Rena and Wade Around the World

Our first Round the World trip from Jan 2006 - July 2006.

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Location: Regina/Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

The adventures of living and working abroad. From Cayman to Europe, a break year and side adventure travels, this is our story.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Hue (Vietnam)

Our next stop on the journey south was the ancient city of Hue. Apparently tourism saved this city in the early 1990’s. For years the city was seen by the Vietnamese as a reminder of the politically incorrect Ngueyn dynasty. Fortunately, these sites were designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1993. Restoration work continues.

One such site is the moated Citadel, the perimeter of which stretches for 10km. Here’s a look at the principle entrance to the Imperial Enclosure, the Ngo Mon Gate.

Here is a look of the gate from the inside. We don’t have many pictures of the inside of the imperial enclosure as most of it was destroyed during the war. Reconstruction is now going on to re-create how it once was.

Flag tower here is 30 metres high and is Vietnam’s tallest. It is also known as the King’s Knight. It has been destroyed twice due to typhoons. The current flagpole has been standing since 1949.

We also ventured out of the city to visit 3 of the most impressive Royal Tombs from the Nguyen Dynasty. These Emperors built their tombs while they were still living and often used them as retreats or summer vacation homes. All of the tombs were very extravagant as each successive Emperor had to out do his predecessor in order to keep up appearances, of course. Here is a picture within the Minh Mang tomb. This is considered one of the most majestic of the tombs, as its architecture blends so beautifully with its surroundings.

This is a picture of the Khai Dinh tomb. It is different from all the other tombs in that its façade is completely constructed of concrete. It consists of three levels and the tomb at the top contains some of the most ornate decoration of all of the tombs. Chinese porcelain was imported to make elaborate designs, which still remain perfectly intact.

Here is a look at one of the other levels where the stone mandarins are on guard to protect the tombs from tombraiders. Guess these mandarins are not coming to life as they don’t think these three monkeys are capable of raiding any tombs! The Emperors were never buried in their tomb chambers but rather in some unknown spot somewhere on the complex. The tomb was used for worship once the Emperors were dead, even though their bodies were not kept within the tombs.

The other tomb we visited was not as striking to look at as these first two. However, the Tu Duc tomb does have an interesting story. Similar to the other Emperors this Emperor was also worried about tomraiders and went to extraordinary lengths to avoid his treasure from being looted. To this day, his burial site has never been found, particularly because he had all 200 of the servants who buried him beheaded! That is one guy you would not want to be a Pallbearer for!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Demilitarized Zone (Vietnam)

Continuing south from Ninh Binh our next stop was the small city of Dong Ha. Dong Ha itself doesn’t really have much to offer other than an intersection for two major highways, an endless blasting of horns, and public loud speakers that begin their broadcast at 5:00am. It is, however, in very close proximity to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). From 1954 to 1975 an area of 5km on either side of the Ben Hai River served as the DMZ. Ironically, it became one of the most militarized zones in the world where some of the heaviest fighting took place.

Our first stop in the DMZ was the Doc Mieu Base. It was a US Military base designed to prevent infiltration across the DMZ. Most of the base has been destroyed by scrap metal hunters but this bunker remains as a reminder of the events of this region. We were warned by our guide to strictly stick to the path as there are still live mortar rounds and mines lying hidden about the area, slightly below the surface. Since 1975, 5,000 people have been injured or killed around the DMZ due to leftover artillery from the war. Many of the shells in the ground will remain extremely dangerous for many more years.

The area around the base is littered with massive craters like the one Brady is standing in. A not so subtle reminder of the 15 million tonnes of bombs that were dropped on Vietnam during the American war. Many of the craters have been turned into watering holes by the locals or have been reclaimed by jungle growth making them look like gullies in the landscape.

This is a picture of one of the 5 sections of the Truong Son National Cemetery where tens of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers are buried. The soldiers are buried in zones according to the province they came from. For all of these soldiers, this is a second burial. All of them were found in the jungle and countryside and transported here for a proper burial. All soldiers carry an identification card in their pockets. From this information the soldier’s tombstones were created. For those soldiers whose information was destroyed or not found, they were buried in a separate section of the cemetery marked out for this purpose.

