« August 2010 | Main | June 2011 »

February 01, 2011

winter vacation in Vietnam (and Cambodia and China)

We have both wanted for some time to see Vietnam, and we finally did it! [link to photos: http://nortonwheeler.com/gallery/v/RoadToHarvard/Vietnam+2010/]

Vietnam 2010

12/21 Spent night at Phoenix Hostel in Shanghai. Norty: Nice location near People’s Square, friendly staff, satisfactory room, hard bed. Terry: Actually, a bit seedy and the bed was really, really hard with poking springs. Decent shower, though.

12/22 Leisurely stroll around People’s Square neighborhood. Bought Australian wine for upcoming Vietnam cruise (to avoid high on-board prices and possibly poor quality), bought China SIM cards, bought bilingual edition of the Book of Poems (one of the five Chinese classics), bought special-request Chinese cough drops for Terry’s sister Becky. Terry: Really good lunch at a Singapore-style restaurant. Caught late-afternoon flight to Hanoi, arrived at Rendezvous Hostel in Old Hanoi. Softer bed (by Asian standards). Terry: layover in Guangzhou was insane – a very long walk from the domestic terminal to the international terminal and the longest, slowest security line I’ve ever been in. Oddly, China doesn’t make you remove your shoes or take liquids out of the suitcase, but they do take away cigarette lighters. China Southern is a nice airline; the planes have more legroom than US planes, and there is always meal service, even on fairly short flights. The airport in Hanoi is nearly an hour’s drive outside of the city, which makes for a tedious trip at night when you can’t see anything. When we got in, it was nearly midnight, so we were exhausted and madly jet-lagged. The Hanoi Rendezvous Hostel is quite nice for a budget hotel. The staff are just amazingly helpful and speak English very well. The rooms are Spartan, but the beds aren’t impossibly hard and the showers are terrific.

12/23 Tour guide took us on four-hour mini-van ride to Halong Bay. The air grew perceptibly cleaner as we left badly polluted Hanoi. Our cabin on Pearl Dragon was quite nice, including not-too-hard mattress. The bay is a UNESCO site and is amazing to see. It includes nearly 2000 islands, which are fairly small products of volcanic activity. We stopped to tour one of them, including one of its cave complexes. Food was terrific, fully accommodating our vegetarian requests. Our guide, with the American name Smiley, was a little tightly wound but meant well. Our tour group included seven people from Hong Kong, a family of five from Australia (who shared our minivan), a Canadian couple resident in Qatar, and a French couple. We became friendly with the Canadians, Linda and Mohamad, and got to know the others, as well (except for the French couple, for linguistic reasons). The two adult men in the Hong Kong group work in administration at Hong Kong University. Terry: this cruise was a wonderful way to un-jetlag.

12/24 On the second day of our cruise, we visited a floating village. It was a collection of rustic houseboats. People apparently live on them and, in any case, sell a variety of products, mainly to tourists. Late in the morning, we drove back to Hanoi. We arrived back at Rendezvous around 6:00 Christmas Eve. We were interested in going to a nearby Catholic cathedral, to see what a Vietnamese church service was like, but we were too tired. We found our way to the Tamarind Café, one of two highly rated vegetarian restaurants that Terry had found in advance. (Terry spent about six weeks planning our trip, her first post-retirement project.) As advertised, there was a wide variety of tasty vegetarian dishes of many nationalities and at reasonable prices. We bought a few DVDs on the way back – even slightly cheaper than similar products in China.

