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14 April 2018 - Mostly Penang, Malaysia
It is worth noting that nine years ago today, I entered retirement and our cruising lifestyle began. Its also Diane's birthday.
Last week, we took a 3 day outing to visit the island of Penang to link up with our cruising friends Christopher and Christine from SV Scintilla. They were having their boat shipped back from Australia to the US and were in the midst of an East Asia tour. We first met C2 in Tahiti. We figured Penang was a good RV place.
One of our first tourist sites that we visited was the Cheah Kongsi “clan” or “family house”. Established in 1810, it is one of Penang’s oldest Chinese clan associations. Its members can trace their ancestral origins to Sek Tong Seah in the Sam Tor District of the Hai Teng County at Cheang Chew Prefecture, Fujian Province, China. The Chinese keep accurate records and show that the first person to have the Cheah surname was SIN PEK and his 36th generation descendent was known as XIE AUN (320-385A.D.), the premier of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. His name would have been shown as CHEAH XIE AUN, as the Chinese always show the family name first.
This eclectic, ancestral building was built in 1858 and completed in 1873. The beautiful clan temple, featuring Straits and post independence architecture, is built on a 1,500 sq meter plot of land acquired in 1828, and is accessible via an archway from Armenian street and a new main entrance from Pantai Street.
We also spent most of one afternoon at the Kapitan Keling Mosque. This mosque was built in the 19th century by Indian Muslim traders in George Town, Penang. Being a prominent Islamic historic centre, it is part of the World Heritage Site of George Town and lies at the centre of the city's Tamil Muslim neighbourhood, the Chulias. It is the first permanent Muslim institution to have been established in the area, and dates from the early 1800s. The exterior is ochre yellowed while the interior has white marble floors and a high ceiling. The interior aisles are formed by a series of horseshoe arches, crowned with King Edward's plaques. The façade of the building and its interior are decorated with geometric designs, as human and animal forms are forbidden in Islam.
After touring the mosque with one of the religious leaders, we then took part in a Q&A session where many of our curious questions were asked. For example:
Q. Why are there no icons, statues, paintings or even drawings of Allah (God), or Mohammed (the last prophet according to Islanm, or even any of the other recognized prophets (Abraham, Jesus, Peter, Paul etc) on display or in their books?
A. Simple answer, it is forbidden in Islam to make any images of the above. Oh, and yes, just to confirm - Jesus was a prophet, definitely recognized by Islam - just not the “last” prophet.
Q. What is the ruling on women’s wearing of the hijab and girls?
A. Women wear the hijab or burka to honour Allah and reduce the distraction of men. Traditionally, girls start to wear the hijab when they enter puberty. (This has been my experience, but I was taken aback in Malaysia with the number of young girls (some as young as 2 years of age) wearing a hijab out in public. I find this to be a bit extreme.)
Q. Why are there public photos of the Sultan’s wife, not wearing a hijab? Does she wear a hijab? Is she Muslim?
A. Yes, she is Muslim. She chooses not to wear a hijab. (it sounded like a bit of a sore point)
Q. What is Islam’s view on homosexuality, gay marriage etc?
A. Essentially, the Quran identifies two sexes, period. Any sexual behaviour that is not heterosexual is not accepted. Those individuals must take “additional training”…..
Another of our Penang destinations was to see the Ken Lok Temple, a large Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of Penang (maybe 8 km from Georgetown).
Originally built in 1891, Kek Lok Si Temple is one of the largest and finest temple complexes in Southeast Asia. There are literally thousands of magnificent images of Buddha and hundreds of beautiful meaningful carvings, sculptures and murals in the interior and exterior of the temple halls, pagodas and archways.
The Kek Lok Si Temple is not just a centre for Chinese culture and Buddhist teachings, but also a unique heritage site where Mahayana Buddhism and traditional Chinese rituals blend into a harmonious whole, in the temple architecture and the daily activities of worshipers.
Obviously, some parts of the temple are still under construction and renovation.
If you paid RM30 (about $10 CDN) you could have your family name inscribed on one of these roof tiles.
Or, if that is too much, for RM 1, you could buy a “wish ribbon”, with varying printed wishes.
In summary, we really enjoyed visiting this Temple. Its a pity that the air was so hazy. Although we had a pretty good view from the top, the photo doesn’t do it justice.
Another side trip was to the top of the Penang Hill, by way of the vernacular railroad. The highest point is at Western Hill, about 833 metres (2,733 ft) above sea level. The hill stands out prominently from the lowlands as a hilly and forested area. It was used as a retreat during the British colonial period, and is now a popular tourist destination in Penang.
The top of the mainly granite hill is accessible via the Penang Hill Railway from its base station at Jalan Bukit Bendera, Air Itam. To date, this funicular railway system is the only one of its kind in Malaysia, transporting over a million visitors to the peak of Penang Hill as of 2014.
