One Night in Bangkok

After a short morning flight from Siem Reap, we arrived in Bangkok, for what seems a bit more like an extended layover than an actual stop on our trip. We leave for Malta in a few hours at 1:05 a.m. For our last night of our Asian adventure we are staying at the Oriental Residence in Bangkok. We are on the 19th floor, and this is our view of the city.

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We had two very nice guides for yesterday afternoon and today. We visited the grand palace of the king, the summer palace, and a whole bunch of temples. The architecture of the Thai temples is different and interesting, and our guide yesterday filled in some gaps in our knowledge of Buddhism. In Bangkok, you can see temples built using a Thai architecture, Khmer architecture, and even a few Mosques. We saw temples within temples. We have lost count. I think it is safe to say that we are now "templed out."

Bangkok itself is very different from anything we have seen in Vietnam and Cambodia. It is definitely a large modern city. Complete with massive traffic jams and loads of tourists. The food has been excellent. Green Curry, Massaman Curry, Tom Yum soup. Today out on the river we had the Tom Yum Goong (with prawns) and we told our guide to order it Thai style for us rather than "foreigner style." Well, let me tell you, we like our food spicy but I lost my voice after a spoonful of this!! Oh My it was hot. We also had a chicken and basil stir fry that was absolutely delicious. How you can make something stir fried taste so spicy and like it just came off the grill, I don't know. But I'm definitely going to be working on it. We have a few bags of spices in our luggage that I hope make it through immigration in Malta.

It is now time to start a new chapter of this journey and we are both looking forward to arriving in Malta in about 25 hours.

P.S. I hope the song gets stuck in your head for a day too. And just in case, you can't remember, I'm not sure I ever really knew them all. But here are the lyrics:

Bangkok, Oriental setting And the city don't know what the city is getting The creme de la creme of the chess world In a show with everything but Yul Brynner

Time flies, doesn't seem a minute Since the Tirolean Spa had the chess boys in it All change, don't you know that when you Play at this level, there's no ordinary venue

It's Iceland or the Philippines Or Hastings or, or this place

One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free You'll find a God in every golden cloister And if you're lucky then the God's a she I can feel an angel sliding up to me

One town's very like another When your head's down over your pieces, Brother

It's a drag, it's a bore, it's really such a pity To be looking at the board, not looking at the city

Whaddya mean? Ya seen one crowded, polluted, stinking town

Tea girls, warm and sweet, warm, sweet Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham Suite

"Get Thai'd", you're talking to a tourist Whose every move's among the purest I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble Not much between despair and ecstasy One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble Can't be too careful with your company I can feel the Devil walking next to me

Siam's gonna be the witness To the ultimate test of cerebral fitness This grips me more than would A muddy old river or Reclining Buddha

But thank God, I'm only watching the game, controlling it

I don't see you guys rating The kind of mate I'm contemplating I'd let you watch, I would invite you But the queens we use would not excite you

So you better go back to your bars, your temples Your massage parlors

One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free You'll find a God in every golden cloister A little flesh, a little history I can feel an angel slidin' up to me

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble Not much between despair and ecstasy One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble Can't be too careful with your company I can feel the Devil walking next to me

—Murray Head

Ok fun fact about this song: Along with the rest of the songs from Chess, the music was written by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA, and Tim Rice wrote the lyrics. Can you feel the love tonight?

Sixty Minutes of Inspiration

Today was another one of those days that was thought-provoking, uplifting, and inspiring. This morning we had a new guide, who took us to his own village and showed us his own house. That experience will be a part of a post that has been brewing for a week or so. I'm going to do this one first as it is fresh in my mind.

We just got back from JWOC (yes, they pronounce it jay walk) which stands for Journeys Within Our Community. What a great experience! We didn't really know a lot about what we were in for this afternoon, other than we were there to volunteer in a class, and it would involve speaking english. So far, so good.

Before I tell you about the class, and what we did, I want to give you a little background about JWOC and the educational system here in Cambodia. The latter is easy. Its pretty minimal. Students may go to school from ages six to fourteen. After that there is really not much for them. Students may go to a private school for further education, but they are pretty expensive for most people in Cambodia.

