Wednesday, July 11, 2007


yep, they did it again.
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Thursday, July 05, 2007

My Vietnam Blog

I finally got my 10 year wish to come true.
I got to visit my home country for the first time in my life, and to go there with my 70 year old father and the rest of my immediate family.
This is our chronological story of two blissfully hot weeks in the motherland.
Welcome to Việt Nam.


We're here!!!!!!!! Between the 6 of us, I am pretty certain that I was the most excited. I've been begging to visit Vietnam for 10 years and it has finally happened. Now I can allow myself to visit other Asian countries!

Upon arrival at the airport, one of our million bags went missing. I wasn't surprised; we only brought everything on this side of the Western world back. Thank goodness our personal luggage were all there, and only the extra bags with donative gifts were missing. We had about 3 or 4 huge suitcases that belonged to Cha Phi, filled with medicine (gee, i wonder why it got lost), donation clothes and materials. One of those bags went missing so we took forever and a day to get out of the airport in Hanoi.

Once we cleared that up, we walked out to meet our driver, priests, and thàys. They brought 6 huge bouquets of flowers all for us, so much that we didn’t know what to do with them. We went to the hotel and then to lunch...completely forgetting the flowers in the car. The poor things burned black and died right on us that day.

We got to Cưu Long hotel, one of the best 2 stars in Hà Nọi, and mom realizes that her purse is still at the airport. She and the driver head back while the rest of us head to Lake Hoàn Kiếm (Thanh Long)to start sightseeing asap.

This is us sightseeing. Literally. =)
Hoàn Kiếm is gorgeous, with a red bridge running from one end to the other. The story goes that Le Loi, in the 15th century, borrowed a sword from the magic turtle that arose from the lake. The nobleman led the people to victory against the Chinese Ming dynasty. There are still a few mammoth turtles in the lake but the oldest and largest one is on display in the Tortoise Tower, commemorating the event.

That night, we drove to Châu Sơn monastery to eat and sleep the jet lag away.


We arrived at Châu Sơn at 830 pm the night before.
The next morning, expecting to be able to sleep until noon, we were woken up at 7 am by ALL the priests. They expected us to be at mass by 1030, after breakfast and a tour of the big church. Mass was Lễ Tạ Ơn Gia Đình and after mass, Cha Hòa, Cha Hùng, and Cha Cố Thảo took us on a tour of the church grounds.

Breakfast was a feast. We had rice congee with fish and dill…and the BEST instant coffee of my life. The brand is G7 and I am determined to bring home a few boxes of these…just in case America does not have them. G7 is completely manufactured and made from Vietnamese coffee so that is another reason why I am in full support of this brand! Not to mention that Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world.

We saw the architecture, the history room, the bedrooms, and the gardens. We even saw the parts that are still under construction. The new kitchen that will serve not only the priests and students, but also the community, will be done soon enough.

Châu Sơn is in the middle of the jungle in Northern Vietnam. The only way to get to it is in a xe ôm or small automobiles … and the roads are not marked. One knows his home only by sight and memory. However, all around Châu Sơn, there are barracks where 5000 Việt Cộng soldiers are currently training. The monastery is under constant scrutiny and harassment form the nearby camps. They have to keep a perfect document record of everything they have because they could be called out on any little thing.

The real estate of the church has been mostly taken away by the Communist government. Currently, we are trying to regain as much land as possible for cultivating more rice fields to feed the people. However, winning such a case is very difficult task and both the American government as well as the Việt government are reluctant to give anything back to the people.

We took pictures of all kinds, both color and black/whites until we were called back down to lunch. After lunch, we hiked up 299 steps to see the cave of Mary in the mountains beside the church. 500 people can accumulate to the top and mass can be carried out up there.


The same day, we hopped on a family boat to visit Đức Mẹ Đồng Đinh. She is a version of La Pieta and she sits on a small island in the middle of a river and was made famous by, ironically, a few drunk communists one night. She was beaten so bad that her head and hands fell off, Jesus’ head and feet are beaten, and the flowers laid out for Mary were strewn all over the island.

