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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Honeymoon Blog, 3rd Installment: Good Morning Central Highlands, Vietnam!

This is the 3rd (& Penultimate) Installment of "Dan & Elisse's Honeymoon Adventure": Water puppets & trendy Hanoi; northern Vietnamese Villages, and a romantic Junk Cruise on Halong Bay... a trek into the Central Highlands: a dugout canoe down the Black River and my 49th Birthday Dinner Party in KonTum; and frolicking on the beach in Quin Yan...


We arrived in Hanoi by train at 5 in the morning; couldn't check into to the Hilton (on our HH Points! Thank you, FEMA!), and as it is in a lovely French Colonial building right in the middle of town, we left our luggage at the hotel and walked around Hanoi, finding a cute cafe on the lake for morning coffee & people-watching, and then walking 'round the lake to watch the art students sketch, and visit a lovely shrine with a red bridge (Exactly the bridge we both agreed we need to go across Elkhorn Creek to the Theatre!). Dan bought me a pack of incense, so I could climb up the rocks and make a good-luck prayer... Found a lucky coin at the shrine, & got to see the Lucky Turtle, too!























Art students sketching... & the Louis Vuitton Moped Seat...

We walked up and down the market streets, getting to know the city- again, for Dan... I loved the mix of old and new that we saw throughout Vietnam: the conical hats of the ladies delivering flowers by cyclo and the Louis Vuitton motorcycle seat covers! We ran into a bunch of American skateboarders poppin' wheelies around the statue of a scholar in one of Hanoi's historic plazas, and they were so amazed to meet Dan (A real, live Vietnam War Veteran! In Vietnam! How Cool!) that they took photos of us! (Observation: This made me feel 104. We are still too #$%&!! young to be quite that "amazing"...)







































Checking into the Hilton Hanoi Opera was a Trip! We were ensconced in a lovely room on the Exec. Floor, and checked in by an Executive Floor Concierge who asked us if this was our first trip to Hanoi, obviously 100% certain that it was. He was wrong. It was Not Dan's first time in Hanoi, and he said so. To which Mr. Concierge asked us- TWICE- if we had previously "stayed at our other Hilton Property- the Hanoi Hilton?"! Apparently my saying "no" once was insufficient! Dan's got Thick skin, thank goodness, but I was pretty darn stunned by that one...

One of Dan's Many Amazing 5-star Hotel Shower-Stall Clothes Dryers...








The hotel was lovely, however, decorated with beautiful Vietnamese watercolor landscapes, and we had great Exec Floor breakfasts, hors d'oeuvres, drinks, and service- and one of the all-time great bar snacks: Vietnamese shredded beef jerky! This delicate, finely shredded, spicy, and utterly addictive stuff is to what we know as "jerky", as hard boiled eggs are to Beluga caviar!








I fell in love with a necklace of bright red Vietnamese coral in the Hilton's gift shop, but stoically walked away from it...

Dan snagged us a cyclo for our ride to the Water Puppets that evening, which was fabulous fun, and the show was wonderful... a lovely, archaic, fantasy-world of music and puppets, water, and pagodas, all green and gold and red... and the two, delicate little water puppets I bought even made it home perfect, and now grace our mantle at the Inn!



















We had drinks at a cute cafe overlooking the lake, and then walked back to the Hilton in the moonlight...












The next day we took what wound up being an excellent private tour with Exotissimo Travel to two villages in the north, and got to see a great deal of the northern countryside, which was new to us both. We had a great, young guide, and as it was "just us", he gave us a wonderful, in-depth tour. The first village was accessible only by boat, after which we climbed many dozens of steps up a mountain-side into the village. Corny as it may sound, we were wearing the "Bride" and "Groom" tee-shirts that I had made for this trip 2 years ago, & finally wheedled Dan into wearing! (Observation: When I'm 95, and Dan is 108, I hope I'm still trying to wheedle him into wearing Bride & Groom tee shirts...)
Our guide took us to the home of a village family, where we sipped tea and the local corn liquor (yup, same as ours- only smoother!) Even in this most rural of villages, where the family we visited lived in a traditional stilted house with a rush floor and cooked on a wood fire, they had electricity- for basically one thing: the flat-screen TV! This family farmed corn up on the mountain, and had fresh fish, as well; the kids were well fed and everyone seemed to have good teeth...




































Dan playing with the village puppies...






































Pushing off for the boat-trip back... We got to see the rather amazing women who row their fishing boats with their feet... Dan has tried it, and Still can't figure out how they do it...






