You can’t visit Penang and not see the street art. Penang Street Art, and in particular George Town Street Art, has in the past few years enhanced its position as the street art capital of the country. Since the inscription of the inner city of George Town as a World Heritage Site, the street art scene has developed with increasing vigour.
Here are some total strangers getting into the act.
Finally, every visit to Penang includes eating at Food Courts. I don’t think anybody eats in restaurants.
We even stopped by a Hindu temple, for a quick look.
This is one of the great things about Malaysia, religious freedom. We have seen many varieties of Christian churches, Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples and Hindu temples. While the government and country professes Islam, people seem to get along quite well and there doesn’t seem to be any difficulty observing the religion of your choice.
One of my maintenance projects has been to “service” the water-maker. Over the past 9 years, this has only consisted of changing the pre-filter elements, pickling the membrane, or even changing the membrane (once). According to the service manual, our high pressure pump was long overdue for overhaul. The EchoTec supplied spares kit was very sparse, it had no seals or -rings for the pump.
There was evidence of a little salt water weeping on the housing of the pump, but this all cleaned up nicely.
I think I made 3 trips to Flex-Seal for o-rings (a 20 minute drive) and one trip to Ipoh for seals (a 2 hour drive). I changed the oil, but the belt and motor brushes are still very healthy. After conducting a simple test on the dock to confirm that the pump isn’t leaking, I then re-installed the pump in its original location, and changed the membrane and all its housing seals. This membrane is 5 years old, so it was due to be changed out.
There are some pretty wild potato chip flavours on offer in the local stores. This one is “black pepper crab” flavour. I wouldn’t imagine it would gain market acceptance in Canada.
Even these local monkeys prefer fresh fruit and nuts to high carbs!
23 March 2018 - Pangkor Surroundings
For the past few weeks, in addition to doing boat work, repairs / maintenance and upgrades - we’ve also been taking day-trips touring around the State of Perak, seeing a few of the local sites. One place we went to is “Kellies Castle” just under a two hour drive from our marina - it was near Ipoh (the capital of Perak).
Kellie’s Castle was built by the Scottish planter William Kellie Smith in the early 1900’s. The building of his castle was influenced by his fascination of the Hindu religion and India, and many items including bricks and tiles were imported from India. He even enlisted the help of 70 Indian workers from Madras of South India as skilled labourers for the construction of the mansion.
I found an outstanding view of the nearby mountains and Ipoh area - from the roof top.
Unfortunately, many of his imported workers contracted the Spanish Flu and died in the early 1920s long before the castle was completed. In fact, it was never completed but has been used in movies such as “Anna and the King”. Smith was convinced to build a Hindu temple 1500 m from the castle for the deity Mariamman. Some say it was to protect those who lived on the property, some say it was to reduce the number of casualties to sickness or injury.
If you look closely, there is an icon of Smith build into the roof top trim - an homage to man who paid for the temple (first time I’ve noticed this).
The next stop was to visit the caves at Gun Tempurung. These caves are about 3 km long, and one of the longest caves in Malaysia. Part of it has been developed as a show cave with electric lighting and walkways and there are a range of tours of different lengths and difficulty. It is made up of 5 large domes and is believed to have existed since 8,000 B.C., about 10,000 years ago. These caves are famous for their breathtaking gallery of stalagmites, stalactites and other amazing rock formations that are superb speleological wonders, found only in this part of the world. We did the tour with our cruiser friends Ad and Marianne from SV Betty Boop.
A few days later, I picked up my zinc anode order from the Long Cheong Foundry at Sitiawan. I had them cast 16 zinc anodes for me, a custom order using my mould. They cast them at a 35% discounted price from another local supplier. It pays to shop around!
I discovered that our autopilot hydraulic pump “housing” has been weeping oil out of one of the filler ports. Upon examination, it seemed that this filler port only has two threads, made from the thin metal of the housing. The other port has a raised surface with 8 threads, and appears to be made of a welded nut with tapered threads.
The solution, of course, was to modify the housing and get a similar nut welded in place - something like this repair (done by the Long Cheong Foundry for about $30).
A few days ago, we went for another road trip, this time to the NW - to Pulau Orang-utan (Orang-utan Island). This world renowned centre is entirely focussed on conservation of the orang-utan species through in-situ efforts. It was an excellent opportunity for us to see these amazing creatures in their native habitat.
I’ve seen Orang-utans in zoos before, but have never been this close to them. We were separated from them by a large electrified fence, but still only a foot or two away.
