Thursday, May 26, 2016

Colorado April 2016

They say a picture is worth a thousand words (who is "THEY" anyway?), so what is a video worth. A week of skiing, scooting, and tubing all in less than 5 minutes.

Remember click here to help Dug pick where in the world he should go in 2017.

Off to the left coast and then Jackson Hole, WY.



Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Hong Kong, North and South Korea, Vietnam - February 2016

This one is long  - 30 days 4 countries, hope you enjoy.

On the road again! While I have had many short travels throughout the US recently, my last international trip, not counting a weekend in the Bahamas, was May of 2015 when I traveled to Mauritius, Madagascar, and Reunion. Yes, it has been 9 months since I have flown more than 5 hours non-stop and boy am I ready for some adventures!

Why Southeast Asia? My niece Grandma Molasses claims she has been teaching English for the last year in South Korea, and while this may be true, I have my suspicions! I think she has been in South Korea working with the CIA (she has done work for them before). I am fairly confident her mission is to help South Korea undermine North Korea's wacky leader Kim Jong-un. I thought this would be a good reason to start visiting some Southeast Asia countries. To my surprise, Margarite decided to join me on this excursion (it seems Margarite can never turn down a crazy adventure in a far off place). We timed the trip with the end of Grandma Molasses’s mission/teaching contract.

While planning my trip to visit Grandma  Molasses in South Korea I learned a few things:
1. Grandma Molasses would said, "It is really cold in South Korea in February!”
2. There isn’t much to do in South Korea.
3. U.S. Citizen can visit North Korea.
4. Vietnam is a great place to visit not too far from the Korean Peninsula.
5. Hong Kong is a great place to stop on the way to Seoul, South Korea.

Since I hadn’t been on a flight longer than five hours in the last nine months, I decided to search for one of the top 10 longest flights in the world. I found the perfect flight: Newark, New Jersey to Hong Kong - 15 hours 50 minutes on Cathay Pacific. It will be my first time with this airline but I have heard good things about it and am looking forward to my business class flight. You may recall that in order to fly business class, I buy an economy ticket for a flight that has empty business class seats and once on the plane I use my photo-shopped boarding pass to upgrade myself to business class. This technique has not failed yet.

As I looked at flights, in order to ensure I would get my upgrade, it was best to fly to Hong Kong on a Wednesday and then to Korea on a Sunday. Aside from getting the business class upgrade, this allowed me to tick another country off my list and I get four days to explore Hong Kong. I had not planned to visit Hong Kong until the flight/business class issue arose. I had not done much research on the Island Country that is now part of mainland China. Fortunately, my friends Ryan and Deanna Carpenter (Ryan is a distant relative of Karen and Richard Carpenter) lived there for three years where they had an act at one of Hong Kong's larger night clubs, playing cover songs previously recorded by the original Carpenters. Ryan and Deanna gave us a very detailed itinerary for the four days we would be spending in Hong Kong. Grandma Molasses decided to fly up and join. Grandma Molasses flew up a day early to spend a day at Disney China; she was very happy with the park.

We arrived in Hong Kong at 6:00 AM Wednesday morning after a comfortable yet unimpressive
flight from the States. As I mentioned, I had heard great things about Cathay Pacific's business class, but it turns out the plane was an older 777 and although the seats/pods were large and comfortable, everything seemed a little aged, including the flight attendants. They were eager to help, but always seemed rushed; they cleared my dinner so fast I did not have time to finish. If I had actually paid the $8,000 - $10,000 for a business ticket, I would not have been a satisfied customer. One perk was we got to take showers when we landed

After a quick shower and a 30 minute train into town, our plan was to find Grandma Molasses and drop off our bags at the apartment we rented through Airbnb. Hong Kong is a mountain rising out of the water so there is very little flat land and everything is built into the hill side. We decided to stay in the SOHO section of Hong Kong fairly high up the hill. We found an apartment on the 34th floor of a high rise built up against the mountain side. This gave us great views of the central city and the water front. The only negative, every time we returned to the apartment we had to climb 1,000 plus stairs to get up the hill side. Sure, a few times we took the largest escalator in the world, but we felt that was being wimpy. The apartment was small, but perfect for our needs, and the views were better than advertised.

Grandma Molasses found a room to rent only one subway stop and a lot of stairs away from our place. We met up with Grandma Molasses as we climbed the stairs to our place, which was really fun while carrying our bags. Once we dumped our bags (and I mean DUMPED!) we started our tour.

Day 1 Wednesday February 10th -

The first stop on our tour: The Peak Tram - we were told the Venerable Peak Tram is the only way to truly experience the beauty of Hong Kong's natural wonders. Tens of millions of people from every corner of the globe have taken the ride which affords a uniquely spectacular perspective of the city.

Before getting on the tram we walked through The Peak Tram Historical Gallery. It is like a time
tunnel with more than 200 memorabilia exhibited, divided into 15 themed sections. It goes back to 19th and 20th century Hong Kong. The first day of commercial operation for the Tram was May 30th, 1888, 600 passengers rode that day. According to a study by The University of Hong Kong, passengers riding on The Peak Tram will experience a spectacular visual illusion: when going uphill, the high-rises on the right ride of the tram appear to fall toward the peak. This Peak Tram illusion is induced by a change of the subjective vertical caused by the tilted visual environment and reclining body position of observers inside the tram. (sit on the right hand side for best experience)

We were told to head right to the Tram (about a 15 minute walk from our apartment) to avoid crowds but even at 9:00 AM we had a 20 minute wait for tickets. The ride was truly amazing. You got a real perspective of how steep Hong Kong truly is. How they built such tall sky scrapers on such steep grades is a mystery to me.

We opted for the peak tower option along with the tram. Once at the top of the hill side you reach a shopping mall, very touristy every store and restaurant we saw could be found in the states including a Baba Gumps restaurant. What a far cry from what we expected. To escape this shopping Mecca, we quickly climbed the 6 flights of escalators to reach the peak tower observation deck. Even with the wind and fog we got a nice view and feel for the island.

We were getting hungry so we stopped in at Peak Lookout Restaurant which is just across from the top of The Peak Tram -  breakfast / lunch was very good. Ryan and Deanna had recommended the Peak Lookout Restaurant and they were correct. After eating we chose to walk down from the peak, walking down maybe be harder than walking up. It is a very steep windy path, you feel like you are constantly using your feet as breaks to keep from going to fast and toppling over.

Next on our tour plan was Man Mo Temple - Hong Kong's magnificent Man Mo Temple is among
the oldest and most well-known temples in the territory. It was built in 1848, during the early years of British rule in Hong Kong. Though it's been rebuilt a number of times, much of the original structure still remains. Located on the western end of Hollywood Road. Man Mo Temple was a15 minutes walk from our apartment in the opposite direction of The Peak Tram. Once we arrived at the Temple we realized about 1,000 other people had the same idea, the line to enter was a few hours long. Not being ones for lines, we decided to save the Man Mo Temple for another day. We later found out the long lines were due to the Chinese New Years, this is a favorite site to visit during the New Year.

With all the walking we had done we decided a foot massage was in order. Ryan and Deanna told us to go to "Foot" in the Central section of Hong Kong, on 88 Queens Road. Our foot massage at "Foot", did not disappoint. Both Margarite and I opted for the 50 minute massage, while Grandma Molasses took a cat nap. Once Tony (my masseur) saw my feet, he insisted he give me a pedicure, I agreed as I thought a pedicure was polishing my toe nails. Two pounds of dead skin and fifteen minutes later, I no longer had calluses on my feet and I was about a half inch shorter. I guess my feet take a beating with all the running I do.