Between villages our guide took us for a tour of the Great Big Hydroelectric Dam- one of those wonderful, quintessentially "Communist" tourist stops I thought went out with Go-Go Boots & Hot Pants! It was great fun, in a wierd "time-warp" way, to trek thru the seemingly endless tunnel along with goups of Vietnamese workers on a company outing, especially because the busloads of school children, many wearing Boonie Hats, and all l flashing the "V for Victory/Peace" sign that is the "new hip thing" (!), all wanted to have their picture taken with Dan!




























We had a great lunch in a cute thatched-roof restaurant in the countryside- lots of delicious little dishes and springrolls & such, augnmented with spicy chilis & washed down with great Vietnamese beer! (And yes, as a result of all this wonderful wining & dining, I look like an orange beach ball in my "Bride" t-shirt... )

The second village was surrounded by rice paddies, and the hand-planting of rice seedlings was in progress, so we got to see a totally different geography as well as different way of village life, but the traditional stilted houses with the canoe-like wooden coffins underneath, and thatched rooves were similar, as was the friendliness and hospitality of the people. We bought some lovely fabric at the home of one lady weaver, and as we left, Dan met with two elderly Montaignyard women selling hand-embroidered coasters with the traditional Montaignyard star that he recognized, and "Shopper Dan" bought 5 from each lady...


































On our return to Hanoi, at our request, our guide took us to one of the workshops where disabled children hand embroider the gorgeous silk paintings that one sees all over Vietnam. These rather amazing silk & cotton embroideries, several of which now grace the Elkhorn Inn (I bought most at a stall in Saigon's "Chinatown" market for $15 each!), perfectly illustrate the Vietnamese landscapes: the rice paddies glisten in the sun, and when the sunlight changes, everything shimmers, just like in a silk painting... There are obviously hundreds of talented artists designing silk paintings, for as we traveled around the country we saw everything from landscapes to abstracts to stil-lifes rendered in intricate embroidery, and tables of children at several "tourist stops" busily creating them... Driving back to Hanoi, we passed the endless construction of brightly-painted new townhouses, cheek-by-jowl with cattle grazing and water lilly farms on the highway medians... and 4 billion motorcyclists!








The next day we (happily) left our bags at the Hilton, and went off on our 2 day Halong Bay Junk Cruise with Buffalo Tours, which was truly one of the romantic highlights of our trip. The first afternoon, after a leisurely sail from the bustling port out into the serene & peaceful bay, we got to kayak through an absolutely gorgeous bay-scape of mountains and mist, mirror-still water, and colorful junks... Landing our kayaks in the sand, we did the 1000-step climb up the mountain to look out over the fabulous view of the bay... and then paddled our way back to our dragon-headed junk... Dan even went swimming, cannonballing off the deck!






















































































































































At night, after dining, we sipped our wine out on deck, chatting with John Trolan, the author of "Slow Punctures" and "Any Other Time", and his wife, and the other guests, watching the tiny lights of the junks twinkling in the darkness... readily imagining ourselves in the 19th century...






Our stateroom was adorable and romantic, and it was a Wonderful night... After breakfast the next day, the Junk docked so we could hike up & down through one of the huge caves filled with stalagmites & stalagtites... AND we got to rub the head of another "lucky turtle"! We were told that this had been a "party cave" where vilagers held special events, and I could easily imagine what fun it would be to have a wild party there...













We then slowly (and too soon for me!) sailed back to "civilzation", spending the night again at the Hanoi Opera Hilton. Our last night in Hanoi we took a cab to to Bobby Chinn's, "the" Hanoi hot spot, and I finally got to wear my red-&-silver 5" heels... We had a late supper of yummy Vietnamese appetizers amidst the divinely sexy, silky red draperies...