This grave stone tells us this boy was born in 1959 and joined the military at the age of 9 in 1968. He died 3 years later in 1971. An all too common story. Amazingly enough, many of the North Vietnamese soldiers were very young and volunteered for the service due to their belief in the Communist ideology. Even women participated as soldiers. This was not so much the case with the South Vietnamese soldiers, who were much older and male. It was said to make for very difficult battles as the women and children often deceived the South Vietnamese soldiers and the Americans into thinking they were innocent women and children. It was these innocent women and children that were often spies helping the success of the North Vietnamese Army.

This bridge in the heart of the DMZ that separates North and South Vietnam. Apparently soldiers would taunt each other with large megaphones and on occasion this led to violence. This picture is taken from the South looking North. Many families were separated in South and North Vietnam. Before the border was drawn people were given 55 days to choose which side they wished to live on. Due to political uncertainty, many wives would stay behind with their children while their husbands went to the other side to check things out. The split of the country was only supposed to be temporary until the next election. However, when this failed to take place due to a military coup, the borders remained closed for many, many years. As such, many families were years in waiting to be reunited. Many never reuniting due to all the casualties during the war.

And here’s a look at one of the entrances to the tunnels of Vinh Moc. They were constructed by the North Vietnamese during the American war and stretch approximately 2.8 km over three levels. Due to all of the heavy fighting in the area, the local village took to the subterranean for protection. Our guide told us that the tunnels were capable of housing around 500 people. There were rudimentary sleeping quarters, hospital rooms, kitchens and bathrooms. Other such tunnels exist all over the countryside of Vietnam. These ones, however, are the most intact and never experienced the dreaded “drilling bombs” from the American Army.

A view down from the entrance to the tunnels.

Even a little short for young Rena. The Vietnamese are a vertically challenged people.

The south may have won if they had this soldier on their side.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Ninh Binh (Vietnam)

After a short 9 hour bus ride from Hanoi we arrived in the North Central town of Ninh Binh. As luck would have it our hotel had arranged for a taxi to pick us up from the side of the road where the bus dropped us …. well, sort of. Rather than a taxi with 4 wheels the hotel arranged for a crack team of four scooters to courier us back to our rooms. This unlucky fellow drew the short straw and had to move my 85 lb back pack, which as far as I can tell was about 10 pounds heavier than him. Plus me, who weighs slightly more than the bike itself. Everyone at the hotel had a good laugh when they saw this side show pull up.

After proving themselves worthy the night before we hired four bike masters to show us the sites around Ninh Binh. First stop was Tam Coc. A skilled paddler with a unique technique gave us the tour.

Tam Coc is often referred to as “Halong Bay of the Rice Fields” where limestone cliffs rise from the rice paddies.

After Tam Coc it was back on the bikes for a tour of the country side. Rena definitely seemed to be enjoying herself. Not sure how much fun it was for her 78 lb driver.

Although quite capable, our chariots weren’t necessarily built for the muddy back roads. We had to get off and walk a few times and on this occasion we had to stop and clean the mud that had built up between the tires and fenders. For some reason everyone found this quite funny. Vietnamese people seem to laugh a lot and it’s very contagious. Another source of amusement for our guides was my driver. Not 100% sure but I think they were teasing him all day for his choice of clothes…sandals with dress socks and dress pants. Everytime he got a foot full of mud I think he would curse in Vietnamese which would send the other drivers into a fit of giggles….very amusing for all concerned.

Our back road journey gave us the opportunity to see many, many people working the rice fields. Going forward there will be no more complaining about accountancy.

The last stop of the day was the floating village of Kenh Ga. Wasn’t exactly what we had imagined but it gave an accurate glimpse of what life on the water must be like.

The local transportation. Must admit the view from their back yard is tough to beat.

Our boat driver didn’t speak English so we weren’t able to determine what exactly this structure was. It had a mosquito net in it so someone definitely slept there. Best guess is that it is where the fisherman sleep when they are too far to make it back home at night.

