Photo Tour and More

The next morning we were up before the sun to meet Duq from Vietnam in Focus, a photography tour company.  It turned out we were the only participants so had all his attention.  Normally he would give a lot of guidance and instruction, but as Bill has been a professional for decades, we used him more to get around to areas we would not likely get to.  The focus of this tour was life around the railroad tracks and markets.

The driver dropped us off at Long Bien Bridge where the trains run and a huge bustling produce market is found street level.  As we waited for the sun to rise and the train to pass, we observed the hustle of deliveries by motos and yokes.  A road parallels the tracks on the bridge and all sorts of vehicles passed us, some transporting goods.  Conical hats are commonly worn by the locals which added to the photographic interest.  After the train finally passed we walked down to market level and meandered the numerous alleys lined with vendors.  Duq said organic produce is hard to find and verify, but he knows of one woman who has her own small garden that he trusts sells the quality he seeks.  By the time we got there, just after 6, selling had calmed down and money was already being counted and transactions recorded in notebooks.  In the market’s parking area delivery trucks were waiting, cleaners were sweeping the debris, and there was still a bustle of vendors.

From there we moved to another raised track and waited for the next passing.  This train moved slowly and stopped to pick up passengers.  Another market we stopped at is totally indoors with three floors of dry goods.  Herbs, textiles, clothing, dried fish, etc. are crammed together stall by stall with just enough room to walk past.  In one area several men and women were dealing with huge cylinders of material and a couple of men were dead to world while napping on others.  Even though the three of us took numerous photos of them, they never moved or even seemed to be breathing.

We also spent some time sitting on a curb at a busy intersections watching the complicated dance of the motos, cars, pedestrians, and street sweepers.  How no one got hurt was amazing.  Duq had us try to set our cameras at a low shutter speed to capture one person crossing the street in focus while the background was a blur.  My settings didn’t quite go low enough and success was difficult even for the well practiced.

After a bit we stopped for a refreshment.  My tea was really sweet so Duq kindly bought me another.  While we rested he became quite political regarding our questions on life in Vietnam.  He thinks the youth of today will become more vocal about the general unhappiness as the adults of today do not want to upset the peace after being under rule of China for a thousand years, the French for decades, and fighting the American War.  He believes that although it is purported that everyone works for the greater good,  the reality is everyone looks after themselves only.  He was quite disdainful of the culture.  When we mentioned that our river guide and told us a lot of napkins on the ground indicated tasty food at the restaurant, he again was disgusted with his own people.  Education and health care are not free in their version of communism, and he claimed parents even to help pay for the school janitors.

The highlight of the tour was probably the train tracks closer to Hanoi Station where people live just feet away.  They cook their meals and hang their laundry right in the mix of the passing trains.  Not many go through in a day and the residents work around the schedule.  There are cafes, a  homestay, and hair salons nestled there as well.  A group of middle-aged adults sat on chairs by and on the tracks and invited us to join them.  Not having the language,  we passed even though Duq could have interpreted.  It was really quite a fascinating neighborhood.

The Hanoi Station was closed off to us so about 10:00 he finally fed us a very late breakfast.  He scouted a few options and we decided on chicken pho at a stall he felt was safe, but I never did find out what he meant by that.  Mine was prepared without spices and was really quite tasty.  I was rather nervous eating “street food” but it never seemed to have a negative on me.  Perhaps it was the larger dose of Pepto Bismol that morning…Afterwards he called a taxi for us and paid our transport back to the hotel.  We could have walked but I was weary and the ride was free.

The next morning we returned to the tracks to get photos of the passing trains we had missed the day before.  Two women guards set up the road block just before the trains came and indicated we were to stand on one side of the track and well back.  Not being sure which way the train was coming we asked a fellow traveler, perhaps an Aussie, and he and the resident nearby indicated we were not to be close at all to the track.  Bill and I wanted to be on the other side, though, for a better angle, where there was even less room.   A kind woman, who had likely seen a few tourists before, invited me stand just inside the doorway of what might have been her shed.  Even at that the seeming rush of the train just emerging from the station exit created a bit of wind and a blur of the cars.