The next morning, we flew Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi to Danang (Business Class! With linen and china and real silversware!), and then on to Pleiku... for the start of our REAL adventure! The primary goal of our trip to Vietnam was to go to the Central Highlands, where Dan had spent much of his time in Vietnam in the 1960s. The Central Highlands has only recently opened up to tourism, and when I first started planning this trip there was little in the way of information on the 'net; we had decided to just 'wing it' once we got to Vietnam. Shortly before we left, I read an article about Mr. Nguyen do Huynh and his tours to some of the hundreds of villages of the Central Highlands on http://www.travelfish.org/feature/86, a website specializing in Southeast Asian tourism, and we corresponded via email. I called him from Hanoi and he told us to take a $20 taxi from the Pleiku airport to his office at the Dakbla Hotel in Kontum, and so we did! We stayed right there at the Dakbla Hotel, (simple, clean, and $23/night- no points needed!), and had most of our meals at the Dakbla Restaurant around the corner, which not only had our fave Dalat Wines & great food (including an amazing chili-salt that would make Anything taste great!), but was decorated with a wonderful collection of Montaignyard village artifacts and wall mosaics of the Montaignyard star... The next day we embarked on a gentle "trek" with Mr. Huynh into the highlands, joined by Marie, a young Belgian tourist. We started out riding to the Bahnar Village by motorcycle, which was wonderful fun, with me shooting all sorts of lopsided pictures as we whizzed over bridges and thru villages! Begining at one of the village "Community Huts", we walked through the mountainous countryside of rubber plantations and tapioca fields. We had a picnic lunch by the Dakbla (Black) River, and a bit of a swim, and then took a dugout canoe back down the river. I thus got to see the ridgeline Dan had walked... and Dan got to see again a place he is deeply tied to. He loved seeing the children joyously playing at the water's edge along the river... The one thing that most amazed (and saddened) him, however, was that the jungle he remembered so well- and thus the tigers and monkeys and other animals- is no more. What remains of the jungle is now many, many miles away, and Mr. Huynh does treks into the jungle- which we both Badly want to return for...






At one village we met the elderly musician- over 100 years old- who is truly a national treasue, and a friend of Mr. Huyns father...

























Downtown Kontum...














We took our breakfast each morning at the "fancy" hotel (internet in the lobby- yay!) around the corner overlooking Kontum & the river...

Ox carts crossing the river at dusk...




















Trying the4 local drink...












One of the most extraordinary and touching things we experienced was how Dan was greeted in the villages we visited- with hugs and thanks, in both English and French, and great, very real, affection... And yes, we got to taste all sorts of wonderful new drinks, too!






















One of my wobbly "motorcycle photos"...


The next day Mr. Huyn took us to visit several villages, starting with a fascinating Jarai cemetary in Plei Ro Lay, where he explained the customs of the people and the wonderful carvings which decorate the tombs, and how the tombs are created, kept, maintained, and then abandoned after 7 years...

















































We asked Mr. Huyn about the unique, hand-loomed mountain fabrics that Dan remembered from his time serving in this area, and Mr. Huyn took us to the studio of a lovely lady weaver who is exactly Dan's age (61), and from her we bought a beautiful piece of her hand-loomed fabric... This waqs the most special birthday present I could imagine...

























We got to climb up into and sit in one of the traditional Community Huts that is the center of each village, me for the first time...










Then we went to the home of Mr. Huynh's brother, who now works as an evironmental activist to try to stop the destruction of the last of Vietnam's jungle and the illegal logging and poaching. We sat around his kitchen table and drank beer, and then made toasts over shots of Mystery Liquor... and then a giant jar of liquor was proffered that even I couldn't stomach (it had something floating in it that I recognized...), & Marie demurred as well... But Dan, who knew it well & is put off by naught, shared a drink of it with The Guys, & our honor was saved! To sit around that table, eating fruit and drinking, toasting (with Mr. Huyn playfully demanding of me "look at my eyes when you make a toast!"), and talking about all our lives- past, present and future- was extraordinary and wonderful, and something we will Never forget...


Each afternoon Mr. Huynh managed to get us back to Kon Tum just before the sky opened up with the daily, 4p.m. torential downpour!

























































The rubber plantations...


































On our first "trek": Lunch, by the Dakbla (Black) River... a bit of a swim... and then going down the Dakbla River in a dugout canoe...



















































Our fave Kon Tum restaurant- the Dakbla Restaurant:












The afternoon of the second day, Mr. Huynh took us to Plei Ro Ghia, a Bahnar Village, and then Konhngor, a village of the Rongao people, where we saw the ox carts crossing the river at the end of a working day...

