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Day Seven – Hanoi

Posted on October 13th, 2013

Dave!After another night at the amazing Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, it was time for an early wake up call so we could go... do tai chi?

Yes. Apparently this special form of martial arts exercise is as popular here in Vietnam as it is in China (where it originated).

This being Disney, they don't just send you out in street clothes... oh no... they provide you with a badass tai-chi uniform. Here is me striking a "snake" pose with our tai chi master instructor...

Tai Chi Master

And then it was time for a ride around the busy streets of Hanoi... not in a tour bus looking down on everything, but in an electric mini-bus that puts you at street-level. It was a pretty cool experience, and I took hundreds of photos as we zipped around the city. Here are just a couple shots from the beginning of the trip...

Hanoi Streets

Hanoi Streets

Hanoi Streets

Hanoi Streets

And, of course, no visit to Hanoi would be complete without a visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum! Unfortunately "Uncle Ho," as the locals call him, is in for some annual restoration work, so we couldn't go inside to say "hello"... but we did get to walk around the building, which is quite impressive...

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

You can also visit Ho Chi Minh's former residence, which includes three of the cars he used...

Ho Chi Minh Cars

On our way to our next destination, I was once again amazed at what an efficient use of space the Vietnamese have. Land is very expensive, so they build up instead of out...

Skinny Buildings of Hanoi

At last we arrived at the Temple of Literature, Hanoi, which is a beautiful spot in the city dedicated to Confucious...

Hanoi Temple of Literature

Hanoi Temple of Literature

Hanoi Temple of Literature

Hanoi Temple of Literature Souvenirs

Hanoi Temple of Literature

Out of respect for General Vo Nguyen Giap's funeral yesterday (he died at age 102), all official flags in Vietnam were tied with a black ribbon. General Giap was a genius military officer who many consider to be the mastermind behind the defeat of both the French and the Americans in Vietnam. Today, since the funeral was over, all the black bands were removed from the flags, and we lucky enough to see that happening here at the Temple of Literature...

General Giap Flag Ceremony

General Giap Flag Ceremony

And then we were off to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," which is the name given to Hỏa Lò Prison by American POW's who were unfortunate enough to be incarcerated there. Of the inmates, the most notable would probably be Senator John McCain, who spent part of his five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war here. The prison itself was mostly demolished in 1997, but a chunk of it was saved to become a museum. It's interesting to note that the prison itself was titled "Maison Centrale"... or "Central House" in French... assumably because it sounded more pleasant that having "PRISON" painted on a building in your neighborhood...

Hanoi Hilton Entrance Maison Centrale

Unsurprisingly, this is not a very pleasant place, even when sanitized for consumption by the general public...

Hanoi Hilton

The interior has several rooms explaining the history of the prison from it's early days when it was used for Vietnamese prisoners... to the later years where American/foreign prisoners of war were put there. The displays, naturally, say what a terrific place that Hỏa Lò Prison was to be a prisoner and how well inmates were treated... which is not quite the story former prisoners have told when they were finally released.

What was formerly the back-side of the prison, is now a courtyard with a mural and a 20-story building...

Hanoi Hilton Courtyard

The final stop for the day was a visit to a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show... which was utterly bizarre... but really entertaining...

Hanoi Water Puppets Theater

Somebody was kind enough to upload a short video compilation to YouTube, if you're interested in seeing what it's all about.

And, yes, before I go... it's time for THE DISNEY PIN OF THE DAY!

D7 Disney Pin

It's Shere Khan! One of my favorite character's from Disney's The Jungle Book!

Dang. That just makes me want to watch the movie again!

   

Day Six – Hanoi

Posted on October 12th, 2013

Dave!As much as I would have loved to lounge around the resort at Hội An for a day, this morning was an early wake-up so our group could fly to the Vietnam capital of Hanoi (or Hà Nội, as it it known to the locals).