12/25 A staff member at the Rendezvous helped us negotiate an hourly rate of $4 with a cylco (Vietnamese pedi-cab with two wheels in front and one in back) driver. He took as to our requested sites and waited for us. We bought tickets to the evening water puppet theater performance, changed currency, bought a dragon-headed cane for Terry, went to a Confucian Temple of Literature, had lunch at Com Chay Nang Tam, a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, went to the History Museum, and returned to the Rendezvous. Fortunately, the same staff member was on hand to straighten out a misunderstanding (i.e., attempt to retroactively renegotiate) about our cyclo rate. Terry: Norty is being polite. It is apparently fairly common for cyclo drivers to negotiate a price for two people and then, at the end, claim it was a per person rate. An interesting feature of the temple was the presence of several dozen stellae, inscribed by scholars of a bygone era and mounted on the backs of turtles. The Buddhist restaurant caters more to locals then to tourists, but we found the food even better than the food at the Tamarind. The History Museum displayed a sign announcing that a new museum is under development, which is a good thing. The existing museum was interesting (for its content, not just or mainly its architecture, as the Lonely Planet guidebook on Vietnam says), but there are significant deficiencies. The strongest feature is the archaeological collection. There are, for example, dozens of large bronze drums, dating back to the Dong Son culture, some as old as 600 BCE. The origin of these drums is a flashpoint in the running controversy over whether Vietnamese culture developed independently or as an offshoot of Chinese culture. (Keith Taylor’s The Birth of Vietnam is a good guide to the controversy.) One problem with the museum is its organization, which combines elements of chronology, theme, and (especially) randomness. Another deficiency is the near-total silence about the 1000-year period of Chinese sovereignty over Vietnam, from the Han conquest in 111 BCE until Vietnam escaped Chinese control in 938, during the period of Chinese disunity between the Tang and Song Dynasties. There was a prohibition against photos inside the museum, so we took none. In the evening, we attended a performance of Vietnam’s famous water puppet theater. This is a unique form of popular culture that has some affinity to Chinese shadow puppet theater but is different and more interesting. An orchestra in a balcony plays traditional music and sings the story line of a folk tale which puppets in a large pool enact the story, controlled by mechanisms beneath a large pool, which functions as the stage. At the end of the performance, the puppet masters approach the audience, submerged in the pool to their waists. Back to the Tamarind for dinner, trying some different dishes.

12/26 We began the day with a visit to a smaller Confucian temple. Next, we strolled around Hoan Kiem Lake, a popular site for locals and tourists in the center of Hanoi. As part of our stroll, we crossed a red bridge to a Confucian temple on an island near the north end of the lake. The predominance of Confucian sites (there are some Buddhist temples, as well, but we did not have time to see them) testifies to the strong Chinese cultural influence in (especially northern) Vietnam, an influence that distinguishes historical and contemporary Vietnam from other parts of Southeast Asia, where Indian and oceanic influences are relatively stronger. Back (still on foot) to Com Chay Nang Tam for another tasty lunch. Finally, we walked to a temple that honors two Trung sisters, famous for leading an ultimately unsuccessful rebellion against Chinese domination in the middle of the first century CE. Unfortunately, the temple was closed, so we were not able to go inside and see a statue of the sisters. Scattered debris made it appear that the temple had not been open for weeks or possibly months. By now several kilometers from our hostel, we flagged a taxi and made it back without being taken advantage of. A driver took us to the airport, where we caught a plane to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We were met by a driver who, to our surprise, loaded us into a tuk tuk – a two-wheeled open carriage pulled by a motorcycle – and conveyed us to our next hostel, the Golden Temple Villa, about half an hour (by tuk tuk) from the airport. Other than the four-flight climb to our room and absence of a reading light over the bed, the room was comfortable. Terry rated the mattress the best so far. Terry: this hotel has one of those weird showers you sometimes find in China that is essentially a hand-held showerhead mounted on the wall in the middle of the bathroom with no enclosure around it. It was just fine anyway – good water pressure and lots of hot water. I will say that the trek up and down the stairs was no fun – especially since the treads were very narrow. That probably is fine for small Cambodian feet, but not so good for big American feet. The restaurant at the hotel had a very good breakfast. Banana or pineapple pancakes are delicious, and the coffee, both in Cambodia and Vietnam is to die for! The sweetened condensed milk that most people put in it took some getting used to, but it works well with the smooth, strong coffee.

