Sunday, April 19, 2015

Taiwan, the Other China

Wandering around Taipei
After a 4-hour direct flight on the upscale Taiwanese Airline EVA from Singapore to Taiwan, we landed outside of the city’s capitol of Taipei.  It was growing dark by this time, but we had an affable, well-spoken 54-year old driver named “Jerry” waiting for us, who hustled us over to the Yomi Hotel where we would spend the next five nights in this new country.  Upon arrival at our hotel, we tried to give a monetary tip to Jerry for his taxi service, but he wouldn’t hear of it; he just sincerely wanted us to have a good time while in Taiwan, sans tip.

Taiwanese beer was soooo good!!
First, a little background on the city of Taipei. The Taipei Metropolitan area is located at the very northern tip of the Island of Taiwan, just 125 miles off the coast of mainland China.  It is made up of three contiguous cities - Taipei City (the capitol of Taiwan), New Taipei, and Keelung. The Taipei Metropolitan area is a typically busy city of 7 million, with lots of tall modern buildings, bustling vehicles, a modern subway, and scurrying business people everywhere.  Taiwan is a relatively small island; consequently, land is limited for expansion on Taiwan, and it is quite a densely populated country.  New construction must mostly be built vertically to minimize the premiums that would be incurred by growing sideways for new property gains.  

On the streets of Taipei (notice the 7-Eleven!)
It seemed hard to believe that we had made a transfer to another Asiatic country, but this time, it was slightly different; capitalism is Taiwan’s ideology, as opposed to the predominantly communist countries that we had been visiting in the past few weeks. There was nothing startlingly different to the eye, but we spotted many global industries here that were absent in some of the other places we visited.  One thing we noticed was that there were an inordinate number of 7-Eleven's, KFC’s, Popeye’s, and Starbucks on practically every city block.  We found out later that there are over five thousand 7/11 convenience stores on Taiwan! That’s our capitalism at work, we thought, making inroads in countries that have opened their doors and embraced western commerce!

Water lilies and azaleas adorn ancient fountain
Anne was on assignment here for the Internet Blog Viator to write an article about Taipei, so as part of this venture, we took a city highlights tour to learn about this world class city that we both knew so very little about.  A delightful Chinese dude by the name of “Felix” was our tour guide for that excursion; he was a knowledgeable 58-year old who, along with his driver Mr. Shun, escorted us about the city in his air-conditioned Toyota van.

Taipei, the city of azaleas
Felix told us that Taipei was known as the “city of azaleas.” And everywhere we drove, colorful azaleas adorned the city streets in carefully manicured fashion.  We were so glad we had timed our arrival to Taipei perfectly (ha, ha) for this floral extravaganza of blooming azaleas in multiple pastels colors; it really heightened our enjoyment of the tour even more.

Good luck Buddha swastikas emblazoned on temple urn
Felix showed us a beautiful Zen Temple with a centrally located brass incense burner lined with “good luck” Buddha swastikas.  Yes, the swastika twisted in the reverse way from Hitler’s infamous moniker was a good luck symbol used by Buddha craftsman throughout the ages. Since land is at a premium here, the temple was completely surrounded by a youth center; without Felix, we would never have known it was there.
Impressive three-story  CKS Memorial

Of course Chiang Kai-Shek (CKS) was the most famous homeboy & leader of this country, so a visit to his 3-story Memorial Hall built in 1980 was inevitable.  

High-stepping Taiwanese Navy personnel performing
changing of the guard ceremony

The visit to the hall involved a very serious changing of the guard ceremony by Taiwanese Navy personnel, filled with much pomp and spit-and-polish military moves.  The main hall was located on the 3rd floor of a relatively new memorial building, and filled with many Chinese admirers of this past leader.  

CKS looking a lot like the Lincoln Memorial

The Hall portrayed a huge, brass, seated sculpture of CKS, which was actually patterned after the Lincoln Memorial in our own Washington, DC.  Like Lincoln, CKS was the president of his country; he ruled as the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Government here in Taiwan until his death in 1975.  He was responsible for many reforms and is totally loved by the people of Taiwan.