While in Hanoi we had to have a cyclo ride which turned out not to be as long as we had thought.  Not speaking the language meant not being able to communicate our deal but it was kind of cool sitting in front of the bike with no protection to the oncoming crazy drivers.  Maybe it was just as well that it was a short ride.

More jaunts around the Old Quarter, the lake, and a return to the organic restaurant finished our remaining hours.  The people are fascinating and craziness intriguing, once accepted it is the way it is.  You have to go with the flow or get run down, in any sense you want to take it.



Back in Hanoi

The van driver for Pandaw kindly took us back to the area of our hotel for the last four nights.  Our receptionist spoke English pretty well and told us about the hotel and tours while we nibbled on pistachios and sipped a welcome drink.  Our modern junior suite was comfortable with a view over the neighboring buildings, a bit of the morning market, and a slice of the lake.  We were on the edge of the old quarter where Tifo had given us a tour and Hoan Kiem Lake was an interesting locale to observe locals exercising and enjoying the companionship of friends.

We settled into our room and eventually meandered out looking for a particular restaurant which might meet my diet limitations of no gluten, dairy, soy, onion, garlic, or raw vegetables.  After a bit of confusion we found it and perused the menu.  I ended up with a naked hamburger, fries, and water; about normal for eating out sometimes.

Early the next morning before breakfast we set out for an exploration of the lake.  The tiny Sunday market near the hotel was already up and running.  Our ambles took us by people of various ages engaging in whatever form of exercise met their needs, either individually or in groups, to audible music or their own internal rhythm.  One guy was lifting his patient dog to strengthen his arms.  Sometimes simple slapping of backs or arms seemed to be sufficient.  Badminton, with an without a net, was a choice.

Sitting on the scattered benches were mostly older folk bonding with their friends, enjoying the camaraderie.  Most of the way around the lake was a group of elderly women performing tai chi or something similar.  A young girl was interacting with one of them and soon left and decided to talk with us.  It turns out she is ten years old, and her father was sitting on a bench watching us.  The woman with whom she had been talking was her grandmother, who clearly had affection for her.  She is learning English and grabbed a chance to practice with us.  When she found out our ages, her palm flew to her chest in awe of how old we are.  Ah, we hope we are not that ancient!

Breakfast was on the top floor of the hotel with views of the lake from an enclosed room and of a street from the terrace.  We opted for outside and enjoyed our breakfast which consisted of buffet and kitchen orders.  After showering and donning fresh clothes we decided to walk around to observe the street life on a Sunday.

On Ma May Street is a traditional house built at the end of the 19th century.  From the outside it is quite unassuming and easy to miss.  For almost have a century it was occupied by shopkeepers who then sold it to a Chinese family to sell medicine.  Less than a decade later it was requisitioned by the government and  inhabited by five families the next fifty years.  At that time it was restored with cooperation between Hanoi and Toulouse, France.  Typically, the house had a narrow facade with a series of buildings and courtyards going deep into the block.  This style became known as a tube-house.  A shop is located just off the street while upstairs is the living room and ancestors’ altar.  Every house in the country seems to have an altar which is to prevent forgetting one’s origins.   It is a connection between the living and the spiritual worlds, and a token of gratitude to one’s ancestors.  Worshipping one’s forebearers brings family together.  The next building is the living area with the kitchen and bathroom located in the back.  Two courtyards provide light and ventilation.

We walked around for a while more finding the streets with a common theme – flowers, hardware, bamboo, dry goods, etc.  In the area where silk trading used to be prevalent is another old tube-house renovated and selling lacquered items.  In the neighborhoods people cluster around low plastic tables and sit in plastic chairs eating their meals on the sidewalk.  At times we would see a group of women squatting washing the dishes in the portable plastic basins.  Peering into one concrete opening was a barefoot young man dusted with flour and  focused on making pasta.

After resting back at the hotel we took off to visit the Women’s Museum, greatly appreciated by a fellow river cruise couple.  It consists of three floors dedicated to honoring women in the country’s history and culture.  They played a huge role in military conflicts, commerce such as textiles and agriculture, family, and being single mothers.   The various traditions of marriage amongst the subgroups were well displayed.  Interestingly, they are not all based around the father’s family; some matriarchal clans also exist.  Traditional fashions were beautiful, but the dying of teeth to hide cavities is the antithesis of westerners craving the whitest teeth possible.