Karma takes its place after all. All three beaters encountered very bad luck afterwards. One died, the other was badly injured in a motor accident, and the last one fell ill to a fatal disease.

The people have since replaced the statue with a brand new one and she is still revered by many on pilgrimages. Pictures of the beaten Mary are still in the church on the mainland so the memory of it remains as a lesson.

The boat that took us there was owned by a family that actually lives on the boat. Four children live on it with their parents and their grandmother. The children were absolutely adorable and LOVED the camera, from both sides. They frequently tried to get in the picture, but once they figured out how to USE the camera, they were the ones taking the pictures…which was very quick. SNAP SNAP SNAP all the way home. The childrens’ names were Duc Thuy, Dung, and Dinh.


Hot springs and hot weather. All we wanted to do was jump into any water we found, it was so hot. The hot springs came from the mountain and they took the water into a swimming pool in Cúc Phương. So we did. For something unbelievably cheap, we got to soak for 30 minutes and then ran buck wild for 2 minutes in the hot sun to dry off. Screw towels and hairdryers in Vietnam!


We went to see the Temple of Kings, also known as Vua Lê Vua Đinh. This was the old and original capital of Việt Nam, before it moved to Hà Nội, and then to Sài Gòn. We got a tour guide and she just happens to be one of the most eloquent speakers I have ever met. She told us of the kings, of how the general named himself emperor here and was later assassinated by food poisoning. That’s why they later used the very cool chopsticks that can detect poison. These chopsticks turn a decay color when dipped into something that is not good to eat anymore, therefore letting the king know that he should not eat that. We bought a few of them but I should have brought more.

The guide speaks the true Bắc language so everything that came out of her mouth sounded like a lyrical song. I even forgot to take pictures because I was listening so intently.

I love this picture above because my mum is walking under an umbrella, of course. My brothers are along for the ride, and wandering around, and I am intently listening to my dad explain the lich su [history] of what the tour guide was saying. She spoke so eloquently in poetic verses that I had to clarify some of the words she was saying into common Viet.


This is dad’s quê hương, his village hometown. He has not seen this place in 54 years but we were able to make it. We found where his house use to stand; it is now a school for little children. The part where the pond use to be is now cemented over and a house is built on top of it.

The most amazing thing about this part of the trip is that one, we were able to find the location of the house period, and that some of the original structure is still standing. Again, one remembers his own home only by the steps he takes and how many landmarks pass by. My dad, after 54 years, remembered that we have to cross 6 bridges before we make a right onto a dirt road, then walk 2 blocks in, left at the alley that leads to the church his father built, and behind it to his home. Craziness. Bác Dung’s room is still there, but the rest is replaced by a new structure.

Two, grandfather Bai Lan (real name: Lê Xuân Khanh) had 4 brothers, and built 4 houses around each other. One of the houses is still in perfect condition and is owned by a man that went to school with my dad. The old man who bought the house actually recognized my dad’s face and even said that he remembered our family because my dad went to school with girls in first grade!!! How unbelievable is that?!
We also went searching for Ông Bai Lan’s grave and actually found it with the help of the man that lives in dad’s house now. The man purchased the house when the Communists left, filled the pond with cement and built his home over the pond. Today, his son takes care of his land for him but we did not have enough time to visit the inside of the home. He wanted us to stay so that we can exchange stories but we were pressed for time, and were forced to move on to Phát Diệm.


The famous Phát Diệm Cathedral is famous for a reason. One, it’s absolutely beautiful and the architecture is fabulous, inside and out. Here, we got another amazing tour guide, a young scholar of the cathedral, also very eloquent in his manner of speech. He knew the church like the Bible and he had the keys to everything…which is great since we got to go up to the bell tower. Mom and Dad even got to ring the bell once. Nine rings signify the death of a Catholic woman and seven rings signify the death of a Catholic man. Mom, in her misunderstanding, said that if you ring the bell nine times, a woman dies…but I corrected her in that when a woman dies, THEN the bell is rung nine times. If it happened the other way, I’d probably be dead!