JWOC has programs in five key areas: Community Assistance, Clean Water, Microfinance, Free Classes, and Scholarships. The scholarship program is the heart of it all. Since 2005 JWOC has provided 120 scholarships for students to get a university education. However, these students must in turn give back by volunteering their time on another JWOC program. The instructor of the class we participated in this afternoon was one such student.

At the JWOC center in Siem Reap they have students from age 4 all the way to 60. The classes are open to anyone in the community and range from english, to sewing, to gardening, to computers. The class we worked with was a hospitality class. You can think of it as an enrichment course for students who are interested in improving their english so they can work in the hospitality industry. One student wanted to be a hotel receptionist, another told us he wanted to be guide.

We started out the class with everyone introducing themselves. There was much smiling and laughing and clapping as we went around the room. Their enthusiasm was infectious. After the intros we moved on to some role play [1]. The instructor paired us up, and I played the role of a tourist who wanted to book a room, while my student played the role of someone at the front desk of hotel. I had a list of features that I wanted in my room and he had information about what they had available and the associated prices. He was into it! First he had to clarify several points with the instructor, and then we started out. After working our way through a fairly lengthy conversation, he said. "We need to do this again. We need to be the best so that we can perform for the class." So we did it again.

When the teacher asked for volunteers to do their role play for the class I think he might have been a little disappointed that there was no choice based on merit, but he was undaunted and quickly volunteered us for the job. Here we are in the front of the classroom playing our roles:

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Jane also had an excellent student, that I wish I could have talked with some more. He wants to be an engineer, and is enthusiastically studying math and physics.

After the role playing was done we had about 20 minutes for free conversation. They divided the class in two, and put each of us with one group. The instructor said that since I was a professor they could ask me about anything. No pressure. We were all grinning from ear to ear even though they were a bit shy about asking questions. They wanted to know about where I was from, and what kind of crops we had, which led to a little discussion about how cold it is in Iowa. One of them was wearing a Chelsea shirt so that led to some quick conversation about football. Then I asked about what I should see or things I should eat. I think they were all impressed when I said we had already tried Amok and Lak Lok.

One student had been holding back and I could tell he wanted to ask me something, but he said he was to embarrassed. With a bit of coaxing he finally asked me: "what good are computers?" Well, now that is a question. Nobody laughed at him for asking it. What good is something that I take for granted and use all day everyday? So we talked about how you could use computers to learn things, anything you wanted to know you could find out. Only one of the students in my group had heard of Google! We talked a little about their markets and how they bought everything they wanted at the local market. I tried to describe how I used the computer to do my shopping. I can buy anything I want on the computer and a truck brings it to my house in two days. I may just as well have sprouted a second head.

Our hour was over in no time. But we left with such respect for these students. They were so enthusiastic and supportive of each other. It was a class like nothing I've experienced before.

Afterward we had a chance to talk with the education coordinator here in Siem Reap. She is an American from Connecticut who has been here about five months and had some nice insights to share with us. It is true that these students value education in a very different way because it is so special. She told us about the collaborative nature of the Cambodian culture and how important that is to their educational experience. Something that I never would have really understood before spending time here. But I'm glad that I did.

Here is the class with all of us all together.

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[1] Some great irony here as I've been known to skip out of faculty meetings where role playing is on the agenda.

Siem Reap Cycling

"Those stairs are too steep," said our guid Sina. Those stairs must be climbed I said to myself. We were only about an hour into our afternoon of bike riding when we came across this out of the way temple. The staircases are at about a 60-70 degree angle to force people to focus on their climb to the top. We had been looking at these all day at various temples, but in each case the authorities had helpfully built a wooden staircase at a much more gentle angle. Out here away from the crowds was a chance to try the real thing. So, we rode around the back, there were identical stairs on all four sides, and I stopped my bike. "Just a few?" I asked? OK, So I quickly climbed up about 10 or 12 stairs. With a smile and a gesture Sina told me it was OK to continue as far as I wanted, which was all the way to the top.

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It turns out that this was just the beginning of a great afternoon of adventures on our rented mountain bikes. The bikes allowed us to get to places of the giant temple complex that most people don't go to because its a long walk on paths that are not very well marked.

You carry your bike through a dry creek bed and an ancient door on the other side and you are treated to another amazing site. Way in the far back of the temple we did some serious mountain biking, and climbing. Even our guide asked us to take a picture of himself on his bike to show his friends. Actually I think he posted it on Facebook immediately. Look where I took the crazy Americans today! This was toward the end of our ride, so you can see some of the amazing golden colors of the late afternoon sun.