As we made our way back to the hotel we pass the far side of the lake which was closed off as it was a weekend, and taken over by very young kids driving toy vehicles, including a mini cooper, jeep, diggers, and two-wheeled motorized platforms.  For dinner we tried an organic restaurant where they happened to speak English.  We were pleased with the flavors and the price.  For about $35 we had one appetizer, two entrees, and three glasses of wine.





On to Halong Bay


The next day we made time cruising down the river to get to the bay. A lot of the scenery was filled with shipbuilding ventures and there was a bridge being constructed which Tifo said would be like the one in Sydney. They have a long way to go! Ever since we left Hanoi there have been several Catholic Churches, one with an amazingly tall statue on the roof.

The entry to the bay was impressive with the towering limestone mountains marking the entry to the most scenic two days of the whole trip. Numerous other boats and ships were heading in the same direction. Halong Bay has over 1500 limestone islands and extraordinary rock formations.

Not very far in we moored and got ready to either kayak or ride in a boat rowed by a standing woman. One of the crew had to go rescue the motorboat which got away. Donning his life jacket he paddled himself out to the boat and slowly hauled himself up the outboard motor. He quickly started the motor and returned to our riverboat. He took Tifo off to get three kayaks and hire the woman to row the rest of us.

Roger and Derek each took their own two-person kayak while Tifo and Sabine shared one. The rest of us embarked in what looked like a fiberglass basin with a wooden structure for seating and a deck for the rower. She must be mighty powerful as she was able to haul seven passengers with a standing forward rowing motion around the bend and under the “cave”, which was really an overpass with a low ceiling and dripping hanging bits. A couple of the others were able to see and hear bats. One the other side she took a deserved rest and then assisted Linda and then Bill to try rowing what must have seemed to be deadweights. At that point I noticed the paddle blades were quite narrow giving little surface area to push the water. That made her strength even more impressive! Linda an Bill both struggled but were valiant in their attempt. Our “driver” took over and we retraced our steps through the overpass and then went through another one. Making a u-turn we headed back to the boat.

We moored for the night but were disappointed that they were several larger ships there for the night. One had unnecessary lighting on top which resembled Christmas trees. It had to be for the “benefit” of everyone else as its own passengers wouldn’t have been able to see them.

In the morning we continued on into the bay and by nine were moored again near a dock for another excursion. This time a woman in a boat with an electric motor came to get us and the mountain bikes. After getting us organized she retrieved the other passengers who were going to meet us in town after traveling there by electric cart. As we approached the dock a boat unloaded a wedding party! The bride wore a western style dress. They gathered into a van and electric cart and hurried off to the village to begin their festivities.

The bikes were freshly oiled and set out for us to choose one. Helmets were provided and to give my scalp more protection, I donned it over my regular trekking hat. I looked a bit peculiar, but Dr. Bravo would have approved. To protect Bill’s scalp I put a buff inside his slotted helmet which kept the sun off his skin. Then we adjusted our seats and began pedaling down the road. Gosh, was it refreshing to finally get some exercise! The geared bikes helped us get up the first and worst incline. After a rest and letting everyone catch up, we continued on into town. At one point we went through another tunnel, which with my sunglasses made it impossible to see the road. I just trustingly followed the others and hoped I would be ok. After a few miles we arrived at the village of more than two hundred residents. They even have their own hospital with a doctor not too far away.

Viet Hai is in the midst of a jungle, covered by the high mountain range of the Cat Ba National Park. Tourism is just getting started here and there are a few home stay opportunities. Many of the original residents were boat people who were captured and set here for reeducation. Now they have their own houses and have established themselves. Tifo showed us the peanut and sweet potato crops and then we ambled off down the cement road to see the houses, school, and water treatment plant. We stopped at one house where we could buy drinks, watch the man smoke his special pipe, and admire the wife’s new attire for the wedding down the road. The wedding reception was held on two sides of the street with lots of food ready for everyone. The bride let us photograph her as she sat at the table with what was likely her daughter on her lap. I was surprised that across the road where more tables and food was waiting that someone’s laundry was hanging to dry outside the house.