After the tour of the church, we visited the nunnery and listened to crazy ghost stories that tormented the nuns for 18 long years. The ghost would pull all kinds of tricks on the nuns, locking them into rooms, appearing as other nuns, etc. However, no one lost their faith and left the nunnery. They all stuck it out and eventually, the ghost appeared to the head mother and told her that it will leave the nuns alone now. From then on, it’s been much better but the stories still remain and are a large part of the attraction of Phát Diệm.


Started the day off early at 6 am with some miến luôn so that we would have enough energy for the 3 hour ride to Hạ Long Bay. We arrived at the dock but ran into some minor problems with the boats. We had a boat reserved already but one of the crew members threw a small fit with the guards at the gate. A huge argument arose and our boat was taken away for inspection. We were led to the very next boat, a nicer one actually, and continued on our trip while the crew member stayed behind. That was not very smart of him but then, when you are oppressed by communism, sometimes you just have to let some steam out…it just happened to be on our Hạ Long trip.

Once we got under way, however, everything went smoothly. We ate on the boat and arrived at the grottos in decent time. The caves were so dark and massive, stunningly beautiful with small beams of colored lights highlighting the best parts of the grotto. Of course, the artist and his 3 dorky siblings HAD to take some shadow pictures and crazy stupid ones. Some even came out pretty good, even in the low dim lights of the cave. The caves were thankfully so cool and refreshing as opposed to the outside. When we stepped back out, we almost had to be pushed out it was so hot.

After exploring the grottos, we headed back to the boat to head to an island in Hạ Long to go swimming. The water was so refreshing, especially since it was so humid and hot that day. We all stripped and jumped in the water, Thày Thái included. A sea-doo was out for rent so we got it for an hour. We all took turns riding around the small grottos near the island while the rest of us swam and tried to catch small fish with our hands. An actually succeeded! He screamed it out and we came running. The idiot takes the fish out of water and brings it to us. By the time we saw it, it was near dead! The poor thing was almost sideways by the time we let it go but we tried to revive it in the water, in our captivity still. Hopefully, it was able to breathe again when we put it back in the water!


Coming back from Hạ Long, we went straight to Hà Nội for the night. Someone was hit by a car in the busy street and the body was still on the street. A million people were standing around the body but no one seemed to be fazed by it, as if it was just another daily event. We found a place to park the van and Cha Hào took us to one of my absolutely favorite and memorable meals of all time.

A dark alley. No street signs. No label that there was anything inside that alley. But the locals call it Phỏ Thiện. Once you walk through the alley that only rapists would be in, a blast of steam blows across your face, and the kitchen appears. A woman standing behind a huge silver pot of steaming Phỏ broth, a teenage boys boiling noodles bowl after bowl after bowl, and another boy running back and forth from the 2 benches aligned against the wall further down the alley. The system ran like clockwork. One boils, one pulls noodles, one pours broth and one serves. There was only one type of Phỏ available and you either take it or leave it.

We sat down and ordered 10 bowls for 10 people. It came in seconds flat and so began the best bowl of Phỏ I’ve ever had in my life. The bench was rickety and the chair was barely a stool. The hot sauce was in a huge canister and had a ladle as its spoon. The bowl of soup shook as I ate… and ate and ate. The noodles had an aphrodisiac quality to it; you couldn’t get enough. And the broth was made form another world because it never tasted so spicy and unique. Three bowls each later, we were satisfied and happily delirious. We all fell into bed the most satisfied tourists in Hà Nội. Our hotel Cưu Long was also great. Clean, cool, and perfect for only a two star price of 15 đông a night. Perfection.


Cyclos!! Cyclos!!! That was all we heard coming out of our hotel the next morning. It was calling to us and we took them up on it. All of us piled into 4 cyclos and saw the town in a very slow relaxed manner… well, as relaxed as can be in the middle of hard core traffic driven by Việts. We went through every quarter of the city, the machinery area, the flower section, the food markets, and even the toy stores. Everything was laid out to see, the colors all vibrant and enticing to the eye. We Việts love RED. It’s everywhere and on everything.