Brightly-colored Martyr's Shrine

Another stop was at the “Martyr’s Shrine,” a gorgeous building designed to look like a mini-version of the Forbidden City in Beijing. We definitely got the feeling that CKS was trying to create his own little China here on Taiwan.

National Palace Museum

As a finale to the tour, Felix took us over to the National Palace Museum in downtown Taipei, often considered by experts as one of the four greatest museums in the world.  The National Palace Museum preserves century-old Chinese art and culture and houses more than 600,000 court treasures from various Chinese dynasties.  Much jade and jade sculptures, ivory carvings, and trinkets carved from Rhino horns were on display throughout this large edifice.  These items were intriguing, but it was hard to ignore how many of these art forms would be illegal to obtain in today’s world.  And how many artists spent their entire lives creating a single masterpiece for the emperor. Just goes to show the insane need for unique opulence by rulers who could demand (and get) anything they wanted. Since money was no object, they could use the power of their throne to obtain any frivolous or absurd item they wanted.

The other interesting aspect of the National Palace Museum is that these treasures were originally stored in the Forbidden City in Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution in China, CKS saved (or stole, depending on your point of view) the greatest treasures of the Chinese court. Today, the majority of visitors to the museum come from the mainland; these are Chinese tourists who are anxious to see their country’s prized possessions. 

Weird packaged quail eggs are sold all over Tamsui
On another day, we took the metro outside of Taipei to the small town of Tamsui.  Tamsui is an historic town with lots of friendly shops, eateries, and unique indigenous stuff for tourists and locals alike.  It was a 30-minute ride that cost us a train token each (about $3 US dollars/ person), and that included the return trip too.  It couldn’t have been simpler and cheaper to ride the Taipei MRT (metro).

Street food - fried squid, anyone?
Tamsui has a few pedestrian streets lined with vendors who sell lots of street food, souvenirs, and merchandise that you’ll find nowhere in America.  Frank wanted to try the fried squid, but you had to buy too great a quantity; if he didn’t like it, it would have to be thrown away.  So he passed on squid.   He did try the quail eggs, but was not enamored of the strange flavor. 

The ginger tea was excellent, and we couldn’t walk away without buying a pack of teabags to bring home.

Of course, we had to try some of the local noodle soup. Luckily, a friendly resident named “Hugo” befriended us and directed us to a noodle house.  Inside the restaurant, a group 
Sweet young tea vendor sells Frank on her ginger tea
of older ladies, who spoke some limited English, helped us order some soup dishes.  They all did an excellent job of helping us poor “fer-in-ers!”

Living the life in Taipei with good tea and
good foot massages

Back in Taipei, we decided to get a foot massage from the kindly old Chinese man who just happened to have a massage shop next to our hotel.  Foot massages here are very inexpensive, so we absolutely  “needed” to have our sore peds “kneaded.”  We had no choice! Foot massage is available all over Asia, and you can just walk in any time -- wish we had something comparable here in the US. 

Heavenly hot towels wraps at the end of the massage 
These particular foot massages were especially delightful because after working over our feet, they massaged our calves, and then wrapped the whole works in hot, wet towels.  Ahhhh…. Nice job by the old boy and his son!!

BTW when we left Taipei, we specifically asked for Jerry to be our taxi driver. He was the same driver that brought us into Taipei from the airport on the 1st night here, and refused a tip offered by Frank. This nice man not only picked us up on time, but he provided us with a breakfast snack of delicious dumplings to enjoy during the ride to the airport. Honestly, we meet the nicest people when we travel – restores our faith in humanity!

We had a great time visiting southeastern Asia.  The people, the culture, and of course, the food were super.  Politics aside, it is a favorite spot of ours to spend holiday time.  And very few other spots in the world give you the same bang for your buck that you will get in the places we visited over the past few weeks.  If all goes well, we will be happily returning to this part of the world sometime soon.              

More pics from Taiwan:

Frank is lovin' a meat & rice breakfast
in downtown Taipei

Taipei's version of  Pho Bo,
noodle soup with beef

Anne loves slurping up noodles and
drinking her can of Taiwan beer

More Taiwanese soup for breakfast

Street food in Tamsui appears to be some kind of cooked worms
 (we didn't try it to find out!)