When we stopped at the school some of the boys were entertaining themselves on the playground while a lone deaf boy seemed to do whatever he could for attention. His hearing aids looked impressive, but we never heard him speak. After removing our shoes we were able to enter a couple of the classrooms. No teachers were in sight; apparently they were in another room having a meeting. The young kids were gathered around a few tables, some being quiet and others goofy. As we were leaving Bill showed the deaf boy his own hearing aids but being so much smaller I am not sure he understood what Bill was doing.

The pond for the town’s water was quite a good size though I hope it was well treated before they consumed it! The electric cart backed up to retrieve us and dropped off the bikers where we had left our wheels. Just as I was going back down the road, of course I had to look down and see a dead flattened young snake! Gross.

I was glad the seven km was no longer as my legs were feeling the burn shortly before we got back to the dock. Derek and I got left behind with the bikes and some crew while the others were taken back to the riverboat. Just a few hot sunny minutes later we boarded and got a bit of a respite under cover.

After lunch and a rest the boat passed several floating houses and stopped at another floating fish farm where only Tifo, Anja, Sabine, and some of the crew got off. It appeared that a crew member or two was trying to fish with just a line but had no luck. The rest of us passengers watched from the main deck and admired the several cats, dogs, and two new kittens. Those two were tied with string to prevent them from wondering off into the water as they had just been brought from the village and missed their mother. One kept crying which was difficult for me.

To celebrate the end of the cruise the captain found a small private beach for us. The crew quickly set up chairs, a bar, and a few appetizers for us and provided towels for those who wanted to swim. We were ferried out there by motor boat and some joined the crew members swimming in the warm water. Bill and I choose to remain onshore and explored the rocky outcropping.

After a shower, a rest, the crew donned their finest uniforms. Tifo was dressed in a traditional gold costume with matching turban. He thanked us for our time with him. The purser introduced his crew again and then they entertained us with dancing! Most all the passengers joined in and things got a bit wild when the song changed to one requiring doing the twist! Even Bill got into it. Roger really enjoyed himself and both the captain and Sabine had their own displays of their grooving moves. Several then had to go but the remains crew did a great job of moving to the Macarena.

Once again I had to forgo the evening movie after dinner as I was just too tired to stay up past 8 or 9.

The next morning we packed, paid our drinks bill, gave people tips, and geared up for the ride back to Hanoi by bus. About halfway we stopped at a mall for lunch which had about eight courses to it! It was waaaaay too much for all of us. Then we had some shopping time and a chance to watch the women do embroidery art. It can take them several months to create one piece which they copy from a photograph. They all had small foot stools and worked for hours every day. It seemed quite tiring.

As some people were flying to other destinations, we dropped them off at the airport and the driver took the rest of us close to our hotels.

Cruising and Water Puppets

Today was the first day for no morning excursion. We were on the eastern side of Hanoi and needed to get on down the river. The scenery was much more pleasant without all the sand industry and barges and having more agriculture.  Interestingly, we saw several Catholic churches in the distance, one quite large with a humoungus statue on top.  To give us something to do we were given a quick tour of the lower decks where the kitchen, laundry, crew cabins, and inner workings are housed. Back up on the main deck we stopped by to see the wheel house where the captain was steering us safely downstream.

It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that we anchored and went ashore. The road along the river and then a left into town is all concrete and in great condition. Thanh Ha village is quiet with expansive rice fields. Of course, there is a market which was busier when we were on our way back. In town there is a small sweet factory where teams compete against each other to see which one can make the most mung bean and sugar concoctions in a day. The workers seemed to enjoy our interest and would let us take their photos. One girl was particularly fast at wrapping her treats; it was a bit of a blur!


The water puppet show was more interesting than I thought it might be. We sat on the shore with the pond in front of us. Out at a distance was a deck with the band and narrator on a side extension. Hanging down from the floor to the water was a bamboo curtain behind which were the puppeteers. There were various folk life stories with puppets either coming out from behind the curtain or snaking up from underneath. The stories told of various aspects of the culture with making the silk, rice harvesting with rain from above, the fight of the water buffaloes, fishing challenges, etc. There were even spinning fireworks!

Water puppetry was started about eight hundred years ago by the monks. Many generations of hardworking farmers have a passions for this art and have refined it to make it fun and entertaining. Most of the performances are for the passengers taken there especially for the water puppet theater, giving them more opportunities to entertain than the few special occasions for the villagers during their year.