12/27 After a breakfast with Cambodian coffee, we boarded the tuk tuk of our driver, Hour. He was at our disposal for $10 for the day. First stop, Angkor Wat. Naturally, this Hindu temple complex, built for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city, is more awe-inspiring in person than in photos. In the late 13th century, a different king converted the temple to Buddhist use. The complex was never abandoned, but the buildings began to deteriorate in the 16th century. Numerous foreign governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations have sponsored restoration projects since the end of war and civil war in Cambodia in the late 20th century. One fascinating surprise was numerous panoramic bas-relief friezes running many meters along temple walls, depicting various battle scenes from the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and from Cambodian history. After a cooling coconut shake, we proceeded to Angkor Thom, established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman. This is a much bigger complex, in terms of land mass, than Angkor Wat. It includes numerous smaller and larger structures, almost all of which have deteriorated badly over the centuries and are in early stages of restoration. The existence of large restoration crews reinforced our impression that Siem Reap is a city based almost entirely on tourism. Other important features of the local economy are the omnipresent tuk tuks, dozens if not hundreds of hotels and hostels, markets and restaurants populated mainly by foreigners. We toured a large walled area called Phimeanakas, the most distinctive feature of which is large human faces pointing in four directions atop turrets. We also saw two much smaller structures, Bayon (more stone faces) and Baphuon, We walked across the intriguingly named Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King, but they were little more than degraded brick terraces. We took a drive-by photo of the Takeo Temple. We were hoping to see Ta Prohm, the temple featured in Laura Croft: Tomb Raider. It turns out, though, that one needs to hike several kilometers into and back out of the jungle to see it. By this time, we were pretty tired, so we decided to rent the movie instead. Back to our hostel, a couple hours rest, a delicious dinner at one of many Indian restaurants in Siem Reap, and an hour-long massage capped a pleasant day.

12/28 We spent our second day in Siem Reap leisurely strolling around the tourist quarter (mainly what there is) of the city. We bought a few gifts for friends and family in China and the U.S., many at two shops with, respectively, Australian and French owners. The owners had apparently explained to their staff that tourists would be more likely to buy if not harangued. Terry bought a couple of paperbacks at a French-owned, multi-lingual second-hand book store, compensating for a technical problem with the new Kindle she had bought especially for the trip. Siem Reap features numerous “fish massage” parlors. We watched this service in action, and an Aussie customer explained the concept to us. The little fish swimming around in a pool eat dead skin off the feet and legs of the individual getting this special massage. After lunch at a vegetarian restaurant and leisurely coconut shakes at a bar (and rejecting the friendly offer of a wandering Indian fortune teller), we headed for the airport. We were happy to get Hour again as our tuk tuk driver to the airport. This time, we exchanged name cards. Hour advertises his ability to speak both Japanese and English and has a Facebook page. We prevailed upon another driver to take a couple of photos of us with Hour. Earlier in the day, we had also taken a photo of one of several drivers with nicely customized tuk tuks; his was painted black and called Batman. At the airport, we were surprised by having to pay an “exit fee” of $25 per person. Upon arrival in Hanoi, a driver took us back to the Rendezvous, where we had stored our big suit case. We had dinner at a local restaurant. The food was good, spiced by a lot of noisy young Vietnamese men with empty liquor bottles adorning their tables. We then took a taxi to the train station, where a couple of porters attempted to victimize us. As we entered the station, they asked for our tickets, which led us to believe that they worked for the railroad. They grabbed our luggage, walked us through the check-in gate, deposited our luggage in our private sleeping car, sat down on the beds, and asked for a tip. We gave them 20,000 dong each, the equivalent of $1.00. They grew indignant and demanded “five U.S. dollars.” We told them that was all they were getting, and we had not asked for their services in any case. Happily, they left, albeit grumbling. With four narrow beds on two levels, a bumpy ride, and a cold draft from a ceiling vent that we could not close, the overnight ride was not as pleasant as we had hoped – but it was one more new experience.

