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3…2…1… Action: Peaceful Halong Bay

Halong Bay’s majesty surrounded us during our overnight trip off Vietnam’s coast in the Gulf of Tonkin. Certainly the highlight of the unique experience was kayaking in complete peace for two hours in an area inaccessible to the Chinese junk boats. But it was not all time for quiet reflection.

It is 5:45am. Not a sound is audible except for the heavenly songbirds. Even the nearby pearl farmers are still slumbering:

Greg and his pal Justin from India rolled the dice and went swimming with “sharks and crocodiles”:

To escape the clatter created by the multitudes of Chinese junk boats, we kayaked through a watery tunnel to Eden:

Ah, the sound of silence amongst the fascinating limestone karsts:

The Malaysian family aboard the Pinta (our Chinese junk boat) enjoyed karaoke even more than Greg. Our guide Trung ate it up:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. It is nearly impossible to know what kind of group dynamic you will have during trips with strangers. However, you may inquire about percentage of capacity sold, ages, and nationalities before booking. With that info, you can compare operators not just by price, but also by the group’s demographics.

Chinese Junk Boats In Halong Bay

Fog. A menacing weather phenomenon that grounds planes, dampens your suit en route to the subway, and causes vehicular pileups. But just as fog adds mystery to America’s Smoky Mountains, it makes Halong Bay’s topography extraordinary.

Junk Boats Scenery From Up Top

Kayaking Near Limestone KarstWe climb into the newish minibus in Hanoi joining a grinning Malaysian family of four and a friendly couple from India bound for Halong Bay. One of favorite tour guides of all time, Trung makes himself known. His enthusiasm is palpable, almost laughable. He is the classic people pleaser that refuses to utter the word ‘no’. By midday we reach our Chinese junk boat, the Pinta. Trung’s stomach convulses in laughter at my Christopher Columbus antics, yet he does not understand the references. We instantly love the guy. The Pinta gingerly departs the crowded harbor of junk boats and we are surrounded by a mine field of limestone karsts jutting from the salty sea. Riding on the open air top deck, Ash and I soak up the dreamlike scene.

Amazing Cave - View From Top Halong Bay - Sunrise

Amazing Cave - Greg's BullseyeNumerous junk boats present themselves on the horizon as the Pinta inches closer to Amazing Cave. Inside the limestone karst is a labyrinth of natural tunnels, towering stalactites, and growing stalagmites all lit in a soft yellow hue. Trung guides us through the cavernous enclosure signaling interesting spots with his red laser pointer. When I ask him to point it at my forehead, like a marksman’s scope, he becomes nervous to the point of fidgety. He relents and gets a good laugh after my vision remains 20 – 20. Outside we are aboard the Pinta once more and purchase water from a floating convenience store whose saleswoman’s helpers are two adorable young Vietnamese boys.

Amazing Cave Yellow Hue Boat Convenient Store Helpers

The overcast sky dims as the Captain tucks the junk boat into a secluded bay inhabited by a lonely pearl farm. Here, Justin (Indian) and I dawn our swimming costumes for a refreshing dip in Halong Bay’s turquoise water. Dinner is fantastic and is the prelude to two hours of riveting karaoke on a flatscreen television. Everyone takes a turn, some more willing than others. The Malaysian family favors the Beatles, Ash the 80s, the Indian couple soft rock, and yours truly Styx. Trung, well he loves it all, naturally. Sleep finds us after such a varied performance.

Trung! Halong Bay - Ash Singing Karaoke

Kayaking Halong Bay - KarstsWith fog enveloping the whole of Halong Bay, it is hard to pinpoint the sun’s arrival. In any case, I wake with the birds. With only myself to share the moment, I am in awe of the immense beauty coupled with isolation from the agitated world. The quiet is so intense that it seems the songbirds are outfitted with loudspeakers. There I sit, Ash still counting sheep, for ninety minutes. Then it is time for light exercise post breakfast with kayaking Halong Bay’s hidden nooks and crannies. We head straight for a watery tunnel beneath a hulking karst where on the opposite side is a paradise like no other. The water flat, karsts lofty, fog blurring our depth perception. Calmness fills our lungs, hearts, and minds. Ashley quips, “this is my kind of Heaven.” That about sums it up. Trung nearly ties a rope to our kayak in order to pull us back through the kasrt passageway back to the Pinta for the final time. We don’t want to go!

