Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Vietnam, Cheap And Fun Saigon Airport Transportation



152As travelers that make plans on the go, we surf the web as we enjoy spring rolls and beer at an airport restaurant.




We are still in need of accommodations for the next few nights in Saigon and end up booking a room online at Tan Hai Long Hotel And Spa located at District 1 near Ben Thanh Market. Tan Hai location makes it ideal for us to get there from the airport, we think.

In search of transportation to our hotel, we leave the airport building close to 6pm. An almost not surprising light rain is falling as we bargain with a few taxi cab drivers for a reasonable fare into town.

I do not know if it is because of the rain or because they could tell we are foreigners despite my best “Sin Cho” but the prices are double what we expected. It is time to at least explore other options.

Not far from the taxi stand we spot a local parked bus and head that way. We are waved off as we approach the bus driver and we soon realize that “Ralph Camden” is done with passengers for the day. The last direct bus from the airport to Ben Thanh Market stops at 6pm.



2012-06-30 19 51 50All is not lost as another bus soon pulls into the airport and we get to again practice our best “Sin Cho”.

Fortunately, this bus driver is more accommodating and gives us a good plan to get to Ben Thanh.



Using his best English, he tells us he will take us outside of the airport for about US$0.50 to another bus stop where we can transfer to a direct Ben Thanh Market bus. So far, what a deal compared to a US$25 inflated taxi cab fare.



2012-06-30 19 52 03



The rain has picked up pace as we leave the bus at a stop somewhere along a busy highway that makes us feel like we are still in Hanoi minus one or two beep, beeps. It is not long before our connecting bus arrives and we are enjoying the scenery of Saigon at night like locals.

We do stand out on the bus and get a few curious stares as more local passengers board the bus. However, we also manage to get a smile or two probably for our courage or insanity to ride the bus which hopefully is not known here as “The Flying Coffin” like in Hanoi.



2012-06-30 19 52 10It does not seem like very long although it has been at least 40 minutes before our bus comes to a final stop.




We are at the Ben Thanh Bus Station. Not quite sure where our hotel is from here as Ben Thanh Market is a huge square complex, we set out in search of Tan Hai Long.

As luck would have it, leaving the bus station staring down at us like a huge sore thumb is a lighted sign. However, there is only one of many small problems between us and it. Beep, beep, beep, we must now navigate across a busy intersection to get to our destination.

It is a good thing we had a lot of practice in Hanoi if not we may not have made it across the street to Tan Hai Long Hotel in one piece. All in all a great experience from the airport to our hotel for US$0.75 per person, a grand total of US$1.50.



157Checking in at Tan Hai Long we receive a welcome drink, breakfast coupons and a nice room for a very reasonable price.

Leaving our backpacks behind, it is time to check out the Ben Thanh Night Market.




Monday, October 29, 2012

Vietnam, Welcome To Saigon


A forty minute drive from our hotel, The Rising Dragon and we arrive back at the Hanoi Airport. In about two hours we will be heading south to Saigon, Ho Chi Minh International Airport.

As we wait to board our Jetstar flight we enjoy most of our lunch from the local airport restaurant. It is difficult to go wrong with a selection of noodle soup or fried rice but your beverage choice may be another thing.



2012-06-30 19 50 32How bad can a drink from Wonderfarm be?

Well if it is a Winter Melon Tea, you might want to think twice unless you like drinking acetone.



Luckily, you can always find a Coke about anywhere in the world. Today, I am happy for the first time to use one as a chaser.

Surviving my battle with Wonderfarm, we are soon en route to a destination in Vietnam I am really looking forward to. As we begin our initial approach into Ho Chi Minh City, thousands of feet below us is a green landscape with brown rivers in almost all directions.



2012-06-30 19 51 02Arriving Ho Chi Minh City


Closer to landing the ground becomes densely covered with tightly squeezed building that tells much about the population below us.


2012-06-30 19 51 06One hour and forty five minutes after leaving Hanoi, we arrive in Saigon.

