Dave was right... 
Saturday, January 7, 2006, 11:54 PM
Don't Drink the Water
Don't Drink the Water
Blood in the water
Don't Drink the Water

-Dave Matthews

So, I seem to have gotten food poisining in Cambodia. Not sure what it was - we certainly haven't been drinking the local water - but the whole experience is NO FUN. Tomorrow we're scheduled to leave for Bangkok and, as of now, it looks like I'll probably be able to make the plane.

Since I did nothing today except sit in my room and try to sleep, all I know about is what I missed. Scott and my grandmother took a helicopter ride over the ruins that we hiked yesterday (can't believe I missed it!) and the entire group went out to a village in the Cambodian countryside and took an oxcart ride through town. Right now, they're out for dinner and drinks at The Raffles Grand Hotel in Angkor Wat, where Jacquie Kennedy stayed when she visited in 1967.

Tomorrow we're off to Bangkok.... and hopefully I'm back to solid foods!

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The sun sets on the empire... 
Saturday, January 7, 2006, 12:47 AM
Today we visited the anchient site of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

It's pretty amazing to be in Cambodia at all - just ten years ago the entire country was strewn with land mines and rife with civil war. Conditions in the Northern region are still unsafe and land mines still cause thousands, if not tens of thousands, of deaths and injuries each year. But from what we experienced today, you'd never know that this country was torn apart by the Khmer Rouge (they murdered everyone who wore glasses aka intellectuals) and carpet bombed by U.S. B-52 (half a million tons of bombs - fifty times what was used on Japan on the last day of WWII).

Today we climbed through a number of temples around the town of Siem Reap, including the famous site of Angkor Wat. The weather here has been great (spent part of yesterday by the pool in our hotel) but the heat and humidity really get to you after a long day outside. Of course, that's why we needed to have the sunset toast (to local rice wine) where we enjoyed a scene kind of like what's pictured above.

Tomorrow we visit more temples and then, the next day, we visit one of the notorious Killing Fields of Pol Pot. After that, it's One Night in Bangkok before a long flight back to the US.

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Conical hats and bannana wine 
Thursday, January 5, 2006, 02:03 PM

Just a quick update from the Saigon airport .... waiting to board our plane to Cambodia.

Spent yesterday cruising the Mekong Delta. We were taken first by boat (20 people) and then by row-boat (wearing conical hats and all!) up through the area where a lot of heavy fighting took place during the Vietnam war.

We also toured a candy factory where each woman produces 3,000 pieces per day. The factory owner let us try some of his home-made bannna wine.... it's suppousedly "good for your back" although I'm not quite sure how other than you might not feel any pain after a drink of it.

Our "farewell dinner" for the group was held on a private boat which cruised up the Saigon river for the evening. Alltogether, a great 14 days!

Today we're off to Cambodia for a few days. (With the majority of the people who were on our Vietnam trip).

Next update when I have a chance....

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Burrowing through Vietnam 
Tuesday, January 3, 2006, 09:05 PM

Today we all went to the Cu Chi (koo-chee) tunnels north of Saigon. These were the most famous of the tunnels where the Viet Cong fighters hit underground during the Vietnam war. Our entire group cralwed through "level one" which consists of mess halls, medical areas and bunkers. The entire tunnel complex is about 8 feet underground.

Some of us continued on to levels two and three, reaching a final depth of almost 30 feet underground!

The lowest level is much narrower than the upper two and we had to crawl a lot. The whole thing was pretty cool until Scott noticed that there were bats in the tunnels with us. Then it got kinda sketchy....

Off to dinner tonight at what is supposed to be an amazing restaurant - an example of fine French-Vietnamese fusion. Tomorrow we're off to see the Mekong River Delta.

A group of us also went to the National firing range and fired an m14 gun... You just buy the bullets you want and then someone leads you onto the range where you try to hit targets. Gotta love Vietnam - I'm sure we financed part of the military.

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Miss Saigon, I love you 
Tuesday, January 3, 2006, 08:55 PM

Yesterday, after an early morning flight, we arrived in Saigon. Home to 10% of the nation's population, this Southern city is a bustling metropolis with almost 5 million motorbikes and twice as many people. After almost two weeks of small[er] towns and rural countryside, I was very excited to see the luxury hotels, fine restaurants and glitz trappings of this historic city.

The three of us began our real tour of the city with stops at some of the hot nightlife spots:

The rooftop bar at the Caravalle Hotel

And Level 23 lounge at the brand new Saigon Sheraton Towers

Afterwards, Scott and I hit up a small casino (foreign nationals only) and called it a night.

We had amazing views of the city and its bustling traffic. It was especially cool to watch the long parkway light up as the sun when down.

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Running 24/7 
Tuesday, January 3, 2006, 08:44 PM
QUESTION: What do I have in common with a Vietnamese tailor?