Our first stop in the city was lunch at a restaurant called KOTO. This is a pretty special place, as KOTO stands for "Know One, Teach One" and is built around a working cooking school started by an Australian Vietnamese man named Jimmy Pham to help disadvantaged kids build a career. As if that weren't enough, the food was incredible, and the place is hugely popular. If you're ever in Hanoi, KOTO has my highest recommendation...

KOTO Restaurant

Our next stop was to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which explains the various cultures and peoples of Vietnam. It has numerous displays, like this one about how the popular conical hats are made...

Conical Hat-Making!

But the real gem of the museum is the outdoor displays of many of the various house and building styles of Vietnam. You've got a tall house... a long house (where each time the family expands, then just knock out the back and add more room)... and an interesting crypt-type building...

Tall Vietnam Building

Long Vietnam Building

Vietnam Crypt

The crypt is interesting, because it features symbols of rebirth around the edges...

Vietnam Museum

Vietnam Museum

As this is Disney, the day wouldn't be complete without some kind of cool activity. This time it was Vietnamese mask-making...

Vietnamese Masks

I made a red dog...

My Red Dog Vietnamese Mask

My Red Dog Vietnamese Mask

Pretty sweet!

After leaving the museum, we passed by an interesting set of buildings...

Skinny Buildings

The width of the building there is about 4 meters... 13 feet. Apparently when the city government decided to turn the two-lane street into a four-lane street, they took the land on either side of the road, leaving the owners with just a tiny strip from what they once had. Not ones to let valuable land go to waste, they constructed impossibly thin buildings to fit on it. I would love to see inside. I'm guessing there's a spiral staircase at one end to move between floors, but it wouldn't surprise me to find out they came up with something more ingenious than that.

Our group ended up staying at the premiere hotel in Hanoi, the Sofitel Legend Metropole. It is heavily influenced by the French (as many things are here), having been constructed by them in 1901. Everything has a very European feel, including the staff, who address everyone as "madame" and "monsieur." The rooms are beautifully appointed, and the grounds of the hotel are worth a look...

Sofitel Legend Metropole

Sofitel Legend Metropole

Sofitel Legend Metropole

That last photo is of the Bamboo Bar. And just in front of the Bamboo Bar is a staircase leading down to the bomb shelter that was left over from the Vietnam War (or, the American War, as it's known here). If you're lucky, you can make your way onto a list to take a tour...

Sofitel Legend Metropole Bunker

Sofitel Legend Metropole Bunker

The hotel itself is home to a lot of history and has been host to many, many famous people from around the world. Joan Baez recorded the song Where Are You Now, My Son? during the bombings that took place around Christmas of 1972 after spending some time in the bunker. And Jane Fonda stayed here on the second floor during her infamous "tour" of Vietnam during the war. Which isn't exactly something I'm excited about, because I still think she is a total asshole for having done it, regardless of her regrets or how many times she apologizes. Opposing the war is one thing... I totally get that... but Fonda worked non-stop to make life hell for American kids fighting and dying far from home by opposing them, and that's unforgivable. As if the guys drafted into service wanted to be there. Unlike Jane Fonda, they didn't have money or privilege, so buying their way out of a war they didn't ask for wasn't exactly an option.

Dinner was at an Italian restaurant called "Angelina"... and can you guess which famous guest inspired the name?

Sofitel Legend Metropole Angelena Restaurant Bar

The pizza and pasta I had were okay... not great... but the ambience can't be beat. At the end of your meal you get a tiny juice drink that has a splash of incredibly pricey Remy Martin's Louis Tres cognac. That's about as good as it gets right there.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for... it's time for the DISNEY PIN OF THE DAY!

D6 Disney Pin

No offense to Mickey Mouse, but my mask is way more awesome than his.

   

Day Five – Hội An (Part Two)

Posted on October 11th, 2013

Dave!And here we are for "Part Two" of my second day in Hội An.