Taiwan's version of Pho Heo, pork soup with noodles

Dish of spicy beef with peppers

Taiwanese Pho Ga, chicken soup with noodles

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Strangely Strait-laced Singapore

Singapore skyline at night
(looks normal enough from here)
We were no strangers to Singapore, and although it is a beautiful, pristine city, we consider Singapore to be quite strange.  We’ve been here two previous times, and since it was part of our cruise ship’s agenda, we were ready to do it once again.

We never fully understand Singapore and its asinine rules -- like the ridiculous chewing gum regulations. Granted, no one likes chewing gum on the bottom of their shoe or stuck to the underside of a cafĂ© table, but chewing gum is outlawed totally in Singapore. No chewing, no selling, no possession of chewing gum is permitted. Breaking the chewing gum laws can get you a $5000 fine and 1 year in jail! 

Jaywalking is also illegal, along with hugging in public, homosexuality, adverse comments about religion in public, taking photos on the metro, failing to flush a public toilet, spitting, pornography, and peeing in an elevator (haaa).  Littering or just walking around in your house naked can get you jail time! Singapore is not a place for lefties; it is considered rude to eat, wave, or greet with your left hand because the left hand is associated with using the bathroom. If you are a smoker (we are not), cigarettes can get you fined if brought into the country or used anywhere except in your own home. Etc., etc., etc.  These questionable rules are endless. Singapore is a lovely place, but we think their desire for establishing a lovely city may have influenced the assignment of their rule set and laws beyond simple reason!  But, being cooperative, easy-going, peace-loving, visiting foreigners, we try to abide by their rules nonetheless. Although, you can understand, it was hard on Frank having to give up his peeing-in-elevators habit for a day there (LOL)!

Before we leave the topic, one last asinine thing that we learned about Singapore.  In order to own a car here in Singapore, you need to first apply for a “certificate to buy.” If you are lucky enough to be blessed by getting that certificate (which can take years), it will cost you $60,000 to $70,000 Singapore dollars just to obtain the certificate.  Next, you can go ahead and buy a car at some inflated price (often over $100,000).  And then, after paying almost $170,000 Singapore dollars (about $130,000 US), you are only allowed to keep that car for 10 years.  Why?  Because the Singapore government doesn’t want a bunch of old cars on their roads.  We were afraid to ask how much car insurance costs add to the bill!! 

Singapore apartment housing
Singapore is considered an extremely integrated society made up of roughly 74% Chinese, 13% Malaysians, 9% Indians, and a small percentage of westerners. Most people live in public housing (not a gift, they have to pay the government back, like paying a mortgage), and each building has to reflect the population breakdowns. For example, every building has to be 9% Indian-owned and 13% Malaysian-owned. The purpose is to make sure that people of various ethnicities have to interact with each other on a daily basis. Even when you sell your place, you have to sell to the same ethnic group to maintain the proper balance.

Our tour guide, Joo Ling, shows the group where
the Changi Prison was located
We took a tour on the morning of our arrival in Singapore called the “Changi World War II Tour.” Changi, as our tour guide “Joo Ling” explained, is a section of the Singapore Island where many Changi timber trees formerly grew. It is also an area with infamous associations to WWII.

The Japanese raised a lot of hell here in Singapore, Malaysia, Sumatra, Thailand, Borneo, New Guinea, and others during WWII when they occupied these lands and stole many of their natural resources for the war effort.  Many atrocities were committed by the Japanese during their occupation of these countries, including imprisonment, slavery, starvation, and outright murder as they subjugated the peoples of Indonesia.  As a note of interest, the people of Indonesia totally outnumbered the Japs during the war.  They could have won a war of attrition at any time, had they known that one weakness of their Japanese occupiers.

Changi Chapel, built by prisoners during WWII
We were first taken to Changi Museum for a poignant look at where some of the Singaporean people were interned; the Japanese jammed 3500 Singapore civilians into spaces meant for just 600.  Food rations were reduced to 1 cup of tea for breakfast, a small lump of rice the size of an acorn for lunch, and another lump of rice for dinner.  Everything was covered with lots of salt, which helped make the limited amount of food taste better and seem like it was more food than it actually was.  Great trick by the Japs!! 

