So we woke up on a train this morning…

ImageWe made it.  I am thankful to say we have safely completed our journey through Vietnam and I am now sitting, freshly showered in clean pajamas in my own living room.  This morning we awoke to the tunes of blaring, scratchy Vietnamese music played over the intercom system of our Reunification Express train as it arrived in Hanoi, in bunk bed sheets we are certain someone else slept in before boarding in Hue the night before.  So, you can see exactly why we are so elated for a shower and clean pajamas tonight!

The last nine days have been full of wonderful new experiences and adventures.  Traveling with the children has been tough, I cannot lie.  Their high energy and independent natures are blessed traits, but tough when trying to see a country in nine days.  Do we expect too much from our kids?  Is it fair that we make them adhere to a rigorous itinerary to fulfill our travel desires?  At the end of the day they are still kids, and as a whole they did a commendable job.  Will we do it again?  Hard to say.  Traveling with young kids is like giving birth.  It is painful and exhausting.  There is a lot of yelling.  But eventually you forget the pain and think…  hey, maybe we want to do this again?  Layne gives me two months before the travel bug bites again.

Until I get my act together; unpacking, restocking the larder, conquering laundry hill; here are some random tidbits from our trip:

Orion thinks walking through water buffalo dung is hilarious.

Layne ate his weight in pho bo (beef noodle soup).

Charlotte wowed another Asian country with her golden curls.

At a Christmas Eve presentation, church children sang Frosty the Snowman in Vietnamese to which Orion said to his father “No, no, no, this is a REAL song.  It is called Frosty the Snowman!”

My favorite one-sided conversation of the trip which helped put into perspective how amazing this world is and how thankful I am to have the experiences we have:

“Layne, can I just say this aloud to let it sink in?  We are hiking through ancient Cham ruins.  In Vietnam.  Around bomb craters.  On Christmas day.”

And I finally found a place so cheap that we ordered beer AND appetizers at each meal ($1 for a plate piled high of handmade fresh spring rolls?  Yes, please!).

Also, for the record, I am tired of smug looking backpackers traveling “light” out of one ridiculously sized pack tottering above their heads.  You think you’re tough?  You want to see hardcore travel?  Follow us for a day.  Anyone can go solo with one bag.  Try many bags and two children in tow who are constantly looking for snacks, toys, wanting to pet rabid looking dogs, wiping little running noses, keeping them from being run down by crazy motor scooters all while touring the Nguyen Imperial Tombs.

Puh-leeze.

And, in the famous words of Robert Frost…

“I have miles of laundry before I sleep,

miles of laundry before I sleep.”

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Vietnam Day 10

My fears from our last trip on the Reunification Express were confirmed last night.  “How do they change the bedsheets so quickly when the train stops to pick up new passengers?”  I wondered naively.
They don’t.
I am not a germaphobe, but this definitely crosses the line.  But, we’ve gotten this far, what is one night in dirty sheets?  Plus, my Vietnamese language skills are not yet to the level of asking the steward (the uniformed man sleeping, leaning against the window at the end of our car) to change them.
We pull out Charlotte’s blanket which was deemed too dirty to touch several days ago but has suddenly been upgraded to acceptable status, which Layne and she use as their bottom sheet.  A beautiful scarf Charles bought for me in Turkey, previously also used as a nursing cover, blanket, and toy for the children, finds new life tonight as Orion and my bottom sheet in the top bunk–Thanks, Charles!  I am glad the temperature is comfortable because we will not be using blankets tonight!  Perhaps psychosomatic, my scalp itched for days afterwards.
Fast forward to this morning and our 5:00am arrival in Hanoi.  While the Vietnamese are lovely people, trainmen are an exception to this and give you a short time window (three minutes, maybe?) from when the train pulls into the station to when you need to be out of their train.  This has made for a stressful start to each day, not knowing how far we are from the station (timely, these trains are not.  Some of ours arrived hours late), dressing sleepy children and packing up our bags in the cramped cabin while at the same time trying not to bother our fellow cabinmates.
We took a cab straight from the station to the airport–talk about a tight schedule!  The rest of the journey was thankfully uneventful and went smoothly.  No matter where we are or how much fun we had on a trip, when it is time to come home we are always excited.  This trip was admittedly a tiring and ambitious one, even if it would have been just Layne and I.  On a few occasions, Layne and I would look at each other, exhausted from rounding up small, wriggling bodies, and ask each other:  “Will we ever do this again?  No, no, we can’t do this again.  Next time, the beach in Bali!”
What a relief to be met by Mr. Li and our own silver Buick van (pronounced by Orion as “Buke,” a word I ask him to repeat often for my enjoyment), to know that tonight we will use our own showers and sleep in our own beds with unused sheets (we are so spoiled, I know).
But first, the kids have some business to attend to.  Just as Santa Clause had promised, he visited our apartment while we were away, and the children came home to find the remainder of their goodies waiting for them under the tree.
The funny thing is that the Chinese housekeepers are obviously unfamiliar with Christmas traditions, and dutifully cleared the plate of cookie crumbs, carrot sticks and milk cup that Santa had left behind!

