Saigon: Pearl of the Far East

After checking into our hotel in Saigon, we walked over to the Central Market to get a replacement suitcase with wheels that work.  I brought the suitcase back to the hotel room while Pat continued shopping.  On the return trip to the market I’m offered a ride back  on the back of a ‘Honda’ scooter for a modest fee which I debate internally, but accept.  Hopping on, the driver offers me a helmet and then proceeds to drive in that insane traffic flow towards the market.  Somehow we get there but not before driving on the sidewalk and going the wrong way on a one way.  “No problem, Uncle”.

Tunnel Rat:

I went a bit outside my personal comfort zone drinking Mekong Whiskey  yesterday – rice wine laced with the blood of a Cobra.   But crawling through a part of the tunnel system used by the Vietcong during the war was even more outside the box.

In the morning we met our tour guide for the hour and a half trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Saigon.  We stopped at a rubber tree plantation to examine the gooey residue of a cut tree.  Arriving at Cu Chi, we find tourists of many nationalities.  First we are required to watch a short film about the caves and the role they played in the war and then we are off to explore.   The guide stops on the trail and talks about the tunnels and then lifts a lid off a well disguised opening which he invites me to crawl into.  I had to drop down feet first with hands above my head – barely squeezed through the opening.  Then, I crawled the rest of the way on my elbows on a floor covered with leaves.  The guide told me that once I get underway it was about 50 feet to an exit.  Just “be sure to take the second left to get out” –  if I take first left or go straight, it was a dead end with no turn around.  There was only about a 6 inch clearance for my head and as I made my way in the dark, I heard the occasional fluttering of wings.  I managed to shine a light up ahead of me and saw a bunch of bats hanging from the ceiling.  Oh well, can’t go back so just press on.  Luckily I took the correct turn and found the exit. Can’t imagine how our tunnel rats that flushed out the VC didn’t have mental health issues as a result.  Very intense.  Will never complain about an MRI again.

We wrapped up our Saigon visit with a tour of the Central Post Office, Notre-Dame Basilica and the Reunification Palace followed by  drinks at the Rex Hotel rooftop bar.  Great views overlooking the city from the bar where we shared a farewell cocktail with our Canadian friends from the cruise.

The next day we departed Ho Chi Minh City on a China Airlines 747-400  to Taipei where we connected to a Hawaiian A-330 to Honolulu.  We arrived on Maui almost 22 hours later for a short R&R before returning to Naples.  A truly memorable trip to celebrate Pat’s 60th.

And now back to regularly scheduled semi-retirement.

See photos here

Cruising on The Mekong – Vietnam

After crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam on the Mekong River, the next few days were jam packed.  We also had a new guide, Tran Phuong.  When he is not working as a flight dispatcher for Vietnam Airlines, Phuong shares his knowledge of Vietnamese history and culture with passengers aboard the AMALotus.

Highlights of Vietnam:

Tan Chau – touring the town by rickshaw visiting  silk and rattan factories. Navigating thru narrow channels to Evergreen Island for a walking tour and passing by floating fish farms and stilt houses.

Sa Dec – a river town.  During the Vietnam War was the site of an Amercian Swift Boat Base.  It now has a lively riverbank market and the house known as ‘The Lover’s House’, made famous by the author Marguerite Duras who had a 4 year affair with the Chinese owner of the house.  She wrote a book that also was made into a movie.

Xeo Quyt – Secret stronghold of the Vietcong  with tunnel system an hour’s drive from Sa Dec.

Floating fish market of Cai Be, touring a Rice Paper Mill and the Coconut Candy Workshop where we got to sample Rice wine laced with Cobra snake blood! See the photos here

Cruising on the Mekong – Cambodia

Unfortunately the water level of the Ton Le Sap lake was too low for our boat, so we were diverted from Siem Reap to Kampong Cham where we boarded the River Vessel AMA Lotus for our 7 day trip on the Mekong River.

Highlights included:
A tour of an ancient hilltop pagoda and village high up on a hill with panoramic views of the Mekong River.

