A Travellerspoint blog

Munich, November 2015

semi-overcast 40 °F

On the train to Budapest, and finally got a few minutes to make some notes about our trip. I'm thinking that this time I will just post one post per place, as the daily posts that I did in Vietnam were pretty time consuming. So, in this edition, I will cover our two days in Munich.

Rick had already been in Munich for a little over a week on business, and we had added this trip as an extension of his business trip so that we could take advantage of Lilly picking up one of the flights and we could save on miles. At the last minute, we invited Jerry to join us as a "thank you" for all of the work he has done for us at Hoyt and a celebration of being "finished" with Hoyt. (Well, we're not really FINISHED, but we are pretty close. Close, as in the carpet is in. That's pretty close.) As we could not find a flight on miles at the last minute for Jerry to join our itinerary, Jerry had to fly out a day earlier to Munich than the kids and me. So, when we arrived, Jerry had already been in Munich for a day as well.

Despite being alone with the kids for the flight over, it was pretty uneventful. Cary continues to amaze me at being such a great traveller. We had some words in the airport at Philadelphia, as he was being a bit of a hellion running around, tipping over people's suitcases, climbing under chairs, etc... but overall, he was really good. Maggie was, as usual, a perfect helper (although she has picked up my bad habit of being stressed out when she thinks we may be late for something). The flight from Philadelphia to Munich was an overnight flight (departing around 7pm and arriving around 9am), so it was important that we sleep the whole way. I gave both Maggie and Cary a nice dose of Benadryl, and they were out. :) There were almost no passengers on the flight, so we all got our own row to sleep in. It was heavenly. Apparently some things are better when you travel to Europe in the winter.

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Despite the great sleep on the plane, we arrived in the airport jet lagged and exhausted. The plan was to meet Jerry and Rick at the airport and they would take us back to the AirBNB that they had already checked into the night before. Sure enough, they arrived right on time when we were walking out of baggage check. Cary was very happy to see Daddy, as he had been talking about "seeing Daddy in Germany" for a few weeks now.

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We left the airport on the U-Bahn for the AirBNB. I should mention that this is our first time using AirBNB, and were somewhat using it as a "practice round" for our trip to Western Europe next summer. (For that trip, we will have Troy and Alyx with us, and will need to take advantage of apartments with 2+ bedrooms as we can't afford multiple hotel rooms in each stop.) Walking into the apartment, it was everything I expected and more. It was very pretty, had a spacious kitchen with all of the dishes/pans/fridge/stove you would need to cook meals. (This was also important, as we planned to cook breakfasts and perhaps some dinners in the apartment to save on budget.) Even though it was only a one-bedroom, there was adequate room for all 5 of us (although not ideal; had I not already booked - and pre-paid - for the apartments before deciding to bring Jerry, I would have booked all two-bedrooms). The only odd thing about it was that the host actually lived in the apartment so we kept seeing his clothes in the drawers/closets, but the place was clean and scrubbed of most personal items. The tram to the U-bahn was right outside the front door. All in all, it was an awesome start to the trip.

One of the things that Jerry and I wanted to do most in Munich was see Dachau. Dachau was one of the first concentration camps opened in Germany and is located in Munich, and over 32,000 people were killed there. Rick had already visited Dachau on a previous business trip (Lilly business, not concentration camp business!), so he agreed to stay home with the kids while Jerry and I went to Dachau for a few hours. I was exhausted, but bucked up and went anyway. We set off on the tram and the U-bahn for Dachau with only minimal directions from Rick. We made it though. :)

It was raining during our whole visit to Dachau, which was pretty fitting for the visit. Because it was raining and I was trying to keep my camera under the umbrella, I didn't take many pictures, but will post what I have. When arriving at the front gates, you are "greeted" by a thick iron front door with the inscription above (in German) "Work will set you free".

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The place is laid out with rows of barracks that the inhabitants lived in. Only a row or two were still standing, but the foundations of the original buildings were still intact so you could understand the enormity of the place. In each building, there were wooden bunk boxes (beds) they would fill with hay and cram 2+ people into each one. The prisoners spent most of their "free time" cleaning the bunkers, arranging the beds, and scrubbing the wood floors, which they were made to keep spotlessly clean under fear of death if a spot was found. The prison was originally designed to hold 6,000 prisoners, but at the time of liberation there were over 30,000 people packed into these barracks, with most of them sick and dying.

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In the front of the camp, there was a row of buildings called "the bunker". This was the row of jail cells for prisoners who had committed offenses. The bunker was a much feared fate for the prisoners, as many of the prisoners were tortured there in various ways such as "pole hanging" (putting an individual's hands behind their back, and then hanging them by their wrists from a pole so that their arms basically popped out of their sockets), committing them for days in total darkness to "standing cells" where there was no room to sit, etc. Guards would enter at their leisure to further torture the prisoners, sometimes just pulling them outside to shoot and kill them. In the area between the bunker buildings, you could still see holes in the concrete where the bullets penetrated.

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In the back of the camp were the crematoriums where the bodies were burned. There were two - an old one and a new one. The old one was the one that was used for most (all?) of the cremations.

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The new one had been built right before the liberation, compete with a gas chamber that had been used at other concentration camps. It was never used here, though. The prisoners would enter via a "decontamination station", where something (not sure what, but not lethal) would come out of the shower heads in the ceiling.

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After that, they would pass into a large room where they were informed of the "shower" procedure. They would strip off their clothing to go into the mass "shower" in the next room. In this room, which was fit with shower heads so that the people believed it was an actual shower, they were gassed with a type of cyanide gas.

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The bodies would then be piled in the next room, which was an antechamber to the crematorium. They would then take them 2-3 at a time and shove them into the ovens.

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On the other side of the oven room was another room, where they would pile the bodies of those who died in the camp, so these could be burned as well. The grounds around the crematorium had sites where firing squads would line up and shoot prisoners. It was an interesting site, because if not for the awful circumstances that were taking place, someone could feel like they were taking a relaxing walk down a beautiful wooded path.

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As one can imagine, it was a very somber experience. The information was presented tastefully and was much less gory than I expected. I think the thing I took away from it most was being impressed by the tone that was used in the site. The Germans have sworn "never again" in relation to their country's role in these horrific events, and they presented the information in a way that was true and honest about what happened. There was no propaganda, no blaming of others. It was simply the truth, presented in a way that will ensure it never happens again.

After our Dachau visit (and a stop at the gift shop where Jerry bought a souvenir ring), Jerry and I returned to the apartment. It was still raining , so we didn't want to leave for dinner. Jerry and I went to the grocery store to find something to fix for dinner (I wanted to make spaghetti, but they didn't carry spaghetti sauce, so we settled for noodles and cheese and some microwave lasagna). We made dinner and sat as a family at the kitchen table, then I passed out hard. :)

The next day was our last day in Munich. It wasn't raining, so our plans for the day included a visit to Marienplatz and then the hash in the afternoon. We set off in the morning, dressed in our hash gear, and arrived at Marienplatz just as the glockenspiel was doing its noon dance.

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We ran some "errands" there, including Maggie buying a new knit panda hat and Jerry stopping at a packed T-mobile store for help with his phone while the rest of us watched some street performers. Cary enjoyed giving the performers money and cried if he wasn't given coins to drop in their cases at each stop.

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The Christmas Markets were starting to open in Munich, so we stopped to have a mug of hot mulled wine at one of the stands. I enjoyed mine, but Maggie didn't care much for the non-alcoholic version.

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We then rode the subway to the start location at the Municher Freight stop. We had a bit of time left before the hash, so we stopped at a small cafe and had a beer and split a schnitzel three ways. Paying the bill took longer than expected, and we found ourselves running a bit late for the hash. We ran out of the cafe and headed for the start location, which was generally stated as "the train station". We expected to find flour around the train station taking us to the congregation area, but there was nothing. Jerry asked me if his drawstring bag (one of those yellow T-box ones from Chicago) was clearly hashing gear, and one of the passerbys heard him say "hash" and said, "on on"? Turns out he was a hasher looking for the start as well, and had some information about where they were congregating. Two points for Jerry, or we never would have found the start in the mess of streets.

The pack was basically on-out as soon as we arrived. Jerry saw the runners taking off and took off after them in his flannel-lined jeans, not realizing that the walker trail was hanging back. (HAHAHAHAHA) The walkers took off slightly later, including Rick, Maggie, Cary and me, who looked for Jewbacca the whole time, hoping he took off with the runners but equally afraid he had darted around the corner for a cigarette and was missing the whole trail.

Anyway, there was no actual flour on the walkers trail - the "hare" just led us straight to the beer check. There was another little boy on the trail who was riding a bike; Cary took to him instantly and ran around after him the whole time. The beer check was at a park, complete with a climbing rope thing and swings. The kids had fun while we waited for the runners to arrive. The beer arrived in about an hour by a non-hasher with a wagon-bike from California, and the runners arrived shortly thereafter. Jerry made it too, happy to have found the walker trail.

