Friday, August 19, 2011

Baht, Kip, Dong, the Road to Saigon

I get a real warm fuzzy from counting the millions in currency found in my wallet at any given time. It's great fun watching the ATMs spitting out bills in denominations of 500,000.
To Saigon
Of course it's  Dong, the currency of Viet Nam,  and the exchange rate is roughly 20,000 Dong to the dollar. I am SO confused. Most ATMs will only give you 2,000,000 a hit which is about $100 so the nice warm fuzzy comes fairly often. But Saigon is not an expensive place. We've had some very nice meals very cheaply and street food costs almost nothing. As a city it's hard to think of a comparison place but Manhattan, some areas of Manhattan, come to mind. There  is plenty of energy and it's a very aggressively capitalistic place. There are most major international hotel chains represented in some posh buildings. The real high rise commercial construction is just beginning. There's one nearly finished glass and steel creation which will be interesting when completed. There is every very high end name in fashion and apparel to be found.
"Reunification Palace" Saigon
In government architecture it seems much more a capitol city than does Hanoi, but  in practice no place could be any less "communist". That historic bad joke was given up on about twenty years ago in Viet Nam although the "party" remains the one  political entity allowed. 

We're here for another day and then we take the bus to Phnom Penh for a couple days before taking a boat up the river to Siem Reap and a few days at Angkor Wat. From Siem Reap we'll fly back to Langkawi via Kuala Lumpur. The plan is to put Airsteam to bed and come home on the first of September. We'll leave it in the water at Rebak marina. That's what we did last year and it worked out very well.

This trip began with a couple days visiting old haunts in Bangkok. The Thai 'Baht', about 30 to the dollar. We had a lovely lunch with a friend at the Mandarin Oriental, one of the great hotels in the world.
Lunch at the Oriental
We stayed at the Novotel Siam Square which was my old layover hotel flying with Northwest. And we took the new SkyTrain to and from the airport which is a vast improvement in speed and comfort from using a taxi on the roads.

Bangkok was fine but we've both been there plenty. Vientiane, the Laotian capitol,  was new territory and Lao Airlines was a new carrier for us. Vientiane is an hour flight and as different from Bangkok as Ensenada is from San Diego. The Laotian 'Kip', about 8000 to the dollar. I was just starting to get confused.
The "vertical runway" Vientiane
Vientiane is a city of about 300,000 on the north bank of the Mekong but it has a small town atmosphere and is certainly the most laid back national capitol I've ever seen. The Lao people seem exceptionally sweet. There is no high rise construction in the city. Traffic is not heavy and the mopeds and bicycles far outnumber the autos.
Vientiane, from the top
The old French influence is very strong in architecture and food. There are very good bakeries and western food as well as the Lao fare which we enjoyed. It's a very inexpensive city. We got a couple of the best massages we've ever had in a nice spa for about $12 for an hour and a half. The site seeing is good for a couple days at least.  I enjoyed Vientiane whereas Janet felt it was just TOO third world.
Downtown "strip", Vientiane

Family travel, Vientiane
After a few days in Vientiane Janet couldn't wait for the big city of Hanoi. And Hanoi is a fair sized place at about four million folks. Again we flew Lao Airlines.  Things are definitely different  from Vientiane. It's hard to imagine the Lao folks trying very hard to scam anyone. In Hanoi one of the most well organized and aggressive taxi scams in the world operates on a large scale at the airport. The Vietnamese are out after the Dong, number one! 