As this was a "Day on Your Own" for our group, I had booked a morning photo tour months ago. Then yesterday our Disney guides tell everybody that they have organized a trip to the "Marble Mountains" and I was like "Oh crap! I'd like to see that!" and I was bummed that I would miss it.

But no worries... this is Disney after all... and so the guides arranged to have the hotel take four of us to Marble Mountains when we got back. Turns out they're a cluster of hills which are filled with caves and tunnels, and became a Buddhist retreat where many pagodas and grottoes can be found.

The main "mountain" has a path you can climb but, since we were short on time, we took a newly-installed elevator part-way up. From there you can see other "mountains" in the chain...

On Top of Marble Mountain

I probably only ended up seeing a small part of the stuff that seems to be packed into every nook and cranny, but what I did see was pretty spectacular...

Marble Mountain Pagoda

Marble Mountain Buddha Wheel Vietnam

Marble Mountain Hoi An Dragon

Marble Mountain Entry Way

My favorite part was this massive cave with sunlight streaming in. Just past the light there's a small Buddha statue waiting...

Marble Mountain Cave Light

Marble Mountain Cave Buddha

Marble Mountain Cave Light

Marble Mountain Cave Tiger

Everywhere you look, you see something that pretty much looks like I dropped out of an Indiana Jones film...

Marble Mountain Arch

Marble Mountain Tree

I only had an hour-and-a-half to walk around and, before I knew it, I was having to head back down the mountain. But not before searching for a bathroom and running across yet another Buddha, temple, and cave...

Marble Mountain White Buddha

Marble Mountain Temple

Marble Mountain Lucky Buddha

So... pretty much a must-see destination if there ever was one.

And when we got back to the resort? It was time for a barbecue and... the DISNEY PIN OF THE DAY!

Hit the Beach Disney Pin!

Hmmm... well, the only beach I saw today was littered with fish guts and garbage, but I finally have a pin with Mickey Mouse on it, so I'll take it!

   

Day Five – Hội An (Part One)

Posted on October 11th, 2013

Dave!This was a long, long day... so I'm breaking it up into a two-part blog entry. This is Part One.

Today is what Adventures by Disney calls "A Day On Your Own," meaning that they don't have anything scheduled, and it's up to you to figure out what you want to do. Except... not really... because they're still around and eager to help you get the most out of your day.

A friend had recommended taking a Hội An Photo Tour, which she had done two years ago and raved about. Anxious to step outside the Disney Protection Bubble where everything is sanitized for your protection, I was happy to sign up and get out into the "real" Vietnam for a day. Lucky for me, I was able to convince three people from my tour group to go as well.

Pick-up was at 5:00am, where we were quickly whisked off to a small cafe near a ferry dock. There we were introduced to our guide and photography instructor, Pieter, who got us situated and went over some camera settings. It was pouring rain, but the forecast said things would clear up shortly, so we braved the wet and headed out to a small ferry that would take us across to the fishing village of Duy Hải...

Morning Ferry

The village fish market was an amazing wash of activity, with fishermen pulling into vịnh Cửa Đại (Cửa Đại Bay) where guys in round rafts float out to meet the boats, gather up the catch, and head to shore so the ladies there can negotiate, yell, and fight their way to the best price. It's fish fish fish everywhere...

Fish Market

Fish Market Washing Fish

Vietnam Loading Fish on a Bike

Fish Washing in Hoi An, Vietnam

The rain didn't let up, and became a deluge around lunch time. My feet were soaking wet in no time, and my shoes were made up of water more than anything else in short order...

Raining in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hiding out from the rain, we darted from cover to cover where all kinds of interesting things were to be found... including a man making an anchor from scrap metal...

Hoi An Vietnam Welder

After a delicious Vietnamese-style veggie sandwich for lunch, we were off to a fish sauce factory where we could practice taking photos in different lighting conditions.

The smell was bloody awful.

But the rain stopped, and that's something.

Fish sauce is made by salting fish in a giant barrel and letting it rot for six months to a year. The rotted fish is then strained through cloth to produce sauce...