We are ready to explore more of country that so far has been a touching and moving experience.



I am told, “The heat is on in Saigon.”



Saturday, October 27, 2012

Vietnam, Hanoi Prison



2012-06-30 19 46 45For me, a visit to Hanoi Prison is just as important as seeing Halong Bay when visiting Hanoi City. Even as a naturalized American it is tough but worthwhile to face one of the scars on our nation's foreign and political policies gone wrong.



2012-06-30 19 48 24However, what I find interesting is how little is mentioned of the French when it comes to the atrocities and injustice committed here.




At least my visit to the Hanoi Prison sheds some light on their sins here before the Americans were drawn into the conflict.

For all the political prisoners here, men and women, life was tough. From wearing neck and leg cuffs to existing on tough buffalo meat and potatoes, here was about some of the toughest prison conditions you could ever imagine.



2012-06-30 19 47 21

In attempting a protest back in 1908 by poisoning kitchen food, some prisoners suffered the worst fate at the hands of French justice through the use of the guillotine.






2012-06-30 19 48 31Beheaded Prisoners




2012-06-30 19 49 24By the time Americans like now Senator John McCain were held prisoners here, the conditions became more humane.




Many were given reasonable medical care and American prisoners were even allowed to play basket and volleyball.

Despite the dark side of its history, there are also a few good stories about the Hanoi Prison. At one point taking advantage of a weakness in the building some prisoners were able to escape through the sewer system.




132Sewer Escape Route



2012-06-30 19 49 45An amazing highlight for me, a former Florida US House Of Representative, Pete Peterson became the first U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam. He was held as political prisoner here for six years.



On the grounds on the Hanoi Prison now stands a deserving memorial to all the political prisoners that were held there. It should serve as a reminder to all that we should strive to never let this type of history repeat itself anywhere on the planet.




Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum


Based on the information from our hotel front desk employee, we leave the Rising Dragon to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We arrive at Quan Ba Dinh Square around 10:30am and follow signs that require us to put our bags into a locker prior to entering the mausoleum which already has a huge line.


124Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum


In the confusion of stowing our bags we return to the line area to see most of the crowd gone and workers in the process of disassembling an awning set up for those waiting in line. A bit to our dismay, we discover daily entry to the mausoleum ends at 11am.

Despite our disappointment, we watch with others as the Honor Guard performs their closing ceremonies. It is a rigid and almost solemn process as maybe it should be.


2012-06-30 19 46 40At Quan Ba Dinh Square is also the Ho Chi Minh Museum.

Here, for about US$2.50 you can learn more about the life of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam's revolutionary struggle.



With limited time we bypass the museum and head to our next stop, Hoa Lo Prison.



Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Vietnam, Hanoi At Night


122Back from Halong Bay, we make a short stop at our hotel the Rising Dragon which interestingly is the former name of Hanoi City then we are off on another adventure.




For those that live here what we are about to do is hardly an adventure but all a part of everyday life here on a Friday night.

However, we find it somewhat of a challenge to walk the streets of Hanoi at night as the main streets are flowing with a continuous stream of beep... beep.. beep traffic.

Our outing is an immediate success as we get to meet one of the youngest residents here. He is just curious and does not say a word as we try our best Vietnamese greeting, sin cho. His mother and her friends are more interactive as they do their best to try and communicate with us in our native language, English. It is a nice encounter and a great way to begin the evening.



115Our next challenge comes in trying to cross a street where it seems like we are at a Daytona Beach bike rally. Even as we are standing at a pedestrian crossing, we quickly figure out that no one is going to stop and allow us to freely cross the street.



Ben and I decide it's time to get a little crazy and do it like the locals. We enter the stream of scooters and just keep walking. Beep.. beep.. beep and with a little and skill we survive. We watch from the other side as the ladies build up the courage and attempt the same thing. We all find it hysterical and the experience gives us a good laugh.



116After all of that, we hope an earlier recommendation has landed us at a good place to eat.