Here I am, wrapping our our journey to Vietnam three months after our return.  And as Layne predicted, yes, the travel bug is biting.  While a beach in Bali certainly sounds amazing, there is so much culture to explore that I find it hard to just sit.  A friend just returned from a long weekend in….Cambodia.  In the U.S a weekend to Vermont is a big ring-a-ding-ding, but Cambodia?  It boggles my mind that I live in a place where that is a weekend getaway option.  Time to start planning!

Vietnam Day 9

Our last full day in this country, and so much to see before heading north out of Hue on tonight’s train.  We are not group tour types, but with so much to accomplish on one day, we chose this route to really pack it all in. Eight historic sights, lunch, boat ride and other transportation for $7?  That is a deal you cannot pass up!

We started the day by putting an end to Orion’s daily interrogation of “is TODAY the day we get to ride on a dragon boat?”  Our Asian travels have taught us that a regular boat retrofitted with a painted metal dragon head equals the ever popular, much anticipated by tourists, dragon boat which is supposed to be more fun than a regular boat ride which is ridiculous.  But the truth is, it is.  I just won’t admit it because that just sounds so silly.

Today is the day, Orion

Today is the day, Orion

The boat chugged along the Perfume River, sadly unperfumed this time of year as the flowering trees which give it it’s name are not in bloom.  Mom tells me the scent is intoxicating when in season.  The first stop is An Hien, one of the remaining traditional garden houses unique to Hue that focus on harmonizing living space with it’s natural surroundings.  Built in 1885, the original occupant of An Hien was Emporer Duc Duc’s 18th daughter.

The boat traveled on, passing water buffalo on the bank of the river and leaving the dense city behind.  Our next stop was Thien Mu Pagoda, a name most people do not recognize, but everyone knows part of it’s history.  This is the home temple of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who drove from this temple to Saigon in 1963 and lit himself afire in protest of the regime’s violations of religious freedom.  The car he drove, seen in the rear of the famous self immolation photograph, was brought back here and sits on display.

Our next port of call was Hon Chen temple, seemingly built into the steep banks of the river.  We don’t know much of it’s history, but that just adds to the intrigue of this small, dusty old temple.  A unique feature is that visitors ascend steep, rickety staircases behind the altar to a loft style altar above the main room, something we have never see before.

Back to the boat for a delicious vegetarian lunch while floating past countryside views.  Our next stop was Minh Mang Tomb, completed in 1843, two years after the emporer passed.  This is a sprawling, symmetrical complex of buildings and gardens and though it is lovely, we start to feel anxious for a few reasons.  First, I’m not loving how the group tour vibe is making me feel pressed for time instead of taking things at our own pace.  Second, we have a 5:06 pm train leaving for Hanoi and the clock is ticking.  The guide is aware of our situation and insists we can finish the rest of the tour (two more tombs, an incense and conical making tourist trap, and perhaps also squeeze in The Citadel.  Not to mention drop us off at our hotel, pick up our suitcases and be driven to the train station.  It is now about 1:30pm.  Riiiight……….