12/29 In the morning, we saw the countryside for several hours, including lush foliage, rice paddies (some being worked with the help of water buffalo), and cemeteries (some with crosses for markers). Upon arrival at the train station in Hue, our tour guide for the next few days, Chi (pronounced “Chee”), met us, along with a driver. Chi is an outgoing 31-year-old woman who works seven days a week as a tour guide, alternating between Vietnam tours for foreigners and Southeast Asia tours for Vietnamese. She speaks French as well as English and enough Thai and Lao to get around. She is pretty but has not married, according to her because most Vietnamese men are not looking for independent women. She does hope, though, within a few years to slow down her seven-day-a-week work schedule and find a suitable husband. After a tasty lunch at a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, we spent several hours touring the Citadel, the compound that served as state headquarters throughout the Nguyen Dynasty, which lasted from 1802 through 1945, although largely under French control beginning in 1858. The majority of the buildings were largely destroyed from the 1940s through the early 1970s. Chi explained that official explanations have changed over the years, with blame variously attributed to the United States, France, and Japan. Additionally, she said that a significant amount of damage at these and other historical sites resulted from local people looting buildings for gold and silver during times of war and consequent disorganized government. Since the end of the U.S.-Vietnam War in 1976, the Vietnamese government, some foreign governments, and a variety of foreign NGOs have restored many, but not all, of the original buildings. Chi believes that a significant share of money contributed to Vietnamese restoration funds has been siphoned off by corrupt officials. In any case, in a gesture of national penance, we drop a 100,000 dong bill ($5) into a collection box. After a rest at our hotel, we took a taxi to our lunch restaurant for dinner, but half the menu items were sold out for the day, so we tried another restaurant across the street. Though not a vegetarian restaurant, it had a number of vegetarian dishes on the menu, and the meal was quite good. We had a pleasant walk of about a kilometer back to our hotel, enjoying the peaceful (compared to Hanoi) street scenes. A trip to the Blue Sky Lounge on the ninth floor for a gin and tonic (for Terry) and an overview of the city, and we called it a night. Terry: the Hue Queen Hotel was the nicest hotel we stayed at the entire trip. Large, nicely appointed room with a deliciously soft bed, and, best of all, an elevator. Not having to schlep suitcases up many flights of stairs was a relief.

12/30 This was a Buddhist day. We began and ended with a pagoda and, in between, toured two heavily Buddhist-themed mausoleums and one tomb (more or less the same thing). Actually, we began with a boat ride to the first pagoda. Chi explained that the female pilot owns the modest 10-passenger wooden boat and barely ekes out a living, supplementing fares with sales of the small tourist gifts we have become accustomed to seeing in shops on the street. She has to pay protection money ($2) to corrupt local river police for each trip; we observed the transaction, but Chi advised us not to take a photo. The woman’s school-age son and daughter, as well as her husband, were on the boat with her. Chi explained that parents must pay about $80 per month for tuition, fees, and supplies to send a child to school and that many parents, like this woman, simply cannot afford to do that. We bought $5 worth of bamboo book marks from her and gave her a $1 tip, too. The first pagoda, Thien Mu (a.k.a. Linh Mu) is the biggest of about 800 in Hue, the center of Vietnamese Buddhism. Among the photos we took was one of the Austin Westminster sedan that the monk Thich Quang Duc drove, in 1963, to the intersection in Saigon where he burned himself to death, in protest against repression of Buddhism by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem. Our second stop was the Khai Dinh Mausoleum. The complex was designed by European architects and is fairly extravagant. According to Chi, this emperor is not particularly respected by Vietnamese people today, because his weakness (symbolized by a weak physical constitution) allowed France to tighten its control over Vietnam in the early 20th century. Next stop was the tomb of Tu Duc, who ruled as the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, from 1847-1883. Although the emperor oversaw construction during his reign and his tomb is the most luxurious in Hue, later in late he became more modest and began adding the word Khiem (modesty) to the names of new buildings. After lunch at a good but somewhat expensive restaurant, we visited the Minh Mang Mausoleum. Minh was the son of Gia Long, the first Nguyen emperor and the one who had first unified northern and southern Vietnam under unitary rule. (There is also an interpretation that the immediately preceding, short-lived Tayson government did this.) Minh seems to have been a good ruler, overall. He was also quite a ladies’ man, maintaining an entourage of 500 concubines. His mausoleum is a contrast to Khai Dinh’s; it was Vietnamese-designed and is modest in construction. Back on the road, we stopped in a neighborhood that specializes in making the cone-shaped straw hats that farmers wear. Terry got a close-up look, learning that from the inside one can see a picture between the two layers of straw. Our last visit for the day was to the Tu Hieu Pagoda, built in the 1840s and rebuilt and expanded several times over the next century plus. The distinctive feature of this pagoda during imperial times was that it honored eunuchs, several of whose burial mounds can be seen today. Among the inside displays is one honoring Le Van Duyet, a eunuch who rose to become a powerful military mandarin under the first two Nguyen emperors. On the way back to our hotel, we got a drive-by look at a local college. It looked a lot like the urban technical college at which Terry taught in Nantong when we lived in China (until the college merged with two others to form a modern university on the outskirts of the city). According to Chi, all Vietnamese colleges have commuter campuses. We finished our day with dinner at Bo De vegetarian restaurant, which Terry had found on the Internet. It served the best food of our trip to date, and the prices were reasonable – dinner for two for $5.50. Terry: the restaurant is beautiful, too – patio seating under a vine-covered pergola with a garden and pool in the center. Even though it’s right on the street, the setting seems quiet and peaceful.