119Sitting on the sidewalk at a mom and pop restaurant we order up.

Big bowls of soup along with a chicken and seafood stir fry with lots and lots of self added peppers and the adventure so far has been worth it.




Next we are crossing the streets again this time as seasoned professionals. We are headed to another common happening in Southeast Asia, the night market. Here we sample some fruits that we are still not sure what they were. I think they tasted like a pickled green mango.

Our stop here is more for the experience than it is to really buy anything. However, for real shoppers I am sure there are ton of bargains to be found.

On the quieter side of town we take a stroll along the edge of a huge city lake where our night almost ends on a sour note. We stop and listen to probably the worst street performer violinist that I have ever heard.

However, his attempts at creating beautiful music did remind me of a time I tried to play the saxophone in my dorm room at college. I think I scared the hell out of my next door roommates as they quickly came over inquiring whether or not a herd of wild elephant had broken into my room.



Sunday, October 14, 2012

Vietnam, Leaving Halong Bay



018Back from kayaking, we leave floating fruit vendors behind as we sail away to begin a journey that will return us to the point we started from earlier in the day.











Gray skies are gone, replaced with an abundance of sunshine that allows us to see much of the same landscape now in a different light.

Juan our tour guide who is “Happy” probably because he is not a eunuch lends me a souvenir for ten minutes. It is a VN$200,000 note that has a picture of Incense Island on it which we can see not too far from us.


100We again pass the symbol of Halong Bay, “The Kissing Rocks” and odd puttering boats as we return to the harbor.

With ease we are back safely docked and a spectacular day of visiting Halong Bay comes to an end.




Vietnam, Kayaking At Halong Bay


For an additional $5 to the regular price of our tour kayaking is available at Halong Bay. As we have never been kayaking before we have a feeling the extra $10 is going to be worth the investment.


Halong bay 118From a floating dock we slide into a tandem kayak and we are off for our first experience.







Halong bay 122Although we have done whitewater rafting and canoed many times, this is still a new and unique experience especially here in Halong Bay.

Whatever happens I know it will be a memorable adventure.






Halong bay 124 


Ben and Jadin are almost professionals at this from living in the land of ten thousand lakes. We follow their lead as they paddle towards an earlier recommended course. Soon we are inside of what seems like a crater where a group on a boat for hire is having way too much fun



Halong bay 130The scenery is awesome as we just float along the calm waters and hear laughter echo off the surrounding and amazing landscape.





We watch as female boat operators with skill and rhythmic precision navigate their craft with paying passengers along the same route that we are traveling.



Halong bay 157




Halong bay 162Eventually, we safely make it back to the dock. I breathe a silent sigh of relief that we did not encounter any snakes in the water.





Someone onboard is known to have seriously freaked out the last time we went canoeing and encountered a slivering swimmer.



Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vietnam, Dong Thien Cung – Heaven Cave


As a part of our day trip to Halong Bay we make a stop at Dong Thien Cung also known as Heaven Cave. Gathered around we are given a bit of the history of the area before we begin another climb up a set of stairs to the entrance of the cave.


051My first impression is an astonishing one as the formations in the cave are nicely highlighted with bright and colorful lights.







050Stalactites and stalagmites have never looked any better



048Further into the cave a hole in the side of the cave sends a beam of sunlight inside like a Jedi light saber.





This hole plays an important role in the cave because it also allows water into the cave which helps to shape the formations here that are made up of 80% calcium carbonate.

As if the caves themselves are not fascinating enough, we are then told about some of the activities that have occurred here.Things that I thought were only fiction in Hollywood movies like Indiana Jones.

Monkeys captured and their brains eaten by the local men while they are still alive. And for the sake of equality the bones are then made into a black tar like soup for the women to enjoy after a cooking process that takes a few days.

This ritual of sorts is done as a medical process as it was believed to make your health better.



049If dining on a monkey does not suite your taste then a few dongs at the next stop might just make your wishes come true.