Walking tour of Ankor Ban;  a village with traditional Khmer homes over 100 years old.

Ouknhatey – a silk weaving village where we saw silk worm cocoons being woven into threads and then into fabric.  Prior to that we  visited a middle school where we dropped off school supplies and the children sang to us.  When asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, a little girl raised her hand and shyly said, “a foreigner”.

2 nights in Phnom Penh with a tour of the Royal Palace, The National Museum and the Central Market.  We spent an afternoon in a somber tour of one of the Killing Fields followed by a look at S 21 Detention Center, a former high school divided into tiny cells and interrogation areas where so called enemies of the Khmer Rouge were held until their executions in the Killing Fields.  Here they were tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates who were in turn arrested in one of the worst human tragedies of the last century.  Pol Pot, the Hitler of Cambodia, secretly led the Khmer Rouge regime which arrested and eventually executed almost anyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals.  Approximately 25% of the population were executed by the Khmer Rouge.

The following day was a day spent cruising the river as we approached the border with Vietnam.

See the photos here

Ankgor Wat

In the countryside surrounding Siem Reap, Cambodia is a series of temples which comprise ancient Hindu turned Buddhist sites built by powerful Khmer kings between the 9th and 12th century.  In the 15th century, the temples were abandoned to the jungles and forgotten about until the French explorers rediscovered it in the 19th century.

Ankgor Wat is now a designated  UNESCO Heritage site.  The temple walls have intricately detailed carvings of people, animals, daily life and battle scenes.  At first only a trickle of visitors in the early 20th century came to look; now they draw millions of tourists from around the globe as more sites undergo restoration.

We finished up our trip to Siem Reap with a trip to the Landmine Museum founded by Aki Ra, a Top Ten CNN Hero who formerly fought with and against the Khmer Rouge as a child and personally planted many of the landmines that still plague the Cambodian landscape.   He spent years locating and disarming mines that litter the countryside and now devotes his energies to helping the victims of land mine explosions.

The Khmer Rouge’s campaign of human genocide is detailed in the film, The Killing Fields.  It seems that every tour guide and driver we met had a story to tell about this period which lasted from 1975 to 1979.  However, what is striking as you walk around the streets here is the lack of elderly people, apparent victims of the Pol Pot regime of terror.

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Utopia – Luang Prabang, Laos


We departed Hanoi on an ATR-72 turboprop for the one hour flight to the Mekong River city of Luang Prabang, Laos.  The Satri House was a recommendation of my brother Todd and his wife Niki.  The hotel was formerly the home of a Laotian Prince and was an oasis located conveniently to the downtown area.

Our tour guide, Mr. Lee, met us promptly at 9:30 the next morning for the day long tour which included some very interesting Buddhist temples, lunch at The Tamarind high above the Khan River and the hike up Mt. Phousi where you’ll find the best views of the town and surrounding area.

We enjoyed 2 nice dinners during our visit at L’Elephant and The Blue Lagoon but our most interesting side trip was for cocktails at Utopia which was also recommended by F5, as we sometimes refer to Todd, Niki and their 3 kids.  Our tuk tuk driver deposited us at an alleyway which we followed for 2 minutes to Utopia, high above the banks of the Khan River. Too late to participate in sunset Yoga, we instead opted to have a drink while watching some good volleyball in an intimate arena adjacent to the bar.  The calming demeanor of the many backpackers suggested that had indeed found Utopia.  Laid back as it was, we did not return later in the evening when the music starts and the pace picks up ‘a little bit’.  Interesting, indeed.

See the photos here

Hanoi Hilton

Trang, a 22 year old education major, was our guide for a tour of Ho Chi Minh complex and Presidential Palace.  Uncle Ho died in 1969 and, despite his request to be cremated, was embalmed and is on display in the mausoleum.

The raw, misty weather was a perfect backdrop to our rather sobering tour of the Hanoi Hilton where our POWs were kept during the war and where the French kept Vietnamese political prisoners before that.