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After the beer stop, we walked back to the start. Circle took forever. Jewbacca did find me a shopping cart in the parking lot that I took a picture in. All I remember from circle was being cold. :)

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The on after was at an Indian restaurant where we ate great food but managed to make asses of ourselves by spilling everything in sight on ourselves and our neighboring table (Rick, his drink; me, a vase of flowers; Cary, his Sprite). Rick also managed to stick his butt in the neighboring tables' meal and she chewed him a new one for it. He was talking about offering to buy her meal until the other hashers convinced him that the woman wasn't worth it. I was thinking, "thank God, because this place is expensive!"...

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We headed home after the on-after and packed our bags for the 8am train the next morning to Vienna.

Posted by heather.goodin 18:24 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Packing List - 18 Days in Vietnam


View Vietnam (2015) on heather.goodin's travel map.

As I reflect on our recent whirlwind trip to Vietnam, I think it would be helpful to revisit our packing list and comment on what we brought, what we wish we had brought, and what we didn't need.

We accomplished the whole trip with only backpacks; no actual luggage. I carried a 45+10L bag, Rick carried a 55+15L, Maggie carried a 40L, and Cary a tiny little thing that was only large enough to hold his buddies and a few small toys (Rick and I carried his clothes and things). Here is what we packed, along with commentary on some items:

First Aid

  • Chewable Melatonin. Our pediatrician recommended 3mg for Cary to help him sleep on the flight, and also said it could be helpful for the adults to take when we arrived in our destination to help us sleep to avoid jet lag. We didn't use it at all on the flight. We all took one when we arrived in Saigon to help us sleep, but we felt no effect. Would not bring again, especially given the size of the bottle.
  • Children's Benedryl. If the melatonin didn't work, the pediatrician recommended Benedryl for Cary. We tried it ahead of time (yes, pre-drugged our kids!), and it did work - but we never actually needed it on the trip. Since it worked, I may bring it again next time just in case.
  • Children's Tylenol. Didn't use, but good to have.
  • Immodium caplets. A must have, just in case.
  • Azythromycin. Another must have, just in case. Prescribed by the travel doctor in case of traveller's diarrhea. Only Maggie took hers, and I'm not really sure she needed to.
  • Band Aids. Used them. Must have.
  • Neosporin. A good idea.
  • Adult Advil. For hangovers, mainly. :)
  • Thermometer. Didn't come close to using, but still good to have when traveling with kids.
  • Chewable Pepto Bismol. Would probably bring again.
  • Hand Sanitizer. We brought 4 bottles. Would probably only bring 2 next time, 3 tops.
  • Insect repellent. First of all, we sprayed our clothes with Permethrin before leaving. It took 3 bottles to cover all of our clothing (for 4 people). We then brought Natrupel wipes for actual insect repellent. The wipes were nice because they aren't counted as liquids and therefore easier to pack in a carry on. However, we found that one wipe pretty much only covered one adult leg (and maybe an arm). We brought 8 12-packs of the wipes, and used half of them (and, really only used insect repellent on 1/4 of our days there.) Given how expensive they were on Amazon, I'm not sure they were the most economical option. If I had extra liquids room, I may just opt to bring some pump spray next time.
  • Sunscreen. I brought one 8-oz bottle of high SPF, "very water resistant" sunscreen (of course, split into separate 3oz travel-sized bottles), along with one 4 oz bottle of special no-tears face sunscreen. The face sunscreen was enough volume-wise, but the 8 oz "body" sunscreen was really only about half of what we needed. It was very expensive to buy in Vietnam, too. I would bring more next time, even though 6 little bottles of sunscreen seems ridiculous. It's actually necessary.

Toiletries

  • Soap. For some reason, I brought three little bars of hotel soap. One was plenty. Most hotels had soap anyway.
  • Lotion. Brought both a travel-sized body lotion and Eucerin. Not sure why. I don't even use lotion at home, let alone Eucerin.
  • Nail Clippers. You never know when you'll need those.
  • Kleenex. I brought one little travel-sized packet with like 10 Kleenex in it. I would bring three times this much next time. You never know when you're not going to have access to toilet paper.
  • Shampoo/Conditioner. I brought 2 3-oz containers of shampoo and 3 3-oz containers of conditioner (given that both Maggie and I have long hair and use tons). I would bring the same next time. Shampoo was readily available in the hotels, but conditioner was not, so definitely wouldn't bring less than 3. (Not sure if it was available in stores.)
  • Contact Solution/Case. I brought one travel-sized bottle of contact solution. That was enough. And two cases, but one was enough.
  • Glasses. A must have, especially on the plane.
  • Extra Contacts. I brought two pairs.
  • Deodorant. I brought 2 travel-sized deodorants (knowing that Maggie would use it as well). We only needed 1.
  • Makeup. I brought one thing of foundation, one loose powder, one mascara and one chap stick. I'd bring it all again, but the thought of wearing foundation still cracks me up. It's way too hot. Maybe for a special occasion.
  • Q-Tips. Brought about 40.
  • Hair Clips. Brought 2. Would bring 2 again, because I lost one in Saigon.
  • Razor. Brought 1.
  • Hair Rubber Bands. Brought a ton, between me and Maggie. 10 or so.

Electronics/Other

  • USB Port and iPad/iPhone USB cords (1 per device). Man, was that thing ever useful. Probably one of the best things I packed.
  • Power Converter. Brought about 3-4 of them, but really didn't need them much in Vietnam. Most plugs were universal and accepted both US and European plugs.
  • Wireless Keyboard. Wouldn't have blogged at all during the trip without it (as I only brought my iPad; no laptop).
  • iPads. Each of us had our own. I take back what I said above - THIS was the most important thing I packed. Never underestimate how long you can keep a 3 year old (or a 11 year old, for that matter) entertained with an iPad. It's amazing. Whenever we stopped for a meal (or just a beer for the adults), all we had to do was give the kids their iPad and we could sit as long as we wanted. As a matter of fact, on the few occasions we didn't bring all 4, the one who didn't bring theirs wished they would have. Most restaurants, coffee shops, etc. had WiFi. Very, very, very useful.
  • Clothes Line. Also very useful. Beware, however: cotton clothes take multiple days to dry... even small little boy underwear. Most hotels did have laundry service, and we did laundry twice during the trip. But this was nice for just a few items - underwear, hang up a sweaty shirt, bathing suit, etc.
  • Sunglasses. Necessity. I brought 2 pairs for me, 3 for Cary, and Maggie brought 1. 2 for me was necessary. 1 for Cary and Maggie was probably enough.
  • Camera AND CHARGER AND EXTRA BATTERY. Camera necessary. So is charger. Next time, I'll try not to forget it IN THE SOCKET AT HOME. The spare battery would have been nice to have too, if I hadn't left it at home in the charger.
  • Cord to connect camera to iPad. Very useful for backing up pictures to iPad (provided you have enough free space).
  • Flash Lights. Brought 2 small ones. Used them a few times to look under beds for lost items.
  • External USB-Charged Waterproof Speaker (and power cord). I envisioned sitting on the beach and wanting to play music. We didn't use it, but it may still be nice to bring next time, since it's so small.
  • Vacuum-Sealed Nut Mix for Snacking. HAHAHAHAHA. Brought WAY too much of this. It was the bane of our existence the entire trip, schlepping around a bag full of nuts. Skip it next time. PLEASE. We came HOME with at least 10-15 bags of it.
  • Toys for Plane. I brought coloring books, crayons, play doh, a magic erase pad, some watercolor paints, card games... you name it. The bag took up about 1/5 of my backpack and weighed about 4 lbs. NEVER OPENED THE BAG. I carried it all through Vietnam for no reason. Never underestimate the power of an iPad...
  • Drain Plug. Whoever suggested I bring this - THANK YOU. Used it several times, both for sinks to do laundry and even a bathtub at one place. A must have, for the amount of space it takes up.
  • Pens. Brought 2.
  • Cards. Brought 2 regular decks and one UNO deck. Only needed one of each (and could get by without UNO). Not sure why I brought two regular decks in the first place...
  • Caribeaners. Brought 2, but one was broken. Would bring a few more next time. Good for hanging stuff off your backpack and for clipping drawstring day packs in the front for security/comfort.
  • Earplugs. Very necessary in some hotels in Vietnam. 1 pair per person, minimum.
  • Bose In-Ear Earbuds, and Over-The-Ear Headphones for Cary. Also very necessary. The Bose in-ears are very comfortable and can easily be worn for a 13-20 hour flight (unlike the Apple ones, or the free ones they hand out on the plane).
  • Extra dishcloth. We used this for everything. Wiping sweat, cleaning up spills - you name it. Came in handy time and time again. Rick carried it every day in our daypack.
  • Easy Mac. In case the kids refused to eat the food. Only ate one packet. Didn't have a problem with the food.
  • Blankets. Each of us brought our own blanket. I'm glad we did. They were big and bulky, but well worth it so you could curl up on the plane or bus or train. Cary slept much better having his own special blanket from home. Well worth the bulk.
  • The McGyver Bag. Contained extra quart- and gallon-sized plastic bags, some duct tape, safety pins, sewing kit, twist ties, rubber bands, plastic silverware, and heavy duty garbage bags (in case of rain, to cover backpacks). Didn't need it, but glad I had it.
  • Drawstring Bags. Brought 2. Very useful. I would bring 2-3 again next time.
  • Day Pack. I brought a PacSafe day pack. It's a neat backpack - RFID safe, interior slash-proof mesh, detachable shoulder straps that can be clipped around table legs, etc. I did use it some days of the trip, and it was very useful for filling and using on the airplane (carried all of our iPads in it, Cary's headphones, etc., which would have been hard to fit in a drawstring bag)... but in all honesty I would have been just fine with just the drawstring bags. It was very hard to manage both a backpack AND the day pack, and the day pack didn't roll up enough to fit inside the backpack. I was forced to wear one on my back and one on my front, which was unnecessarily uncomfortable. It was also very hot to carry around town on your back, where the daypack gave more ventilation.
  • The "Nut Bag" day pack. Rick brought his own separate day pack, an easy cross-body one (much smaller than mine). The lack of inner mesh meant it could be rolled up and packed inside the backpack - well, it could have, had it not contained 100 lbs of extra nut mix. Rick carried this as a daypack most days with an iPad or two in it. It was the perfect size, and you got much better ventilation on your back when carrying it. I would bring this one again, but not mine.

