Thursday, January 20, 2011

Okinawa, Japan

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The Non-Island Island; Okinawa, Japan

My stop at Okinawa, Japan has to rank as one of the most disappointing I have experienced. Besides not having much to see, what it did offer was so crowded that it was not a pleasant experience.

But first things first, I have learned that Okinawa is not in fact an island; it is instead a Prefect or State of Japan, and is comprised of 57 islands. Our ship docked at the port city of Naha, and we never even left the city limits on our tour. Our day started with a 6:30 am mandatory inspection by Japanese immigration officials. Every passenger was scanned thermally to insure they were not feverish, and then we were photographed and fingerprinted.

That done I could now start off on the day’s tour, but unfortunately Lisa was under the weather and so I was on my own. It was a dark overcast day with a constant drizzle that at times turned into a real rain. The climate was subtropical, so it was warm and humid. I jumped on our tour bus and found a seat by myself, but the bus was built for the Japanese frame, and even though I had two seats to myself, I could hardly fit into them, not to mention that the bottom was gone on both seats. Since this was considered winter here, they did not turn on the air conditioning or fans, and windows in the bus quickly frosted over from the humidity and body heat. We drove for about 30 minutes to our first stop which was the Shurijo Castle.

Naha (Okinawa), Japan

In the brochure, this had really sounded interesting for two reasons. First, it was a castle from the period when the island was ruled by Emperors from the Ryukyu regime which occurred around 1400 AD. Second, during the Second World War, the Japanese Imperial Navy built its Underground Headquarters underneath the Castle deep beneath the rock.

The brochure was a little misleading from the actual experience. First, the Castle itself has been destroyed many times, most recently at the end of the Second World War. So what we can see today is all a reconstruction of what it is believed to have looked like in the 1400’s. Since 95% of all visitors to Okinawa visit the Castle, it is jammed with tourist all the time, and today, it was overcrowded with an influx of school children visiting from the mainland. We had to walk up some steep wet granite stairs in the drizzle, and once inside, not only did we have to carry our shoes, but no photographs were permitted.

Naha (Okinawa), Japan

The crowds were so dense that all I could manage was to just keep upright and shuffle along following the person in front of me, all the while holding my shoes, camera and umbrella. At the end of this process, which took no more than 15 minutes once we had entered the Castle, we were shunted into a very small gift shop and told we had 45 minutes before our bus would depart. The school children and local visitors were allowed to exit before the gift shop experience. I said there was another reason that the Castle was a disappointment and that is because the brochure clearly made it sound as if you could visit the former Imperial Navy underground headquarters, but once we arrived, we were told that it was now closed to the public – so I guess that is where they came up with the free time for the gift shop!

I sat quietly on a bench for the 45 minutes “people-watching” before again squeezing myself into my bus seat. We made a short drive back into the city center where our driver pointed out the main shopping street. The bus pulled to a stop, and we were given an hour and a half of free time to shop before the bus would take us back to the ship. At that point, I looked outside at the pouring rain and figured I had no interest whatsoever in roaming the shopping stalls of Naha all that time, and so I arranged to find a cab to just take me back to the ship.

End of story and end of day – enough said.

On a lighter note, I do have an interesting story to share. You know the World is a Small Place, but apparently not small enough! I mentioned once that merely by coincidence, two of our closest friends had booked themselves onto the second of the two cruises we are taking on the Ocean Princess. For that reason, we knew they were coming and where to find their room, which has allowed us to have a great time visiting together.

But get this – if we had not known they were going to be on the ship, there is a good chance that we would have never seen them, and at some point in the future once back home, we would have been amazed to learn that we were all on the same ship at the same time. I say this because even though we are all together on a relatively small ship, we have not once run into each other. The ship is only 685’ long and 85’ wide and only carries 640 passengers. You would think that in two weeks together in this small world, we would surely have run across one another, but that has yet to happen. We eat at the early dinner seating, they eat at the later seating. They have never been on the same tour on shore that we have taken and so it goes on and on. I know this is a silly thing to comment on, but it seems so unusual that I thought it worth mentioning.

Tomorrow is a day at sea and will be our last day on the ship. We will depart the ship on Sunday first thing and catch a Delta flight direct to Detroit, and eventually arrive home late Sunday. I hope everyone has enjoyed our journey, and I look forward to seeing you soon.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Taipei, Taiwan

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Taipei, Taiwan – One of Two China’s

It is impossible to talk about Taiwan without first delving a little into the political history of the large island, which lies 100 miles off the East Coast of China. From 1895 until 1945, Taiwan was ruled by Japan, and as such, entered the modern age much earlier than its nearby neighbor China. During the Second World War, Taiwan was a major military installation for Japan, and near the end of the War suffered heavy damage from Allied bombing. With the end of the War, under the terms of the “Potsdam Declaration” control of Taiwan was transferred to China.

At this time, China was undergoing an internal struggle of its own, and in 1948, China adopted a new Constitution and elected Chiang Kai-shek as its first President. However, before long, it became clear that the communists were going to seize control of the government, so Chiang and his followers moved the government of China to the nearby island of Taiwan. So, even though he was the legitimately elected President of China, he soon became isolated on Taiwan.

Now I am not an expert on Asian history, but I do know that China, until this day, claims that Taiwan is properly a part of the Chinese Republic and many times has threatened to take the island back by force. The United States and most countries of the world initially supported Taiwan, but as time has passed it has become more than clear that Taiwan is isolated. Several years ago Taiwan lost its seat in the United Nations, and other than the US, is recognized by only a smattering of relatively small countries. However, even now, the government of Taiwan rattles the sword at China and claims that it is ever ready to defend itself to the death. Even as recently as this week, during the visit to the US by the President of China, Taiwan launched 16 missiles in a protest, and to bolster its request that the US sell it more F-15’s for self-defense. I am sorry for the long background, but with that knowledge much of what we saw and heard now will have some perspective.

