Mekong Delta & River, Day 3

Today, we had an early breakfast and then headed to our bus for an optional tour to the Mekong River and Delta. Fourteen of us opted for the hour and forty-five hour trip through Saigon traffic and the countryside to board a small boat up the river to one of four islands we will pass. Unfortunately, all the silt from upstream causes the water to be very murky. We didn’t see any fish in the water, but supposedly there are some.

The breeze felt good as we whizzed down the river. The temperature was in the low 90’s, with only 50% humidity, although at times it felt hotter and muggier. We took a wooden boat from the dock in the Delta to the river. About twenty minutes upstream, we arrived at one of the islands to a fairly primitive building where they made coconut candy. Starting from the raw coconut, they shed the soft outer hull to reveal the harder inner shell, which they crack to release the liquid. It is then cooked with sugar and sometimes peanuts, rolled into thin rods and cut and wrapped in rice paper (totally edible) and packaged for sale. The process is very manually intensive. Some of the coconuts are pressed to release the oil, which is a standard oil used for cooking and the fibers are used to make mats, stuffing for mattresses and a hundred other uses. Nothing is wasted. And, the fresh coconut is delicious and very healthy.

Adjacent to the candy-making area, there was a shop selling some very unique items. Aside from the candy, there were purses and wallets made of REAL crocodile or python. They were quite beautiful, with prices to match. I suppose we could have bargained for better prices, but starting at $100 to over $300 US, these were not items I needed. Another interesting item to buy was something alcoholic made from the coconuts. However, inside the bottles were small snakes, scorpions or other “delicacies.” Who knows if you can bring something like this back through the US, but we certainly weren’t going to try.

We then took horse carts into the nearby town on the island. Once there, we went to a special tea house where we were served green tea with honey from their own hives and either lemon or kumquat juice. We were serenaded with music from local musicians and singers. It was a nice interlude.

After our refreshments, we went three or four at a time on small sampans (wooden boats) through the canals that connect to the river. It took us about twenty minutes as we meandered under a canopy of palm trees. Once at the river, we re-boarded our boat to go to the restaurant for lunch. Again, it catered to tourists, but the food was traditional and very tasty.

We started with spring rolls made with rice paper and filled with a recently caught fried fish, cucumber, rice noodles and bean sprouts, made at our table by one of the knowledgeable ladies who work there. You dip the roll in a peanut sauce and enjoy. This was followed by prawns with the heads and legs, which she deftly removed to release the delicious shrimp. Next, we had a soup, pho, with a flavorful chicken broth, shredded chicken and some noodles and veggies. The next course was steamed sticky rice with pork in a memorable light sauce. Finally, our dessert was rice paper lightly fried with a sprinkling of sugar. Each course was small, yet added up to a filling meal.

Although I enjoyed the meal, not everyone at our table liked it very much, including Jim. Some thought that the fish had too strong a taste, others did not like the soup. This meal today was quite different from the one yesterday, but still maintained the authentic flavors of the area.

By the way, the exchange rate from Vietnamese Dong to the US dollar is, are you ready, $23,200 to $1.00. So getting $100 from the ATM results in $2,320,000 Dong. You are a millionaire unexpectedly.

And, buying a car is a treat, with 200% duty on the price of the vehicle, which isn’t cheap to begin with. This is why you see hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles and scooters everywhere except on the equivalent of an interstate highway. The riders wear minimal helmets (mainly to appease the police) and children under six do not need to wear helmets at all??? Does that make any sense? The motorcycles weave in and out of traffic, even driving on the sidewalks. They practically come into contact with cars and buses as they squeeze alongside on the roads. It isn’t for the faint of heart.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a Chinese temple in the part of Saigon inhabited mainly by Chinese. The temple was quite large and filled with symbolism, incense, and carvings. You light the incense to send good thoughts of healing, success or love to yourself or others. I don’t remember seeing this when I visited China about three years ago. Or, maybe we didn’t get the same explanation of the importance of the incense. In any case, it was quite interesting.

So, now we are in our hotel, relaxing and trying to decide if we want dinner. The menu in the hotel restaurant is very extensive, so maybe it will be best to just have something light here. Jim found his ankles were a little swollen, probably due to all the sitting we did today, as well as the meal, which may have had too much sodium or MSG. We went on a walk near the hotel, just to get some exercise. Maybe should have tried the gym!

Tomorrow, after breakfast, we put our bags outside of our room and leave for the airport at 10:00 AM for a short flight to Hue. More adventures to come.