We were cautioned not to touch the fence, but even so - I did inadvertently touch the fence while interacting with one of the orang-utans (and it wasn’t currently electrified). I noticed that they used a stick to pull pieces of fruit (apples) closer to them - so I showed them that I too could poke and prod with a stick. They didn’t want to touch the fence either and were clearly very clever animals. When I clapped, they clapped. One orang-utan made a loud “farting” noise with his mouth, that I immediately copied - and he responded back!
Diane also managed to play a bit with one young female and a stick. Oh, I would have loved to return with some children’s toys to see what they could do with them. I don’t imagine the organization would allow that though, as it will change their environment.
These three young ones entertained us with their gymnastic abilities.
In one of the shops, I bought what appears to be an authentic BOSE bluetooth speaker, but at a cost of only $25 - can it be true?
One of the boats that left a few weeks ago headed to Cochin India, and is now nearly at the entrance to the Red Sea in Sawakan Sudan. Largely because of time constraints, they left without even going to Thailand, and chose to cross the North Indian Ocean - bound for the Suez Canal. This is a short video that they made of Pangkor Marina and the local area.
2 March 2018 - Malaysia Road Trip
Another month has gone by, and I can report that we’ve done a little bit of boat work, and have seen more of Malaysia. Diane’s brother Henry arrived to visit us, with gifts of liquorice and RotoZip bits in hand - both impossible to obtain in Malaysia.
Meeting Henry at the airport, we first stayed in Kuala Lumpur for two nights, enough time to visit the downtown area, the Petronas Towers and a huge shopping mall. This was also enough time for Henry’s suitcase to catch up with him. Here is Diane and Henry posing in front of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers. According to Wikipedia, they were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004 and remain the tallest twin towers in the world. The 88-floor towers are constructed largely of reinforced concrete, with a steel and glass facade designed to resemble motifs found in Islamic art, a reflection of Malaysia's Muslim religion. Thousands of people were evacuated from the twin towers on 12 September 2001 after a bomb threat the day after the September 11 attacks destroyed the World Trade Centre towers in New York City.
While in Kuala Lumpur, we visited the Bird Park, billed as the "World's Largest Free-flight Walk-in Aviary", with 20.9 acres to be explored. As expected, we saw lots of birds indigenous to SE Asia. I even took a photo of this guy, who paid big bucks to have all these birds roost on him.
We had a really nice local lunch at the Bird Park, and Henry tried for the first time, Malaysian lemonade, which is based on freshly squeezed lime juice. Normally this drink is highly sugared, but we asked for less sugar, because the Malaysians have a real sweat tooth.
Next, we drove to Malacca, where we’ve been before. We thought this was a pretty special city and deserved seeing again. This is a view from our hotel balcony, actually it was just the common hallway. I found it odd to be on the 17th floor and be able to walk outside with a handrail at about chest level. I suppose that suicide jumpers are not a big concern. This view shows the exterior of a really big shopping mall, the kind that you can get lost in.
I’ve posted other pictures of Malacca before, so I won’t repeat what we’ve already seen. I thought this downtown photo was neat.
I pressed Henry to get a massage, something that he said he’d only had once before in his lifetime. In this area of the world, massages are cheap and plentiful and I want to “live like a native”. Henry’s 60 minute massage cost about $20.
Then, we drove South to Johur Bahru and positioned our rental car so that we could visit Singapore. Although Singapore is only a “bridge” away, we couldn’t drive our rental car into Singapore without first buying a special permit. Regulations say that only the vehicle’s owner can buy said permit - so, we left the car at Puteri Harbour Marina. Our previous experience was to take a bus across into Singapore, but with 3 people, we figured that we were now entitled to an upgrade - to a private car. The costs for said car are advertised in Singapore dollars, $150 round trip (same day), or $100 one way. Since this was Chinese New Year (CNY is the common acronym here), the price was bumped up by 50%. So, we paid in total $300 for two trips, in a private car. It was still worth it though because the private car took us from our car in the parking lot directly to our hotel. We never even had to step out of the car when passing through Customs and Immigration. Door to door it took about 50 minutes, rather than 3 hours and fighting with the crowds. It was an excellent adventure.
Unfortunately, two things went wrong in Singapore. First, I booked us into a 3 star hotel, and there were cockroaches, not only in the room, but seemingly - in the neighbourhood. Secondly, our grand plan was to spend CNY in Singapore, Chinatown, where there were obviously a lot of Chinese people. I had visions of dragon parades, festivals etc. In truth, Chinatown was completely shutdown, as well as 2/3 of Singapore. The local Chinese won’t work during CNY, and they either have family coming home or they leave town - maybe they go to Malaysia?
Our first stop in Singapore was the famous Gardens by the Bay, a nature park spanning 101 hectares (250 acres) of reclaimed land in central Singapore, adjacent to the Marina Reservoir. Gardens by the Bay is part of a strategy by the Singapore government to transform Singapore from a "Garden City" to a "City in a Garden". The stated aim is to raise the quality of life by enhancing greenery and flora in the city. This is not one of my photos, but a glossy tourist photo - but it really shows the area.