I actually visited Taiwan on my trip some 40 years ago, and I remember that it was a very modern and clean country; while at the same time, China by comparison, was still stuck in the past and closed to the outside world. On this visit, I see that Taiwan has grown and modernized into a highly efficient industrialized economy, but the growth is nowhere near as amazing as what I have seen in China itself; and therein lies much of what we saw.

Our ship docked at the port city of Keelung. From there a drive into the capital city Taipei took from 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic. We had a private car and driver for our trip to the city, and during that drive to my surprise, our older guide was more than willing to discuss the political situation in great detail. He observed that over 80% of the Taiwanese population already sees the eventual reunification with China as inevitable, and in many ways beneficial. Going back 40 years ago, there was no contact between the two Chinas, and in fact, the two entities used to lob shells at one another across the Formosa Strait. However, with the passage of time, all that has changed until today people pass freely between the two Chinas. There are direct flights from Taiwan to most of the major cities in China, and China is the major trading partner with Taiwan. He told us that today the two entities are so intertwined as to have become almost one except in name only. In the opinion of most of the people, the major impediment to reunification is to find a way in which it can be accomplished without the current leadership losing face. That is most important in Asia, and he feels that with the paths open by Hong Kong and Macau, that a way can be found to accomplish that in time.

Our entire drive was slowed by the unforecast rains, but in what seemed like short order, we arrived in the city. Our guide arranged our tour so that we drove to all 4 corners of the city, and also directly across the city, thus allowing us to at least see quickly all that there was to offer.

Taipei, Taiwan

Our first stop was a photo stop to see the recently completed Taipei 101 Tower, an office building that is 101 stories high. The top of the building was in and out of the low overcast, but we did get a good picture.

From there we moved on to the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Taipei, Taiwan

As you can imagine, a monument to the founding father would be an impressive structure and indeed it was. The monument covers over two million square feet. Also on the grounds are the National Concert Hall and the National Theater. A giant statue of Chiang dominates the main hall, and it is watched over, at all times, by two military honor guards.

Taipei, Taiwan

Every hour there is a changing of the guard ceremony, and we were lucky enough to be there to witness the ceremony. A little known fact to most tourists is that Chiang is not buried here. Indeed, he is not buried at all, but rather his coffin sits in the entryway of his former residence where it is also guarded with a ceremonial unit at all times. Apparently, in this culture, the location of a burial site is a very personal and family choice, and so far, no one in his family has decided where he should be buried. Both is wife and son are now dead, and thus the government is in a quandary about what should be done, and as in many cases, they simply have elected to ignore the issue for now.

At this point, amidst the constant drizzle, we drove through the center of town, stopping long enough to jump out of the car and snap a picture of the Presidential Building.

Taipei, Taiwan

Then we continued on to the oldest part of the city which is located alongside the river, and which today is the scene of a very lively local market.

Taipei, Taiwan

In fact, the market has an almost carnival atmosphere about it as vendors selling everything from shark fins to computers vie to catch your attention and attract you to their stall. The entire area is covered with flags and balloons and is a complete cacophony of sound and smells.

We moved onto visit the Taipei Confucius Temple. Originally built in 1879, it was demolished by the Japanese during their occupation of the island.

Taipei, Taiwan

Eventually in 1939, construction started on a new temple which now belongs to the City of Taipei. Not really a temple per se’, it is, however, used by the National Government for an annual ritual giving tribute to the teachings of Confucius and to commemorate Teacher’s Day. Directly across the street was Pao-An Temple, which is considered as one of the three most important temples in the country.

Taipei, Taiwan First constructed in 1755, to honor the God of Medicine, it has been added to and rebuilt many time over the centuries until in 1998, it underwent a major restoration which was recognized by UNESCO as a restoration masterpiece.

Our final stop before returning to our ship was a quick one hour visit to the National Palace Museum. Our guide had wanted to start our day at the museum, but I figured I had seen enough old museums in my day, that we would make that last and see what time we had – what a mistake!

Taipei, Taiwan

The Museum was originally founded in 1925, and given the responsibility of cataloguing everything inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, once the final Emperor was moved from the Palace grounds. With the impending war with Japan looming in 1931, the historic collection was moved from the Forbidden City and hidden in the countryside. At the time, Chiang Kai-shek decided to move the government to Taiwan, he also had much of this National Treasure moved to Taiwan. Today over 600,000 treasures are on display in an ultra-modern facility which is recognized worldwide as the center of Chinese culture and tradition. The museum houses over 5,000 years of China’s history, and is the world’s largest collection of Chinese Art Treasure. To say that we saw one a small part of the collection in one hour would be an understatement, it was nonetheless breathtaking.

We arrived back onboard our ship around 2pm, and today we are enjoying a rather warm and humid day at sea with occasional rain showers. Tomorrow will be our last stop at Okinawa, Japan, which is one place that neither Lisa nor I have ever visited. From there it will be another day at sea and then we dock at Shanghai, from which we will be flying directly home this Sunday.

I hope that everyone is well and enjoying our travels.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Return to Hong Kong

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Return To Hong Kong – Day 2

For our second stop at Hong Kong, we again had a private car and guide for a 4 hour tour. Our guide, Patrick, was the same guide that we had on our first stop, and he was once again wonderful.

