Saturday, 23 February 2013

Dr. Grace Jones - and my pate

Dr. Grace Jones is one of my best friends. She is also a wise mentor.
Grace was my Junior Warden at St. Stephen’s Pittsfield.

From Pittsfield she moved to work for SUNY in Oneonta, N.Y., then to be a Community College President in Utah; and finally to be the President at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, CT.

She is a wise woman; and a great leader. But she has placed a hex on me (lmao).

A few years ago I stayed with Grace at her home in Norwich, CT.  Soon after going to bed, I got up in the darkness to change an air-con setting.

I went back to bed.  But when I sat down -  whew – it was not on the bed.  Instead, it was on the floor.  In that process I hit my head on a bed-side table  ---and my head bled profusely.

Last night (Feb 22nd 2013) I had a long and good conversation with Grace.

That being over I made some supper. In that process I opened a kitchen cabinet door but neglected to shut it.

Guess what?  I banged my head on a corner of that door, and my head again bled, and bled and bled.


Has Grace Jones placed a hex on my pate?


Should I take greater care?

(P.S I know the answer, and it has nothing to do with Grace).

Friday, 22 February 2013

Thank you for sharing my tour

When I retired in 2006 I pronounced “I don’t want to travel any more”.

Then I thought about it, and wondered why I had made such a silly pronouncement, potentially limiting my choices. (Maybe it’s because I am wont to making pronouncements!)

I have traveled

In recent years I have been to Ecuador, to Australia and to Vietnam.   I am amongst the most fortunate people in the world to have the inclination, the freedom,  and the resources for such adventures.

And I have fulfilled my dream of visiting the five major land continents: Europe, Asia, North America, South America and Australia.


My visit to Vietnam was indeed a wonderful adventure.  I have memories stored up for years to come.

I will remember:

1. The grim air pollution in the cities; and trash everywhere in the small towns, villages and countryside.

2. The clear cutting of forests, and the resultant degradation of the land, and landslides.

3. The ubiquity of mobile phones, motor bikes, scooters and mopeds.

4. The youth.  Vietnam is a young country.

5. “Business”: The business of Vietnam is business.

(a)  In my HCMC Hotel there were only two English language stations (apart from sports channels) - they were an American business channel (CNBC) and a Pan-Asian business channel.

(b) In Da Nang I met a Malay man (of Indian ancestry) who was in Vietnam to set up a factory for Malay owned hi-tech company.

(c)   I met another Indian man who was selling Indian made furniture to the hug resort complexes.

(d) Every bit of vacant land by the roadways seems to be occupied by budding young Vietnamese entrepreneurs, selling everything “from ships to nuts”.

(e)  There are so many banks from so many countries in Hanoi and HCMC.

6. The odd moments:

(a) Discovering that I was flying from HCMC to Bangkok, but to the wrong airport.

(b) Taking a good wake-up shower in my hotel in Bangkok, only to find that there were no towels in the room.

(c) Being reunited with a jacket I had left in the business lounge at the Tokyo airport, only to be reunited with it two weeks later (Japanese efficiency eh?)

7. The sheer beauty of my favourite places. What a joy it was to be in Halong Bay; in the lovely mountain scenery of Sa Pa; and in the intriguing Mekong Delta.

8. Nor will I long forget the interesting home stay in the village of Suoi Thali, and the tender care of my local guide Sinh for who I was a grandfather figure (he guessed my age as 74!).

9. Despite the noise and bustle I would have liked to have more time in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

10. I could have forgone the visits to the ruined Hindu temples, to the Great Cao Dai Temple, and to the silk factory.

I’d love to return to Vietnam. There is so much more to see and appreciate than could happen in eleven days.


I could not have enjoyed this adventure without the services of Origin Vietnam and Mr. Ruby in Hanoi. I recommend them without reserve.

I had a concierge holiday at budget prices.

6 hotel nights, two nights in a sleeper train, one night in a village, one night on a junk.

Hotel day rooms (to rest, shower and eat breakfast in Sa Pa, and twice in Hanoi)

Two internal flights: Hanoi to Da Nang, and Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City.

Drivers and tour guides in every place.

Most lunches.

All admissions, local fees etc.


You are a lucky man jmp!


Thank you all for sharing my tour.  I have uploaded all my photo’s to my Flickr account.  I will let you know when I have labelled them.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Vietnam: Thoughts on the War.

I could not be in Vietnam without think about the War as I was visiting places which had been in the headlines all those years ago: Hanoi, Saigon, Da Nang, the Mekong Delta.

I saw a sign to Dien Bien Phu -  the place of the defeat of the French in 1954. All though I was only ten years old then I remember reading in the newspaper about that siege and battle.

(In 2011 I  read “Dien Bien Phu the epic battle America forgot” by Howard R Simpson).