I’ve seen these views once on television, and they really are spectacular when you see them in person.
We did stumble upon some CNY celebrations though with this “dog dance” happening right in the gardens.
These are some photos that Henry took at night, quite beautiful.
No tour of Singapore would be complete though without stopping off at the Marina Bay Sands, an integrated resort fronting Marina Bay. At its opening in 2010, it was billed as the world's most expensive standalone casino property at S$8 billion, including the land cost. The resort includes a 2,561-room hotel, a 120,000-square-metre (1,300,000 sq ft) convention-exhibition centre, the 74,000 m2 (800,000 sq ft) The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands mall, a museum, two large theatres, "celebrity chef" restaurants, two floating Crystal Pavilions, a skating rink, and the world's largest atrium casino with 500 tables and finally - 1,600 slot machines.
Wanting to try some local creations, we had what we thought were ice cream sundaes, but they turned out to be shaved ice with lots of different syrups, fruit and even kernels of corn. Henry didn’t like having corn in his “ice cream”, and neither did I.
We dropped in to Mustafa’s in the Indian quarter, this is a huge iconic store - in search of a replacement cargo bag suitcase since mine had a broken zipper. I compare the Mustafa Centre to Harrod’s of London. Clearly, Mustafa’s had the largest selection of suitcases anywhere, and we walked out with a replacement suitcase.
Diane and Henry went to the Botanic Gardens (which I had seen before), while I stayed back at the hotel, rested my leg, did the laundry (at the laundromat) and guarded against cockroaches. Our best effort was made before leaving to go to the laundromat, when I zealously sprayed the room and vacated it for a few hours!
We did enjoy our stay in Singapore, although it was somewhat different than originally conceived.
Next, we returned to Malaysia via JB and drove North, just North of Kuala Lumpur to visit the Batu Caves. Batu Caves is a limestone hill that has a series of caves and cave temples in Gombak, Selangor, Malaysia. It takes its name from the Sungai Batu (Stone River), which flows past the hill. The caves are one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, and are dedicated to Lord Murugan. The Batu Caves are also referred to as the 10th Caves or Hill for Lord Murugan (also known as Murugan, Skanda, Kumara, and Subrahmanya, is the Hindu god of war) as there are six important holy shrines in India and four more in Malaysia, some of which we have already seen.
It was a long way up, and a pretty steep staircase.
Inside, the open space was simply breathtaking.
There were lots of monkeys inside, watching the tourists and hoping for a snack, or maybe to snatch a pair of sunglasses or a cell phone!
Henry took this photo at the souvenir shop. It remains puzzling that their were plenty of Canada flags on offer. I suppose they’re popular?
At the foot of the hill, there are many smaller, but equally impressive caves to enter. All in all, it was quite interesting and a cheap way to spend a few hours.
Next, we left Batu Caves and drove North to the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s most extensive hill station and a district of Pahang state. It occupies an area of 712 square kilometres (275 sq mi). Surveyed by William Cameron in 1885, the outpost consists of three mukims (subdistricts) nestled at elevations ranging from 1,100 metres (3,600 ft) to 1,600 metres (5,200 ft) above sea level. The mean annual temperature of the retreat is about 18 °C (64 °F). During the day, the temperature seldom rises over 25 °C (77 °F); at night, it can drop to as low as 9 °C (48 °F) at the higher reaches. Developed in the 1930s, the tableland is one of the oldest tourist spots in Malaysia. Apart from its tea estates, the plateau is also noted for its cool weather, orchards, nurseries, farmlands, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, wildlife, mossy forest, golf course, hotels, places of worship, bungalows, Land Rovers, museum and its aborigines (Orang Asli).
We stayed in Cameron Highlands for only one night at an AirBnB apartment. At a local restaurant, we had our first steamboat dinner. This is essentially a big pot that we dumped a bunch of ingredients into and cooked our own soup. It was tasty. As you can tell from the jackets worn by Diane and Henry, the air temperature had dropped.
Henry gave his “strawberry smoothie” a big thumbs up. I figured it was the best one I’ve ever tasted.
We visited the Boh tea plantation, and I learned how tea (I never drink coffee and rarely drink tea or any other hot beverages) is made. They employ lots of manual workers and specialized cutting tools and simply trim the leaves off the trees, limited the tree growth to about chest height.
Next stop was to see the Sam Poh Buddhist Temple nestled in the Cameron Heights just outside of Bringchang. The Sam Poh Temple is the 4th largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Amongst others, it houses a large statue of Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. The temple is quite pretty and has been well maintained by residents and local monks. Surrounded by a bright yellow wall, the temple is serene and peaceful. Inside, there are lots of different statues, both Buddhist and Chinese, and incense is burning in the background in memory of those passed on.