12/31 We began the day by driving from Hue to Da Nang. Our first stop was Lang Co Bay, an ocean-side resort that is a popular hot-weather vacation spot for Vietnamese as well as foreign tourists. Many Americans remember Da Nang as the primary American base, as the U.S. escalated its direct military involvement in the Vietnam War, beginning in 1965. On the way to Da Nang, we drove through an elevated area called Deo Hai Van, a mountain pass that provides a clear view of the surrounding area. This location was a center of U.S. attempts to block the infiltration of Viet Cong soldiers from the North to the South. We stopped at a Buddhist shrine built and maintained in memory of several dozen victims of traffic accidents, and we made a contribution, as did Chi. (Chi seems to be a fairly devote Buddhist and, in any case, a decent person. We learned during the day that she volunteers time to help a Buddhist temple place Vietnamese orphans with foreign adoptive families.) Before moving on, we also acceded to the pleas of one of the vendors who populate tourist spots and bought a jar of Tiger Balm, an ointment with menthol and other ingredients.. We then drove into Da Nang, which was as Chi had described it – more modern than Hue but not as crowded as Saigon or Hanoi. Apparently, the local government is more oriented toward attracting foreign investment than is Hue. An entire new section of the city is under construction along the ocean, planned to accommodate 100,000 people. We drove by a very modern looking hospital. Chi stopped briefly at her home (actually, her parents’ home, where she still lives in the interest of family economy) to pick up a CD her brother had bought for Norty. Not the desired pronouncing dictionary, but a beginning learner’s tool, which may get some use. We ate at a modest Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, where, after our meal, we watched the owners make bean noodles. After lunch, we visited the Cham Museum, where we saw dozens of fascinating artifacts, mostly from the 7th and 8th centuries. The Cham were the original inhabitants of what is now central Vietnam. They had their own kingdom, but lost it over time to Vietnamese control. Today, they are one of many ethnic minorities in Vietnam – and in Cambodia, to which some of them migrated over time. Most of the two percent of Vietnamese who are Muslim are Chams. The artifacts reflect the alternating Hindu and Buddhist religious disposition of most Chams. The most surprising was a large sculpture of a polo game – apparently not “made in Britain.” We took many photos and bought a couple of books for further study. We then left Da Nang, continuing to drive south toward Hoi An. On the way, we stopped at a complex of small mountains that are collectively known as Marble Mountain, because local artisans have traditionally carved various figures from marble. In recent years, worried about destroying the tourist-attracting mountains, the artisans have turned to importing their raw marble from China. In any case, the din of their trade was audible as we entered the area. There are actually five mountains, each named for one of the five elements – Earth (this one has lost much of its original stature), Metal, Wood, Fire, and Water. We spent about an hour and a half climbing and exploring Water Mountain. We saw several Buddhist worship cites, including ones in caves. In one cave, Chi explained, ironically, that the interior was previously too dark to see much of anything, until American bombs created a few overhead sky lights. One of the pagodas includes a statue of Xuanzang, the Tang Dynasty Chinese monk who traveled to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures, spent years translating them, and became famous in popular culture first through the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West (in which a mischievous monkey with magical powers upstages him) and later through a 1986 Chinese serialized television performance of the novel. Since we are big fans of the story, we were interested in Xuanzang’s presence. Chi said that a number of pagodas substitute him for one of two female Buddhas. In addition to all the visual experiences, we much enjoyed a chant (of Buddhist ethical sayings) that was playing in the background. It is hard to describe in words the combination of serenity, energy, and syncopation. We hoped to be able to buy a CD, but Chi could not find one for us. After our tour of Water Mountain, we drove on to Hoi An and checked into our room at the Hai Au Hotel – another comfortable one. Terry: I was quite fascinated with the idea of the Lady Buddha. Apparently, she represents the female aspect of the Buddha. She is the Buddha that people worship at home, since she is considered to be more approachable on matters of everyday life. Lady Buddha also appears frequently in Journey to the West as an advisor to Wu Kong, the Monkey King. Chi said that Lady Buddha isn’t part of Indian Buddhist worship, however.

