Vietnam Part III – Phu My (Ba Ria)

We were scheduled to visit IMG_3158_result Chan May (Hue/Danang) the following day, but due to bad weather the port was closed and we were rerouted directly to our next stop, the port of Phu My to dock for an additional day. With plans to travel two hours inland for an overnight to Ho Chi Minh City the following day and no idea how to navigate the immediate vicinity we opted to book a day trip to nearby Ba Ria for a tour of the rice patties and rural life in Vietnam.
“Isolated shipping port” was certainly an accurate description of Phu My as there is absolutely nothing here but a commercial building and a bunch of shipping containers. Going inland is a must if you want to do anything other than hang out on a cruise ship or learn to operate a fork lift.

This was our first excursion DSCN1419
with Celebrity and it was surprisingly organized however somewhat reminiscent of a grade school field trip. After being herded in to the auditorium we were DSCN1420 sent down to the stage, asked our name and marked with a number sticker. Next we were lead down to the gangway and told to look for the man holding a paddle that matched our sticker. For those who had difficulty following instructions additional staff was on hand to match people to their busses.

IMG_3120_result We made a total of six stops on our tour, 3 temples, a market, a distillery and a rice paper factory. First stop, Duong Vao Than Tha, a Cao Dai temple located about 20 minutes from the port. Cao Dai is a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism with nods to each represented by the yellow, red and blue colors throughout. IMG_3115_result This was the first of many temples which required us to remove our shoes before entering and I hesitantly followed suit trying not to think about how many feet had walked this path and making a mental note to bring and extra pair of socks from now on. IMG_3112_result
We were surprised to see elements of other religions represented in the design of the Cao Dai Temple including pillars denoting the Catholic Church and long sides with peaked doorways symbolic of a Mosque. Above the altar were carved figures of many of the world’s most prominent religious leaders.

IMG_3125_result Dinh Than Phuoc Le Pagoda was was built to honor the heroes of the Vietnamese people, most notably an ancestral leader who three times drove out the Mongolians. The Pagoda feels a bit like being at a carnival with lots of blinking lights and fortune telling items scattered about. Situated at the front of the Pagoda are two large cranes standing on turtles representing Yin and Yang.

Trang Nghiem Tinhd Do is a Buddhists temple which was built in the early 1990s and tended by the monks who reside here. In fact all three temples we visited were fairly new. During our visit we learned that old temples are not very common in these parts as most were damage or destroyed during the Vietnam War. At this last temple one of the monks was kind enough to pose for a quick picture with Paul.

Back on the bus IMG_3126_result and through the rice fields we went to a traditional Vietnamese home for a view of a family owned rice wine distillery. The process is somewhat primitive but it does seem to be an efficient use of resources. Rice is distilled into alcohol in large pots which are IMG_3129_result positioned on top of fires fed with wood and rice hulls. When the wine is finished, the pulp becomes food for the livestock and the ashes from the fire are used to fertilize the fields. I did have a little taste and got a fun video of Paul taking a bigger taste. The term rice wine is a bit of a misnomer; it is IMG_3132_result actually about 40% alcohol. About 15 feet from the distillery was the family livestock which consisted of about 20 chickens and several pigs of various sizes. I developed a soft spot for one pig in particular who raised his snout and looked at me forlornly.

IMG_3140_result Visiting the local market that afternoon certainly didn’t help to clear my conscious. Holding my breath gripping Paul’s arm I shuffled down the narrow aisle lined with de-feathered chickens plied high in baskets and stacks of pig carnage sorted by body part. In the center of each table sat a small Vietnamese woman, full lotus, knees bent, feet pressed firmly together, yielding a cleaver just inches from her toes. With each hack of the enormous knife came sounds of bones cracking and bloody tissue sloshing about. Thus begins the vegetarian portion of my trip.

Needless to say I was glad IMG_3136_resultto leave the market and continue to the animal free rice paper “factory” a few miles away. This was also a family run business out of the home. Rice paper, made the traditional way, takes a fair amount of effort. The raw rice is ground into flour, mixed with water and pushed through a metal sieve. The resulting batter is spread into large thin circles on a pot covered with fabric. IMG_3133_result It is then steamed for a short time, carefully removed and placed onto bamboo screens to dry. After several days in the sun they are peeled off and placed into stacks of 100. Not surprisingly you can buy a stack of homemade rice paper for exactly one US dollar.