Making Fish Sauce in Vietnam

Workers at the factory get fresh fish sauce, right from the tap. I don't think the puppy hanging around looking for food got any though...

Fish Sauce Workers Having Lunch in Vietnam

The village was filled with busy people, but those who weren't working were quite friendly and willing to pose for photos. This little boy made quite an impression on our group, and I don't think there was a single one of us who didn't want to take him home...

Father and Son in Vietnam

But, alas, the lucky little bugger had a dad who loved him and could spend his days pants-free, so why would he want to leave home?

Father and Son in Vietnam

The father and son were waiting at the local barber shop for a haircut. The barber there was doing a masterful job with his client, which made me wish I hadn't cut all my hair off before I left for Vietnam...

Barber in Vietnam

Vietnamese children are a special flavor of adorable, and this little one found us more interesting to look at than grandma trying to feed them rice...

Lunch with Grandma in Vietnam

Most everyone seemed content to go about their business while people were snapping photos. This little girl was probably used to the attention, given that she is featured on the Hội An Photo Tour brochure...

Girl Washing Dishes in Hoi An, Vietnam

Girl Washing Dishes in Hoi An, Vietnam

DUCKS!!!

Ducks in a Row in Vietnam

Eventually we passed by a couple kids putting in a hard day's work at the sewing machine. The young man had some nice ink across his back...

Young Vietnamese Sewing Workers

Young Vietnamese Sewing Worker

And, just like that, the tour was coming to a close. I had already taken hundreds of pictures, but that didn't stop me from taking dozens more as we headed back to the ferry dock. There were some cute mangy puppies we ran across along the way that broke my heart. It doesn't seem as though animals are treated very well in Vietnam...

Vietnam Doggies

Cows seem to fare much better...

Vietnam Cow

If only the sunshine had been around earlier in the day. The bay is quite nice...

Boats in the Water Near Hoi An, Vietnam

Dock in Hoi An, Vietnam

The last thing to see before heading "home" was a shipyard where boats come to be repaired...

Vietnam Shipyard Repairs

Vietnam Shipyard Repairs

One last doggie...

Puppy in Hoi An, Vietnam

And the tour was over. But not my day. But you'll have to wait for Part Two for that.

In the meanwhile... if you're ever in Hội An, I give the Hội An Photo Tour my highest recommendation!

   

Day Four – Hội An

Posted on October 10th, 2013

Dave!Last night we arrived in the city of Da Nang, where we were quickly transported to a resort in the UNESCO Heritage city of Hội An. The city is kind of conflicted, trying to both retain the culture and heritage which makes it unique, yet service the throngs of tourists showing up to play on their beaches. It's a delicate balance, and not everybody is convinced that it can work. Development is rapidly encroaching on the city, and "progress" (if you can call it that) is winning out.

Hội An is said to have beautiful sunsets, so I woke up at some ungodly hour so I could walk down to the beach and take a look. Unfortunately, there was a haze out, so it didn't look like much...

 Hoi An Sunrise

Given that this is an Adventure by Disney, they don't just want to drag you from place to place and give you an overview of the highlights... they work hard to tell a story of where you are and the people who live there. Today that began with a trip to the Hội An market led by a local chef who could explain everything. It was a really great walk...

Hoi An Market

Hoi An Market

Hoi An Market

Hoi An Market

Hoi An Market

Hoi An Market

Hoi An Market

I stopped buying souvenirs years ago because I just don't have the space. But I saw this tree carving hanging up, and thought it was pretty cool...

Hoi An Tree Carving

Much to my surprise, when I took a look at it, the name "DAVID" was carved on the top! I guess fate was telling me to buy it, but I was not tempted. What would I do with it when I got home? How would I get it home in one piece?

After the market, we took a boat back to "Brother's Cafe" where our chef works so we could get lessons in how to cook Vietnamese food...