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One place we did get off the bikes and walk around was at the Bayon temple. This was built by King Jayavarman VII. Yeah, I can't say it either -- even after hearing our guide say it several times. We ended up just going by seven. My favorite was Udayadityavarman I who predated VII by about 80 years. Anyway, Jayavarman VII was a very long lived king, and a very good king. He built many temples, and took care of the people. They have a children's hospital in Siem Reap named after him.

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As you are walking through the temples with the guide it is really interesting to hear about the history. Many of the temples were originally built as Hindu temples and then later converted into Buddhist temples. Some are the other way around, it just depended on who was in charge at the time they were built.

Most of the temples we visited were built between 950 and 1180. At some point most of them were abandoned and fell into ruin until they were rediscovered largely by the French in the early 1900's. Of course some of the discoverers were corrupt and tried to loot the temples and sell off the amazing bas relief stone carvings back home. But others financed the beginnings of the restoration of these places.

Every one of those towers in the Bayon temple has the face of Jayavarman VII on four sides. It is said that this symbolizes that the king was watching everything and everyone at all times.

Because the Cambodian government is quite corrupt, and it is quite a poor country, many of the restoration projects we saw over the last few days were financed by other countries. Some by Japan and Korea, to provide a great tourism experience for their people, others by India and other countries for maybe more altruistic reasons.

One other bit of excitement for the day happened when we made a comfort stop. It turned out the elephants were headed to the same place.

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Early Morning Temple

Wake up call, 4:30 a.m. Oh-dark-thirty as some would say. After a full day of travel yesterday, from Halong Bay, and a crazy arrival process in Siem Reap, we started our first full day in Cambodia plenty early. Our guide and driver met us at reception at 5 a.m and we headed for Angkor Wat in the darkness. We wanted to get a good spot to watch the sun rise behind the temple. When we got there the moon was still up and it was pitch dark. But as we sat and got to know our guide a bit, we began to see a shadow of the temple emerge from the dark sky. Gradually, the day dawned, and the clouds reddened and the temple became fully visible.

It was worth the short night to join the throngs of other people and see the sun come up. As we sat and began to wonder if we would see our friends Ann and Jerry among all of the other people there, Jane suddenly said "is that Jerry?" Then a moment later she spotted Ann and we started waving. So right there we had a little reunion with our friends and traveling companions. Since it was the right time, Jerry and I did an abbreviated workout in honor of our P90X buddies back home.

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We each had to go on our way for the day, Jerry and Ann with their Luther Students in tow, and us with our Guide Sina to visit the temple. We will meet up with them for dinner in town tonight.

Right now we are resting after being at the temple for about 4 hours. We'll meet our guide again at 1:00 for lunch and a bike ride to the Angkor Thom temple.

Halong Bay

We've just finished our morning stair workout. Four hundred thirty seven stairs to climb to the top of Ti Top island. The island was named by Ho Chi Minh, and a Russian astronaut. From the very top of this island you get a panoramic view of all of the junks and other nearby islands. What can you say about the views in one of the seven natural wonders of the world? Good Job selection committee! You can take all of the adjectives you can think of amazing, beautiful, breathtaking, romantic, peaceful and it still won't do justice to what you see in Halong Bay.

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We boarded our Junk, Violet, around 1:00 p.m three days ago. Our cruise director, Tom (One of the few Vietnamese we've met that uses an American name), gave us a short safety demonstration, in place of the usual lifeboat drill. We were then shown to our suite. We were in the water suite, old creaky wooden floors, windows everywhere, and a TV we never turned on in one corner. The bathroom was larger than some American cruise ship staterooms we have stayed in. The balcony opened to the front of the boat. Our room was just above water level, with the window going all the way to the floor, so it was almost like living and sleeping right on top of the water. There are only six suites on the ship, this first night they are all occupied by four Americans, six Brazilians, and two Swiss honeymooners.

As we ate our lunch, and chatted with the other American couple the boat got underway. We really wished that we were not trapped in the dining room as it was our first exposure to the islands of Halong Bay. There are almost two thousand small islands in Halong Bay. The Limestone islands seem to jut straight out of the water and the sides are so steep that few are inhabited. Just for Mike, I will say that the geology of the bay is ancient karst (like Decorah!) Resulting from over 500 million years of sea regression, tectonic down-warping and sea transgression. Soon enough, we were done with lunch and up on the top deck to enjoy the scenery.

