pollution, and all the horn blowing. But, I’m so happy to be here and I’m going to get off this computer and go in  search of some noodles!!