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Archive for November, 2018

We left the comforts of Saigon for a cruise on the Mekong Delta … actually, we started on the upper end of the delta and made our way up to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  We were up early on the last day as we transferred from our hotel to the shuttle bus location.   We found ourselves on a bus for 2 hours with about 20 other folks driving down to the Cai Be district to board our cruise ship, the RV Mekong Pandaw.

We quickly transferred to our boat and the fun began!  There were approximately 32 other people on the boat with us.  We cruised for five days and four nights … if I had to do it over again, I’d probably only stay on this boat for three nights.  The people were very nice, the food was excellent, and the accommodations were great.  However, there’s only so many Village People you can visit before you become saturated.  Since we had already visited villages along the way, I was already saturated before we were on the cruise.

There was a small gym on-board (really small) and below the waterline.  We were able to make use of it a couple of days (riding the exercise bike)!  However, Deb was able to be up early every day to do Yoga on deck and I was able to practice some Tai chi/Shaolin as well.

The first day we were just settling in — it was kind of funny … everything was very regimented, so you had briefings on everything you were doing; sometimes by more than one person.  It reminded me of being in the military again.  Haha.

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The second day, we were out early for a ride on a Sampan to see, you guessed it, a village!  The boat ride through the mangroves was cool.

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We walked through some people’s yards to get to our next mode of transportation — a horse drawn cart.  There were 2 people per cart, so we made sure we were in the first cart … no horsey odors for us!

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We stopped for a bathroom break, quick snack, and opportunity to shop.  The two pictures below are a local bee keeper’s hive … oh, and Deb did a snake dance!  In one of the other villages we were shown how they grafted trees and made Bonzai pots.  We topped this all off with some Snake Wine (they put cobras in the alcohol … yes, we both tried it and are still alive and kicking).  Our guide kept saying it was for “noodle stand-up” … then he would just chuckle.

Then we made our way over to a small pier to catch a canoe back to our boat.  All in all, an interesting day.

I did try to see some birds but no real luck.  They catch and eat them in Vietnam so the birds hightail it out of there!  And speaking of birds—that’s the next day’s journey.  We were up early and took our ship’s tender to shore (check out the interesting landing spot).

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We rode in a big van through small roads to Gao Giong bird sanctuary.  We only hit one kid’s bike and kind of nudged an old man — no harm, no foul!  Here’s where I thought I was going to strike it rich with the birds!! Nope.  I did see about 5 new birds here, but it was probably the most frustrating “birding outing” I’ve had.  We joined all 30 something folks in small 2-man canoes and were paddled through some canals to see the Asian Openbill stork nesting.  It was like rowing through a tunnel with an opening in the ceiling.  The birds would zip across without a chance to snap a quick photo.  I finally gave up and just enjoyed the beautiful scenery, company, and atmosphere.  The lady rowing our boat serenaded us with some lovely singing [welcome to the department of redundancy department].

We made it back to the boat for  lunch and then had another opportunity to visit the village people.  Deb and I opted out and just enjoyed quiet time on the boat.  We exercised and enjoyed the cool afternoon breeze on the boat.

On the fourth day, we skipped the next village people tour in the morning and stayed on board the whole day.  Supposedly we were to finish our visa processing that afternoon for Cambodia but we ended having to stay longer on the boat the next day due to the visa process happening that day.  It was all good … we enjoyed the weather, made several new friends, and just chilled out.   So many things to see as we journeyed along!

We eventually got off the boat, were met by our guide and made our way to Phnom Penh!  Woo hoo!  Here’s to the end of our cruise!

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Stumbling piper

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What can I say here? Our total bird count was pretty good in Viet Nam: we saw 103 birds, 99 of which were new to us. However, we found the lack of birds amazing. Everywhere we went, whether in the mountains or suburbs, parks or cities, there were fewer birds than we expected; of any kind of bird. We asked a couple of our guides about this and they all said, “Well, the Vietnamese people either catch and eat them or catch and put them in bird cages, so there aren’t that many.”

We found this to be strange but understandable. We pressed on with our bird-watching. Of course, our largest haul was in Cat Tien National Park. We probably saw 80% of our Viet Nam total in Cat Tien and that was over the course of 2 days. Whew.

Striking the professional bird photographer pose.Lost in thought as I gaze in wonder.

We were fortunate to see several really nice birds … I’ll add a few of the better pictures here. Enjoy!