The massage starts out with a five minute shoulder massage, followed by 50 minutes on your feet. Just what the doctor ordered after a 16 hour flight and several hours of walking.

The day had flown by it was getting close to time for dinner. Our first choice was a Dim Sum restaurant, but unfortunately it was closed for New Year. We stumbled onto a fantastic Chinese restaurant Sun Ting Lok  the highlight was Margarite ordered a pork belly meal that stated it was for two to four people, she easily finished it on her own.

After dinner we walked Grandma Molasses back to her subway station and we walked the hill back to our apartment for a great nights sleep.

Her name is Juan which in Chinese means "graciousness" Juan came to Hong Kong from Mainland China looking for a better life. It is too hard for Juan to talk about her past life in China. She now works at the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens maintaining the grounds.

Day 2 Thursday February 11th -

Today we will hike Dragon's Back which is an 8 Kilometer Hike on the South Side of the island near
the town of Stanley, we took the MTR(subway) to the Shau Kei Wan Station, from the station we took exit A3, which leaves you at the bus terminal. We were instructed to take bus 9 To Tei Wan on Shek O Road. How do we figure out which bus to take? It was an easy decision, we took the one with all the hikers lined up in front of it. Our timing was perfect as we approached the bus the doors opened, we were the last three on the bus and we got the last three seats. As they say, timing is everything!

Now what stop do we get off at? Again, we just followed the other hikers, it was the third or fourth stop and 80% of the people on the bus got up to depart we figured that had to be the correct stop and we were right.

Not only does the Dragon’s Back score high for its cool name, it has also been voted the ‘Best Urban Hiking Trail in Asia’ by Time (Asia Ed.). The trail provides stunning views of Shek O, Tai Long Wan, Stanley, Tai Tam, and the South China Sea, at least that is what we had read, it seems on a cloudy / foggy day, the views are not that spectacular. The hike was still very enjoyable and even a little challenging. The highlights were seeing some of the shoes the locals hike in, from dress spiked high heels to flip flops.

The end point of the hike is the village of Tai Long Wan which is a little surfing village on a bay called "Big Wave Bay". Waves reach several meters high in all seasons in the unobstructed bay, making it a surfer haunt. My guess there were thirty surfers catching waves. We had lunch at Tong Kee right in the village as you exited the Dragon Back trail. This hole in the wall restaurant had excellent fried rice.

After watching the surfers we took a taxi to Stanley to check out Stanley Market and the beach / promenade. Stanley is one of the original towns settled by the British and is now a tourist / beach community. We walked around the markets, people watched, and took in the sites. We stopped at The Smuggler's Inn  - Address: 90A Stanley Main Street, overlooking the harbor a great local place for a beer and some fries.

Jackie is a four and a half year old, very shy little girl. The shyness disappeared once she was offered an ice cream. Very quickly, Jackie went from a shy little girl to a Chatty Cathy. Jackie loves school, but enjoys playing with her dog and brother more. When she grows up she wants to be a model, or doctor, but most important she wants to be a mom. And guess what her favorite food is ice cream.

We took the local bus back rather than the number 9 bus and the subway, this gave us a view of the
back side of the island, much of which is undeveloped.

It had been a long enjoyable day, though tiring. We were all worn out and decided to hit the grocery for snacks and have a light dinner in the apartment. At 9:00 PM we walked Grandma Molasses back down the hill, but we cheated and took the escalator back up.

Day 3 Friday February 12th -

We had planned to take the Star Ferry - The Star Ferry has been a regular piece of Hong Kong life for more than a century. Each day, both residents and visitors use this beloved ferry system which makes its way gently across Victoria Harbor delivering its passengers to their intended destination with unparalleled efficiency. The ferry service offers routes from Wanchai to Tsim Sha Tsui and from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui.

Our plan was to take the ferry over to Tsim Sha Tsui. Which is on Kowloon Island, but with the weather overcast and the ferry not starting to 11:00 AM we decided to take the Subway, our first stop was the Hong Kong Museum of History. The cost $5HK about $.75 and worth every penny. The museum takes you through the history of Hong Kong from the beginning of earth to modern day times. There are many exhibits that give you a great understanding of what Hong Kong was like at different points in history.

After the Museum we had lunch at a great Indonesian Restaurant. The afternoon was spent visiting
several unique markets, the Bird Market, the Flower Market, and of course the Gold Fish Market. These markets were sections of the
city that had many shops that all sold either domestic birds, flowers, or yes, you guessed it gold fish. Each section specialized in one of these three items. We hopped the subway back to SOHO and had another great meal.

He is an engineering student, she is pre-med. They are not sure how it started, maybe as a joke, but for the last year they have always worn the same shoes when they go out. They now have 6 pairs of the exact same shoe.

Day 4 Saturday February 13th -

After striking out on our first try, we decided to try our luck today visiting the Man Mo Temple. It
seemed luck was with us, not as crowded as our first visit, the temple was still bustling with people praying and burning incense, lots of incense. We could not figure out the ritual, but everybody was doing their own thing, this was not an organized pray session, more a chaotic pray session.

The weather had cleared and since we missed the ferry the day before we decided to take a ferry over to Lamma Island. Lamma Island is a 40 Minute Ferry Ride from Central Hong Kong. Lamma Island has no cars - once there we chose the shorter of two hikes about two hours in length. The island at one time was a very prosperous
fishing island, but with the over fishing in the area and many of the inhabitants have left the island. Lamma Island is the third largest island in Hong Kong it is an interesting place to experience, the natural life of Hong Kong, the seafood, the countryside, walks and views. Whether visiting historic temples, enjoying the freshest seafood, or simply walking the quiet beaches and wooded hillsides there is something for everyone on Lamma Island.

After the Island visit we headed to the Hotel Shangri-La for High tea. I am not sure we were dressed appropriately for the Shangri-La, as we approached the lobby area, the hostess explained they
did not have any seats available, and we would be more comfortable in the bar. As we passed through the lobby to the bar we saw many vacant seats.

Once in the bar we got great service. We chose tea only, while the treats served with high tea looked incredible, we had just had lunch and felt the treats might put us into sugar comas.

After high tea we walked back to our apartment to pack and get ready for our early morning departure the following day.

All Pictures of Hong Kong

 Video of Hong Kong

Day 5 Sunday February 14th - happy valentines day

Today will be an interesting day. While Margarite and I are heading to Seoul, South Korea from Hong Kong, Grandma Molasses will have already departed on an earlier flight. Meanwhile, already
in route to Seoul are Karen - Philadelphia to Seoul, Laney - Detroit to Seoul, and "Z" - Seattle to Seoul. They are all relatives of Grandma Molasses's coming to visit her. Not only are we all coming from different locations, we are all arriving at different times.

For Margarite and I the flight was uneventful and rather easy, and again business class worked like a charm. From our apartment in Hong Kong we took the people mover / escalator the mile or so to the airport express train, this was the first time we traversed the entire distance of the longest escalator. We were able to check your bags and get our boarding pass at the train. The train is a 30 minute ride directly to the airport. Once at the airport we relaxed in the club room and then off to Seoul.

Seoul was just as easy, we took the express train to the city, then a 10 minute taxi to the apartment.

Then we waited and waited, for the rest of the crew.

Everybody arrived, some later than expected but all was good. We hung out, caught up, and then hit the sack as we would have a full day ahead of us.