Frank stares at some strange British ordnance
used during the war
We spent an hour or so here in the museum learning about the plight of the Singapore people during the war and their blatant mistreatment by the Japanese invaders. One of the most moving displays was the Changi Quilts, quilts created by the women prisoners to let their husbands and loved ones know they were still alive. Each square contained the name of the woman who made it, and a unique design that would have special meaning for her family. Our tour guide, Joo Ling, also took us to a small adjacent chapel crafted by the people of Singapore. The prisoners built several of these from whatever materials were available. The chapels offered a respite from the daily grind and a bit of hope for the Singapore internees.

Selarang Barracks where many civilians were executed
by the Japanese during WWII
We visited several other WWII remnants on Singapore – weapon installations and battle tunnels (Johore Battery), a closed-off prison with much barbed wire above its chain-linked fence enclosures sometimes called the “execution house” where many civilian executions took place (Selarang Barracks), and a neat little park called “Changi Beach Park” where the Japanese beheaded 66 Chinese civilians for some outrageous trumped-up reasons (mainly because they hated the Chinese).  

Changi Beach Park
The Japanese secret police, the “Kempeitai” murdered many civilians for various nonsensical reasons; turns out, if you were stupid and illiterate, and no threat to the Japs, you would probably live thru the occupation.  If you wore glasses, and appeared “educated,” you would be taken out and shot.

One of the lessons we came away with is how incredibly resilient people can be. At the museum, we saw a photo of a young man who looked like a cadaver; he was so emaciated. But he survived and lived to age eighty, and another photo showed him visiting the museum as a smiling, healthy-looking old man.

This tour was a great eye-opener giving us a snapshot of the history of this island, and we were glad to learn about this facet of WWII.  We know a great deal about the European side of WWII, but we continue to learn more about what happened here in Southeast Asia, which is necessary to understand the war as a whole.  

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's former Prime Minister
 who died the week we visited Singapore
One note of interest.  The founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, the very dude who enacted most of the asinine rules for Singapore that we spoke about, died this week (23 March 2015) in Singapore at the ripe old age of 91.  The prime minister ruled Singapore since 1959, and a big city-wide funeral was held on Sunday (29 March 2015).  Perhaps now Singapore will retire some of its outlandish rules, and seek normalcy as its goal.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Beat up Beyond Belief in Bangkok

Teak architecture of the Jim Thompson House
We arrived in busy Bangkok by late morning, and the ship’s tour bus dropped us off at a shopping center called “Central World.”  We grabbed a taxi, and headed over to the nearby “Jim Thompson” house, where we managed to get into an 11:30 AM tour group.  Frank did not find the Thompson house terribly interesting although Anne enjoyed the ancient teak architecture and the tranquil location along Bangkok’s longest canal, the Saen Saeb.  But both of us agreed that the story of Jim Thompson was very intriguing.

Stunning interior of the Jim Thompson House
Thompson was born in the state of Delaware in the USA in 1906. He worked for the OSS (precursor to the CIA) during WWII and fell in love with Thailand. He moved to Bangkok where he made the Thai silk industry famous by encouraging the making of handmade silk and exporting it to top designers. He became a bit of a hero for his development of the industry.  He also loved Thai culture and built his house by relocating several old Thai houses and combining them into one large home that he filled with Asian art. Then in 1957, Jim Thompson went for a walk alone in the Cameron Highlands of western Malaysia and disappeared.  To this day, he remains Thailand’s most famous missing person.

Thai massage at Thann Sanctuary
By the time we finished the tour, it had started to rain quite heavily (almost monsoon strength), so we headed for Bangkok’s Gaysorn Center and specifically the “Thann Sanctuary” for a much needed ‘body pummeling.' Yes, we had 90-minute full-body traditional Thai massages scheduled in downtown Bangkok. Two young Thai gals, barely 25-years old and 5 feet in height, greeted us, and then took us to separate rooms where they artfully applied their talents. Wow, these tiny young Asian ladies were more than capable, despite their frail appearance.  Of course, our tired old frames were just crying out for some stiff fingering, so that could be part of the reason why it all felt so good!

Our legs were tired and swollen from all the walking over the past few days, but our unique Thai Massage was the cure.  A deep, slow, knuckle-penetrating sweep of our feet and lower legs put the zip back into those babies!!

