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backpacking

Hanoi

We went back to Hanoi and the following day decided to take a tour south to Ninh Binh.

Our first stop was Hoa Lu, an ancient Capital of Vietnam and the temples of the Dinh and Le Dynasty.

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Woman with her Ox

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Melanie styling her Rice Paddy hat

Both of these temples were built to honor two revered Vietnamese rulers.

Our next stop was to Tam Coc, known as Vietnam’s “Halong Bay on Land”. We were taken down the river in small boats that would hold between 2 and 4 people. Our boat was piloted by an old woman. I felt guilty. I felt like I should be rowing her down the river.

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Foot paddling

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Once our boat was underway, she leaned back in her chair. She used her feet to row the oars in a bicycle pattern. The trip upstream would take 45 minutes, then turn around, and row all the way back. There were at least 100 boats on the river, all being propelled the same way. The ages of the people rowing ranged from probably 20 to 80, both men and women.

The river snaked through the marshes and fertile, lush green rice paddies. We were surrounded on both sides by mountains and limestone columns pushing abruptly skyward.

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As we continued down the river we came to limestone columns blocking our way. Nature had provided us a way thru the mountains. Narrow tunnels, carved by years of the waters flow. Some passages were just wide enough for two boats. It was a very memorable journey.

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Paddling through the tunnel

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Once back in Hanoi we spent our last day walking around the lake and people watching. We sat by the lake for a couple minutes watching the kids play.

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Several people came over to us and asked if we were Americans. Yes, we are. They asked us why we were there. What we thought of their country. They were from a local TV station and wanted to interview us. We loved Vietnam and had learned that the truth of the history will always remain hidden somewhere in the middle. Vietnam is a wonderful, beautiful country. They have their own problems and are still communist. But, the people are friendly and always willing to help. The wars are over and in the past. That’s the way they want it. They have peace and prosperity now. They are growing and very modern. Crime is low. We will return.

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Notice the fish in the back of the toilet

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Afternoon drinking with new friends from Belgium. Beer was US$0.30 a glass

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We finished off our trip with a visit to Hao Lo Prison. This prison was built by the French at the turn of the 20th century, in classical French prison design. This is where the French imprisoned and brutally tortured and executed Vietnamese freedom fighters.

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Guillotine

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Decapitated heads placed in baskets outside or the prison. This was done by the French as a gruesome reminder to the Vietnamese

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Now a museum,the prison was also known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War as it held American POW’s. While we were there, an old Vietnamese man and woman were also there, for the celebration of his escape from this prison. He was a political prisoner of the French. He escaped by crawling out through the sewers.

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The Vietnamese man crawling through the sewers to freedom

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Political Prisoner

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Free, many years later

His gaze met ours as we passed. He slowly made his way toward us with a smile on his face and a hand of friendship extended.

Cheers,

2WANDRRs

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Categories: 2-up motorcycle travel, 2WANDRRs, adventure travel, backpacking, Hanoi, SE Asia | Leave a comment

Da Lat, the City of Flowers

We walk around the corner in the morning and catch the day sleeper bus going to Da Lat, about 8 hours away. Our seats end up way in the back of the bus and what feels like a tomb.

Climbing to my perch in the back I flop down into the reclining seat and my legs are too long, hanging over the drink holder in front of me because they don’t fit in the place for my feet in front of me. I slide backwards in the narrow space attempting to make more room for my feet. My head is very close to the ceiling and now I can’t raise the seat. I start to sweat, the confinement is starting to get to me. Finally I need out, now! The drivers assistant wanted me to sit back down. I make believe I can’t hear him. Finally the bus gets underway and I find a space, with good meditation, that I can survive the next 8 hours of the trip. Melanie just finds another seat. On to Da Lat.

We arrive in Da Lat without any issues. A taxi is near and we flag him down. Showing him the name and address, he has no clue. I use Maps.me and guide us once again near our destination. We get out and pay the outrageous amount of VND$30,000 (about US$1.30, it just sounds much larger). Looking around, we just can’t find it. A little boy playing in front of his house guides us down a set of stairs, and there it is. Great place for about US$8/day, including breakfast and dinner, for both of us. It is a homestay and the family is wonderful, helping us with whatever we could need.

A pig walking the streets that grunted a warning as I got close.