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our flight to Vietnam left an hour late, getting us in a little after 2:00 AM. By the time we went through immigration, got our bags and met our guide, Kit, and our group then drove the short haul to the hotel, it was 3:30. Since there was no shower in the China Eastern lounge, we looked forward to one in our hotel. The room was very nice and comfortable. A hot shower helped immensely and a lovely sleep to come. Fortunately, we didn’t have to get started the next day until 10:00 AM.

Next morning, it was time to get organized and head downstairs for our first meal. Breakfast at the hotel is amazing, with many options, including American food, soups, a wide variety of juices, coffees, teas, pastries, fruits, and sushi. There was no lack of choices. We sat with people in our group, starting to get acquainted. 

At the appointed time, we were off on the bus with the sixteen others in our group. Our first destination was the Cu Chi Tunnels. Located about an hour and a half from town, the tunnels were built to thwart the US soldiers. The entrances are hidden under leaves and some are the size of a laptop footprint. You definitely can’t be a big person to enter and the tunnels themselves accommodate people bent over to get through. Just in case the enemy did get through, there were booby traps, with pointed bamboo spikes. It could have been a very unwelcome visit.

The Vietcong were ingenious in the tunnel design. There were meeting rooms, kitchens, storage for guns and bunkers to shoot intruders. I went into one tunnel to see what it was like and you must be agile and definitely not claustrophobic. There were remnants of the war, with damaged tanks and armaments that were re-purposed into other needs.

Our next stop was lunch, at a charming restaurant by a water lily-filled stream. This restaurant caters to large bus groups, but we had two separate palapa-like areas to enjoy the many courses of local food. Egg rolls, pork salad with shrimp, catfish with rice crackers, sticky rice, water spinach with garlic and a banana for dessert. It was all yummy.

A drive back to Saigon for our city tour of the important landmarks and a short walking tour of the local market. It was reminiscent of markets in China, Morocco, and even Mexico. Lots of knock-off designer handbags, different coffees and teas, clothing, and chatchkes of every sort. There is no reason to buy anything now and take it with us for the next ten days, so I will just wait to buy before leaving Vietnam. Cambodia may offer some different items to bring back.

Time to return to the hotel for a short rest, then a light supper. Mine was a carrot coconut soup and Jim’s a traditional pho chicken noodle soup. By 8:30 PM, we were in bed, ready for a nice sleep.

So far, I am unable to add my pictures to the blog. Hopefully, I can figure this out soon. However, if not, then I will add them once I am home.

Getting to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Today has been a long travel day. Jim went to bed at 7:00 PM Monday night (March 25) and took a sleeping pill to ensure that he would get some rest. He was dead to the world. I followed at 8:00 PM and slept fitfully, thinking about what I forgot to pack. Only missed a hairbrush, I think. 

The 12:30 AM alarm came very quickly, it seemed. However, we were organized and were ready for our pickup to the airport. We were picked up by our faithful driver at 1:30 AM. At least no traffic. Many of you know that as Permanent Residents of Mexico, we must complete a firm and get it stamped at the Aduana office. Having arrived at 2:00 AM, it should not have been a problem to get the stamp and then get in the usual long line to drop off our bags. Well… the office doesn’t open until 3:00 AM, so we just had to stand around waiting.

Once stamped, we hustled to the airline desk, with probably 100 people waiting to check in for flights and only three check-in attendants. The young Mexican man in front of us was equally dismayed. He goes to LA often and has an amazing business in construction and event planning for huge events, like rock concerts. He sees this situation often and we both lamented that even with two hours prior to flight time, we still may not make it. Fortunately, more attendants came and those going to LA were moved to an expedited line. So far, so good…

The flight to LAX was uneventful. The layover wasn’t too long, with our flight leaving on the very long leg of the trip at 12:30 PM Pacific DST. We had to wend our way through Business Class to get to Economy seating, just to show us what we were missing. It is similar to airports that make you walk through the stores prior to boarding so you will be tempted to buy something. Next time Business Class??

The many children on board were distracted by the movies and games available or they just slept. We were very fortunate, as were their parents. The food was more than acceptable and the staff very helpful.

Best of all, we had a lovely seat mate who goes to Manila on this airline and offered to take us to the China Eastern Lounge for our layover. A shower, a rest and off we go for the final flight to Vietnam. A little over an hour to go!

Still getting Ready to Depart

I am all packed, of course, while Jim is threatening to wait until the last minute. I guess tomorrow is the final packing day for him. What I hate most is realizing that I forgot something that might not be available at our destination. That is highly unlikely, since most things can be found world-wide. However, you never know…

We have a very long day and night of travel coming up. Tuesday, we are picked up at 1:30 AM to catch a 4:55 AM flight from Guadalajara to LA (4 hours). We then have a 5-hour layover before departing to Shanghai (approximately 14 hours). We have 4 hours in Shanghai and then fly again to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City (4 hours). If you are counting, that is about 31 hours total to get to Vietnam. Believe me, this is not for the faint of heart! The next trip won’t be so far away.