Stumbling Piper

Plain Prinia.A Great Tit.Black-crowned Night Heron.Common Kingfisher (doesn’t look common to me!)White Wagtail … Scarlet Minivet.Orange-breasted Trogon.Red Junglefowl (yes, I know it looks like a chicken, but it’s a wild chicken!)Green Peafowl (like a Peacock).Red-wattled Lapwing.Black and Red Broadbill.Ashy Drongo.Stripe-throated Bulbul.Asian Emerald Cuckoo.Bronzed Drongo.

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After a wonderful time in Cat Tien National Park we headed back to the big city — Saigon! We were up early on the 18th for a quick bird watching (see previous post) and then on the road for around 3.5 hours. The drive was both uneventful and exciting at the same time (as we’ve found driving around Vietnam usually is)!

As it was late in the afternoon we relaxed at the hotel — funny enough, this is where I found my first craft beer in Vietnam … “Heart of Darkness” brewing. Check out my beermentor.me blog for my beer updates.

After a pizza and a couple of beers I was ready for some well-earned nap time!

The next day we changed our itinerary and decided we wanted to track down an old Army Signal location: Phu Lam Signal Base. This was the location of the South Vietnamese Signal headquarters as well as a large communication site for the US 1st Signal Battalion. James’ father was assigned there during the Vietnam War in 1968. Interestingly enough, our guide’s father was also a signal soldier in the South Vietnamese army and was stationed at another location where James’ father worked.

Ironically, as we were driving around checking out the site, this old US military Jeep drove right by us … so cool.

Our guide and driver where excellent — the guide had researched the site and information the night before and then when we arrived he began asking the local people about the site and where different buildings/towers were located. We found one of the original radio towers as well as a couple of original buildings and fences.

The site carries on some of the history — the sign above references what the Vietnamese call the local area “Dai Ra Da Phu Lam” — Radar site Phu Lam.

However, as with most sites like this, 50 years will bring a lot of change to an area. The South Vietnamese Signal Headquarters had been turned into the VIETEL cellular communications site. Another large part of the complex had been turned into a park (to include some amusement rides).

Overall it was a great adventure and we wrapped up our tour in Saigon by driving around the city checking out a few of the different “districts.” The wiring was very similar throughout the city … check out this jumble below … not sure how they keep it all straight!

As we were making our way back to the hotel, James mentioned to our guide that we wanted to go to a local craft beer brewery … there was a particular one James had in mind: “Pasteur Street Brewing Company.” Besides developing vaccines for anthrax and rabies, Pasteur came up with the process of pasteurization to keep microbes from souring alcohol. This seemed like a cool place to visit, so James asked the guide. The guide said yes, he knew of a brewery on Pasteur Street and was mentioning a German beer place. Both James and the guide were talking past each other and we ended up at Gammer’s Brewery. It is indeed a brewery on Pasteur street … but its specialty is German/Czech lagers.

Deb and James shared a good laugh, James enjoyed a beer, and then they walked back toward their hotel and across the street to Pasteur Street Brewing. A cool place that was full of ex-pats and maybe one Vietnamese person (besides the waitstaff).

Interestingly, the craft beer prices in Vietnam are the same as in the US–always a tad too expensive; however, the beer was very good! A great place to visit if you are in the area!

We went back across to the hotel, hit the relax button again, and found ourselves on the rooftop for a swim, dinner and a movie. A movie you ask? Yes, we had a theater in our hotel — one of those kind with about 15 to 20 seats, all recline, etc. We had been looking through “what’s showing” and saw Bohemian Rhapsody on tap. We said “great,” bought some tickets and went to the 2300 showing. Funny thing–it was the sing-a-long version! However, Deb and I didn’t hear anyone singing but us. Haha. Maybe because I usually drown people out.

Oh, the views from the roof top were spectacular … a great way to close out our trip to Saigon.

The next day we were up relatively early and were making our way to the next leg of the journey — but before leaving town, we did have a glimpse at the Notre Dame cathedral.

Enjoy!

Stumbling Piper

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We flew (early) to Ho Chi Minh City on Day 16 and then drove around 3.5 hours to Cat Tien National Park. Actually, we drove to the ferry point, rode the ferry across, and then had a golf cart ride out to the Forest Floor Lodge.

This was the start of our big Vietnam bird-watching trip. I will have another post on the birds of Vietnam but I’ll hit some highlights here. We settled our things at the lodge, had a quick lunch, and then joined our local birding expert, Tim, for our first birding outing.