I thought of the Vietnam vets I have known, and remembered Francis Bond, a young man from Fitchburg who was killed in the early days.  I never met Francis, but I became very fond of his parents Bob and Bernice, and heard their grief.

I have prayed at “The Wall” in Washington D.C. whilst looking at Francis’ name.

Most of my Vietnamese contacts are very young. All they know about the war is from what they learned in school. The older folks are slipping away – retiring to their ancestral villages, and passing from this life.

My tour organiser Ruby wanted so much for me to meet his parents, but there was not time.  His Dad fought in the North Vietnamese Army, and is now saddened that his veteran’s pension is just $10 per month.

I was at Cu Chi where tourists can see some of the tunnels built by hand by the Viet-Cong. In all there are 250 kilometers of tunneling. Here the men and woman of the Viet-Cong lived for a month at a time.

Many died, most from malaria and other diseases; others by American action at the hands of G.I.’s who were called “tunnel rats” and were trained to fight underground.

 Underground there were clinics, uniform factories, and places where they made munitions with the scrap metal from American bombs.

My blood chilled when I saw a war-time documentary in which Vietnamese fighters (men and women) were given the highest military awards “For Killing Americans”.

I cringed when I saw examples of the booby traps which were set for unwitting young American soldiers – who, out on patrol, would fall into a hidden trap and there be impaled by vicious metal spikes.

Back in HCMC  I went to the Museum of War Remnants.  Outside there were some American planes and tanks.  Inside there were various displays – including a harrowing one on the effects of the use of Agent Orange.

The Museum’s “propaganda” was minimal.

I was startled to see a “Life Magazine” photo’ from war time.  It showed an Army Medic who, under sniper fire,  was trying to save the life of a young G.I.

The medics name was Robert Callahan, and he hailed from Pittsfield, MA where I lived and worked for 16 years.

I think that the war was a disaster for all concerned.

Widened entrance to tunnels for touriists. (originally 2 feet high, 2 feet wide)

Entrance to tunnel. I took three or four paces, then retreated due to claustrophobia,

A young Vietnamese docent demonstrates a secret entrance to the tunnels. I wish that he had not been grinning.

Speaks for itself

Looking down into a tunnel entrance.

A vicious trap for an unwary G.I.  Made me cringe.

Museum of War Remnants HCMC 1

Museum of War Remnants HCMC  2

Robert Callahan of Pittsfield MA. "Life" magazine photo at Museum of War Remnants, HCMC

Medic Robert Callahan of Pittsfield MA - aged 20 in 1967.  Photo from the web.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

On the Mekong River.

I’ve been labeling some more pictures today, so here are two more from the Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh.

Cao Dai religion:  the all-seeing (left) eye of God.

Cao Dai religion: Three "saints"  the one in the middle  (believe it or not) is Victor Hugo.

Odd slogan on a Cambodian tour bus.


On my last full day in Vietnam I was driven from Ho Chi Minh City down to the Mekong River.

The Mekong rises in Tibet and wanders through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.  It is 2700 miles long. In Vietnam it branches into a delta, with five main branches.  The land is very flat and fertile.  Thus, the Delta area is a “rice basket” of Vietnam (together with the flat plain in the north where the Red River meanders to the sea).  As well as rice, there are crops of coconuts and many fine vegetables and fruits.

The traffic was unbelievable heavy  -  yes “everyone” was going home for the Tet holiday.

Because of that congestion my visit was a wee bit shortened.

I had thought that I’d be with other tourists in a boat the size of the junk in Halong Bay, but no, it was just my garrulous tour guide, the boatman and me.

We crossed the Mekong with Cambodia to the west and the South China Sea to the East.

Then we had two or three hours in a river bank village – “famous” for making coconut candy. The village visit included a one mile ride in a horse and cart (I was in the cart!), a nice time of refreshments drinking green tea and eating local fruits, and a trip down a bayou before re-crossing the river.

It was sad to hear that the river has been over-fished.  Thus there are fish farms on the river itself, and many locals eke out a living in the tourist trade.  I am sure that my boatman would rather have been fishing.

On the journey home we stopped at a “tourist restaurant” (which had very good food).  Once again I was seated alone and given a “tourist menu” with nine selections.  As I was making my choice it became clear that this was a nine course lunch.  I stopped after course number six!

I enjoyed crepes (again) with pork and shrimp, pork on a skewer, and elephant ear fish.  This fish was delicious.  The idea was to pull the flesh off the bones of the (whole) fish, and then make a “wrap” with lettuce and tomato in rice paper.  Yummy!

Whatever good or ill the French colonisation brought about they left at least one good legacy -  in southern Vietnam especially they bake superb baguettes, and make terrific crepes.