Day 6 Monday February 15th -

First things first, breakfast - Grandma Molasses knew a great breakfast place just two subway stops from our apartment. Flying Pan is a back ally kind of place with fantastic food. A bit pricey for Korean standards but worth every penny. How Grandma Molasses found this gem I have no idea. I am convinced it is her CIA connections but she denies it. The town she claims she teaches in, is a 5 hour bus ride from Seoul, how could she possible know about this restaurant unless she has contacts in Seoul or spends more time in Seoul than she claims. After breakfast we were off to see the sites. I need to mention it is 25 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of minus 2 degrees.

Our first stop was Gyeongbokgung Palace, though within walking distance to the Flying Pan we
opted for the Subway system to stay warm. Much like Hong Kong, Korea has a very efficient system, from the way you load your subway card with money, to clean, quick running, many lines, and stops. The subway system is a great way to get around. One unique feature of Korea's system that I had not seen before is the type of turn styles (gate) to get in and out of the train area. Both Hong Kong and Korea allow you to purchase cards with a RF device that allows you to just hold the device near the turn style and it subtracts money you pre-loaded off the device.

Though in Hong Kong the turn styles where similar to other places, as you placed your card the turn style opens, allowing you to pass through. In Korea the gates are always open, you simple walked through and held your card over the reader. I assumed this was an honor system subway. Just for yucks I walked through without using my card, I quickly found out this was no honor system, more of a horror system. Quicker than I could react, two gate slammed shut, one taking out my right knee, the other slamming into my left thigh. Not sure what a quarter back feels like when he is sacked, but I have a feeling that it was something like what I just felt.

With the gates closed I could not go forward, and with somewhere between 20-30 Koreans pushing
against me I could not reach back to get my card over the reader. As the rest of the family laughed, I finally was able to reach back scan my card and free myself from the gates. As the gates opened it was like open the flood gates to a large dam that was over flowing from heavy rains. I started moving forward, but not fast enough for the Koreans behind me. I felt like a rodeo clown being trampled by a herd of loose steer.

Once I recovered from my bruised ego, we continued onto the subway and the stop for the palace. Before heading to the palace we visited a few historic monuments on the roadway just outside the palace.

The palace grounds were much larger than I had expected with more structures than I expected. Most of the buildings had unique purposes. There were even separate sleeping structures for the king and queen.

Also on the palace grounds was the Seoul Museum of History.  It was a lovely museum but most of the exhibits were in Korean with very little English translations. Though speak and read Korean as I do with all languages, my Korean was very rusty and thus hurt the value we got out of the museum. This was not the fault of the museum being we are in Korea you would expect the museum to use the Korean language. This was my fault for not polishing up on my Korean before we arrived.

Honeymooners Jaewon and Soyoun Kim, visiting Gyeobgbokgung Palace in Seoul. After their honeymoon, they plan to start saving for a house and starting a family. They both have careers in the banking industry where they had met. They have not decided who will be the primary care giver for the children, clearly from their answer it will be debated for a while.

After watching the very colorful changing of the guards, with the weather as cold as it was, we decided to visit the Poop Café in the Insadong section of Seoul. Another great find of Grandma Molasses's. The Poop Cafe is a coffee cafe that has a poop theme. From the coffee mugs that are styled to look like toilet bowls, to the actual old style toilets built into the floor boards of the cafe.
Everywhere you looked there was something displayed to look like poop. They even had poop colored and shaped croissants.

The poop cafe is in a little shopping district with small unique shops many with local craftspeople selling their wares.

We stopped to get a snack at a small kimbap place. The owners were thrilled to have 6 Americans visit and have a meal. We pretty much filled it up. I have no idea what we ate, it all tasted great and filled us up. The bill, $10,000 Korean won about $8.25 USD.

We continued walking through the streets of Seoul until we decided to take a subway back to the apartment. Our apartment was on the south side of Seoul yet north of the river. We were on the 33rd floor, so the views of the city were just awesome.

Dinner was a traditional Korean pork barbecue. We randomly to pick a joint as we walked around, we are not sure we picked the best place. The food was just ok. There were three barbecue places all next to each other. We chose the one in the middle as it was empty and the other two were packed. Bad decision. Now we know why it was empty.

Off to bed we have a big day ahead of us tomorrow.

Day 7 Tuesday February 16th-

We are going to North Korea!

The de-militarized zone (DMZ) which is actually one of the most militarized areas in the world with Koridoor for their tours.
over a million troops stationed near or around the DMZ. In order to go to the DMZ you have to apply though the state department of your home country and then book transport through a few different organizations. We chose the USO who uses

Here is the itinerary we followed with a few adjustments.

1030 : Departure from Camp Kim
1135 : DMZ Theater, The Third infiltration Tunnel
1250 : Dora observatory
1320 : Lunch at the Korean Restaurant during DMZ tour.
1425 : Dorasan Station
1500 : After an informative video at Camp Bonifas and a presentation by a member of the U.S. military 20 Minute Briefing at JSA Visitor Center And then tour to the JSA area (Freedom house, Conference room, Bridge of no return and point of Ax murder)
1720 : Departure to Camp Kim
1830 : Arrive at Camp Kim

Camp Kim was just a few minute walk from our apartment, we arrived at 10:00 AM which was perfect as we head to check in with our passports and sign release of liability. I guess when a tour company takes you into a hostile country / war zone they do not want to be responsible for you. At the bottom of the form was the statement in Bold capital letter.


After we all gladly signed the form. We waited for the rest of the group to arrive, 42 in all, yep we are not the only crazies. We departed on time. Our tour guide know as SP gave us some history of Korea and specifically the Korean War and the DMZ.

Our first stop was the third tunnel, since the creation of the DMZ (1950's) four tunnels have been
found. These tunnels have been dug by the North Koreans or at least that is what the South Koreans say. The North Koreans say the tunnels are just natural phenomena. The third tunnel, the one we will be visiting is 73 meters below the earths surface. It is many kilometers long completely passing under the 4 kilometer wide DMZ. After a 15 minute video of the history of the DMZ we toured the tunnel. We took a 365 meter 11% grade ramp to the tunnel and then got to walk about 400 meters of the tunnel. At the end point, was a 1 meter cement wall used to block the tunnel. We are told the South Koreans put up three of these walls back to back to seal the tunnel off from the north. We were also told this is the most popular tourist site in South Korea and is a real boost to the local economy.

The North Koreans say the tunnel is just a natural phenomena, clearly from the visible holds drilled to hold the blasting dynamite, this tunnel was man made, the North Korean story can not be true.

The South Koreans say the North Koreans dug the tunnel with pick axes, and dynamite, 73 meters under ground and many kilometers long. I am not sure the North Koreans have the ability to build a tunnel like this.

Dug says, "The South Koreans built the tunnel, just 300 some odd meters long and claim it is much longer to create a huge economic boom for the area by creating one of the most visited tourist destination in Korea." That is my story and I am sticking to it.

After the tunnel tour we had lunch at a local cafeteria. There is an industrial complex that has South Korean factories that employee North Korean workers. This industrial complex is within North Korean and employees over 60,000 people. South Korea just a few days before our visit shut down this complex due to North Korea launching a missile and setting off a hydrogen bomb. Even though the complex was closed we got to enjoy lunch at the cafeteria.

After lunch we toured the Dorasan Train Station - in the early 2000's it looked like reunification of
the two Koreans might be possible. To prepare for that, the two countries connected the north / south running train tracks. The train station on the South Korean side is the Dorasan Train Station. The idea is that this station would be the gateway to the North and from here you could travel from South Korea all the way to Europe.

