Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Hanoi is history.

I'm back in the land of smiles.  Dolly, my friend in Bangkok, picked me up from the airport and we headed for the wine country of Thailand, in the mountains about 4 hours northeast of the city.  I would never have even thought of looking for wineries in Thailand, but Dolly had this trip on her wish list and I was game.

The drive was pretty boring until we hit the mountains, and then it was delightful.  We took a couple of wrong turns, so we didn't arrive at our resort until after dark.  

This is the view that greeted me from our balcony in the morning.

From another angle.

We didn't realize we were so far from the winery we planned to tour, so we got an early start to make our reservation at noon at the winery's restaurant.

We had seen this Tuscan village imposter on the way to our resort the day before, and we decided to stop and check it out.

It was pretty impressive on close inspection.  All the townhouses here are 3, 4, or 5 stories.  We toured this 5 story that was still under construction.  These units had 5 bedrooms and 5 full baths.  The view from the balcony of the 5th floor was amazing.  You could see the whole valley and, of course, the backdrop of mountains.  Price tag--half a million.

We also toured a 4 story unit that was finished.  The development really did have the feel of Italy, except the buildings were way too new and there was no church!

We went on to have a delicious lunch at the winery restaurant and then toured the grounds and the "wine factory".  I'm sure most of you have toured a winery, so I won't bore you with an explanation or pictures of the wine-making process and equipment.

But I will show you a section of this beautiful flowering tree.  This valley abounded with flowing bushes and trees.

This winery was established only 10 years ago, so the wine is not that great yet.  There was a Chenin Blanc that was quite drinkable, but that was it. 

After the tour, we went to some other tourist sites in the area--another Italian village knockoff, but this one's buildings were filled with retail shops.  It was really crowded because this was a holiday weekend for Thais.  Monday was Makha Bucha Day, which is held on the full moon day of the third lunar month to venerate Buddha and his teachings.

We couldn't resist stopping to see this water buffalo.  There were some gardens here, but the place was closing up so we just did a quick photo op.

Dolly was a little disappointed to find that the grass covering this guy was plastic.

We stopped at another place to check out the menu of what we thought was a restaurant.  But it was just a gift shop.  While we were looking around at the merchandise, a sheep wandered in and out again.  You could pay for the privilege of feeding grass to some sheep in the back of the shop, but they decided to knock off work early, so we missed out on that, too.

We couldn't find a decent restaurant for dinner, so we headed back to our resort and ate there--not that great, but the options were truly limited in this area of the country.  This area must not be frequented by Westerners, because we didn't see one white woman all day.  (You'll always see a white guy with a Thai woman no matter where you go.)  And at most of the restaurants, there was no English translation of the menu; and most of the road signs were in Thai, which made navigating a real challenge.

We left early on Monday morning to beat the holiday traffic back to Bangkok, plus Dolly had planned to work.  I was supposed to be flying to Myanmar that afternoon.  But I scratched that plan after discovering the difficulties I would probably encounter traveling alone in a fairly underdeveloped country.  I would have to carry enough crisp new American dollars to cover all my expenses, because credit cards aren't accepted and there are very few ATM's.  It just didn't feel safe to me.

So I'm in Bangkok for a few days, then I'm headed to Ko Samui, an island south of here, for a couple of weeks.  Wait until you see my front yard!

Monday, February 25, 2013


There’s something a little strange and uncomfortable about being in North Viet Nam, the only country to defeat the United States in war.  I wondered how an American might be treated here….if there was any lingering resentment of our involvement in a war that resulted in so many military and civilian deaths and casualties.   Even though people here aren’t all that friendly to me, I don’t think they can tell I’m American.  I’m just another white woman, among many others, touring the streets of Hanoi.

Some of the discomfort I feel is because I lost someone I cared about in the Vietnam War.  He was killed two weeks before his tour ended.  I’ve kept his letters for over 40 years now, and I read them at least once a year, in memory of him.  There are middle-aged men here that might have rigged the land mine that took his life.  That memory has been stirred up as I walk the streets among the people of the country where he lost his opportunity for a long life.  I’m suffering from a memory hangover.

Connie and I spent a few hours touring around the Women’s Museum here.  One floor was devoted to Courtship, Marriage, Childbirth, and Family Life, explaining the rituals and customs of various tribal groups, some of which were matriarchal.   Another floor was devoted to Religion, and I learned that in addition to Buddha, most Vietnamese also worship a Mother Goddess.  A third floor displayed traditional Vietnamese clothing.   On one of those floors was section on street vendors.  There are lots of Vietnamese women on the streets selling a variety of food stuffs, flowers, food, and domestic products.  Many of them are from outlying villages and are in Hanoi to earn money for their children’s education.   They carry heavy loads in two concave baskets suspended at opposite ends of a long pole, balanced on one shoulder.  They’re often chased from the streets by policemen, who sometimes confiscate their goods or cooking utensils, and they must pay a fine to retrieve them, often more than they earn in a week.  They’re a tough lot—these Vietnamese women—and they have a hard life here. 