Elegance Ruby Hotel, Hanoi
We had arranged transportation from the airport through our hotel. Even then, as you exit the terminal arrival area the taxi guys will ask what hotel and when you tell them another guy will come up waving a sign from that hotel. The idea is to lure you to another hotel with a similar name far from your intended destination and then either get you to check in there or hit you for a big taxi fare. This was tried on us but our real hotel had our names and an identification code to confirm the ride so we didn't have a problem. Beware taxis in Hanoi. There were about fifty guys hanging around in the arrivals lounge playing this game. The city itself sprawls along the banks of the Red River. There is almost no high rise construction. You may have guessed this is something I like in a  city. It seems a much more naturally human place to me. Big modern sky scrapers are exciting to look at in themselves but I'd rather look at a city of trees and buildings of a more modest scale. Rome, Venice and Washington DC come to mind. Paris would be a far better place without the Tour Montparnasse . Hanoi is probably the most French seeming city I've seen outside France. We stayed in the Old Quarter  in a very nice small hotel. The street we were on was three paces wide and could easily have been mistaken for a back street in Montparnasse.

On the street, the Old Quarter
Except that on the narrow curbs people were cooking meals and slaughtering chickens and parking motorbikes chockablock and selling vegetables and cutting hair and basically using the curbs and the street as an outdoor communal living room and business center. We did our site seeing. The Maison Centrale (the "Hanoi Hilton") and some temples and museums.
Remnants of the "Hanoi Hilton"
But Hanoi itself is the main attraction. We had some good meals, western and Vietnamese, and the prices were varied from inexpensive to very, very inexpensive. Getting lost in the old quarter is impossible to avoid even when you're trying and it's a pleasure unless you're in a hurry. There's little reason to hurry in Hanoi.
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Broken leg? Wonder how that happened?
Cyclo drivers hustling rides in Hanoi
From Hanoi is was another new-to-us carrier, Viet Nam Airlines, to Hue and then to Saigon. I will say that both Lao Airlines and Viet Nam Airlines were completely professional and we had no complaints of any kind. Lao flies ATR 72 aircraft, I don't believe they have any jets, but the aircraft were clean inside and out, they left and arrived on time or early  and everyone seemed very well trained, happy enough and professional. I think an airline which manages to look good from the outside is usually, not always,  acceptably good inside the operation as well. I could say the same for Viet Nam Airlines except that they are much larger and international. We flew Airbus A321 aircraft from Hanoi to Hue and Hue to Saigon and had good flights.
Air Viet Nam triple seven
Hue is another relatively small Asian city, about 300,000 people, and it seems smaller. The city is built along the banks of the Perfume River. The French influence is very pronounced in architecture and atmosphere but this is the old capitol city of imperial Viet Nam.
Common local craft, the "drop tank boat", Perfume River, Hue
The tombs and dwelling places of the emperors are the primary tourist attractions and since many of the best of them are near the river, a river tour is the thing to do when in Hue. We had a fun day with the two of us on a boat doing the sites. The tombs and palaces at Tu Duc are perhaps the loveliest we've seen anywhere in Asia.

At Tu Duc
The  guy and his wife who owned, operated and lived aboard the boat were fun and she cooked us a great lunch on board.

Lunch on the Perfume River

'Our' boat
The other main attraction in Hue is the massive, rather grim old Citadel. There is big big flag on top of the tower but there once was a better one. I had to go wander around the southern walls while Janet was sightseeing in the very nice Imperial Enclosure. For me, the Citadel evokes a lot of old memories.
The Citadel
We  really enjoyed Hue and I think Hanoi and Hue are well worth a visit if you're in this part of the world. Saigon, well the verdict is still out here. Not that it isn't an interesting city now but as of yet I'm not sure it's worth the hassle of getting here.
Estimated 5.6 million motorcycles in Saigon
There are a lot of interesting cities in the world and so far the new  Saigon, other than a really outstanding Vietnamese dinner we had last night, hasn't shown me much of special appeal. There is some nice architecture remaining. There is plenty of really good food. The 'sites' are not much. The 'War Remnants' museum is almost funny in a sad sort of way.
"People's Committee Hall" Saigon
If nothing else  these cities make it clear to those of us who were young and in the military during the Viet Nam war that the war was forty years ago. There's almost nothing outside the museums remaining in Viet Nam from the war. Most Vietnamese and most Americans were not alive during the war. The world has moved on. This is as it should be.