What a beautiful station that sits idle. Next and highlight of the trip. the Joint Security Area (JSA) and Camp Bonifas. After a 15 minute video and briefing, where again we were warned about the danger and asked if we wanted to back out. An interesting observation, Grandma Molasses seemed to know a lot of the officials at the DMZ while at the same time claiming she had never been before. Once the briefing was complete we boarded buses that looked more like reinforced Humves. We had a 15 minute 3 kilometer drive to the border. We crossed a mine field covered with over two million land mines, we crossed a road bridge that was mined with C4 to be blown if the South was attacked by the North. We finally arrived at the Freedom House and the border. The Freedom House was built to be used for a place North and South Korean families that were separated during the war could meet. The Freedom House was never used as the North felt there was to high a chance their citizens would defect to the South.

We got to leave the bus and walk around the border and observe the North Koreans observe us. Our tour guide for this section was a U.S. Army private, along with the U.S. Soldiers accompanying us, we were being guarded by several South Korean soldiers. We toured one of many buildings that are used to hold diplomatic talks between the North and South. These buildings are built directly on the border. Half the building is in South Korea and half is in North Korea.

There are also two villages on the border. Freedom Village in the South and Propaganda Village in the North, the purpose of these villages is if the Koreans ever reunify these villages will become the new capital of the one Korea.

Once back at Camp Bonifas we transferred back to our tour bus for the one hour drive back to Seoul.

Over all the trip was worth it, both the time and money, but I would suggest rather than 8 hours make it a 4 hour tour. Just visit the third tunnel and the DMS/JSA.

Everybody was on their own for dinner. "Z" and I decided on sushi from the local grocery. Very enjoyable.

Day 8 Wednesday February 17th-

We hopped on the subway to check out the markets. Dongdaemun Market which is 4 or 5 story building covering a full city block, a very large city block, with every kind of fabric you might want to buy or not buy, everything you could imagine
every pattern and texture, ribbons, buttons, you name it they had it. I think we covered every square inch of the building over a few hours. This whole area of the city had buildings like this, each specializing in a certain industry. The next market we visited was the clothing market, just like the fabric market the clothing market had every type of clothing you could imaging. We walked by the electronics market and the lighting market to name a few others. I finally realized this whole area was Dongdaemun Market, not just the first building we visited.

Gwangjang Market is where we had lunch, at what one might call a "Korean Food Court". There were stands most had one or two women cooking
home made local foods. We all ate our way through these vendors, most of the foods we ate we had no idea what they were. The one thing we knew, they were all very tasty.

After consuming most of the food in Korea, we decided a long walk was in order, so we started heading back to the apartment about 5 kilometers away. We walked some of the way on the Stream, also known as Cheonggyecheon. The Stream was originally a road that crossed Seoul, it has been converted to a walking park with a stream running where the road way once was. It is a pleasant oasis in the city. After walking a few kilometers we took the subway the remaining way back to the apartment.

We decided to visit the Seoul N Tower for sunset - it is the highest point in the city. We took the subway to the cable car to the top of the tower. We missed sunset but got great views of the night sky line from this high vantage point. As the sunset the temperature dropped. The moon was almost full which added to the great experience. We headed back down the mountain and found a great restaurant unfortunately I did not get the name, everything was perfect, well almost. Grandma Molasses and Laney ordered Shabu-Shabu. After about an hour of waiting for Grandma Molasses and Laney's meals, we had all, not only gotten our meals, we had finished them, we inquired about the Shabu-Shabu. We found out they were out of Shabu-Shabu and forgot to
tell us. It was not a problem as Grandma Molasses and Laney were not hungry. At least that is what they said, I think they were just being nice.

Off to bed some of us full and some of us not so full.

All Pictures Korea

Korea Video

Day 9 Thursday February 18th-

The 6 of us (the Seoul group) arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam about noon after the tedious process of getting our Vietnam Visas to enter the country. The visa process at the airport was rather easy it was before
the airport that was a little hectic / tedious. Let me start from the beginning, for people coming from countries without reciprocal visa agreements with Vietnam there are two ways to get visas. The first is, you either visit or mail your passport with all the pertinent information and fees to the appropriate Vietnam Embassy or Consulate, the second, you obtain a visa invitation letter from a broker and then once in Vietnam you get your visa at the airport. For this portion of the trip I used a booking agent to insure everything went perfect. With seven people traveling I did not want to take a chance of something going wrong.

Picking a booking agent was not easy, I found 7 Vietnamese booking agents in the international yellow pages of booking agents, they were all based in Vietnam. I put the 7 names into a hat and picked one.

The winner was Mrs. Vuong Duong with Luxury Travel Vietnam over a 6 month period I worked with Mrs. Duong she could not have been any easier to work with, always responding to emails within 24 hours, always looking for input from us to make sure the plans she was putting together for us were meeting our needs and expectations. Everything had gone very smoothly, until! About 2 weeks before we were to arrive in Vietnam I was looking through our itinerary / proposal and saw we should be getting our visa invitation letter 10 days before we would be arriving in Vietnam. Since we would be visiting Hong Kong and the Koreas before Vietnam the 10 day window was not going to work for us. I emailed Mrs. Duong, she responded back, "I already sent you your visa invitation letter". I am fairly organized when it comes to this stuff
and was confident we never got the letter. I searched through all the emails from Mrs. Duong and could not find any containing a visa letter. I sent her a email stating we did not have the letter and asked her to resend. Here is the response I got. "Do not worry I take care of visa information, on vacation right now but you have letter soon".

I was not that concerned as I could always print the letter in Hong Kong or Korea. Plus it was the New Year in Vietnam and I knew things shut down for a week or so during the new year.

We were now in Hong Kong and within 10 days of arriving in Vietnam, actually 6 days, I emailed again and asked about the letter. The response was shocking compared to the way Mrs. Duong had been so detailed and responsive up to this point. Her response was," I am working on letters, can you give me information for each person, name, passport number, date of birth, passport expire date, flight arrival information, sex. I am working on letter now." The reason this was shocking most of the requested information I had already provided to Mrs. Duong for our flights that she had booked us.

Thanks to the cloud I had all the information available to me. Rather than sit and enjoy high tea in Hong Kong, I put an email together with all the information requested. After I sent the information Ms. Duong responded, "do not worry I take care of this for you."

A few days went by and we were now in Korea. We learned that the airlines will not allow you to board your flight to Vietnam unless you show you have a Vietnam visa letter of invitation. The letter must be printed in color to show the red Vietnamese seal. The reason, the airlines do not let you fly, is they do not want to have to fly you back if you are not allowed into Vietnam.

I emailed Ms. Doung again explaining Michael would be departing the U.S. In a few days and needed his letter in order to board his flight. The response, "do not worry, letter coming soon".

At this point I was starting to worry, Michael had about 24 hours to receive the letter and print it out,
a letter we were suppose to have ten days before. For us (those in Korea) it was also becoming critical, once we received the letters we would need to find a place to print them out.

With 12 hours to go, I sent a more demanding email explaining I was worried and we needed the letters ASAP! As I hit send on the email I received an email from Mrs. Doung with the letters. My last email was not needed.

Mrs. Doung told us we needed a $45.00 fee and two passport photos.

Once we arrived at the airport we found a visa purchase counter. The line was very short, maybe two people in front of us. We handed in our passport and visa letter and were told to wait off to the side. About 15 minutes later our names popped up on the screen, our visas were done. The cost $25.00 instead of $45 and no pictures were needed.