There were all different kinds of mushrooms … these are just a couple of pictures of them.Here we are with Tim. What a fantastic guy, great guide, and so knowledgeable about the birds. Oh, our pants are tucked in our socks to try to ward off the leeches. Lol.We only had a short ride in the back of a Jeep. We were supposed to have a longer Jeep adventure but we ended up walking for most of the tours. We must have covered around 14 miles or so walking … with the heat, humidity, and walking … we were pretty spent at the end of this expedition!

We had an excellent time–the meals were interesting to say the least. We were able to catch up on some emails in the evenings. We hung out in the lodge common area and then went to the room for bed before the power was turned off. Haha.

Our room was “rustic” … but comfortable. We didn’t meet up with many mosquitos (thank goodness) but we did see the largest gecko we’ve ever seen … it was probably the length of my hand (around 8 inches) … and it didn’t have a tail. Here’s the best picture I could come up with.

The only problem was … it was in our room! Haha. Wow … we were a little creeped out, but he didn’t carry us off so I guess we survived. The next day and a half were whirlwinds of bird-watching, jungle-trekking. We saw plenty of birds (around 100) and probably as many leeches! Fortunately none latched on for a drink! Here’s a couple of photos of the scenery (as well as those above) … to include a picture of a leech trying to get me.

The leech looked like an earthworm … they would rear up to see (or smell) you and then tried to hitch a ride!This tree was over 800 years old … a “Tung” tree. You can see Deb in the picture below to give you a feel for its size. It was huge! We were out late both nights in the park … the sunset was glorious … as were the birds.We didn’t only see birds though … we heard several monkeys and saw these Gibbons near the park headquarters.It was a fun adventure walking through the jungle ….But we also had some easy walking at times … here’s Tim carrying his tripod.Oh, did I mention there were also spiders??We saw a couple of different varieties of deer. These had travelers on their backs … These Myna birds were eating the leeches off the deer. In my bird post I’ll add a picture that shows the birds with their heads in the deers’ ears. Pretty funny!

We were up early both mornings we were there for bird watching (0630) … we closed out the final day with another long (but productive) walk! After an eventful drive we arrived at our hotel in Ho Chi Minh city … but that’s for another post!

Stumbling piper

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When we finished up in Hue, we drove down to Hoi An … well, we didn’t drive … the driver drove. Lol. Up through the “mountains” (it was raining so hard to get a good picture), over the pass, and down into Hoi An.

We arrived at our Hotel (La Siesta) and proceeded to settle in … we enjoyed a late lunch … beautiful location.

Late that afternoon we walked to the Old Town to visit a couple of tailor shops … this is the place to buy clothes (handmade or otherwise). Hoi An was one of the original gateways to Vietnam (a fishing village at first and then a trading destination). The city grew a tradition around tailor shops (both wholesale and otherwise), specifically specializing in silk and cashmere.

Of course, James had to have some clothes made … He had a wool/cashmere suit (with silk lining) and three mandarin style shirts (linen/cotton) all handmade. After two fittings they were ready to go! We had them shipped back to Canada — we only have so much room in our bags! For the suit, 3 shirts, shipping and customs, the total came to $245. Crazy … plus, they kept James’ measurements … now he can order new clothes any time. That might be dangerous!

The first night we visited the local night market … what a beautiful city. The pictures don’t do it justice.

These two days we were basically on our own, so we spent the time resting and catching up on things before we continued the journey! The food at the hotel was excellent … and so were the drinks. What a relaxing time … (Yeah, we also had laundry done … ) We were up early on the 16th day (departed hotel at 0600… bleh) to catch a plane from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh city … the fun continues!

Stumbling Piper

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We finished our cruise in Ha Long Bay and made our way to the Airport in Hanoi to continue our journey. We spent a couple of hours in the Lotus Lounge (Vietnam Airlines) before flying to Hue, the imperial city. Hue is the traditional location of the Vietnamese Royal family — there were 13 generations of the Royal House … the final king abdicated in 1945. For us, this meant there were royal palaces and mausoleums to visit!

We arrived later in the evening, so we simply transferred to our hotel and were checked in at the Scarlett, a quaint boutique hotel near the old town.

We decided to go out for dinner, which meant crossing the road again. As described before, this is like taking your life into your hands. As we headed across the street the power went out in that section of town. Let’s just say it was doubly difficult to cross the road. However, most of the streets we were on were closed for a weekend festival, so easy walking from there. We went to Madam Thus for dinner — an excellent choice and a nice way to close out the evening.

The next day, we were up early for a bike ride! Yes, you heard right. Riding right from our hotel we embarked on an ambitious 25 mile journey — visiting a royal mausoleum, a Buddhist pagoda, and having a great boat ride in the middle of it. Our guide seemed to always be in a hurry so we found ourselves hustling to keep up and still avoid the cars, scooters, trucks, cattle, and people!