1/1 In the morning, we drove (i.e., were driven) about an hour to the My Son temple complex. The Cham people, who made the sculptures in the museum we had visited in Da Nang the previous day, built several generations of temples and related buildings here. According to Chi, they built their first temple out of wood in the fourth century CE, it burned in the sixth century, they replaced it with a temple of auxiliary buildings made from brick in the seventh century, they tore down the temple proper in the early 13th century and replaced it with a stone temple in 1234. Then, with several buildings in a state of partial completion, they migrated to Cambodia and what is now southern Vietnam to escape pressure from the Vietnamese who were pushing their way southward from the north. Chi said that the Chams built Angkor Wat in Cambodia after 1234, but she must have meant something different (or was mistaken), since the generally accepted narrative is that the Khmer built Angkor Wat in the early 12th century, and the Chams temporarily conquered the Khmer in the late 12th century. (Chi had clearly been confused the previous day, when she said that the Chams absorbed Islamic architectural influences as early as the sixth century CE. Since Mohammad did not found Islam until the seventh century, she may have meant “Arabic” influence.) Unfortunately, the United States destroyed the stone temple (where Viet Cong had sought protection) in 1969. When bombs from the air proved inadequate to the test, the military dispatched a sapper team to destroy the temple with explosives. Fortunately, French archaeologists had used photos and drawings to document the architecture of the structure, and there appears to be a plan to eventually rebuild it. A final fascinating thing about this site is the ingenious masonry technology of the Chams. They built their brick buildings without mortar. Archaeologists have tried to determine how they did it, but to no avail as of yet. In some buildings that have deteriorated, technicians have experimented with various methods, but the typical result is that within a few years the new bricks allow seepage of water and growth of lichen, whereas the original Cham bricks do neither. Chi and the driver dropped us back in the old town district of Hoi An, where we found our way down an alley to another low-budget Buddhist vegetarian restaurant. For $1.50, the two of us ate our fill. Next, Terry got fitted for an Ao Dai (traditional Vietnamese dress, pronounced Ao Zai), we bought gifts for friends and family, we rested back at our hotel, and we had dinner at Green Moss, a vegetarian restaurant highly recommended online and by the Lonely Plant guide to Vietnam. By light of day, we were able to see that Hoi An is overwhelming a tourist town, like Siem Reap. That fact, no doubt explain the prevalence of upscale vegetarian restaurants and menu sections, while the large Buddhist population likely accounts for the cheaper vegetarian diners.

1/2 Last morning with our guide, who was in a bit of a hurry. Still, we got some helpful explanation of a Chinese assembly hall in the old section of Hoi An. The Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation is the oldest of five such halls in Hoi An. The Fujianese hall was founded in the 17th century by Chinese fleeing their country after the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty by the Manchus who founded the Qing Dynasty. Over time, the meeting hall was transformed into a temple dedicated to the worship of Thien Hau (a.k.a. Mazu in Chinese), the Chinese goddess of the sea. A mural on one wall depicts Thien Hau rescuing mariners on a stormy sea. Other walls list donors to the temple, one wall listing donors from Vietnam, another donors from China. In addition to this assembly hall, others were founded by Chinese from Guanzhou, Chaozhou, Hainan, and a group that included all these as well as Hakka Chinese. Apparently, there are still fairly cohesive communities of ethnic Chinese in Hoi An, although we did not hearing anyone speaking a noticeably Chinese dialect. After a stroll though a large produce (and some meat) market, we arrived at the Japanese Bridge. Along the way, we paid a curbside shoe repairmen $.25 to glue the dislodged head of Terry’s cane back onto the shaft. We also observed an outdoor Vietnamese (Buddhist) funeral, which seemed to be a boisterous affair, like Chinese funerals. The Japanese Bridge is so called because a group of Japanese immigrants built it in the late 16th century. Since construction began in 1593, the Year of the Monkey, and was completed in 1596, the Year of the Dog, statues of these animals adorn opposite ends of the bridge. Chi said that there is no surviving community of ethnic Japanese in Hoi An. Next, we toured the Phung Hung House, one of several well maintained houses built by ethnic Chinese over the course of the 19th century. Our guide was a descendant of one of these families, but she does not speak Chinese. The architecture included elements of Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese styles. Our fourth stop was a “handicraft center,” which was actually a quick tour of the silk-making process, followed by a sales pitch for bedding, clothing, and embroidered wall art. A tour like this was interesting when we took it in Shanghai in 2004, but once is enough. Our “five-place” ticket for the morning was also supposed to include one museum, but we did not go to one – we think because Chi was in a hurry to move on to her next gig. Well, we were very happy with her over the previous days, so we gave her a good tip and high marks on the customer survey form we completed before saying goodbye. After another tasty lunch at the Green Moss Restaurant, we strolled through the market, (nearly) finalizing our gift purchases, then got much more than $.50 worth of satisfaction for an abuse we had suffered the previous day. At the Marble Mountain Wine Bar, our waitress had given us, as part of our change, a 10,000 dong bill with about 10 percent of the total paper torn away from one corner. We determined later in the day that other merchants will not accept such bills. So, we returned today, again ordering two tasty mango smoothies, and included the defective bill in our payment. We had the same waitress, who, possibly sensing a pending confrontation, did not challenge us. On to Terry’s first ao dai fitting, as well as purchase of a custom-made Vietnamese jacket for a reluctant Norty at a different shop. The price ($50 for Italian gabardine with silk lining) was half what the silk shop had wanted, and two men who happened to walk in to order or pick up clothing gave the saleswoman rave reviews. We also bought a unique (at least the only one we saw in the dozens of shops in Hoi Ann) marble Confucian scholar.

