Portland winters can be tough. Bone chilling drizzle and endless gray skies. When ennui settles in my soul its time for SUNSHINE! Nature’s Vitamin D. Southern California is a sure bet and is only a 2 hour plane flight direct on Alaska Air.
Palm Springs has become a repeat destination. With a disclaimer: A sprawling automobile centric lifestyle spans from Palm Springs south to LaQuinta. The main roads are lined with ugly big box stores fronted by expanses of asphalt. Ritzy resorts with high-end golf courses are in over abundance and consume an obscene amount of water in an arid desert climate. Wealth is frequently flaunted like a badge of honor.
Yet, I’ve developed a fondness for Palm Springs proper and many of the surrounding amenities. I enjoy the distinctly California mid-century modern architecture with a Hollywood legend vibe. It was a renown playground for the stars in the 1950s and 60s. Old Palm Springs is a fun place to window shop, browse galleries and eat California style.
The air is dry and winter nights can be delightfully chilly with star studded skies. The high-desert sunlight and drop-dead gorgeous mountain views are stellar. Great hiking opportunities include the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
I just returned from a six night mini vacation to Palm Springs with my friend Sue. She bought a hip home in a Mobile Home Park developed in 1958. Common areas are painted turquoise and the streets have names like Mars and Jupiter. A hiking trail to Bob Hope’s old home runs right above her back yard. What’s not to like about that?
While in Palm Springs we participated in some Modernism Week events including a 2½ hour open double decker bus architectural tour guided by the flamboyant Charles Phoenix Tons of fun and a great opportunity to soak up sun.
One of my favorite sites is a home smack dab in the middle of The Movie Colony neighborhood. Artist Kenny Irwin, Jr. has turned the yard of his father’s home into an alien inspired sculpture gardens. Tickled my fancy.
A fun thing to do while in the area is take a Big Wheel Bike Tour downhill along the San Andreas Fault. The tour company takes you to the top of the mountain where you mount your bike for the 20 mile downhill roller coaster ride.
The Mojave and Colorado deserts come together in Joshua Tree National Park which is only an hour drive from Palm Springs. You can drive the park road, stopping for hikes along the way. Pack a picnic and take plenty of water, as there are few amenities in the park. It’s fun to sit and watch rock climbers while soaking up some rays.
It can be fun to stay in the community of Joshua Tree for a couple of nights, spending days exploring the park. Spin and Margie’s is a great 1950s gussied up motel. The rooms have been remodeled, some with little kitchenettes. Their desert garden has a BBQ grill and fire pit for guest’s enjoyment. Camping is another great options. Make sure to blanket up as the high desert nights can be cold!
Mini Vacays can do the trick when time is in limited supplies. Next month we head out on a road trip to Washington State. I look forward to catching up with you then. Thanks for joining me on my adventures.
We took the train from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. Vietnam Railway’s Online schedule and reservation system is easy to use. The train was timely, clean and comfortable. The cost, $28 per person for the 11-hour journey sitting in reserved “soft seats.” Lunch and dinner were included. (Note to cook: please quit your day job).
Arriving in Hanoi at 8:00 pm, we took a short cab ride to our home for the next six nights. Located on the edge of the Old Quarter, we chose a bright airy one bedroom apartment rented through VRBO. Typical to Hanoi, the entrance to our 6-story building is down a narrow alley co-occupied by food vendor kitchens, a nail salon / massage parlor (legit), day care center and other “stuff.” It’s been fun getting to know our neighbors and their daily routines.
Friends recommended we check out a Hanoi Kids tour (thanks Jamie & David!). Hanoikids is a non-profit student-run organization based in Hanoi. College student volunteers escort English-speaking travelers on free tours of Hanoi. The goal is exchanging cultural information while the students practice English. Our delightful well-informed guides, Momo and Daniel, led us around Old Town and the French Quarter. What a great first great impression of Hanoi! Kudos to Hanoikids! Caution: there are some fake organizations out there using the name Hanoikids. Don’t reward them.
No way I was going visit Hanoi and not scope out the spot where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama shared a meal. Talk about two of my idols! If you haven’t seen it, Bourdain’s show on Hanoi is a good watch. The Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant food was good. The scene beyond fun. Order the Obama Combo.
I really wanted to see Ho Chi Minh. Okay, I know he died in 1969. But his body is displayed in a large glass coffin inside a giant mausoleum. Depending on your source, he is sent to Russian or China for an annual beauty makeover. He must have been napping when we visited. No one was getting anywhere near his heavily guarded compound. The map of Hanoi shows a huge green area around the mausoleum including the presidential palace, botanical gardens, Ho’s stilt house and the Ho Chi Minh museum. I expected a delightful day of exploring the area. Instead, all roads led to the exit. Clearly a showcase where the masses are not welcome.