The previous Saturday we (along with a couple from Calgary) were led by our very friendly and knowledgeable guide, Lily, on 25 km bicycle tour to Co Loa Citadel which dates back to 257 BCE.  Afterward, we had a traditional Vietnamese lunch.  On our ride back to Hanoi we stopped for 30 minutes along the way to join in on an impromptu volleyball game with the local villagers.  No one had any idea who prevailed but the sounds of laughter coming from both sides of the net suggested a win for all.

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Our hotel staff in Hanoi must be the friendliest we’ve come across…  they treated us like family – welcoming us back after each day of exploring and asking how our day went.

Amongst the hustle and bustle of busy city streets, some very friendly people live and work.  We’re not sure how the maze of scooters, pedestrians, cars and trucks mix so well with few stop lights and meaningless crosswalks but we’re guessing it’s summed up in a word: anticipation.  Hesitating while crossing a street can be hazardous to your health!  It all flows rather nicely and no one gets upset.

Also found time to get a shoe shine and a super glue repair to my sole.  While getting the shine, a woman sat down next to me and asked in broken English if I was here during the American war.  She said “my papa”, then made an obvious machine gun motion with her hands and finished with “American GI”, meaning that her Dad was killed during the war (in Khe Sanh in 1972).  No malice, just a statement.  She then showed me her license indicating her birthday in March of 1970.

Streets in the old section are set up for sidewalk vendors and each street appears dedicated to one or two products.  We ended our first day enjoying a  rooftop cocktail overlooking Hoan Kiem (Sword Lake) followed by dinner at a busy yet intimate 3 story restaurant called New Day.

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Asia Bound!

As luck would have it,  just as we are are about to depart for our trip out of Atlanta we had to quickly change our routing due to a snow/ice storm heading their way.   Instead, we got the last 2 seats on the Detroit flight with a quick connection to Seoul on a Boeing 747-400.   We wound up in Business Class for our 13 hour flight…what a nice treat.  Upon arrival, we stayed overnight and managed to get seats on a Cathay Pacific Boeing 777 to Hong Kong via Taipei.  In Hong Kong, we switched over to a DragonAir A-320 and watched the sun set over the South China Sea as we made our descent 48 hours after leaving  Naples.

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Time to say goodbye…..

It all started in MSP and it was fitting to celebrate the end of my career there as well on my last layover in the Twin Cities. Upon entering US airspace on our flight from Amsterdam, the Air Traffic Controller in Minneapolis Center asked us if there was a Captain Freeman onboard today. Well, yes there is (and who’s asking??).  “Congratulations, Captain Freeman on your 33 years of service and all of us here in Minneapolis Center wish you an enjoyable and well deserved retirement.”  That was nice.  (Thanks, Ted).  On the arrival to Minneapolis we were obviously being given priority handling (again, thanks to Ted) and we were cleared for the straight-in approach to runway 12R where my landing was greeted by cheering that even I could hear. Apparently, the off-duty First Officer, when I asked him to “kiss them goodbye” on the descent, also told the passengers that I was on my last flight into MSP and to not be alarmed if they see a fire truck at the gate squirting the water cannons in salute (all set up by Ted, thank you).  Ted also arranged for an upgraded suite in our downtown MSP hotel room where we celebrated with friends (a few airline and RAGBRAI folks) with champagne and cake.  After a nice bike ride along the Mississippi on an ideal Labor Day Sunday, we had dinner in the Captain’s Room (yes, that’s right) at the Nicollet Island Inn and then headed to Nye’s Bar where Tracy sang a karaoke song in my honor, King of the Road!  She followed that up with Leaving On a Jet Plane and then we called it a night.  I think we may be seeing Tracy on stage in the future – she has a very nice voice and the crowd loved it.  All in all, a very memorable evening.  Retirement looming at the end of the month – don’t want to hang it up but the package was too nice to pass up.  It’s been a great career, but it went by much too fast….thanks for the memories!

Click here to see the photos….

Traveling with PF Flyers