At the end we the crew came to visit us by boat and served green tea to welcome us. One puppeteer and Tifo showed us how they work. Bill got to hold a puppet and found it extremely heavy. The support of the water as they work them helps but it still must be quite a tiring process. Then the school children arrived! They are about ten years old and like to practice their English with the boat tourists. We were asked our names, where we are from, our age, do we like Vietnam, our favorite animal, and to write our names and nationality in their notebooks. All of them were so polite and eager to practice. I know a few children who could learn from them.

Eventually, we headed back to the center of town.  On the way we passed a rice processing machine being used right on the side of the road by the rice field.  Then we meandered further on taking photos around the market and finally returned to the boat for dinner.IMG_5809

Hanoi Tours

As we had already seen the outside of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and his gardens and didn’t really need to see a dead man who had wanted to be cremated with his ashes dispersed in various parts of his country, we chose not to honor this disrespect and headed for the military museum nearby. A few times we had to cross the road with the relentless traffic.  As long as we kept slowly moving the drivers seem to work around us.

The military museum consisted of both external and internal displays. Outside is a flag tower which can be ascended two levels by tourists. From there is an overview of all the planes, helicopters, tanks, and cannons below. An interesting sculpture was made of debris from downed planes and made to look like a plane having taken a nose dive. Military recruits practiced their marching back and forth, though it seemed some didn’t really care about swinging their arms firmly and precisely. Inside were war artifacts.

Next up was the Temple of Literature where we rejoined our group. Even though we were to cover our knees and shoulders lest we be forbidden to enter, there were a few exposed body parts by random tourists. This landmark was established in 1070 as a place of worship of Confuscius. In 1076 the first imperial university was established to educate the elite. Seven hundred years later the university moved to Hue. The lotus ponds and courtyards create a peaceful oasis. Turtles, representing longevity, are at the base of the doctor’s stelae.


The next stop was the Hanoi Hilton prison where the recently deceased John McCain was detained for over five years as a POW. The structure was built by the French during their reign here and conditions were deplorable. Most of the exhibition shows this period of time. There are two rooms dedicated to the American War where one can view some artifacts of that period, including John McCain’s flight suit. There are also several pictures of various pilots who were there with him and their subsequent release.

Complete with a diverse culture of Southeast Asia, Chinese, and French influences, the heart is the chaotic Old Quarter of narrow streets. This is where we toured in the afternoon with Tifo guiding us through crowded back alleys. They seemed a little seedy yet there were some classy hotels nestled in amongst the multi-storied buildings. The tables on the sidewalk of one small eatery was littered with scads of used napkins. Tifo apologized for the mess,

but said it indicated the food was quite delicious and thoroughly enjoyed. After a bit of meandering past vendors of various types and women washing the restaurant dishes on the sidewalk, we rested in a cafe. Sabine, from Switzerland, had a rather potent looking coffee that came with a bowl of hot water.  Placing the coffee cup in the hot water helps to keep the beverage at the right temperature. Bill had an iced coffee with milk on the bottom. After stirring and tasting it said it was like drinking coffee mud. Quite strong, as well. but he did enjoy it.  On the way back we saw the last remaining city gate of the city perimeter, built in 1749.  It was named after Quan Chuong who died here fighting the French in 1843.



Pagodas, Ceramics, and a Lion Dance

This morning we visited two pagodas, with a our knees and shoulders covered. Hats were to be taken off, though we could keep our shoes on, when entering. Pagodas differ from temples in that it is Buddha being honored rather than a spirit.

The first pagoda was in a pleasing town on a lake where puppet theaters occur. There are two arched wooden bridges crossing narrow sections of the water. The second pagoda was about twenty minutes down the road and was accessed by climbing 237 stone steps. Hawkers were persistent in trying to get us to buy but for the most part they were refused. I did see a monk at the second one and a female Buddha chanting at the first one.

When one dies one crosses the Milky Way and drinks from the cup of tears.  The past life is forgotten and reincarnation as an insect, some animals, or human occurs, but in a different family.  Dead people can see those living, but not vice versa.