And finally, in Vietnam, when you misbehave…you are tied to a chair.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Halong Bay (Vietnam)

We took a 3 hour bus journey from Hanoi, further north up to Halong Bay. Halong Bay was amazing. It is a dramatic series of 3,000 islands emerging from the surrounding emerald green water. The weather is usually cool and drizzly and we were very lucky to enjoy a dry stay for the two days that we were here. We had a great boat, complete with viewing deck on top, and meandered through the islands. We hopped off here and there to explore the many caves in the area and also went on a two hour kayaking trip from our boat. Here is a look at our boat, The Santa Maria.

Halong Bay gets it name from the legend of a dragon that lived in the mountains. As the dragon made its way towards the sea, it thrashed its tail and created all the valleys and inlets. Only the high ground can now be seen. The translation of Halong Bay is “Where the Dragon descends into the sea.” Here is a picture of us on a platform at the mouth of one of the caves.

Here is a picture of one of the caves we visited. Quite touristy given that there is electricity and walkways in the cave!

We had wonderful guides that even provided nighttime entertainment. Here is a look at them singing some Vietnamese songs. At least we think they were Vietnamese songs, however, they could have been about us tourists given the fits of laughter that some of the crew of the boat were in. Eamon reciprocated and sang an Irish song for the crew. Too bad he fogot the words to his second song …but he got a free beer anyways.

After a few free beers (that turned out to be added to Wade’s tab), the traveling dossers were passed out in the mini bus drive back to Hanoi.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Hanoi (Vietnam)

We flew from Vientaine to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines. Our 1 hour flight turned into a 10 hour journey due to delayed flights, lost luggage and a wait of 3 hours at the Hanoi airport for our ride. All in all, we still beat the 21 hour bus ride and got our luggage back, so no complaints.

We spent 4 days in Hanoi (the capital city) in the North of Vietnam. It, like Laos, is a blend of Asian and Parisian influence. Most Vietnamese speak not only their own language, but also French, English and often German as well. We were struggling to say Xin chao (hello) and Cam on (thank you).

Our hostel was located in the old quarter of Hanoi, which had some of the narrowest streets we have seen so far on our journey. Not only were they narrow, but the sidewalks were not “walkable” due to all of the motorbikes parked on them. Therefore, you had to walk on the streets and avoid being hit by countless motorbikes, regular bikes, tourist taxis and vehicles. Crossing the street was a blind leap of faith. There was never a break in traffic and you just had to step out and make no sudden movements. Here is a look at one of the streets in the old quarter. Can you pick out Eamon, Shari & myself?

Why did the chicken cross the road anyways? Perhaps to take a look at his friend the duck. Ducky doesn’t look so happy right now.

That being said, this lady doesn’t look very happy either. We soon discovered that the Vietnamese are masters at piling goods on the bikes. Not only this, but they are often seen with just a head peering out from their mass of goods while peddling down the road. Also customary is the masked face.

At the Temple of Literature, we were lucky enough to see another stately visit. As Wade saw the King of Cambodia in Laos, it was only fitting that Shari, Eamon and myself saw the King of Brunei in Vietnam! Luckily enough we had the camera with us. I think our spotting beats Wade’s given that the King of Brunei is the richest man in the world. Here is a look at him and his wife. You may have to double click to get a zoomed in view.

We spent most of our time in Hanoi, walking around on the streets taking in all the local flavours. We felt like we walked and walked and walked. Thus, we soon got used to taking breaks and enjoying traditional Vietnamese coffee, which, is individually brewed at your table with sweet condensed milk. Hmmmm…yummy. Here is a look at one of the typical stores we passed in one of our many walks. This one is selling Buddha statues. Mom, this picture is for you. If anyone every says your store is too crowded again…just show them this picture.

We also lined up for hours to see Ho Chi Minh in his Mausoleum. It is said that every year the Mausoleum is closed while Ho Chi Minh is sent to Russia for maintenance, although many suspect that he is a wax masterpiece. No cameras are allowed inside, so this is a picture from the outside. Also, you are not allowed to put your hands in your pockets as we found out when one of the guards reprimanded Wade. Ho Chi Minh was the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 1946 until his death in 1969. He is described as Uncle of the people in Vietnam or often Uncle Ho.