Leaving Cameron Highlands, unfortunately it was all “downhill” from there. We stayed one night in downtown Ipoh where Henry was completely bedridden, “sick as a dog”, apparently sicker than he had ever been. From there, we drove only 2 hours back to Pangkor, so we could “regroup” at the marina, our home turf. We abandoned our plan of going further on to Penang. After three days of R&R and a single doctors visit, I’m still unsure whether Henry had a really bad bout of the flu, or Dengue Fever - which is quite common this time of the year. Regardless, they both present similar symptoms and require similar treatment. Its just that Dengue, if left untreated - can be life threatening. In the end, Henry recovered so that he was well enough for his flight home and we have heard that he did indeed make it back to Ontario. We are very grateful for his visit and hope that we gave him sufficient exposure to Malaysia and SE Asia. Here is a parting shot of a palm plantation, representing the 4rth largest contributor to Malaysia’s economy, on the 4 hour drive to the airport at Kuala Lumpur.
10 February 2018 - Pangkor Marina, Perak Malaysia
Diane’s brother Henry will be here on Monday, and then we’ll be travelling around Malaysia on a two week road trip. We’ve earned another holiday, because we’ve been busy doing boat work, “on the hard”. I’ve heard that they don’t call it “on the hard” for nothing …..
When we hauled the boat on 9 November, we had the goal of finishing our work in 6-8 weeks. Unfortunately, one thing led to another and this ended up expanding to 12 weeks and 2 days. Oh well, we figure that’s not too bad. Our painting contractor took 42 days to paint the hull, just the green above the waterline, not the anti-fouling or even the deck. We’re aware of another boat, a Canadian sailboat, that was hauled when this marina opened nearly 8 years ago, and the boat is still here, still on the hard! Apparently the owners are here regularly, and do go back to Canada, but the boat isn’t ready to launch. I built our boat, from zero to finish in 7 years, working on it part-time, 23 hours per week. Go figure!
We are NOT on the hard anymore, our boat was launched a week ago, and we’re now neatly tucked into a slip on the inside of the fuel dock. This is where we expect to stay for “some months” as we continue to do more maintenance and improvements. We’re no longer “living in a treehouse” and we no longer have to take a long walk to the toilets in the middle of the night.
We’ve finished a number of projects, some improvements, some repairs, and some maintenance - as usual. We did indeed fix our leak (the reason that we interrupted our voyage and hauled in the first place), and replaced 3 mechanically fastened through hulls with welded versions. They should be stronger and more water-tight.
Our Volvo engine had some TLC. The starter was removed and over-hauled. Our transmission was removed, and the seals and bearings were changed - as well as the shifter fork and sliding sleeve (aka clutch).
I’ve installed a new shaft seal, as well as a carrier to hold a spare, in place seal. I also replaced the thrust bearing.
We sent our primary anchor (Rocna 40kg) and chain (250’ of 3/8” G4) away for double, hot dip galvanizing. We are very pleased with the results. The chain and anchor look like new.
We have seriously upgraded our solar power by adding MORE POWER. When I first built the boat, I installed two 75W panels in 2001 and then added another two 75W panels in 2002. So, when we sailed away from Kingston nearly 9 years ago, we had 300W with 4 panels. Less than a year later, I added another two more 130W panels, giving us 560W. Normally, that should be sufficient for average cruising needs. However, we use a lot of energy, and have not only a big fridge but a freezer as well, and ultra-sonic anti-fouling (that uses about half as much as a fridge) and an electric/hydraulic autopilot - not wind driven self-steering gear. We’ve also discovered the joy of cooking with an electric rice cooker at lunch time under solar power. Yes, we’ve also got two wind generators and a towed water generator - but solar prices have come way down. We’ve taken the plunge and added another 800W in semi-flexible panels to the hard top / Bimini area. That has increased our solar power to an incredible 1360W. The new panels and controller are currently undergoing testing, and although the controller circuitry limits the solar output to match the house bank battery “thirst”, the results are very promising.
When running the wires for these new panels, I had to drill a new hole in the underside of the deck. I was very pleased when I scraped away the foam insulation and saw that the painted underside was “like new”, and there was not a speck of rust to be seen.
We also bought a new radar and installed the radome in the same place as the old one.
We replaced our 18 year old Raytheon SL72 radar with a new digital model by Furuno, an 1815 colour display radar.
The removal of the old radar, in particular the 1” thick cable that ran nearly the length of the boat, and the installation of the new one - took over a week. It was quite a job and very satisfying when completed. The radar needed a separate heading sensor, because it does not integrate with our older systems, the Raytheon Sea-Talk bus. This radar also displays AIS and was a bit of a challenge to wire up.