A statue I had seen at other temples is of an egret with a pearl, representing life, in its mouth standing on the back of a turtle. Tifo explained the story behind it. When there was a drought an egret saved the life of a turtle, symbolic of long life, by picking it up and carrying it to water. The turtle was very grateful to have been saved and returned the kindness by giving the egret a place to stand when there was too much water. They represent good karma, something there is not enough of in many parts of the world.

Many donations of fruit, cookies, water, etc are on each altar. They are later given to the poor around the middle of the month.  One should not waste time wishing for money at the pagoda as it won’t work.

Our afternoon excursion did not involve a bus ride as we anchored at another place on the river and ascended numerous wide steps to enter Bat Trang (bowl, workshop). It is an old village in the Gia Lam district of Hanoi, about thirteen kilometers away. It is well known throughout Vietnam for the ceramics. We were able to watch the process of the hand painting on the enormous urns and the factory like stages on the small items. Each person seemed to have their own spot or two of paint to apply before the next person added their bit.

Before returning to the boat we stopped at the plaza and were met with the customary small cold wet towel and welcome drink. Provided with chairs, the drummers welcomed us with their choreographed beats followed by an energetic lion and unicorn dance. Two men were inside the costumes and pranced around, sometimes standing upright with one guy on the shoulders of the other. Sometimes legs would stick out while vertical, but it was all fun.

Conical hats, tamales, song and dance, rice noodles, carpentry, blacksmithing

What a busy morning! First up was a ferry ride from the boat to shore and then a jitney ride past rice fields with workers to where we visited Tiên Du village where a local group of women make conical hats, Non La. As we walked to the house Tifo stopped to show us the palm used and the young leaves that need to be used for the white color. Even though they are closed up, they can be fanned out. The oldest woman was 85 and still can sew without needing glasses. A fellow passenger who had taken this trip three years ago presented her with photos from then. She and her friends laughed at them as she had three teeth then but only two now. They were all very friendly and kept working on their specific stage of the making.  The six women can make five to hats a day.  A middle man comes to take orders and are sold for 80,000 VD, less than $3.50.  The amount of detailed labor is surely worth more than that!  The one ironing the dried young palm leaves let me try my hand. She guided me in applying great pressure to be sure and flatten them. Both sides had to be done but not too slowly or the leaves would burn. She seemed pretty impressed with my results! Before we left we were presented with our own conical hats.

Back on the bus we passed a line of motos with people heading to a wedding.  Even the wedding cake was transported this way!  After arriving at a neigboring village, we were given a demonstration of making their version of tamales.  These are much larger than the ones in Costa Rica and are sliced into individual portions.  There are layers of rice, pork, and mung beans all packed and wrapped in large banana leaves tied with strips of dried palm leaves.  I was the only one willing to try the final stage, which is sort of like wrapping a Christmas present, a skill I never mastered.  The tamales are then boiled for five hours.

As we walked to Hung Lo Temple, several friendly young children greeted us and wanted to see themselves in the cameras after we photographed them. Steven, loving children, starting playing with them. Quickly they all wanted to climb on him and he took his entourage all the way to the temple.  Once there we were entertained with a song and dance folklore presentation by the locals. Tifo explained the event which was to start with us lighting a stick of incense and placing it in a holder at the altar.   The group was composed of males and females from a girl about ten years old up to people our age. The last one was about catching the big fish. The boys were in the inner circle and represented the fish. The woman made a larger circle around them and represented the net. At the end of the dance they invited us to join them and chose the one they wanted. To no surprise, Steven was selected as his little friends looked on.

Xian’s singing, or hát xoan, spring singing, is a genre of Vietnamese folk music performed in the spring during the first two months of the lunar new year (tet) in Phu Tho Province. It includes acting, chanting, dancing, drumming, and singing. The songs are performed by a guild of ten to fifteen performers led by a trum, consisting of male instrumentalists, kep, and female singers, dao. Sadly, this a dying art.

As we walked back to the bus we detoured to a rice noodle factory where a beautiful young woman was making the rice pasta dough, placing small hunks of it in the noodle maker, then cutting the mass of noodles at a certain length, and placing them on a horizontal pole to dry. Later they would be taken out into the sunshine to completely dry.