Mr. Huynh is an extraordinary and truly Young man, who, at the age of 51 (only 2 years older than I), has led a rather amazing life already... as has his family... He has an exceptional knowledge of the Highland's 400+ villages, and not only speaks English and French, but village dialects, as well, making him an excellent tour guide. We are SO fortunate to know him, and to have had him for our guide! If anyone deserves to be the Top Guy of Vietnam's burgeoning Central Highlands tourism, it is Mr. Huynh. He is truly a poet, as well, and when I asked him to write for me the names of the villages that we had vistied, this is what he wrote:

Where you were, for Elisse and Daniel:
Where you were the breeze whispers with grass, Birds singing in the thick jungle, River moving to ocean with the old saga, Sunshine reflects to the surface of stream, Where you were the nature hears you whisopering to each other, That is where your soul will never forget, A part of your heart would be here, The country of mysterious love.
Nguyen do Huynh
This last afternoon, being March 31 and the Night Before My Birthday, Mr. Huynh had asked if we'd like to have a special roasted lemongrass-chicken dish for dinner. We thought that a Fine idea, and I went up to change into a Festive Birthday Party Dress... We all met for dinner and rode (by motorcycle, in the rain!) to a small restaurant down a sidestreet that I could never find again in a million years, and seated around a table laden with the special lemongrass chicken, and thin-sliced beef and pork on the grill, dipping sauces, flatbreads, and bottles of (woo-hoo!) Hanoi Vodka (a nice, gentle saki-type drink, as it turned out), had THE most Totally Amazing Birthday Dinner I could ever have dreamed of! Mr. Huyn arrived with Marie, and presented me with a stunning bouquet of 49 red roses that made me feel like Miss Kontum 1959! That the dinner then became a Chinook Helicopter Reunion made it unbelievably wonderful... I will say only that this dinner party was truly the highluight of our 5 weeks in Asia- it was that extraordinary!
























We returned to the Dakbla Hotel via motorcycle, me clutching my bouquet of roses and a souvenier bottle of Hanoi Vodka...

The next day, after refueling ourselves with great Highlands coffee, we decided to forgo the 4-hour bus ride (one experiece we both felt we could live without), and took a taxi to Quy Nhon on the sea... Our driver was charming, stopping to get us cans of warm root beer, and for me to take





















photos of some of the beautiful green valleys between the mountains. The road was Very Route 52-ish (a narrow, winding, 2-lane mountain highway), and Dan regaled me with his experiences on this road in a deuce-&-a-half, which must have been totally terrifying... Our driver, obviously trying to please us, played his one tape of Celine Dion over and over and over... He kindly chose our hotel for us, too, which turned out to be great, taking us to the Hoang Yen, a high-rise hotel on the sea. The neon sign looked to me from afar to read "Hang Ten", and that is what I will ever refer to it as! For $45/night we got a Honeymoon Room on the top floor with a small balcony overlooking the sea, as romantic a spot as one could ever want! Quy Nhon is a still-sleepy Vietnamese seaside resort, as well as a University town, and hasn't (yet) been discovered by western tourists, and it was fun to be the only tourists walking along the water past all the colorful fishing boats, watching the fishermen in small round dish-like woven basket-boats... and see the 40-year-old US Army trucks, still hauling stuff up and down the beach!


































The view fropm our room...








We walked for miles, all over town, stopping periodically for Gin & Tonics at the rooftop bar of the "fancy" hotel overlooking the city and sea...









We found the city museum- complete with a "tank cafe"... and spent an entire afternoon trying to figure out where the US military runway was, until finally finding out it was now the 4-lane highway!

































Quy Nhon's Hot Disco, however, turned out to be at our very own "Hang Ten", and we spent our last night in Quin Yan enjoying drinks, tropical fruit, and karoke, while watching the university students and off-duty soldiers dance up a storm to a thunderously pulsating techno beat that I can still feel! Dan even spun me around the dance floor in a Lindy Hop to the cheers of the karaoke-rs! As I noted before, the motorcycle helmet has become The Fashion Statement, and several of the disco kings were dancing in military-style steel-pot helmets, one even emblazoned with "M.P."! We had some excellent meals in Quin Yan, including one of local crab, and I just Had to try the local booze (the cheapest thing on our hotel's liquor menu, by the by...) Ruou Bau Da Nhu Tram, the specialty liquor of Binh Dihn. Deceptively, it came to us in a gift box, a tender, pale green porcelain "teapot", covered with delicate, violet relief flowers (which now decorates the Elkhorn Inn), complete with an adorable little footed ceramic shot glass... and turned out to be THE most stunningly powerful evil whisky either of us had ever drank! As in "Elisse had to drink it, because Dan wouldn't touch it" powerful! Truly Wicked stuff! :-)
Tune in again shortly for the Final Installment of "Dan & Elisse's Excellent Adventure!

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