We hopped off the cyclos temporarily to go into the shopping center. Everything from Louis Vuitton to Prada was on sale….for 5 dolla!!!! But we held off. There is more to be seen in Sài Gòn.

Our next stop was the temple that stands on one solo pole. This was a pretty cool site to see. Near the main street of Hồ Chí Minh tomb, it stands in a quaint little square. The tourist stands nearby are not so quaint, especially when you see the green hats and red flags everywhere, signaling that Việt Minh were very much present there. My mom forbid me to buy the two patches there, ones of the flags but that is still our country. If I saw a yellow and red stripped one, I’d be ecstatic but there isn’t one anymore, so the red with the yellow star will have to do.

Cha Hào again took us to a great place for lunch. I think it’s just the city itself. All the food agreed with me. We went to this place called Quán An Ngon. I love the name because it actually represents the restaurant. Normally, a restaurant that has a name that means “good place to eat,” isn’t. But this one is. We had cơm tấm bì thịt nướng. The best cơm dish ever. That ended our stay in Hà Nội perfectly but we were very sad to leave.
We headed back to Châu Sơn to spend one more night with Cha Thảo before heading out to Huê. The head father is so funny because he calls every night. The priests and students all do his bidding and every night, they give him the status of our trip, how we all are and what we did that day. He is like a mother hen, waiting at home, checking to make sure his ducklings are all right in the wild wild world.

The next morning, mom and dad actually got up at 4 am to attend early morning prayers with the abbey. From what I hear, it was one of the most beautiful sounds, like a Gregorian chant that the priests sing throughout their prayers. Next time, I would put out the effort in the morning to hear that…maybe…


The longest car ride of my life was the 14 hours to Huế. All I could think about was it better be damn worth it. We made a stop halfway for lunch that was pretty cool other than the fact that we were so tired and cramped. The restaurant sat on a river! It stood on bamboo sticks above the river and serves seafood. We ate lots of shrimp and lobster and then grudgingly got back in the car to keep going.

Getting closer to Huế, we decided to stop by Cha Thiêm’s hometown, since he was with us for that part of the trip and we were so close by. It turned out to be great because his WHOLE family, all 9 brothers and sisters were home for the summer from all the different nunneries, priesthoods, and schools. We got to see the house but not very well cause all the electricity went out for the night. Damn communists can’t even get light for the people. During this part of the trip, I started noticing a change in the priest's tone of voice. Since Hà Nội, I thought everyone there spoke the northern language and dialect, Cha Thiêm included. But he is actually from Huế and the dialect completely showed once he stepped foot back home. From then on, we noticed it so much that we didn't know how we missed it in the beginning.

I love the Huế dialect. It's the hardest form of Vietnamese to understand and write simply because it sounds nothing like what you would write down. One example is the word ngủ (sleep) for northerners, but the people from Huế pronounce it as "ngơ". Even the words they use for certain things are completely different. For example, northerners would call a fork a "xiêm" while the rest would call it a "nĩa".

That night we got the most interesting hotel of the whole two weeks. It was so colorful and bright, I thought I was in a circus. Our beds were bright red and pink, pictures of Hello Kitty on everything, and long lace curtains that were supposed to be a canopy but it felt more like mosquito nets. The lacy nets also had flower designs on them and I totally regret not taking a picture of that room. Damn the 14 hours for making me forget my picture taking duties.


Although our base was still in Huế for the day and night, we took a small excursion to the caves/grottos of Đong Phong Nha. The caves were lit just like Hạ Long but these were a bit different. The pictures can’t describe its beauty unless you see it for yourself. They tower above you and the guides that take you around tell you stories of the rocks, old ancient stories of kings, of love, and of course, massively gigantic elephants.