Pre-travel purchases over the years have included compression socks, comfortable travel clothes, neck pillows, tush pillows, sleeping pills (for Jim), jet lag pills (for me), my iPad filled with lots of reading material and podcasts, Jim’s Kindle, anti-diarrheal and tummy meds and hopefully some interesting movies to watch. Having my favorite cup of tea and a biscuit wouldn’t hurt either!

Our itinerary includes two days in Saigon, a day in Hue, two days in Danang and Hoi An, Halong to Hanoi for two days, then off to Siem Reap, Cambodia for three days before returning home. We have received many suggestions of places to go when we have free time and we will definitely look these up. We also have two boat trips, one in Halong Bay, Vietnam and another on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia.

No more entries until we are on our way. We can only take a maximum of 44 lbs in our checked bag and I only have 27 lbs now. Looks like there will be some shopping in my future. And, if need be, I will leave some tops along the way to make room for new finds. Shockingly, I am the shopper of the family. I have mementos from every place I have traveled, reminding me of the awesome destinations there are in the world. So long for now…

Getting Ready for Vietnam and Cambodia

Only a few days more and we are on another adventure in Asia. Vietnam has always been on our bucket list, especially since so many friends have said that it was one of their favorite destinations. Most have included Cambodia and Laos but we are only going to Cambodia as part of this tour.

We have a grueling trip there, many, many hours and layovers. From Guadalajara, Mexico, we go to LAX, where we wait for hours until we board our very long flight to Shanghai, with another long layover, then on to Saigon. Yikes! It is even worse returning to Mexico. Hopefully, a warm blanket, a neck pillow, a movie or two and some sleeping pills will help the journey… not to mention an empty seat or two next to ours.

We are again using Smartours as our tour company. So far, we have been very pleased with the tours, service, guides, hotels and trip in general. We used them to see India/Nepal and our Africa trip almost a year ago. In the fall, we will again be using them in Portugal.

The weather will be warm, probably muggy, maybe a little rain, especially in the north, near Hanoi. At least we don’t have to pack for different climates, which is always a pain. We have lovely house sitters who will be watching the house and our beloved dog, Dino. He has loved every one of our house sitters and they have adored him. We will miss him, but know that he will be in good hands. More to follow…

Tequila Distillery Trip March 2019

Life in Mexico, even after over 14-1/2 years, is always a wonder. From the beautiful scenery, to the amazing weather, to the close-knit circle of friends, one could not ask for more.

I didn’t take pictures of the agave being harvested, but of the central part of the agave without the spiky leaves, the pineapple, that was already cut and ready to cook in the ovens. There is a “before” and “after” picture, so you can see how they turn brown in the ovens. We had the opportunity to taste the sweetness of the cooked agave.

Pineapples Ready to Cook

Today, we went with our Tequila Club (yes, there is such a thing here) to visit the El Cascahuin (pronounced cascayeen) distillery in El Aranal, not far from the town of Tequila in Jalisco. The hour and a half drive from Ajijic by bus gave us the opportunity to see the small farms dotted in the countryside. There were agave plants in various stages of growth, from tiny baby plants to those just harvested. You will see from the pictures, how tequila is made, from start to finish.

After the pineapples are cooked, they are put on a conveyer belt and pulverized into fibers. There are three ways to do this… by machine, by a stone and by hand. Once through the machine, the fibers are then re-entered into the machine to be washed.

They go through a number of processes, from fermentation to distillation and finally to aging. Whether the tequila is a blanco, reposada, anejo or super anejo, depends on the amount of time in the barrel. The oak barrels keep the liquid for a few days to up to 8 years.

Afterward, we had a tasting of the three types of tequilas, plus a tasting of two types of artisanal tequilas they also make. We usually like the reposada or anejo taste, while many are blanco fans. We find that the blancos have too much of a bite for our taste. However, lately, I have been sipping a yummy reposada in the evenings before dinner from a previous presentation by another distillery, Cobalto.

Ready to Cook
After Cooking

Many of these distilleries do not distribute to the US. They send their best to European countries, Japan or elsewhere. Many do not even sell in Mexico! Fortunately, when they come to our Tequila Club, they bring cases of tequila and we are able to sample and buy the bottles right here.

Crushing Wheel
Fermentation Vat
Aging Barrels
Artisenal Oven
Hand Crushing
Shop after the Tour