Later in the afternoon, we visited a floating village. The people live here year around. I heard others say that they live a very primitive existence, I think primitive is the wrong word. Simple would be a better choice in my opinion. They have some electricity, by means of a generator. They use it for charging their cell phones, and powering televisions and other appliances. Their diet, as you might expect, includes a lot of fish. Everything else, they have to get from the mainland and bring back by boat. Its a way of life they have chosen, and so they seem happy.

After the visit to the floating city we take our boat to the Tien Ong cave. Here we can see many freshwater mussel shells and some stalactites and stalagmites. We leave the cave just in time to get back to the boat to watch the sunset over the islands.

We are very glad that we signed up for a two night stay on the boat, as the second day gave us more time to enjoy the scenery and and do some biking and Kayaking. We left the Violet for most of the day, so that it could go back to port and drop off the one-night passengers, and pick up another group. As it turned out there was only one other couple, from Toronto, on the boat our second night.

While the Violet went back to port, we transferred to the Sunset with a couple from Perth Australia. We had a great time talking with them and touring Cat Ba island. We did a 6k bike ride to a small village where we were able to tour the village and learn about the endangered Langur monkey. Biking around the island gave us another perspective of the interior of the island which is equally as beautiful as the outside.

After our bike ride, we had lunch and then continued on to the Bat Cave where we were able to do some kayaking for about an hour. Kayaking in and out of small bays, and under the eroded limestone tunnels was a great experience. In one small bay we had hoped to see some monkeys, but they were shy, or on their own vacation so we did see them. After we returned to the Sunset, Ron and Jane were brave enough to do some swimming. I had dipped my hand in the water when we were kayaking and had long since decided against a swim.

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After an hour of relaxing -- our host on the Sunset was very big on that word -- we returned to the Violet for another great sunset, some wine, and a good meal. Having no internet we read and just enjoyed the quiet of the bay. Once all the boats are settled for the night it is incredibly quiet. All the engines are off and the lights from the other boats make for quite a romantic scene.

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As we were having our breakfast this morning, on the way back to the mainland, Jane and I both agreed that Halong Bay was our number one experience of the trip so far. Its kind of sad to rank our experiences because it needlessly gives the impression that one experience is a winner, and others are somehow less. It really is the totality of everything we have done in the last 17 days that makes this such a great experience.

Biking and Cooking in Hanoi

This will be my last post for a few days. Tomorrow we board a Junk on Halong Bay, and I'm certain we will not have Internet for our two days at sea. The next day is a travel day to Cambodia, so I won't have access for most of that day either.

When I initially requested that we include some biking days in Vietnam, I had the kind of biking I do back home in mind. Road bike by Trek, a nice smooth open road with rice paddies on one side, and Water Buffalo peacefully grazing on the other; sunny weather with no breeze and low humidity. Perfect right?

This fantasy only goes to show how little I knew about Vietnam. Here is a picture of me on today's bike.

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Not a trek, although in Vietnam this is a prized bicycle. You must be one of the top workers in order to obtain this bicycle according to our guide. Now, I'm going to call this a fixie. It had only one gear so that mostly qualifies. Although it does have handbrakes and I can coast, so that works against true fixie classification. The second thing you may have noticed is that it is woefully undersized for me. The seat posts in Vietnam do not allow for much adjustment for American height males. And the frame is similarly small. People in the market were literally laughing at the big american on the small bike as we rode by today.

All of this really makes me appreciate two things. One: bicycles are an important and prized mode of transportation here. We have seen thousands of people riding them to work and school each day, in big cities and small villages. Two: The importance of a bike that actually fits you.

Although we were not on nice trek road bikes, the scenery today was great.

After the bike ride, we had lunch at the home of Ms Qiy. She is a retired professor of Vietnamese culture at one of the universities in Hanoi. But now she lives in her family home outside of hanoi. Their family home goes back 21 generations! She lives in the home with her youngest brother, and his children. At the back of the home is a shrine where they worship all of their ancestors.

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For Lunch we had fried spring rolls, some delicious pork wrapped in La Lota leaves, along with salad and rice vermicelli noodles. We got another nice lesson (and top secret recipe) for making spring rolls.