This jumble of wires was neatly improved when stuffed in a Tupperware container and closed up.
With the extremely high cost and lacklustre performance of “Prop-Speed” on the propellor and shaft in these warm waters, we decided instead to paint these surfaces with International Tri-Lux (bright blue), as it seems to do well here inhibiting marine growth. We’ll see.
Yes, there is still maintenance to do, as we crawl over and under every surface on the boat - trying to fix things that are broken or don’t behave well, or trying to prevent them from breaking. We even had two cockpit cushions re-upholstered. Its a never ending chore as we try to keep our boat looking and behaving like new, but probably not much different than a house. The difference though is that our “house” moves, and brings along its own power systems (solar, wind driven, water driven and diesel engine driven) and has a number of complex navigation and control systems. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the washing machine! This is our life, and for the most part - we enjoy it. Investing the time and money in our boat is all part of it.
The next part will have no boat maintenance, but all tourist information!
13 January 2018 - Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), Vietnam
Our Malaysian tourist visa expired on 8 January, so 7 January - we flew to Vietnam for a Visa run/holiday. We’ve never been to Vietnam, but have heard many good stories from other people. In transit, I googled “what does Vietnam produce and export” and got: “Vietnam has emerged as an important electronics exporter, with electrical and electronic products overtaking coffee, textiles, and rice to become the country's top export item. Samsung is Vietnam's largest exporter and has helped the country achieve a trade surplus for the first time in many years.” Curious about the political system in Vietnam, I googled it and got: “To date, Vietnam is technically still a communist country having one-party rule, that is the Communist Party of Vietnam, under Marxist-Leninist governance. In fact, Vietnam is among five remaining communist countries today, together with China, Laos, Cuba and, to a large extent, North Korea.” To be honest, I didn’t encounter anyone who was pleased with their government, at least no English language speakers.
We booked a one-week stay in District 7, at the Boutique Garden Hotel.
This is a 3.5 star hotel, very economical and well situated in a 50% ethnically Korean area. We had a very nice room with a queen size bed and all the essentials, including A/C and fast Internet. On Monday, we took a spa day. Both of us had a haircuts, facial massages, foot massages, pedicures, and manicures - and Diane had her hair coloured/highlighted to boot.
I noticed a pineapple on the floor in the corner, and asked the manager about it. She said it was to make the place smell good, or at least not too bad (chemical smells in these salons can be a bit much). The owner told me that pineapples are economical and excellent for absorbing the bad, unhealthy fumes. We’ve noticed that lots of people use fresh pineapples for an air freshener. On the drive in from the airport, the driver had two fresh pineapples in the corners of his car. In the hair salon, they changed out two pineapples, every day. I’ve even seen a pineapple in the floor in the public toilets.
In the afternoon, we walked a few kilometres to the Crescent Mall, an apparently high end mall with few customers - or at least not many on a Monday afternoon. We didn’t buy anything, but I did notice both a Coleman Outdoor store, and a shop that specialized in selling pianos.
I’ve never seen a shopping mall with a store that sold pianos, much less Steinways!
There are an incredible number of scooters in this city. It is amazing to simply watch them move in waves, like schools of fish in the ocean! At least 50% of the riders are wearing masks, as well as some sort of sun and dirt protection. Most people have helmets on, but of course there are lots of families riding scooters and babies can’t wear a helmet - but they’re on the scooter nonetheless.
I rarely noticed a car with a dent in it, and most of the vehicles appeared to be in very good condition. There wasn’t much aggression shown by drivers, it was all quite fast and polite. Maybe it’s the street signs that keep them in check?
The downtown skyline is pretty impressive, and I have to declare that this is one of the cleaner cities we’ve been in, perhaps not as clean as Singapore - but not far behind.
One thing that did annoy me though was that when the traffic was really congested, the scooters started riding up on the sidewalk - in both directions. That is where WE were walking! Some drivers were patient, some honked their horn. There are not nearly as many traffic lights as you might think though, traffic is just constantly flowing.
There are some quiet spaces though, where there are no scooters in sight.