Besides the extra stress, everything worked out fine. If this is the worst hiccup on the trip I will be very happy with Mrs. Duong. If you decided not to read the rest of the story, everything worked out perfect and we were very happy with Mrs. Duong. I would recommend her and use her again!

Once past imagination we met Nang, Nang will be our guide for the next week or so. The drive to the hotel was about 40 minutes. My first impression of Vietnam was similar to other developing countries. The buildings are a hodgepodge of cement structures, the roads are adequate, but not very efficient. The one difference was the number of motor scooters, hundreds if not thousands, swarming the roadways and surrounding the cars and trucks like bumble bees. There did not seem to be any order to the way the scooters moved around the road. In Vietnam they drive on the right side of the road, but many of the scooters seemed to drive on the left heading into oncoming traffic.

Our hotel was fantastic, Hotel de l’Opera Hanoi, just on the edge of the Old Quarter. We could walk to almost anything we might want to visit, the rooms were large and deluxe. We had a few hours of free time so we broke into groups and walked the Old Quarter of Hanoi. "Z" and I found an old hole
in the wall that for 32,000 Vietnam Duong we had a fantastic lunch about $1.60 USD. It this hotel was representative of the hotels too follow I was going to be very happy with Mrs. Doung. The you could see the French influence of the in the Old Quarter from colonial times, when Vietnam was a colony of France.

At 4:30PM Nang met us at the hotel for a short walk to the Lotus Water Puppet Theater. The Water Puppet show was very interesting. The shows content was stories from Vietnamese folk lore. It is hard to describe the mechanics of the  
water puppet show. Think of marionettes except the puppets are in water and are controlled by sticks and cables that are under the water, like I said hard to describe. I am glad we got to see the show, the length, 50 minutes with 12 skits was perfect. After the show we drove to Rue Lamblot for a great dinner. We had a fixed menu that include prawns, duck, chicken as well as a few Vietnamese specialties.

It had been 24 hours since we last heard from Michael, he was heading our way via, Chicago, and Tokyo, due to arrive about midnight. We thought he got his visa letter, but we're not 100% certain.

Out on the town bridal pictures

Day 10 Friday February 19th -

Michael made it, arriving just after midnight!

We were picked up at 8:30AM by Nang and our driver Mr. Handsome, we would be heading to Hoa Lu , situated 100 km south of Hanoi. Hoa Lu was the capital city of Vietnam under the Dinh Dynasty
between 968 and 1009 AD. Some of the sanctuaries and tombs have survived the years and can still be seen today. Apart from its historical interest, the area is also one of astounding natural beauty with limestone peaks whose splendor is often said to surpass that of Ha Long Bay. It is true that this area is often referred to as “ Ha Long Bay on Land.”

Though only 100 kilometers outside Hanoi, because of the traffic and road conditions the trip took 2 hours. Our drive took us by Ngo Dong River, which made for a truly unforgettable
experience, passing between towering limestone peaks. We first visited Dinh and Le sanctuaries these were used by the King and Queen from this period. Next we stopped for lunch at a very nice restaurant which served traditional Vietnamese food.

After lunch we headed to Tam Coc River for a boat trip along the Boi River. Along the way, we visited caves and ancient temples. The river cuts its way through the limestone peaks and has even carved caves that are now tunnels with the river running through them, a total of three tunnels the longest a few hundred meters long. The boat operators row the boats with their legs and feet rather than their arms and hands. Our boat driver let me have a go at it. I failed miserable, beaching our boat along a rice patty.

Though the sky was very hazy the scenery was still beautiful. Seeing the locals work the rice patties
as they have for over a thousand years was enlightening.

Zack, Margarite, and I went to Wild Rice for dinner just a short walk from our hotel. The service and meal was enjoyable. We all ordered different fixed menus, they had 8 different fixed menus. Enough food for an army, though somehow we finished it all. Tomorrow we are off to spend the night on a traditional Vietnamese junk boat. Though there seems to be a little confusion, Nang thinks we will spend two nights on the boat, but our itinerary says one night on the boat and one night at a traditional Vietnam Village.

I forgot to mention while "Z" and I were walking around the Old Quarter one of the local Television Stations got wind that I was in Country and stopped us to get my opinion of Vietnam. Unfortunately I had only been in country for a few waking hours so I was not able to give them the review the country deserves. We hope to reconnect sometime in the future to continue the interview.

Day 11 Saturday February 20th -

Nang arrived and confirmed just one night on the boat and one night in the village. We departed at 8:00 AM for our four hour drive to Hon Gai Harbor where we will board a traditional Vietnamese junk boat for a 2 day 1 night cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay we boarded the  Indochina Junk Boat Prince IV at 11:30 AM. Why Bai Tu Long Bay and not the more popular Ha Long Bay? While researching the trip I read that Ha Long Bay has gotten so popular that many times there are over 600 junk boats some very larger all anchored near each other. Bai Tu Long Bay is a smaller less popular bay with even more beauty than Ha Long Bay with smaller more private Junk boats. We had a crew of 7 which includes our guide Wang. Once on board we were served a beautiful lunch on the top deck
as we headed to Cap La and Tra San for some Kayaking. The Prince IV has three cabins. One has two queen beds, one has a queen and a single and the last cabin has a queen bed. The seven of us fit very comfortable. The accommodations were 5 star plus. Once under way Wang went over our itinerary, he explained the cruse was three days two nights. We all laughed as we assumed Nang had told him about the confusion and he was just having fun with us. As he explained what we would be doing on the second night and third day we saw he was serious. I explained our concern and showed him our itinerary which was clearly different from his. At this point our group was fine with an extra night on the boat as the accommodations were splendid.

After a few phone calls, yes Vietnam has great cell service even in the bay. Mrs. Doung called and
explained the mix up, prior to the new year with the colder weather they were only doing one night on the boat, which is the itinerary we got, after the new year it is two nights. Problem solved and we were very happy.

While a little cool, the weather was cooperating, no rain. The kayaking was fantastic, the lime stone pillars grow out of the bay, we explored many caves, created from the rain, wind, and waves. After kayaking we headed to anchor in Cong Do where we also enjoyed a gourmet dinner.

Wang was an expert kayaker and his English and sense of humor were about equal, which made both a bit more humorous. For example when handing out the menu for dinner, he offered fried cat or barbecue dog. This create some tension for the animal lovers in our group, humor for the others and disappointment for "Z" as he was hoping to try both. It ends up the cat was fish and dog pork.

We all slept well with the rolling seas rocking us to sleep.

Day 12 Sunday February 21st -

We woke to another hazy day, again no rain, we had breakfast on the upper deck, eggs and banana
pancakes with honey. After breakfast we kayaked for about two hours exploring 5 different caves. We finally reached Hon Co Island a beautiful sand beach far from any other people or boats. We enjoyed swimming, exploring, and relaxing. The crew brought a table chairs and everything you might need to cook and serve a beautiful barbecue lunch. We even found some scallops, snails and starfish, which the crew grilled and served us. It does not get any fresher than this.

In the afternoon we visited Thien Canh Son Cave, while this cave is a popular tourist destination we got there later in the day after the crowds died down. After caving we sat on the beach to watch a beautiful sunset, yes the sky cleared for a bit.

Another great dinner and another restful nights sleep.


Day 13 Monday February 22nd -

We relaxed with a great morning view of the bay’s landscape, tea, coffee, and juice were served. Then we had breakfast, again on the top deck. We would be departing the Prince IV today, but not before visiting Vung Vieng, a traditional fishing village. We boarded a rustic row-boat, met the local
people and toured the floating school and fish farms. The entire village sits in the bay every structure built on floats. Wang used the school house to give us a quick lesson on the Vietnamese language. They raise oysters in this village and harvest the pearls. It was educational to watch how they seed the oyster and then check the progress of the pearl. We were rowed around the village on an old style row boat by one of the villagers. He let me give it a try. It was much harder than it looked.