Hoi An Cruise

Hoi An Cooking Class

Hoi An Cooking Class

My Spring Rolls didn't turn out that pretty, but they were sure tasty...

Hoi An Cooking Class

I had better luck with the eggplant and tomato dish, but that didn't stop me from accepting help when offered...

Hoi An Cooking Class

Hoi An Cooking Class

After cooking school, everybody went to a local tailor to be fitted for custom clothing. I ordered two shirts for the bargain-basement price of $70 total, and they were waiting for me when I returned to the hotel this evening. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. After having your measurements taken, you had free time to wander around town...

Hoi An Walkabout

Hoi An Walkabout

And then it was time for... LANTERN-MAKING!!

Yes, Disney arranged for everybody to go to a lantern factory so we could learn how to make the beautiful lanterns that are hanging all over the city...

Hoi An Lantern Factory

You start out with a bamboo frame, then glue on strips of fabric to create the lantern...

Hoi An Lantern-Making

At least that was the plan. I'll spare you from having to look at the glue-soaked mess that I ended up with.

The good news is that you could buy beautifully hand-made lanterns to take home with you, so I did just that. Though there's little hope that my living room is going to end up looking as cool as Hội An at night...

Hội An at Night!

Hội An at Night!

Ah well. It makes for a beautiful memory.

And now it's time for THE DISNEY PIN OF THE DAY!

D4 Disney Pin

Chip and Dale would be a mess in the kitchen. What do squirrels know about cooking? They should have used Remy from Ratatouille! Given the influence of the French here in Vietnam, it would have been totally appropriate!

Ah well. It was another fantastic day in Vietnam, so I guess I shouldn't complain.

   

Day Three – Củ Chi

Posted on October 9th, 2013

Dave!Originally named "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes" but also known as "The US War Crimes Museum," a popular attraction documenting the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese was renamed "War Remnants Museum" when trade relations were re-opened with the United States.

Overall, it's an interesting (albeit decidedly one-sided) look at the war that can get fairly graphic at times, but is entirely more effective because of it...

Vietnam War Remnants Museum

Displays are fairly straightforward and stark, but well-presented...

Remnants Museum Exhibits

Some of the exhibits are obvious propaganda, and leave out huge chunks of the story, but at least the museum isn't hiding their agenda. Unlike shit-bag organizations that claim to be "fair and balanced" yet are anything but, the War Remnants Museum doesn't lie about their intentions as you make your way through the exhibits...

Requiem - The photo collection of the US aggressive war in Japan

Other sections of the museum include such topics such as "Aggression War Crimes" and "Historic Truths," and are certainly open for debate, but one area of the museum draws conclusions that most anyone can agree with... Agent Orange was some heinous shit that ruined lives on both sides. It was chemical warfare on an epic scale that had both immediate and long-term affects on health and development that are still affecting people today...

Remnants Museum on Agent Orange

Seeing the horrific images and reading heart-wrenching stories about the tragedies of war is not easy, no matter which side is telling the story. Regardless of how you feel about the Vietnam War... whether it's America's stance of playing "World Police" and saving the planet from "communism"... or large segments of the Vietnamese population being forced to accept a government they did not want... or an entire class of peasants being decimated when they just wanted to be left alone... or wealthy corporations encouraging war so they could make money... or indigenous Degar/Montagnard minority persons being overrun because they didn't fit in with the Vietnam majority culturally... or the American CIA and the French battling it out using the Vietnamese people for the fight... or the involvement of Korea (North and South) and Australia to serve their own interests... or any number of factors that made this such a highly complicated and confusing conflict for everybody involved... I think everybody can agree that war sucks.

Which is why, despite my personal feelings and obvious bias, this museum (hence Vietnam's official position over what they went through) has my deepest sympathies.

At least they did until I got to the gift shop and saw this...

Remnants Museum American Dog Tag Souvenirs?