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We were hoping to visit a primary school to speak english with some of the students but that did not work out as it is near the end of the year, and the principal and teachers had meetings that conflicted. On the other hand we were greeted by many school children as we left the village today. They all enjoy saying Hello to us, partly because we stick out so much, and partly because I think they want to see if we will respond. These two were especially cute as they chased us down the street on their bikes. Not only did we get a "hello" from them but also a "good afternoon." When we stopped and asked them their names they became very shy.

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Out of my Comfort Zone

The following post appears on the Luther College Ideas and Creations Blog

Saturday, 12:30 p.m.: Our guide told us the best way of visiting the war museum here in Saigon is to start on the third floor and work your way down. As we rounded the staircase onto the second floor we were met with the title for the main gallery on that floor: "War Crimes of America" Wow! I wasn't expecting that. Suddenly I felt very uncomfortable. Throughout the museum we were confronted with images and stories of Agent Orange, senseless killings, Graphs depicting the numbers of bombs dropped on Vietnam in various years, and the use of Napalm. Clearly museums are not just dry exhibitions of facts, but can have their own point of view.

Sunday, 10:00 a.m.: Our first stop today is at a family run restaurant of the girl, Kim Phuc, she is widely known as "The girl in the picture" A pulitzer prize winning photo that many say galvanized the antiwar movement in the United States. It is a haunting photo, and the rest of her story is very moving. It is not easy to hear, it is even more difficult to imagine that our country would do that to a child.

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Sunday, 1:00 p.m.: Our final stop of the day is at the Cu Chi tunnels where we meet a Viet Cong veteran, and watch a 1967 documentary that extolls the virtues of the "war heroes" who killed many americans, and destroyed many American Tanks. We learn about the cleverness and the bravery of the Viet Cong who set booby traps to kill the Americans, and lived in the tunnels of Cu Chi for years.

Monday, 4 a.m.: I awoke with a start, my heart was pounding, and my thoughts were already on the day ahead. Today was a biking day in the Mekong Delta, but tonight was our "home stay" night. I was a little panicked. Our guide had informed us last night that there would be no hot water and no air conditioning at our home stay. The high today would be over 90 degrees, and the humidity about what you would expect in the Jungle. We saw a lot of houses that I would not want to stay in the previous day. I think to myself, "Is there any way to get out of this? Why would I want to do a home stay when I am in this really nice hotel?"

Tuesday, 1:30PM: Our guide invites me to turn around, so that he can drape a Python over my shoulders. I have a lifelong fear of snakes, and as you can see, this is a big one. However, since I teach a programming language by the same name, and I know that many of my first year students struggle with the language, it somehow seems appropriate for me to over come that fear, and so the snake goes around my shoulders.

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When my wife Jane and I told people we were going to Vietnam, we saw many different reactions: confused, worried, envious, and even peevishness. The mention of this country is capable of invoking a wide variety of emotions in people. I guess that is inevitable; there is the ghost of the war, and many have friends and family who died here. For some Vietnam is too far away, we are 13 hours ahead of Decorah and Luther College time. Politics: along with China and Cuba Vietnam is one of the few remaining communist countries. So why did we decide to go here?

Gereon Kopf recently posted about being uncomfortable. I agree with him that "stepping outside your comfort zone" is a good thing. It is a thing that we ask our students to do regularly, and so as a faculty member I think it is something we ought to ask of ourselves as well. One good way for me to do this is through traveling and experiencing new cultures and new points of view. Southeast Asia has long been on our travel bucket list, and since we will be directing the Malta program for Luther this Spring we decided that going to Malta the long way around, with a stop in Vietnam was a good way to extend our travels.

The vignettes at the start of this post illustrate several ways in which I have been pushed out of my comfort zone in only the first few days of our trip. Now the difficulty for me is that I am a problem solver by nature. Accusations of war crimes, pictures of young girls bombed with Napalm, comments from relatives that imply that our being here "on vacation" is somehow disrespectful to those who lost their lives in this country, and Pythons all cry out to be solved in some way. but there is nothing here I can solve, nothing really to fix. The things that are making me uncomfortable have largely happened in the past. There is nothing to do.