Kayaking Through Karst Tunnel Kayaking Halong Bay... So Peaceful

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Booking Chinese Junk Boats while in nearby Hanoi is difficult due to the hundreds on offer in every price range. It is a classic “you get what you pay for” excursion. Budget boats do sail, but prepare to share your bunk with freeloading rats. Luxury ships are beyond pricey. Opt for the middle road, a little extra money is certainly worth a good sleep without rodents.
  2. Rated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, trash floats while rubbish loiters in trapped bays all over Halong Bay. What’s more, most of this trash comes from the junk boat operators themselves. While I was enjoying the solitude of the morning, I watched in dismay as a neighboring junk boat dumped a filled trash bag overboard. What a hassle taking it to shore must have been! Do your part in places you love by discouraging littering.

Bile. Beating heart. Blood. Eating Cobra in Vietnam’s Le Mat Snake Village

Bile. Beating heart. Blood. All consumed in your prototypical shot glass.

Le Mat Snake Village - Tiger Cobra Beating Heart and Bile Le Mat Snake Village - King Cobra On The Loose

Le Mat Snake Village - Tiger Cobra Beating Heart and Bile - Greg Gearing Up For ShotA Vietnamese snake village? This we had to check out. Le Mat is just a short taxi away from Hanoi’s Old City, a perfect way to escape the hectic city for the evening. We had negotiated for ice climbing, fish spa treatments, and Vanuatuan kava. But never had the bargaining revolved around a floor of dangerously poisonous cobra snakes. The King Cobra was way beyond our means, so we opted for a full grown Tiger Cobra instead. The handler expertly pinned its body down with a stick and in a flash its head and gallbladder were removed via an impossibly sharp knife. Our dinner was taken across the open concrete room to the kitchen that was adjacent to the cages full of venomous serpents.

Le Mat Snake Village - Ash Dining on Grilled Tiger Cobra Snake Le Mat Snake Village - Tiger Cobra Snake Feast

We settled in for our twelve course Tiger Cobra Snake meal upstairs. No better way to kick off a hearty meal than with a shot of bile complete with a still beating heart. The gracious waiter sauntered over with a clear shot glass in which you could see the throbbing heart. With precision, he lanced the gallbladder and drained the bile until the heart bobbed like an apple.

It took a few tortuous minutes to muster the nerve, but down the hatch it went. It tasted like pure vomit. And though my mind was playing tricks, it felt as if my stomach pulsated until the acid neutralized the snake’s panting heart. This video speaks volumes.

Then the Tiger Cobra was delivered to our table wave after wave, each prepared in a different method. A sampling – snake browned in fat with chili and citronella, snake liver ralled omelette, soft fried snake skin, snake porridge. Ash nibbled on the grilled bits. She was so polite, leaving me the rest. Though lean, we were amazed how much food just one snake provided. The Vietnamese believe consuming the cobra’s blood provides strength. I needed to wash down all the deliciousness, so what the heck.

Le Mat Snake Village - Partying with Vietnamese Men - Ash Was a HitIf our evening wasn’t eventful enough already, twenty-three Vietnamese men invited us to join them at their snake feast. We had had our fill, but joined them for shots of rice vodka that leaves a soot on your pallet.  The men went gaga over Ashley, wanting to pose in a flurry of both group and individual photographs. We still get emails from Nguyen, our North Vietnamese friend.

Meeting people like him and his Vietnamese mates are the sort of travel experiences for which we yearn. Nguyen’s first email to us was so brave:


Nice to meet you.

I am Huong

I met you in “Huong que” restaurant yesterday.

I hope we are frend now.

I wish you send for me some us photograph.

Thank you very much.

see you again.

my name: Nguyen Xuan Huong – Viet Nam

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Vet the Internet to ensure that local customs are in fact harmless. We did not find any instances or warnings that consuming a live cobra heart was dangerous. It just puts hair on your chest.

Take A Deep Breath: Hanoi, Vietnam

Our Hostel's Solution to a Broken Window... a Soiled MattressTake a deep breath. We had been warned. Don’t trust anyone in North Vietnam. To us, that seemed a bit exaggerated. We step off the plane in Hanoi and board the airport approved minibus bound for downtown. First stop, fifteen feet outside the airport gates. More money was required to take the load of white faced tourists to their hotel. Cue the band of scammers. Take a deep breath. We arrive at a poorly lit intersection where the driver rudely announces this is the last stop. A heated argument ensues between me and  the fraudulent minibus operator about how we paid to be dropped off at the Hanoi Guesthouse, not some Hanoi locale swarming with suspicious individuals. Take a deep breath. My demands fell on deaf ears, but a gentleman offered to take us to the hostel for a fair price. Oh, did he ever take us to “Hanoi Guesthouse” alright. Turns out the real Hanoi Guesthouse has such a great reputation that others with the same name have popped up. However, these knockoffs are of inferior quality. Evidence #1: the ”Hanoi Guesthouse” we slept at utilized a soiled mattress as a window replacement in the second floor stairwell. Take a deep breath.