Vietnam Part II – Ha Long Bay Continued

IMG_3029_result After a fantastic tour of Ha Long Bay we headed ashore to explore the city.

First stop lunch, at least for Paul; I’m pretty sure this restaurant wouldn’t have passed a US health inspection. He had been eagerly anticipating a bowl of hot steaming “Pho” since breakfast and was now on a mission to find us the perfect spot to try this local dish. About ten minutes into our walk back to port we stumbled across a restaurant with a small friendly lady out front. Moments later we were escorted to two blue plastic chairs in the middle of a three-sided cinderblock building (in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint) and seated at a rectangular table dressed with a well worn plastic PepsiCo cover. DSCN1143 The table was sticky and the large plastic box containing the makings of lunch had no refrigeration. As I sat at the table questioning Paul’s decision to dine here I couldn’t help but wonder if the chopsticks and large silver spoons shoved haphazardly, handle side down, presented more of a health risk in their current state (as various hands had surely bushed against them at previous meals) or if correctly placing them handle side up would have increased the likelihood of ingesting a far more sinister pathogen growing down in the bottom of the basket.
Prior to departing for Asia we had heeded the CDC’s advice and both headed down to the Health Department for a round of Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations (quite possibly because someone from the agency had visited this very establishment) however at this point in the trip I was neither hungry enough nor curious enough to give it a try. Paul on the other hand sat right down, cracked open the menu and went to work selecting his Pho. A few minutes later, the lady returned with a large piping bowl of rice noodles in some sort of chicken broth with several thinly sliced pieces of beef and green onions floating on top. DSCN1144 Two additional dishes accompanied the soup. The first was an equally large plate of fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil and wedges of lime. The second was a small a bowl containing two Vietnamese hot sauces, one brown and one red (both with a consistency similar to ketchup) and several slices of what appeared to be some sort of fresh chili pepper, seeds intact. Paul then proceeded to instruct me on how to assemble and eat the Pho. He added a bit of each ingredient as the lady and I looked on in anticipation of his first bite. With the final squeeze of lime complete, he picked up the chopsticks, leaned over the bowl, tweezed a grouping of noodles, and slurped them down. This was followed by a smile and a few gracious words to the chef who returned his smile and nodded before heading back to the kitchen. Alternating heaps of noodles with the chopsticks and sips of broth with a metal spoon Paul finished the rest of his lunch. It was certainly an interesting way to eat soup, but appears to be the standard practice. As I looked around I saw several of the locals applying the same method. I do have to admit the soup smelled wonderful, but I still wasn’t feeling brave enough to give it a try. DSCN1149

As I write this blog we are in transit to Bangkok and Paul is still talking about this meal. He will eat it two more times before we leave Vietnam but still steadfastly believes that this was by far the best.
After lunch we continued our walk back to port, stopping from time to time to peruse the shops. Didn’t find anything I had to have, but certainly enjoyed looking.

Vietnam Part I – Ha Long Bay

Vietnam is an interesting place with lots of rules. No overnight trips allowed without a Visa and no currency exchange outside the country however you can purchase anything from a diet coke to a ride down to the marina for exactly one US dollar. IMG_3106_result

Our first view of Ha Long Bay came at sunrise as the ship sailed into the bay. The water was extremely calm but it was particularly cloudy so we were eager to get off the ship and take a closer look. After a quick tender to shore we made our way up the pier and were greeted by about 50 mope head drivers eager to take us for a ride. Paul was more than willing to hop on but I was less than enthusiastic. The lack of helmets and erratic flow of bikes was not something I was ready to tackle, IMG_3096_result besides after 24 hours at sea floating around in the pool and enjoying more than our fair share of cruise food we certainly needed the exercise.

IMG_3012_resultVietnamese people are soft spoken and very polite but also extremely persistent. Even though Paul respectfully declined their repeated offers to take us to the marina, two motor bikes continued to pursue us for at least a half a mile. It was cute but a bit irritating.

Ultimately Paul won out and we arrived at the marina about 30 minutes later on foot as planned. After negotiating a $25 dollar per person rate (opposed to a $75 rate on the ship) we boarded a boat with about 20 other people and set sail.