It was a chilly and overcast morning, and departing the ship at 8:30am put us out on the streets before anything was really open. Most shops do not open until 10:30 to 11am, but they stay open late in the evening. Patrick, however, could not wait to show us “the Bird Market,” which is much more than a “market.” I think I mentioned earlier that the average size of an apartment in Hong Kong is only 400 sq. ft. This means that any pets kept in the household must of necessity be small, and hence, the attraction of keeping a bird as a pet. In particular, local men, who are retired, are attracted to this hobby. Patrick said that this was the favorite hobby of his father, and his father before him, and that in a few years when his son completed university, he, too, would retire and keep a pet bird. Why, you might ask, is this so popular among retired men? Well, it seems that every day the old men bring their birds to this park so that they can enjoy sunshine and the company of other birds nearby. While the birds go about “speaking” to each other in a melodious chorus, so too do the old men “speak” among themselves. It is a social event, akin to the morning coffee that we have in our country. The birds are beautiful and are pampered excessively. The men carry them about in elaborate teak cages which are carefully wrapped against the weather. Once arriving at the park, they very carefully remove the cloth from around the cage, positioning it so that it hangs adjacent to another cage so that “conversation” can take place.


Then the men stand around smoking and talking while the birds do their talking too.

A short distance away was the flower market, a truly fragrant and pleasing sight. Here flowers from all over the world are delivered fresh each day. Since Hong Kong has no land on which to grow flowers, everything has to be imported. Logically you would think that most of the flowers are grown on the mainland and trucked into Hong Kong, but in truth, most of the flowers are flown overnight from all over Asia.


I saw huge truckloads of flower boxes all containing air freight labels. The sheer number of different and beautiful flowers was overwhelming. Since the Chinese New Year is approaching, the shops were especially full and brimming with inventory. All in all, this was an enjoyable walk.

Our next stop was a drive to the Hollywood Road area which is famous as the location of a wide array of antiques and curio shops. Most of these were still closed, but also located in that area was the Man Mo Temple. This is Hong Kong’s oldest and most famous temple.


It is named after the God of War and the God of Literature. Even though the Temple was quite small and ordinary, it is one of the wealthiest in all of China. People donate freely as they seek favors from the Gods, and in so doing allow the Temple to engage in a wide range of charitable endeavors.

Finally we drove quite a ways to reach Stanley Market. Originally this area flourished because when large clothing chains placed orders for goods, e.g. Polo, iZod, etc. the manufactures always did an overrun just to insure that if any of the products were defective they had the stock to insure delivery of the entire order. Once the order was filled, this “Overstock” was put up for sale in the local stalls around Stanley Market. Since these items were sized for the US market, the area quickly became an attraction for tourists seeking brand name goods at bargain prices. Today Stanley Market has grown up far beyond its humble beginnings and is now a beautiful beachfront village complete with its own shopping center and square.


Along the boardwalk are numerous cafés and bars offering beautiful vistas while you enjoy some good food, a beer, and engage in people watching.

Our visit came to an end too soon. We were back onboard our ship, but remember we had to attend a “special immigration interview,” because of our trip to Macau. When the appointed time arrived, Lisa and I presented ourselves to one of the upstairs special dining rooms where this process was taking place. When we stepped into the room I thought we had entered a war counsel. The room was filled with immigration officials and an entire wall of computers. Arrayed around the room were the passports of all the passengers, which were clearly being examined in great detail. Many had been put aside on a special table and were color tagged for some reason. The entire atmosphere was to say the least “tense.” Separated from the other passports was a box that appeared to contain the passports of everyone who had gone to Macau. We announced why we were there and were told to wait please for an agent. A very stern gentleman arrives and picks up our passports and proceeds to examine them in great detail, looking at all our stamps and verifying our faces. For the life of me I felt as if I was in some espionage movie and being interrogated. After what seemed forever, we were told in a stern tone that we could go, and believe me we both scurried out as fast as our little feet would go.

Our ship sailed from Hong Kong harbor right at sunset, and because of the location of our room at the back of the ship, we had an absolutely stunning vista.


I grabbed my camera and in short order had taken some really good pictures. Fat dumb and happy, I am sitting on my deck snapping away gleefully, when I happen to look down at the screen on my camera and plastered across the top of my last picture were the words “Demo.” I had no clue as to what that meant, but I knew it could not be good news. It took me several minutes to discover that I had already removed my memory card for processing and that it was sitting in my cabin. That meant of course that all those “once in a lifetime” pictures were never recorded. I guess if I had a dollar for every great picture I have missed, I would be a millionaire many times over, but it was kind of sad.

Today we are at sea on our way to the island of Taiwan. This evening we will transit the Formosa Strait, and arrive at the port city of Keelung tomorrow morning. After tomorrow, we have only one more stop before our cruise ends in Shanghai. It seems hard to believe that a month as gone by already.

I hope everyone is well.


Macau, China

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Scratching A 40 Year Old Itch: Macau

Yesterday Lisa and I took a ship sponsored day trip over to Macau. There was nothing really there to see, but when I was in Hong Kong 40 years ago, my group went there, however I was sick at the time and missed the trip; ever since I have had this “itch” to see what it was that I missed. In truth, as it turns out, I should have stayed at Hong Kong, which is where our ship is again parked as we travel north towards Shanghai.

I had always assumed that Macau was another island at the mouth of the Pearl River as is Hong Kong; I could not have been more wrong! Macau is a city at the tip of a peninsula from mainland China. Unlike Hong Kong, which is an island and therefore isolated from the mainland, Macau is an integral part of China and is well connected to it by an elaborate road system. Another mistake I have made all these years was in thinking that Hong Kong and Macau were essentially “sister” entities, and here again, nothing could be further from the truth. The island of Hong Kong and the surrounding territories of Kowloon and the New Territories were the spoils of war to Great Britain from what is known as the Opium Wars. By treaty, Great Britain was granted the rights to those lands for 100 years. In 1997, control of these lands was turned over to China and under the terms of a new agreement, Hong Kong is designated as a “Special Administrative District” of China for 50 years at which time, it will fully revert to Chinese control.