We feel we can comfortably squeeze one more tomb into our tight schedule, but talk over the options with the guide who agrees to call us a taxi when we want to leave the tour.  We say goodbye to our dragon boat on the banks of the Perfume River and take a mini bus through the forest to the Tomb of Khai Dinh.  This was the most impressive stop of the day, and a great way to burn off our extra energy (yeah, right) as we ascended the mountainside to tour the jaw dropping complex of terraces, life sized Mandarin and warrior statues and intricately decorated tomb overlooking the lush green valley below.

 

 

The clock is really ticking at this point so we ride the bus to the next tomb and wait there for the taxi.  Regrettably we miss the last few stops on the tour, but we simply cannot miss our train as our whole return trip hinges on this one ride.  We pick up our suitcases from the hotel then dash to the station with a little time to spare to figure out makeshift dinner plans.  Charlotte and I sit with our bags while the menfolk peruse the sidewalk food carts for meal options.  In the din of the station, I make out our train number in the Vietnamese PA system announcement and I am convinced he train is about to leave without us.  I scream at the top of my lungs across the parking lot to Layne, and it seems that everyone BUT him heard me, but I don’t care.  We. MUST. get. on. this. train.  They run across the parking lot, we gather up our belongings and head to the track in a haphazard, sweaty rush, only to find that the train did not arrive yet.  Oops.  I make amends by using up our last few hundred thousand dong to buy bagfuls of chips, candy and beer for a dreamy junk food dinner on the train.  “Can I have another Kit-Kat, Mommy?”  “Yes, but not until you drink some more of your soda.”*  We even had enough time to take some photos of Orion at the station.  You can see how safety conscience they are by letting children run around on the tracks.

Hanoi, here we come!

Hanoi, here we come!

*Dramatization.  Said conversation did not actually occur.

Vietnam Day 8

Today is the day.  I have been both excited and anxious about today since we booked this trip, and here it is.  The day I am alone with two small children in Vietnam.  Since the moment we sat down on our bed with a calendar to see what time Layne could carve out which coincided with Orion’s Christmas vacation, December 27 was already dawn to dusk unreschedulable (oh yeah, that word just happened) meetings.  This guy knows how to vacation.

Sorry, Layne, but Hue waits for no man.  After breakfast I packed up the kiddos and we wandered.  We veered from our original plan once we made our first stop at a shop selling items made from recycled materials, by individuals with disabilities and proceeds helping to finance heart surgeries for children who cannot otherwise afford it.  After buying a few gifts, I saw that we could visit the studio where these handicrafts were made, and thus changed course to hunt it down and see what we could along the way.  Orion, thankfully, kept close on the busy Hue sidewalks as Charlotte only wants to be held (no stroller, remember?) and motorbikes are not only relegated to the street, but often drive on sidewalks, too.  We happen across a joyous occasion, just in time to see a wedding party serenaded by a traditional Chinese (?) dragon dance.

A little farther on, we turn into a temple we run across.  But this is no ordinary temple.  This is a temple of the cao dai cult, a native Vietnamese religion, and I have been very interested in touring one so I am delighted we found this off-the-tourist-track specimen! We are welcomed by smiling the priest who dutifully switches on the altar lights, gifts us a book about the religion, and allows us to wander freely.

Cao dai has a rather interesting history and belief system.  It started in 1926 after it’s founder received a divine vision, and this monotheistic religion draws on beliefs from other major religions:  Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Confucianism. Their diverse list of saints includes Joan of Arc, Thomas Jefferson, William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-Sen and they believe there are exactly 72 planets in the universe that hold intelligent life (not 71 or 73…72!)

The colorful temples are know for their portrayal of the All Seeing Eye of God.  In his novel “The Quiet American,” Graham Green accurately describes it as: “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a cathedral on a Walt Disney Fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.”

Knowing that a noon service was about to start (services are held every six hours), we strategically settle outside the second floor entrance on the veranda and have a snack.  Orion soon hears the gongs and bells and works as my little spy, tiptoeing back and forth between our picnic spot and sneaking around the corner inside, describing the service to me while trying not to get caught.  He delights in his stealthiness and relays the details of what he witnesses; the priest praying on pillows with a golden bowl and something “yellowish-goldenish” around his neck.