Clothing (per person)

  • Sandals/Flip Flops. Brought one pair per person.
  • Tennis Shoes. Brought one pair per person, mainly because we were hashing. If you aren't planning on hiking or running or anything, definitely skip these. They are a pain to carry around, even tied to the outside of your backpack. (That being said, I couldn't have hashed without them.)
  • Lightweight Pants. I brought one pair of lightweight gaucho pants (which were annoyingly too large), and one pair of my PickPocket Proof Pants. I wore the gaucho pants all the time and the others only once (it was just too hot). This was the perfect pants selection. Cary brought one pair of warm up type pants. He never wore them, but it was good to have them.
  • Shirts. I brought about 3-5 T-shirts per person. For me, this was the right number. For Rick, he wished he had brought 5-7, as he was constantly sweating and having to change shirts. The one change I would make next time: ALL DRY FIT. They are so much lighter, dry so much faster, are so much more comfortable... I brought one dry fit shirt and wore it about 40% of the time. So comfortable.
  • Shorts. I brought one pair of jean shorts and one pair of black running shorts. This too was perfect. Cary brought 3 pair, but wore his dry fit shorts the most often (just because you could wash them overnight).
  • Swimming Suit. Brought one. One is enough.
  • Quick Dry Long Sleeve Top. I brought one long sleeved top. Didn't use it much, but would bring it again.
  • Underwear. Brought 3. Would bring 5 next time because they are so small and I wouldn't have to do laundry so often. Cary brought 3 pair, but they were cotton and wouldn't dry overnight. Kind of a pain. Rick brought dry fit travel underwear, and they were very convenient to wash/dry overnight.
  • Socks. Brought 3. Perfect number for me. Rick said he may have brought more. Once again, wouldn't dry overnight.
  • Lightweight Rain Jacket. As I didn't have an actual rain jacket, I brought the outside shell of a waterproof ski jacket. WAY too big and bulky! I need to find something much smaller and more lightweight for the next trip. Cary's was much smaller, and Rick just brought a rain poncho. I'm not sure I would go that far, but we didn't need them for this trip.
  • Fleece/Pullover Jacket. I brought a zip up jacket. It was nice to have on the plane and other places where the A/C may be turned up too high, or for cooler nights. I wouldn't bring anything too heavy/bulky, though. I didn't use it much.
  • Bras. Brought 2. Good number. Was kind of annoyed I didn't bring a strapless to wear under tank tops, though.

So, that's really about it. All in all I think we did pretty good packing. There are really only a few things I would do differently. Glad I captured this so I don't pack too much crap on my next trip. Now if I can just stick to my own advice.... :)

Posted by heather.goodin 04:35 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Halong Bay, Day 1

Day 11 in Vietnam

overcast 85 °F
View Vietnam (2015) on heather.goodin's travel map.

Our alarm went off at 4:30am.

Where are we, exactly? Oh, yeah. On the train.

A few minutes later, the music started playing over the loudspeakers, which signified that the train was arriving at a stop. (What is it, their national anthem? I'm not sure...) Rubbing our eyes, we struggled to get up. Although well rested, it is just hard to wake up at 4:30am.

We arrived in Hanoi with the usual hustle and bustle of the train station. Cabbies were everywhere - you could barely exit the train before someone took your arm and started walking you to their cab. Being westerners, we stuck out like sore thumbs of course, and it didn't take long before we were picked out of the crowd. Sleepily, we were dragged off to a cab, too tired to protest. (Typically, we were very careful about which cab companies we would take, always looking for a Vinasun or Mai Linh taxi because we were burned with the scam in Nha Trang and these are "reputable" companies. But in this case, we just went with it.)

Luckily, we didn't have any problems.

As we entered the cab, I gave the address of our destination to the cab driver: the Happy Tears Restaurant in the Old Quarter.

I should take a moment to give some back story here. Our main goal for the day was to connect with the cruise I had pre-booked from home for Halong Bay. To make our travels a little easier, I had pre-paid for transportation through the cruise company from Hanoi to Halong Bay after reading horror stories on the internet about people who tried to get themselves to the cruise boat dock, only to realize that it is nearly impossible t know which docking "complex" your tour operator leaves from, not to mention there is no way you would EVER be able to pick out your boat amongst the zillions of others. So, when booking transportation, they had inquired about which hotel to pick us up from. I explained that we were arriving early on the train and would not be checking into a hotel prior, and asked that they suggest a pickup location. They said the Happy Tears Restaurant opened early, and that they would pick us up at 8:00am. Hence, the destination.

As we drove into Old Quarter, however, we realized this may have been a mistake. There was not a single soul on the streets. All shops were closed, with the big "garage doors" rolled shut over each business. It was still dark outside. The streets were too dirty to lie down, and we were desperately wanting coffee. At least we were at the right address!

So, we walked a bit, trying to ensure we didn't get lost. Didn't get us much. There wasn't a single cafe open. We returned to the Happy Tears Restaurant and sat down with our backs to the closed garage door face.

As is his nature, Cary soon felt more awake and therefore got rowdy. In his fighting and throwing his weight around, he banged against the garage door a few times. Not long thereafter, we heard someone on the other side, coming to roll it up. The kid's hair was all askew and he had obviously just woken up. He put out a little ramp, pushed all the motorbikes parked inside out onto the sidewalk, and opened up for business for us. (Oh, yeah. I forgot that everyone here lives inside their restaurants....)

We ordered some breakfast, juices, and coffee. Luckily the place had wifi and easily accessible plugs to charge our electronics, as we were to sit there for another 3 hours. We made the best of it. Nobody else came in, and the shop owner didn't mind that we stayed for so long.

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As 8:00am approached, I started to feel nervous. After all, I had prepaid about $900 over a month ago to some random people in Vietnam, and they told me something to the tune of, "Thanks for enough money to feed my family for a month. In exchange for your money, I will pick you up on the other side of the earth at 8:00am at a random place. Be there or be square." It would be so easy for them to take my money and not show up. Heck, I almost wouldn't blame them! 8:00am came and went. I got more nervous, and shot off an email to the cruise company to remind them we were waiting to be picked up. I felt sick from nerves.

And then, around 8:10am, the guy from Glory Cruises arrived. No problem, man. What were you worried about?

I love Vietnam; this just "operating on faith" that it will all work out ok. My nervousness quickly turned to a feeling of freedom and elation - "how AWESOME is it that I can make a plan to meet a random person at X time/date on the other side of the planet, and it just works out?!?!"

Anyway, we boarded the bus for the bumpy 4-hour ride to Halong City. The bus ride was uneventful; they gave us water, and the guide made a few announcements about passing attractions as we drove. He answered the tourists' questions. There was a stop halfway through at a touristy pit stop place where you could buy anything from snacks/drinks to art to furniture. When we arrived at the dock, it was apparent why the advice to pre-book transportation was sound - it WOULD be very hard to figure all of this out on your own. The Glory Cruise Line also shares a waiting area with Pelican Cruise Lines, and you never would have known this had you just showed up. Plus, the cruise ship didn't actually DOCK, it was waiting out in the water, and you had to take a small tender ship to get to it. You'd never figure this out alone.

After a short wait, we boarded the tender to get out to our ship.

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We were pleasantly surprised when our cruise ship came into view. I had booked a mid-price cruise line, mainly choosing this one because it was one of the few that offered a "family room" instead of booking two separate rooms (therefore saving us money). Our boat was a bit tired looking, but all of them were, really - even the ones with the more "luxury" companies. The crew was waiting for us on the boat, waiving on our approach.

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Upon boarding the boat, everyone gathered in the restaurant for the obligatory safety instructions. They were much shorter than those we had experienced on previous Caribbean cruises. It was a small ship - with only 24 rooms or so - and therefore much more intimate. We were then released to our rooms as the boat started to cruise.

The room was actually great. It was actually two rooms, where a doorway had been added to join them - one with a queen bed for Rick and I, and the second room with two twins for the kids. It was nice to know we could sleep in two separate rooms for the next few nights, and without Cary in our bed.

Lunchtime came quickly. We went back up to the restaurant, where we were treated to a very nice lunch. From your table, you could watch the scenery go by. It was stunning.