My own feelings about the war are not defined by personal experience. I was born after the US entered the conflict, and was only in kindergarten at the height of the bombing in 1969. I have no father or uncle or cousin who fought in the war. It wasn't a topic that was covered in U.S. History classes when I was in High School, until now, most of my knowledge of the war came from Hollywood.

This morning we had an interesting conversation with our guide. We asked her what they teach about the American war in school. She told us, "we teach that you are bad." She told us that she used to be a math teacher, from a communist family. But then she married a non-communist from the south. She was blacklisted, and so her prospects as a teacher were at an end. Her husband's father abandoned his family and fled the country right after the war, becoming one of the many "boat people." She told us that she knows that we are not bad people. She encouraged us to tell our friends to visit. This seems to be true of nearly everyone else we have had contact with. As a guide she has taken many American veterans back to their former battlefields, and she told us how they are all so grateful to see that Vietnam has healed and progressed as a country. It was a wonderful conversation.

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Tuesday, 6:30 AM: I am sitting under a thatched roof, at the edge of the river, enjoying the sunrise, listening to the Roosters crow, as they have done for the last two hours. Our home stay turned out to be a rather pleasant visit. I got to make fried Spring rolls in the kitchen with our hosts last night, and although the mattress was a bit hard and our room a bit stuffy we slept. The beautiful sunrise reminds me that everything is alright. More than alright, I am lucky to be here, lucky to have this experience that gives me a new perspective on our world. The challenge for me going forward, as it is for all Luther students, is how I will live out this new perspective in the days and years to come.

The DMZ Bar

Dear British Lady in the pink denim shirt:

Thanks for an entertaining evening of dining. I'm just sorry it had to come at the expense of that nice young assistant manager you abused for the better part of thirty minutes. What was it about the graffiti filled walls and sticky menu pages that made you think you were in for a fine dining experience?

After a day of visiting the Imperial City and the Tomb of Ming Minh we were in the mood for a drink and a pizza. You ordered some vegetables on rice. You were looking for vegetables that were steamed to preserve their color, yet mushy in texture. I hope you are continuing on to Hoi An. I would be happy to recommend a good cooking school. First you sent the vegetables back. Then you sent the rice back to be sure it would stay hot. Then you sent the vegetables back again.

After some debate you decided they were not capable of cooking your vegetables how you wanted them. I'm pretty sure that at this place the vegetables are microwaved. So, you ordered something and mashed potatoes. This was also returned to the kitchen. The look on the poor boy's face when he brought you your third choice was one of pure fright. He clearly could not imagine that there was any scenario in which you would enjoy your food and honestly I think he was afraid you would grab him by the neck and shake him. I wanted to rush over and put my arm around him to let him know that he was not alone., that there were those of us around who would protect him should it come to violence over the quality of the carrots.

You then pulled aside another member of the waitstaff and gave him a lecture on the proper way to steam vegetables. I can only imagine that he immediately ran back to tell the chef what he (or she) had been doing wrong all this time.

Watching your husband during all of this was priceless. Clearly this is a story he has seen unfold many times. He and your son calmly ate what was brought to them, enjoying their meal and a beer. They were, of course, long done before you had something you were willing to eat. So they patiently waited while you ate.

I almost fell out of my seat when the waiter timidly asked if you would like desert. I'm pretty sure there was nothing he wanted more than for you to simply vanish. Sadly you refused desert, and so our show came to an end.

Have you learned nothing while visiting this country?

Today we visited the Thien Mu pagoda and the tomb of Minh Mang. We travelled by boat on the perfume river. The boat was owned by a nice couple, with two young children. They live on their boat. It is not heated, there is no running water. It is typical of so many of the boats we have used for transportation here in Vietnam. It has a crank start engine. This is not uncommon for this class in Hue. The government tried to relocate them to low income housing, but most of them prefer their boats. So, after trying their apartment they have moved back to the boat!

The weather has been cold and rainy here in Hue, so it makes everything seem a bit oppressive.

One interesting story from the tomb, which covers acres of space is that the king's body was brought in by a secret tunnel, and laid to rest in one of many many tunnels that were dug in preparation for the burial. After the body was left, the workers that carried the casket to its final resting place were beheaded to keep the final location a secret!

Hang Me

The name of our lunchtime restaurant today was Hang Me. "Do you know what that means in English?", I asked our guide. "Hung Mee?" he replied with a questioning look on his face. No, I said in English we would pronounce that "Hang me!" He got it, and and mimicked tightening a noose around his neck. We had a good morning with our guide, Vu, he was a last minute stand-in, as our appointed guide had come down with a high fever.