A fourth floor chronicled the role of women in the two wars that occurred between the years of 1945 and 1979—the war for independence from France and, of course, the “American War”, as they call it.  I was amazed at the number of women who served in combat roles and even led troops of men in battle.  And, of course, they served in more traditional roles caring for the wounded and maintaining agricultural production to fuel the war effort.   There were hundreds of thousands of women who fought in Vietnam’s war for independence from France, and more thousands who served in combat roles in the civil American war.    I don’t remember any news reports about these thousands of women serving in combat roles back in the years we were involved in this war.  As I read the information displayed in this area, it felt strange to be referred to as “the enemy”.    The South Vietnamese weren’t mentioned as “the enemy”, which I found interesting but understandable, since the outcome of the war was ostensibly celebrated here as a reunification of the north and south. 

I also visted the Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton”, where American pilots were held as prisoners for several years. 

You’d never know this is the entrance to the “hell hole” (translation of Hoa Lo).

These are some murals in a prison courtyard.

Much of the sad history of this prison is related to the French Occupation.

There are two rooms devoted to the American pilots who were imprisoned here.  In one room, the walls are lined with photographs of demonstrations against U.S. involvement in Vietnam—most of which took place in countries other than the U.S.  I know that there were demonstrations in other countries who sent soldiers to support the U.S. in Viet Nam, like Australia, England, and France.  But I wasn’t aware of demonstrations in so many other countries, and I didn’t know if this display was propaganda or the truth.  When I googled, I couldn’t find evidence to support the claim.

The photographs in the second room make it look like the pilots held here led a pretty cushy life—playing basketball, chess, and volleyball, preparing and eating Christmas dinner, decorating a Christmas tree, and reading letters from home. 

This is a photo of John McCain being rescued by civilians from the lake where his plane crashed.

Although McCain says he never received medical treatment for his three broken limbs, here’s a photo of a doctor giving him care—doctoring photos must be a medical specialty.

This is supposed to be McCain’s flight suit, parachute and other gear—funny that this exhibit appeared after he announced his run for the presidency.  McCain says the suit was cut from his body after his rescue. 

This government posting explains the extraordinary humane treatment provided to the American pilots.

This display disgusted me.  The propaganda machine of the Communist Party is still well oiled! 

I think I’ll be happy to return to the land of smiles.

P.S.  I decided to wait until I was in the land of smiles to post this entry.  You never know when Big Brother is watching!

Thursday, February 21, 2013


When I arrived in Hanoi, I was driven to my apartment by a delightful man who, despite working from 5 a.m. to around 10 p.m. seven days a week, having little time to spend with his two young sons, seems to be a very happy person.  He spoke pretty decent English, which he learned from his customers, and he taught me a few Vietnamese words.  I think I won’t be a master of this language.  I learned from him and others in my time here that Viet Nam is suffering economically, while all its neighbors in Southeast Asia are prospering.  I don’t know the reasons for this--some say it's corrupt government--and I’m not inclined to do the research to find out why. 

My taxi driver’s friendliness is not representative of what I’ve observed on the streets of Hanoi.  While Thailand is truly “the land of smiles”, you don’t see many smiling faces here.  I think life here is very hard.  People mostly look away from you when you’re walking on the streets.  Occasionally, someone will return my smile.  When you are buying a meal or a service, you get better treatment.

The Old Quarter is a great location for touring Hanoi, but it’s pretty run down and dirty.  

There's an occasional attractive building--this is the neighborhood library.

My apartment is in a very old building that sits behind the row of businesses that face the street.  So the street noise is muffled, which is a good thing.  But there’s a book store next door, and I can hear the staff pulling the adhesive tape off box after box after box, at all hours.  Sometimes it awakens me in the morning, although the last few days, the rooster has been my alarm clock.  I’ve heard about the bathrooms that have no enclosed shower, and now I have one.  So the bathroom floor is all wet for a few hours after I take a shower.  I have lots of space here, but I’d trade some of it for a space heater.  And I’d give blood for the bed I had in Sicily.  Asians like their beds really hard, and the one in this apartment is the hardest yet.

Navigating your way around the city is a challenge, mildly put.  You must drop the assumption that sidewalks are for pedestrians, and be wary at all times for motorcycles ahead and behind, because cyclists use the sidewalks as another lane to go the opposite way on one way streets or to get around a traffic jam. 

In addition to the danger of moving vehicles, the sidewalks serve as a parking lot for both motorcycles and cars. 

So you are often walking in the street, as close to the curb as possible to get around the obstacle course. And, as you can see, you also have to watch out for crumbled patches in the sidewalk and uneven tiles.

The traffic here is the worst I’ve ever seen.  If you have a green light to cross the street, you can’t be sure that all the traffic will stop for you.  The cars usually do, but the motorcycles will run red lights if there’s an opening in the traffic on the crossroad.  And you must always be alert for vehicles and cycles making turns.  They don’t stop for you, they dodge around you.  And drivers are constantly honking at each other and at you. 