Others have already left theirs behind and so far I don't see anyone eating soup.



Like most of these types of caves, the formations can sometimes present some interesting images.


059We use our imagination to see a lion with a huge mane.

Then it is Romeo with his nose and big belly trying to serenade Juliet.




Romeo also has a horse nearby and since he rides it instead of walking his belly is becoming bigger and bigger. Keep that up and soon he is going to become a “Happy Buddha”.



057I am for sure that one of the last formations I see is a part of Dolly Parton.

It is no stretch of the imagination that the formation comes from working it 9 to 5.






Canada, Churchill Tundra Lounge & Restaurant


My visit to any place on the planet would not be complete unless I have at least a sampling of the local food and beer.


SAMCHILL 009In Churchill one place to do that is at the Tundra Lounge & Restaurant.

Here from Bison to Elk and Caribou you can sample some of the local culinary delights.





My choice a Bison Burger with yam fries and a Standard Lager. I am told that Standard Larger although it is labeled like a Budweiser was here first. It definitely taste better than Budweiser and maybe “This Larger And A Bison Burger Might Just Be Right For You.”


SAMCHILL 010I make two quick stops before hopping a taxi to the airport.

One at Great White Bear gift shop to say goodbye to Sheila, who is unfortunately gone for the day.






SAMCHILL 013Two is at Gypsy's so I can take a part of Churchill home with me.

However, I doubt this souvenir will make it through 10,000 feet.










The cinnamon fry is gone long before the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign is turned off.


Thanks, Churchill, Great White Bear, Gypsy’s, Tundra and The Eskimo Museum for a great time.



Canada, Churchill Eskimo Museum



SAMCA 111With a few hours to spare before my flight back to Winnipeg, I wander over to the Eskimo Museum about 15 minutes before closing time.





Opened in May 1944, this museum was established through the generosity and hard work of the Catholic community here. Admission is free although contributions are welcomed.

Inside the museum I get a quick introduction to the Eskimo way of life and some of their history here in Northern Canada. On display are animals and different artifacts that enhance my knowledge of this area of the planet.






One piece of artwork I find interesting is a polar bearing holding a large rock. Somewhere in Eskimo history or legend there is a story about a polar bear picking up a stone to kill a seal.

In one corner of the museum I am drawn to what I think is a tropical connection. From a distance what seems to be a part of a coconut tree branch turns out to be baleen.

Baleen is a filter feeder system inside the mouths of baleen whales that is used by Eskimos to make huts and other items. It is strong and has the consistency and color of a dried palm branch.


SAMCA 108I can see that a trip to the Eskimo Museum is definitely worthwhile. I just wish I had more time to be here.

At the museum, you can also buy souvenirs of area, at decent prices with the proceeds going to a good cause.





Canada, Churchill Polar Bear Tour


Although my alarm goes off at 7am, I am startled awake at 7:30am by a banging on my hotel room door. All of this might have been avoided had I heard my name being called down the halls of the Polar Inn the night before around 9pm. However, expecting to see the Northern Lights from 1 to 4am, I was fast asleep at 9pm.



SAMCA 027As it turns out, I am the first one to be picked up for a day trip with Great White Bear Tour company and discover a sweet story.





Not knowing exactly which room I was staying in,  Sheila and her husband, Great Bear employees both of whom I had met earlier in the day had come by the Polar Inn looking for me.

They had walked the halls of the Polar Inn whispering my name because the Northern Lights had shown up earlier than expected last night.

By the time I went out on my own around 2am, the final curtain call was being made on the Northern skies. The lights were fading, the show was practically over. I am told I missed a brilliant performance.


CANCA 013A few more hotel stops and we are traveling to the outskirts of town.

We cross a lightly snow covered landscape as we are headed to the launching spot for our tundra buggy tour.





SAMCA 097Great White Bear Tundra Buggy


This is only the second tour day of the season for Great White Bear and in some ways it turns out to be fortunate for us.