At first I thought that these dog-tag "souvenirs" were war trophies being sold, and I was absolutely horrified. But one of the guys in our tour group who actually served in Vietnam said that they were not real, as American dog-tags had different information on them. Even so, they are clearly meant to be American dog-tag replicas when they feature names like "Matthew Johnson" on them. And the fact that they've been aged and dirtied up to look like war trophies is almost as bad as selling the real thing. This is incredibly disrespectful and disgusting regardless of the circumstances, and I had a very different feeling leaving the museum after seeing this than I would have had I not seen them at all.

Though, to be fair, you could say the same thing about American museums selling Indian artifacts and replicas like they do, so I guess we're no better.

Anyway...

From the museum we took a bus north to the Củ Chi district, once again zipping through traffic with horn blaring...

Củ Chi Bus Drive

How we managed to reach our destination without an accident remains a mystery.

The area we visited is famous for the Củ Chi Underground Tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong to very effectively infiltrate hostile territory and wreck havoc with their enemies. Now the tunnels are part of a sort of "outdoor museum" where you can learn about how they were made and used. Our tour guide gave a very effective demonstration of how everything works by popping in and out of the tunnels using secret doors that were invisible on the forest floor...

Củ Chi Tunnel Surprise

The tunnels themselves are small. Tiny. Impossibly miniscule. And looking at them makes you wonder how people managed to survive in such claustrophobic conditions. It also makes you respect the people who were so dedicated to their cause that they were willing to endure such conditions. Surprisingly, the tunnels for tourists have actually been ENLARGED so that we can fit into them. And they are still horrifically small. Three people in our group decided to give the first tunnel a try, and it was a bit nerve-wracking to get through even though it was a short distance...

Củ Chi Tunnel

The woman I followed above was smaller than I am. I am so tall that there was no way I could just hunch over and fit... oh no... I had to squat down and shuffle my way through. Not at all easy, but I made it...

I Escape from the Củ Chi Tunnel!

Turns out that trying to breath was the most difficult part of going through the tunnel... which is good, I suppose, since it takes your mind off of the crushing claustrophobia that you feel.

After looking at tunnels and learning about how the Viet Cong used tricks and traps to attack their enemies, we got to see a fashion show of Viet Cong jungle apparel...

Củ Chi Fashion Show

I don't know how Tim Gunn would feel about that little ensemble, but I think she is totally pulling it off!

And, with that fashion moment, my visit to Củ Chi came to an end, and we were off to the airport.

BUT NOT BEFORE IT WAS TIME TO COLLECT MY DISNEY PIN OF THE DAY!

And how in the hell is Disney going to turn a day filled with war and death into a fun-time activity for kids, you may ask? Well here you go...

D3 Disney Pin

Baloo the Bear and The Jungle Book makes any activity a fun one! Even after you've watched somebody explain how a pit filled with spikes can mean an agonizing death for somebody unfortunate enough to fall into one.

   

Day Two – Mekong Delta

Posted on October 8th, 2013

Dave!And so today my Adventure by Disney officially begins (yesterday was just an add-on that I booked so I'd have a little time to recoup from the flight).

The name of this tour is apparently "Jewels of Southeast Asia," though the official website page doesn't show a name at all. Unlike most of the "Adventures by Disney" which are designed as "family vacations" which include activities for kids, this is an "adults only" tour.

Usually, I'm not big on organized tours, but when you don't have time to plan things out, it's just easier all the way around. Disney is more expensive than other companies I found, but I decided to just bite the bullet and go for it because Disney is a name I trust to do things right.

The day started when everybody boarded a bus for the Mekong River Delta. The interior was a bit unexpected, with decorations plastered everywhere...

Tour Bus Teddy Bear

There were symbols of good luck lining the dashboard, which makes sense given the insane traffic you have to navigate through here in Saigon...

Tour Bus Good Luck Charms

Half-way through the drive, we stopped at a rest area, which is unlike any rest area I've seen before...