So we're outta here day after tomorrow for Phnom Penh. Sorry if this has been a bit of a book but I could go on about much more. Thanks for reading.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet

Monday, August 1, 2011

Catch of the Day! Back in Rebak.

Here it is folks. Some sort of record I'm sure. We thought about weighing it or measuring it or something. 
The Catch
We picked up this beauty about 17 nautical miles north of Tarutoa, 41 nautical north of Rebak about four in the afternoon.  No wind so we were motoring in rather sloppy but not unpleasant conditions. First indication of a strike was a banging on the aft portion of the hull at about the speed you'd expect from something wrapped around a propeller. I put it in neutral ASAP and we started looking around. Low and behold, Janet saw this little beauty hanging out beneath the stern.
There's more!
When we broke loose the bamboo she claims the pole was eighteen feet long. I got into snorkeling gear in short order and saw a cloud of net and debris wrapped around the prop. I said, "Oh darn!" or words to that effect. Trying to back out in reverse just killed the engine as it wrapped up tighter around the prop. More 'words to that effect'. So it was time for the scuba solution and anybody who's ever tried to work beneath a boat in about four feet of sloppy, choppy sea knows what fun that can be. After burning through about 1500 psi and not making appreciable progress on the giant fur ball and getting nicely beat up by the boat trying just to hang on it occurred to me that this might not be the smartest thing I had done in awhile.
I wish these guys would hang onto their gear.

We are, after all, a sailboat. We don't need no stinking engine, right? No wind? We wait. There will be wind, eventually. So twenty two hours later we docked at Rebak after covering the 41 remaining miles under sail and getting a final tow into the slip by Noel of 'Yacht Supply' in Rebak. Most of the afternoon and night was spent at zero to two knots just trying to keep steerage on the boat and trying not to get run down by Thai fishing boats. 
Sunrise with light air
By mid morning the wind finally filled in, right on the nose of course, and we had a nice beat the final 15 miles or so into the marina entrance. I will say it was rather fun trying to get the most out of the boat on a relatively short leg working to windward. It's not something we do much while cruising but it was one of the great challenges and joys of racing.

Today I dove the boat at high tide in the marina. I used the biggest kitchen knife we have and only about 500 psi of air cutting off the rotton old net and line. Our fellow yachties were all quite impressed by the size of the beast. The prop, transmission, etc, all seem to be OK. No blood, no foul.
Sea Gypsy

This little adventure occurred on the way from Yacht Haven in Phuket to Rebak in Malaysia. We stopped at Ko Phi Phi Don again on the way and spent a couple days.
Janet and "Wanida"
 Took a 'long tail' boat  trip over to neighboring Ko Phi Phi Le which really is one of the most beautiful spots we've ever seen. It is a magnificent, uninhabited karst island with a wonderful 'hong' where much of the movie, "The Beach" was filmed. We got over there early enough to dodge most of the daily tourist hoard and it was gorgeous. One of those places which lives up to it's reputation.
At Ko Phi Phi Le
The 'catch' occurred en-route from Ko Phi Phi Don. Anyone who has frequented these waters knows the immense amount of junk in the sea, discarded fishing gear and other crap, is just a factor you can not always avoid.

Rebak Resort
So now we're comfortable in Rebak Marina, Langkawi, Malaysia,  the place we left the boat last year, and a lovely spot. The marina is part of the Rebak Resort and a private island. It's very quiet and luxurious. Yachties have access to the resort facilities and pool and also have a marina restaurant and store which is much less expensive than the resort. Much of the best of both worlds. The island itself is heavily forested. There are monkeys and Horn Bills and big monitor lizards around the grounds.  We'll do a few boat jobs and plan our land travel. In a few days we'll take off for a couple weeks of Laos, Viet Nam and Cambodia. Then we'll put the boat away and be home around the first of September.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream