Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Hey there,
We have been gone from the blog for a while. Yes, we are back at it now. While we were in China, we did not have access to our google applications. As you can probably guess, the blog posts are a bit back dated, but we will keep them coming so you can share in the adventures. Well catch up at some point.

We took a day tour out of Ho Chi Minh City into the Mekong delta. It is a large region in which the Mekong river fans out creating lots of little islands, but lots of small communities as well.

The adventure began with a boat ride up the river.

Our first stop was at a bee farm. We had the chance to try some of the local honey as well as some other surprises.

OOH, Scary bees. " Careful, dont drop it!"

Some snakes are pets....

Some snakes are made into hooch, that's right Vietnam moonshine.

The call it
snake wine or shéjǐu in Vietnamese. It is a strong rice wine in which they put cobras, scorpions, and other strange creatures. It has been used in the past for medicinal uses, but I think that it was the high alcohol content that got the patient feeling better.

We were served a snack of local fruits with tea. Mmm, my favorite part of being in South East Asia.

We boarded the boat again and went to another island to tour a coconut candy factory. The process was demonstrated from start to finish. First was the removal of the hull and then they broke in to the nut itself to remove the meat.

The white meat is then ground in to a pulp.

The pulp then goes into a press and squeezed like apple cider to extract the sweet milk.

Using the shells from the coconut to fuel the fire, the milk is cooked down to create a gooey taffy.

The taffy is cooled, pressed in to a mold, cut and then hand wrapped.

After the candy portion of the tour, we took bikes and rode through the villages in the area.

A boy selling fruits and veggies.

Lunch time. There was a local fish with white eyes that they deep fried whole. It was said to be a tasty local dish, but we passed. I still don't regret that choice. ( I did try the snake wine though)

A water buffalo. "Nice little guy." (scratch, scratch, scratch)

Our ride back to the boat was great. We hopped aboard a small boat and rowed down some swampy canals. Wearing the peaked rice hats, we kept our eyes peeled for alligators and snakes.

Along with us on the tour was a sweet Vietnamese couple who kindly shared their culture and answered numerous questions that we had.

The tours was a bit cheesy at times and we were sold stuff, but it was fun in the same right. We got to see alot in one day. Final consensus... a recommended experience.

NEXT: A quick stop in Singapore in route to Bangalore, India.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Many of the locals still referred to the city as Saigon, the capital's name before the war and communism. Ho Chi Minh city was more developed than we anticipated. It was refreshing to have a number of options for restaurants and other city like amenities. We frequented a cheery cafe, around the corner from our hotel, named the Pearl in Pham Nu Lao, the backpackers area . They had terrific drinks which were refreshing after adventures around the city.

A large market down the street was an amusing place to shop as well as just wander. There was a full array of products from foods to clothes, tourist trinkets and hardware. We found some fantastic bamboo and fabric lanterns which came in many colors. Couldn't pass them up.

A shot from the 8 th floor of Madame Cuc's Hotel 64, our tiny hotel with no elevator. There was a winch which we could raise our bags up on when we had ascended the spiral staircase. The staff was terrific. We were always warmly welcomed and offered something to eat or drink. We received complimentary toast and jam, bananas, coffee, and juice in the mornings, and a bowl of instant noodles for dinner in the evenings.

As you can see from the previous picture the buildings are all squeezed in. They tend to be very narrow but tall. The powerlines were also interesting. They were masses of wires. It seemed as though everyone had their own personal line.

The quaint style which was prevalent throughout the city.

The traffic in the city is quite exciting. It is a river of scooters and a few cars slowing cruising along and honking. The horn is not used in anger, but a signal of presence and a way to say, "I am coming through."

One of our day trips out of the city was to Chu Chi Tunnels. They were located about an hour and a half north of the city. The tunnels were occupied and used by the Viet Cong during the war. It was interesting to experience. Our guide did a great job explaining all of the details.

Many of the entrances were originally very small and well disguised.

Jesse took the opportunity to check out some of the dark passageways. It was a tight squeeze.

A tank in the very spot in which it broke down during the war.

Various types of booby traps hand had been reconstructed and were on display. They were rather gruesome. The Vietnam war is remembered for the intense jungle warfare.

Remains of bombshells which didn't detonate when dropped.

We were served tapioca and hot tea. This was a staple food for the Vietnamese during the war.

Our trip to the Chu Chi tunnels was interesting. It is really hard to imagine the war actually taking place right where we were. During the war the jungle was defoliated by Agent Orange, but it is now regrown and looks more normal. The guide pointed out various craters which were where B-52's had dropped bombshells.