We got settled and take off to find a street food vender and try something that turns out to be fish ball soup. I choke one down and Melanie almost looses it. We abandon or meal and the next place has pizza, our safe food. A couple beers later and $4 lighter, we are happy.

After a good night sleep we wake up to cooler temperatures. Da Lat is situated in the mountains at an altitude of about 1500 meters. This makes for a fairly consistent weather pattern and mild year round temperatures. This also makes Da Lat the flower and vegetable growing region in all of Vietnam. This area is the flower exporter capital of all of Vietnam.

A VW covered in flowers in a roundabout in the center of town

A flower covered motorcycle in the same roundabout.

The skies are clear and the temperature mild as we walk down to the local market. There is an absence of any supermarkets here, plus no street lights and basically zero crime. The market is packed with people doing their shopping for the day. Everything you could possibly want is here. Fresh flowers for your home, vegetables, fruits and freshly butchered meats and live fish are displayed. In places the cement floor is still slippery from the fresh blood. The smells are strong of everything that we see mixed with curry and incense burning.

Beans

Flower and Cactus

As fresh as it comes

And beef and pork

Shrimp, octopus, and fish

All sizes of fresh eggs

We wander around in awe of finely stacked fruits and vegetables and brilliant colors of every shade of the flower bundles.

Stacked Strawberries

Green zucchini

Overwhelmed, I need to sit some distance away and order the best coffee you can get. Vietnamese espresso with sweet, fresh cream over ice, US$0.75.

We continue our journey around the lake. People are walking, sitting in coffee shops, sipping tea out of tiny porcelain cups all the while talking and enjoying each others company. They meet us on the street, our eyes lock, a smile crosses our faces and we both give a slight nod, saying hello.

My back finally calls it quits and we hire a taxi back to our homestay.

The next day we head out on scooters with Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee and Han

He is going to take us around to see a few things. We get out of town and ride down small lanes avoiding numerous potholes. Most of the roads are new and good.

Good roads

Our first stop is at a Buddhist temple. We wander around looking and discussing what we see and our thoughts of the day. Always an engaging discussion. Melanie is so much smarter than I am. I feel I was kept in the cave too long.

Inside a Buddhist temple

Dragon

We stop at a flower farm, a strawberry farm and a coffee farm. Mr Lee explains many things about life in mid Vietnam. We openly discuss the Vietnam War. We are told that the Vietnamese haven’t forgot and and still remember, but it is now buried deep in their hearts, where it will remain. They are happy that their country is finally at peace after hundreds of years of war. They welcome all nationalities, including Americans, with open arms.

At the coffee plantation we are shown the trees and the coffee beans and told of the process of making Weasel Coffee. They use to follow the weasel through the jungles collecting the excrement. Now the weasels are kept in captivity and fed a diet of coffee beans and bananas. The beans are ground very fine and hot water poured on top in the drip coffee maker. After several minutes you have a tiny cup of espresso Weasel Coffee, which is quite rich. We sip slowly on the large back porch with commanding views of the mountains and lake surrounded by beautiful flowers and lush green coffee trees.

View from the deck of the coffee plantation

Drying Weasel poop

Cheers

Weasel Moca, so good

Our next stop is a silk factory. We see the worms, cocoons and the entire process leading up to the purple silk robe Melanie bought and the two silk ties I bought, not for me but for my two boys. Paying for our items, I get a chance to sample a dried silk worm larva. An Iranian man next to me jokes about eating the small creatures. I tell him they are very crunchy, but they would have tasted better with salt or covered in Chocolate. We both laugh.

Silk worms

Coccoons

Boiling the silk coccoons

Silk threads

Boiled and dried silk worm. Yummy

Moving on down the road we see what looks to be a distillery. There is a pile of discarded coffee beans shells out in front drying. We are told nothing goes to waste.

Cobra in the Rice wine

They also make coffee here and they have several cages occupied by weasels. They are using the discarded coffee bean shells for the fire under the large pots boiling the rice mash for the rice wine. I am fortunate to be able to dip a shot glass into a large storage bin and pull out a 1st run sample with a proof of 140.

Cheers

It is strong, better than moonshine, but surprisingly smooth like a 10 year old Scotch. It will go through 4 different runs that will cut the alcohol content to under 40% before the other ingredients are added for curing. Some of these bottles sell for more than US$500. The pictures below show some of the ingredients of the more expensive wines.