Macau, on the other hand, was not captured as a spoil of war, but was instead given in perpetuity to Portugal in recognition for all they had done for the Chinese Emperor. In that respect, Macau became the very first European city on the continent of Asia. Seeing the transition in Hong Kong, Portugal decided to enter into a similar agreement with China in 1999, and it, too, is now a “Special Administrative District,” which in 50 years will revert over to China.

Hong Kong has been known for two things, it has been the finance capital of Asia, and it is the largest department store in Asia. The city is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and it has a heartbeat all its own. Macau, on the other hand, has developed into the Asian equivalent of Las Vegas. In the small area that is Macau, only 30 sq. km., it boasts over 33 casinos along with a very small population of around 500,000. Last year they topped Las Vegas according to our guide; a fact, of which, he was most proud. The city hosted over 33 million visitors. Now can you guess from which country most people originated? Try this on for size: 85% of the visitors to Macau were from China itself.

After our early arrival into Hong Kong, our tour was the first to depart the ship at 8:30am. We were transferred to the ferry terminal where we boarded a high speed turbo-jet catamaran over to Macau, a trip of approximately 1 hour. Before boarding the ferry, however, we first had to clear immigration from Hong Kong, and the lines were very, very long. The trip over to Macau went quickly and upon arrival, we had to complete immigration forms and stand in another series of very, very long lines in order to enter Macau. Why all the hassle between two entities of China, I really do not understand, but it would get worse as I will explain later.

We had come to Macau to fulfill an old desire on my part, but also because it was advertised that we would visit the St. Paul Cathedral which dated from the 1600’s, then we would visit a museum, and finally we would visit the A Ma Temple. For lunch, we would go to the top of the Macau Sky Tower and dine 60 stories up at a revolving restaurant. On paper, it sounded like an exciting day lay ahead.

The reality, however, was somewhat different. We first visited the Macao Museum which was opened in 1998.


It was a beautiful building and housed a collection of artifacts and dioramas depicting early life in the Portuguese Colony. It would have been OK, except that our tour guide was very full of himself, and he stopped in front of each and every exhibit, and droned on and on until I almost begged him to stop! We slowly went from exhibit to exhibit until after an hour and a half, he thankfully said we would now move on to see the Cathedral. As it turns out, the Cathedral was right next door to the museum so no travel was required. The edifice of the building was very impressive, however our travel guide failed to mention one tiny little fact; yes, the massive structure was built by the Portuguese in the 1600’s, but it was burned to the ground in the 1850’s and never re-built!


The only thing that remains is the front edifice, which stands supported by a steel platform behind. So our visit to the Cathedral was of necessity very brief. At least we still had the Temple to visit. However, when we arrived at the Temple, our guide announced that he was sure we had all seen enough temples by now, so would we please follow him down a side street where we could all sample a delicious almond cookie which was special from Portugal.


Thus, we dismissed the temple. So at this point, our day in Macau had involved a rather boring visit to a museum, a stop at a burned out Cathedral, and a pass by a Temple.

At this point in the day it was 2:30pm and we had yet to have lunch, so that became our next stop. We were whisked up 60 floors to the top of the Sky Tower where a very nice buffet awaited us along with a magnificent view of the surrounding city.


The tower was built alongside the river on the southernmost point in Macau. When looking north, we could see the entire area of Macau, and in every other direction, we were looking into Mainland China. The entire area was encircled with highways, and except for the rivers, it was impossible to tell one area from the other. I will say that Macau was a beautiful city and it did remind me of Las Vegas being full of fantastically large and visually stunning casinos.


Alas, it was time to begin the return to Hong Kong and our ship. Once again we had to face long lines at immigration to depart Macau. This time our catamaran was not the nice high speed ship from the morning. Instead this one was much more crowded and it took almost 50% longer to make the return trip. On our arrival, it took our group almost an hour to clear immigration back into Hong Kong, which meant that we arrived back at the ship almost two hour later than scheduled.

Our ship spent the night in Hong Kong so we had yet another opportunity to visit the city, but waiting in our rooms was a special letter from Chinese officials notifying us that because of our trip to Macau, we were now required to present ourselves the following afternoon for “special immigration processing” before the ship would be allowed to depart. Was this a great experience or what? That was Macau!


PS Since we spent the night in Hong Kong, we got to witness the laser light show that is performed every night at 8pm. Enjoy the pictures because they are quite special.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Frozen in Time; Hue, Vietnam

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Frozen In Time: Hue, Vietnam

Yesterday we entered a time warp when we visited the ancient city of Hue and drove through the surrounding countryside. We witnessed a population that still tills the fields behind oxen pulled plows and then spends their days lovingly tending to their small plots of rice paddies. Tucked away among the hills and valleys we visited some incredible archeological sites, and in spite of the dark overcast skies we had a wonderful and exciting day.

Our ship docked at the port of Chan May, which is about the most godforsaken place I have seen for a cruise ship. The small, one ship, dock was out in the middle of nowhere. The road from the ship to the port entrance was non-existent. It was a mass of deep mud holes filled with big boulders. On leaving dockside, our bus quickly found itself in mud up to its wheel hubs, and even though the driver was going super-slow, from time to time, there would be a grinding sound as we hit some buried boulder. Finally, exiting the “port,” we gained access to a narrow one lane road that was paved in places and in others was merely a gravel path. At the end of this long access road, we turned onto the main highway in Vietnam, Highway 1, which runs from the north to the south of the country. This super “toll” road was only little better than a small two lane road with no shoulders. Again it was paved in places and in others it was gravel or mud. It was, however, filled with large trucks and bicycles with a smattering of cars and motorbikes thrown in.