Rest Stop Lily Pond

Lotus Flower

It was a long drive, but you're never bored because entertainment is always just outside your window. A guy riding a motorcycle with a washing machine while texting? Got it. Entire families of five people on a motorcycle? Yep. Babies on motorcycles? Of course! Saigon has it all...

Motor Bike Refrigerator Haul while Texting!

Motorcycle Momma... Literally

Eventually we made it to a small fishing village on the Mekong River where we boarded boats to explore life on the river...

Mekong River Boat

Mekong Cruise on the Boat

Passing a Boat on the River

River Homes of the Mekong

Mekong Homes

Mekong River House

Mekong Fruit Seller

Mekong Houseboats

After wandering around a while, we stopped off at a family-run candy factory. One of the candies they make is from popped rice. The popping itself is accomplished with large woks filled with hot sand. The sand and rice is mixed together and, almost instantly, the popping starts. The sand is then filtered away in a sieve and, violà, rice has been popped. It's then mixed with sugars and flavorings, pressed onto a cutting table, then sliced into bite-sized pieces and wrapped for selling...

Mekong Popped Rice Making

Mekong Vietnam Rice Candy Shop

The company also hand-makes rice paper for spring rolls and such. It's a hot, tiring, difficult job, but the woman working there made it look easy...

Vietnam Mekong Rice Paper Making

Rice Paper Drying in the Sun in Vietnam

Another item on the menu... SNAKE WINE! Wine that it cured with dead snakes in it for some reason...

Mekong Vietnam Snake Wine

All throughout the factory there were dogs laying around. We were warned that dogs here are not petted and cuddled, so trying to make friends is a bad idea. The dog may think that you reaching out to pet him is an attack, so you'll get bit...

Mekong Dogs of Vietnam

And speaking of dogs... prosperous homes sometimes have dog statues standing guard in front. I've seen it more often than you'd think, and most times it's these exact same statues over and over again...

Mekong Dog Statue Guardians

After an incredible lunch of fresh local foods, we zoomed back along the river so we could drive back to Saigon. Dinner tonight was on the 51st floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, which is an easy building to spot because it has a helicopter pad sticking out the side of it! The view of the city was quite nice and the food pretty darn tasty...

Dinner in Bitexco Tower

Since this is a Disney tour, they hand out pins for you to collect. On the first day I got a welcome pin with Pluto...

Welcome Disney Pin!

Then today I got a Donald and Daisy Duck Mekong pin...

Melodic Mekong Pin

Pretty nifty.

And tomorrow starts early, so off I go...

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Day One – Ho Chi Minh City

Posted on October 7th, 2013

Dave!Not wanting to arrive the minute my tour was starting, I decided to book an extra day in advance so I could rest up before my vacation begins. Which, of course, proved impossible. Lounging around a hotel when I'm in a city I've never been to before is crazy talk. And so I set out into Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Sài Gòn (or "Saigon" as Westerners know it).

The only "must see" item on my wish-list of things to visit was the monument to Thích Quảng Đức, the monk who protested the persecution of Buddhists by first South Vietnamese President Diem by burning himself to death in 1963...

Thích Quảng Đức Memorial Park

Thích Quảng Đức Memorial Park

You probably know of him even though you may not recognize his name. The horrific event that took place almost exactly 50 years ago was immortalized in a famous photo that's known around the world...

Thích Quảng Đức Self-Immolation Photo by Malcolm Browne
Photo by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Malcolm Browne for Associated Press, colorized by MyGrapefruit

His final words...

"Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism."

Throughout the entire ordeal, Thích Quảng Đức did not move or cry out. His remains were cremated, but his heart survived as his body turned to ask and is now a holy relic.

The monument itself is spectacular... easily one of the best I have ever seen. Behind the statue of Thích Quảng Đức is a relief carving of his final moments, and it's beautifully rendered...

Thích Quảng Đức Monument

Thích Quảng Đức Monument

Across from the park is a memorial pagoda in his honor...

Thích Quảng Đức Pagoda

Mission accomplished. Anything else I did today would be gravy.