Large Lizard fermenting in the rice wine

Looking at the bottle with the furry ingredient sort of turned me off to any further sampling.

Bird and snake in rice wine

The last stop we make is to Elephant Falls, one of the largest in the area. We park at another temple and take a look around then walk down the street to the top of the falls.

To get to the base of the falls you have to climb and scramble over large boulders, walk across a 4 inch diameter log while holding on to vines and and slide down a slimy flat rock face. Once on the bottom the mist of the falls pours though a slight crevice in a deafening roar. The rocks push toward the sky all around you as the algae forms the surface of the rocks fighting for sunlight. I step out into the watery onslaught briefly for a quick photo. Very intense.

We stop back at the top for a brief respite of the 35°C heat and rest and a quick drink.

Our last stop is the Da Lat train station. The train station was design by French architects in 1932 and opening in 1938. The building was largely undamaged doing the Vietnam War but the track sustained significant damage and was closed. It opened in the 1990’s with limited service as a tourist attraction.

Da Lat train station

Budda carving

Cog railway to get over the mountain

Always wear your Horizon’s Unlimited shirt. A couple Brits saw it and wanted to talk.

Tomorrow we are off to our next location, Hoi An.

Cheers,

2WANDRRs

Categories: 2-up motorcycle travel, 2WANDRRs, adventure travel, backpacking, Da Lat, Horizons Unlimited, SE Asia, vietnam | Leave a comment

Châu Dõc, Out of Control

Have you ever been on a Merry-go-round and it just keeps going faster and faster until you are just tossed to the side, your senses frayed and your body aching? Welcome to Châu Dôc!

I will back up a day.

After returning from the sensory overload at the Killing Fields we sat, drank and talked. Talked about what we had just witnessed and what the US seems to be doing, erasing history. What does it say about a society that is embarrassed of it’s past so it just erases it, to continue doing the same things over. Take responsibility for what you have done, teach the children your mistakes so they don’t have to make the mistakes over again. We have so much to learn.

Free dinner cruise

Anyway, we decided to take a FREE sunset cruise that night and just chill over dinner and drinks, with a gorgeous sunset and Cambodian music playing in the background. Beautiful night.

Sunset on the Mekong River

This building had a huge waterfall coming down it’s side, just lights, but so real looking.

Melanie chatting with girl from France

The next day we were taking the fast boat down the Mekong River, across the Cambodian/Vietnamese border to the town of Chãu Dõc. We sat on the back of the boat, just the two of us, as we passed more floating villages, fishermen and farmers in fields on the sides of the river. Pumps chugged and smoked, pushing brown water from the Mekong River up the banks and into the small fields they tended.

We passed banks full of children playing in the dirty water, smiling and francticaly waving until they squealed with laughter when we waved back with the same enthusiasm.

Happy children

We passed what looked like water buffalo splashing in the water just meters upstream from the children. It’s amazing they don’t get sick.

Water Buffalo?

Crossing into Vietnam was a simple process involving get off boat in Cambodia and getting the Visas stamped out, cruising a couple hundred meters through no man’s land, then off the boat again and Visa stamped back into Vietnam.

Cambodian border crossing

We docked, sort of, in Châu Dôc and the chaos started. WHAT??!! Carry our backpacks on the back of a scooter? NOPE! Not gonna happen. Ok, this little tin chariot on the back of a bicycle will have to work. The merry-go-round is starting to increase it’s speed.

Melanie’s Tim chariot

Finally we make it to the hostel only having near misses by at least 8 buses, 20 vans or trucks and about 10 gazillion honking scooters all racing to the same invisible goal. The great part, they all waved and smiled at us and each other while cutting everything off. We commented that in Mexico and Central America the road signs were just recommendations. Here the road signs don’t even exist. None. Nadda. Not even a yield! That means no one EVER stops. Everything is always just a yield, even crossing the road on foot. You just enter the road, go slow but never change your predicable speed, and they maneuver around you. Magic, but not for the faint of heart.

Next was finding something for dinner. The merry-go-round is now about to fling us off. Trucks, buses, scooters on sidewalks and down the paths of the market, people all moving and outdoor food stands with little plastic chairs everywhere.