After nourishment and a respite back on the boat we boarded the bus again for another excursion. This time we visited Ly Nhan community, a carpentry and blacksmithing village where there are countless workshops creating delicate and heavy furniture pieces, some with intricate carvings. Although there are a few computerized mass productions, much is still done by hand with chisels and such. Sanding is done manually or with an electric sander. Women are equally involved in the various labor stages, just as they are in blacksmithing and knife sharpening. Generations of families all work together and share the income. More and more of the youngest generation are choosing not to follow in their parents’ footsteps so off they go to find their own way in the world.

When women marry they move into the house of their husband’s family. Young husbands learn to listen with both ears when their mother and wife have a different way of doing things. Clashes are inevitable, but a good husband will acknowledge both sides and play the negotiator.

Duong Lam

This ancient UNESCO heritage village is about 1200 years old with many houses as old as four hundred years. Most are made of laterite and mud, abundant local resources.

On the way to the village, Tifo told us we were going to have a competition to interact with the locals. We were divided into two teams and each was given 10,000 dong, about one dollar. He told us we were to purchase five items, which he told us in Vietnamese. The team leaders were to write down in their own way the spoken words. We then were to venture around the market to buy them within twenty minutes. Not really knowing what it was we were supposed to get, it was a guessing game in making ourselves understood. Both teams were correct on four of the five items, but the other team did it with a bit less money. The prize was a bottle of wine.

The village itself was pretty interesting.  We meandered through the quiet streets of no motos or cars, visiting a temple, admiring ancient gates, watching men play their version of chess and a barber giving a haircut, and then having a respite at another private house where there hangs a large woven picture of Jesus.  Despite the simple abode with an alter, there was a fairly large screen TV.  This older house, with a row of tall open windows, requires stepping over a large beam to enter, the idea being that you have to bow your head showing humility.  The beam is 30-40 centimeters off the floor which is said to prevent evil spirits from entering.  In the winter, though, wood is placed in the gap to keep out the cold.  No smoking demonstration this time.  Here the forté is making soy products.  In the sunny courtyard was a large array of ceramic jars fermenting soy beans.  I saw in the Women’s Museum later in the trip a sign which said, “At present the people in Ban town, Yen Nhan, My Hao, Hung Yen still make traditional soy sauce.  There are many steps but fermentation is the most important step which is done by women because they are gentle, meticulous, and flexible.”  At this house as tea was being served, Tifo explained that unplanned visitors arrive and you have time for them, you pour the tea from high over the cup; if not, tea is poured from a low point telling your guests to drink and go home!  Green tea is quite bitter, though it’s the way I like it, so Vietnamese accompany it with a small sweet treat.  Women tend to do the cooking as men can handle the harder work.  We saw a few people in various stages of drying rice on the concrete where it dries faster than on the earth.  One child, standing by the edge of a circle of drying rice grains, was tempted to step his foot in it.  He did choose to follow his impulse, and his parents simply quietly told him to go with them.

Later in the afternoon Tifo presented the history of his country, including the boat people who tried to escape when the entire country became communist.  The history seems confusing, but the overriding theme is centuries and centuries of being ruled by other nations and eventually fighting to get out from under.  For such a small poor country it is amazing they were able to get rid of the French, Chinese, and Americans without all the huge weapons of destruction.

Although we were not able to stay awake for the movie, I would like to see “Heaven and Earth” based on three books by Le Ly Hayslip about her experiences during and after the American War.

The history of this country embraces a mix of faiths based on the triple religion of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism called Tam Giao, the worshipping of ancestors, indigenous spirit beliefs, and Hindu traditions.  There is a large number of Catholics and some much lesser known faiths.

Muong Village and Cultural Center, Food Prep

We were still moored at the initial boarding site and had another field trip to the Muong village where last night’s entertainers live. A market was underway with the usual fruit and vegetables and the addition of live fish, chickens, and ducks. These are butchered on site to be sure the meat is fresh. Tifo laughingly referred to the process as the “happy ending”. The blood is kept and used in soups and the plumes are made into feather dusters.

