Captain of the Ship

We are so lucky to have a few visitors willing to make the huge journey here to visit us in Vietnam.  In the end of April my adventuresome father, also known as Poppy, and my wonderful and fun-loving uncle Rob Rakusin, made the trek.  Neither had ever been to Asia, so it was very exciting. After spending a few days introducing them to the craziness, heat, and wonders of Hanoi, we took a 3+ hour drive to Halong Bay, Vietnam’s most famous tourist destination. To cruise around the bay for two nights, we boarded a boat (that we had all to ourselves!) called the Indochina Junk.

Kate and Poppy

Could you imagine the kids’ joy of playing on a big boat like this for three days? It was a welcome new playground. Anna, Kate and Matthew had their own bedroom!

Kate and Matthew took turns commandeering the ship’s wheel and playing pirates.

Captain Matthew

Pirate Kate

Halong Bay is known for its natural beauty. There are nearly 2,000 islands of all shapes and sizes dotting the water for miles.  Many of the islands don’t have names and are inhabited mainly birds and plants, but a few have monkeys. The water was blue. The sky was clear. There was a lovely breeze while we were sailing around. Heaven!

Anna enjoying the breeze and sun in Halong Bay

We went kayaking a few times to get a little closer to some of the islands.  We even explored a few caves by kayak.

On the second day we visited a floating village. Some Vietnamese ladies picked us up in some simple basket boats which they worked hard to row in the hot sun.

Uncle Rob with Kate and Anna

The village had about 130 people living in it, and they all make their living by fishing.  Each family had its own floating house.  We were happy to learn that the government is trying to make the people use plastic barrels to float their houses rather than styrofoam, which breaks down in two years and pollutes the water.

There was a small, two room schoolhouse for the village children. And yes, it was floating, too!

Floating school

Here is a view of our boat:

Our junk

We ate fantastic food, and the boat’s chef made some beautiful creations out of the food one night.  Here he made a replica of our boat, made from carrots (the sails) and a watermelon.

The next day we asked if the chef could teach us how to make some of these beautiful food sculptures.  The children made the carrot flowers and he made a crane!

On our last day we went ashore one of the islands and walked up a hundred steps to explore a cave, which was cool and inviting.  People used to live in the cave, but not anymore.

Overall Halong Bay was beautiful, but there was one drawback that marred the entire experience. We were very sad to see trash floating in the water everywhere (no matter how far we went from the mainland) as well as washed on the shoreline of the islands. It is not clear where the trash comes from (I heard different explanations), but it kept us from swimming in the water. In addition, a shipping channel was dug into the bay near Halong City, and huge ships anchor there to pick up coal which they transport to China.  Several times we heard the clear sound of loud explosions in the distance. Our guide said that it was dynamite that was being used either for fishing (good grief!) or for mining. We could see the stripped mountain tops on shore.  Here is an example of the trash we saw in the Bay near Halong City:

Vietnam has a long way to go to clean up, but there are signs of progress.  We went to a beach town called Hoi An right after our Halong Bay trip, and everything was spotless there.  We were so grateful! (A post about Hoi An is due up next). And just this week I saw something else that made me very happy — hundreds of university students volunteered to clean up around West Lake, near our house in Hanoi. They were so friendly when I asked them what they were doing, and I have hope for the future of this country!

Vietnamese university students clean up

Poppy wanted to add his view as seen through a few of the photos he took and sent to me for this blog.  Enjoy!
Hong Kong is a “Western Island” in China/Asia.

Five foot wide alleys in Hanoi old quarter with thousands of single rooms housing five family members. Sterno stoves in alley. Everyone helps make a living 7 days a week (average annual income $900.00).

Seeing women with high fashion on motorbikes was unexpected!  And all covered up to shade from the sun.

Sleeping in a Stilt House

Last weekend we took a trip through the beautiful mountains into northwest Vietnam with the company of the Valdes family, who have three children of their own.  After three hours in a big van, we arrived in Mai Chau, a small village in a valley surrounded by mountains and rice fields.  There was a beautiful breeze and lots of green space.