After the village tour we headed back to the junk boat had lunch and cruised back to the harbor for disembarkation.

We had a 4 hour drive back to Hanoi but stopped at Yen Duc Village – the second village of the day, for another new experience. Yen Duc Village is the village we were originally scheduled to spend the night at. We were all happy the way things worked out. We got an extra night on the junk boat a tour of the fishing village and still got a nice tour of Yen Duc Village. There were several celebrations going in Yen Duc we also watched another traditional water puppet show. This was a great addition as Michael missed the first water puppet show.

Day 14 Tuesday February 23rd -

We started the morning with a half day Cooking class at Chau Long Cooking first our instructor walked us to the lively Chau Long Market where we learned about purchasing fresh products, most of the animal products such as fish and chicken are still alive in the markets and the vendor prepares what you want the way you want it. The meat products have been butchered within an hour of arriving at the market. The goal farm to table in less than a few hours. In the hands-on cooking class we learned about the art of traditional Vietnamese cuisine from the locals in the Old Quarter. We learned how to make a number of regional delicacies, which included, Banana Flower Salad, fresh Spring Rolls and Com Rang. Once the class was over we enjoyed a nice lunch where we ate what we had prepared.

On the drive back to Hanoi the day before I realized I had gotten dysentery from something I had either drank or eaten, I am sure it was my fault as I rather enjoy the food and drink. To me, being hyper vigilant about what I eat and drink takes something away from exploring new lands and cultures. The dysentery hit me like a ton of bricks we were about half way back to Hanoi and the driver had about 10 seconds warning to get the van pulled
over before I blew chow. It was like a volcano erupting, but no volcano just me. There are two positive aspects of dysentery, one you lose weight, two the cure is simple just take cipro a day for three days. The negative you do not feel like eating for three days. That is the reason I bring the issue up here. While I am sure the cooking class and food were fantastic, with the issue I had going on I was unable to enjoy it as much as the others did.

After lunch we took a walking tour of the city,
we visit another local market and Hanoi's Old Quarter, known for its 36 streets and former craft guilds. We also visited the Ho Chi Minh complex where we watched the changing of the guards as well as saw where Ho Chi Minh lived. Other sites visited were the Temple of Literature, Tran Quoc Pagoda, Westlake and Ngoc Son Temple , Hoa Lo prison (Hanoi Hilton). We were unable to visit the tomb of Ho Chi Minh as it is only open in the morning which is when we had the cooking class.

I enjoyed the tour of the Hoa Lo prison this is the prison where senator John McCain was held for over five years. The prison was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese rebels during the
time Vietnam was a French colony. The history told to us was about how brutal the French were to the Vietnamese which I am sure is true. Once the French left the Vietnamese took over the prison, and used it as a prison for captured American Pilots shot down over North Vietnam. Based on the history told by the Vietnamese the U.S. Servicemen were treated very well, they explained that is why the U.S. Servicemen called the prison the Hanoi Hilton. This history seemed to contradict the history John McCain gives about his time in this prison.

The Vietnamese erected a statue honoring John McCain along the lake where John McCain was shot down and recovered during the Vietnam war.

After our walking tour we enjoyed an hour cyclo tour of the old quarter. A cyclo is a bicycle rickshaw with the passenger sitting on a cart that has a bicycle connected to the back. I was starting to feel better and wanting some exercise I opted to bike and let my driver enjoy the ride.

We still had a few hours before our train so we walked around the old quarter and found a great hole in the wall for dinner, for $15.00 USD all 8 of us had great meals, not $15.00 each, but $15.00 for all of us.

We would be taking an overnight train to Sapa. Sapa is in the North West part of Vietnam, up in the 
mountains. There are three ways to get to Sapa, drive on the new highway about 4-5 hours, bus about 6 hours, and the traditional method, the overnight train 7-8 hours. We opted for the train to experience the real Vietnam. We boarded the train at 9:30 PM and departed on time at 10:00 PM. We had reserved 2 luxury cabins 4 bunks in each. I think the description luxury was correct for a Vietnam railroad, but this was no Blue Train. The train was the Victoria Express it would cover the under 300 kilometers in just under 8 hours, truly not express. Some of us slept great others not so great.


Day 15 Wednesday February 24th -

We arrived in Lao Cai at 6:00 AM. Lao Cai sits on the northern most border of Vietnam and China in fact the train station is just 3 kilometers from the Chinese border. Sapa was still another hour drive from the train station, (even though it was just 33 kilometers) on the drive we climbed another 1,000 meters in elevation. The weather in Cai was still very wet and overcast, but the temperature was mild, as we approached Sapa the temperature dropped.

Once in Sapa, we checked in to the Victoria Hotel and had breakfast. We decided to take free time after breakfast and tour Sapa in the afternoon. We also decided to play it by ear as what we would do, the weather (rain) was unpredictable and the temperatures colder than we expected.

After lunch we departed for our tour of the Cat Cat Village. As we head down the mountain Nang our
guide notices it was not raining in the area we are suppose to bike ride the next day. We decided to make a change and visit the area we had planned to bike, but hike it instead. Nang felt it would be a better experience without the rain and he could not guarantee we would not have rain the next day.

We headed out from Sapa by going downhill, the van dropped us off and we got swarmed by local women selling their handicrafts. Their English was better than expected for this remote part of Vietnam. They would all ask your names, where you were from, and how many children we had. After that they would push their crafts. As we jogged away to free ourselves from the aggressive women we dropped into one of the most beautiful valleys of the area, even with the haze and slight mist the beauty was there. From Lao Chai we turned on to a dirt path, which went through rice paddy
terraces and villages, home to different hill tribes such as the Black Hmong and Giay. We stopped and visited with the local villagers. The villages are built into the structures of the terraced rice patties. One interesting observation even though the Black H'mong and the Giay villages are right next to each other it was clear that culturally and economically they are vastly different.

The Giay are much cleaner which you can see by both their appearance and the way they keep their properties. The Giay are also more economically successful, we observed this by seeing ways the Giay people have built nice homestays (B&Bs) in their villages to take advantage of the growing tourist industry in Sapa. We learned that until recently for the Black H'mong it was legal for a man to kidnap a women as his wife. He would then ask her family for her hand in marriage. If they denied it, he could still keep her. Some of the kidnapped women would commit suicide by eating a local poisonous plant. The marriages were that bad that the women rather be dead than married. Though illegal now, this ritual is still practiced in some of the remote areas. Once we arrived in Tavan, the car was waiting to take us back to Sapa and our hotel. The rain had picked back up toward the end of our hike, but waited long enough not to ruin the hike and the views.

Margarite and I headed out for dinner and found a great place called of all names "Good Morning Vietnam". It was a family run place that could seat about 20 people. We enjoyed having the owners son about 4 years old entertain us throughout our dinner.

Everybody had a great nights sleep after the lack of sleep on the train the night before.

Day 16 Thursday February 25th -

Today we will do what we had planned to do yesterday. We are glad Nang made the switch, as today the rain was much harder and the views were limited to a few meters.