The Vietnam Military History Museum is worth a visit. There are 30 galleries tracing the history of Vietnam’s armed forces, starting with battles against the Chinese and Mongols and chronologically moving to the wars against France, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and America. I found the exhibits of the Vietnam war disturbing. Too close to home even though the Vietnamese perspective rendered was fair.
The Temple of Literature was established in 1070 in honor of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It served as an institute of higher learning. The complex is huge, takes a couple of hours to meander through and is well worth a visit.
The Dong Xuan Market is the oldest and largest covered market in Hanoi. It is a fun manic place to visit. Think Walmart Superstore, Home Depot, the Party Store, JC Penny’s and the Food Court combined. Each section of the market specializes in different types of goods. I so love the smells, sights and energy of a bustling market place!
Hanoi is a great walking city. There are countless nooks and crannies for exploration. Truly something for everyone. The streets teem with motorbikes and the constant din of honking horns. The smell of cooking permeates everything. People are friendly and the city safe. One of our favorite spots turned out to be Hoan Siem Lake. It is surrounded by trees and comfortable benches for relaxing and people watching. The mythology of the lake is delightful. I would return to Hanoi in a heartbeat.
We were treated to a special local scene when Vietnam made it into the finals for the Asian Soccer Cup. In the hour leading up to the game’s end, huge crowds gathered around shops with visible televisions. Groups huddled on curbs hunkering over cell phones streaming the game. The tension was palpable. When Vietnam made its final winning goal, the city erupted in cheers. I found myself shouting along. The partying went on into the wee hours of the morning, way past Hanoi’s enforced midnight curfew. Joyful chants of”Vietnam Ho Chi Minh” erupted while thousands of people paraded on foot, motorbike and car waving the Vietnam flag. I’ve never seen anything like it. I sure hope Vietnam wins the finals!
There is something incongruous about our final day in Vietnam beginning with a visit to the Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton. The truth be told, Conde visited the prison. I opted out. Just downloading the photos he gave me caused the HeBeeJeBees. Here are a couple.
We rounded out the day with a visit to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and the National Museum of Vietnamese History. Both well worth a visit. What a great city.
Designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park borders the Laotian Hen Namno national reserve. The Vietnamese side is 340 square miles of near-pristine mountainous evergreen jungle. Formed 400 million years ago, the park sports hundreds of limestone cave systems and crystal clear underground rivers. New cave systems are being discovered annually. On your high-tech map above, the park is located just NW of the city of Dong Hoi.
From Hue, we drove (aka were chauffeured) north on the Ho Chi Minh Highway for 4½ hours. Formerly the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the highway was fully paved in 1995. One section is paved directly over an aircraft runway, visible on both sides of the road and serving as extended road shoulders.
We began and ended our four night stay in the National Park area at Chay Lap Farmstay As suggested by the name, accommodations are located in the heart of farmlands. Kayaks and bicycles are available for guest use. We paddled the river and rode bicycles along the country road. The Farmstay rooms are comfortable, the staff amazing, views to die for, decent wine and pretty good food. Locals found our photo op choices humorous.
After a night at the Farmstay, we embarked on a 3 day 2 night Wild Tu Lan Cave Adventure guided by Oxalis Adventure Tours. Once on board their van we met our fellow trekkers. Ten of us in all. Nationalities included French, British, Austrian, Australian, Vietnamese and two Geezer Americans. It was a compatible fun-loving group. Lot’s of laughter. Zero drama.
The 1½ hour van ride over bumpy rural roads ended at Oxalis Headquarters in Son Trach Village, pop. 3,000. We were briefed and suited-up. The adventure was billed as moderate fitness level. Little did I know…
We forded rivers, scaled mountains, squeezed through narrow cave openings and swam across deep cave rivers fully clothed, boots and all. I made the trip with help from the kind professional Oxalis staff and support of fellow travelers. Had I understood the physical challenges of the adventure, I would have said I can’t do it. But I did! I’m so proud — ripped pants, bruises, aching muscles and all. I learned I am much better at swimming than rock climbing. It was an experience of a life time.
Each of the 5 caves visited showcases a different personality. The magnificence is overwhelming. We took hundreds of photos. Here’s a small sampling that does not do justice to the overall experience.