However, the sights were amazing … here are a few pictures for examples.

We finished out the evening with a relaxing meal and a (I think) well-earned massage. Haha. The next morning we were up early for a visit to the Imperial City which included the moated Citadel. Inside the Citadel was the Forbidden Purple City, formerly the most honored place in Vietnam.

We finished up the tour around 1100 and made our way from Hue to Hoi An … that’s for another blog post!

Stumblingpiper

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As my children will attest, I’ve been a huge fan of Bonzai trees my whole life. I’ve owned maybe 4 or 5 (so has Deb) and we’ve killed every one of them. However, after this trip, I am inspired again to grow one properly. Here are a few pictures of some of our favorites (so far) on this trip. These trees are simply amazing …

Finally, here’s kind of what mine looked like in the past! Haha. But not anymore — I will have a great Bonzai!

Stumblingpiper

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A little language information to begin … Vietnamese is a mono-syllabic language. That means they write their words in single syllables. For instance, we write Vietnam — in Vietnamese it is written Viet Nam. Therefore, I wrote it Ha Long above to try to be as correct as possible. Of course, I have problems with English so I may not do very well with my Vietnamese either. Haha.

On Day 10 we drove from Hanoi to Hai Phong to embark on Orchid Cruise lines for a 3 day, 2 night excursion in Ha Long Bay. We used the new toll road — it was excellent; just the right amount of rest stops. Haha.

What to say about this portion? The crew were just absolutely incredible–friendly, attentive, and well-motivated. They made this a fantastic trip. It was jam-packed, non-stop though from the beginning. We arrived on the cruise ship and sped away to our anchoring locale (see video below for a little clip of the trip). We immediately joined a group on a cave tour on Cat Ba island.

After that outing, we joined in on a cooking demonstration that evening. We learned how to make Spring rolls! Both Deb and I had the chance to roll our own. Yeah!

Deb finished off the day with a swim and we knew we would be busy the rest of the time!

The next morning, we joined the Tai Chi class at 0615. Wow. Early! We had some breakfast, jumped on the accompanying “ship tender” and cruised back over to Cat Ba island. We took a short bike ride to the interior to visit a local farm and village. We had great weather the whole time. On our way back to the ship we stopped for a little kayaking and then a late lunch.

Back on board, we joined the cooking class again. More spring rolls! Yes .. The food was excellent and abundant the entire trip.

The next morning we were up early again for Tai Chi … a quick breakfast and then we were on our way back to the harbor to continue this excellent adventure.

Stumbling Piper

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Today we drove back from Topas Ecolodge to Hanoi … we came back the same way, via the toll road, so I caught up on “photo organization” on my iPad. When we arrived in Hanoi we checked back into the Silk Path Boutique hotel and waited for our excursion for the evening: A Vespa Adventure! 🙂 Tonight’s fun was another foodie tour … this one on the back of a moped.

Check out the video below for a feel for riding around the Old Quarter in Hanoi. The guys at Vespa Adventures put on a great evening for us — from eating Bun Cha at the same location Obama visited to learning to toast in Vietnamese while drinking Rice Wine by the train track …

We closed out the evening with a stop at a local jazz bar for some live music. A great way to finish out our time in Hanoi!

Stumbling Piper

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We journeyed north from Hanoi for a short stay in the Northern Mountains of Vietnam. We left around 0800 on Day 6 and arrived at our lodge around 5 hours later … and what a great destination! Topas Ecolodge is in an incredible location.

Once we settled into our “lodge” we spent the rest of the day at the infinity pool.

(Here’s the Infinity Pool for you Megan … 🙂 )

The next morning we settled in for a great breakfast on the patio.

On Day 7 we met our local tour guide and went for a stroll through the rice paddies. We ventured off into the highlands and strolled around for about 10 KMs (6.3 miles or so). We loved walking through the fields and seeing the local scenery. I would say our least favorite was stopping and visiting with some of the local tribes. While they were incredibly friendly and industrious, we felt like we were intruding … We would have preferred to just stroll through the countryside … yes, and checking out the water buffaloes!

Finally, on the 8th day, James was a little under the weather so we cancelled the bike ride we had planned. All for the best anyway; the ride had changed due to construction and we would have been doing some “road” riding … and the roads here are a little sketchy!

We finished up a beautiful time in the area; our guide and driver met us at the lodge and drove us back to Hanoi. All in all a wonderful trip into the Vietnam Highlands.

Stumblingpiper

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