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After lunch, we went to the upper deck, where they had lounge chairs to lay out and a bar area with tables. We watched more of the scenery. I had seen pictures of Halong Bay before leaving on Google Images, but the actual sight was more breathtaking. It was hard to wrap your mind around the enormity of the limestone karsts sticking out of the water, and the thought that this phenomenon stretched for miles and miles in every direction, with over 2,000 of them total in the bay.

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We arrived fairly quickly at our first stop: Luon Cave. The cave went though one karst into a small little cove. We were given two options: kayak through the cave, or ride on a bamboo boat paddled by a local. We were worried about Cary sitting still in the kayak, so Rick and Cary chose the boat and Maggie and I chose the kayak. Plus, this allowed Rick to take the camera, as we didn't want it to get wet.

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Maggie had never kayaked, but picked it up pretty quickly.

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The cove is home to wild monkeys - we had an opportunity to see them up close. Rick snagged this picture from fairly far away, but Maggie and I kayaked right up to them on the beach... so close, in fact, that Maggie was frightened that they would jump onto our kayak.

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After kayaking, we boarded the ship again and cruised to Ti Top beach for some swimming time ("no more than 59 minutes", though, according to our guide). Not only was there a beach there, but also a trail (all stairs) to climb to the top of the karst for some panoramic photos. We worried if Cary would be able to get up there, but Rick said he would carry him if he got tired. I marveled at the idea that he could carry Cary up all those stairs, but we went anyway. No need to worry, really - Cary climbed most of the way himself.

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The view from the top was staggering. I wish it hadn't been overcast so the pictures would have been better, but man. How gorgeous.

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Afterward, we climbed back down for some beach time.

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We then took the tender back to the boat. We had a beer or two at the bar upstairs while we cruised to our stop for the night.

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The other evening activities were quite entertaining. There was a huge and absolutely delicious dinner - complete with a lights-off-and-fire presentation of the appetizers. Afterward, there was a demonstration on the top deck of how to make Vietnamese spring rolls - the guide was very funny, and everyone - even the kids - got involved in rolling them and then eating them when finished. (As is typical of the Vietnamese, the guide took a special liking to the kids on board and involved them in everything.) As night settled in, they had squid fishing off the side of the boat (an impossible activity, if you ask me!). There was a movie playing in the restaurant, but it was in Vietnamese with French subtitles, much to the dismay of a few English-speaking tourists who showed up to watch it. However, knowing that breakfast would come quickly at 7am, and being tired from the long day, we turned in fairly early.

Posted by heather.goodin 09:06 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoa's Place and the Sleeper Train to Hanoi

Day 10 in Vietnam

sunny 90 °F

We woke early in the morning, anxious to return to Hoa's Place. We quickly packed our bags, strapped them on, checked out of our hotel, and headed down the street and back to Hoa's.

Hoa was already standing outside, waiting for us to start walking down his street. He rushed out to meet us, telling us that he would have had the motorbike bring our bags back - we didn't have to carry them! (What a sweetheart!) He then offered to take our picture, saying how cool it would look to have a picture of us all walking with our backpacks on down the road. He's not much of a photographer (eek!), but it's the thought that counts. :)

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We took a seat, and Hoa took our breakfast orders. Cary and Maggie had yogurt and pancakes, Rick had scrambled eggs, and I had an omelette.

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While the kids played on their iPads, we relaxed and enjoyed the morning talking with Hoa and the other guests. One gentleman, a German guy who was in Vietnam "for a couple of months or something", sat at a nearby table eating hard boiled eggs. He told us his story: he arrived in Hanoi, bought a motorbike for $200, spent $60 at a mechanic ensuring it was roadworthy and making a few minor repairs, and then set off down the coast for destinations unknown. He planned to sell the bike for $150 at the end of his trip. Another girl was a lone traveler from Singapore - she also seemed unsure of how long she would be in country, and had bought a motorbike to travel. The two of them had met at Hoa's and planned to drive to Monkey Mountain (a local sightseeing place) for the day... well, whenever they got around to it. Nobody was in any hurry.

After breakfast, two of Hoa's friends from the American military (who have now settled in Vietnam, married Vietnamese women and give motorcycle tours for a living) came by for breakfast. We talked with them for quite a while, listening to their stories about Hoa from the war, their lives here now, etc. The kids were perfectly content playing on their iPads.

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All in all, it was a completely relaxing, beautiful morning. I could have stayed there for a century, meeting people as the wind blew them in from whichever direction while sipping beer from Hoa's refrigerator. I can see why people stay here for weeks on end.

As the time to leave was quickly approaching, we grabbed the current Travelers Journal (#29) and wrote an entry, joking that perhaps someday Maggie and/or Cary would return and read our entry. (Hoa shared with him that this has actually happened; a boy was brought by his parents when he was 3, and later returned as a 20-something, asking if Hoa remembered him.)

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Hoa called us a taxi, we took some final photos and settled our tab, and were on our way. It was way, way too short of a visit.

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We arrived at Ga Da Nang (the Danang train station) with a little time before our train, and took seats in front of a huge air conditioner. As the family waited comfortably, I made my way into the gift shop, and found a kid's book with pictures of fruit from the region as well as the English words for them. I was so excited, as I had forgotten the names of many of the fruits we had tried back in the Delta: I can now tell you they were papaya, soursop, rambutan, mango, jack fruit, dragon fruit, durian, sapodilla, and milky fruit. :)

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As our train departed around 1:30pm, this was the first time we had boarded a train with the intention of staying awake. The train ride to Hanoi would last us all night, and would arrive at 4:30am. We got on the train and immediately gathered around the window in the hallway, watching the countryside go by.

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We had not seen much of the journey from the train legs from Saigon to Nha Trang or Nha Trang to Da Nang, but the section from Da Nang to Hue is known as the most beautiful of the north-south railway because of how closely it hugs the coastline. I found an area between the cars where I could take pictures through an open window, and spent an hour or two snapping photos as the coastline rolled by until the train stopped in Hue. (We were not getting off in Hue - not enough time, unfortunately.)

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We spent the evening reading books on our iPads and venturing about very little. Knowing that we would arrive so early in the morning, I fell asleep early to get a jump on the day. Our last sleeper train in Vietnam...

Posted by heather.goodin 12:46 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Goodbye Hoi An, Hello Hoa's Place!

Day 9 in Vietnam

sunny 90 °F
View Vietnam (2015) on heather.goodin's travel map.

We awoke to our last morning in Hoi An. In addition to the Delta (Can Tho), this is probably the second place we had stayed where I felt we didn't have enough time in the city. I was very sad to leave.

However, I was conversely very HAPPY to be waking up at this particular hotel on this particular morning, for one reason: that yummy breakfast that we hadn't had time to eat yesterday was waiting on us downstairs. Awesome. :) We went downstairs and consumed plate after plate of bacon, noodles, omelettes, sausage, and fruit (me, Rick, and Maggie), and watermelon (Cary). Their passionfruit juice was delicious, and they had the "gloppy stuff" to go with our coffee. (We had first experienced "gloppy stuff" at the homestay in the Delta. We had no idea what it was. It's yellowish in color, very thick, and very sugary. You could compare it to our flavored creamers, but there's less cream in "gloppy stuff". After looking it up in the States, I think it may have been sweetened condensed milk?)

After breakfast, we went back to the room to pack our backpacks. Time to move on! As I had woken up early and packed up most of my stuff before everyone else awoke, I went downstairs to look up a few things on the internet (more reliable in the lobby) - including getting maps and addresses of the places we planned to visit that day for the taxi driver. (It seems nobody affiliated with transportation - taxi drivers, bus station attendants, train station attendants, etc. - can speak English. It must be a law. LOL) Our plan was to stop for lunch/coffee at a local place called the Dingo Cafe (where they were rumored to have great Western food, strong WiFi, and a playground for the kids), and then continue on to Hoa's Place in Da Nang. (I'll talk more about Hoa's Place later.)

Upon checkout, the front desk lady asked us where we were headed next - I replied with our final destination, Da Nang - and she offered us a private vehicle to our destination. I declined, as it was really more expensive than we needed. She then offered to call a taxi for us, and I agreed. When the taxi arrived, I inadvertently caused a lot of confusion by showing him a map of our destination (only a few kilometers away) - I guess the front desk had told him we were going to Da Nang, and he was disappointed. On the way to the Dingo Cafe, he negotiated a time to pick us up for the second half of our journey. We gave ourselves 2 hours to enjoy the cafe/playground, and he agreed to pick us up there at 2:00pm for the ride to Da Nang.

Of course, when we arrived at the Dingo Cafe, Maggie immediately realized that she forgot her drawstring bag back at the hotel. Rick had the taxi driver take him back to the hotel for the bag while I dragged all of the backpacks into the cafe and got the kids situated.

The cafe was a pretty cool place. It's owned by an Australian couple (or is only one of them Australian?), and has a great ambiance to it. The main outdoor area had big comfy cushioned bench seating with huge pillows to lounge in. In the back, there was a two-story play structure with a trampoline in front, a few swings off to the side, and sand toys to play with scattered about. There were a few tables out back where you could eat by the playground, but they were small and not very shaded. We chose to play there for a while and then get a seat in the comfy seats. (Unfortunately, my camera lens was cloudy and I didn't notice - sorry.)