Phad Thai!
Of course, no visit to Thailand would be complete without a sumptuous Thai meal of “Phad Thai.”  So, after we completed our body massages, we hoofed it back out into the rain and were off to explore Bangkok cuisine.  We found our requisite Phad Thai on the 7th floor in a food court of a local shopping center.  As we dried out from the rain, we savored a delicioso Thai meal – just one more example of the fabulous Asian foods we've sampled on this trip.

In Jim Thompson's garden

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

It's a New Day, Vietnam!

The old traditions still exist
We boarded the Celebrity Millennium cruise ship in Hong Kong and began our 14-night cruise through Southeast Asia. Our first port was Halong Bay in the northern part of Vietnam. Visiting Vietnam was the main reason we chose this cruise. The Vietnam War had a major impact on both of us as young people, and we were anxious to see what Vietnam had been like for our soldiers, and what Vietnam was like today.
Vietnam is fast becoming a modern country

Vietnam is still a difficult topic for many Americans. We will try to stay objective in our writings and avoid getting too caught up in politics. However, the Vietnam War (referred to by the Vietnamese as "The American War of Aggression") is viewed very differently here.


Motorbikes transport everything here in Vietnam!
Although the ship docked at Halong Bay, we elected to spend the full day in the capitol city of Hanoi, which was about 100 miles from the port. Anne had arranged a private tour with a company called Ann Tours, and when we disembarked, our guide, Andy, was waiting for us. He lead us to a comfortable, air-conditioned Toyota SUV and introduced our driver, Mr. Shun. As you all know by now, we love private tours, and this one was exceptional. Andy and Mr. Shun took excellent care of us for the next 13 hours.
Family of six (look carefully) on one bike!

Because speed limits in Vietnam are ridiculously low -- 40 km/hr is typical (about 25 miles an hour), the drive to Hanoi, including a rest stop, took about 4 hours. This sounds painfully long, but we had a fun time taking in the sights on the road. Vietnam calls itself a "motorbike kingdom," and hundreds of motorbikes buzzed all around us carrying piles of boxes, cages of live pigs and chickens, and little babies with no helmets (scary) held tightly by their parents.

Pho eateries are EVERYWHERE

Frank also entertained himself learning about all the different types of Pho (Vietnamese soup). Andy loved Frank's enthusiasm and told him Vietnamese cuisine has 10 kinds of pho including Pho bo (beef), Pho ga (chicken), Pho heo (pork), and Pho thit cho (dog). Yes, dog meat is eaten here, and there are special farms that raise particular breeds of dog as food. Our guide Andy did say dog meat popularity is on the wane now that people are learning dogs make good pets.

Love her hat!!
We were surprised by the modernity of Hanoi with many skyscrapers and lots of traffic. Andy told us this development was quite recent and just 7 years ago, Hanoi had almost no cars.

At the Temple of Literature in Hanoi

Our tour covered many highlights of Hanoi including the Temple of Literature, a 1,000-year old Confucius temple where Vietnam's most famous scholars once studied. Gotta love a country that has a university as their national monument! However, Andy told us that schooling is very expensive in Vietnam, and people have to pay for it themselves (even for primary school). And they also have to pay for their own healthcare. So much for the benefits of living under Communism...

Talking on a cellphone while navigating
the super congested streets of Hanoi -- unbelievable
By the way, there is voting here in Vietnam; however, with a "one party" Communist regime, the outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion. We asked Andy what he thought of that system, and he said, "I can't change it." But he did add that at least Vietnam doesn't spend a fortune on campaigning.

John McCain's flight suit on display
in Hoa Lo Prison

One of the most thought-provoking sites was Hoa Lo Prison (aka Hanoi Hilton) where John McCain and other American POWs were held during the Vietnam War. This place was very heavy on anti-American propaganda with photos of smiling POWs playing pool and chess, basketball, soccer, decorating for Christmas, and even receiving souvenirs from their captors on the day they were released. A video described how the Americans bombed kindergartens, churches and hospitals. And the video stated that because of the excellent treatment they received in Hoa Lo Prison, most of the POWs ended up regretting their participation in the war and supporting the Ho Chi Minh revolution. Of course, we know that American servicemen were tortured and horribly mistreated and the supposed "confessions" were given under extreme duress.