The best Bún Bò Huế is found where else, but in Huế. I have only eaten this noodle specialty at my aunts house, who was born and raised in Huế until she married. No restaurant in Little Saigon can make it as good … until I got to Việt Nam. We all took cyclos around the city and asked for the best place to have Bún Bò Huế. Immediately, all 4 drivers said the park was the best. They took us to what is a park during the day, and the best “outdoor makeshift restaurant” during the night. Open until dawn, this place serves steaming bowls of Bún Bò, all one style…spicy, hot, and wonderful. Everyone sits on stools so close to the ground, I felt I could have sat on the ground and been fine. We all had at least 2 bowls each, and still wanted more.

After dinner, the cyclos took us to the fabric shops with ready made áo dài and I bought one length of a beautiful blue. I was not tailored yet because I was bigger and wanted to have it tailored here in the states. It’s simple and perfect for me so I can’t wait to get it done for a special occasion.


The next day, we tried to have Bún Bò in a decent restaurant but it was not as good. Oh well. We had to head out of Huế so the park will have to wait until next trip.

We went to see the Citadel built by Emperor Gia Long. The palace sits inside the citadel, well protected by the moat around the citadel, as well as the massive fortress like wall that surrounds the island. Inside, the citadel is fabulous; the entrance resembles the Forbidden City in China. Further in is where the king resided and we got lots of pictures of the throne room. They even have a mock throne with full costumes for rent. I, of course, had to dress up as QUEEN and take pictures. It was a once in a lifetime chance to sit on the throne as well as a carriage so I had to do it!

On the way out, we stopped by dad’s medical school that he attended for 7 years. It was still the same but some things have moved. It was really cool to see it because we hear so much about it but now, we can completely see what they went through during those years. The school is quite impressive. It’s massive and has all the necessary amenities since it was taught mostly by German and French professors. Unfortunately, many of those people were sent back home or killed during the war. The school, however, continues to thrive on what it has learned and has grown to be one of the best medical schools in Việt Nam.


Arriving at 4 am, we were so tired so we crashed. Thank god Nha Trang was cooler than the north but mom and dad let us kids sleep in that day. The bad part about that: we missed breakfast. That means we missed Phỏ. DAMN.

Mom and dad woke up earlier and went in search of family. They found Chú Thím Quang, mom’s uncle and aunt. Everyone was there already by the time we kids arrived and it was really fun. They were all outgoing and nice so we piled into the car after a house mass and Chú Hùng led us into the city to get mud baths and bathe in hot springs.

Mud baths are fun. So are the hot springs. All the showers and faucet water comes from the springs and it is steaming hot. We changed into uniforms and dipped into our Jacuzzi of mud. After that, we cleaned ourselves off and cannon-balled into the pool. Little did we know that the pool is ALSO STEAMING HOT!! All 5 (me, Khoa, An, Toan, and Dad) ran and cannon-balled into the pool. Can you imagine shrieking dogs in a hot pool? That was us. We came up screaming HOT HOT HOT AHHAHAH and mom got it ALL on video. I still have yet to see that video but it must have been a classic. We also stood underneath a small waterfall of hot spring water and some guy started hitting on all the girls under the waterfall. It was pretty sad when I told him I was here with 4 other guys, 3 of which were my brothers and my dad. He backed off real fast.

Vinpearl is the new amusement park on the island off the coast of Nha Trang. We rode the Australian built gondola there and started taking crazy pictures as soon as we got there. An and Tòan got on the bumper cars and An video taped their crazy ride. It was so funny because they were ramming each other like idiots and no one else was doing anything.

Afterwards, we had a huge dinner with the family…all 30 of us… at the restaurant Lồng Đèn Đỏ. We had the longest table I’ve ever seen and I couldn’t even see the people at the end. It was a lot of fun and everyone made new friends. We found cousins we didn’t know about and they were desperately trying to learn English so it was weird to speak in English to them.


We went back to the same restaurant for breakfast the next day for Phỏ. Not as good as the alley Phỏ but it was good enough. It kept us going for the morning and we headed out on a quest for tennis shoes.