And so I decided to visit Reunification Palace (Dinh Thống Nhất), the former offices of the president of South Vietnam. The taking of this "palace" signified the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon...

Reunification Palace, Saigon

It's pretty much just a big building filled with dozens of beautifully-appointed rooms, all just a little different from one another, but basically the same...

Reunification Palace, Saigon

Reunification Palace, Saigon

Then I was off to take a look at Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saïgon, a basilica established by the French after they conquered the region and wanted a place of worship for their colonists. Remarkably, all the building materials used in construction were imported from France...

Notre Dame Basilica Saigon

And... that was about as much sightseeing as I could endure today.

The thing about Vietnam is that it's hot here. When I left my hotel at 10:00am, it was a breezy 82 degrees with overcast skies. Then, as you can see, the sun came out. At which time the temperature soared to roughly 270 degrees. Eventually I had to cut short my wanderings and head back to the hotel at 2:00pm because I was melting and close to death.

The other thing about Vietnam is that it's not the least bit friendly for walking in the big cities. This is much like my trip to China where everybody is driving, and walkers just have to get out of their way. But at least Vietnam drivers slow down a little bit when people are in the crosswalks... unlike in China where all drivers are actively trying to kill pedestrians for sport, and will speed up if they see you crossing the road. Being in a country where pedestrians DON'T have the right of way is always a challenge, and going out for a pizza can get you run down in the street. Give me the good ol' USA where all I have to worry about is getting shot when I go out for pizza. USA! USA! USA!

But the cars and billions of motorcycles is only part of the problem. The bigger issue for pedestrians is that the sidewalks are almost always obstructed. People are selling, buying, cooking, eating, sleeping, and parking on them, and getting through can be tricky...

Ho Chin Minh City Sidewalk

Look closely...

Sleeping kitty looks like Spanky the Cat...

Ho Chin Minh City Sidewalk

Half the time, there's not even a path for you to get through it all, meaning you often have to venture out on the street to get anywhere, which is about as dangerous as it gets...

Saigon Sidewalk

Saigon Sidewalk
Oh? You want to get through? Well, fuck you! Fuck you, stupid pedestrian!

And these photos are relatively mild examples. I've tried to navigate through seas of scooters and motorcycles that seem to park wherever the hell they want. Oh... and when you do happen to find a sidewalk that's not obstructed? That's when you REALLY have to be careful, because that just means motorcycles will come driving down the sidewalk any minute now... guaranteed.

After wishing I had more dong yesterday, I stopped by an ATM on my way back to the hotel so I could pick some up. Don't look now, but I'm a millionaire, bitches! I've got more dong than you can handle...

ONE MILLION DONG!
Um, yeah... one million dong is about $45 in US dollars...

The last thing I saw before escaping the afternoon heat was a little girl walking down the sidewalk with a box on her head. Probably just playing around, but she could have been trying to escape the unrelenting sun. In any event, it's the cutest thing you'll see all day...

Girl in a Box

After taking my second shower of the day, I hung out in my hotel room until the sun went down and things cooled down enough that I could venture out without melting. In other words, I hid indoors until dinner-time. At which point I came back and took my third shower of the day, because it was still hot out.

And there you have it, my first full day in Vietnam.

Oh... and did I mention that I visited my 152nd Hard Rock for lunch today? Because I did...

Hard Rock Cafe Ho Chi Minh City

There's a newer section upstairs that's decorated in the awful "hipster lounge" aesthetic of the modern properties, but the beautiful original section downstairs is a bit more traditional...

Hard Rock Cafe Saigon

The bar is one of the best I've seen yet...

Hard Rock Cafe Bar

Absolutely worth a visit... even though they didn't have a veggie burger on the menu. Instead I had a pesto pasta, which was fantastic. Better than I've had in some fine Italian restaurants, believe it or not.

Xin chào! Mai mốt gặp lại! Good bye until tomorrow!

   

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