Layne had enough time in his day to meet us for lunch, which we regrettably had at a so-so non authentic tasting restaurant.  And then, it started to rain.  RAIN.  The bane of every traveler’s plans; soggy maps, wet feet, slippery sidewalks, cold clothes.  Plus kids.  Yikes.  We head back to the hotel where I take a deep breath and truly understand that this is God’s way of forcing me to take it easy and relax for the afternoon.  We gather up coloring materials, games, blankets and yes, even a DVD or two, and spread out in the comfortable lobby of the hotel to give Layne the quiet he needs to work in our room.

Writing practice and a nap; sounds good to me!

Writing practice and a nap; sounds good to me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spend a few hours this way until it is dinner time.  I take the kids to the same delicious vegetarian restaurant across the street.  Maybe it was just because my best friend was too busy working to be with us, but the spring rolls just didn’t taste as good as yesterday, and slurping noodles wasn’t nearly as much fun.  The kids were champs and played along with the quiet game as we snuck back into the room, changed clothes and climbed into bed at a volume level that could not be heard on Layne’s conference calls.  They have been troopers and I am so grateful for their cooperation to make it a pleasant day!

Vietnam Day 7

Danang was the southernmost point in our journey and today we headed north by car back over the scenic Hai Van Pass (meaning “Sea Clouds,” just to conjure up some lovely imagery for you) to our next stop in the city of Hue.  The drive included basically every Vietnamese scene you could imagine–rice paddies, water buffalo pulled plows, lush tropical jungle, racing motorbikes with their high pitched horns trying to pass, fruit vendors wearing conical hats–you name it.  Outside Danang and making our way up, the road hugged the mountainside and provided lovely views of the ocean below us.  We stopped at the summit to explore the ruins of French fortifications built atop the mountain, and on the way down the north side, stopped to admire the picturesque fishing village of Lang Co.

We have noticed that communism seems to be more physically present in this country through the enormous political monuments, red banners, venerable depictions of Uncle Ho cuddling children and very high hammer and sickle count, yet the people seem to enjoy more freedoms (ex: uncensored internet and locals allowed to freely and openly attend the religious institution of their choice)  This is the exact opposite of what we have observed in China (pleeeease do not shut off my phone again, China!)  Don’t get me wrong, I see my share of hammer and sickle posters in a typical day, but nothing like this place.

After checking into our Hue hotel, we had a scrumptious lunch at a vegetarian restaurant across the street.  Now, we are people who eat from street food carts and have no problem sitting on dirty plastic stools using bowls and chopsticks that may or may not have been washed since last used (OK, so we do have a problem with that last bit), but if we were not so hungry, we may not have stepped into this place.  The whole front of the restaurant is open so it looks like you are sitting inside a garage.  It is not very friendly looking but we are hungry and need to get on with our day.  We are so glad that we did!  The proprietress spoke not a word of English, yet the menu contained English descriptions which was both helpful and surprising in this little hole in the wall.  The lovely lady took our order then went into the back room to cook up our vegetarian feast.  We tried a variety of dishes–some not so great and some out of this world, like the fresh, crispy spring rolls and the rich coconutty broth filled with bean sprouts and tomatoes in Orion’s pho.  Before leaving, the woman lovingly took longan and oranges from the buddha alter on the floor behind our table and bagged them up for the children to snack on the way.  The whole meal cost us $7.

We rambled about, exploring and taking in as much as we could.  We crossed the Perfume River over one of the many bridges and went to Dong Ba Market which sells everything.  The first floor is mostly souvenirs (think conical hats and lanterns) and sundries, second floor is fabric and clothing (we procured many a t-shirt here) and the outside holds food stalls.  Even just seeing the beautiful, fresh, raw ingredients would make anyone hungry–coconut, limes, chili peppers, cilantro, ginger, garlic–the pillars of many great Vietnamese meals.  Oh, and bananas.  Have I mentioned bananas before?  I have never seen more bananas than in this country and they seem to be sold on almost every street corner.  Big bananas, small bananas, red, green, yellow bananas, short and long bananas.  Bananas in bunches, bananas on branches!  I know I sound like Dr. Seuss but oh, my!  Bananas!