The distance to the city of Hue was only 40 miles, but the trip took almost 2 hours. Along the way we saw a portion of Vietnam where time seems to have stood still. We certainly received a warm welcome; as our bus moved along, we passed a man alongside the road holding his privates in one hand, and happily urinating on the highway. As we passed by in full view, he never broke stream while raising his free hand and giving a wave. As I said, a very warm welcome was extended.

Hue, Vietnam

The highway came to a series of high hills with a steep grade and sharp turns. The heavily laden cargo trucks could just barely climb the hills. But, not to fear, because our bus driver gleefully passed everything in his way, never mind the double lines. He even passed on sharp curves when it was impossible to see what was coming the other way. So, it comes as no surprise that one of the largest causes of death in Vietnam is traffic accidents!

Our guide droned on and on about how great life was now in Vietnam since the liberation. There were some veterans on our bus, and they just about threw-up with all the propaganda being spread our way. There were communist flags everywhere, and bright banners featuring Ho Chi Minh’s visage. It would appear that people from the South are not faring as well as the victors from the North. As an example, we passed a huge cemetery where in the center was a massive monument surrounded with well-tended grave sites all prominently marked. This area was walled off from the remainder of the cemetery where grave markers were scattered about in a random fashion, and which had not been tended to in any way. Our guide casually remarked that the heroes of the war were buried in the center, and the other tombs were of those who had fought on the side of the south. As we drove through areas of obvious poverty and filth, it did not seem to faze our guide to brag about how the 30 year old son of the country’s ruler who just bought a $250,000 sports car!

Anyway, the bus finally turned off the “main highway” onto a small narrow dirt road that curved through the countryside for several miles before pulling up into a muddy clearing where we stopped for our first visit of the day.

Hue, Vietnam

As I stepped from the bus into the muddy lot, I really wondered what I was getting in to, but in time it turned out to be a wonderful experience.

During the time that Hue was the ancient capital of Vietnam, a succession of Emperors constructed around the countryside massive tomb sites for their eventual burial. If the structures were completed before their deaths, then they could also be used as a summer retreat from the nearby city. There are 13 such sites around Hue, and the government has decided to try and maintain three of them. Each is now listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. We had stopped to visit the tomb of the Emperor Ming Mang. It was built between 1840 and 1843 and covers an area of 70 sq. acres, and is surrounded by a protective wall that runs for over a mile. We had quite a walk from the parking lot to the entrance into the tomb area, but once inside the site, it was breathtaking.

Hue, Vietnam

Best of all, our bus was the first tour group to arrive for the day, thus allowing me to run ahead and capture some beautiful photographs without crowds of people in them.

After our hour long visit, we travelled the rest of the way into the inner city of Hue. Today it is a city of around 400,000 people, which relies heavily on tourism for income. Our next stop was to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, Vietnam’s most revered Buddhist shrine.


Hue, VietnamInterestingly, only 20 % of the Vietnamese people are religious, and of that number about half are Buddhist and the rest largely Catholic. There was no escaping the crowds this time, but never-the-less I did manage to obtain some interesting photographs.

The Perfume River runs through the center of Hue, thus bisecting the city into a northern half and a southern half. In order to get from the Pagoda to our lunch stop on the opposite side of the river, our tour included a ride up river on a pontoon boat made to look like the Emperor’s old Dragon boat. It was a steep and slippery path down to the river bank, but everyone made the boat safely. We then cruised up the river for an hour in a noisy little cabin, while the family who lives on the boat spent their time trying to hustle the crowd into buying some souvenirs. We arrived at a local hotel for our lunch buffet, and were warmly welcomed with a wonderful display of colorful dancers and the pounding beat of giant drums along with a huge banner welcoming the passengers from the Ocean Princess. The buffet could not have been nicer, and during the lunch we were entertained with music and dancing by local artists; all in all a wonderful experience.

Refreshed and ready to go, we drove back to the “Royal” side of the city to visit the world famous “Imperial Citadel.” The original citadel was built in 1601 and enlarged over the centuries by successive Emperors until eventually it became an imitation of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Hue, Vietnam

The area of the Citadel is enormous housing concentric cities nestled within one another like baskets, leaving the Imperial City at the core. While this area is another UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, it was sadly heavily damaged during the Tet Offensive of 1968 when 5,000 North Vietnamese troops turned it into a stronghold and held it for 25 days. Many of the old buildings were destroyed and rather than trying to rebuild them, they were simply demolished so large areas of the Citadel remain vacant today; it is still an impressive site.

By now we were all tiring, but still we did make the obligatory stop at the local market for 20 minutes where a thriving bazaar of sounds and smells offers for sale just about anything you could want. Boarding our bus, we were glad to see that no one had been hit by the infamous pick pockets who inhabit the market, and we set off on our two hour journey back to the ship. The day was dreary and the day was fading, so many on our bus quickly fell asleep on the long ride.

It was a long but rewarding day. Overnight we have encountered some uncomfortable seas as we continue north to our next stop, Hong Kong. While there, we have tours two days in a row, so it might be some while before I get back and caught up, but again I do hope everyone is enjoying our travels.




Thursday, January 13, 2011

Vung Tau, Vietnam

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Lost In Vietnam

Our tour experience yesterday was somewhat surreal. Neither Lisa nor I could tell you at the end of our five hour excursion where we had been, or even why in the world we had bothered to go there! Last night and again this morning, people would ask what we had done yesterday, and we both would look at each other and shrug our shoulders and admit that we did not have a clue.