ANSWER: We both wait until the LAST POSSIBLE MINUTE to get anything done.

Scott and I each had a few fittings for our custom shirts (and his jacket). After the last fitting, I realized at 6pm that there was a problem with my shirt (one of the hems had started to fall apart). So, the tailor agreed to have it fixed up and delivered to my hotel that night. Since we were leaving the next day (5am!) I told them how important it was to get it back to me. They assured me it would be there.

When we returned from dinner at 10, the shirt still wasn't at the hotel. Since I was worried that the shop was closed, the hotel called to inquire. "Not a problem, the shirt will be there soon... Evidently, these people work all night. Sometime around 12:30am the tailor sent someone over on a motorbike to drop off my shirt (with a new collar). Unbelievable. I've since heard stories of the tailors meeting people in their hotel lobby on their way to the airport. Evidently, it's not that crazy for the tailor to do the last hem in the lobby and then hand the piece over to the customer as they leave.

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They'll make your wildest dreams come true: custom tailoring in Vietnam 
Sunday, January 1, 2006, 08:40 PM
Scott and I have eagerlay awaited our foray into custom clothing. We bypassed Saville Row for the renowned tailors of Hoi An, Vietnam. Travelers come from around the world to Hoi An, their suitcases filled with clothes to have copied, raw fabric for custom pieces and fashion magazines for fresh ideas. Scott and I brought none of these. With nothing else besides a slow internet connection and a fading black and white printer, we found images of some of the dress clothes we wanted to have made.

After a lot of browsing and some earnest attempts at bargaining, we both realized that having fine suits made, even with the cheap labor here, was not a simple, or inexpensive project. Sure, there are $25 and $50 suits, all custom fit, but you'll come out looking like you went shopping at 2nd and Market (Philadelphia, of course!) and, if perchance a cigarette or match were to come near, your cheap suit would likely burst into flames.

So we decided to be reasonable and, instead of cheap suits, have a few really nice shirts made instead. (I ended up with five shirts, Scott with three and a cool jacket and my Grandmother got a number of wool pieces and something in silk). Scott and I went to two different tailors. The first one, Thu Thuy, is the most well-known one:

The Queen of Spain shops there

We also went to a smaller one with significantly lower prices, and, we discovered, better service. We've got some great pictures of Scott and I being measured and fitted. So far we've been two two fittings; Scott needs to return for one last round and then we'll have our pieces (some are even embroidered) ready to go. Total turn-around time: 24 hours.

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Abba makes me sick 
Sunday, January 1, 2006, 08:25 PM

Vietnam loves Abba. Seriously. We've heard Abba music EVERY DAY as we work our way South from Hanoi. They play "Dancing Queen." The Mamma Mia soundtrack must be cannonical. And the painfully Swedish ballad "Happy New Year" has been played constantly, including at the end of the countown last night (The DJ was Swedish - should have figured!)

But why? Scott and I set out on a "fact finding mission" to answer this intriguing question. We interviewed cab drivers, shop keepers, restaurant managers and the occasional fellow bar patron. But to no avail. Everyone claims ignorance. The cab driver explains "it's on the radio..." the restauranteur asks if we want to have the music turned off and the bar patrons spill beer on us and stumble away. But the shopkeeper offered a glimmer of hope as she tried, in halting english, to explain this great mystery: "We no play it, the government play it." Translated as: The local government (at least in Hoi An) plays it over the town loudspeakers because they think tourists like it. (Vietnman's Communist government plays propaganda and music over loudspeakers in every town at all times of the day. Their ipod evidently got stuck on just one playlist).

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Debbie Friedman in Vietnam.... see also: Jewish Geography 
Sunday, January 1, 2006, 07:54 PM
When I was younger, we learned a song by musician Debbie Friedman. One of the verses went a little like this:

Where ever you go, there's always someone Jewish
You're never alone, when you're a Jew
Even if you're... somewhere kind of new-ish
The odds are, don't look far, 'cause they're Jewish too

But in Vietnam? Who would have thought....


and other encounters:
-THE WHY NOT? BAR- (a girl named Fedderhman)
-THE BUHDDIST PAGODA-(a kid from Penn)

The Royal Household
A few nights ago (in Hue) we had dinner at the Royal House Restaurant - it's operated by (and in the house of) a woman who is a member of the Vietnamese Royal Family (the king abidcated in the 40's to revolutionary leader Ho Chi Min, but the family is still recognized as "royal"). The royal woman welcomes each group as they are seated and explains her family's role and cultural heritage in Vietnam. So far, nothing too exciting.