We are taking a walking tour to the hill tribe villages of Cat Cat, home to the H'mong hill tribe
minority peoples. This is a rather touristy walk, while I am sure this was at one time an authentic H'mong Village, it is now a tourist site. We walked through the villages nestled in the valley below Sapa, the walk is more like stairs built into the side of the valley as you serpentine through the village. We met many of the local minority people on their way to and from Sapa. Unfortunately with the haze we were not able to appreciate the beautiful views of the area. One very cool device they used was a counter balanced rice mill. With all the water flowing down the valley both from rain and natural springs, they would divert some of the water to a fulcrum that had a scoop on one end and a counter balance on the other with a pestle on it. The water would fill the scoop until the weight would cause the scoop to fall, when this happened the water would dump out of the scoop. With the empty scoop
being lighter than the counter balance weight, the pestle would slam down into the mortar (bowl) full of rice eventually pounding it into rice flower. This seemed very inventive and a very practical rice mill.

On the hike we stopped at a small local theater and enjoyed local folk dance and music show.

We had to check out of our hotel by 1:00 PM, we headed back to the hotel showered and packed. We would be taking the night train back to Sapa.

Lunch was very nice at a local restaurant. After lunch Nang gave us the option of exploring Sapa more or heading back to Loa Cai. With the rain as heavy as it was we opted to head back to Loa Cai and visit the Chinese border.

Once back in Loa Cai, we visited the border but could not cross as we did not have the proper visas.
We visited a few markets, yes all the markets are the same, but different. "Same Same, but Different". Even after so many markets in Vietnam we are still fascinated by the live animals being sold, and all the other products you can purchase. One observation we made, many of the apples being unloaded came from Washington State in the U.S.A.

We ended up hanging at a restaurant near the train station until we could board our train back to Hanoi.


Day 17 Friday February 26th -

We arrived in Hanoi at 4:30 a.m., had breakfast at the hotel where we had left our luggage, we each only took an overnight bag to Sapa. Once fed we headed to the airport for our one hour flight from Hanoi to Hue. We said our goodbyes to Nang and Mr. Handsome we would be getting a new guide in

Upon landing we met our new guide her name is Van. Van was very knowledgeable and her English was perfect. We were lucky, even though it was just 10:30 AM our hotel Saigon Morin Hotel had our rooms ready. We relaxed, showered, and prepared for our afternoon tour. Another great hotel, right on the river. So far we are batting 1,000 as far as hotels go.

At 12:30 PM we departed for the Citadel, the Citadel is a walled city with a perimeter of about 6 kilometers, currently there are 60,000 people living within the Citadel. The wall and the moat were built to defend the Nguyen emperors, from the Chinese. At one time the Nguyen dynasty ruled Vietnam. Within the Citadel, is the Imperial City, within the Imperial City is the Forbidden Purple City which is where the Emperor and his family lived. Many of the buildings within the Citadel were destroyed in the Vietnam war though some were also destroyed by weather events such as typhoons.
Slowly the Vietnam government has been restoring the buildings to their original form. We received much history of the rein of the Emperors. Many were installed by the French as this area was a French colony during this period 1803 to 1945.

We also visited the Imperial Museum which house artifacts from this time period. After visiting the Imperial and Forbidden City we stopped at the Dong Ba market. This was like many of the other markets with the exception they had far more products, clothes, home goods, as well as fresh food. Time for dinner which was at a Restaurant within the Citadel called Ancient Hue It had been a long day we were all ready to hit the sack.

Day 18 Saturday February 27th -

Time for another cooking class. In the morning, we meet Mrs. Cuc, the owner of Y Thao Garden House. Mrs. Cuc, gave us a great cooking class we made several dishes starting with fried pork spring rolls and ending with a grilled fish meal.

After lunch we visited the Imperial Citadel which is where the first Emperors tomb is. The Imperial Citadel is more like a beautiful park than a cemetery. The area was finished far before the emperors death so he was able to use it as a retreat from the city. From the Imperial Citadel we drove to the Thien Mu Pagoda, before arriving at the pagoda, we stopped at an incense factory and observed how Thien Mu Pagoda, standing on the riverbank of the Perfume River with its seven-story tower. About 40 monks live at the Thien Mu Pagoda where they run an orphanage for young boys.
incense are made, both the traditional method, all by hand, as well as the modern day method with machinery. We arrived at the

After the tour we took a Dragon Boat on the perfume river, back to our hotel. The river gets it name from the perfume smells that use to come down the river as it picked up fragrances as it flowed through the jungle and Lilly Flowers.


Day 19 Sunday February 28th -

Off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), we had a morning flight from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) landing at noon. Once we landed we had a busy day planned. We were met at the airport by our guide Thu pronounced Too and our driver Mr. Smart. First on the list,  The Reunification Palace this was the presidential palace built for the first president on South Vietnam, though he never lived it, as he was as assassinated in 1963 before the palace was complete. Upon the first presidents death the United States installed a new president whom resided in the palace.

Thu has an interesting personal history which connects to the second president. Her father was a well known surgeon who spoke Vietnamese, English, and French. Because of her fathers medical skills and language skills he was asked to be the presidents doctor. As a young child Thu was able to visit the president along with her father at this very palace. After the war ended her father was classified as being a sympathizer with the enemy and sent to a reeducation center (prison) he was never heard from after that.

Thu's mother and her 6 siblings were ordered to leave the city and move out to the farmland, everything they owned was taken from them and their family was placed on the Governments black list. It will take three generations for Thu's family to be removed from the government's black list. After the palace we visited the War Remnants Museum, this is a museum that holds United States war equipment captured during the Vietnam War, such items as tanks and fighter jets. It was great to read the history from the other sides perspective. After the museum we visited both the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, and the Old Post Office. The cathedral and post office were both built by the French with materials imported from France. Ho Chi Minh City is significantly more modern than Hanoi and much cleaner. The motor scooters even seem to follow the traffic laws at least better than they do in Hanoi!

We had a nice dinner at Chateau Restaurant, after dinner we enjoyed the AO Show at the historic opera house. AO Show is a circa soli show Vietnam style. After the show it was off to bed. We are staying at the Liberty Central Hotel Riverside, this is the most modern of all the hotels we have stayed at. The hotel sits right on the river and has a rooftop bar and lap swimming pool which was enjoyable to hang at after a day of sightseeing.

Day 20 Monday February 29th -

In the morning we drove two hours outside of HCMC to the Cu Chi jungle. This is where the Vietcong built the Cu Chi Tunnels. At its height, the tunnel system stretched over 250 kilometers, from Saigon to the Cambodian border, and were three levels deep. The deepest tunnels were 12 meters deep. The network included innumerable trap doors, specially constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, command centers and kitchens. We were able to experience what it was like to crawl through these tunnels. Though we had to remember the tunnels had been enlarged to allow tourist to fit in. The entrances were well hidden some even under water. The Vietcong would dive into the canal and just disappear, in reality they simple entered the tunnel system from the underwater entrance. We got a feel of the unique experience and a feel of what underground life during the U.S.-Vietnam War must have been like.

We had lunch back in Ho Chi Minh City at a restaurant called Mandarin Restaurant this was the first meal we had that I would classify as poor.

After lunch we hung out at the hotel roof bar and pool.

Day 21 Tuesday March 1st -

We departed Ho Chi Minh City for Cai Be - Phu An at 8:00AM for our one day cruise of the Mekong Delta. Once at Cai Be - Phu An we boarded the Cai Be Princess it was 11.00 am. The tour started with us switching to 2 small row boats and rowing along the small canals of the delta, from there we returned to the larger motorized boat, visited Cai Be the colorful floating market. We also visited some local home factories such as rice wine making, rice pop like popcorn but with rice, coco candies, we even saw how they made snake wine. After the factories the trip continued along the Mekong Canals to Dong Hoa Hiep Island located between Vinh Long and Cai Be. During this 40 minutes cruise we discovered beautiful landscapes along the
river and observe the typical Mekong Delta rural life. Many of the evergreen islands among the Mekong River still remain unknown to many people.