1/3 A delightful 70-minute morning massage for Terry, who is tired from all the walking yesterday. Back to the Green Moss for lunch. On the way back to the hotel, Terry ordered a custom-made pair of red leather dancing shoes from a shop next door - $15. Norty decided to order a pair of sandals at the same price, modeled on a $50 pair of Terry’s that he likes. Terry’s were ready that evening and looked great. So did Norty’s jacket, which we picked up in the afternoon. Terry was tired from too much shopping, and thus walking, the previous day, so we mostly rested, including watching one of our new Vietnamese film DVDs, The Scent of Green Papaya.

1/4 Not much to do but pack before our driver picked us up at 2:00 to take us to the Da Nang Airport, half an hour away. This was our first rainy day, so the timing was good. We packed, picked up Norty’s sandals (after a last-minute adjustment), at our first lunch at our hotel (which turned out to serve excellent vegetarian fare), and headed with our driver to the Da Nang Airport, half an hour away. We arrived back at the Rendezvous in Hanoi at 7:00 pm and went out in search of dinner. Happily, we discovered a little six-table restaurant within a few blocks that includes excellent – and economically priced – vegetarian food, the Gecko. A few parting general observations about Vietnam: 1) Hotel beds are generally softer than in China. 2) Hotels are also cheaper for comparable quality. 3) The population seems to be more religious than in China, particularly Buddhists, but Catholics as well. For example, on our last night, we discovered that the two 10-foot-tall colorful Buddhist guardian statues around the corner from our hotel were part of a store-front Buddhist temple. Until our last night, the doors had been closed, and we had assumed that the building was just another shop; to the contrary, with the doors finally open, we could see a typical Buddhist alter arrangement. Also, every non-taxi driver assigned to us had either a crucifix (in one case) or a Buddha on his dashboard. 4) Vietnam Airlines planes have more leg room in economy class than any other planes on which we have flown. 5) Vietnam, as well as Cambodia, operates on a dual-currency system, at least in the cities. There is no need to exchange currency, as everyone accepts U.S. dollars.

1/5 An 8:30 am flight to Guangzhou, a two-hour layover, a flight to Shanghai, a driver waiting for us, and we arrived at the Hua Tong (formerly Hua Neng) Hotel in downtown Nantong. The under-two-hour drive included our first 20-minute drive across the Yangzi River at this point, using the Sutong Bridge (Su Tong Da Qiao). This 32-kilometer structure is the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. We had toured it during construction in 2005, while living in Nantong, after Terry became acquainted with the man from Denmark who was the chief engineer on the project. In the past, crossing the river took 45 minutes by ferry and another 30-90 minutes of waiting, getting on, and getting off. The Nantong leg of our trip was intended for visiting friends. We began by having dinner at our hotel with Zhou Ling, husband Zhong Jinjue, their son Zhong Yuan, Tao Hong, and husband Liu Zheng.