We get swept in with the movement and end up down a market isle with the smells of cut up, day old fish and blood, dried fish and fish parts and buckets of squid everywhere. Melanie is losing it, I see the panic on her face. I need to get her out of there before she vomits. Watch out! A scooter almost collects us down a 1 meter wide walkway. We finally duck into a pizza restaurant, full of confused, crazy eyed foreigners like us, the only restaurant in site with a great menu. We will have the supreme pizza. They don’t have that. Too bad the only thing they have available is tomato and cheese pizza, beer and coke.

We feast like it was filet mignon.

Cheers,

2WANDRRs

Categories: 2-up motorcycle travel, 2WANDRRs, backpacking, Cambodia, Horizons Unlimited, SE Asia, vietnam | 1 Comment

Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge

We have visited many areas and monuments in the world dealing with the inhumanity that other humans impose on each other for so many different reasons. This was among the top of the sites that have emotionally drained us. This post is heavy with photos at the end, they tell a story.

The ones I am going to talk about are the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, or the Killing Fields, and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum , the S21 secret prison, a former high school.

We rode out of town about 16 kms on back roads to get to the Killing Fields. The ride is interesting as we pass what seems to be a continuous village of smiling and waving people. It’s difficult to believe almost 40 percent of their population were brutally killed just 40 years ago.

As you arrive at the Killing Fields and pay your entry fee you are facing a long flowered and treed walkway leading to a 62 meter tall, glass walled Buddhist stupa, filled with more than 5000 human skulls, all facing out, staring blankly and looking into the souls of all who enter.

This killing field is one of over 300 mass graves that dot the surrounding countryside. It was once an orchard and a Chinese graveyard with proper stones scattered amongst the mass grave mounds.

During the years of 1975 (end of the Vietnam/American/2nd Indochina War)-1979 with Cambodia at it’s weakest from damage done from the Americans, a communist ruler took over. His name was Pol Pot an he promised safety and prosperity to the country. Until 1979, the Khmer Rouge executed those they believed represented the”old society” that included intellectuals, merchants, Buddhist monks, former government officials and former soldiers. In addition, they targeted members of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities. Half of the Chinese living in Cambodia at the time we’re killed, as were about 90,000 Muslims of the Cham culture. Vietnamese residents were either expelled or murdered. He ordered all those people and their entire families, killed because they could seek revenge. First they would be tortured to admit their crimes against the regime, then they would be brutally murdered, because bullets were too expensive.

The small children and babies became sport as they were tossed in the air or their heads brutally smashed into what is now known as the killing tree. They were then tossed into a shallow mass grave nearby.

The mass graves here contain 8,895 bodies. It is believed that during the 4 years of the Khmer Rouge, 2.7 million of a remaining population of 8 million were killed, directly and indirectly. During the Vietnam War many Cambodians fled the countryside where the bombs were dropping. More were dropped in Cambodia than all of WW2. They fled to the cities. When Pol Pot took control of the cities they fled to the country or were placed in work camps and died there.

With knots in our stomachs we then continued to the next must visit, Toul Sleng, the S-21 secret genecide museum. This was the holding area where all prisoners we’re brought to be tortured into false confessions before being brought to the killing fields for their final breaths.
After Cambodia lost the Cambodia-Vietnamese War in 1979, Pol Pot relocated to the jungles of southwest Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge and its government collapsed. From 1979 to 1997, he and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand. Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998.

Nothing more to say.

2WANDRRs

Killing Fields Memorial

Mass grave with memorial in the background

Mass grave site

Mass graves with prayer bracelets

The Killing Tree

The Killing Tree with the genocide memorial in the background

Small bones and teeth that still surface in the rains

Many levels of brutality

Empty stares

Pain and emptiness

Our driver had many family members die here

S21

Torture room that was once a room of learning. Blood still stains the floor.

A photo of what was found here in 1975

Faces of pain

Men, women, children and babies all suffered.

The Killing Fields

Chains and blood still on the floor

Notes from around the world bypassing religions and politics. Hope for the good of humanity.

If you try to erase what happened you will make the same mistakes again.

Categories: 2-up motorcycle travel, 2WANDRRs, adventure travel, backpacking, Cambodia, killing fields, SE Asia | Leave a comment

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