Up the steep hill is the cultural center. First a sip of tea was offered while Tifo gave more information about the center. Behind him in a large glass jar was a cobra coiled in rice wine. It was fermenting for several months to make snake wine, which is strong at 45 proof. The cultural center is housed in an old house, similar to the one we saw the first day. It contained examples of bamboo baskets, a loom for silk weaving, and various artifacts from the country. Outside is a large Muong calendar, separate from the solar government one and the popular lunar one. No month has more than thirty days which means that at the end of the year, a week is missing. Every four years a month is added to the calendar, giving them two Septembers. This would seem to be confusing!

Afterwards we drove to the Muong village in the rain. We slogged along the wet and sometimes muddy road while accompanied by several women. One was quite persistent we follow her to her house, but we just followed our group past the rice paddies, houses, and community center. The leader invited us into his house which was quite similar to one we saw on the first day. He, too, smoked from his bong, but he also invited us to try it. Only Roger was brave enough to indulge. He did pretty well, only coughing a bit.  We were served tea, rice wine, and bananas.  Homestays are available here, but I would not find it to rustic.

The area director was on board the ship and he later explained that the Muong used to live up in the mountains. As they were growing poppies, the government moved them down to the river. In other words, these villages we have visited are not long standing.

For interest in the afternoon the chef and his assistant demonstrated the making of spring rolls and carving of vegetables. The rice paper is quite sturdy. It is placed on a wet towel and pressed to absorb water, flipped and repeated, and then is ready for the stuffing. Grated vegetables and shredded meat are added and then the wrapper rolled and folded to contain them. The dipping sauce is 4 parts water and 1 part each of lemon juice, garlic, and sugar. Watching the assistant form flowers and free art was fun. He placed them in cold water to firm the shapes.

First Full Day

In the morning we were back at the original location.  After a filling breakfast we took the bus for a short ride to another river. There we boarded another boat and headed towards a small village. Along the way we passed several fish nets and traps and small houses. When we disembarked we trudged up a steep cement path and stopped outside a large wooden house. Pandaw had arranged for us to visit the family so we entered the humble wooden residence, after removing our shoes. There was an offering of tea and bananas while she demonstrated smoking a long bamboo bong. Tifo explained that she is seventy-nine years old and that age is calculated differently there. Once a person is born the age is already considered to be one year. Once the calendar year advances, so does one’s age. This means that those born at the end of the year are quite soon two years old! Birthdays are not celebrated every year; just the more important ones.  More emphasis is placed on honoring dead relatives from multiple generations on the anniversary of their death.  That could make for quite a lot of celebrations in one year.

The living areas are also their sleeping areas. Curtains are hung at night to separate the generations. To keep those areas from being smoky the kitchen is separate. They cook over an open wood fire with shelves above it to store and keep things dry. A skittish young cat also lived there and hid in the ashes under a hanging pot! There were live embers right next to it so it was likely a warm refuge.  Many houses are on stilts to give storage area underneath and keep the floor further away from the moisture of the ground.

On the way back to the dock we stopped at a fish farm and we were allowed to walk amongst the pens. There were different types of carp; the black ones were feistier and made the water roil as they fought. Some seemed to have injuries that looked as though they would never heal.

Back on land we boarded the bus and headed off to view the largest hydroelectric dam in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia which built by Russians.  Power is generated by eight turbines, and the Song Da Reservoir was formed as the river was dammed.  It seemed normal to me so I didn’t bother getting off the bus to take pictures. Then it was back to the boat for lunch and a free afternoon. Still trying to catch up on lost sleep I surprised myself by sleeping about three hours, waking just in time for the purser’s and guide’s briefing about tomorrow. Then it was time for another tasty dinner followed by a cultural program.

The local Muong people came to perform dance, song, and music for us. First, though, was a welcome drink. There were long thin straws made from the sprouts, one for each of us, through which everyone was drink rice wine  from one container simultaneously. Then the performers and guides did the same using the same straws. I passed. Next was the opportunity to eat a bit of betal nut. I took one but left it on the Kleenex. Bill partook and said it really dried his mouth making it hard to speak. The guide translated that comment for the locals who thought that was pretty funny. Women danced for us in the various costumes and two men played the instruments, flutes and a one steel string contraption. At the end we were invited to join in a circle dance and to try the stringed instrument. I did both and found I could properly pluck the string but would have needed more time to understand the gizmo which could make a vibrating sound. It was an entertaining evening!