Thursday, April 7, 2011

And we are home now!

It's been a week since I last wrote and we've been home since Sunday! I keep telling myself I should finish up with the trip blog, but then other things, like sleep, keep getting in the way. Today, I'm up at a normal time and I have a little time before I have to get to other things to do, so here I go; I'm going to finish the trip log.
I last left off when we had arrived in Saigon in time for dinner and bed. We left early the next morning, heading for Can Tho, on the Mekong Delta. The rice paddies are bigger than further north; the houses are not packed into villages with the paddies all around, but rather sit individually in the middle of paddies. There are many more family tombs in the paddies, too. That's an old custom that had died out, more or less, in the north. The houses are bigger, but sometimes just look like shacks made of corrugated tin set together like playing cards. Our guide told us that in the south, people don't care much for what their houses look like as long as they provide adequate shelter. He explained that many people build without permits, because getting a permit is a long, dragged out affair and can be expensive. They go ahead and build -- quickly -- hoping to be finished before the local police notice. And if the police do notice, they'll pay off and get a receipt, which is cheaper than the permit. If the government decides to take back the land, they will not get any indemnity for the house.
We got on a boat that took us through a floating market on one of the main branches of the delta river. We stopped to see how they make coconut milk caramels! We also saw how they refine the salt collected from the salt paddies -- it comes loaded with lots of sand and other impurities and is diluted in fresh water, which is heated and then the salt other solids separate, leaving the salt to form a crust that can be collected. They use rice husks for fuel. We also saw a woman make paper-thin rice wrappers, both the sweet version and the regular one used for spring rolls. We saw the caramel making and the rice popping for sweet bar cookies. And then we were set at a table for tea and tastings. Finally, we were set free in the shop and allowed to ask the price and look for what we liked. No pressure. Under such favorable conditions, we bought plenty!
We had lunch - a home-cooked meal. Could have fooled me. It sure looked like a restaurant, with three or four sections that could each hold two or three boatloads of 20 or so people. That's an elephant-ear fish, deep-fried with its scales. The scales are easy to scrape off when you're ready to serve. You make your own little spring rolls with a bit of fish, cucumber, salad and mint. That fish was enough for six of us. Of course, it wasn't the only dish for lunch; we also had pork and beef dishes, as well as vegetables and some vegetable soup.
We stopped at a tree nursery, too, before getting to Vinh Long, where we boarded the bus again for the ride to Can Tho.
Can Tho is a booming riverfront town, very pleasant. It's filled with tourists, both foreign and Vietnamese. We had a little time to walk around before dinner. Paul went exploring, but I rested. We walked to dinner on the river front, had a very nice dinner and then strolled back to the hotel for a drink up at the rooftop bar with a view of the city lights at night.
The next morning we set off in a boat again to see another floating market. These are wholesale markets. The bigger boats have tons of melons or cabbage or sugar cane, etc. and the smaller "retailers" come by to pick up what they need for their shops. Other people, like the woman in the photo, come by serving soup or drinks. This is a region of churches. There seem to be more Catholics here than Buddhists.
We left Can Tho after the morning river jaunt and headed for Saigon. According to our guide, about 75% of the population still refer to the city as Saigon; another 20% will just say "the city", leaving only a few people calling it Ho Chi Minh City. We stopped at a luxurious roadside restaurant stop for an excellent lunch and got to Saigon in the afternoon. We had dinner/traditional music show at the Majestic Hotel (famous journalist meeting place during the Vietnam War). The hotel is a 1924 masterpiece and is beautifully maintained. Our own hotel was strange; it was a suite hotel, so we had plenty of room, but they put up a fight before giving us a couple of small bottles of water (an obligation in countries where the tap water is not potable), the electrical outlets are few and hard to find and UK-standard once you find one. 
(About electrical outlets -- in Cambodia, they've got real multi-standard outlets, so Europeans and Americans can generally get their plugs to fit. I think Australians can, too, as can the Brits. In Vietnam, it was usually continental European standard, but sometimes US, sometimes a US-European hybrid.)
Back to Saigon. We had Saturday morning free. I went to a spa with Mireille and we had full-body, oil massages followed by a manicure and pedicure. A lovely, relaxing morning. Lunch at a Chinese restaurant and then, finally, a quick tour of the city (the Reunification Palace, formerly the Presidential Palace, the Cathedral and the Art Deco post office) before 5:00, when Monique and Gerard left the group to continue for an extra few days in Cambodia visiting the Angkor sites. The rest of us waited in a 5-star hotel lobby for our own bus to the airport.
Terry and Roger, I can't help but think that you would love visiting Saigon and Hanoi. They have kept some of the most beautiful pre-WWII buildings!
For some unknown reason, just before boarding, Paul was given an upgrade to Premium Economy (same economy seats and meals, but more leg room). Very kindly, he refused unless I, too, was upgraded. They said, "no", but a few minutes later came back with the upgrade for me. We still don't know why. Why the upgrade in the first place, why they couldn't, then could upgrade me. We certainly appreciated the leg room.
Emma picked us up at the airport; Anne came over for lunch; we slept. Louis and Gwen came over last night for a light dinner. Paul's cold has turned into something a bit worse and he's going to see the doctor, finally, today; my cold has run its course. The insulation work has started in the attic; they've gotten rid of the old insulation. I'm working on lunch reservations for our big family birthday weekend in 10 days. Back to normal.

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