Before Getting in Verbal Argument with Van Driver, This Seen of Not Being Able to Get A Piece of Luggage Out Was Hilarious Hanoi's Old City Area on a Rainy Day

Water puppet shows are all the rage for tourists in Hanoi. What the heck, we shall check it out. Unfortunately, the thearte in Hanoi’s Old City was sold out. I called another theatre further afield whose tickets were available so I hopped a cab only to find the person I spoke with was mistaken about the ticket window times. IIt was closed all day, only open immediately before start time. Take a deep breath. One hour prior to showtime, Ash and I flagged down a lime green cab driven by a friendly looking woman in her twenties. Friendly until she opened her mouth. We quickly noticed the meter had been tampered with and was ringing up a bill four times faster than normal. I asked her to stop the car, that we would pay the current amount and hail another. But she wouldn’t stop. Take a deep breath. So Ashley and I told her we would not pay the full amount upon arrival at the theatre. To say she became angry is an understatement. You must understand one thing about Hanoi, Vietnam in general, before the story unfolds; motos are everywhere and they are driven recklessly. For example, crossing the street is toying with fate. So the fraudster driver was prepping for a confrontation as she parked the tiny car twelve feet away from the crumbling concrete curb with motos racing past us on all sides. Before exiting the cab on the curb side, I glanced over my shoulder to ensure no bikes were moving past. Upon opening the door just one quarter, WHACK. Take a deep breath.

Hanoi Moto Parking Hanoi - Hoan Kiem Lake - Tortoise Tower

Perpendicular to the taxi’s right front tire lay a man and his young son, no helmets in sight. I was mortified. Instinctively, we rushed to their aid. Thankfully, both were fine except for a small bleeding cut on the boys ear. Once it was clear that they were both not seriously hurt and that the moto itself was in working order, I gave them half the money in my wallet as a penance. Take a deep breath. Next thing I know, the scamming taxi driver has a handful of my button down shirt with an unbelievably tight grip, screaming in Vietnamese. Ignoring her, I sternly ask Ashley to run away and meet me at the hotel as an angry mob surrounds us. But she won’t leave my side. The scene is chaos. Take a deep breath. I nearly punch my temporary capture in the face after repeatedly looking her in the eye saying in slow English, “let me go.” Instead I opt to unbutton my shirt as a way of escape. But before I am shirtless, two men remove the ravenous woman’s clutch then each take a firm grip of Ashley and me while directing us to a streetside cafe where we sit, trembling, on two low plastic stools. The father and son have since left unceremoniously on their moto as the crowd grows around us. There is shouting, mass confusion, no one speaks English, and we fear for our well being. Three tense minutes pass with us scanning the impenetrable fence of North Vietnamese. Then a pre-teen girl and her younger brother approach, speaking decent English. I beg them to call the police, but they say that that won’t be necessary. That everything will be OK. Take a deep breath. The two men who accompanied us to our current location have since had a visit to the accident scene with the flustered driver. Through hand gestures, but mainly through the young English speakers, we are told the accident was not my fault at all. It was the driver’s mistake since she stopped so far away from the curb, essentially in traffic. Upon understanding the circumstances of the accident, the crowd becomes disinterested and a few even apologize for our uncomfortable treatment. Our dishonest driver has since fled after realizing payment is now the least of her worries. We didn’t see the water puppet show, just thankful for calmer heads prevailing. Take a deep breath.

Hoa Lo Prison - As It Was Before Western Section Torn Down for Skyscraper Ha Noi - Hoa Lo Prison - Open Area

Hoa Lo Prison - John McCain's Flight SuitTake a deep breath. Hoa La Prison, otherwise known sarcastically to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton. Typical of Vietnam’s war museums, it was more propaganda than legit history. Constructed by the French in the 1860s when present day Vietnam was part of French Indochina, the North Vietnamese used the facility to interrogate and torture American pilots downed during Vietnam War bombing raids. Methods of torture included beatings, lengthy periods of solitary confinement, and iron bindings. The North Vietnamese were not after military intel. Oh no. They longed to break their prisoner’s spirit and obtain written and / or verbal statements that were critical of US conduct in war while praising their “host’s hospitality.” Take a deep breath. The museum went to great lengths to portray the prison more as a temporary home than hell on earth. Perhaps the most maddening display was a picture of captured pilots enjoying a Christmas decorating session complete with paint brushes, craft materials, and even a Santa. We knew this photo was staged, that the Americans were ill-treated rather than welcomed as foreign guests free to celebrate their holidays. John McCain’s flight suit was proudly encased in glass, displayed as a spoil from wartime. Take a deep breath.

