Meanwhile, back in Vietnam….

Magnificent limestone formations give Halong Bay its well-earned reputation as a natural wonder of the world
Magnificent limestone formations give Halong Bay its well-earned reputation as a natural wonder of the world


I haven’t written for a while for two reasons. First, because of our re-routed trip to avoid Typhoon Haiyan, we have had to make up ground, which means many long days on a bus going from site to site, late dinners, short nights and back on the bus. We have only spent more than one night at a hotel three times, twice at the beginning of the trip. The other reason I haven’t written is because of the bronchial infection and fever I developed as a result of the first reason.

It didn’t help that when we stayed a night at the Phong Ha National Park, we went on a nighttime game drive in an open truck and it rained buckets, soaking us to the skin. All the “game” we saw as a result of thus sacrifice were three deer behinds, two porcupines a burrowing and an owl in a pine tree. Merry Christmas.I wasn’t the only person to get sick on this trip, but there were many positive experiences over the three weeks to offset it, including a night on a Chinese Junk in Halong Bay. The Bay is a world heritage site, well known for its dramatic limestone hills, 2000 of them in the bay.

That afternoon we rode in a sampan through a cave into a still lagoon where dozens of Macaques (monkeys) make their home. As the sun set we went kayaking around Halong Bay’s still waters. After a sumptuous dinner of fresh seafood caught that day, we went nighttime squid fishing. In the morning before debarking, Chef Khanh demonstrated how to make the carrot fish net in which our  dinner fish entrée was presented.

Had we gone there a week later we would have been greeted by the typhoon.

Detail work inside the Royal Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh reflects the grandeur of his early 20th century rule.
Detail work inside the Royal Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh reflects the grandeur of his early 20th century rule.

We visited several national forests, Cuc Phong being the most well known. We visited an endangered primate center there and we went on a jungle trek through the steamy forest. I didn’t mind the heat, or the slippery conditions, or the fact we climbed at least 500 steps to reach the top, but what did disappoint me was only seeing two animals, one a dead rat lying on the path I thought was trying to get a sun tan and the other was a caterpillar, caught by a park ranger for us to eat. I did eat it. It did not taste like chicken.

I must say that accommodations throughout this trip were as varied as accommodations can be, from well maintained four star hotels in the cities to cabins with no air conditioning shared with resident critters out in the middle of nowhere. However, wherever we stayed, the coffee was excellent. They brew it or add boiling water to a concentrate, but Vietnamese mountain coffee is as good as any I have tasted. Our tour guides also brought fresh, crusty French baguettes with us so no matter what quality food we faced, we could always count on a cup of great coffee and a baguette. They also provided continual treats on the long bus trips, local fruit from the roadside markets, cookies and candy. Our guide Thuy (Twe) often helped small hotels prepare the meals. In one case, we stopped at a roadside market to buy ingredients for soup and she gave each of us a shopping list of ingredients along with the cash to buy them.

Probably our most luxurious night was at the oceanside Sun Spa and Resort in Dong Hoi. Thuy paid for us to get body massages, we swam in the pool, walked the beach, then were abruptly awakened at 4 am to evacuate because the typhoon was expected to hit in this area. We were on our bus at 4:30, drove 200 kilometers north to catch a flight to Saigon. The rest of our trip was spent zigzagging across the country, trying to fulfill the planned itinerary in whatever way possible. This was to be the 12th typhoon to hit Viet Nam this year alone, so I guess we’re mighty lucky to live in Florida.


Our first night in Saigon we ate at a fine Italian restaurant, run by Italians, and a nice break from what had become standard fare on our trip – a huge buffet breakfast at our hotel, a seven course lunch at a local restaurant and a seven course dinner at another restaurant, seven days a week. Most of the food was tasty and hardly a day went by that we didn’t have some new dish to try. Everything was always fresh, cooked to order and despite the quantities, we were still able to fit into the clothes we brought with us on the trip.

I should also point out that in spite of the propaganda, the cities were always clean, with recently paved, wide streets and the people seemed happy. The country rivals China in its progress since 1995, when the collapse of the Soviet Union forced the government to free up markets and invite foreign investment. The contrast to Cuba is overwhelming, where Castro decided to maintain its course in spite of losing Soviet financial aid and the people live in miserable conditions.

Central Vietnam, especially the former capitol city of Hue (Hway), is very historic. Established as capitol in 1804, 12 emperors ruled the country from here until yielding to the communists in 1945. The royal palace is on a par with the Forbidden City in Beijing in its scope and one of the royal tombs is as elaborate as any I have seen in any country. It’s too bad the government here is so fixated on the last 50 years to ignore the thousands of years before. The best hope for its future lies in the fact that the largest segment of the population were either born after 1975 or too young to remember it. Of the 90 million citizens, only two million are members of the communist party.

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