From the market we followed our noses, trying to find interesting neighborhoods and alleyways, walking along a canal, stopping into a bakery to procure snacks for the next day.  Our pace was a little slower than usual, though, as we are starting to wear out from our breakneck traveling speed with children who travel even faster than that!

Vietnam Day 6

Chúa Mừng Giáng Sinh~~Merry Christmas!

Beautiful Vietnamese Jesus and Mary

Beautiful Vietnamese Jesus and Mary

That Santa Clause is some guy.  The children awoke this morning to find that he left a few small presents bedside and a letter explaining that he knows they are good, patient children and the rest of their presents will be found at home once we return in a few days.  Santa was right as we have heard not one complaint from them!

Our driver and English speaking guide drove us to our first stop of the day, Marble Mountain.  I knew we were in trouble, when, in the car I asked him to give us a history of the area.  “It is very old” he responded.  Oh, dear.  Sure enough when we arrived at the sight, he started complaining of an injured foot and that he could not possibly climb the mountain but had arranged for another guide instead.  My scam senses started tingling.  After an increasingly heated exchange, we realized we were not in a position of power and went with the other guide which turned out fine in the end, but I still have my theories on the strange situation.  Hmmm…..

Marble Mountain

A short drive from Danang proper past an abandoned American air base lies the Marble Mountains; five peaks, each named after one of the elements.  The largest and most visited (by us, for instance) is Thuy Son (earth).  The mountains are riddled with caves, statues, temples and pagodas, all interconnected by pathways and staircases.  The climb was certainly not as bad as many other sights we have visited, but carrying Charlotte up and down these mountains is really wreaking havoc on our backs!  Once at the top, though, it was an ideal place for us all to explore and we enjoyed poking our heads into each cave and crevice, all stuffed with buddha statues and smoking incense.  The caves have been used for religious purposes for hundreds of years, but more recently they were used as hiding places and a secret hospital for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

My Son

The long ride through the countryside to our next stop was as interesting and educational as any stop we could make.  I love observing snippets of every day life happening before our eyes as we roll through.

Stuck in Vietnamese countryside traffic jam

Stuck in Vietnamese countryside traffic jam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Son is not only extremely picturesque; think ancient ruins set in the jungle surrounded by green mountains; it is also a very historic UNESCO World Heritage site.  Chosen as the Cham religious center in the 4th century, the site was utilized until the 13th century which is the longest period of continuous occupation of any site in Southeast Asia.

What lasted 1500 years was easily destroyed, when, in 1969 American B-52s bombed most of the complex while trying to eradicate a Viet Cong stronghold.  Craters dotting the area are remnants of that sad time.  Innocent Orion persisted in asking why the temples were ruined and did not understand my patented “please keep quiet and stop asking” look.  Full of guilt in front of our Vietnamese guide, I ignore his question until the guide finally answered “because the Americans bombed it.”  I cringe, but it stops the questions for now.

Here is a first for our family:  Making sure our children do not stray from the marked path.  Not so they do not trample flowers or grass, but so as to avoid possible unexploded ordinance left behind by the war.

The guide seems very interested in pointing out stone carved linga and yoni; male and female *ahem* parts used in Cham rituals.  Glad I am not visiting with my parents.  Hi, Mom and Dad!

An ice cream cone before we leave, and then we are off.  We freshen up and rest for a bit in our hotel room and then head back out.  Any other (sane) family would call it a night after that full day, but not us!  We go next door to (locally) famous Han market where they sell everything from fresh fruit and souvenirs to hunks of meat and dried lizards on a stick.  We walk along the waterfront , enjoying the mild weather and twinkling lights of the bridges that span the Han River before eating dinner and finally calling it a night.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

 

Vietnam Day 5

Posted inside our hotel

Posted inside our hotel

The train ride from Hanoi to Danang was the longest of the trip, forcing us to sit and relax until we reached our destination.  Thankfully, the scenery was enough to keep us entertained as we were traveling through the Hai Van Pass, considered to be one of the most beautiful mountain passes in the world.  One one side, the train tracks hug the mountain, and on the other, the mountain slopes straight down into the South China Sea.  We spent our morning with noses pressed against the windows taking in the beautiful scenes we were passing by.