We are on the maiden voyage of the newest buggy that just arrived here by train on Saturday. Since there is only about seven of us on a buggy designed to holds thirty six, it is going to be like having a private tour.

Typically, Great White only runs about 18-19 passengers per tour to allow less crowded viewing. This buggy has two by two airline type seating, a huge slanted windshield and a rear open air platform available once the vehicle is stopped.



Sticking My Neck Out For Polar BearsAlthough the morning snow will be gone by afternoon it gives a cool dusting to the off road terrain we are now traveling across.

We are told in a few weeks this area will be covered deep with snow.




The small lakes which now have thin sheets of ice will begin to become frozen over.






As the sun breaks through the morning clouds its rays provide nice reflections on the shallow lakes. It is not long before we spot our first wildlife, a lonely caribou.

Then someone in our group, not the driver, raises our excitement as she is confident she has just spotted two bears in the distance.



SAMCA 045We must cross a lake to get there and it is a very cool experience as our buggy does so.

It has no problem navigating across the shallow and very clear waters.







CANCA 020Sparing Male Polar Bears



At a stop, we watch in awe as two male polar bears spar with each other. We are told this is more of a playful exercise as there is no real aggressive behavior.


CANCA 042Exhausted, the play time comes to an end and the bears eventually go their separate ways.






However, both of their paths passes close enough to us to give us a better view of these impressive animals.

Although these ones are a bit dirty from playing around in mud, their true color is more yellow than Coca-Cola or Madison Ave would have you believe. Also, I am sure their preferred beverage is a Standard Larger.




CANCA 053Yeah, I’m Looking At You



Even with temperatures in the mid thirties this weather is still considered warm for polar bears who are accustomed to temperatures in the minus thirty degree range. As we continue our tour we leave one of the sparing bears trying to cool down. He is camouflaged against a rock and bush plants.



SAMCA 060More puddles and small lakes to cross as we head North across the tundra in search of more bears and wildlife.

Our lunch stop comes as we find another bear reflecting by a rock which often makes it difficult to spot them from a distance.





CANCA 093A Reflecting Polar Bear



Bill, our buggy driver and tour guide now becomes our host with the most as he dishes up bowls of vegetable beef stew accompanied by dinner rolls. Tasty and light enough to not be too filling.



SAMCA 076Bill gets compliments on the meal which he promises to past onto the chef.








SAMCA 080Aussie’s, Canadians, Franklin The Turtle & Me




CANCA 103A pleasant surprise comes as we are driving along the Hudson Bay.

Running almost besides us is an Arctic fox with a fresh kill that it is going to have for lunch.




Extremely light on its feet as it trots along, we are told that these foxes are so light that they can be picked up and carried by the Arctic wind.



CANCA 110Arctic Fox



Next, our drive takes us by Gordon's Point one of the bear sanctuaries off limits to any type of tours. It is here and a few other places that are set aside to allow the bears to rest without being disturbed.

Soon we are at another point that marks the end of the road for our tour just beyond where we have been before.


CANCA 130Still laying where we left him a few hours ago is one of the sparing bears.

He raises his head to acknowledge our presence then goes back to sleep.



In the coming weeks will be the peak of the season, end of October, for seeing the bears in Churchill migrate to the frozen ice in Hudson Bay. Once out on the ice they will remain there hunting seals and an occasional whale until probably sometime in June.

Today, although we saw only four bears compared to 20-25 later in the season, we did see something that is uncommon to witness on tours like this, bears sparing. That alone made the trip worthwhile.



SAMCA 058Tundra Landscape And Tower One



Our tour comes to an end around 4pm and we are driven back into town by shuttle bus, the same way we came out to the buggy launching site. This time an interesting building is pointed out to us. It is the Polar Bear Jail which is believed to already have a few inmates.

Incarceration normally amounts to at least 30 days in solitary confinement sometimes more for the really dysfunctional ones. And no, conjugal visits are not allowed.