Hoa Lo Prison - Fake Christmas Hoa Lo Prison - Greg Not Happy Outside Wall

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. When taking transport of any kind, only pay once your request has been fulfilled. Keep the money in your wallet until the very last second, otherwise your payment may not result in the desired results.
  2. All guidebooks have a “safety, dangers, and annoyances” section about a country. In many nations, these guidebooks list traffic accidents as places where violence may flare up. Thus, avoid getting in the fray just to catch a peek of an auto accident.

3…2…1… Action: $0.18 Beer & Sand Dunes

Slowly making our way to North Vietnam, we took an overnight stop in Mui Ne, famous for its towering sand dunes. For $2.00 you can try your hand at sand sledding. Further along the coast, we took a much deserved break from shopping in Hoi An for some ultra cheap beer.

After twenty minutes hiking Mui Ne’s white sand dunes, we arrived at a peculiar sledding hill. Greg gave it the college try and failed miserably on his first attempt:

Take two on the sand sledding, results so-so:

Ash’s skepticism for a mug of beer costing less than an American quarter is on perfect display:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. The sand on dunes can be piping hot. It is advisable to wear a shirt when sledding on such occasions…

Dunes, Diving & Custom Clothing

Saigon is a city torn: capitalism pulling it towards the developed world while the communist regime keeps it trapped in the past. So we left Ho Chi Minh City in yesteryear and moved north along the South China Sea.

Mui Ne - White Sanddunes - Ash Builds Up a Thirst Mui Ne - White Sanddunes - Lilly Pond - Man Wading Into the Water

First stop, the massive dunes of Mui Ne. Having not set an alarm, we awoke with the sun having turned our room into a sauna. A short while later, I negotiated a rental of a sick Honda Airblade moped for our exploration of the coast line. Thirty minutes along a deserted road and a fishing village’s bay jammed with junk boats revealed itself. The sight caught us off guard, what with all the uniform blue masts and yellow trimmed hulls. Further along, the unmistakable vision of giant sand dunes came into focus. The pavement gave way to a shifting granular surface that required Ash to walk while I carefully navigated the machinery across. We threw some Dong (Vietnamese currency) to three kids hanging around to safeguard our “hog” while we hiked the white dunes.

Mui Ne - White Sanddunes - Vietnam Boys Mui Ne - Fishing Village - Boats In Bay

Approaching an oasis pond full of blooming lilypads, we rented a rolled up piece of teal plastic that would serve as a sand sled. Twenty minutes uphill under the blazing sunshine and we reached our destination. We peered over the edge only to have the brilliant sand sculpture dissolve beneath our toes. I scoped out the sledding hill void of any snow and gave it the ‘ole college try only to humiliate myself by sliding all of five feet. Having learned from my initial failure, the second attempt can only be classified as a mild success. We opted out of additional winter sports atop the neighboring red sand dunes. It broke our hearts, but we reluctantly handed over the keys to the Honda Airblade and climbed to the top row (the bottom was crawling with roaches) of a sleeper bus bound for Nha Trang.

Nha Trang Beach - Woman Selling Lobsters Nha Trang Beach - Greg Chilaxing

Nha Trang - Ash Sipping Her BelliniOur hopes were high after reading that Nha Trang was Vietnam’s beach “paradise.” Our expectations were soaring. No beach could have lived up to the image conjured up in our minds. Yet we made the most of it by drinking “3 3 3” brand beers (pronounced ‘Ba Ba Ba’), consuming freshly grilled squid kebabs, and relaxing at the Sailing Club. We booked a two tank scuba dive at Hon Mun ($40!), located a short distance from Nha Trang. Being the only two certified divers, Ash and I were treated to a private guide of Vietnam’s intriguing underwater world. Armed with a digital underwater camera, the ocean became our playground. For a reason unbeknownst to me, Ash began an underwater flying exhibition, her arms out as if she was performing the angel balance. Chuckling with a respirator in your mouth and mask suctioned to your face causes some serious problems when forty-five feet beneath the surface. But I had no choice but to laugh.

Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Greg's A+ Entry Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Moray Eel

Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Ash FlyingWe came across a zebra striped sea snake slithering across the ocean floor, examined straw coral, swam alongside a turtle, and even had starfish in our hair. Just when we thought we had enough fun, Huy (our diving guide) instructed me how to fill my BCD vest with enough air to stand upside down underneath the dive boat. It was an odd feeling being underwater, feet firmly against the hull, and breathing normally. Ash and I agreed that it wasn’t the best diving, but certainly the most fun. It was supposed to be a quick jaunt back to Nha Trang. That was until the engine refused to start and the dive boat had to be towed back to shore. So Nha Trang wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Could have fooled us.

Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Ash Holding Rock Starfish Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Greg Stirring Up Clown Fish Nest

Hoi An - Ash Getting Fitted for Her Gorgeous White CoatOne long overnight bus later, we settled into the tailoring capital of SE Asia, Hoi An, Vietnam. It was Ashley’s dream come true for four days of non-stop shopping. The town itself is beautiful with its French architecture painted a faded burnt yellow. Some roads are paved, others cobblestone, and most are dirt. Yet they all offer the same product: cheap, custom fit, quality clothing. The first day was spent examining twenty plus shops comparing craftsmanship, cost, and specialties. We hit the streets early the ensuing morning negotiating prices, trying on prototypes, and being fitted to ensure ample time was available to evaluate our goods the next two days. All this shopping made the man accompanying this ravenous woman thirsty. Ah… I discovered a local beer joint offering mugs of refreshing lager for just $0.18! Ash was happy, I was even happier. With cold and cheap beer at our fingertips to keep the good times going, behold our shopping spree spoils:

Hoi An - Yellow Streetscape Hoi An - Suit Fabric Choices

Hoi An - Greg Trying on His Gray Pin Stripe Cashmere Suit- Three dresses (deep blue, pink, baby blue) for Ash and her sisters (Kiley & Bailee) – $15 each

- White wool winter coat with blue silk insert and embroidered (Ash) – $55

- Long pink casual shirt (Ash) – $18

- Gray pinstripe cashmere suit with embroidery (Greg) – $90

- Navy blue pinstripe cashmere suit with embroidery (Greg) – $90

- Button down shirt (Greg) – $12

- Long light blue dress (Ash) & long yellow dress (sister-in-law Kim) – $22 each

- Deep blue silk cocktail dress (Ash) – $45

- Black travel shorts (Ash) – $22

- Brown corduroy blazer with embroidery (Greg) – $30

- Button down boy shirt (Ash) – $12

- Blue silk nightgown with our friend Amy’s (recently married) new initials embroidered – $19

- Shipping clothes & assorted items to three different USA addresses – $120

Hoi An - Ash's Coat Prototype Hoi An - $0.18 Beer, So Good, We Were Repeat Offenders

We treated ourselves to all of Central Vietnam’s offerings: dune sledding, underwater merriment, and a brilliant new wardrobe. A breath of fresh air… until troubling Hanoi.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Arriving in a new and strange place with no accommodation booked can be fun and exciting. Except when the clock strikes midnight and you find yourself riding on the back of a moto searching for a guesthouse, relying on the integrity of the driver. Such was the case as we rolled into Mui Ne, Vietnam. Since that episode we have pre-booked lodging when arriving after sundown.

3…2…1… Action: Nha Trang’s Underwater Playhouse

Rated one of Lonely Planet’s Top Ten Beaches of 2010, Nha Trang’s expanse of sand fell short of such a thrilling title. The diving however exceeded expectations with a diversity of hard and soft corals, tranquil turtles, and slippery moray eels.

Moving as a snake would upon land, we watched intently as a moray eel freelancing as an underwater zebra slithered in the South China Sea:

You would think this turtle was flying if it weren’t for the bubbling noise caught on film:

Part of what made our two tank dive so memorable was our fun-seeking guide. He instructed Greg on how to stand upside down under the boat, so the wannabe gave it the college try:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Spots hip to scuba diving always have multiple operators competing on price. While cost, boat quality, and equipment are certainly determining factors, inquire about the diver to guide ratio before choosing a company. For example, we had a personal guide while others had an 8:1 ratio for the same price and similar equipment. Our boat however was towed back, which turned out to be an unforgettable experience.

Frustration In Saigon

It all started in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia.  And the frustration followed us all the way to Saigon, Vietnam.  The South Vietnamese rebel by continuing to call Ho Chi Minh City by its pre-Vietnam War name of Saigon.  After our experiences at the war monuments, we decided to do the same.

Nutty Moto Traffic in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) Fixing Our ASUS Computer in Saigon... Smooth

Our usually reliable ASUS netbook conspired against its thoughtful caretakers and decided the battery had run its natural course by refusing to properly charge.  Having been on the world road for eight months we had come to expect Yohan, our computer, to be by our side.  So when he betrayed us in Cambodia, we felt a bit lost.  Luckily, ASUS had a retail facility in Saigon that overnighted a replacement battery for free, even though our manufacturers warranty had expired.  The small headache was cured, but our frustration was just getting started.