Before you think we have gone nuts, allow me to explain. Yesterday our ship docked at the port of Phu My, which is the access to Ho Chi Minh City, or to the Mekong Delta. We had been here just 8 days ago and took the nine hour day trip into the old city of Saigon, and so on this stop we decided to do something different. At the time we signed up for shore excursions, the trip to the Mekong Delta was not offered, and our only alternative was a five hour day trip to some city nearby the port. In fact our fact sheet told us what we would see, but not exactly where we were going. And thus, we dutifully signed onto tour 205A, and assumed it would be a fun day.

On boarding our bus we were confronted with a guide whose English was almost non-existent. She droned on and on and on, but neither Lisa nor I had a clue for the most part as to what she was saying. I know that we left the port as we had before, and when we got to the main highway we turned right rather than left towards the city of Ho Chi Minh. We drove for two hours non-stop, passing towns and villages whose names we could not read until finally we reached the seashore and our first stop. Sadly the day had dawned very foggy and overcast, and it remained that way all day with limited visibility.

After some research this morning, I have learned that we traveled to the city of Vung Tau, which is located on the coast of the South China Sea. The city is rather new and has been built since “the great liberation” and the “reunification” of Vietnam after 1975. Having travelled for two hours across a landscape of poverty arriving at this carefully built mecca for tourism was somewhat shocking. The government seems to believe that if they build a nice beachside resort with 4 and 5 star hotels, then the tourists will follow. In my mind, that remains to be seen.

Having arrived at our first stop, we were confronted with a long climb up a steep driveway to reach our destination, which was the Villa Blanche Museum.


Built as the home of the French Colonial Governor in the 1800’s, it was briefly used as the summer palace of the Emperor Bao Dai. Today it sits atop the hillside affording good views of the harbor below, but the building itself is not all that impressive and is not in good shape. It had a collection of china that had been recovered from a shipwreck off the coast, but since most of the lights did not work, it was difficult to see through the dust covered glass cases. The furniture in the building was not original, and so in rather quick order, we crossed that stop off our list and moved on. We did not have to move very far, because just at the bottom of the hill, we again stopped, this time for refreshments at a local venue.

There is an interesting story that develops while there. We had not really noticed but as we entered the city an entire caravan of street vendors had set off in pursuit of our bus. We had noticed how our bus was surrounded on both sides by Vietnamese women holding up items and waving at us, but we did not realize until we stopped outside the museum grounds, that they had been following us on our journey. Indeed, as we moved on, the entire caravan packed up and moved with us. So, if you showed any interest in something at one stop, but did not buy it there, it would be out and available at the next stop with variations, so we constantly had renewed opportunities to purchase. The women were really nice and after a while it was nice to see them there. If I got mosquitoes on my back, they would rush to brush them off for me. So, of course, everyone on the bus ended up buying something from them. A side story worth noting is that in Vietnam a light complexion is prized for its beauty, so when women are outside, particularly on their motorbikes, they wear a face mask, and they cover their arms completely with long gloves; this makes for an interesting sight. The masks are many times simply surgical masks, but in some cases they are brightly decorated.


I saw one woman in particular who wore a bright red helmet with an equally bright and matching face mask and gloves, over which she was a fashionable pair of sunglasses. It was eye catching to say the least.

Back on the bus, we travelled all of five minutes along the shore before having a quick photo stop, as it was described. Now I had a little trouble figuring out what it was that made this a “photo” stop, but I dutifully snapped a few pictures, and climbed back on the cool bus.

DSC_4345(2) In spite of the overcast, as the day progressed, the heat and humidity started to take a toll and the bus quickly became our haven. Once again we set off for no more than five minutes along the coast before stopping for a brief “photo” stop. Here we could take a photograph of a recently completed 100’ high concrete statue of Jesus Christ sitting atop a small hillside. So back on the bus for yet another five minute drive.


This time we stopped on a side street and as always were immediately surrounded by our travelling caravan of vendors. Facing us was a steep alleyway which we needed to climb to our next attraction, a local Buddhist shrine. More than one person on our tour had problems with the steep climb, but finally we arrived. I will admit that the small shrine did have a nice reclining Buddha within its halls.


I do not know what it was made from, because our guide droned on about how many steps there were in the temple, and what each step stood for, etc, until I just tuned out – in truth because I could hardly understand her anyway. So, you will just have to enjoy the photographs.

Back down the hillside we went and back into the bus for another five minute drive to our next stop the Lang Ca Ong Whale Temple. I feel terrible having to admit that neither Lisa nor I got the significance of the Whale thing.


Essentially we were told that long ago a whale washed up on shore. Many years later the bones were recovered and a temple was built around them; now you know as much as we do.

I am sure you can guess my next line; yes, back in the bus for yet another five minute ride to the local market. Here we were told we had 20 minutes before needing to return to the bus. The market was a dark covered cavern filled with stalls, smells, and people all bustling this way and that, and after a few minutes, we had enough of that and scampered back to the bus, as did everyone else for that matter.

And so, there you have it. I slept for most of the two hour trip back to the ship and was just glad to be “home” as it were.

Now at least I am in a position to tell people what we did for five hours yesterday. In summary, we drove and drove to see an old Villa at the top of a steep hill. Then had a photo stop to see a 100 ft. high concrete statue of Jesus, followed by a quick visit to a local Buddhist shrine, also atop a steep hill. This was followed by a visit to some temple built around some old whale bones, with a quick stop at a dark, noisy and very smelly market before enjoying another two hour ride back to the ship. I think that just about sums it up.

Today we are again at sea headed north to the port of Chan May in Vietnam. This will serve as the gateway to a tour of either the ancient city of Hue, or alternatively the city of Da Nang. We have selected the tour to Hue, which will involve a 10 hour day – I can imagine how tired we will be when we return, but at least the following day is once again a leisurely day at sea.