It’s quite chilly here by comparison to Thailand.  Today, it’s 63 degrees and drizzling and there’s no heat in the apartment.  I guess that’s typical too.  But after 2 months in 85 to 95 degree weather, I’m now feeling the cold like a southeastern Asian might!   The temperatures have occasionally gone up to the low 70’s, but there have been few days when I’ve seen blue sky.  There’s usually a light drizzle, so every day is a bad hair day.  I’ve had to get out my big girl pants and wear long sleeves and a jacket again, inside and outside.  It’s reminded me of the weather in Italy during November.

Narelle and Dong run a travel agency together, so I’m getting a lot of good advice about what to do and where to eat.  

This is Dong’s travel agency.  She also has a laundry service (go figure).

These two make a good team because Narelle handles the communication with English-speaking clients, and Dong makes the arrangements with the Vietnamese tour companies, hotels, and transportation services.  

The three musketeers.

This is the little street where the agency is.  I don’t know how people find it.  There a dozens of travel agents within a two block area.  That’s pretty typical here—to find businesses offering the same goods or services clustered together.  I walked down a street a couple of days ago where every store sold only sunglasses.

Yesterday, I took a taxi to the Myanmar embassy to collect my passport and visa.  I decided to walk the 4 kilometers back to the Old Quarter.

A street scene along the way.

There are some lovely houses that remind you of the French influence.

And temples to remind you that Viet Nam is also Buddist.

I’m always amused to see live poultry on the city streets.

A curious thing about Viet Nam is the language.  Every word is one syllable, even if it looks like it might have two.  For example, here it’s Ha Noi, not Hanoi, and Viet Nam, not Vietnam.  There are numerous diacritical marks that change the pronunciation of vowels. 

I’ve mentioned how much I like the food here. Something is wrong with the focus function on my phone camera, and I don’t carry my camera around with me all the time, so no illustrated food report from Viet Nam.  Sorry.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


It seems I've spent more time outside of Hanoi lately than in the city.  I took another tour to a Thai mountain village (ironic, eh?) about 160 kilometers southwest of Hanoi.  It was close to four hours bumping along on Viet Nam roads, the last hour of which was winding up mountain roads to our destination.  

The scenery along the way was beautiful, but you never seem to be able to capture its grandeur with a camera. It was also a bit gray and foggy.

Upon arrival at the village, I checked into my cute little thatched bungalow. 

I had a pretty spectacular view from the balcony at the back of the bungalow.

Same view, another angle.

After checking in, we had a delicious lunch, family style, with 6 different Vietnamese dishes. (I had expected Thai cuisine, but the food wasn't spicy at all.)  

After lunch, we bicycled to the nearby town of Mai Chau.  I was feeling pretty good about not only keeping up with the younger crowd, but leading the pack at times.

This is one of my Hanoi angels (an Aussie by birth), Narelle.  She wanted to check out this tour so she could give better advice to her travel agency clients.  

The cattle are free range around here, and we often shared the road with them.

We bicycled on the roads through the rice paddies where the villagers were working their personal paddy.  Each family lives on the rice they grow on their square in these rice fields.  Their income is derived from tourism related businesses.

This woman thought her dirty cattle needed a rinsing.

A  little mother-child nuzzling.

After cooling down a bit, we enjoyed another delicious meal, sampling another several dishes, and then settled in for a really delightful performance of some traditional Thai dances.

Not ideal photography, but this fan dance was beautiful.

Every market I've seen sells beautiful scarves, which accessorized this dance.

I was serenaded to sleep by geese honking outside my bungalow, and awakened more than once in the night by barking dogs and howling cats.  My early alarm clock was the crowing of multiple roosters.  Ah, the peaceful countryside.

After a breakfast of noodle soup, some of our group went to climb 1,201 steps up a mountain to see a cave.  Narelle and I passed on that insanity and took a walk back through the rice fields to explore the town of Mai Chau.  


This is a typical house in the Thai village.

Very few people keep animals below their houses, an unsanitary practice that was once widespread.

On this morning, the mountains were a different kind of beautiful--draped in clouds.

I don't ordinarily like blue houses, but traveling around Asia can affect your taste.  

A street shot in town.

The Vietnamese love their karaoke, and you can find a karaoke bar or cafe almost anywhere.

This is a sign in front of a cafe, and Thit Cho' is a dish made with dog meat.  Yep, it's a fact, they eat dogs.

But they also keep some as pets.  However, they don't give them names.  This little pup was a real clown.

He pestered this larger dog constantly and the white dog was extremely tolerant.    They provided the entertainment at mealtime. I hope he doesn't become someone's dinner!

This was a great side trip--very relaxing and entertaining, and the best part was that there were very few tourists here.  Yes, I know I'm a tourist, too, but sometimes, I get tired of us!

Back in Hanoi this morning, I was awakened by the crowing of a rooster, and in my early morning fog, I thought I was still in Mai Chau.  It's amazing how much country life still exists in this city of millions.