Tòan and I found them for 20 bucks apiece so we were stoked. Khoa and An were not so lucky. Their feet were much too big. The largest size they had for girls is a 39 and I was it. The largest size for men was a 43 and Tòan got it. An and Khoa were 44 and 45 so they were out of luck.

The next big site we went to in Nha Trang was the Chàm Temple. It was built centuries ago by the Chàm (a mix of Indian, Indonesian, and Cambodian people) and it was truly an amazing site. The temple is built completely out of bricks…but no mortar!! The bricks were so close to each other and to this day, no one has figured out how they did it. One theory was honey but it doesn’t smell sweet! So it remains a mystery because of imperialism. A bit of history: Việt Nam only consisted of the northern part. It ended right south of Hà Nội in the early days. We spread our imperialist thought further south into Cambodia and Chàm. Today, we have completely taken over the Chàm people and integrated their culture into ours. We still hold a portion of Cambodia in the south but we are not letting that go any time soon! Thus, this temple stays Chàm, a Buddhist temple in commemoration of the people in the midst of Southern Việt Nam.

I found my first shot glass of Việt Nam here in this temple! A woman sits in the west part of the temple with other weavers and decorates the shotglasses as well as other things with sand. The decoration is intricate and wonderful so I got two glasses that say Nha Trang in sand!


We went to the markets in Đà Lạt and bought LOTS of fruit. Then we sat on the steps and mom and dad went back 30 years in time. They sat down, ordered 10 plates of snails, oysters, and other random seafoods that even I was iffy about. They sucked the snails right of their shells and I could only watch in awe at the skill.

Our driver rented two bikes that seat two people so we took a stroll down to the lake. In the middle of it, a downpour started out of nowhere. We RAN for cover while the boys, who are still on the bikes, rode back up the hill and met us at the car. Everyone was drenched to the core so we had to take hot baths when we got back to the hotel. Too bad the hot water wasn’t running in our room. Great timing.

Dinner was good. We went to a restaurant called Nhà Hàng Không Tên. It literally means the “restaurant with no name”. One white guy was sitting in the corner by himself eating. We walked in with our loud obnoxious ways, all 10 of us and ordered. In the middle of dinner, the waitresses put in dance music out of nowhere so we all got up to dance. The poor white guy was laughing at us so we pulled him over to our table. He came over and had a beer with us and chatted Khoa and I up. He was a microbiologist for the Pasteur foundation right across the street. He was from Australia and had traveled all over Asia, and happened to love Việt Nam the best. He came back to do his research and vaccination testing here in Đà Lạt for 6 weeks and then going to tour Việt Nam again with his girlfriend. We forgot to take a group picture again. I am so disappointed in myself.


Shopping. That is all I want to do in Saigon. Shop Shop Shop. We got into Saigon and checked into the BEST hotel in Việt Nam. For a 2 star that cost 25 dollars a night, we got a room that looked like a suite. Impeccably clean with lush beds, couches, AC, and a huge tub. We were also across the street from the biggest market in Saigon so I could walk out and start shopping asap.
I found everything I was looking for. My shotglasses, my pajamas, a robe, coffee, a tea set, and chopstick holders were all found so I was very happy. I even got presents!! Mom bought so much crap that we filled all 12 pieces of luggage so I was limited on my things.

We were right next to Phỏ 2000, a phỏ restaurant that Bill Clinton went to when he was visiting Việt Nam. I didn’t think it was as good as alley phỏ but hey, he’s the president. Next to it was Phỏ 24, which is a fancier place to eat but the prices were 10,000 Đông higher. Big deal. So it costs $1.30 for a bowl of Phỏ. The atmosphere was why it was higher but we did like it so we went back twice.

Our last day spent massively shopping and eating as much phỏ as possible. At 3 pm, we headed out to the airport and the whole Châu Sơn priesthood came with us. They all stayed until we were literally on the plane. We’ll definitely make plans to come back much sooner because this trip has been absolutely incredible and could only have been so with their help.

Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed the pics!
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