War Remnants Museum - American M41 Tank War Remnants Museum - UH-1H Huey Helicopter

War Remnants Museum - UH-1H Huey Helicopter with Canon To be fair, we had been warned that the War Remnants Museum is full of propaganda against America.  These cautionary tales came from the mouths of travelers residing in every corner of globe.  Even they found the anti-American message unjust.  So we went to see for ourselves, with an open mind.  The grounds surrounding the museum were quite interesting, providing a chance to get up close to American military equipment from the Vietnam War era.  A M41 tank, the iconic UH-1H Huey helicopter complete with canon, and the massive CH-47 Chinook dual rotor helicopter were on display in good condition.  Things turned from interesting to lopsided in a matter of minutes, however.

War Remnants Museum - Ash Next To CH-47 American Chinook Dual Rotor Helicopter - v2 War Remnants Museum - Con Dao Prison - Two Tiger Cages

A motif of the infamous Con Dao Prison was constructed and outfitted with genuine “tiger cages” (small enclosures) and examples of barbed wire units used to punish prisoners.  The communist regime of Vietnam that curates the war museum exemplified the French, South Vietnamese, and American atrocities in painstaking detail.  One would think by the biased display that the North Vietnamese were angelic beings during this period of war.  Great space was dedicated to the My Lai massacre (yes, terrible) but disregarded the fact that the Vietcong used flamethrowers to torch 252 Montagnards (Vietnamese mountain people), for example.  The main museum building made our already boiling blood even hotter.  I think most of us can agree that Agent Orange, the forest defoliant, was used improperly.  The Vietnamese people face debilitating disease, tainted water sources, and contaminated soil still today as a result.  This chemical was heavily featured in the museum along with other destruction caused by American forces.  Menacingly, there is once again not a single mention of injustices perpetrated by the North Vietnamese.  Ash and I could only take so much of the negative message about America before we found the whole museum to be ludicrous.  Had the curators made an attempt to level the playing field, visitors would walk away having had an education.  Rather, most paying customers walk away shaking their heads in disbelief.

War Remnants Museum - Effect of Agent Orange War Remnants Museum - US Imperialsim Propaganda

The following day, still aggravated, we journeyed outside Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  This historic labyrinth of underground passageways, kitchens, storage areas, and living quarters was utilized by the Vietcong as protection from US bombing and a means of attacking their foe.  We had a hard time exploring the grounds from which many Americans perished.  The tunnels themselves are impressive and it takes immense imagination to envisage living below the surface for months, even giving birth if necessary.  The entrances were disguised so well that Vietcong soldiers could sneak up, fire on enemy troops, and disappear undetected.  Our guide swept dead leaves away from one such entryway and indicated the exit spot a mere twenty feet away.  So you just walk through the tunnel and come out over there, piece of cake. So we thought.  Amongst a group of ten, Ash went in sixth, her arms placed directly over her head in order to fit through the tiny hole in the ground.  Ten minutes passed and I went in last, no sign of Ashley on the other end.  Inside was unlike anything for which we could have prepared.  It was a maze of turns six feet below the surface with absolutely no natural light.  Mix ten terrified tourists armed with a few cell phones providing lights, bats flying into our hair, and just enough space to crawl on your hands and knees.  It was pandemonium for twenty short feet and fifteen long minutes.

Cu Chi Underground Tunnels - Bat Cu Chi Underground Tunnels - So Small, Ash is on Her Butt

Cu Chi Tunnels - Viet Cong Underground System - American B-52 Bomb Crater Glad to be above ground, some underground explorers were shedding tears of fear.  So we moved along to observe B-52 bomb craters, booby traps with iron spikes, and a sorted amount of leftover American ordinance.  The forest path led us to the shooting range where an array of weapons to fire awaited us.  Grenade launcher, American M16 or M60, or a Soviet AK47?  The grenade launcher was going to be way out of our price range… dang it!  At my insistence, we opted for the Soviet semi-automatic rifle.  Ash rattled off two rounds from the AK47 before stepping away too terrified to let loose on the metal target resembling a hog.  I stepped in and fired the remaining eight rounds, one glancing the the pig’s head.  As I was collecting a few spent rounds for souvenirs, which would later result in me being detained in Dubai, UAE, a gentlemen let one hundred rounds loose from the powerful M60.  The noise was deafening.  The Cu Chi Tunnels had been nothing like the War Remnants propaganda BS.  That was until the documentary film began.  One fellow Yank, whose father fought in Vietnam, stepped out after fifteen minutes of sensationalism upon the words referencing American “devils in the sky.”  Ash and I watched the whole film in a dumbfounded stuper.