I told Diane that Vietnam was well known for its coffee and she was so delighted with the Hotel’s morning coffee that she asked the owner to get her a 2kg bag of their special blend, at a cost of $8CND per kg. The owner/Manager told us that it is their special blend, and includes a portion of “animal coffee”. So, what is “animal coffee”? Here is the explanation. Weasels are listed as carnivores but they are also into eating ripe coffee berries when the harvest season comes. Weasels apparently have a knack for finding the sweetest and ripest coffee berries to eat. They climb from tree to tree, looking for the best and perfectly ripened berries to “consume”. Weasels always choose the best coffee berries to eat, and leave behind the yellowish berries, unyielding berries, and over-ripe berries. Unlike rodents that eat the fruit’s flesh and trigger off its seeds, weasels just slightly chew the flesh and swallow the rest including the fruit’s seeds. This is beginning of the process in which weasel coffee is made. Following the French influence in the 1800s, coffee was introduced in Vietnam, but the source of coffee back then was very limited, so it was considered a luxury, only the French colonists along with Nguyen dynasty’s nobles had the right to drink it. Farmers, who were the ones making the coffee - had no chance to enjoy the fruits of their labour. They were forbidden from consuming coffee and in time realized that the only way for them to acquire coffee beans was to pick up Weasel poops - which was a block of coffee beans sticking together in the dirt. They then realized that this type of “poop coffee” was way more aromatic than the usual one that was served to the colonists, and also the coffee taste was smoother and less bitter. These farmers discovered another strange feature of their “weasel coffee beans” while grinding. The coffee beans were perfectly protected by a thin silk pellicle. The thin layers developed by the Weasel’s enzyme made the coffee unharmed but fermented by the surrounding environment. Also, the coffee bean’s bitterness is mostly eliminated in this process, and that is why digested coffee is easier and tastier to drink. When the digestive process ends, 5kg of coffee berries are attached to about 1.5kg of weasel poop. The beans are carefully washed and then dried for three days in the sun, just like regular coffee. Then, they're ready for roasting, bagging, and selling. To preserve the old good coffee as well as the Weasel species from urbanization, coffee planters gathered weasels in the wild and brought them onto their farms, feeding them perfectly ripe coffee berries along with many others fruits and meat or fish - for unique flavours.
We’ve encountered many locals who despised the renaming of their city in 1975, honouring Ho Chi Minh (deceased Communist leader of North Vietnam). After the war was over and North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam (and the USA withdrew their troops), they moved the capital from Saigon to Hanoi in the North and renamed Saigon to Ho Chi Minh city - but thousands of businesses still have the word Saigon in the name, and many people told us “call it Saigon”. There are over 8.5 million people living in the city, and it comprises 24 districts. Our hotel was in district 7, and comprised nearly 50% Korean, 10% Vietnamese, 10% European, 10% Japanese, and 20% other nationalities. There are a lot of immigrants living amongst the 95 million people of Vietnam, and most of them seem to be in Saigon.
On Tuesday, we did a package Mekong Delta River Tour. The Mekong Delta is the southernmost region of Vietnam and it is often referred to as the rice bowl of Vietnam as it produces three harvests per year. The fertile Mekong Delta is also famous for its tropical fruits and flowers. Our bus stopped at a roadside gas station and I took a photo of the gas prices. That’s $1.01 per litre for “low test”. Not too bad.
Our tours consisted of several boat trips, in different boats on the water and between the islands. We were on three different boats, starting with the biggest one to the first island. This is a stern view of one of our boats. Notice the concrete block / anchor.
The captain and crew consisted of a husband and wife with one child. It appeared that the wife was the line handler while the husband was the Captain.
We had lunch at a restaurant on one of the islands.
The main dish was Elephant Fish, an I have a close up of that dish.
We were also treated to a special tasting of honey tea.
Diane tried on a “Coolie” hat, but didn’t buy one. None of the ones we could find had any liner of any sort - and they don’t pack well in our bag(s). You can’t beat the sun protection offered though.
Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables were on offer, none of which were of any interest to us because we’re staying in a hotel.
We passed by quite a few caged roosters. Although “cock fighting” is illegal in Vietnam, it still happens a lot. People are quite interested in watching roosters kill each other.
That also might lend some explanation as to the fascination with “snake wine”. These bottles of wine have baby cobras and even scorpions in there, to give that extra flavour. We did not taste the snake wine.
We did learn though how they make coconut sweets, and then double wrap those delicious little fresh candies (no preservatives).
I have to say though that the tours through the small waterways and mangrove areas was interesting. We did spot a large snake but I couldn’t get my camera out in time to take a photo.
On Wednesday, we decided to follow our own tour, and took a GRAB taxi way out to District 11 to see an ancient pagoda - which was unfortunately closed. While walking on an uncrowded sidewalk at 1030 in the morning, with Diane to my right - a very quick local Vietnamese hoodlum on a scooter, managed to drive right between us (on the sidewalk), reach over and snatch my iPhone 6 right out of my hands! I chased him for about 10 seconds but he disappeared into the crowds very quickly. That changed what was going to happen for the remainder of the day. We managed to buy a new one for half the price of what I paid less than six months ago, but then the rest of the afternoon was invested in setting it up. I managed the “find my iPhone” app and was able to setup an automatic ERASE the next time my stolen phone accessed the Internet, but who knows how that will happen. I think that I was let down by Apple, because I believe they should offer a registry for stolen phones. They will eventually provide the O/S download to rebuild this phone, and when the serial number matches up with a reported stolen device - they should DENY the rebuild. It would also deter thieves from stealing Apple products. Oh well, nobody was injured. I hope the thief will have great difficulty in setting up this phone. As he snatched it from my hands, it didn’t even have a Vietnamese SIM card in it, but rather a Malaysian one so it wasn’t even connected to the network. I was using Google Maps in offline mode for navigation from one temple to the next. The six digit security code is very secure. It isn’t going to be easy for him.