Vietnamese coffee is very strong – like expresso.  If you order it with milk you’ll get sweetened condensed milk from a tin.  I learned to order it black!

Smart Mekong River tour boat

I was on this little boat. (Probably originally a fishing boat)

Looking west on the Mekong River (in the direction of Cambodia)

Wrapping Coconut Candy. The inner wrapper is edible rice paper.

Making Coconut candy.

Flavouring for Candy (I forget the name of the fruit).

Trying on a shirt. It was too small (or I was too big!)

Horse and Cart ride (1)  Note the bikes - the old and the new.

Horse and Cart ride (2)  (Not sure why we did this)

Plants on sale for Tet

Fancy house in Mekong River Village (probably owned by the Communist Party village "boss"

Nice array of fruits to sample.  The "spotted" Dragon Fruit is all but flavorless. The spiky red coloured fruit is delicious. You peel off the spiky skin and then eat the sweet fruit, not forgetting to spit out the pit. To the right in front of the bottle is pineapple, and to its left is shredded coconut. The glass with a spoon in it is green tea which I grew to like.

On the left my tour guide. The pink bag contains a shirt which I bought -  it's the right size and is my one "souvenir" 

Punting down the Bayou. The women do this hard work  (1)

Punting down the Bayou. The women do this hard work  (2)

Punting down the Bayou. The women do this hard work  (3)

Mekong River foliage on river banks

Petrol station on the river

Elephant Ear Fish (with fixings and sauces)

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

More from Saigon (and my "not the best morning")

All Vietnam was getting ready for Tet, the Lunar New Year holiday.  That helped to explain the heavier than usual traffic, and the abundance of flowers, especially peach trees (being carried on the back of scooters etc!).

A prized Tet gift for one’s folks is a 24 pack of “Coke”.  Coke is sold in red cans, and red is considered to be a “lucky colour”.

There was a pre-Tet festival in the lovely park near my HCMC hotel. I wandered in (with the princely sum of $1 for admission) and admired the flowers, the bonsai and the crowds.

A mid morning show had begun on a large stage. The smallish audience was most appreciative.  Of course I could not understand a word, but it seemed to be slapstick, with a lot of “bonking folks on the head” with empty plastic bottles -  a sort of human “Punch and Judy Show”.

The morning of Feb 13th was not my best time.  We drove for 2 1/2 hours out into the countryside to view the Great Cao Dai Temple.

My tour guide was a non-stop talker (it takes one to know one), but there was very little of interest en route.

She was the tour guide who in the space of two hours as we passed through three towns pointed out the ‘bus station in each place!

She: “Oh look!  A ‘bus station” x 3"  

Me:  (in my mind) @#*^#@++  and other such words!

Cai Dai is a syncretistic religion with its headquarters in Tay Ninh (where we were headed).  It claims that all religions are true, but that God founded Cao Dai in 1926 because the traditional religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, the teaching of Confucius, Christianity, Judaism , Islam) had become corrupted.

It teaches non-violence, vegetarianism, veneration of ancestors, and prayer.

It is hierarchical and has (yes it uses these terms) – a Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests.  It has monks and nuns. (Many of the nuns are elderly widows).

Jesus is regarded as a Buddha, and St. Joan of Arc is especially venerated.  (Do remember that the French colonised “Indo-China and that Catholicism was relatively strong in southern Vietnam).

We were supposed to witness what was called a “Mass”, but it had been cancelled because of the Tet holiday. So, although the Temple held a certain interest for me, I would very much liked to have witnesses the “Mass”.

At the end of the day the tour guide confessed that she had not been selected by Mr. Ruby in Hanoi, but that the guide who had been appointed was "busy" and had sub-let the task to her. That explained things!

Pre-Tet Festival in HCMC park

Bonsai in HCMC park

More Bonsai


So lovely

"Patriotic"Floral display

Peace in the park

The Show

This and the next one.  Posters showing HCMC from above

The park Festival sponsored by.....?


To the Temple

Cao Dai Temple  left aisle

Cao Dai Temple - the World.  The eye represents God's all-seeing eye.  But as my guide told me, it is a left eye, because the left eye represents males and the right eye females - so it has to be the left eye since God is male.

"Saints" in the Temple (including a Pope on the left)

"Nave" of Temple

Temple from outside

Shrine at Temple.  It's difficult for westerners to see the swastika -  which   is a Hindu symbol  - "desecrated" by  the N-zi Party.


After the Temple visit I needed coffee.  We stopped at one of the many roadside stands where the coffee is good, and one can rest in a hammock. I liked being here -  it was so "un-touristy". The silvery/grey car is the "Chevy Cruze" which was my mode of transportation for the trips from Saigon (HCMC)


TOMORROW a brief trip on the Mekong River.

THURSDAY Remnants of the War.

FRIDAY  Summing it all up