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We weren't really hungry after just having had breakfast, but everything on the menu looked very yummy, so we ordered. The menu was all Western goodness - burgers and BLTs and all the favorites we had been craving. I didn't take a photo of the food, but it was very nicely presented and absolutely delicious. I posted on Facebook while eating that it was the best burger I've ever had... and I really meant it at the time. :) We spent the next few hours fighting the internet (unfortunately, the WiFi wasn't as hot as we had hoped), awaiting our 2pm taxi.

We were then whisked off to Hoa's Place.

Prior to leaving for Vietnam, when planning the trip, I had run across several posts about Hoa's Place. There's really a bit of a story that goes along with it. Hoa himself is a Vietnamese man who fought with South Vietnam alongside the American Marines during the war. Hoa's Place is a kind of a backpacker's legend. The place used to consist of a guest house with a few rooms that Hoa would rent out for $5-$7/night, and a small little family-style dining room where Hoa would serve up legendary dinners for all of the guests and then stay up and drink until the wee hours with him. Based on the number of stories I read about Hoa and how cool he is (he was actually named in a magazine as "The Coolest Man in Vietnam"), how beautiful his place is, and the hospitality of Hoa and his family, I knew I had to visit, if only to say I had been there.

The "Place" in Hoa's Place now has changed a bit, but the beauty and hospitality hasn't at all. A few years ago, the government came knocking on his door and told him he had to leave - that they were selling his land to a developer, and he would have to vacate. Fortunately for Hoa, he was on the very edge of the land they planned to sell, and he only had to move 25 yards or so. (Literally.) Unfortunately for Hoa, they bulldozed his little guest house, and he had to rebuild from scratch. At the time of our visit, he had rebuilt an open-air thatched-roof dining area, and a main "residence" with a kitchen, bathroom, and bed area. (He doesn't actually live there, though.) He is still trying to get the government to give him a building permit to rebuild his guest house, but so far has been unsuccessful. However, all of this hasn't seemed to diminish his business - he still has backpackers that come from all over the world to visit, and he negotiates a price for them at a small mom-and-pop hotel just a short walk from his place.

So, the taxi pulls up in front of Hoa's Place, and we pile out. Cary had fallen asleep on the 30-minute taxi ride, so Rick grabbed him while I grabbed the bags and pulled them onto the sidewalk.

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Hoa came out to greet us on the sidewalk. He asked how long we would be staying (only until tomorrow afternoon, unfortunately), and offered to call the hotel to book us a room. He offered Cary a place to sleep on a bed in the kitchen ("my sister will let us know when he wakes up" - ah, relief!), and arranged a motorbike driver from the hotel to get our bags and take them down the road for us. (Watching the motorbike driver pile our heavy bags on his bike was quite hilarious, but he made it just fine.) In the meantime, we were given a tour of the place and told to "Take it Easy". Hoa explained that "this was our house", and we should use it accordingly. He showed us where the refrigerator was (stocked with beer, soda, water, treats), and all the other little things he had for sale. If we wanted something, we were asked to just go get it and write it in a book he had laying on the table out front. We treated ourselves to a few beers and sat back and relaxed.

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Hoa was a very interesting guy. We talked for quite a while in the hut, with him telling all kinds of stories about his military experience, losing his guest house, his hopes for the future, what to expect in other areas of Vietnam, etc. He took us for a walk of the immediate vicinity, and showed us where the old guest house was. He showed us some traditional fishing "round boats" that were sitting in the sand near his place. He pointed down the beach to a shipwreck a short walk away. It was a great way to spend an afternoon.

(Leaving room for pictures on Rick's phone, to be added later - check back!)

Unfortunately, Hoa had plans that night, so he could not stay long. He asked us if we would like dinner that night (yes, please), and assured us his sister would fix us a wonderful traditional Vietnamese dinner. She didn't speak English, but he said dinner would be ready at 7, and reminded us to make ourselves at home and stay as late as we wanted.

Once Hoa left, we decided to walk down to the hotel to get checked into our room. We found it in the direction Hoa had pointed, and our bags were sitting in the lobby as anticipated. We were checked into our room - a fairly spacious room, with three double-but-not-queen beds and good A/C, and relaxed for a while. My tummy was feeling a bit upside down, so I opted to stay and read for another 45 minutes while my Pepto started working, and Rick and the kids took a walk down the beach to the shipwreck.

(Room for shipwreck pictures.)

Right at dark, we all met at the hut for our 7pm dinner. After realizing I had got about 50 bug bites on my legs in the span of 10 minutes, we all applied bug spray and waited for our meals. Sure enough, Hoa's sister came out with a wonderful meal of spring rolls, rice, noodles, chicken, fish, tofu, salad - it was an amazing spread, and tasted even better than amazing.

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Since Hoa had promised to come back before 7:30 to have coffee waiting for us, we retired early to our room after dinner so we would have energy the next morning. It was easy to imagine the carefree nights travelers spend under the roof of Hoa's Place, swapping stories of places visited and drinking until the wee hours. We wished there were more visitors (but, then again, enjoyed the peacefulness of being alone), wished we had more time... and wondered how you lock up a place without a fourth wall. I guess you just don't. :)

Posted by heather.goodin 12:46 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Our Hoi An Free Bike Tour

Day 8 in Vietnam

sunny 90 °F
View Vietnam (2015) on heather.goodin's travel map.

After our big day of rest yesterday, we woke this morning invigorated and ready to start the day. Well, kind of. At least we only hit snooze twice, and managed to get the kids up without too much of a fight.

The plan for the day: take a bicycle tour of a local village through Hoi An Free Tours, which is a local organization which provides free tours to English-speaking tourists as a means to practice their English skills. (They are a non-profit company, their only "charge" for the tour is a nominal amount that you donate to the people of the community.)

After the sunburnpocalypse of the other day, we made sure to spend extra time on our application today! Actually, we spent so much time that we were late getting down to breakfast. The breakfast in our hotel was a wonderful spread of bacon, sausage, all kinds of breads, noodles, cold cuts, muffins, tropical fruit, fresh omeletes, fresh juice - almost anything you can imagine. As we settled in with our plates, we realized the time - 8:15 already, and we had to be to the tour place by 8:30. So much for the yummy breakfast. Out we go. Maybe tomorrow.

We rushed down the street to the meeting place of the tour. Luckily, the start was very near the hotel - only a few blocks. We arrived about 15 minutes late, and I felt bad as the tour guide was already giving introductory remarks to the group, and had to deal with us latecomers who 1) didn't bring our reservation code (I decided not to, as it was on the iPad and I didn't want to carry it all day), 2) hadn't brought bikes (we thought we'd be able to rent them there, and we could have, if we'd arrived early enough, 3) required a baby seat on the back of the bike (and not just a cushion that requires the kid to hold on; a real baby seat like in the US), and 4) were just plain old late. The tour guide was very accommodating though and got us all squared away. The other participants were patient too (at least, outwardly).

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We finally got everything straightened out and took off for the tour. We rode the bikes on the side of the road through some of the same streets we walked last night. Maggie's bike was just a tad too big for her, so she was having some trouble steering and touching the ground when stopped. She wavered among the motorbike traffic, but I stayed behind her to ensure she stayed safe. Cary was a bit too big for the baby seat - here in Vietnam, children of his size are already riding on the normal back cushion seat - so he refused to put his feet in the little pegs on the side of the baby seat. His feet dangled dangerously close to getting caught in the spokes, but thankfully never did. We pedaled through a little open market on our way to the ferry, but didn't have time to stop.

Shortly after leaving, we arrived at the ferry that would take us to the Cam Kim island to visit the Kim Bong carpentry village. The island has a population of just over 4,000, with just over 4,000 square kilometers of area. Actually, we were to make 5 stops on the island to see different traditional Vietnamese cultural stops. The ferry was packed with people and bike -motorbikes in the front, people in the middle, and bicycles in the back. People made room for the kids, which was much appreciated as we were trying to stay out of the sun as much as possible!

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After getting off the ferry, we realized Rick and Cary's bike had acquired a flat front tire. Ugh. Holding up the pack again! We walked our bikes to the first stop (which was thankfully close) - the carpentry village where they make traditional Vietnamese boats. The guide encouraged us to look around and take pictures while he took Rick's bike to a local shop to have the tire fixed.

The boat place was very small and only used traditional methods to make the boats. When the tour guide returned, he explained some things about how the boats are made. The wood mainly is of jack fruit trees (we had sampled jack fruit at the Mekong Delta stop a few days back, so were familiar), and it is gathered from forests in the interior Central Highlands. It is brought here to cure underwater for one year. The curing makes it easier to work with and also impervious to insect infestation (the same as pressure-treating wood back home).

After it has cured for one year underwater, it is brought out for planing. The wood is planed into workable thicknesses (a few inches).

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After planing, the wood is cut into the correct shapes vie circular saw and chainsaw.

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Fire is then used to bend the wood into the correct 3D shape.

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Afterward, they use wooden dowels to fasten the pieces together, and use a glue infused with sawdust to fill the holes between the slats. A small sized boat takes a few weeks to make; a medium sized boat takes about a month. The small boats sell for $6,000, and the medium boats (including the motor) for about $20,000. The lifetime of a boat is about 30-50 years, at which point people bring the boats back to be rebuilt with the same wood.