Cu Chi Tunnels - Viet Cong Underground System - Greg Going Under Cu Chi Tunnels - Shooting Range - Ash Prepping Her AK47

Amazing. Thirty-five years later, the Vietnam government still feels the need to rally support against America by depicting us as hellions in every which way. In contrast, the citizens of Saigon could not have been more accommodating to us.  Frustrating.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) American culture pervades nearly every society in the world.  Entertainment, food, politics, beverage, fashion, music, etc.  For this reason, nearly everyone has an opinion of the United States.  We have heard our fair share of negative comments, some meant to be personally hurtful.  It is like your little sister being insulted.  Sadly, some uninformed international visitors to Saigon took the propaganda as 100% factual and partook in the American bashing, making sure we heard them loud and clear.  Instead of creating a scene and giving them the joy of upsetting us, we simply walked away with a firm bite on our tongues.  Take the higher road, if possible.

Discovering The Mekong Delta

The goodbye was teary yet swift.  Ash and I had a date on a slow boat that would take us down the mighty Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam’s patchwork delta.  Our hearts ached as the tuk-tuk puttered away from the Palm Tree Orphanage; a chapter in our lives that shall never end.
River Village Along Mekong Fishing Vessel On Mekong River

Ash Enjoying the Slow Boat The boat resembled a brown stick bug as it approached the rickety dock full of feisty bull ants.  At the Cambodia – Vietnam border crossing, 40% of the passengers were denied entry for failure to present valid passports.  It was evident the Cambodian family left behind at the boundary was looking to immigrate to their slightly more prosperous neighbor.  The wooden vessel’s sun deck offered unadulterated views of riverside shanty towns, families fishing from dugout canoes, and young boys herding famished cattle.  As the sun dipped behind rows of palms, Ash and I took time to absorb the starkly different style of life.

Yem, Whom We Helped Study Englsh Twice Before Her Scholarship Competition to Singapore Homes On Stilts

The river split yet again as the floating craft approached the Mekong Delta town of Chau Doc.  The river city’s shanties reached over the Mekong by leaning on tall wooden stilts.  Ash opted for a quick ride to our hostel on the back of a moto while I crawled along in a cyclo – a carriage towed behind a bicycle.  After settling into our accommodation, which had an ophthalmologist office in its lobby, we practiced English with the proprietor’s daughter who had a scholarship contest the following day to study in Singapore.  A simple Vietnamese dinner was inhaled and we called it a night in preparation for an early morning.  Before exploring the area surrounding Chau Doc the following day, we once again went over Yem’s English for her high stakes competition.  We never found out whether she was headed for Singapore, but she was certainly on the right track being both intellectual and driven.

Our Awesome Tour Guide and Boat Driver - Caman Floating Market on Mekong River - Boats Bartering

Floating Market on Mekong River - What A Swell Purchase We encouraged Yem one more time, then met Caman on the Mekong’s muddy bank for an intimate boat ride including the floating markets, a fish farm, and a Muslim minority village.  The Mekong River in many ways is Southeast Asia’s lifeblood.  It provides food, entertainment, drinking water, and transportation.  So it was no surprise to see that Chau Doc’s community depends on the river for survival.  They go as the river goes.  Caman, wearing an iconic Vietnamese cone hat made from straw to match her grinning face, skillfully maneuvered the small boat amongst the listing flotilla anchored together in the middle of the brown river.  Restaurants, families, and wholesalers all bought fruit and vegetables from this market on hulls that turned up each morning.  The vessels would advertise their offering by placing the items for sale on a stick high above the bow.  True to our tastes, we loaded up on banana and pineapple.

Greg and Caman on Fish Farm - Greg Is A Bit Taller Fish Farm on Mekong River - Fish Curing

Cham Muslim Minority Village - Ash Exhibiting Traditional Garments Moving back up stream, Caman dropped us at a fish farm riding the currents of the Mekong atop wooden pontoons.  Our steps were careful amid the myriad of wooden planks and packing crates.  Lilypads surrounded the hectic scene of thousands of fish fighting for pellets of processed rice byproduct after Ash dumped a healthy helping into the commotion.  As we motored over to the petrol station afloat on the Mekong, the farms cured their fish on wooden planks under the sunny sky.  Moving onto to the Cham Muslim minority village, we crossed a rickety foot bridge where the Mekong would typically rise in the rainy season.  We dawned traditional garb woven by local women and toured their quaint living quarters built on shaky stilts.