We had lunch at Le Longanier restaurant at La Residence de Phu An resort, a superb Indochina style resort. The same people that own the Victoria Hotel in Sapa and the Express train to Sapa own this establishment. After a short walk along a narrow canal, we found our driver for our drive back to Saigon.


Day 22 Wednesday March 2nd -

Half our crew departed for points home. Margarite, Grandma Molasses and I would continue on. After meeting with your guide, we left Ho Chi Minh City heading for the hills, literally. The scenic 8 hour drive along Highway 20 to Da Lat was broken up by stops at some of the tea and coffee plantations. We stopped for lunch at the picturesque Dambri Fall, about 15 km off the highway. Dambri Falls is clearly set up for tourist, but as we found out we either were ahead of tourist season for this area or we got real lucky as the area was empty.

At Dambri falls we took a little cart on rails ride down to the bottom of the falls before hiking back up. Very beautiful falls. Lunch was very pleasant our guide and driver joined us which was nice as we got to learn more about life in Vietnam.

We arrived in Da Lat late afternoon, sometimes known as the City of Eternal Spring, before dinner we took a walk around the main square. We could tell this was the place for us, more country and less city. Built by the French as a retreat from the heat of Saigon.

We are staying at the beautiful Da Lat Palace Hotel, though we had dinner at the hotel restaurant and it was awful, worse meal on the trip. Our meal was not at the main restaurant off the lobby, but the one in the Main Street toward the rear of the hotel. DO NOT EAT THERE!

Day 23 Thursday March 3rd -

We were picked up at 8:30 AM for a short drive to the bike shop. They provided nice mountain bikes
and helmets. We started off our ride in the city, this was a blast, cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and now three tourist and our guide on mountain bikes. I think this was the most challenging part of the ride. After about 5 kilometers we started a fairly steep decent on paved road that quickly turned to dirt road, just us, nature, and a few motorbikes. Grandma Molasses who is not an experienced mountain biker did great.

We climb the back side of Langbian Mountain to an elevation of about 1,750 meters. The trail winds, climbs, and falls. The trail was sometimes wide and sometimes single track, though always beautiful, views of the forested and stepped valleys. After about 20 kilometers we return to paved road.

Once on the paved road we visited a rice wine factory, and a cricket farm, yes we ate crickets. All before stopping for lunch, after lunch we visited a silk factory and yes we ate silk worm larva. We finished at a beautiful water fall before meeting up with our van for the drive back to Da Lat.


Day 24 Friday March 4th -

In the morning we took a private car from Da Lat down to Nha Trang (160km) it took 3 hours
stopping for pictures along the way. We arrive Nha Trang station at 12:45 PM to catch our train at 1:26 PM.

I owe Grandma Molasses and Margarite big time. I thought it would be great to see Vietnam by train. I booked a 16 hour train from Nha Trang to Dang Hoi. The train departed Nha Trang at 1:36 PM winding along the coast north back towards Hanoi arriving Dang Hoi at 4:35 AM. We were notified there would be little food (just snacks) served on the train, so we stopped at a bakery to pick up some food, non of which Margarite could eat.

Here is why I owe Grandma Molasses and Margarite! Once at the train station we waited in a smoke filled waiting area until our train was called. I had booked us a luxury cabin with 4 bunks for the three of us. While I was fairy confident the views from the train would be beautiful I had no idea about the fragrances.

I am not sure which we appreciated more, the stale odor of "BO", cigarettes, or pee. The best part, as we would enjoy these aromas, every 20 minutes or so our cabin would fill with fresh cigarette smoke just to tease our sense of smell a bit.

As far as comfort, we had four steel bunks with a thin piece of vinyl covered foam. We asked for cleaned sheets, judging from their appearance they may have been clean at one point but not in a long time.

And this was billed as luxury accommodations. I decided to take a walk and check out the rest of the
train. What I found, compared to the rest of the train our cabin was luxury. The other sleeper cars had 6 bunks and no foam pad, the non-sleeper cars had wooden benches as seats. Most of the cars were so filled with cigarette smoke it was like the train was going through a fog. I just wish I had brought my camera for the walk as my description does not do the train justice.

Day 25 Saturday March 5th -

After a great nights sleep we arrived in Dang Hoi at 4:35 AM, drove 45 minutes to our hotel. The Hotel Phong Nha Lake House restaurant did not open until 6:00 AM so we hung out until breakfast. We then trekked Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in the world, 31 kilometers. We did not trek the whole cave. After that we zip lined, kayaked, while the area was beautiful the place called Dark Cave was a little hooky. If we had to do over again
we would skip this part and spend more time in town maybe rent bicycles. After we Kayaked we did walk through town where we had the best pork barbecue in the world, probably.

The Phong Nha Lake House a very lovely resort with great views, though a bit moldy, I am sure some of this is due to the climate as it a bit humid in this part of Vietnam.

After the fantastic 16 hour train I still hope I can convince Margarite to take the Siberian Express across the old Soviet Union.

Day 26 Sunday March 6th -

Now it was time for the big adventure. We get picked up at 8:00 AM for a 45 minute drive to the office of Oxalis Tours were we learn all about safety and collect our gear before driving another 45mins through the National Park to reach the trailhead were the big adventure will start.

Ok, we really did not know what we were getting into. Six months ago when we mentioned we were going to Vietnam our friend Amy says, "you have to go see the biggest cave in the world". Unfortunately that cave was booked so we went to the 3rd largest cave in the world (based on volume) called Hang En Cave.

This would be a 2 day 1 night outing. We had to hike 10 kilometers with an elevation change of about 800 meters through thick dense Vietnam jungle. Oh, and we had to cross the river 15 times once waste deep. Did I mention Grandma Molasses use to hate river crossings, now she loves them. There is no way to describe the magnitude of this cave. Once in the cave we hiked over 2 hours and only explored a small portion of the cave.

And did I mention our guides, they were fantastic. I got a gout attack(my fault did not drink enough... water that is). Not sure what I took, the guide called it a happy pill, but I was pain free in one hour.

Oh, and Grandma Molasses was a trooper. She sprained her ankle (again the guide took real good care of her) within the first few kilometers of the hike, but she hung in there with NO complaining, she was one of the first to finish the last climb out of the jungle. Not sure if she will be able to walk tomorrow.

The company we used for this part of the trip Oxalis Tours were just great, the guides and porters we
all helpful, the guide spoke English very well and knew there stuff. The food was good and plentiful. What a great experience.

Once back at the Lake house Grandma Molasses jumped in the shower while Margarite and I went for a short bike ride to enjoy a beautiful sunset. After the ride we cleaned up, packed up and had dinner.

Did know steel wool burns?


Day 28 Monday March 8th -

Today we will leaving Phong Nha to Dong Hoi airport to take flight to Hanoi while Margarite and I will be spending a night in Hanoi, Grandma Molasses will be flying directly back to the states.

We got an extra night in Hanoi. We enjoyed the markets and just walked the streets, it had been three weeks since we arrived and first set foot in Hanoi, the weather was a little warmer and there were
significantly more tourist walking around. The hustle and bustle was the same. We enjoyed a great dinner at the hotel restaurant. We stayed at the same hotel as we had such a great experience the first time and this time was also great.

Now off to worlds unknown.



All Vietnam Pictures