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Note that each of the boats has "eyes". This is a tradition for fishing boats in Vietnam. The eyes on the boats help to look out for water creatures and help find the fish in the ocean.

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We then got on our bikes and continued our ride. The countryside was very beautiful, with rice paddies along the road and some random cows hanging out.

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Our second stop was at a shop where they make "paper offerings", rice paper and rice noodles. Our guide explained the use of paper offerings, which are made to send to ancestors passed for use in the next life. Their belief is that when someone passes, they move on to another world where they need the same comforts that they have here: clothes, money, iPhones, razors, motorbikes, etc. They therefore make paper versions of all these things, and during certain times of the year, burn these things in order to cross them over to their ancestors in the spiritual world. This is traditionally done several times per year.

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We then moved to the back of the shop, where they make rice paper and rice noodles. Rice paper is made by using one scoop of rice flour mixed with water and spread out in a circular fashion on a piece of hot muslin over a fire. Rice noodles are made the same, with two layers applied and baked in between, and then cut into noodles. Rick and Maggie had the opportunity to make the paper/noodles themselves.

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We then had the opportunity to eat the fruits of our labor: two grilled rice noodle pieces with a raw one inbetween like a sandwich. It was served with soy sauce or fish sauce for dipping. It was actually quite good! They also served tea and candies for the kids. The tour guide then gave us part of our money back to give to the woman as charity.

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Our third stop was at a family temple. The temple we visited was for the Huynh family.

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The tour guide explained that every family has a corresponding temple. People are typically initially buried at home, but after 25-30 years are relocated to the family temple. Several times per year, people come to their family temples to make offerings to their ancestors. They offer both paper offerings (burned) and offerings of food and drinks, which after offering, they eat themselves in a "party" at the front. This temple, he explained, was the largest one on the island, with 6,000 - 8,000 people in the temple. It was decorated in a Chinese architectural style, as the Chinese had a lot of influence in the area before the French came along (and, later, independence).

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He also explained the tradition of offering rice. When offering rice to their dead, they put sticks of incense vertically in the bowl of rice. Therefore, they never stick their chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice (in normal life), as this signifies an offering to ancestors. He cautioned us to not do this when eating.

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Back on the bikes to continue our ride! The countryside was gorgeous - what a treat to have the opportunity to go for a bike ride here on a nice, sunny day.

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Our fourth stop was at a place where they make traditional Vietnamese sleeping mats. They are woven by hand on a loom, and we all had a chance to try weaving a couple of rows (including Cary!).

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By now Cary was getting a bit restless, but the tour guide (in normal Vietnamese style) was doing his best to keep him occupied. He tried to give him a swing on his arms, but Cary shyed away from this. At the end of the visit, the guide gave us more money to give to the family. Also, we had an opportunity to take some photos with some local kids who were looking at us shyly during our visit. Cary asked several times if he could play with the kids, but we couldn't let him due to our need to stay with the group. As we rode away, he waved goodbye at them. It was very sweet to see him interact with other children and not see them as "different" than him.

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Our final stop was at a shop where we were able to buy some local goods. We were not pressured to do so, but it was offered. Maggie bought a bracelet for $2, and we didn't even bother to haggle. These people (IMO) deserve $2 for what they've given us.

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We got back on the ferry and rode it back...

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...and continued our bike ride.

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Afterwards, we went to a local coffee shop where we filled out some surveys on our trip. We made a donation to their charity, paid for our bikes and tipped our tour guide. I was surprised at the number of people who didn't tip the guy... we were the only people who didn't make up an excuse to leave and actually stayed to fill out the surveys and talk to the guide some more. Cary entertained himself by chatting up the local women (as usual), and we talked to the guide. He explained that English is compulsory in school here now, and by the time he got to University he was already pretty fluent. He was thankful that he had an opportunity to practice through this volunteer organization. We talked a bit about the difference in transportation between Vietnam and the US, and about him recently booking a trip to visit Ho Chi Minh City for the first time. I found it interesting that he has never been there, despite it only being a night train away! He said his dream is to visit another country. I wish I could have given that to him. It is something we have heard several times now, first from Pheonix, and now from Xuan.

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After leaving the coffee shop, we returned our bikes to the bike shop and walked back to the hotel to spend an hour or two at the pool while I typed this up in the hopes I could capture it all before I forgot!

Afterwards, we ventured back into Hoi An Old Town for dinner. I so wish we had longer to spend here so that I could have some clothes made. Hoi An is known for their tailor shops, where you can have entire custom wardrobes created in only a day or two (and for pennies, really). They create everything you can imagine - coats, suits, shoes, dresses, bags, wedding gowns, everything - by hand.

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And, once again, we were taken by the beauty of Hoi An at night! I wish the pictures did it justice... my camera lens just didn't perform at night.

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We ate on the second floor of a restaurant overlooking the famous red Japanese bridge. Dinner was great, and then we returned to the hotel with a sleeping Cary in our arms, and I spent the evening in the closed bar area writing up the notes from the past four days. I am now exhausted and ready for bed. I'll add the pictures and post tomorrow, hopefully, if we have internet access - we will be switching hotels in the morning.

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(PS - Posting this post-trip, of course, because we never did get that internet access!!!)

Posted by heather.goodin 06:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Overnight to Hoi An - Our Day of Rest

Day 7 in Vietnam

rain 85 °F
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I woke in the morning on the train having to, well, "#2".  TMI, I'm sure, but kind of frightening given that this was more of a local train and not a tourist train.  Rick quickly informed me that he had had to pee at 4am, and I could expect squat toilets. In a careening train.  Oh, no.

I went to the bathroom, but decided to abandon the #2 idea.  No paper.  No flusher. Squatting and hovering over a hole in the floor.  Ick. I can handle this fine in a stationery bathroom stall, but not in a room that is sloshing from side to side. My thighs aren't that toned.

Well, the train was supposed to arrive in Da Nang at 8:30am, so I could hold it.  On schedule, the train started to slow, I asked around in the hallway, "Da Nang?", and people nodded.  Well, I guess this was our stop.  Off we got.  Faith, once again.

Upon our arrival, it was a total monsoon.  Well, I guess I've never seen an acutal "monsoon" before, but it was raining like crazy.  We got off the train and headed for the taxi station and hailed one to Hoi An - our next stop.

The taxi ride took about 30 minutes, and cost about $30 on the meter.  Who cares.  We were so beat. Maggie could do nothing but complain about her sunburn.  All of us were very crabby and tired, despite sleeping soundly on the train.

We arrived at our hotel (Bach Dang Hotel) and checked in.  Upon entering the room, it felt like we had walked into the king's quarters.  The room was huge, with two single beds in one room and a double in an adjoining room.  (Althogh we had paid $65, knowing that it had a pool and thinking we would want to use it.  For $65 in Vietnam, when the hotel prices are about $25 for a family room, it had better be awesome.)  We all fell flat on the beds, exhausted.

Upon further inspection, the room was not as aweome as it seemed.  It was a bit dated, with the bathtub plunger not working (good thing I brought my own stopper), only the handheld shower working and not the tub spigot, the mini bar and laundry costing a fortune, and it being a 10 minute walk from the Old Town.  But to us, it was fricking heaven.

Cary fell asleep immediately, with Maggie following shortly thereafter.  I decided to read my book on my iPad (Wild) while Rick went out to explore for money and food.  He returned with takeout Vietnamese, which we ate and all promptly fell asleep.

The Day of Rest had finally hit us.  We spent the entire day in the room (other than Rick, who kept going out to get us supplies).  

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At around 5pm, we finally pulled ourselves together and headed out for the Old Town of Hoi An.  The lady at the front desk informed us that it was a holiday today, and we saw a parade on our way into town.  The town was absoluetely beautiful; all ablaze with lights.  It was so quaint and gorgeous I almost couldn't believe what I was seeing.  People were everywhere, but not in the same way as in Saigon.  In Saigon, people were everywhere, commuting.  Here, it was tourists mixed with locals and everyone was on the streets in a party sort of atmosphere. The pictures do no justice to the beauty of it all.

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We made our way to the river, where we had dinner on a boat restuarant docked on the river.  While we ate, we watched beautiful colored lanterns flow down the river.  (We found out later that the lanterns are mainly sold to tourists for no real purpose, but they really do make the scene!) We made our way back to the hotel, booked another night, and fell asleep again.  By this time in the trip, I guess we just needed to rest.

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Posted by heather.goodin 17:22 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Vinpearl Island in Nha Trang, Travel to Hoi An

Day 6 in Vietnam

sunny 97 °F
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Turns out, only short people sleep well on sleeper trains.  While Maggie, Cary, and I slept fine, Rick couldn't stretch out on the short beds and was a bit miserable in the morning.  Not to mention the train arrived in Nha Trang at 5:30am.  What a morning.

We got off the train and caught a taxi to a hotel we had booked for the sole reason of having a home base in Nha Trang for the day.  As our travel plans had us arriving in Nha Trang at 5:30am and leaving via another sleeper train at 9:30pm, there was really no need for a hotel; however, we had our heavy backpacks that we had to leave somewhere for the day while we visited the local waterpark.  So, while in the Mekong Delta, I had booked a local cheap-o hotel to ditch our bags for the day (cost=$10).  We just hoped that they would let us check in early.  Really early.