Mai Chau is home to one of the indigenous tribes people of Vietnam called White Thai, and they build their homes on stilts which keeps them dry if the rivers flood.  We did a “homestay” in Mai Chau to get the real experience. Here’s our house on stilts.  It’s just one big room that you get to by climbing up a ladder.  The bathroom is outside on the ground floor.  It was quite rustic as you can see.

Sleeping quarters in the stilt house

Underneath the house was a place for meals and also a loom where the lady of the house made beautiful scarves and fabric.

We took a walk through the village.  Everyone was selling something out of their house to the tourists that came through.  Most of the tourists we saw were Vietnamese, but there were some other Westerners like ourselves.  We also walked around the rice fields, which was a big treat for the kids – no worrying about being run down by mopeds!

Fabrics for sale

Fighting roosters so aggressive they must be kept in separate baskets.

A typical stilt house

A well

Entering the rice fields

Weeding her rice paddy

Kate checking out a conical hat

Water buffalo

We saw some traditional dances that night after dinner.  The dancers had everyone join in the bamboo dance, too.

The stilt house was fun to look at and play in, but for sleeping it turned out to be less than ideal.  Everyone was very tired the next day. We left Mai Chau and went to another remote village about two hours away that has absolutely no tourism or homestays. It was also in the mountains, but these were covered in mist. It was beautiful.  There were no washing machines or dryers, but there was electricity and satellite dishes on many homes, and most people had cell phones and motorbikes.

Walking into the village of the Mung people

We had tea in the home of some of the Mung people. They raised ducks and rice.

This is the village school (with water buffalo out front)

Before we came to Vietnam, I swore I would never allow my children to get on a motorbike so I could keep safe. Unfortunately, the road into this village was an hour walk straight down a steep mountain road (this was not on the tour description). There was no way our kids would be able to walk out. Michael had to carry Matthew down on his shoulders half the way, so how would he ever walk out? Our guide tried to hire a truck to carry us back up, but the truck wouldn’t start. So we were left with, you guessed it, riding motorbikes, without a helmet, up a steep and rocky dirt mountain road. Next to very steep drop offs.  Here is Anna, her friend Vicente, and their chauffeur, at the end of their ride.

On the way home we stopped at a roadside market and ate wonderful sticky rice that is steamed and sold it its own little piece of bamboo. You pull chunks of sticky rice out of the bamboo and dip it in sesame seeds and salt. Delicious!

Eating sticky rice

And one last photo this week — I saw another local delicacy back in Hanoi near my house that I have never seen before – not sure if it’s an eel or some kind of water snake (any help on this one?). But you eat them fried. (I did not partake). Thanks to my friend Lobie Stone who was brave enough to get close and take this picture for me, since I was without my camera.

Cambodia- Saving the Best for Last

Image

The last leg of our spring break trip was to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  It was amazing and my favorite stop. The kids loved the hotel. No one had to share a bed or sleep in a cot – what a treat!

The first temple we visited still had remnants of the jungle covering it. Huge banyon trees and strangler figs had overgrown the temples during the few hundred years that they were abandoned. We met our guide at 5:30 a.m. to get there before the day got too hot.  The walk through the temple was peaceful, with hardly any other tourists – just the sounds of the birds in the trees in the morning light.

Ta Prohm Temple

Exploring Ta Prohm temple

Here – take a walk through the temple with us:

That evening we saw another temple at sunset.

The Neak Poan temple

We celebrated Matthew’s 6th birthday in Siem Reap. There was a big thunderstorm that night, but it didn’t stop us from lighting candles on some Choco Pies (a favorite treat here that is a bit like a Moonpie).

6 years old!

We visited a floating city. To get there we took a small boat. Vietnamese refugees made their lives and homes on boats. It was amazing. Even the school was a floating structure!

Boarding our boat to get to the floating city

Floating school

The kids and Michael tried out a fish massage….kinda crazy!