This is a typical view of the non-tourist area that we were walking in. There are lots and lots of overhead wires, and local shops. Many people waved and said hello to us.
We relieved the stress of the day by getting 90 minute massages, later in the afternoon. In Vietnam, a service like a massage, hair cut, facial, manicure, pedicure etc costs only about 1/4 of what Canadian prices are. This is more like a spa-holiday.
On Thursday morning, we took a GRAB taxi out to the Ben Thanh market.
I bought two “Underarmour” T-shirts, Columbia hats made in Vietnam. Of course, we also bought a new case and protective screen for our new iPhone!
Thursday afternoon we visited the Củ Chi Tunnels. The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connected underground tunnels located about 70km from the city centre. These tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.
These stairs were not in place during the war, but have been added to make it easier for tourists. I have to admit that I went down to the bottom, but the ceiling was so low, that I decided to head right back up and not go any further. It was just too low, and too tight for me.
Diane is quite a bit more limber than me, but even she had difficulty squirming into this tunnel entrance.
We had a demonstration of the various kinds of booby traps that were made, much like animal traps - but intended not to kill the victim soldiers, but only to maim them. The traps were then covered by soldiers with the intent of killing other soldiers who came to the rescue.
We learned that commodities were in such short supply, that the Viet Cong made their own sandals from worn out rubber truck tires, much like this one.
Next was the mandatory Communist “propaganda” film about the Vietnam war, and how the North Vietnamese chased out both the French and the American Forces, and “liberated” the South - forming the happy country that is officially known today as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. We watched about 8 minutes of the film and then moved on. History is always told, or re-told - by the victors.
At the end of the tour, there was an opportunity to live fire assault rifles, and both Diane and I had a go at the AK-47 and the M-16. The weapons were essentially bolted in place, so it was very safe, but it was using real bullets at real targets.
It was a late return, and we got to see how the city lights up with the month-long Vietnamese New Year celebrations.
On Friday, our trips and activities were starting to wind down. Again we took a GRAB car from our hotel in District 7 downtown to District 1. A GRAB car, by the way, cost about $4 for the 5km trip, whereas a regular taxi was about $11. The only challenge with either GRAB or UBER is that you have to utilize an app on your smart phone. We stopped at the Jade Emperor Pagoda, the oldest temple in the city - but it was a bit of a disappointment.
Later in the morning, we had a lazy walkabout downtown, and then after lunch and visiting the market again, we headed back to our “home” in Zone 7.
We walked by the Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the city’s tourist spots.
We also walked by about 200 metres of nice posters advertising the People’s uprising against the Capitalist threat, and subsequent defeat of French and American Forces. This particular poster says “The US Embassy, the den of the US-puppet government in Saigon was burned by the Liberation Army during the General offensive and uprising in the Spring of 1968”. History belongs to the victors……..
In this photo, I’m posing in front of Ho Chi Minh’s statue, near the Peoples Committee building, or is it City Hall? These Communists are always changing the names!
We’ve seen hundreds of people transporting interesting things on scooters, starting of course with “other people”, like children. However, we’ve also seen dogs, water bottles, propane bottles, building materials, 24 cases of canned beer. If you can think of it, they’ll carry it on a scooter. Here is a rare photo of a parked scooter and I noticed the baby seat.
On Saturday, we took a leisurely walk around our neighbourhood. In all my life, I’ve never seen a Western Union Storefront but I’ve seen lots in this city. Maybe its because I haven’t lived in the big cities much. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw a Western Union storefront until Galapagos. Why is that? I googled this question and discovered that although the country of Vietnam had a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $202.6 billion US dollars in 2016 - Western Union “remittances” were a little more than $13 billion US dollars. GDP is a monetary measure of the market value of all final goods and services produced in a period of time. These remittances are money flowing back into the country, mostly from family members working in the US and sending money back home to their families. Over the past 20 years this flow of overseas funds has increased by 100-fold. Isn’t that interesting?
We went back to the “Spa” - Diane had another facial treatment, and I had an hour long foot massage. Oh, we are going to miss this country.
We took a final walk around our neighbourhood and realized that in District 7, we were right next to the “Sky Garden”. This is a very quiet, mostly expat neighbourhood with lots of small shops and no traffic - just pedestrians.
Tomorrow morning, we’ll be flying back to Malaysia.