I hope everyone is well; and remember the blog is posted at:

Or: alternatively the pictures directly at:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ko Samui, Thailand

Map picture

And Yet Another Island; Ko Samui, Thailand

The truth of the matter is quite simple; if I dedicated my remaining years to visiting all of the inhabited islands in the world, it would be physically impossible. According to a quick Google search, there are over 11,000 islands that are inhabited. Plus, not to put too fine a line on it, but in my opinion, just about every island pretty much looks like every other island. There are exceptions, e.g. Bora Bora, but otherwise I think my observation is pretty much correct.

And so yesterday we visited the island of Ko Samui, Thailand. Until we booked this trip, I had never even heard of the place, and in fact, before arriving into port, I had to go look it up, and it was not easy to find. It is located about half way up into the Gulf of Thailand. Directly to the west is the Malay Peninsula, and directly west of that is the small island of Phuket, which we visited about a year ago. What was interesting was the fact that Ko Samui is so small that it does not have the vehicles to accommodate a cruise ship. So all of the buses and tour guides that met us dockside had driven that morning from Phuket and taken the ferry over to Ko Samui.

If you drove non-stop, it would take about an hour to go all around the island’s one main road. The center of the island is undeveloped mountainous terrain. Historically the island was a giant coconut plantation, until during the 1970’s the backpacking crowd discovered the wonderful beaches on the island. Overtime the island has mushroomed with upscale bungalow type resorts on every available beach. However, they are discreetly nestled behind the foliage so the natural beauty remains largely unspoiled.

We joined a ship sponsored tour which made the circular drive around the island, with four stops along the way. Our first such stop was to visit a coconut plantation.


What was most interesting was the way in which the ripe coconut is harvested – they use specially trained macaw monkeys. While a person can climb the trees which can be over 100 ft. tall, they take time and require wages. On the other hand, a monkey can effortlessly run up the tree, select the ripe coconut, drop it to the ground, and be back in a flash.


Unlike people, they do not require wages. We got to watch a monkey at work, and it was impressive. Afterwards a baby was brought over so that we could have our pictures taken with the monkey on our shoulders. It was funny that when the little monkey sat on the shoulder of a woman, he was calm and cute. On the other hand, I happened to be the first man to give it a try, and the little “darling” went “ape,” if you will pardon the pun, and I ended up with several scratches that were bleeding.


In just minutes the mosquitos had located my bloody arm, and I had visions of dying from some rare disease. Since I am still doing well today I guess my fear was unfounded, but every time a man came forward, the same behavior ensued from the darling little monkey.

Our next stop was for refreshments at a beautiful overlook, and afterwards we continued our drive.


Without question the main tourist attraction of the island, besides its beaches, is the Temple of The Big Buddha. Constructed by a wealthy Thai in the 1970’s, it is today mainly used as a tourist attraction and not as a place of worship.


I managed to get some good photographs, before our bus pulled out for the short drive to a real temple, the Plai Laem Temple. By this time of the day, the sun was starting to really heat the landscape. The heat combined with the humidity meant that all of us were sweat soaked pretty quickly every time we left the cool bus, but the beauty of the temple grounds was worth the effort.



From the Temple, it took almost 30 minutes for our bus to complete the island drive and drop us back at the dock, where our shuttle tender was waiting to take us back to the Ocean Princess. Because the waters were so shallow, the ship had to anchor some distance off shore, and the tender ride probably took at least 35 minutes. Interestingly, for the entire time that our ship was at anchor, two police boats were quietly anchored nearby. One boat was pretty big, with guns on the outer decks, and the other was a high speed boat meant to do a quick intercept. I think that because of the recent unrest in Thailand, the country is doing all it can to insure that there is no event involving tourists, because damage to the tourism industry could be devastating to the country overall. Our guide did mention that the “unrest” was mainly confined to the north of the country and was the result of their King getting on in years. This was producing some concern that certain groups might try to take advantage of his death to introduce a new form of government.

Yesterday was the first day in our entire voyage that we had sunny skies and fair seas. Overnight the ship made a calm trip to the port of Laem Chabang, one of many container ports that give access to the city of Bangkok. Once again the day has dawned bright and sunny with calm winds. Unfortunately, from our perspective, the port is located so far from the city that just to travel there and back would require a drive of 5 hours. While we always enjoy the sights of Bangkok, having been there many times, the thought of a 5 hour drive caused us to elect to remain on the ship. The ship does offer a complimentary shuttle, which itself takes around an hour to a local beach resort where for a small fee you can spend the day sunning. Since that is not our thing either, we are instead enjoying a day at leisure on an almost empty ship. Sadly, we are so far out of town that we do not have cell coverage, and the ship has closed down the internet for maintenance. I guess we best rest up for lunch and dinner, and be glad we are not at home where I heard you are expecting 5 inches of snow.

I hope you are enjoying my updates. When we again get internet, I will post this as a blog and also upload the pictures from yesterday.




Friday, January 7, 2011

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Map picture

Return to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

Lisa and I first visited the former capital of South Vietnam around 7 years ago, so we were interested to see what if any changes had occurred during that time. In that respect we were not disappointed because the changes were pervasive and significant.

Let me back up to our arrival at the port city of Phu My. Phu My is located along the river into Saigon, but it is a two hour drive from the port into the city. Usually a small ship like ours would travel up the river right into the city, but for some reason Princess docked here instead. That is sad because it meant that just to go to and return from the city took a good 4 hours of our short day visit. Fortunately we had arranged to be met by a private car with an English speaking guide, which allowed us to tailor our tour to what we really wanted to focus on.