Here is a short video of the kids getting their fish foot massage:

We went to another temple that afternoon. When we walked out we saw the President Hu of China leaving, too (sadly I couldn’t get close enough for a good picture of that).

Bayon

Anna with an incense offering at Bayon.

A female monk (or nun) outside Bayon. These ladies are the keepers of the Buddha statue in the background.

Beautiful sunset.

The last morning in Cambodia we rose early again to visit the famous Ankor Wat temple. Even though we arrived before 6 a.m., there were still hundreds of people, all waiting to catch the sunrise as it came over the back of the temple. I was impressed with the beautiful murals that covered the walls of the huge temple. Enjoy all the photos!

The sun god.

Learning about the stories in the murals.

Anna took this picture!

The view from the top of Angkor Wat

And now back to Vietnam…

Into the Wild

After leaving Luang Prabang, we continued our spring break trip and headed into Southern Laos. Kind of in the middle of nowhere, Southern Laos is home to malaria-infected mosquitoes as well as some beautiful temples, waterfalls and fresh water dolphins! The airport was very small.

Getting off the plane in Pakse, in Southern Laos.

For three days Anna’s diet in Southern Laos consisted of bread and french fries. She was happy to find some Lao ketchup that tasted pretty good.

The first stop was the ruins of a very old temple called Vat Phou. The surviving structures date from the 11th century, although the place was used as a temple even before that. We walked up a long stone path and reached some super steep stairs and made a final climb up to the temple.

Umbrellas to help stay cool.

Walking towards Vat Phou

Old, cranky and steep stairs. Only for the sure-footed.

Walk inside the temple with your friendly guide, Anna Goldberg:

Matthew and Anna inside the Vat Phou temple

A relief carving at Vat Phou temple. The Laos three headed elephant for the kingdom of a million elephants.

Another relief carving at Vat Phou, this of the three Hindu gods.

That evening to get to our hotel, which was about 3 hours away, we took a makeshift ferry boat ride to cross over the Mekong River. The ferry boat was really just three boats in a row with logs and boards cobbled together on top, upon which we drove our van and stood. Matthew’s leg accidentally slipped into a hole between the boards, but thankfully he only got a couple of scrapes!

Going across the Mekong River on a ferry boat in Southern Laos. The kids are looking at a gecko they found.

We spent a lot of time on boats on the river and enjoying nature in Southern Laos.

This lady is making donuts made from rice. Yummy! Served in a banana paper cup.

The view from our breakfast table: the wide and lovely Mekong River.

Then we headed back to the airport for our final destination: Cambodia. More on that coming up….

Does the Tooth Fairy Come to Laos?

Bee and David (Kate, Anna and Matthew’s grandparents) took us on an amazing spring break trip to Laos and Cambodia. Our first stop was Luang Prabang, in Northern Laos. Even though the sun was a bit obscured by haze from slash and burn farming practices, the temperature was warm and it was DRY — quite the opposite of the usual humid, mold-inducing weather of Hanoi.

On our first sight-seeing trip we took a two hour boat ride on the Mekong River…. lots of time was passed reading Harry Potter aloud (we are on book four now and completely engrossed).

The boat took us to a remote village, which was extremely rustic. The houses were wooden and had thatch roofs, and some were built on stilts.  There was no electricity and no roads for the 20 or so houses and huts. Women made silk scarves on looms (we bought some). People even have monkeys for pets!

A pet monkey - we didn't get too close, but he is chained up.

Village in Laos

We hiked for 30 minutes through a jungle.  On the way we saw some of the biggest leaves we’ve ever seen. Finally we reached the two Pak Ou caves – these are caves with over 1,000 statues of Buddha. These statues are old Buddhas that can no longer be used because they are damaged, so they are placed here. The caves have been in use for hundreds of years.  There is no electricity, so this is a totally different experience than Rock City in Chattanooga!! The kids were given flashlights. It was very exciting.