We were pampered by a cadre of Porters and staff. Campsites were fully erected and our belongings already delivered when we trekked in. Meals were expertly prepared, delicious, plentiful and diverse. The toilets composting, using giant scoops of rice hulls to aid the process. I learned that night jungle rats have an affinity for rice hulls. Better to shine your flashlight and kick at the toilet before sitting down. Fewer surprises. All equipment was provided. Our job was to show up, rock scramble, swim, gawk, eat, play games and laugh. Applegate Glamping Ladies, we need to up our game!
After 3 days and 2 nights of being lulled to sleep by waterfalls, it was time to leave jungle paradise. We ended where we started. After showers and a chang into clean dry clothes we had a final group meal at a village restaurant. Here are a few photos of Son Trach.
Oxalis delivered us to Chay Lap Farmstay for our final night in the area. First thing, we delivered a giant plastic garbage bag filled with wet mud caked clothes to the hotel laundry. Two hours later, at a cost of $10, we got back a basket of spotless folded clothes. How they got the mud out, i’ll never know. Before bed we shared wine and a light dinner with our new Aussie friends. The next morning it was an early start to Dong Hoi for an eleven hour train ride to Hanoi.
We flew Cambodia Air, an 8 plane carrier, from Siem Reap Cambodia to Danang Vietnam. A couple of overhead bins were secured shut with duct tape. The bathroom door literally fell off when I paid a visit. No worries. A flight attendant monitored to ensure privacy. I chose to believe the airlines spends their money on mechanical maintenance rather than interior features. We didn’t crash so I guess I was right.
We pre-arranged a private car for the 50 minute drive from Danang to Hoi An. Along the way we saw one massive resort construction site after another. We were told it was Chinese money. Someone else said Russian money. Anyone’s guess. Just glad these behemoths don’t bleed over into the charm of Hoi An.
Hoi An is a bit like San Miguel de Allende Mexico or Santa Fe New Mexico. The original old town stayed intact during the war. The city took advantage and developed a thriving tourist industry. Lots of shops, galleries and restaurants. And yes, there are tourists here too. But plenty of locals as well. The town is known for its custom clothing industry. There are hundreds of tailor shops to chose from. I had three cotton skirts with matching silk blouses custom made. The turn-around was less than 24-hours. Nice quality at a very reasonable price.
The weather in Hoi An was cool and rainy. For my 61st Birthday Conde signed us up for a 2½ cooking class.. We ate everything we cooked and then some. We had a blast at Vy’s Market and Cooking School
While in Hoi An we stayed at Camilla Homestay The Homestay is literally a family home with four large ensuite guest rooms. A full breakfast is included in the $26 per night room cost. The family, Ms. Nahn, Mr. Chinh and their niece Ms. Hoa, are kind generous hosts. The home, a beautiful old four story with marble floors and a sweeping staircase. The location is ideal. Far enough from the hubbub to be quiet at night and a nice 20 minute walk to old town and the river center. Unexpectedly, the family invited all the guests to a homemade Vietnamese Bar-B-Que on Saturday night. There was no charge on our bill for this delightful surprise. The guest roster included a couple from Great Britain, a German woman, a Finnish couple and Conde and me. I loved the warm hospitality of the home and slept like a baby while under their roof.
Another notable activity in Hoi An is a visit to the Precious Heritage Museum. The museum houses a collection of photographs documenting ethnic cultures in Vietnam. Photographer Rehahn focuses on the faces of women. Directly across the street from the museum is a nice gallery worth a visit.
After 3 nights in Hoi An we traveled north to Hue. A 3½ hour drive by private car. I’ve really taken a liking to this chauffeur driven mode of transportation.
Hue is a little less than half-way between Hoi An and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. At the last minute, we cancelled a forth night in Hoi An to break up what would have been a 7½ drive.
As a disclaimer, we spent less than 24-hours in Hue. With that said, other than its huge historical significance, Hue has been my least favorite destination in Vietnam, thus far.
The air quality is poor, the wide boulevards almost impossible to cross, sidewalks are either torn-up with construction or filled with parked motorbikes. The Perfume River is brown and littered with debris. Definitely not a pleasant place to walk around and explore the sights. Fortunately we booked a stellar hotel that offered respite and a chance to recharge. La Residence Hue is elegant and we nabbed a last minute deal. If you go to Hue, save some shoe sole and use cabs or bicycle driven Tuk Tuks.
The Hue Citadel: Imperial City was established in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long and declared a World Heritage Site in 1993. The complex is huge and surrounded by two moats. At one time it clearly was magnificent. Now, a bit shabby and in need of lots of TLC, it is still worth a visit. The exhibits are well curated and taught me a lot about the history of Vietnam.