Typical POW bed at Hoa Lo Prison

In contrast, an older portion of the prison described France's treatment of Vietnamese prisoners during the revolution against French colonial rule. This part of the museum had an actual guillotine on display along with photos of decapitated heads that were hung in the villages to discourage further uprisings. We had to admit that "Hanoi Hilton" did not look so bad compared to the French treatment (which, of course, was the intention).

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

We also got a look at the outside of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where the embalmed body of Vietnam's national hero is on display. Every year, "Uncle Ho" is shipped to Russia for a 2-month-long overhaul and a new shot of embalming fluid. Apparently, the Russians are expert at this preservation business since they do the same upkeep for Lenin and (we think) for Mao also.

Our cute salesgirl and our lacquer purchases
On a lighter note, we visited a lacquer workshop to see how the famous Vietnamese lacquer products are made. Quite fascinating actually. The lacquer is extracted from the "lacquer tree," much like collecting maple syrup. The sticky substance is used to glue pieces of mother of pearl or eggshell onto a piece of wood, and then the surface is totally covered with lacquer. Next the piece is dipped in water and the lacquer is rubbed off on the design areas. This process is repeated over and over until the piece attains a smooth finish with a shiny black background.

Delivering "a few" packages by motorbike

The ride back to the ship was long (and we were tired), but the conversation was as interesting as ever. Andy told us that the Vietnamese do not blame the American people for the war. In fact, he said they admired the anti-war protesters, and the many American vets who have returned to Vietnam to do volunteer work. Of course, the effects of the war continue, particularly in the areas of the country sprayed with Agent Orange.

Young Vietnamese boy in the market
Because so many people died in the war, the government encouraged the people to procreate and have large families by giving extra land with the birth of each child (Andy is one of eight children). As a result, Vietnam has a very young population that is enthusiastic about what is ahead for their country. As Andy said, "Vietnam is looking to the future rather than dwelling on the past."

Scenic sights along the riverside in Hoi An

Hoi An

Our second port stop was in Central Vietnam near China Beach (a famous R&R area during the war) and the historic town of Hoi An. We opted for a ship-provided excursion, "Hoi An on Your Own," that provided us with bus transportation to Hoi An and plenty of free time to roam.

Beautiful Vietnamese bus

The bus was the most beautiful bus we have ever ridden on with fringe-trimmed valances in pink satin gracing all the windows and fancy coverings on the seats. Somehow, our bus driver managed to get pulled over for speeding -- the ride was so slow, it was putting us to sleep, but apparently, he inched up over the limit. The Vietnamese really take their speed limits seriously!

Our guide, Nhien, was most enthusiastic and energetic, a real sweetheart, but a fast-talker with heavily accented English. It wasn't easy to keep up with her, but Nhien did explain that morality is very important in this touristy area of Vietnam. The local government emphasizes it strongly because they do not want visitors to be worried about being robbed.

Streets of Hoi An
Also throughout Vietnam, sales people are instructed not be aggressive because the government knows that other Asian countries (like Cambodia and India) have bad reputations for sales people accosting tourists trying to force them to buy. Central Vietnam is kind of a model region for tourism. They have no beggars, and if you happen to see one, you can call a hotline phone number and the government will take care of them. It is obvious that Vietnam wants to be an appealing destination for tourists.

Hoi An is an historic town of pretty old houses that have been converted to shops and restaurants. It is touristy, but in a good way. We had a great time wandering the streets and haggling with the friendly sales people.

Love a cold Larue beer!
When the heat and humidity wore us down, we ate a lunch of local specialties: Frank had Pho heo (of course, he ate pho!) and Anne chose a noodle dish called Cao Lao that is only authentic if made using water drawn from a particular Hoi An well. We washed it all down with a delightful cold Vietnamese beer called "Larue".