But halfway throgh our group's dinner, we saw another group (about 30 people) sit down near us. Soon after, we looked over and one of the men had one of the white napkins on his head. And he was lighting a candle. This being the second-to-last night of Hanukkah, Scott and I quickly surmised that the group was lighting the Hanukkah candles. A few members of our tour (the majority of us are Jewish) rushed over to their table and asked if we could join.... We lit the candles, said the prayers, and added in a little she-hech-eyanu for good measure. Then they began singing; the tunes were familiar but the words were all in Hebrew. The group was Israeli.

In the meantime, the owner of the restaurant had come up to the table, ready to make her introduction and talk about her family's cultural heritage. Much to her surprise, her "guests" seemed to be chanting in a foreign language, singing loudly and lighting candles. She was more than a little confused. Turns out, we later learned, that she had never met Jewish people before and knew nothing about the religion. She had never even heard the word "Jew" before, our tour guide told us.

Regardless, it was one amazing Hanukkah.

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Party like it's the year of the dog 
Sunday, January 1, 2006, 03:55 AM

When Scott and I were at the tailor yesterday, we were invited to their "New Years Party for customers." Sounds pretty boring, right: It's not even their new years (Vietnamese are on the Chinese calendar - the year of the dog starts in late January). And it's at a tailor shop in a city full of fun bars and cool restaurants. B-O-R-I-N-G!

Scott and I decided to give it a try since we had seen the setup (massive!) and the shop was very well-known. Plus, some other kids we met (also at our hotel) were heading there as well. We arrived (with my Grandmother) around 10pm, thinking we'd find a quiet, but interesting "anthropological experience." Instead, we turned the corner and found a crowded, riotous extravaganza. Cases and cases of imported beer and lots of French wine. Buffets. Cakes. Dancing. And, of course, loud karaoke and pounding music. Of the maybe 250 peple in attendance, everyone was Asian with a handful of Americans (all Jewish, see entry "Debbie Friedman in Vietnam...") and a few assorted Europeans.

3,000sf tailor shop - site of the party

Scott and I stayed for two hours (my Grandmother left earlier). After the party, and a round of drinks with the son of the patriarch (they say "yo" here instead of "cheers" when making toasts) we parted ways and went to a touristy bar called "tam tam." We had met some kids from NJ earlier in the evening (also staying in our hotel but on a different tour) and they came with us from the tailor shop party to the bar. At the bar they formed a multi-national dance area that went from probably 11pm to at least 12:30 - once again, not at all what we expected for NYE in Vietnam.

Crazy night ended with a quick jaunt to a bar frequented by kiwis and australians. Met some girl who's been biking around Vietnam and endeded the night in the streets (walking -- trying to find a cab) when we ran into a guy in an electric wheelchair, with a girl in his lap, who clinked beer bottles with us as he sped up the street toward his destination. Definitely a night not to be forgotten.....

happy new year, Vietnam.

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Burning monks and more.... 
Friday, December 30, 2005, 06:09 PM
3pm, Hue

We've spent the last 24 hours in the mid-size (pop ~200,000) town of Hue. Hue is considered the intellectual center of Vietnam, home to a very prestigious high school and many university students.

Last night we went to a local orphanage and met the children. We had a song-session of sorts as about 40 of the kids lined up to sing us songs and then, without warning, we were told to sing them some of our favorite songs..... turns out that twinkle twinkle little star and row-row-row your boat are internationally recognized..... The orphanage was pretty amazing and the kids all seemed healthy and well-cared for.

Today we took a boat trip on the Perfume River (site of a fair number of war stories and films) and toured the Citadel, site of a major battle between US Marines and NVA troops during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam (or, as they say, the American) war.

We also toured the pagoda where the monk came from who set himself on fire in protest of the war:

This afternoon we had lunch at a local pagoda run by nuns (female monks) who cooked a vegetarian meal for us. Evidently, someone associated with our tour group knows someone at the pagoda, so what we were able to do isn't available to outsiders and definitely not to tourists.

Tomorrow we're off to Hoiann (home of the famous Vietnamese tailors) and then further south on our way to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon).

Happy New Year from Vietnam....

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How long is halong? 
Wednesday, December 28, 2005, 07:29 PM
4:00pm - Halong Bay

Today we cruised through halong bay - named a UN world heritage site about 8 years ago. The bay's 1,600 islands cover about 150,000 hectres (580 square miles). Our five hour cruise brought us through just a bit of the bay, but we got a chance to stop at a local subsistence fishing village and to hike through a local cave.

Before the cruise, our guide announced that we were going to have a scavenger hunt of sorts. Our guide explained that our lunch would be cooked with local seafood but that our boat crew needed some additional ingredients to finish preparing the meal. He took us to a local market - not a tourist one, but the market where the locals sell fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood and other ingredients (and some not so fresh!) to each other. Since no one on our tour speaks Vietnamese, beyond a few simple words, our assignment was quite challenging. He said, in Vietnamese, (no way we could get him to write it out) five ingredients we would need to find in the market. The guide gave each group of three people 10,000 dong (a nominal amount of money - less than a dollar US) and told us we had 20 minutes. Just imagine groups of American tourists in a small local market trying desperately to speak Vietnamese - not only were we unable to properly pronounce anything, but we couldn't even tell if, when we finally got something, it was what we were looking for!

The village we stopped at was pretty amazing. About eight floating houses (each about 200 square feet plus another 500 square feet of dock and fish pens) were anchored within shouting distance of each other in the shelter of a small cove. The "village" is made up of people (often three generations living in the same house or in houses tethered to each other) who fish for a living and sell the fish, on the spot, to tourist boats and who also go into the local market and sell the fish there. Our lunch (cooked onboard our boat) was from seafood purchased from these villages.

We had a chance to dock with one of the floating houses to meet the people and look at their way of life. Interestingly, although everyone was truly dirt poor and crammed into tight quarters, they had a tv (probably 17", sony) and a dvd player. Sometimes it's baffling what people choose to spend money on. Our guide explained to us that the local children of each village attend school; a volunteer teacher will come to the village (every day) and lead lessons before moving onto the next village. Of course, there is no school house - alternating floating houses are used each time.

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Never leave your dong at home.... 
Tuesday, December 27, 2005, 09:31 PM
6:30pm, Halong Bay

We arrived today at Halong Bay after a four hour bus ride from Hanoi. Halong Bay, to the southeast, is named to the list of World Heritage sites and is known for its beautiful islands, lush greenery, and wonderful weather. So far, we've seen none of those.

The weather here is reminiscient of Portland which didn't seem so bad until I got an email from the warm, sunny Bahamas. The hotel we're staying in is regarded, according to the guidebook, as a "four star splendor" but to me it seems kind of dumpy and cold. If the weather doesn't clear up, tomorrow's open-deck boat cruise doesn't sound too exciting. Hopefuly things will take a turn for the better.

Tonight, rather than eat with the group in the hotel restaurant, a few of us are planning on venturing out into the town of rougly 10,000. Scott and I already took a quick trip out when we first got here, and the beggars and peddlers seem much more aggressive than in Hanoi. Regardless, we've learned that in a town like this where there are plenty of shops and cold beer to be purchased,
never leave your dong at home.

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Stephen Starr in Vietnam 
Tuesday, December 27, 2005, 12:57 PM
10am, Hanoi (leaving in five minutes for two days in halong bay)

Had drinks at the Metropole hotel last night and then dinner at Vietnam's nake on Stephen Starr - Green Tangerine.

The Metropole is a beautiful old hotel (built in 1901) in the center of Hanoi.

We had drinks in the historic "bamboo club" where the prices are reminiscient of drinks at an expensive New York bar (~15 times what they'd cost at most local restaurants) but the service is impeccable and the atmosphere best described as oriental elegance.

After drinks with Scott and my grandmother, the three of us headed off for dinner on our own (apart from the group) at a restaurant that had come very highly recommended, Green Tangerine

The place is reportedly very popular with French expats. The menu was superb, and, by all accounts, the food was some of the finest we had ever tasted.

The meal began with the chef's amuse bouche and we had a fig and gorganzola fritter with shredded serrano ham and, for entrees, a paella, roasted rabbit, and, much to my delight, a "mound of scallops." My scallops -- maybe 30 in all -- were piled high on a plate and mixed with some type of potatoes and a spinach swimming in a spicy vietnamese sauce. Quite a combination. For dessert we had a chocolate dome filled with mouse and rice and scott ordered a platter described only as "life's five delights which you will not want to share." Needless to say, the entire dinner was amazing.

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The verdict is in: no happy ending 
Monday, December 26, 2005, 10:02 PM
7pm, Hanoi:

After today's trip to the country, I decided that it was finally time to partake in the tradition of Vietnamese massage. I had been warned by many tour guides that some massage parlors and karaoke shops are actually houses of ill repute. So I asked our guide for a suggestion of where to go to -- somewhere sanitary, fairly priced, and above board.

Total cost of the massage is $7 US for a full hour (the cheapest places are about $4). In comparison, manicures here (didn't get one of those!) are $1 and having a bag of laundry done costs about $1.50.

The first thing my massuese (named Ha) did right was inquire, in very halting English, as to if I had a girlfriend. Good question Ha! When I said "yes," I think her mood might of changed, along with her plans for the massage, because all I can say is, there was no happy ending.

Off to drinks at the Metropole (very old and austere Hanoi hotel) and then dinner at Hanoi's take on Stephen Starr, the restaurant Tangerine. Tomorrow we depart for a World Heritage sight, Halong Bay. More to follow when I find the next internet cafe.

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