Here’s my cliff notes version. Vietnam’s long reign of Emperor rule ended in 1945 when Emperor Bas Dai abdicated the throne and Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France. Thus began the first Indochina War. In 1946 France began its fight to regain control of the country. In 1954 the French finally suffered a huge defeat. That same year a Geneva Convention Treaty was signed sanctioning Vietnam’s partition into North and South. US money was committed to prop up the leadership of South Vietnam. When that wasn’t enough, in 1960 the US military arrived in Vietnam. A bloody 15-year war ensued known either as as The Vietnam War or The American War, depending on your perspective. In 1975 the US conceded defeat. North and South Vietnam reunified under a communist government. The economy suffered. In response, Vietnam declared Reformation in 1986 and adapted a more market driven economy. Vietnam’s constitution was amended in 1992 in recognition of the impact of the private sector on the economy. In 1994 the US embargo on Vietnam was lifted and in 1995 diplomatic relations with the US were reinstated. Today, the economy of Vietnam thrives and memories of the war seem a distant past.
The Hue War Museum was shuttered-up. The only remaining exhibits on display were on the grounds and unattended.
For dinner, our hotel recommended a local family run restaurant called Le Hanh on Tri Phuong right off Ben Nghe across from the market. Not much ambiance but definitely worth the visit. Order the spring rolls and you can assemble them yourselves.
What grows on a Curmudgeon On The Couch…
The Angkor temple complex near Siem Reap Cambodia is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. I cringe to think we almost did not go there after reading reviews about the site being too touristy. There are over 100 monuments in the area created by thousands of artisans starting more than 1,000 years ago. It is the spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia and deeply touched my soul.
Prince Jayavarman II claimed independence from Java founding the Angkor Kingdom in AD 802. About the same time as Charlemagne became the Holy Roman Emperor. Jayavarman II declared himself to be the first Khmer God-King, a tradition which continues in current times. The reigning monarch identified with Shiva, the King of Hindu Gods.
After a succession of leaders, Suryavarman II became leader of the Angkor Empire. He hugely expanded the Empire and was responsible for the construction of Angkor Wat between AD 1113 and 1150. Suryavarman II was relentless in attacking and driving out the Champa State. In 1177 the Chams took revenge and sacked Angkor.
Then came Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1218). After four years of war he drove out the Chams and expanded the Khmer Empire even further. He constructed Preah Khan to use as a temporary seat of government until Angkor Thom could be completed. Jayavarman VII built hospitals, rest houses and a complex road system. The Angkor complex covers 77 square miles.
Bas Reliefs in Angkor Wat
In 1218 the Empire began to fall into decline which continued over the next two hundred years. The temples were decaying and the once magnificent architectural system fell into ruins. Angkor became uninhabitable and the royal capital was abandoned to the Siamese in 1431.
The Angkor Empire lasted for about 500 years. There is much speculation around the fall of the Empire. The Thais were encroaching on Khmer territory making Angkor an unsuitable location. Perhaps the huge population put a strain on the forest and water resources. Some say the introduction of Theravada Buddhism in the 13th Century undermined the prestige of the King and priests. The precise reason for the decline of the Empire continues to be a topic of debate.
The ruins of Angkor were reported by foreigners as early as the 16th Century. The jungle had encroached on the structures, but the magnificence was apparent. Over the years the temples were heavily looted. Some of the treasures remain on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
In 1992 Angkor was declared a World Heritage Site and opened to the public. Monies and efforts from around the world have gone into restoration. As I wandered around I decided 1,000 archeologists could spend 100 years and still have plenty of work to do.
This family owned restaurant is just on the east side of Angkor Thom. It is called Ta Prohm (like the temple) and has killer noodle bowls.
We arrived in Chau Doc at 7:00 pm and checked into the classic colonial Victoria Chau Doc Hotel A lovely property. Having traveled long and far we decided to dine in the hotel. The food was okay and a pricey for what was offered. On the other hand, our room was huge with beautiful dark wood floors, a nice walk-in shower and a comfortable king sized bed. At 5:00 am I was awakened to the melodic call of prayers from the Mubarak Mosque across the river from our hotel.
After a quick traditional Vietnamese breakfast we boarded the Victoria Speedboat for a pleasant 5 hour trip up the Mekong to Phnom Penh Cambodia.