We took a taxi to our hotel–YES, an actual stationary, brick and mortar establishment tonight!  After checking in and eating lunch, walked to Danang Cathedral.  Closed!  It is Christmas Eve, after all, and they were busy setting up for a special performance this evening.  We switched religious gears and took a taxi to the Pho Da and Tam Bao Pagodas.  Both are beautiful, but I know nothing more about either as they are simply blips in the guidebooks with no further explanation.  Finding Pho Da open but empty, we showed ourselves through, snapped some photos and started to leave.  Thinking we were on our way in, an elderly monk directed us back to the entrance and proudly gave us a personal tour of the worship space.  Without wanting to disappoint the kind man and lacking the language skills to tell him otherwise, we followed him through again.  I don’t know weather to be proud or scared of my children’s acting abilities as they pretended they had not been inside before and looked around with new interest.  Without hesitation, the monk took two beautiful apples from buddha’s offerings for the children, and posed for a photo upon our farewell.

We have noticed that temples in Vietnam are very similar, esthetically, to those in China.  One visible difference is that in Vietnam, we have seen many alters outfitted in various forms of electric illumination.  Not Christmasy lights, per se, but an alluring assortment of rope light outlines, battery operated twinkling candles, electric dragons, etc. making the space seem sort of 1960s.  No offense, but 1960s Vietnam is not a time and place where I want to be.  The monk mentioned above happily switched on his own light display for us which included a twirling, psychedelic halo around buddha’s head.

The temples were lovely, but we were at a loss for what else to do.  Danang has some attractions, but they are spread out and could not fill the afternoon.  Taking a cue from American GIs, we headed to China Beach for some well deserved R&R as they did when stationed here.  Being December, we had the entire beautiful beach to ourselves.  While chilly, it was still warm enough to shed our coats and shoes, and let the children forget, for a few hours, that they have a drill sergeant mother as a Vietnamese tour guide.

Back to the hotel for our first shower in days, change, then out for the evening.  We followed the restaurant recommendation of the desk clerk and were rewarded with a delicious Vietnamese dinner.  By now the streets were filled with crowds and packed with scooters…not sure if this is the norm or if everyone is headed out for the holiday.  We returned to Danang Cathedral for the show with just a few minutes to spare and were dissapointed to see standing room only for the special Christmas performance.  Hundreds of people gathered in the large courtyard in front of the Church and though we were thankful to be there on time, the long day caught up with us and we just wanted to sit.  A man popped out of the crowd and said to us, “follow me, please” and headed down the center aisle.  He led us to the front of the courtyard, and offered us seats in the very fist row, next to the Priest of the Church.  What an honor!  We humbly declined front row seats–surely they were meant for someone more important than us–but gratefully accepted second row seating and were heartily greeted by the friendly clergy.  Slowly, the seats around us filled with other foreigners and the thankfulness of having a seat was tainted with guilt as the Vietnamese, standing ten deep, struggled for a view of the stage.  With only an 8% Christian population, I wonder if the huge crowd consisted of believers, or perhaps curious onlookers.  The show was put on by the young people of the Church and was a quite impressive performance!  They acted out various scenes from the Bible and finished with a beautiful lantern dance.

Before leaving home, Orion confessed he was upset because he wanted to meet the “real Santa…not the funky Chinese Santa with the fake beard.”  His words, not mine.  When he finally did meet the real one, Santa Clause HIMSELF assured Orion that he would find him in Vietnam.  I am sure the big guy is packing up his sled as we speak with a little something for Orion and Charlotte and is thankful he does not have a train as a moving target for a sled landing tonight!

We saw many Santas on scooters today riding through the streets.  This friendly fellow was as excited as Orion to pose for a photos!

Funky Vietnamese Santa with a fake beard

Funky Vietnamese Santa with a fake beard