Our last day in Hanoi, Shari & I took a trip out to the Perfume Pagoda of which the boys were not interested in seeing. Part of getting to the Pagoda was an hour boat ride down the Perfume river. Here is a look at the harbour…have you ever seen anything like it? Yes, we had to hop from boat to boat to get to our boat. Luckily no one fell in. Much to our surprise these boats, which held up to 12 people, were solely rowed by two Vietnamese women. We soon discovered that the women of this country work extremely hard, while the men primarily drive taxis! Since then we have seen women in all sorts of hard manual work. Not only are they expected to do this, but many of them have families that they also must cook and clean for.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Given that we only had a 15 day visa and were pressed for time, our tour through Laos was short and sweet. We split our time between Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.
Luang Prabang (Great Prabang) was originally called Muang Xieng Thong (City of Gold) and was an important capital city until the capital was changed to Vientiane in 1545. The city of Luang Prabang has only been open to tourists since 1989 after the fall of the USSR and has been deemed a Unesco World Heritage site since 1995 due to its magnificent temples and archeological finds in the surrounding area. It is a unique mix of Asian & French culture & design due to its former status as a French Colony. Here is a picture of the Sala Pha Bang, a pavilion on the Royal Palace grounds. Wade was lucky enough to see the arrival of the King of Cambodia to the Royal Palace. Unfortunately, we do not have a picture as it was a chance encounter and he was without a camera.

Walking down the streets of Luang Prabang is a curious experience. French bakeries, art galleries, tourist companies & tribal people are all intermixed in a collage of old and new alike. Tales of a grand city of long ago are lurking around every corner. Here is a look down one of the city streets.

On our second day in Luang Prabang Shari, Eamon & I went mountain biking (Wade stayed back to nurse an unpleasant reaction to the Laos cuisine). We visited a nearby local village. This was the bridge to the local village and is a “typical” Laos bridge. Every year it gets wiped out in the rainy season when the river swells. The locals all pitch in and rebuild the bamboo bridge in a matter of 5 days!

We also visited the village school. This is the local school yard…a little different from how I remember my elementary educational experience!

We had a very long & windy bus trip from Luang Prabang southward to Vang Vieng on March 16, 2006. The scenery along the way was fantastic, as we wound though high passes in the mountains and then through local villages in the valleys. Here is a picture of the scenery.

The best way to describe Vang Vieng is rustic & bizarre. There are no paved roads in the city and everything is under construction. Water trucks are continually bumping down the roads spraying water in order to reduce the dust and loose gravel on the roads. Here is a look at some of the local vehicles you often see making their way through the city.

On the bizarre side of things almost every restaurant in the city has sleeper type tables where people can fully recline and enjoy continual episodes of The Simpsons, Friends or other popular American TV shows. We soon discovered the reason behind this is that most tourists in this town are high from the “Happy” Shakes offered on the menus. Here is a picture of Shari & I enjoying a Shake. Happy or not???? If you can’t tell...neither will we!

Besides getting high, Vang Vieng’s claim to fame is tubing down the Nam Song river in a tractor tire. Of course we had to partake in this and I must say this is the real deal “Lazy River” and not the Disney like version that exists at Atlantis in the Bahamas. Best part is that there are a multitude of vendors selling BeerLao at all points on the river. When you get thirsty, make your way to the shore and a barmaid or man will hand you a long bamboo stick to pull you into their bar. Most of them also offer a jump off of some sort of trapeze back into the river. Peter, this picture is for you…eat your heart out!

And here is a Vang Vieng sunset.

After a lazy day in Vang Vieng, we pulled ourselves together and made a 3 hour bus ride further south to the capital city of Vientiane. Unfortunately, we could only rush around and see some of the highlights due to a lack of time. We did manage to cover a lot of ground in one day. Here is a picture of the Patuxai, a monument resembling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It has 4 archways, rather than its Paris counterpart that has only 2. Although it looks like it Parisian counterpart, when you get close up it reveals a lot of Lao features.

After a dose of culture…Wade and I wandered into the jungle to turn a scary beast into stone.

Just kidding…we actually visited the Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park) that is a park full of unconventional Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. I think this would be a scary place at night!

I also think Tomb Raider may have been inspired by this place.

Very strange indeed …

Okay….this is the last one.

Next stop...Vietnam!