When we crossed into Cambodia the Captain lowered the Vietnam flag and raised the Cambodian flag. Soon we arrived at immigration control. The Visa cost per person is $33 US cash. A current passport photograph is required. The border crossing process was slow but painless, thanks in large part to the Victoria’s agent on board the boat. For entertainment while waiting I watched a hen teaching her chicks to fend for themselves, making a big show of scratching earth to turn up insects. One smart chick got it, looking at the others with confusion when they followed mama and waited for her to do the scratching. I figured they were the roosters to be and the quick study was a female.
The Victoria is not the cheapest speedboat available for the trip, but worth the extra money. The boat was comfortable with a nice well maintained bathroom. Refreshments were provided including muffins, tea, coffee, colas and water. Conde even snagged a beer. It was a fun way to travel from Vietnam into Cambodia.
We read a lot about Phnom Penh, much of which was not flattering. Lonely Planet put the fear of god in us, warning against theft and highlighting a story about a French woman who was dragged from the back of a moto and killed when thieves tried to snatch a bag with a long strap hanging from her shoulder. As we got off the boat we braced for an anticipated onslaught and gathered our belongings close by.
It turned out the process turned out to be was easy and calm. Nothing threatening about it. We immediately found a Tuk Tuk and negotiated the driver down from $6 US to $4 US. Negotiating is part of the culture and is a matter of pride for all. Conde still reminds me we overpaid by a dollar.
The Tuk Tuk took us directly to the Plantation Hotel A very cushy and comfortable property.
I never fully recovered from the flu and had a nasty relapse. My health wasn’t going anywhere but down. I contacted my US doctor who recommended a broad spectrum antibiotic. This was available without a prescription in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh story is Conde’s as my version consists of drawn curtains and the bed at the Plantation Hotel. Oh yes, and a short walk to the pharmacy dogged by Conde with a camera. (Spoiler Alert: the antibiotics worked and I am 90% human again).
Conde’s favorite restaurant find. Go figure.
A rooftop bar with a sweeping view of the city.
A few street scenes.
Phnom Penh is filled with French colonial buildings. There are tree line boulevards and lots of parks. As we drove through the town on our way out we saw what appeared to be a blossoming arts culture and beautiful museums and buildings worth noting. No doubt few days here would be time well spent.
The Plantation Hotel arranged for a driver to take us to Seim Reap. He arrived promptly at noon, as requested. The cost was $85 US for the 4½ hour drive northwest. The car was a spotless newer model Lexus SUV. Our driver a quiet, shy Cambodian man with a delightful sense of humor. He anticipated our needs before we could voice them. We couldn’t have been happier.
The area between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is largely agricultural. Lots of cows, family farms and water buffalo wallowing in mud ponds. The countryside offered lots of candy for the eyes.
The evening before traveling to Can Tho I did two things. First I reserved a room at the magnificent Victoria Can Tho getting a crazy good last minute deal. Second, I secured spots for a Floating Market Tour with Heiu’s Tour Company. Both proved to be excellent choices.
The 7-hour floating market tour started at 4:10 am. Seeing the sun rise on the river was worth every second of missed sleep. A picture is worth a 1,000 words, so here goes:
Many of the boats have eyes in the front to ensure one never gets lost. Larger boats bring produce from the fields to sell. Smaller boats purchase from the larger boats and re-sell. The “Seller” boats stay for as long as it takes to move all of their product. Each large boat sports a long pole with a sample of its wares tied to the pole to advertise.
The floating markets are rapidly shrinking in size. The change is attributed to the dramatic improvement in roads and modernization of transportation throughout the Mekong Delta. Simply put, it has become easier and much more efficient to transport produce over land. The floating market commerce is a way of life for many. There are concerns over what will happen if the markets completely disappear.
Our Floating Market tour included breakfast, Vietnamese style. Fresh fruit and a bowl of noodles is a great way to start the day.
Can Tho is a delightful mid-sized city. I would definitely stay there an extra day or two given the opportunity. A lovely waterfront boardwalk meanders from one end of town to the other. Saturday night at the waterfront city center was extremely active and safe. Wedding celebration parties, families eating picnic style with young children wearing pajamas, and couples strolling hand-in-hand mingled with tourists from around the world. The scene reminded me of an active Mexican Zocalo on a weekend night.
We ate dinner on a pier overlooking the river. Conde had frog legs. I had a fresh seafood stew with local vegetables, including bright yellow pumpkin flowers, cooked table side. And, the wine wasn’t half bad either.
Less than 24 hours after our arrival in Can Tho we departed for Chau Doc. A three hour drive northeast on the river near the Cambodian border. Having become Futa Bus Masters, we opted for this mode of transportation. $4 US for the two of us.