Hang Me, is definitely not a place we would have wandered into on our own. It was the kind of local restaurant that was in the wrong place and looked a little too grungy from the outside for me to even go in. We ended up at Hang Me because our guide had asked us whether we would like to go to a tourist restaurant or whether we would like to try some good local food. It may have been a bit of a leading question put that way, but we opted for the local food, he had earned our trust so far today. The local specialties include Banh Beo, Bahn Nam, Tom Cha, and Bahn Ram it. Need I say more? All of these were variations on a dumpling like theme. A rice flour mixture with prawn and or pork. They were OK, but in the end they all kind of blended together in a gooey-rice-mixture-with-prawns kind of way.

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The Thien Vien Truc Lam Bach Ma Pagoda

We worked up our appetite by climbing 173 stairs to the Thien Vien Truc Lam Bach Ma Pagoda. At this point in the trip it might be easy to say that we are "pagodaed out." But, that is not the case today. It was a bit of a journey to get there but it was well worth the trip. This Pagoda is set on an island in the middle of a quiet lake surrounded by high hills (they actually call them mountains here). After driving through the trees and countryside you arrive at a little parking area, from there you have to hike a bit more on foot before you come to the boat landing.

Since it is winter here, the water levels in the lake are a bit hight, and our boatman made the suggestion that we wade a bit to get to his boat. But our guide quickly convinces him that is not going to happen. So we do a little balancing act on a 2x6 to get on the boat and he pushes off. He starts the boat with a hand crank. The motor has two settings, forward and stop. The throttle is controlled by a string.

When we arrive at the island we disembark and hike up to the pagoda and monastery area. It is just beautiful. Aside from the two buildings, one for chanting and one for meditating, the setting is just unreal. We wish it wasn't raining, because the colors must be incredibly vibrant in the sunlight. Even so, we feel like we could be on a movie set for some jungle adventure. The whole time we are there are only see two other people which just adds to the experience.

A Postscript about Football

Not American football, English football. Its amazing to me what a global league the English Premier League is. Here I am finishing up my blog post about today while watching Liverpool play Sunderland on TV at 9:00PM, the game started at 7:45PM. Of course back home this came would be the "early" game at 6:45AM. We have struck up conversations with most of the hotel bar staff as well as the bellman, it was the bellman who knew how to get the lobby TV to the right channel. Our guide today knew the names of every member of the Arsenal Invincibles as well as all the current members of Manchester United.

The Red Bridge Cooking School

One of the things I have been anticipating the most on this trip is to take some cooking classes. Today was our first official lesson, at the Red Bridge Cooking School.

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Our day started out with a tour of the market, which was nothing new, except that this time we were guided around by Chef Luna. For the tour we were put into groups of four. We met a very nice couple from Southampton England and had great conversation with them all day. Phil and Jane. It even turns out that her maiden name was Jane Miller, so what are the odds of that?

After the market tour we took a boat ride out to the restaurant and cooking school, and had another brief tour of their herb garden. We are getting lots of ideas for things to plant in our own garden next summer that we hope will grow in the Iowa summer.

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Then its time for the real lessons to begin. We each get a clipboard with seven pages of recipes! Luna demonstrates how to make our first course. This is a rice flour pancake with shrimp and pork and green onion. When its done we wrap it up in some rice paper with herbs and salad. Then you make a quick dipping sauce to accompany the rolls. After the demonstration we are told to leave our recipes at our seats and to find a station. Now it is time to cook!

Here I am getting ready to make my pancake.

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I'm really getting in a lot of healthy eating this trip. You just can't avoid adding in all of the delicious vegetables to your dishes, and I have to admit they really do taste good. Who knows, this could be the start of a whole new relationship with vegetables for me.

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The pattern set in the first recipe was repeated several times. Our full menu includes:

  • Seafood Salad served in a Pineapple boat
  • Fresh rice paper rolls of shrimp. Yes we learned how to make our own rice paper!
  • Vietnamese Eggplan in clay pot. I can't believe I ate eggplant and actually liked it.
  • Steamed ocean fish on a bed of fresh vegetables.

It was so fun to make everything, and we can't wait to recreate this cooking school experience for our friends back home.

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