We visited the war museum in Ho Chi Minh. It was a different take on the war. The museum had been constructed by the communists and was slanted against the American presence during the war. Filtering facts and propaganda was difficult.

The scenery on the way home from the tunnels was rather pleasant. Villages, farms, and rubber trees.

Another fun look at different the way people transport things.

Chels and I had fun going out in the evenings and browsing the markets. We got caught in a downpour as we headed back one evening. We made a break for a busy pavilion in a park. It was packed with people having a dance party. Many who wouldn't have normally joined in dancing were pulled in because they were avoiding the rain. It was quite memorable.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

NOTE: The following pictures are a bit graphic, but it is a real reminder of how a government treated its own people. It is important not to forget the atrocities, but to understand them, so that this type of leader or government does not rise again.

Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Phen, has varying facets. It is dazzling but dirty, and has a tragic past but optimistic future.

The city has a number of dazzling temples.

It also had a number of dirty ghettos.

The National Museum contains many Khmer artifacts. Some from the temples that we had seen earlier this week.

As we traveled through Cambodia we really enjoyed talking to the people. They are filled with energy and life. It was pleasant to see all the smiles as we went about. With a very rough history behind them they look toward the future. They are extremely sincere and warm.

Everywhere we go we see creative ways of transport. It is amazing how everyday life for some can be such a novelty for others.

One of the most tragic parts of the Cambodian History was the Pol Pot regime. His reign of terror, 1975-1979, ruthlessly imposed a form of Maoist Communism onto the people resulting in a massive genocide. It is difficult to summarize the magnitude of the atrocities Pol Pot committed against his own people in an attempt to rebuild the once great Khmer empire.

Here is an excerpt from The Peace Pledge Union's website just to get you started.

"All political and civil rights were abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labour camps. Factories, schools and universities were shut down; so were hospitals. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and professional people in any field (including the army) were murdered, together with their extended families. Religion was banned, all leading Buddhist monks were killed and almost all temples destroyed. Music and radio sets were also banned. It was possible for people to be shot simply for knowing a foreign language, wearing glasses, laughing, or crying. One Khmer slogan ran 'To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss."

One of the prisons in which the educated were held and tortured can be visited today. It is known as S21 or Tuol Sleng. It was formerly a high school.

The old classrooms are pretty grizzly. The floor stained from blood, and the beds in which prisoners were strapped to and tortured still remain. Visiting places like this isn't always pleasant.

The guards were required to meticulously keep records of all the prisoners and treatments, just as the Nazis did. It is horrifying to review.

People were hung upside down and beat until unconscious, their heads were then dunked into vats of water so that they would regain consciousness only to resume the treatment. The regime forced people to admit that they were conspirators or had committed crimes against the party. The regime needed "evidence", which they extruded from the torture victims, why the

Photos of torture victims.

One thing that we were told to look for was the generation gap in the population. An estimated total of 1.7 million people were killed during a period which lasted about four years, this being about 20% of the population. Today as you ride down the streets in a Tuk Tuk it becomes strangely obvious that there is a generation of people who are missing. Individuals around the age of 40 to 50 are fewer and further between.

From the city we took a ride out to what is known as the killing fields. The Tuk Tuk rides can be a be a mixture of the pleasant and repugnant as the small three wheeled buggy is open to the street on either side with a canvas covering. This allows you to take in all the smells and sounds first hand. No AC here. Along the way we had magnificent views of rice fields, the aroma of street vendors food, sounds of children playing, and plenty of dust to dull all of the senses.

The equivalent of a general store:

A gas station and tire shop:

Bananas for sale:

Countryside homes:

Houses on stilts above rice paddies. Although scenic, it is quite sad to see the poverty.

We arrived at the killing fields which were situated a ways out of the city. This is where the prisoners from S21 prison were brought when they were tired of housing them. Many other civilians including women and children were also brutally brought, killed, and then dumped in mass graves at this location. Today a monument has been constructed which houses remains of the victims.

The skulls are stacked in layers.

Records reveal that often the execution was done by primitive tools in order to save ammunition. People were bound, blindfolded, and then beat to death.

A photo of the mass graves in the S21 museum.

The remains. Craters amongst trees.

Being that 1979 was not that long ago, remains continue to come to the surface as each rain causes the ground to settle. Clothes can be seen which have not yet fully decomposed, and bone fragments and teeth are scattered about. The reality of it all is very overwhelming when experienced first hand.

Clothes cling to the wall of the sunken pits. Research and excavations show that many were naked when buried.

We returned to the city after a moving afternoon. Visiting these parts of Cambodia was something that we really wanted to do. I believe the experience will stick with us for a while.

Next stop....Vietnam.