IMG_3025_resultHa long Bay is made up of large limestone formations or Karst resulting from glacier changes over millions of years. Melting glaciers caused the water to raise allowing coral to grow while freezing glaciers cause the water to recede and coral to calcify. The Karsts were further shaped by pockets of water and a rolling tide creating caves. During the Vietnam War, several of the larger caves were actually used as hospitals. By following a series of winding paths we were able to climb to the top for a breathtaking view of the bay.

After exiting the cave we rejoined our boat for a short ride to the floating village (my favorite part of the trip). IMG_3057_result Far from shore and hidden among the karst was a floating dock which was set atop large blue barrels and Styrofoam blocks wrapped in tarps which kept the structure afloat. After obtaining bright orange lifejackets from the guides we stepped into a small wooden boat for a closer look at the karst and a tour of the floating city. IMG_3040_result It was simply amazing! The entire town built atop floating barrels and Styrofoam linked together with wooden planks and a series of ropes. It was fascinating to watch the people going about their daily lives napping in hammocks, washing laundry, pealing fruit, even cooking with fire on the back porch as curious tourist rowed by with cameras in hand. The floating village even had a floating school. IMG_3080_result
Our tour continued with a row under a low lying section of limestone though a small opening and into the center of one of the large hollowed out karst which made us feel like we were sailing around the bottom of a volcano.

Third Day in Hong Kong

Good news, our luggage arrived we survived our first night on the cruise ship! Recognizing this was our last day in Hong Kong we were eager IMG_2852_result to hit the road early and see a few more sites.

Hong Kong is truly a concrete jungle. Aside from a few of the outlying islands, Hong Kong consists primary of skinny skyscrapers dotted with a few temples. There is no grass or trees aside from a few highly regulated parks and gardens (needless to say it is not a good place to be a dog). Eating and drinking is prohibited on all public transportation and in most of the gardens. Surprisingly most of the infrastructure, temples and gardens are relatively new.

IMG_2861_result First stop, Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery, by far our favorite part of Hong Kong. Both were constructed in 2006 to strengthen the people of Hong Kong’s awareness and appreciation of traditional Chinese culture. One of the most notable things about Nan Lian Garden its location. The garden is situated in the heart of town surrounded by massive skyscrapers and partially coved by the bypass, however due to the creative placement of water features, foliage and rocks the garden is quite insulated from noise from the bustling city. IMG_2857_resultWe enjoyed watching the gardeners meticulously prune the trees using just two fingers and marveled at the buildings which were all constructed using the bracket system of the Tang Sung Ming and Qing dynasties (no nails or glue required). Connected to the garden is the Chi Lin Nunnery. Set up in the traditional courtyard style the nunnery is enshrined with statues of several Buddha’s (most notably Sakyamuni Buddha) and tended by the nuns who live and worship there. IMG_2893_resultIn front of each Buddha the nuns place offerings such as bowls of fruit, separated by type and stacked into pyramids, massive pots of fresh orchards and tall electrical candles. The Buddahs come in many shapes and sizes but are all gold in color and sit atop large thrones. Out of respect for the nuns we honored their requests to only take pictures in designated areas and as a result we do not have any pictures of these beautiful Buddhas.

Next stop was the Ladies Market in Mong Kok Kawloon. The market is full of street vendors selling any and everything from clothes and crafts to food and fortunes. We didn’t run across any must have items but it was certainly fun to look.

IMG_2949_result In sharp contrast to the tranquil and orderly confines of the Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery, the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple was a microcosm of excitement and chaos.
Sik Sik was built in 1921 and is claimed to make every wish come true. Upon entering the grounds we were immediately struck by the thick smoke wafting though the air and the sounds of a large drum in the distance. Excited visitors hurried about carrying fistfuls of smoking incense and small red and gold lanterns (both widely available for purchase from one of the vendors along the entrance and throughout the temple). In the center of the courtyard was a large fire pit tended by a single man. A waist high fence separated the crowd from the fire and served as the
IMG_2950_result central point of the action with long sticks of incense being transferred from the crowd to the fire man who dipped them into the flame and passed back across the rail. Smoking incense in hand, patrons then took off across the courtyard to pay homage to one the many Buddha’s or religious figures positioned throughout the grounds.