On the ride back to the ship, we made a stop at China Beach, acclaimed as one of the ten best beaches in the world. The water sure looked inviting and the setting was lovely with a Lady Buddha statue watching over the beach from the side of a nearby mountain.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Sai Gon
Ho Chi Minh City (aka Sai Gon)

Our last port in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone still calls Sai Gon. We used the ship transportation to get into town, but then we were on our own. Our bus guide, Hung (or, as he comedically referred to himself - "Hung Over") was pretty good. He told us that Vietnam is like an egg: communism is the thin outer shell, but the inside of the egg is all capitalism. He also told us this joke: "What did the Buddha say when he went into a McDonald's? Make me one with everything!" Hung was a lot of fun all the way to Sai Gon.

The "Back of the Bike" kids

We decided to try something different this time around, so Anne booked a "Back of the Bike" tour (BB) which, as the name suggests, put each of us on the back of a Sai Gon motorbike. Our young driver guides, Uey and Nguyet, took such good care of us, helping us with our helmets, giving us bottles of cold water, really looking out for us every step of the way.

Motorcycle grand mama
The bike riding was less intimidating than you might think since the speed limits are low, and all the Vietnamese seem to be masters at weaving and bobbing thru traffic. But it was still unlike any ride we have ever taken!

Young girls celebrating graduation

Sai gon's sparkling city hall
Our tour combined stops at some of Sai Gon's highlights, like Notre Dame Cathedral built with stone shipped from France, along with several street food stops. In addition to being the financial center of the country, Sai Gon, is very elegant and has certainly retained some of its French heritage. The light is also incredibly bright down here in the south (much like the intense light in Florida) making the city sparkle.

Unusual "blood soup" & other food choices at the market

The BB kids had us whipping all around the city, including a stop at a very local market. It looked like a dump initially, but the dark walkways were lined with all kinds of tempting fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fabulous Pho with crabmeat

We ate at two different restaurants, hole-in-the-wall places that would never get past the health inspectors in the U.S. But the food was excellent: fabulous Pho with crabmeat and a do-it-yourself rollup (like a fajita) with a toasty little "pancake" topped with prawn wrapped in five different types of greens (the BB kids made sure we wrapped ours properly). Finally, the resulting veggie role which looked like a crude "cigar" was dipped in the best clear fish sauce ever.

The Vietnamese use a very delicate clear-colored fish sauce on their foods, not the smokin' hot red stuff we get back in the states. We loved this new fish sauce so much that Uey bought us a bottle to take home!

Creepy duck egg

We had another unusual food experience when Uey brought us a duck egg. It tasted a lot like our hard-boiled chicken eggs until Uey pointed out that it was a partially formed duckling. We must have looked a bit green because he said, "But don't worry, there are no feathers yet."

Super friendly "pavement food" lady

Our last food stop was by far the best. The BB kids were all excited to visit this lady who is famous all over the city for her friendliness and her delectable grilled meats. She works on the same bit of pavement her mother once occupied, surrounded by her small round grill, plates and utensils, and some tiny stools that stand only about a foot above the ground.
Eating pavement food style
on a little stool

We grabbed a stool out on the sidewalk and ate some of her delicious meats, joking and laughing with her even though she did not understand a word of English. What a great time experiencing "pavement food!"

When all was done, the BB kids dropped us off at the War Remnants Museum so we could have a quick look around the museum before returning to our bus. This museum had a courtyard full of ordnance from the Vietnam War. And upstairs, a photo gallery displayed photos taken by various war photographers during the war. Many of them were pictures of US servicemen, much like what we saw on the news back then. This disastrous war continues to be difficult comprehend.

He really is the Pho King!
Our visit to Vietnam was a very special one in that the people were extremely friendly and receptive to Americans, with no noticeable animosities. Of course, Vietnam is a country of young people now who were not involved in the war. Perhaps the older generation would feel differently. Frank loved Vietnamese food (especially the many varieties of pho!), but we both felt that the gentle, friendly, and accommodating people make this country most engaging.

Here are more pics of the faces (and foods) of Vietnam:

More Pho

Beautiful Vietnamese girl in traditional dress

More Pho

Squid soup, anyone?
(looks like something out of a Sci Fi movie)

Love her hat!

Proud Adonis of the market

Fantastic fresh spring rolls (served with fish sauce)

One of many varieties of Pho

Unique Hoi An dish called Cao Lao

Shopping for the ubiquitous noodles

Looks like Anne got herself a new job!