After a first failed attempt at finding the hotel by the cab driver (at which we unloaded our bags, figured out it was the wrong hotel, and reloaded again), we found the right place - down a dark alley where honestly you would expect to find a $10 hotel.  The cab driver let us out on the street and told us to take a right at the T and keep walking.  We showed up and found closed iron gates.  Not good, as I had booked that hotel based on Expedia information that the hotel had 24 hour service.

So, we knocked on the gates. 

Somebody opened them and we walked in.  The somebody walked off, and we found a sleeping dude in the corner.  We woke him up, and in a daze, he handed us a key.  We hoped it was to our room.

We walked up four flights of stairs with our backpacks and found ourselves in a dingy, crappy room with an equally crappy view.  I guess you get what you pay for!  Maggie and I took a nap while Cary played his iPad and Rick took a shower in preparation for the water park, and we were off.

We had lunch (breakfast?) in a little local restaurant down the street.  The food was good, and we ordered more than we could eat.  

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We asked the waiter how far it was to walk to Vinpearl (the water park)?  He said 1km, 5 minutes.  So we thought, great!  We'll walk!  We left the restaurant excited about our day with the kids at the water park.

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As 1km turned into 3km and into 5km, things got a little less exciting.  Still, we were able to see some really cool things on the strip.

After a while, we gave in and hailed a taxi to take us the rest of the way (maybe another 5km?).  After getting out of the taxi, the taxi driver told Rick (through limited English) that he didn't have change for his 500 dong bill, and the taxi drive ended up costing us $20.  In Vietnamese money, that equals "ouch".  Oh well.  After the walk we had been on, it was probably worth it.  I was starting to blister from my flip flops.

So, we got more money out of the ATM and headed to Vinpearl.  The first part of the journey entails taking a cable car to Vinpearl Island, which is apparently the  longest oversea cable car in the world.  Or Southeast Asia.  Or something.  Whatever it is, it was beautiful.

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After getting off the cable car, we were at the park.  The park consists of several parts - a water park, an amusement park (more fair rides than anything), an arcade (where all games are free), and an aquarium. We headed for the water park, because it was unbelievably hot already at 10am.

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I had warned Maggie on the way there that this was not likely to be comparable to Holiday World.  After all, Vietnam is not the cleanest place in the world, and the construction standards are not like what you would find in the US or Europe.  However, I was completely wrong.  This place was awesome.  It was clean, well laid out, and had great water slides.  Additionally, we were lucky as there was basically nobody else at the park, so we had the entire place to ourselves.

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We headed straight for the kids pool where Cary could swim.  Cary had a blast on the little water slides there.  The construction of the place was a bit odd though, as they had decided to tile the bottom of the pool with all smooth tiles which were very slippery under your feet.  Cary, therefore, had to be watched constantly to ensure he didn't slip and go under.  Thankfully there were child-sized life vests available for use.

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Rick watched Cary for a bit while Maggie and I hit some of the bigger slides.  However, there were no transportation means to get the tubes up to the top, so you had to carry them yourselves.  Maggie and I had a hell of a time getting them up 7 flights of stairs.  Not to mention the stairs were constructed of these odd grates that dug at your feet.  Note to self:  wear sandals!

After a while, we went back to let Rick have a turn on the fun slides.  I watched Cary while Maggie and Rick took off for the fun stuff.  Cary had a route down of walking up one water slide and coming down while I waited at the bottom to catch him.  All was fine until he fell running back to the stairs for the slide, and then he started crying.  I distracted him with Pringles for a while, until I saw Maggie and Rick approaching.  Maggie had a bag of ice on her head, and Rick was limping.  Uh oh.  Come to find out they had been flipped off their tube in the middle of a slide - Maggie had hit her head, and Rick had two broken toes.   Ouch.

Given our newfound injuries, we decided to take it easy for a while and visit the beach.  We headed there and quickly found a bunch of lounger chairs under an umbrella.  Score!  I got some beers for us while Rick built a sand castle with Cary.

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After a while, someone came around and motioned for us to move further down the beach.  They were exploding dynamite into the hillside to expand the park.  The whole ordeal lasted about 30 minutes, with everyone confused on what was going on.  During this time we realized we were the only Americans in the park.  :) Mostly everyone else seemed to be... Russian, maybe?

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach, as we were having so much fun and it was so beautiful.  A completely perfect day!  As the day came to a close, though, we decided to see a bit more of what the park had to offer.  We stopped for lunch and then ventured into the aquarium, which was small but really cool.  They had a moving sidewalk that you could take through a tunnel with glass walls of the aquarium.  From there, you could observe all the fish, sharks, stingrays, turtles, etc. in the aquarium.  

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When we got out of the tunnel, there was an exhibit going on where a scuba diver was inside the tank and feeding the fish.  We got some up-close pictures of the stingrays.  It was cool.

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After that, we headed up to the amusement park, which was right by the cable car entry.  We only had a half hour left before we had to leave, and the line was crazy.  We tried to go on a few rides, but the ones we tried to visit were all "on break".  Maggie was able to ride one before leaving, but we then had to get the heck out to get our bags.

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We rode the cable car back and got a taxi back to the hotel.  Much cheaper this time.  We then got another taxi back to the train station.  By now, Cary was beat (read: asleep), and the rest of us were starting to realize we were crispy critters from the sun.  I had two blisters from my flip flops.  Rick's toes were still broken.  We were a mess, and miserable as hell when we got to the train station. We were also very unhappy that this leg of the train journey (another overnighter) had us on "hard sleepers" as opposed to the now-familiar soft sleepers, with 6 berths (read: roommates) instead of 4.  The train station was a low point for us for sure.

Once getting on the train, we realized that the hard sleepers were not that bad. They did only have thin cushions as opposed to mattresses, and we did have Vietnamese roommates who kept the damned door open all night, but honestly we were so exhausted we could care less.  We quickly fell asleep amid the craziness.

Posted by heather.goodin 16:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Travel Day Back to Saigon, then to Nha Trang

Day 5 in Vietnam

sunny 95 °F

We woke up in the morning for our first major day of travel.  Time to leave the Mekong Delta, which was sad - this was the first place we would have to leave that we knew we would not return to - likely, ever.  It was very bittersweet.

We had breakfast in the dining area, made by the housekeeper (egg?), accompanied by fresh cut fruit and yogurt that we didn't ask for and weren't charged for.  These people were fantastic hosts, let me tell you.  Cary played on his iPad while Maggie slept in.  Rick and I had Vietnamese instant coffee with the "gloppy stuff" that we had by now realized was creamer (sugar added!).  Best instant coffee ever!

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Thuy (the homestay owner) had arranged for our bus tickets already for the trip back, and we had to catch the bus at 11am.  She called for our taxi to take us the 7km back to the bus station.  The taxi driver got a flat tire on the way there, so she called another.  We started to get nervous, as our taxi didn't arrive until almost quarter till.  We walked out to the road, gave Thuy a hug, and got in the taxi. 

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When we got to the bus station, we split up to try to make things go faster.  I ran in to the counter to finalize the purchase of the tickets while Rick herded the kids.  We were able to make the transaction quickly and get on the bus just in the nick of time.

During the four hour bus trip back to Saigon, we read books on our iPads while the locals watched music videos on a TV screen at the front of the bus.  There must be popular Vietnamese pop songs, as the same songs played over and over.  LOL

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When we arrived at the main Saigon bus terminal, we knew we had to catch a smaller shuttle bus (operated by the bus company) to a stop closer to our final destination - our old hotel in Saigon, who had agreed to let us leave our bags there while we explored Saigon for a final day.  Maggie had to use the bathroom though, so we were sent on a bit of a journey to find a bathroom at the bus station, all the while being accosted by taxi drivers trying to take us somewhere.  We attempted to politely decline while making our way to the bathroom.  Maggie was frightened by the squat toilets we found in the bathroom that we had to pay to use.  (I have no pictures of this.)

We made our way back to the shuttle bus and boarded.  I should mention that nobody at a local - or charter - bus station speaks English.  (Or taxi drivers, for that matter.)  Trying to find the right shuttle is quite crazy, and even when you think you have found it, a little bit of faith is still necessary to feel confident you negotiated it correctly.  We boarded the bus not sure we had the right shuttle, but operating completely on faith.  But sure enough, we arrived at the correct station, and got a cab from there back to Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker district where our old hotel was).

We left our bags there and rushed to go to Kizciti, which we had read a lot about and were excited to visit.  You can think of it as a shopping mall, where each "store" is a different occupation that kids can try out - from fire stations to hair dresser shops to airplane pilots to magicians and everything in between.  At each stop, the kids earn money which they can use at even more "stores" to buy ice cream or watch movies or a host of other things.  We had tried to visit a few days ago, but they were closed on Mondays.  Now that it was Thursday (ish?), we thought we were safe.  

Unfortunately, they were closed.  Again.

We tried to make up for it by spending a few hours at the park across the street.  Cary and Maggie both played in the park for a while and then grew bored of it.  We caught another taxi and headed back to the backpacker district for dinner, where things were familiar and we were close to our bags.  We had dinner at a local restaurant, Made a stop at Baskin Robbins for ice cream, and then grabbed a taxi to the train station for our sleeper train to Nha Trang.