IMG_2953_result One notable figure was Yue Lao. In Chinese mythology Yue Lao, belonging neither to Buddhism nor to Taoism specifically, he was the equivalent to Cupid, tying the knots between people to form couples and marriage. He stood in between two other statues one representing a bride and the other a groom holding a thick red cord that connected the two. The nun tending the statue explained that people looking for love would fasten a red cord to the rope in hopes of finding a mate. IMG_2939_result She then gave us a cord to take home for continued good fortune in marriage. Upon further exploration of the temple we came across IMG_2925_result the twelve statues representing the twelve animals on the Chinese Zodiac. Unsure as to which ones represented our birth years we decided to pose for a quick picture with each and made a mental note to Google it when we got to Saigon before posting these pictures on the blog.

Second Day in Hong Kong

IMG_2803_result Twenty-seven hours after our initial visit, we returned to Simpson Sin for a fitting.  The tailor took additional measurements and went over everything from cuff length and collar size to back pleats and hem lines.  It was a really fun experience. 

IMG_2815_resultSadly the shop is closed on Sunday, so we won’t see the final product for a few more weeks; bad news for Paul (he was planning to wear his on the cruise), but good news for me (my suitcase was already at the weight limit before we left the states).

IMG_2824_result The metro system here is cheap, clean and accessible all over the island. Friendly locals and ample English signage made it easy for us to navigate. Also, since Paul and I are a good 8-10 inches taller than everyone here we never had to worry about losing each other in transit. Outside the metro we stopped to help other tourists with pictures.

Shopping is big in Hong Kong and apparently so is Christmas (or at least that’s what the retailers IMG_2843_resultwould like you to believe with windows full of sparkly trees and staff sporting a wide variety of Santa hats). In the Diamond Hill district we were overwhelmed by the number of high end stores overflowing with busy patrons all rushing about in search of last minute Christmas gifts or standing in long lines entranced in their I-phones. Hong Kong is consumerism at its best.

IMG_2841_result Aside from shopping, the Diamond Hill District is also a hot spot foodies in search of hand pulled noodles in rich steaming broths and succulent bursts of Chinese goodness IMG_2836_result (better known as dim sum). The Hong Kong experience certainly would not have been complete without a trip to the infamous Tim Ho Wan for Dim Sum. The restaurant is a bit hard to find, does not take reservations and has a ridiculous line at anytime of the day, but because it boasts the title of least expensive restaurant in the world with a Michelin Star Paul and I “qued up” to wait. To our surprise the line actually went faster than expected. IMG_2834_result English speaking guests were provided a blue ticket which also served as a menu (Chinese guests were given the same in yellow). As soon as one party finished the soft spoken hostess would call the next number in line in the language which corresponded to the ticket (blue -> English, yellow -> Chinese) and wedge the new group into the open spot. This was my first experience sharing a table with strangers who did not speaking English and were halfway through their IMG_2831_result meal when we arrived, but when in Rome right? Since we were expected to complete our ticket prior to being seated the waitress greeted us and took our order in one step which also helped speed up the process. Chopsticks in hand, Paul slurped down every bit with adroit dexterity relishing every bite while I poked and prodded every piece with my flat bottomed spoon. Not my favorite, but memorable nonetheless.

IMG_2963_resultWe planned to visit Victoria Peak for a night time view of the city, however after seeing the line we opted for a walk though the city instead. It has been a long day and we are anxious to check out the ship and confirm our luggage made it on the boat.

First Day in Asia!

Our first day in Asia was quite an adventure. After a leisurely breakfast in the concierges lounge at Courtyard (it’s good to be gold) we headed to Kowloon to be fitted for suits. Prior to arriving in Hong Kong, Paul made us an appointment with Simpson Sin Tailor (featured on Anthony Bourdain). The suits require several fittings so we wanted to start the process as soon as possible.
Next stop, Lantau Island to see Tian Tan Buddha (also known as the Big Buddha) and the Po Lin Monastery where we enjoyed our first authentic Hong Kong meal served by the nuns of the monastery. After lunch we took a 268 step trek up to Big Buddha for a closer look at this remarkable statue. It was definitely worth the trip.
Then it was back to the concierges lounge for a cocktail before heading out for an adventurous dinner. We ended up at a restaurant a few blocks from the hotel which had roasted ducks hanging in the window. I was a bit hesitant but Paul befriended the waitress (who spoke no English) and pointed to a few items in the window. The food was pretty good and the experience was certainly memorable (there is absolutely no guessing at words when everything is written in Chinese characters). The view from our hotel is pretty spectacular; photos just don’t do it justice (I am really missing my Photoshop right now).