Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Our 13 days trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand

Vietnam – part 1
For the past few years, skipping one year here and there and visiting India in between, we were planning to see as many places as possible as the age permits.  We saw many European countries, China, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago Islands. 

This year we decided to visit Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  We took a tour package with Pacific delight tours.  Generally depending on the season, the tours will have anywhere from 15-35 people.  This year, as this is the last tour they were offering, luckily for us, it has only another American couple from Philadelphia and their son joined us from Thailand who is working there. They are few years younger to us and very gentle, soft and friendly persons with no “ego” at all!  They are vegetarians too.  So we didn’t have any problem with food.  We couldn’t expect better company than this.

We started on March 21st early morning by Delta Airlines from Midway Airport to Detroit and from there to Hanoi (capital of Vietnam) via Seoul (capital city of S. Korea) Seoul airport  not only  have just local and duty free stores, but also a small handy-craft store where you can print designs on cloth or make small Korean dolls.  They also have
a show every few hours with performers dressed as King and Queen and attending the Royal court in a procession  and greeting the subjects.  It was quite entertaining!

We reached Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport on March 22nd at about 10 pm local time.  We were greeted by the tour guide and also met our group (the other couple) .  By the time we reached hotel and checked in it was midnight.  After breakfast the next morning around 8-8:30 am all 5 of us started our tour.  The first important (for Vietnamese) visit was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  He is revered as a legend in the country as he established Democratic Republic of Vietnam and is the first President.
Lots of people come to visit him everyday including field trips for school children.  His embalmed body is preserved in the center hall. The gardens in surrounding area were well maintained.  In the nearby area we visited One Pillar Pagoda. The temple is built of wood on a single stone pillar 1.25 m in diameter, and it is designed to resemble a lotus blossom of Buddha.  It is one of the most iconic temples of Vietnam.  It was originally built in 1049 but went through many renovations due to War.

From there we went to see the Temple of Literature,   a former center of learning in Hanoi. It is a temple of Confucius and includes the "Imperial Academy Vietnam's first national university. The temple was built in 1070.  It has 5 court yards for different purposes.  In 1484, the King Lê Thánh Tông erected 116 steles (tablets) of carved blue stone turtles with elaborate motifs to honor talent and encourage study. The turtle ("quy") is one of the nation's four holy creatures symbolizing longevity.  It was the time of graduations for many schools and many students from all over Hanoi were there to take pictures with graduation gowns and with traditional dresses (Aodai).  A site to see young girls!  The same day, we also visited Hoan Kiem Lake located in the center of the city which has Ngoc Son Temple on a small islet, built to commemorate a few Chinese and Vietnamese legends.  It is very scenic, ornate and peaceful.  It is also called Jade Mound temple.  There were lots of turtles in the lake. 

The next visit was the “Hanoi Hilton”.  Don’t mistake by the name! It is not “Hilton Hotel”, it is the Hanoi Prison and named like that by an American POW.  It was very sad and heart wrenching experience, visiting the Prison, with models of soldiers tied down and the equipment used to torture prisoners and their bunks etc. 
In the afternoon at about 3:30 went to see the entertaining performance at the Water Puppet Theatre a unique art form originated in northern Vietnam over a thousand years ago.  We all heard about puppet shows, but never heard or saw water puppet show.  It was very well done, with the puppeteers standing in the water behind screens in the side and back of the stage.   
On Sunday before leaving for Halong Bay, we spent the morning going on cyclo (rikshaw) to visit the market called “36 streets”.   It was an experience! 
One Pillar Pagoda.
Halong Bay: 
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a popular travel destination. The bay features thousands of lime stone Karts and isles in various sizes and shapes. Ha Long Bay has an area of around 1,553 km2, including 1,960–2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. The core of the bay has an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islets. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The bay consists of over 3,000 limestone monolithic islands each topped with thick jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the ocean. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves.  Along the bay we can see floating villages, with boat houses.  They get their shopping done by people selling food and clothing etc by coming to them in boats.  We stopped at one of the big islands which has caves.  First when we entered there are lots of steps and of course the tourist shopping area, and we have to go through a small opening to get into the first cave.  As we went inside, we discovered another room which is little bigger and once we passed that we entered into a huge cave which is breathtaking and picturesque.  We felt like we were in one of the “Indiana Jones” movie sets!  We were told that the cave is dead cave as there is no growth of the stalagmites since no water is coming into the caves any more.

It was a wonderful experience cruising along the Bay.  Especially the weather was beautiful and the whole boat is just for 5 of us. It was very peaceful, calm, serene and breathtaking views of the nature at every turn and junctions with no other sounds except water. It took us the whole day.

The next day, March 26th we flew to Ho Chi Minh City, the familiar name was Saigon. 
Our tour started on 27th with a visit to a small town called Tay Ninh, which is the base for a religion called “Caodism” (we never heard about it till now).  It is  an amalgamation of features from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and spiritualism.  It has more than 2 million followers and the temple was huge and eloberate.  One of the founders was Victor Hugo (the French author).  We watched their ceremonies and prayers.  From there we proceeded to Cu Chi, an important based during the war because of its strategic location.  What a contrast!

Cu Chi underground tunnel system was built in the jungle. The 75-mile (121 km)-long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam and turned into a war memorial park.  The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped achieve ultimate military success.  Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. They even built kitchens to disguise that the smoke from cooking would come out from far, so that the enemies would not find out where people were.  It was very fascinating, and tourists would be wonder struck how anybody could live under those circumstances not for days but years together!
On day 7, March 28th, we did some sight seeing of Saigon,  strolling the streets, looking at markets, observing the classic European style landmarks, like Old Opera house,
Notre Dame Cathedral, Reunification Palace,the Emperor of Jade Pagoda and the War Museum.
The first impression of Hanoi was, it reminded us of the old Chennai area.  In downtown, the streets were filled with street vendors of vegetables, flowers, seafood and meat.  Since the taxes would be higher facing the main streets, the houses were long and narrow.  The
Downstairs would be used for the businesses and the second and third floors for living quarters.  The streets were kind of clean, but the traffic is unimaginable, worse than India.  But there are no cows, dogs or beggars on the streets.  We could see lot more scooters than cars.  Girls cover their faces, hands even in heat, because of pollution and also they want to keep their skin fair a symbol of richness!

Sailaja Somayajula (Damerla)

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