Boy on Tip of Boat Cham Muslim Minority Village - Foot Bridge and Old Boat

Sadly, Cham Village, Chau Doc, and the greater Mekong Delta have begun suffering from lower water levels due to dams being constructed in upstream China.  Yet the people and way of life continue.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) “Village tours” are usually poor examples of the real thing.  They are designed to bring in tourist money and our experience in Vietnam fit this model.  However, it can still be interesting and worthwhile if you acknowledge and confront this fact prior to booking.

Cambodia’s Ancient Angkor Wat

Greg and Rob Eating A Tarantula Cambodia’s ace in the hole is magical Angkor Wat located in Siem Reap.  So popular in fact that it is featured on Cambodia’s flag.  Most tourists spend less than two days in challenging Phnom Penh (our base camp at Palm Tree Orphanage for one month) choosing to focus on the ancient ruins instead.  As March 2010 drew to a close and the days with our new family followed suit, Ash and I packed an overnight bag to see what all the rage was about in Cambodia’s northwest.

Angkor Wat Sunrise Over Pond Angkor Wat Sunrise

Angkor Wat Sunrise From Temple The six hour bus ride was uneventful except for my crunchy dining experience of fried tarantulas.  Arriving late in the evening, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for the following day and caught up on rest before our pre-dawn departure.  Ny, father of three young children, pulled into the gravel parking lot at the healthy hour of 5am.  Sleep still in our eyes, we joined the armada of tuk-tuks headed for storied Angkor Wat.  Entering the gate across the stagnate water moat, one felt transported back in time.  Ash camped out beside a pond that would offer a sensational sunrise moment over the towers of Angkor while I purchased milky coffee housed in a filthy drinking vessel.  With lilypads sprouting splendid pink flowers, the small pool of water turned a purplish hue as the sun began to reveal itself.  The daylight basked Angkor in all its majesty and suddenly our sad example of a cup of Joe became a novelty as we looked upon the 12th Century ruins.  In the refreshing morning light, we explored the surrounding stone features that offered unique looks at the Bakan (Angkor Wat’s centerpiece).

View of Angkor Wat from the Bakan Angkor Wat Beer at Angkor Wat

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng Mountain - Prayer Around 7:30am we entered the innermost wall of the Hindu temple, the ancient towers high above us.  Every wall seemingly had an intricate etching of women with headdresses or carvings of miniature warriors.  Each non-restored Buddha statue along the stone corridors displayed the handywork of the Khmer Rouge; their heads having been knocked off.  Even the steep steps worn smooth had elaborate engravings.  Buildings surrounding the Bakan exhibited windows with small pillars and impressive lattice work.  The man hours to quarry the stone, assemble the structures, and etch the details was nearly incomprehensible.

Buddhas Outside Wat Thom Wat Thom Entrance Faces

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng Mountain - Ash Taking It In With Ash borrowing a shawl to cover her bare shoulders, we climbed to the Bakan where we could absorb the incredible size of this ancient site.  It became apparent how Angkor Wat was swallowed by the jungle lurking outside its statuesque walls.  In fact, Angkor was consumed by the hungry forest and was “rediscovered” in the middle of the 19th Century by the French explorer Henri Mouhot.  The temperature was quickly turning from comfortable to warm so we met Ny in a dusty parking lot to continue ruin hopping before the intense heat drove us mad.

Ta Prohm Greg's Chicago Office With Angkor Wat Photos

Ta Prohm Tree A short jaunt up the paved road and we reached the entrance to Wat Thom.  Altogether different from Angkor, Wat Thom features stone faces in its gray facade.  Bridging the parched moat was a rock span complete with a railing of stately Buddhas.  Ashley looked like a miniature figurine next to the massive heads.  Further along was Ta Prohm, made famous by Hollywood’s Tomb Raider.  Incredibly unique, roots from aggressive trees grow over and through the ancient ruins.  The Chicago office I worked in had decorative photos of Ta Prohm in its lobby, as seen in the photo from my last day on the job, August 14, 2009.  By high noon, the sun’s inferno defeated us as we retreated to the shady confines of our Siem Reap hotel.  While Ash napped in the shade, I explored the local markets and watched a Buddhist parade envelope the streets.  Ny arrived ninety minutes before sunset and dropped us at Phnom Bakheng Mountain.  With four Angkor beers in tow, we hiked through the forest leading to the hilltop ruins.  Though the hazy evening stifled a brilliant sunset, it was a splendid closure to a day of exploring Cambodia’s rich history in ruins.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) There must be hundreds of tuk-tuks waiting to chauffeur tourists around Angkor Wat.  Have your accommodation arrange a driver that will fetch you before sunrise and return after sunset.

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