The drive into the city was just as bad as I remember it. We were travelling on a 4 lane “road,” which sounds all well and good, until I mention that the right two lanes are unpaved. Even the semi-paved left lanes occasionally and without warning give out to a rutted pot holed watery mess, so the driver must be ever vigilant. One big difference was readily apparent. One our last visit most people were travelling by bicycle, but now they have been replaced by motor scooters. Almost every family we were told owns at least two of them and sometimes more if they have older children. Generally the motor scooters stayed to the right and the cars and trucks to the left; however, that was just in theory. In practice, anything was fair game. If a scooter could dodge around across the lanes of cars, they did so with abandon. The cars were not any better on driver etiquette. I mention “lanes” as if they really meant something, and I guess all you can say about them is that they were “advisory” at best. In fact if a car in the far left lane could see an opening in the opposite direction traffic, he would shoot out and run as far up the line as he could and then rapidly cut back in to traffic narrowly missing a head on collision. As we approached the city itself, the roads improved and the traffic became even heavier.

I must say that our first look over the city of Ho Chi Minh, or what the local’s still call Saigon, was quite impressive. That is not to say that Vietnam enjoys anywhere need to prosperity of its neighbors in Asia, but it is to say that growth is clearly evident. All over the city new luxury hotels were open or under construction. I noted that everyone seemed to now have cell phones, which was quite different that previously. I asked our guide about that because when visited last time I remember that few people had phones, let alone a cell phone, and if you wished to make an international call you had to go to the Post Office and wait in a long line to use one of the government monitored phones. Our guide assured us that was no longer the case, and that anyone can now make an international call without interruption.

Our first stop was at the former Presidential Palace.

Ho Cho Minh, Vietnam

Unlike my last visit, the building is now open for tourist and in fact is one of the major attractions in the city. Constructed in the 1960’s it is a very beautiful building from the outside, but even more impressive on the inside. It is an open air structure which is quite large and airy. Standing near the front gates are the two North Vietnamese tanks that crashed the gates of the Palace in 1975 thus marking the end of what the locals call “the American War.” I remember watching video of that moment, and I guess I never really thought about what came afterward. I would have assumes that troops entered the compound and looted the building killing everyone in sight. To my surprise, that is not what happened. Not one person in the building was injured, and the building was not ransacked. Those present, including the President, were arrested and sent to “re-education” camps, as were all high ranking South Vietnamese officials. Today, those same people are free and melded into society or have moved away from the country. Anyway, because of the way the building was conquered, it is in perfect shape today. It is still owned by the government and is used from time to time for official functions, but mostly it is a museum. I think you will find the pictures very interesting. One point of note is that underneath the building is a concrete bunker where officials could take refuge if the building was bombed or destroyed. From this bunker they could have continued the war if circumstances permitted. In the office of the President, there was a small door on the side of the room, which gave entry to a circular stairway directly to the basement below. Also of interest was that an American helicopter was parked just outside the president’s office on the top of the building to allow for a rapid escape.

Our next stop was to visit the old Post Office built by the French in the 1880’s.

Ho Cho Minh, Vietnam

In fact its architect was the same person who built the Eiffel Tower. It is a beautiful old colonial building, and just as our guide promised, the “phone booths” of old, now held ATM machines rather than government monitored phones. One interesting story is worth sharing. Sitting quietly in a corner of this huge building was a very old man. He sat hunched over surrounded by books and forms and he looked across the open expanse with a gentle and infectious smile. The man had worked for the Post Office for many years until his retirement, and now he still comes back every day and sits in his little corner. He is an expert on postage and forms, and he helps people with their problems, for which they tip him. Not a bad retirement!

Leaving the Post Office, we walked across the street to the Cathedral.

Ho Cho Minh, Vietnam

The citizens of Vietnam mostly practice Taoism with a mixture of Buddhism; however, there is still population of Catholics. The Cathedral was impressive from the outside but the interior was rather plain. We moved onto the local market where our guide assumed we would want to shop for souvenirs and take pictures of the live fish for sale. We did look around briefly, but truthfully there was nothing of interest to buy and we had just been to several open markets, so at this point, Lisa and I were pretty frazzled from the long drive and the heat. Our guide found us a wonderful little French café where we could get omelets and fries – doesn’t get much better, for us anyway.

After lunch we had planned on seeing the Fine Arts Museum, but alas all museums close from noon until 1:30, and we had to keep in mind the minimum two hour drive back to the ship, which was set to depart at 4:30. As an alternative to more shopping, our guide took us to a famous temple that is heavily used by the local people. It was a Pagoda which was a mixture of Taoism and Buddhism, and which was very interesting.

Ho Cho Minh, Vietnam

Then came our long drive back to the ship and the end of a long day. Our next day was “at sea,” followed by our arrival back to Singapore. This marked the end of our “first” cruise. Rather than make the trek into the city, we elected to remain onboard and await the arrival of our good friends from Kansas City, Michele and Cathy. When they were a little late arriving, I was so tired, that I lay down in my underwear to take a quick nap. Sometime while I was asleep, Lisa left our cabin in search of the group. The next thing I knew, I was abruptly awakened by all the lights in our bedroom coming on and finding two strange women in my bed, while Lisa was standing nearby shooting video. Talk about a “rude” awakening! When I got the sleep out of my eyes, the “strange” women turned out to be Michele and Cathy who were laughing their heads off, as I tried to quickly pull up the sheets to save what little dignity I had left. The only good news from this event is that the video did not work, and so I will not forever be haunted with these images on the internet.

Today the ship is cruising Northeast in the Gulf of Thailand towards Thailand. If we had returned northwest we would be in the center of a major storm system, but as it is, we are just on the edge. The skies are overcast and the winds and seas are relatively calm, but we are picking up large swells from the storm system which makes walking, or even sitting on the ship very difficult. Lisa and I both are experiencing a little motion sickness, which is unusual for us.

I hope everyone at home is well. I have posted out blog and the pictures are online, so please enjoy.