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We had pre-purchased all of our train tickets ahead of time through a local Vietnamese travel agency (Vietnam Impressive), and I'm glad we did.  On this leg of the journey, we had booked a 4-berth "soft sleeper", which allowed us to have the whole room to ourselves.  We purchased some beer before getting on the train, and were off shortly on our journey.  The train was fairly comfortable, two upper bunks (me and Maggie) and two lower bunks (Cary and Rick), which also serve as couches during the day.  As our train took off at 8:30 and Cary was already tired, we put the kids to bed and had Maggie lock the door while we explored the train.  We walked to the front into the food car where we had a beer and talked about the journey so far.  It was a cool experience to be jetting off to who-knows-where on a train in Asia.  After our beer, we retired to sleep in our cabin.  All was right in the world.

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Posted by heather.goodin 23:39 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Floating Market in Can Tho

Day 4 in Vietnam

sunny 95 °F
View Vietnam (2015) on heather.goodin's travel map.

OK.  I know I've kept y'all at the edge of your seats, waiting 3 or 4 days for my next installment.  It was on purpose, as I was trying to build suspense.  Did it work?  :)  I'm just kidding of course - really, we've been insanely busy... and sleeping... and travelling... and without internet access.  

So I'm going to try to document 4 days of travel tonight.  Wish me luck.  I have a cold beer and plan on sending Rick for more when he joins me in the bar, so I should be good.  (The locals all seem to be watching a soccer match and didn't really want to be bothered with me ordering beer, and promptly shut down once I showed up.  LOL)

So, I left off after just arriving at the homestay in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. We woke the next morning bright and early for our planned tour of the floating market. The tour of the markets only happens early in the morning, as the markets are only open from about 6am until 11am to avoid the peak heat of the day.  We were at breakfast at 5:30am and our tour guide, Phoenix (the cousin of the homestay owner, who spoke very good English), was there to greet us.  Once we were finally done with breakfast, Phoenix ushered us away from the homestay and we began our walk to the boat.  It was very personal - only the four of us and Phoenix, no other guests.

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It was about a 10 minute walk to the boat.  Phoenix was enthralled by Cary and tried to play with him the whole way.  He resisted a bit, as is his normal MO for the trip, although we encouraged him to not be frightened by the locals touching him.  When we made it to the dock,  we were greeted by the boat driver, but I never did catch his name.  He was the husband of the housekeeper at the homestay, who stayed there on the property full time.  We boarded the boat and set off down the river.  Cary sat up front with Phoenix, who pretty much talked to him the entire trip down the river.

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After a while, the small tributary opened up to a much larger river.  At this time, Phoenix sent Cary back to sit with me in the middle of the boat as the water was very choppy and there was a concern for his safety.  Phoenix moved to the back to sit closer to the boat driver. 

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We traveled down the river a short while, and were soon in the middle of the floating market. Because the entire Delta is accessible by water, this is where the locals of the area have traditionally held their market.  Phoenix explained to us how you can tell the difference between the boats that are buying and those that are selling - the sellers are typically much bigger boats, while the buyers are on much smaller boats.  Also, the sellers all have one bamboo pole sticking vertically out of their boats into the air with something hanging from it, which is the item that they are selling from their boat.  The buyers simply drive around and look for the item they want to buy hanging from the pole of a seller boat, and dock up next to that boat to conduct their transaction.

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In addition to the bulk seller boats, there are smaller seller boats driving around selling other things.  Some are just general merchandise, like sodas, juices, coffees - some are food boats, selling breakfast foods.  Phoenix told us to speak up if there was anything we wanted.  Rick was interested in buying the kids a soft drink, and we docked up to a general merchandise boat.

As we were buying our drinks, Rick saw another boat selling meat on a stick.  Being the meat-on-a-stick man he is, he motioned over that boat too.  We were now conducting two transactions off each side of our boat.  :)  His barbeque meat-on-a-stick was fantastic, by the way!  I wish we had gotten some coffee too - at the time, I had not yet experienced Vietnamese coffee, but it is very good!

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Phoenix then had our driver pull up to a seller boat selling pineapples. We docked to the boat, and she ordered each of us a fresh cut pineapple.  We stepped off our boat and onto the pineapple boat while the pineapple boat guy cut our fruit for us and handed us a hunk.  I have to say, I will never cut pineapple the same after this trip.  It was delicious, and very cool to watch the market from the top of the much bigger boat.

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Phoenix explained that the pineapple (and other) boats buy their goods further away down the river, then travel to this market and stay for several days on their boat selling their goods until they go bad, and then throw away the rest and do it all again.  Phoenix said there are over 1,000 pineapples on the boat, and they usually sell most of them in a few days.  Sellers like this typically sell in bulk, and you can't really buy just 1 pineapple there.  It's like Costco.  If you want one pineapple, you just go to the local market.  We, however, were given special privledges because we were part of the tour (and likely paid handsomely).

After the pineapple boat experience, we traveled the length of the market and into another tributary.  Phoenix and Cary were bonding one again in the front of the boat. It was so special to watch! Up the river, we stopped at another homestay property which also had a fruit/vegetable patch attached.  

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When we arrived, we had the opportunity to look around this homestay property.  Here, people sleep in the traditional Vietnamese style - on many beds in the same room, each with a sleeping mat and no mattress.  A shrine to the family's ancestors adorned the entry.

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Passing through that area, we moved into the outdoor kitchen area.  Here, there were many stations - a grill station, a fruit station, and a pancake station.  We looked at all of the foods being prepared there (for who, we weren't sure).  Maggie and Cary were completely sidetracked by a litter of puppies, and spent a while holding them (with Cary saying over and over, "AAAAWWWW.... THEY'RE SO CUUUTTTEEE!").

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Phoenix asked us what kinds of fruit we would like to try from a display.  We picked pretty much randomly, as we had never seen any of them before (other than in the Ben Thanh Market in Saigon, where I had taken some pictures of some interesting ones).  We were invited to walk around the garden grounds while our fruit was prepared.

The gardens were nothing short of magnificent.  Everywhere you looked, there was another beautiful scene.  Flowers, ponds, fruit trees, bridges.... it was gorgeous.  We saw some interesting things regarding farming - like the way they cradled the fruit in sheaths while they were growing, which we also noticed in the market (that they still had this "packaging" attached) - but mostly, we just were in awe of the beauty of it all.

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There were banana trees (little bananas, not our bananas) and watermeons growing on the ground.  There were also trees of some sort of gourd that was very interesting.  I forgot the name of it already.

After a while (and a zillion pictures!), Phoenix called us into a little cabana where our fruit and tea were ready for us.  We tried jack fruit and dragon fruit and milky fruit and some others that were very good, but I forgot their names. Phoenix continued to play with Cary, playing the perfect balance between informative host to us and babysitter to Cary.  Rick was inquisitive about some of the things we had seen cooking in the outdoor kitchen, and also ordered a barbequed field mouse and a vegetable-and-pork-filled-pancake as well.  Both were very good, but the field mouse, while tasting awesome!, did not have much meat on it and it was a challenge to pick through the bones.

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When we were done, we boarded the boat again and went back through the floating market again.  There was some activity, but most was done for the day.

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On our way back, Phoenix was still sitting in the back of the boat close to Rick.  Rick and Phoenix were talking at length about Vietnamese life and culture.  She explained to us that she had graduated from college with a degree in International Business, but had not been able to secure a job in her profession.  She is an only child, and not taking a job disappointed her mother, but she did not want to take a job as a bank teller or something if that was not her passion.  She has never visited another country outside Vietnam, but desperately wants to do so.  Given the rapport she now had with Cary, I wanted to pack her in our luggage and take her home with us.  (At this point, she is still my absolute favorite person I have met here, hands down.)

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The trip back to the boat dock was beautiful, but I was already sad for it to come to a close because I would miss Phoenix.  However, we did get there, and walked back to the homestay.  After getting back, we had lunch with Phoenix, who patiently sat with Cary while he showed her his iPad games.  By now, they were best buddies.  (For days afterward, Cary has referred to Phoenix as "his best friend").

In the afternoon, we attempted to take a bike ride around the area.  It was gorgeous, but Cary fell asleep halfway through the loop.  Biking was impossible at this point, so I walked both bikes back to the homestay while Rick carried Cary.

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In the evening, we had a yummy Vietnamese dinner of pho and grilled fish.  We retired to bed, but shortly after the housekeeper showed up with her typical "HELL-lo!" greeting at our door to rouse Rick to come to the dining area.  (She spoke no English - the only words she knew seemed to be "HELL-lo!" and "egg?", which she cooked for us for breakfast.) There she asked him (by a series of pointing and "HELL-lo!") do a shot of "snake wine", which consisted of some home brewed alcohol in a jug with 2 cobras and 5 other snakes and ginseng root. YUCK.  Rick got her husband to do one with him - well, a half of one - and they promised (via hand gestures) that he would sleep like a baby.  Let's hope so, given the ridiculously hard Vietnamese beds around here!  :)

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Posted by heather.goodin 20:19 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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