1/6 Bought a five-year supply of Chinese menthol cough drops and herbal laxatives, changed a little more money at the Bank of China, and looked at maoyis (wool sweaters) at Da Run Fa, a department store we frequented when we lived in Nantong. The sweaters were too expensive ($40 for only 60 percent wool, compared to about $30 for 100 percent in December 2003). Terry’s former colleague, Susan Liu (Liu Lina), treated us to lunch. They both taught English at Nantong University. Susan still does, and is working on upgrading her credentials to a masters and eventually a doctorate. Next, a nap for Terry and a disappointing trip to our former preferred DVD shop for Norty; the shop had none of his target titles in Chinese and Japanese films. It may be that the availability of movie downloads is suppressing the market for DVDs in China. Next, we headed for the apartment of friends from our former neighborhood, Chen Tingting, husband Wang Suisheng, and daughter Chen Tingting. Norty wrote several letters of recommendation to UK universities for Tingting, and Terry will now help her get the improvement in English writing skill she needs to delete the “provisional” status from her acceptance into Edinburgh University. After a pleasant visit at their home, walked to a nearby restaurant we all like, Yi Ri San Can, which now sports a sign that also bears the English translation, Three Meals a Day.

1/7 Terry got a morning massage for Zhou Jie, her favorite masseur when we lived in Nantong; he not only (as we found out) opened the shop just for her (his normal hours are noon till midnight) but would not accept payment from his “old friend.” We had lunch with Zhou Ling, two of her colleagues (Zhang Liang and Zhou Sun), and Zhong Yuan, then Zhang Liang drove Norty to a couple more DVD shops, where he at least found the new Judge Dee movie starring Andy Lau, while Terry napped. Late in the afternoon, we visited Tao Hong at her new job in the HR department of the local Mercedes dealership. From there, we went to her apartment to have dinner with her, Liu Zheng, five-year-old Tangtang, and Tao Hong’s mother, who does all the cooking. Tangtang was quite excited to see us – shooting toy guns, posing for photos, and repeatedly offering hearty wishes – in English and Chinese – of “Happy New Year.”

1/8 After a morning of lounging in our hotel room, we went to Lan Cun (Blue Village) restaurant, where we hosted a meal for many of Norty’s former colleagues from Harlan Corporation’s Nantong facility. Aside from everyone having found new jobs elsewhere since we left in August 2006, the biggest change is that they all now have children (i.e., one child). It was lots of fun being together with this group and seeing how they have grown, personally and professionally. After lunch, Ding Binbin invited us to her apartment for a while, after which Terry (is there a pattern here?) napped. We had dinner at Shui Tian Canting (Heavenly Water Restaurant), a Western-style restaurant, with Tao Hong and family and Dick Stern (more or less Norty’s replacement at Harlan Nantong), wife A-Xue, and daughter Nina. Nina is a doll, and she and Tangtang are romantically involved – as romance goes with children of their age.

1/9 Back to Lan Cun for lunch, this time as guests of Chen Xiaoqin and Wang Suisheng. We explained our decision that Terry, rather than Norty, will help Tingting improve her English composition, so as to meet British university standards. Not only does Terry have experience of having taught composition to Chinese students, but she has more available time than does Norty. Back to the Huatong Hotel to collect our bags and await our driver, who drove us directly to our hotel near the Pudong Airport. The hotel coffee shop has a minimalist menu, and most of the dishes include meat. We ordered the spicy noodle soup, and our waiter (whom we appropriately rewarded) arranged to have the cook add a variety of vegetables. Along with a bottle of Tsing Tao beer, it was a perfect meal on which to end our stay in China. There was only one problem with our visit: We were so busy treating and (mostly) being treated to lavish meals that we never had a chance to eat our favorite foods – cheap street fare (baozi and you bing), jiaozi, and suannai (liquid yoghurt).

1/10 Caught the shuttle to the airport. Business-class passenger Terry luxuriated in the VIP, lounge while Norty rubbed elbows with the masses. Ditto in Detroit, where we transferred to our Kansas City-bound plane.